Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Q &A with Artist, Educator and Organizer Pato Hebert

Like so many cultural events, the exhibition, Incandescent Movements: Performance and Light in Pato Hebert's Photography, was interrupted due to COVID-19. The show, closed down at the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia until further notice, features seven collections of photographic work made over the last 20 years. Serendipitously, many of the themes found in Hebert’s oeuvre are strikingly relevant to what the world is facing right now—solitude, disease, communal expression, interconnectedness and the relationship between human beings and nature. In addition, Hebert was diagnosed with the coronavirus in March and is still in recovery. Read on to hear about a handful of the work featured in the exhibition, reflections on the coronavirus, and thoughts on our collective future.

The mask worn by Pato Hebert the day he was tested for Covid 19.


DUGGAL ART SCENE: Recently, in an online Zoom workshop for Common Field, you shared some thoughts and reflections on your personal experience as someone who was sick with the coronavirus and is in recovery. At this point, how are you feeling? 

PATO: Thank you for asking. I’ve been sick in one form or another since early March. I got my positive test result on March 27 and disclosed publicly via social media the next day. I did so to let people know that COVID-19 is all too real. I also wanted to counter some of the stigma that has been prevalent and painful in our culture. I’ve now given a number of public artist talks and performative readings online. These presentations feature images that I've made and things that I’ve written during this challenging and historic moment we are all living in. Lately I’ve been performing while wearing a mask. During the most recent one, I wept. 

My recovery process has been long and very slow. There have been many, many times when I thought I had improved to 85% well, only to have relapses or new symptoms appear. It has been frustrating and humbling. Now I have come to expect that once or twice each week I’m going to have some tightness of breathing or waves of fatigue. Sore throats are a given after even just one conversation on the phone or a short, public Zoom performance.

I take daily walks in a large park here in Los Angeles. These gentle movements have been crucial to slowly building back some lung capacity. Spending time with so many living beings has been deeply healing — rabbits, green parrots, spring flowers, trees of all kinds, black beetles, crows, a dead snake and one encounter with a large, magnificent raptor. I am improving physically, and reconnecting. I have also been blessed to receive waves and waves of daily love from all corners of my life. This love has been incredibly fortifying in all its forms, especially the texts, videos and care packages. I love snail mail and handwritten cards! 

Image of The Oscillator from the series In, If Not Always Of by Pato Hebert.


DUGGAL ART SCENE: Can you tell us about your ongoing series, In, If Not Always Of, which features the being or presence known as The Oscillator? In particular, the notions of interconnectedness and nature that you explore within the work.

PATO: This series began in 2014 as a way to be more mindful of living relations (water, trees, stone, etc.) on the one hand, and the painful legacies of colonialism on the other. It is a series of performances for the camera occuring in places that have been designated as parks or nature reserves. 

I wanted us to reconsider the limits of classifications like human and nature. The assumption that people are superior to one another or other beings, and somehow apart from what the West has called nature. I was thinking about how place holds meaning, and how particular places are known or understood. I was thinking about Indigenous notions of living reciprocally and in relation; what it means to be displaced from your land by slavery or invasion; what it means to be endangered in your body and being; the different meanings held if you are on your ancestral land, or a visitor, invader, prisoner or guest; and, on whose terms these codes are made or broken. How does all of this shape a sense of identity, purpose, and belonging? As well as contemporary ideas of who is “alien,” who and what are allowed, the violence of xenophobia, racism, and gender norms. 

I was also thinking about the Buddhist notions of non-self and interconnectedness, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing. None of us exist as islands. We are ever in relation. This does not mean we are all the same. We have to contend with difference, power and history in order to imagine more just ways of living in relation. 

The Oscillator is playing with this in a skin that is reflective and a form that is ever shifting. As a being informed by its surroundings, The Oscillator makes us question whether this presence that is in a space might also be of it. Colonialism has been a violent, ongoing wounding. A planet and countless peoples in peril are part of our inheritance. But there are also other possibilities. This series of photographs is an attempt to open up to these concerns in new ways with very old vocabularies about light, transformation, and change.

Image from the series Ataqueridas by Pato Hebert.


DUGGAL ART SCENE: The series Ataqueridas (2016) and Yo Soy Lo Prohibido (1996) both deal with communal engagement, the intersection of individual and communal expression, spirituality and more. In the context of quarantines, calls to shelter in place, and tentative efforts to open up society again, how do you see togetherness now? Has your view shifted in any way?

PATO: Both of these series try to embody the power of people making and holding space together. It can be powerful when we do this, even if only for the duration of a performance or dance. As you beautifully key in on, it’s a deeply spiritual and communal process. Both series value Black and Brown, queer and multi-gendered people moving in relationship to one another, beats, beliefs, freedom, joy, pleasures, needs. Sheltering in place has made this much more difficult. There is no sharing of sweat or touch on the darkened dancefloor right now. To care for one another at scale we must remain physically apart. 

But as community health activist Tamara Oyola Santiago reminds us, we don’t have to be socially distant. We can still share smiles, resources, movement and love. D-Nice modeled this for thousands of people, with tons of other DJs and musicians following suit and making the online space so intimate, vibrating, liberating, healing, alive. Another example is the mutual recognition, love and creative genius recently shared between Erykah Badu and Jill Scott on Instagram Live; and the poetry readings by writers, the screenings by filmmakers, and the young people turning TikTok on its side-by-side. All of this has reminded us of the possibility of togetherness despite COVID-19. 

People are going to claim space — whether in the photo series you site with the house dancefloor and Félix and Kon’s queered Orixas performance, or now in the social media spaces that allow us to creatively connect. Perhaps paradoxically, even wearing a mask can be a form of connection and mutual care. Now amidst COVID, when I wear my mask, and when I see you wearing yours, I feel the currents of love and solidarity more than fear. It can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, annoying, and hot, but wearing a mask is also a way of caring for one another. 

Image from the series Delegates by Pato Hebert.


DUGGAL ART SCENE: Some of your work, over many years, has dealt with AIDS, a public health crisis that is often reflected upon along with 9/11 in discussions of COVID-19. The series Delegates focuses on attendees of International AIDS Conferences in Mexico City and Vienna. How has your work in this area impacted your point of view? 

PATO: I appreciate you asking, because the AIDS pandemic is ongoing and is still killing people. This has had a profound impact on my understanding of the world, wellness, inequality, creativity and community for more than 25 years.

I started doing HIV prevention work in 1994. The writer Ricardo A. Bracho invited me to co-teach a community photography class with Marcia Ochoa, who is still an organizer and who is also now a scholar. The class brought together a bilingual group of young queer Latinx people (before we opened up that last little vowel to better embody the multitude of our genders). We explored how art might be a space to talk about things that were difficult to address anywhere else. People made different kinds of photo-based imagery to contend with irreverence, desire, grief, family (blood and chosen), humor, the body, light and connectedness. We made everything from photocopy collages to Polaroid transfers and 35 mm color slides. The class was taught as a community mobilization effort against HIV/AIDS. It was part of Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida, a grassroots organization in San Francisco’s Mission District. 

That work taught me so much about making images in a community, and the importance of building partnerships between organizations. It taught me what’s possible when a small but smart, creative and organized group of people work together to reshape the world. We can make our own pathways where they haven’t existed, all the while guided by the efforts of those who came before us. 

After I moved to LA for graduate school, I helped to shape local HIV prevention programming with gay communities of color at AIDS Project Los Angeles (now APLA Health). Through that work I learned the importance (and difficulties) of broader networks in order to mobilize at a larger scale. We were utilizing art, harm reduction, popular education, social science research, resource redistribution and community-building to combat the inequalities that make HIV so devastating. That led to transnational organizing with colleagues and partners at the Global Forum on MSM & HIV (now MPact). We spent over a decade building a global movement for gay and bisexual men and other communities who are disproportionately impacted by HIV. The work aims to build an interconnected coalition of local and regional partners to shape the future of human rights and sexual health around the world, driven by wisdom and strategy emanating from the ground up. The Delegates series comes out of our work to create dynamic space at the International AIDS Conference. Now I work more locally on projects with Visual AIDS as well as the What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD) collective. 

Image from the series Delegates by Pato Hebert.


DUGGAL ART SCENE: Finally, in your current conversations with artists, friends and colleagues are you seeing any potential areas of development for how the arts, culture and society might process, grow and move forward through these challenging times? 

PATO: I love artists, and how integral we are to the imagining of new possibilities. What stands out to me right now is our reliance on one another. Many of our systems and institutions are struggling, and countless individuals are living in extremely precarious ways. I think the big question is whether society will simply, lazily and greedily revert to existing power dynamics when things open back up more fully, or will we do the hard and necessary work of reshaping our circuitries in ways that are equitable and just? None of this happens in a vacuum. What would a meaningful income, universal health care and affordable and common space do to seed creative vitality? What would it mean for art to be defined beyond the market? How might we understand art not simply as a commodity, but as a set of relations, a way of being? What would happen if artists could just make our work?

More specific to photography and imaging, how have people utilized Zoom, TikTok and Instagram to make lens-mediated images more prominent than ever in our daily lives? This moment is a powerful opportunity to reconsider who and what an image might be for. Especially when so many of us are craving not just the images on our screens but also touch, camaraderie, shared criticality, connection. We need art that embodies our most basic needs while also imagining whole new ways of being. 


View text and images by Pato Hebert on page 45-51 in The What Does a COVID-19 Doula Do? zine—a snapshot of a time from the WHAT WOULD AN HIV DOULA DO? (WWHIVDD) community, responding in words, actions and images to the unfolding, unprecedented, global crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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