To Manifest for a Lifetime: a Talk With Artist Maria Chavez

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Brooklyn-based sound artist and DJ Maria Chavez was born in Lima, Peru in 1980 with water in her ears.

“For the first two years of my life I couldn’t hear, and they didn’t know if I was deaf or mentally disabled because I wasn’t speaking,” said Chavez. When her family moved to Texas when she was two years old, doctors discovered that she had fluid in her ear, which they removed.

“When I was three years old I heard my first clear sound. From then on, I suffered through debilitating ear infections until I was 16, at least twice a year, but at least I was able to hear,” said Chavez. “I’ve always had a direct relationship with my hearing. For the rest of my life I will never be able to put my head underwater without wax earplugs in my ears because if I get any bit of water in my ear I will get one of those awful ear infections, so my ears are like my little jewels.”

Chavez is an abstract turntablist and sound artist whose creations have been showcased all over the globe. She has been a research fellow with the Sound Practice Research Department of Goldsmith’s University of London since 2015; she’s presented at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, Berklee College in Valencia, Spain; and she’s been a DJ for major galas and receptions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, New York fashion week and other major arts events. Her image is featured on the cover of Routledge Press’ newest edition of Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture textbook, which is widely distributed throughout academia.

March 16 and 17, Chavez will visit Athens, presenting an abstract turntable workshop March 16 at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; taking part in a lecture with anthropologist Shane Greene March 17 in Seigfred Hall 401 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and performing at ARTS/West 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. that night. The events are presented by Ohio University’s Latin American Studies, with support from the College of Fine Arts.

Chavez started her artistic work with sound as a DJ when she was only 16.

“By the time I got into my early 20s, I was very bored and I felt let down by the DJ scene because it was very machismo, and that’s when I started to get more interested in free improvisation and free jazz,” said Chavez, who dove straight into the world of sound art with the same intensity with which she dives into any subject that intrigues her.

During her live performances, Chavez uses a turntable and various records whose surface area has been affected by time and chance, which Chavez considers to be the best artists of all.

“Time makes better damage sounds than people do; and my practice is about organic process and allowing the surface area be affected by time,” she said.

“Vinyl is really fragile, and it really reacts to time if it is without its sleeve – it’ll scratch and there will be little dings and those little pops have such beautiful characteristics that I feel that the public just isn’t sonically trained to hear properly,” said Chavez. “What I’m trying to do is question that. To me, it is a really beautiful sound; so why do we have to look at it as a ‘wrong sound?’ Only because society has taught us that it is a ‘wrong sound.”

When Chavez buys an album for a live performance, she doesn’t allow herself to listen to it unless she is in front of an audience as a part of a larger effort to make her performances inclusive.

“The hierarchy between performer and audience is so passé and old, right now it is important for everyone to be able to take part and to be included,” she said. “When I play an album that I’ve never heard before for an audience in a city I’ve never been to before, it’s like ‘I’ve never heard this before, and you’ve never heard this before either, so let’s see if we can make something new with it. I need the people in order to feel when something that I am doing is really evolving into a piece.”

Chavez said that no matter how her performances may be perceived, the act of performing itself is the most valuable to her artistic practice.

“Ultimately, to me, being an artist is a lifetime of manifesting, and the more you manifest, the better the work gets on its own,” she said. “You can’t start something thinking ‘oh, this will be good,’ you just have to make it and sometimes it’s not going to be good, but that’s just a part of continually honing your work.”

As an established avant-garde artist, Chavez often presents at art schools, always opening those presentations by asking the students some pertinent questions.

“I always ask students ‘why are you making art?’ Are you doing it because there’s nothing else you could possibly be doing – because this is what you’ve been doing since you were young and this is just who you are? Or are you doing this because it’s popular and you like how people in the scene are being treated and you want to be treated that way too?” she said. “When I ask that, it gets really touchy fast because some people do not want to admit that they are naturally not artists – and those are the ones who struggle the most – unless you have nepotism, then you’re fine. But if you don’t come from money or become a part of a scene that takes you in immediately, you will struggle.”

Chavez said that she is excited to visit Athens.

“I’m doing a little Ohio tour, starting out in Pittsburgh, and then coming to you guys (Athens) and then Columbus and Cleveland, and I am doing a talk at the Cleveland Institute of Art,” she said. “I am really looking forward to being in Ohio and getting to know the young artist scene and hear about what people are doing and meeting as many people as I can.”