Remote studio dates is a series of conversations with artists, curators and researchers to document and explore coping mechanisms for isolation in the current health crisis. Each date focuses on one work, project, concept or dream, with digressions and slippages, without the need of ending somewhere but with the desire of opening something up.
Emanuel and I met in 2019 at the University of Melbourne where we are both completing a PhD. Together with a group of fellow researchers we were the inaugural members of the Graduate Academy of the Centre of Visual Arts (CoVA) – an initiative that aims to connect graduate researchers from the fine art and art history/curatorship departments of the Faculty of Arts, to generate cross-disciplinary projects. A few months ago, Emanuel relocated to Costa Rica, his home country, to finalise his thesis and spend some time with his family, when COVID-19 hit the world forcing him to revise his priorities and thinking around art. In the conversation below we touched upon Costa Rican (hi)stories and politics, virtual entrepreneurship, creative learning and the critical correlation between images and ideology.
M: Ciao Emanuel, thank you for joining this chat! I think we have to begin from the inescapable question. How is Costa Rica dealing with the pandemic?
E: Hola Miriam, thanks for inviting me to participate. Initially, Costa Rica was dealing with the pandemic in a good way. The government, through the Health Ministry, established lockdown measures in March. Some of the systems they enabled had to do with the shutting down of particular types of businesses, like shopping centres and tourist attractions such as beaches. Things started to look relatively fine. The death toll was minimal, and the positive cases per day were manageable. Then a second wave hit the country and the Central American region a couple of weeks ago, just as the government started to loosen the lockdown due to pressure from the business sector. Costa Rica is being hit by COVID-19 from multiple sides.
On the one hand, our health system is quite forward-looking and socially driven since its creation. Nevertheless, its reach and resources have been diminished by privatisation and capitalist motivations. The Health Ministry prepared for the pandemic with its tight budget and borrowing from other public institutions, which went well. Another thing is that one of the country’s main economic generators is tourism, many people work or used to work in this sector. Of course, the pandemic with the closing of the borders brought terrible consequences. In the beginning, big names in the hotel business and the broader tourism industry kept their employees. After some time, when we couldn’t see a clear resolution for the pandemic, the catastrophe arrived, as it has in many places. Another big issue that the institutions and the whole country have dealt with is that Costa Rica is situated in the middle of two countries that have been profoundly affected by the pandemic: Nicaragua and Panama. Costa Rica relies importantly on Nicaraguan land workers, for the pineapple industry, coffee crops and various other produce. The president of Nicaragua (called by some, a dictator) Daniel Ortega kept a backward-looking attitude towards the global pandemic. Nicaragua is a poor country, many migrants come to Costa Rica to work as cheap labour, under inhumane circumstances. One of the most significant issues with this intricacy is not only the diaspora of the Nicaraguan people under bleak conditions, due to Ortega’s irresponsible approach towards the situation, many migrants have now tried to cross the border, which is closed and guarded by the Costa Rican police. Because there is not a fast and modern transportation infrastructure between the Central American countries, most of the transport of goods is still carried by trucks. This matter became a burden on the country’s logistics in the fight against the pandemic. Many of the Central American truck drivers tested positive to the virus when entering Costa Rica, making the whole scenario a political one as well as a sanitary and humanitarian one.
There are many tragedies taking place, but I think that the worst of all is inequality. The same disparity we knew of before is now being shown more dramatically and affecting more people.
I am currently living with my parents in a small town in the province of Alajuela. Even before the pandemic, unemployment was an issue, but now with the virus forcing many people to stay home, the outcome is brutal. Following the long history of politics and corruption in Latin America, one is scared of where this could lead to in terms of enhanced inequality, privatisation of resources, precariousness of the workforce and so forth.
I am sorry, I always diverge to the political side of things…
M: It is impossible to avoid a political angle when talking about the current global scenario. I believe that any government would be challenged – and in fact is! – trying to make the right decisions to contain what is going on. However, the saddest aspect of the situation is that whilst the virus itself does not discriminate, society still does. As you have noted, the pandemic is revealing itself as not only a health crisis but one of classes as well, with the most vulnerable people being more harshly affected by it. Speaking specifically about art, have social restrictions and the changes in communication, working and planning affected your practice?
E: Indeed, they have affected me. As you know, I was finalising my PhD in visual arts, at the Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne. I thought it was a good idea to come back to Costa Rica at the end of December, last year. I was exhausted and wanted to see my family after almost three years of being in Melbourne. Well, I wasn’t expecting a pandemic (as nobody was), so it hit me in the middle of my final writing stream. This caused a series of mental health issues and financial hardship I am still dealing with.
M: What are you working on at the moment? I saw from Instagram that you are exploring options to develop your own business/entrepreneurial activity. Is this correct? Can you tell me more?
E: I am in the process of starting virtual entrepreneurship to be able to sustain my practice and help my family in the case this situation lasts too long. I am about to launch a series of online discussions/lectures about images, ideology and interpretation.
I am looking forward to the online discussions, though I am not sure if people are going to be interested. The topics will touch crucial aspects of how we use images today. How images are used in contexts of political conflict, for example. I believe these are essential prospects for study, especially in today’s media/political panorama where we are confronted with so much information that is difficult to understand and even to grapple with. So the idea is that I present an initial statement, a sort of mini-lecture standpoint, images will accompany this statement. Then I will try to open up the discussion, hopefully creating a conflict. I will provide a bibliography for each workshop for participants to consider before, during and after the sessions.
I also thought of giving painting workshops as my practice heavily deals with painting. Though I guess that the time we currently live is demanding from us a more radical change; it is pushing us to pose crucial questions regarding social and economic issues, the climate emergency, wars, and how urgent a human response to all of this is. This is why I decided to embark on this project. The sessions will be ticketed and I will try to set up prices that are friendly to a majority of people. I will also give away a couple of free tickets to people whose financial situation limits their attendance but are interested in participating.
M: This sounds like a wonderful project! You can count me in as a participant. I can relate to the point of re-thinking your practice in light of the current events. I am doing the same, and I believe a lot of us are questioning the trajectory of their own work, following the effects of the health crisis on the way we live and function with it. Have you read this recent article by The Art Newspaper, addressing a survey conducted by Strait Times on the most useful jobs during the pandemic? Artists ranked a pole position for the “most non-essential workers,” a result that generated quite a backlash on social media. What is your take on this subject? Do you think art is (or should be) useful today?
E: Art – as anyone who has ever questioned the role of art in society knows – is difficult to define. Or it could also be very simple (I am speaking in terms of extremes, I know, but there is a huge spectrum in between). What I mean is that art has been broadly presented as a commodity, as a product to be bought. While you are paying for an artwork, you are also investing in an artist’s talent – which I think is a fallacy. When you spend a certain amount of time working in the arts sector, you realise that much of the inner workings of the sector have to do with networking, that is speaking to the ‘right’ people at the ‘right’ time – a rhetoric we all know. Nevertheless, there are amazing artists and artist’s projects coming along the big ‘marketing lie’ that surrounds the artworld.
I believe that art should be an essential part of general education. Since the first day of kindergarten, even before, when you face your local/house/family environment. For example, since I was born in a semi urban landscape, close to the countryside (it was more like a place in between a small town and farms) I was able to play with my many cousins and get in touch with a lot of different materials, elements and textures from inside the bush, along the rivers and with the animals. I remember us wandering and playing around wearing only undies, when we were five or so, covered in dust, sweat and immersed in the smell of mandarins. This was a great way to learn from the environment.
When we were entering the teenage years we wanted to make music, something that no one in the family had done before, but we didn’t have money for guitars or any other instruments. So, we took the guitar belonging to one of my cousins and used some other drum-like structures to make our own rhythm, or what we thought rhythm was. We would record these tunes and mix them with other sounds in one of those cassette tape recorders. We would also build structures, tree-houses, we would hide on the side of the roads and make weird sounds to scare the passersby. This was much better than going to school to learn to add and subtract. Further down the road in school, we were then taught to ideologically adjust to globalisation, to become telemarketers and to give away land for a small amount of money, so that corporations could establish their factories and we could work for cheap salaries as nobody would invest in a poor Central American country.
This rant was to give you an example of how much art is needed in our education system, and how important it is. Why? Because art has the potential to expand one’s ideas. Creative learning – that is what I would call art – gives you the chance to explore multiple problems from various perspectives. I hate for example (and this is a recent thing I experienced while helping one of my nieces) when children are asked to paint or colour following the lines of a figure, and that many parents want them to perfectly fill in the empty areas. Drawing should also be used to explore our most abstract thoughts, without the need to make merely beautiful images. Creative learning should be a mandatory aspect of education and not relegated to precariousness as it is now. Art is not only the entertainment that the public consumes – that is partially true, of course. However, art is also the chance to think of different futures, of being able to change ourselves, to be versatile and to understand that we can make mistakes as well, while we learn.
M: Thank you for sharing these vivid memories from your childhood. Your observation on the potential of art to envision alternative futures – besides the marketing function it often performs – brings me back to your previous point on images and their possible political role. I have come across a stimulating perspective by New York based curator Kevin Moore that frames photographs as the monuments of our online visual culture, wondering which ones will ultimately survive in the social imagination. Are you thinking in the same lines when you stress the need for a more in-depth analysis of images?
E: I think that an excellent way to begin answering your question is to quote what North American artist Kara Walker said in a recent press briefing: “[…] what the Confederate debate and removal of statues from places like New Orleans has done is not just reignite the debate but has unearthed the racism and cruelties that have lived quietly under the surface for some time.” I think this claim can be applied to the Australian, the Costa Rican (more widely, Latin American) and the United States’ contexts – globally, so to speak.
This is an essential topic of discussion today, and the reason why I decided to develop a workshop about images and ideology rather than painting techniques. The question of whether an image or monument – be it digital, physical or imagined – will survive in the social imaginary is what interests us here. So, let’s start with the question ‘what is a monument?’ I would argue that a monument is an idea of an image that can be based on factual events or fiction, or on a mix of both. Let’s take the example of the Iwo Jima monument, which in turn was based on a staged photograph. The photographer created the scene of the soldiers raising the US flag after the battle of Iwo Jima, meaning the conquering of the mount from the Japanese army. Therefore, you see that this idea/image of the soldiers raising the flag could have been real. Nevertheless, nobody captured it. If you follow the story of this picture, you’ll see that of the original soldiers involved in raising the first flag (which was smaller, by the way), only two were present in the re-staging of the second flag.
Can you see how fact and fiction intermingle? This discussion connects to a complex question that I raise in my PhD, in a section titled ‘A Scrambled Definition of the Image’ where I ask: ‘is it possible to define or deconstruct the meaning of an image without taking into account its ideological producer?’ – but let me get back to the point of your initial inquiry, I think I diverged. Framing the digital platforms and the images we see is complicated. For example, when I was researching and writing my thesis, I read several authors and philosophers speaking about the double condition of images. American scholar W. J. T. Mitchell argues that images “have power and are powerless at the same time.” A common example can be political demonstration. When I attend a protest with a sign on the street, at the end of the day, the sign isn’t going to change anything, the actions, however, might do.
You then see images such as the video of the murder of George Floyd. You realise that, perhaps, this image indeed summoned a movement of thousands of people around the world. More specifically, the question is, was it the image of this event that motivated the uprising of such a great movement? Was it the disgust and anger of people for these kinds of behaviours still happening today? Was it the image itself, was it a mix of both? For how simple this question might sound, it is essential to ask it. Acts of this kind happen every day around the world. Many of them don’t have a large media coverage or they don’t have coverage at all. This is the type of quandary that images pose!
M: Since you have mentioned your PhD – which you have recently submitted: what is coming next? Are you considering to progress further with the academic career or to focus on your studio practice?
E: Yes, I submitted a couple of weeks ago. Your question is a tough one; I have been asking it to myself for a long time, even before the pandemic. I love to conduct research and I still need to learn a lot. Of course, I suppose I will always learn new things. I have applied to several fellowship positions overseas and a couple of well-known artist residencies. I don’t want to say too much about these applications, because as the Costa Rican saying goes ‘if you say too much before it actually happens, then it doesn’t happen at all.’ So, I will leave this information cooking for a while.
There were a couple of group shows here in Costa Rica I was going to participate in, but now they are no longer happening. I haven’t had an actual studio for around seven months, so, as you can imagine, I am craving for it. Though the uncertainty of the moment is not encouraging me to find a new studio. That is why I am trying to adapt my practice to a more conceptual and pragmatic approach.
Emanuel Rodríguez Chaves is a visual artist and researcher. Born in Costa Rica in 1986. He studied Fine Arts at the University of Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica from 2005-2012, and at the Kunsthochschule Weissensee, Berlin KhB, under the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) from 2013-2015. He is finalising a PhD at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, under the supervision of Sanja Pahoki. Where he was a recipient of a Melbourne Research Scholarship. His research examines the role that memory and narrative play within discourses of conflict and the construction of histories. Specifically, how contemporary art establishes and negotiates relationships between philosophical aspects around the manipulation of images and socio-political imaginaries (the values, systems and symbols common to a particular social group) to construct new narratives.
You can register for Emanuel’s workshop ‘Image and Ideology Today’ here