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By Ariel Swartley on THU, SEP 3RD 2009, 4:55 P.M.

Louis Hock

We rarely see the officer’s face, but he’s very much in ours: badge looming, holster bulging. The image, shot at the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s checkpoint on Interstate 5 north of San Diego, dominates one wall of Feral, Louis Hock’s video installation in Montalvo’s Project Space gallery. What happens there? Dusk deepens. Every so often the black-gloved hands halt the flow of vehicles and waves one to the side for further inspection. On the opposite wall spheres arc over emerald grass and across puffy cloudscapes. Swatted or self-propelled? The soundtrack of mechanical thwacks gives no clue.

Hock, who grew up in Nogales, Arizona, just across from Nogales, Mexico, has long been interested in the way meanings get drawn—like a preternaturally straight boundary line—over the hills and gullies of experience. His desire to bring those discrepancies into focus has led to public art works like Art Rebate, which traced the route, via signed ten dollar bills, of money spent by visa-less residents in U.S. communities, and to installations like American Desert, which paired popular views of the Southwest from classic films and Road Runner cartoons with photographs of border crossing trails—some thousands of years old—still used by humans and animals.

Images, Hock knows, read differently when they are isolated and when they’re viewed over time. Initially, Feral’s leather-accessorized torso—aggressive, sexual, and overblown—is an icon of enforcement. It’s meant to evoke emotions of fear or security depending on where we stand. But even the most law-abiding viewer will feel this officer comes too close for comfort. Hock’s camera forces intimacy. We can’t help noticing the body beneath the uniform. The longer we look, the more the message unravels. Do we really expect this employee, glancing, suddenly human, at his watch, to divine the contents of every car trunk?

That play—between an image that fixes meaning and events that allow it to unfold—is also at work in The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of Life Outside the Law. Hock’s documentary, showing in the Villa’s Billiards Room, is centered in the rundown San Diego coast apartment court where he lived in the early 1980s. It follows his neighbors—gardeners, hotel maids, dishwashers, nearly all undocumented—through daily routines which include abusive employers, a supercilious landlord, and endless raids by the Border Patrol. Hock began shooting in the building as a casual experiment: he was practicing for a video course he was about to teach. When he found the long shots he favored as a filmmaker undercut by video’s lack of depth, he moved in closer. Soon other distances telescoped. He learned Spanish, became a close friend of several couples, eventually got their jokes.

In one scene, his neighbors, like an army of Kilroys, write their names on the underside of a dish, the back of a placemat. It’s a punchy cinematic moment: They are here despite laws and fences because we can’t live comfortably without them. More often, Hock works by accumulation. Childish cries of “La Migra!” are a recurrent sound in the tapes. It’s a favorite game in the building—a modern version of cowboys and Indians, in which older children pretending to be INS agents chase the younger ones to each group’s delight. Sometimes, though the cries are real: the kids have spotted the agents’ vans arriving. Then it’s the adults who run, while legal residents of a nearby condominium gather on their balconies to watch the show.

Eventually, some of Hock’s friends, tiring of the theatrics, decide to give Mexico another try. It feels like our loss. But in this story there’s a further twist. In 2004 several people whom Hock filmed as children decades earlier requested copies of The Mexican Tapes to show their own families. The conversation that ensued resulted in Sketches for the American Tapes: A Tale of Immigrations, Hock’s documentary-in-progress, that premieres in the Carriage House on September 27. He describes the work, a prequel to a full-length version he expects to complete in 2010 as “not unlike a book of short stories.” Given that the narrative encompasses thirty years, and the shifting political winds of several administrations, it might also be fair to call it an Odyssey.

Posted in Ariel Swartley for AGENCY