New York, Capital of the Third World
Perhaps one of the unintentional legacies of 20th century conceptual art has been a denigration of the labor process in favor of a privileging of ideas that distances the producer from the materiality of a given medium and reinforces a qualitative distinction between art and craft or between media like photography and video (thought to be intrinsically more conceptual) and more traditional media like painting, drawing and sculpture. While recent years have seen a revival of these traditional media, their vindication has probably more to do with an inflated and excessive art market eager for new products than a critical reinterpretation of art’s function in the early 21st century. One of the basic premises of Johanna Unzueta’s practice is precisely to valorize the labor intensive process through which she transforms felt - a semi-organic, sensuous, and ‘warm’ material that both alludes to the practice of dressmaking (typically gendered female and thus undervalued) and is also an obvious reference to Joseph Beuys - into a series of sculptural objects which make (sometimes explicit, sometimes oblique) reference to the cultural history of the industrialization and automation of labor signaling a shift from a productive society to a consumer one. Considering the rapid commodification of contemporary art, particularly during the last decade, and the increasingly blurry distinction between commodity aesthetics and art practice that might be considered ‘critical,’ the question of labor is particularly significant. With an insistence on the manual aspect of its production that is more conceptual than formal, Unzueta’s work may be read against a broad tradition of Western Marxist critique - with its discussions of both alienation and the emancipatory potential of art. But it must also be considered in relation to her own biography as an artist who came of age during the military dictatorship in Chile (which sought to suppress those very same ideals) and who now resides in New York City where she counts herself among the several million Spanish speaking immigrants who have gradually altered the topography of a city that is paradoxically so emblematic of the United States and yet so unrepresentative of its dominant culture.
In a conversation with the artist during the preparation of a previous solo exhibition entitled “Work Dignifies,”[i] Unzueta described how this phrase (in Spanish, el trabajo ennoblece) had been used often in the working class neighborhood in Santiago where she grew up. Its etymology is complex and varied: although in this context clearly associated with political resistance and revolutionary politics, this aphorism can be tied to the teachings of the Catholic Church (and in Chile its presence is strong and is generally associated with reactionary, right-wing agendas)[ii] and even to the Third Reich, with its Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service), the function of which was to combat unemployment in Nazi Germany under the motto “Arbeit ardelt.”[iii] There is even a Dutch proverb “Arbeid adelt, maar adel arbeidt niet,” which means “Work ennobles but the nobility does not work,” and points to the ideological, class struggles that are inherent to any discussion of human labor.
In his foreword to Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre - a French philosopher who emphasized Marx’s early writings in a desire to reconcile Marxism and philosophy - wrote, “We may certainly affirm that work is the foundation of personal development…[but]…within the framework of…the capitalist regime…work is lived and undergone by the worker as an alien and oppressive power.”[iv] With these words he paraphrased Marx’s theory of alienated labor in which the division of labor produced by the Industrial Revolution dehumanized the modern worker by enforcing repetitive and excruciatingly boring activity creating a historically novel situation: “…in his work…he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.”[v] Lefebvre lamented how 19th century literary modernism had initiated a critique of “an insufferable reality” by retreating from everyday, real life and taking flight in an invented world of fantasy and that this had continued up to the historical avant-garde with the Surrealists – a group with which he formally empathized but became increasingly disillusioned- and their preference for the “weird and the bizarre” which Lefebvre argued ultimately translated into a “transcendental contempt for the real, for work for example…”[vi] If a significant aspect of the modernist project (in literature and the visual arts) has been a critique of an existing socio-economic order in what is inherently a desire to make life better, this critique has had varied manifestations all of which might be loosely organized between two conflicting impulses: that of approximating the ‘real world’ on the one hand, and distancing itself from it on the other.
The problem with this denial of ‘real life’ is that it implies a resignation with the way things are, so that art and culture more generally take their place among many forms of escapism: at best an ideal of what one wishes life could be more like, and at worst, a dulling of the senses that temporarily alleviates this sense of discontent (or some sort of combination of the two). At one time or another, we have all justified watching bad television or renting a really mindless, feel-good Hollywood production with an explicit desire to not have to think too hard, in order to forget. (Drugs, alcohol, and religion may also be utilized for the same effect). But this merely treats the symptoms of the problem and not its underlying cause, reinforcing a relatively recent historical division between ‘work’ and ‘leisure,’ which has been treated by countless philosophers and cultural theorists throughout the 20th century. In Minima Moralia, Adorno describes the consequences of this separation in the following manner, “Work while you work, play while you play – this is a basic rule of repressive self-discipline…No fulfillment may be attached to work, which would otherwise lose its functional modesty in the totality of purposes, no spark of reflection is allowed to fall into leisure time, since it might otherwise leap across to the workday world and set it on fire.”[vii]
Writing in the mid 1940s, Adorno could still claim a certain degree of freedom for the intellectual (himself), from this contrived opposition between personal fulfillment (pleasure, creative stimulation, a sense of autonomy) and productive work. Today the term ‘intellectual’ sounds hopelessly elitist; now we might think about artists, writers, freelancers, and academics for example, all of whom may presumably still pursue their vocations independently of the corporate interests that have, during the last few decades, rapidly infringed upon every aspect of private and public life, further exaggerating the organization of every hour of every day toward the ultimate goals of productivity (so that we may all be productive members of society, as the saying goes) and consumption. However, in the absence of a strict temporal distinction between work (say, the hours spent in an office) and play (which is more and more about consumption), the two parts of what is essentially a complicated dialectic begin to interact ambiguously and to invade one another leading to inefficient work habits or not so restful leisure activities. This is further exaggerated in a highly competitive contemporary art world in which career success is often based to a great extent on self-promotion and ‘entrepreneurial extracurriculars’[viii] including obligatory public appearances at art fairs, cocktail parties, screenings, lectures and other similar events, all of which are very time-consuming so that it becomes necessary to out-source the labor involved in the making of the work behind those public personas.
This is entirely consistent with post-conceptual art’s foregrounding of ideas rather than technical skill or formal concerns, which falls within what Lefebvre more generally referred to as “…the separation of manual and intellectual work…”[ix] With a body of work that emphasizes the manual aspect of her own labor, which ultimately has a conceptual function in that it is less concerned with formal or existential issues and more concerned with the historical problem and political relevance of human labor, Unzueta refuses the terms of this separation while drawing attention to its elitist and ideological character. (One only need look at statistics regarding the average earnings of artists, curators, and critics to see that, despite the social prestige they may enjoy as members of an intellectual elite, in economic terms the vast majority are very much part of a working class.)
The exhibition “Iron Folklore” at the Queens Museum[x] takes place in the elevator, along a corridor, and against a large curved wall, all of which are intermediary spaces through which museum visitors would normally move in a distracted manner because there is usually nothing particularly interesting to see here. It is part of a program conceived by the museum for artists to engage with the building’s architecture (much of which will be out of use during the museum’s upcoming expansion) or to pursue projects off-site that engage with local communities and issues. Given the modesty of Unzueta’s work, more accustomed to drawing attention to the value of its production rather than that of the finished object, this format is highly appropriate for its subtle aspects. And so the massive elevator, used to both transport museum visitors and large, monumental works (or perhaps building supplies like dry wall and paint used to regularly alter or prep the exhibition spaces) is covered with what looks like the kind of corrugated metallic walls typical of garages and other industrial workspaces, except that they are made out of felt and soft to the touch (that is, for whoever dares to touch the art). Upon exiting the elevator onto the second floor, museum visitors may (or may not) notice a long colored plumping pipe - nothing out of the ordinary for anyone who has lived or spent time in New York City where exposed piping is common in commercial spaces, so many of which have undergone the transformation from artist studios to luxury lofts affordable only to young professionals like lawyers and bankers (or very successful artists). The remaining pieces – including a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and a couple of car doors severed from their rightful owner and emitting the sounds of the street of a neighborhood that is particularly significant to Queens- may be found at the end of this corridor resting against the wall as if waiting to be installed in a more appropriate manner.
This last piece – the car door and sound installation- is a reference to a very loaded political and social situation with which anyone who has been following the local news in New York City is well familiar, and from which the exhibition title “Iron Folklore” derives. The reference is Willets Point, also know as the “Iron Triangle,” a commercial area in Queens that is home to several hundred businesses (mostly small auto-repair establishments), which employ over 1,500 individuals (the vast majority of them immigrants). It is a thriving business community and an important destination for thousands of car-owners and drivers of taxi and limousine services as well as an important distribution center for products like flour and Indian spices due to the presence of two-longstanding family businesses (Fodera Foods and House of Spices). Despite this, the area has endured several decades of neglect from the city and has been deprived of even the most basic infrastructure, like sewers, sidewalks, and waste disposal so that it has come to resemble the sort of peripheral neighborhood one is accustomed to seeing in the third world but would never expect to find in the richest city in the most powerful country in the world. For years Willets Point (which enjoys easy access to Manhattan, Connecticut, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Long Island) has been coveted by real estate speculators and many attempts have been made to develop it, but all had gone unrealized until last November when, under increasing pressure from the Bloomberg administration which had declared the area “a euphemism for blight,”[xi] the City Council approved a plan to transform the 75 acre area with the construction of a convention center, a hotel, retail spaces and housing units.
There are still many factors that the city will have to navigate before any ground is broken, including a new lawsuit filed in March of this year by local business and land owners, as well as criticism from the Willets Point Defense Committee of a program set up by the city at LaGuardia Community College to retrain workers. Rather than train workers who are already highly skilled but the vast majority of whom are undocumented and would have little opportunity to acquire work anywhere else, the Committee argues that the city must invest funds in relocating these businesses together to a new site, where they may continue to work and to thrive cooperatively with one another - “as a family,” says Committee president Marco Neira, a Colombian business owner who compares the neighborhood’s current conditions to that of El Cartucho, a notoriously decrepit area of Bogotá that suffered a similar fate at the beginning of this decade.[xii]
One definition of blight is “a deteriorated condition,” but it can also mean “something that impairs growth, withers hopes and ambitions, or impedes progress and prosperity.” Beyond its broken and perpetually flooded streets scattered with debris and populated by ramshackle structures and even the occasional stray dog, Willets Point is a very visible reminder of the kind of labor and conditions that have been displaced by globalization onto populations living outside of the industrialized West but upon which these first world economies continue to depend but would like to deny or forget. In the case of the “Iron Triangle” the hopes and ambitions of those who struggle for the means with which to subsist inevitably impede the progress and prosperity of a consumer ethic that denies the value of the labor upon which that consumption is based. While policy-makers and developers complain that the area is an eyesore that mars what is potentially an otherwise picture perfect landscape featuring the recently constructed Citi Field stadium - home to the New York Mets - those who work there have endured its deplorable conditions (directly created by successive political administrations motivated by greed) for decades in exchange for a basic right that most of them would be denied outside of this first world informal economy: the right to work and to support themselves and their immediate and extended families. And that is a very basic form of human dignity.
[ii] There were, of course, certain segments of the Catholic Church in Chile that departed from this official position and were progressive and critical of the dictatorship and its human rights abuses.
[iii] A related phrase, “Arbeit macht frei” (Work Brings Freedom) was posted at the entrances to numerous concentration camps during WWII.
[iv] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life (trans. John Moore), London and New York: Verso, 1991, p.38.
[v] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, p.74.
[vii] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (trans. E.F.N. Jephcott), London and New York: Verso, 1999, p. 130.
[viii] Alison Gingeras uses this term to describe Andy Warhol’s “…careful construction of a public persona...” See Alison M. Gingeras, “Performing the Self: Martin Kippeberger," ArtForum, (Oct 2004), p. 22.
[xi] Fernando Santos, “A Dilapidated Tract of Queens, and a Fight to Control its Future,” New York Times, September 9, 2008.
“Soy mi madre: Conversation between Phil Collins and Michèle Faguet,” El Tiempo Celeste, Mexico, Spring 2009
MF: Let’s start with the most obvious question. This past Spring you were invited by the Aspen Art Museum to initiate its Jane and Marc Nathanson Distinguished Artist in Residence program, the mandate of which is to “further the museum’s goal of engaging the larger community with contemporary art.” How is it, then, that you ended up in Mexico City producing a film, soy mi madre, shot entirely in Spanish and based on the format of the telenovela?
PC: Hmm, yes, from Aspen to El DF in seventeen crazy steps…Where shall I begin?
It’s not the first time I’ve approached a place, or better still the idea of a place, by producing my work elsewhere, examining the links which bind us together. For example, for a show in Scandinavia in 2006 I went to the Sudanese border in Northern Kenya to find a fish factory built by the Norwegians and abandoned, after a litany of disasters, in 1992. How were they to know the nomadic tribe they were trying to help didn’t want to settle down, and hated fish? Or that the lake would dry up and there wouldn’t be enough clean water to re–frigerate the catch? These kinds of complications, I think, are more interesting than the often naïve and bafflingly limited idea of site–specificity formulated within an institutional framework where “site–specific” routinely functions as a byword for public relations or audience building exercise. Let’s just say I prefer out–of–site–specific.
In terms of this particular commission, a preconceived idea of Aspen seemed to me very present, even in the day–to–day dealings of Aspen people. It already seemed to me like a soap opera of the rich and famous. At the same time, I was interested to look at the machinery that keeps this glittering front in place on the most basic, practical level. For many in the States, Mexicans are thought of solely in relation to low–qualified, manual or domestic labour, and in Roaring Fork Valley rural Mexican and Latino immigrant communities would travel sometimes two hours in each direction to a job, mostly in the hospitality, building and property maintenance industries. Around the time I started researching the project, I saw a hideously unsympathetic report on NBC by Tom Brokaw about the issues facing undocumented workers in Colorado, and so the focus of the piece sharpened. I wanted to make something which would talk directly to this non–resident and, in Aspen itself, largely invisible community. So I decided to go to Mexico and make a telenovela.
In her essay “Live Through This,” Liz Kotz refers to what she describes as an “unabashed belief in the redemptive power of popular culture” in your work.[i] In other words, it’s not as simple as reducing Smiths fans in Bogotá, Istanbul, and Jakarta in the world won’t listen (2004–07), or, for that matter, Palestinian teenagers in they shoot horses (2004), to victims of a homogenizing globalization. And yet other works, most notably the return of the real (2006), explicitly address your deep mistrust in the corporate interests that determine the content of so much of the popular culture we consume today. Can you elaborate on this? I’m particularly interested in how your most recent work, soy mi madre, plays into this discussion given your use of the genre of the telenovela, which we know has been so culturally significant in places like Mexico and Brazil.
And in many more places besides. Soap opera, as the Anglo–American equivalent of telenovela, is often derided as a low cultural form that manipulates, in a shrewd and emotional fashion, the basest and most irrational passions of its viewers. I’d always quite liked soap for this. And its associated pleasures: the preposterousness of its narrative conventions, how the show must go on, and the potential to address, within such a highly predicated framework, some of the pains and dilemmas of the private sphere. I’m not saying that it necessarily does, nor that it’s a revolutionary form in itself, but it’s undeniably attractive and one which offers manifold possibilities for personal identification and projection. In soy mi madre I tried to retain the attendant delights but to create a hybrid form – something realer than real, I suppose – by overvaluing the visual register and calibrating the narrative arc by reflecting on class, race, power relations and the tensions of domestic labour. I adamantly didn’t want to make a satire or a pastiche of soap – with wobbly sets and bad camera work. In fact, I wanted to make something exquisite, purposefully cinematic, shot on 16mm, with beautifully dressed sets and leading telenovela actors.
Naturally the idea mutated in several ways before I decided on the format of a 28 minutes long, self–contained episode, which would recognisably have many of the key elements of the genre, and which could, more importantly play on television itself. As I said, I wanted to work with something that the Latino community of Colorado could relate to directly, but whilst I was aware of the popularity and cultural significance of telenovela in Central and South America, I didn’t quite understand its global reach. I’d gone to Mexico right off the back of shooting a film in Kosovo, which was about the construction of political identities through language, but even there, within the most bitterly ethnically-divided communities, telenovelas such as Esmeralda were still universally beloved. And only ten years out of date! Equally, Russia, China, Japan, Indonesia, France, and, of course, the States, are huge global markets for telenovelas. I heard, although never confirmed, that in the 1990s the telenovela was Mexico’s biggest export, bigger than oil, car parts or silver.
At the same time, making a telenovela was a chance for me to revisit one of my favourite childhood memories. Growing up as I did near Manchester in the 1970s, the broadcast schedule was dominated by soaps, such as Coronation Street (still running today after more than forty years – and still every bit as good!) and, later, Brookside. If you’ve never seen them, they are wonderful examples of the topics and the kind of dialogue we were aiming for in soy mi madre — rich in inflection, combative, camp, gritty. These shows, like all good soaps, focus on the interior lives and domestic intrigues of a predominantly matriarchal structure. But in Britain, as opposed to the States for example, the working classes are the focus of the writing. In that sense, I wanted to try and marry traditions of outrageous excess, characteristic of the Americas’ soaps, and social realism, characteristic of the British, and to look from an oblique angle, from another country even, at the United States where the immigration debate remains one of the acute political concerns, especially in the light of such recent benchmark developments like the 2006 immigration reform demonstrations.
A significant constant throughout your work has been the privileging of the production process, typically based on the convocation of individuals to perform a specific event determined by you, so that the resulting pictures and videos—although they are self-sufficient and do not necessarily require any additional information for them to have a significant (initially quite visceral) impact on the viewer—function as what Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda have called “residual traces of a larger aesthetic and conceptual scheme.[ii]” soy mi madre is the first time, I believe, that you’ve worked with actors and a formal script. Do you see this as a major departure from your previous working method in that the work no longer alludes to “a larger aesthetic and conceptual scheme,” but rather to a broader socio-political issue (to which these schemes, of course, are always intimately tied)?
It did feel like a departure for me. It was the first time that I worked specifically with actors and a script, but on the other hand, conceptually, I don’t think it constitutes such a major shift. After all, as with my previous work, soy mi madre is an attempt to talk about issues, which I find important, and others often label “political”, and how they tie in with private desires and fears. Whether you do it with professional actors or a group of passionate amateurs is not completely irrelevant, nor paramount either, but if you’re making a telenovela why not start at the top?
In this sense, the biggest departure in soy mi madre, for me personally, is in aesthetic terms. This film certainly looks least like anything I’ve done before. Which is interesting because many aspects of the production remained the same: a relatively small team, an insanely condensed production period, and a similar organisation of the shoot, albeit on a much larger scale.
Can you tell me a bit about your experience in Mexico and how you managed to make a telenovela with such high production quality in a short period of time, and in a country you’d never even visited before?
Quite typically, I arrived in Mexico City eight weeks before the show was going up, with one bag and one e–mail as a contact. I began working on the script with P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, two wonderful American screenwriters who’d made a number of telenovelas. Again it was all very much a labour of love for all concerned, but I had the good fortune to fall in quickly with a group of people whose amazing passion for and dedication to the idea meant that we could proceed with style in spite of our budget: from Javier Clavé and Tania Pérez Cordova who infallibly overlooked all aspects of the production, to Pablo García of Tigre Productions and Juan García who generously allowed us to shoot at 5 de Mayo studios, to Damian García, an exquisite director of photography, and his team who lit and shot the film in two days. I was also incredibly lucky to work with Salvador Parra on sets, who had been the production designer on Almodovar’s Volver and Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, and Malena de la Riva on costume design, both of which essentially contributed to the look of the film which was central for conveying its meanings. And of course, more than anything else, I still can’t believe how completely jammy I was to work with such wonderful actresses like Patricia Reyes Spíndola, Gina Morett, Verónica Langer and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez who are all major stars in Mexico and thus have an international reach.
In the research stages, I started where all good students should, with melodrama. I re–read Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Maids by Jean Genet, both of which sat below the script. I wanted the film to be about class conflict but also to have many of the classic tropes of soap opera: mistaken identity, babies swapped at birth, bitter sibling rivalry, social mobility, and a mother as the source of a revelation. Films such as Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant were really important in terms of the look and feel of soy mi madre, as were the films of Almodovar. But I also went back to things like Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid or La Cérémonie by Chabrol. I wanted to make something which looked out of time – a reflection on a luxury home in the States, as imagined in Mexico in 1985. Once in Mexico, we went back and looked at Cadenas de Amargura, Rosa Salvaje and, of course, Cuna de Lobos to capture the precise look we wanted.
Stylistically, I wanted to focus on the artificiality of the genre, how actors replace each other but play the same character; on the heightened emotional pull of melodrama, which goes back to Victorian Theatre and beyond, and the sense of playing out to the audience. It’s a very particular style and difficult to carry off. So we tried to build the work around tracking shots which would occasionally reveal the sets and production conditions and then pan around to find us on a new set, with a new cast of actors playing the same characters. For a while I was toying with the idea of working with non–actors, and a testament to this is the guest appearance of Almadella and Montse, two friends and members of the local transsexual–prostitute community.
I’m going to indulge myself in a personal anecdote related to my own involvement in el mundo no escuchará- the first of the Smiths Karaoke trilogy the world won’t listen—filmed in Bogotá in 2004. After a frenetic two-month production period concluded on the eve of your scheduled exhibition in La Rebeca, we agreed upon a live karaoke session in lieu of a final product (which all of the hundreds of people who turned up for the opening were desperate to see of course). But then the lights went out in a massive black out that left the majority of Bogotá in complete darkness. I remember you expressing relief at my calmness, saying something about how in this kind of situation there’s usually a “curator off in some corner weeping.” But in assuming my role in that piece’s production (rather than that of the curator who would ultimately exhibit it) I fully understood that the significance that this work had for me, my little exhibition space, and all of those people who sang, had already occurred.
How do you (emotionally and conceptually) negotiate the potentially irreconcilable schism between the production and exhibition processes? You have often spoken about how lens-based media offer the potential for both exploitation and seduction. Is it uncomfortable for you to go back to these sites of production (as you have just done in Colombia for example) and show the completed work to those who participated in its production?
People sometimes say that my practice puts equal importance on the conditions of production, the relationship between myself and the “performers”, and the final exhibition that you encounter in the gallery. No matter how complimentary such remarks are, they seem to imply a distinction between these elements, which I don’t really see exists. For me, they’re all part of the same, of a general idea which we are working towards from the beginning, and of which the gallery presentation is just one manifestation. In it, the viewer should hopefully be able to perceive the intricacies and the energy of the production, or the details of its relations, if that’s of any interest to them..
Of course, for me it’s always exciting to show the work in its original context, as the work oftentimes elicits the most relevant responses in the place it was created. My love affair with Mexico City began instantaneously, from the very first day. It was overwhelming. This project without a doubt could not have been made anywhere else. I can’t wait to come back and show it.
You’ve traveled all over the world to make work, from, amongst others, Belfast, Belgrade and Baghdad, to Ramallah, Bogotá, and Jakarta. Part of what motivates you is to challenge the conventional journalistic approach that suppresses the representation of individuals in favor of a generalized, simplified political collective. In your work we see, for example, teenager hipster in Jakarta who know all The Smiths’ lyrics by heart (dunia tak akan mendengar, 2007) or young Serbian men and women lying in the grass in an unbearable close-up (young serbs 2001). One aspect of your work, then, addresses the uneven distribution of cultural knowledge in which Western Europeans and Americans know little about those who live in the rest of the world, whereas presumably they know a lot about us through the exportation of our pop culture (but your work, it seems to me, also hints at how complicated this other assumption can be). When did you first become interested in this issue and how did your work develop into a nomadic practice?
I suppose it comes very much from the experience of studying in Belfast in the late 1990s. I’d often found it difficult to reflect directly on a situation there, and whilst I was still at art-school, in 1999, I travelled to the Kosovan border to make a video called how to make a refugee in which I followed Western–media photographers and filmed them working. In many ways, this film was as much about the questions I was trying to articulate about Belfast and Northern Ireland at that time as it was about the conflict in Former Yugoslavia. In this sense, the methodology or motivation hasn’t changed much since. I go to places because I want to see for myself.
[i] From Phil Collins: the world won’t listen, edited by Suzanne Weaver and Siniša Mitrović, Dallas Museum of Art, 2007.
In 2001 I was living in Mexico City where I’d relocated from New York in order to direct La Panadería, an iconic artist-run space that had enjoyed a great deal of attention in the mid the 90s during one of the many cyclical booms of Mexican art that, for over a decade, has guaranteed this city both a steady flow of visiting international artists and curators and a receptive audience for its artists abroad. The Mexican art scene, as promised, proved to be dynamic, cosmopolitan, and—while at times unbearably polarized—reflected the reality of a country whose sense of cultural identity was sufficiently complex and contradictory to problematize the kind of regionalist (sometimes xenophobic) agendas that seem to be inevitable outside of the major art centers. However, as an academically trained female curator working in a masculinist, socially exclusionary (i.e. cliquey), and somewhat anti-intellectual institution that deemed itself irreverent and countercultural (but had in fact become quite stagnant prior to my arrival), my tenure was constantly plagued not only by the conflicting interests of certain founding members of the space, but by the nagging feeling that I could take what I’d learned and do a little better elsewhere.
And so I began Espacio La Rebeca in Bogotá in August 2002, partially in response to this experience, as a critique of La Panadería’s deficiencies but also a recognition of what it had positively contributed to the history of institutional critique in Mexico, and the necessity of developing such a critique in the context of Colombia where the figure of the institution (an anachronistic and conservative one at that) has historically been, and continues to be, so dominant. Named for a public fountain in downtown Bogotá that had once been situated in an elegant park but was then banished to a dead, neglected space created by the construction of a major avenue (Calle 26) in one of the city’s many precarious attempts at modernization, La Rebeca was a project committed to intellectual and organizational rigor, sustainability and economic transparency, and in conceptual terms, the establishment of an international network of diverse, critically engaged artists and writers that ultimately sought to work against the idea of defining communities exclusively in geographical or nationalistic terms. Contrary to the conventional and uninteresting model of privileging the idea of the local, as a means not of preserving micro-histories but more as a strategy of achieving international visibility at the expense of complex readings (i.e. creating the next hot spot on the map), I preferred to adhere to the very common sense idea (derivative perhaps of my upbringing as the daughter of adamantly unassimilated French/Colombian parents in a small, provincial Southern American town in addition to an academic formation in postcolonial theory) that the fortification of a local scene is absolutely dependent on opening that scene up to divergent practices, histories, and points of view. How can we ever understand who we are or what we do without being challenged by difference?
For a little under three years, La Rebeca hosted monthly exhibitions divided equally between Colombian and non-Colombian artists most of whom produced new work or initiated new projects for the space. Operational, production, and travel costs were funded by grants acquired exclusively from abroad (international organizations like AVINA, in conjunction with Daros-Latin America, and the Daniel Langlois Foundation), and this was intentional both as a way of promoting the idea of redistributing global wealth but also as a means to avoid the inefficient and elitist character of local, primarily governmental, sources. Exhibitors who passed through the space’s doors came from many different circuits in different cities like Santiago, New York, Caracas, México, and Bogotá—reflecting my own nomadic trajectory as a curator and perhaps more importantly as a person without roots or an attachment to any one particular place. Artists ranged from not so visible figures working outside of major institutions or commercial networks to others who were beginning to be or were already quite established in Colombia and/or internationally. It is a myth that as an ‘alternative’ space, La Rebeca was necessarily interested in promoting so-called ‘emerging’ artists; this is just part of a huge cliché and expectation imposed on independent or non-institutional spaces to act as filters for institutions. It was never my mission to actively seek out ‘new talents’ (the very idea is so loaded in so many negative ways and the very term ‘emerging’ should immediately be banished from any serious discussion); in fact I primarily worked with artists of my own generation (early-mid 30s) most of whom were already well established in their interests and practices.
As in any other exhibition space, some shows were better than others, although I’ve never been one to measure an exhibition’s success strictly based on the public’s reception—and it’s the intensely social aspect of curating that ultimately led me to abandon it, as it often feels too much like a popularity contest based on simple formulas. Enough years have gone by for me to unapologetically comment on a few of those exhibitions that were most memorable to me. First, Sharon Hayes’ SLA screeds, a performance/video work based on an important piece of the history of political resistance in the United States—the Patty Hearst kidnapping—which, not unproblematically for a complete, contextualized reading of the work, struck a local chord because of Ingrid Betancourt. Then there was Gabriel Sierra’s amorpho, a super simple, austere showing of conceptually sophisticated objects based on the artist’s particular interest in a critical, deconstructive practice of industrial design appropriate to an economically precarious context. And finally, Phil Collins’ el mundo no escuchará: not just because of how that piece so deftly negotiated the slippery terrains of emotional and critical engagement or the magnitude of what it would eventually become, but because, quite simply, those two months of production were some of the happiest in recent memory.
In early 2005, my already growing desire to leave the space and to move on to something else (that implied leaving the country) was hastened by the arrival of the ‘reinsertion’ program to Teusaquillo, the neighborhood to which I had relocated La Rebeca the previous year, in a desire for a better space removed from the official art ghetto (La Macarena). An ill-conceived program to socially and economically reintegrate ex-guerilla and paramilitary soldiers who had voluntarily surrendered to the State, this short-lived initiative transformed a previously idyllic neighborhood into one that was tense and, at times, unbearable. It makes me uncomfortable to even write about this because it sounds like (and probably is) a scenario of betrayal (and the failure of some people to talk about why I chose that particular moment to close the space is testimony to this silent accusation): had I had a thicker skin or actually grown up in Colombia I would have been far more indifferent to this sort of situation. But the flip side is that then I never would have started the space to begin with. And in fact, I’m directing my conclusion of this story to my international readers (conscious of the fact that this publication is meant to reach an international audience) to show how frivolous art can somehow seem in certain contexts which, in turn, necessitates a real commitment to a critical (not heroic or romanticized) and contextualized practice above and beyond the careerism and commercialization of that practice or the naïve idea that art is a cause to be defended. In the end this situation provided a good pretext for La Rebeca to close its doors just in time to avoid becoming redundant or boring, stagnant or institutionalized—its absence seemingly creating just enough nostalgia to contribute to the creation of initiatives like El Bodegón (as Víctor Albarracín has generously claimed in another text on this subject). Whether or not the space was successful in its ambitions is not my place to say. For me, at least, its memory is overwhelmingly positive.