As the exhibition Éxodo: documentos alternos (Exodus: Alternate Documents) draws to a close this week at the Centro Cultural Español in Miami, we finally caught up with Guillermo “Willy” Castellanos and Adriana Herrera of the Aluna Curatorial Collective for an email conversation about the show. Answering individually and together, they provided a provocative overview of the exhibition and the thinking behind it.
What was the genesis of Exodus: Alternate Documents?
WILLY: Several moments precede the project. The first was the spontaneous photographic documentation I did on the Havana coast in the summer of 1994, during the turbulent days of the “Rafter Crisis.” With no intentions of exhibiting or publishing, the series was built from documentary pictures, a genre that particularly interests me in my studies of art history.
I chose 80 images to form the essay Rumbo norte, más allá del muro azul, whose title comes from a short piece I wrote, about three years later, while living in Argentina. The work remained unpublished for nearly twenty years.
ADRIANA/WILLY: In 2012, Aluna Curatorial Collective inaugurated the PhotoAmerica section in the Arteamérica fair with Éxodo: una página extraviada de la historia, an installation of 30 photos. The idea was to insert into the archives of history this version—this “little history”—of the Cuban exodus, and with it try to reference every exodus across the world through these individual accounts. Since then, the project has taken on a more reflexive focus, questioning not only the social and cognitive authority of photography but the very concept of “History” as a single and totalizing narrative.
No less important was the emotional connection we established with people. That small space became an impromptu place for the testimonials of rafters who, in the presence of the images, wanted to tell their stories, and even offered to lend photographs and even objects related to their experiences. It was there that we had the idea of expanding the project, working with certain strategies for the collection of those voices that comprised what Foucault called the "little story:” a sum of polyphonic stories that together posed an alternative to the hegemonic discourse or the official story.
Willy, your 1994 photos are the core of the exhibition, but it goes beyond that.
WILLY: The documentary record of the exodus was only the starting point for the creation of a scenario that would provoke the collective memory. We wanted to develop the thread of history beyond photography and its determining factors, to generate a new type of information—an alternative to the original documents, capable of taking the story into new and previously unpublished directions.
The series that gives title to the project—Documentos alternos, 1994-2012—starts from this paradoxical power of photography to mythify history and at the same time expose the medium’s own contradictions. The photos express "my" version of the events, and at the same time my own inability to know, for sure, what happened there. So within the limits of the gallery, the exhibition itself is responsible for questioning this authority.
The photos have been presented in two different ways: first, as a documentary record, presented in a traditional way in black-and-white prints; and then in installations with intervening texts, 20 years later. The use of tracing paper in the second presentation reinforces the sense of a "membrane," or layer of meaning, in the process of reconstructing history. The projections that these copies create on the wall evoke for us the contradictions of the image and its alternate versions, the original and the copy, or the picture and its reflection.
The texts that appear as captions demonstrate the inadequacy of visible data and the possibility that any interpretation could be traversed by fictions, tales, and reconstructions of all kinds. In Exodus, the works become the support for the living experience, in a fragmented reconstruction that includes the voices of those who tell their stories or leave traces of them in the exhibition space.
ADRIANA/WILLY: Éxodo: documentos alternos combines artistic and documentary practices. We use live testimonials, photography, and video interviews as documentary genres, and we’ve combined them with video art, artists’ installations, and other installations created by Aluna Curatorial Collective for viewers to interact with.
The project is shown in a gallery with alternative materials, such as industrial cables and struts, used in a work created by the artist Lili (ana), as well as advertising circulars, fabrics and prints on vinyl, tires, and cork boards and white boards for writing. More than an exhibition, the gallery became a workspace open to all rafters. Some works required their participation and will only be completed when the show is finished. In the work Album, for example, we encourage people to leave their own photographs of the exodus.
In Agua, the voice of Virgilio Piñera is converted into an opportunity for the public to write on blackboards surrounded by a panel that obsessively repeats his phrase: “La maldita circunstancia del agua por todas partes” (The cursed circumstance of water everywhere).
In parallel, we built a one-person room for video-shooting, where it’s possible to record, in private, a personal testimonial. With the support of cultural anthropologist Ariana Hernández-Reguant, we had an open-mike session with a group of rafters, where we recorded their narratives of the journey that will remain as materials in the exhibition. Intervened in and reinterpreted by the people who lived it, history is converted into a narrative (Hayden White) that arises, not from official sources but from the “microhistory” and “the least likely places” (Foucault).
Two Cuban-American artists, Coco Fusco and Juan-Sí González, were also invited to participate.
ADRIANA/WILLY: As curators, we’re interested in the convergence of multiple voices and points of view. The idea of building a scenario out of documentary-based works led us to think about an open archive, not formed by a single voice or perspective. We also wanted to include some documentary images taken from different perspectives of space and time.
We had Rumbo norte, Willy’s series of photos taken on the coast off Havana. And also Rosa Náutica by Juan Sí González, which perfectly evokes the experience of one who approaches it from "the other side,” flying with los Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue) over a sea full of rafts, some of them castaways, some marked by death. Rosa Náutica includes the film record of his own volunteer experience in these aircraft, as the record of a poetics so violent as to be deeply moving: the image of a raft that little by little sinks into the sea.
The drifting rafts are projected not only on the wall but are duplicated on a surface created from mirrors and sea salt, suggesting the infinite dimension of the ocean. To stand before the scene of a raft covered with water is a way of returning to that moment of actual collapse, a way to obliterate time and look, not an object that disappears, but at the vast odyssey of an exodus that never seems to end. On the opening day, a few steps from the CCE Miami [where the show was presented], a raft from Havana made landfall, unlike others that week, whose bodies were not recovered.
ADRIANA: Coco Fusco´s installation Y entonces el mar te hablará (And Then the Sea Will Speak to You) creates an immersive environment that dissolves the outside world and the present time. The artist places the viewer—who should remove their personal belongings and go barefoot into the projection space—on the surface of a drifting sea. In that dark space, the "outside" ceases to exist; the only perception is of the film that chronicles the rafter’s journey back to the island. Meanwhile she shares, as if in an intimate diary, the course of her thoughts as she faces death.
You cannot see Fusco's film without getting involved in it. The viewer sits not on a chair, but in the inflatable rafts like those the rafters launch into the sea. This experience involves the body of the spectator as an integral part of the work, transported to the drifting sea. The memory comes from a woman who returns to bring back her mother’s ashes.
The experience of watching (and listening to) Willy´s installation Pies secos/Pies mojados (Dry Feet/Wet Feet) is very moving. First, from a distance, your eyes compose and complete the scene of the immensity of ocean. It is composed—according to the Gestalt principle—because the photographs are fragmented by intervals of emptiness, which dilute the images so completely that the initial impulse is to reconstruct the sea on the horizon. A sea with no name that first appears tranquil, but seen more closely reveals clusters of incipient storm clouds.
The horizon is a vast sea occupying the entire wall, the entire field of vision, but it’s fragmented. Each fragment rests on acrylic boxes forming a sequence of sand and water: dry feet, wet feet. So the installation shows with formal, almost minimalist beauty, the elements of the exodus: water, absence, horizon, uncertainty, empty, threatening storm, infinitely adrift...
But when the viewer comes closer and is right in front of the installation, what was invisible so far now appears: the acoustic dimension. And the voices of the rafters are heard in the instant that concentrates everything: the moment of departure. It is the sea, interrupted by fragments of emptiness and voices of those who are leaving (and whom we don’t see), and those who have left (and we know nothing about them). All this multiplies the evocative power of the work. The visual evocation has no geographical referents but the aural documentation (by filmmaker Luis Guardia) includes the actual instant of departure and the immense tension between the anxiety of the journey and the longing for what lies beyond the horizon: some place to build life again.
The video Muro (Wall, 2014) by emerging artist and animator Manuel Andrés Zapata contains a poetics that uses two elements in a continuous movement and superimposition: water and stone. His work is based on visual documentation of an extensive wall that Willy shot off the coast of the Mar del Plata in Argentina, for him the place afuera de la isla, away from the island. Photos are an unconscious evocation of what he saw in the sea around the island, with greater intensity than ever when he documented the exodus: a big blue wall.
It’s now 20 years since the balsero crisis. What do you hope the project will achieve?
ADRIANA/WILLY: As a space for interaction and sociocultural resuscitation, we’re motivated by the possibility of extending the margins of public participation, including the expectations usually associated with minorities that are often have little to do with art projects. Our challenge now is to get these people to attend and actively join the project we’ve organized.
The exhibition allows them to reflect about their own history and personal identity. Exodo: documentos alternos attempts to preserve the collective memory of one of the most moving events of contemporary Cuban history, to show that the past is not a closed case but a process that’s constantly being rewritten and reinterpreted. It’s the equivalent, in a practical sense, to returning that power to the voices of people who lived through the events. In this way, from a space of art comes an exercise that reaffirms the value of “small histories” above the official versions inscribed from a base of power and its ramifications.
Éxodo: documentos alternos closes tomorrow, October 31, at the Centro Cultural Español in Miami (CCEMiami).