Myranda Escamilla doesn't know exactly why she collages animal skulls, but her work dwells on life, death, and our culture’s disconnect from the wild.
A little over a year ago, Myranda Escamilla walked into an
antique shop in Port Isabel, Texas, a beach
town near her home in Brownsville.
Inside, she happened upon two deer skulls that have altered her work as an
artist—and likely her life as well.
“My intrigue with skulls came from seeing my father collect
them when I was a child,” she explained in an email. “He tried his hardest to
keep most activities outdoors. Although admittedly I could never appreciate our
adventures at the time, I now miss the fragrant smells of nature—the
beach mist, dry and wet sand, young trees, their sap and the feel of
flower petals running through my fingers.
The stillness and calm it
brings is overwhelming in the best way. Life is dull when it is
spent mostly inside, encased and enclosed. The erratic nature of wildlife as
opposed to our way of living—as humans, with our emails and texts, faxes,
game boys, and laptops—is mysterious, beautiful, boundless, and colorful.”
Escamilla accepted the skulls “as they were—blank
and natural,” but was intrigued by the thought of changing them. “How
could I alter an already interesting and beautiful specimen to make
it more beautiful? I was challenged and that was enough to prompt me to
take my wallet out. And so they went home with me.”
She embellished the first skull with small cuts in a napkin,
the second she painted to look distressed, “as if it was being reborn or taking
on a new soul.” Over time, her collages have become increasingly intricate.
When asked where the impulse to collage animal skulls comes from, at first
she can’t explain. “It just happens and perhaps it is my subconscious, but
if that is the case I cannot help but ask—what is it saying, what does it
mean? Those questions drive me nuts. I do not think about it often
and I try not to ... too knotty.”
But when I admit that they first struck me as a reminder of the way humans
have sought—and in many instances found—ways to control the natural world, that
I find her skulls both beautiful and ominous, she has more to say.
“I suppose the skulls can be something of a reminder
of what has been lost and what should be held near our hearts. Many
times, I have obtained skulls that were either going to be thrown away or left
outside to wither. In adding ‘a human touch’ I am ultimately giving it a piece
of myself, honoring its forgotten existence, if you will.
“Perhaps they seem ominous and haunting because they
are in fact, no longer living. We tend to associate skulls with death, the
macabre, fear and the unknown. Death strikes immense curiosity in me, I
cannot fathom it—how we live and live and live and then ... all is gone. What
should you make of your life if it is bound to cease at any moment?
“Working with skulls helps me to become
more comfortable with the inevitable final stage of life, to accept
it. The juxtaposition presented by the skulls is so striking because you
are instantly caught between life and death.”
After news reports and books raised awareness about the link between commodities trading
and starvation, food justice advocates took action and big bank Barclays responded.
This morning I opened my
email to a note from journalist Fred Kaufman that read, “Yes, a book can make a
difference!” Attached was a report that Barclays, a large UK bank, had announced
that they would stop trading in food derivatives markets.
This was good news. Fred and
I had spoken last fall about his new book, Bet the Farm, which
exposed the connection between agricultural derivatives markets and price spikes on staples like wheat—with impacts around the world ranging from
starvation to riots. In the interview, I picked his brain on topics from deregulation
in commodities markets to what everyday people can do to stop unethical trading
schemes. I wrote about it all in “Spinning
Wheat into Gold,” but one big takeaway was that rallies and political
action are going to be the most successful way to get banks to change and to
get tougher governmental regulations back. Looks like he was right.
activist campaigns in the UK
raised awareness about the human cost of speculation on food, Barclays chief
Antony Jenkins announced today that the bank would stop doing it, writes Miriam
Ross for the World Development Movement.
Until now, Barclays
has been the UK’s
biggest bank to buy and sell on the food derivatives market. While the
bank’s agreement to end such trading is a victory, one campaigner with the
World Development Movement emphasized that it is not enough for banks to opt
out of agricultural commodities markets. There must be increased regulation so
that they don’t start again.
Here in the
states—where wheat speculation was born and the commodities index was
invented—we have yet to see a strong movement emerge to end such trading.
theatre at a Barclays protest rally, photo by World
If you’re the kind who ventures out on foot after dark,
you’ve almost certainly noticed a hypnotic blue glow flashing inside windows throughout
the neighborhood. And when you see people held captive by a box of moving
light, you can’t help but think that humans seem complicit in their own
capture—even if you’re no stranger to a great episode of Planet Earth or Arrested
Development yourself. Does it matter whether they’re watching American Idol, Mad Men, or Real Housewives?
For decades, people have worried that television and movies
would take away the public’s agency, the collective drive to do anything but
work and buy things advertised on TV. It’s a justifiable fear. People do seem
pretty entrenched in a lifestyle that revolves around working, eating, and
Of course, there’s also a history of resistance to this
prescribed lifestyle, and not just among academics. Ray Bradbury wrote his 1953
novel, Fahrenheit 451, to caution
against “the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news and
the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids.” In 1967, Timothy
Leary urged a gathering of 30,000 hippies to “turn on, tune in, drop out” (a
phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan). Such messages urged audiences to avoid a
lifestyle of shallow entertainment and consumption in favor of unmediated
experience and action toward positive change.
But money has a way of rendering its critics useless. Now
the hippies’ peace sign is converted into profits at big box stores, where
workers are underpaid and money
is funneled to warmongering presidents. And the purchase of a tie-die
rainbow dress from a popular bohemian concept shop might well further
the career of a dogmatist politician. From hippie to hipster, attempts at
cultural overhaul have been bought, sold, and used against those trying to
change the system. What’s a rebel to do?
Some have attempted to fight fire with fire. While punks,
hip-hop kids, and culture jammers didn’t invent the art of the remix, they
popularized it. On the surface, remixing seems pretty innocent. Take a sample
of culture—an instrumental hook, an image, or word from a magazine—cut, paste, and
make it your own. Most memes (and their variants) do this for a laugh, but it
can be seen as an act of defiance. Those who remix refuse to passively consume.
They insist on answering the nebulous assertions of mass media, however small
their voices may be. It’s a fine line, though, between remix and copyright
The group has emerged as a leader in defense of democratic control of information threatened by corporate copyright and money’s influence on Capitol Hill. Anonymous
understands the value of open-source culture and has fought to protect it. In its own gesture of
sampling, the group turned a mask worn by the fictional protagonist in V for Vendetta into a real-world icon of
rebellion. The mask has a complex
history of evolving meaning, explains Molly Sauter on HiLobrow, beginning with Guy Fawkes’ involvement in a failed plot
to assassinate King James in 1605. Though Fawkes was killed, his legend lived
on through folk tradition, a comic book series, and that series’ Hollywood film adaptation. The popularity of the Guy
Fawkes mask sold in costume shops post-film was waning when an internet forum playfully
revived it to serve as the face of Epic Fail Guy, “a stick figure who failed at
everything,” writes Sauter. “It’s unclear whether this association had anything
to do with the historical story of Guy Fawkes (whose Gunpowder Plot was, in fact,
an EPIC FAIL), or whether it was due simply to the marketing blitz for V
for Vendetta. Either way, the initial popularity of the mask within the
Anonymous community was directly due to its association with Epic Fail Guy, and
only indirectly (if at all) to political sympathy with either the historical
Guy Fawkes or V for Vendetta.”
When Anonymous began its sidewalk protest of the Church of Scientology, the mask was worn mockingly
to expose the religion as an “epic fail,” suggests Sauter. However, as Anonymous’
actions gained recognition, offline embrace of the mask caused its meaning to
“The symbolism of the mask itself,
adopted by anti-authoritarian protesters from [Occupy Wall Street] to the Arab Spring,
seems to have reverted to more closely embody the meaning in the V for
Vendetta comics and film. Rather than overtly mocking those targeted by
the protesters, the mask (an anarchic folk hero with a smile and curved
mustache) serves as a political identifier. The wearer is identified as anti-authoritarian,
a member of an online generation that values the freedom of communication and
assembly that the internet has so powerfully enabled.”
The meaning of the mask was influenced by many, but
controlled by none. It became a sign, a word in the language of resistance. Far
from simple imitation, this transformation seems to have happened almost by
Though the mask signifies rebellion, it has not escaped the
constructs of copyright and consumption. Nick Bilton of The New York Times points out that every time a mask is purchased, protesters
of the world’s largest media companies, Time Warner. There is no denying
this claim, but Bilton misses the point. Rather than inventing a new icon of resistance,
which would in time be packaged for the masses and sold à la peace signs, Che
Guevara, and the Obey Giant,
protesters have reclaimed an item that media companies had rendered all but
meaningless. It’s a product, sure, but it gives dissidents something no advertisement sells: temporary anonymity. In freeing its wearers from identity,
the mask also frees them from their individuality, allowing them to be
subsumed, for a fearless moment, by a greater cause. It’s almost the reverse of
Bilton’s argument—critics of corrupt capitalist practices have found a way to exploit
the system, which distributes the face of their protest.
The Guy Fawkes mask is not the only example of this leap from mass media to
the streets. In an article for Guernica Rebecca Solnit wrote that a friend arrested at an Occupy protest had posted “Max
gave me the Hunger Games salute in jail today. It was awesome,” in a status update on Facebook. “In
this way,” writes Solnit, “do fiction and reality meld in misery and triumph
[…].” It seems people are expanding the vocabulary of the 99 percent, and symbols
spread wide by mass media make for a convenient starting point.
The messages contained within film, television, and books
inevitably infiltrate public thought and discussion. The more aware we are of
their influence, the more control we have over it. In the hands of engaged
audiences, mass media have the potential to contribute to a broad language of
protest. By using the internet and streets as a public forum, people create and
change this language, and the gap between citizen and consumer narrows. Rebellion
can be co-opted by consumerism, but the reverse might also be true.
Images, top to bottom: "televisión lado A" by Ángel Raúl Ravelo Rodríguez licensed under Creative Commons; Epic Fail Guy; Anonymous crop, from a 2008 photo with Graham Berry at the Hamburg conference on Scientology, licensed under Creative Commons.
Sand rises around the Great Wall of China in a 2007 Diesel ad. Text in the upper right corner reads "global warming ready."
Perhaps by now you’ve heard that Perrier, the sparkling water company, has come up with a way to fix climate change. Ring the bells. Bang the drums.
You’re probably wondering what the idea is. Are the people of Perrier campaigning to end subsidies to oil companies worldwide?
Are they encouraging people to drive less, buy less stuff, and stop pillaging Planet Earth?
The company’s plan is to send a lithe young woman into space to pour some sparkling water on the sun. Yes. That’s the plan.
Well, OK, not seriously—but they made a commercial about it. Because the sun is the problem, and putting it out is the solution.
Earth to Perrier, it’s 2012 calling. The record setting heat-waves, droughts, fires, and storms are only going to get worse. No one knows exactly what will happen but people generally agree that there will be disruptions to our supplies of food and water, not to mention changes to our habitats. There will be other consequences we haven’t predicted. Climate change isn’t a marketing gimmick, and shouldn’t be used as way to sell more stuff.
Because global warming is caused by general overconsumption, most advertising makes climate change worse, if indirectly. It’s not just that we drive too much and fly too much (though we do), it’s that everything we buy comes to us at cost to the planet. That includes sparkling water. It’s not that an advertisement like this is actually more harmful than any other ad, it’s just unforgivably irreverent.
Of course, Perrier is not the first to do this. Italian clothing brand Diesel offered a series of “Global Warming Ready” print ads in 2007. The ads featured young, wealthy–looking white people in post-climate-change settings around the world. Parrots have taken the place of pigeons at St. Mark’s Square in Venice. The Great Wall of China is half-covered in sand. Jungle wildlife encroaches on the Eiffel Tower and at Mount Rushmore, Lincoln’s nose is barely above water. The roofs of skyscrapers have become islands in Manhattan.
It doesn’t look so bad, really. I mean, if climate change is all about hanging out on rooftop beaches and looking fabulous, count me in. I’ll spend every last penny on high-end clothes and sparkling water. I’ll call it stocking up.
The strange thing is, as audacious as these ads seem, they’re also soothing. “Everything will be fine,” they whisper. “Buy more stuff.”
If the cause of climate-changing emissions is overconsumption—of fuel but also of products—then advertisements are a big part of the problem. Perrier and Diesel are not the sole offenders, but the last thing we need is reassurance that altered, extreme climates will be tolerable with new clothes and bottled water.
I questioned writing this post for a couple of reasons. First, I’m extending the reach of the ad to people who may have chosen to live outside advertising’s reach. People who don’t want to be manipulated into buying things. People who don’t want to waste time and energy chasing material goods beyond basic needs. Second, it would be very easy to derail my argument like so: Now here’s a person who takes everything too seriously. Can’t we just sit back at the end of a long, hard workday and watch TV? Advertising is just that, advertising. It doesn’t actually affect anyone. It’s not so bad, watching this imaginative commercial, with rich colors and beautiful people and a lovely sense of resolution. It makes me happy … and thirsty.
It may be true that I have no sense of humor, but in a situation this grave, why should I? Our government is not responding to dangerous levels of pollution. Our president couldn’t be bothered to attend Rio+20. A group of children sued the Environmental Protection Agency for neglecting to protect the atmosphere, and the case was dismissed by a U.S. District Judge who claimed it was out of his jurisdiction. Our legislators are too busy collecting bribes from Big Oil and Big Industry to create policies that would make sustainability economically attractive.
This is a failure of leadership and a failure of the market. We must respond by making climate change a high priority within the culture. That does not start with soothing advertisements from companies trying to make a dollar before the unpredictable rises up around us.