The Cortez & Tafoya Social Machine

by Pancho Lipschitz

Mary Becky Cortez and Dewey Tafoya make up Social Machine
The definition of a social machine is an environment comprising humans and technology interacting and producing outputs or action which would not be possible without both parties present. A more playful and personal definition is being created by Dewey Tafoya and Mary Becky Cortez with their cultural shape shifting project they call Social Machine. It starts with them hanging out and having fun and then moves out into the community and involves art and kids and radio and poetry and t-shirts and music; always a wide variety of music. We sat down over quesadillas down the street from Espacio 1839 where Becky had just finished the Social Machine radio show and Dewey had just come back from doing a pop-up art workshop outside the L.A. opera. And as we talked about all the things they were doing, it occurred to me that there are political artists who make didactic images that are more about how clever the artist is and then there are political artists who try to engage and empower people in ways that create real and long lasting change.
Pancho Lipschitz: Dewey you grew up in Boyle Heights, right?
Dewey Tafoya: I grew up in Boyle Heights, yes.
Becky: You’re like third generation.
DT: Yeah my dad grew up in Boyle Heights and my uncles. They were born in the same house in Boyle Heights.
PL: And Becky you’re from Texas.
MBC: I’m from San Antonio Texas and I moved out here 12 years ago. And I met Dewey volunteering at Self-Help Graphics for a Day of the Dead workshop.
PL: So what is Social Machine?
MBC: A lot of our creative endeavors come just from us hanging out. I used to be in bands in college so I had this equipment. I had a keyboard and a bass guitar. So that was one of the ways we would make shit or do shit. And eventually it materialized when a friend wanted a performer for an art party and I was like, ‘we can do it’. Because we had been doing songs, and that forced us to make it happen.
But during the same time as the music making was also the print making. Dewey was starting to make shirts and people were wanting shirts. So it all came about together so Social Machine became the name for what we do together.
DT: Yeah I remember we were trying to come up with a name but we didn’t want to have to answer questions like ‘what is it”. I remember going to a party in San Diego and someone was like ‘it’s cool your band is going to be playing’ and I was thinking like what band, but then Becky was like ‘yeah” and so I was just like, go with it.
But Social Machine was like the idea that we can do different stuff and have different names for it but still have it be under Social Machine. Like the show we played for Narcolandia we just took the same songs from our first show and just wrote different lyrics.
MBC: No we had to write new ones because we couldn’t remember the old ones. But Social Machine is just about working within the confines of our society for whatever it is we want; fame, fortune, smiles.
PL: So Becky what’s your background?  Did you go to school for art?
MBC: No, I’m an arts supporter. I teach. I’m a third grade teacher. I have my undergrad in Social Work and then I went to USC to get my masters in Social Work. In June it will be my 15th year of teaching . Teaching is my life and I love it.
And I recently became part of the board for HNDP, Hard N Da Paint which is another little endeavor that started off with Self-Help Graphics. I don’t know if you know Aaron Duran and William Correa? They were doing open mics and teaching kids how to lay down beats. So we turned it into a nonprofit so we could try to get into schools and go bigger with the music development workshops.
And we just got a Kickstarter. We raised $15,000 to turn a taco truck into a mobile recording studio.  And it’s the sense of taking it mobile, going beyond the old school way of just having a brick and mortar spot.
PL: Which is perfect for Los Angeles because we’re so spread out here.
DT: And it’s based upon the Cuauhtemoc Mobile Arts Studio that started at Self-Help.
PL: So is that what Self-Help Graphics is doing now? I know you just got back from doing a pop up mobile printing workshop.
DT: It’s one of the things they’re doing now. It’s something they wanted to resurrect for years so over the course of time they’ve been able to commit to it.
MBC: It’s taken some time because they started doing classes in April so they were meeting with artists every week, like twenty meeting just to go through the purpose of the Barrio Art Mobile and ways of engaging the community in art-making.
DT: We were invited to help lead the workshops as Social Machine; to help facilitate the workshops and train the artists in doing mobile screen printing workshops and print making workshops. But also to engage them in a specific way that we wanted the workshops to be taught so that it’s not like artist to student but more like peer to peer.
MBC: And also deconstructing the idea of what it is to make art because a lot of artists rarely step into that role as a teacher or reflect upon their work as a teacher of art. And I think the workshops really helped open up that dialogue and helped them build a professionalism that we really need around our work. 
PL: So what’s going on with the brick and mortar Self-Help Graphics now? Is it in limbo, is it in heaven?
MBC: Right now the building is currently under repair.
DT: They’ve cleaned it all up. They’re just waiting for some drywall to be done. Hopefully it should be done around March or something like that.
PL: What? Are you telling me they can’t find anyone in that neighborhood who can do drywall?
MBC: It has to go through the city otherwise we could have had that fixed ourselves.
DT: But Self-Help is doing good. They had their Day of the Dead in Grand Park and everybody shows up there. No matter how many Day of the Dead shows there are you have to roll through Self-Help Graphics. And they have the Barrio Mobile Arts Studio.
PL: So do they have a truck or a van?
DT: They just acquired a trailer and the hope is to get it converted into an art studio.
MBC: Once we get back in the space we’ll be able to begin designing the trailer because it needs to be in the parking lot where people can work on it. It’s going to be amazing.

PL: Dewey how did you get into the Fútbol: The Beautiful Game show at LACMA?
DT: I guess from hanging out at Self-Help. Yvonne Gallardo was working with the curator of the LACMA show and he wanted to have prints. And he wanted to have prints that were created in L.A. So he invited Self-Help Graphics to create prints. So I had given Yvonne one of my Mexico ’68 prints and the curator said I want simple kinda prints, like that one. So my name came up.
PL: And did you dig the show?
DT: I’m not really into soccer that much but I appreciate all the art in the show. It’s badass. So they asked me and then I was like ‘Oh shit I have to think of something.’ My initial ideas were like these drawings of a skinny little kid in this shanty town with a big stadium in the background. And I showed them to Yvonne and she was like that’s cool but it’s not a Dewey print.
So I think I got kinda pissed off like what the hell is a Dewey print? So I’m like I have this other idea but I just thought it was too stupid. I was trying to be all serious. But that’s what came out; the Pele/Olmec head.
PL: And then I forgot that you do poetry. People can Youtube you reading at East Side Love for the “Where you from?” night.
DT: Before I did visual art I used to write poems. When I went to college I went as an English major.
PL: And how long have you been doing the Social Machine radio show?
DT: About a year.
PL: And do you two have similar tastes?
MBC: There’s definitely overlap. We don’t run our playlists by each other and there’ll be times where we play the same song. I feel like he’s got a much wider range of music than I do from like crazy punk to crazy country. And I wanted to also have like a talk show, political kind of show. I’m still haven’t figured out how to make it all work, what kind of show to have. How to have a message and a purpose other than sharing my music.
DT: I just wanna play music.
To hear Dewey and Becky on the radio inside your computer go to:
To learn more about Hard N Da Paint go to
Follow social machine on the twitter and the instagram


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