In 2009, Agnes Chavez had been a successful studio artist and metal sculptor for 15 years. Then she had a collaborative epiphany. "I discovered projection art, and I fell in love with it. I was always using art for humanitarian purposes, but with this I come up with the concept, and I collaborate with others," said Chavez.
Her first piece, a stunning interactive forest of light and words called "(x)trees," came to Taos in 2010. Since then, she has worked together with countless collaborators, from students of all ages to programming wizards, co-creating infinite beauty and science. She has been a dedicated educator, and a pioneer in the STEAM movement: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics.
Chavez has two upcoming projects close to home. One is BIOTA, which will be part of the Taos Fall Arts Festival at the Guadalupe Gym from Sept. 24 to Oct. 3. The other is Space Messengers: Global Virtual Reality Youth Day, and we can tune in virtually on Oct. 15 from 1-3 p.m. mountain time.
We caught up with Chavez during a brief window between world travels.
It's hard to imagine the Taos landscape without you. How long have you been here?
I actually grew up in Ronkonkoma, New York, then traveled all around Europe, South America and Central America. I came to Taos when I was 25. New Mexico is my home, and the place I bring everything back to. I bring opportunities I find abroad, as a world citizen, and Taos becomes the hub for all of that.
Tell us about your life as an artist and educator.
Art and education for me have always been interconnected. The processes of learning and teaching are interconnected. Whatever I learn, I want to share. I like to take others on my journey. I develop workshops and programs around the work I've been doing. That's what STEM arts is about, that I've been doing since 2009.
We design installations called Sci-Art, bringing together art and technology. We include middle school and high school kids in the process and present at festivals and museums.
Right now, I'm working with United States embassies to bring art around the world. I won an Arts Envoy grant and I was invited in 2018 to go to Guadalajara, Mexico. Through this program of the Department of Educational and Cultural Affairs, I became an International Exchange Alumni. Once you participate in any of their hundreds of programs you become an Alumni, and you can then access connections with embassies around the world. Through these government-sponsored exchange programs, I'm able to do these international collaborations.
How did Space Messengers evolve?
During quarantine, we started the bio-STEAM international youth exchange. I was planning to meet with them in Europe and it was all canceled, and I was thinking, what can I do to make things exciting for them? We came up with really cool ways to collaborate via Zoom. I came up with a concept installation, 30 kids in Taos and 30 in Portugal, through the U.S. Embassy in Portugal. The kids who've joined this are a team that get to be part of this installation that's going to be shown in Portugal. Taos is the hub. They co-write messages communicating the science they learned and sharing their thoughts and wishes for a sustainable interplanetary future, and these messages are projected on this beautiful palace site in Portugal. It will be from 8-10 p.m. there, and that's 1-3 p.m. here and everyone can tune in. You can send a message from here and it will be projected there on the walls. The Space Messages can be seen projected live on the wall in Portugal and in the Virtual Reality (VR) environment.
Leading up to this, we've had interdisciplinary speakers and facilitators from CERN, from NASA, from LANL. The kids learn about science, but they also learn about the human impact of science in space. I brought in a space policy lawyer and the kids learn about this. We've had Steve Tamayo, a Lakota Cultural Specialist. Indigenous voices share the way indigenous people live in harmony with the environment. The Portuguese kids were blown away by the Native Americans. Our kids have told us they love talking to kids overseas, and the kids abroad love talking to Americans. Their messages, their hopes for the future, when international conflicts are a thing of the past. We're teaching them that they create their future, not the media.
Joana D'Arc Moreira is our STEAM ambassador in Brazil and she's amazing, she's 24. Dania Loya here in New Mexico, she's one of our wonderful STEAM ambassadors. It's so exciting to work with scientists, VR designers, programmers, engineers, basically now we co-design. Everyone brings their own expertise. With Space Messengers, all the people on the team are co-designers. On the website, there are photos of them and they look like a constellation of talents and abilities.
Space Messengers will then travel to festivals around the world carrying the messages of participating youth from each venue. Next stop: Guadalajara, Mexico in 2022!
Tell us about BIOTA.
BIOTA is a data visualization installation that represents the beauty and preciousness of the microbial species living in our rivers and lakes, and brings our attention to how DNA sequencing technology is helping to make them visible. It was created as part of the Species in Peril along the Río Grande exhibition at 516Arts in 2019. BIOTA brings our attention to the value of microbial species found in our rivers and the danger of their extinction due to contamination. I collected a water sample from the Río Fernando at Taos Land Trust and sent it to a DNA sequencing lab which revealed 700 species living in the tiny water sample. I collaborated with Marcel Schwittlick, who wrote the code which generates an algorithmic pattern of growing circles visualizing the diversity of species collected from the water sample. The algorithm is projected into liquid bubbles containing live micro-algae which are used to cleanse contaminated rivers. A soundtrack accompanies the installation to tell its story.
It will be the first time the Guadalupe Gym has allowed for an installation. Eventually, it will be part of the educational curriculum tool. It's all about the science, art and technology coming together, and showing kids a different way of seeing the world, through collaboration.
Can you talk about your hope for the future?
My hope for the future is that the next generation will be able to create and live in a world more in balance with nature and technology, with more empathy and compassion for all living beings on this planet and beyond, as we start to move into space exploration.