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CAM 2012 Preview

CAM 2012 preview: Juanito's laboratory

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"Walking into the Project Space [at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center] felt a little intimidating," says Guillermina Zabala — documentary filmmaker, photographer, video artist, and the head of the media program at arts-education nonprofit Say Sí. "It felt bigger than I remembered, all that white space."

The white wall, the white canvas, the white page, the blank screen; it's anxiety-producing, but prompts the deep breath before the sprint. For "Juanito," Zabala assembled one projected and one on-screen video, four original musical tracks, and a collection of photographs of San Antonio musician Juanito Castillo. It's not a physical space Zabala aims to fill though; she wants to test the capacity of viewers to enter into a particular young man's idiosyncratic interior terrain.

Five years ago, Zabala and her husband San Antonio Current Music Editor Enrique Lopetegui encountered the teenaged protege of the late Esteban Jordan, whose accordion mastery wowed Tejano and conjunto veterans, even while Juanito himself began to delve into rock and roll, blues, and indefinable territories.

One of the video elements Zabala employs in "Juanito" is an infectiously funny and hyperactive performance by Castillo composited into a one-man band via alternating solos and shots. It calls to mind a host of musical influences, and brings to light a sort of sensory musical miracle central to the American prodigy pantheon; like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Art Tatum, Juanito Castillo is blind.

Juanito's Lab, the feature-length documentary by Zabala and Lopetegui she hopes to enter into Sundance this fall, is a straight-ahead account of a five-year friendship and creative struggle. It follows Juanito into a musical laboratory in an outbuilding at his parents' place, illustrates his skill as a showman and a songwriter, and his development from cocky teen to accomplished force.

But "Juanito," the installation, is anything but linear; it's Zabala's extra-sensory perception of this complex guy. Zabala's deft and dreamy videography renders abstract ideation accessible in other works: dancers enact the existential nightmare of wartime doubletalk in 2008's "State of Disunion," and notions of creation, community, and ideals were written in light behind a shimmering wall of water in her 2011 Luminaria entry, "I, Me, Light." In "Juanito," Zabala continues to bend genre and medium to suit her dense and intimate purposes.

"'Juanito' is a portrait, and has documentary elements," she says, "but Juanito definitely acts as a collaborator. He comes to projects with his own ideas; he wrote and performed music just using Garage Band, which people can hear at four listening stations with headphones." It takes a confident artist to allow for input, but she trusts not only his musical, but marvels at Juanito's visual sense.

"He feels color," she says. "The vibrations. In a white room, he says he feels tired, the energy draining from him. His favorite color, the one that makes him feel the most creative, is blue. I can't explain it, but I believe it.

Free; 6-9pm Thu, Mar 1, Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, 116 Blue Star. On view to May 5.

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