Emeralds, Album Records, and Turkish Delight

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

In the past six months, I’ve had a handful of experiences that I’ve come to consider gems. These are passing instances that are small relative to world events; that are mostly brief and light, unlike the span and weight that comes with life; that are ephemeral as the second that just passed by. Yet, these are significantly shining, valuable moments to treasure. So when artists Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson invited me to participate in their new project with and about gems, I accepted with no hesitation.

I wore one of the four precious-stone artworks created by the artists. It was a work in the form of a pendant. This was a roving, intimate display of sorts preceding the artist’s current exhibition, Making a Record (Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald). My then pendant has three emeralds: the larger one is the raw, natural mineral; the thinner one is sculpted as a sharp spine, and was used as the stylus to record an album about emeralds; a rounder piece is a cut crystal, like those more commonly seen in jewelry.

Emerald was the color of the tunic I was dressed in the day I met Caetano Veloso. That sunny morning, I learned about a song he dedicated to his friend, the artist Lygia Clark. Apparently I gifted that musical theme to someone with whom I didn’t exactly want a friendship. (Where did I go wrong?) Emerald the present’s ribbon. Emerald also the color of the box of pistachio Turkish Delight, those candies savored on the afternoon of farewell to such affair. Hexagon the shape of that little candy box, as the form of the pendant’s largest, natural stone.

The gemologist and jewelry designer Karen L. Davidson, who was interviewed by the artists, her words recorded onto the album with the stylus on the pendant, tells that emeralds are a gem considered both fragile but hard; that these have a longer history than most stones; that they are great for one’s vision. It’s been hard not to associate my temporary pendant with other comings and goings that have, at best, arrived and ended because of some misinterpretation, at worst, because of finding indistinguishable the differences between possession and comprehension.

Now with the pendant’s physical absence yet its luminosity’s presence, I keep on reconsidering the assumed but most probable fragility of this hard, long-history stone. And so, I recognize that emerald is indeed the color, the mineral, the hexagonal crystal that has accompanied me lately in learning about what bonds, on how intimacy or complicity binds. Emerald is my gemstone. It’s the brilliant companion that keeps me lit even when it’s hard to shine.

Pictured above is the emerald pendant of Making a Record (Diamond, Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald) by Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson, an exhibition on view at Audio Visual Arts in New York City from January 18 to February 17, 2013. Pierre Huyghe, Marina Warner, and Jamieson Webster wore and wrote about the three other pendants.

Artistic Sensibility, Civic Responsability

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Since the 1990s, Tania Bruguera has exhibited widely, making performances, staging interventions, and creating installations that destabilize received notions of power. Perhaps her most recognizable work is her performance “The Burden of Guilt” (1997-1999), in which the artist, wearing a raw-lamb carcass, eats dirt with her hands; the performance, we later learned, was a re-enactment of a colonial legend in Cuba, a suicide attempt; a legend of an indigenous act of resistance against the Spanish.

In the last decade, the protagonist role that the artist’s body had in her earlier work, disappeared almost entirely. In her placement, Tania Bruguera has engaged actors, and more usually invited the general public to perform. In one of a series of artworks titled “Tatlin’s Whisper,” Bruguera hired two policemen on horseback with expertise in controlling riots to choreograph the course of the museum’s audience. That performance was presented in 2008 at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, as part of the two-day exhibition The Living Currency (La Monnaie Vivante) curated by Pierre Bal Blanc. In another work in the series “Tatlin’s Whisper,” the public could use the microphone to exercise a minute of free-speech. This latter work was staged in 2009 at the Centro Wilfredo Lam in Havana. I should add: authorities were not exactly pleased.

As part of an expanded artistic practice, Tania Bruguera has taught and lectured internationally, and in her native Cuba created an itinerant art school called Catedra Arte de Conducta. This school, which she begun in 2002 and concluded in 2009, created dialogues between local artists and visiting architects, theorists and other creative professionals in order to envision and discuss ways in which art contributes to society. Through courses for performance and time-based art, a new generation of artists could and would be encouraged to work politically with their social reality.

This year, Tania Bruguera has come to live in New York City to initiate another of these kinds of projects. Initiated by the Queens Museum and Creative Time, this new, long-term art project by Tania Bruguera is called “Immigrant Movement International” and emerges from her long-standing inquiry on ‘useful art’.  One of the artist’s main supporters, the art critic Claire Bishop, has explained Tania’s idea on useful art as a “conjunction of political action and illegality … pushing the boundaries of what authority recognizes acceptable”.

To what extent and for who will the “Immigrant Movement International” be useful? Well, I suppose this we will learn in the coming months, possibly over the next couple of years. I am confident, though, that this project will at the very least remind us of the role of the modern public museum, which is to cultivate its audience with the aim of creating civic responsibility; of building more informed and creative audience, a more productive and sensible citizen. This responsibility is one that a handful of contemporary artists, including Tania Bruguera, have been taking on to themselves.

The image above is of the headquarters of the Immigrant Movement International in Corona, Queens in New York, which I visited yesterday afternoon. Events take place daily. Consult the website for more details and a calendar of programs: http://immigrant-movement.us.

In Black and White

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Marta Traba in Black and White – the third publication from Murmur, released today – is a translation from the Spanish to the English of selected passages from an essay by Nicolás Gómez Echeverri. His text examines the 1950s-era Colombian television programs produced by the influential South American art critic and historian Marta Traba. The selected and translated passages are depictions of the encounters with the images that inspired Gómez Echeverri’s investigation into Marta Traba, reorganized and interspersed here with factual research he collected on her television programs. The essay’s accompanying illustrations, one pictured above, are by Gómez Echeverri himself. You may download at no cost a PDF of Marta Traba in Black and White: www.murmur-print.org.

I first came across Gómez Echeverri’s research project on Traba at the exhibition 41 Salón Nacional de Artistas in Colombia, where it was presented as an art installation. The edition of that national, biennial-like exhibition had taken place in 2008–2009 in the city of Cali. Curated by Victoria Noorthoorn and a team of local artists – Wilson Díaz, Jose Horacio Martínez, Oscar Muñoz and Bernando Ortíz – the exhibition introduced me not only to Gómez Echeverri, but to a number of artists, artworks and curatorial issues that I still think about today. Not surprisingly, the exhibition had a huge impact in the local art scene in general, raising controversy about the exclusiveness of a curatorial voice, and provincial anxieties by the international participation in a traditionally regional exhibition. Such tensions are not particular to one single art scene, but to every cultural context in the face of globalization.

Murmur is an independent curatorial initiative that I am developing intuitively and quite apart from my institutional work.

For Curatorial Junkies

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Let me say it upfront: I consider myself a curatorial junkie. Since the mid-1990s, I began consuming what became a sudden surge of conferences and publications on exhibition history that addressed the ways in which art interpretation owes much to its forms of display. Position papers and essays presented in those platforms also argued that innovative contemporary curatorial practices have shaped new exhibition formats, and that some of these have even impacted the way art institutions redefine their cultural tasks.

Many more of the thesis presented therein attempt to define what a curator is. On this subject alone, descriptions abound. Depending on their background and vision, their motivation and projects, their degree of openness or hermeticism, their context or audiences, a curator may be: a historical researcher; an arts producer; a cultural broker; a political activist; a philosopher, theorist or translator; an events organizer; some kind of social worker; and just about any combination of these except a taste-maker alone.

Not that the most common kind of curator has disappeared –that whose specialty most often lies in an art genre, artist or artistic movement of a given time period, geography or nationality, and whose role is generally to authenticate, select and care for its corresponding oeuvre. It’s just that the field has significantly changed. And it’s just that longstanding institutional spaces are not the only sites of encounter with art. An increasing number of temporary and independent projects have emerged in the last decades, all requiring artistic directions and engaging curators. To name a few, consider site-specific exhibitions, public art festivals, biennales and other event-based forums, even publication-based projects.

Again, most of these developments in curatorial practice have been written about and theorized in conferences and books, which tend to be anthologies gathering a combination of historic and commissioned texts. It is seldom through articles published in art magazines and essays in scholarly journals. This is why the recent launch of The Exhibitionist is so promising. Edited by Jens Hoffmann, this journal is devoted to exhibition making. It is openly made by curators, and for curators. With an intention to be published twice a year, the journal promises continuity, that is, to raise questions, share processes, and address issues pertaining to curatorial practice consistently. For this last reason alone, I am already a fan.

In the editorial for The Exhibitionist inaugural issue, released in January 2010, Hoffmann points as its primary inspiration the French journal Cahiers du cinéma (f. 1951). The editor, a long-time independent curator and most recently institutionally affiliated—Hoffmann is the director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco—intends to position the work of the contemporary curator along the lines of what Francois Truffaut called the auteur filmmaker in 1950s. Certainly, Hoffmann is not thinking any curator’s work could be that of an auteur. He believes, however, that the act of exhibition making, a critical and creative endeavor, does develop and puts out there a language of its own.

The Exhibitionist commissions personal essays about influential exhibitions to curators in the field; scholarly approaches to historic exhibitions; various assessments on a current major exhibition; a section called Typologies examines a specific exhibition format (the first issue focuses on solo shows); another tackles with exhibition making; one more features curators writing one of their own recent projects; and lastly, a brief text addresses contemporary curatorial practice—along the lines of the auteur figure that the journal editorial board intends to articulate. The first issue of the journal is great, and much expected is the next.

This was originally published in the magazine Celeste (Mexico, summer 2010).


Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Murmur’s second publication is the Spanish version of Dispersion, an essay by New York-based visual artist Seth Price. The essay was originally written in English and published in 2002 by the artist. Like Murmur’s Conceptualism and Economy, this publication is available here as a downloadable-PDF at no cost.

Murmur is an independent curatorial initiative that I am developing intuitively and quite apart from my institutional work.

Visual Arts Facsimile

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

In 1973, the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Mexico City launched the magazine Artes Visuales. The magazine was one of the museum projects of the ever-dynamic Fernando Gamboa, MAM’s director from 1972 to 1981. During his lifetime, and through and beyond his work at MAM, Gamboa became a leading exhibition designer and organizer, museums director, arts promoter, as well as prominent figure in all matters relating to cultural politics in this country. His work is recognized for its attempts to present a “modern” Mexico to the world.

This year, MAM published an anthology of Artes Visuales compiling selected pages in facsimile of each of its issues, and including a forward by Josefa Ortega and an essay by Carla Stellweg, collaborator of Gamboa and co-founder end editor of the magazine. The book is released in conjunction to MAM’s current exhibition Fernando Gamboa: La utopía moderna. Curated by Ana Elena Mallet, the exhibition explores Gamboa’s work as exhibition maker, cultural politician and arts institution builder at large.

In the book’s Documenting the Undocumented, Carla Stellweg narrates the story of Artes Visuales. I take particular interest in her text, for beyond being a personal essay that describes the inspirations and history of the magazine, it takes the writing style of storytelling to anecdotally account a particular arts scene in Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s, and a little written-about, even seldom discussed, cultural institutional history of the time. Stellweg cites influential projects to the making and emergence of Artes Visuales, including The Counter Biennial (1971), a book of Museo de Independencia Cultural Latinoamericana, known as the project MICLA; the New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition and catalog Information (1970); and Mexico’s Taller de la Grafica Popular (founded 1937).

Stellweg openly states in her essay how Artes Visuales was tied to a political ideology beyond (and, perhaps, also through) the curatorial program of the state-run and publicly funded MAM. It was discursively part of larger cultural project of Mexico’s 1970-1976 President, Luis Echeverria, which she describes as being rooted in “a return to the democratic ideals of basic human rights and freedom of expression…” and a call to “intellectuals who had left Mexico in 1968 to return and be part of a reconstruction process.” Echeverria was recently prosecuted for the Tlatelolclo massacre of 1968, and other similar events and insurrections that led to killings while he served in the cabinet of the presidency before him and during his own. Notwithstanding, Stellweg acknowledges this, and that relating Artes Visuales with his governance is a tricky subject to address, yet, I should add, necessary for mapping public projects and their structures.

The image above is part of Vicente Rojo’s contribution for issue six of Artes Visuales (June 1975), guest-edited by Salvador Elizondo, and reprinted as facsimile in the new anthology of the same title published in 2010 by Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. This issue was project-based, and approached the use of image, text and typeface in concrete poetry and contemporary art of that time. The visual artist Vicente Rojo collaborated as graphic designer of Artes Visuales.


Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

The first publication of Murmur is a brief but incisive anthology titled Conceptualism and Economy. The publication gathers text-based works by visual artists: a performance script by Mario Garcia Torres in collaboration with writer Aaron Schuster; a project proposal by Lee Lozano; an essay by Seth Price; and a manifesto-like speech by Joe Scanlan.

More than the market strategies of conceptualism or financial aspects of art, the texts included raise questions about the economy of means. With original texts in English and translations to the Spanish, this inaugural publication of Murmur is shy of 30 pages and available here as a downloadable-PDF at no cost. A small edition of a printed version is out, too.

Murmur is an independent curatorial initiative, which I’ll be developing intuitively and quite apart from my institutional work.

Only the truth —contemporary opera and the making of legends

Monday, March 15th, 2010

After years of conceptualization and production, visual artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres and his sister, the music composer Gabriela Ortiz, premiered their opera, Únicamente la verdad (Only the truth), last Thursday in Mexico City’s Teatro Julio Castillo. This new opera is an interpretation of the many myths and stories about a character, Camelia la Tejana, with a plot unfolding in contemporary times in the border region of Mexico and the United States. Starting with addressing the very question of where she is from, the opera’s overture is powerful, and it is accompanied by a rapid, tense performance of illegal border crossing.

The opera unfolds in a simple, elegant stage set: around the perimeter of the theater is a square, wooden platform as wide as a common sidewalk. Its edges are connected through the center by a mechanical bridge. This perimeter stage is elevated about three meters from the ground, and underneath, partially visible, plays the orchestra. The bridge is the only stage element that is mobile—at once curved, it is uncurled and raised depending on the scene. But this does not lessen the stage from being dynamic, as it is constantly being redefined with each act’s choreography. Different videos play in the background, as well as in the left- and right-hand walls of the stage, at times showing photography of landscapes, and at other times with more abstract, text-based or figurative animations that complement, or even question, the narratives sung.

The “Tejana” in Camelia’s name tells she is from Texas, one of the first truths questioned in the opera. According to most legends, though, she became known after assassinating her lover, Emilio Varela, due to an unexplained betrayal involving marijuana trafficking. After Varela’s death, Camelia la Tejana was increasingly implicated in other deaths, one of which was Eleazar Pacheco Moreno’s train-track suicide in the crime-ridden city of Ciudad Juarez. In Únicamente la verdad men who claim to have known her, sing about her life, often with contradictory stories.

Contrabando y traicion” (Contraband and Betrayal), a 1970s popular song by the music band Los Tigres del Norte, made Camelia la Tejana legendary. The band’s piece also popularized corridos —a narrative song characteristic of northern Mexican music tradition often about famed criminals, small-town heroes and emigration— and, more poignantly, narcocorridos— ballads with themes about narcotics, drug trafficking and other illegal activities.

While Camelia la Tejana is largely considered a fictional character, Alarma, the sensationalist newspaper covering the story of the man’s suicide in Ciudad Juarez, claims she exists in real life –and many people believe this, too. A photograph illustrating the scene of the crime attributes a weeping woman next to the mutilated body of Pacheco Moreno. As mass media takes over the story, different impersonators of Camelia la Tejana have begun to appear, claiming the infamous identity of this woman and developing more and more fables about her. We also hear from these Camelias in the opera.

Combining the folkloric corrido with orchestral interpretations of classic and pop music, mixing recorded soundtracks (by Gabriela) with digital videos (by Rubén), and interpreting a common-person fable in the high-form of opera, Únicamente la verdad knits one and a dozen different stories of Camelia la Tejana. The multiple perspectives and narratives given to a single character and event, like the assassination of Varela at one point, and the suicide of Pacheco Moreno at another, bring to mind structural aspects previously worked in film, such as in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. With some likely reference to Peter Watkins’s Paris Commune, the opera Únicamente la verdad also incorporates —in a creative off-stage live performance that’s doubled with live closed-circuit video— mass media’s role in popularizing, aggrandizing, even distorting a story.

Únicamente la verdad is a major production for the Ortiz’s, a wonderful contemporary opera, and quite worthily opens the citywide Festival de México, taking place from March 11-28, 2010 in Mexico City.

A space for all things

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

After a couple of year in planning and construction, the permanent outdoor sculpture The parliament of reality by Olafur Eliasson opens in just a couple of weeks at Bard College in New York. An art commission done in collaboration between Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies and the Luma Foundation, Eliasson’s sculpture consists of an island with a pond at its center that is accessed through a passageway turned tunnel by a latticework structure. The parliament of reality is inspired by the Icelandic Althing, an outdoor assembly considered one of the first parliamentary institutions ever. It is also inspired by the fact that it’s a sculpture made for a college, a space for constant discussion and public debate.

On Saturday, May 16, the opening day of The parliament of reality, a number of presentations and discussions by artists and scholars take place on-site Eliasson’s sculpture. Participants include: Andrea Zittel, Anri Sala, Eliasson, of course, as well as Felicity Scott (Colombia University), Molly Nesbit (Vassar College) and Peter Galison (Harvard University), among other scholars. The day before, the Human Rights Project at Bard College, which is directed by Thomas Keenan, is also hosting an event on-site. This one focuses on the use of music for torture—a “technique of interrogation and punishment by U.S. military forces and intelligence agencies.” The participant list is not confirmed yet, but knowing past programs of Keenan, it promises to be a quite eclectic and interesting group of people from different fields.


Some weeks ago, while in Tokyo, I had the opportunity of visiting Yu-un, a private guesthouse and museum-like space of art collector Mr. Obayashi. Yu-un, which translated to something like a place to retreat or a site of wonder, is designed by the renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando. At the start of the project, Obayashi and Ando commissioned a handful of artists to create works on site. One of the commissions was Olafur Eliasson. Invited to create a work for the courtyard, pictured above, the artist proposed cladding the walls with a platinum-glazed version of his “quasi brick” tiles. (Eliasson first used this brick in his installation in the Dutch Pavilion of the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.)

Andreas Eggertsen, who worked in Eliasson’s studio while this art commission of Yu-un was in production, explains that the quasi brick “is a space filling geometry based on ‘fivefold symmetry’: a mathematical description of a quasi-chaotic geometry, which was found by a physicist in the 80s. The bricks can be rotated into 6 different positions, and put together randomly they create a very complex pattern.” To read more about Yu-un, and to see better images of Eliasson’s commission other than my amateur snap shot, above, check out Lucy Birmingham’s feature article on Yu-un for Architectural Digest; the article is illustrated with photography by Robert McLeod, showing interior and exterior views of the house.

From one gallery to another

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

In the following interview, the emerging curator Emilie Villez discusses the formation and recent work of the Parisian curatorial collective, Le Bureau/, and about the burgeoning French Association for Curators that she was instrumental in forming with other colleagues in the field. Aside from being active in those two organizations, Emilie writes, curates independently, and works at Kadist Art Foundation in Paris.