Assistant Professor Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera Joins Graphic Design Faculty

The Department of Art and Art History is thrilled to welcome Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design. Rodriguez Rivera was born and raised in Cataño, Puerto Rico. They hold an MFA in Communications Design from Pratt Institute in NY and a BFA from Miami International University of Art & Design. Before moving to Detroit, they lived and worked in San Francisco. Much of their work focuses on the identity of Puerto Rico and the future of the archipelago, combining decolonial, community-based knowledge with site-specific installations. Rodriguez Rivera has participated in many exhibitions, conferences and fellowships, including the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SFMOMA and the Dialogo Global: Decolonizing Knowledge and Power School in Barcelona.

Developing a free-flow process between research, design, and art

Rodriguez Rivera utilizes a design thinking process when beginning a project, often using Post-it notes to help create and organize categories, lines of inquiry, ideas, and solutions. This approach, which stems from their traditional design-school education, then quickly transitions into an exploratory phase of making. In diverting from a traditional design process, Rodriguez Rivera's work challenges some assumptions of traditional graphic-design production, seamlessly blending design and art. "Much of my process comes from my training in graphic design but then I let it flow and become whatever it needs to become," says Rodriguez Rivera. "I start every project as a designer, but at the end, the project can be anything. It can be a performance. It can be a piece of ceramic. I fall comfortably into design, research, and art. I like inhabiting all these spaces."

Diasporic Memories (2021)

Ganas de Matar (A Strong Desire to Kill), is a project that exemplifies Rodriguez Rivera's process. The project, created as part of a residency at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, started with a song. They explain, "The song talks about this idea of wanting to kill, but in the sense of wanting to take over the world and, at the same time, being angry at what the world is becoming. The song was in my mind, non-stop. I started to play with the lyrics - print the lyrics, design posters with the lyrics - and I organized the lyrics into categories of political and personal. I wanted to apply the designs to ceramic tiles, but I didn't have tiles on hand so I decided to construct tiles out of paper. From there I started reading the lyrics more literally." That was the moment where they made a shift in their design process, destroying the paper tiles with different materials, and creating videos of that process. "Through destroying the work, I got the essence of what the song is talking about - something is destroyed but it has a new life. Then, at the end, I shifted back to traditional graphics, putting it all together into a printed publication."

Ganas de matar (2022)
Ganas de matar (2022)
Ganas de matar (2022)

Building community through streetscapes

En la calle quiero ser yo is another pivotal project for Rodriguez Rivera, highlighting their emphasis on community building through site-specific installations. The three-year project, which took place across San Francisco, Bogotá, and Puerto Rico, was created in collaboration with artist and photographer Marcel Pardo Ariza. The project was originally inspired by the pandemic and how to connect the community while sheltering in place. "When the pandemic started, we would take walks every day and it was so intense to see everything closed down, all of our favorite places in our neighborhood boarded up," says Rodriguez Rivera. "At the same time, many of the bars and coffee shop owners, who are also our friends, were posting positive, hopeful messages of being together again in the future. It sounded like a long-distance relationship! We thought they would make great posters, so, with permission, we started taking messages from their social media and also creating our own messages." Rodriguez Rivera and Ariza worked with what they had. They bought a small printer and paper, and used flour that they had in the house to make wheat paste to hang the posters. The project gained recognition and grant funding, which led to additional iterations in Bogotá and Puerto Rico. In these iterations, Rodriguez Rivera and Ariza focused on defending queer and trans freedom in public spaces and raising awareness about systemic violence against queer and trans people. "The reaction has been beautiful! And it's so beautiful that what started as a reaction to 'shelter in place,' and with no resources, was able to expand and reach so many more people."

En la calle quiero ser yo, San Francisco (2020)
En la calle quiero ser yo, Bogota (2020-21)
En la calle quiero ser yo, Puerto Rico (2022)

Designing an Inclusive World

Much of Rodriguez Rivera's work emphasizes the importance of decolonizing art and design practices, challenging Eurocentric and modernist perspectives that are traditionally taught in schools and looking more introspectively for process, creative inspiration, and aesthetic direction. "I'm always thinking about what is the world that I want to live in," they say. "What is the world that I want my people to live in? And when I say 'my people,'. I mean the communities that I belong to that I share experiences with. I want my work to reflect my positioning and my thinking on this future that we want to create."

In looking at the history of colonization, Rodriguez Rivera is also looking for greater inclusivity through design. Rodriguez Rivera sees that this is happening in the graphic design field, and that there is much more that can be done. "Diversity and equity and inclusion in graphic design focuses on race and ethnicity is crucial, but we also have to focus on accessibility and ageism," they say. "There are many different categories of diversity that need to be addressed, and as a profession we are making progress, but we are moving too slowly."

Rodriguez Rivera's interest in colonization is deeply connected to the land and how we experience space and place through the aesthetics of both geography and culture. "A really important factor with colonization is the context of where we're coming from because we have different histories in different contexts. However, it will always go back to the land," they say. "Politically and conceptually, where we live becomes a part of who we are." Growing up in Puerto Rico has played an instrumental role in shaping these ideas. "In Puerto Rico, we inhabit the island and, in turn, the island inhabits us in a strong way," they say. "There is this proudness to it that has to do with the physical land - what it is, how it looks, and what we eat." Ultimately for Rodriguez Rivera, their experience of place is reflected in the aesthetics that they use for their work, including colors, layouts, and typefaces.

Rodriguez Rivera looks to the concept of visual sovereignty and the work of Sadie Red Wing as the path to decolonize design. They also recognize that there is a great deal of work to be done and that can happen through conversation and envisioning new futures. "What's crucial is that we figure out what our role is in this process of supporting visual sovereignty. I don't have the answer," they say, "but the conversation is central to the process. This goes back to imagining these futures that are anti-oppressive and truly inclusive.""¨"¨

The Forgotten Town (2021)

Teaching at WSU

Rodriguez Rivera feels connected to the students at WSU. Like Rodriguez Rivera, many of WSU students are from working-class families and have families and jobs that they are juggling. "That's who I was when I was a student," they say. "That sense of a shared experience is one of the reasons why I came here. I grew up very service-oriented, my mom works as a nurse and my dad works as a butcher. I want to provide for my students, to help and support them. And I am excited for the collaboration and what we can discover together."

When it comes to teaching design, Rodriguez Rivera emphasizes criticality and responsibility. They also emphasize joy and fun. "I like to have fun. That's number one. I want my students to have joy in their work. I want them to know that we are going to work, but we are also going to have a great time." Rodriguez Rivera tries to balance the need for technical skills to be successful in the industry with the criticality to change the industry. "My teaching is not simply about creating students that are going to be perfect employees. I want them to also be critical and responsible designers who can create new ways of existing through their classroom projects and through the community."

Finally, Rodriguez Rivera wants students to take ownership of the creative process and educational experience overall. "It is crucial to me that the students are always seeing themselves in their learning process," they say. "Every week when we are in class, I make time to talk and listen to the students to see the progress we have made and remind them that they will always be learning, throughout the semesters and throughout the years. I want them to feel really confident not just in their work but in what they are learning along the way."

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