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ART AS A WAY FOR POLITICAL, INTELLECTUAL AND SOCIAL FREEDOM An interview with Jhafis Quintero for SHAREpro Rijksakademie

juin 26, 2013

SHAREpro RIJKSAKADEMIE is meant to be a new space of discussion about the artist residency programme. Thanks to the collaboration with Rijksakademie van Beldeende Kunsten – one of most important institutional long-term programme – SHAREpro will publish a series of conversations with former residents to question the intentions they put in applying, the influence of this experience on their practices and the relation with the context in Amsterdam. By the way this will be the occasion to go deeper in their research too, touching very crucial issues on the artistic production and the art scene.

Protesis, 2013, performance at 55th Venice BIennial, IILA Pavilion for Panama, Courtesy of the artist

The IILA Pavilion is an unusual productive network between 20 Latin American countries, connected to Italy in an interesting institutional perspective. El Atlas del Imperio, the group show curated by Alfons Hug for the last Venice Biennial is clearly related to this spirit, redefining the geopolitical dynamics of contemporary art and analysing the continuous cultural exchange between Europe and Latin America. From the colonization period till the hybrid coming back of some cultural models from the other side of the Ocean, it’s clear that the two continents have established an intense dialogue: « This cross-fertilization will impact on both continents’ cultural self-identity. The aim is not just an extension of the artistic repertoire, but ultimately a new, complex world view that will also benefit Europe. » (from the curatorial text). On this occasion, Jhafis Quintero, living in Europe since his residency at the Rijksakademie, has worked with video, drawings and performance about the contemporary lack of real communication, involving a reflection between politics and art.

ND: First of all congratulations for your current participation representing Panama at the Venice Biennale. I would be very interested in knowing more about your performance “Protesis” and the kind of reaction you got in Venice.

JQ: The Performance Protesis comes as many of my projects from the universe of the prison, I deeply believe that it is actually from the human limits and experiences that we are able to go back to our own origins and our basic needs.

When there is no choice or possible distraction then we go back to the Genesis, to the genetic memory that each of us has inscribed in his/her skin. It is precisely when our creativity uses specific methods to fix immediate needs.

Any action from someone in prison is often seen as, and even becomes, illegal. When you have to live in a cell, as I did, communication is difficult. Even such simple things as the exchange of letters between inmates, keeping the right of privacy and the protection from police’s indiscretions. The distance between the cells sometimes is so large that it’s necessary to create a strategy or solution in order to overcome this distance, for instance launching a string attached to a small lead ball to reach the other cell. You have to be direct and quiet, having to cross the distance, and avoid bars and the police as additional obstacle. So the man who is used to do that, has a certain status among the other prisoners. Once the ball and the thread reach the other cell, you have to hold the thread and pull it from one side to the other, in order to exchange whatever you need. That’s why I called this project Protesis, because it’s a solution to a specific need out of the posibilities of your own body.

At the Venice Biennial I used this basic and personal way of communication, giving the public original artworks (signed drawings).

I am always very interested to create a kind of interaction with the viewer, and therefore have made many performance in my career, , but I never saw a reaction and participation of the public so intense as during this performance. With this project, I was not looking for attention based on the mere fact or the exoticism that this method was originated in prison, but it was my aim to facilitate communication through creativity, which is why I put together art and crime on the same stage once more.

We only exist when we communicate, 2010, video, 1:12 min, Courtesy of the artist

ND: As you say, your works very often have a urgency of communication as premise, but never in a totally direct way. There is always a physical obstacle between you and the public or the interlocutor. What do you think is the main obstacle for a real communication in a world so full of socialconnections?

JQ: I think everyone has forgotten what communication is in its deepest sense and take it for granted. I believe that communication is a personal exercise, physical and real where all the possible layers as human beings are activated.

If we think about social connections, for instance, they are worse today: I have 500 friends on facebook and I know only 100. These social networks allow you to build relationships substituting real emotions; there you can create a new character, a fictitious version of yourself to interact with others without exposing yourself. It’s a sort of virtual placebo through the safety and the protection of your computer.

Communication never occurs in a single channel. When you communicate, you do it through words, the eyes and through a world of instincts. All of that doesn’t exist in the current social networks and they are not able to properly transmit and receive all the feelings you want to express. I believe in the usefulness of social networks as a way of bridging the gap, but never as a goal.

ND: Another main point is the relation with the self and the self in relation to the others. Traditionally, artists have a certain vocation to be transgressive and put themselves as free spirits against the society. But recently, as I see, the very difficult thing for an artist is to be recognized in his social status, as productive member of a community. Do you feel that freedom nowadays is more perceived as collectivity than in the past?

JQ: Someone rightly said that freedom does not exist. It’s a deleted word long before been written. On the other hand, the sociologist Michel Foucault said that there are only two possible destinations for men who don’t fit into traditional social profiles: asylum and prison. Artists have been exempt from these fatal destinations. Nevertheless, in Latin America 20 years ago the first victims of any dictatorships were artists. They were tortured or simply thrown from helicopters to send a clear message. The military dictators, even with all their power, were and still are afraid of the power of communication hold by artists.

However, when times are relatively calm, the politically correct society accepts proactivity as the only respectable way of life, and considers artists as lazy and crazy.

How is possible that generally uneducated dictators understand the communication power of an artist and regular society doesn’t accept the role of art in popular culture? There is a moral education in the folk tale of the ‘Ant and the Cricket’. The lazy cricket was only singing while the ant was working to survive the cold winter and the cricket dies of cold and hunger for being lazy. Oscar Wilde wrote an alternative version of the same story; it says that while the ant was working to survive, the cricket was singing to make the ant´s life more enjoyable. Artists (or crickets) constantly work, without stopping their mind. They are always creating and researching, with the awareness that we will never have enough money. On top of all that, Latin American artists are not officially recognized as professionals, that means living without medical insurance or retirement system.

Nowadays the freedom that people believe artists have, is almost gone. All the ones dedicated to this profession have to fight very hard. Real freedom is in the act of choosing to be an artist.

ND: I read that you pointed out the fact that you had no support from Panama for your participation. Europe is living a crucial turning point for culture too, in the way it’s not considered as priority in the political decisions. Which is your actual experience, starting from the period you spent in Amsterdam at Rijksakademie? What Europe is able to offer to someone coming from the other side of the world, yet?

JQ: When Panama refused to support me, I was not surprised. For Latin American artists the crisis was always there and we have learned how to deal with this. We live and make art from this limitation. In Europe I managed to get an overhead view of myself and my own work.

I think it is very important for any artist to be able to see himself from all the possible perspectives and re-contextualized the work. I think one of the few positives things of this crisis, now universal, is that European artists are looking for new methods. No longer from the comfort and tranquility of being born in the First world but from the fact of living in a world full of urgency and belligerence. We should all put down the protagonism, the arrogance, the ego and work in the same direction now that we all have the same common problem.

Knock Out, 2012, video, 1:11 min, Courtesy of the artist and Analix Forever

ND: Reading all the reviews related to your works, I was surprised by the direct way journalists asked you about your life in jail. I have to say that is pretty obvious that such an experience leaves a trace on your artistic practice, but I think you found a way to sublimate this condition through your research.

JQ: It’s a fact easily mentioned by journalists, because it’s a subject relating to everyone; sooner or later, everyone is or will be in prison. You’re never actually free, even though you have the idea you are. There are legal terms designed to take freedom away every day. That kind of reality puts all of us at the same level and somehow the certainty of being vulnerable makes us a little more human and increases the need of communication.

My experience in prison was decisive, it was not such a horrible experience as people can imagine, even though was hard to survive in such a brutal context.

The experience made me see life differently, to get to know human beings in their most basic and honest way, to see their true and deepest needs, away from emotional technological substitutions.

That’s why my practice is so related to my personal experience, but there is another very powerful and simply reason: I do art because it is very close to crime, it’s a way to continue being myself without hurting other people.

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