September 2008, Carlos Motta in conversation with Runo Lagomarsino
Carlos Motta:...Runo, you recently showed me a film classic, which I hadn't seen but read much about: Fernando Solanas' La Hora de Los Hornos,1968, a radical Argentinean political documentary and communist manifesto that advocates the construction of a just society, free from the forces of bourgeois neo-colonialism and U.S. imperialism. This major work, very characteristic of the 1960s revolutionary movement is a heartfelt outcry for independence. Solanas and his co-screenwriter Octavio Getino went on to formulate what they called Third Cinema, a radical political film practice that “speaks for the people” and distanced itself from the commercial pressure of Hollywood and uncompromised attitude of European art films from that time. Solanas and Getino hadn’t yet lived the atrocities that would soon take over the continent backed by the United States precisely to stop “communist” tendencies. The dictatorship and its violent effects… The following decades would shatter their socialist dreams. 40 years later Latin America is still a “ruled” by neo-colonialists and “owned” by the U.S.
We are both Latin American (I am from Colombia and you are Argentinean) and we are both doing “political” artwork. Although the context in which we work, seems to me to be very different from 1968. Additionally, I live in the U.S. and you in Sweden. How do you see your work work politically? What’s your thought of radical aesthetics?
Contra el Imperialismo, Unidad de Nuestra América, Street mural, Caracas,
video still from The Good Life, 2005-2008
Runo Lagomarsino: Argentinean poet Juan Gelmán once wrote: "La memoria es una cajita que revuelvo sin solución" (memory is a little box that I stir without solvent). I was very moved, almost shocked when I watched La Hora de Los Hornos for the first time, because of its radicalism as a film, its positions of resistance, as well as for its capacity of analysing history, your history and my history. What impressed me the most was that many of the issues depicted in the film are still extremely current. Watching the film, I asked myself what is its potential today? What has changed in the Latin American context? What is the contingency between colonialism and contemporary Latin America? How is the extreme development of neo-liberal policies and what is the role of the variety of organizations, people, groups, etc. that have produced resistance to this development? These were my thoughts and questions watching the film, more specifically thoughts and questions watching the film 40 years later, in New York, in the U.S., a country that has been (and still is) so present in Latin America.
U.S. presence in Latin America has been a major concern in many of your works, sometimes very direct like in the work the SOA CYCLE, a work about The School of the Americas, but also in the narrative of your current work in progress The Good Life, which discusses the concept of democracy in Latin America.
We have very different approaches to our artistic practice, even though I think our narratives and positions often are connected. You use a more direct documentary strategy and are mostly working with video and I usually use metaphors, abstractions and fiction as an essential tool for thinking and looking at history and its connection to contemporary life.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about John Coltrane’s song Alabama, in connection to the discussion of what constitutes a political artwork and what we/I mean with radial aesthetics. Coltrane’s song was made in response to the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 that killed four young black girls. This song has been a major influence to my work. It is a song that I constantly go back to and “discuss”. The way Coltrane “tells the story,” a narrative that includes sorrow, anger, grief, and a distinct ideological position is incredible… as someone wrote in the comments to the youtube video: This is the BOMB. At the same time, listening to it today sparks a discussion around translation and history, which in some ways is similar to the questions that you pose about La Hora De Los Hornos and its potential today.
Why have you chosen a documentary strategy as you major tool in your artistic practice? And going back to the quote of Gelmán, how do you relate to the movement between history, memory and the present?
Untitled collage made in response to La Hora de Los Hornos by Fernando Solanas, 2008
CM: I am interested in the methodological differences that you highlight between your and my approach to making “political” artwork and in the historical example you suggest, namely John Coltrane’s, which is a very productive one to illustrate that difference, particularly if you contrast his work to that of Fernando Solanas. The former as you imply is a lyricist, his approach is visceral, emotional, and musical. The latter on the other hand is carefully explosive, hyper-rational and essentially an ideologue.
You are right I have chosen to use a “documentary” strategy perhaps more in line with Solanas, because I am primarily interested in the production and analysis of (political and artistic) discourse. The material I choose to work with, in the case of a work like The Good Life, is precisely other people’s discourse as articulated in their responses, opinions, political perspectives and personal stories. It is indispensable to me that this content, which I gather on the streets by means of interviewing, is presented as “a document” of that interaction. The political dimension of this work to me lies in the accumulation of these voices, which together may shed some light on the construction (subjective or otherwise) of complex concepts such as democracy, leadership or governance to name a few.
I see the work of memory as a work in the present tense. Historical events, no matter how atrocious, remain buried behind our eyes unless they are spoken about, unless they are constantly re-articulated and re-told. I see my role as an artist in that respect as kind of stirrer of other people’s memories to produce current stories, discourses that may instruct to us about the (political) faults of the past.
Most of your works depart from specific events, but often you prefer not to make them public, choosing sentences, words and other elements to stand-in for the events. For example in your work Geometry of Hope, 2007 a provocative sentence that reads
If you don’t know what the south is
It’s simply because you are from the north.
You confront the viewers making them reflect about their geographic origin and consider the implications of their oblivion (if your are from the north) or their subjection (if your are from the south). What is your personal relationship to history? How has history shaped your involvement with it?
Carlos Motta, Miguel Roberto Balza, Bogotá, video still from The Good Life, 2005-2008
RL: I believe that the connection to history in my work is often fractured by a number of presences. It is not only “me” who tries to speak through and together with the work, but also an increasing number of voices that are deeply silent or loudly engaged with each other through my work. Different layers in my work are often linked to each other forming specific conceptual maps and arenas. Some of them are systematically and powerfully clear. They pose questions about an unequal world order, about the legacy of colonialism, about the category of “race” and the dynamics of racism. Others are ambiguous and subtle in their level of abstraction, demanding the mediation of analytical categories that provide keys to un-code forms of domination that we are subjected to.
Or to say it differently: The tension between universalism as a notion of inclusiveness and the realities of colonialism and post-colonialism. For example in the work Anticipated Discoveries, 2006 the starting point was an interview that I conducted with a refugee smuggler, a coyote. Simply, his work is to challenge the ways maps and nations have been constructed and regulated. He aids people to cross the borders. For me it was important to reverse the sceptical view that many people have of his work. Today’s increasing racism in Europe and the closing of borders makes his work even more needed. But it was also important to connect his work historically and conceptually to other historical geographers and to other narratives. That’s why in my piece I created a link between the coyote’s mapping and Amerigo Vespucio’s. Arguing that his work (the coyote’s) can be read as a form of contemporary geography in the legacy of historical geographers.
Near my current work desk I have a reproduction of Goya’s The Disasters of War and a picture of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) in Buenos Aires. Las Madres have been very important in the public political life of Argentina, in times of silence they have spoken and managed to provide a counter narrative to the military junta. You have been researching the concept of democracy and its development in today’s Latin America, how do you relate this to the different political and social movements of the 1970s?
Runo Lagomarsino, Geometry of Hope, 2007, inkjet on paper
Runo Lagomarsino Anticipated Discoveries, Inkjet on map, prints, photography, glass, metal and wood,60 x 130 x 85 cm, 2006
CM: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo’s 30-year + fight for justice and resistance to the atrocious fate of their sons in the hands of the military in the 1970s is an inspiring example of the kind of oppositional groups that have been born from the countless violations of human and civil rights in Latin America. A similar organization is SOA Watch, which under the visionary guidance of Father Roy Bourgeois have consistently opposed the teaching of torture to Latin American military at the School of The Americas in Ft. Benning, GA. Both of these groups (amongst others) have been very influential to my work. In fact I made a video titled Memory of a Protest, 2007 that documents one of the events against the SOA by human rights organization Kamarikun in Santiago de Chile. This work has been described by the press as being “between artistic creation and documentation,” which is an accurate description since I am interested in making works that can live a double life; works that can be used as a form of political documents by the organizations that they represent and that may simultaneously contribute to an artistic dialogue within artistic institutions.
This brings me to a sensitive issue within the art world, which is the relationship between art and activism. While I don’t consider myself an activist per se, I do think that some of my videos work as works of protest that seek political justice, if they are presented in the right social context. For example Kamarikun has screened Memory of a Protest during several public events. While I didn’t quite make the work for them, they use it to present themselves, which is a wonderful accomplishment for me as an artist. Another example is a video program titled The People: Enemies of the State, the Government and the Army, 2005-2008, which openly denounces the violation of civil rights by governmental institutions and the army as well as insurgent groups. I first presented this work in the framework of the exhibition Urban Concerns at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa in June 2008, a context that seemed very appropriate as Johannesburg faced a wave of attacks on immigrants seeking work in that country. I thought the content of my videos would speak a common language to the museum visitors and perhaps make them reflect on their city’s current daily struggle. It is hard to attest whether this was “politically efficacious” or not but I am sure that the larger socio-political context was the right one.
The People… will be screened next at the European Social Forum in Malmö an event exclusively organized to reflect on political injustice. Within the framework of this event the emphasis will be on the exposition of content rather than on the articulation of form or narration.
To finish our conversation I would like to hear your thoughts about this issue that is of so much concern to politically engaged artists. Do you think your work is politically effective? How do you contextualize your work for it to be so? Is this even a relevant question for you today?
Madres de La Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, video still from The Good Life
Carlos Motta, Memory of a Protest, video still, 2007
RL: I agree, the relationship between art and activism is sensitive for many reasons. First, I think is due to the idea that the “art world” (or parts of it) has of the activist scene. Personally, I have always thought that activism is extremely boring. Its politics of everyday life; going to meetings, pasting posters, fighting against the monopolisation of public squares and hiding illegal immigrants in your apartment, etc. Don’t get me wrong, these are the very reasons that make this work be extremely important and I respect it deeply. My criticism is more about the interpretation and the narration of activism in the context of art. I often find it to be very romantic. For example, thinking within the Latin American context, it is a movement of interests. First “everybody” was quoting Sub-comandante Marcos and the EZLN, some years later the interest moved on to the Asambleas of Buenos Aires, and now? What is the point of engagement and investigation now?
At the same time I find it important when an artist or his/her work can have a double life, as you call it, or in a sense seeing his/her work in a more organically, breaking the fixed lines between different disciplines, which is something different to the criticism that I was raise here.
I don’t find my work activist, or effective but that has never been my goal. I see my work as a different form of thinking through the visual where meanings coincide but at the same time don’t create a synthesis. Where the critical angle is in-between the different layers and narratives of the work, and I see these in-betweens as places for political potential. To critically ask and to visualise in which ways we read and re-read history and society is always extremely important. For me fiction creates this possibility, this space for struggle, where the viewers engage from another perspective, a place behind the image. As Derek Walcott eloquently wrote: When one enters language one is confronted by a choice, a choice that contains the political history of the language, the imperial scope of the language and the fact that one either has been oppressed by the language or has had learn to master it. This is why language is not a retreat, not a refuge, not even a place where one makes decisions. It is a place for struggle.
In times when neo-liberalism speaks about an exclusive I, different forms of resistance must create an inclusive We, name the present and dream the future.
Runo Lagomarsino, Untitled, pencil and tape on paper, 2007
Carlos Motta is a Colombian born, New York based artist whose work has been individually presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia and Art in General, New York and included in recent group exhibitions such as The Greenroom, CCS Bard Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY and Convergence Center, Democracy in America, Creative Time at Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY, USA. Motta is a graduate of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program and was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008. For more information visit his website here.
Runo Lagomarsino is an artist based in Sweden whose work has been individually presented at Overgaden, Copenhagen; Elastic, Malmö; Galleri Verkligheten, Umeå and Gallery Muu, Helsinki and included in recent group exhibitions such as Hope is a good thing, AtelierFrankfurt, Frankfurt; Imagine Action, Lisson Gallery, London; Heterotopias, Thessaloniki Biennale, Thessaloniki and Ground Lost, Forum StadtPark, Graz. Lagomarsino is a recent graduate of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program. For more information visit his website here.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief