March is a journal of art & strategy.

Conversations on Sound and Power: Sandra de la Loza

Sonic Insurgency Research Group

October 2022

Sandra de la Loza’s research-based practice investigates the under layers of our present landscape to open portals and envision future worlds through collective memory and political imagination. She is founder of The Pochx Research Society of Erased and Invisible History, an ongoing collaborative project that engages the sites and subjects of history through critical inquiry and artistic processes. Over the last two decades her work has featured archival, social, and site-specific investigations, immersive installations, and community events. Her work asks: What do the silences, exclusions and erasures of the past reveal about the present and how do these “ghosts” make visible erased histories, unlock the imagination, and create counter-memories for the future?

De la Loza’s work has been exhibited in major museums, alternative spaces and community centers in the United States and abroad. She has received awards from Fellows of Contemporary Art, Art Matters, City of Los Angeles and California Community Foundation, among others. She is Assistant Professor of Chicana/o/x Studies at the California State University, Northridge. Current and upcoming exhibitions include: Undoing Time: Histories of Art and Incarceration at the Berkeley Art Museum and Film Archive (2022) and Chicana Photographers at the Tucson Museum of Art (2023).

As admirers, friends, and colleagues, we are constantly learning from de la Loza’s commitments and approaches, so it is with great pleasure that we were able to chat with Sandra about the role of music and youth culture in relation to radical politics, listening to the land as a methodology, and how sound appears in the archive.

“We Are the Altars, Community Bike Ride,” 2021. Photo: Sandra de la Loza

Sonic Insurgency Research Group: Can you start by introducing yourself and your practice? What concerns, themes, topics, and ideas are animating your work?

Sandra de la Loza: I am an artist and also starting a new position as Assistant Professor in Chicanx Art in the Chicano Studies Department at Cal State University, Northridge in Southern California. I have the good fortune of living in Highland Park, which is adjacent to the neighborhood where I grew up. My work is research-based and sprouts from this specific territory, the social and physical geography of this land we call Los Angeles, the unceded lands of the Tongva, the Kizh, the Gabrielino – Northeast Los Angeles in particular. A big part of my work is about understanding the present so we can be empowered and joyful actors in creating our futures, and doing that through excavating the past. So really, it’s about building a relationship with the story of this land and the story of the people who inhabit this land.

SIRG: Considering we have a shared history growing up in and around punk/music activist and youth culture, let’s start with music scenes, youth culture, and the kind of spaces that you grew up in. Tell us a little about your political and artistic education in L.A. and how the two began to intersect within your work? What spaces were important to you growing up and what role did music play in those spaces: What sonic practices were important in those communities?

SL: I’m the youngest of six kids, so I grew up with a lot of music through my brothers’ and sisters’ tastes. My first music memory is listening to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust on an eight-track. I was also taken to a lot of events. This was the 1970s and there were robust public cultures in Los Angeles. I had the privilege of seeing Chicano culture, art, and music through a child’s eyes. I have fantastic memories of seeing bands like Tierra and Malo at big live public concerts but also seeing grassroots local glam and psychedelic rock bands. In the 1980s, as I emerged as a teenager, there were very active underground music scenes in East and Northeast Los Angeles.

L.A. is a horizontally spread out, segregated city. In the 1980s you had huge swaths of land where mostly one ethnicity lived. In East and Northeast L.A., you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people who are 90 percent Chicanx and Latinx, which means lots of different music scenes. When I was coming of age, I was a metalhead. This was the time when Slayer and other metal bands were emerging in Southeast L.A. The local band in my neighborhood, Armored Saint, lived right next door to my grandmother. Of course, the Sandoval brothers initially anglicized their names to Sands. Metal music is so Latinx, but there’s a lot of erasure.

There were magical parties with like 400 people stuffed into a tiny backyard, people diving off garages into an awaiting pit while inside a family was making a big olla of menudo for everyone. I love the energy of those metal and later punk local scenes. I grew up very urban and it was only later that my relationship to this territory started shifting and I realized there’s a lot of nature around me. But at that time, I was very attracted to music that had an urban energy and sensibility. I went to college and began getting politicized, being exposed to ideas about culture and learning about different social justice movements, while also simultaneously continuing to explore and expand my musical interests, entering underground culture. It was a mix of lots of different genres, especially during the tail end of punk and all the splintering and sub-genres that blossomed in downtown L.A.

This was the late 1980s and early 90s, when manufacturing was leaving the city. Factories moved out. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. There was an inner-city core that was emptied out. A lot of young creatives inhabited those industrial spaces. There was a great mix of art, performance, and music at all-night events. Music pulled me into various subcultural scenes in which I got introduced to various forms of art and a great mix of people of different ethnicities exploring sexuality in every direction. Misfits of every size, race, orientation, and style at clubs like the Scream, Plastic Passion, and, later, 50 bucks, the Clubhouse, and Club Sucker. It was fun.

SIRG: This is a wonderful point – the importance of fun and pleasure within the political sphere.

SL: Meanwhile, through my education, I became really interested in history and how much history – Chicanx history in general, especially in a city like L.A. – had not been written. Being interested in cultural production, I began to see those music scenes as valid. There was such a thriving music, cultural, and activist scene amidst the crack epidemic and increased policing. Economically, there were not a lot of opportunities, but there was a lot of cultural production. On-the-ground organizing was strong, robust, and rich. We were creating space with very little. That drove my work and brought me to the archive; being aware of those absences in history, knowing that certain vibrant cultural scenes weren’t very well documented.

Actually, one of my first archival projects was made in the mid-1990s. Me and some friends wanted to archive that moment, so we co-produced a CD to document some of the bands at that time. We were really thinking of a music compilation as an archival document although, of course, I didn’t have that language at the time. That CD was called Sociedad=Suciedad. It had a great mix of bands. Maybe the most well-known now of the bands is Ozomatli, but there were bands like Ollin. I call them the Chicano Pogues. They were punks who started playing traditional roots music like jarocho. They started doing a yearly tribute to the Pogues on St Patrick’s Day in March, playing the whole Rum, Sodomy & the Lash album. Those were great events. Quinto Soul, a Chicanx reggae group, was also playing around. All these different kinds of musical influences were coming together to form unique hybrid forms that through sound and lyrics addressed a very difficult moment, but also a moment of a lot of hope and optimism. A lot of young people were politicized through the mix of art, culture, and politics that circulated within those circles. People would come into those spaces and there would be lots of benefit shows organized to support different struggles. That’s how we heard from people involved in the Zapatista Movement or organizing around water issues at Big Mountain. So, lots of different types of movements were present.

SIRG: Maybe getting a list of those spaces together would be useful for future researchers.

SL: Last year, I produced “Unsettling the Settled: Archival Glimpses of Abolitionist Futures,” an installation that included gathering an archive of the Aztlán Cultural Arts Foundation, a community space that was housed in a jail that sat vacant for forty years. A space of oppression became a space of liberation because the community formed this cultural space. Another space, the Peace and Justice Center, began when youth workers staged a sit-down and occupation of the offices of a nonprofit that got lots of money to give inner-city youths jobs in the post-riot context. Youth workers negotiated being given the building of that same nonprofit for an entire year to create a youth center. The bass player from Ozomatli, Will Dog, was one of those workers and part of that action. Ozomatli literally was born in the Peace and Justice Center. Another space was the Public Resource Center/Centro de Regeneración, which was a Zapatista space in Highland Park, where I live now. One of the co-founders of that space was Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine. There was also an infoshop, an anarchist space called The DeCenter that lasted a year. They later re-formed and opened Flor y Canto a few years later.

Sandra de la Loza. “Unsettling the Settled: Archival Glimpses of Abolitionist Futures,” 2022.

SIRG: Thinking about coming of age in the city at a particular moment that is challenging and hopeful, surrounded by these powerful cultural spaces within the late-capitalist gentrified city: How has all of that influenced your thinking about public culture?

SL: I’m always interested in grassroots organizing, what people are doing in their own communities. Or if there’s a lack of community, what they’re doing to create community, to counter the tendencies of the late-capitalist gentrifying city and generations of displacement that keep us alienated and isolated. That’s a magnet for me. I’m drawn to that and try to connect myself and root myself there and feed myself and regenerate myself from those spaces. During the pandemic, one of the currents that helped me stay afloat was that same on-the-ground creative community building by folks who have a DIY ethos and are skill-building with each other to be creative actors in their own lives.

I’m thinking of some of the folks I met through networks of organizing around anti-gentrification work like the Northeast Los Angeles Alliance (NELAA). They organized a series of events called Bows and Bikes where they learned archery and organized bike rides from our neighborhood into a historically wealthy and white archery range in Pasadena. Those acts of having fun, gathering, building a relationship to our land, and claiming space in places where we may have historically been excluded is exciting.

My neighborhood is close to the Arroyo Seco and L.A. Rivers, which have been channelized with concrete embankments. L.A. is where the freeway was invented. Underneath some freeway overpasses, the river is engulfed by these monumental freeway pylons that create a cathedral-like space underneath. A friend organized an event projecting films on the wall under the freeway that served as a backdrop for live music. That spirit of being creative and making space or repurposing a space always inspires me.

In that lineage of grassroots cultural organizing, I appreciate that it’s not organized around a single identity. Everyone is welcome and everyone is friendly with each other. That spirit of camaraderie and creating spaces of joy through culture, music, and activities – through blending our research into the land, through organizing a bike ride – that spirit of wanting to learn, wanting to grow, wanting to go beyond what we know and test our boundaries, and doing it together, that is inspiring for me. That’s the line, that’s the current that is present across my childhood memories up to some of the recent events I mentioned.

SIRG: A large part of your work functions to challenge and reanimate the past in certain ways. How does the archive and the sonic interact or intersect for you?

SL: A few things come to mind like the project “Unsettling the Settled: Archival Glimpses of Abolitionist Futures.” For that I collected archives of the Aztlán Cultural Arts Foundation from the 1990s. I was actually part of that collective during that time. I reached out to organic archivists who lent me old flyers, cassettes, and videotapes. One person, Elias Serna, shared footage he had on one of those old Hi8 videotapes, which I got digitized. He had documented an event called the Farce of July. That was the first Farce of July but now it’s a twenty-five-year event.

The interesting thing about sound in the archive – in this case, the archive of an event that happened over twenty-five years ago – is that it’s great to hear the cacophony of the moment. The Farce of July hosted about ten bands and twenty speakers and included live painting, theater, and poetry. Listening to the footage now, with twenty-five years of distance, the sounds are a mixtape of the rhythms of the push towards liberation by L.A. youth in the 1990s. It documents the politics of the moment. It documents the rhythms of the moment, the sounds of the moment. There’s a great array of speakers and groups that I barely listened to at that time and that have not been recorded otherwise, like a Black Panther Vanguard Movement representative, a Filipino hip hop collective called the Baligadson Collective, a speaker from Vieques talking about their independence movement. Zapatismo filtered in between bands or within theater pieces. It is a great document of the energy of the politics and music of that time. The past echoes into our present.

One thing that stood out to me in re-listening to the event is that this was a really harsh period. This was the era that gave birth to three strikes you’re out laws; an era in which a multi-million and billion-dollar policing industry was being built to fill in the economic gaps of the deindustrialized city. An economy was built that fed off of criminalizing working-class young people of color, the very communities that were creating these spaces that I have mentioned. I talked about L.A. as being really segregated, but those youth community spaces were the vanguard of desegregating – the mix of sounds and people were coming together. When I was in high school in the 1980s, your music identity as a teenager was one genre. You were a rocker, a punk, or you were into dance culture, or a jock. In retrospect, there were very rigid lines. It’s great to hear that soundtrack and listen to all these music genres mixing, from soul and psychedelic influences, to punk, to ska, to hip hop. Young people are naming the moment, politicizing themselves, and really contending with brutal realities with beautiful lyric writing.

SIRG: An archive of audio documents lends itself naturally to thinking about sound because you can physically hear it. I know you also have an interest in archives that precede recorded audio, archives going back to the colonial era, the Spanish viceroyal era, deep archives of trauma and pain. Within those, how do you think sound relates?

SL: Definitely there are the silences in the archive and it is important to listen to the silence. There is sound in silence. Colonization was a very violent process, not only for people but for ecosystems, for whole territories. One thing I’ve been interested in is researching infrastructure to understand how power relationships were literally spatialized and built into the city, which leads to questions about the colonization of the land and the paving over of entire ecosystems.

SIRG: Yeah, we tend to think of the voice as being a political expression that denotes “human” agency, but what about the voice of ecologies?

SL: I began to look for glimpses of that erasure in the archive, going back to when roads, freeways, and train stations were built, to get glimpses of those ecosystems as they’re being paved over. You realize roads and transportation are very linked to waterways. Urban development begins with transportation. You lay out transportation and then you build architecture and those pathways of transportation follow waterways, because rivers and streams find the path of least resistance. Those are the easiest places to build roads. I extend that research into a practice of taking walks and visiting those sites.

One site that I’ve been coming back to is the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and the Los Angeles River. Above the confluence of the rivers is the confluence of two freeways, the 5 and the I-10. That’s no mistake. I think research is best when you try something out and something surfaces that is completely unexpected, and you kind of have this epiphany. For me, walking into the river – which is now totally channelized and concretized – was important: actually being in that space, hearing the drone of the freeway above with its eerie echoes and the pylons creaking. That shifted my attention. There’s a moment where foreground and background reverse focus, where what’s foregrounded or what’s most prominent, like architecture, shifts. All of a sudden, the gurgle of the river starts surfacing. My sound senses tune in. Within this incredible industrial roar, the sound of the river surfaces. There’s this whole ecosystem still alive, despite the channelization, and it’s built right next to the Lincoln Heights Jail – thinking of other forms of incarceration. Literally, the river is incarcerated, but it’s still alive. That river has been running its course since before settler colonialists arrived here and will probably be running its course beyond. So that gurgle, that stream, that sound, it is ancient. Amidst that, there’s all this bird life. There is this whole other soundscape beneath the layers of the monstrosity of the freeway system. That shift in consciousness is revolutionary for me.

SIRG: The last time we were in L.A. you took us on this wonderful walking tour of downtown. You mapped out places of Indigenous resistance, invisibilized history, and settler colonialism, all near Union Station. Thinking about that critical walking tour in relation to listening to archives, there’s a cartographic sensibility that you’re producing as an artist and historian or a listener of the city. Listening to the land is clearly an important methodology for you. Could you expand on that?

SL: I grew up with an urban consciousness. In building relationship with the land gradually, there’s been a shift in focus from the built to the unbuilt and to the interstitial spaces and the cracks within the built. It is important to realize that the built landscape is really a thin membrane. Even though it seems total. Beneath it, around it, and within it, the geography of the land is still very much present. As a life practice, I am building relationship with the land slowly. It’s a very slow process; it’s going to be intergenerational. This work is not individual. There’s a collective sphere that is doing the work.

When I can, I go to workshops and join nature walks. Recently, I went to an event called Bats and Brews organized by a group called Friends of the L.A. River. We met up at a brewery that was right next to the L.A. River. We walked into the river and met someone from the Museum of Natural History who is a specialist focusing on bats in the city. I learned that so far seven different varieties of bats have been identified in Los Angeles. They live in many different places, including under the freeway pylons I mentioned. Scientists track them through sonar technology. Bats are nocturnal and don’t necessarily have great eyesight. They emit sounds and that’s how they navigate space. The bat specialist had a machine that detected and tracked the frequencies of sounds bats emit, which are outside of our spectrum of hearing. It’s amazing to realize and learn that there are these layers of life embedded and coexisting with us that we are not aware of, that there are layers of sound present that are beyond yet with us.

SIRG: In a recent conversation with Roberto Bedoya, Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland, we were talking about place-knowing. To illustrate this concept he used a short story: In almost every city or town there is a creek. In every creek, there is a place where it goes underground. That place may still be accessible, or it may be paved over; maybe it’s been concretized, as you said of the L.A. River, but somewhere there is someone who remembers the place where the creek goes underground. Roberto’s work is concerned with making this place-based knowledge accessible to the broadest public possible. Your work also illustrates this idea of place-knowing, and by that I mean the deep, intimate knowledge about L.A. that you’ve gathered over many years and experiences. How do you decide when, how, and to whom you make this knowledge accessible?

SL: I am working to figure out the balance and interconnection of my artistic practice and my work with on-the-ground activism and community building, and being in line with the Indigenous people of this land and others who are building relationship, whether it be about bats or learning about native plants. What’s helped me is using opportunities in my artistic practice to pose questions that are not answered or that are lingering in the on-the-ground work. My own professionalized artistic practice allows a length of time and a focus that is hard to achieve with on-the-ground work. For example, these questions about the building of transportation infrastructure and how that has impacted how the city was built and how that’s still alive in the present as we’re contending with a new wave of infrastructure building in this moment of the gentrified city. That was definitely informed by what was happening on the ground.

Folks who I was organizing with around gentrification in Northeast L.A. are now starting to focus on native ecologies. One thing about Northeast L.A. is we’re surrounded by beautiful hills that are largely undeveloped. Now developers are buying them up and want to build million dollar homes. So this group is organizing against those developments while also working to protect the ecosystems that are still alive; plants like black walnut trees that are endangered. It’s illegal to cut them down. This Sunday I’m going to support my great friend and collaborator, Arturo Ernesto Romo, who’s going to do a natural dye workshop at an event dedicated to the black walnut tree at a local park.

I find myself more interested in working collaboratively with others. I’m starting a collaboration with a good friend, Jessica Gudiel, who has been building relationship with native plants guided by Tongvan cultural bearers as educators. She also does shadow puppetry. We’re interested in contributing to efforts in Northeast L.A. to save green spaces through a mix of guerilla graphics and shadow puppet performances which can happen in a lot of different types of places and events. We’re looking at current efforts of development but also continuing to build relationship with the ecosystems that are alive in our local landscape. We are four or five miles from downtown L.A. and these hills have owls and coyotes. There are rabbits, oaks, the black walnut, and a myriad of trees. We are hoping to contribute to those larger efforts through that place of experimentation, play, and exploration.

SIRG: Can talk about the project you just finished? It encompasses a lot of things you mentioned regarding your interest in music, creating programming, grassroots organizing, ecologies, native plants, and health and communities.

SL: For the last three years I was an artist in residence with the L.A. County Department of Arts and Culture through the Creative Strategist Program. The idea was to embed artists in different civic departments – the Office of Violence Prevention or the Office of Immigration Affairs, for example. My residency was with the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation, a system of over 180 parks around the whole county. I was invited to develop an arts and cultural framework for the department which had none. They were interested in building cultural programs on par with sports and recreation because when we think of parks, that’s largely what’s been prioritized.

Working with the department in Los Angeles and researching civic art programs around the country and the world, I developed Creating Connections: An Arts and Culture Framework and Toolkit. Over the last two years, during the pandemic, I was invited to prototype that framework. I was embedded at a park in South L.A. called the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Recreation Area, which is a nature park – not a recreational park with basketball courts or soccer fields. There are lakes and it has just been landscaped with beautiful native ecosystems. For the first time, it had actual recreational buildings, classrooms, a kitchen, and an event center. I was able to pilot a program that really tried to emphasize sourcing and prioritizing local artists, creatives, cultural bearers, and wellness practitioners. I did research on cultural asset mapping, locating those people, inviting them in, and prototyping a few events.

It was beautiful and very different from that work in the 1990s, where we were creating the cultural infrastructure that the city and the county weren’t funding or supporting. We were on the ground doing what the city and county should have been doing at that time. It’s interesting to be here twenty years later, actually inside the institution prototyping the type of art, wellness, community building, and programming that sources and honors local community practices and knowledge bearers.

SIRG: Amazing. We were very interested in the performance of Carlos Niño, one of our favorites.

SL: And Surya Botofasina, who is very connected to the Alice Coltrane Ashram. They did a beautiful homage to the native plants and the Compton Creek, which is close.

SIRG: Thank you Sandra for taking the time to talk through all this amazing background and deep emplacement.

Sonic Insurgency Research Group (SIRG) is Josh Rios, Anthony Romero and Matt Joynt. SIRG’s research-based performance and exhibition practice examines normalized associations be­tween criminality and sound, silencing as a form of social control, and voicing as a form of social resistance. SIRG’s group work has been exhibited and featured in M:ST 9 Biennial (Calgary, Canada), Counterpublic 2019 at The Luminary (St. Louis, MO), Acoustic Resonance at Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA (Portland, ME), State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), and Work for the People (Or Forget about Fred Hampton) at Co-Prosperity (Chicago, IL). Upcoming work includes solo and group exhibitions at Locust Projects (Miami) and The Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles). Writing has been featured in ON Journal’s Rules and The Design Studio for Social Intervention’s Spatial Justice.