BUZZ SLUTZKY: Hey Aldrin! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview over email. I’ve been a fan of your work for as long as I’ve known you, and it’s fun to see someone use writing and painting and photography so fluidly.
ALDRIN VALDEZ: Hi Buzz! Thank you so much. I’m so grateful for your support! It’s funny that you say I use writing, painting, and photography so fluidly. I’ve been struggling with the pressure to do just one thing or to present my work in one coherent form so I often feel like I’m stumbling through those mediums or that I should focus on one form. But I can’t just do one thing because I need all of these different mediums to communicate and express my ideas.
BS: What’s been the biggest change in your work over time? Why did that change take place?
AV: In the last few years, I’ve become more specific and articulate about what I want to explore through my art: Filipin@ identity, queerness, and memory. And I think these are themes I’ve been exploring for a long time but now I’m learning to be less fearful in claiming them. I’ve been thinking about compassion for oneself. What does it mean to have compassion for yourself? As an immigrant, as a Filipino, as a queer person who’s experienced racism and homophobia and internalized those oppressive systems, it’s been difficult to have compassion for myself. I’ve experienced a lot of silencing. It’s been a struggle. And it’s complicated because all throughout undergraduate and graduate school, I wanted – like many of my peers and especially as an immigrant who’s had to assimilate and seek the approval of my white teachers to survive – to fit into this narrative of whiteness and measure my validity based on white standards, to try to see myself and my work through a Euro-American history. I took part in my own silencing and erasure, which extends to the time before I came to the United States. The Philippines is a country that has been colonized and brutally oppressed by the United States and by Spain. I think silence and complicity to white supremacist structures have become tangled with the way many Filipin@s view themselves and their place in the world. Most often we don’t want to acknowledge that reality or don’t want to challenge it because we are traumatized. Many Filipin@s work in other countries and their residencies in those countries are conditional. I’ve always felt, living here in the U.S., that at any minute I can be deported, even with my permanent resident status.
I think a big part of this change in my work has to do with community support. I’m fortunate to be part of communities made up of mostly people of color, queers, and trans folks. Seeing them and their art has been significant because I’m learning that there’s room for my story, too. And it’s a messy, non-linear story so I’m going to use the various forms of media that I’m attracted to and that means using writing, painting, photography, performance, etc.
BS: Can you talk a little bit about your name, pronouns, and identity? And maybe how your work frames some of that information?
AV: I was named after the astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (yes, readers: there is a beautiful coincidence with my name and Buzz’s). “Aldrin” has Old English origins and is usually used as a surname. In the Philippines, it’s a common first name. My last name is Valdez, which is a Spanish surname. So my name, like the names of many Filipin@s, contains the complicated history of colonialism and imperialism by Spain and the United States. And there’s a lot there to look into, just in that name. I’m beginning to see my art as a way to decolonize myself. What does that mean, to decolonize? Right now for me it means remembering as a way of healing from trauma. And I’m remembering a lot, which is to say: I’m sharing a lot and opening up about many things publicly. It’s overwhelming sometimes. I’m learning some histories for the first time and that process brings up feelings of shame, but then that provides an opportunity to ask questions. Why, for instance, am I learning these histories for the first time? I’m going back and kind of piecing myself together. I want to feel whole and I want to be in this body and not feel I should have another body or deny the history of this body (even though sometimes I do want that because it’s exhausting having to constantly assert your history to be recognized by straight, white folks). I want compassion for myself. I’ve been asking people to say my name the way it is pronounced in Tagalog, which is with an “a” like in “alive” and an “i” like in “seen.” AHL-DREEN. I wrote a kind of announcement that you can find here. For the past 20 years in the US, I’ve been going by the “Edwin Buzz Aldrin” pronunciation and I never corrected people. It’s emblematic of a larger erasure.
Gender is so complicated. I’m thinking of my gender as related to my being Filipino, so what I’m learning is that there’s a racial aspect to gender. I’ve been thinking about the Tagalog word “bakla” and defending it as a word that can’t be translated into English so that it becomes merely a Tagalog version of “faggot” or “gay,” though certainly it can encompass those meanings. I say “defending” because many times I’ve experienced Americans referring to the word as a Western, English equivalent of “gay.” Bakla is a gender on its own. It has its own history and its own contexts. Looking at this word and using it to describe my experiences with gender and sexuality helps me look at the homophobia, racism, and misogyny I’ve internalized.
For me thinking about gender is a way of asking questions about my relationships to different power structures and communities. Tagalog doesn’t have gendered pronouns. We use “sila” and “siya” – translatable as “they” or “them” – to refer to people in the singular and plural. Yet in the Philippines, gender binaries are so entrenched. Sometimes I’m not really sure how to think about and what to think of my gender. This not knowing is my response to outside pressures of having to concretely define it. I’ve been asking people to refer to me with different English pronouns. I think we should all examine how each of us relates to these gendered systems and to think critically about them.
Because I’m experiencing so much and expressing so much that has been silenced and repressed for so long, my art lately has felt like an urgent rant. I mean it is an urgent rant. I want people to see and hear me in ways that I wasn’t allowed and (internalizing that) didn’t allow myself to show. Maybe my art will always be an urgent rant in this society where brown queer immigrant people like me are silenced.
BS: I get this question a lot, and never know the answer: how do you decide what materials to use? But I’ll add: What does each medium bring to the questions you’re asking in your work?
AV: Very intuitively. I collage a lot. I need something to start me off when I’m making an image. I’ve been using a lot of cutouts from comic books and using lots of patterns. I have a very strong visual memory. I don’t mean that I can memorize an image and reproduce it exactly. Rather: images stay with me. They have a powerful effect on me. Almost tactile. Haptic. I love patterns, especially floral patterns. And it should have been so obvious to me where this love of floral patterns was coming from – but again because of the shame mechanism I didn’t want to claim it: my grandmother would wear these duster dresses with floral prints. Even the more formal dresses she would wear had flowers. I remember one dress she wore was this beautiful purple and black number and I remember her dancing in this dress at my sister’s debut. This love of patterns isn’t only in my drawings and paintings. I love wearing patterns, too.
I often include text in my visual work. Sometimes this text is a piece I wrote or words that have stayed with me from a poem or story I read. I love books. I love how tactile they are, and that love for books, including comic books, is reflected in my work. As a painter, I don’t often work on canvas. It’s not my main surface or material. Canvas has a political content that doesn’t often work for me. So I choose to work mainly on paper. Paper I can cut and join with another element. This is related to my having varied experiences through the marginalized identities I contain. So when someone is telling me I should work big and on canvas: why? Are you trying to tell me it would legitimize my work? It would make it more valid? These material concerns involve race, ability, and class. Canvas is expensive. And it takes work to construct and prepare and to store! This doesn’t mean that I don’t ever work with canvas. Right now, I’m going back into small paintings that I’ve put away and that I’m now reconsidering. Their smallness is significant to me and I want to look at them alongside the works-on-paper I’ve been making. If you’re a painting teacher you should really consider why you’re telling your students to work only on canvas and encourage them to think about the significance of the materials they’re using.
BS: What are some challenges you face in terms of audience and art community?
AV: I’ve internalized oppressive systems so I’m learning that some of the limits I’m experiencing are self-imposed. What does that mean when it comes to audience and art community? I’ve had this stupid notion that because I’m making multi-media works dealing with complicated issues of race, gender, and sexuality, the communities I’m a part of won’t understand or won’t care what I’m doing. That’s so fucked up because I’m denying vital parts of myself connection and visibility and also assuming that my friends are not capable of understanding and supporting me. That notion comes from a real place. I have been in communities that ignored me and dismissed my work – communities that adhere to white, straight standards – but I don’t have to pay attention to those people anymore.
BS: What is the role of biography and personal narrative in your work?
AV: I’m finding this a tough question to answer. Immediately my response was: well, biography and personal narrative is my work, but I feel like there’s more to that. I think the difficulty has to do with fear that my biographical and narrative work is too personal, so it isn’t valid, it’s not art, it’s not relevant to a larger audience. Geez, that censorious effect of oppressive systems is deep in me. But that’s what I’m doing: I’m telling my story and it’s imperative that I tell it. I need to connect my experiences to history.
BS: How do you navigate language as a multilingual writer?
AV: My relationship to English will always be one of ESL, even if now the reality is that I’m more fluent in English than I am in Tagalog. But what does that mean – to be more fluent in English than in the first verbal language I learned and grew up speaking? A lot of things point to my status here as a Filipino immigrant and to the history between the U.S. and the Philippines – especially moving through languages. That’s very present in how I approach writing.
Being ESL has made me sensitive to language as a series of sounds. I like learning etymology and tracing movements through the history of words. And LOL part of this learning and loving etymology came from me being embarrassed by my misuse of words or using them out of context. There are so many American English expressions that I’ve had to pause from using and think about and ask what does that actually mean and why am I using it?
BS: What’s the best advice an art mentor has ever given you?
AV: I’ve been privileged to have such great art mentors in my life and one of those mentors is the painter Deborah Kass, whom I worked with through Queer/Art/Mentorship. Q/A/M is a fellowship organized by Lily Binns and Ira Sachs. The program pairs queer-identified emerging artists with more established queer artists and each mentor/mentee team works together for a year on a project the mentee has proposed. It’s also an opportunity to meet and connect with other artists working in a different field. So it’s also a community that provides support and feedback amongst the mentees.
During one of our monthly meetings, Deb was looking at my drawings and said, “You can afford to be more literal in your work.” I’ve interpreted that advice on several levels as an image maker. For me, it has to do with being more out in my work as a queer person, as an immigrant, as a Filipino.
Lately I’ve been thinking of my grandmother’s mentorship. My grandmother raised me – she wasn’t an artist, but she was my greatest mentor. I remember I was trying to draw fish like how this person was drawing it on a television program I was watching at the time. And I couldn’t do it. I was so frustrated. My fish didn’t look like the fish on television. And my grandmother was so supportive. She asked me if she should get more paper at the store. This was in Manila. She was going to go run to the store to buy paper! I have terrible guilt over that, because she worked so much to support a huge family that included all of her children (my father was the oldest of over 10 children, some of whom didn’t live to be teenagers) and her many, many grandchildren. Sometimes she’d take in runaway kids. And there I was being mean to her! We didn’t have much and still she’d run and get me paper. That afternoon, I remember being incredibly frustrated and not knowing what to do with that frustration. And rather than coddle me by telling me my drawing looked fine, my grandmother stood there, frozen. I wouldn’t accept her offer of more paper because I was throwing a tantrum on the floor and I was more involved in not being able to do something than in fixing it. I think she really didn’t know how to help me beyond what she already offered.
This memory is very significant for me because it makes me see how my grandmother was showing me that she couldn’t help me, that sometimes people, even the ones you love, cannot help you and that maybe the best thing they can do for you is to give you the space to ride out that frustration, or sadness, or another seemingly unbearable feeling you might have. That it’s your perception of yourself and your art that you have to work on and only you can really do that for yourself. There are real borders, real oppressive systems telling you that you are not allowed or not capable of doing something and then there are the borders you’ve internalized. And the latter you have more agency over; you can change them.
BS: What’s your relationship to AIDS? How does HIV/AIDS impact your approach to desire in your work?
AV: There are many tangled questions within those two questions. But first and foremost, I think my relationship to HIV and AIDS is the body. Missing bodies and my awareness of my body as a dick-sucking, ass-fucking, cum-loving queer with a lot of yearning and loneliness. Many of the artists I’ve come to love and from whom I continue to learn are dead because of AIDS, so in coming to learn about them, I also came to learn more about AIDS. But piecemeal. Like looking at a pattern through the wrong viewing tool and not seeing the connections. So here is an example of a situation in which the history left out of your classroom history books and in the mainstream media becomes an insidious message that you, as a queer person, your history doesn’t matter. Your reality doesn’t’ matter. In fact, because it’s not in the books, it’s not on TV, it doesn’t exist. Or if it is in the books or on TV, it is almost always through the lens of hetero whiteness. Why are you feeling so lonely, why are you angry at yourself and ashamed of your sexuality? Why do you think you’ll catch something each time you have sex? And if you do, why does it feel like you’re a monster or a sexually depraved criminal who has to confess something each time you want to hold another body?
The things I’m questioning in my work have to do with guilt, shame, and desire. With the policing of desire. So I’m dealing with oppressive systems like colonialism, homophobia, and racism. With the intergenerational trauma that is the ongoing legacy of those systems. I’m thankful that there are organizations like Visual AIDS, Queerocracy, and Queer/Art/Mentorship – because these communities offer spaces where you can learn those histories that have been erased from the classroom and form connections between what you’re experiencing and larger realities and ongoing histories. You’re not alone. You’re connected.
BS: Who are some artists that have influenced you? Why?
AV: David Wojnarowicz: when I read Close to the Knives and The Waterfront Journals, I’m so aware of his desire, his rage, his trauma, and how these connect him to history and to other people. He loved to look and his writing really is a powerful way of archiving his desires and for us as readers, we’re witnessing that desire unfold and maybe we’re also feeling that desire. The first time I read DW’s writing and saw his work, it was a shock to my system. There were so many things coming together because all of a sudden my experiences, though different from his, were being reflected in his representation of queerness, his sexuality, of his fears and desires. I tried to see myself and learned from painters like de Kooning, Matisse, Picasso, etc. What do these artists have in common? They are part of a canon, the church of white hetero art that you need to strive for and measure your success against. I like their paintings, but it was always like I was trying to wedge my awkward self into their narratives. DW’s work is so raw and messed up. He was deliberately messing things up, messing up aesthetics and standards. So that really influenced me because it was an encouragement to go be myself in the ways that fit my history and my desires.
In my collages and drawings: Paul Thek, Amy Sillman, Henry Darger, Nicole Eisenman. Artists, who like DW, are/were juggling written and visual languages. And often dealing with ineffable experiences. With fantastic, internal worlds. Rifts and collisions between image and word.
Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of R. Zamora Linmark’s poetry and fiction. He’s like me, a queer Filipino. That’s HUGE! In my almost sixteen years of going up the education ladder in the U.S., not once did I encounter works by a Filipino writer. “Encounter” is so passive. And that’s the ugly truth. I was so passive. I didn’t know to demand and how to demand culture that reflected my own experiences. RZL’s work has led me to Jessica Hagedorn’s writing and to Lino Brocka’s films. These are Filipino artists who have similar concerns with language and history, similar questions about their lives as queer people taking on their inherited tradition – their trauma – with Catholicism, colonialism, and the diaspora – as I do. It’s exciting to experience their work. It makes me feel alive and valid.
Sarah Schulman. Like DW’s work, her writing deals with the gnarled contradictions and difficult truths of being alive, being with people, being queer – experiences and histories that get flattened by mainstream representation if not completely erased. Reading her books has helped me to articulate and give language to my own trauma. Maybe that’s a lot of pressure to put on an artist and their work, but her books — especially Ties That Bind and The Child –have been incredibly helpful and are very important to me because they’re complicated and uncomfortable. They make you have to sit there and own up to your secondhand beliefs and ask questions. I think the art world is full of people who are careerists and careerism disconnects you from the bodily urgency of being alive and being mortal because you’re constantly having to climb this ladder of whiteness to validate yourself and competing with others to do that. Sarah’s work reminds me in generous, compassionate terms, that I have a responsibility to other people. I have an effect on other people.
BS: Thanks so much for your thoughtful answers, Aldrin! Keep making work!!
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
BUZZ SLUTZKY is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and curator. Buzz works in a range of media, particularly in drawing, video, and performance. They are a former Curator of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and currently work as a student and Teaching Assistant in the Parsons MFA Fine Arts program.
ALDRIN VALDEZ is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn. Aldrin studied at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts and was a 2011-12 Queer/Art/Mentorship fellow.