Weiss and Camnitzer discuss his ideas about the transformative potential of art in education; his experiences in and thoughts about Cuba and Cuban art; his “Uruguayan Torture” series of prints, and his thoughts about productive anarchy.
Luis Camnitzer and Rachel Weiss first met in 1985 through their engagements with contemporary Cuban art, and they have been friends and collaborators since. Among other projects, they directed (along with Jane Farver) the 1999 exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s–1980s. Camnitzer and Weiss agreed to undertake this interview some months before the coronavirus pandemic erupted, and they had planned to meet in person. In response to events, they met instead over Zoom, and their conversation took place over the course of four days in late March and early April 2020.
DAY 1: ART AND EDUCATION
Rachel Weiss: You recently said to me that “none of the art stuff makes sense any more,” in relation to the various projects you are currently working on. What did you mean by that?
Luis Camnitzer: I was working on a project for a sustainable school in Chile, and I'd just gotten home. The trip was great, and I came home with an incredible high, and within half an hour my wife said, “I hope you're going to cancel all trips because of the virus.”
RW: Tell me about the project, please.
LC: There's an Uruguayan foundation that's trying to make a sustainable school, one per country in Latin America. They started in Uruguay, there's a second one in Argentina and now a third one in Chile. For the first two they worked with an architect from the US named Michael Reynolds, the founder of Earthship Biotecture, who specializes in self-generating energy and vegetable gardens, etc., so the school is independent in terms of sustainability.
RW: Does sustainability mean only energy and food?
LC: This architect started a long time ago with energy sustainable buildings, and his projects are very good in terms of their climatic conditions. However, his vision of art is closer to murals done with bottle caps. In any case, that didn't go well, and eventually the foundation and the architect parted ways. And so the organization decided that in each school they would have a local—or at least different—architecture. For the site in Chile, they also started working with a cultural collective in Uruguay that mostly manages art projects. This collective approached me to work on the art part of the school. I agreed as long as we could work with the teachers in a way that would impact the curriculum. The schools are built with volunteers and residents who provide the actual labor. We wanted to invite art people as volunteers as well, and we stipulated that the art projects coming from them should be ephemeral and interactive. And as long as they existed, they had to integrate into as many disciplines as possible. They said fine, and we did that. It worked out really nicely, and the school is phenomenal.
RW: How big is it? How many kids?
LC: 60 or 70 students. It's in a village of about 300–400 people, approximately an hour from Valparaíso. It's been a great experience. The next project is supposed to be in Colombia. We work well together, and the organization wants to work with us again, myself and two art educator colleagues, María Carmen de González and Sofía Quirós, who originally were with me at the Cisneros Collection.1 We have a little corporation called “Art as Education,” founded in 2013, and if the world survives, we're going to work on the next project in the coming year.
RW: It's an interesting lesson in how intensively oriented we are to the future, and the extent to which we think of our work in terms of the future.
LC: Yes, and how fragile everything is. Anyhow, I am not on autopilot. I'm working every day on a book on art and education, trying to merge art methodologies with all cognitive disciplines, but I don't know if I'll ever finish it. The title so far would be “A Socialism of Creativity,” or something like that, and I don't even know if any publisher would be interested in it. And I'm also working on the dictionary project, going over the unabridged Webster's dictionary from 1972 word by word and finding each word's place in Google Maps. I then take a screenshot of the Google map, and that becomes an illustration of the word. Unexpectedly, the pages also look very pretty, but I keep working on it anyway. What's interesting is that most of the places are businesses, so it ends up being a very neoliberal dictionary. The process will roughly double the 2,000-some pages of the Webster's dictionary—I call it an infinity project because I will never finish it. It's a little like knitting, only a bit more interesting.
RW: It's a bit like Roman Opałka. …2
LC: But he messed up, because he stopped.
RW: And you won't?
LC: I'll only stop if I die, but it's a project I won't ever declare finished. Opałka messed up because he declared his project finished. And also it wasn't totally clean because he would take a picture of himself, in which his hair was increasingly white, so you could see the artist's aging. … These accompanying self-portraits made the project conceptually very noisy. And the color of the ink he used would match the color of his greying hair so that it became increasingly white—it was a sentimental project.
RW: Why is that bad?
Luis Camnitzer. Dictionary Project Using Webster's Dictionary and Google Maps, ongoing. Screenshots.
LC: It's not intrinsically bad, but the sentimentality didn't add anything; it just made it less rigorous. The way I had understood Opałka initially, there was a true search for infinity, which was really interesting. There was no noise in the project. And all these additions brought in the noise, which is what bothers me the most.
RW: I'm wondering if it's possible to think about infinity without sentiment?
LC: Maybe not, but the way he did it was not the right way of doing it.
RW: So, your effort is also looking to understand infinity? Or to materialize it?
LC: No, I was interested in mixing two totally unrelated systems of order that wouldn't normally be connected, and seeing what happens in the fertilization process. Two things are happening, unexpectedly: one, it's aesthetically very pleasing; and two, it gives a portrait of our culture. Suddenly, a dictionary, which is supposedly objective in terms of word and meaning, became a cultural portrait in this way. Actually, the dictionary is not objective. In this 1972 edition of Webster's, for example, the word admirer is described as a man admiring a woman, and anthropology as the study of “primitive people.” It's very funny and depressing.
RW: I remember when you did the Jane Doe video project morphing all those digital images into one, that you were surprised that the final image was actually very beautiful.3
LC: I like the fact that it can happen, though it's not something I'm looking for, or basically not very interested in. But suddenly it happens. It's unintended magic.
RW: One difference between you and Opałka is that you started your project when you were 80 years old, not when you were young. So you know that the terminus exists, but for other reasons than as an artistic decision.
LC: Yeah, well, infinity just means, in a certain way, more than you can grasp; it's something beyond your limits. That's all it is.
RW: And you're still on the letter A in the dictionary's alphabetical order?
LC: Yes. Actually it's the third time I've restarted, because I didn't like the rules I had established to make it. I also had the wrong dictionary. The first version I used was the College Webster's, a smaller dictionary, and it was not what I wanted.
RW: But, if it is from 1972, it's also very situated, temporally, and reflects the time in which it was written and published, as you suggested.
LC: That doesn't matter. Whatever year I pick would be a problem. I just happened to have this dictionary, from some other project. Great Neck, New York, where I live, is the departure point, but I'll take whatever is closest to Great Neck, which can be Indonesia. This actually happens with some words. And many words that would seem to obviously have some nearby reference end up being somewhere remote. I mean, English words!
RW: So then, the dictionary project has some very twisted relation to Esperanto?
LC: Yes, and I was always fascinated by Esperanto.
RW: By it? Or by its failure?
LC: Well, I use Esperanto as a metaphor for the notion of international art: art as an international language, one that transcends borders, with its failure postponed only by the market. Understanding is always limited by dialects. Dialects evolve slowly, and art only remains fully understandable within the circle of its dialect, becoming less understandable as you move further away.
RW: So then why perpetuate art?
Luis Camnitzer. Insults, 2009. Installation view of retrospective exhibition Hospice of Failed Utopias, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2018 –19. Image courtesy of Luis Camnitzer.
LC: Art as expression is very personalized, so I don't think that's an important aspect. But thinking in terms of the freedom that art allows you, I believe, is important. That is, it is important to think across systems and not only within a system in a moment of crisis.
RW: I agree with that, but in that case we're not necessarily talking about art any more.
LC: The word “art” is not important, but I think that art still is important, because we're talking about a limitless imagination, and negotiating what's possible and what's not. The normal dynamic is not to use the imagination limitlessly, but to use it while being confined by a given order. That's anti-art, and that's how education functions. The limits of that order should be constantly revised. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, those limits are useful, but at other times they only represent a power structure and are oppressive. And that is something that should be checked continually, and art can be useful for that. And therefore art is also a political act. And that's a point we were also trying to get through with the school in Chile. That politics is not an add-on, but embedded in the whole process from the very beginning. It's intrinsic to the whole process, it's ingrained. When you imagine without limits, and then negotiate with reality what is possible and what is not, you immediately have to figure out why it's not possible. What are the obstacles, and who put them there? And once you identify who put them there, then the next question is how do you remove both them and the people who put them there? That happens immediately—from the first moment of imagining something and trying to execute it.
RW: What would be an example?
LC: If you are in first grade, and you think: wouldn't it be nice to have my desk sitting on top of the desk of the teacher? You decide, in other words, to change the room, which is a very simple idea, for no reason either in favor of the normal classroom structure or against it. But if you try to do it you find that no, you cannot. Why can't you? You can't because the teacher won't let you. And suddenly you encounter the structure that prevents you from doing something that, if you were absolutely free, you would do. Then you have to examine it: is that valid? Or not? And you have to start arguing—it's valid because it's a sculpture that disrupts the order of the classroom. Yes, it's valid because it opens things. Or no, it's not valid because it prevents other things from happening, etc. And if the invalidity of the obstacle becomes crucial, then how do you get rid of it? All that is really political thinking, not art thinking or a “normal” education. It starts to form your stance vis-à-vis society, and it really comes from freely imagining. Art just formalizes this in a different medium.
DAY 2: ON CUBA
RW: I'd like to revisit, from the beginning, your interest and involvement with Cuba. And I'll stop you if I think you're leaving out those parts that are not so positive.
LC: Well, given my anarchist background, I was highly suspicious of Cuba with its vertical government. I remember that when Fidel Castro came to Uruguay in 1959, I refused to go to the rally celebrating him. I mean, I was interested in the revolution as such, as an alternative—let's say, as a model for utopia. I didn't like some things that were happening on the path to getting there. But over the years I became more interested in some of the achievements the Revolution had accomplished.
RW: And when you say you were interested in Cuba as an alternative, was that primarily in cultural terms, or political?
LC: It was both, and generally related to social change. And, from my position in the United States, it became even more important to seek alternatives. With US President Jimmy Carter (and the thaw in US-Cuba relations), I decided, OK, this is an opportunity to go and check Cuba out. I wrote to Casa de las Américas4 that I was interested in showing there. I knew about the intellectual activities, competitions, and exhibitions of Casa de las Américas, which I felt were very good. It was an interesting place. But instead of getting an invitation to show, I received a very nice letter from Mariano Rodríguez,5 telling me he'd be delighted to invite me to the Congress of Intellectuals that was taking place in 1981. That's how I went for the first time, in 1981. I also had a friend who had visited Cuba shortly before, Susanna Torre, an Argentinian architect. She was teaching with me at SUNY, Old Westbury, in New York, and had come back very exhilarated with what she saw there in terms of the development of intellectual life, and she gave me some names to contact. I was really impressed with the energy and dedication of the intellectual class, and I felt that the verticality that I distrusted wasn't really operating, at least not in the autocratic sense that people accused Cuba of. It was a very interesting Congress, by the way. I also met people, including many artists. Ana Mendieta (1948–85) happened to be there, as the tour guide for the Center for Cuban Studies, and introduced me to her friends.
RW: Did you already know her?
LC: Yes, I knew her from when she was a student in Iowa. I was friends with the German-American artist Hans Breder (1935–2017), who was her teacher and lover in Iowa. He and I had shared a studio in an artists' seminar at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey in 1965. Breder then went to Iowa and started his Intermedia Program6 there, and he invited me to show in the gallery of his department in 1976. That's where I met Ana. She then came to New York, and Liliana Porter and I became her in loco parentis friends, sort of helping and taking care of her. And then we met again, coincidentally, in Havana in 1981. By then she had connected with most of the artists in Cuba, and she introduced me to many of them, including José Bedia (b. 1959), Flavio Garciandía (b. 1954), Ricardo Brey (b. 1955), and others. In any case, I felt during that first visit that I was in a place where my own social class was in power. My class, meaning intellectuals with a certain degree of comfort in life, who were free to work out exactly the plans we would want to work out. People were working for the benefit of their projects, not in the interests of a superior, or of a timetable, or of an income. I was eventually invited to have a retrospective, in 1983, in Casa de las Américas. And that's where, in the next room, while I was hanging my show, they were planning the First Havana Biennial. At some point they called me in to see if I had any suggestions. Beatriz Aulet and Gerardo Mosquera were there—he and I had met in '81 already—and I was very skeptical about the project. They wanted to do it in six months or so, and they also wanted a theme, so there were lots of things I was skeptical about. They wanted prizes, which I didn't like because I saw it as inconsistent with socialism. In any case, they asked me to select Latin American artists in the United States. I didn't want the responsibility of doing it alone, so we agreed that I might involve Ana and Carla Stellweg.7 We suggested artists from the US. And then Ana and I decided to invite artists to SUNY, Old Westbury, as well, where she was working as an adjunct. We agreed to have Garciandía, Bedia, and Brey come to the college.
RW: Why those three?
LC: I think Ana suggested them, and looking at the work, that was fine with me. It could have been Juan Francisco Elso (1956–88) or others, but those three were apparently interested in participating. We were lucky that all the concerned institutions agreed, which meant SUNY, the Ford Foundation, the US State Department, ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte), the Cuban Ministry of Culture—they all pretty much said yes at the same time. A week later it wouldn't have happened, because of the fluctuations of politics. They came to Old Westbury, and it was a great semester. But I always wondered if I did more harm than good with this initiative, in the sense that suddenly all three artists entered the international market in one way or another. It was like a door opened, and that, in certain ways, produced an irreversible process.
RW: Did you anticipate that at all?
LC: No, not at all. And if I had, I don't know if I would have pursued the residency at the college.
RW: And can you articulate why that became a negative influence?
LC: Maybe I was breaking an ecological balance. One thing that was remarkable during that decade in Cuba was that artists were really focused on Cuban society. There was a balance between individuality in terms of what they were doing as artists and a concern for team-oriented collaboration to improve society. It was not the same as Soviet uniformity in this sense.
RW: José Bedia said later on that this was your romantic projection, that it was never really like that—how do you respond to that?
LC: Well it's difficult, and I don't have a clear answer. By now most of the artists who are in my book are outside of Cuba, which could prove his point, although most left for economic reasons. Obviously, the artists I met in Havana may have been less than candid while they were in Cuba, feeding me an image of Cuba in which they didn't totally believe, and which they then changed once they were away from Cuba. But it's very difficult to know how much of that is hypocrisy—or how much is true. I don't know.
RW: So in that moment it all seemed extraordinary to you, and you had an experience that very few people in the US had. I'm curious what you saw as your role?
LC: I didn't see myself as having any role. In an atmosphere in which it wasn't about nationalism, but about Latin Americanism, I was one more person trying to contribute what I could.
RW: And with regard to promoting, making visible, or advocating for Cuban art, or even for Cuba, outside of the island?
LC: Well, in the US I wasn't a propaganda person, but I tried to set things straight. There was a prejudice in the US that Cuban artists were all Social Realists, for instance, and art circles in America were often surprised when they saw work that measured up to what was happening in liberal democracies. So maybe countering that prejudice was a function that I had, but it wasn't that I decided—OK, I will do this. It was just done. My role in certain ways became a little bit more personal when Carlos Aldana (the head of ideology for the Cuban Communist Party) became more directly involved in what was happening with visual artists there. I was invited to the congress of UNEAC (the Artists and Writers Union) in 1988 and, at that congress, Aldana came out basically proposing censorship in a very crude way. So crude that Fidel spoke out against him in defense of artistic freedom. And that's what really made me want to write a book on Cuban art. I felt that if a book was published outside of Cuba that situated all those 1980s artists in a broader international context, it would give them some protection. And I think it actually did, because the book was well received both in the US and in Cuba.8 But who knows?
RW: So, you did the book, and things started to get difficult in Cuba—pick up the thread please.
LC: Well, there were things like when the painter Tomás Esson's (b. 1963) show was closed in 1988, which was sort of absurd from a non-Cuban point of view. The prohibition was against working with national symbols (the show contained images of the Cuban flag and of Che Guevara), it was a nearly religious view akin to blasphemy. But, interestingly, it wasn't the police that closed the show, but rather the artist. There was subtle pressure to have Tomás close the show himself after a public discussion with the Minister of Culture. That was an interesting technique at the time, and it caused splits within the higher ranks. Marcia Leiseca (vice minister of culture), for instance, could not be fired completely, so she was shifted laterally to Casa de las Américas, where she was confined to a specific area of work and where she couldn't do what was perceived as ideological harm.
RW: Why couldn't she be fired outright?
LC: Oh, because of her background. I think she was in the guerrilla movement in the Sierra Maestra, or closely connected to the original generation of revolutionary cadre. And she had never done anything against the revolution. So this was more about how open one was to contemporary art manifestations and their challenges, and who sets the limits vis-à-vis contemporary art. And she was very open.
RW: I had a conversation once with the Cuban critic and writer Desiderio Navarro (1948–2017), who explained that rift in very interesting terms, and I've always wondered how valid his take on this was. He was obviously not a fan of Socialist Realism, but his understanding of the so-called liberal faction in post-1959 Cuban cultural politics, including Marcia Leiseca, was that, for all of their revolutionary credentials, they were fundamentally bourgeois. And that their openness to contemporary art arose from their class identification—a cultural identification—and that this was a holdover that was not authentically revolutionary.
LC: I think that's a good point, and I would accept that accusation as fair if also directed toward me. Maybe that is what established my friendship with Marcia, and people around her. In certain ways Casa de las Américas itself represented that bourgeois tendency. I think Desiderio's point is a valid one, but I don't know where it leads: if it leads to more opening and cultural inquiry, then I think it's positive, but if it leads to exclusion, which a part of the Cuban bureaucracy was moving toward, then I think it's dangerous.
RW: OK, back to Marcia getting sidelined in the late 1980s, please continue …
LC: Well, despite the clampdown, the biennial took off on its own somehow, and Llilian Llanes took over.9 I got a call at some point, as I was invited to be on the jury of the Second Havana Biennial in 1986.
RW: Llanes was more hard-line, politically, and I was always interested to know where there were lines of agreement or disagreement between the two of you.
LC: I didn't have any problems with her, to be honest, and always considered her a close friend. I think the only disagreement we had was when artists like Carlitos Cárdenas and others were segregated into a “humor” section of the biennial in 1989.10 This I objected to strongly, and wrote about in a review of the biennial for Art Nexus magazine. It was a way of defanging something that was actually a very constructive critique. That was poor policy, and that policy continued. When most of that generation of artists left Cuba, there was no reaching out to them by the Ministry of Culture, and their absence created a vacuum. For example, the national art college, ISA, suddenly didn't have teachers. And, unavoidably, there was a disconnect between the traditions of the 1980s and what was happening afterward. That lack of continuity, coupled with the touristification of the biennial, led to a whole generation of artists who were individualistic and competing for the market. The perspective of community building that was so attractive to me in the 1980s was lost. In fact, I wrote a long letter to Minister of Culture Armando Hart, at the time, warning about all this. He never responded in writing, but every time I would see him, he'd wave his hand and say “I owe you an answer,” and laugh, and then nothing happened.
RW: I want to jump ahead to 1994, which I remember vividly because of how upset you were while we were there for the biennial. One night there was an opening of a show of Raúl Martínez's11 early homoerotic collages in a space down by the port somewhere. It was an amazing event; young artists were literally sitting at his feet, and he was regaling everyone with stories. It was very joyous, and one had a sense that it was a historic moment when this work was finally being shown. When we left, the entire city was blacked out, and there was no transportation. There was a guy in the street who offered to guide us to the hotel because we didn't know the way, and he walked us all the way back. At the end of the night you tried to give him money, but he wouldn't take it. Sometime after that you said, “I'm never going back to Cuba, it's too hard.” So I wanted to ask you about how things changed for you, emotionally.
LC: I don't remember the statement about not going back. I probably felt that the economic collapse, and that guy's dignity holding up under those circumstances, were overwhelming. I don't know. Look, somehow, after the fifth biennial in 1994, which was the last one I saw, I felt the whole art scene in Cuba had changed. And looking back, I continually remember how artists there had their slide portfolios and business cards, ready for collectors from the United States. And that, for me, was more than a signal. This is over, instead of going forward from the 1980s, it's now going backward. And then there is the mess with Ochoa.12 There were lots of things that were not so transparent; it became very difficult for me to retain my original enthusiasm. There's nothing very profound I can tell you about this.
RW: The fact is that you didn't go back for a very long time. Was that a decision, or just the way it played out?
LC: It was a mix of both. I was invited to go back several times, and I always had a valid, good reason not to go, like some other commitment. So I felt, “Good, I don't have to decide.” The last time I went was for a show in Casa de las Américas, a couple of years ago.13 I was very interested in that exhibition because it was about pedagogical exercises, and I felt those were important to show, particularly in the context of Casa de las Américas.
RW: What was it like to be back?
LC: It was great in the sense that I met a lot of old friends from the 1980s. It was a homecoming of sorts. And Havana was really a tourist haven by then. I was living in the house of the consul of Uruguay, and therefore I moved on a level that was incredibly artificial and out of touch with everyday life, but also incredibly pleasant. But I was very aware of this disjointed perception. I'm still asked sometimes about the situation in Cuba, and I say that I'm disconnected and have no authority to speak about it. I can only say that my connection with Cuba is through friendships with people there. For me, going there now is like going anywhere else. But early on, it was like helping to build something. That's a big difference.
DAY 3: THE URUGUAYAN TORTURE SERIES
RW: You've often framed artistic practice as setting a problem and then solving it. In those terms, what problem was your series of 35 prints, titled the Uruguayan Torture Series (1983–84), trying to solve?
LC: Well, I don't know if it was solved, but I was dealing with a topic that runs the risk of being too explicit and didactic. What I wanted was to work with evocation, on the level of the viewer, not the artist. And for that I emphasized trivial statements with trivial images, so that in the space between text and image, the viewer can elaborate and project his or her own conclusions.14
RW: Why would trivial statements or images have such an impact?
LC: Because they leave more room for that. If they're not trivial they're full of content, and the room for projection is smaller. I was always interested in what in the New York Graphic Workshop group we used to call boludo images: dumb images that aren't saying anything but have something that draws you in, so that you fill their empty space.
RW: But I'm not convinced that all the images in that series are trivial …
LC: No, some are not, some are explicit in a way. That's because I tried to lead the viewer to play all roles: not just that of the victim, but also the torturer, the accomplice, the voyeur, and the victim. For that, punctuations were needed. The 35 prints are in a rigid sequence that makes the viewer go through the different stages, and they cannot be mixed up.
RW: So, the roles that you enumerated—torturer, accomplice, voyeur, and victim—where are you in that?
LC: I always had problems with that series in certain ways. The problem was not what my role was—probably mostly that of the accomplice—because I wasn't able to do anything since I was based in New York. “Accomplice” may be too much, witness maybe. I don't know. I thought more about whether I had the right to do the series at all, being in New York. And my excuse was that I undertook it in English in order to publicize the situation to the US public. I was in a certain way paying homage to friends of mine who were being tortured, or who had been tortured. But there's always this aftertaste: how much was I using these circumstances for an art piece?
RW: The reason why I singled out the Uruguayan Torture Series is because unlike almost all of your other work, it goes directly to an emotional response, which is not what you usually do.
LC: Well, in part, it also came from a sense of guilt because I wasn't there.
RW: That's what I'm getting at. Can you talk about how you felt?
LC: I ended up showing the work in Uruguay in 1986, after the end of the dictatorship. I was invited to have a show in the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales in Montevideo, and when we discussed the torture series, Ángel Kalenberg (b. 1936), the director of the museum, insisted on including them. I didn't want to. So we struck a deal, to show the series in a separate room which was not part of the show's normal circulation, so that people who wanted to see it could go in that room, and those who didn't could bypass it. He also wanted me to give a lecture, and I said, “no, but we can have a conversation.” On that occasion, I was terrified that I'd be asked about why I did that series, and of course that question came up. I was very honest. I said it was partially guilt that I was sitting comfortably in New York while they all were suffering through the dictatorship. And part of it was an homage to a lot of friends who were being victimized. Another part of it was my feeling that in the US, nobody even knew where Uruguay was; that they always confused it with Paraguay; and that they were focused on Nicaragua, ignoring what was happening in the Southern Cone. That mixture of things was what produced the Uruguayan Torture Series. At the same time, I'm still not sure if I was exploitative in making those works or not. What was memorable for me was that in the audience that day sat Julio Marenales (1930–2019), a leading member of the Tupamaros.15 He had been in jail for 12 or 14 years, and in the 1950s, he had been a classmate of mine in art school. He got up and said, “Hey, if you feel guilty about the series you are full of shit. We need iconography, not just written documents about what was happening.” So, he somehow publicly absolved me in a wonderful way, in an incredibly moving way. I don't think I cried, but I was close to it. And it helped me a lot. It didn't totally erase the issue, but it helped. But it's an issue that remains on my mind.
RW: Why do you think it refuses to settle?
LC: I think it's a general problem. If you're concerned with an issue, and you know that, as an artist, you can't really help confront it—it's like raising your hand to stop a train coming—then why does one insist on doing it? Perhaps ultimately for ego promotion, knowing that everything else is futile. I try to justify things by saying: Well, if I raise the awareness of one person, and then that person raises awareness in someone else, that's basically all you can do politically in a more or less efficient way. But I'm not totally satisfied with that justification. It's still rooted in the belief that, as an individual, you can change the world. But you can't. I don't think we should think in that individualistic way. Very lately I realized that the ultimate success is not in being recognized as an artist, but in anonymity, in having what you do be absorbed in a constructive way into the collective mind. That contribution continues living, and your name is totally irrelevant here; you might as well disappear as quickly as possible. And that's a dilemma that artists usually don't consider. I'm facing that dilemma very late in life. I think maybe that's why today I'm more interested in education than in making art. I still make art, but I'm not passionate about it. I'm happy that finally some art sells, but that's from a totally separate point of view. It's not even about my own survival but rather the survival of my children and their economic well-being. It has nothing to do with the creative process. Education may have much more collective effect than any art, with the same investment of energy.
RW: This may sound like a stupid question, but why does it matter to you so much what people in Uruguay think about you?
LC: No, it's not a stupid question. Basically, I'm still living in Uruguay. That's a stupid answer. Look, I always considered myself as a regional artist, and my public—the people with whom I can communicate 100%—as the intellectual class in Uruguay during the 1950s and early 60s. They have mostly disappeared, but they're still my public. And, fortunately, time in Uruguay passes very slowly, so that a lot of people can still communicate with me in spite of the distance. I don't feel that way with the US or the European public, even after all this time. The fact is that I was never interested in assimilating, I never intended to stay in the US. By the time I could go back safely, I had an American family, and I had no right to uproot them for my sake. So I remain in limbo, and I'm resigned to it—I'm not even resentful, it is how it is.
DAY 4: ANARCHIC REFLECTIONS
RW: What histories do you think you carry or embody?
LC: The Reform of Córdoba16—I'm a product of that. Actually, more a remnant probably than a carrier. But that formed me.
RW: And what about the Left, are you a remnant of that?
LC: Well, the Left that I believed in at that time believed in the possibility of revolution, which didn't work out very well. I changed my views about that. So, in terms of history—unfortunately, it is history. You'll have to push further.
RW: You said that you basically react to stimuli, so what have been the important stimuli, the turning points, the significant people in your career? I don't mean artistic influences, but stimuli that have been important.
LC: A political event—the CIA-sponsored coup against Jacobo Arbenz (1913–71) of Guatemala in the 1950s—was a crucial moment for me. That was my political awakening. I went from basically not having a political opinion to suddenly having one.
RW: You had no political opinion before that?
LC: I was 16 when I went into art school, and I was very naive. That coincided with being confronted with a set of students who were anarchists, and who basically formed my mindset.
RW: What did it mean to be an anarchist in art school? That sounds like a contradiction, to accept all the structures and rules that come with being a student—and, moreover, a student of the discipline of art—but to also reject structures and disciplines, per anarchism.
LC: It was an ethical construction, based on Martin Buber, Bertrand Russell, Pyotr Kropotkin, and others. Anarchism moved toward constructing an ethic of equal distribution of power and justice. It wasn't about throwing bombs, it was very ethically oriented. For instance, we would not vote in student meetings until we had a consensus, and we would keep discussing until we had all agreed. That wasn't very efficient, but it was very interesting as a thought model.
RW: How many people were in the anarchist group?
LC: Maybe 30 or 40. A small group.
RW: In the quasi-commune I lived in when I was a teenager, we also operated according to consensus. I credit that as crucial in my political formation, but it also is the source of my frustration and skepticism about democracy.
LC: Yeah, I mean democracy is basically a compromise, a pragmatic compromise. It's not theoretically clean. In that sense anarchism was a very principled and extreme model, which I have trouble abandoning.
RW: One thing that strikes me is that you arrived in New York with fairly radical ideas about an ethical anarchism, and then somehow your political activity was funneled into activism that challenged art institutions. I'm curious what happened to your radicalism? Did it hibernate for a while? Because those seem like incompatible positions.
LC: First of all, it continued through my work teaching at the college level. At Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, I was pushing for a “white rehabilitation plan” to re-educate the student body. The college at the time had only 12 African American students and was a very racist place. We were about four faculty who got together to fight that, also in a curricular sense. And that's what brought me to SUNY in Old Westbury, which in 1968 was formulating a more radical way to be a college. Out of fear of the student movement, I think, Rockefeller decided to bring all the Left academics to one campus far away from everything else, so they put the college on a huge estate and announced the new mission—and I'm quoting—of “breaking the lockstep of traditional education.” We had a free hand to do away with grading, with credits, with all the traditional constraints, and focus on experimentation of new socially oriented curricula. So, I think my anarchy went into those directions.
RW: It almost seems like, given what you're doing with the current pedagogical work, you've made a large circle: you started out committed to radical ideas about education as the site of changes on a bigger scale, which is also where you are again now. And in between there's a career as an artist, with education as a through line, by way of your decades of teaching, but somewhat separate from your career as an artist. Is that fair?
LC: Yes, I think it is a circle, though I'm trying to integrate education in my artwork. Look, by training as an artist, starting very early to study as an artist, then getting fellowships as an artist, trying to get into galleries, and so on—you become distorted. I shared all the anxieties and ambitions of a normal artist. Not of not selling, because in that sense I was lucky to be teaching pretty much all the time, and liking it. I didn't see a difference between working in the classroom and working in the studio. But I still had my ambitions, and being fired by a gallery (Paula Cooper) was traumatic. And then, eight years later, again by Marian Goodman. My midlife crisis was connected to this, to my failure to have an impact as an artist. But what happens now is that I feel that energy is more efficiently expended focusing on education, rather than on producing art. And in that sense, I may have come full circle.
RW: But there are decades of life and experience in between, and you're not the same person now that you were as a young radical. What does the old radical know that the young person didn't?
LC: Well, mostly that changes are incredibly slow in the making and span several generations. And my distrust of revolutions is connected to the feeling of instant gratification they imply, the belief that you achieved the revolution and the next day everything is OK, yet it's not. It's a very fickle and fragile shift that, from my perspective now, doesn't seem to last. One shocking thing for me was that, besides all the differences that one may have with the Soviet revolution, after 70 years of secular education, one day after the collapse of the Soviet Union all the obscurantism was back, as if untouched. Religion, astrology, magic: all those things, like a virus, survived in latency over three generations, and were just waiting to be reactivated. I now realize that it takes more than a formal change to truly eradicate the virus.
RW: That's certainly the experience of the US now, that the virulence of white nationalism does not seem to have been weakened at all by decades of quasi-dormancy.
LC: The Civil War doesn't seem to ever have ended.
RW: The current virus, the coronavirus, is also very literal. How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic is changing things?
LC: I don't know. I fear that autocracy will be reaffirmed. And that “firm leadership” will gain power, and the other options—I don't yet know what they are. In Southern Italy people are looting supermarkets and claiming it as populist activism because people are claiming collective property. It's something I might have applauded in my younger version, but I don't today.
RW: I don't want to end on the lowest possible note. Presumably, once the quarantine period is over, you'll go back to all those projects?
LC: Yes, and I'm very enthusiastic about them. In fact, we're still working, as though everything were OK. But I don't know if quarantine will ever really stop.
The mission of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros is to support and advance cultural understanding and educational dialogue among Latin American artists and global audiences.
The reference is to Roman Opałka (1931–2011), the French-born Polish painter known for his paintings of numbers counting from one to infinity, which began in 1965.
In the video Jane Doe (2012/15), Camnitzer utilized image-morphing software to fuse fifty photographs of women's faces taken from online police reports, legal documents, and newspaper articles.
Casa de las Américas is a government cultural institution focused on all of the Americas. It was one of the first agencies established in April 1959, just four months after the Cuban Revolution.
Mariano Rodríguez (1912–90) was a highly regarded Cuban painter who was appointed Director of the Visual Art Department of Casa de las Américas in 1962 and who served as president of the institution from 1980 to 1982.
The Intermedia Program at the University of Iowa, founded in 1967, was one of the first interdisciplinary art programs in the country.
Carla Stellweg (1943–) is a Mexican art critic who ran a small gallery from her loft in New York City, where she represented Mendieta among other artists.
See Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba (University of Texas Press, 1994; revised edition, 2003).
Llilian Llanes is a Cuban architectural historian who served as director of the Havana Biennial from 1986 to 1999.
This is a reference to an exhibition staged as part of the biennial that year, titled “The Tradition of Humor in Cuban Art.”
Raúl Martínez (1927–95) was a Cuban artist and graphic designer best known for his Pop Art–like paintings and poster designs.
Arnaldo Ochoa (1930–89) was a prominent Cuban general who led Cuban forces in Angola. He was tried and convicted on drug-smuggling charges, which many found to be questionable, and was executed in July 1989.
The exhibition, titled Ejercicios, was part of the 12th Havana Biennial in 2015.
See https://www.alexandergray.com/series-projects/luis-camnitzer4 for more information on these works.
The Tupamaros were an urban guerrilla group in Uruguay, known especially for the creative nature of their operations.
The Reform of Córdoba (1918) was a student-led reform of the university system in Argentina, which spread over the following five years across the continent. It instituted student self-rule and the idea that the university was an autonomous body within the state.