This Summer Session we’re thinking about celebrity, and today there are perhaps no celebrities more popular than fictional superheroes. Their popularity can serve as a valuable social tool, as Callie Humphrey’s review of artist Neil Rivas’ installation at Galería de la Raza shows, where the familiarity of superhero personae is used as a humanizing entry point into difficult conversations about illegal immigration. This review was originally published January 05, 2014.
Galería de la Raza is currently hosting its very first resident artist, Neil Rivas. The San Francisco-based artist has converted the back half of La Raza into the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Illegal Superheroes, or ICE DISH. The agency deals with the capture and deportation of undocumented superheroes. Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and the whole iconic lineup are at high risk for deportation, their immigration status unregistered with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The ICE DISH headquarters is replete with a physical training station, lockup cells, surveillance monitors, a most-wanted bulletin board, cabinets filled with presumably top-secret files, authoritative black desks, swivel chairs, and other austere institutional furniture. Populating the ICE DISH facilities are its six local agents, who carry out all departmental proceedings both on- and off-site.
High-stakes immigration debates are occurring across the country, but what actually constitutes the conversation appears to be little more than empty political banter. Through ICE DISH, Rivas has created an artistic platform for social intervention, though I hesitate to call it outright activism. The agency conveniently positions familiar, culturally beloved characters at the face of a critical discourse that the project hopes to engage, and as such functions equally well as both an educational outreach tool and as art. The reality of the immigration discussion is one increasingly devoid of empathy; it is a faceless battle driven by rhetoric rather than humanization. By aestheticizing the conversation through established iconography, Rivas makes the entry point more accessible for those who may otherwise not actively seek to participate in such a dialogue. The discussion ICE DISH generates does not forefront race, specifically, but rather highlights general ideas of difference, belonging, and the quintessential role of the other.