‘Passage :: Migration’ explores arrival and belonging in a city of immigrants

A rendering of Ricardo Rivera's Marconi Plaza installation, courtesy of KLIP Collective and Monument Lab.

Visual artist Ricardo Rivera’s upcoming installation has a simple but radical heart: the idea that once you enter the United States, you are part of this country.

Rivera believes art should be an immersive experience. For this reason, his work teases the senses and pushes the boundaries of what art can be. He transforms spaces through projection mapping — the practice of using irregularly shaped objects as the surface for video projections. In Rivera’s hands, the outside of a building becomes the site of a narrative about the struggle between humans and machines, the inside of a gymnasium morphs into a three-dimensional documentary about a valued coach and his students, and a botanical garden evolves into a fantasy world where every shrub and flower is cloaked in vibrant animations.

For a one-day audiovisual installation on October 28, Rivera will illuminate South Philadelphia as part of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Monument Lab. Rivera and his team at Klip Collective (his experimental art shop) will showcase an installation in Marconi Plaza focused on immigration. Passage :: Migration highlights the people who have settled in Philadelphia, beginning in the 1800s.

What should a monument be?

A citywide public art and history project, Monument Lab asks artists to question what a monument is and incorporate their own ideas into a piece of temporary public art. The exhibition features 20 local, national, and international artists whose work will be on display at 10 locations across the city through November 19, 2017.

Passage will tell the story of immigration through a 12-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide triangular tunnel that will be layered in tulle, with the surnames of English, Italian, Latino/a, and Asian migrants projected onto it in the order in which they arrived. With Rivera’s sound and lights, people will be immersed in an atmospheric and futuristic migration experience as they navigate the tunnel.

“American enough?"

For Rivera, a monument is a shared experience that many people can relate to and participate in. Rivera's father is from Puerto Rico and his mother is from Thailand. His father served in the military, and Rivera values the sacrifices his parents made so he could have a better life. “I don’t take it for granted — I never have,” Rivera shares. “I think a lot of people feel that way.”

He says it’s a shame our current president doesn’t respect that service and sacrifice. Growing up, Rivera recalls being told he wasn’t “American enough,” but Passage explores a sense of belonging for anyone who enters this country.

“Well, it’s like a fantasy now,” Rivera says, with a chuckle, of his monument concept. But it illustrates the way things ought to be. “And that’s what I’m trying to say. You should feel like you belong here, but that’s not really the case. That’s what’s so frustrating about it.”

“In this thing together”

Rivera’s monument explores notions of immigration and unity in a time when our country seems more divided than ever on these very issues. Since the beginning of the Trump presidency, headlines have swirled around his efforts to overhaul immigration policy, from instating various travel bans to announcing plans for a wall on the US-Mexico border and preparing to deport young people who are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Recent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists gathered to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, spurred rallies in Philadelphia for the removal of the statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo, notorious today for his racist, anti-LGBT practices.  

Rivera had none of that in mind when he was first approached more than a year ago to contribute to Monument Lab, but is excited that his work is relevant. If Passage can spark open dialogue and contribute to the political and cultural conversations we are having today, he feels his work has done its job. “At the end of the day,” he says, “we’re all in this thing together.”

Ricardo Rivera's Passage :: Migration will be on display Saturday, October 28, 2017, at Marconi Plaza, 2800 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, as part of Mural Arts Philadelphia's Monument Lab program.