See queerly now

A digital project aims to eliminate hate through empathy.

click to enlarge THAT HAND! Images from Santiago Echeverry's "Heal Series" document his attempts to revive the drag persona Patty E. Patetik, whose signs of age are now harder to conceal. - Courtesy Of The Artist
Courtesy Of The Artist
THAT HAND! Images from Santiago Echeverry's "Heal Series" document his attempts to revive the drag persona Patty E. Patetik, whose signs of age are now harder to conceal.

Patty's back — but she's hardly the spry young thing she used to be.

Her 5 o'clock shadow seems heavier and coarser these days, and the flesh around her glitter-painted eyelids is creased with lines. Still, Patty E. Patetik will soon accomplish something every drag queen worth her salt should do at least once: She will rise from the dead.

If her creator, 38-year-old artist and performer Santiago Echeverry, seems to be feeling his age these days, it might be because he's so often surrounded by 20-year-olds at the University of Tampa, where he teaches as an art professor. (Full disclosure: I've worked as an adjunct instructor in the same department.)

Or maybe those omnipresent St. Pete Pride ads featuring models with perfectly chiseled abs are getting to him, because after we watch a YouTube video of a younger, slimmer Echeverry acting in a 1993 Spanish-language commercial for three-minute spaghetti, he turns to me and admits that he's accepted his transition into a bear (gay slang for a husky guy with more body hair than the average dude). Well, he's sort of accepted it.

"If anybody would like to donate liposuction, I am available," he announces dramatically.

We're sitting in his office at UT — a closet-sized space stuffed with books, a desk and a Mac G4 — taking a virtual tour of his interactive, video- and image-based artwork via his website, santiago.cn. For Echeverry and many other artists whose works grapple with issues of gay culture, politics, social inequality and other hot-button issues that typically send commercial galleries running in the opposite direction, the Internet is the place to be. Though the lack of GLBT-friendly exhibition spaces in Tampa Bay may be changing with the advent of Ybor's Gallery Live, Echeverry has two strikes against him: Not only is his artwork unrepentantly queer, it often takes digital forms that most galleries struggle to exhibit, much less sell.

(In fact, one of his rare appearances in a local exhibition, May's Pride & Passion 2008 at the Tampa Museum of Art, inspired this story; check out the video at vimeo.com/1103705.)

His latest project, "World," entices visitors to his website to cycle randomly through a database of 1,614 videos shot on his Treo Smartphone by clicking on a grid of thumbnail images. The 10-second snippets capture fragments of experiences that range from the mysterious to the mundane — dancing at a nightclub, flying in an airplane, feeding a baby, shuttling through the night in a compact car, encountering a Jesus freak — remixed (again, at random) with 261 audio files. But the mismatched images and sounds, in combination with the brevity of the clips, add up to a network of sensations akin to living memory, the experience of which is anything but ordinary. Unlike the voyeuristic feeling that results from extended YouTube viewing, a sense of unexpected collaboration (the artist offering short-lived video reveries; you projecting your own experience into the gaps) results from passing time in "World."

That's the point, Echeverry says. With maturity, his desire to understand others' viewpoints and, in turn, invite viewers into his own mental and emotional space has only grown, he says. An optimist, he believes that sharing viewpoints in the context of art — not forcing them on anyone, he notes — will lead to acceptance and banish hate.

Until 1993, being gay was illegal in Colombia; by 1995, Echeverry and a pair of like-minded activists had founded a Bogotá branch of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco-based group of "queer nuns" dedicated to making life more enjoyable for all people. (Echeverry played the role of Sister Opus Gay in drag and helped create posters about AIDS prevention.) In 1998, he got the nod to study interactive media as a Fulbright scholar at New York University. There, he became part of an early generation of Internet artists, producing such work as a hyperlink narrative called "Con Game," which allows users to participate in the adventures of a gay hustler named Baby Face by clicking a mouse. (Play it on his website.)

After two and a half years in New York, Echeverry returned to Colombia to wait for an opportunity to return to the U.S. Inspired by the madness of Bogotá, a city where totalitarianism coexisted with thriving underground party culture, Echeverry created the drag persona Patty E. Patetik, a post-punk queen with a brown Mohawk and a fur stole.

Sadly, Patty was destined to go into retirement only two years later. In 2003, a call to teach at the University of Maryland in Baltimore came; Echeverry packed up his bags and flew first to Miami to stay with family. When he got to the airport for his flight to Baltimore, the FBI was waiting — the ex-boyfriend of his then-lover had called in an anonymous tip that he was a terrorist. While Echeverry has only good things to say about the Feds — "had it been in Colombia, I would be in jail — still," he says — the experience of explaining his life and work to skeptical federal agents took something out of him. "No more drama ... Patty is going to have to find a new job," he wrote at the end of an entry on his website describing the interrogation.

Since then, Echeverry has focused on interactive work online, completing projects like "World" and "Love," a program that displays a video of the artist and a lover kissing whenever a webcam on the viewer's computer senses motion. But this year he's been getting more physical — in a series of recent monoprints titled "Heal," he uses skin peeled from his heels (yes, it's as painful as it sounds) to make marks and create textures on paper. And these days, he even hears the voice of Patty, longing to emerge again — in part because Tampa Bay's simmering undercurrent of gay culture reminds him a bit of Bogotá.

She might be older this time around, but I'm predicting that Patty will be just as fierce. If you don't catch sight of her in Tampa Bay, I'd take a look in cyberspace.

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