Carla Herrera-Prats (1973–2019)

Carla Herrera-Prats. Photo: Richard Lehun.

I FIRST MET CARLA HERRERA-PRATS in the summer of 2008. I was invited to contribute an essay for her solo show at New York’s Art in General gallery, back when it was still just west of Chinatown on Walker Street. It was one of the first texts I ever wrote about a contemporary artist, and Carla was patient and generous with her time, most of it spent familiarizing me with her approach and materials—the technology that facilitated standardized testing in the United States. Photographs of antiquated IBM machinery and cluttered archives pertaining to the Iowa Testing Program hung on the walls, with the maxim “Everything measured is everything done” printed ominously on the wall. The phrase was Carla’s own variation of the adage “You get what you measure”: the idea that workers perform better when they know they are being evaluated. Meanwhile, a video work depicted a hand filling in every bubble of a Scantron sheet as flute music from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman played.

In Carla’s hands, research-driven conceptual art felt like a tradition to which she was a respectful inheritor, one with a plenitude of urgent topics still unaddressed. We had participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program in successive years, 2003 and 2004, and studied with its remarkable faculty, many of whom hailed from prior generations of conceptualists: Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, Fred Wilson, Andrea Fraser. It was the tail end of the Bush years, defined by the constant pileup of official lies: the mortgage crisis, the catastrophe of Katrina, the War in Iraq, and the suspect election decided by partisan courts that ushered it all in. In this moment, what could be more political than a sober, rigorous analysis of official systems?

Camel Collective, La distancia entre Pontresina y Zermatt es la misma que la de Zermatt a Pontresina (The Distance from Pontresina to Zermatt Is the Same as the Distance from Zermatt to Pontresina), 2017, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes. © 2020 Camel Collective.

Carla’s early photographic portraiture, circa 2000, used the medium to confront and humanize difference through striking images of Mexican trans people, but with Transactions, 2003, she decisively shifted her focus from individual to institutional dynamics. The set of video interviews she made with Mexican graduate students in the US provided a way to reflect on her own professional migration as part of post-NAFTA dependency on the manufactured prestige of expensive, often unfunded American MA programs. (Originally trained at La Esmeralda, the National School of Painting, Sculpture, and Printmaking in Mexico City, Carla received an MFA in photography from CalArts.) Historias Oficiales / Official Stories, 2005–2006, consolidated her 2000s approach with quasi-didactic arrays of one hundred exhibition catalogues and four widely used Mexican history textbooks that trace the circulation of pre-Columbian artifacts and iconography as nationalist emblems by the nation’s autocratic Institutional Revolutionary Party (1929–2000)—the lingering ghost of a party that had been in power for so long prior to an increasingly catastrophic twenty-first century. But this was not a work about narcotrafficking or the drug war that was at that moment intensifying into its own humanitarian crisis. As in her collaborative 2005 work Metepec, Estado de México (Metepec, State of Mexico), with Dee Williams, which considered overlooked Mexican histories such as the privatization of the railway system in the 1990s, state failings on both sides of the border were signaled in absentia as counterpoints to hegemonic myth, enabling what Irving Domínguez called a “softening,” or destabilization, of the historical archive through idiosyncratic details.

Camel Collective, The Second World Congress of Free Artists, 2010–. Performance view, Casa del Lago, Mexico City, 2013. Elsy Jimenez, Alonso Navarro, José María Negri, Jacqueline Serafín, and Gastón Yanes. © 2020 Camel Collective.

If Carla’s work embodied a certain formal austerity, it was never impersonal or humorless. She had a boundless, infectious enthusiasm for the critical work she was engaged in and took evident joy in the persistent dialogues that made it public. After 2010, the relational work of collaboration and pedagogy entirely supplanted her solo practice—a deliberate, ethical choice. Her contributions to Camel Collective, which consisted of a shifting group of artists between 2005 and 2010 and ultimately became a long-standing collaboration with Anthony Graves, propelled her archival work into a more active register and poetically revivified long-lost theoretical gambits. The Second World Congress of Free Artists, 2010–, for instance, took the form of a six-hour theatrical response to Asger Jorn and Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio’s First World Congress of 1956, which posed the question of how artists, “the freest, most independent people in society,” might assemble and dialogue, while in the moving two-channel video La distancia entre Pontresina y Zermatt es la misma que la de Zermatt a Pontresina (The Distance from Pontresina to Zermatt Is the Same as the Distance from Zermatt to Pontresina), 2017, the final letters exchanged between Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno from 1969 were superimposed with the pioneering sound design of Gonzalo Gavira, a specialist in “incidental sounds” for heightened naturalism in cinema. All along, her involvement with the SOMA summer residency program from 2012 to 2018 helped introduce emerging international artists to Mexico City while providing a more affordable educational alternative to US-based MFA programs.

When I arrived at the Art in General opening back in 2008, I realized Carla had muted the video’s music, to which I had devoted several pages of my catalogue essay. When I pointed this out to her, Carla grinned. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “I betrayed you! I betrayed you!” I laughed along with her, but was confused; we had discussed every detail of the show, so why hadn’t she mentioned this? Only later did it dawn on me: Her show, as experienced in person, would be slightly distinct from the version chronicled in the catalogue. Neither would lay claim to exclusive accuracy, and instead, the two would remain intertwined, attesting to the potentialities of a project without locking it down. For a wealth of thought-provoking, open-ended connections, for the profound generosity of her life’s work, we remain humbled and grateful.

Daniel Quiles is an art historian and critic based in Chicago.