Thank you so much for your wonderful letter, your reflection, and sharing your thoughts about your participatory process. I have followed, with admiration, the work of Chto Delat ever since I first learned about your project, — initially through the writings of my friend Claire Bishop. Toward that time, I was working on a project titled Instituto de la Telenovela, my first socially engaged project, which served as a research project exploring the impact of the Mexican soap opera industry in Eastern Europe. My connections at the time to the Eastern Bloc were very strong—partially through a sentimental relationship I had at the time. But this is not important right now—we must talk about the present.
The present indeed is a dark moment. I have never in my life, in fact, felt that we were undergoing a darker time than now, one where there seems to be a confluence of evil forces gathering. Specifically speaking, in the United States, where I live, we are experiencing the rise of authoritarianism and a kind of political division between left and right that is inviting questions as to whether we are witnessing the beginning of a second Civil War in the United States. We of course find ourselves amidst a sea of uncertainty right in this moment (I am writing a week before the U.S. presidential election), where the President of the United States not only fans the flames of racism and has debased the very office of the presidency, but has also openly declared that he might not recognize the electoral results if he is not declared the winner. The American democracy has been tested at its very core, and I fear for the future of the country, and the world. As many have remarked recently, Trump might stay or he might go, but the condition of which he is only a symptom of will not go away as easily. Trumpism is the latest, and perhaps the most virulent expression, of American white grievance politics—particularly those that emerged sometime after the 1980s. For me as a Mexican immigrant, it is scary to see that the United States is starting to go into the direction of authoritarian regimes that were more common in Latin America, and Trump's populism today more and more resembles a right-wing version of Hugo Chávez.
We might be witnessing the beginning of the long decline of the American empire — not anything that I think anyone should particularly lament, but the question remains of how the decline of the United States might affect the world order at large.
And I have not even started talking about the pandemic.
In some ways, the forced physical isolation that we are experiencing under Covid 19 has only exacerbated current social and political tensions—be it because we are exposed more than ever to social media and the news, or because pressure is already so high that we are exploding into action and protests in the streets, or both.
So, as artists we are witnessing these monumental historical shifts—moments that might make 2020 as significant as 1968 in the way in which its turbulence forced a social reckoning and made culture to readjust. I share with you the frustration and the sense that amidst these challenges it feels like we are Sisyphus, carrying a rock as we climb the mountain but always dropping it before reaching the top.
I want to share with you that the only time that I felt similarly to this moment was in the aftermath of 9/11, when I was already living in New York City. Granted, 9/11 was a very different event in nature and effect, primarily because in spite of the great shock that we all experienced, it was still a single event that mainly we had to process and reflect on over the course of several years, while Covid has been a slow rolling calamity that has impacted the whole world and has resulted in much greater physical and mental exhaustion. But 9/11 was a time of reconfiguring and rethinking all schemes for me nonetheless, and I in part attribute my gravitating toward socially engaged art because at that moment I felt that an art practice needed to do something more than merely exist within the institutional framework of art, and if it were to truly endeavor to transform the world it needed to actually abandon the realm of mere representation and act in the world.
So, now to the question of participation that you so wonderfully articulated in terms of your practice. I share many of your perspectives regarding work with others. As an educator, I am trained to be an active listener—meaning someone who pays close attention to the reactions, concerns and interests of others, and largely it is those interests of others that drive my practice: I almost am not interested in those things that do not interest my interlocutors, and rather become stimulated by the common ground we can find together. Using these interests, I use pedagogical scaffolding to construct experiences.
But at this moment in time, this sinister moment that we are all living in, what I am mostly interested in is in radical domesticity — a topic that I will attempt to develop further in this conference.
If there is something I welcome about the pandemic is that I am not flying from city to city every week, in a seemingly never- ending marathon in search of having an art career. At different points in my life —and perhaps you might have felt similarly in the past— I have felt that I literally live in airports and impersonal hotels. I go through my recent memory and see images of myself amidst an empty hotel plaza in Prague just before Christmas, in a forgotten town in southernmost tip of Brazil, in a jam-packed building in Hong Kong, a mysterious and seedy hotel in Connecticut.
So much mobility results in producing a mental non-place. This is the location, the state of mind, that I am determined to abandon forever. And I think that recommitting oneself to your immediate community, your neighborhood, is one way to do it.
But I also think that Zoom can generate radical domesticities as well. A few months ago, I started a project singing telegrams via that medium to willing participants, who would receive messages requested to me by their close friends and relatives. It was a wonderful way to connect with perfect strangers, some of them in completely different parts of the world (New Zealand, Turkey, Singapore). I sang a Neapolitan song to a 100-year-old in Italy, I sang a Nahuatl lullaby to a baby in Texas, I sang a Zarzuela song to a grandmother in Santo Domingo. And in those moments, with those people that I have never met before and will likely never see again, for a moment we shared a powerful connection, something that was perhaps nothing other than a fictional togetherness, but powerfully imagined and felt by our respective concrete beings. During these moments of extreme isolation and powerlessness, those have been the greatest moments for me this year—a theater of one for one, where art, for a moment, really seemed to matter.
My regards from my quiet building in Red Hook, Brooklyn (although my downstairs neighbor has started to smoke pot again, impregnating our apartment, and I might have to go downstairs to complain. That will not likely result in a meaningful social practice project).