Experimental Communities, Mapa Teatro (Bogotá, 2001-2005)

By David Gutiérrez Castañeda (Mexico City)

The artist and ethnographer maintain, from the beginning, different viewpoints and positions in relation to the same object or, in this case, the same subjects. In general, a social scientist arrives with hypotheses that will be the object of verification; the artist, above all, has intuitions that allow or do not allow him to make visible objects, practices, images, stories. Although this opposition might seem a bit reductive today due to the transversal optic that both artists and social researchers now apply in their work, it is interesting to observe that the end point or destination of a project like this would not have been the same from the perspective of a “pure” social researcher.

-Rolf Abderhalden. The Artist as Witness (2006).

More or less for one hour, viewers encounter various screens, sound, projectors, a male voiceover narrates a series of events, while a woman, Juana Ramirez, makes arepas cundiboyacenses at the front of the scene on a gas grill. For an hour, projectors and screens moved by performers create a dance on the theatrical space as they are composing sound and auditory images. The light appears and disappears at the discretion of the unfolding of the narrative and the choreographic composition. The projected and heard are what make up the archive that Mapa Teatro accumulated during 5 years of work, from 2001 to 2005, with 12 residents of the neglected neighborhood of Santa Ines in central Bogotá while it was destroyed in order to build a public park designed with the expectation of future. Planners and politicians called it Third Millennium Park. In discussion with documentary theater, as José Sánchez[1] has called the work of the Laboratory of Colombian artists, Mapa Teatro composes a series of traces of a decrepit life that was eradicated gradually from existence and location thanks to urban policies, engineering and planning. They provide images to give poetic density to memory. To witness the lives of certain people who do not fit in the socio-spatial organization and administration of central Bogotá. This is, Witness to the Ruins (2005-2011).

A work that narrates for the viewers the sui generis participation of the Laboratory in the projects of memory that since the second administration of Mayor Antanas Mockus (2001-2003) were performed in Santa Inés before its inevitable destruction. A play about a community act, the artists acted as witnesses while working in the fragility of this community.

Why is the development of the processes of artistic creation a part of the public administration and political memory? Perhaps, what affects artistic practice in the development of the spatial policy of the city and the effect on its inhabitants? What do artists create through social intervention projects?

Under the direction of Ileana Dieguez, the work of Heidi and Rolf Abderhalden, directors of Mapa Teatro Laboratorio de Artistas, configure an experimental territory of artistic creation, one that is liminal.[2] They inhabit the ambiguity of thresholds. Long before the preoccupation with the theatrical form of theater, i.e. the dramatic text as cornerstone of the emergence of the event, or the interpretive virtuosity of the actor to be a character, or of the separation of the spectators by the invisible fourth wall, Dieguez considers that Mapa Teatro experiments with a theatricality that puts a halt to qualifiers, adjectives, categories and assumed mechanisms of classification of what is meant by art and the limits of interference. Heidi and Rolf Abderhalden have constructed a theatricality[3] that does not enter into dispute with the visual arts, editorial processes, dance, architecture, sculpture, literature, among other forms of creation. Each creative process, each trigger, is either by invitation or by necessity of the artists, brings into play a series of knowledge and images (textual, visual, auditory, haptic) that are articulated in work dynamics that result in various formats. A book, an installation, a film, a sound recording, a stage event (in the theater, the street, a house, a restaurant while spectators dine, etc.), a website, amongst many other multiple possibilities, are the medium of theatrical scenes. Always considering the composition in terms of spacetime-story and the relationship between the configuration of the situation and the acting, Mapa Teatro makes something happen to us.

The stories of Mapa Teatro, and the performers of their events, emerge from the understanding of a specific life situation. They immerse themselves in understanding the dynamism of certain lives in as profound a way as possible (garbage recyclers, paramilitaries in a village in the Colombian Pacific, the guerillas, drug traffickers, transgendered people, for example). This is more than the strict following of a dramatic text as a prelude. In this regard, the narrative is configured as a patchwork quilt that composes a certain emergence of life to which the poetic density is preparing the scene. That is why in many cases, it is not actors who interpret a role prescribed by an author. But can be Inmates, neighborhood residents, musicians, that due to the presence of these natural actors[4] provide certain grounding about the story that is being experienced on stage. This provides a certain verisimilitude for the viewer. These performers do everything necessary, except act. Juana Ramirez had a business selling arepas (flatbreads made of ground maize dough or cooked flour) in Santa Inés before being evicted, for example. Even if negotiated, is constructed and the presence of the performers are made, they are not there as others. They are there as themselves. The stories of their lives are poetically condensed in the manner in which they are present.

This entire method of working has been called Laboratory of the Social Imaginary[5] from the interdisciplinary work with the inhabitants of Usaquén and the neighborhood of Santa Inés, with academics, and with public administrators of Bogotá since 2001. These projects take inhabiting the city as an axis for research. More than a play or specific project, the laboratory is presented in this case as a transversal program and emblematic of the poetics of Mapa Teatro, which resulted in a series of 5 works during a period of 5 years, culminating in the end in Witness to the Ruins. These projects took shape as working circumstances, incitements, themes, and relationships with people living in specific situations for the production of artistic events, publications, documentaries and installations. The Laboratory is understood as the dynamics of artistic experimentation of certain social lives. Recalling Horacio(1993),[6] the process of creation is realized with Experimental Communities:[7] a conjunction of a series of activities among persons in which a significant experience occurs and shapes various materials which then becomes the components of art projects. Or possibly, work long term with natural acting for the construction of its scenic presences.

Resulting from the invitation of mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus, Mapa Teatro joins the program C’undua: Pact for Life. The project was emerged out of the concern from the Mockus administration due to the high levels of violence in Bogota in the late 90s. From this point of departure, and for almost 3 years, from 2001 to 2003, they work closely with the social institutions of Bogota state and within the dynamics of the program Civic Culture,[8] an approach initiated by the Mockus administration. This approach maintained that, through cultural processes, inhabitants of the city question and embody the values of civic life. Mapa Teatro’s work was to identify, promote and compose images of certain contemporary economic situations in parallel with state interventions and ethnographic research through art workshops. In the first instance, they began to work with the community of Usaquén, largely made up of those living in areas of quarries. Afterwards, the second phase included the residents of Barrio Santa Inés, known as “El Cartucho” (the Cartridge), a homeless zone in downtown Bogota. This sector was destroyed to build the Tercermilenio Park. Read, photograph, write, shoot, narrate, exercise, were just some of the activities promoted by Mapa Teatro. With these materials several artistic works were composed: Memory Books,The house on the Street, Photographic Stories, Prometheus First and Second Act andRe-moved. All these initiatives were staged in public spaces. From 2004, distancing themselves from the public administration, Mapa Teatro began working with the community of Santa Inés, continuing to document the destruction of the neighborhood and the construction of the Park, and develops the projects The Cleaning of the Augean stables and Witness to the Ruins. Mapa Teatro with the academics Fabio Zambrano, Rocío Londoño and Adriana Urrea, among others, took charge of cultural projects in the city. This work was supported by the United Nations Program for Development UNDP, who had financed the project C’undua: Pact for Life. An experimental and interdisciplinary program, including anthropology, history and art, the work takes into account memory and mourning in zones of crisis in the city. The project aims to generate, through the method of reverberation that myths and stories promote, an occupation by citizens in public space. Usquén quarries north of Bogotá were the first zone. Through workshops, the inhabitants built photographic stories. The Memory books created by older adults, The House on the Street as signs of objects, situations and spaces that coexist were arranged at bus stops in the city, Visual Stories were projected in the Plaza de Bolívar on the Courthouse in downtown Bogotá in December 2001.

During the decade of 1930 the prestigious streets of the Santa Inés and the San Victorino neighborhoods in central Bogotá had the most illustrious and burgeoning commercial bourgeoisie of Colombia. Since then it has been a long desired area. Close to centers of economic power and political development, the Santa Inés neighborhood retained several of the most relevant urban aspects of modernity: marketplaces, intercity transport routes, first commercial plazas, major railways, and some of the most advanced buildings in architectural development. Santa Inés was elegant. Migrant farmers came and settled in the surrounding neighborhoods, they yearned to be near it. The main products of trade were acquired in the plazas and centers. Foreign guests walked through the streets contemplating the energy of a small town that outstripped the dawning of the project of the nation. As it happens, the city grew. The northern part of the city promised new enclaves of urbanization and the bourgeoisie took them. San Victorino became a commercial zone, Santa Inés, betrayed, gradually was dispossessed of its social class and began, reluctantly, to allow migrants from the violence of the early 1950 and the incipient urban lower middle class to make the area their own. Years passed. The partisan violence left its ravages, new people came seeking urban opportunities. Bogota expanded. Santa Inés, no longer as attractive as in the thirties, is permeated by other worlds, alcohol, drugs and corruption. In the decade of 1980 the neighborhood was already low, lost its former glamour, became addicted, prostituted, vulgar, dirty, deteriorated. The traffickers used it. The thieves used it. The children of the area’s former inhabitants no longer came to see it, it is said that they disdained it. The state completely abandoned it. The area was complex, enduring, disposable. It became a site for illicit activities, gave asylum to any fugitive in need of shelter, and betrayed that sect of society who had abandoned it and welcomed all others: addicts, prostitutes, street children, recyclers, guerrillas, and paramilitaries fell on their bellies and invented a possible life. Transgressed, this zone lost its sanctity, was cross-dressed, and became El Cartucho. Now it was a hovel. Bogota’s society did not forget the offending area. 20 years later the city managed to extinguish it. They destroyed it, evicted the residents, and on its ruins built a park aimed at the Third Millennium. This was the second crisis area of the project C’undua. Taking as a reference the myth of the Liberation of Prometheus by Heiner Müller, Mapa Teatro worked with 12 residents of Santa Inés and the theater students of the Academy of Arts of Bogotá. They rewrote the myth and found themselves reflected in it. Then they prepared themselves for each being a mythological hero.

Prometheus First Act was staged in the ruins of what once was the neighborhood of Santa Inés in December of 2002. In the same location, Prometheus Second Act was presented in December of 2003 with the company of 100 neighborhood residents who had been evicted. They organized the event on the ruins of what once was the site of their lifestyles.

In Re-moved [9] the artists constructed 13 different and interconnected spaces at the headquarters of Mapa Teatro in downtown Bogotá. In each space, the artists had arranged recycled objects, videos of local people, obsolete radios, tables, recycling carts, audio of testimonials of scars and descriptions of the rooms of the houses of Santa Inés; each of these objects and videos maintain common points of significance in each space: testimonials of the inhabitants of Santa Inés. In this way, each viewer traveling the thirteen areas recognized how one used to live in a neighborhood house and how the last one was destroyed, what was the path of the recycler, how the body is affected in the streets, what were the stories of those who inhabited this place, and a continuum of memories.

In the setting of the National Exhibition of Artists of 2004, Mapa Teatro presented The Cleaning of the Augean Stables (2004). Two spaces were interconnected simultaneously by evidence which stated the images and reading incentives proposed by the title of the process. The starting point was a darkened room in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá; there an image was projected against a wall: viewers who watched a television in mounted in the construction fencing of Parque Tercermilenio where once stood the houses of the neighborhood if Santa Inés in real time. Additionally, the visitor attending the Museum saw the record that a cameraman filmed in real time on the construction of the Park.

On the other hand, in what was once El Cartucho, twelve screens simultaneously presented the testimonies of the twelve residents who worked with Mapa Teatro along with footage of the destruction. In this way, Mapa Teatro discussed the construction of Parque Tercermilenio as a public space comparing it to a classical myth and political narrative that debates its construction and the uprooting of its inhabitants. In the heroic myth of the twelve labors, Heracles cleaned the dirtiest and smelliest of the stables of King Augeas, an impossible task and one that until then had disgraced many a mortal. In fulfilling this task, Heracles affirms his godliness to Eurystheus and thus restores his designated place in the royalty by Zeus. This story is a catalyst to question the attitude of the institutions in the construction of public space and the arbitrary eviction of the residents of the neighborhood of Santa Inés.

Five years documenting the destroyed lives, the graveyard, of the Barrio Santa Inés-El Cartucho. Videos. Testimonials. Texts. Stories. Mapa Teatro participated as artists in a political situation and a public administration, under the framework of Civic Culture, for the regeneration and gentrification of one of the most derelict areas of Bogotá. How does one chaaracterize an artistic work as interference? Taking a stand against social catastrophe. Mapa Teatro was a witness, they made an archive and collection of the construction of the ruins. Some, with power, decided to rob others of their lifestyles. In this way, an artistic work narrates this situation. They created a theatrical play that takes on these complexities.

Witness to the Ruins, perhaps the most studied work by academics of art, sociologists and urban planners about Mapa Teatro, depicted the audiovisual archive of their participation in the Program C’undua to which this text analyzes. What remains after the disaster? The projected remnants manipulated by performers in a theatrical situation.

As proposed by Rolf Abderhalden in the text The Artist as Witness (2006), the involvement of artists in the dynamics of political administration of the social and the spatial consisted of placing a point of view. Due to circumstances of government, the eviction of Santa Inés and the construction of the Park were not decisions of the elected administrative bureau on duty. But this had been planned and budgeted in the various levels of the administration of the city, its board and its various planning committees. Antanas Mockus still felt the deep wound that intervention produced in the existential territory of the citizenry. Theirs was, in the period from 2001 to 2003, the task of trying to generate citizen compensation necessary for social and urban development. To do this, Mockus organized the various administrative bodies of the social, cultural and urban, to seamlessly develop intervention projects in the area. In this process, in the middle of the project C’undua working in Usaquén, Mockus and his interlocutors noted the need to generate processes of memory. To know the history, to give form to the life that took shape there through stories and to position publicly a series of images that will represent the transformation that the urbanization generated. At the same time that an ethnographic order was realized C’undua, a certain artistic dimension was brought together. Mapa Teatro participated in this.

The participation of Mapa Teatro in C’undua consisted of arranging a series of exercises of composition and approximation of the life of St. Inés in counterpoint to the historiographical and theoretical longing of the social sciences, of the indicators of social intervention of the administration programs and the execution of the public and reports, and of the journalistic account. Doing for el Cartucho in an unexpected manner. While it is clear that social sciences produce testimony and it informs their approaches, the construction of the life testimony that is realized by artistic practice are distanced by several key points. First, voice and presence in testimonial representation, which in ethnographic texts is mediated by the text and the report, often taking it as its informant, takes another form in the artistic project. It continues to be mediated by the authorial composition of artists on the stage, which further materializes the bodily presence on the public space, as natural acting, and trace an area of ​​vital experience that in other ways would be veiled. The testifier becomes an announcer, and the artist his witness. Secondly, as noted by Rolf Abderhalden in 2006, artistic action, by which I mean Prometheus (2002-2003), Re-moved (2003) and Cleaning the Augean Stables (2004), generates an important site for processes of memory. While social sciences reports perform the important task of collaborating in the sociological understanding of the phenomenon of urban intervention, artworks poetically re-positioned a certain haptic possibility of involvement of the spectators in the unfolding of life in Santa Inés. This possibility for memory puts the citizenry in check. For many years the citizens of Bogota lived in fear of this area of ​​the city, because of the theatrical forms that were carried out (performed) involved viewers to take into account their lived experience and dislocate it thanks to the attention that the scene and devices produced. In terms of feelings, it re-positioned an already assumed emotional mapping of life in Santa Inés when facing the staged situation. In this Mapa Teatro created its interference in the processes of public administration.

One should not charge Mapa Teatro of a work vindicative of the lives of people affected by the urban and social transformation of Santa Inés. This was never their objective. They intended to produce a work of social intervention. Moreover, the substrate of experience that takes place in public space affects the social construction of the imaginary. Inevitably, it is a political work by memory.


[1] From the important book Practices of the Real the in Contemporary Scene (2013, ed. Paso de Gato, Mexico City), José Sánchez develops an important discussion. Between documentary and the real. To review the trajectory of Mapa Teatro visit the website http://www.mapateatro.org/index.html. Here you can see the development of the Laboratory.

[2] In her book Liminal Scenarios (2014, ed. Paso de Gato, Mexico City), Ileana Dieguez develops the concept of liminality from the anthropology of Victor Turner’s performance. That which exists among the thresholds, those behaviors and performances that can be unclassifiable, and that takes form in reality as acts that transform established perceptions and collective imaginary.

[3] For further reading about this argument, please consult my book Mapa Teatro 1987-1992 (2014, ed. Godot Books, Mexico City). A first historiographical approach to the history of Mapa Teatro.

[4] For more information regarding the notion of the natural actor in Mapa Teatro, refer to my essay “Mapa Teatro 1982 – 1993″ (https://www.academia.edu/7791051/Guti%C3%A9rrez_Casta%C3%B1eda_David._Mapa_Teatro_1982-1993_Laboratorio_del_Imaginario_Social_). Essay published in the Revista Karpa in 2013.

[5] Mapa Teatro constructs this notion of “Laboratory of the Social Imaginary” from the study by Heiner Müller, a German playwright, as it is elaborated in his Contemporary Theatre of the German Democratic Republic (1990), ed. Vanguardia Obrera: Spain. 332 pages.

[6] For this laboratory, Mapa Teatro entered the prison La Picóta in Bogotá and worked with 9 prisoners for several months; Horacio (1993-1994) was filmed and edited by Luis Ospina. Some fragments are viewable at:http://hidvl.nyu.edu/video/003290068.html.

[7] To further explore this concept reviewing the book Reinaldo Laddaga (2006), Aesthetics of Emergency, ed. Adriana Hidalgo, Buenos Aires.

[8] For more on this approach see: Doris Sommer (2014), The Work of Art in the World, ed. Duke University Press.

[9] To read more on Re-Corridos and The Cleaning of the Augean Stables in the context of the transformation of Barrio Santa Inés, see my study After Omega (http://premionalcritica.uniandes.edu.co/?p=19) published in Essays on Art in Colombia (2011), ed. Universidad de los Andes and Ministry of Culture of Colombia, Bogotá.