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interview transcript

Date of Interview: Feb 15, 2012
Location: Mexico
Topic: Interview to Ivan Puig y Andrés Padilla Domene of SEFT-1
Interviewer: Pablo Domínguez Galbraith



SEFT-1 is a Manned Railroad Exploration Probe, an automotive vehicle that can travel on highways and railroads alike, using a High-Rail system whereby it can hook up to railroad tracks and run on them. It combines its function as a vehicle used to explore abandoned railroad tracks with a poetic intersection of images of spaceships, time machines, a UFO, Soviet-made automobiles, lunar probes and the hybridism of fantastical technologies. The appearance of this technological amphibian in the contemporary urban landscape lets the imagination run wild as to the uses and scope by differentiating it from the idea of a conventional vehicle.

SEFT-1 operates on several levels and its catalyzing core is research on the reality of railroads in Mexico. It articulates a discourse that demythologizes and criticizes the idea of progress running through the construction of the historical imaginary. As a device for space-time displacement and convergence, it seeks to activate historical memory and the way this memory is now remembered through the situations and testimonials of people whom come into contact with SEFT. This contact helps point out the contradictions of privatization and abandonment that led to the failure of the passenger-train project in Mexico.

The project goes beyond the museum and exhibition setting in that it takes part both in art circuits and in the local setting of the communities it visits, as well as in the exchange of knowledge with the institutions in charge of preserving railroad heritage. After initiating its public transit in November 2010 (an emblematic date commemorating the centennial of the Mexican Revolution and the bicentennial of Mexico’s Independence) – its inaugural "launch" from the entrance of the National Art Museum (MUNAL) in Mexico City - SEFT-1 has "taken off" 12 times along different abandoned railroad routes throughout the country, and on four stretches of railroad in Ecuador. A large amount of data and information on its trips have been recorded on its website []. The photographs and documentation collected by the project have been displayed in various museums in different countries. The project members published a book, SEFT-1 Primera Edición (SEFT-1 First Edition) at the end of 2011, with the support of numerous institutions.

In his seminal book A Railway Journey, Wolfgang Schivelbusch defined the railway as a "machine ensemble": an instrument of industrialization that came out of a changed perspective of space and time, and of a convergence of technologies, ways of thinking, cultural habits and juxtaposed interests. SEFT-1, organized by Iván Puig and Andrés Padilla, is defined as a "technological amphibian": a vehicle that runs on the tracks of modernity, tracing the route to the dialectical image that emerged out of the future that preceded the railroad.

Where did the design of this vehicle stem from? Was it based on any prior references? I’m thinking of Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 Dimaxion, Gabriel Orozco’s 1993 Citröen DS, Andrea Zittel’s A-Z Wagon Stations from 2000, or perhaps examples taken from science fiction.

SEFT-1:  Actually there weren’t any specific or studied references. It was a collection of things, design details and intuitive ideas, such as making the seats orange in keeping with many spacecrafts. When we designed the SEFT we weren’t thinking of the deLorean in Back to the Future, for instance, but that’s what people identified with, so it was a common reference. That’s where we started questioning the origin of collective imaginaries. The role played by Hollywood has been to manufacture homogenized mindsets.

The idea was to make our vehicle as different from a car as possible, so that its intervention in spaces would generate the greatest possible fiction. The first designs were a lot more fantastical but for reasons of cost and design we went for a less extreme model. On one of our journeys a man asked us if it was manufactured in Cuba, which made us laugh but prompted us to raise questions as to the relationship between objects made in the Communist system and the SEFT. Was it the rustic lines, or that it was obviously handmade? Could it be that curves and comfort are paradigms of capitalist design, whereas functionality lies within a Communist paradigm?

LatinArt:  In conjunction with this amphibian/hybrid concept, what’s the SEFT’s relationship to automobile and railroad transportation, and to the sociological and historical space it delves into?

SEFT-1:  With the passing of time many abandoned railway tracks were turned into streets and roads for cars. "Railroad Avenue" is a common feature in many communities, along with the typical asphalted track where parts of the track are still visible. Upon seeing us arrive, people thought it was a car-train, and that led to questions about both kinds of infrastructure: the new roads and the rail tracks hidden underneath. The vehicle is a car but not altogether, it’s a train and yet it isn’t. It’s both at the same time, but it’s also something that’s completely different. It’s both a collective and an individual form of transport, but it’s also neither.

SEFT is also an instrument, a device that makes it possible to travel through layers of time, ranging from modern cities to communities that practically live the same way they did two hundred years ago. Witnessing this coexistence makes us question the idea of "progress" as being something that all communities want. There are villages in Mexico that oppose having a road, and have never had train service. When we cross layers of time we use old maps, which let us see how the understanding of space has changed. North wasn’t always placed above, for example.

Trains suffered from a sort of lip service only paid to speak in terms of democratizing public transport. That was always a secondary consideration derived from private interests wanting to tap natural resources, but this doesn’t change the nostalgia for trains and their real necessity. The railroad business stems from those interests, which eventually turned to new enterprises, such as automobiles and roads. Nowadays passenger train service only exists in countries where railroads are subsidized by the State, on the understanding that it is a public right. The SEFT project tries to look at these other angles and to show them as part of a more complex perspective.

LatinArt:  The compound noun "metaphor" comes from the Greek meta, "beyond" and foros, to bear or carry. In Latin "metaphor" translates as "trans-port". What metaphor does SEFT convey in its status as a technological amphibian?

SEFT-1:  The project contains many metaphors. The most evident at first sight are space exploration and time travel. It could be a normal vehicle but then it would cease to operate on that other metaphorical level. It’s a time machine in that it explores many dimensions; it was built by thinking about how the future used to be visualized. At the same time it recovers stories from the past through people’s testimonies and brings them into the future: by encouraging the people who traveled on railroad routes to go back and forth, they relive events and experiences. The SEFT inserts fiction into a space saturated with historical material and reality. It poses the question of whether what you’re seeing is real. By taking the testimonies from one place to another it shuttles stories and questions.

LatinArt:  Could we refer to the SEFT as an "allegorical vehicle" perhaps?

SEFT-1:  It’s an allegory of technology itself. If you examine the vehicle closely it’s very straightforward: it represents a highly technological idea, it works more as something out of a movie set than something real. In that sense it is powerful.

LatinArt:  What do you think is the core of the SEFT project’s critical and aesthetic potential?

SEFT-1:  We started out by asking ourselves simple questions on the disappearance of passenger trains and why so many railroads had been abandoned, and that led us to one of the main critical pivots of our research, which questions modernity and the whole idea of progress. We wondered about that existing crevice where things didn’t pan out, and found the gap between the plan, i.e., what had been promised, and the actual result, which was ruinous. The reasons for the shortfall are very complex. On the road we came across several issues that we reviewed with a critical eye: privatization, Latin America as a supply zone, trains as a means of exploitation, technological obsolescence, etc. The answers to these questions, if indeed there are any, are not clear-cut.

We then put all that into perspective and analyzed it from the point of view of the concept of "deep time" by comparing it to the time scale of stones. These transversal lines and SEFT’s poetic lines make up the project’s aesthetic potential.

LatinArt:  Is there a romanticized nostalgia about the idea of trains?

SEFT-1:  Yes, there’s a lot of nostalgia about trains. In the interviews we did during our journeys we noticed that the whole subject is permeated with a strong sense of nostalgia. We’ve tried not to get caught up in it. The nostalgia promoted at the institutional level strikes us as being a smokescreen. Thinking about trains nostalgically is giving them up for dead. Nevertheless, for some people trains were their lives and you can’t ask them not to yearn for them so powerfully.

LatinArt:  Do you view SEFT as a site-specific art project?

SEFT-1:  The project comes to life in any railroad space visited by the vehicle, so the idea of it being site-specific is relative. Its Internet operation is important, as are its exhibitions.

LatinArt:  To what extent do you become involved with the people and the villages you visit?

SEFT-1:  Our relationship with any community we pass through is of fundamental importance to us. The fact that the vehicle is seen as a spaceship, "a strange vehicle", a "phenomenon of nature" and a host of other descriptions makes it very easy for the experience to become intimate. Right there, up close, in people’s homes, sharing the same food and roof, journeys, stories and anecdotes is where the closeness we always look for takes place. We wanted it to be a vehicle for stories and questions and that’s exactly what happened. There’s also an educational aim in SEFT, a willingness to share results and generate discussion. We often visit schools to talk to children about railroads; it is something they don’t know about.

LatinArt:  Is there an implicit critique of the cultural institution of art and the museum in your work?

SEFT-1:  It’s not SEFT’s intention to criticize art as a cultural institution. We receive funds from the government along with many other sources and we think it’s important to use them in a critical way. SEFT has already had an effect and continues to have an effect on the people who’ve seen it, on the university groups with which we’ve organized activities, on the people who’ve seen it on the road, on my brother and on me. The project isn’t about putting it on the market or in a museum, but about the journeys it makes and the interactions it generates.

LatinArt:  In 2012 you went to Ecuador to conduct a project on its railroads. What was that experience like?

SEFT-1:  We went to Ecuador because Juan Carlos León, the curator of the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Quito, invited us there. We felt it was very important to find out whether what happened in Mexico was a formula that was repeated in other Latin American countries, so as to establish a more general hypothesis on the condition of the railroads. We wanted to know whether the disappearance of railways was a worldwide phenomenon, and if there was an agenda behind it.

We explored Ecuador’s abandoned railroads for a month and covered four important stretches. It was an enormous cultural experience; traveling through those areas and meeting the people who lived there was a very powerful experience. The railroad system in Ecuador was never privatized. It fell into disuse for many years, and then became a parasite government agency, which the government is now trying to rehabilitate. The geographical conditions and those of the railroad industry made them of no interest to the private sector. The government of Ecuador is turning the railways into a tourist attraction; they’re doing it with the whole Trans-Andean (Quito-Guayaquil) railroad as well as other short stretches to promote community development and strengthen the economy of those regions. On the one hand bringing the railways back to life is a political gesture, which has had a very positive, encouraging effect on morale in general, but on the other, riding on the tourist train is too expensive.

We asked ourselves a lot of questions about the soundness of this program. We were disappointed, for example, to find a group of native Ecuadoreans doing a dance for tourists as they arrived, thus folklorizing culture. We were met by a paradox: foreign tourists, who are the people that can afford to ride on the train, don’t find it particularly fascinating because trains are still an everyday experience for them back home, whereas it is an attraction for local or national tourism, but the cost is prohibitive. In the end this initiative isn’t using the railroad as a means of collective transport, for which there is a dire need in Ecuador, and that’s a real pity. Of course these are just our thoughts following our brief visit; the issue needs to be studied more in depth.

LatinArt:  What’s SEFT up to at the moment and what are its plans for the near future?

SEFT-1:  This year we plan to take the project to England, through The Arts Catalyst. We wondered whether we should go, and we believe SEFT should be present. We were invited to make the run from Manchester to Liverpool, which was the first passenger railroad in history. We figured it would be highly symbolic to do it, by way of closing the circle; it would be a return to the source, to the roots, to where trains originated. We want the result of our research there to be made into a film rather than an exhibition. We’ll see what we find once we’re there.

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