Interview with Carolina Caycedo
Interviewed by Shawnacy Kiker Perez, 2019
CHARGE MAGAZINE: Hi, Carolina, thanks so much for taking the time to talk! I’m thoroughly captivated by your work, and excited to get into it with you. By way if introduction, and for those who might not already be familiar, you were born in London, to Columbian parents, and you got your BFA from Los Andes University in Bogotá. You are currently based in Los Angeles, but a great deal of your work touches on themes of dispossession and environmentalism, and draws attention to native and indigenous populations. Your work is often called “challenging,” and “provocative.” Do you consider yourself an activist in this capacity? What is the relationship, do you feel, between art and activism?
CAROLINA CAYCEDO: As an artist, I do participate in different struggles, but I don’t consider myself an activist. In my country, in Colombia, activists get killed. So, no, I’m not an activist. Plus, I do want to claim that identity as an artist. It takes time to be respected and seen as a person of color, as a woman, in a mostly white male predominant circuit, that is the art industry. And, that said, I do think that as an artist, or any other discipline or practice you have in life, you can be a doctor, a lawyer, a taxi driver, a designer, a mother, any labor you do, you can be part of activist processes, of struggle processes. So, as an artist, I produce images that support voices and struggles of people who are being displaced and dispossessed by extractavist processes. In this sense, I think my work has the potential to challenge images and visual texts that are constructed to support the current status quo, call it capitalism, neoliberalism, or extractivism; which keeps expanding colonial structures, and is far from a fair one with neither the more vulnerable humans, nor with what we call nature at large.
CM: Let’s jump into some of those works. You have a long-running legacy project or series that you’ve been working on called Be Dammed, in which, according to LACMA, you explore, “the power dynamics associated with the corporatization and decimation of water resources.” Can you talk a bit about what was the impetus for this project?
CC: Be Damned started in 2012, looking at different case studies of hydroelectric dams constructed in Colombia.I started because the first dam that I studied was impacting the river I grew close to, the Magdalena river, or the Yuma River, which is the non-colonizer name. So, it touched, you know, personal history, and that was the impetus for this project. I actually knew the river, lived close by, my dad was a farmer so it was part of the family economy for a while. And that got me involved.
CM: That’s a very intimate and personal connection you have, then, to this issue. Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery hosted an exhibition titled “Between Bodies” that features two projects of yours, which fall under the Be Dammed series. The first is called A Gente Rio [We River] which, according to the Henry website, is, “a collection of stories about displacement and resistance among riverside communities affected by dam construction projects in Brazil and Paraguay.” I’m interested in how this project came together. And what was most impactful to you in curating these stories?
CC: A Gente Rio, which was on view at the Henry, was the product of research combined with fieldwork. So, all the interviews I did myself, by visiting those places, and meeting different people affected by hydroelectric and mine-tailing dams in Brazil. I was able to visit and enter in contact with some of those people because of my involvement with the Rios Vivos, an anti-damn movement in Colombia, who then put me in touch with the movement of people affected by dams in Brazil (Movimento de Atingidos por Barragens; MAB). So, that’s how this project came together. It was commissioned by the São Paulo Biennial. And, it was the first time I actually studied a case of a mine tailing dam. So far I had only seen hydroelectric projects, but I got the invitation to work in Brazil, few months after, at that point, that the most terrible environmental crime in the history of Brazil , it was the breaking of the Fundão mine-tailing dam, that killed twenty-two people. Unfortunately, in late January of this year, another dam broke, even with more fatal consequences. Approximately three hundred people died in the breaking of the Brumadinho dam. So, that project was a product of fieldwork and site visits and actual relationships with people affected by those cases. The most impactuful was to realize that all the dams I had the chance to study, the Itaipu and the Belo-Monte hydrodams, and the Fundão mine-tailing dam in Minas Gerais, are part of the mining-energetic model that was established during the dictatorial period in Brazil, regardless of its construction period. We could argue that the mining-energy model, not only in Brazil but also in the rest of the Americas, is a dictatorial one in the sense that it's built on the basis of violating economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of the communities where these infrastructures are established (mostly indigenous, rural, afro-descendants), on top of nature's rights, that is.
CM: A second contribution of yours to the “Between Bodies” exhibit, is a moving textile installation you called “Water Portraits.” In your artists statement you asked viewers think of “bodies of water as living entities, and as active political agents in environmental conflicts.” I’d love to dig a little deeper into this idea. By calling them “portraits” you ask the viewer to think of water in a way that we would normally be accustomed to thinking of a person; that is, as subject rather than object. To view a portrait is to look deeply into a person, to try to find in the image something intimate and true about the subject. Though there is the artistic tradition of the Still Life, which captures inanimate objects in paint or photograph, we don’t tend to look at a still life of, say, a piece of fruit, a pear for instance, as a “portrait” of that particular, individual pear. We don’t necessarily look at an artistic rendering of a pomegranate, or a pond and wonder about its personality, about the particularities of its life and spirit. Your work, however, disrupts those familiar ways of thinking and offers the possibility of a new paradigm. Can you talk a bit about why it is important for you that people to think of water and the natural world in this way?
Additionally, does thinking of water and other natural elements in this way – a way that is perhaps more indigenous, and has been disrupted by industrialization / commercialization etc. – come naturally to you, or is this something you yourself have had to cultivate? If so, what are some ways you have cultivated this idea in yourself, and do you have any thoughts or suggestions to help other people become familiar with experiencing the world in this way?
CC: The Water Portraits and the train of insistence on this labeling of portrait versus landscape has to do with decolonizing the gaze, and understanding how as art practitioners we have been solidifying colonial interpretations of nature by offering universal perspectives over nature, insisting in this format of landscape which actually, puts the viewer, the human gaze, outside of nature. So, the landscape is a window through which you look at nature, right? But you’re not within nature, you’re outside, you’re an observer. So, you’re detached from what you’re looking at. And, this division between nature and culture can be understood through this landscape format. Right? However, by spending time with communities in resistance to dams, mostly rural communities, I’ve started to understand that the rivers, the forests, the stones, are actually extensions of ourselves. Or, we could be extensions of those ecosystems too, and that we’re actually not removed from the set of relationships that build an ecosystem. We’re actually totally embedded in them, and that’s why I wanted to portray the rivers, because I think that they are not just a natural resource, but they are a common good. And they are a political agent. That means that they have agency. They can change the course of events in many ways. Of course, that’s not the same as the human agency. It’s probably something that surpasses us, and probably we will never totally understand that kind of non-human agency. So, to insist on this format of portrait, to relate to natural entities, is a way of unlearning formats and given tropes, visual tropes that we were instructed in Western academy, and to start adopting and getting closer to non-western epistemologies, and perspectives, so instead of a universal perspective to be more interested in pluriversal perspectives. The visuals of the water portraits are more psychedelic, if you want to call it that way, the patterns that you find in the water portraits, respond to this pluriversality that I’m interested in, and that I’m trying to pursue by unlearning these kind of more restrictive formats, like landscape, or still life, could be.
CM: I’ve heard the work of pursuing this more pluriversal perspective described as “ontological flooding,” where we do the opposite of phenomenologically bracketing off one thing/species/idea/perspective from others, and instead sort of flood the fields with a larger set of possibilities about the nature of the world and of ourselves and other beings in it. This talk of flooding brings us to another water-centric work of yours. The Serpent River Book [Río de todos río de nadie] which was displayed last year (2018) at LACMA. This "72-page accordion-fold artist book, […] combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, and satellite photos with Carolina’s own images and texts on river biocultural diversity. The book is bound, and conforms loosely to the structure of three consecutive “chapters”: looking at The River from an indigenous understanding, from the point of view of personal human relationships with rivers, and finally looking more at corporate, industrial, and colonial interactions with rivers and waterways. For me, the bound nature of the book, the fact that it is, in fact a book, underscores the ways that water and waterways bind us together in such a fundamental way on this planet. The book also emerges from its binding (flooding the room), and through a series of origami-like foldings, takes the shape of a serpentine river; a shape which, if I understand correctly, replicates the footprint of the Berlin Wall, bringing to light in a concrete, but subtle way, the idea of boundaries. Natural boundaries, as rivers and waterways have always been, nurture those on both sides and bring people together; while unnatural, imposed boundaries separate and divide. Can you talk a bit about the experience of installing and watching people interact with the book in the museum space? Did it seem to divide or unite people? What were the ways you saw the book behaving like a river, and in what ways was it different?
CC: The Serpent River Book is a book that has many functions. So, in the museum, actually people don’t interact much more that in an observational way, precisely because of museum protocols. However, we have activated the book in museum settings, with Marina Magalhaes, who also collaborated on the Apparitions video. So, our first collaboration was actually thinking how to activate the Serpent River Book. How to use it as a score for different gestures and choreographies and movements across museum campuses, such as LACMA. The Serpent River Book is a book that allows different narratives to be embedded in it. So, I provide a container of sorts for different narratives, or, a set of images and texts that can be used in different ways. It can be used in a more traditional way, or sculptural way, where we install it over a designed table that meanders like a river, in this case the viewer is invited to contemplate the book,. We have also hosted workshops with the book, using it as a starting point to develop different kinds of actions and exercises, relating the body to the book. I have also workshopped with different communities that are included in the book, actually and those communities have copies of the book and they have been using them as a way to tell their story, to start, for example, a day of meetings by reading one of the texts. I always thought about the book as a way to give back to those friends who have given me so much. So it’s also a way of putting together all the information that I’ve been gathering, the visual and textual information, but without closing the project. I wanted to make a book that allowed the project to kind of shoot in different directions. So far the book is still giving two years after its production.
CM: I love that idea! I’m finding myself wondering what would happen if we thought about books in general more in this open sense of rivers that live and grow and change and ex-change, rather than as lifeless objects that are finished and closed. Let’s talk briefly about your show “Rituals of Labor and Engagement” and “Apariciones/Aparitions,” which was recently in occurrence at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. This piece, which was presented in collaboration with Mario Ybarra Jr, has been called, rather than an installation, an “intervention.” Apariciones fills the Huntington Library – a monument to anglo-centric western European wealth and power – with the bodies, words, movements and memories of the people and people groups whose exploitation was the foundation for such opulence. In your installation/intervention where women of color move in specific ways through the carefully tended deeply colonial spaces of the library, you asked the question, “What if the past rebels?” What happens, this occurrence asks, if the past does not remain quietly within the narrative in which it is placed? What if it rises, and troubles the waters of today? Do you feel like that is something that is happening culturally today? Do you feel like we are more at liberty to question the historical narratives as they are handed to us?
CC: Actually, Apparitions is not a collaboration with Mario Ybarra. Rituals of Labor and Engagement is a two-person exhibition, with Mario, but we didn’t collaborate in producing any pieces. Apparitions is the film I did for this commission. We shot it at the Huntington, choreographed by Marina Magalhães, with whom I’ve been working with since 2017, she’s also based here in LA. The intention of the film was to inhabit different spaces in the Huntington Library gardens and art galleries in ways that normally bodies do not inhabit them. So, in ritualistic ways, in sensual ways, and in ways where we kind of vesseled, or held space, for different bodies of color and queer bodies, but also projected into the past so channeling bodies of color that built that place up, and also projected into the future. There was an intention of always looking back through the camera lens as a way to hold accountable the audience, and also as a way to avoid being tokenized or exoticized by the viewer.
CM: I find these images and their palimpsest of meaning very moving and exciting. What most excites you at the moment?
CC: I’m excited about a book I’m reading and it’s by a female Haitian writer. Her name is Edwidge Danticat, and it’s a book called Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. I picked the book up at an amazing bookstore in Little Haiti, in Miami. It’s a great bookstore and cultural hub that’s been running in the neighborhood of Little Haiti, for three decades. It’s called Libreri Mapou. I really recommend you visiting it if you go to Miami. Online you can find it as mapoubooks.com. As an immigrant artists I was captured by the title, and it really has shifted my perspective about how I’m producing, what I’m producing. At some point she writes about her feeling that she didn't have the right to talk about what was going in her home country of Haiti, as a person who lived in Miami. And when she expressed this discomfort to another artist a bit older than her, they responded that an immigrant, or a person who lives in the diaspora, has their feet planted in both places. And for me, this was really very strong to read, and it resonated a lot with how I feel at the moment, with one foot planted in Los Angeles and one foot planted in Colombia. One in the United States, and one in Colombia. And it made me understand that I do have the right to speak and produce work about both places. Whereas before I felt that perhaps, even if I was already doing the work, I was insecure and feeling discomfort and maybe responding too much to critics who said, “Well, what can you say if you aren’t even here?” in the case of Colombia. Or, comments of people who are local from Southern California, kind of complaining about people who arrive in the city, newcomers. So, to be able to see my own situation from this perspective just gives me a lot of strength, and opens a lot of possibilities for me to think that I have one foot in Southern California and one in Colombia. I love it.
CM: That is an incredibly empowering way to view the difficulty of a diasporic existence; not as being unqualified in either space, but as being dually qualified, and uniquely positioned. Let us know how people can best support you and your work.
CC: You can support my work by donating to or volunteering with any environmental justice organization in your locale. Just go for that. Getting involved. Any minimum involvement or organizing is already a huge step. So, please do that. Watch out for upcoming shows here in the US, including a solo show at the Orange County Museum, which opens the 20th of September, and the Chicago Architecture Biennial in September too. Apparitions, is currently on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum in East LA College. And, for those in neighboring Vancouver, I’ll be part of an exhibition called Spill, that opens at the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver in mid October. See you there!