In artworks ranging from wooden computers to immigration pinball machines, Abel Barroso has brought an ironic touch to issues of contemporary life on the island and in the world. In a conversation with Maeva Peraza, the artist reflects on the themes and visual strategies behind his art.
In your work, you take evident delight in manipulating technology and new communications media. What interests does this relate to?
First, I’ve always tried to give my work a universal aspect. I would like my work to be comprehensible anywhere in the world: Japan, Europe, or Latin America. But the work must carry the feeling of where it is created, where my identity as a human being is born.
In the case of technology, it all emerged from my work Café Internet del Tercer Mundo. I’ve always used this term "third world" to add a humorous touch to my pieces. Café Internet del Tercer Mundo (Third World Internet Café) was my first technological work. At that time, as now, access to the Internet was difficult and I wanted to propose an alternative Internet—a solution that was also a work of art. That solution was to create a space—a real cafe where food was served, people were waiting on tables, and musicians were playing typical songs heard in tourist places.
What I did was to intervene in that site and place my objects—that is to say, I placed structures in the form of computers, so that when people came in they could see that there were works imitating computers on the walls, and that this would turn into something more. The experience was not only about going to that place to eat, but seeing the work would spark other interests. Many times it worked just like that, and the public, looking for a place to eat, noticed that they were participating in something different, a work of art. They didn’t quite get it at first, but they realized that something was happening.
The Internet I proposed at that time was based on mechanical cranks, with a screen made with a digital print. The cranks caused the paper to scroll up and down, as you’d do with a website on a computer screen.
And so began my engagement with technology, driven by a context of precariousness, where not everyone has a computer or Internet at home. I wanted to have a dialogue with this precariousness, this insecurity—to create a sort of alternative that functioned in this context. Which is to say, in a different country, my Café Internet del Tercer Mundo became something else. And in Cuba, in the Havana Biennial, it also had a different content, since specific circumstances influence the validity of the content in all the works.
Which results in a paradox: an important part of your work, as seen in the titles themselves, make a “third-world” distinction—Third World Automobiles, Third World Internet Café, Third World Video Art. But these aspects are based on consumerism or other phenomena common in the First World.
In this type of work I’m always interested in suggesting contradictions that exist in a context with no real or cutting-edge resources, and how the context reinterprets these resources and revalues them. For example, compared to modern cars, I made my wooden cars; given increasingly fast computers, I proposed making wooden computers using simple resources. This apparent simplicity is the vehicle that I manipulate to satirize the access to these resources and how they’re used. I always focus on them from our position—the position of the "other" confronting development and looking for an alternative solution that reflects things today.
In this sense, the choice of material is very important.
Yes, it is. The simplicity of the wood sets off all the irony that the works contain. It’s like saying I made "wood computers,” “wood technology." I’ve even made wood telephones and other things in this series. I made a headset, an iPhone. It’s all a kind of humorous construction, an irony.
But it’s a real modeling process. The pieces are actually engineered.
From the beginning I was interested in invention, the fact that the works have mechanisms and the public can operate them. I like being able to manipulate the work; I have always believed that in manipulating them, new meanings and exchanges are created.
One area of my work is devoted to creating works with mechanisms. My dad helps me a lot with this. He’s an engineer; in the 1980s and ‘90s he worked repairing and replacing equipment parts. He was an inventor, and I think I inherited this desire to fix, to invent, and to create mechanisms that work.
Many times, I have an idea to develop a mechanism and then we establish an engineer-father—artist-son dialogue to design the work. We’ve made simple mechanisms such as computer cranks, but we’ve also made the internal hard drive of a computer or an ATM. We’re always researching and trying to make a "Third World” wooden technology.
Cuba is a country with limited access to the Internet and new technologies. In this context, your work offers a critical view of a technological landscape that is outdated.
I would like this work to be seen in developed countries as a challenge and confrontation with technology, starting from its addictive qualities. Technology has changed the lives of many people today, but has also changed relationships, forms of communication, forms of meeting, and moving between distant places in the world very quickly.
These consequences loosened up my thinking, which affects the production of my work. Showing the influence that technology has had is another of my goals—always contextualizing it and giving the outcome another twist.
Your treatment of printmaking is quite a departure from traditional engraving. You produce three-dimensional prints.
After studying printmaking for twelve years, I decided to create a type of work that parted ways with the traditional printmaking curriculum. I opted for experimentation, an art that was tied to a concept, a goal. And the work had to meet that goal.
The visual resource started from the printmaking. I think I adapted my working process to a conceptualization and an update of new ideas. My printmaking based on these ideas has been transformed into a three-dimensional object, and has left conventionality behind.
Participating in traditional engraving competitions was always a conflict for me, because my work moved away from that and didn’t meet the conventional entry requirements. At one point I was very interested in participating in these events. Then I stopped believing in them. They’re highly schematic; in my opinion, the jurors are printmaking engineers.
The result of a certain work has to be linked to the idea behind it, from choosing what I´m going to build to the wood I will use. I've always struggled conceptually with each work I create; that is the first requirement for me to begin working on an exhibition. I’ve become a bit detached from printmaking, but circumstantially I’ve been immersed in the printmaking world here in Cuba. But I have nothing to do with what’s being done internationally.
I always gamble that my work will be accepted in events or exhibitions of contemporary art, where the idea isn’t to group printmakers together, but artists from different areas.
Transgressing artistic mediums is something that’s characterized your work since your student days at ISA. How do you achieve coherence among different formats and textures, and the concept you develop in a piece?
At times I have used other materials, such as Plexiglass, acrylic, or clear plastic. I can use metal if the work calls for it, as is the case of my piece at the Museo de Bellas Artes. I can use yarn, fabric, paper, and screen printing, because I don´t necessarily work with woodcuts; I like the mixture of various techniques. One example is the piece in which you’re awarded a passport, and the passport is a silkscreen print.
This all comes from an intensive process of conceptualization—choosing what is the best approach by selecting the best vehicle of communication, the surest way to convey an idea. This is my challenge, to choose among all those options.
I often bring prior experiences into the new work that I’m creating. I’m more comfortable working with wood, but that doesn’t exclude other materials.
You have an obvious interest in playing with boundaries, with borders that individuals set to mark their territory or identity.
My goal is always to create a dialogue, a communication between two separate places, near or far. That dialogue is recreated in different ways, with different results. Lately I've focused on the issue of borders, the boundaries drawn by power. I want to point out the marks or imaginary lines that cannot be crossed, whether they are borders between countries or between people.
I have tried to make all my ideas universal, because my problems as a citizen can become expectations or objectives for people living in other circumstances and facing similar or parallel problems. I want to provoke a global interpretation and reception using my visual language, the language I have as an artist.
Going forward, what are the main themes you’re interested in working with?
I want to nourish myself constantly with information, to seek ways of thinking about other identities and cultures, to study situations of coexistence. I think this defines the work I'm doing now.
I’m interested in the position of immigrants in Europe, what they think of the political and social systems they live in, what their expectations are in those countries. But I also worry what a Mexican thinks about the border between the United States and Mexico, or a person living a few meters away from a border control point.
I also think it’s relevant to study a country like Japan, which has very limited emigration. My themes travel the world and according to the contexts in which my works are displayed, the relationships between my creative space and those places are strengthened.
And they’re not static themes: they change in response to the problems I encounter in each exhibition. I always find different problems, which I try to explore more fully in the next show.
Now I am focused on multiculturalism, on multiplicity, on the concepts of exchange between individuals and nationalities, in the mix of nationalities and identities and in ways of seeing the world. These issues, as I said, can evolve along other paths, but my overarching interests remain.
You’ve had many solo shows in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Germany, and are currently participating in a group show at Pan American Art Projects in Miami. How do you insert your own creative perspective into a dynamic international art scene without abandoning your local vision?
In many cases I look at the contextual dynamics of those places, and this influences the type of exhibition I do. A solo show is preceded by six months or a year of work. An exhibition emerges from research that considers the interests and characteristics of the locale where I’ll be showing the work. I incorporate that research and that context into my creative process.
When I did the two-person exhibition in Japan with Sandra Ramos, all the works were created for that context. They were thought of for that place.
Any new projects right now?
I’m developing several specific projects, but I can’t tell you about the exhibitions, because exhibitions need a dialogue—they need to be to conceived in advance. There are issues that interest me and I’m working on them. I have proposals to exhibit in the Caribbean. And I'm rethinking some ideas I've had about the Caribbean as our house—ideas that have to do with our Caribbean mix and the influence of the metropolis.
It’ s not an unprecedented issue for me, as I approached it in an exhibition I did with Michel Dalmaux at the University of Bordeaux. One of the themes I worked on was perceiving new circumstances and placing them in everyday life, in the new dynamics that operate in the world, taking into account the mixture [of cultures], the uniqueness and similarity of all the contexts.