Dodgem, 2002. Documentation of a public intervention where the artist placed labels of oil companies on the bumper cars of a Mexican children’s fair. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

Sabotage: A Conversation with Minerva Cuevas

Minerva Cuevas, who came to prominence in the 1990s as part of a group of socially engaged Mexican artists responding to political corruption, NAFTA, and the government’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies, works across sculpture, installation, photography, painting, video, and performance. Her practice centers on finding gaps in the capitalist system that allow her to expose or redress social injustices, sometimes without the beneficiaries even knowing. Among her peers, she comes closest to activism in her work, while maintaining a playfulness that prevents it from becoming didactic. She has, for instance, comically enacted the battle for market share by turning fairground bumper cars into moving sculptures plastered with the company logos of oil giants. In this and other projects, she employs the lexicon of advertising and mass media to critique the unscrupulous practices of multinationals in the production of food and exploitation of natural resources. Her widely exhibited Del Monttecampaign (2002) has taken the form of sculptural installations, billboards, and murals prominently displaying the misspelled logo of Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. to suggest complicity between the United States food giant and the Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt. In 1998, Cuevas created her own anti-corporation, Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation), as a framework from which to carry out small acts of sabotage, such as anonymously distributing subway tickets. Subversion is the consistent, underlying thread of her work.

Elizabeth Fullerton: What drives the sense of moral conscience that you display in your work?
Minerva Cuevas:
It was my interest in responding to the urban context, which started with Better Life Corporation. It began with interventions in public spaces, such as leaving gifts at ATM machines. I used to go to the supermarket and put new barcodes on top of the originals, only changing the lines, not the whole label, because the price is inserted there and the machine reads the lines. By doing this, you can really save people’s money.

EF: Did customers or supermarkets ever discover these barcode interventions?
No, because it’s almost impossible to see that the lines on the barcodes are different. I knew that they worked as long as people bought the products. When I left subway tickets, I would add a note about where to learn more about Better Life Corporation, with a post office box and other information. I used to receive photo IDs by post, and I would send back student ID cards. People could then get 50 percent off a bus ticket to go to their hometown, which is a good discount. When I had an office space, I also offered job recommendation letters to people I didn’t know at all.

Later, museums became very important in expanding the reach and distribution of the company’s “services.” In the office space, I could produce probably 50 ID cards a month, but in an exhibition, thousands of visitors would be exposed to the project and some would get their student IDs. Using the museum space to activate the project was very much like having a branch office and employees to do it for me.

Del Montte, 2003. Acrylic paint on wall, black and white research scheme on paper, and 100 relabeled tomato cans (English), scheme: 90 x 60 cm., mural: 500 x 600 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

EF: It seems like quite an altruistic venture.
I don’t see it like that. It’s not connected to charity, which involves identifying a specific sector of society. Anyone could get the student ID card. In England, when I was invited by students at the Royal College of Art for a show in 2000, even big collectors were getting their student IDs. It’s not a fake ID; it’s an original. It says that you’re a student of Better Life Corporation. More than doing something altruistic, it was about interrupting or hacking the system. I think it’s closer to sabotage, finding the spaces of freedom where you can still react, especially in the urban context.

EF: How important was the Internet in disseminating the project?
I started these interventions in the ’90s, when Internet culture was becoming massive. It was logical to use technology to make my project appear as a huge corporate endeavor, when, in fact, it was only me behind a computer, sending things by post, pasting posters, and going to supermarkets with stickers. It was about analyzing bureaucratic institutions like the national lottery, which was meant to be for public assistance but was basically stealing from vulnerable parts of society. Because of those kinds of interventions, I ended up doing a project in which I altered the national lottery logo, and that led to the Del Montte campaign.

EF: Various elements of your Del Montte project were featured in the 2014–16 exhibition “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today,” which began at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and traveled to Mexico City and London. Your version of Del Monte’s familiar logo, which appeared on a mural and in an installation of 100 tomato cans, included the words “pure murder” and “criminal.”
MC: Many of my pieces talk about the agriculture business and manipulate a corporate image or branding. This one takes many formal directions—first stickers for fruit and vegetables, then the mural painting and the cans, which were distributed in a gallery for free—so it’s part of an aesthetic treatment, but it also uses information that is already public. Little by little, you connect my altered design with the political context of the U.S. invading and erasing indigenous communities as part of its imperialist plan. Some of the land struggles still have to do with these companies, which have been there for 100 years. So, not much has changed.

EF: Have you ever encountered problems from Del Monte or other companies targeted in your campaigns?
No, because it’s in the context of art, and museums have a very specific public. If the campaign gets into the media, then the presence of the project grows, and for a company like Del Monte that’s going to be counterproductive. Usually, if there is any kind of censorship, it comes from the institutions themselves. In the case of a 2015 group show, the president of MAXXI in Rome panicked, worried that some of the sponsors might have a connection to Del Monte. I was asked to change the “pure murder” text. I thought, Okay, if it’s a problem here, then it’s important that it’s shown. I wrote the word “murder” backwards, like in Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining, so it said “pure redrum,” and it became even more interesting as an artwork. I thought it wouldn’t pass, but it did. I probably like the censored version better than the original.

EF: You also tampered with Evian’s branding in Égalité (2004, shown most recently at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in 2017), which has taken the form of a mural, posters, and water bottles bearing the slogan “Equality: A Natural Condition.” In addition to referencing France’s motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” your alteration highlights the global problem of unequal access to clean water, let alone the luxury bottled variety.
I chose Evian because the brand uses the colors of the French flag, and so it’s connected to nationalism, and, for me, the word “equality” connects to French society. Égalité was interesting, because I didn’t plan to have the bottles in public spaces, but people who visited the show took them to cafes, parks, and on buses. It’s not like a can, which you throw away. People travel around with water bottles, and so the project was on display all the time. Some students in Rennes later asked to borrow the design for posters in their demonstrations against Marine Le Pen. That, of course, was the best thing that could have happened with the project.

Égalité, 2004. Acrylic paint on wall and 1080 water bottles with altered labels, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

EF: How does your work differ from activism?
I don’t see it as activism. It’s very important that it be viewed within the sphere of art, because I also take part in activism. Art practice is open and free, and there is no way to measure results. Activism, in contrast, has a specific objective, such as to stop whaling in a particular area of the world.

In my work, I add different layers of research and personal engagement with the intention of generating something that is ultimately positive in social terms. I try to avoid closed moral statements because they stop people from getting close to the work—they either accept or reject the statements, and I want them to experience the aesthetic elements, which could be taking part in exchanges like Better Life Corporation. Using the ID or keeping it as an art souvenir, it’s their choice.

EF: Like Better Life, S·COOP (2009), at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London, employed an alternative economic model, centered on tokens called S·COOPs that you designed for circulation among local market traders as change for purchases. How viable was this system of exchange using small artworks?
MC: The project had to do with the market itself and the history of cooperative systems in England. The tokens produced by these co-ops would buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. As part of my project, I opened an ice cream parlor called Monochrome, and you could only buy ice cream there with S·COOPs. The exchange rate was £1.20 per S·COOP, so we had more value than the British pound. The market traders were in charge of distributing S·COOPs, either by giving them as change if people accepted them or by exchanging them, depending on the currency rate. I didn’t know if we were going to end up with a lot of ice cream or a lot of coins. In the end, we had to refill the ice cream and still ended up with coins. It was risky as an experiment because it could have remained paralyzed, with no one interested in trading, but it worked well. Of course, after the ice cream parlor was gone, the S·COOP itself remained as a numismatic right.

EF: Your 2015 show “Feast and Famine” at Kurimanzutto also revolved around food—chocolate, in this case—and included sculptures of replica human bones coated in cacao. What was the significance of chocolate?
I wanted to connect cacao as a natural resource to colonialism and also to the cannibal, which was a concept exploited by European colonists. Anyone who was ugly or different was considered a cannibal and therefore deserved to be conquered. For the show, we produced 500 chocolate ears as a multiple edition to sell. We chose ears because they had a symbolic connotation in pre-Hispanic times. Every body part had a specific meaning, and ears were connected to the persona and to sacrifice. Nowadays, too, the severed ear is part of the equation in torture and violence.

There was also a floor sculpture created by chocolate dripping from the ceiling every six seconds, which is the rate of people dying of starvation across the world. For me, it was about illustrating the physicality of this official statistic. I used Mexican chocolate, which is very hard to find now because everything is exported to Belgium and Switzerland; the Mexican chocolate industry employs African chocolate for domestic use because it’s much cheaper.

Like a Tzompantli (detail), 2015. Chocolate ears in showcase and polycarbonate molds, approximately 94 x 91.5 x 62 cm. Photo: Omar Luis Olguín, Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

EF: You’ve taken on the oil industry, as well as food and water giants. How do these diverse projects connect?
It’s always about agency. In 2010, I did a project on the border between Mexico and the U.S., around the Rio Bravo. Before traveling there, I had the concept of a bridge, and I also thought about maybe developing something with mobile-phone communications between providers, something that could connect both areas. But when I arrived, I realized that the river changes a lot—sometimes it’s dry, sometimes it splits in two, and sometimes it flows under a canyon. The limit was abstract, it was nowhere.

In the end, I found rocks that I could step on to cross from the U.S. to Mexico and back, and I marked them with limestone. It was totally liberating, even life-changing. I got there with my Chilango (Mexico City) perspective about the border—related to narco violence, walls, border patrols, and surveillance—and the most powerful thing was this beautiful, dangerous desert. Again, it’s about finding gaps to exercise our freedom. That is very present as a strategy in my work, and it can be seen in both Crossing the Rio Bravo and in Better Life Corporation, even though they are different.

EF: Crossing the Rio Bravo took on new resonance in light of Donald Trump’s ambition to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S. Has the current political climate fueled ideas for new projects?
MC: Not really, because I’ve been responding to imperialism for a long time. Regardless of individual politicians, governments and corporations continue to reproduce the logic of exploitation, which connects the economic, political, and social sectors. For me, Trump’s election was not that relevant.

Crossing the Rio Bravo, 2010. Action, string, lime, water, brush, metallic bucket, historical documents, postcards, map, petrified wood, petrified dinosaur bone, tire piece, pavement paint, rocks, compass, and flowers, dimensions variable. Photo: Fredrik Nielsen, Courtesy the artist and Ballroom Marfa, San Antonio

EF: You have used unconventional materials such as tar and chocolate in your sculptures to draw attention to the provenance of these products, as well as packaged foods and drinks, coins, ice cream cones, and student IDs. Do you have a favorite medium?
In general, I respond to the context where I’m going to exhibit. Of course, the cultural experiments produced by my interventions are the ideal. These include Better Life Corporation, where there’s no need to produce an object, Concert for Lavapiés (2003), for which I brought together 50 street musicians in Madrid’s Lavapiés neighborhood to play spontaneously for an hour, and Crossing the Rio Bravo. But I also love to print and distribute graphics and to create murals that people use as backdrops for selfies. The formal solution is part of the strategy, as well as understanding who is going to be the public. Big installations are impossible to store and display, unless you go through museums; the other consideration is the public that they can attract. I took part in the 2006 São Paulo Biennial, which had one million visitors. How else can you get that? That’s why I value being part of cultural spaces like museums, where these kind of projects need to be seen as art and not political art or activist art, which is counterproductive.