This interview originally appeared in Spanish in ViceVersa Magazine. I finally came around to translate it to English. Deborah Castillo is probably my favorite contemporary Venezuelan artist/image-maker, and in early 2015 I sat down with her to talk about her recent emigration. She’s done a lot since then (including a solo show in Caracas, one at Cornell University and another at Mandragoras Art Space in Long Island City).
Deborah Castillo was born in Caracas (Venezuela) in 1971, and she has lived in NYC since August 2014. She is an artist. Her work is at once irreverent, intellectual, and visceral. She uses her body to negotiate her vital space, and to reflect back to her audience a tangible reflection of the political and social forces that traverse it. Her art cannot be separated from a critique of power in all of its manifestations: in social stereotypes, in gender discrimination, in political authoritarianism, or in the founding myths of Latin America.
Deborah won the Eugenio Mendoza Prize and the Jóvenes con FIA Prize in Venezuela, both in 2003. One wonders if there is an area of artistic formation that she has not explored: She was a student at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Artes Plásticas Armando Reverón and at the Escuela Cristóbal Rojas, she studied at the London College of Fashion, she started her own clothing line, she designs jewellery, she’s a certified make-up artist, she makes pottery, and she restored most of the furniture in her Brooklyn apartment.
In recent times, and in the light of a very complex political situation in Venezuela, Deborah has oriented her art towards a dialog with power and a profanation of the “untouchable” common places of a militarised culture. In El beso emancipador (The emancipating kiss), a work belonging to the exhibition Acción y Culto -which earned her the title “the Violator of the Homeland,” among others-, she makes out with a bust of Simón Bolívar, the Liberator. In Lamezuela (a play on Venezuela, replacing the first letters for “lame,” which means lick, leaving “zuela,” which goes to mean sole) she licks the boot of a man in military attire. Deborah uses her tongue to question, and impose herself upon, oppression in the symbolic field.
However, since last August, Deborah is also standing in the same spot as the hundreds of Venezuelans that fled the country in 2014 (according to sociologist Tomás Páez, 2014 saw the highest rate of emigration to date): at the threshold. On the edge of possibilities that are still only beginning to emerge, she examines the things to come, and reflects upon the past and what is impossible to abandon.
You have been living outside of Venezuela for nearly a year now. Why did you decide to migrate?
I am self-exiled. In Venezuela I feel asphyxiated as an artist and as a citizen.
You are now working from a very different reality. How has your work been impacted by this so far?
I don’t have that answer yet. I only started working in January; the first few months I dedicated fully to getting settled. But I can say that my art is very contextual: I work according to the context that I happen to be in. I am still getting to know New York City, not as an artist, but as a migrating human being. I don’t know how exactly, but I know my work will change. For now it is still very tied to Venezuela; in fact, my first performative action here happened in La Meta es Desmontar la Simulación at Wendy’s Subway. It was an event created to commemorate the protests that began in February 2014 in the country. My performance was called Slapping Power, where I slapped a bust of Simón Bolívar and I disfigured his face.
That performance was projected live at the Nelson Garrido Organization in Caracas, and it was also livestreamed…
That was a very interesting experience, because I had never done something like that. I am very interested in the format of performance for web, but if I had been in Caracas it would probably not have occurred to me. This is how new alternatives begin to open up from here: new types of work and new spaces.
Is your work fully inseparable from Venezuela?
My work is inseparable from my life: the work is life. Both are absolutely intertwined with the political circumstances in Venezuela, but I don’t want my work to be too local. Actions like Slapping Power are simply the answers of a common citizen to a system, and it speaks to a collective experience, both Latin American and from any other region that has suffered under totalitarian regimes.
Do you consider yourself an activist, in that sense?
I have never been interested in getting involved in politics, and I don’t consider myself a “political” artist. There is an activism aspect to what I do, but I am not an activist. I don’t intend to change the world with my work. I have never related to any political parties, and I don’t identify myself with the binary conception of politics that dominates in Venezuela.
And what about politics as a social responsibility, beyond being an active member of a party?
I try to create awareness: Through the use of images, I try to make the audience turn its eyes towards certain social phenomena, and I attempt to be provocative as I do that. For instance, a past work consisted in giving away postcards in which I appeared as a porn actress, even though I have actually nothing to do with that world; I appropriated a territory that did not belong to me to confront the audience regarding a certain issue. In the past I have addressed sexual stereotypes, the body as a commodity, the great industry of pornography… If I had to describe my work with one phrase, it would be “power and desire”: I dialog with power, I slap it, I kiss it, I remove its face. I confront it from the filed of art and I am not interested in moving to another realm.
Now that you are able to reflect from afar, which do you consider the greatest challenges an artist faces in Venezuela?
Let’s start with how our museums have been hijacked. I have been working for 15 years but my work has never been inside of a Venezuelan museum, as is the case of many colleagues of my generation. As those institutions became more politicised, it became increasingly difficult to have access to them –and I wanted nothing to do with anything related to the government.
Which alternatives have come up to confront this situation?
Private galleries are doing their very best. However, the fact that galleries have to take on the role of museums is somewhat problematic: one exists to sell art, and the other should educate and research. My work in particular is more appropriate for a museum because it isn’t commercial. What is, in my view, the greatest problem in the realm of art in Venezuela today? That there are few spaces for research to make sense of artistic practices.
Your work in particular encompasses many different formats: the performance, the video of the performance, and the sculptures that you create yourself and use in your performances. How do you see yourself as an artist across all these disciplines?
I am interested in doing work that is hard to classify. The sculptures I make are the subjects of my performances –I interact with them. I employ my body, but the material (other) object displaces me; for instance, when I kiss Bolívar, Bolívar is the subject. I make videos but I do not consider myself a video artist, I make performatic videos. But then again, I am also not only a performer. When people ask me what my practice consists of I often don’t know what to answer… I am a visual artist.
Most of the furniture in your apartment was made or restored by you. You make your own jewellery, you wear clothes you have designed and often sown yourself. You model all the sculptures you use in your performances. How does DIY extend to distributing your work?
I didn’t have a gallery that represented me until 2007, but that was no obstacle for me. In the year 2000 I made two photo-novels: “El Secuestro de la Ministra de Cultura” (“The Kidnapping of the Minister of Culture”) and “El Extraño caso de la sin título” (which translates loosely as “The Strange Case of the Untitled Woman”). Both were humorous parodies of systems of sexual, artistic, and institutional power. I self-published the novels and distributed them through a network in diverse parts of Caracas: at the La Bandera bus terminal (the largest public transportation hub in the city), in Catia, in the historic center of the city at the Esquina Caliente, and under the Fuerzas Armadas Bridge (a popular spot to buy cheap, used books). I would hand the issues to street vendors. In parallel, there were several copies at the Sala Mendoza in my individual exhibition. That was very interesting, as I gave them a double life: In the Sala Mendoza –the institution– you knew that they were works of art, while the approach and the enjoyment that happened in the streets were totally different.
At the start of our interview you spoke about a process of re-contextualisation of your work. How does the near future look? Does it excite you or frighten you?
Any new work is a new vertigo. Whether you are in New York City or Caracas, that vertigo is a pleasure. What’s intriguing is that each crisis creates a richer body of work; I always say that happiness is something to transit through, not to question, but the difficult times –especially being Venezuelan but not being able to live there– are the most productive. The best pieces I ever made were born of the frustration I felt living in Caracas, and I’m sure that this new experience will yield interesting fruits.