Sneaking Oscar López Rivera into the Whitney Biennial

On January 6th, Three Kings Day here in Puerto Rico, I received a gift via email. It was an invitation from Occupy Museums to participate in their Debt Fair Project, a collective installation as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. 10 of us were invited specifically to represent the case of the debt crisis in Puerto Rico. As a colony of the US, Puerto Rico has minimal political presence internationally. Though Puerto Rican athletes have won Olympic gold medals as part of US teams, in 2016 tennis player Monica Puig made history winning Puerto Rico's first Olympic Gold medal. It was the first time that our flag was raised and our anthem played on the global stage. This may not seem so important to some, but for a nationality that carries no passport, (other than the Adál Maldonado/ Pedro Pietri conceptual art collaboration baptizing Puerto Ricans as citizens of “El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico”) having your national identity eclipsed by colonialism is the equivalent of being rendered internationally invisible.

January 6, in addition to being Three Kings Day, is the birthday of Oscar López Rivera. López Rivera, a political prisoner of the US since 1981, had transcended the US/ Puerto Rico colonial bubble, making news internationally with support for his release coming from such notable figures as Pope Francis and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Turning 74, he had spent virtually half of his life in prison. In tribute, I decided to include his image in my Debt Fair artwork. My work explores nebulae as metaphors for the nebulous political state of Puerto Rico and the long battle against invisibility. The added image of Oscar López held for 36 years under the charge of seditious conspiracy, further illustrates the tie of Puerto Rico's debt to its colonial relationship with the US. I titled the piece “De-debt/ Decolonize.”

The week after I completed the work, the White House announced that Obama had commuted López Rivera's sentence. Knowing this was an historic time for Puerto Rico, I sought to document this history, even before the announcement. I was grateful for having gotten a piece on exhibit at the Whitney and especially proud that the work addressed the condition of my people and an historic moment in our struggle for self-determination. This was of course possible because of Occupy Museum's necessary work examining debt and the hypocrisies of debt. Artists are among the sectors of society most crippled by debt and are mostly unfairly compensated for our work, if compensated at all. Perhaps being a Puerto Rican and an artist makes one twice colonized. Oscar López Rivera happens to be a Puerto Rican, an artist and a former political prisoner, a colonial trifecta: freedom fighter by default.

Debt Fair exhibitions feature the works of artists in debt, organized into collective installations forming "bundles." The term, borrowed from the investment world, is a reference to a common experience in the collective artists’ debt history, or a common collector to which the artists owe money. In the case of the Puerto Rico bundle, on view at the Whitney Biennial (through June 11th, 2017), we are artists affected by and whose work examines the colonial crisis in Puerto Rico. This bundle hangs alongside two other artists bundles (10 artists to each bundle, totaling 30 Debt Fair artists), one representing Navient and the other JP Morgan/ Chase. The signage on the wall points to Black Rock CEO Larry Fink, on the board of MOMA and a member of the Trump Strategic and Policy Forum.

Debt Fair installations traditionally are not artworks hung on a gallery wall. Rather, they literally carve out a piece of the dry wall, exposing the studs and installing the work within the wall itself. The “occupy” component, beyond granting access to more artists, disrupts the white walls of the museum, directly implanting dialogues not normally had in these exclusive spaces. Having risen out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Occupy Museums zooms in on the communities most impacted, taking a close look at Puerto Rico and at the crippling state of student debt in the US today. The Friday after May Day, they held an anti-commencement ceremony at the Whitney, in front of the Debt Fair installation. Complete with a cap and gown procession, the program also included the reading of a statement on behalf of the striking students of the University of Puerto Rico system. The public university system has been severely threatened by harsh austerity measures of the US Congress-imposed fiscal control board. Referred to locally as la junta colonial, they hold supreme power over Puerto Rico's budget. In her light box image "Advertisement for PROMESA Act or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Debt" artist D Gabriela Torres includes the words "Debt and Neglect" and "100% for the people, Real Colonial Rule," detailing the irony an