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interview transcript

Date of Interview: Sep 01, 2013
Location: Mexico
Topic: Interview to Iconoclasistas
Interviewer: Sofía Olascoaga

LatinArt:  My obsession with mapping and collaborative processes led me to get to know the work of Iconoclasistas a few years ago. We organized their first collective-mapping workshop in Mexico City within the framework of the Tenth International Symposium on Contemporary-Art Theory (SITAC) in 2012, which focused on the establishment of a critical dialogue based on exchange mechanisms designed to challenge the inertia of static classroom debate and give impetus to more complex collective initiatives. The vitality of the work they do is contagious, so we focused on talking about how they do it:

How do you work as a collective and what does your practice consist of?

Iconoclasistas:  Rather than a collective, we prefer to think of ourselves as a duo, a couple that combines political practice with the politics of emotion. We met in 2004 and immediately started thinking about what we could do together, on how we could generate a space to combine our practices: open-source culture and DIY with the practice of territorial politics.

Initially we focused on creating a series of graphic resources designed to compose "landscapes of inequality" that denounced certain situations while also showing the way different communities and groups were organizing to pave the way for other ways of life, for resistance, for creating links. We’ve always felt it’s important to include both dimensions in our work, and from a visual standpoint we decided to avoid the miserable attitude of victimization and instead highlight the new (and old) forms of social and political grandstanding that were becoming so prevalent in our Latin America.

We share all our resources and practices on our webpage with the idea that what is produced in our workshops should be emancipated not just from the constraints of private property, but also from the limitations (economic, physical, and geographical) it imposes in terms of gaining access to it. These resources are open to use by whoever wants to use them, so they can be freely re-appropriated, reproduced and reformulated (as long as they’re not used for commercial purposes).

LatinArt:  How did you begin doing your workshops on collective mapping and multiple devices?

Iconoclasistas:  In 2007 we started working on the concept of a "world view", and that same year we did an artwork that reflected visually on the alienating ways of life that come from living in large cities. Our second world view addressed neocolonial plundering and the pillaging of the commons; building on the same graphic tools we used in the first world view, we focused on the issues and consequences stemming from the extraction-for-export model based on the single-crop farming of transgenic soy beans, agribusiness and open-pit mega-mining. The resulting poster was distributed throughout the country and sparked interest from different groups and movements, who invited us to work on these issues in their own territories. This gave birth to our collective-mapping workshops (which initially just made maps and icons), which were held in conjunction with a traveling exhibition dealing with the multiplicity of cosmovisions that morphed as it traveled from one site to another. As a result of that experience, in 2010 we published a fanzine in tabloid format that features texts, images, maps and comic strips that can also be downloaded from the website.

The workshops were held in various provinces in Argentina and were organized by various social, cultural and student groups, who in-turn invited the public in general or specific communities to take part. In conjunction with the workshops, we also promoted collaborative work on maps and ordinance-survey cartographies. We had participants’ share their non-specialized forms of knowledge and everyday experiences, enabling them to pool their understanding to embark on a critical appraisal of the most pressing issues in their region while identifying those responsible, making connections and thinking through consequences. This approach was broadened through a process of recalling and making evident certain experiences and organizational-transformational spaces, with the intent of building a network of solidary efforts and interests. We then began traveling to other countries: Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Austria. Each workshop fostered new experiences and changes in dynamics and methodologies; it was (and continues to be) a process involving constant development, characterized by subjective, political and emotional growth.

LatinArt:  Is mapping a way of encouraging an exchange of views and discussion, or a strategy of representation?

Iconoclasistas:  It’s both and more. Our starting point is to recognize that map making is one of the main instruments used by dominant powers structures for the utilitarian appropriation of territories. It’s not just a form of land management, but also delimits borders to mark new areas of occupation and devise strategies to invade and appropriate the commons. The maps we usually see are therefore the result of the way powers structures view and recreate territory in order to produce hegemonic representations that help to further develop the capitalist model: decoding territory in rational terms, classifying natural resources, population characteristics and the most effective type of production needed to convert the labor force and natural resources into capital.

So, why work with maps? Precisely to make use of a tool that enables us to shape critical, collective stories and share our collective infrastructure in order to create emancipatory practices. We’re aware that today’s societies are characterized by an increasing precariousness that affects life in various ways: it pervades urban centers like a menacing searchlight, breaks down social bonds with the rhetoric of fear, strips the most basic social rights from government institutions, brings to life the symbolic violence in the imaginary of daily life, degrades the way we experience everyday life and blocks perceptiveness through a precipice of fear. That’s why in the workshops we make renewed use of tools to collectively recreate complex panoramas. At the same time we take a deeper critical view and promote an attentive, active approach to subjective matters that are essential for protecting our collective interests, fighting processes to colonize and privatize what is publicly owned, and shaping new worlds.

LatinArt:  What kinds of processes are being shaped beyond the making of maps? What is being activated and what do maps fail to register?

Iconoclasistas:  We always begin a workshop with this well-known phrase: "A map is not the territory"(1). Links to a territory are shaped by one’s own interpretations, senses and experiences. Maps aren’t a territory because they fail to show the subjective nature of territorial processes, their symbolic representations and their imaginaries, in addition to the continuous mutability and change to which they’re exposed. It’s we as people who really create and transform territories, and there’s no mimicry between the spatial materiality of maps and the imaginary perception of a territory, since that perception is a collective endeavor that is modeled by subjective ways of inhabiting, moving through, perceiving, creating and transforming.

Our mapping workshops are therefore designed to activate territorialization processes, disseminate practices among the public, and devise emancipatory strategies for collective knowledge and social transformation. Maps are a means of generating opportunities for collective work and enabling the joint creation of narratives that question and challenge the narratives that various dominant powers try to assert (not just political, social and institutional, but also those asserted by public opinion and the mass media, and those stemming from belief systems, mandates and forms of common sense - those naturalized discourses specific to a time and place). This strengthens the process of collective-reflection by including dispersed and disregarded narratives in a common support structure in order to gain a perspective on a wide variety of previously unconsidered possibilities. In the workshops we work with students, neighborhood associations, social movements, artists, communicators and anyone who feels the need to address their territory collectively.

LatinArt:  What are the limitations of maps and mapping in the context of social activations? What contradictions, dilemmas, confrontations, and learning have changed your practice?

Iconoclasistas:  Maps, mapping and other devices are ways of diagnosing and systematizing forms of knowledge and experiences and are not exempt from ambiguities, so these must be included in consensus-based collective processes by setting clear aims. To that end, it’s important to bear in mind that:

- Mapping is a tool that provides a snapshot of the moment it was made, but it doesn’t fully reflect a problematic and complex territorial reality. Rather, it transmits a specific collective view of a territory that is dynamic and in a state of permanent flux, where borders (both real and symbolic) are continuously being altered by the actions of people and subjectivities.

- Mapping is a means, not an end in itself. That’s why it needs to form part of a greater process, act as another strategy, a means of reflecting, of spreading types of knowledge and practices, of giving impetus to collective participation, of working with people you don’t know, in order to share knowledge, question dominant spaces, foster creation and imagination, pinpoint specific issues, visualize forms of resistance, point out relations of power, etc.

- Mapping doesn’t bring about transformation by itself, but is articulated through a complex, deep-seated process of organization and collective practices that is strengthened through collaborative work on these support structures. The work process in these workshops is enriched by the appropriations, interpretations and translations provided by the participants, thus extending the questioning of the symbolic to a real dimension through practices involving organization, resistance and emancipation.

- Mapping promotes action. In that sense the process undergone in the workshops is essential: it’s a ground-breaking moment that may –or may not—lead to action after the workshop. It can take a number of different approaches ranging from urban-intervention projects or the transformation of neighborhood dynamics, to the preparation of communicative materials, and a deeper look at diagnoses and strategies, among others. Its public dissemination must always be consensus-based, as it can contain information that can violate the rights of the participants involved.

LatinArt:  During the course of five years of strictly mapping work, how have you had to modify, reconsider, enrich and deepen your practice by working directly in different contexts?

Iconoclasistas:  The methodologies we use in the workshops have varied though the years, and we’ve incorporated new support structures and formats for collaborative creation. We call them multiple instruments, which consist of artifacts that encourage collective reflection and creation; their design and modeling varies. We invent, adapt or improve them in keeping with the characteristics of the participant’s subjectivities.

These mechanisms generate a system for sharing information and experiences based on an exchange of views that encourages participation and prompts a critical, attentive look at an incident that’s been naturalized. Their aim is to identify and connect significant facts, key players, public policies and alternatives for change, and to dismantle representations based on dominant discourses by delving through the narratives of mass media and the effect of public opinion on the level of common sense collective understanding that permeates social concerns. They encourage the identification of like-minded networks in order to strengthen liberating practices and the creation of dissenting and non-conformist imaginaries. They spark the visualization of panoramas of inequality by activating affective memory. They favor reflection on the subjective impacts of the instruments of discipline and social control. The possibilities are therefore endless.

In that sense, we view mapping as a practice: mapping is more than making a map, just like a map is more than a border. Mapping is an action, a way of tackling social, subjective and geographical territories. A map is an instrument that is understood within various formats, thus paving the way for convergence and discussion. That’s why we don’t just use maps in mapping workshops: we make use of all available graphic resources, visual instruments and playful methodologies to prompt critical reflection and collective construction. The social pooling of information, intuitive knowledge, issues and practices lead to the design and activation of interventions that then overflow into other territories. Collective mapping is therefore not merely a space for social dissemination and debate, it is also designed to act as a trigger and a challenge for constant movement, change and appropriation.

LatinArt:  Apart from its relationship to territory, there’s also the relationship with collective memory and political experience: what kinds of intersections and interweaving take place on spreading these experiences among the public? How is time articulated in the narratives that mapping registers?

Iconoclasistas:  A very interesting concept was developed by Milton Santos, a Brazilian geographer. He talks about the "roughness" of spaces, a metaphor we’ve made use of to present in relief the layers or strata underlying a territorial space. This lets us incorporate not just the changes occurring in a specific territory into time maps but also to visualize and commemorate what was there before, what specific meaning it had to a community, why it’s no longer there, who’s responsible for that, etc.

We also began working with the notion of time by incorporating timelines into maps by superimposing transparencies on them. The interesting thing about this is that the "lines" are very seldom "linear". The experience we had in Lima, Peru, with some workshops we conducted with social movements from all over Latin America was very interesting in that regard. There was a group of women weavers, who when we proposed that they highlight historical facts, were inspired by the image of a braid that we use to depict processes of resistance on our continent, so using strands of different colored wool, they weaved a "timeline" to tell the story of popular uprisings by subsistence farmers and native peoples. This formed the basis for a design we made with the organizing collective, which was then printed and disseminated as a resource for discussion and reflection.

LatinArt:  In addition to ensuring that your work tools and methodologies are freely accessible and available as an open source, you’ve also made sure to keep a register of all the highly varied appropriations and changes that come up: How do you make use of these devices and approaches in subsequent processes?

Iconoclasistas:  Over the years, we’ve created a lot of open-source images in accessible, easy-to-reproduce formats, grouping together the resources arising from each intervention, along with posters, publications, picture cards and vignettes that are circumstantial condemnations of issues, topics or people –despicable and beloved alike—which are created and distributed quickly. These are often parodies or ironic, and show our position on topics that are on the agenda of mass-mediated public opinion.

Because of this we started making waves on certain social networks, and also received a lot of e-mails about them. Given the wealth and variety of these re-appropriations, we designed a section called "Integradas y derivadas" (Integrated and derived) on the website, where we’ve included a selection of productions created by others by integrating iconoclasista images (illustrating an idea, fact or concept) into a particular design, or by reinterpreting and producing an artwork derived from an original design. The section is growing all the time.

Now we’re also recuperating and organizing the collective-mapping experiences stemming from participants in our workshops. We’re very interested in continuing to potentialize this dialogue through the dynamics, experiences and methodologies that each workshop sparked in other spaces and territories.

LatinArt:  From where you are now, where do you think the bringing together of the commons is branching out?

Iconoclasistas:  We’re finishing a collective-mapping manual so as to share our experience and show how mapping workshops can benefit different ways of understanding and signifying space through various types of language. The manual contains a series of mapping exercises where maps are one of the main resources, but not the only one. Mapping is a practice featuring maps and graphic devices on which to build critical collective narratives of a territory. We’re therefore trying to open up a space for discussion and creation that isn’t a closed circle, but a starting point available for others to take up, an appropriate device for building up knowledge while also strengthening the organization and establishment of emancipating alternatives.


(1) The phrase is attributed to Alfred Korzybski (a Polish aristocrat and the founder of general semantics), who coined it following his experiences as an officer during the First World War, when he led a disastrous attack in which the soldiers under his command ended up falling into a ditch that was not featured on the map. Gregory Bateson (a U.S. anthropologist and linguist) complemented the phrase by adding "and the name is not the thing named". What both sought to address was the impossibility of objectifying the meaning-filled and emotional dimensions of spaces and linguistic representations.

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