Coherence and Context: Re-Writing Puerto Rico

Curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson reflects on the Caribbean and Puerto Rico and the response of the art space Beta-Local to the catastrophe caused by the hurricanes Irma and María.

This was supposed to be an essay about Beta-Local in San Juan, Puerto Rico, an organization in a place that barely exists (discursively) that carves out a precarious existence. By chance, in the middle of writing the essay I intended, the non-existent place burst into painful existence, not through the labors of Beta-Local, but through a tragedy that that escalated because of their non-existence.

Let me explain. I visited Beta-Local for the first time in 2016. I’d met one of the three directors, Pablo Guardiola, at an annual meeting of Caribbean art spaces called Tilting Axis that April. Being Jamaican, I am familiar with much of the English-speaking Caribbean. I had also visited Cuba and the Dutch Antilles, but I had no image of Puerto Rico. Though San Juan is only about a thousand kilometers from Kingston, I’d never even thought about visiting. I considered myself a Caribbean curator, but Puerto Rico never really figured into my Caribbean.

This is in part a problem of language; the Caribbean is politically, economically, and culturally divided, often along lines of language. There’s that famous joke: every piece of writing about the Caribbean begins by trying to define the Caribbean. The question is always: Which Caribbean are you talking about? The Dutch Antilles, the French Antilles, the West Indies, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the various migrant Caribbeans (in London, New York, Amsterdam, etc.), the continental Caribbean (Belize, Guyana, the Caribbean coast of Colombia), the republics, the protectorates, Bermuda? I could go on. And for each of these, Caribbean identity is a different thing, in conversation with a different set of neighbours.

So language is part of it, but in the case of Puerto Rico that is exacerbated by the island’s “special relationship” with the US, which was pretty much all I knew about the place. I learned about Haiti and Cuba up until the twentieth century in high school “Caribbean History,” but Puerto Rico fell off the curriculum once we hit 1898 when the Spanish ceded the island to the US. The place seemed cordoned off from the rest of us, some strange no-man’s land, not the US, but not the Caribbean either. Much of my curatorial practice has been about tracing what distinguishes and links the various Caribbeans, yet Puerto Rico remained a blind spot.

Beta-Local seemed to be responding to those conditions, insisting on a creative perspective that focused on the particularities of the Puerto Rican context (which is how I have always understood the “local” in the name). They were developing models to make this no-place a place, not through an alliance with any other place [1], but through a focused engagement with the particular environment created by their particular cultural and structural location—their in-between-ness, their slipped-through-the-cracks-ness. In one description of the organization, they describe their activities as:

…immersed in our local reality (San Juan, the tropics, the Caribbean, the unplanned city) and our present moment (the economic crisis, the infinite potential, the skills and ideas of people who live here, now). There are some local variables such as the stagnation of local cultural institutions, the lack of an MFA program in the arts, a debilitating “brain drain,” and the prohibitive costs of higher education outside of Puerto Rico, as well as the peddling of the generic-as-international by many art schools and cultural institutions. We view these as opportunities for generating new forms.

That’s as good a description of my curatorial practice as any. I was also struck by the similarity between the admittedly specific “local reality” Beta-Local was addressing and the conditions I’d been trying to address across the Caribbean through my research, exhibitions, and writing.

This is why talking about the Caribbean is such a challenge, why it’s easy to get caught up in the work of definition. It is at once diverse and uniform; for all the distinctions (linguistic, cultural, geographic, political, and economic), striking continuities persist. Continuities that are equally well described as postmodern, as in Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s seminal book The Repeating Island, or underdeveloped, as in most economic discourse. This indeterminacy, which refuses easy admittance to the realm of language, is definitive of the Caribbean. And it’s terribly difficult to exist without doing so in language. As such, Puerto Rico may be a no-place to a West Indian [2], but the Caribbean—however you choose to define it—is a no-place for most everyone else. A fantasy, yes, but not a real place.

So I visited Puerto Rico twice, for a month each time, thinking that it might present a distillation or crystallisation of the Caribbean problem of indeterminacy and non-existence. I was curious to see what new forms Beta-Local had developed in response to those conditions.

In that other essay I was going to write, I had in mind to tell you about how Beta-Local was supporting individual creative practices through their year-long La Practica program and El Serrucho grant. I would tell you how important the archiving of creative practices through their partnership with micro-printer La Impresora and their research into local fauna and their uses at partner organization MAOF [3] are to asserting the existence of Puerto Rico and mapping local context for local use. I was going to tell you about La Ivan Illich program and how it opens a space for informal communal learning of everything from basket weaving to making cassava flour.

I was going to tell you how these activities rescue Puerto Rico from the no man’s land to which it has been relegated. For one, they provide opportunities for Puerto Rican artists to develop their practices while remaining in Puerto Rico. Creative production emerging within and in response to Puerto Rico’s context—particularly as distinct from the US, into which it has been subsumed in global and regional discourse— also asserts Puerto Rican identity, simply by articulating it.

The case of Jorge González’s practice is instructive. González was a participant in 2012-2013 cohort of La Practica. Beta-Local supported his practice, specifically his project Trade School until 2017, with the help of the Arts Collaboratory grant. Using botany, archival materials, oral history, and modern architecture, González’s practice reflects on the socio-political and socio-economic realities of Puerto Rico. Working with artisians that identify themselves as tainos [4] to learn, document, and share their artisanal practices, while connecting these practices to the history of modern architecture on the island through sculptural intervention, González asserts the existence of a Puerto Rican culture that predates and evolved independently from US culture. His mapping of the landscape and use of plants endemic to the island also reorients material dependency, shifting focus from imported media to previously unrecognized local ones.

So I was going to tell you all that, then I was going to argue that this is what curatorial practice must look like in the Caribbean in order to have any relevance. [5] Curatorial work in the Caribbean is about supporting the existence of such practices, in contexts where they are endangered, endangered by lack of institutional support, financial sustainability, critical engagement, or the impact of a hurricane. This support may take the form of developing programs like La Practica that offer opportunities for artists to access studio space, share their work with peers, and have their ideas challenged. Or it may be in the provision of a library of contemporary artistic and theoretical production, or the hosting of an indigenous pottery workshop. These activities do not emerge from a vacuum; there is no intrinsic value that designates them as curatorial activities. What makes them curatorial is their position within the cultural context. [6] They serve the needs of specific creative communities in specific places, with specific needs.

Curatorial practices focused exclusively on exhibition-making necessarily respond to conditions elsewhere, some place where there are multiple well-resourced art institutions, a robust art market, a rich critical tradition, and all those other elements you hear about in texts like California-based curator Renny Pritkin’s “Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene.” [7] That “healthy art scene” exists somewhere but not here, not in the Caribbean and the many no-places like it that dot the globe. So this was going to be an essay about how no-places become places, not unhealthy places, just places defined by the people who live there.

But then hurricanes Irma and Maria happened. And the no-place burst into language in all its no-place-ness. Puerto Rico was splashed across newspapers everywhere, hammered by back-to-back hurricanes, the entire island without electricity, streets flooded, homes damaged, an indebted nation debilitated. Hurricanes are not new in the Caribbean. Several other islands were also badly hit. There were supply drives across the region, toilet paper and flashlights and canned goods were shipped from unaffected islands to affected ones, governments sent aid. However, Puerto Rico remained suspended in limbo due again to its “special relationship” with the US and especially because of the Jones Act, which regulates how goods can get to the island by sea. [8] Yet Puerto Rico is not a state. It has no representation in the US Congress, so support from the US has been slow and woefully inadequate. As a result of their “neither here nor there” status, almost 50% of Puerto Ricans still have no electricity, three months after Hurricane Maria hit.

That earlier essay became simultaneously less relevant and more relevant. The organization and programs I intended to tell you about have been irrevocably changed as the context to which they respond has dramatically shifted. At the same time, the consequences of Puerto Rico’s indeterminacy and resulting invisibility are more perceivable than ever.

Beta-Local’s commitment to maintaining coherence with its context is also more pressing than ever. On my last trip in the summer of 2017, Tony Cruz had just stepped down and Michael Linares was joining Sofía Gallisá Muriente and Pablo as co-director. The rotating directorship had always been a way to ensure that the artist-directors could maintain their practice while supporting the broader community by administering Beta-Local for a period, but as the organization grew, administrative and beneficiary requirements also expanded. The question then was: do we need more funds to support more people and activity, or do we need to reduce our dependency on grant funding and the resource-draining red tape that comes with it? From a West Indian perspective, it’s a good problem to have. Artist-run initiatives in Jamaica or Trinidad survive without any funding at all, but there is the matter of independence, more urgent in Puerto Rico than elsewhere. In a context where grant funding is scarce and dependent on external sources, what potential is there for truly independent activity? What forms (organizational, creative, artistic) best facilitate independence and freedom?

On my first visit to Puerto Rico, that aspiration to a rejection of dependency was the most obvious point of continuity with Jamaica. Jamaica is notorious for its longstanding, crippling debt, a result from “structural adjustment” programs. [9] Puerto Rico seemed to be experiencing problems reminiscent of Jamaica’s, but without the backdrop of dependency theory [10], the Non-Aligned Movement [11], and so on that shaped earlier resistance elsewhere. From the Puerto Rican perspective, their debt crisis seemed unique, and, in some ways, it is, given their relationship to the US. It also isn’t. It is the same old dependency that has been stifling the Caribbean for centuries, albeit other parts of the Caribbean are subject to less direct intervention than Puerto Rico. On that first trip I screened Life and Debt (2001), a documentary about the impact of structural adjustment in Jamaica in hopes of making visible the connections I saw. It resonated, and so when I returned a year later and heard discussions about the unwillingness to submit completely to the tyranny of grant funding regimes, I saw these later discussions as touching on those same issues, dependency theory applied to an organization instead of a country.

With the expansion of El Serrucho from a micro-grant supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation and the distribution of Café Madre Isla [12] to a $350,000 emergency fund supported by contributions from the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Hispanic Federation, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Voices for Puerto Rico, and individuals across the world, this question of reducing grant dependency has become moot. Those complexities have been drowned out. Since their founding in 2009, Beta-Local has advocated for the support of experimental cultural practices that are not necessarily commercially viable. In the face of the disaster, the vulnerability of these practices and practitioners—whom Beta-Local sees as integral to the survival of Puerto Rican culture—is more visible than ever. Not just because some have lost their homes, but because many are at their limit in terms of how much scarcity and job informality they can withstand. Within that context, the emergency fund becomes a challenging, but important intervention, in keeping with their longstanding aims.

Though other islands affected by the hurricanes benefitted from the support of neighbouring countries, much more than that is needed. Barbuda has been evacuated and is still uninhabitable. Recovery efforts in French Saint Martin, where over 90% of the buildings were damaged, were beset by accusations of racism on the part of government officials. Louis-Georges Tin, spokesman for France’s Representative Council of Black Associations, told the Associated Press: “In my eyes, Irma is for the French Antilles what Hurricane Katrina was for Louisiana in the US—an exposer of racial and social inequalities.” [13] In an address to the United Nations General Assembly, Roosevelt Skerritt, the Prime Minister of Dominica, where approximately 90% of structures were also damaged, argued: “We as a country and as a region did not start this war against nature. We did not provoke it… We have made no contribution to global warming that can move the needle. But yet we are among the main victims.” [14] More than a neighbor’s helping hand is needed to address the challenges the region now faces, particularly given its extreme vulnerability to climate change’s effects.

As in Puerto Rico, the hurricanes brought longstanding issues of inequality across the Caribbean into relief. Yet where climate change and its effects highlight continuities, they also signal a redrawing of battle lines. Where once we in the region thought of debt relief and economic independence, we must now turn our attention to climate reparations. We are the most vulnerable, but we are not the most culpable. And, as in the Puerto Rican case, if earlier challenges to the structure of relations between the US (and Europe) and the region did not resonate broadly, these last two hurricanes and the man-made disasters they initiated, make the matter clear. In this context, El Serrucho should not be considered grant support, the oucome of philanthropic benevolence, it should be understood as a gesture toward climate justice.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” this is another very Caribbean condition. Beta-Local follows this trajectory, in response to its context. The focus on supporting the Puerto Rican cultural class remains, experimenting until some Beta-Local version can be arrived at, but broadened to include the re-creation of Puerto Rico itself.

So this is still an essay about bringing a very Caribbean no-place (nothing is more Caribbean than a hurricane that changes everything) into existence. It’s that same essay and a very different essay at the same time.


1. Although Beta-Local actively forges links with individuals around the world—through its Harbor residences program—and institutions through collaborations, such as hosting an Independent Curator International (ICI) seminar in September 2016.

2. A term used to describe the English-speaking Caribbean. It is both a reference to Columbus’s erroneous identification of the Caribbean as India upon his arrival in the fifteenth century and to British imperial distinctions between its holdings in the East Indies (the Indian subcontinent) and the West Indies (the Caribbean). English-speaking Caribbean people still self-identify as West Indians, as in the West Indies Cricket Team.

3. MAOF is the name of the lettering workshop that originally occupied the site. The name has been reformulated since then as the acronym of Materiales y Oficios, according to the focus of the space in the experimentation with materials and crafts. At the end of 2016, MAOF moved from its original location, but retained the name.

4. The indigenous population of Puerto Rico and most of the northern Caribbean.

5. It is important to note here that the directors of Beta-Local do not consider themselves curators. They are artists. For them, what I identify here as curatorial work (based on my affinity with their organizational practice) is part of an effort to create better working conditions for themselves and their creative community.

6. Scottish curator and scholar Kirsteen MacDonald has argued for “the curatorial as action and thought. I think about it as being things that we might previously have called organizing or initiating or supporting, but the curatorial offers a distinctive way to place [these activities] within cultural discourse. So it’s not a philosophy of cultural discourse, it’s about considering activity within a cultural discourse, rather than it just existing in the every day.” See Nicole Smythe-Johnson, “Curating Beyond the Exhibition,” TiltingAxis.org, February 2017, http://tiltingaxis.org/curatorial-fellowship-2017/#section-1

7. See Julian Myers, “New Langton Arts in Crisis,” Open Space, SFMoMA, July 29, 2009, https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2009/07/new-langton-arts-in-crisis/

8. See Matthew Yglesias, “The Jones Act, the Obscure 1920 Shipping Regulation Strangling Puerto Rico, Explained”, Vox, October 9, 2017, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/27/16373484/jones-act-puerto-rico

9. Mark Weisbrot, “Jamaica’s Crippling Debt Crisis Must Serve as a Warning to Greece,” The Guardian, July 22, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jul/22/jamaica-debt-crisis

10. Dependency theory rejects the limited focus of modernization theory, instead emphasizing the role of imperialism in shaping postcolonial states. Its central thesis is that the periphery of the international economy is being economically exploited and drained by the center. So that underdevelopment in postcolonial nations is not the outcome of internal barriers to development, but a structural outcome of global capitalism.

11. The Non-Aligned Movement is an alliance of postcolonial nations. It began in 1945 with the Bandung Conference and formalised at the first NAM Conference in 1961. NAM was a response to the various anti-colonial movements across the world and the Cold War. Its primary tenets were Cold War neutrality and political and economic independence.

12. Café Madre Isla is an economic self-sufficiency program of Casa Pueblo, a community organization and environmental advocacy group in central Puerto Rico. The sale of coffee under the Café Madre Isla brand is the organisation’s main source of income.

13. Thomas Adamson, “Non-White Residents of St Martin Claim Irma Evacuations Show Racial Discrimination,” The Independent, September 11, 2017, http://www.independent. co.uk/news/world/americas/irma-st-martin-maarten-evacuation-racial-discrimination-claim-latest-a7941561.html

14. Natalie Meade, “’Eden is Broken’: A Caribbean Leader Calls for Action on Climate Change,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/eden-isbroken-a-caribbean-leader-calls-for-action-on-climate-change

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