• The U.S. Department of Illegal Superheroes

    Topic: Art and Social Practice

    ICE DISH and an interview with Neil Rivas


    Superman, Thor, Elektra, Wolverine––all named “Illegal” by Bay Area artist and Galería de la Raza’s first artist-in-residence, Neil Rivas


    Galeria de la Raza, a non-profit arts venue based in San Francisco, exhibits the work of local emerging Chicano and Latino artists. For over 40 years they have supported interdisciplinary projects that explore “new aesthetic possibilities for socially committed art.” In continuing with their mission and history of art and activism in San Francisco’s Mission District, the Galería recently initiated an artist-in-residency (AIR) program for young artists. In November, their first artist-in-residence, Neil Rivas, launched The Department of Illegal Superheroes (ICE DISH) San Francisco Field Office, a social activist project, which plays on the immigration status of the United States most beloved superheroes. Through the creation of ICE DISH, a fictional law enforcement agency, Neil Rivas engages viewers in the contemporary conversation on U.S. immigration policy.

    In a self-evident parody, ICE DISH or the United States Immigration & Customs Enforcement, Department of Illegal Superheroes, satirizes current illegal immigration policies in the U.S. by applying them to Superman, Elektra, Wolverine and other villain-fighting heroes who have entered the U.S. without legal authorization. With surveillance footage, ICE DISH propaganda posters, and live ICE DISH agents played by performers in the gallery, the project pushes the notion of “national security threat” to the absurd, turning those non-native superheroes who protect communities into lawbreakers––“plain and simple.”

    After being greeted at the door of the Galería by Captain America––an ICE DISH agent who is said to have joined in the department as a “legal superhero endorser”— the exhibition continues, allowing for the public to interact with the field office by engaging in conversation with ICE DISH agents about department operations, getting tours of the office and pictures taken alongside Cap or other legal superheroes. As in many performance-based, interactive works, Rivas emphasizes the project itself­­––ICE DISH as an agency he created, which functions on its own––rather than the project’s relationship to art or the gallery context. As a project with several, “modes of engagement,” as he explains in our conversation [below], Rivas focuses on the functions of ICE DISH from the agency’s viewpoint, prompting further dialogue on its existence and the issues of border security, detainment, and deportation it addresses.


    Neil Rivas is a Bay Area-based artist and recent California College of the Arts MFA graduate. Along with the Galería de la Raza’s inaugural Artist-in-residency (AIR) program, he also participated in their Digital Mural Project, creating the first of five billboards related to pro-immigrant rights in the U.S.


    Emergent Art Space: How do you feel the residency program and the ICE DISH project have contributed to your growth as an artist? How does your work fit into Galería de le Raza’s mission to “explore new aesthetic possibilities for socially committed art?”

    Neil Rivas:  I moved up here [to the Bay Area] from Los Angeles two and a half years ago. While I haven’t been at Galería de la Raza during that whole period, Galería has definitely played a significant role in my develo­pment as an artist during the span. I work in a lot of different ways and throughout my experience with them, they have been open-minded about my ideas––allowing me to further explore different modes of creating and presentation. The residency is an extension of that. I think what made the agency appealing to them was the different levels and modes of engagement that are involved in ICE DISH operations


    EAS: Can you tell us a little more about the ICE DISH operations?

    Rivas: ICE DISH is the U.S Department of Homeland Security, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, Department of Illegal Superheroes. It is a law enforcement agency that is responsible for identifying, investigating, and dismantling vulnerabilities regarding the nation's border, economic, transportation, and infrastructure security. If undocumented people can be declared “illegal” due to our government’s current immigration policies, then it is ICE DISH’s view that the same must be applied to undocumented superheroes. Their mission is to enforce this idea by raising awareness about pertinent issues, conducting further investigations, and working towards the detainment and deportation of “illegal superheroes.” ICE DISH is the first and largest investigative agency in the U.S. that is dedicated to this. 

    The San Francisco Field Office’s area of responsibility covers Northern California, Hawaii, and Guam. It is located behind the main gallery at Galería de la Raza. The facility began to be used by ICE DISH for operations while it was under construction and activity has continued through the Grand Opening. “Illegal” superheroes are currently detained there including famed superhero from the X-Men, Wolverine. It is the only ICE DISH Field Office that is currently open to the public.The director of ICE DISH is Tanner White and he’s joined by a growing team of ICE DISH agents, including: Alanna Haight, Will D. Port, Ray Jin, Juana Wrights, and Eugene Hicks.


    EAS: Where else has ICE DISH traveled to besides the Galería?

    Rivas:  Most recently, ICE DISH was at the Museum of Latin American Art for the inaugural Latino Comics Expo Los Angeles, and Kearney Street Workshop’s APAture ’13 Comix & Zines Expo at the Cartoon Art Museum. But highlights from past operations also include their re-commissioning of the Immigration Station at Angel Island, their first live appearance in 2012 at a Creative Time event at UC Berkeley, and the opening of several other facilities since the first set of posters were released.


    EAS:  How has the project been successful in raising awareness about the issues facing undocumented immigrants? 

    Rivas:  I think that ICE DISH has been relatively effective at informing the public about the job that they do with undocumented superheroes. For example, at the opening, Ray Jin, an ERO Immigration Enforcement agent, even showed off the kryptonite gun that he is using to capture Superman (since he escaped from Angel Island), and the ICE DISH Homeland Security Investigations Director, Will D. Port, has always made himself very available for answering people’s questions about identified “illegal superheroes”. I imagine that it must be a difficult task for Tanner White and his associates, considering that they’re not superheroes themselves-- but then that’s why they rely on documented superheroes who are willing to work against their undocumented counterparts.


    EAS: What’s next for ICE DISH?

    Rivas:  The website is coming soon and then on February 22nd there will be an event at Galería to mark the temporary closure of the San Francisco Field Office and celebrate ICE DISH’s tenure inside the space. ICE DISH’s first activity sheets will also debut at the event. In the meantime, personal tours of the San Francisco Field Office led by ICE DISH agents are available by appointment by contacting  the director Tanner White at info@icedisch.org. Also, I believe the agency has plans to release the second and third sets of Illegal Superhero posters in 2014.


    For more information about ICE DISH, check out: icedish.org (Coming soon)

    The ICE DISH Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ICEDISH

    Galeria de la Raza: www.galeriadelaraza.org