As artists in residence at Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) for four years, Amy Sanchez Arteaga and Misael Diaz (a.k.a. the Cog•nate Collective) have established a presence beyond the gallery through a series of public interventions in Santa Ana, Tijuana, Los Angeles and Mexicali. The two have focused their practice on sparking dialogue on issues directly tied to the U.S.-Mexican border and how its increased militarization has affected migration, as well as how it shapes the idea of citizenship.
The word artists in their title is meant loosely. Instead of creating paintings or photographs, Sanchez Arteaga and Diaz use research as their medium, which they obtain by organizing all-ages art workshops, interviewing Santa Ana’s downtown street vendors and merchants, and collecting oral histories. Through engaging with vulnerable immigrant communities throughout Southern California and Mexico, they’ve been able to translate topics that call attention to their plight into out-of-the-box, attention-grabbing public art projects. Some recent examples of their work include fitting a small trailer they called the Mobile Institute of Citizenship and Art (MICA) to play videos discussing marketplaces along the border; working with Cal State Fullerton students to hold workshops at the Santa Fe Springs swap meet; designing a set of protest balloons that read “American Citizen” in English and Spanish to give away to immigrants so they could feel more included; or enlisting Santa Ana collective Chulita Vinyl Club to broadcast DJ sets on pirate radio while cruising through the city. “That’s our trajectory: following things as they come and responding to them in ways that are more research-oriented and sometimes in ways that are more artistic,” Diaz says.
Though he was born in Los Angeles, Diaz was raised in Tijuana, but he traveled back and forth to San Diego for school during his youth. Sanchez Arteaga grew up in Imperial Valley, but she bounced across the border often to see family in Mexicali. They met while working for a campus magazine during their undergraduate studies at UCLA, then moved to San Diego, where they initially noticed how much more militarized the border had become, which spurred them to start investigating its effects on bordertown dwellers.
They take their name from the word cognate, which means multiple linguistic variations of the same word, while calling themselves a collective, since their projects often channel the collaborative energies of local immigrant communities, as well as other artists. Drawing from their background in research through their respective studies, the duo found themselves more interested in presenting their field notes in ways that were more accessible to the people they were studying and to “engage in conversation and ongoing dialogue that could potentially lead not to paper, but to something useful that people could use in that space,” Diaz says.
Their work led them to being invited to exhibit at GCAC by former Cal State Fullerton grad students Martha L. Rocha and Emily Tyler, and GCAC director John Spiak eventually offered them an artists-in-residence spot. They’ve since dissected local gentrification and the subject of market spaces—or, more specifically, swap meets—where immigrants feel a sense of familiarity and home. Their latest exhibition, “Regionalia,” showcases the research-art projects they’ve worked on in the past four years, with swap meets as the prevailing theme. And in this age of increased deportation of undocumented families, rising anti-immigrant sentiment and talks of President Donald Trump’s border wall, Sanchez Arteaga and Diaz continue to try to help provide a means of resistance and showcase compassion toward their community.
“All of that hostility is real,” Sanchez Arteaga says. “So I deeply hope there is also space for joy and healing and resistance that can fuel people and rejuvenate them and [help them] feel strong so they can move through their daily lives in ways that continue to empower their communities.”