Interview Date: January 21, 2019
Location: The following interview took place on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded aboriginal territory of the xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) people on whose land we gathered in a room at the Audain Fine Arts Building, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
In this interview, Guadalupe recommends three books for inclusion in second shelf:
Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)
End Notes, edited by Elisa Ferrari, Tarah Hogue and Jayce Salloum (Vancouver, BC: VIVO Media Arts: 2018)
Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, edited by Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Press, 2012)
Guadalupe Martinez in conversation with Marisa C. Sánchez
Since I first met Guadalupe Martinez six years ago when she was a graduate student in the MFA program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, her work has engaged performance as a practice through which to address embodied knowledges. She often uses re-enactment to intervene into history through the site of an institution and expose the limitations of, and blind spots within the archive. Several of her live performances, staged in both public and private spaces, have brought forward histories of feminist performance artists through the re-enactment of works by Ana Mendieta, Carla Chaim, Silvia Gruner, Lygia Clark, among others. Through the embodiment of their performances, she not only creates an intimate dialogue with these predecessors by situating herself within a lineage of Latin American women artists, who used performance as a strategy and who have since informed her approach, but her performances, at times, enable her to show how she negotiates her own subject position as a Latin American artist living and making work in Canada.
In more recent years, Guadalupe has begun to envision new methods of working both generatively and collaboratively with artists, mentors, and students, which she explores in the concept and practice of healing as a form of activism, a topic she discusses in the interview that follows. These interests have led her to form CUERPO, a group whose activities she describes as “a holistic process of decolonizing the body and the self, as well as a political way to occupy the often-disembodied spaces of academia and art institutions, allowing for a more expansive space to integrate and share knowledge.” As a visual artist who also teaches performance art histories in academic settings, Guadalupe’s interdisciplinary artistic practice and research proposes that we consider and embrace modalities of learning that attend to the corporeal, experiential, relational, and the visual.
Marisa C. Sánchez (MS): How did you come to arrive as a visual artist? Is that a big story? (both laughing) Do you want another entry point into that question? Shall we focus on performance?
Guadalupe Martinez (GM): In a way, I was always interested in performance. My mother was a dancer and I took dance classes. My mom’s bookshelf included books on psychology, dance therapy, psychodrama, bioenergy, and alternative therapeutic practices around the body, including meditation, Freud, and Jung. I had access to those ideas from a young age. In that sense, I can’t say when my interest in performance started exactly because that connection to the body was always there at home since I was a child. When I started visual arts, I did other things. As an undergraduate, I majored in printmaking, but my final paper was on Ana Mendieta’s practice.
MS: Here at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (UBC)?
GM: No, this was in Argentina. I did my undergraduate studies at the National School of Arts in Buenos Aires, and I focused my research on Ana Mendieta’s practice. Now thinking about it, all of these things started to emerge then. There is an art historian, Guillermo Mosquera, a Cuban writer, who had written an article around Mendieta’s practice. At that time, he had framed her work as a kind of religious methodology concerned with the relationship between life and death. This started a curiosity for me around the relationship between her practice and ritual. I wanted to understand how notions of ritual and the body evolved through non-western modernism and postmodernism, then into the 1950s and body art, and so on. I was really fascinated by that back then.
MS: When you were in school did you take a performance art class?
MS: Did it feel radical to turn to someone like Mendieta or did it feel subversive in relation to the other things you were being taught at the university?
GM: I think it was quite radical. That’s something that comes into my practice that I have been thinking about more recently in relationship to some projects that I am working on now. In a way, performance or performativity in Latin America is very much embedded in every artist’s practice because of the relationship between institutions, artists, and politics, and the precariousness around organizations and the close relationship to politics. Even though the art program didn’t, and I think it still doesn’t have any specific courses or training around performance art, it is a familiar and embedded attitude towards everything in a way.
When I moved to Canada, which was much later in 2008/2009, I took part in a residency at the Banff Centre in 2010 with Ken Lum. That experience positioned me in close relationship to performance art as a practice. There, I did a series of performative walks, collecting materials, and then I made a series of photographs that were photo-performances. These were studies of portraiture with clay in my studio that I then documented. I think I fell into performance organically.
MS: Do you document your performances? Do they exist beyond the life of the event of the performance?
GM: I do document them, but not beyond the purpose of archiving the work, except in particular instances such as with Triangulation of Desire / Return to the Pleasurable (A032, A061, A097), a project I did for VIVO Media Arts Center in Vancouver in 2017. It was a series of re-enactments of pieces by Latin American artists, specifically female performance artists.
MS: Was that a similar performance to the recent series of re-enactments you offered at Griffin Art Projects in Vancouver in August 2018?
GM: That project, the one you saw at Griffin, was the second iteration. I’m going to do a third one this year in Montreal for the VIVA festival. On one hand, the work is a question of identity, but it also questions: how do I position myself as an artist and my artistic discourse in Vancouver, being Latin American? This has been a question since I’ve moved here. Not only personally, but it’s been a layer of my research in terms of narratives and the geo-political, and specifically in relation to art discourses. This has been more or less, or even overtly present in my practice ever since I moved to Canada.
When I was initially introduced to the work of Mendieta, when I was living in Argentina, one of the things that stood out to me was that she was mixed race. She was born in Cuba and was from an aristocratic family that was politically involved and upper class. In one of her writings, she said that she never thought of herself as a person of color until she moved to the United States. This idea of a subject position blew my mind at the time as a young artist living in Argentina in which the relationship to cultural diversity is very different. Then, when I moved to Canada, I really understood and embodied that.
This has also been present for me when studying at UBC. For instance, when I was reading particular theories, political theories around Leftist writers, Marxism or these types of discourses, as well as political approaches that are not only theoretical because they have manifested in Latin America through the political dictatorships and guerrilla tactics. But, I felt there was a very romanticized approach to theory, because it’s also only theory, it’s only theoretical and there’s no relationship to actual lived violence and revolution. This again made me question my position and it caused a conflict within me, it alienated me in ways. It is a privilege to entertain ideas when they are detached from actual consequences in the social realm.
MS: Do you mean that you questioned the system and the dissemination of those key theoretical texts and how they are performed in the classroom?
GM: Yes, how they are performed and read, but also the potential disconnect between theory and embodiment. It really brought up a lot of questions for me because I have lived firsthand the perhaps problematic, conflicting, traumatic, or different layers of lived ideology.
MS: Can you be more specific in terms of your family and how you arrived here? Did your family arrive in Canada because of a specific situation in Argentina at the time? Was it as a political refugee?
GM: No, not at all. I think that Latin America and identity is very much framed around histories of violence and political violence. I am very cautious with how those identities are constructed because like everything, they are narratives and they are used in different ways. In Latin America, those histories are very romanticized. I am always trying to be aware of how those things are constructed, how I relate to them, and how I also construct or understand my own identity in reflection of those narratives. All of this made my work change. I think it was influential in my need to use my body and to ground and embody theory and discourse rather than to only think of it as an academic and theoretical practice.
MS: I’m reminded now of one of the first times I encountered your work. It was either in the fall of 2012 or spring 2013 in your campus studio at UBC in which you had made, Critica 3, a sculpture composed of cinderblocks and flags. You were in the formative stages of your graduate studies at that time. In the context of this discussion on the relationship between theory and actual material practice, how does that work hold meaning for you now?
GM: Yes, those works were very much related to these questions that were coming up for me and I was feeling very alienated at that time. (laughing). Actually, I think that I was angry at one stage (both laughing).
Those works for me are simple in terms of the construction of the image. They have many layers. One is that cinderblocks are a foundational material for construction in Latin America whereas here in Vancouver they are used as drywall mostly. In relation to the material construction of the landscape, there’s an aesthetic of precariousness in the landscape of Latin America. There are many make-shift buildings that are simple staked cinderblocks and found materials assembled as a building for a house or shelter. I realized that that actual aesthetic was engrained in me. I began to think about this idea of the aesthetics of precariousness as a sort of political approach to aesthetics. I also began to see how these sculptures, which were just a pile of materials, could come apart immediately. Some of them I altered during the course of an exhibition. For instance, I had a show in Vancouver at the Commons, which at that time was known as the Apartment, and I made a series of those sculptures with cinderblocks and flags. I would go to the gallery every other day to change its form. I would move the sculptures around, dismantle them and play with this idea of its precariousness, its impermanence. However, this work also addressed ideas of labor around the making of the work and the implications of the body. They were also like anti-monuments. I was challenging ideas of glorious gestures that for me were really not glorious. (laughing) I was also thinking about the relation between sculpture and performance. All of that was converging at that time.
MS: Is your practice now predominately performance based?
GM: Yes, I have been thinking about this quite a lot because I’m part of a show coming up at the Or Gallery in Vancouver. I was talking to artist Zoe Kreye the other day and I was telling her that I don’t know what my practice is becoming in the sense that I am not making art objects anymore. Right now, I am working on collaborative projects and it’s all part of my conceptual and political approach to my practice. But, in a way this approach is almost diluting completely….(laughing)
MS: Any viable means through which you can make a living as an artist? (both laughing)
GM: in terms of authorship, in terms of objects, in terms of so many things. I’m excited and I find it interesting, but I feel like I’m catching up with my practice, conceptually. (laughing) It’s like: Oh shit! (laughing)
MS: Right, as if you are asking yourself: how exactly is this going to move forward? (laughing) Do you feel like the questions guiding your practice are different now than five years ago?
GM: Yes, I have always worked site-specifically and part of my process when I was an MFA was related to institutional critique. After the program, I started to think about the development of my work. Performance and performativity as a methodology which have since become prominent in my research. Performance as a means to intervene into dominant systems in ways related to what you were saying earlier in your introduction to second shelf.
I have also been thinking about Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (2016) and the idea of re-orienting perception and thinking about how the most minimal intervention can allow for large shifts to happen through performativity. This has to do with shifts in methodologies for me, which has implications for my thinking on pedagogy and how I teach and what modalities I choose to use in my teaching practices. This also applies to how I develop an exhibition. For instance, economically how I choose to use funds or the relationships I establish as an artist and how I distribute the fees. I am thinking about all of these things.
MS: In this way, are you proposing systemic changes in relation to how you work alongside others and institutions? For instance, what does it mean to work collaboratively or how does one critique an institution from within?
GM: I’m thinking about authorship and all of these questions. On one level, what I am doing or performing is invisible but it has effects that are much greater on a certain level. In a way, they are also very much rooted in affect and relationship. I also think of this as a very feminist, or what I like to think of as a more feminist approach to those processes.
MS: It seems to me that these strategies of intervention that you are discussing are extremely subtle, they don’t call themselves out or name themselves or make themselves overtly visible.
GM: Yes, it’s also a change of focus as to where to direct energy. An object consumes a lot of energy, the art object retains it. Whereas, I am thinking of more generative ways of working and the idea of fluidity.
When you told me about second shelf as a generative model, I was reminded of the approach of a curator at VIVO Media Arts in Vancouver. For one of my re-enactment projects, the first time I did it is was at VIVO and it was part of thirstDays, a project initiated by Jayce Salloum, who was an artist-in-residence there. He programmed a series of twelve events for one year, one per month, and he chose local curators and artists to develop work around the thematics of geopolitics, colonialism, love and compassion. It was really great. In a way that project also works with the kinds of generative strategies you mention because he got a large grant and then he created the project, choosing curators, who then chose a different artist to participate.
The project that I participated in was with curators Stacy Ho and Elisa Ferrari, who was a director at VIVO for many years. They invited me to do a performance. They have a huge archive of performance art and I thought I would do a bit of research in the archives because I always love doing that! (laughs) I thought I’d see if there were any histories around female Latin American artists who might have worked in Vancouver. When I started to look, I learned that there was only one exhibition that had included a few Chilean artists. I started to think that there are two sides to this issue. On the one hand, there are very few histories of Latin American artists in Vancouver. This has to do with the fact that these narratives are not exposed here in the city. I don’t mean this in a critical way as a lack of representation, but that there are histories that have not intersected with this geographical location and I like the idea of exposing some of those.
On the other hand, I also questioned: how do I position myself within these discourses? As a result, I came up with a project that chose certain artists who have influenced my practice, my way of thinking, and my research around performance, social art, and female artists. I performed a series of re-enactments before a camera, documenting the pieces. Those became part of VIVO’s archive through the documentation of my work. So, that’s how that project started. I really loved that project because I was in the archive intervening with folders marking different times and there was a live feed.1 I was showing the archive through live performances. It was a fun project to develop.
1 For a description on a viewer’s experience of Guadalupe’s performance at VIVO, see Tarah Hogue’s review of the project here: https://thirstdays.vivomediaarts.com/post/157579409427/attuning
That project was in 2017 and then, the following year, Lee Plested invited me to do a performance for a show he curated titled, zero, ground, at Griffin Art Projects in Vancouver. His show was about the monochrome, the black monochrome and Malevich’s monochrome and those histories. He had asked me to perform a piece that I had performed in Edmonton in 2015 when I was working with dirt, among other things, but the image that he liked was an image where I have dirt on my head, which was dirt that I had collected from a demolition site and then brought it into the gallery. I said to Lee that I wanted to think about how I could contextualize that work in the discourse of the monochrome show. I decided that I could continue this series of re-enactments by developing it slightly differently in the context of this show. I chose artists that continued a narrative that I am constructing. I chose female artists who had also worked with dirt as a material. I framed a specific timeline, and then thought of those works in relationship to some of the works that were in zero, ground. There was a Frank Stella painting in the show and I put the Ana Mendieta performance in front of it. These were connections that I set up between the re-enactments and the exhibited works.
MS: I missed that nuance when I saw the performance. I do however remember how the performance unfolded and, at first, it was not clear exactly what you were performing. With each encounter with dirt that you staged, it became clear that you were re-enacting historical works by female artists because at the end of each action you would stand up and announce the name of the female artist, giving the title and date of the work you had just performed. The re-enactments were as follows:
1. Arena, Silvia Gruner, Mexico, 1986
2. Siluetas, Ana Mendieta, Cuba, 1973-1978
3. El Pedimento, Ana Gallardo, Argentina, 2009-2015
4. Transfiguración elemento tierra, Yeni y Nan, Venezuela, 1983
5. Memory of the body I never was, and forever will be, Guadalupe Martinez, Argentina, 2015
Later, I kept returning to the images that had settled in my mind. I kept thinking of you alongside those artists. You had constructed a chorus by way of the re-enactments. With each one, you gathered many, showing how you desired to invite their bodies, or a memory of them, into the space with you. You gave them presence, which was a strong component of that performance.
GM: Yes, I was really thinking about re-enactment. I had thought about it before but never as invested in it as now because now I am choosing to use it as a strategy and as a device in my practice, for this project at least. I have been reading on this topic and I think that re-enactments can potentially be problematic in several ways. Not in a way that stops me from doing them, but I am aware of the issues and questions that are raised around the dissemination of the work, its authorship, and the idea of making money from the work of other artists. There are so many layers and I have no conclusion around it yet, but I am thinking about all of this and the issue of recontextualization.
MS: I can imagine that the question of translation also comes up because a number of the “original” performances that you are re-enacting were not documented on film, which means your experience of them is mediated through your reading of a written description of the performance. The encounter with someone’s text relaying what they saw is fine, but one then becomes aware of how this mediation is working in the translation of it as a re-enactment.
GM: I don’t have a problem with the problematic or potential ethics of this. Not because I don’t care, but because inevitably you encounter this issue when you are going into complex realms of representation. At times I was thinking that my performances are not re-enactments, they are responses and it’s just a matter of how you frame them. The questions are still there. Amelia Jones has written a few articles around re-enactments and also in her book, Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History (2012). Later, she wrote another article, both are in conversation with Marina Abramović’s work.2 Jones discusses a series of seven re-enactments that Abramović did at the Guggenheim. Her performance and exhibition, The Artist is Present, was at MoMA in 2010, but before that she did a series of seven re-enactments of artists Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, Valie Export and then two of her own. It’s really interesting. After that she did The Artist is Present where she also had several other re-enactments of her own work in the show. I think it’s interesting how Jones is putting time into this question of re-enactments. When reading both texts, it is really nice to see how the first is in dialogue with Abramović. Jones asks her about the first series of re-enactments at the Guggenheim and then, Jones develops her critical writing around The Artist is Present in the second publication. There, Jones talks about how performance arts’ ontology has to do with a live act, but that a re-enactment is both live and representational. That is a very interesting way of framing the re-enactment.
2 See both Amelia Jones, The Artist is Present: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence, TDR/The Drama Review 55, issue 1 (Spring 2011): 16 – 45 and Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, edited by Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Press, 2012).
MS: I’ll have to think about that further in terms of the spectacle of Abramović’s performances.
GM: Yeah, or the potential for it to become only the representation evacuated from its political content or even aestheticized. It’s really, really interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. That project of the re-enactments has to do with that. It’s something that I am interested in further developing and I’m asking: how do I go deeper into my interests around looking back at these performances and practices, and how do I further comment on that and not just re-create the image or the gesture?
MS: Right, you were talking about embodied knowledge and when we think of embodied knowledge(s) as ways of knowing, I imagine in some ways, and correct me if I am projecting here, but I imagine you view these re-enactments as ways of creating a dialogue with these historical figures. Does this approach to embodied histories relate to what you said earlier about creating changes in perception?
GM: I think yes, I don’t think I fully articulated it, but the re-enactment is a space where I hope that there is a potential to juxtapose multiple spaces. There is my body and then there is the narrative that I am performing and that is being read, which is then producing a kind of knowledge. There is also the prior performance that happened in Brazil in the 1970s or in Argentina in the 1980s and so on. I also see there being latent forces in those gestures and in the creative process that can somehow be summoned (laughs for a moment) in those re-enactments.
MS: As you describe this, I remember now the tone of your voice during the performance at Griffin where, with each work you re-enacted, you would say aloud the artist’s name, the title of the work and the year it was performed. In your vocal delivery, you communicated a tone of depersonalization. There was a distance the viewer felt between you and the historical work or figure (ie. the artist).
GM: Actually, in the first iteration of the project at VIVO I recorded each re-enactment. So, before I started the re-enactment I would show a sign to the camera. It was a small whiteboard that I used to write and then erase and then write again, the same content that I then spoke during the Griffin performance. In the first iteration, the written text was shown to and recorded by the camera. I think the experience you describe has to do with the rigorous gesture of archiving a historical act or something like that and acknowledging where the work is coming from and showing it in a particular order.
When I created the performance for the Griffin, I thought about how there was a purpose to writing those signs with the camera, but how if I chose to perform it again, I could use the voice. There is something more ephemeral to that. I knew that some of the words would not be understood because some of them would be spoken in Spanish. This idea for me is also one that portrays the relationship to history and to narrative, which is so volatile and easily lost or misunderstood. We want to think of history as a material and reliable thing, but it is not. It is absolutely ephemeral. It is constructed. I wanted to represent that.
The other thing I wanted to share in terms of thinking of modalities or the directions that my practice is taking is that I started a group, CUERPO, with some former students from my performance art class. It is a collaborative research group in performance art that is comprised of about eight women. This project has layers concerned with mentorship, thinking of lineage, and practicing pedagogy and research outside of the academic institution, outside of the structure of the university or a course and one that is funded through other sources. Two of the projects that I have lined up for this year with this group are an exhibition at the Or Gallery and the other one is a project at the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC. The students will participate in the exhibition and other artists will come and give workshops. This project has to do with what I was saying at the beginning about my interest in the relationship between teaching, learning, social activism and corporate participation in Latin America and how that operates differently here. I am trying to put that practice forward to develop some alternative methodologies. I am also starting to think about healing as a modality, perhaps.
MS: Healing as a modality?
GM: Healing, yes. As a form of activism, as subtle activism. I am working with these students and other artists, female artists whose practices resonate as well.
MS: When you say healing, can you describe this a bit more?
GM: In terms of the kinds of relationships that are being developed through this practice. For instance, when I am working with my former students and they are working with me and then, they are developing relationships with other artists that are participating in the project, who come in to teach or share their research. In these ways, the approach to research is very much embodied. There is a sense of care, intimacy, and collaboration rather than competition. Through the affective practice, I think of healing.
I have been collaborating with Anne Riley, an artist who is indigenous and who works with ideas around ritual, ceremony, and restoration of medicinal plants. The work comes from an indigenous approach to pedagogy and relationships.3 Anne’s practice has influenced my way of thinking. It is also in relationship with my students that I have recognized a lot of trauma. I see in these students so many different levels of trauma and a sort of alienation. There is a wound around a loss in the relationship to learning and the lack of support and community. There is so much of feminism that is theory and there are many kinds of feminisms, but I am really craving to establish supportive relationships for younger women.
3Anne introduced Guadalupe to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” which has significantly informed the artist’s work. See Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2014), 1–25.
MS: This way of working then is about building supportive networks for each other as a model for other ways of practicing and growing together in one’s practice, collaboratively. You are introducing into the curriculum or even beyond the curriculum a way for them to find a daily practice. In the same way that we have art theories, healing becomes another way to engage.
GM: Yes, exactly. We teach these methodologies, repeat and reinforce them. This is what we value as research, as a research practice. We create these hierarchies about what is an academic practice, and these exclude a lot of values that are crucial to the development of knowledge or sustainability. In that way, I think about how to restore, reinforce, and dissolve those ideas in order to propose other hierarchies.