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Language, word and city in VÄLPARAÍSO INterVENCIONES

Language, word and city in VÄLPARAÍSO INterVENCIONES

Between march and april this year, chile hosted VÄLPARAÍSO INterVENCIONES, an exhibition of modern art displayed in public venues, patrimonial buildings and exhibition halls in the port, with 24 projects by individual and groups of artists from Latin America and Spain, all of them related to language, world and the city. Even the title of the event sticks to those concepts. It was the construction of a neologism, where the game of capital and lowercase letters and the dieresis suggest two readings: “Välparaíso” was also read as “Va al paraíso” (go to heaven); and INterVENCIONES (interventions) as “Invenciones” (inventions)... The suggestion was an invitation to rethink the city from its very boundaries.

The initiative organized by the Spanish State Society for Cultural Action (Seacex) and the Chilean National Council of Culture and Arts (CNCA), was part of the citizen forum of the Fifth International Congress of the Spanish Tongue (V CILE) due to take place at the port in the first days of March. The earthquake of early February 27 that shook the centre and south of the country forced organizers to cancel the latter and hold it via Web. Only the interventions were held as scheduled. Closely linked to the venue, they couldn’t escape the context spite of the shock, the shudder and the feeling of fragility in the air.

The opening days had been scheduled for February 28 and March 1 featuring a series of performances and presentations by several artists, among them Esther Ferrer, Catalina Parra, Humberto Velez, Fernando Llanos, Ricardo Basbaum, Jon Mikel Euba, Pedro Sepulveda, Guisela Munita and La Más Bella couple.

Together with proposals by Priscilla Monge, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Luis Romero, Juan Lopez, Fernando Prats, Cristian Silva, Azucena Vieites, Carme Nogueira, Raul Belinchon, Miler Lagos and Tamara Stuby, plus the groups Populardelujo, Discoteca Flaming Star, Democracia and Sitezise, all of whom are renowned artists and great figures of international modern art summoned by curators Jorge Diez, Jose Roca and Paulina Varas, from Spain, Colombia and Chile, respectively. After nearly a year of operations, the projects meddled in the city based on its different sites and situations. Hours before the earthquake, preparation works had been intense in several places like the Hall El Farol, Espacio G and the hotel where Seacex representatives, including Director Charo Otegui, were staying. In the middle of the street and still on a scaffold, an artist was giving the final touches to his intervention. He worked on the walls of a palace, right on the historical center, when the strong shake started.

VÄLPARAÍSO INterVENCIONES featured a great curatorial strategy different from most biennials and international art events, where a curator or a team of curators usually chooses a topic and represents it with a selection of works or actions developed in an exhibitive diagram. The organizers adapted the Cart[ajena] project, successfully held for IV CILE 2007, in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Conceived by commissioners Jose Roca and Jorge Diez, “it was barely changed in Valparaíso, based on the creation of a temporary community with artists and curators, taking language as the main topic and encouraging the relationship with the city, its urban area, its inhabitants and the local culture in general,” Roca emphasized.

The works were formulated in a process, built in the making, under constant dialogues among those involved and as investigations got into stories of the community, its sites, problems and urban spaces, sometimes subjected to risky situations, joined actively by neighbors and local artists. Marked by indetermination –added the expert– it was a “soft curatorship” and not a thematic one, a “lab” one, in which “one loses the curatorial control over a final result to favor greater freedom in the process, at the risk that the supposed ‘theme’ gets blurred.”

Invited from Valparaíso, where she lives, curator Paulina Varas agrees: “the different relations that emerged by the artists’ proposals in relation to collaborators and the places for the interventions could have been super planned from the beginning, but undoubtedly projects and wishes must be usually adapted to the moment one wants to address or be situated in or from a common space. I’m referring to the flexibility needed to consider, for example, the earthquake that hit the country right before the inauguration.”

In February, Saturday 27 and Sunday 28, Valparaíso’s streets look hurt. On hotel’s halls, it was impossible to decide what to do about the nearly-finished display. The option was taken on Monday: “With the spirit to contribute to the port and people’s returning to normal, and in solidarity with Valparaíso and Chile, the President of the State Society for Foreign Cultural Action, Charo Otegui, met with the participating artist and curators and decided to resume the project ‘as a way to incorporate art to the recovery actions after the terrible tragedy’,” the communiqué read.

That same day in the afternoon, a group of national and foreign enthusiast artists gathered at the Hall El Farol, painted the facility, coordinated tasks and planned the mounting of the rest of the works; organized posters, notebooks and poems of La Más Bella only just (La Más Bella por los pelos) experimental magazine by the Spanish couple. As compared with the south of the country, even though the substantial loses, the sorrow and local damage, all in all, Valparaíso had been barely touched. Still, it was hard to assume the sadness and personal anguish, the feeling that art grew useless in so much tragedy; the situation in the areas of the catastrophe overcame any attempt of aesthetic experience.

On March 8, everything was ready for the visitor. Only the work Democracy (Democracia) –a multi-registry about Los Panzers, the bar of the popular football team of the area, Santiago Wanderers– had been moved from the damaged Municipal Theater of Valparaíso to the CNCA headquarters. Humberto Velez’s performance, with local paya singers and popular poets, at the Stock Market building couldn’t be open to the public because of security reasons; it was a private presentation, with a sound record that was broadcast later on local radio. Meanwhile, art actions previously planned for the opening were moved for the closing of the event, without protocol visitations.

“The project was modified so that it could take place in more austere way and kept as low as possible due to the tragic situation of the earthquake. This fact didn’t affect the works and the interventions, but in some way, it did have some effect on the project as such, as it became part of the sense of reality imposed by the national situation,” Paulina Varas explained.

Jorge Diez added: “I think the decision to go on with the different interventions up to where we could was delicate and right, contributing the bit we could to the needed normality of the city, coinciding with the healing spirit proposed by Fernando Llanos –in the work Local Pride (Orgullo local), a contest of shields or coats of arm addressing the 42 hills of Valparaíso, a call to rescue local histories that wrapped up with an exhibition of submitted designs at the Hall DUC (Study Center for Contemporary Urban Development)– and which opened a horizon for truly collaborative and community-growing practices, beyond certain rhetoric on its use.”

About the scope of the project, Paulina Varas said: “The artistic proposals were not set on an aesthetic-urban discourse alone, since most of them wanted to assume a critical stance regarding the scenario to discern possible areas where we could ask ourselves what does modern art have to do with debates about language and what could it do in a city like this one. The interesting thing is that there were no absolute answers to these questions, but a series of possibilities to approach them, a necessary approach subsequently requiring deeper reflection on the part of the interlocutors, spectators and diverse audiences.”

Weeks after the earthquake, while touring VÄLPARAÍSO INterVENCIONES, it was inevitable not to connect the proposals with the whole situation of the beginning. Although curators have highlighted the plurality of voices, strategies and intentions, that feeling of fragility still prevailed in the encounter with the proposals and gave it a unifying sense. It could be felt from the spaces chosen to set the works, which drew a map of the city, pointing to museums not necessarily of art and exhibition halls opened to present-day trends, with a rather constitutional slant, all of it in a city with a lack of commercial galleries. From the Naval Museum to the Hall El Farol of the University of Valparaíso, most of the proposals were located in the historical area, in the eastern-western section parallel to the bay. In the setting, the Baron pier, squares, walls, a library in the basement of a coffeehouse, sidewalks, elevators connecting the flat with the hills, abandoned palaces, the façade of the emblematic church La Matriz and CNCA halls were also seized; public spaces and buildings marking out a route that would likely disappear under the urban noise.

Even the materiality of several works responded to an objectivity that was about to vanish into the usual transit, into the city’s daily life and the port’s own visibility. Even the most spectacular proposals like the neon sign placed by Fernando Prats at the Baron Pier (“Men wanted for a risky trip, low pay, extreme cold, long moths of total darkness, constant peril, safe return dubious, honor and recognition if succeeds,”), or Juan Lopez’s intervention on the façade of the Cousiño Palace (“The measurement of all things.”) There were works that –to the Duchamp’s way– were considered as such for being placed in sites devoted to art; for being videos, objects located in showcases and pictures placed in specialized halls. But in a new artistic sense, between the site-specific and the event, many of them were absorbed by the life in the city. There lied its power. Only a local could know that that wasn’t “normal” that something inside there was opening up: a new experience, a new meaning to the everyday act, a new idea or image of the place.

Except for the cameras that taped the gatherings on the hills, how could we have known that the football matches kids were playing on the slopes were part of a championship proposed by Pedro Sepulveda? How could we have discovered the art in Tamara Stuby’s phrases stamped on the benches of a square: “if time were not money, you couldn’t waste it” (part of a project that included a floating square by the coast)? Who would have been able to read the full word printed (in mapudungun) by Sitezise on the elevators that pass each other on their way up and down a hill: “AM-PIN”?

It was also hard to “materialize” or “grasp” Catalina Parra’s The Araucanian (La Araucana), announced through newsprint postcards and posters available to the public in some halls, with the image of the church La Matriz and overlapped verses of the homonymous poem written by Alonso de Ercilla and Zuñiga about the war between the Spanish and the Mapuches in the 16th century. The project finished one night with the screening of texts at the square and on the façade of the temple as a tribute to the Mapuche conflict on its Bicentennial anniversary.
Undoable was Cristian Silva’s work Perifoneo, crying political-nature speeches and stories, with a megaphone from a van, imitating the usual practices of street vendors that go around the hills offering their products. The gesture became “art” after being played at the Hall El Farol. The same happened with Football Championship in Slope (Campeonato de fútbol en pendiente) by Pedro Sepulveda, whose video was at the Hall DUC.

Guisela Munita’s Vegetable State (Estado vegetal) was characterized by the ephemeral and spectacular that pointed to the neglect around the centennial Subercaseux Palace, whose façade was the only vestige of the fire on the Serrano street in 2007, right in an area declared World Heritage. Two nights of luminous intervention –in January and April, respectively– and the registry at the Hall DUC completed a work that extolled the vegetation that had grown in the place.

Structure-square (Estructura-plaza) by Ricardo Basbaum was camouflaged in the Lord Cochrane Plaza as an urban furniture made out of minimalist sets that disrupted the arrangement of the place. Esther Ferrer’s performance was staged in the same site, where a group of neighbors were invited over to sit around and tell their personal stories.

There is no other geography like that of Valparaíso. It is a city experience that captured the artists in all of its sites. The steep facades through the hills facing the sea make up passages and labyrinths loaded with certain magic and endless stories. Those stories, words, gestures and repeated expressions were taken as a starting point by Carme Nogueira for her work Port People (Porteños); four videos screened as a trompe l’oeil on the walls of the Naval Museum, presented the port as the place from which the landscape in the city “in a physical and real way because it is the driving force of development, but also in the discursive plane,” said the artist. Nogueira reflected also on the relation between Valparaíso and Spain and the independence wars, the relation with the capital of the country, development growth and models and even the English influence, crossing references with the original port, Vigo.

Based on more intimate stories, Priscilla Monge made The Happy Stone (La piedra feliz), an audiovisual record that sprout from a casual event: when she arrived in Valparaíso to start working, the artist got sick and didn’t leave the hotel for a few days. “During that period, the owner of the facility took it upon him to make my stay nicer by telling me stories about his life and the city. The one that caught my attention the most was that about “the happy stone”, a place where lovers and others decided to put an end with their lives. I was even told that during the dictatorship a few crimes were covered as a suicide in that place.” The issue was investigated and she took it to a notion of death in the silence, displayed in three videos where stories are whispered “taking us from a conversation with death to a violent and tragic death, (and then) to a conversation with life.”

For Sitezise, “Valparaíso’s special geography and the personality of the port people create a microclimate that makes them very special. We were interested, above all, in that dichotomy established by the flat and the hills. In that aspect, elevators work as communicating vessels between those two parallel worlds: in the going and coming, up and down, in the living and working, the sea and the port....” the group’s work AMPIN: Live in the Word (AMPIN: habitar la palabra), pointed to those invisible spots within the culture, the elevators as symbols opened up to re-appropriation and to a tongue of a discriminated people.

The word as a place or a non-place. The experiences from a tour in which the city was rediscovered were embraced within these boundaries, not the tourist picture though, but that of a site with its own points in common and tensions, characteristic of post colonialist contexts.

Humberto Velez worked directly with the “guardians” of the vernacular language, with paya singers and popular poets: “Working in Valparaíso and meeting its people was an enriching experience that shed new lights to the idea of the popular in Latin America in the early 21st century. That’s why I decided to dive into the part of the Chilean culture that is not submitted to that individualist and wannabe ideology that, seen from the outside, seems to rule in Chile. The artistic interventions were going to be created within 5th CILE’s framework, and I thought it would be relevant to work with paya singers and popular poets to speak about the bonds between the highbrow and popular art, about what making art means now and what it is good for. Hence the idea of presenting the concert at the theatrical and contrasting Stock Market. As one of the payas goes: ‘Art and materialism are not the same thing’.”

International artists taking care of local cultural and city problems? One of the participants, poet “El Diantre” (Carlos Muñoz) saw Velez’s work this way: “I find it praiseworthy that a foreigner had taken the time to consider the Chilean popular poetry to be as good as to represent our country’s culture which, on the other hand, it reflects the lack of interest of representatives of the Chilean cultural area in making such appreciation.”

This is the social and political scope of a project conceived for the public sphere rather than for the art space, with a type of an underlying trend of world contemporary work and takes artistic practices out of its self-referential state and space of consecration. But the catastrophic context was imposed as an unexpected challenge that forced us to redefine the world of art beyond its limits. Towards a site of silence, perhaps. Jorge Diez says so in a way: “I remember the therapeutic and collective set-up chain of the experimental magazine La Más Bella only just (La Más Bella por los pelos) at the Hall El Farol, with some soffits still hanging from the ceiling and a metallic rod stuck into the wooden floor. Minimal, almost banal elements as compared with the devastation and death images broadcast on television, but that took us to a different time and questioned us over our likely-free work.”

VÄLPARAÍSO INterVENCIONES represented a type of art less submitted to the show, to the institution of art and cultural industry; one closer to the citizenship, to the social plot; making crosses between the city experience and the reality of such a particular place; creating new readings about the relationship between the local and the global; gauging tensions; bringing to light weaknesses, fissures and strengths; contributing to the healing. All of this coinciding with the Bicentennial of the Republic and in the modern context of a port-city with neighborhoods that are World Heritage, housing not only huge hills and the sea, but also the citizen’s will and efforts facing incompetent authorities, a glorious past and some current decline, poetry, nostalgia and the latent willingness to reformulate the way of living. The word turned into work –invisible, meddling in or trying to make its way through the urban space– activated something somewhere in the planet that could as well be an epitome of the Latin American city; because, given the meager or shaky constructions, here, all is left to do.