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Miguel Alvear

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Apr 01, 2013
Location: Ecuador
Topic: Interview with Miguel Alvear
Interviewer: Marí­a Fernanda Cartagena

LatinArt:  Please tell us about your art studies, your interest in identity, and your practice in the realm of popular culture. How did you come to articulate a critical perspective on art using local cultural practices within subaltern groups and communities?

Miguel Alvear:  It was crucial for me to make the transition from a traditional filmmaking school into an art school, because that is when I understood that film, video language, could be applied to individual expression, communication. Behind that was the camera, the film, the chemicals, and you. Narrative, clean shots, producers and stories -industrial filmmaking- could all be left behind. There were many artists in San Francisco back then working in amateur formats, buying second-hand projectors and cheap Russian film. They were amateurs (in the sense of ‘the one who loves,’ as expalined by Stan Brakhage). They worked by themselves and had creative independence. I liked that. Perhaps because of my time in film school I had a tendency to think about projects, rather than art pieces or works of art. A project is something you plan, you build a team for the project, you schedule it, execute it and promote it. Projects begin and projects end. This way of operating is obviously different from a studio practice –which is what a lot of my friends had, and which I sort of envied– but it agreed well with my circumstances. After selling nothing in my first solo exhibit, I decided to work with budgets and funding instead of hoping for potential clients. I guess my initial interest in identity issues had more to do with my being a grindio (son of an Ecuadorian and an American) in Ecuador and an American Latino in the United States. This condition was conducive to asking myself: Who am I? To whom or what or where do I belong?

The nineties were the politically correct years in the U.S. and they were governed by identity politics and cultural studies. Many artists built their careers on their ethnic backgrounds, their affiliation to a cause, or their sexual identities. I found it difficult to claim anything in particular. When my daughter was five, she asked me whether she was latina or white. "You are Chicana," I answered, thinking more about the political rather than the racial connotations of the term. But the moment those words came out of my mouth I just knew they didn’t fit. To my Chicano friends, I was white. Whenever I’d go out with them in San Francisco, Mexican people would come up and talk to my friends in Spanish, which they didn’t understand, and address me in English. This misunderstanding based on a kind of prejudice is one of the themes I would later focused on. Years later, in 1996, I moved to Ecuador and found it surprising that in such a racially and socially diverse and divided country, very few artists had taken up the subject of identity. The dominant discourse in the arts called for artist to ‘recover’ a supposedly lost ancestral identity. So that’s where I decided to delve in. I started questioning essentialist views on identity.

LatinArt:  Unlike most artists who position their projects under a single area within the arts, you use film, contemporary art, dance and theater. What determines this "indiscipline" in your work? How do you conceptualize your practice and how is it related to the local cultural scene?

Miguel Alvear:  In Belgium I once met an old gypsy who used to wander throughout Europe playing his guitar. I asked him if he had a college degree, to which he answered that he had "majored in generalities." I never imagined that this answer, which had me laughing for days, would later acquire so much meaning in my own life. Indiscipline- breaking the rules, wandering "in between" disciplines, entering and exiting as you choose- can lead you to wonderful and unexpected discoveries. A lot of filmmakers are interested in little besides film and its technicalities, and this lack of curiosity usually makes their work very predictable. The same can be said for contemporary artists. Being "stateless", so to speak, grants me a certain liberty, s licentiousness, that for others is perhaps unthinkable.

LatinArt:  Your projects are large scale and ambitious, and they involve a considerable amount of collaborators from diverse disciplines (photography, animation, design, music, etc.) and cultural areas (professional and popular artists). They are also known to evolve into different formats and settings. Could you explain this work process? Let’s take the film Blak Mama as an example.

Miguel Alvear:  Collaborating with another person will always allow you to break through your own limitations. Whenever you exchange ideas and views with someone else, you learn how to listen, and this dialog alone can challenge your own -as well as the other person’s- certainties. When I work by myself, I more or less know what might or might not happen. But working with others unimagined pathways open up. It’s thrilling. I call this the "logic of the lucky chance." It’s like when a ball is shot across a pool table and runs into other balls along the way, moving and rearranging them in unpredictable ways (at least for lousy pool players like myself). And I’m not only talking about having good chemistry with your work partner. I’ve discovered the less you understand your partner, the better the end result. Misinterpreting your partner’s idea or suggestion will probably end up in something surprising and unexpected for both. Blak Mama started out as a series of performance exercises registered on video that evolved into a dance/theater play, then a film, and finally an art exhibit. Patricio Andrade staged the play, while I shot video sequences with characters in action. I felt those sequences had a movie in them, that in film -as a medium- they would work better than in a stage choreography. The movie and some video art installations derived from it was seen by film audiences and gallery and museum audiences. For the Venice Biennale we wanted to create a multi channel installation but it wasn’t possible due to space limitations.

LatinArt:  Your work is known to be irreverent and suspicious of monolithic discourses (identity and nation) as well as canonical discourses (mainstream film and art). What do you think conditioned your views?

Miguel Alvear:  When I was around five, my aunt came to visit from a coastal city in Ecuador. She saw me and my brothers playing, and she said, "That’s hilarious! These little gringos speak like indios." She was referring to the ironic fact that a bunch of little blonde kids had taken up the kichwa accent from the Ecuadorian highlands. We were neither gringos nor indios. Not being from "here" nor "there" places you in a perspective from which you are able to see and say things others might not. I’ve never cared for Latin American nationalisms. Ever since I was a kid I perceived it as a big lie, a form of oppression. The nation’s discourse is constructed around this great macho man, this giant and heroic phallus. In Blak Mama we attack such archetypes. A while ago a Chinese rocket ship placed the first Ecuadorian satellite into orbit, and what is the first thing that satellite transmitted? You got it: the National Anthem, of all possible things.

LatinArt:  Your work has taken a turn from representing popular identities, such as the Technocumbia artists in Mec-Pop (2003) or racial types in Intercambio cultural (2005), to building relationships with artisans in El Patio de los Pecadores or collaborating with self-taught directors like Fernando Cedeño in the feature film Sicarios manabitas 2. What are the issues at stake in this shift?

Miguel Alvear:  Looking at these projects in retrospect, I perceive that my role as an artist has expanded into a broader and more complex role, beyond authorship. This new role exceeds –yet does not exclude– the solely artistic. In El Patio de los Pecadores ("Sinner’s Courtyard"), my intervention consisted in bringing public and media attention to a group of artisans who work in the old city. We hung an inflatable five-meter-tall baby Jesus over the patio, which brought a great deal of visitors to the place. In this way, a ‘contemporary art piece’ also worked as an advertisement of sorts for the artisans’ businesses inside. Sicarios manabitas ("Manabí hit men"), a movie made by a group of amateurs without money, is probably the best-sold movie in the pirate DVD circuit in Ecuador. The film establishment considers this type of production as technically deficient and thematically alienated. With the film project Sicarios manabitas 2 we will work precisely on emphasizing and highlighting all those features or traits that the establishment wishes to obliterate. The projects you mention play with notions of otherness and interculturality. Inclusion, diversity and equality are used today as clichés that try to sweep under the rug the conflicts that are inevitable when engaging the other. I fell like what I’ve tried to do with these projects is emphasize those tensions, while at the same time trying to unlearn my own notions of what is art and esthetics.

LatinArt:  There are those who say you are using or manipulating these communities for your own benefit. What is your response to those comments? What do you think motivated these groups to participate and collaborate in your projects? What have been the effects of your practices? Let’s take the case of the Technocumbia divas and the self-taught filmmakers.

Miguel Alvear:  In any type of human transaction there is always some kind of interest, seduction, manipulation. Failing to acknowledge that is fake and untruthful. In Mec-Pop I had the privilege to photograph well-known Technocumbia singers, and that was obviously a plus for the project. The singers were also interested in being photographed for a museum show. They understood that having images of themselves in a museum legitimized them. Back then Technocumbia was only heard on A.M. radio stations and UHF TV stations. The elites despised it and pressured the museum authorities into cancelling the exhibit. The paradox is that when the museum censored the exhibit, the extensive the media controversy that sprung up really helped the singers.

Today, Technocumbia is heard everywhere, and the censorship of 2003 would be inconceivable today. I find those who claim I am manipulating people for my own benefit are basing their opinions on a guilt-ridden and underhanded racism. They are incapable of associating themselves with these "other" groups and confronting them face-to-face, so they decide to become their moral defenders. The museum expected documentary type photographs. What they got was a series of images that played around with the sensuality that these singers fabricate for the male gaze. I was questioning, so to speak, their own visual construct. This museum did not like either; it conspired against their populist objectives.

In the case of the self-taught and amateur filmmakers, we created a platform so that their work became more visible. And for them that was very interesting. They had never shown their films in commercial or cultural spaces. Cultural bureaucrats from the provinces despised their movies. They found they were "culturally alienated." We implemented an intense media campaign, and their work is now renowned. This in turn pushes the filmmakers to reconsider their production and financing methods. It’s a two-way street. They change, we change. For me it was extremely interesting to see how this apparently marginal production, when in the public debate, questioned audiovisual cultural policies in Ecuador. I guess I am interested in triggering –through art projects– public debates ranging from sexual politics to expanding fixed notions on what Ecuadorian cinema and music are about.

LatinArt:  Finally, throughout your career you have been one to reveal social, economic and cultural gaps using experimental and innovative platforms. What are your thoughts on the current government’s cultural diversity policies? What are the new challenges you face in your practice?

Miguel Alvear:  ‘Political correctness’ in now the official discourse. Official inclusion and acceptance of diversity –has lead to the trivialization and concealment of tensions otherwise typical in intercultural practices. While "multi-culti" rhetoric is flourishing in the government, perverse mechanisms of homogenization and exclusion are still being carried out. Recently, the government announced that it will allow for oil exploitation in the Yasuní Reserve, home of the Taromenane people, while breaking many laws and the Constitution. If you add the fact that many public servants confuse cultural programs with the government’s advertising agenda –and expect silence in return for funding– one of the new challenges is picking up on these contradictions. And of course, work with great love and continue to speak up.

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