Artist Raúl Romero blends sculpture and sound to explore cultural stories

Artist Raúl Romero spent his youth traveling between two very different places: Tampa Bay, Florida, and the wilderness of Puerto Rico. “My environments fluctuated from the edge of rapidly growing suburbs to overgrown jungles and the Arecibo Space Observatory, which provided me with a place to walk, skateboard and play music,” he writes. in his artist statement.

A member of the Philadelphia artist collective and contemporary exhibition space Vox Populi, Romero has a portfolio of installations, videos and performances that use mixed media and audio engineering to address topics of connection. , language and cultural histories.

Raúl Romero working in the studio. | Courtesy of Raúl Romero.

The resulting works are whimsical and experimental, like the performance Let’s talk practical, a charming incredulity, in which Romero plays a “modified drum set” with an elongated cymbal stand that towers nearly a floor above Romero. His installation of stylized text in a pile of trash at Recycled Artist in Residency (RAIR) spells “hola” – readable only when photographed aerially by a drone.

“Sound is a medium that cannot be seen, but we can hear it and we can also feel it. We feel it emotionally when the right frequencies activate our sadness or a certain chord progression lights up our day with the rhythm that makes us want to dance.

Romero’s artistic outlook was shaped by his travels as a child, growing up speaking Spanish and English, and a varied professional history. Prior to his current role as Director of Special Projects at the University of the Arts (UArts), Romero was an “arts manager, freelance videographer, nonprofit political advocate, landscape designer, adjunct professor, and film coordinator,” he said.

Romero and his wife had their first child together just 10 weeks ago. Despite his now reduced sleep schedule, Romero is working hard to launch the new UArts artist residency program, Inspiration Lab. He is also producing new work at his studio in Cobbs Creek, West Philadelphia, and on a nearby lot on Walnut Street, which he calls the “Rubble Garden,” for upcoming exhibitions, one of which will be presented at the Temple Contemporary at the Tyler School. of Art this fall.

Morgan Nitz: You have a BA in communications. Between your use of sound, satellites and greetings, communication is an important theme in your art.

Raul Romero: For starters, getting a bachelor’s degree in communications wasn’t my first choice. I settled for that because I couldn’t pass the English grammar exams to get into the school of mass communications. I learned both Spanish and English growing up – and never fully mastered either. When I was a kid in elementary school, I was often put on ESOL (English as a Second Language) and then kicked out. I didn’t know enough English to be in class, so the teacher sent me to ESOL. Then at ESOL, I didn’t know enough Spanish, so they kicked me out. This happened until sixth grade.

Raúl Romero, “Transmissions of Transcendental Aspirations”, video, sound, steel, animated projection mapping, copper, audio components. | Courtesy of Raúl Romero.

For a long time, I wanted to be a sound engineer. I had been working for my undergrad for seven years, working part-time barista jobs, playing and recording indie rock bands, and going to community college. Learning [communication] communication studies theory blew me away. I was excited about the analysis and how it influenced my view of the world.

I think I just became obsessed with communication and all the different components that went into it, especially the intersection of technology, language, and performance. These are exciting topics for me.

I am drawn to your use of sound and percussion in sculptures and performances. Tell me how you got into music and why it’s important to your visual arts practice.

My father was a musician. I acquired a large part of my musical background thanks to him. When I was a kid, he taught me how to play the drums and took me with the drums to friends’ houses so I could play in punk bands. I also played drums alongside my dad who played bass in the church band until I left for college. And, I played percussion in my high school orchestra and marching band.

“When I first moved here, I fell in love with Philadelphia and the people – the community of artists who show up again and again, supporting each other and creating an atmosphere that validates artistic creation.”

It wasn’t until I was in college that I really started to allow myself to tap into that context and use it for my work. I was fortunate to have some wonderful voices in my studio during this time, helping me overcome some of these conceptual challenges while encouraging me to get started.

What about the use of plant sounds in your art, sounds imperceptible to humans?

I consider that working with plant sounds is more like a translation of information generated and collected by the plant, then transformed into sounds. My role in this is more like a translator, composer and producer assigning the instruments to the musicians. The actors in this case are the plants.

In your artist statement, you describe your “desire to foster conversations through time.” Do you consider time as a medium in your work? If so, what is its function?

Time in my work is part of the exchange that occurs between me and the viewer. I think there are subtle elements in the work that reward the viewer if they spend enough time experiencing the work or consuming it. Essentially, it’s the conversation between how we can experience any work we interact with. It takes time to consume the sound.

Raúl Romero, “A Ship for Infrasound – Arecibo Transmission”, 2020. | Courtesy of Raúl Romero.

Your statement also mentions “the possibility of hidden worlds within and beyond our supposed realities”. What do you mean by “hidden worlds”? Is the interest in what is revealed or in what remains obscure?

I always think about it and revisit it. It’s not final. It is rooted in thinking about the atomic and subatomic levels of what constitutes matter in our physical realm and in the conscious and subconscious. Sound is a medium that cannot be seen, but we can hear it and we can also feel it. We feel it physically when the bass rattles the walls or when a high-pitched siren adds pressure to our ears. We also feel it emotionally when the right frequencies activate our sadness or a certain chord progression lights up our day with the rhythm that makes us want to dance.

This energy is physically real in the sense that it travels through copper wires and resonates matter in waves which then resonate in our eardrums and travel to our brain so that we can perceive sound. This sound world is invisible. I guess we can live our lives without thinking about it too much, but that’s what keeps my beginner’s mind going (a term borrowed from my meditation practice that helps me arrive at my artistic practice with ears and eyes costs).

I think I just became obsessed with communication and all the different components that went into it, especially the intersection of technology, language, and performance. These are exciting topics for me.

You mentioned growing up in Florida and traveling to Puerto Rico. How did you end up here in Philadelphia?

I’m from the Tampa Bay Florida area and bounced around a lot, working on my BA, but eventually finished at the University of South Florida. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, I worked at the University’s Museum of Contemporary Art as an art installer. I was asked to assist the artist Cameron Gainer in the realization of his exhibition and his installation Impact sight. He recommended that I work for Marion Boulton Stroud (founder of the Fabric Workshop and Museum) who ran this artist residency in Acadia, Maine called Acadia Summer Arts Program, aka Camp Kippy.

I spent the summer of 2008 in Maine, then moved to the Philadelphia area to continue working for [Boulton Stroud]. During my stay I met other artists like Paul Swenbeck and Joy Feasley, who made an effort to introduce me to even more artists like Jake Kehs, Adam Blumberg and Jacob Lunderby, who all became good friends and inspired me to stay in Philadelphia. I learned a lot from them.

How would you describe the arts community in Philadelphia?

When I first moved here, I fell in love with Philadelphia and the people – the community of artists who show up again and again, supporting each other and creating an atmosphere that validates artistic creation. It’s also just fun! There is a seriousness and a playfulness that balance each other.

Documentation of a still image from a video projection by Raúl Romero. | Courtesy of Raúl Romero.

I called Philly my home for most of my adult life. I have been in Philadelphia for 14 years and in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood in West Philadelphia for seven years. More recently, I got married and now have a daughter. Philadelphia is the type of city where you can be an artist and live your life to the fullest.

Where is someone likely to find you a day off?

I love the Saturday Market in Clark Park and walking through the Woodlands Cemetery. Both places have lots of people and plants. We hit these places to hang out when the weather is nice.



This story is part of a partnership between The Philadelphia Citizen and Forman Arts Initiative to showcase creatives from every neighborhood in Philadelphia. It will be broadcast on The Citizen and FAI websites. Morgan Nitz (she/they) is a queer interdisciplinary artist and writer in Philadelphia, and the operations and development editor of Philly Artblog. Their work has been shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Vox Populi, Pilot Projects and other venues; they did a residency at Jasper Studios; and were the conservative co-inaugural of Straw, the audio-visual closet turned alumni gallery of the Tyler School of Art. Follow them on morgannitz.com | @The son of the man


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Installation view, Raúl Romero: Onomonopoetics of a Puerto Rican Landscape, installed at Taller Puertorriqueño, Philadelphia. | Courtesy of Raúl Romero.

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