The curator Víctor Albarracín analyses the effect that the ideology of creative industries have had on the economic possibilities of contemporary art in Colombia to point out the power of the strike as an anti-capitalist union.
Among all the anomalies that allowed Iván Duque Márquez to claim the Colombian presidency, one of the most striking—along with the demonstration of his talent in guitar, acrobatic dance, and football—was his campaign’s discursive spin: modern, agile, and in perfect harmony with the stuck-up, high-class snobbery of the new entrepreneurs. Duque painted a dream image in which tourism, social connectivity based on newly implemented technologies, the arts, ancestral knowledge, and national heritage lived together in harmony, ready to pose in their best impression of a United Colors of Benetton advertisement. The desperate efforts spearheaded by various sectors of Colombian society to reveal that this Disneyland of cultural entrepreneurship was nothing more than the shell of an extractivist and uncritical conservative model designed only to destroy the character of those cultural entities that are defined by their connection, secrets, and functioning self-marginality and co-opt them for elite profit, came to nothing. In his speeches as a candidate and at the start of his government’s term, Duque regaled us with tales of his early days working in the “cultural sector” of the Inter-American Development Bank (DIB in Spanish), since his establishment as a high-profile public figure had no base in public interest. His anodyne passage through congress, where he became close to the patriarch Álvaro Uribe Vélez, was neither indicative of his work nor of his ideas. A video of Uribe stealing a pack of snacks from Duque during a legislative session was all that we knew about the individual who years later would come to be president—that, and his reputation for being the hand-puppet of the ex-president known as the “eternal president.”
The arrival of art fairs and the appearance of new galleries in the mid-2000s saw the resuscitation of an old idea which had until then fallen out of vogue: Colombia as a “country of draftsmen.”
Duque based his campaign on the ideas which he outlined in a book that he coauthored with Felipe Buitrago (recently named the Vice-Minister of Creativity and the Orange Economy) during his years at the BID, titled La economía naranja. Una oportunidad infinita [The Orange Economy: An Infinite Opportunity]. The book, essentially an advertisement with its large letters and basic infographics, is an ode to “talent, intellectual property, connectivity, and, of course, the cultural history of our region.” In it, Duque aimed to convince us that, among other things, Broadway musicals generate more money than China’s huge dam-building projects, and that the invasion of the Huns and the achievements of Genghis Khan are historical events equivalent to the “triumph” of Napster, “which shook the foundation of the music industry ‘with one click.’”
A government program based in a pastiche of unreliable statistics and data published six years prior and taken out of context cannot be reliable: however, it is symptomatic of the prominent position cultural entrepreneurship and creative industries have claimed in the minds of some Colombians.
Sixteen years previously, in 2002, the children of the then-president Uribe, who had only barely begun their university studies, entered public life, making their mark as “cultural” entrepreneurs. They made a business of bracelets woven from cañaflecha (literally arrow-cane in English), a grass used by the indigenous community of San Andrés de Sotavento in the department of Córdoba, an area adjacent to the Ubérrimo hacienda, a large swathe of land the Uribe family amassed through the forced displacement of peasant families and which they maintain on shady state subsidies and notary frauds. The children, referred to by their father as “entrepreneurs,” used and continue to use an indigenous workforce. According to a statement the youngest of the then-president’s children, Jerónimo, made in a press release published in the newspaper El País in 2002, “an indigenous person can produce some 12 bracelets a day.” Today, the company generates astronomic profits and has stores in airports, fairs, and shopping centers in the most exclusive areas of Colombia. However, they don’t speak much about the working conditions of the indigenous communities or the way those communities have been affected by the serial reproduction of their crafts, nor about the way in which this production model imparts—or fails to impart—well-being. Salvarte, the company the siblings formed for the sale of these pieces, claims to be based on teamwork, resilience, innovation, and responsibility, all concepts anchored in the values of the creative industries which at the time, more than 15 years ago, were beginning to project themselves as the choices of the future in the minds of Colombian viewers.
A little later, the Ministry of Culture launched its program Laboratorios de Creación-Investigación en Artes Visuales (Laboratories for Creation and Research in the Visual Arts), a survey of artist and creative communities throughout all of Colombia’s regions; professionals from the field of art were sent out from urban centers to visit these communities to offer training in contemporary methods, processes, and models of professionalization that would supposedly allow these artists and craftsmen to validate their knowledge through the acquisition of academic titles, granting them the competitive edge that such titles entail. This years-long project was troublesome, complex, and in many cases impossible to implement. Furthermore, it inserted into these communities—many of them vulnerable and largely abandoned by the state—concepts like “entrepreneurship” and “sustainability,” which placed local artists in the position of having to become “contemporary” and profitable in order to have the supposed visibility that the ministry offered through programs like the Regional Artist Salons and the National Salon.
In 2010, at the end of Uribe’s term, the Ministry of Culture published a little book called Giros y desvíos. Una aproximación a la gestión a través de las artes visuales [Turns and Detours: An Approach to Management through the Visual Arts]. This publication, which I was invited to write for, openly proposed for the first time the idea of creative industries as exemplary models. In the introduction, Javier Gil, a visual arts advisor, approached the idea with some caution, writing, “without disavowing the possible union of the artistic and the commercial, it is necessary to define an approach that exceeds the logic of pure profit,” suggesting that “it is important not to attach a cultural and artistic practice to a random commercial product since doing so puts the creation, circulation, and appropriation of meanings, subjectivities, values, etc., at risk.”
At the same time that these institutional processes were being consolidated in cities—and in Bogota in particular—there occurred an analogous exercise in classification in which artist tradespeople were cast as entrepreneurs of their own production. As a consequence, certain practices were promoted which came to be more marketable than others—for, as hindsight shows us, the spectrum of what is salable changes according to the dictates of supply and demand. The arrival of art fairs and the appearance of new galleries in the mid-2000s saw the resuscitation of an old idea which had until then fallen out of vogue: Colombia as a “country of draftsmen.” An eruption of new talents opened the market up to new collectors who weren’t able to risk buying paintings, but who were willing to risk purchasing more modestly priced drawings. This mentality generated the epistemological unraveling of a city that, five years earlier, had had nothing to sell. It had been full of artists—or rather, frikis, who were making work with little thought to the production of capital, and who were giving shape to critical expressions that called into question medium specificity, authorial voice, and the expectation that their practices be considered an economic activity. These artists lived off of the very few grants the ministry and municipal offices offered, their income coming primarily from their work as teachers or design freelancers and occasional opportunities to give workshops in a community or participate in an artist residency. This meant that they didn’t regard their work from the perspective of free enterprise, but saw it rather as an act of continual waste, like some ever-excessive excretion that inevitably leads to impoverishment and self-dispossession. Ultimately, a potlatch that would soon have be contained.
There is no doubt that ArtBo transformed Bogota into an art hotspot. We saw how, over the course of a few years, collectors, curators, gallerists, museum directors, magazine editors, and socialites from the world over came to visit us, looking for fresh meat and new experiences in a country that offered quality, risk, youth, and excellent after-hour parties with first-rate merchandise. Little by little, a group of artists began to learn the logic of the lobby while other more timid or wary factions watched from a distance, enraged by and ashamed of their lack of social charm and skill. Different social classes began to emerge out of the formation of different circles of contacts and a mass, which had begun as a rather undifferentiated group, began to hone its relationships and to design strategies at a moment when there was no longer room for community as the race to stand out took primacy. The explosion of the young artist—artist singular, for it was then that the cultural industry was beginning to assume the ethos of neoliberal individualism—generated innumerable new competitions with generous prizes which generated a class of winners and which gave rise to the new figure of the jury member, a sort of “trend hunter” in this equation of guts and youth. A culture of evaluation had been fully established.
In the middle of the first decade of the second Christian millennium, spaces like El Bodegón in Bogota, Casa 3 Patios and Taller 7 in Medellin, Galería la Mutante in Bucaramanga, and lugar a dudas in Cali appeared on the scene, hoping to defend practices that were coarser, more opaque, and removed from the illusion of glamor. Offering different points of view and diverse opportunities, lugar a dudas grew with the help of international funding and local patrons. It is still active today, 15 years later, despite the ever-looming possibility that those few international funds will cease and the organization will have to close. Meanwhile, El Bodegón began, created chaos, and helped to build a scene—by then dirty and loud—only to later come to ruin and die unceremoniously in 2009, after more than a hundred exhibitions and events financed by its owners, a group of artists impoverished and reviled by the cultural establishment. La Mutante survived a little longer by opting out of a permanent space that would require rent to be paid and by employing processes and practices that did not necessarily center on the logic of the exhibition. For its part, Taller 7 disbanded in the middle of 2009 due to the commitments of those members of its team who had remained active as well as to the feeling of having come to the end of a cycle. Casa 3 Patios remains active, involved in social projects less inscribed in a closed notion of art.
In Cali, where lugar a dudas survives and continues to program events—an opportunity and an excuse for which communities of artists continue to appear, it has been interesting to observe how a local scene has managed to survive without an infrastructure of galleries or fairs. The artists in the city—unrepresented and unrepresentable youth—have no money, but produce within the confines of their modest circumstances ideas and projects that scorn the expectations of the market and any idea of upward mobility; these young artists understand their structural precarity as being part of an invaluable heritage that stretches back to the beginning of time. Their exclusion from social spaces of dialogue has granted them a certain exclusivity and brilliance even while the threat and constant temptation of Bogota’s fairs and galleries offering the illusion of success and the improbable possibility of making a living as an artist hang above their heads. Bogota, always more fragmented, tends to feel like a conglomeration of bubbles on the verge of bursting, like a game of deception and illusion that leaves its victims strewn by the wayside if no novelty appears. The dynamics of “cool” knock down and enthrone artists at a rate so fast it is difficult to keep track of, all the while in the background is the incessant intermingling of political interests, speculative developers, snobs anxious to position that in which they trade, and artists trying to resist the crushing and omnipresent pressure of a fair that offers a yearlong program of exhibitions, gallery nights, and a weekend (in May of every year) full of activities, openings, and international visitors all so that the machine of capital production can remain well-oiled. This year, for example, both the National Salon of Artists and the Luis Caballero Prize—the two events most representative of the arts in Colombia—occurred alongside ArtBo, justifying the fear of acting in temporalities that fall outside of those determined by the fair.
In practice, at the same time that the initiatives in cultural privatization were being implemented in Juan Manuel Santos’s administration and in what is coming to be known as Duque’s nongovernment, the Ministry of Culture has been progressively stripped of its financing. This cut in funding has translated, year after year, into the now traditional cancelation of different grants and funds for artists. Likewise, policies like the National Program of Cultural Conservation that promoted cooperation and benefited organizations and institutions are being rewritten according to the tenets of the orange economy, leaving out all that fails to embrace the doctrine’s basic principles. On the other hand, the Ministry of Revenue and the National Direction of Taxes and Customs has tried to expand a base tax on citizens working in an informal and precarious capacity in the field of art. The countless raids, acts of censorship and silencing, and the dirty war (which has included the issuing of death threats against and assassination of cultural producers and social leaders) have multiplied, fortified by the state and its military apparatus (paramilitary organizations, the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), BACRIM, the police, ESMAD, and the armed forces) in order to silence the complaints coming from a field that has historically been violated and that has recently become attached to the proletarian cause in Colombia: women, students, indigenous communities, peasants, black people, worker organizations unaffiliated with the large unions, and precarious and informal workers, among others.
It is perhaps there, in the fertile terrain of a national strike—in the hope of a permanent strike, that the life of a country that has been co-opted by capitalist interests and structured on a logic of division may begin to rise again. Marching en masse to the sound of slogans being chanted and the dissonant rhythm of pans being drummed, overcoming the riot police’s teargas and “non-lethal” deadly weapons, as artists and free participants we have continued to find new territories and points of intersection; we have met in spaces where professional success is derided and the niche art world considered laughable, where other, new questions arise that explore and engage these narratives of otherness that include us all, reminding us that we are not alone, that there is power in uniting against our adversary, and that although the occupation of space in which our bodies and spirits have persisted may not dismantle the entrepreneurial-state monopoly, it will undermine the foundations of that discourse of novelty that has been employed by an old tyranny that nobody believes in anymore. We look into each other’s faces in our nakedness as a people looking the abject anatomy of the state in the eye, and, without special effects or illusions of future and progress, we know another kind of negotiation will be necessary in order to build the ever-provisional cambuche of our life here and now.