In New York Performance, Artist Maria de Victoria Cuts through the Politics to Provide a First-Hand Case for Immigration Reform
Image courtesy of Maria de Victoria and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. 

Image courtesy of Maria de Victoria and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. 

This past Saturday, Peruvian artist and filmmaker Maria de Victoria steered a small black car into the parking lot of a Bed Stuy Home Depot. The lot was practically empty of vehicles (it was 9 a.m., cold, and drizzling) but crowded with clusters of men, around 40 in total, all waiting for work. Hands waved and smiles swung in our direction, vying for attention. “It’s hard. I come to this Home Depot often for materials, and sometimes they just flock to me,” de Victoria explained, before emerging from the car to speak with the throng that’d begun to surround us. In the past, de Victoria has circumvented these crowds with a quick hello—in Spanish, a first language she and the day laborers, mostly immigrants from Central and South America, share—but today was different. She was in the market for help: to employ several people for a day’s work within the walls of a Manhattan art gallery. As four men packed into the backseat of de Victoria’s car, she didn’t ask to see their papers.

De Victoria is an immigrant herself. She arrived in South Florida from Peru with her family at the age of 11. School wasn’t easy—she didn’t speak English, was placed in ESL classes, and later dropped out. At the time, she also didn't have documentation, so finding work proved problematic and she turned to cleaning houses. “It was very frustrating for me, because back in my country, that’s just something that I would have never had to do,” she told me. “It’s really interesting, that juxtaposition of coming somewhere to try to do better for yourself but ending up in a worse position.” Last February, in her first public performance, de Victoria’s frustration took the form of a 15-minute piece in which she cleaned a suspended walkway in the Queens Museum to the screams of a death metal soundtrack. Not all of de Victoria’s work comments on the immigrant experience—“most of my work revolves around my personal experiences—immigration, migration, cultural differences”—but her strongest does.

This past year, as de Victoria noticed the number of day laborers multiplying, the rhetoric around immigration (bolstered by sloganeering on the G.O.P campaign trail, like Trump’s “big, beautiful, powerful wall”) was escalating; and with it, so did de Victoria’s anger around the discriminatory, exploitative treatment of immigrant workers. It was then that the idea for Day: Labor, Saturday’s performance at Kate Werble Gallery, was hatched. “I wanted to showcase the huge work ethic that immigrants have. Especially day laborers who are standing on corners and risking their safety and deportation. Sometimes they aren’t paid what they’re promised—or at all. They can’t control this because they’re afraid, but they get up the next day and do it again.”

Back in the car, de Victoria described the project, and her own history as an immigrant, to the four men—Luis, Jose, Patricio, and Favian, all from Ecuador. These four weren’t so much selected by de Victoria (a process she dreaded—“how do you choose?”), as they were the first from the crowd to wedge themselves into the backseat. They chatted jovially and, when the conversation turned to compensation, she asked about their day rate. $150, they explained, was the norm. To their surprise, she countered with $650, equal to her compensation as a freelance video editor—and more than four times their usual meed. The grand total of $2,600 would come out of de Victoria’s own pocket.  

Image courtesy of Maria de Victoria and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. 

Image courtesy of Maria de Victoria and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. 

Over breakfast (on de Victoria), they signed a contract outlining payment and the task at hand: separating rice from beans, mixed together in big bags at the center of the gallery, then cooking them for any hungry passerby. de Victoria joined Luis, Jose, Patricio, and Favian at the work table, meticulously uncoupling the rice and beans and periodically making runs to pots of water, set on hot plates suspended on plinths. Patricio, who loves to cook, led the charge—a long braid trailing down his back. The crew of five oscillated between silence, conversation, and laughter while visitors circled around the space, its walls bare except for a framed 8.5 x 11-inch contract, the same that the workers signed. Conversations between visitors, bandying topics from labor laws to Trumpisms to speculation about the men’s histories and home lives, were overheard.

One guest cited Santiago Sierra, a controversial conceptual artist also known to hire day laborers as part of his practice. In one performance, exhibited in 2002 a few blocks from where Kate Werble now stands, Sierra hired immigrant workers to build large rectangular aluminum sculptures, then hold the resulting beams on their shoulders for hours. While the performance unsubtly toed the line between art and exploitation—all of the men enlisted left the gallery, mid-performance, in protest of the piece and their involvement—de Victoria’s Day: Labor approached the subject with a decidedly different, more generative tack. This is in part a product of de Victoria’s easy kindness, her personal sensitivity to the daily lives of undocumented workers, and the performance’s inclusive, communal approach. At the end of the day, just shy of 6 p.m., we all ate together—artist, workers, and visitors.

As we dug into bowls of al dente rice, de Victoria translated a conversation she’d had with one of the men over lunch. “It was funny, after a few hours of sorting he said, ‘Actually, I think I prefer construction,’” she recounted, laughing. As Luis, Jose, Patricio, and Favian put on their coats, they asked for de Victoria’s number and that she call them for the next performance. As they logged numbers in phones, it was hard not to be reminded of their hustle—that, despite the extra chunk of change they’d made that day, they’ll return to the parking lot tomorrow, waiting for more work to drive up. While this performance wasn’t going to untangle the thorny mire that is America’s faulty immigration system—and likely won’t change the course of these men’s lives—it certainly surfaced the weight of these problems, and the urgent need for their reform, through the dialogue it inspired. Dialogue that, fingers crossed, will be carried beyond the walls of the gallery by the artist, visitors, and workers alike.

Alexxa Gotthardt is a Staff Writer at Artsy.