Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Interview with Roberto Arroyo

Le Rire Magazine:Although art and war seem like opposites at first sight -the former representing beauty, universality, a gift and the latter horror, nationalism and theft- maybe their relationship is more substantial than we think. How do you explain this relationship? Does it limit itself to the vision/perception that art proposes of one of the main realities of humanity: war?

Roberto Arroyo: If I perceived art only as a contemplation of objective and subjective realities in a non-participatory way evidently there would be no link between art and war and it is obvious that there is a type of artist that operates that way, that manifests his or her self, who gives of him or her self in that way and who renounces to what art is called to be, artists who place themselves on a pedestal and who live in their own limbo. Yet for the artists who have suffered the horrors of war all over the world there is no impartial vision of facts and in that sense one necessarily involves oneself in a setting where violence occupies a big deal of our settings but where also the signs of love and solidarity that are born in those contexts have a place.

In my experience of a war that we never declared but that was imposed on us, the whole concept of war is questionable. In the case of Chile and of many other dictatorships in Indo South America, unilateral massacres and genocide characterized these structures of violence, and violence modified our lives completely, forever, and as artists we had to become inevitably involved in this madness of horror. I do not agree with the idea that art represents beauty or universality or a gift. That would restrict the artist and his occupation to a merely passive role: beauty is a very ambiguous and arbitrary concept, each day universality seems more like the concepts of globalization that end up amputating any indication of difference and which oppress under the search for consensus, and a “gift” is a religious concept that can easily place us in a messianic position as artists that takes away power from the great effort that the artist makes to decipher the signs of the times.

I would rather say that the artist has a different ethic and sensibility (not better, not worse), which allow him to see and to act differently, an ethic and sensibility that are forged from a profound questioning of life and death. This questioning is also felt with greater force and radicality. Wars and oppressions, dictatorships and fascisms, and also “guarded democracies”, at all times necessarily generate in us a conscientization and a positioning within these realities in which a position of ambiguity is repulsive.

I can add that from my work experience in defense of human rights in my country as well as in my artistic work, which are inseparable from each other, injustice, the abuse of human dignity, torture, forced disappearance, institutionalized lying, force us to choose a position and in that choice what we see, what we express, the signs we choose, the human actions that we opt for in order to live are necessarily revolutionary and tie us to others who are in a similar position, for example what today would be our link to marginality and the marginalized of the whole world.

“Since generals do not die on their horses anymore, painters are not forced to die at their easels”. How does this thought/raillery by Marcel Duchamp inspire you?

Generals no longer die on their horses, today they don’t even die in their offices or their businesses, they die retired, with full benefits under the law or from their prosperous industries. On the other hand painters are no longer forced to die at their easels, they die obliged to satisfy the rules of the market and of the art merchants, on their knees to the comparative advantages of success.

It becomes evident that Marcel Duchamp’s thought and action is still current in the original sense of what this thought inspires me, the understanding that the artist as anyone else that becomes conscious that there exist organized ways to fabricate injustice, of provoking pain and exploitation, has no choice other than permanent rebellion, of assuming a position and from that look, to act with honesty. Is it possible to obviate that the prosperity of the transnationals of power is still proportional to the degrees of exploitation of the poor countries? Eduardo Galeano, prominent thinker of our South America in a revealing recent report clarifies on this subject: “ The world demonstrates how human it is by setting aside, every minute, one million dollars toward military spending. Wars are now humanitarian missions, Rambo is the Erasmus of this new humanism. According to what war correspondents have told, Russian soldiers, who reduced the city of Grozny to ashes, had Rambo for a model…Putin has applied the same humanitarian treatment [to Chechnya] that NATO had applied to Yugoslavia shortly before. The therapy comes from the Vietnam War. Since that time, the great powers, who share the right to kill with impunity, have made great progress in the art of killing from a distance, without the risk of dying, and technology, put at the service of hypocrisy, allows the butchers to not see their victims, who are also not seen by public opinion...” (Excerpted from ¿Humaniqué? By Eduardo Galeano, January 2000)

Artists, for the most part, had rather not get involved in politics. Often, they declare having superior preoccupations, far from down to earth politics, while others consider the act of painting or sculpting as a political deed in itself. On the other hand, many artists are acquainted with and will sometimes profit from, the political power, which in turn has an important influence on art, or at least on what is shown. Following this, how would you describe the relationship between art and politicians?

The art profession is without a doubt in itself a political act, from the moment one chooses to look through art’s tools to the personal world and the world that surrounds us, which are intricately related. The Chilean painter Alberto Perez had a way of describing this situation, he said that “by living the real we give course to all possibilities of marvelous imagination” and I agree with this solidarious vision of art. The vision of death as of life, the vision of love as of life are not the patrimony of individuality, they are also a collective experience, and in that context the political is unavoidable, it is born almost as a consequence of becoming aware of our human factor.

Those who make an art that is alienated from this human dimension act with inhuman intellectual arrogance. They are the ones that have everything clear, those who declare having superior preoccupations because they truly believe themselves superior to others, isolated in a fictional world. “If the world was clear, art would not exist” Camus told us a long time ago.

It’s true that there are artists that profit from political power and who from that space enjoy the benefits that those spaces grant them. This is happening in a great part of the world. It is difficult to generalize, but it happens, a prize, a fellowship often buys silence and a portion of artists, in all latitudes accepts that.

The relationship between art and politicians is even more conflictive. In my experience in Chile, artists involved ourselves strongly in the process of liberation of our country from the military dictatorship. We were without a doubt an important group in our country’s cultural, social and political reconstruction. But nonetheless the political leaders once they recovered small spaces of democratization again relegated the artists to marginality, dividing the cultural movement. Experience is cruel but also meaningful. My natural political space is in marginality. Living in and looking from the point of view of a person who is a “marginal” helps to better distinguish the existing differences between the cultural structures that serve the liars (collective amnesia, manipulation of public opinion, social indifference, globalization of human exploitation and of culture). Camus believed that you had to be on the side of those who suffer history and that is a great truth, but that “truth” is more complete when one is coming from that experience and one breaks those structures to live in spaces of humanity that just because they exist defy the structures of oppression and deceit.

When talking of intellectuals’ responsibilities, one sometimes deplores their absence from major issues facing our societies. Some prophesize, others hope for, the end of ideologies when it might be more relevant to notice, albeit in various degrees, the decline in social participation and the disbelief in activism. In this debate, how does art come in to play, how does the artist position himself or herself?

I have a different impression. As far as I am concerned, what happens is a progressive distancing of people from a type of activism, or of certain kinds of activism that have turned out to be a failure. In that sense my own self-critical evaluation of my participation in varied groups of pacifist activism, is that in general our actions have not managed to substantially modify the structures of violence and oppression. For example, the innumerable existing pacifist or social development organizations of the world are, in my view, functional to the systems of exploitation, replacing the social activities that States must carry out, without confronting the causes that originate inequality. The power structures know and take advantage of this weakness of pacifist activism because they know perfectly well the limitations that our groups have. I support the anti-systemic, autonomous, anarchic groups because human relationships emerge from them that the structured conceptions (of power and of alternatives) cannot even visualize, they are perhaps the only spaces of freedom in a world effectively controlled by a machinery for the destruction of a large part of humanity. These spaces of freedom are minority, marginal, like the cultures of the original peoples who still survive centuries of programmed extermination. In that present, in that future I hold up my art and I collaborate. As Galeano says, “the indian cultures are the most future cultures of all. After all, they have been miraculously capable of perpetuating humanity’s identity with nature, while the whole world persists in committing suicide. Those cultures that the dominant culture considers non-cultures, refuse to violate the earth: they do not reduce it to merchandize, they do not turn it into an object for use and abuse: the sacred earth is not a thing.”

“How is it possible, for example, to behave on the one hand as if nothing in the world were more important than literature while, on the other hand, it is impossible not to see around us that people struggle against hunger and are obliged to consider that the most thing for them, is what they eat at the end of the month? He [the author] runs into a paradox: he who only wants to write for those who are hungry discovers that only those who have enough to eat have the leisure to notice his existence” wrote the author Stig Dagerman. How do you position yourself as an artist? Which remarks and judgements does this quotation raise?

The reality of artists, at least those that I know and relate with, is that the majority is living in complete marginality. That is, on the side of those who are hungry and whose basic necessities go unmet. In this sense the experience of doing art under a dictatorship and doing art in a democracy, for those that are marginalized is the same, yes, it’s curious but it is the same because the “pigs with wings”, like Pink Floyd used to say, still do not see what is happening around them, because it would evidently spoil their lunch.

We are therefore part of that reality of poverty and precariousness and that is an important source of our growth as artists. It is precisely that excessive dose of reality that bothers the rich, the ones that have the weapons, the ones that exploit with unfair economic systems and who favor ignorance. Power profoundly hates the real, hates who does not accept the shit served in sugarcoated dosages, hates who does not bow down their head or kneels. The authorities hate all that is too real.

In reality one always manages to bring out the best of oneself, in the best conditions possible. For example, in my case, not having access to the “great galleries”, to the great spaces for the commercialization of art, I have privileged the showing of my work and the human exchange in spaces that are close to people. In the case of my series “Love against forgetting”, which deals with the subject of the disappeared, the premiere was held at the Headquarters of CODEPU, the Commission for the Rights of the People, in Valdivia, Chile, where those in attendance were the wives and children and friends of the disappeared detainees. In Sheffield, England, the show was held in a Union Hall, and so on. Obviously these spaces are not “lucrative” but they are the motors of our activity and they give meaning to the work. Moreover, it is natural that as an artist one considers that it would be healthy and beautiful that our work would someday give us the possibility to provide us bread and sustenance. Unfortunately for the great majority of artists that is not the reality.

But these are not times to stare at our bellybuttons, it is not the time now nor has it ever been. The more brutal reality is that on our side, the side of the “losers” there is as much hunger for the many as riches for the few, and even though it is true that some of us are trying to build humanity from the side of the despised of history, there are also artists that help construct history from the oppressors’ side, as translators of their shit, as traitors to themselves, as servants of the transnationalization of lies, as creators of their advertising images, as supporters of their “moral” and “ethical” discourse, as salesmen of a “universal” world culture that does not question, that consolidates obedient ways of seeing. As icons of what they are willing to withstand inside the limits of the free market, because that sells, because that gives status, because that gives security.

What would you like to add on this theme of art and war, on the positive and negative aspects of the relationship between art and politics?

I would only say that in my experience and that of the many collectives that I have been a member, it is possible to visualize and construct different ways of life. This demands much of oneself, changes that are extremely difficult to sustain in daily life, sometimes unbearable risks, because to enter the side of uncertainty is difficult, but still it is the only option that I have constructed for myself, with a light hope that this revolution that one experiments in oneself transgresses my limits and excites others, connected to others that live similar processes throughout the world. I cannot predict that this will serve for others, to each his own, but to enter into uncertainty is the only thing that has generated in me a certain intuition that is appropriate and insolent to observe the fissures of this inhuman system that we live in, and from there hit the blows that are necessary on the faces of the liars. Julio Cortazar, Argentinean writer, says it better than me: “Better to be what one is, to say that which burns the tongue and the stomach, there will always be someone who understands that language that from the bottom comes.” I aspire to this attitude for living the art profession.

From Le Rire Magazine (France July 2000)

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