Talking to Action at Hammer Museum’s ENGAGE MORE NOW

The Talking to Action researchers and lead curator Bill Kelley, Jr. took part in the Hammer Museum’s Engage More Now! A Symposium on Artists, Museums, and Publics on November 6-7, 2015. The symposium aimed to address three main areas of investigation: museum-sited engagement; nomadic museum practices; and artist-initiated engagement outside existing institutional frameworks. As a guest panel, the Talking to Action group publicly discussed the areas of concern facing the project whose main focus is the presentation of community-based and social practices[1] in two spatial and cultural constructs, LA and LA (Los Angeles and Latin America).

Talking to Action: Researching Community-Based Art Practices in Latin America and Los Angeles – from Engage More Now Day 2

Or view here

As lead curator, the dichotomy of LA/LA was already a little problematic, meaning that the Getty-led initiative is talking about a city and a big chunk of a hemisphere, which, to him, seemed like a strange point of comparison. He immediately started to think of the one “LA” as a large region, extending from Los Angeles down to the border, and also beginning to question where Latin America starts and ends.

Another question that plagued him was the possibility of curating social practices, what does that mean?

Lastly, another point of inquiry for him is the question of methodologies and pedagogies of research. What does it mean to research these types of practices, does it ask us to think about research and the qualities of research in a new or different way than it would be for other forms of art practices?

Dialogue and collaboration is a form of work that is done collectively, Kelley felt that it was important to work with other researchers in the field and that Los Angeles (the place of his own context) would be one site amongst many in a larger network of interlocution and feedback. He invited several different researchers in Latin America to join him (some of whom are in the panel) and work collectively on thinking as a group through these questions of collaboration, dialogue, pedagogy, curation, and research of social practices.


David Gutiérrez Castañeda

The focus of his work is the poetics of the politics of care between performative actions in Latin America. He studies and works with the performance artist, Liliana Angulo, and they are investigating the connections between the Black Panthers and Procesos de Comunidades Negras (Processes of Afro-Columbian Communities) on the Pacific border of Colombia.

Paulina León

Visual artist from Quito, Ecuador, and gestora cultural (cultural manager) in the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo in Quito. For León, the problem of translation is a constant obstacle that is faced in LA/LA. She works with Proyecto Transgenero and the transgender community, both transmasculine and transfeminine.

Lucía Sanromán

Critic and curator with an art historical background. She encourages, creates, and organizes participatory and engaged projects and focuses on how to present them in an exhibition and discursive format (book, etc.). She is working with the Mexican artist Taniel Morales who sees pedagogy as his form of engagement and as his art object. He proposes to use the metaphor of the detective’s search and look for links between pirate radio in Mexico during the ’90s and university and independent radio in the United States, specifically in Los Angeles and California today, through the format of a class at Otis.

Andre Mesquita

Lives in São Paulo, Brazil. He has extensive experience researching the relationships between art and political activism not only in Brazil, but also in other countries in Latin America and parts of the United States and Europe. His recent book, Esperar não é saber: arte entre o silêncio e a evidência, begins with the concept of listening. Listening is a key tool that every artist who works with communities should employ actively. One of the questions that informs his current research is why does dictatorship endure in Brazil? People do not want to speak of the 20,000 people that were “disappeared” by the dictatorship, the violent acts that occurred twenty to thirty years ago within the purview of state terrorism. As a result, he began to research the notion of secrecy and the notion of public secrecy–this is a reference to anthropologist Michael Taussig in which he synthesized the idea of public secrecy as something that is known publicly but cannot be articulated. My question in the book and for the project is how artistic practices can articulate things that most would prefer to silence.

Paulina Varas

Lives and works in Chile, and thought it was better that, not just because of her English-language skills, but because in Los Angeles, in the cultural institutions of Los Angeles, one should also speak Spanish (Castilian). Chile has been a liberal lab for many years. She works with a group called CRAC in Valparaiso, and they develop projects that examine the relationships between the public sphere and artistic practices. For Talking to Action, she approached and chose to elaborate on the question of the public sphere and artistic practices not from Valparaiso, but from southern Chile. The Mapuche territory has a long history that continues through today as a region that is constantly living through episodes of oppression. Her question would be to think through the reflections that artistic practice permits, in the best of the cases, what type of response and impact do these practices have on the distinct types of autonomy that exist in our society today.



Kelley opened the panel Q&A speaking about disciplines. Given that the project takes place in an art museum, funded by an art foundation, situated in an art school, we are surrounded by art. In reality so many of the practices that the group is thinking about and researching deal with this concept of extra-disciplinarity, which is a term that emerged from conversations between Stephen Wright and Brian Holmes, that asks,

What do you do with knowledge that exists outside of the disciplines of the universities and art institutions?

Kelley has an interest in the relationship of many of the practices he researches in Latin America that do not have art as the main interlocutor, but respond to and are studied through the social sciences such as visual anthropology or sociology.

The challenge and struggles in Latin America are really different from the United States. The context in Latin America deals with human rights issues, post-development issues, colonialisms (which are also present in the United States, but he is interested in a kind of colonialism that is inside the body). The political challenges are quite different. In this context, it is Gutiérrez’s belief that art processes do not only occur in the museum; art processes also exist and work out performativity on different kinds of contexts: social or pedagogical movements, human rights, etc. In these other contexts, the piece of art itself is not always the main focus of the process. As a result, extensive dialogues are created between different kinds of agents or actors who may or may not be part of a disciplinary field (anthropology, biology, sociology, etc.). These agents may be people who are working with communities and have an inside knowledge in the body and in their way of living, a knowledge that gives us criteria about what we can and cannot do. This knowledge is more important than an academic background.  For example, he is a sociologist, but when he is working as an advisor and he has to comment on the social dynamic in a foreign context, it is not a specific truth, it is just one form of knowledge that is in communication, in dialogue, with the leaders, the community art practice, and so on.  Extradisciplinary, for him, knowing about Brian Holmes and Stephen Wright, is a social experiment when everybody gets involved and everybody has a knowledge and a way to participate and make connections. That process can be elaborated in a museum or a NGO; it has various types of representations.

For Sanromán, the issues that arise from an extradisciplinary approach to curating these types of practices are essential because she often works not only with artists, but also with people who participate from other disciplines.  In this sense, she sees her work in two ways: one as a researcher concerned with setting these kinds of time-based practices discursively, in other words, trying to develop the tools by which we can look at the practices and think about how to talk about them. Secondly she is concerned with what language is necessary to discuss these practices from the field of art, the field of exhibition-making (it should be noted that the field of art history and exhibition-making are not necessarily the same thing, but they are related), and tools that come from other disciplines, such as anthropology, ethnography, etc. Of course community organizing is a very important tool to understand, and policy is another important tool that she is starting to acquire because so many artists are working in these arenas. In going into these fields, there is a kind of testing of their own practices, but also in some cases, there is an absolute integration into those different arenas. In order to assess how to work in relation to that, how to understand and how to display it, she needs to be familiar with these languages. She sees her practice as acquiring, testing, and intervening into the status quo in order to investigate and create alternative models of the public domain. This happens more and more likely outside of an art institution than within. The point is how to use these platforms, the platform that the art institution offers you to enter into those discussions in a vital way and not be, as Cuauhtémoc Medina was saying about his own practice, don’t be either ridiculous—we can be amateurish or ridiculous when entering these other arenas—or irrelevant.

León thinks that in the specific context of community-based practices in relation to interdisciplinarity or extradisciplinarity, we have to think of the community as a being that is active, living, thinking, and reflective. That is to say, she is not speaking of a community that is waiting for the arrival of the institution or the artist to impart knowledge or speak for them. In the moment of the extradisciplinarity, she is looking to achieve platforms that permit an active dialogue that generates knowledge, not one that imparts knowledge. In order to generate knowledge, she needs a previous point of departure, which is ignorance. As an artist working with the community, if she doesn’t begin from a point of ignorance, she is not open to the possibility of listening to the other. If she doesn’t permit dialogue that establishes a relationship first of trust and real exchange, it will be impossible to generate knowledge together. When this occurs, academic disciplines expand, leave the academy, and visualize and validate other processes of non-academic knowledge-making.

Mesquita synthesized three points. First, it’s important to speak with students and researchers and address the protocols and institutional definitions in the academy and art institutions regarding what is and is not art; moreover what is art in Latin America? For the researchers on the panel, the idea of a Latin American art does not exist.  There are always rules and definitions that govern writing a history of art, which many times come from a perspective from the North. We need to confront this and break it. For him, one of the ways to confront this is to bring to light the hidden histories and narratives. A lot of which the panel refers to are dialogues surrounding social movements and human rights, and for Mesquita, it is tantamount to creating a political memory. A large part of their work is to think of a visible and powerful articulation, create a political memory of these actions, and confront them. He speaks to the experience of African-Americans and Latin Americans, of the massacres (because they are massacres) that police commit in the periphery not only in Brazil and the United States, but also in Colombia. Secondly, and it is a well-known concept in the United States, is the notion of militant research. Militant research cannot follow the academic protocols where you create a thesis and it circulates only within this small academic sphere. Especially as one is dealing with the community and a movement, you need to share this research with the community. This is not referring to “engagement” or “empowerment” because these two words have a neoliberal context (for example within Brazil) and are related to business and how “business empowers people.” How do you undertake research that changes not only the community, but also oneself? For Mesquita, one of the failures that happens to many artists and researchers is that people do not listen to one another. As he has noted in many of the texts written by Ultra red regarding the concept of listening, many times researchers are investigating communities, but we already have the answers in our head. We must create an opportunity for political self-transformation.

Varas believes it is important for US context that the panel is not talking about cultural or visual studies when they speak of extra-disciplinary. This is not just a methodological issue, but also a question of implication. This is not a debate about what is or is not a discipline. This a confrontation about what the discipline can do, what it can transform. As a result, in Chile, they often use the term transdisciplinary. In order to transform something, you need time and to lose fear. For her, this explains why artists and cultural institutions do not get involved with their place/locality/site. In order to transform a place, you need to transform yourself. This implies that one must say for oneself and face what is autonomy. This is difficult because people want to say what others will accept; they want to speak about popular themes that many will understand. The transdisciplinary, as is indicated in the “trans-“, is a process of formation that does not know where it’s going to end; one only knows that it will begin at one point/place, but you can’t know what territory it will contribute.

Kelley asks about the problem of translation. He sees the problem of translation happening on two levels, in particular when you are working across borders in this way. One is the question of language, an example of which is the ability to translate a very important way of work in Latin America, of gestión cultural, which was translated as curating, but it is not really curating. It is more like organizing, cultural management, negotiation–it embodies many different forms of practices.

How do you translate these very common and important concepts from one language to another? The second problem of translation is an epistemological one, meaning one of knowledges and frames of understanding.

Sanromán answered the question in three ways. The first, personally, it has been the bane of her existence, quite literally. She started to live the issue of translation at a very young age. She likes the space of ambiguity of the hybrid. She likes the space of the translation and mistranslation even though it creates miscommunication—even in this panel there are things that are not exactly translated. She is aware of that. But that of course creates both a distance and a different form of knowledge of which we have to be aware and constantly reminded. It also personally has created a positionality for her practice that has to do with being a mediator not just in terms of negotiating institutional capacities, institutional funding, and institutional opportunities, but also negotiating the very different desires that these kind of power structures contain: one being a cultural institution, the other being a community (which is neither neutral or needs us).  In most cases, these communities do not really need seek external institutional and cultural aid. The curators need them more because, in terms of the bureaucracies of what occurs in exhibition-making, the curators need them simply to be there, their bodies. Translation needs to be thought of not just in terms of language, but also in terms of desires, in terms of how to make institutions much more self-aware of what those desires are. There is a need to be much more explicit and simply ask, is it really that you only want a larger audience or do you want to engage,[2] none of which implies the type of community-work that Talking to Action project is investigating. Translation is part of her practice on a regular basis, even within a context where there are no differences in language, because the cultural necessitates translation at multiple levels.  These kinds of practices can also generate mistranslations and misunderstanding. For example, within the classic and historical issue of “Latin American art,” the researchers don’t actually call the field that they inhabit in that part of the world, “Latin American.” Once a term/phrase/category like this exists in the world, it is there forever.

Gutiérrez wanted to make a point that translation is a linguistic and an epistemological problem. In this process, especially in the Talking to Action project, they are dealing with this important problem. They are studying practices that involve communities and people, artists or non-artists, who are creating a specific kind of regionality, and types of mobilizations and embodiment acts, which produce symbols and show the facts inherent in the social lives we are living.
This experience, this event, could be represented in exhibitions in the United States. It is more complex than just the use of the word gestión cultural or the use of the word engagement or the use of the word social practice. By the way, there is no Spanish translation for “social practice;” instead this artistic discipline is described using “práctica comunitaria” or “gestion cultural.” The projects that interest the researchers are initiatives: people are meeting in their own cities with their own tools, their own political expectations, creating interactions, creating imaginaries, creating impacts. As researchers they have to understand the dynamisms, the production of regionality, and try to figure out how an exhibition in Los Angeles in English and Spanish can produce a similar but not the same regionality that these acts produce in Latin America, and also understand that this very process is a way of knowledge. It is complicated; there are ethical and political issues there. Translation is not just a problem about English or Spanish, it is about a problem of the conception of the regionality of each of these practices. How can we here in the United States participate in those discussions regarding Latino, Afro-American, poverty, and other social issues involved in this city? We cannot be anecdotal; we do not want to be the people who say, in Latin America they made that. We want to bring here a kind of specific performativity that also deals with the social issues that exist in this context, even those that are in front of this building.

One important thing to remember is that curators and researchers are trying to figure out methodologically how to do this, but in fact it’s the artistic practices themselves in relation to that context there and the context here that provides a kind of, not an answer, but some kind of possibility to go out of an impasse. Everyone has to be very conscious that it is something that happens always elsewhere. In her own wok, she is trying to figure out how to break down that implicit separation between what she is doing here now, in this physical, semantic, and epistemological space which is a museum, and what happens elsewhere. There are ethical, economic, and many other issues to consider. It is not simply about erasing the element of translation, which exists there, but it is more about making it more obvious in a certain way—making it more obvious that we are speaking about different things, and that those things intersect. Sometimes when curators and researchers speak it seems like they are coming up with the solutions for something, but they are in fact not coming up with any solution and it actually falls somewhere else. It falls to artists, participants, co-creators, stakeholders to find solutions. Sanromán is trying to avoid the word “community.”

Much of the methodology of his own research must be gleaned from the artists who do the practice because there’s no model for teaching you how to become a researcher in this field. You have to try and invent it yourself.

Within the LA/LA project, the researchers are not recognizing a “Latin America;” understanding that the concept of Latin American art is concept constructed by a dominant historiography / art history. As a result, if there is no place as Latin America then what is it? This process of resistance in the face of dominations and typecasting has to be constructed from another place in epistemological terms. There are South American / Andean authors that have begun these constructions. In a sense, if we do not speak of a Latin American art, it is possible to see it through the Quechua concept called “Pachacuti.” It is a process of transformation: epistemological, cultural, subjective, and collective, that means to look at the world upside down.


Questions from the audience

Explain Pachacuti because you are shifting the frame, it changes what you see or able to see, or your way of knowing.    

Part of Varas’s work is also influenced by critical cartography/mapping. There is no unifying global conception about what it means, but for each place, there exists a specific situated referent; it is a situated knowledge. Pachacuti, for the Aymara and the Quechua of the Andean world, means that there is a moment in the social trajectory or itinerary where a series of social, cultural, political, and economic movements explodes the established system and status quo. This can be seen clearly in the process of colonization in South America and the Andean world with the arrival of the Spanish when the Quechua world system comes to confront the Occidental system. This is not only a response to the colonial process, but it continues to have echoes in the subsequent years through to the present. Pachacuti is to look at the world from the other side, but also recognizing yourself in that process of cultural transformation.

Paulina mentioned that in order to work with communities we have to lose / let go fear, but fear of what?

Referring to institutions, to let go of fear implies to change internally. Institutions never want to modify internally because they would stop being institutions. To lose fear implies a risk and that can become something else. Looking at it from the perspective of the artist or the cultural producer, this implies the thinking that you need to leave behind being an artist. Where is the place of this new agent in the territory of art, international art or art in general?

We always think we have to be successful and the process has to be successful. However in real life, not only in community art processes, there is failure and we learn from failure. It is important to develop any kind of artistic process to learn about failure and not to expect that everything has to be successful and has to be amazing. We have to learn why and we have to be critical and reflexive about failure. That is a problem with expectations of art in contemporary museums—they want it to be successful all the time. They want to be trendy; they want to present all the main issues about everybody who is somebody in the art world. But maybe when we work with social processes or relational aesthetics, even if it does not deal with poverty or Afro-American or Latinos, you are going to find problems and those problems are important because life is about that. We have to learn that. This is difficult because you have a budget, and you have to demonstrate that you did well with the budget. So how do you demonstrate that you did well with the budget, but the process is a failure. It is really complex and Gutiérrez thinks there is still much work left to do with that.

Complementing what has been said about institutional fear and the fear of not being successful, many of the projects that supposedly deal with social practice, those that work with the community from within the institution, occur outside of the institution. León works outside in the neighborhood and community and the institution remains protected and distanced. This work does not affect the institution if she stays well within the community, and if she fails outside the institution maybe no one will know about it. What happens is that, understanding the institutions and their relationships of vertical power in front of the community and the art world, they decide in a moment to pick up the agendas of the communities inside the institution. Not the agenda of the institution or the artist, but the agenda of the community enters the museum. Is this possible? Do we have, as an institution, the capacity to be auto-reflexive and critical to make this possible? From where are we reflecting our own practices and what space are we permitting those reflections?

Sanromán wanted to add in relation to this notion of fear is that there is a kind of underlying assumption or a certain element of finding that these kinds of engaged community-based practices must be either redemptory or restorative. The artist or the art curator or the art institution goes into the community in order to improve a certain thing. Researchers and curators all know instinctively that this is a horrible model and it will fail. In her experience, she finds that a lot of these projects are generated through a kind of agonistic and a very conflicting and fraught relationship between the institution and the artist, the institution and the community, the curator and the artist. These are not easy, but she wonders if there is something about that kind of tension, that agonism, that is important and constitutive. In other words, that is not simply the bad result of a bad system, but it’s in fact the positive, but uncomfortable result of the imperfection of the entire process of being in the social. How does one address that without hiding it in the narratives and without being completely beat up by the process too, institutionally or personally, regardless of your perspective? To understand very clearly that these communities with which researchers/curators/institutions want to work are neither naive nor neutral nor always nice. There is one narrative she likes to relate about this. She was working in Tijuana in a participatory project in a community that doesn’t have either running water or any infrastructure. They essentially wanted us to provide infrastructure through an “art project.” Very quickly, the team learned that they couldn’t speak to half of the community because they were part of a different party. It was a heartbreaking situation. They thought they were finally working in a community, but the community was essentially using them much more effectively than the team was using them even in the most kind of star-eyed, naive way of their approach at the time. It was a long time ago.

My question is about history and what is the space that Talking to Action is giving to history or historiography? I thought of this because of what Andre Mesquita said about listening and listening to each other.  But it is also important to listen to history. There is a certain problem in the temporality that these are things that have not been done in the past. Many examples come to the fore such as the Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA) in Chile or Chicano Park during the 70s in San Diego. This is something that concerns and preoccupies me, this way of looking at the contemporary undermines what has been done in the past. Not presenting, not acknowledging them in these contemporary examples, or if you don’t approach history, then it can be seen that these examples of social practice have their own mechanisms of demise.

It’s taken him a long time to complete his PhD because he had to unlearn a lot of things. He is trained as an art historian. He really meant it when he said that he had to rethink what it means to be a researcher, an investigator into this field. He had to follow these processes around and see them by hand and in-person, and really re-learn the field. It is important to return to the whole concept of art history and investigate what makes up those lineages and intellectual inheritances that are carried into rethinking these kinds of practices. Many of the social practices operate and could care less about what the field of art has to say about them.

It is important to her that the audience member names CADA because she always wondered, who in the United States is familiar with them? Not only because of the geographic and cultural distance, but because how can we translate a context and a memory? She is trained as an art historian as well and she thinks that the project researchers are not speaking about art history because it is not applicable to what they are trying to address, which is memory. There is a difference between history and memory; history is a process that is more institutionalized whereas memory is something that is constantly being built. As a result, she thinks that they are speaking insistently to memory.

This is a good question because the audience saw a photograph of a mass grave exhumation. This is a mass grave that holds more than 1000 people, mostly leftist millitants, that the dictatorship tortured and assassinated during the 70s in Brazil. These persons were buried clandestinely in this mass grave in a cemetery in São Paulo. The families of the disappeared knew that their spouses or children were in this mass grave. Five years after 1985 and the end of the dictatorship, the families had the right to open the mass grave and to exhume the bodies. Three years later, a monument to the memory of the disappeared was constructed. This memorial to the disappeared is a testament to the hope that this type of state violence will never be repeated. When people decide to listen to the history, they have a terrible response: why does this keep happening? Jumping to 2006, we have our own 9/11 in São Paulo. The incarcerated have the right to leave the prison to visit their family on Mother’s Day. This was May of 2006 and in São Paulo there was a series of attacks. They burned buses and killed police. What was the state’s response? It was to retaliate. During one week, the military police of São Paulo killed more than 600 people in the surrounding areas. The majority of whom were poor, Black, and marginalized. To this day, these actions, called the crimes of May, have not been resolved. The police have not been tried except for one. A group of mothers who lost their sons started a movement called “Mães de Maio” to protest their memory and justice—this is recent history. One of the works for Talking to Action that he has proposed is a video produced by an artist from São Paulo, Clara Ianni. Clara worked with Debora Maria who is an activist that created this movement of the Mothers of May. This work is called Apelo or Plea, which was filmed in the same cemetery where the monument was created in the 90s. Every day in São Paulo at midday (this is a public secret; it’s a public secret because no one talks about it), they inter indigent people within 100 meters of the monument. Fifteen to twenty burials of people who lose their name and gain a number occur here. If this history and memory had been kept alive and effective, maybe this would not be happening?


[1] The term is being used in the United States to frame, within academic criteria, a contemporary form of art practice that has historical antecedents in community-based political and cultural work. An example within the Southern California context would be the practices of Feminist and Chicano cultural and political actors such as the establishment of Self-Help Graphics or the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. One key methodological frame of reference would be the use of dialogue and pedagogical strategies to create new forms of cultural and artistic imaginaries amongst its participants.

[2] “Engage” or “engagement” does not translate into Spanish in this context. Sanromán looked earlier into the translations and the first definition in English comes up as a legal step, meaning you are engaged to be married, or it has a relationship to battle.