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Perspectives and paradoxes of the artistic practice. Interview with Cabello/Carceller by María Virginia Jaua

María Virginia Jaua: One of the first approaches commonly practiced when reading a work of art is tracking what influences it is indebted to. In you, we see direct references to various artists such as Félix González-Torres and to cultural proposals like American cinema, but also to the critical theory that is heir of cultural studies - such is the case with Judith Butler in the realm of feminist theory. There are artists who aim for their artistic, cultural and theoretical influences to vanish, but not you. You place them in front of the work. To jump or to assault theory?

Cabello/Carceller: Our initial training was eminently practical and it suffered from great theoretical shortcomings. By the end of the 80s a specific kind of artist was promoted who worked from intuitive inspiration and held an irreverent attitude; provided he didn’t go over the top… An individual to whom theory pestered when working, when ’creating’. Many artists argued that theory collapsed them, relying on an institutionalized dichotomous relationship between theory and artistic practice. These were years that saw a return to order validated by an incipient but optimistic art market.
For many reasons we ended up fleeing from this clownish image of the artist and when we began working together, the necessity to form ourselves and to reinforce our theoretical knowledge became more evident. Theory came to be an increasingly important element in our processes; not only for its role as protective shield against a reactionary background that favored naïve interpretations and insubstantial criticisms, but mainly because it allowed us to understand our own position in this context.
In recent public interventions, we have talked about ’assaulting theory’ in the sense that is more related with the necessity to force an entry of absent elements into it, also understanding it as a toolbox (Deleuze) with which to work. It would consist in participating in the construction of non-globalizing theories/practices, capable of inquiring into the elements of conflict, distanced from orthodoxies and fearless of contradictions. For this, theory which is peacefully established on a firm and secure base is assaulted; it staggers of reflection and dissent.

MVJ: It is of course, from feminist theory from where a more interesting work has been carried out in ontological reflection and identity construction. Perhaps your theoretical urgency originates from there.

C/C: It is important to highlight that working in collaboration implies an exteriorized process, which in our case is indebted to word, to conversation. A theoretical exchange takes place, informing the deployment of the process and enriching it from the necessity to argue, affecting also the ultimate result of the work.
In order for people like us to emerge in the nineties the theoretical ceiling we met had to be breached. Identitarian discourses were at that time reviled in the art practiced in Spain, provided they were laudatory of a hegemonic identity. Any criticism was discredited with vague arguments concerning questions of quality, and from there we decided to look towards English-speaking feminist theory. On the other hand, the kind of feminism that was developed here in the academy didn’t reach out further than to a far too stable assimilationist and historicist analysis centered on a woman significant.
We soon coincided with the rise of queer theory, which originated from feminist theory… We saw that it became necessary to take theory and work with it, understanding it as ductile matter that doesn’t impose anything, doesn’t enforce dogmas, and questions and corrects itself constantly. In any case, we are iconoclasts and we don’t believe in anything or anybody unquestioningly.
On the other hand, the demand of recognition of theoretical and political positions does not imply the closure of processes of reception or an absolute control over themselves. We do not defend a theoretical overload in the works; they must remain open to interpretation, although in occasions informing on backgrounds and references becomes essential.

MVJ: In the Performer project there is an implicit critique to Art institution and the archival zeal, while Una/Otra ciudad [An/Other City] underlies the restitution of the Archive. On the one hand it is questioned and on the other, we find ourselves with a work in and for the archive. Two opposite ideas seem to collide there.

C/C: We decided to work ironically with the Archive concept, with that fantasist idea that it is different from the Museum; less selective, a place where everything would be stored, hidden in the wait to be found for a rereading - as if an exhaustive selection of documents hadn’t been carried out in the archive… The only thing that changes is the social gaze; the documents that remain in the archives – like the objects that remain in the storage facilities in museums and private collections – are a starting point for historical reconstruction. This idea picks all the remains in an obsessive way because it appears as if all that which is without a trace hadn’t existed; it is little imaginative. We can’t obviate absences, a reflection that was already present in Archivo: Drag Modelos [Archive: Drag Models].
Performer probes the paradoxes of the archive and above all, the collection. Part of the notion is that the performance has come to stay. Therefore, it must exit the marginal spaces of the museum and must now be collected, archived. This is a kind of work that arose to outsmart those bourgeois strategies that are anxious to construct representational hegemonies, living above all, a theatrical moment of human contact that can’t be repeated - caught finally in the imaginary and needs to be collected and remembered in an eternity precluded by its own conditions of production.
Performer revolves around that absurd and our idea is for the projection of the video to run simultaneously accompanied by a performance in which the protagonist walks around the exhibition space and hands some cards to the public. The action must always be carried out by the same person, who will progressively age, while in the video he/she won’t… Nowadays we see a fetischization of the traces of the performance, absurd and yet very interesting.

MVJ: This calls for attention because it could pose the paradox where the work resists being something dead. However, despite being something living – that accomplishes itself in its own process towards death - the Archive in some way seeks for the immortality in mortality itself: That is to say, in the negation of death, in its zeal to fix itself in time.

C/C: With respects to Una/Otra ciudad [An/Other City], we worked with the archive, but in an unforeseen sense. We started an experiment without knowing how it was going to end and the search for the archive turned out to be the objective of our voyage to México. The final result includes a publication that recounts the process of how we reached that specific archive. The project distanced itself from the original idea.
We initially thought about working on a specific historic moment (the seventies – early eighties) in three cities: Buenos Aires, México City and Madrid, so we first went to Argentina and later to México leaving the Spanish one for the last part, one that we haven’t developed yet. The three cities have an important symbolic charge; they were fairly related among each other in the seventies: we share the same language and a common past, and that establishes stronger ties than differences. In that historical moment Buenos Aires saw the advent of a dictatorship that destroyed the rising lesbian community, Madrid lived a harsh dictatorship and a transition that encouraged incipient emergencies and in México a violent fictionalization of democracy prevailed. As we already did in A/O (Caso Céspedes) A/O (Céspedes Case)] we wanted to inquire into micro-narratives of our own history instead of importing English-speaking themes or aesthetics from northern Europe. We were interested in learning in which urban landscapes concrete minorities move in a hostile environment. Not much time has elapsed since and if we don’t recover a past, which’s memory dilutes, we run the risk of not understanding our present.
The starting point consisted in searching for hangout spaces where lesbian women met in the 70s and trying to contact people that had crossed the limits between militancy and art in those three cities. From there we let ourselves go, we wanted for surprise and chance to lead us and the result has been different in each case. Women and men live the city in a different way, also heterosexuals and homosexuals; architecture is the same for all, but not so for the assigned spaces that condition in a relevant way the modes of relationship. The seventies were years of political struggle in which the first women separatist collectives emerged, in the midst of a misogynous and lesbophobic context in which not only conservative politicians participated, but also groups of the militant left and some renowned feminists.

MVJ: therefore, here, the work brings you closer to the figure of the historian, but from the recovery of experience via fiction, reliving a past by means of investigation and narrative.

C/C: Something similar: we caught elements that for others can seem irrelevant and through those anecdotic facts we reconstructed a story allowing for gaps to be filled by those who receive these stories. With respects to what you point out about working on demystifying the archive on the one hand and working for it on the other, the critical intent remains. Perhaps in Performer this is perceived in a clearer and more direct way, while in Una/Otra ciudad [An/Other City] we didn’t know the environment well and our approach was that of a foreigner. Consulting the historic archive that narrates the history of lesbianism in México was an initial strategy to discover sites of encounter among women, but ended up becoming a thread that would give meaning to the trip.
The vicissitudes the archive in México underwent were familiar to us to some extent, given that we had experienced something similar during our stay in Glasgow in the nineties. Strong debates took place there with respects to the destiny of a British lesbian archive, as a very important part of the community did not want for it to be swallowed by an institution and for whomever to have access to it. The decision was difficult and in the end the archive went to the Glasgow Women’s Library and the university was left without it. It was on that occasion when, for the first time, we were confronted by the difficulties involved in the custody of the archives of dissident minorities. Institutions are archive predators: they ingest, qualify, re-qualify, interfere in their comprehension when they aren’t discomposing them, making a global vision impossible. What we found in México was that genuine disputes had taken place around who would maintain it, who would take custody over it and how the access to the archive would be granted. We also discovered that all fears were well founded.

MVJ: We are back to the dichotomy between the objects and the experiences… Wouldn’t we be back to that narrow frontier between the return to the material and fetischization?

C/C: Some of the materials archived in Glasgow were very personal and their protagonists are alive. The institutions’ anthropologic methodology tramples on people’s desires, considers the respect for the experiences of others an uncomfortable factor for their interests, hence the rejection. In the case of México, the interest perhaps centers on preventing the institution from behaving as it often does, recreating a history that didn’t take place, inventing protagonists and leaders, a history that benefits those activists and collaborationists with the institution. On our part, we finally understood that what was interesting was to look for archives and we partially abandoned the idea to look for the places. The most complete was at the house of a militant of the seventies, Yan María Yaoyólotl. Her house is really small but all the documents are there - she herself is an archive. Yan María is still politically active but lives to be the custodian of that archive and to protect it from ending up in a place where it doesn’t belong. While she lives, she wants to control who has access to it, who doesn’t and under what circumstances. There are those who criticize her for that, but a part of the archive that went to the university has been relocated and scattered.

While Yan María’s is a compact, physical archive in which you can get lost amid the folders, let yourself go… in the other you have to look for documents and get them together, for they have been dissolving into other bundles. You can no longer get a global, physical idea of what interested people to archive. And this is crucial, because the militants invested great care in preserving each specific thing; it is interesting to find out what was important and why. It now involves fetishes, little papers on a rally, articles, quotes… To know Yan María, for her to retell us her story, to debate, to be in the archive… said so much about what had happened in the seventies, which ended up constituting the bulk of the project. Hers is a direct sincerity, not sweetened at all, something we don’t know much about around here.

MVJ: The processes and techniques you use in each project summon methodologies (Bertolt Brecht, Pier Paolo Pasolini) and involve the participation of other people, many times curious people or amateurs. Your work involves a sum of interventions that you purposely leave open or you can’t fully control. What is the relation or what system establishes itself between these methodologies, the spaces and the participants in the form and content of each work?

C/C: The processes we make use of, aim to produce a feeling of estrangement, a kind of outside provoked by the inadequacy of the situations. In the case of the videos, many of the characters seemed to be out of time and place, seemed to be also ’out of the body’, in a body that feels uncomfortable in the real, living inadequately. Finally, they are sincere characters who recognize their incapacity to adapt to social mandate. The sceneries are also, like the bodies, halfway assembled or barely existent; they do not collaborate to cover a naturalist history or they do not seek an empathic relationship.
To accomplish all this we rely, à la Pasolini, on inexperienced actors. While he aimed to jump class barriers with nonprofessional actors who didn’t come from the bourgeoisie, in our case we often search for estrangement by means of a feigned gender; through this feigning we can filter the absurd of inherited divisions and the richness of hue we have lost on the way. Our method of narrative construction also reinforces estrangement, with solitary characters who seem to have arrived before or after everything has occurred. In this sense we apply strategies of detachment such as the retro projection of the real image as opposed to the reality of the artificial image; or the lack of a replica, to show the artifice in an obvious manner, to force incompatible languages…
We usually film in the places in which the resulting video is going to be projected for the first time, which helps the spectators in rebuilding the process of realization of the image and unveils the narrative tricks, allowing him or her to be part of that story which isn’t. Finally, the work of the artists is nothing other than a self-portrait.

MVJ: In your practice there is a strong sense of humor. I wonder if due to the theoretical references one has a feeling that your work is something much more serious, lacking a humorous charge. Something similar happened – we don’t know if due to of a problem of translation – to Franz Kafka and for more enigmatic motives to Samuel Beckett. In Bailar el género en disputa [Dancing Gender Trouble] a humoristic intention underlies, but seemingly the participants in the performance are unaware. This may have to do with the ’own serenity’ with which we take the I. On the other hand, the characteristic of this work in which theory claims a body through dance and contortions are very interesting.

C/C: We are glad you make this consideration because the humoristic charge appears in many of our works, but it is true that it is often invisibilized. Maybe it is a general problem and there remains little sense of humor… The intelligentsia has this tendency towards stiffness and sense of humor reminds you of finitude. Seriousness is often inferred through the charge of underlying theoretical discourses, although if you think about it, you can’t take too people who eat cream buns in front of the camera very seriously.
However, Bailar el género en disputa [Dancing Gender Trouble] is different: each performer interprets it his or her own way. It is a project that addresses displacements; a philosophical text is displaced and transformed to music, yes, but the people who have to face a new, delocalized and transitory situation are also displaced. It is the experimentation that gives sense to this work, and also the beauty in a situation that is generated among those of us participating in it and which is, we could say, of high emotional risk. It is not only about dancing a text in front of an audience, the text is also coexisted with before being displayed and is thus subsequently shared.
In this particular text, Butler brings her personal experiences to the table and for various reasons draws from uneasy memories and harsh recollections. The positions that we have socially occupied don’t always match with our wishes and the participants aren’t selected by their affinity with what queer discourses defend. On the other hand, we must take into account that this proposal unfolds preferably with amateurs, mostly without previous experience with confrontation with audiences. Some professionals who have wanted to participate in the project have also been displaced by an unconventional mise en scène, noninstrumented music and working with non-professionals. In any case, for the majority of the participants the confrontation with the stage is in itself a strange experience; to confront a text that has to become music is an additional difficulty. As sole instruction, our insistence on reminding that the text is our music and therefore it must work accordingly, even though each will understand that music in a different manner.
The presentation is carried out once and can’t be redone, it has an improvised aspect and errors play an important role in the result. The action is recorded and remains fixed in the long term in which these artistic works remain. If we observe the tracking of the cameras and we keep focused on the music and text, and on what each performer is doing, we see that each of them is dancing that which they hear.

MVJ: Venturing a little further in the theme of subverting power discourse, we can’t ignore the decolonial. The work A/O (Caso Céspedes) [A/O (Céspedes Case)] poses significant problems in a context where many of the main artistic institutions seem to need to co-opt the discourses of the decolonial, while they end up doing precisely the opposite to what they preach: to colonize other practices, other discourses – something as absurd as effecting institutional critique from the institution itself.

C/C: With Elena or Eleno de Céspedes we searched and found, but what we were interested in wasn’t so much to recover a history of the XVI century as it was to connect it with contemporary reality. Céspedes was born a slave around 1546. She was a metises born to an African mother and was married while giving birth to a child. She later abandoned her husband, dressed as a man and fought in the Moorish war. Eventually she had many lovers, learnt to read and undertook examination to be a surgeon as a man - rigorously she was the first European woman surgeon. When marrying in church with another woman he was denounced and the inquisition dealt with the case. Céspedes argued for hermaphroditism, in fact, he never changed his name and used the masculine Eleno. The inquisition judged him, estimating he wasn’t a true hermaphrodite and condemned him. His identity is a product of his time; we don’t know how he would have defined himself in other legal and socioeconomic circumstances.
When we were considering the project we decided that instead of recreating his life we would install ourselves in his subjectivity. The result has been the short film A/O (Caso Céspedes) [A/O (Céspedes Case)] in which Alex, the main character, appears characterized as Thomas, the playboy photographer who is the main star in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, which in turn, was inspired by a tale by Cortázar. Alex takes a stroll in the search for exteriors to shoot a film about Céspedes until he gains awareness of the similarities between the two of them, between the subjectivities of the past and the present. The character is built by means of gesture and the narrator’s voice-off. The contradictions in Céspedes are also present in Alex. They always accompany the subjectivities projected from otherness, that can’t emerge from nowhere, but are instead, the product of critical variations of the dominant subjectivity. Because of that, we chose an archetypical character from the patriarchal point of view to shape the personality of a dissident sexuality such as Alex. Thomas is also the owner of the gaze; he possesses the power to portray. Alex is a photographer because he wants that power; he wants to be capable of conducting the gaze over others. In the beginning he isn’t aware of his own otherness - it gets to him through introspection and reflection.
The character goes through a great number of interesting elements, offers the possibility to tackle taboos in Spain, such as slavery and métissage as well as the criminalization of difference. In the beginning, this work was additionally going to have an educational orientation, directed to high schools and further continuity than the art centre and ourselves. This wasn’t possible and it has turned into something else, but it is fine this way because it tells us of our present and our fears in 2010; it tells us, among other things about what in occasions we have called ’weak censorship’. In any case, A/O (Caso Céspedes) [A/O (Céspedes Case)] will continue to grow, there are uncovered ramifications that we hope will allow us to strengthen its initial will to introduce métise sites.
Regarding its development, A/O (Caso Céspedes) [A/O (Céspedes Case)] aimed to connect itself as much as possible, with the context of the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo where it was filmed. From this idea, we set ourselves to work on gender problematics that didn’t import models from the English-speaking world. Although interesting, these are models that can’t be easily translated, for they end up being too distant and don’t connect with our environment. We live in another society, with a different way of understanding sexuality and quotidian relations; hence some parameters from queer theory are so little operative here.

MVJ: We don’t only witness an eagerness to appropriate decolonial discourses from European institution, but the artist themselves seem to ignore for what and/or for whom they work for. Where do you think the decolonial can be approached from without falling in the trap of idealizing the other or in the irretrievable colonization – via authority - of decolonial discourse?

C/C: Perhaps the problem lies where the limits of otherness are placed. The majority of artists, and also of institutions, feed on a cultural background that is used to plunder otherness and to use it as a source of inspiration, hence they aren’t even capable of understanding who they are and under what circumstances they produce in. To be aware of it would imply to critically rethink a past in which only an idealized vision is held. Decolonial practices emerge from the recognition of other forms of non-Eurocentric knowledge and for this, one must allow him or herself to be surprised and not attempt to supplant other subjectivities, to allow the flow without imposing value judgments based on obsolete positions. Decolonial is not a theme, neither is it a title or subtitle to cover a quota with a temporary exhibitive project or a conjunctural investigation developed in the institutional margins. It implies a general change in the working method. It will also mean analyzing authorship and to establish who speaks and what interests they respond to, that is to say, it will require a critical reception capable of breaching this smoke curtain.

This article has been translated by Oscar Holloway.


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