The Taste of Potassium: An Interview with Sebastian Alvarez

December 28, 2011 · Print This Article

âš«â– â–¼ Video Still. 2011

In thinking about hybridity, performance artist Sebastian Alvarez seemed like an important person to talk to. For instance, I saw a piece of his at the Hyde Park Art Center in which a series of different people looked up at the camera, their faces surrounded in a sea of dirt. They seemed to be part of the earth, speaking through it, while nevertheless remaining distinct. In other work Alvarez has done, he photographs the body mid-flight, sometimes it is ascending, sometimes it hovers almost perpendicular to the ground, frozen impossibly in defiance against gravity. I find his work to be tremendously hopeful, walking a line between the tension of consumer audiences and transformative experience. Where do we position ourselves? Are those distinctions (between body and earth, self and other) as vivid as we would like to presume?

Caroline Picard: What happened to your impression of dirt once you ate it in public?

Sebastian Alvarez: Soil is always hard to grasp. Especially if it comes from Central Park in New York. The first time I tried eating soil was, like many of us, at a very early age. Unfortunately, I do not have a clear memory of that moment but I remember seeing a photograph of my face decorated with dirt around my mouth. Perhaps it was really chocolate but I prefer to think that it was soil because I was in a park. Years later, my second interaction with this organic matter happened in a desperate situation as I was hitchhiking to Cuzco, Peru from the south of Brazil. It was in a late afternoon after not being able to find a ride nor anything to eat. Upon arriving to a small farm in an isolated area, I stole some potatoes I found laying on a piece of burlap fabric. After franticly running without any reason — since nobody saw me — I stopped away from the farm and contemplated the three little sad potatoes in my dirty hands. Having no utensils to boil the rather miniscule potatoes, I gave a bite to one of them, realizing that I could not even chew it. Obviously, they were hard as rocks due to the cold weather. So after spitting the tuber out, I craved something soft and tasty. Without thinking it twice, I grabbed a bunch of soil with my left hand I took it into my mouth, and I clearly remember thinking that I wanted this soil to be delicious and nutritious. I thought it so emphatically that I could no longer pay attention to the particles going through my throat. Its texture was actually soft and pleasant on account of the fact that it was topsoil and it did not contain any pieces of rock. One handful was enough to bring me into a silent state of mind where I began perceiving my surroundings as a nurturing space. Seconds after this peaceful sensation, my mind started sending me the common human thoughts that would populate any civilized person’s mind: What am I doing? I really need to find something to eat, and am I going to get sick or die? All these questions kept reconfiguring themselves in my head as I felt the satisfactory sensation of having experienced something transformative. Hours later after walking on a small road again, I was picked up by a generous farmer with an old truck and driven to the nearest town, Mirador Caracoto. During this micro-road trip, I kept the soil incident to myself. Once in the town, I was able to sell a couple of jackets I had in my backpack and eventually made it to my “final destination.” I tell this story because it reveals values that are central to my art practice. Journeying as an exploration of the unknown, acknowledgment of ignorance, and transformation are points that guide and organize my understanding of what I do as an artist.

Five years later when I became acquainted with performance art I thought of contextualizing my experience with soil in a “performance video.” However, when I did it for the camera I became very conscious of the situation I was creating and how contrived it was. The scenario I constructed was completely different. This time I was in New York, and created a prologue to accompany the act of eating dirt. The first part of the video was about the occasional nauseous feeling I have when being overexposed to advertisements and consumer culture. The second part is about entering a public park (Central Park) to eat soil. The area where my friendly cameraperson and I spontaneously decided to shoot was actually closed for maintenance. I obviously felt tempted to jump the fence and ended up removing a piece of grass to eat a small portion of the aforementioned substance. A few pedestrians walking their dogs saw me and noted the presence of the camera, creating that typical mediated environment/situation that weakens the authenticity of such normally undocumented events. I never felt the same serenity as that first time at the farm again because I became too aware of my actions, and slightly paranoid to be penalized for jumping the fence and defacing public property.

Being born in a culture that has always defined Earth as a mother and the Sun as a father, I developed an appreciation and respect for these beliefs. However, when the Mother Earth icon was imported into western culture, it became a component of the linguistic structure of patriarchal dominance. Thus, perpetuating the image of the mother as unconditionally generous, fertile and inexhaustibly abundant.  When I moved to the United States, one of the things that I paid attention to in language was the relation between the word “dirt” and “dirty,” especially because dirt is often used interchangeably with the word soil. So, whether soil is dirt or an aspect of Mother Earth is personally irrelevant, the essential part to me is how the metaphor that defines the relationship between us and the “natural world” creates a different engagement with our surroundings. Perhaps, this is why I find the metaphor of “eating soil as a way of reconnecting with a source” fascinating. For instance, if you research some of the cultures that have embraced geophagia — that is the practice of eating earthy or soil-like substances such as clay and chalk — you will find out that the elements that make up soil are potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and manganese which are also present in the human body. In many parts of the developing world there is earth even available for purchase that is intended for consumption; they consider geophagy to be a beneficial, nutritional approach to promote well-being. Of course, I am aware that the contemporary condition of soil in many places of the world is deplorable and highly toxic. I am further aware that there is a significant difference between the soil I ate on a small farm in Peru and the dirt from a metropolitan public park where there is the potential encounter with dog excrement, 70’s heroin needles, or fingers of gangster victims that did not pay their dues.

 

Stills from Westoxication. 2006. NY

CP: Is there a difference between performance and presentation for you?

SA: Although these two are similar in that they both comprise an event in which an individual or group of individuals behave in a particular way for another group of individuals, they are slightly different to me in terms of how they make the recipient individuals feel. Presentations, as we usually know them, carry a didacticism that make us focus on the content of what is being presented rather than the presenter. Performances, on the other hand, bring our attention to the performer (his/her physical, emotional, and kinesthetic characteristics that I perceive as organic) and the contextual features around him/her or them (architecture and props, which I perceive as inorganic, when they happen indoors). After engaging into different forms of investigation (both formally and informally) about performative genres (which I perceive as modes of communication) I see them as forms of channeling energy. Today, one can play semantically in order to find new possibilities, and expand upon notions. For instance, one could say performers perform, and presenters present or performers present and presenters perform. One could also think performances present performers, presentations perform presenters, and so on. To me, presenting implies a detachment from what is being presented. It is a humbler approach to communicating an idea or intention. Most religious and devotional rituals involve presenting an offering (whether something tangible or intangible) to a worshipped being. This makes me ponder the idea of the audience as a worshipped entity receiving the offerings of a performer. In any case, however the performers or presenters decide to interact with their audience (whether they are physically present or not), I believe it is important to allow the energy that is being conjured to be transmitted as intended, unless they are dealing with unknown forces outside their cognition and this is the intention.

CP: How do you consider the audience/performer relationship? Is this a dynamic that is porous? And where is the power located? 

SA: There a long list of sociologists, philosophers, dramaturges, performance theorists and researchers who have dealt with the audience/performer subject in multiple ways. To me, it is important to have an understanding of the origins of theater, performing arts, sports, and social gatherings as well as how the relationship between the performer and the audience changed into one of producer and consumer. There are specific instances that mark the breaking down of traditional boundaries between actors and spectators. For instance, the formation of the Living Theater in New York by Julian Beck and Judith Malina changed how the audience was engaged through direct personal and physical contact. Likewise, when Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal (influenced by theorist and educator Paulo Freire) developed the Theatre of the Oppressed, within which performance was intended to entertain, educate, and raise consciousness. I am obviously omitting the extensive list of people, events, movements, and disciplines that have contributed to what we categorize today as relational aesthetics, participatory art, and social practices. However, whether one is aware of this information or not, these contributions are already engrained in the sphere of human cognition.

But anyway, most of us with Internet access are aware of the omnipresence of videos depicting different kind of events, open source lectures, webinars, presentations, performances, and practices that share the process of how subjects and objects are made. The ones showing rows of seated spectators facing a raised platform particularly fascinate me. In the broadest terms, the “performer-presenter” may be seen as an enthusiast, or critic of society. In âš«â– â–¼, one of my current projects in process, I explore this setup, the body language of the presenter and the audience, and their potential to alienate. From my perspective, presenters perform an almost priestly role when in front of a large screen or projection that informs the audience or devotees in a semiotic mass. However one sees it, I think there is a consensus about the need to gain greater awareness of the implications of systematic image distribution in power-saturated contexts and human relations – particularly in this media-laden society.

 

âš«â– â–¼(live) Video still. 2011. Chicago.

CP:  What is the relationship between shape and identity? I’m partly asking because the way you use shapes quite often in your work–circles and triangles and squares…

SA: In this project, I began by acknowledging these historic associations:

a. the circle, the one, the point, the center, the ellipse, the circus, the circuit, the speaker, the divine, the sun, the transmutation, the emotion, the liquid, the circulatory system.

b. the square, the quartet, the structure, the area, the perimeter, the room, the site, the group, the audience, the collective, the concentration, the cardinal points, the mundane, the solid, the digestive system.

c. the triangle, the trio, the creation, the interaction, the elements, the magic, the media, the message, the subject, the intellect, the illumination, the direction, the gas, the nervous system.

1. the logo: the word, the discourse, the argument, the rhetoric, the religion, the emblem, the identity, the transcultural diffusion, the union and interrelation of three physical states of water (solid, liquid, and gaseous).

Logos.

The logo (1.) is an inverted 17th century “sign” that illustrates the blending of geometric shapes, and elemental symbols. Then, it was used by medieval alchemists to represent the elements and forces needed for magical work in order to reach physical and spiritual transformation, and immortality. Today, these concerns are that of transhumanists who explore bio-enhancement technologies (intellectual and physical) and the elimination of aging. Some even seek the elimination of death such as Ray Kurzweil and his sympathizers. Whether we like it or not, our human condition is transforming and non-biological intelligences are growing exponentially.

Adopting the alchemical sign as a logo/brand is a way of bringing attention to the subject of transformation. To me, this is a way of coming to terms with a personal feeling that I think we all share: the feeling of being driven by a larger force beyond one’s control. When appropriating the alchemical sign as a logo I thought of myself as a corporate force that imparts, shares, and distributes information. Using the alchemical symbol upside down is my way of acknowledging a return to the basic, to innocence. What I mean by basic is my prelinguistic life, before I was educated. Hence, I am interested how we educate the “uneducated,” how infants acquire language, and how we are constrained in our use of language by our particular social and psychological realities.

The inspiration for âš«â– â–¼ emerged after watching several hours of web conferences, and online lectures on subjects I am passionate about. Also contributing to the impetus for the project were my notes and memories on how I have been feeling inside authoritarian architecture — mostly churches and military sites, classrooms, and various institutional sites since childhood. Some memories, which I perceive as “light,” are more personal, comical and embarrassing; for instance, when things collapsed in strictly controlled situations or in demonstrations of vulnerability in public. The other memories, which I perceive as “dark,” are aggressive and fear inciting; for example, acts of civic disobedience and public panic. Here, I specifically refer to the attacks of the two main rebel groups, Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, who operated most forcefully in their effort to destabilize and overthrow the Peruvian government.

I also include my memories as an audience member in large sport events, massive music concerts, raves, mosh pits, in addition to intimate-level events such as presentations/performances in small venues, galleries, and studios. All these social assemblages (cultural or sub-cultural) are highly affected by the architecture in which they take place. I like to think about the physical states of water — liquid, solid, and gaseous — as an analogy that provides a different way of understanding different types of social gatherings. Consequently, I think of water containers, and temperature. What happens when you boil water? What happens when you freeze water? Can certain places solidify us? Which places keep us moving and flowing? In what place do we boil and become gaseous? How is in charge of the temperature?

Online, we articulate ourselves as databases in social networks. In doing so, we use our names as our brand, our logo. I began paying attention to this when I started a blog called Wanderlustmind where I was aiming to collect relevant information and archive my digressions over the Internet. By using the template provided by the semantic publishing platform, I became statistically aware of my “followers’” locations, their traffic, and their preferences. Similarly, when performing or witnessing a performance, I also pay attention to the structural characteristics of an audience. This makes me wonder if blogging has awakened a desire to know more about my audience or if it is a natural tendency I have. Regardless, once I wanted to “boost my traffic,” I opened a page for my blog in the popular “Book of Faces.” Here, as part of a community of millions of sentient beings entrapped in a platform created by the idiosyncrasy of a Harvard sophomore, I pondered existentialism once again and therefore the questionnaire began. What behavior am I adopting? Which model am I following? Am I becoming a hybrid of machine and organism? Am I aware of what produces major changes in my cognition? Am I really able to perceive this transformation during my lifetime? Did I abandon the religion I was brought up in so that I can be indoctrinated into a new one prophesying technological utopianism? Will my grandchildren meet humans who were born in times where the Internet did not exist? Is it worth having children considering the current conditions of the media environment? Will I bio-engineer my own children? Do I already have children? Are they blogs or social networks that I maintain daily? What do I feed them? Is my affection enough as a simple XOXO?

As I press the keyboard and quantify myself through a luminescent screen that stores binary numbers and manipulates data, I associate my writing (or your reading) to the comfort and anonymity of a passive audience member sitting in the dark. Obviously, as you read these words in a rectangular display composed of liquid crystals (that is if you did not use a inkjet or laser printer to print this on paper), there are people around the world who are still reading books illuminated by a candle. Should everyone use the Internet? Are there other forms of networking we are ignoring or dismissing? Should indigenous people conform to the dominating attitude of the patriarchic media? Can these groups participate in the decision making process of how technology should operate? Should cultures that have not come up with “new technologies” be consigned to history? Wouldn’t you be concerned if the same nations that brought you sugar, processed foods, GMO’s, and mass pollution were offering you new useful technologies?

⚫■▼ Video still. 2011.


 

 

 

One Response to “The Taste of Potassium: An Interview with Sebastian Alvarez”

  1. […] hungry far from home and stealing potatoes from a farm); you can read the whole piece by going here. Caroline Picard: What happened to your impression of dirt once you ate it in […]

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