witness: red is the color of mourning

The “Witness: red is the color of mourning” installation is a work in progress, part of a larger project using materiality as a lens through which to speak about art, science, history and culture. Cochineal bugs, used throughout history for ink, paint, and dye in art, textile and foodstuffs, contain narratives of culture, conquest, and human and environmental devastation. The interactive installation makes visible, through the body of this small scale insect, a hidden history of conquest, trade, environmental and human devastation, as well as the beginning of modern globalization. Viewers are invited to create cochineal dye from the actual bugs. The dyed linen squares are hung on a wall grid, in an ongoing evolving painting, which grows more painterly as spaces are filled in and dye drips down the wall. On the wall is a video of the dye being made overlaid with images of the 1980 wars in Central America, a legacy of colonialism. Printed images date from the conquest era to today and show the history and use of the cochineal bug. Evidence of process, of making, of material, increases as the tools are used and the table becomes messy with residue of dye and bug. The sterile man-made environment of the laboratory is slowly encroached upon by the earthy body of the cochineal, as remnants increasingly "dirty" the "clean" room. Questions arise through the visceral experiential process, around our relationship to natural resources, culture, trade, and globalization, as well as cochineal's particular history in conquest, as currency, pigment, dye, and food coloring.  

Cochineal was vital to the Meso-American peoples throughout history, used as dye, paint and currency before the Spanish came to the Americas. Alongside gold and other natural resources, cochineal played an important role in the conquest through the dye trade. Red being a difficult color to create naturally, the Spanish hid the source of the dye for over a hundred years, monopolizing the world dye trade. Used as a primary dye until the late 1800's when synthetic dyes came into common use, cochineal is still in use today as one of our only non-toxic red food dyes, and is rising in use as an organic alternative to chemical dyes. Questions continue in the colonial implications of eco-tourism, as a micro-culture of indigenous communities produce cochineal almost as "performance" for wealthy western tourists. 

The project reflects my longtime work with process-oriented methodologies integrating raw materials as medium and content. In an increasingly mediated world, the distance between our minds and the resources encompassing our bodies furthers an intellectualization of the natural world. We behave as if autonomous from nature, continuing to create an “other” in the destruction of both peoples and resources. Yet with that distance comes desire for an intimate connection with the natural world. The act of transforming a raw material into a finished artwork links minute ecosystems to global macro ones. I seek to articulate how humans are not separate from nature and history but continually embedded within it.

Patricia Miranda

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