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.

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ArchivoAbierto: Carlos Zerpa Archive at Abra Caracas (09/2016)

Some pics from a visit to ArchivoAbierto, Venezuelan artist Carlos Zerpa‘s “Open Archive” at Abra Caracas gallery. The exhibit includes press clippings, photographs, collage works, posters, and other documents that sum up Zerpa’s work and interests between 1969 and 1997. My favorites were definitely the flyers and zines (the powers of a Xerox machine, yes!). Zerpa had a playful approach to performance and video that, oddly enough, comes across in a much more relatable way (for me) in the design of his printed works.

I also want to commend the work of ArtEncontrado, the producers. Artists of Zerpa’s generation, who are still alive, working, and therefore have political opinions, are usually not in official Museums so we don’t often have the opportunity to experience their work retrospectively. I hope they open up another artist’s archive soon.

Museographically (and this is just my personal taste), this exhibit would have benefitted from some kind of chronological layout, or at least some wall text or tags. It felt a little too much like a random collection of memorabilia, which has its charm, but is ultimately less educational –and I think that’s important given the current state of affairs.

All pics by me.

Deborah Castillo, from the threshold (Interview)

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).
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© Deborah Castillo

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. 

Continue reading “Deborah Castillo, from the threshold (Interview)”