July 5, 2024

Ginger:  I’m visiting Aimée Suarez Netzahualcoyótl’s studio in the MacLean Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. On the wall are lots of pages with text, and it looks like it’s referencing audio recordings, maybe an interview. There’s a drawing of a bird and all of the text is in Spanish. I don’t immediately know what it says, but there are some words that pop out at me, like comida

Aimée: …which is a great word. 

G: I was struck by the way that you introduced yourself in the first class, and talked about your names, your three names. And because it’s something that I also like to do. It’s something that I learned from working with My Barbarian, this game of telling a story about your name. And I noticed that you also did this, in your piece, Un par ordenado. And so I wondered if it’s something that you do normally, or if it’s become part of your practice—introducing yourself.

A: I think it makes sense to do that here, especially in the context of the US and in an international student cohort. Because in my country, and in my city—Mexico City, people know it’s not a common name, but then my last name is, and then the second last name is not common, people don’t have it, but it’s a common word. So people know what it is. Netzahualcoyótl was an emperor, so people know that there’s a city called that, and that guy’s on the 100 pesos bill. And so like, people know who this person is. And then they know my second last name—Suárez, because it’s Spanish and it’s common. And then they don’t really care about my first name, because they can pronounce it. But here in the USA, I make the difference, because people read it here as Amy and I really don’t like the sound of that. It just doesn’t have to do with who I am. And so I want to give an idea of the things that crossed my life. I started that text because I was working on that piece. But also, I was part of a workshop, where we were reading Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. We had this framework around introducing yourself and saying from where it is that you’re speaking.

G: You mentioned the 100 pesos bill. And so the name that’s on that is that your second name—Suárez, or the last name, Netzahualcoyótl?

A: So maybe for the context of this interview, it would be good to say my full name, it’s Aimée, that’s a French name but pronounced in Spanish. I just think that’s funny. Because people ask me sometimes if I’m French or something and I don’t have anything to do with that. And last names, they do have this lineage stuff. So then Suárez is a Spanish name that just means son or daughter of Suáro. So like Fernandez from Fernando and whatever, so people are not called Suáro anymore. And then Netzahualcoyótl is this guy.

G: Are you related to him?

A: I hope so. He died in 1472. Okay, so I don’t know. But he was a scholar, philosopher, warrior, architect, poet, a ruler of the state of Texcoco, in pre-Columbian Mexico. 

G: Wow, he did a lot. 

A: And he’s on the 100 peso bill. And then on the back, this is Texcoco, the place where he lived, I think. But Netzahualcoyótl means hungry coyote, and there’s a long story regarding that. I think it would be so great that I’m a princess somehow. But he was alive like 600 years ago.

G: So that’s where the word coyote comes from. It’s Nahuatl.

A: Yes, Nahuatl.

G: And then the rest of it is…

A: Hungry Coyote. What’s the word for when you don’t eat, like for many hours

G: fasting.

A: Fasting Coyote. It’s something like that. So he had another name. Then he changed it. He had a tough life. So he changed it to this one that’s more nostalgic. And he had like, a million sons—100 actually. I mean, this guy was interesting—a ruler and a poet. That’s very weird for that time. He wasn’t there in Mexico, he wasn’t alive when the Spaniards came in 1519. The thing is my grandfather, the father of my mom, he’s from that area, Texcoco. But also, since I grew up, I have been very detached from my last names because they meant my mom and my dad and they were fighting. So it’s funny that you ask about it because it is important. 

G: It’s interesting too, that Netzahualcoyótl is not a common last name, but yet it is this historical name.

A: Netzahualcoyótl was his first name. 

G: Is it like Prince, like a singular name?

A: [Looking at Wikipedia] It’s so weird because I thought it’s his first name but it says here Acolmiztli is the name he got at birth which means strong feline. But then due to circumstances in his teenage years, he changed his name to Netzahualcoyótl, coyote that fasts, so that’s understood as a form of sacrifice. 

G: I love that we’ve already brought cats and coyotes into the conversation. Because these animal relations are the focus in your piece, Un par ordenado, An Ordered Pair. Being here in Chicago with my dog, Chikubi for the past three days has really gotten me to slow down and notice things about my neighborhood and move differently in my neighborhood, because she’s been there with me. She doesn’t know human boundaries and architectural boundaries, and so she will inadvertently lead me to interact with more people. The other day, I met a neighbor who has a fenced yard, but the door was open. And so she went in, and because I’m attached to her, I followed. And then I met this neighbor and see her beautiful garden and learn about her flowers. Chiku also showed me where rats hide. At the base of the trees, there are these metal gratings that are raised just a little bit above the ground. And so Chiku noticed that’s what the rats are. So now I know. She’s also now obsessed with pigeons, which was new to her because we don’t really have so many pigeons in our neighborhood in Pittsburgh. So, I am so curious, what kinds of experiences has your dog introduced you to?

A: Wow, that’s a great question. Um, a lot, just a lot. But firstly, like you were saying right now, when I just adopted him, I didn’t know anything about dogs. He’s my first dog. And I adopted him in March 2023. So more than a year ago, and we were meeting all of these people on the street, because before I only biked to places, and maybe sometimes use public transportation or you know, an Uber or something, but mostly bike, but then I have this dog and now I have to walk so I didn’t like to walk before because I have plantar fasciitis so it’s a bit hard for me. But now like I’m just walking all the time and we walk a lot so I don’t know people came and you know they’re there nosey. So we’re talking to all of these people on the street. But then the more I learned about dogs I realized that we don’t have to say hi to every dog on the street, nor to everyone and I just felt like I was over socializing myself. On one hand, I learned so many things so far about dog diseases and about animal mistreatment, and that there’s such a huge culture around dogs in particular and companionship animals. So I don’t know just so many things in general, but also I’ve been wondering a lot about my own existence as a human and my relationship with everything else, like non-human animals. I was very afraid of dogs and animals in general when I was a kid. So this was a huge leap for me. Of course, it was step by step—now it’s good. But now I feel like I was missing so much of life. And maybe it was for a reason, but now, I don’t want, I would say, my kids or anyone that I know to be afraid. It’s a process, but I think it just opens your heart, your mind in so many ways.

G: Okay, so let’s talk more about Un par ordenado. I would say it’s a performance text that is about the relationship between you and your new dog. Is there anything that you would want to add to that?

A: The piece was an installation with an essay. And then I did the lecture performance, that is the video where the text is. I have several questions around installation. So I’m not sure if this is an installation, but I would call it that.

G: Yeah, I think I focused on the video, because so much of the information is in the video, the documentation of the performance, right? And that you’re not only reading this essay, but the back of the pages have your writing that are part of the equation. You’re describing what’s there, and it’s almost like they’re flashcards as you’re going through, so there is this performative element.

G: So, I’m curious about the hammock. What do you call this in Spanish? 

A: Hamaca

G: So, will you describe your process of the mapping, the Cartesian mapping that you created with the weaving in the hamaca?

A:  So at first what I wanted to do, because the space is in a backyard in an apartment in Mexico City. It’s a small backyard, and it has no roof. So I was thinking about domesticity and domestication. And it’s like, how to domesticate this space? Or like thinking about what you need—shelter, food, in a general sense. So then I got the idea to make a roof for this space, but why would you want a roof in an open space? It’s supposed to be open. So it’s like, how to do an open roof that symbolizes a roof more than an actual roof. Like being an actual roof now, so I got the idea that a hammock is a place to rest, it could be a bed. So regarding my dog, who was a stray dog and a mutt.. So now he has a house, he has a bed, and a shelter, a roof, and food and company. And so I was thinking about all of those things, symbolically and literally, what did they mean? Because, I mean, I was a person before and I was not homeless like he was. But now I have a family with him. And I didn’t have that before. So I was thinking about all of these things. So I wanted to use the roof as a symbol,  Although I know it’s not very much a roof because it doesn’t cover the whole thing, and that had to do with technical requirements. And I chose the hammock because you already had the grid, and I was thinking of this mathematical relation. I don’t remember why I started thinking about that, but it just came to me because I really like math. In art and in several fields, when you are trying to build a story, or a particular universe to create your work, what you say to the audience, or whoever’s receiving the piece, these are my postulates, my theory or my universe. These are the pillars, so you have to trust me, like, let’s say in this universe, dogs are blue. So then you get that, and it’s like, okay, do you believe me? Then you narrate the story. So afterwards, you’re not asking, What, why is the dog blue? You just have to believe that to believe in your story. And for me, every piece of art, or every story, what we do is also science and math. Like Euclidean geometry, it’s built on some basis, and it’s different from analytic geometry. So it’s just a different universe with its own rules. And there are some things in math that you can’t prove. And they’re called axioms, postulates. Axioms are things that are so evident that they don’t need a demonstration. So I wrote in the text, like Aimée is a human; Roena is a dog. How can you prove that? 

G: These are just words that we use…

A: You could try and prove it, but then for the sake of the theory, we’re going to say, okay, she’s a human, he’s a dog. But then there are other things that are not as evident. So maybe it’s Aimée and Roena are family. So that that’s not as evident, but then how to prove that? So that’s not an axiom, like Aimée is a human. So that would be a postulate—something that’s not that evident. But you say, Okay, I will believe you for the sake of the theory. And then there are other things that you actually start to demonstrate. So that’s what I’m interested in, particularly in this language.

G: Do you have a math background?

A: I sort of do. I was very into math in high school, just before deciding what to study. And I intended to study abstract math, not like when you apply the math to stuff like to be an actuary, because I’m interested in abstract thinking, and system creation. But then I went to these math schools, and I was like, I don’t like people like being in their heads the whole time. And I went to art school and I was like I want to be here.  And so I made that choice, but I really like this math.

G:  Well, that’s great, because you can bring your math thinking into your art practice.

A: I’ve seen it happen in my projects. Like, you have these things inside where you’re thinking let’s do something with math. No, you start doing something and… 

G: Yeah, it just reveals itself. It’s like oh, yes, it’s inside of me. It’s gonna come out. Let’s circle back to the Donna Haraway text. I’m a huge fan of this text also, so it was great to be able to revisit it. And while I was reading it, I was also thinking of Carolee Schneeman’s work. She has this body of work that’s with her cat. And she makes photos or videos of herself and her intimacy with her cat. And there’s this section of the Haraway text, where her way writes, “We have had forbidden conversation, we have had oral intercourse, we are bound and telling story upon story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are constitutively companion species. We make each other up in the flesh, significantly other to each other in specific difference, we signify in the flesh, a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is an historical aberration and a natural cultural legacy.” There’s so much in here, but the oral intercourse really stands out and the use of the word nasty, but it’s also in this really like loving, intimate way, right? Like she and her dogs are her family, right? It’s that same postulate. So I’m curious. Yeah, I’m curious for you, if any of this resonates? 

A: For sure, everything. I remember, every dog owner says this, like when you didn’t have a dog or weren’t familiar with a dog or even a cat. You’re like, Oh my god, how do these people put them in their beds!? Then eventually, I think it’s not only about you wanting them to be on the bed. It’s like, you want to be on the bed, but want to be with them too. In my first days with my dog, I wanted to be with him. But I don’t want to be on the floor. So it’s like, Okay, let’s move to my bed. Let’s just do it. And it’s nasty. I wouldn’t put my shoe on the bed, but I put my dog’s paws there.

And then I have a big relationship with his poop. So I don’t have the same relationship with my poop that I have with his. Like I grab his poop every day, with a plastic bag. And I see it, and I’m like, Oh, this is not as good, something’s happening with his stomach. Sometimes I don’t see my poop. I just go to the bathroom and you’re busy and you flush it and you don’t look, but you felt it and you know how you did. But with him, I’m picking it up and I know how many pieces, and if its too long. The people that don’t get dogs like my roommate, she doesn’t take care of the dog.. When I say, “Today his poop was…” She’s like, “Don’t show it to me!” But my dog’s trainer, during the first week here, was sending me pictures of his poop every day. Because he was sick? That’s never happened in my life before.

G: Right? The closest parallel with humans would be like a baby. Like looking at a kid’s poop to see if they’re healthy. 

A: But also you do it when you have a very old relative that you’re taking care of. Defenseless people? I don’t know maybe for people, but dogs are not defenseless, They can take care of themselves. But we have to pick their poop. And  I don’t know if it’s because you don’t clean dogs, but I have cleaned him sometimes because he was sick. I do think he’s my family more than my friend. Because that saying, like they’re the best friend of the human. But I don’t know. I mean, some friends are like my family. But my family is not necessarily my friend. And my dog is more of my family. And I love taking care of him. But also, I’m exhausted most of the time because I do it on my own. Not like your case. And It just helps a lot to have someone else there.

G: Yeah, It really is a lot. Yeah, when Chikubi was here, I definitely had a few moments where I lost my patience because she didn’t want to do something that I wanted her to do. And I don’t want to pull—I don’t want to pull your leash. But I want you to know that I want to go this way, but you are stubborn and you want to go that way. 

A: That’s just these ethical limits for me. That’s why I wrote the text. Because of course, you think about the poop and everything else, but mostly I’m like, am I allowed to do this? Do I need to hurt you? Because some trainers say yes, others, no. Is there another way? It happens with children too. Oh, let him be. Let her do whatever she wants. I don’t know. But then that’s that hurts people, eventually. They need limits. 

G: Yeah, boundaries, 

A: Exactly, boundaries. I’m always with my dog. I’m always questioning this, every day for every single thing I do. I mean, I eventually decide on doing something. And it’s like, this looks like you’re better with this. Like, you’re not ill, you’re like, whatever. And I can’t let you eat every shit that you find on the street, because then you get sick. So if I need to push her, like, I feel bad, but I will just do it. Like, it’s just the best of the worst. But that’s been very tough for me, and I have paid the price.

G: Your piece really explains that conflict beautifully. The role that you have to be in, your power, your dominance. In your piece, you talk about bringing him home for the first time was this act of power? You’re choosing to remove him from the place that he’s in and bring him to your home? 

A: And he doesn’t have a say in that.  And that’s just so violent for me. 

G: I thought that that was a great kind of flipping of the narrative. So many times when we think about rescue animals, we think we’re rescuing them. We’re saving them. And we are, in one sense, but it is this first act of expressing power, expressing dominance over them. I think a lot of dog training as well, is about that dominance. There’s this one dog training book that friends recommended when we first got our dog. And it’s monks somewhere in Europe, and one of the lessons is to hit your dog at the throat, to assert your dominance. When we first got our dog, we had a trainer work with us because Chikubi was pulling the leash so much. And they said, Oh, you need this special collar that has these prongs. And so every time she pulls, she feels it poking her neck.

A: And so did you use it? We used a plastic version. And we were like, actually, this isn’t working and we started to train her through positive reinforcement. One of the things that was a revelation at first, was that when I’m taking Chikubi to training classes, I’m also training myself. We’re practicing these things, we’re going through these motions together. I’m clicking and giving her treats and things like that, but I’m actually  the one that’s getting trained—how to read her, and how to be consistent. So yeah, I’m curious if you have any experiences like that, that you’ve learned about yourself through training your dog?

A: My patience, it’s not great. It has been getting better. I’ve learned gradually.  I’ve learned how to experience that word. Because I am not the most patient person, like for me, it’s like, why is this not done? Or, like, why is it not ready? Like, why am I not writing it? And like, I it need faster and I need it for tomorrow! And I don’t know. But then, when I’m doing it, I know why it’s not getting faster. But then with my dog, it’s like something much more simple. Just stay there. But then you have to teach him to stay for one second, then for two, then maybe five. But then you when you are like, so good at five! Let’s write one meter nonmember. So it’s like no. And then when you want to skip to one minute, it’s like, no, fuck, like, everything gets fucked. And then you have to go back to one second. I’m very big on training right now.  I just didn’t have a clue what I was getting into when I got my dog. But now I just want to learn. This is my two month break from watching training videos every day. We have a trainer and I’m always like, I don’t like how he does some things. I look for another way to do it. And he tells me, “Think binary for dogs. Just yes or no.” I’m always into this ethical thinking. He’s like, “Don’t let him do that, ever. Not even once, because then he wants to do it.” But if you’re like, maybe now because no one’s watching would now know like it, but it just hurts him.

G: Yeah, because they get confused. 

A: And you have to understand it. So one is gradually like the meaning of that word. And to stay with that instead of rushing to whatever you want to do. And the other is this sometimes binary thinking, and by that I mean yes and no, like, just simple, like, like good and bad. These things that as humans we grow up to learn. It’s like, okay, it’s all great. But then to teach dogs and to communicate better—that really messed with my mind. I think I still don’t own it. But I’m like, okay, yes. So this, Yes, and this No, and I need to stay with that, to be firm.

G: Would that be an axiom or a postulate?

A: For sure. I’m thinking about my three postulates, because that’s the sections of the text, but one is “Less is more” or something like that. “Close is better.” And then the last one is “The end.” Something about the end. But I love “Close is better.” With that I mean family and familiar relations. There are different ways of approaching this and different scenarios in life. But, particularly for a dog, like if we don’t know each other, closer is the only way to get to know each other and to improve. I can’t improve my relationship without my dog being here. We have to be together and learn how to communicate. 

G: So, I have another question that’s related to another project, Operación Importación, but I don’t know if it’s just going to take us on a different track. So I spent some time with the draft of the artists book that you’re making. We’ve been talking about power relationships between us and our dogs, what it means to assert dominance. And the one thing that really stuck out to me about Operación Importación was about the power relationship between you and him, your husband. And on multiple levels, right. I think the first time that we met to discuss your work, I asked about the power relationship between artist (you) and non-artist (him) and to ask how he felt about you making this piece and documenting this immigration process. And then I thought more about the other power relationships between your differences. And using this word Importación, and the roles of the importer and the imported. I’m curious how that played out in the actual process. And maybe even in the making of the piece, the documentation of the process.

A: I think last time, I didn’t tell you the end of the story, because I started talking about the curator that he wanted me to meet. So then I was like, I should make something related to Cuba. Because, as you see, my work goes to several directions. Mostly, now I know, it has to do with things that happen in my life. I take some of that, and then place questions around language communication. So that’s an excuse, but then it’s always something that I’m doing in my life. So it makes sense now, like looking behind that, okay, I was experiencing that, then I made a piece. But what happened is that I had these photographs that I just liked. And I told him that I wanted to do something to bare the situation that we were living in. Because it was supposed to be a three month process for him to get the visa. I mean, if everything was done. right. And it was a year. So during this year, I was flying. But like a little bit— we are not rich people, like we met like two, three times that year. But also, you know, like these paperwork, and then you need this one, these documents and notes. So fly this one to Cuba, and then send it with these seals that costs several dollors each. And then the government in Mexico wasn’t issuing the visas properly. But I was so mad because it’s like, if he were Swedish, like we already had the fucking visa. Of course, I know of the context. Also, he’s a Black person and Cuba and Mexico are very racist countries. I don’t know any country that’s not racist. But I will just point that out. Although I wanted to do this, because he was telling me all of these stories about how other art handlers that work with him had gone to Berlin, for instance, because they were invited, and they have invited him but the authorities in Cuba never gave him the right documents for him to leave. But they did to other people that weren’t as black. And also, he was the best at what he did. You start seeing all of this and I was so mad that he can’t do whatever he wants to do. Especially because you’re good at it. So then we tried it. So to come back to the question, he was very into doing this thing together. Because of course, it’s my gaze and I’m the storyteller. But he had a lot of fun. He was used to helping artists. But he’s a Leo.

G: (laughs) So, he liked being the subject. 

A: Yeah, it’s like that. And he’s not like, take my picture, but he liked being there and getting a say or whatever. So, I mean, I did this to..I don’t know if bear is the word… but to bear all the process because we were, let’s say, out of this year, we were at month nine. When I was in these nine months, I was like, What am I doing? Like, I’m just so mad all the time, because this is not working out. And I was like, Okay, so let’s make a project about this waiting on these bureaucracy and this stuff. And I told him, he was like, okay, and I told him, I want to make this picture. And then these and I had more ideas. But then I told him when we were far from each other, and then when I fly to Cuba, I think that was in December, January, for the holidays. So that was 2019/2020. So when I got there, we started doing some photography that I had pictured. And we had a lot of fun doing that. But then, when I came back, I was like, Okay, now I have a projects. So we can, like, keep waiting, and I won’t lose my nerves and stuff. But then everything got very fast since I came back to Mexico in January. So he got the appointment finally, because we sued the government in Mexico, with lawyers. We had to do that in order to get the approval because they weren’t doing anything. So then he was actually able to fly. But now I was like, No fuck, but I was just starting this project. But of course, I wanted him with me. So It was like, wait, why didn’t I start doing this before, because now I couldn’t finish all the photography that I wanted to do. But I went for him and we flew together to Mexico City when he finally got the visa. So eventually, I didn’t know what to do with these materials. But I thought it wasn’t good enough only with the, 20 pictures that I had taken with my fancy camera that n. So I started to add things like images of our correspondence that had to do with our communication through the distance. So I added screenshots and then pictures he took. So then I started thinking about the image in general, and digital communication and communication in general and the distance, and the weight and I tried to build a story. Because also in my practice, I’m very interested in narrating without words. But I was thinking like, can I do this? There are words on the screenshots, but they’re also an image. But I think that project is still not working as I would like it to. I’ve done a black and white version and I don’t know, it’s changing. I got divorced already from him. So eventually it was like, why do this project anymore? Like it’s something that happened already. 

G: Hearing you talk about the project, I am now thinking, this is about another power relationship—systemic racism and the bureaucracy of these governments who are limiting who can come in, and who can leave. So that’s the larger power relationship and that is the subject that’s in your relationship. And getting married is one way to experience and examine these power relationships.

A: The piece is called Import Operation, because he used to be in the military, my ex-partner. In Cuba, people do that. It’s not uncommon. He was in communications. There are all these levels in the military—sergeant and commander. I felt very weird when we were about to get married. I never pictured myself married and stuff. So it was something very weird for me, even though I suggested it, because I wanted to be with him. So I told him, why don’t we call this Constellation Operation? Because in that photo of him in Havana, it was with the stars. And so it was like, “How is the Constellation Operation going?” “Oh, today, I did this” and, “Lieutenant, how’s it going? Well, Commander….” It was just fun. So I wanted to use that language. But then this is the second phase. So first we got married—Constellation Operation, and then it was Import Operation. So I think I should also explain that because it’s marriage. But I definitely chose that word because you import things, not people. And all the time, it felt like a thing. Like the way everyone treated us, the like, a paper could fly, like, I don’t know, from Mexico to Cuba and the other way, but he couldn’t. He’s my family. And then I was thinking about all of the people that experience this, through several things that happen in the world, but you just can’t be with your family. It’s not that you don’t have money or that you just can’t. So, I want to address these things. Of course, I don’t think he is an object, nor am I. It was just the feeling.

G: Yeah, it seems like writing about it could be like writing the final chapter and could be a way to expand the project. Because there is a limit to what you can communicate through photographs. Hearing you describe it so beautifully, I think that there’s so much there.

A:  I like the relation that you made, the bridge between the two projects. Because I’m always doing one project and then something else, so you sometimes don’t analyze them. But that’s an interesting one. Well, thank you so much. Thanks for visiting.