Felipe Baeza Imagines an Elsewhere with "Unruly Forms"

Written by Emma Riva

Every single thing you do is a ritual. It doesn’t have to be a ceremony or a spell to be ritualistic. For me, public transit is one of the most familiar rituals. I can still hear the rumble of the subway tracks of my childhood in my mind, and now the chime of tapping my bus pass on the Pittsburgh Rapid Transit bus and settling into the warm glow of its lights in the evening bring a certain comfort.

For artist Felipe Baeza, the bus was also a ritual. With Unruly Forms, his new series from Public Art Fund’s partnership with advertising agency JCDecaux, Baeza uses public installation works to honor the rituals of his daily life while asking provocative questions about migration and accessibility.

Baeza’s Unruly Forms ran in New York, Boston, Chicago, Mexico City, León, and Querétaro from August 9 to November 19. The bus shelters of each city were graced with fantastical works drawing from pre-Columbian objects in museum collections like the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Baeza created images that are sometimes sinister-looking and sometimes eerily beautiful, with titles like Let yourself fall (2023), The fragile sky terrified you your whole life (2022), and Our shadows merging (2022).

Felipe Baeza, let yourself fall. Photography by Nicholas Knight/Public Art Fund – New York, courtesy of Maureen Paley.

“I’m interested in this idea of imagination as a mode of survival.”

Baeza was born in Mexico and moved to Pilsen, Chicago, at the age of seven. “Pilsen in the ‘90s was this neighborhood of immigrants trying to replicate and re-imagine what they left behind through this hybrid-kitsch aesthetic of Mexico. I’m interested in this idea of imagination as a mode of survival,” Baeza said. “It’s almost a collage process where everyone brings a piece.” In Let yourself fall, displayed on 18th and Damen in Pilsen, only a block from where Baeza went to school, a blossom of darkness forms at the base of a figure’s skull. The black tendrils bring to mind an image of growth in their leaflike forms, but also of a foreboding spread. One of the exhibition photos for Unruly Forms shows Let yourself fall again on 108th and Broadway in New York, a crosswalk I’ve traversed hundreds of times to visit my grandparents—my father grew up down the street. Unruly Forms plays with the collage and kitsch element of all of our cultural backgrounds and associations around identity. Every person brings something different. Baeza doesn’t own a car or have a driver’s license, and so the liminality of public transit became an observation space for him.

Unruly Forms was only the second time Public Art Fund had attempted an international collaboration with JCDecaux, but Baeza’s work’s focus on transience and migration made for a worthwhile conversation stretching across multiple contexts. “The objects were very different contextually in Mexico than in American cities,” he said. “The title got a little lost in translation. There’s also not such a direct way to translate Unruly Forms into Spanish. We went with Formas Rebeldes, but there’s a famous pop group in Mexico called Rebeldes so rebeldes has retained a very different meaning there.” Rebelde or RBD, drawing from the telenovela Rebelde, was a well-known Latin pop act in the 2000s. The group embarked on a Soy Rebelde reunion tour that concluded in early November. I listened to them while writing this, and there is something really absurd about imagining a passer-by seeing one of Baeza’s macabre creatures and wondering where this mid-2000s pop group started using grasping hands and black tentacles as a marketing campaign.

Felipe Baeza, The fragile sky terrified you your whole life. Photography by Ramiro Chaves/Public Art Fund – Mexico City. Courtesy of Maureen Paley.

“The title got a little lost in translation. There’s not such a direct way to translate Unruly Forms into Spanish. We went with Formas Rebeldes, but there’s a famous pop group in Mexico called Rebeldes so rebeldes has retained a very different meaning there.”

But by displaying these objects in public and allowing people to bring whatever associations they might have to the viewing experience, Baeza also hoped to expand accessibility to them. “A lot of us don’t have time to go to the museum. You have to pay and dedicate three to four hours to being there. What other kind of work do institutions need to do to feel like the space could be welcoming?” Unruly Forms works with the time that ordinary people do have to reflect. “I have a bit of a conflict doing public art projects like this, because I think ‘why should the public care?’” Baeza continued.. “I wanted to do something that wouldn’t only be interesting me, but also to someone that would have to spend 10-20 minutes next to it. The money allocated to public projects could go to something else, which becomes tricky, and the things I put into public space don’t necessarily reflect the community.”

Felipe Baeza, Unruly Forms II. Photography by David Sampson/Public Art Fund – Chicago, courtesy of Maureen Paley.

“I have a bit of a conflict doing public art projects like this, because I think ‘why should the public care?’”

The barriers around arts institutions are not just class-based, though. Due to Baeza not being a United States citizen, he faces logistical challenges even when traveling internationally for prestigious international exhibitions. But part of what makes Baeza’s work so subversive is that while fighting for accessibility and justice, he actively works against the narrative that as a DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival) recipient, he should be an object of pity striving for the holy grail of citizenship. “I have no desire for citizenship. I’m glad to be an artist. There’s power to imagine that another life is possible somewhere else, somewhere you have never gone. Someone should have the right to flee just because. That’s the power of the immigrant imagination, but also the queer imagination. You dare to think there is an ‘elsewhere,’” he said. “I left Mexico when I was seven and now I’m thirty-six. I had to ask myself ‘How does one learn to create a life worth living under these conditions?’”

Felipe Baeza, A shadow that won’t materialize. Photography by David Samson/Public Art Fund – Chicago, courtesy of Maureen Paley.

“I have no desire for citizenship. I’m glad to be an artist. There’s power to imagine that another life is possible somewhere else, somewhere you have never gone. Someone should have the right to flee just because. That’s the power of the immigrant imagination, but also the queer imagination. You dare to think there is an ‘elsewhere.’”

Baeza’s work introduces the possibility that transience and liminality isn’t a flaw to be fixed, but rather a natural and even desirable state. The cultural messaging that we get is to see each thing as a stepladder to the next, and the times when we’re alone smoking in a bus shelter as precursors to a more stable, more acceptable mode. Human beings tend towards categorization and definitive labels—static national identities, cut-and-dry sexuality, or clear roles like friend, partner, and family. In many ways, the project of postmodernism deconstructed those categories so far that society appears to have circled back around to a desire for tradition and surety.

As Baeza stated, “How do I work with the archive without replicating the systems of violence that made them?” There’s something incredibly subversive about this idea that the in-between space, the bus stop, the train station isn’t just a stepping-stone to one day owning a car or a house. The markers of adulthood in American culture all revolve around ownership, transitioning from renting to owning, from singledom to monogamous marriage, from the bus to your own vehicle.

But Baeza has no desire to ever learn how to drive and Unruly Forms asks us to question if it has to be that way. “What is it to live outside of citizenship? I like this idea of ‘finding the outside inside,’” Baeza said. The bus stops are neither inside a home or outside in the wilderness. They are places to wait and reflect alongside Baeza’s re-interpretations of the pre-Columbian objects. “The objects I was inspired by were also subject to the violence of extraction. But I don’t think the answer of what to do with them is to return them, but to honor that they’re in a mode of suspension, just as you are when you’re riding public transit. I found more questions than answers as I worked.”

Felipe Baeza, Our shadows merging (2022). Photography by Mel Talng/Public Art Fund – Boston, courtesy of Maureen Paley.

“The objects I was inspired by were also subject to the violence of extraction. But I don’t think the answer of what to do with them is to return them, but to honor that they’re in a mode of suspension, just as you are when you’re riding public transit. I found more questions than answers as I worked.”

Unruly Forms is daring in that it pushes against that status quo, but beyond its subversive message and deep questioning, there’s also something profoundly comforting about it. Seeing Baeza’s work in Pilsen, in my own personal transience, felt like an affirmation. Yes, the project asks provocative questions and doesn’t provide straightforward answers, but sometimes you don’t need answers to feel affirmed and believed in—only to know that the questions you have are real and validated. Public transit is, after all, a shared space of faith, faith that the bus will come and that it will get you where you need to go, even when it doesn’t. I witnessed a group of college students who were complete strangers split the cost of a cab to the airport together after the 28X Airport Flier bus passed them by, turning a solitary experience into a communal one.

You have to surrender to what’s out of your control when you’re taking public transit. The delays. The crowds. The people around you. Like all rituals, it requires belief. But your reward for belief is the community and comfort that can come from that transience. Baeza’s figures in Unruly Forms aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but they have a certain presence that made me feel like they were watching over me when I encountered them, the eyes of a dark creature reminding me that the bus could take me to the comfort of home or just as easily take me away from it all to some unknown realm.

The author with Felipe Baeza’s Let yourself fall in Pilsen at 18th and Damen – Chicago/UP Magazine

Public Art Fund will run another partnership with JCDecaux starting February 21, 2024, entitled Let me know when you get home, with works by Clifford Prince King. 

Emma Riva is the managing editor of UP. She is the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel that follows a love story between 24-hour-diner waitress and a Postmates driver. As an art writer, she is particularly interested in working with international artists and exploring how visual art can both transcend cultural boundaries and highlight the complexities of individual identity. Emma is a graduate of The New School and a Wilbur and Niso Smith Author of Tomorrow. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Insta: @emmawithglasses

Website: emmawithglasses.com