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Eliana Cetto: Photographer and Digital Media Feminist

'⇧Ctrl/⌘Pwr' [Shift Control/Command Power] screen shot. 

Please welcome our first Latina profile to Los Retratos!  Eliana Cetto is a Stockton native who deeply loves her roots and the environment that helped to create the foundation of the vibrant artist she is to this day.  Now based in San Jose, CA Cetto has transitioned from a photographer, of which she continually practices the selfie portrait via her cell phone, but mastered the skill of video editing to create one of a kind video performances to speak her mantra of body positivity to not just women but everyone with an open mind.  In addition to digital media Cetto also hones her skills as an alternative process artist and looks forward to teaching workshops around California and beyond connecting photography and LGBTQ communities with the power of positive thinking and the beauty of oneself.

Sitting in her studio Cetto adorns one of her many jean jackets with the Virgin de Guadalupe, a religious theme runs throughout her work.  Photo © Aimee Santos

For those that are not familiar with your work can you brief us on your identification as a queer artist and how it has helped shape your work as an individual and an artist?
My work is an exploration of image, identity, and power in the 21st century, with a focus on social interactions within evolving technologies. As a queer Latina woman, I believe that emerging technology allows marginalized voices to be heard and claim space. Having grown up queer on the internet, I approach art making through the aesthetics of the Millennial Generation, employing trends, social media, and "selfie" culture as tools for rebellion. Technology also enables me to virtually insert myself into spaces and history to which I would normally not be granted access because of my status as a women and a queer Latina. In my digital performance piece, "⇧Ctrl/⌘Pwr" [Shift Control/Command Power], I use digital technology to confront spaces otherwise difficult for women to navigate. I also queer religious imagery to negotiate my cultural heritage in works like "gracias por los tender grrrl hugz #sisterhood #wordtoyourmother" and "Patriarchy: A system error has occurred." to oppose cultural barriers within my own hybrid identity.  Ultimately my art and my identity are inseparable

Sculpture 'gracias por los tender grrl hugz' by Eliana Cetto.  Photo © Eliana Cetto 

'Patriarchy: A System Error Has Occurred' by Eliana Cetto.  Photo © Eliana Cetto

The drop of a hat is significant her recent Thesis project  '⇧Ctrl/⌘Pwr' [Shift Control/Command Power] where she demonstrates that the gaze you think you have on her is in fact the gaze she has on you. Photo © Aimee Santos

Your work has revolved around you.  Can you explain the environment in San Jose that has helped shape not only your work but also your values as a feminist artist, one that you already came into the program identifying as?
Its true, I came into graduate school already a raging, fist-in-the-air, slutever feminist chignona, lolz. I grew up in Stockton, lived in the Excelsior of San Francisco for a while, and moved to downtown San Jose for graduate school. My family joked that I bounced from barrio to barrio. I tend to romanticize the homies back in Stockton, but growing up there truly gave me perspective on privilege, diversity and injustice, in ways I still appreciate to this day. San Jose was another city to inspire me, and also trouble me.  The tech industry and constant talk of innovation allowed me to further examine my blogging and social media worlds that I was so inspired by. At the same time, downtown San Jose was a small enough area to feel as though the crime and violent activity centralized around my neighborhoods, forced upon our communities by the rising housing prices in the Silicon Valley. The reality is that being an unaccompanied woman without a car is sadly considered dangerous, and living in downtown San Jose reinforced certain feelings I had about public space and objectification. This potential danger inspired "⇧Ctrl/⌘Pwr" which uses the backdrop of San Jose as a metaphor for all women in public space. 

'A Photograph' by Eliana Cetto.  Photo © Eliana Cetto

One of the projects you worked on before grad school somehow remanifested into your thesis project but on a different level.  Can you take us through the trajectory of these two video projects and how they are connected?
Before graduate school I was really concerned with the changing face of photography, and making work that dealt with the tension I felt between the analog and digital worlds of my craft. I was the dark room lab technician at my old school and when they decided to go digital and phase out the analog facilities, I felt sorta robbed. I resisted getting a digital camera for years and religiously scanned all of my film on an old SCSI neg scanner that took ages to use. But I finally started working in digital and then began making videos. "A Photograph" was my way of navigating the differences and similarities between digital and analog processes, shooting digital video through the viewfinder of a huge vintage tabletop view camera. The video was then inverted to look like a photograph being taken on glass plate. 

However, this video was also very much about the male gaze. As a female photographer, I wanted to examine my position as the sitter and the maker. In most of the early historical photography I felt the presence of the great male masters gazing upon their objectified and exoticized subjects (besides maybe Julia Margaret Cameron and a few women barely mentioned). I wanted to stage a historical intervention. I wanted to show a woman in control of her image, deflecting the objectifying gaze by staring back at the viewer. 

This defensive act of staring back is what manifested in my video  "Ctrl/Pwr." Even though I am nude, the audience can't simply consume my image for titillating purposes, because they are being confronted with me watching them, watching me. It attempts to make the viewer more aware of their usual objectification and consumption of women. As the Guerrilla Girls pointed out in the 1990s, less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum were women, but 85% of the nudes were female. The numbers are still pretty similar today.

Cetto during her Advancement having a theoretical discussion with Brian Taylor.  Photo © Aimee Santos

As a Latina artist have you found that women of color are few and far between in the academic world of art?  And more specifically photography?  And what is your stance towards the stereotype that follows Latin artists that they should make art that is about their culture and immigration in order to be recognized as contemporary artists today?
Both academia and the art world are spaces of privilege. They are predominantly occupied by white, wealthy, connected men that use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ideas. There are, of course, radical, inspiring, and powerful groups of marginalized voices who have pushed their way in to this environment, but the ratios are evidence to the prevalence of the former. So academic conversations and opportunities are usually tinged with privilege and thus remain problematic. 

Privilege is thinking that something isn't a problem, because it’s not a problem for you personally. For example, the lack of women, people of color, queers, and other marginalized groups in institutions like academia, the art world, or in fields like photography, all the fucking time no exceptions amen. 

I have had to deal with so many assumptions that simplify, stereotype, and exemplify the everyday casual racism, sexism, and homophobia that goes unnoticed in primarily privileged, white settings of academia and the art world. This came as no surprise; since I have experienced traumatic instances like this throughout my life, having to navigate predominantly white academic/artistic settings I was engaged in as a white-passing Latina artist. I recognize that my white-passing privilege has allowed me to experience instances others may not have for these exact reasons, but as a proud Latina queer I feel it is my duty to point out said injustices and assert my position. I have had teachers, students, employers, and peers deny my suggestions to change their framework and reformat their approaches to be less offensive. So I get labeled as a Call-Out Queen. But whether or not they are trying to be offensive is never really the issue, it is that some people will be offended and I feel that is important to address. I often do so in my art, referencing patriarchy, representations of women, and my heritage as tools for resistance. 

I think if you're a Latin@ you should make art of any kind. The world needs Latin@s arts. If you're a Latin@ and you're creating, that’s radical to me no matter if its blatantly political or not. Everyone's story is valid and deserves to be heard. I wont stop being a Call-Out Queen. I know that much is true. ~* RIP Mark Aguhar, the original Call-Out Queen and beautiful hero. <3 *~

Laptops, cell phones and fur coats.  Nothing is ordinary in Cetto's life.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Having earned your Bachelor’s in Art History do you think it allowed you to think of an analytical approach first in your work and the work of others and then the conceptual approach?  Or have the two become one?

I guess by now it all happens at the same time. I usually make art that combines my personal experiences with an awareness for history, politics, and popular culture. I'm usually ranting about some sexist bullshit, at the flea market looking at handmade biblical imagery, watching an amazing YouTube video of some badass female rapper from the 90s, or making selfie gifs, and I'm like, I want to make art like this. This is where it’s at. I rarely consider the approach or the processes until after I have created the concept. Most concepts stem from performance ideas and real life experiences, jokes, riots, and desires, recreated in the digital space.

Cellphones and rings on every finger is just one of the many ways Cetto rolls.  Photo © Aimee Santos

From my exposure to you and your work I’ve learned about the various waves of feminism.  What wave do you categorize yourself and your work in and do you think there are many other waves of feminism to come?  And what do you foresee as the next possible wave of feminism?

Well, traditionally speaking, I would say I am a third-wave feminist. This is because I prescribe to concepts such as queer theory, transgender politics, post-colonial theory, postmodernism, and anti-racism within the umbrella of feminism. The third-wave came about in response to second-wave feminists' denial of the rights of women of color, and a general over-emphasis on the experiences of upper-middle class white women. The third-wave brought about a feminism that was inclusive, sex-positive, and in support of all types of feminists. The second-wavers paved the way for artwork like mine, and I respect that. Someone asked me if I was a postfeminist the other day. I think that label has a connotation of accomplishment in the defeat of patriarchy, and I can't get behind that at all. I also don't think the 3 waves really address global concepts of feminism which creates a very American-centric and erasing time-line. Having said that, I usually refer to myself as an intersectional feminist, if I label my feminism. This is the notion that oppression is complex, multi-leveled and systematic, acknowledging the intersections of oppression based in gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, etc., and how they contribute to injustice. 

I think the future of feminism is a mainstream concept of feminism. I mean, I love Beyoncé, I love the #yesallwomen tag, I love celebrities "coming out" as feminists (lulz)! Although most mainstream trends become watered-down and simplified, I think its time for a mainstream concept of feminism. A feminism that has been reclaimed from its demonizing mythology of yore into a common household ideology. I mean, women are still statistically paid less than men. I have had middle school girls ask if they had to be married to go to college and eight year olds thinking they were too fat to be considered pretty. I think we all need as much feminism as we can get, and I am committed to sharing it with the world through my art. 

Most of Cetto's work is done in her bedroom, in her bed, in her underwear, editing video.  Photo © Aimee Santos

In your project '⇧Ctrl/⌘Pwr’ you expose yourself to the streets around you.  Can you explain the mental process you went through to feel comfortable enough to take your close off to the world through a video lens?  And how has this project changed your emotional state of exposing yourself in your work?

The relentless gaze and blatant nudity in "⇧Ctrl/⌘Pwr" act as a reminder to the audience that we live in a world where we tell women they can do whatever they want. But when it comes down to it there is a long list of things we tell women they 'probably shouldn’t do.' That is what you are confronted with in the first seconds of my video. When you see me nude, standing in the street, I hope that you feel the unease that I feel even when clothed. However, this performance is not about fear. It is about empowerment. It is about creating a strength and a power in a hyperreal space to point out that it doesn’t exist IRL to critique and insight dialogue. 

Having said that, it’s not really something I enjoyed doing, rather it was something I felt important for me to do. It is a performance, and a critique. I am not an exhibitionist. I am also not that serious, nor that brave in real life. But I felt compelled to make this video in a particular way because I knew, as a women, this would be the boldest way I could make such a statement. Women's bodies are objectified on such a constant basis that I knew nudity would be my way to access this issue. ~My body is literally a tool against patriarchy.~

During a critique of #weouthere.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Can you speak about your Body Positivity project and how it has evolved and any hopes for the future?

My Body Positivity Project was a community-based project that reached out to the followers of my blog. I asked them to anonymously submit images of their breasts for a collage that would encompass a variety of types of breasts in a beautiful array of colors, shapes, and sizes. The work was meant to be all-inclusive to anyone identifying with having breasts, and includes trans bodies and women who have had mastectomies. It generated a lot of submissions, grew into its own blog, resulting in several gum Bichromate prints, and the latest print on habotai silk. I am currently working on a silk scarf that could be worn by the participants of this project, to give back to the community who inspired the work and supported my goals.