The Multiple Sites of Contemporary Art: an Interview with Nayda Collazo-Llorens

by Jessica Santone

Contemporary art may be described as uniquely conditioned by a turn of attention in art and the art world towards movement across and through geopolitical borders and locations. More than the cosmopolitanism of the Modern era, the contemporary depends heavily on the rapid circulation of news and information across vast distances via satellites and the slower and messier migrations, relocations, and travels of bodies from place to place. The contemporary artist celebrated in the numerous ‘global’ (that is, designed for tourism) art fairs and biennials is frequently her- or himself from multiple places, living or doing research in another place, and selling work somewhere else still. Art historian Terry Smith described the current international art system somewhat optimistically in 2004 as, “transformed by a larger network of widely dispersed and variously connected sources of creative coping.” [1] In particular, Smith is concerned in this essay, “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” with the roles that curators and exhibitions play in shaping the art system in response to the valued tenets of modernism, the spectacle of multinational capitalism and its new concentrations of wealth, and politics driven by clashes between various local sites. He writes, “The exhibition as a diagnostic toolbox actively seeks to stage the relationships, conjunctions, and disjunctions between different realities: between artists, institutions, disciplines, genres, generations, processes, forms, media, activities. In short, between identity and subjectification.” [2] In many ways, contemporary art is about a juxtaposition of the global and the local as constitutive of our subjectivity.

Nayda Collazo-Llorens’s work in particular has dealt with intersections of global and local as part of a navigation of contemporary subjectivity. She works in diverse media ranging from drawings and prints to video, installation, and public, site-specific works. Her work has addressed questions of place, the ubiquity of the news media and global information, and how the mind navigates or perceives data and language in states of hyperconnectivity and dislocation. Collazo-Llorens was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and currently lives and works between New York, Pittsburgh, and Kalamazoo. She received her MFA at NYU in 2002 and her BFA at the Massachusetts College of Art in 1990. She has exhibited at numerous venues, including: the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, Galería Raíces in San Juan, Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, the X Bienal de la Habana in Havana, Cuba, LMAKprojects in New York, and most recently at the 3rd Poly/Graphic Triennial in San Juan. In September 2012, she will have a solo-show, An Exercise in Numbness & Other Tales, at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. [3]

Last Friday, May 18, Nayda Collazo-Llorens visited our class, “Interrogating Contemporary Art since 1980,” at Kalamazoo College to tell us about her recent work and the experience of navigating various places in the contemporary art world. During the interview, the artist shared some slides of her recent projects, including her plans for the new exhibition next fall. In the course of my discussion with her, the artist’s interest in connections and locations gradually gave way to an underlying current of the emotional impact of information. Several of the artist’s most recent installations not only plumb the depths of connectivity, comprehension, and mediated perception, but also pose questions about our emotional intelligences as we make sense of too much and too intense information. In Revolú*tion (2012) for example, Collazo-Llorens plays with humor as a mechanism for coping with a rise in violent crime in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, in a new work she is developing, Comfortably Numb (2012), the formal arrangement of colors, images, and graphic texts simultaneously inundates and anaesthetizes the viewer. In these and other works, information and feelings clash and collide as the artist seeks to understand the impact of rapidly translating between contexts on our subjectivities.

 

Jessica Santone: In your work, you frequently deal with questions of space and place, using topographical mapping, narratives, and other devices to interrogate first, how we connect to specific locations and also, how we move from one place to another and how that causes us to think differently. Can you tell us a bit about how this interest in mapping places came about?

Nayda Collazo-Llorens: I think it goes back to my own travelling or constantly moving from one place to another. I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I grew up there until I was eighteen and went to art school in Boston. I returned back home for about six or seven years, made a career there, then left for New York. I was [in New York] for about eight years, then moved to Pittsburgh for about three; now I’m sort of between there and here – although I constantly travel back to New York, and San Juan. So there is something about that multiplicity of places, which is not just a binary thing between here and there. It’s about multiple locations and languages and so forth.

When I was asked to do a site-specific project for the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, I had been working with the idea of the Bermuda Triangle, of which my native city of San Juan is one of the corners. There’s a mythology to it, and [it is] a very specific geographic space as well. I was interested in its reading as a psychological space, as an imaginative space, a scientific space; it really works at different levels. I was interested in continuing that research [beyond the triangle]. What I proposed [in Unfolding the Triangle] was to literally unfold that [geographic space] or stretch it, up to the exhibition site in Pittsburgh. All the research that I was doing – and by research I mean that I was collecting huge amounts of text, whether they were factual and very scientific or whether they were stories of abductions and sightings, anything related to climate… it went from very factual to very emotional at points and in between. I extended that research through all that area up to Pittsburgh.

When I do these sorts of projects, I do a mapping of the entire room; it encircles the gallery space. I use reflective tape so when you walk around it, at points it glares, at points it turns sort of whitish, at points it gets darker – it fluctuates as you walk around the space. Then there is a combination of placards with information and there are a lot of quotes from press releases from airlines – like those stories of planes going down, then all of the sudden they stabilize and are back on track. [The piece] is nonlinear, except for the fact that the work in the space does move geographically from Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh. As you walk around reading, you find those references. There may be several stories or several narratives in there – third person, first person, second person; the narrator shifts as you read it. Then it has a combination of drawings and information taken from graphs and scientific illustrations, but I erase or delete the specific information and leave just the images. It ends up being like a mapping or timetable that you literally navigate through as you walk around the space.

JS: How do you decide what kinds of images and texts to pull? You say that these are things that you find – what makes you choose a particular thing and how do you place it in an installation like this?

NCL: Well, I try to include a very broad selection of texts, and different voices. Often the research that I do is very specific, where I search a specific word or phrase. By now I have all of those paranormal sites in my [internet browser] favorites, and the same thing with scientific information. I do search using specific wordings and then see what comes up and what seems interesting, absurd, emotional. I try to find a broad range of voices. It’s sort of arbitrary, but controlled.

JS: One of the things you talk about in your artist statement is this idea of mindscapes or this mapping not just being about geographical locations, but also about understanding how the mind makes connections and how it works. Part of how I understand the arrangement then has to do with that. Could you talk a little bit about how these artworks might be mindscapes?

NCL: It’s hard to talk about that just by looking at this one piece [Unfolding the Triangle]. In my work, I’m very interested in how we process information – that’s really what my work is about. I’m interested in the fact that we’re thinking so many things at once, listening, smelling… you’re driving, you’re listening to the radio, you’re talking to someone, and maybe the cell phone rings, you’re looking at the signage, but you’re looking at advertisement, someone honks, a smell reminds you of something in your childhood. It’s a constant shifting, not only of sensorial experiences, but also memory and future things that you need to do. I’m really fascinated by how we navigate that space, which often is both time and space at the same time.

JS: It’s really interesting that the example that you give is of driving. I find that particularly interesting because you also talk about this mapping impulse in your work coming from having travelled and from constantly travelling. I’m wondering how this idea of travelling or moving through this time/space is also having an impact on the brain in some way, and what that might be doing in terms of transforming thinking and connections?

NCL: As you say that I’m also thinking that I wonder if it’s the opposite? I wonder if it’s a way of placing myself somewhere – the opposite of being all around, but almost a need to…

JS: stabilize?

NCL: I’m wondering… [if I’m] creating a map without coordinates, but trying to figure out my own…

JS: You’ve just returned from the 3rd Poly/Graphic Triennial in San Juan, Puerto Rico. [4] Can you tell us about the work you did in the exhibit there and also what it was like to show work in that setting?

NCL: The Poly/Graphic Triennial, first of all, is an international conceptual printmaking exhibition. It used to be the San Juan Printmaking Biennial. Back then, decades ago, it mostly showed prints on paper. They revamped it ten years ago and it’s now an expanded printmaking exhibition. I was invited to do a site-specific text work on the façade of a building. The whole biennial is located in what used to be the old Spanish military arsenal, built in the 1500s and now used as exhibition space. They invited me to work on the façade of the chapel, one of the buildings in the old arsenal.

What I decided to do was to use found texts [that are] very specific to the island. Since the whole Central American/Columbian cartel drug issue has gone nuts, Puerto Rico has become a new route to bring drugs into the US. In the past three or four years, the violence and criminality [in Puerto Rico] has just skyrocketed. It’s a very specific political and social space right now. For the first time, people are afraid to go out, there are drive-by shootings, shootings on the street, from car to car – things we’ve never seen before, like things you hear [about] from other places. So I started researching and grabbing either headlines or quotes from people who were talking about something that was happening. But at the same time I was looking for instances that were odd or absurd or fantastic, or even unbelievable.

There’s a very specific popular humor to the way we deal with things there and I’ve always seen that as a coping mechanism. I started grabbing comments [from] people about those news [stories] – on Facebook et cetera – which were quite humorous at points, and started mixing and combining this collection of wild news. It ranges from a ninety-something-year-old lady who was running a drug cartel from her bed – she was running the cartel in her neighborhood – to a lot of paranormal stuff as well. There’s an iguana invasion on the island; from the seventies, people bought them as pets [from outside of the island] and released them, so of course forty years later, they’re huge and they’re all over the place.

Since the piece was on a chapel, I went for the doomsday idea, which is this year, 2012, and really played with that – the really horrible things that are happening, the wild things: there’s a monkey invasion in one of the towns – same reason [as the iguanas], you know… the plagues! [In the piece] there’s a lot of popular, common slang [and] a lot of quotes from songs – anything from reggaeton to classic salsa. It’s very site-specific in terms of its content. And I have to say, I love how people reacted to it.

JS: What was the reaction? And how was it situated relative to other work in the triennial?

NCL: It was on its own. No other work was outdoors near that area, so it’s not like people just went from [artwork to artwork]. There were works inside the chapel, but they were experienced separately. I was concerned because Revolú*tion is very political at points. I make fun of fundamentalism, religion in that sense, [and] doomsday. But people really appreciated it. It was received in the humorous way that I wanted. My intention was not to get there and criticize how things are. I mean, that’s sort of boring to me as an artist, plus it’s as if I knew better – that’s not my intention. But [my intention] was to provoke thought, and twist the situation or how people feel [about] what’s going on – in a way that we see and reflect on it, in a more imaginative way.

JS: You’ve presented then in San Juan, but also in Havana at the Biennial in 2009. [5] For our audience to hear a little more about this, what are these biennials and triennials like in general? What’s the atmosphere that you experience?

NCL: They’re really odd. [Laughter]

JS: I think this is why I’m asking…

NCL: They’re odd, at different levels. I’ve participated in them and I’ve also traveled to biennials as a viewer. I’ve been to the Venice Biennial a few times, just to see it. I recently came back from the Havana Biennial where I was helping another artist install her piece. They’re great in the sense that you’re connecting to other artists from all over the world – and you do. You end up with great… I don’t want to say friendships, but you continue to be in contact, whether it’s through Facebook or projects that you end up doing with them, or knowing about them. That’s one good thing.

But ultimately, I don’t know, it sometimes feels like art tourism, which is more related to art fairs. There is often too much of a disconnect between the art-tourist who travels to these things and the local audience and context. The audience you connect to is the local audience. That said, it’s great because you get a chance to show your work and have an exchange with a specific audience that otherwise you may have no connection to. As a viewer, it’s also great because you get a chance to see all these works that [are] being done all over the world.

There are other things that are problematic. The triennial in San Juan was not divided by countries, which I think is smart. But there’s some still where artists represent their countries – the Venice Biennial or the Havana Biennial, for example. But it’s really funny because you look at everyone’s resumes and they’re just like me: they’re born in one place, they live in one place… their parents are from two different countries. I mean, they’re artists who’ve represented different countries in different biennials! So ultimately I think that’s anachronistic.

JS: National identity isn’t very stable.

NCL: We’re so post-post-post- that it’s really odd. But that still goes on. It came from a time when biennials had a prize and they were competitions and the different countries chose the artists that were going to represent them…

JS: Like the Olympics?

NCL: Like the Olympics, exactly. That’s my point. But it’s not like that anymore [at biennials]. There are usually no prizes except, well, for the Venice Biennial, which is the oldest one, which was based on World’s Fairs. So [the biennial] does come from that, but we’ve gone beyond that. So the few that are still divided up by countries, they’re weird because…

JS: It seems strange to do that.

NCL: But that’s at a glance. [The biennial experience] has really great things even with some odd aspects.

JS: Telescoping away from this global art world, tell us a little more about what’s happening locally. In September you’re going to have a solo-show in Kalamazoo at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts at Western Michigan. What are you working on for that? I feel very lucky that we’re getting a preview.

NCL: We’re seeing my virtual maquette. Most of you probably know the [Richmond Center] space. Most of the walls except for the one on the far left will involve that type of mapping piece. It’ll be the third installment of that work. The first one was in Pittsburgh, the second one was in New York – the Bermuda Triangle piece which is called Unfolding the Triangle. [At the Richmond Center] I’m doing it based [in Kalamazoo] and I’m already finding out great things about Lake Michigan – weird things. On the far right [of the gallery], you’ll see a series of prints on aluminum, the text piece [ESCaperucita & Little Flying Hood] that I showed at the Havana Biennial. [6]

We’re creating a video room in the center, which will have an interactive video piece. I’ve been working recently with multiple screens and multiple projections and feedback with a video camera. You go into the space and your body becomes part [of the work], it activates all this crazy feedback going on and being projected. The projections show the reverberation of those screens, and you alter it even more as you move around. Two of the walls will have mirrors. That sort of doubling or tripling or reverberated state will go even further with the mirrors, infinite reverberations.

The top of the [built] room will have a labyrinth-type drawing that you can only see from the second floor windows. I’m thinking about that room as an interior space, interior in terms of the [enclosed] video room, but also interior in terms of just feeling in there. It’s purely sensorial; it’s more phenomenological than the rest of the show.

And then, the piece on the left [Comfortably Numb]: For years, I’ve been using found text, but I was never interested in finding images or using someone else’s image. This is the first time I’ve [done] this. I’ve been collecting printed matter, trimming them to four by six, and framing them. There was a moment when I started working on these that I felt… of course we’re being bombarded by all of these things – anything and everything. And this is very specific to news since I’ve been working a little bit with [news stories]. I was interested in the numbers. I started reading texts by sociologists, neurologists and psychologists, talking about our relationship to numbers and how our minds cannot understand numbers to a degree – and that’s a coping mechanism. By that I mean, we understand what it means for one person to die. We feel it, but when we hear that a hundred people die, we can’t really multiply that feeling by a hundred, nevertheless a hundred thousand, and of course if we did, we would totally kill ourselves. [So it’s] the same thing with everything that’s happening in the world. This [work] started as a way of me dealing with all these horrendous things that were [happening]… It goes back to the doomsday idea that I’ve been thinking about. How are we going to get out of this mess? At the same time, [I am] dealing with the fact that we’re so connected – connected to the point that when there’s a massacre somewhere in Nigeria, we know it right away because [a notification] blinks and we see it in our devices. We’re so aware of all of this and so connected with 900 friends on Facebook and everything that they’re thinking and hyperlinking. We’re hyper-connected, but we need to distance ourselves in order to deal with it all. There’s such an interesting way of processing that connection, which is at the same time [a] dislocation. That’s how [the piece] started.

JS: It seems like there’s a way that a work like this really beckons the viewer to come in closer and then step back and leave it because it’s almost… not intolerable, but hard to take in.

NCL: Right, right. The texts that I’ve included for the most part – what you are seeing was just a rough selection of it – but for the most part [the set of texts] points to numbers. I’ve been editing the news [stories] and exaggerating the numbers because ultimately it doesn’t matter – so some of them are quite exaggerated. [I have been] combining images from anything and everything. It’s very formal. you’re attracted to it at that level, the colors. There’s going to be 1500 of them so [the piece] covers a full wall and at some point it will start transitioning onto blurry images until it just disintegrates… next to the window. There is this zooming in and out that happens in that work that I think happens in some of my other works – particularly the large drawings on canvas, which you can see on my website if you’re interested. You see something different from afar, you may want to go in, but you’re constantly going back and forth or moving or navigating.

JS: That sounds great. We’ll all be excited to see your exhibit in September. In the couple minutes we have left, does anyone in our audience have any questions that they’d like to ask?

Taylor Stamm: It’s very specific to this piece, or the digital mockup that you have for this exhibition, but I noticed that the topographical lines line up between the video [box] and [the wall]. How do you organize that in the space?

NCL: Whenever I work with these installations, I always try to include some anamorphic element, usually some form that is viewed in correct perspective only from the entrance to the space, which is what happens [at the Richmond Center], where the lines connect using several walls. That’s part of the whole perceptual experience that I’m interested in – the fact that you may see something one way, but as you move it gets distorted. Ultimately, it’s about never knowing what’s true or what’s real anymore. In a way, [truth] is not even the point, but it’s just [about] experiencing it all. The lines are usually based on ocean depth maps in the Caribbean. Here it would also include part of Lake Michigan.

Megan Garn: For the Revolú*tion piece, was it pink?

NCL: The building was pink. It’s this colonial pink color that’s very typical to see [in San Juan]. My choice was using dark red letters. I didn’t want a reference to blood but I didn’t want a tomato-red either. It’s sort of a red-burgundy that went very well with the pink wall. By the way, the title: the word “revolú” is a Spanish slang word in the Caribbean. It means both a big mess and also a big party. It has that double meaning, which then I inserted into the [word] revolution.

Notes:

[1] Terry Smith, “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” Critical Inquiry 32 (Summer 2006): 707.

[2] Smith, 694.

[3] The exhibition opens in the Albertine Monroe-Brown Gallery of the Richmond Center for the Visual Arts, September 6 – October 5, 2012. For more details, see: Gwen Frostic School of Art, “Nayda Collazo-Llorens: An Exercise in Numbness and Other Tales,” Gwen Frostic School of Art, Western Michigan University, http://www.wmich.edu/art/exhibitions/galleries/archive/2012_nayda_collazo_llorens.php. Date of access: 22 May 2012.

[4] For more on the triennial, see: Biennial Foundation, “San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial (Puerto Rico),” 2012, Biennial Foundation, http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/san-juan-polygraphic-triennial/. Date of access: 22 May 2012. Marilú Purcell Villafañe, “Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan: El Panal/The Hive,” Edición Actual | Trienal Poli/grafica de San Juan: América Latina y el Caribe, April 2012, http://www.trienalsanjuan.org/historia/tercera-edicion2012/. Date of access: 22 May 2012.

[5] For more information on the Havana biennial, see: Nelson Herrera Ysla, “Historia: Años Intensos en Pocas Palabras,” Eleventh Havana Biennial – Art Practices and Social Imaginaries – From May 11 to June 11, 2012, http://www.bienalhabana.cult.cu/?secc=historia. Date of access: 22 May 2012.

[6] Originally, ESCaperucita & Little Flying Hood (2009) was a multiple consisting of 26 pigmented archival prints on Magnani Pescia paper in an engraved anodized aluminum box. The artist has remade the piece on aluminum for the 2012 exhibition. See: Nayda Collazo-Llorens, “ESCaperucita & Little Flying Hood,” Nayda Collazo-Llorens, http://www.naydacollazollorens.com/paperescmultiple.htm. Date of access: 22 May, 2012.

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