Monday, 11 May 2009


Performing Localities: Recent Guatemalan Performance Art on Video , INIVA, London, 5th and 6th May 2009. 

Remember after the first evening I wanted to ask Rosina Cazali (Guatemalan critic and curator) about what it means to have these works be shown here in London?  Whom is this work directed at originally?


You mean its "sight of reception"? 


Yes, I suppose.  In yesterday's Q & A, a couple of people raised similar questions, didn't they? 


Yes, I remember.  So, what did you get out of the panel's answer? 


When Rosina says that 75 percent of this work has only been seen outside of Guatemala, that says something about who is seeing this work and for whom it's designed.  Then the avenues for dissemination... she went on to say that there are no viable places to show these works in Guatemala. I don't remember specifically why. 


Perhaps there are no venues or that people aren't quite ready for this type of work.  But in essence, the people in Guatemala are not seeing this work, or this type of work that's been shown here the last two evenings. 


I also sensed that Rosina wanted to tell us not to feel too bad about our being ignorant of their history, not having their political situation 100 percent correct, because this work is art. I remember that she repeated the point about the desire of taking this artwork into a different status, not only within a specific Guatemalan situation, but in more of a global art context.   


What do you think 'different status' meant?  A different status in terms of content or reception?


I understood it as being about reception.  I remember her saying "an event like this is an example" and what we are doing here is good, positive.  She used the word 'we'.  I'm guessing she was referring to an art establishment based in the 'western world'.  I also remember her positive use of the word 'discourse' several times…


If we were to view the work we saw on the level of an elegy or meditation, does the work stand on its own?  In terms of the quality of the work...


I personally stopped worrying about its quality, or if it was an artist film, all of these criteria that I normally think about.  Maybe this seemed inappropriate to me.


Then are you admitting that you're not receiving the work in a way that Rosina wants you to?


Well, yes.  That's my very first honest reaction.  It's also true what Julian Stallabrass [Guest Critic and Art Theorist/Curator] said, "The only history we know about Guatemala is the worst part of its history.  There are issues with categorizing artists by their nationality for international art exhibitions?"  I agree.  That's not ideal either.  Perhaps on this second night Rosina felt strongly about representing aspects of contemporary art in a Guatemalan context without the heavy political references... nothing wrong with that. 


Of course, it's not all bad in Guatemala.  Undoubtedly he's right in saying that.  But what I couldn't process was this disconnect between that idea and the work itself, the content within the work itself.  This content doesn't really address what's outside of Guatemala's tragic past and current difficulties, so I 'm confused.  Certainly, we would be interested in a Guatemalan artist's portrayal as an even balance, the good and bad, the joyful and the horrible.  But that's not what was presented.  The work we saw on the first day, it was so direct and visceral:  A woman [the artist Sandro Monterroso] making tortillas from the corn that she eats from the cob, chews, and spits back out; a man [the artist Angel Poyon] shouting into a hole in the ground the names of missing Guatemalans; a woman [the artist Regina Jose Galindo] carving the name in Spanish for the word 'bitch' on her leg with a knife; and the same artist in another piece shackling her neck, arm legs with heavy chains then proceeding with her daily activities for 4 to 5 days. There was more.  Then a discussion afterwards that began to place this work within a historical/contextual locality.  So what else was there to say? 


It's too bad that there weren't any artists at the event to receive our questions.  Is it important for him or her to be a Guatemalan artist?  Or do they prefer to be a global artist?  How do they want us to receive their work?  Especially in relation to the actual events/situations that are referenced.


Jessica Lagunas, "120 Minutos de silencio" "120 minutes of silence," New York, 2008. Single-channel digital video. 12o minutes. Color, silent. Short clip available online

How do you begin to make comments on this work  How do you call it by name?  I don't have right to do it.  Do the artists themselves have the right to call it art?  It's quite complicated.  But then the second evening, the work was much less visceral with a certain layer of remove.  There's still references to drug trade, illegal immigration, and missing war victims, but most of its was not first person performance.  The commentary afterwards was much cooler and was more interested in talking about how the work fit into a global artist network.  And the idea that these artists want to be understood as an individual artist rather than merely a Guatemalan artist.  The two nights couldn't have been more different. 


It's true.  The first night was about Guatemala, what they've endured, the works that come from this condition and environment.  You and I didn't or couldn't have a discussion.  The next day we're confronted with having to talk about these works as art.  The committee wants to frame it in relation to a market distribution system. (It's not their words but that's what I thought they were talking about.)  To discuss it in this way seemed to ignore what we experienced in this work and perhaps to forget the specifics of the events that actually happened. 


To say that these crimes also occurred in other Central or South American countries, or speaking about this injustice in more general way, as if the specifics didn't matter... We were being asked to shift register, or to read this in a certain way, and I wasn't able to do this.  In the end aren't we just replacing one framework with another- Guatemalan artist for Latin American artist or Global artist?  Perhaps this is for the sake of the artist's individual integrity, but that didn't help eliminate any of my discomfort with the discussion.


But because of the different nature of the second evening, we were allowed to be active, and to have a dialogue.  Even though the dialogue was going in a disturbingly cool and distant direction to our perception of the situation and whether we agreed or not, we were able to react and engage.  This seems positive.  We were developing our thoughts in terms of a Guatemalan artist's place in this world even if at a superficial level. 


Perhaps this reflects the aims of the second night's discussion panel?


So then, what's an appropriate response to this work?  Is there a one?


Well to start, the realisation that we're in such a small insular bubble is obviously important. 


But can 'Art' really engage with this kind of situation with any substance?  Make it into image, decontextualise the situation, make it more abstract and aesthetic, easier to digest.  It's building awareness, but anything beyond that? 


Can this works exist as art without its political content?  Can the artist be successful without the political content? 


You mean to be recognized, from outside?  Certainly in Guatemala there must be non-political artwork, still lifes or portraits or something, but maybe those would be of no interest to us.


Then the corollary, does this work maintain itself without the political content?  Is it quality/successful art?  Without its political content?  I know quality is a slippery word.  But you and I recognise that it exists. 


Then that question carries a hope for art?


Certainly the panel sees it this way.  Regardless I can't separate this work, the work we saw, from its political content.  Perhaps the next generation of work...


I would like to think an initial motivation for making this art is as catharsis initially, like women quilting.  One example is the last piece about cutting the camouflage pattern from a pair of army fatigues [an excerpt from 120 Minutes of Silence by Jessica Lagunas]. perhaps they just have to do something.  To make 'art', you could say, to maintain some kind of sanity, a way forward, to live life.