Interview - Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
In connection with her exhibition
New Museum, New York
April 20 – June 12, 2016
by Natasha Kurchanova
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz is an artist from San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose work explores recuperation from trauma, regeneration, affect, and the possibilities of creating alternatives to habitual modes of communication through close attention to day-to-day interactions with people far removed from post-modern lifestyles. Her installation at The New Museum features a three-channel video (That which identifies them like the eye of the Cyclops), a 16mm black-and-white film (Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces), and a collection of masks used for performances. These are all parts of a larger project that involves people the artist knows well. In the video, these people are three women – an artist, a farmer, and a singer – who lead lives shaped by their practices of reflection, care, and affective existence. In the film, they are people living on Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico that was used as a military base by the US Navy for 60 years before the troops were withdrawn in early 2003. Still highly polluted and peppered with unexploded bombs, the island is slowly recovering from its traumatic history. Muñoz’s interventions into the lives of people on the island are an intrinsic part of this process. The affinity to psychoanalysis comes not only from the projects’ interest in trauma, affect, and reflective states, but also from the artist’s talk with Patricia Gherovici on April 21, 2016, in which, among other things, they discussed Jacques Lacan’s concept of the sinthome as a process of creation and its connection to Muñoz's artistic practice.
Natasha Kurchanova: I would like to begin by asking you to describe your project exhibited upstairs – a three-channel video and a film.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: I am working on a long film. I always thought about making a long film and everything else was going to happen in relation to it. I was not going to control it and keep it to one hour and forty-five minutes. I am still working on it, and it will take about a year to finish. It is loosely based on a 1969 novel by Monique Wittig called Les Guérrillères. This novel has always interested me because of the ways in which it thinks through formal experimentation and language to prefigure another kind of politics. I was influenced by the book’s ideas and proposed ways of action, but never thought that I would do anything with it. I could not get away from it, however. This project is the realization of my reading of Wittig’s book.
The way that I have developed my process over the last 10 years relies on direct observation. From the outside it may appear ethnographic because I devote long periods of time to observation and documentation. What begins to happen afterward is more of a shared, imaginary ethnography in which my subjects and I are constructing things together. I may propose a structure and ask the person I film to respond to it. It can be just a conversation, or it can follow a script I would have written. We write it together; we perform and re-perform it. There is a range of strategies that I have used in this process. All of them can be described as a kind of “playing.” In my video, for example, I am beginning my observation and documentation not from imagined, mythical women, but from the women I know. I am interested in the tension between the universal female subject that we construct and in rooting this subject in specific subjectivities through this process of intervention. The very practical way that I started this project was through observing, following, documenting the lives of five women, three of whom you see in the video. The project has grown and changed a lot, I have added more people; I am still in the process of documentation. The exhibition upstairs is the first iteration of the questions that the project asks, such as: What does it mean to create a new language? Are we thinking about substance? Are we thinking about form? What is the relationship between the two? Also, there is the question about the meaning of creation of new language and the wish to start from nothing, which we all know is impossible. What does this wish do?
Upstairs, there is a three-channel video installation that addresses the questions that I mentioned. The women that appear in them are the ones with whom I have been working. There are other things as well – a series of objects and masks, which are props in the longer film I am producing. There is also another film, which is unrelated to this longer project, although it has obvious links to it. It’s a 16-mm footage that I shot in Vieques, Puerto Rico, which is a place that was used as a bombing range by the US military for 60 years. There was a civil disobedience movement in Puerto Rico about this island for 30 or 40 years, but in 2000 it all came to a head. In 2003 the US Navy finally closed the base. Now Vieques is a Superfund site filled with unexploded bombs both at sea and on the bombing range itself. I am interested in how one thinks about a place like that, and in the relationship between the history of the place and an image, which does not show any of these underlying political conflicts or toxicity. What could be that relationship? Is there any possibility of thinking about it in terms of representation? I favor a different approach to the question: What does image do next to this reality as opposed to representing it as it is.
NK: Many of your ideas remind me of the Russian avant-garde: going to zero, breaking the frame, relating material to form and representation … You want to break the frame because you wish to restructure the dichotomy between the work and the spectator by foregrounding the relationship between the maker and the subject. Is this the ethnographic function of your work?
BSM: I talked about this a little bit in my presentation with Patricia [Gherovici]. When I began visiting the former Navy base on Vieques to find out what it was possible to see there after military occupation and what it was possible to think when you think through a camera, I realized that it was unrealizable for me to get away from the position of seeing a nostalgic ruin of the traces of military presence. It was impossible in a very material way not to feel monumentality of the place. It takes 10 minutes to walk from one end of a dock to another because the dock was made for submarines. How do you stand there anymore without always feeling that you are standing on a dock made for submarines? How do you imagine anything else? The place is changing now; there are no subs coming in and out, the turtles are coming back, but you are still standing on a dock. As I look through the camera lens, the lines that I see enforce the monumentality of the space and of the domain that the rational plane of the camera creates; it refers to traditional landscape and aerial military photography. All of that is embedded in the lens, in the machine, in the way of looking. One of the ways I thought was necessary to begin to think differently was literally to break the camera, break the rational frame. How can you see in a way that does not reproduce the idea of monumentality and the idea of ruin? So I started folding up that space, breaking it in different ways, and seeing what happens. This is similar to Monique Wittig’s breaking of familiar language in Les Guérrillères. We cannot start with the same language because it obscures things that we are accustomed not to see and not to think about. What can we do formally and materially to correct this? Even if we do not know what needs to be seen, just as we do not know what needs to be said, at the very least we can start breaking up those familiar faces and investigating the gaps that appear as a result of this process.
That’s one way in which I was breaking the frame. For me, it was a productive thinking process. I think about what happens when fishermen start coming in and use the dock for their boats. That activity brings change to the place, adapting it to a different use. So, this relationship is a different one, a body relationship. People would come in and start having memories not only of the times when this dock was used by military, but also … of the types of fish that used to be in abundance here 60 years ago, for example. In this way, a new piece of knowledge would emerge from this place. This knowledge also starts breaking down the previous history. This is one way I am thinking about this. Another way concerns not so much breaking the frame, but removing the emphasis on the position of the spectator and the idea of a film or a work of art as something that produces meaning or communicates. I am interested in thinking of other analogous forms, such as ritual or clinical psychoanalysis, in which, instead of having a spectator and a production of meaning, there are many different positions and many different ways of relating to the work. For example, when someone is dancing in a group of people, it becomes part of the work, a ritual. There are many things that are going on there that have nothing to do with meaning. They are about collective feeling, personal transformation … My recent visits to Haiti helped me think about ritual. I do not know very much about the place, but I recognized right away that in Haitian rituals, the spectator does not have an important position. One has to recognize that the work has an aesthetic and materiality, but it takes a different form. So, my work is not only about breaking the frame formally, but also [about] saying that spectatorship is not the only position from which it is possible to view artmaking, art practice, aesthetics, [the] relationship between material and semiotics. What happens when you start to think from a different position than master-spectator? The fact that there are other ways of looking and relating to a work of art could open up other than “expert” ways of thinking about it?
NK: I was thinking about the title of your work, Song/Strategy/Sign in relation to the possible analogy you mentioned between psychoanalysis and your art practice, which roughly corresponds to the Lacanian tripartite division of the psyche into the realms of the Real/Imaginary/Symbolic. In your conversation with Patricia Gherovici, you traced this parallel along the lines that both psychoanalysis and art offer the prospect of individual transformation. The example you gave was the Lacanian concept of the sinthome. Could you elaborate on how you see this connection?
BSM: I am not an expert in psychoanalysis and my relationship to it is very limited. I have always been interested in the work of Lygia Clark; Brazilian psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik wrote most about this artist. I came to psychoanalysis by reading Rolnik and understanding Lygia Clark through her writings. She uses therapy and anti-therapy as a model for her work. I started reading Felix Guattari because Rolnik refers to him and his ideas of micro-politics. So in my understanding of psychoanalysis, I do not go from Freud to Lacan, but move backwards and try to find the originating ideas. Another major factor in my attraction to psychoanalysis was the fact that it is primarily a clinical practice and not only a theoretical deliberation. I am interested in what happens between two people, especially when one has a political understanding of the situation. I am interested in how one person interacts with the other in a way that allows you to see the production of subjectivity. To me it’s like a puzzle, which I am trying to understand by talking to psychoanalysts and people who know this practice. I just began the process of analysis, so I am not familiar with it from my own history. I see the analogy between psychoanalysis and what I am doing in that there is a strange relationship between me and the people with whom I am working. It is a kind of relationship that is not easily codified, unlike doctor/patient; contractor/client … Rather, it is unstable. So, I think about psychoanalysis from a practical viewpoint rather than a theoretical one. As I start reading more, there are definitely things that I find interesting.
NK: So, you are more interested in the potential for transformation that psychoanalysis offers?
BSM: Yes, and in the relationship between psychoanalytic practice involving two people and collective transformation. In his texts, Guattari talks a lot about this practice, calling this process subjectivation.
NK: A possibility of developing a new kind of relationship between an individual and a collective also ties into Wittig’s novel, since she writes about women as a collective, but she periodically interrupts the narrative to list the women individually by name.
BSM: In Les Guérrillères, the women are all autonomous individuals and all have proper names, which are printed in all caps in columns and are dispersed in clusters throughout the book. Wittig is weaving the ideas of the collective into the novel’s fabric, but these ideas are coming from sensorial, autonomous, material subjects. This is done through language.
NK: This is what you are trying to do as well. In your work, however, you are also investigating the in-between spaces that language cannot quite express because the spaces where subjectivities are created may be ambiguous. Can you talk about them?
BSM: Language that I have been taught is insufficient to think about the fullness of human experience. It is very limited in this respect. I do not think that language orders the world completely. There are creations of subjectivity that happen without naming. They concern the relationships between us and objects, for example. They involve material forms and systems. Most of these relationships are not named – we do not have a language for them. This does not mean that we need to name them all. We are living at a time when different subjectivities become part of a dominant sameness. I feel a pressing need in whatever way I can to mute and break this process by figuring out other subjectivities that do not have language. In terms of my work, I do not want to recuperate, retrace backwards, and go to structures of thinking that we have lost. We have lost many things, but [we] cannot go back to those nostalgic ruins. However, we can aggressively create new possibilities. This is what I am interested in, even if it means doing it through random breakage without knowing the result in advance. A lot of what I do comes out of uncertain premises, not [by] prefiguring the end result, but realizing that I have to go through the place I do not know.
NK: Where do the masks come in here? Is it also about the collective and the individual -- about the space that you cannot translate into language?
BSM: This is a point that I do not know how to describe well. I always think about it in terms offered by Roland Barthes in The Third Meaning, where he talks about informational and symbolic meanings. The third meaning has to do with the way the light falls on the face, and the way something appears in the body and the face that is sensorial, making it impossible to name. The masks are defacements – because most of them do not cover the face completely, but do some work of obscuring it – are about becoming something else. I am interested in them because I cannot quite describe something that takes place in-between the specificity of the face and the wish to obscure and be something else.
NK: You are talking about representation?
BSM: Yes, representation, but with no assigned meaning. If there is a black mask, no one knows what it means exactly.
NK: It sounds like this practice can be in some way therapeutic and be used to help recuperate from trauma. In this way it could also be similar to psychoanalysis.
BSM: I have been thinking about this a lot because I am interested in the work of Lygia Clark and because I recognize that in my work there are moments when I am performing a therapeutic action, where there is this kind of relationship between myself and the person with whom I am working. However, if therapy means “correcting” anything, then what I am doing is certainly not therapy. My goal is not to normalize people, but rather make everyone abnormal, so that we could break references that make our experiences be considered abnormal. In the end, the work becomes larger than the relationship between me and my subject, opening up to other positions. In this context, therapy becomes not individual, but collective in the sense that it is therapy for me as well as for my immediate subject, the collective, and the viewer a well. Is it therapy or anti-therapy? I am not sure. Anti-therapy would be the process in which we all recognize the normal path.
NK: The people you consider “normal” may call your project utopian. What would be your answer to them? What do you think about utopias in general?
BSM: I have always been interested in the idea of utopia, in the moment of a wish to create a new structure, while recognizing that it is an impossible task, that it has failure built into it. The wish itself is very important, however, and cannot be ignored, because the desire alone does something. I am interested in this desire of utopia as a dramatic desire for transformation. It is important to be reformist versus dramatic and total. Even if you do not get there, the intention puts a lot of wheels in motion.
NK: Concerning your experiments in creating a new kind of visual language, you are using the documentary genre in a novel way. In one of your interviews you mentioned Trinh Minh-ha’s work as your inspiration and said that you came to feminism through art because Trinh used documentary in an artistic way.
BSM: Trinh Minh-ha’s work influenced me a lot. When she was making her videos, she was looking at a culture very different from her own and experimenting with it. She was not looking at it from a logical point of view to understand how it worked, but rather she wanted to think with it. Her subjectivity is very present in the film. She did it in a very interesting way, perhaps because she did not have the point of view of a universal European subject. Her films are complicating the position of the viewer and the maker as not someone with authority, but someone who stands next to it. This idea of standing next to authority has been very important for me for many years. What I think about when I am working with someone else is really seeing with that person, not seeing through them or being a vehicle for them. I am not someone who lets someone’s subjectivity pass through me. The only thing I can do is come to the point of contact, rub against the other, and go do something else … For me, that moment is very important. Maybe Minh-ha’s transversal feminism influenced me; maybe many things, such as anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist thinking, directed against Western domination. All these things are complicating each other. Formal experimentation in Minh-ha’s films was also very important for me.
NK: How do you suggest we view your work if it is not addressed to the spectator? What’s a good way to approach your work?
BSM: That’s a question I ask myself because I feel like the context of the museum, the gallery, and the screening is only one moment in the production of the work and not the only moment that can be experienced. I definitely think that there was a work that was made already when they were shooting. I have to learn what it does in an exhibition space. I do not have full knowledge of it still. I can tell you how I relate to it. For me it is almost impossible to think about it outside of the meanings of the museum itself. The museum points to the spectator and treats the spectator position as the most important. This is why my work here constantly points to the idea of spectatorship. Ivelisse Jiménez, whom you see in the video working with plastic sheets, is a painter. She creates things between sculpture and painting. When we look at the video we are looking at her looking. For me, it captures the moment of what the museum does with spectators. She is thinking about looking as a possibility of creating a new language, what it all means. If we are looking at her looking, and the museum adds its own environment centered on spectatorship, then we observe three levels of thinking about spectatorship and the relationship between looking and creation of new language. The process is more complicated than what I describe because when we are looking we are not thinking about what it means, but what it does sensorially as well.
NK: Your work has many different levels, literally and metaphorically. The scene that you just mentioned appears on one screen only, while on the other screens we see a collective of women engaged in a completely different activity. We really do need a language of some sort to contextualize everything.
BSM: The level depends on where you are. Because if you show that work in San Juan, there are many things that are already understood and do not need context. There are social messages that can be transmitted through the imagery, not language. This is something that happens to me a lot. For example, in La Cueva Negra, the lushness of the landscape means something different than in Puerto Rico or in London. In Puerto Rico, this greenery refers to an everyday, quotidian, not remarkable, certainly not paradise-like landscape, while in London it has different attributes. The work that language has to do placing everything in historical context needs to be done here, but not there. The more you get away from a person or people, the more you need the remedial work of language.
NK: For me, it is very interesting to encounter your work, and I have never been to Puerto Rico and am familiar only superficially with its history and its people. The images that you showed were mesmerizing, especially the ones in the film, which you chose to make in black-and-white. When I was looking at them, I wanted to find out more. I wanted to read something that would explain to me the things I was seeing.
BSM: I always struggle with the question of how much to say and how much context to give to the viewer. Many things that I film are beautiful accidents, such as, in the black-and-white film, the man on the beach performing his rituals and the boy playing with the skeleton exactly his size. It is beautiful because it is an accidental moment and not because he grew up in the place where death through history is omnipresent. This accidental moment for me has a lot of meaning. I know that when we were shooting that scene, the moment was very charged to the point that it was almost surreal, but I do not know how to transmit this charge because I am not talking just about information, but about affect. It’s this affective knowledge that I do not know how to transmit. It’s very different being there and thinking about the affective and sensorial life of this place. Charlie, the man who is performing the ritual, is on the beach all the time; he has a need to do this every day. I can’t help but think that this has something to do with the history of the place and with the fact that he is one of 12 or 13 brothers and sisters who are displaced throughout the Caribbean, so he has a very real, material relationship with history. All of this is not in the silent film. What we have in the film is the image that rubs off against his history. I am not sure about how to give this context to the audience that comes to the museum.
NK: This is another example of the importance of the audience for you. This film would look and be understood completely differently if it were shown in Vieques, for example.
BSM: It was important for me to show this work in the museum in the context of Les Guérrillères. I do not think so much in terms of a whole or complete work or of it being autonomous because the ideological structure that allows you to think of the work as autonomous is not present in the place where I live. A seemingly disparate nature of my artmaking makes this exhibition not a whole, unified thing, but a process that has other works happening alongside it. On June 2, I am going to stage a performance with the masks you see upstairs. Macha Colón, a performer in the video, will come from Puerto Rico to take part in it.