by Niels Van Tomme for Aesthetic Justice: Intersecting Aesthetic and Moral Perspectives, Anagram Books
Niels Van Tomme:
Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice started off as a series of readings of historical speeches by moderate liberals and left wing political leaders, which were staged in public space in the period leading up to the 2010 presidential elections in Bogotá, Colombia. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the specific political context that prompted the piece, and why it was important to organize the performances around the time of the elections?
2010 was a critical year in Colombian politics because it marked the end of Alvaro Uribe Vélez’s 12-year mandate, an extreme right wing government characterized for its militaristic, neoliberal and pro-U.S. policies. The 2010 elections thus represented an opportunity to change directions, to implement new political, economic and social agendas and to hastily reclaim the country’s immediate future. Unfortunately, 2010 also reassured the imminent and ongoing crisis of the Colombian Left. No strong candidates of the Liberal Party or independent parties could realistically content against Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former Minister of Defense and endorsed candidate, who ultimately won the elections.
Moderate liberal and leftist ideologies have been historically threatened and actively exterminated in Colombia. In its modern history, six liberal and leftist presidential candidates have been assassinated: Rafael Uribe Uribe in1903, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1949, Jaime Pardo Leal in 1986, Luis Carlos Galán and Carlos Pizarro in 1989 and Bernardo Jaramillo in 1990. Although each one of these leaders had unique ideas for the country, some moderate and other radical, they were all aware that the roots of Colombia’s violent conflict lie within its profound social and economic inequality. They proposed projects of government that defied and denounced hegemonic power in its many forms: militaristic, elitist, insurgent, etc. Colombia’s civil war has been a particularly bloody one and there are many factors that need to be exposed in order to understand it in depth. Any attempt to summarize it here would be incomplete, but in broad terms there have been a few main actors including government and military forces, paramilitary groups, drug traffickers and radical leftist guerrillas at war to seize power and to protect their political and economic interests.
Six Acts was strategically set at the time of the 2010 elections to respond to the crisis of the left, using the form of political speech to re-insert the fallen leaders’ radical ideas of social transformation into the public sphere at a time, in my opinion, when they were greatly needed. The speech-“acts” were an attempt to honor threatened ideas, and the men that died voicing them, but also to use narrative aesthetics to rethink the concept of justice. If justice isn’t served by judicial means can we think of experimental approaches to justice? Could aesthetics represent a break from failing normative institutional forms of reparation? Could aesthetics come to terms with the pervasive social effects of political violence?
NVT: How exactly should we understand the term “narrative justice,” as mentioned in the title of the piece? Where did it originate from and how can it be applied in an artistic context?
CM: The concept of “narrative justice” refers to a notion of justice detached from the judicial field and focused on narrative and communication as pillars of a possible reconciliation. I borrow this term from Columbia University Psychology Professor Jack Saul who has developed performative workshops with victims of trauma using narration as a means of conflict resolution.
From another perspective, it could be argued that violence, inequality and oppression, as well as politics at large, social justice and activism manifest in the form of narrative constructions and as such I am interested in intervening that representational system to question, challenge and understand its terms. This enables me to make use of fiction, forms of documentary and performance strategies to try to construct spaces for social and political interaction based on the memory of violent and traumatic events.
NVT: By staging these reenactments in public space you choose to confront bystanders in their everyday life. What role did you envision for the audience when thinking about and conceiving the piece in such a way?
CM: I consider that Colombia is a country that tends to seek refuge in amnesia, perhaps due to a survival or self-protection drive. In spite of the State’s recent initiatives to render the victims visible, in Colombia it is common to forget the past, no matter how many times these images may be repeated before our eyes; to forget those who have been assassinated or forced to disappear is habitual. That is why Colombia has historically tended to be an unfair country that has been indebted to its victims.
The “acts” constituted interventions in the framework of everyday life, aimed at repeating, emphasizing and recalling the same words of denouncement that cost these political leaders their lives. And they sought, through performance and fiction, to go back to important historical moments of the conflict with the wish of generating encounters among the passers-by, which might make it possible to reconsider the value of those ideas that were chastised. Through this work, I was interested in approaching history from the perspective of “documentary fiction.” In this case, fiction enables me to forge a space for memory mediated by artistic strategies.
NVT: There’s a particularly interesting encounter in one of the videos documenting the piece, where one of the “acts” clashes with the real world intrusions of bystanders, unaware of the staged aspect. To me, this unfolding scene in which people believe the reenacted speech to be real and demand of its performer to respond to their problems and help with their struggle, highlights some of the limits of socially and politically engaged artistic practices, especially in directly addressing an emancipatory struggle for justice. Why did you decide to interfere, and to expose your interference to the audience?
CM: Let me recount what happened. After “ACT IV,” the act where actress Atala Bernal performed a 1989 speech by liberal leader Luis Carlos Galán, she had indeed an interaction with the public that had observed her reading on the square. A group of elderly protestors obviously “believed” the actress’ words, despite the fact that they had originally been spoken in 1989. The group was protesting in front at the main square of Soacha in front of the City Hall—the place were Galán was assassinated—against the delay in the payment of elderly bonds—their main source of income. The merging of Atala’s reading performance and the micro context of the elderly protestors, made these words resonate as immediate and urgent for them. They approached Atala desperately asking her for help. At that moment we had to “break” the space of fiction and tell them that ours was a fictional and symbolic project and that unfortunately we had no access to the authorities other than sharing the material we had been filming. This was challenging and certainly anti-climactic for the public. In fact, the interaction was incredibly challenging for all of us on many levels: What happens when the space of artistic representation is viscerally confronted to everyday politics, when fiction and truth collide? What ethical problems are triggered by this public intervention? How are class relations made evident by this interaction? What constitutes the event as a democratic platform: the performance itself or its documentation? How does this happening exercise reflect the “political efficacy” of art?
What was conceived by us as a symbolic gesture was read as literal and as factual. Our attempt to question the potential to symbolically produce a democratic exchange became a democratic exchange in itself beyond our expectations. But we could not “deliver” what the speech promised, and the elderly protesters could not help but be disappointed by our “deceit.” But did we really “trick” them? Did this artistic platform “fail” or did it indeed succeed in creating a conversation about the limits of power? How does this act represent all subjects involved?
On an ethical level, this episode made evident the socio-political relations that are at work in Colombia on a daily basis: Class relations of access and privilege. The production of art and intellectual discourse are a luxury in a context where basic needs—such as food or shelter—are people’s immediate necessities and priorities. We—artists, actors—have made ourselves belong to a class with access to abstract reasoning, even if we may intend to use this privilege to produce counter knowledge, or to question power. But how implicated are we in reproducing oppression and exclusion with our initiatives? I believe as producers of culture we must be very careful not to reproduce forms of alienation and exclusion based on what our intellectual or liberal agendas might dictate as politically correct or artistically progressive. Perhaps our task, as cultural makers is to recognize the complexities at work in the tactical juxtaposition of social realities and artistic gestures in order to not loose our critical perspectives.
NVT: That sounds like a huge responsibility not many by definition privileged cultural workers would be willing to take…
CM: It is difficult to see past one’s privilege but that shouldn’t justify not trying.
NVT: I was wondering how the piece functions differently from the staged events, the “acts” so to speak, when it gets exhibited in a gallery setting, with its video documentation displayed simultaneously on different channels? How should viewers engage with such an abundance of materials?
CM: The “acts” were conceived as a series of site-and-context specific performative interventions that were time sensitive and ephemeral. They were also primarily directed towards a live public that encountered them by chance. The experience of the piece on the streets back in 2010 was charged with urgency: the desire to rupture every day life during the electoral period with symbolic representations based on historical speeches. Those moments were documented and are the basis of the video installation I produced, but the videos are yet another form of representation that, in my opinion, can’t reproduce the immediacy of the moment in all its complexity. The videos however aren’t only documentation. They were carefully directed and edited to generate a singular experience of the events consciously aware of the language of documentary and video. The installation is designed to amplify the script of each act in order to intellectually reveal the particularities of the context that prompted them. In a sense, Six Acts is two works, the then and the now, the experiment and the review, and in a figurative way, the event and its document.
NVT: You mentioned earlier that you’re interested in approaching history from the perspective of “documentary fiction.” The way I understand it, “documentary fiction,” as a relatively recent genre, asks of the viewer to handle primary sources, to unlock meaning and interpret information, opening up a new mode of narrative in which the viewer is asked to analyze, contextualize, and draw conclusions from documents. How exactly should we, according to you, understand this apparent contradiction of terms? What kind of effects are you trying to achieve with it?
CM: Back in 2010 the idea of “documentary fiction” wasn’t discussed as much as it it today. In fact, I started using the term in response to my experience working on Six Acts unaware that there was an already forming discourse around the subject. For me, the fictionalizing of these historical speeches through their interpretation and performance seemed like a useful artistic strategy, to estrange or distance them, from their source, place and time of deliverance. An eerie dislocation of time and place occurred when hearing Jorge Eliécer Gaitán’s speech from 1948 where he poignantly demands President Mariano Ospina Pérez to stop the violence, reminds the president that our “flag is mourning.” Gaitán’s words, re-spoken in 2010 in front of the presidential palace, were strikingly contemporary; they spoke directly to Uribe’s abuse of power.
The locus of criticality in Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice is not the performer’s body but the shift in the narrative from documentary to fiction and from referential to symbolic. In order to enable this shift to take place, the actors and I decided to restrain the “theatricality” and formal performance of politics simply to the act of reading in public space. We decided not to the use the exaggerated physical gestures typical of Colombian politicians, their voice levels and affectation, etc. I asked the actors and actresses to interpret the speeches rather than traditionally perform them, to interiorize their meaning as it affects them today rather than to try to represent the leaders that originally delivered them. I was hoping that this decision would focus the audience’s attention on the words themselves and not on the performances as such.
Regarding the “apparent contradiction of terms” you refer to in your question: I actually don’t see this tension as a contradiction. In fact, documentary practices are narrative constructions that often refer to real life events, yet as constructions, they are always at play with strategies of representation, namely devices of description, naming and narration that are implicitly perceived as “real.” The “experiment” aspect mentioned in my project’s title was meant to point to the normative ways we’ve come to believe and understand the very processes of historization and representation as “objective” and “true,” as well as institutional processes such as judicial justice as the primary—if not only—way to come to terms with oppression. Research shows that people impacted by death, loss and trauma caused by violence for example often find ways to deal with these experiences subjectively, to move on, in ways that can’t be sytematized and that remain at the margin of formal institutions.
In terms of the desired effects of this experiment, I wasn’t looking for tangible effects necessarily, as in proving the effectivity of political art in producing social change for example or any other grand ambitions of the sort, but rather in pointing to the vulnerability yet oppressive nature inherent to the process of constructing narratives of ideology and power, as well as resistance and liberation. In retrospect, I have come to think of Six Acts as a self-referential methodological inquiry that tackled big political questions and proposed bold ideas in order to analyze the ways we have come to make meaning.
NVT: In general, there seems to be an unresolved tension between the political intention of your work and the artistic sphere in which it is performed and shown. How do the political gestures of your artistic practice go beyond being merely performative in nature, and can they be applied to a broader societal realm?
They don’t. I believe the political aspect of my work lies in its attempt to question forms of representation and to critically engage the field of art— even if its subject matter is political in a referential way. I have chosen to communicate my ideas through the language and strategies of art and the political effect of the work can only be measured from within that field. But that doesn’t mean that the work would be ineffective. In fact, art’s potential of social transformation, in my opinion, can only depart from the ability to transform itself and its vehicles of communication.
I’m often bothered by what is referred to as the inefficacy of political art, or its inability to change people’s social realities directly. Critics often underestimate the actual political potential of an encounter. The efficacy of some of the “acts” in Six Acts, for example, whether or not it was intended, laid precisely on the activation of a site of conflict and in colliding a symbolic gesture with the so-called social needs of the public, thus potentially creating a democratic platform of exchange.
NVT: I was wondering if you could share something about your background: Where did you grow up and how has that initial milieu influenced your work? How did you become invested in the struggle for solidarity and justice?
CM: I grew in up in Bogotá in the 1980s, perhaps one of the most violent decades in Colombia’s recent history. My generation—throughout the social spectrum—grew up in fear. In cities we were constantly afraid of explosives and bombs and in certain rural areas people feared massacres and the wide reaching effects of war. There’s a common saying that suggests that no one in Colombia, despite class or wealth, has been exempted from experiencing violence—even if for some folks violence has undoubtedly marked their lives in ways I can’t even begin to understand. Everyone has had a death, a kidnapping, or some other form of aggression in or close to his or her family.
However, I’m a very privileged Colombian from a pretty liberal background and with great access to education—things that enabled me to form critical positions about politics early on and to grasp the complexities of the Colombian context regarding social inequality and war. As a sensitive person, I resisted getting used to these inequalities even if I was reproducing them merely by being me. I also rejected the idea of getting used to violence so I looked for ways to digest it and transform it. I trust these instincts lead me to become an artist perhaps with the ambition to find a structure to speak up and act up against forms of exclusion and oppression.
I’m also a gay man that dealt with constant bullying throughout my adolescence. This particular experience of social exclusion triggered my interest in processes of solidarity: how did my experience as a gay upper class white Colombian relate to that of a mestizo woman in the country side unable to find work? Can one even start to compare them when our life experiences are so obviously different on every level? Is it presumptuous to even think of struggles of class and sexual orientation as similar? These are questions that I have looked to embrace in my work as an artist and a citizen. Hegemonic power manifests itself in perverse ways and, without loosing perspective; I believe building positions and projects of solidarity within seemingly different struggles is an important task.
NVT: Have you further explored the concept of “narrative justice” in different contexts?
CM: Back in 2005, I began a cycle of works, which were eventually grouped under the title Democracy Cycle. These works approach the concept of democracy from different perspectives: U.S. foreign policy and intervention in Latin America in La buena vida/The Good Life, political exile and cultural assimilation in Scandinavian societies in The Immigrants Files: Democracy Is Not Dead; It Just Smells Funny, ideological genocide in Colombia in Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice, religious faith as a form of social liberation in Deus Pobre: Modern Sermons of Communal Lament, and the systematic discrimination of diverse sexual and gender expressions internationally in We Who Feel Differently.
Through these projects, I have been primarily investigating three ideas: How do democracy’s promises reflect the perspective of marginal groups that exist outside the reach of normative representative legislation? How can Art be used as a way to question the structure of power, to think about artistic platforms that engage democracy as a subject matter and to propose alternative sites for democratic exchange? And, what is democracy?
The idea of “narrative justice” understood as a critical intervention into narrative constructions of ideologies and histories, is central to these questions. Aesthetic justice inherently rejects normative understandings of justice—especially when they have proven to fail—it questions them and provides experiential and alternative approaches to institutional processes.