Artists Art Issues Exhibitions About Us Search

featured artist
Argelia Bravo

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Sep 20, 2010
Location: Venezuela
Topic: Interview with Argelia Bravo
Interviewer: Albeley Rodrí­guez

Argelia Bravo, transindisciplinary artist for an impertinent art.

Albeley Rodrí­guez: Why did you address social issues when you decided to delve into political dynamics through art? Deleuze maintains that while art isn’t a mechanism for communication, it does transcend the inflexibility of modern disciplines. For Deleuze information is the system of control for new societies. Since art has an evasive attitude to information, it’s much more effective than counter-information in that it’s an act of resistance: what possibilities do you see in art that have made it you choose it over other fields?

Argelia Bravo:  For me art has always been a creative act of political impertinence towards inequalities and injustices. Nuria Vareles states that “feminism is an impertinence -in the sense that the Royal Spanish Academy defines words or works that offend-...”and in line with that statement, which strikes me as brilliant, I’d say art for me has been a weapon and a strategy to upset, an act of rebellion and impertinence against representations and manifestations of power and situations that make me feel impotent and angry, and that can be summed up in two words: inequality and injustice, in any shape or form. I therefore view artistic expression as an impertinent political gesture against subjection. So, rather than a decision, I’d say my motive is the need to take part in those social and political dynamics through art practices and strategies that at the same time question the hegemonic systems in the field of art. I think certain forms ofartistic expressions don’t manage to escape discipline-based approaches, as Deleuze suggests, and instead recreate and validate power structures within and outside the field of art; nevertheless, I’m absolutely convinced that art is a very powerful mechanism or strategy that can have an impact on social structures; it’s an anti-disciplinary short cut that can make inroads against rigid control structures. That’s why I consider art to be not just an act of disobedience, but a “militant”attitude to life through creativity that can destabilize and offer new avenues to liberating forms of knowledge.

LatinArt:  Could you tell us when and why your concerns over gender started? Why did a female, heterosexual artist decide to research and create work about transgender communities.

Argelia Bravo:  My concerns over gender issues arose from a personal standpoint: perhaps when I realized that as a woman society offered me -symbolically- two options: being a virgin or being a whore (and of course I’ve been branded a whore at one time or another), when I realized the men in my family didn’t wash dishes, or sweep, or clean; when I decided not to have children and had to face being criminalized for exercising sovereignty over my body in a clandestine and “illegal”way; when I realized there were many things that were celebrated if they came from a man, but were (and remain) criticized or forbidden to women; when I started asking myself why women were not given the same treatment as men; when I rebelled against those situations and was labeled crazy and hysterical. So I began being impertinent and making people uncomfortable through art, from private to the public. Looking back now, at the outset of this decade, I should say my approach to transgender issues wasn’t theory-based or planned. It came from my friendship with Marcia Ochoa, a Colombian-US anthropologist who came to Venezuela to conduct field work with the transvestite and quick-change artist community, and with whom I had the good fortune to get involved, first through the extreme harshness of the total exclusion faced by trans girls and then with trans activism, which gave me the idea of making a documentary (Pasarelas Libertadoras -Liberating Catwalks) to act as a means ofawareness raising. I think in the beginning there were two feelings that made me become more and more involved: a feeling of “solidarity”with the lives of “warriors”who had to fight the world to defend - to the death even -their identity;and a feeling of attraction to their attitude of transgression, destabilization and insubordination towards social standards regarding gender issues. That was when I began understanding, though shared experiences and by studying the issues, the relationship between women’s struggles those of and sexual and gender diversity, which places us (cross-cut by categories such as race, ethnicity and social class) in the same position of inferiority and rebelliousness.

LatinArt:  Arte Social por las Trochas. Hecho a Palo, Patá y Kunfú(1) is your most recent individual exhibition. It was a complex show that brought together several different aspects and media (performance, video art, dialogues with specialists in different fields, asurvey of different injuries) on the basis of which you developed an investigation-action on the trans body map through a sort of transposing of “trails”and their relationship with urban maps. In this case your methodology was trans-indisciplinary: as an informal social researcher you made use of archaeological, anthropological, artistic, social psychology, and criminological methods. You visited the “trails”, sewers and tunnels with one of the girls and compiled and documented testimonies, but your and Yhajaira’s lives crossed to collect “evidence”of the rejection and torture inflicted upon this quick-change artist’s body by society, focusing on it in different works. What impact has that show had on its viewers and on the public in general?

(1)The second meaning of “troche”in the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary is a trail made in the undergrowth. In her unpublished text Trochas y Glamour, hechas a palopatá’ y kunfú (2009), Argelia Bravo explains it as follows: “In Venezuela alternate or unofficial roads in both rural and urban areas are known as green roads. In general, since they are trails that are gradually made spontaneously by users of those spaces, “trochas”are either shown as dotted lines or often do not even appear on maps.”Moreover, in Venezuela the word “palo”(stick) means a beating in this context. “Patá”is a contraction of “patada”(kick), and kunfú is a corruption of kung fu, the martial art, but in this phrase is a metaphor for a beating. “Palo, patá y kunfú”is a humorous expression used by trans girls to describe how hard their lives are due to the violence to which their “non-standard”bodies are subjected.

Argelia Bravo:  As a very specific example I can say that, to my surprise, most of the viewers thanked me. This really got my attention. Members of the public came up to me because they recognized me, basically because of the Retrato de familia (Family Portrait) piece Yhajaira and I did, so they hugged me and thanked me with tears in their eyes. In fact what they were grateful for was the sharing ofthe experience that I too had gone through, and that was one of the purposes of the piece. Their gratitude showed that sharing the knowledge had affected them emotionally and had then changed into a sort of solidarity and understanding of a reality that nobody wants to see. But it was also an act of self-analysis of the attitude we have all had towards that terrible reality that is silenced by society as a whole. One of the risks I faced -which I had been aware of from the outset-was that I would be strengthening the sensationalist esthetic traditionally shown towards trans women, which very much stems from the Eurocentric view of the exotic, from viewing the “other”as “strange”, thus depoliticizing the issue of identity and its consequences on the social. But it’s important to emphasize that the exhibition is just a set of data, of evidences, of seven years’ worth of experiences that have now allowed me to see retrospectively that the impact had both a centripetal and centrifugal effect, i.e., both within the diverse sex collective and outside it. Actually, I could mention a number of instances of that impact, but what I really want to stress is that to me the most important evidence is the proof that art practices do indeed have a bearing on, affect, destabilize, the dominant norms both in society and the creation of meaning that support thestatus quo.

LatinArt:  In a previous conversation you detached yourself from the activism that you engaged in a few years ago as co-founder of Transvenus de Venezuela (which tied in directly with the research that led to your Liberating Catwalks piece in 2004); can you tell us how you currently feel about activism?

Argelia Bravo:  When I started Transvenus I had no experience of social participation through a non-governmental organization, so I threw all my energy into it without questioning myself. We started out, just Estrella (a trans leader) and I, by handing out condoms on the avenues where trans girls solicited, thus continuing an activity Marcia Ochoa had initiated within us. After a time we managed to get a little funding from the Ministry of Health (a commendable gesture on the part of the government, to be sure) which in subsequent years let us workon many other activities such as keeping vigil, doing workshops, etc. Nevertheless many lines of action remained unattended, whereas others, like publishing informative leaflets, remained a must.
What distances me from that kind of activism nowadays is that it is subject to the demands of the entities that provide funding, and anyway the funds secured by many of those international agencies mostly comes from private companies and capital that don’tseek to provide any real benefits to communities, they just want to avoid paying taxes or show a kind face to the world.The social results they request from activist organizations must be quantifiable, and there are a number of other questionable aspectslike that, so NGOs end up adapting their “missions”and aims to the demands of their fund providers, so the target communities remain unattended. It’s also important to point out that in many cases the overhead expenses of these organizations take up most of their budgets.
Furthermore, from a conceptual point of view NGOs have to register “legally”in order to be able to secure funds, which translates into the “legalization”and adaptation of cause to power structures, what I call their NGOization. Registering a trans organization before a notary represents the possibility of getting citizens to participate. Paradoxically, trans girls are a long way from being considered citizens under the normative parameters. Nevertheless, despite having said all that, I won’t stop supporting such initiatives. I think there are many ways of being activist. As I see it, the issue continues to lie in the need to categorize a practice or a human condition. Personally I believe in creative, rebellious, independent activism.

LatinArt:  Involvement is a method used by some social psychologists, in which reaching out to a community involves living in it (inliving as Alejandro Moreno calls it) and becoming directly involved in community issues and in finding solutions to their problems. How do you tackle this in your work? How have you experienced it in your art proposals regarding the transgender community? In other words, how has it worked in Liberating Catwalks (a documentary video creation for which research began in 2003, and which was then shown in 2007-2010), Rosado Bravo (action art performed in 2004 in Caracas and in 2009 in Havana), and Arte Social por las Trochas (2009- 2010)?

Argelia Bravo:  It’s one thing to undertake an art project with communities on the basis of a “theme”focusing “on”such and such a community, with a specific beginning and ending and a specific channel for dissemination, and quite another to take on a commitment for mutual exchange, growth and learning “together with”a community, as defined by Alejandro Moreno.
When I started I didn’t follow any work method, I just took on the experience by becoming directly involved in the world-of-life, as Moreno calls it, and in the suffering of trans girls, which implied unloading many of my prejudices as a white, middle-class woman with a certain amount of (somewhat turbulent) academic background. So I realized that I needed to monitor my view of reality continuously, since there was an enormous divide between their lives and mine. For example my friendship with Yhajaira (Arte social por las trochas) ended up being so close that she took on my and my partner’s surnames and I was sometimes her mother, sometimes her sister. We adopted each other and gave each other support; she adopted my family, my friends and my world, and I in turn visited the “trochas”with her, experienced the deaths of her companions with her, went to the morgue, to the prosecutor’s office to file complaints, to hospitals, etc., and witnessed the last bodily scars that she took to Argentina a few months before she went into forced exile. Living this experience of creation as an activist also gave it a different meaning as a collective learning experience. I wasn’t there to extract all the knowledge contained in her worlds-of-life like an epistemic cannibal, so as to then appropriate it and translate it into the “high culture”of Art with a capital A. However, the connecting thread in these experiences came from engaging in art practices as a means of activating both collective and individual processes.
On comparing my two experiences with the Rosado Bravo performance (in Caracas and Cuba), I realized that since it was collective, the process of creation itself took on very different forms of expression, although the structure was the same. At the Tenth Havana Biennial in particular, it took on a life of its own that I found surprising, and placed a set of issues before the Havana public, that despite having been raised in the public-policy domain, continue to be a problem.Those issues make any patriarchal society uncomfortable, especially when the idea is to “celebrate and ritualize”a sexuality that runs against the grain. Both in Cuba and in Caracas, Rosado Bravo took on overtones of creative impertinence that left the marks of all those “bent”tracks on the waterfront promenade in Havana, where all the sexually diverse community also took part.
Liberating Catwalks (the video-creation) gradually took shape after a lot of stumbling and falling, much like the girls’ turbulent daily lives, and in most cases the camera ended up being just one more object on location. I never had control over situations, or I simply didn’t establish them purposely. The relational dynamics set the tone. And I think for me the strong point about that piece is the lack of control, lack of method, lack of discipline. Liberating Catwalks is a testimony of inliving. In conclusion, I’d say that I now call the method born of these experiences a promiscuous and informal trans-indiscipline, i.e., a trail or a means of not following the rules, as a creative path that can confront the parceling and disciplining of the production of knowledge.

LatinArt:  Not all your works center on the complexities of the trans world, what other projects are you doing? Do they have any links to trans issues? If so, what?

Argelia Bravo:  Although I’ve been working on another project that has nothing to do with trans issues for a little over a year, I haven’t lost touch with them, in the same way I couldn’t lose touch with women’s issues as a feminist and female artist.
Arte social por las trochas marked the end of a stage that has enabled me to evaluate the process, the practices and their results, and return to certain strategies that were barely touched upon and haven’t been implemented, such as the bag in which to collect evidence (ARTE EVIDENCIA). This “little bag”(“work of art”) consists of “an art object to be used to collect physical and or immaterial evidence in cases of discrimination and/or violation of basic rights, which activates the participation of unauthorized individuals, empowers non-official circuits and does not need to be legitimized”. It’s a project I want to carry out just with women in specific sectors to document instances of domestic violence and contrast them with the media’s treatment of these cases in which the victim is treated as a criminal. Actually the model is available to any community for them to appropriate and repeat the experience. That would certainly be an achievement for this “work of art”.
The project I mentioned at the beginning also focuses on gender issues and runs along ecofeminist lines. I started with the notion of food (as a human need) and the choice of food we ingest, as a political statement. From there I attempt to tackle the issue of food security, which has been turned into a rhetorical discourse by governments and is increasingly precarious in all third-world countries. Symbolically food is both nourishment for the body and nourishment for the soul. But both types of food are being dominated by the large-scale international markets that define what we will eat in the “third world”and decide what food,which has been turned into merchandise, we will eat, both physically and spiritually. The notion of food as cultural nourishment includes others that don’t seem to reconcile and that are dichotomized by international food and art markets alike and the canonic, hegemonic models of art with a capital A and of haute cuisine; these include popular culture/high culture, high cuisine/popular cuisine, cuisine d’auteur/home cooking, chef/cook, artist/craftsman, etc. World “food”markets are weapons of mass cultural and physical destruction, waging a silent war against the peoples of the “third world”. That’s why I maintain that that food in all its forms is a political tool. I’ve developed a few experiences based on those premises, particularly in the form of documentary video featuring hooded “cooks”(historically associated with food) giving speeches on popular or general culture, both of which are put forward as being subversive when they are associated with terrorism. It’s important to note that the media-designed cliché of the terrorist is inevitably associated with Indians, blacks, Latinos, Arabs, the poor, etc., so what is really being criminalized is “subordinate”cultures. This is why I use the phrases I mentioned at the beginning of the interview: art is an impertinent political act of against inequalities and injustices.

back to artists