Chicago, March 2016: Beatriz Santiago Muñoz is interested in questions of place: what do people make of places? How can we represent that? In the San Juan-based artist’s work the sense of place—and the embodied experience of social, ecological, and political histories—asserts itself in powerful ways. Her films and videos have an attachment to a sensorial reality and materiality, as well the imagining of possible futures, elements intrinsic to perceiving places in a new and different way.
This March Santiago Muñoz visited Chicago to screen and discuss her recent films shot in Haiti and Puerto Rico at Conversations at the Edge. I sat with her for coffee to talk about her work, including her epic new project, Verano de Mujeres, now exhibited at the New Museum in New York City.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz. Courtesy of the artist and Galería Agustina Ferreyra, Puerto Rico
Ionit Behar: The places you portray, for example Puerto Rico and Haiti, have a particular condition and history. Can you explain what you are trying to find out or understand from these places?
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: Puerto Rico is the place where I grew up, and it’s the place that I'm most interested in, because there are so few images, and so few ways in which aesthetic thought and practices are used to think through it. There are things that are possible to think about some places that are impossible to think in other places. So when you are in a place that used to be a military base for 60 years and was bombed… you can get to certain thoughts and ideas that you can’t get elsewhere. There are possible thoughts attached to places.
If you swim you will see lobsters and seashells living on missiles. If you don’t, then you see nothing—just the ocean.
I can talk specifically about the image of a landscape in Puerto Rico and how it has been represented visually in very limited ways—mostly in terms of the military, nostalgic, agricultural representation of the 1930 to 1940s. Now most representations are dominated by tourism and the service industry. And we embody them and reproduce them as well. These are specific ways of seeing that have to do with domination and ownership; a landscape that is always portrayed almost as a pristine landscape, even when it has been bombed for 60 years. If you swim you will see lobsters and seashells living on missiles. If you don’t, then you see nothing. You just see the beautiful surface of the ocean.
There are questions for me about how you can think visually, aesthetically, about a place that is destroyed, that is toxic, that has been violently transformed, but it is not visible on the surface. So, this is why La Cueva Negra is shot in a place where there is this layer of history where you have the settlement and the highway. This is actually a very common landscape in Puerto Rico. When I show this work in Puerto Rico, it never goes through this lens of paradise that other people might see, as if it was beautiful because it was a forest. If you live in Puerto Rico you recognize that landscape immediately as a post-industrial rural landscape with all those things in it. Puerto Rico is overpopulated; there are no ways to deal with the two million cars that are there. We know all these things about the place but that we have not even begun to think about what they mean in terms of sensorial reality and perception of place. We keep looking at images that represent it as if it was a bucolic agricultural landscape. For example, in La Cueva Negra, I’m interested in those issues of post-military spaces because the place itself positions you. The place asks you to look at it for the reasons that it was created. Even when you point the camera at it from a critical point-of-view, its critical point-of-view is also reproducing that image. This is where you fall into creating pleasure in the military ruin. You are still playing the movie over and over.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, La Cueva Negra, 2013, HD Video, Color, Sound
All images: Courtesy of the artist and Galería Agustina Ferreyra, Puerto Rico. © Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
To get to that other place, we have to think irrationally, which is where I think art is important.
I’m interested in the 60 years of military presence, but there must be a way to think and look at it not from the military spectrum. Undo thinking like a drone, undo thinking like a machine, undo thinking like a person that builds a military dock. To get to that other place, we have to think irrationally, which is where I think that art is important. To think materially, sensorially, where you don’t have to justify logically, rationally, why you’re breaking the image with a mirror. I’m trying to do formally something that I want to do intellectually but I know that one thing doesn’t get me to the other.
I’m interested in these places because I grew up there and I don’t see much work that tries to think from that place. You have yourself implicated in the place and it’s important to think from the place where I am, where I live.
IB: Your work has been described as having to do with ethnography and anthropology but ethnography doesn’t seem the right discipline to relate to your work.
BSM: I think of ethnography not as a discipline but as the literal definition: graphic reporting of cultural place and moment so that its ways of thinking and being, moving, sitting next to—all those details—are present.
IB: But of course what you do is not a mere reporting or recording. Your subjective presence is what makes the work what it is, a work of art.
BSM: People at the Sensory [Ethnography] Lab in Harvard, for example, they’re beyond being detached because they realize that it is not possible to be separated from the case studies. It’s been something that’s been changing within the discipline, and part of an ongoing self-critique of the discipline. But if you look at the work that those people are making now, there is no pretense to objectivity. Actually, a lot of the work that the Sensory Lab is producing is entering within the art world. Leviathan, which was made by Lucian Castaing-Taylor, was in the last Whitney Biennial. The disciplines are closer now. Chantal Akerman's film Jeanne Dielman is a fiction but it is also an ethnography. There is an actor chopping potatoes; she’s doing things, but in the end it is also a recording of how things are done. For me that film has a lot of elements of ethnography: the way that the camera is positioned, the way that it observes, the feel of the camera. All those things have a kind of sensorial relationship to ethnography that works in the film. And those are things that I’m interested in.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Matrulla, 2014, HD Video, Color, Sound
IB: Correct me if I’m wrong but I would say that the way you choose the places where you go to do your work is not like an ethnographer would choose the place for a case study.
BSM: No, it’s true. It’s not because I'm not doing research. And I respond a lot to affective relationships. In Matrulla, I'm interested in Pablo Diaz Cuadrado because he took a hallucinogenic tea and created this world from that moment and that seemed such an amazing representation of 1971. Having a vision and creating a world, working from there. That doesn’t fit with an ethnographic research.
IB: My next question was going to be how much research goes into the making of your projects but I’m guessing, from what you're saying, that research is not the main part of it.
BSM: I don’t think about it as research. I think of it as a kind of aleatory process. The way that I began La Cueva Negra was as a completely non-art-related-project with some friends who are activists. We tried to follow the proposal to create a gas line in Puerto Rico that was going to create a mess in the country and expropriate many people’s land. We tried to follow it because we wanted to see the places that were not going to exist ever again. We wanted to see where this line was going to be, photograph it.
Doing that, we reached [the archaeological site] Paso del Indio. And then I contacted the archeologist who was in charged of the project. I had an afternoon conversation in his office, he gave me a bunch of documents, I read those. I read ethno-botany. I went back and looked for some other people that had worked there. It is interesting to have all that information when you’re standing there with a camera, but also, I need to do that because I’m going to be in a dangerous place for a few months. I also want for people to know what I’m doing, to be able to answer questions about what I’m doing, to have some empathy for what I’m doing, and to take care of them. It’s also creating relationships with people in very practical ways to be able to be in a place.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Marche Salomon
IB: I’m curious about the transformative aspect of your work. You mentioned yesterday at the screening at Conversations at the Edge that “art is a process of transformation” and how it relates to ritual. Where do you recognize this transformation?
BSM: You see this in musical improvisation a lot. Like when you have two people jamming, thinking musically together, the work that happens between the two of them is a work of intense attention and perception that transforms your way of thinking. That experience is in ritual: that experience of thinking through a sensorial and aesthetic practice and the transformation of attention and perception, and how it can open poetic thinking. Putting things together that should not be together and unhooking them from their respective sign, their representation, so they can become something else. This is the transformation I’m interested in.
Transformation is a sensorial process. Your body changes.
Transformation is a sensorial process. Your body changes. Like in [my film] Marche Salomon, they say “when you look at it like this, it changes.” There is a formal material process that you would not think has an effect on ways of thinking, but it does. Even the church thinks that way. When you walk into a church it uses scale and other formal elements in order to transform the idea of devotion and how close and affected you feel to something.
This, for me, is not questionable, whether formal aspects can take you some place else in terms of ways of thinking. The thing is how to use them in a way that is not devotional, or not towards only one purpose but towards opening up many different possibilities.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, La Cueva Negra, 2013, HD Video, Color, Sound
IB: Your works are beautiful—you make these places look pleasant in a way, even though their past is horrible or the present moment is in decay. How do you see the “beautification” of the terrible in your work?
BSM: Well, I don't think about them as making them beautiful and that is maybe a difference in perception. I think it is the problem of looking at La Cueva Negra where there is a forest with light that is coming through—that does something magical to the eye—but there is also a highway and you can hear it, and you can see the trash on the floor, and you can see the abandoned car.
IB: But even those elements, the trash didn’t look or feel like trash.
The place is completely toxic; people there are dying; everyone I meet has cancer.
BSM: I think maybe that is part of creating the verisimilitude. The pleasure you get from drawing something, I think that is also the thrill of the image. But the thing about it being beautiful is something that is in the landscape already. How do you create an image of Vieques that is usually presented as a beach paradise unless you are looking specifically? Let me see the missiles, let me see the bombs—it was a place that you could not see. Now, you have to walk for more than 10 hours to be able to get to the place that was bombed. So is very hard to get to, and once you get there you already have the kind of grass that is growing in the rest of the land.
None of this is beautiful. But you can’t point the camera at this and see toxic; you see beauty. That is a problem that is inherent in the place.
But the place is completely toxic; people there are dying; everyone I meet has cancer. It’s a ridiculous situation. If you go to a restaurant there, you ask, “is this fish from here or imported?” And if it’s from there you want the imported one because the mussels are feeding themselves from the missiles. The local population that lived there their entire lives then become a toxic part of this system as well. Anyway, what I’m saying is, none of this is beautiful. But you can’t point the camera at this and see toxic; you see beauty. That is a problem that is inherent in the place. And you can’t really get away from pleasure in the image. I don’t know how to do it. If it’s possible I think it’s an interesting question but I don't know how to do it. And I think is also maybe implicit in the idea of making films. In the end, how can I make something that has no pleasure at all?
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Otros Usos, 2014, 16mm, Color, Silent
IB: Can we [talk about] Otros Usos? I’m curious about this work and how different from your other works it is.
BSM: Otros Usos was made with other films. There is one called Ojos para mis enemigos which begins with a man whose parents are from the generation of people that were kicked out from the land in Ceiba. He first asks for permission to his Gods to take me with him “to see with him,” so that you can see what he sees. It’s just a walk through the base and there you see all the iguanas, and then there are beautiful moments as well.
It ends with a section where there are huge cotton trees which I had not seen before. The cotton is there from before the time of the military but it also doesn't represent as the past. The cotton would usually be much shorter and it would be there to be picked as part of an agricultural economy that was based on very oppressive conditions. And he is a black man and his parents were part of that economy. Now the trees are overgrown so they are no longer useful to that old economy. They are a new thing. He goes there to pick cotton because he gives it as a gift to “Obatala” who is his head saint and receives gifts in white. It has completely changed its meaning.
The image is beautiful. I mean, he is dressed in white picking white cotton from overgrown trees. But to me it’s a moment when you see the history there in the landscape, you see a new event of this history. Landscape is doing something else and he is doing something else with it. Otros Usos, together with Ojos para mis enemigos and another work shot at the film theatre of the base, is asking about what new image is possible, what kind of new cinema is possible. This is the most literal one. The new cinema that is possible is the cinema of the light streaming trough the trees, the land, the sea. They are still beautiful [laughs]—I don't think I can get out of that—but they are all part of a process: “How about this?” “How about if I walk next to him, do I see something different?” “How about I sit in the theatre and wait for the film to begin?”
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Otros Usos, 2014, 16mm, Color, Silent
IB: It seems that the beautiful is hard to avoid. It is not only apparent in the end product of your work but also in the process or the experience of the place itself.
BSM: I guess I have a drive to beauty. I have a drive to see it that way and find possibilities.
IB: That is part of the hope and imagination.
She won’t leave... Even though it’s killing her and killed half of her family, she still wants to stay.
BSM: And it’s also the question of whether you can feel transcendence. If you are in a place that is toxic, how do you continue to live? Which is a question that you ask yourself all the time when you’re talking to people in Vieques. You are talking to a woman who lost her husband, lost her son, and they will get her out of there dead. She won’t leave. It’s such a commitment to the place. Even though it’s killing her and killed half of her family, she still wants to stay. So, you have to ask yourself, what is it? What is this other thing that lets you see, maybe, the sacred—and I don't mean sacred in a godly way, I mean it in the way a material thing can let you feel something more profound. And so, despite the fact that it has been bombed for 60 years and that is killing her, there is something sacred. There is a sacred connection that they have to the place. When somebody suggests that they should move, they are offended. And this is something. I’m not sure what it is, but this is something.
I wouldn’t move from Puerto Rico right now and it’s a kind of absurd choice to make in terms of economy. I suppose that there is a moment when that link is broken. And that is another question: at what point does all sacredness disappear from the world? Haiti is a place in which you think about how strong that drive to transcendence is in humans. Because even in conditions that are misery, that is where the poetic and aesthetic gets you that nothing else can. Like, even when all the trash is going into the bay and everything around you is falling apart, it remains within you to be able to transport yourself to a different place.
For me that is really strong, and a really strong reason to keep making art.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Verano de Mujeres
IB: What will you be showing at your show at the New Museum?
BSM: I will be showing a work called Verano de Mujeres, the longest thing I ever made. It’s a film but it’s also a lot of other things. [At the New Museum] it won’t be a long film but a separate projection in which some of the elements of the longer film are present. The same women that I’ve been working with for the longer film appear in these videos. The thing that I’m trying to do is analogous to what [Monique Wittig’s 1969 novel Les Guérillères] does. The book doesn’t have a protagonist. It’s all the names of individual women and then is all descriptive actions, very sensorial material. There is a feeling of many many women, of individuals, autonomous, very different, but also being together as one common thing. [This] is what I’m trying to do: make a film that has no protagonist but actually has 100 autonomous individuals. There will be three projections that have to do with Verano de Mujeres, and then the masks that are used in the film.
IB: Why is Les Guérillères of interest to you?
BSM: [Les Guérillères] is a war between women and men. It was written in 1969 so it has all the utopian separatist feminist ideas but the most important thing to the book is that you have to create a new language or form. It’s a text with a light narrative in which the most important thing is the material description. This is something I’m very attracted to. Because it works in a way that I want my work to do. The attention is all on how things really are, but the way that it’s structured also allows you to see things within the materiality.
Ionit Behar is a Chicago-based writer, art historian, and curator. She is a Ph.D. student in Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she focuses on Latin American and North American Contemporary Art.
ArtSlant would like to thank Beatriz Santiago Muñoz for her assistance in making this interview possible.