Antena is a language justice and literary experimentation collaborative founded by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker, both writers, artists, literary translators, bookmakers and activist interpreters. Antena activates links between social justice work and artistic practice by exploring how critical views on language can help us to reimagine and rearticulate the worlds we inhabit. Antena has exhibited, published, performed, organized, advocated, translated, curated, interpreted, and/or instigated with numerous groups and institutions, including Blaffer Art Museum, Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics, and Project Row Houses. I recently spoke with Jen Hofer and John Pluecker over email.
Alexis Almeida: I’d like to start with Antena’s beginnings. It seems collaboration is a key element of everything you do. Can you talk a bit about how your different backgrounds/interests were able to coalesce in this project?
John Pluecker: As I’ve described previously in an interview Nancy Wozny did with Antena in 2014 for Arts + Culture TX, “Jen and I initially met in Tijuana, Mexico in 2006 at the Writing Lab on the Border, a six-week series of workshops organized by Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza. Jen’s ideas and thinking about translation, interpretation and writing blew me away from the very start. After our first meeting in Tijuana, we kept running into each other: as interpreters at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the US Social Forum, as literary translators at various gatherings and as poets in readings and events. Over the years, our friendship grew to the point that we decided to join forces.”
Jen and I share so many different things, since we are both interpreters, literary translators, poets, bikers (the list goes on!), but we are also quite distinct on many levels: inhabiting different cities and regions, with our own histories of activism and literary engagement. For both of us, Antena allows us to do things and to design experiments that we would otherwise be unable to do on our own.
Jen Hofer: Yeah, ditto. (Maybe part of the joy of collaborating is getting to sort of officially say “ditto” to what someone you really admire and respect says?) There is so much—on the level of thinking, research, and making—that Antena facilitates that would be inconceivable or unrealizable for either of us alone. And we often get stuck in different places and /moments, and can nudge each other out of the different kinds of difficulty or hesitation each of us experiences in making work. Or one person’s thinking will spark the other’s in a way that one brain alone might not ignite.
You’d think after five years of Antena ’s existence I’d stop being amazed by this, but I continue to be amazed at how much I learn from working with JP. And then beyond what opens up in collaboration, which is ever expanding and ever unexpected, I think there’s an implicit critique of atomization or singularity in working together. The model of the heroic genius artist whose brilliance illuminates some truth “we” all need to see is so obviously not what our dire world needs, yet that model persists in a range of explicit and implicit ways. Collaborating is one antidote and challenge to that model.
Can you elaborate a bit on the idea that “aesthetic practice [is] part and parcel of language justice work?” Specifically, I’m curious how this might apply to your local community—I noticed Antena has recently added a local branch, Antena Los Ángeles.
JH: I am less and less able—and less and less interested—to make distinctions between aesthetic practice and social justice practice, especially insofar as the goal of each is to live and be and relate in a different way, right here and right now. But of course, at the same time, distinctions exist, both practically (in terms of methods or materials) and in terms of effect, or in terms of how different projects circulate or are received. Part of what I was thinking about when we wrote that are the connections between the kinds of attention to language (and its attendant social relationships) inherent to poetic experiments, simultaneous to the kinds of attention to social relations (and their attendant inflections on and in language) inherent to radicalized social justice endeavors. These concerns don’t just manifest locally, they manifest wherever we go, as we enact them in our bodies.
JP: Ditto! Now the pleasure is mine!
JH: In terms of our local work, Antena Los Ángeles started in Spring 2014 and now involves myself and another Los Angeles social justice interpreter, Ana Paula Noguez Mercado. Our focus is on language justice organizing and the creation of bilingual and multilingual spaces in Los Angeles and the Southern California region. We work with all kinds of groups from the Los Angeles Public Library to the Sindicato de Inquilinos de Los Ángeles/Los Angeles Tenants Union to schools where parents don’t share a language with each other or with all the staff to the Pilipino Workers Center to the Emergency Department at a local public hospital hoping to shift its culture around language difference—and with others, of course.
In many instances, and this is true of both Antena and Antena Los Ángeles, at a particular event or interaction, the folks we work with aren’t necessarily explicitly creating an aesthetic experience, and perhaps aren’t thinking about art-making at all. But we bring our whole selves with us wherever we go (part of why language justice—our right to express ourselves in the language in which we feel most comfortable—is so deeply important), so I’m never not being a poet and I’m never not being an artist, even as I might not be “doing poems” or “doing art” in a particular moment. But perhaps the interpretation of a meeting of tenants organizing against displacement from a building in which they’ve lived for years is my poem on a particular afternoon.
JP: From the beginning, we have thought of the interpreting and language justice work that we do locally as Antena work; each of us works autonomously in our respective cities to implement the thinking that we do as a collaborative team. As Jen has discussed, the local work in LA has crystallized into this new, independent, yet connected entity that is Antena Los Ángeles. It’s an exciting development, and it is also a challenge in the sense that we are continually thinking through (now the three of us!) the kinds of structures we need and the kinds of relationships we need between the different projects.
Everything is always in flux, which means that we have to be flexible and open to how things evolve and to re-structuring as we go. As Ada Edwards—community leader, former Black Panther, ex- Houston city council member—puts it: we are flying the airplane and (re)building it as we go. Both a lovely metaphor and also somewhat indicative of the level of risk involved. This flexibility is enabled by our insistence that Antena is a vehicle for our thinking and our work, not a non-profit, not an institution and not one, fixed thing.
Can you talk a bit about the books you publish? I’ve noticed pamphlets, manifestos, how-to manuals, and a large DIY component. I’m also very interested to hear about your recent book En las maravillas/In Wonder, which was made in conjunction with an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or any forthcoming titles.
JH: I was invited to give a reading in conjunction with an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on women surrealists in Mexico and the United States. I wasn’t especially interested in foregrounding my own writing in that context, so I collaborated with Mexican writer Dolores Dorantes to invite six Mexican women poets to write poems in response to six images from the exhibit.
I translated these poems into English and sent them to six women artists (well, two of them were under 10 at the time, so might qualify as “girl artists”!) in the United States and asked them to make images in response to the poems. That exchange of texts and images became En las maravillas/In Wonder. The book, which is simply printed and photocopied with letterpress covers and hand-stitched bindings, is a great example of a project I was asked to do on my own, as “Jen Hofer,” but which quickly became an “Antena” project because it made so much more sense as part of that collectivity.
JP: In the fall, Antena will release a new pamphlet we co-wrote this summer at a residency in Miami through Cannonball. Jen and I have been doing collaborative translations for many years. Sometimes we do these projects “as Antena” when we feel like the work is in deep dialogue with Antena’s own political and aesthetic commitments. At other times, we do translation work together because it is our way of paying the bills in an economy that does not offer many avenues for artists and writers to ever really get paid (except for “cultural capital” which is often not so easy to exchange for say a mortgage payment or a loaf of bread or a bus pass).
This new Libros Antena Books pamphlet attempts to think through this dilemma of translators-for-hire / translators-for-revolution. Particularly, we were pushed to take on this writing project out of a sense of urgency to (re)think our position as translators in a thoroughly white supremacist publishing world in the U.S. Our plan is to have this pamphlet out by October.
I love the way Antena envisions multilingual conversation as being so tied up with materiality and physical space. How do your installations not only create spaces for dialogue locally, but also connect to larger networks? I’m thinking specifically of your recent installation at Blaffer, which featured books and DIY efforts from women, people of color, queer communities, and other writers working on the margins of the normative canon throughout the U.S. and Latin America.
JP: One of the amazing things about these installations is the way the core elements of Antena—language, writing, interpretation, translation, language justice—are made material in a physical, palpable, sometimes flip-through-able way. It can be hard to explain to people what exactly Antena does, because we work with ideas, with concepts, and with components most people think of as invisible.
Language is normally just an invisible tool of communication. Language justice is difficult to see. The plight of the invisibility of translation is storied. These installations—and the larger work of Antena—are deeply rooted in this work to “visibilize” (a word I am happily bringing into English from Spanish) materials often seen as invisible. This works also in conjunction with our efforts to visibilize non-normative literary work: writing that makes for discomfort, writing made out of discomfort, or discomforting situations.
JH: On the smaller in-the-body scale, there are ways DIY bookmaking and installations filled with texturally delicious autonomously produced books link directly to the creation of bilingual or multilingual spaces. Incorporating more than one language into our practice—whether in the context of a live conversation or a poetic text or some other space—makes us move differently, with heightened attention, inside of what we’ve called the “slow time” of cross-language work.
It’s more effort, and it’s more worthwhile. We become more aware of how we express ourselves, and of how we listen (to ourselves and others). When we make books by hand, we literally touch every surface of the writing and the object. It’s a tactile, embodied, slow process. We become more aware of paper, printing methods, binding, as part of the body of the book. It’s not sound bytes, it’s deep listening (to borrow a phrase from Pauline Oliveros).
What’s next for you guys? Any exciting projects on the horizon you’d be willing to share?
JP: So we were in residency in Miami this summer—and a new Libros Antena Books pamphlet will be coming from that. We’ll be on the road a bit this fall in El Paso, New York City, and Tucson, doing readings and talking about our work. We don’t have any large-scale installations on the horizon right now, but we’re fine with that. We did two fairly gigantic installations in two years—Project Row Houses in 2012 and then an even larger and more intensive one at Blaffer Art Museum in 2014—and by the end of those, we knew we needed to take a bit of a breather, reflect on what we had done and figure out our next steps.
We were sure we did not want to just take that installation on the road, repeating it at different institutions. That wasn’t interesting to us. So our work has morphed and evolved over the last year since the close of the Houston installation: co-writing, co-translating, co-presenting our thinking and our work and developing our own autonomous language justice work in our own cities.
JH: And beyond what JP has mentioned, we’re continuing to explore cross-language practice and multilingual literary endeavors in a variety of ways. We’re gearing up for a gathering of language justice organizers from across the country, convening for three days at the beginning of October at the Wayside Center for Popular Education. In Miami, we started a new investigation, a series of interviews of people who work as interpreters, mostly in activist and organizing contexts, about their experiences of living and working between languages. Right now we’re just making recordings of these conversations and learning as much as we can about the people who do this work. We’re not sure yet what we’ll do with the material we gather, or what form the project will take. We’re also delving deeper into some of the ideas we’re experimenting with in our “Manifesto for Interpretation as Instigation,” around interpretation as performance. We’re working with the Laboratorio fronterizo / Border Labs project to develop interpretation techniques for live performance. One of the highlights of 2015 so far was the multilingual reading we organized at Avenue 50 Studios in Highland Park in conjunction with the &Now Festival—the only rule was no English-only poems!—and we’ll be doing a similar event, with co-sponsorship from Litmus Press, Kaya Press, and Writ Large Press, in conjunction with AWP in Los Angeles early next year. Hopefully some Asymptote readers and writers/translators will want to participate! Our contact info is on our website so feel free to let us know if you’re interested.
Jen Hofer is a Los Angeles-based poet, translator, social justice interpreter, teacher, knitter, book-maker, public letter-writer, and urban cyclist. Her most recent translation is Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015). Her poetry books have been published by Atelos, Palm Press, and subpress, and in numerous DIY/DIT editions. Her translations and writings are forthcoming from Kenning Editions, Litmus Press, and Writ Large Press. She teaches at CalArts and Otis College, and organizes bilingual spaces locally through Antena Los Ángeles: www.antenalosangeles.org.
John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, and translator. He has translated more than ten books from the Spanish, most recently Antígona González (Les Figues Press, forthcoming 2016) and Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (Duke University Press, 2012). He has published many chapbooks, most recently Killing Current (Mouthfeel Press, 2012) and Ioyaiene (Handmade for Fresh Arts Houston-based Community Supported Art Program, 2014). His book of poetry and image, Ford Over, is forthcoming in 2016 from Noemi Press.
Alexis Almeida lives in Denver. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in TYPO, Vinyl Poetry, Denver Quarterly, Divine Magnet, Oversound, and elsewhere. Her translation of Florencia Castellano’s Propiedades vigiladas is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse. A finalist for the Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, she was recently awarded a Fulbright grant to Argentina and will be traveling to Buenos Aires in 2016. You can find her at alexisfalmeida.tumblr.com.