In a world rife with violence of all sorts, Argentinian-American queer artist Stephanie Mercedes turns some of the most recognizable tools of violence into ones of peace. Through bullet and gun melting ceremonies, in addition to looking at the violent histories of her family’s native Argentina, Mercedes examines these acts and encourages others to do the same through hands-on performances and ceremonies. Mercedes spoke with us about transitioning her work to virtual spaces, her time as a Halcyon Arts Lab artist-in-residence, and her upcoming solo exhibition at Homme Gallery.
District Fray: Tell me a bit about your work and the ethos behind it.
Stephanie Mercedes: There’s two parts to my practice. One is taking the objects of violence, which are weapons [like] bullet casing firearms [and] pistols, and melting them down and turning them into musical installations, instruments and public works of art. The other half of my practice is really thinking about my family, who is Argentinian, and the violent history of Argentina, which is really the history of los desaparecidos, which happened from 1976 to 1983. There was a military dictatorship and 30,000 people disappeared. My work and relationship to that is sometimes through installations [and] performances. Sometimes, it’s diving into the archives, which are always in this sort of precarious state of disappearing, which is incredibly traumatic because it’s a violent history of people who disappeared. Those are the two big bodies of work that I will continue to pursue for the rest of my life.
You have been conducting bullet melting ceremonies from being in person to being on Instagram. What has it been like to turn that into a virtual experience?
Given that a huge part of my work is thinking about gun violence and how individuals can heal after violence and how art can be that process, these bullet melting ceremonies I’ve been doing are an important part of my practice. The whole idea of taking a bullet casing and dropping it into a kiln and transforming it into something beautiful and peaceful that is an object of care is really not about me doing it. It’s about other people doing it. It just felt like a natural transition during quarantine to do them virtually on Instagram Live. If someone loses a loved one to gun violence right now, or there’s a shooting, if I can’t be there in person with my kiln so that those bullets can be melted down, how else can I provide a space of transformation and of healing? Even though we’re in quarantine and going through a huge pandemic, gun violence and homicides are still happening.
Before you moved everything online, where did this idea to turn bullets into instruments originate?
I started doing the bullet melting ceremonies because here in D.C., I work with a couple different nonprofits. One of them is Our Generation’s Missing Piece, which thinks about restorative justice and healing and how art can be part of that. One of the reasons I love living in D.C. is because the people that I ended up collaborating with [are] not necessarily curators or other artists, but they’re activists or people who are thinking about restorative justice. When I started working with these organizations, I realized pretty quickly that what was powerful and transformational about the work was also the process. It’s also so empowering for people to feel like they can just take their time and put a bullet into a kiln and watch it be completely melted down within an instant, because it’s them doing it. Gun violence is such a big issue. I think that in a very, very small way, people feel that they gain agency and they become empowered by taking a bullet casing and watching it be transformed into something like a bell.
You also melt down guns. When did that part of your work begin?
I started melting guns because of the Orlando nightclub shooting. I’m gay and I’m Latina. How many times have I danced in a queer Latinx night club? I couldn’t even count. I felt like it easily could have been me in that nightclub. It was just a wakeup call for me. I felt like the only way I could process the event was to try to take the original objects which were used and transform them.
As a Halcyon Arts Lab fellow, you continued and expanded on a lot of this work through that fellowship. Can you tell me more about that experience?
Artist residencies and spaces like Halcyon are so, so important for emerging artists. They’re giving artists both the gift of time and financial support. I was able to really establish my practice and transition into a full-time artist. A lot of times, you just need to have someone or an institution who’s willing to invest in your practice and give you time to make new work and figure out how you know how you can make this crazy thing called being a full-time artist work. Halcyon really did that for me, and I’m super grateful. That gift of having a long residency, financial support, an apartment and a beautiful studio for a year is so incredible.
What’s next for you in the near future?
I have a solo show opening up this month at Homme Gallery. It’s funded through a grant I received through VisArts called the Feast Grant, called “I Will Survive.” I’m going to [make] this body of work that’s about my partner’s experience being an asylee here in the United States. She’s here on asylum and she’s also a weightlifter. I’m going to be making a barbell and weights out of melted bullets and melted guns. She’s going to be doing these series of performances, which will also be videotaped where she’s lifting them to all these different survival songs in English, Arabic and Armenian because she’s Lebanese-Armenian. It’s really going to reflect on the idea of perseverance, but also how difficult it is to be an asylee in this country. Asylum is a beacon of hope for so many people in the United States [and] across the world. But when you get here, it’s so hard and you’re discriminated against so much.
For more on Mercedes’ work, visit www.stephaniemercedes.com and follow her on Instagram @mercedes_theartist. Mercedes also co-hosts the podcast La Valentina, which celebrates the work of other queer Latinx artists. Listen on all major podcast platforms and learn more here. Visit the Homme Gallery on September 11 from 7-9 p.m. for the opening of “I Will Survive.” The exhibition runs through September 23. Masks and social distancing required.
Homme Gallery: 52 O St. NW, DC; www.hommegallery.com; @homme_dc