This profile appeared in the Artists of Utah publication Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists (Vol. II).
Jorge Rojas was meant to be an artist. A soothsayer might have predicted it — seen it in the cards, the tea leaves, or, in Rojas’ case, the tortilla marks. “I was born into a very artistic family,” he says, commenting on an artistic journey that has taken him back and forth between the United States and Mexico, and from New York City to Seattle, with frequent stops in Utah, where he now lives and has carved a distinct path within the regional arts discourse as a multimedia and performance artist. His work challenges us to expand our seemingly traditional notions of art making, while exemplifying art’s great calling as harbinger of societal change. As a community leader, educator and performance artist, Rojas is demonstrably shaping the artistic landscape of Salt Lake City.
Born in Moreos, Mexico, Rojas moved to the United States when he was 6 years old, alongside his four siblings and his single mother, Olivia. For five years, while Olivia worked as a translator for IBM and studied at Brigham Young University, young Jorge would travel back to Mexico for the summers, until, when he was 11, the family relocated to Guadalajara. Rojas’ first artistic love was music, and he took to the piano and trumpet at an early age. As a teenager, he immersed himself in the punk music scene, playing in a variety of garage rock bands throughout his adolescence and discovering the emerging significance of performance as an outlet and inspiration. With a noted concern about her son’s rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, Olivia led the family’s move back to Utah, where Rojas finished high school in Provo. During this time, Rojas began taking art classes and on a whim entered three artworks into a school competition. To his surprise, all of them won awards.
It was an easy decision then, when he went to college at the University of Utah, for Rojas to begin his studies in visual arts. Early on, though, he realized Utah’s program was not for him and he opted to return to Mexico, to study in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende. It was there, says Rojas, that he fell in love with and committed himself to art. The diverse array of ideas and people at San Miguel’s Bellas Artes enabled him to excel in learning both classical and experimental artistic methods. While studying in San Miguel, Rojas reengaged with the work of great Mexican muralists like Orozco and Rivera. Their work, combined with the communal philosophy of his learning environment, cemented an ethos that would persist throughout his life and career — the idea of art by the people and for the people, of art that is a valuable tool by which to view and understand cultural identity and activism.
Following his first solo show at the age of 25 in San Miguel, Rojas moved to New York City, to fulfill a lifelong dream to live in the international art capital. He hustled to make ends meet in the sprawling metropolis, waiting tables as he continued to channel his artistic methods and curiosities. “I was basically working to afford to create art,” he says. During the summer months, he would travel to Alaska on fishing expeditions to stock up on extra funds before returning to New York in the fall. He was painting in a magical realist style at this time, influenced by one of his art school professors; but in a new city of immense inspiration, he was ravenous for new ideas and methods. “Being in New York City was amazing. I met artists from around the world who opened my eyes to contemporary art,” he says. The city itself was also an inspiration. “I was picking up items on the street and examining them. I would find old windows taken off of buildings and paint on their surfaces.”
A fishermen’s strike in Alaska disrupted his plans to earn money for his next dream, a trip to West Africa to study djembe drum, and he found himself detoured to Seattle, where he lived and made art for the next four years. Then he moved back to Salt Lake City, where he developed an alternative media and marketing company with some friends, and, after another four years, after the company grew, returned to New York to run a satellite office.
In New York City he discovered another component of his practice: education. He was hired by the Brooklyn Arts Council to teach K-12 art education. While teaching art foundations and muralism in all of New York’s five boroughs — often in underfunded poor neighborhoods — he encouraged students to tap into their inner creativity. “This is when I really started to see the power of education and of art and teaching. I started falling in love with the idea of helping kids become creative beings and that through art they could express things that they couldn’t express otherwise,” he says.
The experience in education can be seen in the development of his work, which became more participatory at this time. “I was very interested in sensory experiences, inserting sound devices inside of my sculptures, and very tactical paintings,” he says. “I realized that my work was begging to be touched and to be experienced with the viewer’s body. I was doing some soul searching … I started thinking about my family — sisters are dancers, mom taught theater — I realized there was a part of me that wanted to perform and to engage at a more physical level with my audience.”
Performance art seeks, in a very lofty fashion, to inform as it unfolds, to use phenomenological means to interact and to convince. Though various art mediums have all striven for similar objectives, this movement came as a stark contrast — and deliberate rejection of — the seemingly static and sterile conditions by which we interact with art in museums and galleries. This sort of institutional critique informs one of Rojas’ early performance works, the durational “My Space.” A play on the pioneering social media platform, “My Space” saw Rojas soliciting invitations to different locations, so as to render the space his own and create an immersive environment. “The idea was to get invited into their space and make it my space and then turn it into a community space. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but what I was really doing was critiquing the institution,” he says. For one of the performances, he occupied the storefront window of a museum. “I got to do whatever I wanted in this space and invited people to come in and disrupt the space. Many people I interacted with had never felt welcome in spaces like that; it was amazing to see how their perceptions changed once they realized someone was welcoming them in.”
The museum storefront had 24/7 livestreaming, allowing Rojas to broadcast his work to a seemingly infinite audience, all without seeing who was looking back at him. “I was really interested in how people present themselves online,” he says. Performance artists have long held misgivings about documentation: the idea of recording or photographing a performance considered antithetical to the authenticity of experiencing a work firsthand. This quest for a philosophical purity of experience is often hyperbole, teetering dangerously on the edge of sanctimonious elitism. Rojas never doubted that performance should be communal and seen by as many people as possible. He also thought performance provided keen insights into how we as individuals view our world and see one another. Adding technology to the mix both complicated and augmented the communicative quality of performance.
Rojas had a hunch — which turned out to be correct — that few performance artists were experimenting with livestream technologies. At first, his experiments with the technology were replete with glitches, but the seemingly awkward nature of the process was less a deterrent than a motivator. His interest in the voyeuristic and exhibitionistic aspects of the livestream would prove prescient in light of the ever-increasing proliferation of the social media platforms to come. Drawn to the possibilities of his newfound practice and curious as to how his peers might engage it, Rojas invited other artists to participate. The seemingly deprecating title of his ambitious curatorial endeavor, “Low Lives,” was a play on the low quality aesthetic of livestreaming. The venture aimed to connect artists from around the world by having them livestream performances in various venues. In a cumulative one-night event, he connected 30 artists from 10 countries simultaneously in venues in Houston, New York City, and Miami. “Most of them had never done livestreaming performances before so I was helping to teach the artists this technology. … It was all experimental and super weird and I was hooked.” Impressively, “Low Lives” grew over the years, creating new iterations of Rojas’ initial concept and expanding to 25 venues around the globe.
As exciting and groundbreaking as his experiments with livestreaming have been, Rojas has remained interested in performances that transform physical spaces and interact with people in real time. One of his signature performance pieces, “Tortilla Oracle,” emerged from his interest in rituals surrounding the divine and the spiritual. In this performance, the tortilla replaces the conventional tarot card as a harbinger of inspiration and prophecy. “First, you sit with me in a spiritual safe space. Then, you pick a tortilla, place it on the skillet, and I discern [and interpret] the burn marks on the tortilla to read your fortune,” he explains. Though the project was initially tongue-in-cheek, a humorous enactment of seemingly sacred rituals, Rojas was surprised by what it became. For one, he realized that since corn is in fact a sacred food in pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec mythology and that ancient shamans used corn in ritualistic ceremonies, Rojas was following in the footsteps of his ancestors. And the piece became imbued with a palpable earnestness as Rojas found himself connecting to participants. “While doing the first version of this performance in Brooklyn, I was blown away that people were so interested and trusting, that they really wanted me to read things about them.”
Though he says he previously didn’t see himself as a political artist, Rojas notes that recent political events have proven too haunting to ignore. His “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” performance is a direct response to racial profiling and police brutality, while “Tether,” delves into the horrors of America’s immigration crisis. While these subjects are difficult to address in any art form, he firmly believes that performance is an optimal vehicle for community expression. “My performance art is participatory and accessible as opposed to some other types of performance art … of course it’s still a little strange but there’s a humanness to [it] that I think people really connect to.”
Rojas returned to Utah to raise a family and in 2011, he had his initial Utah exhibition, of wax-encased found objects and sculptures, at Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts, an organization that serves the state’s multi- cultural community and provides a gallery presence on Salt Lake City’s West side. He has been involved with the organization ever since (former director Renato Olmedo- González cited Rojas as a mentor when he took the organization’s helm in 2014) and continues to serve on the board. When he brought his “Low Lives” project to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ Great Hall in 2012, the featured performance by Michelle Ellsworth joined 50 others happening around the world. His own performance work has become a staple of the Salt Lake City Performance Art Festival, which happens each fall at the downtown library.
Rojas has continued to influence artists and patrons of all ages through his educational endeavors: he has taught art history at East High School, where he was responsible for the “We Are One Inside Out Project,” which celebrated the school’s 100th anniversary with large black and white portraits of the school’s diverse student body emblazoned on the school’s exterior; he has been a teaching artist-in-residence at the Huntsman Cancer Institute; and, since 2015, he has worked as the director of education and engagement at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. In this capacity, he has overseen a variety of projects that bolster community engagement in the arts — his staff serves 60,000 people annually, including more than 15,000 students — and Rojas has left his physical mark with the creation of the ACME Lab, a sort of “My Space” for the museum.
Lucky for us, Rojas returned to Utah, where he’s pleased to have combined teaching, curating and making art into one balanced practice. The desire to connect people in real time and build a community of artists is an essential part of Rojas’ thinking, and among the chief reasons why his work as an artist and educator has been so impactful in the state. As Utah’s population of diverse voices continues to grow, Rojas’ pioneering efforts will have crafted an indelible path forward, bringing metropolitan and international perspectives to the modest, but
energetically expanding Salt Lake Valley.
Jorge Rojas was artist-in-residence at the Taft-Nicholson Center in Centennial Valley, Montana, June 29 – July 20. He will be performing his work “cage” at the Salt Lake City Performance Art Festival, Friday, October 5-5:30pm, at the Urban Room.
The UMFA’s ACME Lab opened its newest exhibition, Ummah, a collaborative and community-focused installation dedicated to celebrating Utah’s Muslim community, August 15.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.