Maria Leon and Sebastian Milla: El Trifinio, 2015
When María León, an immigrant Chilean tattoo artist, met Sebastián Milla, a Peruvian-American performance artist, they decided to collaborate on a tattoo design, to be placed on Sebastián’s left arm as what is commonly referred to as a “sleeve tattoo”.
Given Peru and Chile’s long and complex histories as joined South American countries, León and Milla used the opportunity of artistic collaboration to unpack parts of their identities that otherwise might have gone unexplained and untouched. While planning the tattoo, they talked about Spanish colonization, the Incan Empire, pre-Incan civilizations, American involvement in Peru and Chile. As a way to brainstorm the aesthetics of the tattoo, they ended up constructing a shared timeline to map all of the events that they held in common, the events where their histories separated.
The “ah-ha” moment arrived when they traced their histories to the present-day, realizing that the same immigration policies that María was facing as a grad student mirrored the experiences Sebastián’s parents had faced in the 1980’s. In sharing similarities and differences, the artists found it interesting that the words “immigrant”, “illegal”, and “Latino” are often used to describe such a wide variety of people, like them, with such diverse stories and journeys to the US.
How do these words serve to shape the debate on legal immigration in the US? Whom gets to stay and whom has to go?
How do we unpack these terms?
Where do we unpack these terms?
From these questions came the need for an immediate space to hold these conversations. Given that Milla has a background in performance and León was willing to tattoo in an open space, the idea came up; why not invite people into the workspace to participate in the conversation?
They eventually settled on presenting their workspace as “El Trifinio”, a pop-up country with ever-shifting borders, coloring-book passports, and an infinite number of citizens.
The tattoo that León gives Milla during the event consists of iconography from their shared histories as descendants of those who survived the Shining Path, Pinochet, the War of Saltpeter, and the Spanish Conquest so that they could one day collaborate in the United States.
Visitor-participants arriving in El Trifinio are invited to question and consider, in dialogue with the artists and each other, prompted by activities and objects in the space, the subjectivity of government policies, the erasure of identifying terms such as “illegal”, “Latino”, “Asian”, “alien”, etc., and respond with their personal suggestions for making access to the United States less dehumanizing.
Through three performances in the Spring of 2015, El Trifinio opened its borders to hundreds of citizens, recording their families’ journeys to U.S. through a specialized passport, and sitting with León and Milla for interviews. The politics of Trifinio’s space forced these new citizens to question the details of immigration, territory, and conflict. The annexation of the space itself as “a new country” highlighted the history of conquest in the Americas, where colonial powers drew boundaries on indigenous lands at will. As visitors received a passport at the door, they entered in a dialogue with on another about passing through immigrations, customs, and other control points as citizens, people on the path to citizenship, or as someone without US documentation. In speaking with the artists, citizens were invited to listen to the history of conflict in between their two countries, and then explore the conflict in their own histories. A station set up with body-art pens allowed citizens to tattoo each other with icons and motifs that represented their family’s journey to the U.S. to mimic the tattooing process on Sebastián’s arm. Each opening of Trifinio ended with an open forum so that new citizens could brainstorm ways of improving the country, and the U.S. at large.
The second performance on Thursday, April 9, 2015 was held in the “Library Donceles”, an social practice artwork created by the Mexican artist Pablo Helguera in Redhook, Brooklyn. In this location, participants also experienced the art work of Pablo Helguera’s– a library of Spanish books that were categorized by academic fields in Redhook. Participants could buy books in this library and again view Milla being tattooed. Similar to the first performance, Trifinio participants had to go through “immigration” before entering the space. These new immigrants were invited to talk about their experiences of migration with Milla and León.
The third and final performance on Sunday April 17, 2015 was held at the Queens Museum. In this last stage, León and Milla completed the tattoo in a session of 5 hours, while residents of Trifinio could participate by sharing their stories as in previous performances, but they were also encouraged to create changes that help to change legislation and policies of U.S. immigration through specific civic actions. Tables on either side of the stage where Milla was being tattooed were spaces where participants could make request to a immigration lawyer if they needed help or applying to and enroll with several NYC activist organizations who are working on immigration policy in the United States.