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Comic Artist Dave Ortega Encourages Audience Participation in New ICA Installation

By Sen Man Pak

“It’s open-ended, not tied to anything specific,” comic artist Dave Ortega said at the opening of his installation “Comics: Frame by Frame” at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday. The installation features movable black-and-white images mounted over the walls and gridded tables covered in doodles, where visitors can brainstorm and interact with each other.

Ortega said that the 50 individual panels he designed for the piece are open to interpretation, with paper stick-on bubbles provided for visitors to add dialogue. He invited visitors to make their own stories and especially encouraged children to participate in the installation.

According to Ortega, this new program, available daily to anyone who wanders into the Art Lab, is about how we each build our own stories. “Societies shape history … by sorting information and imposing narrative arcs,” Ortega said. He emphasized that a very big part of life is trying to make sense of what may feel chaotic in the moment. By allowing the visitors to create a virtual life through comics, Ortega hoped to inspire reflections on the real life.

“It’s an all-encompassing art installation,” said Monica Garza, the ICA’s director of education, in an interview. “Bright walls when you walk in, a banner. Each wall has a different story.”

When discussing “Comics: Frame by Frame,” Ortega mentioned a series of works he self-published last fall, based on the memories of his now 101-year-old grandmother who was born at the height of the Mexican Revolution. Ortega had spent years interviewing her, but in the process of creating this series, he was nevertheless challenged by historical gaps in the story. “I need to make creative decisions as to how to fill them,” he said, “I want to avoid melodrama and sentimentality; the best way to do it is to just be as straightforward as I can and let the natural drama do its own work.”

Ortega said in an interview that it was at times difficult to understand his grandmother’s perspective. “Seeing history through her eyes is difficult, because you can’t really empathize with hardship when you have it so good,” he said. “It would be disingenuous of me to try that.” When asked about what inspired him to start the series, he said that it was a combination of his own curiosity and an urge to tell the world of her stories. “I wish I had started asking questions earlier,” he said. “I am almost in shame in not being serious enough in the past about knowing my grandma’s story.”

Linking the series to his current project at the ICA, Ortega explained that it was all about how to create a good narrative of one’s life stories. According to him, it is easy to be sucked into the aesthetics and to become locked into a particular mode of storytelling when dealing with comics or any other visual media, at the cost of the integrity of the story. One should not focus entirely on how well a drawing is rendered, he said; rather, a good comic is made up of three things: pictures, words, and a magical something-else.

“This is what the ICA project is about: the exploration of that ‘something else,’” he said. “Juxtaposing one image with another does something in our brain to create a narrative. It’s a way that we want to tell stories—through the stuff that’s around us. Like the cavemen forming stories out of constellations. Comics are an extension of that. They force us to make relationships and draw inferences between panels.”

According to Ortega, the goal of his project is to help people come away with a better understanding of comics. “I want to create a curiosity in people about the art form and to get people to start wondering,” he said. Comic-making, he added, is an innate thing that children tend to want to do, and he hopes to encourage it. “I want to help them sustain the curiosity to tell the stories of their lifetimes,” he said.

Ortega also offered advice for anyone interested in venturing into the field: “Storytelling always has a gravitas, which could be a stumbling block for some people. The whole process will be full of all kinds of mistakes, false starts, randomness, and you should be welcoming to all that. Know what your goals are and know what has come before you, and most importantly, trust yourself.”

“Comics: Frame by Frame,” will be shown at the ICA through June 26. Ortega will be on set on April 22 to demonstrate and interact with the audience.

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