Israel Martínez

Since 2010, the Mexican sound artist has been reflecting, recording, documenting and exhibiting the symbolic, personal, financial, legal, civic and human costs of Mexico’s War on Drugs.

Vicente Gutiérrez
Courtesy of Israel Martínez
Summer-Fall 2015

Wars are loud, saturating our environment— immediately and indirectly— for on-the-ground witnesses or those experiencing media. Your recent sound work, “South of Heaven” addresses the Narcowars in Mexico, can you tell us about the environment in which you are recording?

It’s very difficult to explain what’s happening with drugs in Mexico, it’s not about the corner gangs nor drug dealers nor the consumption of drugs. My country is one of the most important drug distributors in the world, mainly of cocaine and methamphetamine, and probably the biggest exporter to the U.S. It’s a business that includes the participation of governments and “independent” companies called “cartels” in addition to banks and other particular businesses.

The war is about the control of                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

…provoking battles throughout the country. This never ends. There are only changes in the intensity of the regions throughout Mexico. For example, during the last few weeks the horror returned to my birth city, Guadalajara. Just at this moment, I’m reading on Facebook about the sound of a shooting a few minutes ago, it’s a post by a friend who is studying the possibility of sound in relation to photography. She’s feeling the terror and reflecting on the sound as well.


To relate the sound, how does the “South of Heaven” installation situate the listener?

The installation was created for “PCFS: Post-Colonial Flagship Store,” an exhibition focused on a critical and at the same time sarcastic approach to neocolonialism in several regions of the world. This was in Austria, and we presented the installation as a “Tianguis,” a traditional Mexican market stand which often sells pirated goods.

You can only listen to the CD-Rs if you use headphones, which is up to you. The other sonic element is a composition made with the sounds of cocaine inhalation, broadcasting via a pair of speakers. As a stereo work it is the ambient music of our market stall. I have to say that in Mexico, there is a weird need to hear music almost all the time, so people working in street markets listen to music during their workday. Well, the sound of consuming cocaine, one of the most widely distributed products from Mexico, is also part of our background music.



This part of the installation is meant to relate the proximity of our experience, that the situation is affecting almost everyone, even if people are unaware of their participation.


caption: South of Heaven, installation view.

In “South of Heaven,” there are sounds of demonstrations and shootings as you mentioned, but also excerpts from Calderón speeches, celebrations, protests, mothers wailing— which is very dramatic and piercing— to interviews with apprehended suspects. How did you capture these sounds?


I wanted to ask you about two sounds, the heavy breathing and the voice masking used in the interrogations. Both make me wonder about how embedded the recordings are…


The breathing you hear is part of the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              


I also wanted to ask you about the sound of cocaine sniffing…could you elaborate on why you made it an axis of the work?


Click to listen to an excerpt from “South of Heaven”

Along with some of your previous sound work, is “South of Heaven” an attempt to go where journalists are nervous to investigate?


I lived in Guadalajara when the “War on Drugs” of Calderón arrived. A couple of friends died, there were several attacks around my home studio and innocent people as well as policemen and hitmen died. We started to live scared. As the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles and the curator Cuauhtémoc Medina say: “What else could we talk about?” That was the name of Margolles’ exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale. I just started to open my ears, and obviously my eyes, to the issues surrounding me, just like the local police helicopter patrolling my neighborhood 12 hours a day for several months in 2011.


caption: Israel Martinez. Image: Javier Calderón

Is it correct you were almost arrested for recording in a park?

This happened in 2011 with the general paranoia of organized crime. I was recording sounds in a nearby park around 9:00 PM. A                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              


I also wanted to bring up your work, “People Behaving as Real Animals” which evokes the visual imagery of kidnapping. It’s seems as if you are trying to find a sense of freedom and expression in this captive situation.

When I made “People Behaving as Real Animals” (2011) I was in fact thinking about the soundscape. Generally, we remain relatively passive when we are recording, and it obviously depends on what you are recording, but I was imagining the possibility of building “new” soundscapes through memory, mimesis and communication beyond articulated language. As an exercise in improvisation, three collaborators and myself used bandanas in order to fully concentrate on the sound and to avoid directly looking at the camera. When I looked into the camera viewfinder, before recording, I suggested we                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Caption: Israel Martinez, People behaving as animals (video still)

We recorded the improvisation and when I checked the video it looked like a kidnapping scenario. Others felt we looked like guerrilla fighters. I thought, sometimes these “animal” gestures say more than articulated words. That’s how it seems in countries like Mexico where politics don’t attend to the demands of people. Sometimes noise is a great communication tool, contrary to what the theories say.

You also continued with a “Part 2” of the work, why?

I am constantly hosting workshops                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Here, it’s important to talk about the loss of liberty. Young people have been kicked around by the government’s strategies of trying to create a consumerist and unthinking people. Zombies. The youth have not been physically kidnapped but mentally kidnapped. So, these young and vibrant students are trying to rebel, to shout and to express something that is not clear because most of the time they are desperate and they don’t know what to say. So once again the noise is important for their expression.


In another earlier work you walked around the Jardines del Humaya, an extravagant cemetery in the town of Culiacán. What drew you to that place— was it a mix of investigation as well as feelings of loss?


caption: From, In Memoriam

This is a weird place located in the “capital” of Narcoculture in Mexico, and for Saviano, it’s probably the Narco capital of the world. Culiacán is a great place with lovely people— and just that simple comment is a part of the endless contradictions throughout the world of drugs, trafficking and cartels. For decades now, Narcoculture has integrated itself into the fabric of Culiacán. Jardines del Humaya is— and this might sound crazy—                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              



I think we’ll need to pause our conversation for now…to close, what forms of solidarity have you observed or participated in? Is solidarity the “bigger picture” people need to see?

After the disappearance of forty-three students from the Normal School of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, at the end of September 2014— a case still unresolved— there were massive demonstrations throughout the country, even in areas considered to be apathetic about political involvement. The government has made every effort to insert oblivion into the population but I think that the levels of corruption and economic inequality, as in most parts of the globe, are facing increasing pressure from social networks on the Internet and from the formation of groups, collectives and civic organizations.

As a civilian, I demand. As an artist, I put some of these topics on the table, sharing them with anyone, and it’s the same case for a lot of artists in Mexico. A big part of contemporary art in this country is openly political and demanding. Outside of their artistic practice a lot of artists are associated with some thinking or activist collective. In my case, along with my brother, we are supporting the people from a town located in the Mexican west, Temacapulin, which will be flooded for the construction of a dam. If you want to listen, visit our site, and look for the Temacapulin Project. We are constantly supporting friends from several activist groups, recording and sharing sounds, creating images or promoting causes. Unfortunately, the more social movements become active, the government seems to tighten the lower classes, which are the majority and still live in a cultural poverty that only benefits the upper classes, the owners of the country. Power wants us to be ignorant…and to be deaf.




Israel Martínez (b. 1979) produces multi-channel audio and video installations, site-specific projects, compositions, actions, interventions and graphics. Co-founder of the multimedia platform and the label Abolipop Records, his aural work has been published and distributed worldwide by Sub Rosa, Aagoo and Musica Moderna while other select works have been acquired by notable collections in Latin America such as Jumex & MUAC/UNAM. Martínez is represented by TalCual gallery in Mexico and is currently working on his next solo exhibition while teaching seminars and workshops on sound art and sound in contemporary art.


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