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Allora And Calzadilla Talk About Three Pieces In Vieques
by Hans-Ulrich Obrist
1 March 2005
ISSN: 1086-7058; Volume 43; Issue 7
For even the best-traveled viewer of contemporary art, the collaborative team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla would seem to have made a startlingly abrupt entrance onto the international art-world stage. In just the past two years, they have appeared in "Common Wealth" at Tate Modern and "How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age" at the Walker Art Center (both 2003), as well as Dak'Art: The Biennial of African Contemporary Art (2004); this summer, they will contribute to the Venice Biennale. But Allora and Calzadilla first joined forces in 1997 with a piece whose poetic and political sensibility still inflects their projects today: Charcoal Dance Floor, an ephemeral drawing in which figures blur into Baconesque abstraction as audiences walk across its surface until only dust and, ominously, branded (Nike, Adidas, etc.) footprints remain.
The interactive piece was, according to the artists, "all about the violence involved in processes of identification, in terms of movement, clothing, and people's relationship to each other in space." Since then, the duo has similarly worked in video, photography, and sculpture--occasionally collaborating with activist groups--to address a changing public sphere in an age of globalization. Allora and Calzadilla spend half the year in Puerto Rico, and many of their projects have centered on the island of Vieques, which until recently was rented by the United States as a bombing test site. Last month I spoke with the artists about these pieces in particular, including Returning a Sound, 2004, a video in which a trumpet has replaced the muffler of a motorbike driving through the landscape. Here their practice might distantly recall Situationist detournement; certainly there is that kind of humor that nevertheless betrays serious themes. As Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman wrote: "Life can never be too disorienting; detournement ... would really make it beautiful."
Many people of our generation don't like "antiglobalization"--the word, its uses and abuses. After all, globalization is a condition of our world. You're part of this whether you want to be or not. So as artists we deal with globalization because we feel we have to, and because it's impossible not to. We come out of a new consciousness that emerged after the protests against global capital at the end of the '90s, but our work is not antiglobalist. Rather, we want a different idea of globalization, one that suggests new ways to confront, respond to, and act in the world.
Land Mark (Foot Prints), 2001-2002, was directly linked to these efforts, and in particular to the civil-disobedience movement in Vieques, where US military bombing exercises had been taking place for some sixty years. The protest movement there was special, because people of completely different ideological backgrounds--religious, political, economic, ethnic--all agreed on one thing: The bombing must end, along with the noise, pollution, and health problems it created. For Land Mark, we collaborated with various activist groups, designing rubber soles that individual protesters could attach to their shoes--each sole featuring images and short messages composed by these individuals, who expressed their own ideas about Vieques. Some were very direct, saying in effect "I disagree with what is happening here," while others were more esoteric, imagining different futures for the island.
In Vieques, whenever the military was about to bomb, the authorities would make a public announcement, and the area would be completely surrounded by military police to keep people out. If someone got in--the military had infared sensors to detect body heat--then by law the bombing had to stop. So civil disobedience consisted of a simple act: entering the space. To walk, in the context of this geography, took on a much denser meaning. To leave an index or a trace in the sand was to contest, to refuse, and to critically disrupt the "official" meaning of that site.
This work has various moments of reception. Our public audience, we thought, would be the military, or perhaps even the people who were protesting. But there are also those who see our photographs, which don't function merely as representations of the action. Each person's body weight created a unique image in the sand as they walked or ran; this relationship is analogous to the action of the photographic apparatus. The different physical positions of the footsteps also represent ideological positions: One person's message says this space should be a natural reserve; someone else wants to build a gigantic mall. And then you notice that one footstep, one position or ideology, is being stepped on by another, erasing it. This group wasn't homogeneous; there was an infinity of differences enacted or happening at the same time.
When the bombing stopped and the land finally opened to the public in May 2003, everyone celebrated. Entire generations went to Vieques for the first time in their lives. But this victory is a precarious one, since the fate of the island remains uncertain; we wanted to make a work that acknowledged the achievement while pointing to the new stakes. So we made the video Returning a Sound, 2004, in which a civil disobedient, Homar, traverses the island on a moped with a trumpet welded onto its muffler. We were interested in composing an anthem as a commemorative structure, but we were not satisfied with the conservative connotations of the word. We preferred the more open set of associations that its Greek etymology offered: antiphonos, meaning sounding in answer, or in return. As the bike moves along, it produces a resounding call to attention. Of course, the trumpet sometimes sounds like an ambulance, an alarm, or Morse code--even experimental salsa. Vieques is a very small island, so everyone saw the bike and started talking and laughing about it. This element of humor points to an early inspiration for us, the Argentinean Conceptual artist Victor Grippo. Once, given the chance to make a monument for an enormous plaza, he placed a working oven there instead.
Vieques is now a wildlife reserve run by the US Department of the Interior, but questions remain: When is it going to be cleaned up? What will happen to the people made sick by its contamination? The military was successfully ousted, but today these other matters are "stuck in committee." A video project that we are currently working on, Under Discussion, 2005, which will appear at the Venice Biennale this summer, consists of a conference table turned upside down, with a motor attached, and launched in the water. The son of a fisherman who was a leader of the civil-disobedience movement in the '70s will drive it to all the territories whose fates are currently under discussion. Of course it's absurd, but maybe the absurdity of a seafaring table will mobilize discussion, taking the debate in new directions.