On undisciplined bodies: notes on nudity, urban space, and civic demonstration

On April 20th of this year, during one of the dozens of demonstrations against Nicolás Maduro’s government in the last months, 27-year old Hans Wuerich undressed before a group of National Bolivarian Police officers. Bible in hand, he managed to climb one of the police tanks; he descended after exchanging a few words with the officers, his back covered in pellet shots. Then he walked home, still naked, and his family healed his wounds (or so Hans himself told Climax magazine). Professional and amateur photographs abound in protests –at least in Caracas–, so in a matter of minutes the images of Hans raising his arms and waving his Bible were on everyone’s screens.

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Public reactions, both condemnatory and condescending as well as glorifying and even “messianic”, emerged immediately. For me, the scene initially provoked an immediate comparison with the performance work of Érika Ordosgoitti, whose discourse has interested me for several years and with whom I had the opportunity to speak in an exchange published by Atlas magazine a few months ago. What Érika does has many subtleties and encompasses different formats and strategies, but, generally speaking, it has become a reference for the questioning of public space through the naked body. However, with the passing of the days and after reading subsequent statements by Hans Wuerich himself, I understood that his was perhaps a more precarious proposal and that it came from a different place; however, it certainly holds important similarities with Érika’s performances. In both cases, Hans and Érika confront the public space, which is besieged by patriarchal-military forces, with their vulnerable bodies, thus sensitizing –through the photographic capture, and not only with their actions in real time– their audience  to the issues of marginality and violence.

Much has been already said, and I don’t mean to over-analyze what Hans Wuerich did on the Francisco Fajardo highway that day, but I also think that not talking about it in these terms means conceding too much space to the malicious, sexist interpretations that I found when I Googled his name (keep in mind that, within hours of his appearance, the President of Venezuela made a joke about the size of Hans’s penis on public television). News portals sympathetic to the government refer to Hans as “the opositor (member of the opposition) who set up a show on the freeway,” claim that he was drugged during the event, and they have even found out what kind of pension his father (of immigrant descent, they are quick to note) receives, so as to bring “shame” to his family. All of this because of a naked, injured body.

In an interview with Clímax magazine a few days after his jump to “fame”, Wuerich stated that his actions had been premeditated (not, as I thought, a spontaneous reaction to the siege of tear gas and pellets). He mentioned that he felt the wave of protests thus far needed “something that really created attention,” and that he searched Google for references: “I read about people who stripped naked in Spain to protest bullfighting. I also saw some women undressing against Trump. And a woman in Brazil who did more or less what I did, but she could not stand it. She ran off with the pellets. Of course, I also saw the old lady who stood in front of the tanks here in Caracas.” Even if he did not express it or the published interview did not reflect it, he was clearly referring to ways of protesting individually with the body and through nudity.

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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.

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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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#Here: A Conversation with Costanza de Rogatis

Below is the English translation of my most recent article for La ONG’s blog. This time I interviewed Venezuelan photographer Costanza de Rogatis, with special focus on her social media images. The original Spanish can be found here.

Costanza de Rogatis (Caracas, 1976) holds a B.A. in Arts from Universidad Central de Venezuela and a Diploma in Photography from the Fondazione Studio Marangoni in Florence. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions, in countries such as Venezuela, Italy, the United States, Latvia, and Finland. This past August, she opened the individual show Puente at Tresy3 gallery in Caracas. However, I know Costanza’s work mostly through her personal Instagram, where she has developed a discourse that unifies the aesthetics of her work in other formats with the possibilities of mobile photography – more recently, she has been sharing a series on the body titled with the hashtag #Aquí (here). Focusing on her work on this social network, I asked Costanza for an interview via a collaborative Google Doc, in which we sketched out some reflections and shared screenshots. The following text is the result of that exchange.

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Before starting this Doc I looked at your Instagram grid once again, and I sensed a proposition of sorts –not just a theme or aesthetic, but a conscious display. I’m interested in several things about your use of the Instagram platform. How has the language of the snapshot with a mobile camera forced or helped you develop other facets of your photographic language?

The aesthetics of the snapshot interests me because it is instantaneous and leaves little room for pretensions. I like the idea of being able to make pictures without more preparation than carrying my cell phone and making photographs as I need to on that particular day. It often happens that in producing some of these images I have an impulse to see what I can do with the shapes of my body, as my mood changes throughout the day or week… also, the directness of the snapshot makes it very close and real to me.

I find it interesting when a professional photographer shares her work on Instagram, because the moment of consumption (or contemplation) is totally uncontrollable. Your audience is scrolling down according to their own preferences, and your image might be visualized in the middle of others that may collide with it or decontextualize it. Have you ever had this in mind?

The truth is I don’t think about how my images will be seen within the maremagnum of images on Instagram… I imagine that among my followers are the people who work with me at the office, my relatives, people I have met by chance, and total strangers, and all of them have a different background and interests that are different from mine. I suppose that, to some of them, my images of the body might seem strange, but it’s something that I can’t control. I don’t think I care to control it either. Mine is just a voice –maybe just a few words– in that stream of glittering visual information.

And with respect to your grid, do you approach the “assembly” of your own profile consciously, with any proposal?

I like to think of my grid as a thread with a certain visual continuity. It is definitely not a narrative, but when I make my images, I see the order they are carrying and I try not to allow any cacophony between them, or if there are any, I try for it to take me somewhere. The grid helps me understand where I go, and question why certain images I like more or less in relation to others.

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