Essay Lucas Bambozzi, 20/09/2007

Blurry sights

This text about Claudia Aravena should have been written by Guillermo Cifuentes. But our best and very special common friend died without doing so, in May 2007. This might have left a large empty space between the proximities that could have been established between his and Aravena’s work. Such proximities were evident in aesthetics options, narrative strategies, political approach, sensitiveness, humor, and closeness.

I therefore write, with no vestiges of spirit-writing, but surely without being able to avoid the vestiges of one’s work in the other’s, and vice versa. Beyond having studied together, in something more than just the partnership in the A Cuerda collective, the interferences, exchanges, the mutual contamination, the altering focus of identities between ‘one and the other’ were beautiful.

Thus, without being able to separate in my memories what created an affectionate blend between them, I am trying to recreate a rapid picture, what you could call a snapshot, aimed at reaching out, in some way, to a certain generation of which I am somehow also part.
My first incursion into Aravena’s work took place in Miradas Desviadas (1992). There I encountered a Latinity whose sensitivity I did not yet know, coming from a Chilean scene immersed in travel logs and personal reports beautified by covering layers, fusions, slow motions, velvety statements, voices in confessional tone, Paris locations, and other ‘accents’ considered typically French. Until then, the Chilean producers cultivated explicit proximity with France, the result of over a decade of exchanges, not always balanced (almost promiscuous?), between both countries through the Festival Franco-Chileno de Videoarte.1

The fact is that this kind of video produced in the early 1990s really touched us and in Aravena and Cifuentes we had the best examples of a trans-Andean narrative that suggested ecstasy due to its visuality, attitude, and linguistic dexterity.
Works that followed Miradas Desviadas, like Estáción Terminal (1995), berlin: been there/to be here (2000), and lugar común/common place I (2001), are reconstructions of identities that grab us through a kind of audiovisual enchantment, having the power to touch us, even without romantic odes, rehearsed actors, sophisticated production, or virtuosi sequence shots. I refer to the chase for a syntax that since the 1990s has launched itself in the challenge of building sense, of narrative invention, of conjugation of written text elements, of the economic structure of poetry, almost in verse. Since then we have been speaking about a format through which a need for expression would be comprehended. There would be a search for syntax, showing a different audiovisual experience, a close relative of short films, but without the mimicry of its most common clichés, crossed by reconnaissance trips, colored by the French video, in all pertinent to the Chilean context. Our general thoughts were more focused on a cinema situation of sensations and notions in which, far from the search for the emotions so dear to cinema, one would find connections of ideas, lives being lived intensely, sincere opening of hearts, and challenges being faced with the camera in hand. This generation invented its own history, which extended beyond recordings, as a way of believing in a future in which everything was cloudy and hopeless.

In the 1990s, it was relating to producers like Aravena and Cifuentes, guided by thinkers like Nestor Olhagaray and Jorge La Ferla (and having the French Robert Cahen, Alain Bourges, and Jean-Paul Fargier as frequent counterbalances), that we learned more deeply the (evident!) cultural differences and started better identifying the possibilities of authentic dialogue between South American neighbors. At least among us, after all, greatly legitimizing elements of the maneuvers of this Latin circuit, we have possibly overcome the chatter and discourse of institutionally imposed exchange and see ourselves less naive. It was works like those of Aravena, and her untiring search for her place in the world, that helped us believe that the birth of a language beyond conventions may also include images as thoughts and more ethereal means of communication, without forgetting the weight of our dictatorships, and of the several forms of cultural misunderstanding—some persistent to this date.
In Aravena’s case, specifically, it was not only Latin-American idiosyncrasies that would move her, as the questions of identity in her videos started being reflected in a broader unfolding of this theme, like, for example, her Palestinian descent in works like Beitjala (2003), Greetings from Palestina (2004), and Out of Place (2005); from her place-without-a-place as an immigrant in Berlin, in projects like been there/to be here (2000) or Common Place I and II (2001) and from contemporary fears common to all cultures, a theme discussed in a stronger manner in Fear (2007). These are projects for a lifetime, for the recognition of what may come to be identity based on negotiation with the context in which you are living.

Memories and Reverse Effects
Languages are really uncertain ‘regions,’ which suggest we walk accompanied, for the risk of darkness. Aravena and Cifuentes walked together. In their videos, memory often replaced movement, and common space was drawn in many ways. It is like thinking: once isolated, I get used to a blurry vision, I start losing ground, working with an overcome syntax, I go wrong in context. In the scope of being alone, we are owners of all degeneration and doubt that we face. Including of the images we create. Seeing yourself in the other is a way of studying detours but also sanities. Aravena and Cifuentes knew that the effective bases for a collaborative process are very fragile. Maybe that is why they supported each other. One on the other, both in the works they created.

The other, not just the double, but the ‘minimum me’ as a triple, supported in the video work (comprehension of itself).
And it was among the instabilities of new media that Aravena reaffirmed herself, narrowing herself in video, this medium that some would now call ‘banal.’ And since That is not a Loop, that’s Real Time (1999) she has also sought in the space of installations a support for the vertigo of rhetoric effects around novelties of media. She sought in space, which fades away in the vision of philosophers of acceleration and virtual image, an anchor to save herself in the sea of uncertainty.

Processes are latent works. OK, not always. Just in special cases. Thus, Aravena worked on the Palestina Project (2003-2005), a work-process, recognition with excessive validity. The processes strengthen the certainties, the definitions of language seem to rest momentarily.
In Fear/Miedo (2007), Aravena hits the nail on the head on mentioning the unmentionable. It is hard not to feel the impact of the construction, once again structured on a repertoire of archetypical memory, now collective, in which guts are now exhibited more for what is universal than for the intimacy revealed. A video to be revisited.

Illustrated existences
In a recent conversation with Aravena, we came to the risk of concluding that we are all illustrators of writing. In many texts and contexts our works serve just as starting points or as reference for the crossing to ‘statements’ by curators, critics, and festivals. We serve some very specific purposes, sometimes fleeting, sometimes lasting longer, in illustrations that intend other things beyond our works, in catalogues with several pages, in oceans of many names, titles, trends (I still hate that word!). The risk of concluding is assuming that what we do is only important when added to greater interests, of different structure, that our work often arises but does not reach merit.

Well. This production is the basis for routes that other producers follow today, be they aware or not of the flights previously made. Cifuentes died without justice having been paid to his brightness. These are the famous crooked lines of recognition and of the strategy that does not match the existing rules. The work is left, maybe with that taste of bitterness that does without sympathy. The way we travel, well or badly, is also inevitably our work. In a response, by reaction, by consequence, by fatality or by poetry.
Here a narrative would fit, as is the case with Aravena’s videos: her words in the voice of others, the voice of others in her words. Representing issues, issues about speaking of herself, of culture, and of the lack of belonging to a culture.

Aravena talks to us about mirroring. The ‘me in the crowd.’ You among several others. Us in our estrangement (once again we have pictures, portraits, of a family: once again Guillermo Cifuentes, Robert Cahen, Alain Bourges, Patrick de Geetere, Chico de Paula, Ivan Marino, Arturo Marino, Alejandro Restrepo, Carlos Nader, Inês Cardoso, myself, and many others I think of through crooked lines), more than speaking about a generation defined by dates of birth, I refer to certain insistences and convictions of language.
How does the current context affect the production of these people? How does the context exclude or accept them? It is necessary to reinvent, with or without drama.

How much Latin America, Chile, Arab world, Palestine, Germany, and Berlin is there in aravena? The marvel lies in seeking knowledge, in discovering, seeing, listening, letting yourself be moved by through the works of Aravena, but not taking them as illustration. 

(1) The Festival Franco-Latino-americano de Videoarte, in its 14th edition, became Festival Franco-Latino-americano, but the entry of countries like Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Argentina seems to have made the festival more expensive for the French government and little effective in terms of Eurocentric cultural influence, after all, the event has always been promoted by the French Ministry of Foreign Relations. But what matters is that we have been observing a curious circuit among neighboring countries which for many years had been mentioned on the media but that only after that point started existing in fact through festivals like the French-Latin-American, the Southern Cone Festival, and naturally the constant exchange made possible by the programme organized by Videobrasil.

Interview Eduardo de Jesus, 11/2006

Issues pertaining to identity, territory, and displacements are featured very often in your works, in many different ways. Is location a pressing issue for you, or is it something that you rationally believe should be discussed?

I think both, or rather that the first leads to the second. But then again, displacements and migratory flows are not new, they have been present throughout the development of history, and they have reached a point in which they are part of the experience of contemporary subjects. Due to the ease of information access and the ease of displacement, nowadays we learn faster about people in political exile, war prisoners, economic migrations, etc. A significant amount of people are confronted with these experiences; the spanglish phenomenon, for instance, is an emblematic case that reflects on language. Now, distance, which is also a position in relation to a place, is understood here as existential position, and that is the point in which I intend to insert my subject of enunciation.

Language, dialects, and resistances play an important role in your work. In Lugar común, texts in different languages cross the screen. Out of Place is marked by successive repetitions of the phrase “one identity, one destiny, one language.” What is the role of language in your work?

Language certainly plays a key role in my work, as do places, first off because I always make voice-over interventions (spoken word) in image sequences; this element is present in nearly all of my work, and it tenses up the other elements (image and sound). I usually decontextualize each of the elements, which are seldom subordinate to each other, and due to this autonomy, they formally conflict with each other. On the other hand, language is also marking a place, in the broader sense of the term. As for Lugar común, it is a video in three languages with no translation, in which language is an attempt to represent the notion of fragmentation of reality, or put in another way, it is reality conceived as countless fragments the totality of which is never perceived, no matter how hard one tries; there comes a point in the video in which one has to choose to read the text in Spanish, English, or German, because it is impossible to grasp the whole, even if one masters all three languages. To choose a language also means to choose where one stands. The experience of the foreigner, the emigrant, or even of the tourist, the experience of being displaced, out of phase in relation to an origin, to somewhere else, and the difficulty in understanding a new code, a language, etc. leads to the perception of this experience in a fragmentary way. Out of Place is different, although one who does not master the Arab language will not grasp the totality of what is being said, since the sequence is not translated, but the reference to language has to do with the designation of elements that form an identity. Derrida's quoted phrase-one identity, one destiny, and even one language-is about the heritage within a culture, and I place it here precisely to problematize the notion of identity as something that is designed, predestined, and immovable, and I am referring to the project of construction that is identity, fictionable and redesignable as it may be. That is why there is no translation from the Arab, i.e., there is no comprehension; language here is not so much decorative as it is something that exists, but does not assume itself.

Works such as Out of Place are examples of how you produce visual representations of memory. When did the issue of memory appear in your work, and what led you to these representations?

I believe these representations have always been present in my work, perhaps in a not too conscious and distanced manner in the beginning, but later on they became essential. From my berlin… video onwards, maybe due to the lasting character of the migratory experience, I dealt with comparisons a lot. It became a staple, the notion of being here coming from somewhere else, that is key to this video, which I made from my own experience in that city-and it appears differently in 11 de Septiembre -, I cannot help but look at these facts and think of the others. This view of events is in line with Pierre Samson's idea of a relative present (a present the existence of which precedes the existence of a relative present, since the present no longer exists as an infinite past). Deleuze too approaches the notion of relativity of the present tense: “...a continuum that unceasingly transforms and fragments itself, according to recompositions imprinted by awareness. Memory operates a movement of different strata, that sequences of travelings showcase in its permanence and metaphors.” To me, these sentences are key to understanding the type of subjectivity upon which I wanted to build my work. …which builds and rebuilds itself in a constant, ever-fragile manner, any notion of belonging, heritage, identity, memory.

Berlin, been there/to be here displays a certain sense of estrangement regarding the city of Berlin. Is this sense a driving force in your current work?

No, I think it is real specific to that work, to my meeting with the city of Berlin, and to taking a certain origin into account. The driving force in my works after berlin… has to do with the awareness that it caused a feeling of estrangement in me, at some point.

How did your partnership with Guillermo Cifuentes begin, and how has it been?

Me and Guillermo studied together, which means there is a sort of affinity due to the origin of our audiovisual questionings. When we were students we formed a workgroup, the A Cuerda collective, which was closely accompanied by Nestor Olhagaray. The group would produce videos and short films and we would switch roles, anyway, our paths crossed after the group came about. Soon after the sudden death of one of the members, and as each member went its own way, we began distancing ourselves from each other, but Cifuentes and I maintained a collaborating relationship; the lugar común/common place video installation is a good example, it developed from an exchange of letters. Within a few weeks I will be in Chile to work on my new project with him.

How do you regard the current video production in Chile?

In fact, I do not have an overview of current video production in Chile, certainly due to the fact that I am not there right now. What I can say is that video in Chile-as in other places-has finally become a player in the contemporary art scene. Some time ago, video was just regarded as a medium (as in the 1970s), but now, every self-respecting art school has included video in its curriculum, which used to be sort of monopolized by painting. This is a step forward, right?!

Comment biography Eduardo de Jesus, 11/2006

Claudia Aravena Abughosh was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1968. From 1987 to 1992, she studied graphic design at the Arcis University and audiovisual communication at the Arcos Institute. Her work, produced from the 1990s onwards, often approaches universal issues such as identity, displacements, and memory, always with a particular take that seemingly removes the images from their original contexts, reinserting them into new, subjective ones. In so doing, she establishes an intense interplay between her experiences, the images she produces, and contemporary political and social issues.

She made a series of experimental works, including Panama (1991), Ante-sala (1990), and Dile al tiempo que vuelva (1992). Then, commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, Aravena made the video Miradas Desviadas (1992). The winner of an award from the Research Commission of the CICT (Unesco) and an honorable mention from the jury at the 1st Biennial of Video and Electronic Arts of Santiago (1992), the work portrays the newfound freedom in post-Pinochet Chile.

In 1996, she presented her video Estación Terminal at the Berlin Transmediale. Two years later, Aravena won first prize at the VideoArt Festival Locarno (Switzerland, 1998) for First Steps, a sort of journal of a trip she made to Bosnia in partnership with Paula Rodríguez. In 1999, she was invited to integrate the artist residency program of the Podewil Center for Contemporary Arts in Berlin, Germany, where she made the berlin: been there/to be here video, presented at the 13th Videobrasil International Electronic Art Festival. The video marks her return to the theme of displacement, seen through the eyes of an immigrant woman and her relationship with the city of Berlin. In the same year, Aravena made That's not a Loop, that's Real-Time, a video installation that also approaches immigration, this time from the perspective of the wait as a permanent condition for immigrants.

Dealing with the same subjects, but also broadening the scope of key issues in her work, the artist worked in partnership with Guilhermo Cifuentes-a frequent collaborator of hers, and the author of the Essay published in this edition of FF>>Dossier-to make the video installation lugar común/common place (2001). The work focuses on language, distance, and urban landscapes, promoting a dialogue between Santiago (Chile) and Berlin (Germany), against a backdrop of memory and identity issues.

In 2002, Aravena made 11 de Septiembre, a striking video that links two extreme situations: the 2001 attacks in New York, and the military coup led by General Pinochet that brought down president Salvador Allende, in Chile, 1973. Two facts, twenty-eight years apart from each other, brought together by the “fracturing of present and past historical memories,” as pointed by the video synopsis. The work was awarded at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (Germany), 2002.

In 2003, Aravena started developing her Palestina Project, an extensive series of videos and video installations presented in Germany and Chile. Once again, she returns to identity issues, this time with a more critical, political approach, dealing with borders and their representations, territories, and displacements. The project includes the video Out of Place (2005), the video installation Greetings from Palestina (2003)-which received the first prize at the Kasseler DokFest (Kassel, Germany) in the same year-, and the video Beitjala (2003).

Out of Place is the third work in the Palestina Project, and promotes an intense exploration of representation and territory, memory and identity issues. Once again, Aravena's views are torn between personal experiences-represented here by family memories-and historical and political issues, greatly widening the field of significance of the images. Using the resources of video to emphasize perceptions, associate contents, and broaden her reflections about core issues, the artist multiplies her views using sophisticated language games.

This feature is also present in the other works that comprise the Palestina Project, such as the video installation Beitjala (2003), named after the hometown of Aravena's maternal family. In this work, Aravena interviews family members and shopkeepers in an immigrant-populated area of Santiago, where her family owns a store as well. Her interviews explore the immigrants' mental imagery, searching for their memories. Soon afterwards, following the interviews, she traveled to Beitjala and recorded images of places and memories mentioned by the immigrants and their family members.

The final phase of the work was the screening of these recorded images in Beitjala, on the window panes of Aravena's family store in Santiago, for three days in April, 2003. Instead of mannequins and textiles, the corner store windows displayed images of the Palestinian city. The territory was expanded and rebuilt through memory, thus creating-in the middle of Santiago and using memorialistic images-a foreign space.

Bibliographical references

The Palestina Project 

Chilean art critic and historian Paz Aburto Guevara describes and reviews The Palestina Project, by Claudia Aravena Abughosh, in an article written for the on-line publication Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art. Features images of the videos and installations that comprise the project. 

lugar común 

Art critic Paz Aburto comments on Aravena's work that integrated the new media panel of the exhibition Arte Contemporáneo: Chile. Desde el Otro Sitio/Lugar (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo da Faculdad de Artes da Univerdidad de Chile, Santiago, 2006). Includes brief artist resumé. 

Reconocimiento de Lugar

Text about the collective exhibition Reconocimiento de Lugar, by Claudia Aravena, Guillermo Cifuentes, and Alejandra Egaña (Galería Gabriela Mistral l, Santiago, 2002). berlin: been there/to be here was presented as an installation.

Videobrasil On-line

Artist biography, recordings of participations at the Videobrasil International Electronic Art Festival, and links to synopses of works.