The Assault of The Body, The Body Under Assault: Interview with Érika Ordosgoitti

This is the English translation of an interview with Venezuelan performance artist Érika Ordosgoitti published last week by the Chilean magazine Atlas Revista Fotografía e Imagen (it can be read here). Érika is a dynamic force in the Venezuelan arts scene, a tireless political activist, driving force behind the Caracas Performance Biennale, and an extremely sensitive, disciplined, and thorough thinker and poet. It was a privilege to speak with her. This interview is particularly focused on the body, urban violence, and the “photo-assaults” that she has been developing for more than 6 years now.

How would you describe public spaces in Caracas to someone who is not familiar with the city? This is crucial to understanding the risk your work involves, and your character as an artist.

Abuse. Abuse is what defines public space in Venezuela: loud noises, disregard for rules of the road, and disregard for personal space. The unifying experience for female bodies in public spaces in Caracas is sexual harassment, especially catcalling. It doesn’t matter if you are dressed like a nun, if you are a child, even if you are an elderly woman: there is no escaping it. Women are constantly, unfairly forced to listen to vile words directed at them for no reason. Personally, I try to cover myself up as much as possible, but that usually doesn’t help. It doesn’t even matter that I am walking with my young daughter.

When you work in public spaces, you often perform what you have called “photo-assaults.” Most of these involve photographing your naked body next to iconic structures in the city. Why do you employ the term “assault”?

Photo-assaults are performances I do without any announcement, invitation, or permission. They are fleeting: one moment I am there and the next I am gone. If you are doing something weird, but you announce it, it doesn’t have the same effect as if you take people by surprise. It’s more confrontational.

So the reaction of the passers-by/spectators is key to the success of a photo-assault?

Audience reaction is always important to me, but I would say it is more so in the case of actual performances. Photo-assaults are about looking for an image, getting it, and making it out alive.

Photo-assault at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas, 2012

Would you characterize your performances as ways of reclaiming a position, in your own terms, within the public space?

I would say there is an act of reclaiming, yes. And I would add that it is a somewhat violent act of reclaiming.

In an e-mail exchange leading up to this interview I expressed to you that, living in Caracas, I struggle to understand and accept violence. You replied that you are not “anti-violence.”

I don’t reject violence; my opinion is that it is a right kidnapped by the State. Animals and plants, for example, are violent to each other. The strongest one prevails. For us, civilization changed that: our instincts were tamed. Our basic needs have been covered and we don’t have to struggle to find food or water, in theory. Despite this “domestication,” I believe that it is valid to resort to violence if we feel our integrity is threatened, or to defend our right to be present in a certain space.

The term “photo-assault” itself suggests aggression. It plays against people’s sense of “security.”

I think art is violent in and of itself. If art doesn’t shock me on some level, I consider it “bad art” –which is fine because, as Duchamp said, we do have the right to make bad art.

But, as you said, shocking the audience is not the primary goal of a photo-assault.

The most important thing is to obtain the image and not be detained or forced into a straitjacket. The photo-assault is successful when everything goes smoothly. But very often I end up inside a police car, or I have to come down from wherever I climbed because the photographer gets intimidated, or –on the contrary– starts pushing me to stay up there too long so he can take more pictures, change lenses, etc.

That is an interesting observation. You might want to capture one moment, offer up one image that you have carefully conceived, but someone else steps in and forces you to participate in the over-documentation that I feel describes our times so well.

Yes, it is as though the conventions of contemporary photography practices get in the way of the performance. I also feel that image-making technologies are “evolving” towards bigger size and better resolution, and this is permeating all the other visual arts. This obsession with quality is alienating: you can’t show up with a piece that you shot with a regular point-and-shoot, and not a RED, or something. I am not interested in hyper-resolution, I am interested in metaphors! Technical resources cannot define the value of art. You can make a powerful, honest, and effective work of art with practically nothing… with garbage, even.

Photo-assault at the Pirámide de Mayo in Buenos Aires, 2009

Your interventions in public spaces tend to happen in two specific, apparently contradictory, types of environment: iconic buildings and monuments in the city, and unstable, ruinous, marginal urban areas. Is this binary approach a coincidence, or is it your intention to work between the two extremes?

I never conceptualized my work that way. It happened spontaneously. The truth is that ruins attract me because they expose society. The urban structures –buildings, roads, etc.– that surround us commonly need constant care and maintenance, which makes them fictitious to me. Rundown structures, in turn, reveal the naked truth behind that fiction: they are the key to visualizing how power is truly operating on you.

So, by moving between these two distinct types of infrastructure, you are also exploring two expressions of power.

Yes. And when I perform on monuments, I am bringing the instability of ruins into the space of power through my body. I contrast the architectural, monumental icon, which is stable, with my body, which is naked, vulnerable, and “delinquent.” The monument is always more highly valued than my body. For instance, a nude statue can be easily placed anywhere in public, but as soon as I stand next to it, my naked body becomes a problem.

If a man performed naked in public spaces as you do, do you think he would receive the same kind of treatment?

I would like to think so, but I know that for a man the consequences would be worse. At least in Venezuela, women’s bodies are a commodity that everyone is used to seeing, using, and eroticizing. I suspect that the sight of male genitalia in public would be even more confounding for the spectators, and even for the authorities, than the sight of my genitalia. In that sense, I do believe a man would have to face stricter legal punishment.

Photo-assault on the statue of the Three Graces in Caracas, 2009

You say people are used to seeing and eroticizing women’s bodies. In that sense, I think that when you perform naked you re-establish the conditions of that gaze. You are the one deciding when and where people see your (female, nude) body, and you choose to frame it in the context of a political action.

EO: I agree, but the way you phrase it sounds a little like I am imposing something. When I perform in public I am proposing a series of conditions for a gaze, but I am not forcing people to see me in a certain way. If you don’t want to see me, you can look away.

How would you describe a powerful work of art?

I know that, for me, a work of art emerges from an understanding that takes place as an event of silence; the work is effective if it can also generate silence in the audience. Personally, I aim to take people’s words away. A powerful work of art can even surprise and silence its own creator.

Has it happened to you? Have you been in the middle of performing a photo-assault and felt overcome by this silence?

EO: Not so much, because during photo-assaults I need ninja-like concentration. My mind is racing, focused on not ending up detained, or looking out for sexual offenders that might want to hurt me. Silence happens to me most when I write poetry –or, I should say, when I return to poems I wrote that I had forgotten about. When I return to one of my poems, and feel deeply moved by it, it is almost as if someone else had written it. It leaves me awe-struck.

Your thoughts about poetry take me back to what you said earlier: that there isn’t a compulsory relation between the value of certain material conditions of a work of art –resolution, scale, etc.– and its emotional impact.

Poetry is the best example. What do you need to write poetry? A pen and a piece paper, if anything at all. Maybe a good memory is enough. You only need words, and words are free. I arrived at performance art because I needed to create polyglot poetry. Photography is also a sort of poem –an aphorism or a haiku.

You work with video and photography, but your work is more closely related to performance. Why did you choose that medium?

I choose action art because, for me, art is deeply related to freedom, and freedom to action. “Freedom” is a linguistic error, an adjective that became a noun. It does not exist if it isn’t experienced, but carrying out an act of freedom does not make you free: you are still immersed in an oppressive system, so the experiences of freedom are fleeting. Civilization is a system of fictions. The first step toward being free is to become aware of the ideologies that influence me and how power operates over and through me.

Photo-performance: spiral staircase in Macarao

How might you, therefore, characterize the experience of freedom?

There are two “movements” to freedom. One is about realizing how I am being ideologically influenced or oppressed, and making the choice to distance myself from that thought, inhibition, or preconception. This can be achieved by being present in one’s body; staying alert and active. The other movement is about the urge to do something with the understanding I have just obtained. That is when I create something. Afterwards, I go back to operating under the discourse of power that is dictating how I should look, how I should talk, etc. It is a constant fight.

What does the work of art mean if freedom cannot be a permanent state?

I would say it is the carcass of an event of freedom –its trace. But it’s also an exhortation: it says “Something (a moment of freedom) happened here, and it could happen again!” It is a sort of political manifesto, which is contradictory if you consider how very formal the art world is.

Does performance art stir up passions in Venezuela today? I feel that it has been historically underappreciated, but there’s been a resurgence of interest lately.

I agree there has been a positive revaluation of performance art recently. I produced the very first Caracas International Performance Biennial last year, and reception was very good. Audiences and curators alike are very interested in performance.

Do you have any idea why it might be “coming back”?

I think it’s because artists are growing more and more interested in the body as a theme. As you know, the body is front and center in performance art. We have been noticing a renewed interest in the body across the arts: painting, poetry, video art, photography… This might be because our bodily experience in Venezuela is so extreme right now. The body is being attacked by urban violence –you think that you can be stabbed, that you can be shot, at any time–, food shortages make it hungry, water shortages affect its hygiene and health. Maybe you need a new pair of shoes and you just don’t have enough money to buy them. This isn’t like other systems in which the body exists under threat, here power is operating directly on your body. And if you are part of the minority that can afford to buy personal care products and clothes, you are merely living inside a glass bubble.

[Erika and I are in a cafe, facing the street. A man approaches a trash can on the sidewalk in front of us and starts digging for food inside them –a scene that is becoming increasingly common in Caracas]

Because if you see someone eating from the trash, it’s as though you are eating from the trash. It’s the same thing. Even if you are just looking at them. When there is violence happening in front of you, it is also happening to you.

All images © Érika Ordosgoitti

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