In an article written in early 2012 for Frieze, Lars Bang Larsen wonders if the problem with social practice, or any art that bases itself in or on “the social,” as it were, is its contemporaneity. For Larsen, it is—or at least was, three years ago—the shifting identity of who and/or what constitutes society and sociality that robs art based in the social of its mooring in history. Although I am wary of mourning the loss of History, some kind of hegemonic accounting for time and/or quality that fluctuates along the same lines as the social, I understand Larsen’s worry in terms of horizontality. The social sphere “privileges space over time, presence over form,” Larsen writes: it is “a concept without speed and virtuality.” This can be seen in the mirrored intents of much socially-based art and much self-help or managerial-behavior advice as being in a, or the moment. When is the moment?
More insidiously, the understanding of the social of the 2010s—the contemporary of now, versus the contemporary of 1960 or 1850—is that of an abstract mass that can be easily atomized into other abstract masses and monetized. If presence is more important than form, if being there is more important than knowing why or in what capacity, one’s ability to look across one’s situation and analyze it is deeply compromised. If I believe it is more important to agree to my high-efficiency, assymetrical work schedule than to become agitated over the loss of my workday, a form that unions and activists have been fighting to define and hold for the last 150 years, then I have forfeited my right to live for anything other than profit margins and capital. When I agree to working from 12-9 on Monday, 9-6 on Tuesday, 4-12 on Thursday, and 8-5 Friday and Saturday, I am almost certainly not doing so because I actually believe that I will ever share in those profit margins or own for myself any of that capital, as such beliefs are increasingly ludicrous in times as inequal and undemocratic as our own. Rather, I am either agreeing out of total desperation or for the good of the team.
One of the defining characteristics of the social turn that art began to take in the 90s—and that it continues to take like endless donuts in a Walmart parking lot—is that is has been, and continues to be, mirrored by a social turn in workforce management. Just as artists detourned quotidien forms like dinners, drinking beer with friends, storefronts, etc into artworks, lifting the everday into rarified art worlds, so did workforce management detourn workers into quotidien forms like teams, squads, family, etc. If a workforce identifies as a team, then the members of the workforce identify as teammates, who are part of a larger team that is not like other teams, rather than as workers unified across a company or across an industry. The aestheticization of the workforce, which owes much to artists who aesthetize the everyday, makes structural problems vanish because the structure itself disappears. It is because of this reciprocity that the ever-present hangwringing over the actual political efficacy of much art that bases itself in, uses, or attempts to improve upon the social so often seems so silly.
“Back to the Future,” a recent exhibition co-organized by Mexico City residency program Casa Maauad and Denver residency initiative ArtPlant, speaks strongly of this ambivalence. The exhibition is dominated by gunmetal grays, while the repetitive yelling and smashing from Adán de la Garza’s video, giving myself a reason to scream but not cry (2015) in the space’s back corner permeates everything, nullifying its affective content and becoming just another domestic sound. Taken as a whole with its contents, exhibition’s title references more the endless tail-chasing of contemporaneity more than the 80s classic trilogy. Indeed, the show reads as if the title was decided upon before the work was made, and that, over their month of production, the artists involved—especially the three artists from Denver, Christina Battle, de la Garza, and Dmitri Obergfell—found their work gradually darkening.
The first work the viewer encounters is a video installation by Colombian-born artist Cristina Ochoa, who currently lives in Mexico City. What appears to be a video recording of a labor protest at a factory is projected onto a circle of glass shards. The shards, in turn, reflect their image back onto the wall below and beside the projector, a ghostly and compelling abstraction that shifts according to its parent image. It is difficult to tell which image is meant to be seen or if they are meant to be taken together. Taken together, however, the sharded video and its reflection present beautifully the process of workforce aestheticization, where political agency washes out into innocuous abstraction.
Dmitri Obergfell’s Statues Also Die (2015), a set of three Malverde busts with their scalps blown off into graphite gore behind, dominates the next room. Jesús Malverde, along with Santa Muerte, is a revered semi-mythological figure among Mexico’s disenfranchised poor and narcos, who are often from the same place and whose deaths are often vicious. Indeed, the cycle of narco-violence is almost entirely contained to the massive population of desperately poor in Mexico, abandoned by Mexico’s 200-year old caste system and ground into dust by Mexico’s wholehearted embrace of neoliberalism. It is from these people, whose lives are condemned to endless days minimum wage labor at MX$50 (a little over US$3) per day—regardless of how long that day is—that new recruits for organizations like the Sinoloa cartel, whose leader, El Chapo, escaped in ridiculous and elaborate form from a maximum security prison over the weekend. It is also these people that are mercilessly slaughtered and dumped as warnings by the Zetas, an organization that rivals ISIS in its ghastly combination of wild brutality and social media savvy; or by the mayor of Iguala and his wife earlier this year for threatening to mar a party, such as the 43 students who were murdered earlier this year. Malverde and Santa Muerte are revered, that is, by those whose lives have always already been lost, who were robbed of hope the second they were born. It seems a bit beside the point then, and resolutely spectacularly American, to blow his scalp off, as removing the idol of a culture does nothing to remove the structural problems that make that culture possible. However, each Malverde carries a name, the name of a local artisan who assisted Obergfell in creating the busts: Anuar, Mauricio, and Tony. Perhaps this gesture, which lifts these workers into a discussion that usually ignores them, adds a mournful generosity to the piece, an acknowledgement of those who work and die with nothing, for nothing.
The ambivalence that permeates the show emanates from Battle’s and de la Garza’s work. The two Denver artists, born in Edmonton and Tucson, respectively, consistently address or interact with the social in their work. Both of their past work is tinged or strongly influenced by humor, whimsy, or play, such as de la Garza’s surveillance² (2014) or Battle’s Games to Help You Get Ready to Live in the Police State (2014). In “Back to the Future,” though, their work is stripped of its customary levity. de la Garza’s screaming giving myself a reason…, mentioned above, a short loop of the artist screaming in anger and breaking the same glass plate over and over again. In an accompanying note, de la Garza writes that the piece “examines the correlation between catharsis and protest,” and that this action—smashing a plate, screaming, screaming, smashing a plate, “the willingness to break and destroy,” writes de la Garza—may be a way out of a stifling governmentality. However, while perhaps smashing a plate or a window might give one temporary relief, even a temporary agency—remember the smashed windows at the Whole Foods in Oakland, or more recently the torched CVS in Baltimore, the racist and pathetic handwringing over the loss of property while entire neighborhoods were being destroyed and churches burned—the tautological and irritating nature of the video suggests that such actions are ultimately futile. Indeed, we can see the ineffectiveness of recent protest movements, from the “no” vote in Greece two weeks ago all the way back to Occupy Oakland and the catastrophic failure of the so-called Arab Spring, as evidence of the evacuation of effectiveness from 20th-century models of protest. Rather than point to a governmentality that pushes its constituents towards hopelessness, as de la Garza insists in his notes, giving myself a reason to scream but not to cry points to the slow disappearance of hope and its opposite, hopelessness, from the possible field of action proscribed by neoliberal governmentality. If I cannot feel hope I also do not feel hopeless; if I am empty I have nothing to cathart. The feeling of watching the video, which is something like awkwardness, is astonishing in its ability to describe the transition from corporeal body to atomized datum, from proletariat to team.
Battle’s ? (when the cities burn) (2015) is perhaps more mournful. A longer loop of a childlike paper city slowly burning atop a warm wooden surface, ? is a tribute to the loss of ambition, a call to abandon the worldwide desire to move from rural space to urban space, from down to up. It is a potent sentiment in Mexico City, whose population has been booming from the mid-20th century not necessarily because of a desire to find jobs, as many media tend to put it, but rather because of the destruction or exhaustion of local farmland due to the two-headed dragon of climate change and urban demand. Indeed, the hubris of many Western accounts of urban expansion is unbelievable: why would anyone aspire to live in an informal dwelling with no plumbing and no future, the only ways out to die, join a gang, or be incredibly, outrageously lucky? In such narratives the destruction of land and culture is neatly put aside, vanished, in favor of an aspirational narrative more in line with, again, a neoliberal governmentality that structures societal thought towards dreams of upward advancement, the accomplishment of goals, the all-surpassing value of ambition. As these narratives are enforced, the ability to see across them is compromised: it becomes difficult to wonder: advancement towards what? accomplishment of whose goals? what is lost when ambition is favored above all else? As with de la Garza’s, Battle’s brief notes do not do her own work justice. She writes that ? “visualizes the only solution that…might ultimately lead us toward something better,” suggesting that the solution would be when cities burn. I would argue, however, that what the video points to is the need to abandon narratives of ambition, hard work, and upward mobility—to abandon our dreams, which have been dictated to us—in order to locate ourselves, together, across labor and in time.
Zona MACO and Material, the fairs that ran more or less concurrently the first week of February here in Mexico City, helped synthesize a number of threads floating around in my mind since arriving here. Those threads: Boris Groys’s essay “On Art Activism,” published in e-flux shortly before I moved, a talk by Donna Haraway that a friend e-mailed to me, and the thought, in general: why do I give a shit about art? Do I even?
We arrived at Zona MACO an hour before it shut. I was surprised that I was there: a few days earlier, in an impassioned speech to Andrew Choate, I had said something like, you know, this fair is in this posh neighborhood that you have to own a car or a chauffeur or have a chauffeur who’s driving your car or whatever to get to, it’s only accessible to the very rich, fuck the rich and fuck their art, they can keep it. So anyway, there we were, at MACO, the phenomenal lighting making the average MACO-goer’s Lacoste polo shit look gorgeous and my oil-stained clothes look ratty as hell. We moved fast, visiting only galleries where one of us knew somebody. I didn’t think about anything or really look at anything: Maurício Ianês at Y Gallery was visually striking but maybe a little hamhanded, but then again given the subject matter maybe it’s ok to be hamhanded, maybe nothing else will ever work; Debora Delmar Corp at DUVE Berlin was actually kind of beautiful in person, although I guess I can see why some jackass gave it “worst of MACO,” because, I don’t know, no marble? no expressionist lines? who cares, I’m sure that guy would prefer a show of staircase pineapples thickly streaked with paint or blood in a really emotional way; at Chert, Petrit Kalilaj was a little scattered, but also maybe hilarious and heartbreaking; I heard a funny story at Gaga and wondered how Labor won the 1800 Tequila prize and what that meant—how it would affect my life. Then we left past an army of art handlers ready to pounce.
A few hours earlier I had been at Material, the satellite fair that first happened last year. I had no thoughts at Material, either, I was too hung over and tired. I didn’t have the coffee I needed until after I left. I talked to people, which I usually don’t. I talked to Aaron Harbour and Jackie Im and liked how weird and gross but also really appealing Chris Hood’s paintings were; I talked to Steve Kado at Kunstverein Toronto and was totally freaked out by how similar his speech pattern is to another Canadian I know; I talked to Travis Fitzgerald and Josh Pavlacky at American Medium, who were extremely congratulatory and very friendly about a performance I had done at Bikini Wax the night before, two stories above a great video by Skip Arnold—not the one below. It was also the only show/booth/experience I spent more than ten minutes in during the entire week. Anyway, I didn’t talk to anyone at Queer Thoughts, but I wondered if their desk was intentionally positioned in their booth such that you couldn’t really look at David Rappeneau’s drawings without putting your ass in someone’s face. Everybody I talked to, well not everybody but a sizeable sample, mentioned that both sales and attendance had been slow, and either Travis or Josh said something like, “I don’t know why they even call this an art fair, they should call it something else.” For this sizeable sample, it seemed like the opportunity and experience to meet other people interested in similar art, to talk and hang out and party or decide not to party, was as or more important than actually selling anything. Then again, everybody needed to sell things.
I guess it’s kind of like how it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends than go to your mind-numbing day job. Or how it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends than stab yourself in the eye. How it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends and talk with them like they’re people you want to talk to than it is to have a drink with your friends and talk to them like you want them to buy something from you. People who I either knew or had established a friendly-level acquaintanceship with apologized for “giving me the spiel,” which I identified with, having worked for a year selling wine, which involves a similar kind of activity.
Wine is vastly more enjoyable, or more able to be enjoyed, if you know what the hell is going on with it: where it came from, what grape(s) it’s made out of, what year it’s from, what things taste like from that place, from that grape, from that year. It helps also to know how it was made, using what process, where the winemaker used to work. You have to spend time reading, learning, tasting, feeling like an asshole for not knowing, feeling like an asshole for knowing, that kind of thing. It’s certainly possible to have a good time with a glass of wine knowing nothing at all, but in order to have a great time, to have an interesting perceptual experience or a moment where you feel like you are suddenly the fucking king of everything, a feeling which wine is uniquely qualified to deliver, you have to know stuff. Sometimes it’s also nice to know little narrative bits, too, you know, how these winemakers make a big deal out of paying their grape-pickers fairly, or how this is the only woman wine-maker in her region, so on and so forth, but this sort of narrative is usually reserved for the selling of wine, by winesellers like I used to be, and is usually delivered in the same tone of voice, with the same cadence, as the art spiel.
Which I guess is why I’ve been wondering: what differentiates a photograph from a bottle of wine? A painting from an antique chair? Why do I think that an artwork is different, exists on a “higher” plane, than a humidor? A year ago, I badmouthed an LA gallerist for having a side business selling antique furniture. I perceived the proximity of the antique furniture practice and the gallery practice as some kind of affront, some kind of insult to art. Like art belongs in a different moral/ethical universe than chairs, or wine, and treating it as if it were the same kind of lifestyle commodity is somehow dirty. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s a good dirty.
In “On Art Activism,” Boris Groys draws a distinction between the aestheticization art performs versus the aestheticization design performs. For him, design takes the tools—a hammer, a speech, whatever—of the status quo and makes them more attractive, more usable. Now you, too, can get rich making videos on YouTube advertising our products! That kind of thing. Art, on the other hand, takes the status quo and presents it as a relic, as something already dead, useless. For Groys, this lends art a degree of political agency insofar as it treats the status quo, which is always impossible to imagine ending, as already over, a fossil. In Donna Haraway’s conception of our current epoch, the “capitalocene,” ruled and primarily defined by the processes and logics of capitalism, the production and exhaustion of fossils is paramount. What for Groys is the possibility of political action for art against the status quo, is for Haraway is the very fuel for the status quo. I’m tempted to believe them both: while art has the potential to cause problems within the status quo, it is ultimately an integral part of it, consumed, traded by, conferring status upon a small superrich class that controls the vast majority of the globe’s wealth, right alongside furniture (also a part of Zona MACO), boutique alcohols (also a part of Material), and so on.
I’m wondering, actually, if maybe this idea that art has some kind of actual political efficacy, that it can “change the world,” is maybe the last vestige of the sort of 18th/19th century romanticism that moved art somewhere—up, definitely—different than, say, furniture or wine, that it delivers something different, something more, something to do with morality, something to do with ethics in a conception of “the world” that assumes it to be homogenous, somehow able to benefit uniformly from a single given action or idea that moves—ineffably, certainly—from the particular to the universal, a movement governed by a set of rules, standards of taste, beauty, and judgment, that it was assumed every “good” work of art, or “good” person, could be shown to follow.
At the outset of “On Art Activism,” Groys dismisses claims that activist art is bad because it is “bad art” — that is, it looks bad or doesn’t exhibit technical mastery. “In the twentieth century,” he writes, “all criteria of quality and taste were abolished by different artistic avant-gardes—so, today, it makes no sense to appeal to them again.” If MACO and Material made me feel anything, it is that I hope that the avant-gardes of the twenty-first century can make equally obsolete the idea that an artwork can or should have some kind of ability to move itself and/or its viewers into some kind of universal realm of political agency, because there is no “universal” any more than there is “the world,” and any politics that depends on the universal—”the world”—is necessarily self-defeating. I hope that we can forget the Enlightenment and become total fucking idiots or squids or cyborgs or really anything non-Enlightenment-human, and try something else, because that shit did not work at all.
I met Debora Delmar and Andrew Birk, co-runners of NO Space, at Cantina Riviera, on Chiapas in Colonia Roma. I recommend the lechon and the taco de pulpo asado, if they have it. We drank Dos Equis lager exclusively. In early February, in the midst of the Material Art Fair, No Space will present a show curated by Keith J Varadi at Bikini Wax in San Miguel. After establishing that they had moved to Mexico City from Bushwick, where Debora had lived at 538 Johnson Ave—you know, that house they go to in Girls—and Andrew had had a studio, I asked how the art scene in Mexico City differed from the art scene in Bushwick. After we talked, Andrew mentioned that they had no idea I was going to record our conversation and/or post it (in truncated form) online.
DD: There’s not the culture here, like there is in Bushwick, of buildings full of studios. There’s all these young kids coming out of art school, they’re all in a building together, making work, and that becomes a stronger community. Even if the work is shitty, they’re there.
AB: In a place like Bushwick, the bind is making work. I think with the arts community here, its bind is partying.
DD: There’s also not much funding. The market isn’t strong. There’s rich people here, like Roma and Condesa are all full of rich kids who have come from rich parents—
JW: But having rich people doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re buying art. The Bay Area is full of rich people, none of whom are buying art. They’re all buying—what are those jackrabbits with antlers?—jackalopes.
DD: It also goes hand in hand with the culture here. There is a lot of culture in Mexico, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is an interest in contemporary art. I think that factors into there not being much of a market for young art, for what we’re doing.
JW: What made you guys start NO Space?
DD: We were tired of going to every show and seeing always the same names. We wanted to contribute, to bring attention to other artists that we relate to.
AB: There’s so many people living in this city, but there’s so few galleries, and none of them want anything to do with the kind of art that we make. Everything’s really fixed.
DD: Even outside of here, we have friends whose work we’d like to see shown here, to expose this kind of work that we like to other people from here. We don’t want to be a gallery or anything like that.
JW: Why don’t you guys want to be a gallery?
AB: We don’t want to get this project confused with questions of money, because that changes the vision of things. With all the international artists that we invite to the show, I think the really cool parameter that we’re putting is zero budget. What can you do with zero budget? The bigger we get in our own careers, the more we expect a budget, the more interesting and constricting the parameter of no money becomes, and the more creatively you have to respond. Actually, one of the things that I feel the most guilty about and that I’m kind of ashamed of, with the former No Space documentation, is that the photos are really nice. They’re really white, they’ve been Photoshopped, and so on. I think the new thing that’s going to happen is that documentation will just get shitty. I want to start using social media documentation more.
DD: We are always looking at websites like Contemporary Art Daily or whatever, or people just posting their work online. That’s what we do, too. That becomes our approach to the way we’re looking at art, the way we’re thinking about where it will end, about where the image will end.
AB: Contemporary Art Daily is amazing, I love it, but it’s changed the way we hang work, we photograph work, we make work, everything. You’re making work so it goes on that website. You’re hanging work so it goes on that website. You’re photographing and processing that work so it goes on that website. What’s the next thing that could possibly happen? It’s making work that can’t go on that website. Or photographing work in a way that they would never accept.
JW: What if someone wants to buy something that’s being shown at one of your shows?
AB: Well, how can you stop that from happening? When we originally started, we didn’t even ask prices of anything from any of the artists. If somebody was interested, we’d give their e-mail to the artists. We also decided to have no texts, nothing to read, because we were tired of the culture of walking into a show and having to read text to understand the show. People expect not to have to use their instincts to interact with the art, because there’s a text there that does it for them.
JW: I was just reading something really nice about a problem in criticism regurgitating whatever it is that artists say about their own work. I think it’s a similar problem to what you describe, where you read the wall text and you’re like, oh great, that’s what that means, or you go on the artists website and it’s like, “I do x by doing y,” and you’re like, oh great, that’s what that means, and then that artist’s statement of “I do x by doing y” gets repeated by whoever reviews the show, or talks about it, and so actually it’s really pointless that anyone made anything or went anywhere.
AB: It also creates this strata in which people who have less experience with art, or who know less about art history, or have less ability to place contemporary gestures into a grander context, depend on the text to understand art, as if these art objects don’t relate to them or they don’t have a point of entry in the art, which of course they do! If there’s a shoe on a fucking tabletop in an art space, you have a pair of shoes, you’re wearing them right now, and you have a table at your house, what do these things mean to you? How can you enter into the piece?
JW: Would you say that there’s a through-going aesthetic through all the shows that you guys have produced?
JW: Do you think there’s anything lost in this—not randomness, but all this variety? Does it create its own kind of homogeneity?
AB: All of the shows that we’ve put together come from my sensibilities about art that can be seen in my work, and Debora’s sensibilities about art that can be seen in her work. It’s not just totally floating. But I wonder. It could be. One thing’s for sure: we’re taking as many measures as possible to prevent us from capitalizing on this project financially.
DD: We like their art for a reason. Our choices come from us looking at other people’s work and thinking, oh, this should be shown somewhere. It’s not just about giving people a platform for the sake of giving them a platform. We don’t want to have a tight curatorial thing, because we’re not representing artists or something like that. Yes, of course there’s common grounds between some of the artists, because they’re young, but we’ve shown older artists, too, and we like that, for example we’ve picked Mexican artists that have careers outside, but their work doesn’t really fit into the bigger dialogue here, the discourse.
JW: What is the bigger dialogue here?
DD: Kurimanzutto, 90s style political and social stuff.
JW: You guys are talking with a little bit of disdain towards politics in art. Am I hearing that right?
AB: Personally, I feel like if I wanted to make a change in politics, my career path would be inside of politics. I wonder if making a political art gesture to a bunch of rich people who have doctorates makes any political change. Or if talking about really, really poor, abject conditions in an art language that has nothing to do with the people that are living inside of those conditions has any effect. For me, art is its own language for itself.
DD: I understand why artists want to talk about politics, because there’s so much shit going on, how can you not be affected by it? Of course! But I don’t know, my interests in art became separate from those interests. Maybe art is political in itself, but for me illustrating doesn’t really change or contribute so much to a change. If you were selling the pieces and giving the money for a good cause, maybe that would make more sense for me.
JW: I wonder if, at a certain point, art just serves to justify the existence of otherwise heinous individuals. Like, sure, I’m a wealthy financier who’s making billions screwing the poor, destroying the middle class, blah blah blah, but look I’ve got this artwork, so it’s cool. It kind of ameliorates their position in society.
DD: For example, the first show that Andrew and I had here, we had a show in this project space around here, and all of the students from the Esmerelda came with the teachers. They came from a pool party that they had all been at together, dressed in Hawaiian shirts—
AB: With leis and all that!
DD: —tons of people in Hawaiian shirts, and they were all super drunk, and they started yelling at me like “you’re so superficial, this work has no meat, you’re just a superficial bitch that has money and you don’t care!” It was crazy. Even the teachers were yelling at us, telling us all this super mean stuff, until we found a way to kick them out.
AB: It was also kind of cool, because that shit just doesn’t happen elsewhere. As much as we complain about the five teachers bringing their 75 students drunk as fuck to the show, and lighting off fireworks and shit in the hallway, that’s also what’s super cool about this place. Things are so infrastructurally underdeveloped that we can actually like build whatever we want here, and occupy positions in the landscape where there would be no space for us in other, more developed systems.
JW: How do you categorize NO Space? Can you?
DD: It’s been referred to as a project space…
JW: But that seems so funny, because it doesn’t seem like you have a project and it also doesn’t seem like you have a space. And then, if you’re a curatorial team, you’re having this show in a couple weeks that is curated by Keith, so you’re a curatorial team that’s curating a curator…
AB: I like that!
DD: I like it, too! Because we’re into what he’s into. I just saw this documentary that came out about YouTube people starring in each other’s videos to build audiences. It was on PBS maybe? It’s called Generation Like. It explains about how likes mean power and money, in terms of influence, popularity, and so on. There was like this one kid who was a skater and he was really cool and really young, and he started getting all this money from brands to do his videos, and people wanted to take selfies with him, and put them on Instagram, because then if you’re in a photo with this guy, you’ll get likes. There’s agencies for these people to place YouTube people with other YouTube people.
AB: Your agent talks to her agent and you guys co-star in a video, and all of your viewership goes to her account, and all of her viewership goes to yours, and you build something up together. That’s kind of the way we’re interested in working. Not to bring attention to NO Space, but to bring attention to artists that we don’t otherwise have the means to make more available. It’s a matter of taking the entire community and combining networks to form a platform for the artists.
December 19, 2014 · Print This Article
I met Roberto Cruz Arzabal, Cinthya García Leyva, and Susana González Aktories at a corner café in Coyoacan, a neighborhood adjacent to UNAM. Cruz, García, and González are three of six members of the laboratory of extended literature and other materialities (lleom), a roving and expansive group that presents walks, talks, readings, exhibitions, and other events around emergent forms of writing. Although I am usually wary of talking about art in cafes, I was encouraged by what I perceived as similarities between this café and the café I talked to Renzo Martens in back in April. I ordered a matcha cake, which for some reason I did not expect to be giant and neon green. I began by asking what lleom is.
*This interview was conducted in English.
CGL: It’s a space of experimentation. We met in school, in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM, and we share some similar questions about literature in general: how literature literally expands its forms, its communications, and its relations. We try to exercise these expansions, and we try to invite people to experiment with us. We are developing research, seminars, sound walks, very different ways of approaching experimental literature.
RCA: lleom is not a physical space. It’s a cognitive space with cognitive experiments. We want to try to new concepts and new approaches, both to the old media, to the old literature, as well as to the new literature, the new ways and territories in which literature is operating in this moment.
JW: What do you mean by the new literature?
SGA: Emergent ways of creation, mainly. “New” is a difficult term to define.
RCA: Yes. What is emerging may not be new. We are in a very wide space, which I think allows us to look for other encounters between artists, writers, web artists, and even traditional, or almost-traditional, poets.
JW: I’m really interested in the last half of your acronym, the “other materialities.” What are some other materialities?
SGA: Vocal traditions, for instance. Not only oral ways of communication in ancient cultures, but also in contemporary ways, which often include new technologies. Sound poetry and all of its different derivations is fascinating. Our viewpoint starts from the avant-garde movements and comes back to almost yesterday. We’re looking around at new publications and trying to discuss how they are evolving. Are they actually new? What is “new”? What does recreation mean? Of course, we get back to the figure of the Author, of the Original, of how we read. The distinction between reading out loud and singing, the distinction between imagining the text in silence and reading it in silence: these are different materialities which lead you to a different literary object. The approach, the theoretical approach at least, has to change.
RCA: The traditional approach in academia is the text as a text. We don’t see the text just as a text; we see it in an oral way, in a printed way, in a digital way. We are trying to understand the text as a process, the book as a process, the book as an interface for the text. We also have a few studies about the social context of the text: publishing, the relation between writers and other artists. That’s another materiality, the social materiality of literature. We can think the text before or after it is published, before or after it is reviewed or made an object for critical discussion. These are conditions of existence for the text. We don’t read a text. We read a material and we integrate that material into our experience—in our living experience, in our aesthetic experience.
JW: Why “laboratory,” and not workshop or thinktank or any of those other words?
RCA: Because workshop, at least in Mexico, has two connotations. One is the handmade, as in crafts; but also it’s the way in which writers work on writing, in a very professional, material way. We are trying to get out of this idea and to think in a more cognitive space, to be able to really experiment with ideas. We don’t work with material; we work more with ideas and experiments.
CGL: A laboratory also allows for a free way of studying. We try to ask questions about academic work: how we approach academic work, what we understand as academic work.
SGA: Literary matters or other cultural matters are always discussed as things that have already passed. Concluded matters: that’s what makes them objective. Very few people have the courage—I don’t know if it’s courage, but maybe it is—to approach things that are in process, because you can’t know what’s going to come out of them. Here in Mexico, and everywhere, the tendency is to work with writers who have already died. It is much safer to work with dead writers than to work with writers who are still alive. We are letting ourselves be creative a little bit, not just a researchers who stand beside the matter itself, who are always a third element in all the processes and equations, but rather allowing ourselves to experience some kind of creative situation ourselves. It gives us a whole perspective. This is what is generally lacking, at least here in Mexico.
JW: Is lleom this a goal-oriented organization? Is it reaching towards some kind of conclusion or is it fanning out?
SGA: I have my own personal answer for this. We have all these different interests: people decide they want to pursue one thing or another, and we support them. I hope that we, as intellectuals, as an academic group, do not always recreate this same kind of discourse that is always saying that literature is not important to society, that culture is in the periphery of things. I truly believe that culture, literature, and literary studies as such should be considered as the center of many other things that are not only literary, including sociopolitical matters.
RCA: There are a lot of museums, a lot of centers, a lot of schools in Mexico, and they all have that attitude that everything is wrong, that everything is catastrophic.
SGA: Mainly regarding culture: culture is always marginal, culture is never interesting…
JW: What is important if culture is not?
RCL: Money, the economy, the government, the traditional political sphere, traditional media, pop stars, and so on. We are living in a global country, in a global space. We are in an ideological space, in the center of society. If we don’t think that, we are lying to ourselves. That’s the political importance of our work. In the center of the laboratory there are two main interests. One is objects and materiality; the other is the experience and the experience as a process. The experience can make us see reality—the arts, the political—in another way. If we see the experience and the objects, we can think not only the traditional materiality of the book, the poem, but also the way in which the society is thinking itself around those objects right now.
CGL: That’s why we also have an interest in the way the Internet works, in our experience as users of the Internet, literary works that exist in digital space, and also as users of literary works that exist in material or physical space. We return to the book in the second degree. We visualize the book after the Internet.
JW: I noticed on your website that one of the many interests of lleom is “post-Internet.” Is that what you mean? The book after the Internet?
SGA: The question is actually the physical object: the Internet can make you make decisions more consciously. If you decide to make a book object today, it doesn’t mean the same thing as it did at the beginning of the twentieth century, even if it is almost the same. That’s what makes it so fascinating and so exuberant. The last talk, with Leonardo [Valencia, a Ecuadorian author], was about this. He had had the experience of making a digital book, but he realized after this experience that he wanted to turn back to a more conscious way of making, writing, and editing physical books. That gives it a whole new meaning, a whole new experience of writing and of reading.
RCA: The important thing is that it’s conscious. “I want to write in handwriting, I want to publish on the Internet, I want to publish a print book.” These should be conscious decisions. Why are you doing it?
CGL: How we read, and how we write, in the most literal way: we are touching the screen, we are touching the book, we are writing in a screen that we don’t know what it is exactly, or we are writing with ink—
JW: It seems to me the most important thing we can do as academics or artists or anything is to make people aware that they are making a decision. What is this book? Where did it come from? Where was it printed? What was it printed on? These are all questions we should be asking. Where does this paper come from? The answers aren’t always necessarily good ones, or are often horrifying, but it’s important to ask the question and to reconcile yourself to the answer, somehow.
[A server delivers two Americanos, one for Jacob, one for Cinthya.]
JW: When we sat down, I was saying that part of the reason I moved to Mexico City was that I kept on hearing, from other expats, from other foreigners living in Mexico or who had visited Mexico, that it is such an exciting place, that there is so much happening here, and your response was, “yeah, I’ve been hearing that a lot.” Is it true? As people who live in Mexico City, who have been living in Mexico City, is now exciting? Are things different than they were 10 years ago, for instance?
SGA: Definitely. For me, yes. I see it almost in the everyday way of life. Things are changing—not always in a positive way, but often in a positive way. In my case, having come back from Spain just now, I again realized, while talking to my friends, and while having had the opportunity to stay actually abroad—my mother is German, I studied in Germany and then got my doctorate degree in Spain—there are many things that can still be done. The structures are not so stable. There are so many ways in which you can reinvent things.
RCA: Yes. We have a very interesting city and a very interesting university, for example, and I’d like to say that good things are happening in the city, in the country, in the university. I think that if we are a neoliberal lab, we can answer some things from here, because we are in a very particular space.
JW: Did you say “neoliberal lab”?
RCA: Yes, yes. We are not Ciudad Juarez, and we are not Chile, which was the first neoliberal lab in Latin America, but we are nonetheless a neoliberal lab. We have to think local reality and global reality from our particular position. I think we can find, if not some answers, at least some perspectives. Some different ways of thinking, of organizing. As a lab, as an academic lab, as a cultural lab, we have a possibility to exist in a different way. Which is political, also.
CGL: Also, just to think together. That’s really important.
RCA: That is very important to our work. To think together, to talk about reality together, that’s a very important thing.
SGA: I mean, that’s our infrastructure. Thought. That’s the only thing we have so far. That’s why we haven’t asked for any financial support from any institutions, that’s why we also decided to make this lab outside of the realm of our institution, UNAM, which could probably give us some sort of support, but would also bind us to all sorts of administrative things. That would be very difficult: we would be judged according to parameters that are not related to what we do.
Roberto Cruz Arzabal is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM and a member of lleom. His research interests include post-digital literature, object-oriented ontology, conceptualisms, materiality and virtuality of poetry, material culture, and intermediality.
Cinthya García Leyva is a Masters candidate in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM, a member of lleom, and a curator. Her research interests include intermediality, sound art, materiality and virtuality of poetry, and objects.
Susana González Aktories teaches in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM and is a member of lleom. Her research interests include intermediality, experimental sound and/or visual poetry, applied semiotics, and materiality and virtuality of poetry.
This week: Neysa Page-Lieberman and Amy Mooney tell us about Risk! Dana B. of What’s the T with Dana B kicks off her series from the Material Art Fair 2014 live from Mexico City!