Like many great artists, Stephanie Mercedes stands out because she thinks of things that don’t occur to average folks.
For her piece “The Ring of Freedom,” Mercedes (the name she goes by) bought a Sig Sauer MCX rifle — the same kind used in the Orlando, Fla., Pulse nightclub 2016 massacre — and melted it, using the aluminum to make 49 liberty bells to represent the 49 victims.
“I wanted to make liberty bells because in Latin America, culture bells and chimes are rung to bring back and pay tribute to the dead,” she says. “The NRA also uses the Liberty Bell as a symbol for its organization. This to me, seemed highly symbolic of everything that is currently wrong with gun control in the United States.”
Mercedes, a Halcyon Arts Fellow (Halcyon is a D.C.-based art/social enterprise collective), is one of the artists featured in the inaugural By the People Festival which runs June 21-24 in Washington and is billed as a “four-day extravaganza with interactive visual art installations, performances ranging from ballet to go-go, speakers and an augmented reality art hunt.”
Mercedes will perform at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (900 Jefferson Dr., S.W.) on Saturday, June 23 and her piece “Harmonizing Freedom” will be featured on Sunday, June 24 at gallery 102 (801 22nd St. N.W.) from 3-5 p.m. Her piece “Stephanie Mercedes: the Ring of Freedom” will also be on display at gallery 102.
A festival kick-off concert is Wednesday, June 20 with Ray LaMontagne and Neko Case at the Anthem (901 Wharf St., S.W.) at 7:30 p.m. Full festival details are online at halcyonhouse.org/by-the-people.
Mercedes says being a lesbian influences her work. “I don’t think my work is particularly queer in form, but in context,” she says. “To me, the work is unapologetically about queer violence but doesn’t necessarily present as queer. It just happens to be about my community.”
Mercedes was born in San Francisco but has lived in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico City, Columbia, Switzerland and Spain. She came to Washington last October for her artist residency with Halcyon Art Labs and has been dating her girlfriend Houry for the past two-and-a-half months.
She lives in Halcyon’s artist housing in Georgetown and enjoys art, melting bullets and guns and dancing in her free time.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
Since I was a young teenager, but I’m still not out to my Argentinian family. The hardest person to tell will be my father. I think his life is really difficult right now and I don’t want to burden him more.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
Felix Gonzalez Torres
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
Freddie’s in Virginia is a dream.
Describe your dream wedding.
Mmm — not sure about marriage.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
Gun control, although it and all issues have ramifications on the queer community.
What historical outcome would you change?
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
I have always loved Shakira and have regularly listened to her music. One of the works in the show, is a large scale (body sized) musical score that finishes the last song that couldn’t be finished at Pulse because the shooting began. The last song, I discovered, was Shakira’s “La, la, la,” a song I had regularly sung in the shower or danced to. That felt very traumatic to me because I had always associated the song with celebration. Gun bullet markers scatter the score I made for where the sound of the bullets would have landed in the song. My hope is that as viewers experience the score they imagine what the people at pulse were hearing.
On what do you insist?
I insist on being unapologetic about who I am and unapologetic in the work that I make. I insist on art that transforms the very materials of violence. That is both lethal and delicate, fierce and soft. I insist on transcending violence rather that re-performing it. I insist on considering the queer body and I insist in using art to create safe spaces of our communities. I insist on music.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
The last thing I posted on Facebook was for the poetry reading I am organizing at my exhibit tonight at Gallery 102 in honor of the Pulse victims. We will be reacting to the installations in the piece and trying to pay homage through a collective poetry score I’ve written.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Che.” It’s Argentinian slang that essentially means nothing and Che is a person who was sort of a Latin American political hero. At the last residency I did, everyone called me that.
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
A hundred percent nothing. I am so fucking grateful to be gay. It’s a true blessing and I would be horrified to be any other way.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
Art and music’s ability to transcend and reconcile violence.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Remember the power of art, even when it isn’t clear that art creates direct social change or relates to activism. Remember to create space for poetry and the in-between. Support artists who are fierce and unapologetic but also soft and open to interpretation. Art, if you give it time and support it, can change the hearts and minds of many and can be a way of inviting dialogue across party lines.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
Anyone I love, good art, family, empanadas and dark chocolate.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
Hyper-obnoxious didactic queer art that is re-performing the stereotypes it is trying to subvert and doesn’t create space for the poetic.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
That movie where the women paint each other and then roll around on canvases, eat chocolate off each other and have sex. Can’t remember what it’s called.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Maybe the Ibero-American Art Prize?
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
It is possible to be a full-time artist. Go for it.
I love how artists here work and walk side by side politicians, lawyers, activists, researchers and lobbyists. When I lived in New York, the people who came into my studio were mostly curators and artists. I’m far more interested in engaging with people and institutions outside of the “art world.” I also think my practice as a civically engaged artist is much better suited for the D.C. community.