Interview with Núria Güell
Each living form in the present space-time multi-verse deserves a better condition. It is time to turn words into action, as Audre Lorde would simply put it: being quiet about things that matter completely dismisses the potential for minimal change, and above all doesn’t make you happier. Speak out loud about all that makes sense in your head and heart, before some extravagant space dissonance makes us all just a distanced echo of what we could be.
HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN?
When trying to describe art with one and only truth about it, we could say art is something honest. It can be whatever, it can even present violence or a lie, but in contrast to many other human activities or needs, art can be seen, felt, experienced or understood only when the very moment is honest. In my opinion, your art practice has sincere pragmatic implications, which are not only honest and senseful, but result in concrete changes of one’s life. How did actually all begin? How do you manage the relation between art and real life?
From my point of view, there is no difference between art and life, this is why it is really difficult for me to reflect upon this dichotomy. Art is a way of being in the world; it is a 24-7 job (even when we dream, make love, share our bed or listen to conversations in a bar; these are also actions and circumstances that are part of it). In my case, I work with myself as a medium. I work with reality and people so I can say that in the end, my work is embedded in personal relations that conform the collaborations of each project I do. Personal relations can never be categorized as art or not real life. Human relations, even if they are a consequence of your artistic collaborations, traverse your being, your relation with the world, your wishes, and somehow orchestrate your future because they are there and they have already been interwoven. The development of these relationships depends on multiple variables that one cannot control. For me, each project opens a door to something that is not possible to calculate. There is an intrinsic risk of decontrol in your personal life and unpredictability has to be assumed as its fundamental characteristic. I believe that this has to do with the will to give space to reality to express itself and not fall into idealisms that, although utopist, in my case do not help in the understanding of the world we live in, and also to generate critical thinking necessary to relate myself to it.
The bank expropriators I have been working with and some of the prisoners with whom I have collaborated are people that are really important in my circle of relations and for the cosmovision that guides me.
REAL WORLD VS. ART WORLD and ART WORLD CRITIQUE
As we all know and as we all agree, we live in a shitty world. It is so natural someone can do something better than the other and vice versa. We never think of this diversity as an opportunity for sharing, but always as a power position. So the leading positions are basically positive as long as they are based on emphatic responsibility and honest self-reflection. But since in our world all leading positions are primary power positions per se, subordinated to bizarre fear of never having enough (as if leaders are Pharaohs and all mostly needless material wealth could be used after death), all leaders’ actions and speeches present a continuous manipulation of moral standpoints as well as natural resources. This governing principle, disguised as democratic capitalism, is completely unsustainable and devastating for basic happiness or simple contentment of all living beings and even of the leaders themselves.
Do you consider your art as something that has real political potential or more as particular solidarity actions? Do you find art context to be an empowering tool for what you would like to do or achieve? How does art world accept your practice, have you ever been limited by it?
I do not understand them as solidarity acts. I come from a catholic family who worked the land for the bourgeoisie landowners in exchange for vegetables, milk, and some meat. My grandmother prayed a lot and I have a phobia with all that relates to Christian charity because it does not empower but victimizes and perpetuates the differences and the established power relationships. I prefer mutual support and collective intelligence to solidarity as a principle from which one can try to generate critical thinking.
I believe the autonomy that art has achieved – with the aim not to be instrumentalized by the factual powers like the monarchy, the church or the politicians – can be instrumentalized for our own objectives that go beyond art. We can use this space of permissibility to carry out actions that outside of the art context can be considered outlawed by the laws of the powerful. This is what I mean when I say we should use art as an umbrella (of protection). I see this art context as potentially powerful. I do not see it as a tool for empowerment but as a space of freedom, disposable to be used for political ends. Either we want it or not, the artists have certain privileges, they work with institutions that have lots of power at the level of political relations and this has to be taken into account. My preoccupation has to do with how to use theses privileges to reinvent what is common and deconstruct the status quo even if it is at a micro political level.
Until now, the art world has accepted my art practice. In Spain, my work has been censured twice, but it all depends on specific people and their wishes, their fears and their decisions, and there always appears another person with the necessary strength to expose what previously had been censored. And if this person does not appear, we exhibit ourselves in self-organized spaces.
WHAT DRAWS YOUR ATTENTION?
In this world, creativity is what we like seeing most at work, it is a way to manage necessary routine. In the common art world, there are two types of art that enable us to feel or be felt and make us think, rarely act. One is deconstructing the form and function of the object (or image) and the other is about deconstructing beliefs that are forming society in order to envision a habitat that makes sense for everyone.
We can trace these two basic principles throughout the entire history of art, sometimes there are decades of object/image art and sometimes centuries of idea art. Maybe cave drawings weren’t only documents of hunting life, those images might present ideas of how it could be or should be. Early Christian art banned the formal expertise of Hellenistic artists and with metaphors, symbols and other sublime tools early Christian artists used sketch-like drawing to communicate the seemingly superior idea of the one and only god that is above others.
In my opinion, your politically and socially engaged art practice presents the continuum of the art practice of the 90s. The difference between the conceptual art practice of the 60s and the 70s and socially critical art practice of the 90s was that conceptual art still related to the object in the denying process, aiming at avoiding ownership and material market value, while the so-called postmodern art of the 90s used a total relief from object or form to bring ahead the political potential of the art practice and discourse. The feminist paradigm, known as personal, is a political stand, functioning as a common communication code between artists, issues and the public. The art of the 90s used the history of modern art works to show the relativity of the irrelevant form (contrary to the precisely fixed relevant form) in order to enable a direct and overwhelming critique of the society.
How do you understand the history of politically or socially engaged art practice? Who or what is your inspiration? If anyone or anything? What was emotionally and socially the most valuable discovery you have found through your art practice? How do you choose the themes or subjects you work on?
I understand the history of political art as a reflection of the social, political and economical context in which this practices are inserted. Although nowadays I do not have time to study artistic practices, the research on critical theory, philosophy, anthropology or economy also have priority.
I was educated in Cuba, at the cathedra of art conducted by Tania Brugera, and both conversations, with Tania and with my fellow researchers, are indispensable to understand my current practice. Further than that, I do not feel inspired but infuriated. It is rage that drives me to create. To develop projects is my personal way I found to deal with conflicts that puzzle me in relation to the common and/or collective. The subjects I work on are produced by my personal situation in relation to political circumstances, they piss me off and this feeling is the start of the project. The most effective way I found to deal with these conflicts at a personal level is by developing the projects I do. As you have said before, this world is bullshit. It is understandable that there are people for whom this world becomes unbearable; art for me is the linking process between life and this crack, a potential possibility for transformation.
WHERE IS THE PROBLEM?
Today, after almost 20 years gone, the critique is far from enough. Socially engaged and politically relevant art is either brutally diagnosing central issues, which are too obvious to be thought of, or is pointing out clear and common sense solutions based on continuum, not on innovation.
In your art practice and in relationships/collaborations with various people, do you, too, observe that even though solutions for less bizarre and more just organization of individual and common lives are completely obvious, people tend to mess up the knowledge of what with the knowledge of how to. As I already wrote a while ago, on a personal level we all know what is to be done, but it seems like no one knows how to implement this conscious knowledge on a global scale. Why are the solutions actually so easy to be implemented and nothing happens? How can art help or what can be done within the art context?
In Spain, the welfare state is being dismantled through the law, and it is the law that allows the creation of a punitive state by radicalizing the penal code, like a classist legal measure of the powerful against the ones that can put under pressure their privileges. As we know, the biggest crimes are possible if they are under the umbrella of legality, and include a disciplinary apparatus of government employees ready to apply the law without thinking. The banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt names it. Thus, the responsibility is diluted in a power system that becomes concrete through laws (that allow evictions, privatize, even kill, as nowadays the immigration laws are doing).
The social contract is a philosophical and political concept that establishes the bases of engagement of an individual within the society. And again, it is through law and morals with their mechanisms of implementation that this supposed social contract is imposed on us. It is an imposed contract that, because of its imposition, becomes an exercise of submission, of obligation towards the sovereign.
However, what makes us human is our responsibility. And even if there may be consequences, we all have the possibility, with no need to have a permit, to refuse to obey those laws that shake our consciousnesses, our bodies and our dignity. This is what it’s all about; responsibilities, to be auto responsible. For me, this is civil disobedience, an act of auto responsibility, of not delegating.
As we all know, only slaves obey, all the others consent. To disobey is to think, it is not to give legitimacy. From a young age, we are thought to obey an authority. They are really perverse; they tell us that to surrender is our only possible option. We are educated to be submissive, we are not thought to think, as thinking is not an established way for us to see what surrounds us but a mode of dissent. I think this is crucial for understanding the passive, fearful and conformist attitude of most of us. I think that the solution is to work for the base and start by reformulating education.
And I think that context art can be a good tool as it operates from the institutions of power, so any proposal that places itself outside of the white cube has implicitly certain legitimacy. In addition, the context art also offers us visibility, to have a public voice, for example through exhibitions, interviews, conferences, articles, etc. I believe this visibility is another characteristic that can help us to promote critical thinking, interplead people so they have to position themselves, even if it’s through refusal.
We used to think art is beyond reality, that it is a kind of utopist or distopist virtual image. How come today art practice – like yours – makes so much more sense and it is so much more applicable to our global human needs than real life politics. How come actual politics regarding the world bank, corporations and national parliaments are based entirely on deception and on a misleading image of reality? In your opinion, what is the most important thing to do now and in the future? What are your fears, considerations, and wishes to work on in the future?
Already in the 1930s, Henry Ford said that it was good that the majority of Americans didn’t know how banks function in reality, because if they did, a revolution would explode before tomorrow morning. With the objective of not losing their privileges, the powerful have a team of specialists, whose task is deforming reality through the discourse. This is the reason for the monopoly of the ubiquitous mass media, etc.
In my point of view, the most important thing is to understand clearly that a tyrant is only a tyrant if he has subjects; and this depends on us! We have much more power than we think, and it is essential to know that to be able to act. In the current situation and in the near future, I believe it to be fundamental to break the social contract imposed by the State, the EU and the ECB (European Central Bank), and interweave it with our communities and collectively construct our own institutions.
After the global mobilizations that have taken place during the last years, it looks like we all agree that 1% of the world’s population takes the political, social and economical decisions that affect the other 99% (it is worth mentioning that too many people inside this 99% are complicit with that 1%, a similar situation ended in Auschwitz). In relation to the above, I have been thinking about how to work with that 1%. I believe it would be easier to be able to question that 1% than the other 99%.