Guillermo Bert began collecting street posters while living in Los Angeles in the 1990s. After passing a rotation of new weekly images, he began to peel off pieces, paste them onto boards, then slowly modify their surfaces—defacing and adding to the layers of glossy propaganda to reveal something less recognizable, more archaeological, more interesting. The series, titled “LA Sites,” was an early indication of what would become a unique talent for rendering cultural artifacts out of the excesses of capitalism.
Since his initial collages 30 years ago, Bert has created a collection of objects that—though differing in appearance—play with the material implications of our cultural and digital identities while drawing from indigenous art forms, techno-aesthetics, consumer culture iconography, and the artist’s own background as a Chilean immigrant.
A few weeks ago, I caught up with Bert to discuss his double survey exhibition at The Lilley and the Nevada Museum of Art, titled Groundwork and The Journey, respectively. While walking through his pieces at the NMA, we talked about his origins as an artist, QR codes, and why we should think about movement across borders as cross-pollination.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
I was inclined to the arts, definitely. I was into art, design, and architecture, kind of those three disciplines. But I was very good at art. From the beginning it was very natural to me, different media. So I defined my area to that—I worked a lot on design and newspapers and have been art director of the LA Times. I work as a designer, and also I work with a lot of architects in different projects so I can relay that field more or less.
There is a really strong archaeological and anthropological current that runs through your work here with The Warriors, the weavings, your circuit series, even your LA Sites series at The Lilley. In the exhibition book, art writer Tressa Berman describes you as being “as much in the lineage of the ‘anthropoeta’ as the conceptual artist.” Do you see yourself in this description?
Yeah, definitely I see myself as a conceptual artist because that is where all these potential disciplines kind of converge and are embedded. You know, nowadays contemporary art is everything so I kind of fit in there. Anthropology, technology, and contemporary art … this is my lane, sort of. But yeah, it’s completely, constantly expanding and going forward.
How much of your work does the exhibition at the NMA include?
This retrospective is probably more or less the last 12 years. Probably it was 12 years when we started but it’s been two years now.
You also have an adjoining exhibition at The Lilley. Can you talk about the difference in concept between the two?
So the idea at The Lilley was to show the work before the series represented [at the NMA] as well as the thought process behind the textiles—that’s why it was divided into “Groundwork” and then “The Journey.”
They both cover a wide range of work, a lot of different media over the years. Can you talk about the importance of experimentation in your art?
I was always very experimental. Before it was more mixed-media painting, more photography, more ripping posters and things. Then I became interested in including technology in the visuals, so I was teaching in Art Center School of Design and I got in touch with laser technology, and then I started buying lasers to do three-dimensional work. Some of the original barcodes series are three-dimensional engraved or cut out of wood or plexi and then painted with a high gloss car paint or leaf or something. So I started this idea of using technology to produce the work.
Then you started making art with QR codes …
Yes, then they become more interactive. I mixed up the barcodes that look like pre-Columbian textiles with the new technology of the barcode—the QR codes—and then the weavings. This is my longest series, 40 textiles. But the series is not finished, it’s just something in progress.
So the embedded QR codes are actually functional?
Yes, essentially you use a QR reader. You can download any app. You take a picture, and then it goes to the internet. And this particular one is a video of a lady, a poet … it’s playing in the theater, by the way. I think the theater has 12 videos playing back-to-back. There’s like 40 films—documentary films that link to the codes—so some of them are going to be running.
We emphasize that they read the poetry in the language so the language is represented. They usually speak Spanish, but they can talk the language and also speak and do poetry in it. Each language is different, I would say Zapotec is stronger, more common, than the Mapuche language because when you go to Mexico—which is Oaxaca—80 percent indigenous background, they speak Zapotec, everybody really, probably a couple million people or something. But in the Chilean communities in southern Chile, there’s less and less people of the Mayan … they’re disappearing, definitely not what it used to be. Some communities are stronger … and some are just smaller communities. There’s just no way to preserve it.
So you’re uploading their languages and stories to the cloud. What was your process like working with the weavers?
When we’re working in different communities, the whole process takes a few months. The weaving itself probably takes a month as well. In the beginning, the first one took six
months because we were just trying to figure it out—how to work and how to weave them. When you jump from one culture to another, they have different weaving techniques. This is what is called the vertical loom, which is like four sticks, essentially, and you just do the lines vertically. This one is called backstrap loom, which is where you put a strap in the back and then tie it to a tree and then put it together afterwards. Then the Acoma … we couldn’t find any weavers that were Acoma, so we asked some of the Zapotec people in Mexico to weave their pieces. The designs—they’re known for ceramics textile with very geometric patterns and very detailed stuff. So this is designed to see all these lines with different colors overlapping that look like pixels.
Tumble Dreams—your multimedia series that features immigrant interviews projected over hanging tumbleweeds—will be playing on a loop in the back of the gallery [at the NMA]. Can you talk about this piece?
So there are essentially three interviews going on at one time—stories that are running and the tumbleweeds are like a solar system, planets floating. The people [in the interviews] actually came across the border and have really dramatic stories. They’re describing how they lived before in their hometowns and what the transition was, how they got here. All of stories are different. One of the girls is here on DACA. This country is all she knows because she’s been here since she was a kid. Now she’s going to college. There was another woman that came over when she was pregnant. But she couldn’t tell anyone, because they may have left her behind, so she had to pretend that she wasn’t pregnant. They went through a lot of stuff.
The tumbleweeds you used for this are massive. Where did you find them?
This one was near my studio in downtown LA. So, I see this gigantic one right in the middle of the street that was blocking me, so I got out of the car and put a rope in it, drove it into my studio. And that was the first one. Then everybody’s telling me where to find them. So the B-roll that is projected onto them is more about lights and night and things like that. Here, you can see the cars are coming through. … I feel this is like the border between Mexico and the United States. You go to an overpass and see all the cars coming through. And they look like a nightingale or something. It’s amazing that you can form an image, projecting something that is flat onto completely hollow kinds of layers.
What was the inspiration behind your Warriors series?
It’s based on the Terracotta Warriors. They were unseen for thousands of years and, suddenly, people realized they were there—this is the idea about the Latino workers. Essentially, they have been everywhere supporting the culture, the economy, the delivery, they make the society function … but they haven’t been seen, they’re invisible. This is a way to give an homage to this army of workers. So we would 3-D scan them, and then we do 3-D models. We slice the layers, line up with metal on the bottom, and then we build them up. So they’re solid wood, but they have like 550 layers. They had to be done one-by-one.
Can you tell me about this figure?
So this is Nalleli, she’s an environmental leader and activist. Her story is very interesting because she was very sick when she was 9 years old because there was an oil well that ran across the street from where she lived, so she had nosebleeds and other problems. She’s been doing activism since then, helping to pass national legislation, she was mentioned in Time magazine as an upcoming young leader. She’s really cool, so articulate to put all this stuff together.
What about these people?
Okay, this guy is a delivery person. He came into my studio two years ago with these packages. This one is a nurse, of course. This person is from my neighborhood, from my local fire station. This carpenter worked for me occasionally and this is a teacher near my area. So they all are kind of in proximity to me, and they are everywhere in reality. This is a mass of people, you know, millions and millions of workers that wake up every morning and make the thing happen, without them the whole thing will collapse.
And they were based on the COVID workforce?
Yes, exactly. Blue collar or first-line essential workers. And so that gives you the variety and the depth of their contribution. So we have a sample of more or less different disciplines. But eventually, there will be more and this will probably evolve. I have a commitment with the Convention Center in Los Angeles to create this sculpture there when this show is over. So I’m probably going to be doing another 20 sculptures. It is supposed to be like a large army, so we’re doing these mirrors on the sides precisely because we multiply in every direction.
Motion and immigration are themes that come up a lot in your work. I’m curious whether you think we would demonize immigration so much if we thought of movement as our natural state?
You know, more than motion, I would say it is transformation. More and more, I kind of tried to push this idea to think of myself as an artist, as an alchemist, somebody who transforms something immediate into something else. … And with immigration, a lot of the issue is that we don’t see immigration as a cross-pollination. You know, people see it with political terms—something that’s happening now and so [immigrants] are demonized. That’s another approach but my perspective is more like it’s something that has happened from the beginning of humanity and it’s happening forever. With the exception of the Native Americans, essentially, we are all immigrants, and we’ll immigrate somewhere else. If this gets really hot here, we’re going to have to go south or something, go to another planet, who knows? And so cross-pollination is a more friendly way of understanding that process. … Everybody understands that bees carry the pollen, and then they create new flowers. So the variety of whatever you see in the world is based on this process of cross-pollination. If you apply that to humans, that’s precisely the point—that you generate new culture and new things. It’s not a negative, it’s a plus.
Guillermo Bert’s exhibition The Journey is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art through Feb. 4, 2024. Guillermo Bert: Groundwork is on view at the Lilley Museum of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno through Jan. 7, 2024.
Photos courtesy Nevada Museum of Art