A new artist/activist collective in Albuquerque has joined the fight to divest the state's educator retirement fund from private prisons and detention centers.
Fronteristxs launched #NMERBdivest last week with a digital billboard on East I-40 in Albuquerque near Carlisle Boulevard and continued with projections of images and text on the former county jail in downtown Albuquerque.
The campaign is part of the collective's larger efforts to abolish prisons, made urgent by the rapid spread of COVID-19 in prisons, using visual and performance techniques to reach a digital media audience during the pandemic.
"COVID is affecting ways that we can be protesting," collective member and University of New Mexico Associate Professor in Art and Ecology Szu-Han Ho says. "We've seen the mass protest for Black Lives Matters, people on the street, putting their bodies on the line. Where our particular strategy is to kind of focus on our digital presence. This takes physical presence, somewhere we have to physically be, but we're actually kind of curating it more towards an audience online because most people are at their homes."
Ho says keeping people safe is a concern, but the collective also wants to reach people clicking their way into the public discourse through social media at home.
Fronteristxs adapts visual and performative techniques from resistance aesthetics to digital media, bringing urgent messages and visible presence to public spaces, like Latin American protest posters; Emory Douglas's work as Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers; or Carl Pope's letterpress posters contextualizing blackness in pop culture.
The collective's Instagram feed acts as a social media intervention, using abstraction to encourage the click-through. It began with banners composed of individual letters to read "Free Them" and "Free Them All," held by collective members at locations in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. But it also included the photos of the banners, deconstructed into six parts. Posted alone, they appear on Fronteristxs's IG feed as colorful abstractions, but on the collective's profile page the photos reassemble so their meaning can be fully articulated.
The locations include the Roundhouse, the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, the Metropolitan Courthouse, the Bernalillo County Courthouse and the Pete V. Domenici United States Courthouse.
"Just making these oversized banners creates a presence, so even though we only have maybe, say, 10 to 15 people in our group working on a particular action, we can have a bigger presence visually because of the way we're framing things," Ho explains. "We're kind of thinking about the online image and the way it circulates."
Fronteristxs began as a series of less informal collaborations between Albuquerque artists and activists, including Bernadine Hernandez and Hazel Batrezchavez, focused on migration and mass incarceration along the US borderlands. One such collaboration includes "Migrant Songs," performed March 2019 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Ho created, directed and produced that performance based on testimonies from, she estimates, 40 or 50 migrants. Along with Ho, Ana R. Alonso-Minutti, Candice Hopkins, Raven Chacon, Peter Gilbert and Marya Errin Jones composed the music for the show. Lina Ramos provided musical direction and Diana Delgado worked with Ho on the movement.
In late July 2020, Fronteristxs formed officially with a grant from the Art for Justice Campaign and partnership from organizations such as White Coats for Black and Indigenous Lives, New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, Santa Fe Dreamers Project and, on #NMERBdivest specifically, Teachers Against Child Detention. #NMERB, like the broader #FreeThemAll campaign, reaches an audience worn down by the pandemic, appropriating an electronic billboard—more commonly used for advertising and public service announcements—for an urgent political message that visually and textually connects New Mexico education to the prison industrial complex while insisting on an action: "NMERB Divest!"
The projections on the old county jail brings the physical space of the prison back into the discourse, suggesting "This is the place we're talking about. This is the structure, physical and legal, we want to abolish."
#NMERB encourages New Mexico educators and administrative staff to attend the virtual NMERB investment meeting (1-3 pm Thursday, Aug. 13 and 9 am Friday, Aug. 14) to support divestment from prisons. Though official public comment for the meeting is closed, Fronteristxs organizers believe a strong presence will convince NMERB to pull its investments and attendees may have an opportunity to comment via chat box.
After Friday, Ho says, the collective will continue to push its larger agenda of prison abolition.
"I hope that we can celebrate on Friday because the board will vote to divest," Ho tells SFR," but we will be happy to let this issue go and focus on people still trapped inside detention facilities and still trapped inside prisons and jails, because even without private for-profit prison companies, we still have a problem with mass incarceration and racist policing, even with our public institutions. Our collective is very interested in alternatives to an economy based on prison jobs."
NMERB currently owns more than 57,000 shares in Core Civic and GEO group, which together run more than 130 facilities across the country.