Jamillah James: Let’s talk about your time at ICA LA. What was the framework of your residency and what you wanted to accomplish during your time here?
Gloria Galvez: There is a larger life goal I have: getting more comfortable with science and ideas around mycology. I’ve always felt intimidated by science before, but recently, I became kind of obsessed with mushrooms—apparently everybody is getting obsessed with mushrooms right now. Maybe it’s because there’s just so many solutions to a lot of the issues that we’re facing in the environment and health wise, and mushrooms are good for so many things. Obviously, some mushrooms are deadly, but there are certain mushrooms that can solve oil spills, or eat plastic. Some are also recommended for people to consume when going through cancer therapies, or they’re recommended for other health reasons.
I started going to meetings at the Los Angeles Mycology Society, where people who weren’t practicing scientists, who were saying, ‘I’m a mycologist and I do my own research,’ and throwing out the scientific names of things that you rarely hear. For me, that was inspiring and I also saw a lot of similarities in what happened in the process of getting exposed to mycology and what happened to me with art. Once upon a time, I was afraid to call myself an artist until I met people who were working in the arts, who would say, ‘oh, Gloria, you’re an artist., Do you want to collaborate on this?’ It wasn’t until then that I acknowledged and owned the fact that I was an artist. I also began to question and contemplate why I had been so afraid to call myself an artist, and I realized that sometimes, there are systems in place that created that fear. Part of what I try to do with my work now is create access to art and elusive information, especially for communities who have had a harder time accessing these things. I do this so people can have information that will allow them to create a better future—and studying mushrooms and looking into different modes of storytelling feels so aligned with these ideas.
JJ: You initially studied Latinx studies at Cal State Long Beach. At what point did you decide to pursue an MFA at CalArts? Had you already started experimenting with some ideas connected to art and research while you were doing your other studies?
GG: I would say that the seeds for me ending up at CalArts and being an artist were planted when I was a youth organizer with an organization called the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), which works to address injustices within the juvenile justice system, and the hyper-punitive measures taken against youth in schools and juvenile detention centers. YJC creates and advocates for making more community resources and safe spaces available where youth can thrive. There, I was exposed to art in a deep way. I learned to use art for community building and rehabilitation, and was exposed to people who had careers as artists, like Ashley Hunt, who invited us to make this collective drawing for an installation he was doing at 18th Street Arts Center. After YJC, I ended up working with the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), which exposed me to the deep history of political art that was directly tied to movement building, and fed my creative urges to make political art. Then, I began to make political gifs for Tumblr, and organize art fundraisers and happenings for the Youth Justice Coalition. After YJC, I went back to do my undergrad in Chicanx/Latinx Studies with an emphasis in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cal State Long Beach. When I graduated I was advised to go back to school and consider a PhD, but I really wanted to go to art school, though it felt somewhat unattainable at the time for financial and other reasons.
At some point, I had a conversation with community organizer Rachel Herzing who was working with Critical Resistance (a prison abolitionist organization that works throughout the United States) about my desire to go to art school. She was extremely supportive and nurturing; she also happened to be friends with Ashley Hunt, who was faculty at CalArts, and had previously met. Rachel connected me with Ashley, and he was super supportive and guided me through the process of applying to CalArts.
JJ: Art school is a lot about collaboration and conversation, which you know from your background in activism around prison abolition and other things, so beginning to work as an artist and think of your practice as an artistic practice seems a natural transition.
I have some questions about your use of food in your work over the past couple of years. I know that you did an exhibition called Going Bananas (2019) at the Feminist Center for Creative Work around the colonial history of the banana farming industry, and the video i ate the grapefruit’s pulp memory (2018), and now your recent research with mycelium. Why have you gravitated towards food as a touchstone in what seems to be an extended inquiry into other social issues?
GG: Two things that led me to working with food. First, when I was in grad school, I was introduced to the book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett. That book was really mind-blowing and magical. She’s talking about the idea that everything around us, including food, is vibrant and not inert, and that all things have agency in different ways. She poses the question about what kind of political frameworks would we build if we were attuned to the powers of vibrant matter. I also have a background in food justice, volunteering and community work. I’ve worked with a group called Revolutionary Autonomous Communities for the last 8 years. Each Sunday in MacArthur Park, I would help them bag beans and rice for free boxes of food and sort through food donations that they received from farmers’ markets and grocery stores. This work instilled in me a sensitivity to food-related political and social issues. I began to think about food waste, food deserts, and the commodification of food.
Later, I read an article about bananas, where they were talking about how bananas, the ones that we eat right now, which are called Cavendish bananas, may go extinct. This is not the first time a banana commonly sold in the market has gone extinct. This other banana called the Michael Gross Banana went extinct because of a virus that attacked one banana. And then, because the American market bananas are a monoculture, they’re not being grown from the seed anymore, it easily attacked all the other Michael Gross Bananas. Cloned bananas have the same immune system, so what kills one kills all of them, which I did not know. I started researching and while I already knew about the “Banana Republic,” in my research, I found that what was happening to the banana right now was directly tied to the Banana Republic. In order to build the large banana commodity empires, they needed a “reliable” banana that can grow to be the same size and quality each time, so they implemented the monoculture farming technique. I felt an urgency to make this work because younger people I was talking to about the Banana Republic thought I meant the clothing store and I would say, ‘no, no, the historical thing that happened in Latin America,’ which maybe seemed too old or irrelevant to them.
Also while doing research on bananas, I discovered that wild bananas are not going to go extinct, only the bananas sold in supermarkets because of the lack of gene diversity. I felt somewhat tricked because most of the articles that I found online suggested all bananas are going to go extinct but what I guess what they meant is they’ll go extinct for us Americans only, right? We can’t grow wild bananas here, but people in tropical countries would still have access to them. Even though they are the same type of banana as the ones sold in markets, those wild bananas would still exist because they have a more diverse immune system. I was bothered by the manipulation of information around this extinction narrative, and decided I wanted to subvert it in a project.
I’ve tried doing little exercises for myself where I literally tried to trace where certain foods that I ate came from. I would call the grocery store, asking to talk to the manager. Sometimes, the managers could tell me where a certain thing came from, like they knew it came from Ecuador. But I wanted to trace back to the actual farm and warehouse it came from. I would find out that they lacked so much of that information or refused to share it. I wanted the work I was creating around food to both share this information with people and or to trigger their curiosity to look for it. The commodification of food is tied to social justice issues, the racialization of people, environmental problems and capitalism but we often don’t or never think about it.
JJ: It feels extremely timely because over the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been all this discourse about “farm to table” and people being really interested in the origins of their food. But it only goes but so far; further, some of those ideas are tied to class and access to high quality foods, which people may not want to acknowledge. Or, that food requires labor, and the people that are involved in that labor are not always well treated or protected, and there’s a whole host of issues related with the food supply chain, which the pandemic certainly highlighted and made hyper-visible when people started panicking about food supply, or when food industry workers who work every day to bring food to our tables started getting sick without any real protections.
GG: Totally. I had my own moments of panic, thinking, “how will I feed my own children if the whole system collapsed?” And then I was at Trader Joe’s once during the beginning of the pandemic, people were literally fighting over chicken. I thought, this is wild, and then I felt sad that we had no real food sovereignty or deep knowledge of how to feed ourselves within the limits. I had this conversation with Yusef Omowale from the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research where I wanted to screen the banana film, but which as a result of the pandemic has not yet happened. While preparing for the screening, he brought up the issue of food sovereignty, and asked what the value of this film would be to this community (South Central), where some people literally don’t always have the ability to choose what they’re eating, option for what’s affordable or available to them. He brought up that it is a very different context than screening it in a wealthier neighborhood. It was an awesome reminder to hear that, because when I originally made the film, I was thinking about the privilege of choosing what we eat, but then I was reminded that, you know, not everybody has that privilege. His question pushed me to think of the need for food sovereignty, taking back food production from the corporations, and restoring our knowledge of how to grow and find food within our terrain.
JJ: You made a work called soft drinks, hard times (2016), which also connects to the issues that certain communities face in terms of food access, food sovereignty, food justice, and expanded access to healthier options in spite of food desert in certain parts of the city. The work that you’re doing encourages people to critically re-engage in the circumstances that make choice possible and for whom.
GG: One of the things that I am really interested in is mushrooms as a poetic metaphor and resource for survival. I came to mushrooms out of necessity because I was having a health issue. I started doing research on them and learned about Paul Stamets’s work and the book he wrote called Mycelium Running. He has this whole thing of how mushrooms are going to help us survive. For me, mushrooms became a metaphor for hope for a better world, and hope for a healthier me.
People have amulets or objects that remind them of something magical, or that makes them strive for better. For me, that’s what the mushroom became. I have a key chain that’s on my backpack to remind me of magic and the world we are struggling for. I also read The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. In that book, she talks about the matsutake mushroom, and how it has been suggested that one of the first things that sprouted after the American nuclear bombs were dropped in Japan. I want people to look at mushrooms and know that we are strong and resilient and will survive.
In that book there are other things that she talks about, like how this matsutake mushroom can’t be commercially grown, It can only be foraged in the wild because it has a symbiotic relationship with a specific pine tree. I am inspired by how the matsutake rebels against the Agro-Industrial Complex. It is an autonomous being that sets its own boundaries which defy aspects of the market’s interest and convenience.
Often I see mushrooms as a guide for how to survive within and resist capitalism. I want to make this guidance accessible to other people. I also want people to learn about mushrooms and learn about foraging them; this is a longer-term project because I need to better build up that skill myself and strengthen my own relationships with the groups that already hold that knowledge, and build bridges between the foraging communities and the community organizing communities that I have worked with.
JJ: how did you connect with [self-taught mycologist] William Padilla-Brown, who you did a program with at the museum during your residency?
GG: I first learned of him in the film Fantastic Fungi. When I was specifically looking for a POC mycologist I reencountered his work through online research. What was really compelling about his work is that for one, he’s self-taught. Also, I found interviews with him where he’s talking about teaching other people mycology so they can start growing and researching mushrooms and start a mass mycology movement. Certain aspects about the mycology scene feel secretive—for instance, a lot of foragers won’t share info about sites where they find mushrooms, and there’s all this prestige around finding certain types of mushrooms, or being the first one to find it in the season, or being the first one ever to find or grow a specific type of mushroom. The mushroom scene can be a little closed off, but I felt William had a total opposite attitude that was about accessibility and working with people, and just overall was super friendly and receptive. When I sent him a cold email he replied back and was very excited about the idea of the chat.
His approach, work, and vision are awesome. He has this moving essay titled “Designing an Ethical Life in an Unethical Society” about living within capitalism and all of these things that are happening around us that are out of our control. He explores and shares ethical solutions that we can practice. That essay felt very connected to what I was thinking about so he felt like a natural fit for the type of conversation I was interested in having.
JJ: This research opens up a wealth of ideas for people to generate their own research, get active and start exploring some of these ideas branching from the research that both you, William, and others are undertaking.
Since collaboration is an active part of your work as an artist, I’m curious about how this past year has changed or shifted the work that you’re doing.
GG: I mean, there was that moment at the beginning of the pandemic, you know, when I encountered the chicken thing at Trader Joe’s. I had this moment where I was like, man, my art, or more specifically my art career felt meaningless. There’s a lot of meaning in everything that I work on and they are connected to things that I’m passionate about, but I thought about what if I can’t find food—I have kids—what am I gonna do? I was just thinking about all these things, and what if somebody that I care about gets sick? How can I take care of, help, and support them. How will I take care of myself in a pandemic? All of these things felt so much more urgent. I wanted to submerge myself in learning about urban edible plants, tourniquets, and self-defense techniques. But the amount of energy that I was investing in the art world left little room for that. Overall I was kind of questioning the role of an art career during a pandemic and social uprising. I had a moment of thinking, if everything (capitalism) collapses, the art world would disappear, and what does that mean for me, a person who makes a living within it? I embraced the socially isolated space we were asked to adhere to and took the time to do some deep thinking. I wanted to think about things that I had not given myself the time to think about because sometimes it was literally, ‘oh, I gotta finish this project and I gotta finish this curriculum and I gotta finish all of these things.’ I took time to contemplate what is it about art that I really love and care about, how can I feed those things and make sure that I don’t get confused. Sometimes, I feel I get confused because there’s a lot of things being thrown at you as an artist, like success and wealth. While that is important for me in the sense of having stability, the pandemic just reminded me where my priorities are. I care about people, my family, my friends, and planet earth. And I want to be a Jack-of-all-trades: an artist, mycologist, food worker, survivalist, tree bather, volunteer cleaner, urban forager, crossbow master, home care worker and more.
In terms of collaborating, the type of collaborating that I was mostly doing during the beginning of the pandemic was with social justice organizations because that is what felt urgent. I started doing food deliveries for people who couldn’t leave their homes. I volunteered with the ACLU to pick up and safely drive protestors who were being released at police stations. Those were all collective efforts that were only possible because of the care and time that several people were putting into it. Then slowly, I naturally started incorporating some of my art stuff into these collective social justice efforts. Like I made art for collective fundraising efforts for some of the community groups that I work with. And I also started connecting the artists that I know to these groups. For instance I connected, the food justice center I work with to artist and oral historian Hailey Loman [cofounder and director of the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive]. She made masks for the group when it was really hard to find masks, and since then, she has been in conversation with us about connecting us to medical resources. Then I was invited to be one of 50 artists writing a speech for the Artist-in-Presidents collective art project by Constance Hockaday. I invited artists Zoe Blaq, Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, and King Jaybo to collectively write the speech with me and platform some of their own ideas of what this country needs in order to move forward. Our speech was featured under the name My Other Me, which is inspired by the indigenous notion of In Lak’Ech which translates to “you are the other me.” The type of art and collaborating that I took part in during the past year revolved around addressing the specific urgent needs of the moment we were all experiencing.
JJ: One last question about working in Los Angeles. What about being here is unique and supportive of your work? What do you think that you can do here in Los Angeles that you might not be able to do?
GG: I was just listening to this audiobook of an amazing sci-fi book with environmentalist themes called The Ministry for the Future [by Kim Stanley Robinson], and there’s one chapter in the book where a character is talking bad about Los Angeles. The character is referencing the usual stuff everyone does when they throw shade at LA—that it’s fake and shallow, full of cars, and a difficult landscape to navigate physically and socially. And I was offended because I’ve lived here my whole life, and I know LA is awesome, full of genuine people with a diversity of ideas and experiences who build really strong communities. What is amazing about LA is that in one day I can visit the Diorama-Museum of Bhagavad Gita with its animatronics Hare Krishna installations, then go to Eso Won Books, which is an independent bookshop that spotlights a range of titles about and written by Black writers, then I can drive over to Vege Paradise and eat vegan shark fin soup, and I can end my day at the Templo De Santa Muerte in the Botanica Indio de Samayac. Also, LA is home to some of the most transformative places that have made me who I am: the Feminist Center for Creative Work, Chuco’s Justice Center, The Boys & Girls Club of Venice, the Southern California Library, the Village Health Foundation, CalArts, and the Mutual Aid Action Los Angles Center. These are the places that have taken care of me and nurtured and build up parts of who I am and will be.