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Review: “Infrapolitics” by Alan Ruiz at 1708 Gallery, through June 29 

click to enlarge "Infrapolitics" by Alan Ruiz runs through June 29 at 1708 Gallery.
  • "Infrapolitics" by Alan Ruiz runs through June 29 at 1708 Gallery.

Throughout Richmond this summer, the walls are talking.

“Infrapolitics,” New York-based artist Alan Ruiz’s installation at 1708 Gallery (on view until June 29), is a multimedia installation that is, in fact, made of the gallery itself.

Metal pipes conduct electricity from the gallery’s basement, through the floor, and around the walls of the exhibition space. The conduits careen across a doorway before fanning out methodically and gracefully, terminating in four lights arranged vertically along the gallery wall at regular intervals. The lines of the arrangement owe something to the elegant and efficient geometry of transit maps.

And transit was very much on the artist’s mind. Ruiz was inspired by the sweeping curves and fraught social and political history of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, now a 35-mile stretch of Interstate 95 between Dinwiddie and Henrico counties. Construction on the turnpike began in 1955 and left a number of historic, mostly African-American, neighborhoods, such as Jackson Ward, virtually cleaved in two.

“What my research uncovered was a cross-section of historical structural violence,” Ruiz explained via email.

The turnpike obstructed the passing motorists’ view of Richmond’s poorest black neighborhoods, a result that local media outlets praised at its opening. (“A Treat for Tourists: Turnpike Offers a New View,” announced The Richmond Times-Dispatch in a headline on March 28, 1958.) The skyline dazzles, and depressed neighborhoods disappear in an infrastructural sleight of hand that thinly veils the racial bias underpinning the building boom of the postwar era.

Both the highway and the gallery – and, for that matter, the city - are spaces that we usually take for granted, but, according to Ruiz, they make decisions for us, or nudge us in one direction or another.

“These seemingly neutral systems condition experience,” Ruiz explained. “Infrapolitics” literally links space and power, using the gallery’s power supply to provide the juice for the light display. The casual visitor to 1708 rarely thinks about the building’s electrical system, but the gallery couldn’t survive without it.

“I often say that my work is about showing what is already there, which is often one of the most difficult things to perceive,” Ruiz said. Glass panels are also powerful, even if we barely perceive them. A big, glass shop window, like the one at 1708, offers a peek inside a space but also creates a barrier to entry. Whether you are an insider or an outsider depends upon which side of the glass you find yourself, even if you take the window for granted. Ruiz’s grid of eight glass panels and aluminum mounts juts into the room, an orientation that announces its presence rather than downplaying it. You can’t ignore the glass now.

And like a brick through a glass window, Ruiz smashes the taboo of talking about money in polite company. “Infrapolitics” is concerned with unacknowledged barriers, and financial uncertainty is a major one for creative careers. It pulls back the curtain on the money question. Ruiz’s network of pipes, along with a series of floor vents custom made for 1708, pierce the floor of the gallery and expose the basement, where 1708 keeps its financial documents. The paperwork that essentially makes the gallery function is laid bare for the viewer. What’s usually behind the scenes is now on display. Even the vinyl lettering on the wall announcing the exhibition title is on the same line of sight as the glass donor plaque at the front desk. But Ruiz went a step beyond pointing out the monetary elephant in the room.

“The art field is ripe with exploitation in which artists’ labor is often unpaid,” he explained. So Ruiz asked 1708 Gallery to join Working Artists for the Greater Economy, known as WAGE, an organization that advocates for fair pay for artists. He hopes other institutions will follow suit. This gesture, he argues, “produces a kind of symbolic value which can become contagious, creating structural change.”

In other words, Ruiz doesn’t just want the walls to talk. He wants the art world, so skilled at pointing out social and political injustices, to offer solutions: to walk the walk.

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