A conversation about Caribbean documentary poetics, feminism, and collective art practice
Slought welcomes the Puerto Rican filmmaker and experimental video artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz to Philadelphia for an event on Wednesday, March 1, 2017 from 5:30-7:30pm. Screenings of her poetic short films will be interspersed with a conversation about Caribbean politics and aesthetics. This event is the second in the Social Justice/ Global South film series, which invites artist practitioners to share their work on contemporary struggles for social and environmental justice.
Now, more than ever, we need to ask questions at the heart of aesthetics and politics: who makes images? of what? and for whom? What does an anti-colonial, feminist art practice look like? What can the non-didactic, abstract mode of experimental documentary offer us at a moment of political and economic crisis? Santiago Muñoz explores these questions through her interactions with local youth, farmers, factory workers, independence activists, dancers, artists, and educators across Puerto Rico and Haiti. Her films feature, above all, the lush and haunted spaces and sounds of the islands themselves. Ranging from 6 minutes to 30 minutes in length, her works have been described as "half-documentary, half-fantasy" (1) and expressive of a "politics of ecology" (2). They are experiential and experimental. They interweave ethnography with poetry and meditate on the processes of historical change and art-making itself. Whether at a Port-au-Prince market or a post-military base or atop a mountain farm, observed practices of everyday life take on heightened meaning; they become portals to nocturnal and mythical worlds that reverberate with indigenous Taíno culture, religious syncretisim, and the violence enacted by Spanish colonialism up through American militarism, colonialism, and neoliberalism.
It is no coincidence that Santiago Muñoz's works invoke the cosmos and, as per this program's title, the inter-galactic. Galaxies are sometimes called "island universes" because of the vast distances separating star systems such as our very own Milky Way. As early as 1850, German traveler-philosopher Alexander von Humboldt used the phrase "island universe" to speculate upon Immanuel Kant's notion that there might be an infinite number of stellar systems in the universe. We are not, and have never been, alone.
The Caribbean too contains islands within islands; even Puerto Rico is a multi-island commonwealth that includes Vieques, a former bomb testing site for the US Navy now open for luxury tourism. Cuban writer Antonio Benitez-Rojo famously penned the phrase, "the repeating island" to characterize Caribbean culture as a polyrhythmic interplay of order and disorder, and of aesthetic resistances to historic forces of European colonization. Like other postcolonial theorists, Benitez-Rojo attempted to account for a region outside of an easy center-periphery binary and without reducing its heterogeneity to a stereotypical designation like "Africa" or "the Caribbean." The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe conceived of the "postcolony" to refer to the ongoing exploitation of African peoples by African state powers, which extended colonial regimes in new and familiar modes. He has called the postcolony a "timespace characterized by proliferation and multiplicity" (3). In his study, decolonization and the quest for freedom refuse linear progress, conclusive endpoints, or singular masters or victims. Instead the past is recycled, both at the levels of state power, under globalization, and within civil society. We might think of the Postcolony or the Global South as far removed from the United States. But the current economic crisis of the territory of Puerto Rico, the unofficial 51st state, reminds us of how US citizens live as separate and unequal even within the bounds of the nation (Puerto Ricans are US citizens but without full rights, hence this is a colonial relationship.) With a $70 billion debt, mass unemployment, home foreclosures, and closures of public services the island mirrors the problems of the mainland.
By constellating the concepts of the above theorists, "Island Galaxies & the Postcolony" thus evokes the colonial relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States, inter-Caribbean and South-South relationships, and the work of artists in documenting, contesting, and re-imagining these dynamics. The work of Santiago Muñoz shows us the connectedness of the hemispheres and the galaxies contained even within a small place—the hopes and dreams that thrive amidst the current conditions of debt and dispossession.
Against the forces of US empire and the corporate art market, Santiago Muñoz co-founded in 2009 Beta-Local, a non-profit organization that offers programs, workshops, and international residencies in Puerto Rico with the aim of collaborative artistic production for "those interested in creating new conditions, relations and positions from which to produce in and beyond established circuits." Committed to public pedagogy, Beta-Local runs an interactive open school, hosts community meals, and fosters intellectual and public dialogues across its three sites: a public library and seminar space, an artists' work space, and a historic building of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. We look forward to learning about these local efforts and the international solidarities that have emerged from them.
"The island's exuberant tropical ecology coexists with environmental devastation, institutional mimesis and decay, militarized and post-military spaces, as well as a growing movement to understand and transform these conditions. We are particularly interested in the ways in which abstract political concepts have real physical, material and social traces and in the sensorial apprehension of these manifestations. Sometimes sessions feel like field research, at other times like a wandering discussion. There is another implicit task to sessions, which is to find its own pedagogical form throughout the process." — Beta-Local
More work by Beatriz Santiago Muñoz can be seen at her current solo exhibition, A Universe of Fragile Mirrors at El Museo del Barrio in New York City (on view January 11-April 30, 2017).