In A house on fire is a ghost, a factory on fire is a specter (2022), Roberts approaches the complexities of intergenerational Mexico/United States border experiences as a series of collateral storylines rendered visible through computer-generated images (CGI). Half-Mexican from his mother’s side, half-American from his father’s side, these narratives are triggered by the artist’s family history and date back to his grandparents. If the first-person shooter point of view is a productive device for story-telling, can it also be a means to heal generational trauma?
The two-channel video installation presents 3D models of two estates formerly owned by Roberts’s relatives, being consumed by fire. Narrated in English, the screen on the left tells the story of his paternal grandfather, US soldier Samuel Roberts, a combat aviator who participated in the Vietnam war. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in 1975 Samuel set fire to his family home in San Diego. Even though the family managed to escape the flames, their property and all their belongings burned down to ashes. On the right screen, a voice in Spanish introduces the artist’s maternal grandfather. Pedro Barrios worked for Remington Arms in the 1960s, in an ammunition factory that produced the .223 cartridges used by US soldiers in Vietnam. He eventually established his own factory in Tijuana, manufacturing components for different machines, including military technology. After years of being the main source of income for his family, Pedro’s factory accidentally caught fire in the year 2000.
Left in a state of vulnerability and dispossession, both families carry the trauma generated by these ignition incidents. Activating a process to heal this inherited wound, the immersive, bilingual, interposed projections work as a sort of prolonged exposure therapy. Roberts has designed an apparatus to relive tragedy and treat the anxieties of his lineage.
In addition to acknowledging the corollaries of bloodline disgrace, the work outlines the interdependency of industrial relations between Mexico and the United States. The ammunition manufactured by Mexican labor supplied the US military complex, establishing a pernicious symbiosis rooted in warfare and precarity. In this sense, the artist’s genealogical narrative uncovers a long record of parasitic diplomacy.
While informed by the reflections of previous generations of Border artists, Roberts’s work reconstructs this sociopolitical experience in a space that is not necessarily a geography, but an effect of neoliberal fear and horror. The crossfire, then, encompasses not only bullets and grenades, but images of ruthlessness, political mishaps, and survivor testimonies that the artist has remodeled into eighth-generation video games.
Text by Paulina Ascencio Fuentes