Five artists gathered in a circle around a low platform covered in traditional indigenous instruments and self-made electro-acoustic media one Friday night in October, delivering their first performance of a multimedia work titled Animal Mother Moves the Four Winds of Rush Hour at Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix.
They’re part of a Native American and Chicano artist collective called Radio Healer, which explores contemporary culture through re-imagined indigenous ceremonies.
Radio Healer was founded by artists Cristóbal Martínez, who directs the collective, and Randy Kemp in 2003. Martínez is also part of the artist collective Postcommodity, which created the Repellent Fence installation bisecting a portion of the U.S. and Mexico border in October 2015.
Various artists have participated in Radio Healer through the years. Current collective members include Martínez and Kemp, as well as Edgar Cardenas, Raven Kemp, Fernando Lino, and Meredith Martínez.
Radio Healer is currently an artist-in-residence at Pueblo Grande Museum, where its latest piece will be performed again on November 18 and December 16. The performances are presented by Pueblo Grande Museum and the City of Phoenix, with support from ASU Art Museum’s International Residency Program and CALA Alliance.
Animal Mother Moves the Four Winds of Rush Hour combines music, sound, video, and dance. The 50-minute piece was a year in the making – in part because collective members designed their own electronic instruments through hacking, appropriation, recycling, and adaptive reuse. They also devised movement, and filmed scenes in several Valley locations.
There's a welding helmet adapted with a tablet to create a mask, a video game controller modified with long strings that generate various tones depending on how they're manipulated, and a stainless-steel pot with embedded speakers that produces wailing sounds and cycling noises. Radio Healer also uses indigenous instruments such as a giant conch, flute-like elk call, and rattles made with dried plant material.
Some of their tools used to create experimental, electronic music are part of an exhibition called "This Machine Kills __________," which is curated by Ed Gomez, Luis G. Hernandez, and April Lillard-Gomez. The exhibition continues through December 3 at Fine Art Complex 1101.
Radio Healer seized on the experience of rush hour traffic, where various types of destruction from car crashes to pollutant emissions have been normalized, as a way to explore the theme of death. For these artists, rush hour traffic is a metaphor for movement, not only of traffic – but also of money, people, messages, and various goods and services.
Their new piece is basically a death ceremony that conveys the irreverence of contemporary culture toward “the sovereignty of context, history, myth, and time,” Martínez says. It centers around metaphors exploring several aspects of society that are both market-driven and market-driving – including sex and violence.
Radio Healer’s work is infused with punk, industrial, goth, and metal sensibilities, in addition to indigenous knowledge systems. “There really weren’t any tools out there that made the kinds of sounds we were looking for,” Martínez says. So they set about gathering materials and making their own, including more than a dozen used during Animal Mother Moves the Four Winds of Rush Hour.
Most were created using technology sourced and repurposed by collective members (they use the term "hacked"), who typically build their tools and instruments at home or in their various art studios. Pueblo Grande Museum provides space for meetings, rehearsals, and performances.
Martínez says many of the instruments and tools used during Animal Mother Moves the Four Winds of Rush Hour cost less than $100 to create. Their work is supported in part by a grant from Arizona Commission on the Arts.
For much of the piece, four artists create sound elements while a single dancer adorned with indigenous designs painted in white onto his skin conjures the specter of death through leaps, broad sweeps of the arms, and other movements inspired by Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday celebrating the lives of loved ones who have died.
The backdrop is one of the museum’s exterior walls, onto which Radio Healer projects videos shot at various sites throughout the Valley. Viewers see a tall plume of water from a man-made lake in Fountain Hills, an automated hyper-sexualized mannequin twirling a sign by the side of a road, and the slow descent of an Apache helicopter like those manufactured in nearby Mesa.
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The images reference war, surveillance, and other complexities of society.
For Radio Healer, it’s all about raising viewer consciousness and critical thinking toward the systems humans have invented, produced, and maintained — and their destructive potential. They're not trying to moralize or be didactic, Martínez says. Instead, they're working to create an immersive environment in which the familiar feels strange. It's their way of prompting reflection on realities most people embrace without question.