María Virginia Jaua interviews Venezuelan artist Angela Bonadies; they discuss Venezuela’s permanent “state of exception”, the now normalized civil oppression ravaging the country.
Before getting into the matter at hand, it may be pertinent to establish some positions with regard to the thematic issues that will be taken up. It is posited that “shock” as proposed by Naomi Klein can be an artistic strategy or an aesthetic method with which artists work to revert the negative effects of capitalist neoliberal policies or those of any other ideology, or indeed the ravages of war or natural disasters. As such, contemporary art serves as a sort of mediation exercise that helps humans “digest” the trauma brought on by horrifying realities to which they have been subject thus far in the Twenty-First Century. It has struck me that a conversation with a Venezuelan artist that takes up some of the issues to which certain artists have sought to give form, or a conversation on the issues worth reflecting on in relation to that possibility, could lead to other, less “salvific” or hopeful, yet more authentic and therefore more “productive” approaches.
I have a memory from one of my trips to Venezuela. On that occasion, a friend came to pick me up at the airport and when we arrived at La Guaira (a coastal area near Caracas on the other side of the mountains from the city), en route to the capital, he said to me, “We’re going to go over the bridge, but I want you to know that it’s on the verge of collapse. I hope we manage to get across, but I’m not sure you’ll be able to cross back over when you go.” Lo and behold, the prophecy was fulfilled and the bridge failed two or three days after we crossed it. Once my stay was over, the journey from my father’s house to the airport was one of the most intense and painful travel experiences I’ve ever had — something like a trip into the Heart of Darkness. The only way down was along the old highway that had been completely militarized for security reasons. Given how much traffic there was, you had to start out a day early if you wanted to be sure to catch your plane. It was a complete contingency scene. Amidst all that hostility I found a family that took me in for one night, within the ruins of the tragedy that had devastated La Guaira at the beginning of the Chávez presidency — and to which there had never been a response. They never rebuilt and the people who lost their homes were never offered any solutions. One of the children of my father’s friend who put me up that night asked me, “How long has it been since you you were last here?” I answered it had been a long time indeed, long before the tragedy. So then he took me on a tour of the area so I could see the vestiges of what had happened. I experienced “shock,” though not so much because of the devastation that the rains and landslides had brought on, but rather, because of years of indifference and disdain with regard to the people that were still there. The tragedy had not ended; it remained right there, years after it first occurred, with huge boulders atop people’s houses, with dried mud and the structures destroyed. I felt profound pain that later dissipated over dinner with that family on a warm, enjoyable night beneath a mango tree. The convivial occasion took me back to something that’s hard for me to explain and that perhaps I can only call “humanity” — something I associate with a certain lightness and warmth inherent to being Venezuelan.
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María Virginia Jaua: A lot of your work implies going to “that” place. It’s an indescribable place. A place we know and love but that doesn’t exist nor will it ever… I’d like to begin by speaking to you about that trip.
Ángela Bonadies: You could say the trip to La Guaira or the State of Vargas is a trip to a “melancholic state.” It’s a place that, despite its incredible natural setting, has become at once a no man’s land and everyone’s land, a dumpy backyard with an ocean view, a waiting room, a permanently provisional space, an overawing ruin, a space of speculation and contrast, and of the displaced. These people and those people, the ones that are from there and the ones that came from elsewhere, those of us that have always have gone there, we’ve all been all over the place in La Guaira and we have all been displaced, in terms of origin, work, and landscape. It’s also, as you say, a human space, a place where trauma made us conscious of our own vulnerability. So that’s what it is: a place inhabited and transited by vulnerable beings — both those that lived through the disaster and those that came afterward, and all of us that love that coast, our outlet to the sea.
When I visited, I also had the sensation that it’s a “pre-legal” territory, where there are neither laws nor rights, where speculators and the powerful take on the form of a vengeful god as well as a beggar. And in the meantime people meander around and wait in the middle of the chaos of that indescribable place.
I began to make that trip without any formal approach, several times a month or every once in a while. When I can, I go to the same places and always with someone else. It has been a tour along the coast and to the architectural structures I’ve chosen as obligatory stops, that I’ve been documenting. For example, there’s a house in Los Corales whose owners have abandoned it, which has an enormous boulder smashed onto is roof and that has been occupied by groups of displaced people waiting for housing the government promised them. Since I began visiting it in 2013, no fewer than four different families have occupied that house, and the boulder is still there since 1999. They’ve built new rooms inside this tumble-down residence and now everyone lives together alongside the boulder. Legend has it that a huge snake has been living in the house’s foundation since the year of the disaster. Danger has been shifted onto superior or unreal mythological figures. This is something that interests me: the stories that emerge from the architecture —architecture that also acts as an archive and a vulnerable structure, an archive of history and individual stories.
These trips, or tours, have an affective side. They prevent me from losing this connection I’ve maintained since I was a kid — back then, few trips excited me as much as the highway to the ocean. I’m interested in how geographic space surrounds and translates what this now sixteen-year-old regime has been. I think you have to document what is happening there. Vargas is an archive that has tumbled down right on the coast.
MVJ: Beyond the state of shock to which Naomi Klein alludes, I’d like us both to consider the so-called “state of exception.” The state of exception is and has been one of the “tools” the State has used in Venezuela and in other places. For instance, to repeatedly deploy repressive forces and have them pass as an everyday occurrence… Violence is activated, it is sown and reaped as the “exception” that becomes the rule, and is installed as a program.
AB: It’s a strategy with which the State turns life into a violent reality. It disseminates fear and invents enemies; it does not control violence but exposes the forces that ought to control it. It militarizes the entire country and boasts of the fact, positioning itself as all-powerful and surrounding us in a vicious circle of continuous offense and defense. The government — which in the case of Venezuela has completely appropriated the State and lacks independent institutions that can impose limits on it — remains in power thanks to this decreed, programmed, and permanent state of exception.
There’s a book by Theodor Adorno, titled Ensayos sobre la propaganda fascista (Essays on Fascism) that perfectly describes what is happening to us and what has happened with other totalitarian regimes: the explosive discourse of a politician-qua-preacher who invents an amorphous, unreachable or non-existent enemy — i.e., in the Venezuelan case, an empire or an oligarchy —and based on that creates a paranoid government that seeks only to control and stay in power.
MVJ: Let’s talk about your work entitled Estructuras de excepción (Structures of Exception). In this work, you join the Spanish word for exception to that of structure. Can the exception be “structured”? Is it possible to “architecturalize” it?
AB: Following along the lines of what we were speaking of above, yes. Exception can be structured if it forms part of a government program that seeks to envelope and isolate us, if it turns exception into its power. On the other hand, as it relates to my work, what I’m trying to do is create an inventory of those “exceptional” cases I’ve discovered, in order to number them and turn them into a big list, to recount what their architecture recounts, to let them speak. So when they form part of a large group, you can intuit or appreciate the programmatic nature of our exceptionality. I repeat: the “state of exception” constructs a “permanently armored state.” The landscape becomes an “archipelago of exceptions” (I’m stealing this from the title of Zygmunt Bauman’s book), and therefore it’s much more difficult to construct networks and resistance, because we’ve been atomized, separated. An example as concrete as it is metaphorical is the bridges that are collapsing all over the country. A nation that’s scored by rivers and gullies needs bridges. If they aren’t there and if they aren’t maintained, then there is no communication between the parts and resistance is thwarted. Time and again Marianne Moore’s singular phrase comes to mind: “omissions are not accidents.” Not doing anything is also part of the program. It’s not an accident.In my case it’s not about “architecturalizing” exception; it’s about letting architecture enunciate or narrate it.
MVJ: There’s something very interesting in your work when we talk in terms of architecture. Curiously, a city like Caracas, that was a model of so-called Latin American “modernity,” documents that violence in a brutal fashion. This is evident in its houses, buildings, bridges, and highways. But also in its incredible potential for play, its defiance of reality. How did you set up that relationship?
AB: I studied architecture at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Then I left the field and later returned to it from this other side. What interests me is that architecture is a living archive. As you say, its structures evince the violence that is being lived and they do so without rhetoric. They expose it and make it evident. You take a photo of a building and that’s an interview. If in addition to that you research its history or what has happened there, it tells you about the country, politics, economics, and which way the wind is blowing. It’s a weathervane — it tells you about the wind and the color of the gusts, about the interests of the moment. And it also reveals your subjectivity, naturally enough.
How and why do its uses change? Why in recent years have certain buildings, some of them of historical significance and symbols of modernity, been turned into targets for violence, shelters, jails, training centers for security forces, ruins, government offices? How can we translate that capacity on the part of architecture to effect resistance?
MVJ: There’s also something in these kinds of exceptional situations that makes me think that when “order” (if something like that exists; the Greeks have already cast doubt on the matter) is disrupted and breaks, the kids are happy. I say kids but it could be that playful spirit or spirit of rebellion that’s inherent to creation. Maybe that’s the way to neutralize shock. Art, if it happens, could maybe be an equally irresponsible attitude of not safeguarding any order; art conserves nothing for history except that at most it dreams…or plays. Is there something unconscious, some childlike state needed to be able to dare to play with the serious? Could that be why so much of the art that’s produced today is no different from a newspaper, or in some way seeks to substitute for some real life mass medium?
AB: I think “neutralizing shock” is a good way to put it: working on what has been upset and lending it some other possible order and making it visible or thinking about it. I’m interested in what gets displaced and I play with that. But I also cast doubt on the fact that it could be a situation that leads me to happiness. I think the disrupted order seduces, surprises and lets you propose other forms. In other words, if “order” exists (which in our case, paradoxically, is a planned disorder), what’s seductive is positing other possible orders, straying from the single path, dreaming of forks in the road, playing with other, non-domineering forms or at least coming up with some questions. For me, Freud’s writings on the uncanny (unheimlich), based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman,” explain that seduction and madness for the displaced. Eyes coming out of sockets, and falling in love with an automaton are beautiful images.
What you say about art that is currently being produced, that seems a lot like a newspaper, is interesting. Because it could mean that the dream of upsetting order became reality or a nightmare, it became an everyday thing. Or that reality surpassed fiction, as I’ve often heard said in Venezuela. I remember an artist that dreamt of taking an army tank to a museum and that the Chávez government went ahead and put it there and then filled the museum galleries with refugees. The Caracas hippodrome was transformed into a dangerous, horseless neighborhood. We were left behind. Every idea from fiction and science fiction was flipped over and inverted. The surprise came from a repressive government and that gives us a lot to think about. We’ve seen so many tanks at international shows: as fountains, treadmills, flipped over, buried, disassembled, performing some other function. But that tank in the entrance to that Caracas museum was a real tank. It was telling us something that we later understood: that they were declaring war on us. Many have lost their capacity for laughter, which lets you read everything in a dislocated fashion. We lack distance from reality. We’re suffocating from reality. There’s a war occurring and it’s being waged against subjectivity.