21 November, 2012

A Culture to Be Known: an interview with Ernesto Pujol

Ernesto Pujol is a site-specific public performance artist and social choreographer. His undergraduate studies were in humanities and fine arts, followed by graduate work in education, media, and psychology. Pujol has an MFA in interdisciplinary studio practice from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. He has taught at the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union, the Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt Institute, Parsons The New School, Bezalel Academy of Art & Design, and The Maine College of Art. Since 1999, Pujol has been field training graduate and post-graduate art students in site-specific art work. Pujol is interested in the notion of the artist as citizen, the citizenship of museums, and the citizenship of art itself in the evolution of American democracy. Pujol believes that the creative critical thinking tools of American artists are integral to the sustainability of American democracy within an increasingly diverse society. He strives to reclaim public spaces from clutter, noise, and speed, temporarily eliminating distractions, generating silence and solitude; transforming them into sites for interiority, for the reawakening of basic consciousness. Pujol has served with the New York State Council on the Arts, the Academy for Educational Development, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC.

Production image from Tzofia, 12 hour performance, Tel Aviv, 2008.

Ernesto, thank you for offering to speak about your life and work in a political context.  Your article in ArtEast was one of my absolute favorite artist-reflection pieces.  What was your perception of the US in your youth and how has it developed, now, having lived here for so many years?

EP:  First of all, I would like to clarify for your readers that I am not a foreigner.  I am a US citizen.  But I grew up as a US citizen in the Caribbean region, where people refer to America as “The Mainland.”  I recently discovered that they do the same in the Pacific, in Hawaii. It seems to be a periphery-to-center dynamic, colonial.  During my early teens, the US was the source of my popular culture, while Europe, specifically Spain and England, were the source of my so-called high culture.  Having lived in New York for 27 years now, our situation feels like the end of an empire, surrounded by an increasingly impoverished society.

Are the arts an effective way to address this country’s dire situation without being dismissed as another form of rhetoric?

EP:  I believe that art is language, and that all language bears the possibility of communicating information that leads to evolution.  When was the last time that the arts addressed “this country’s dire situation,” as you say?  From my own experience, it was during the 1980s and the AIDS crisis.  Many artists made work about AIDS or put their creative skills at the service of activist groups such as ACT UP.  And it was very effective; and people paid attention to the issues.  I think that the arts need to claim that role again.  In many ways, other than the lack of government issued funding, no one is holding them back but the art world itself.

There seems to be a fairly consistent triad that energizes your most recent work: landscape, community, and self.  How did you arrive at these elements of your practice and how has their significance been maintained?

EP:  I am not interested in self-expression.  I am an itinerant artist, a conceptual “portrait painter” through site-specific durational performance art.  I reveal the unseen about places, in a very psychic way, Jungian.  I am commissioned sited projects by museums, universities, and festivals, as the intimate portraits of people and places.  I have always been interested in art as language, in the evolution of audiences, and in increasing the relevance and role of art in society.  I have sustained these interests at great personal expense—at great sacrifice.  Long ago I chose not to seek tenure in any of the schools I was invited to teach, so as to remain free, objective.  It has been a great adventure, but an austere one.

I also appreciate how these elements of your work translate your concepts and methods to a broader audience.  You very arduously educate the public about some specific, and easily overlooked, issues regarding ecology, U.S. culture, and contemplation; encouraging people who aren’t necessarily “in the arts” to see this world—and the people in it—more directly and to think outside of the box.  But, yes!  . . . tell us about the art advocacy and the broader education, thereof.  When you make logistical arrangements with various groups, are you also reaching-out to promote the arts in general, or is this widening base of support (among diverse art communities, naturalists, civil leadership, etc.) more of an incidental gain?

EP:  I come from a family of committed educators.  My mother was a famous educator, very much ahead of her times, in terms of ethics (values) and rights.  I believe that the art world has dismissed a great part of our mainstream population as too conservative, politically and religiously.  We have dismissed them as hopelessly uneducated, sort of beyond redemption.  Part of it is an urban cynical snobbery, and part of it is a secret fear.  Many artists are not just disconnected but secretly terrified of audiences.  Yet those are the very masses of voters who put retrograde presidents in the White House, creating setbacks, for years.  The art world cannot continue to ignore them; it risks everyone’s future in doing so.

I am very interested in taking the best of contemporary experimental, interdisciplinary art to them.  If they do not come to the mountain, the mountain (the hills!) must go to them.  They must not remain undisturbed, complacent.  I am interested in challenging their assumptions and broadening their horizons, demonstrating that we are one and the same people.  I actually believe that they have a lot to contribute to the global dialogue.  We say that we love globalism.  Indeed, we seek the story of every other people, of distant tribes and remote villages, all but our own.  The art world is embarrassed by our regional unsophisticated stories, south and west.  But we must face them and generate a new enlightened regionalism, interconnected.  We must practice an internal globalism in America.

Wow.  Fantastic points.  On a related note, you’ve worked in coordination with a number of organizations and government agencies to realize your projects: Good Works Foundation of Los Angeles, The Land Institute, U.S. Art in Embassies, various Museums; and you have served on the New York State Council on the Arts and as a Consultant for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.  Is diplomacy a skill that you recommend for artists of the current era?

EP:  Yes!  While no one taught me diplomatic skills in art school, I could not do what I do without them.  I would not accomplish anything. I have had to work hard as a cultural diplomat, as an ambassador for contemporary art interventions in the public sphere with the Cuban communist government, with Republican conservative Christians, with Mormon politicians.  All very delicate.
I have had to translate to them what I wanted to achieve in their communities.  Every place has gatekeepers and stakeholders.  Diplomacy is a skill I learned from my heroic mother, who integrated her school, which I later perfected on the road.  Art schools need to teach students how to work with people as peers, as true collaborators, not merely as studio and project assistants.  Interdisciplinary practice does not consist in more complicated research, expanding the texts that inform your process.  It actually consists of dialogue with experts who are as empowered as you are, or more.  It is humbling.

Image (above):  Awaiting, 12 hour performance, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2009.

Do you have formal training in choreography, art direction, or curatorial duties?

EP:  I am self-taught in all those fields. But as you stated in the beginning, I have a very broad formal education: in humanities, philosophy, religion, psychology, media theory, and visual arts.  And everything is connected.  And I am an observer of people, a good listener—and a quick study.

Production image from Memorial Gestures, 12 hour performance, Chicago, 2007.

Do you find some political value in your ability to organize and engage large numbers of people?

EP:  Yes, I could not do what I do without a certain political mass quality that is nothing less than charismatic in terms of engaging hundreds of people to follow me into the dream and the labor of a non-profit project.  It becomes like a poetic political campaign, but one created for their behalf.  It is for them.  They own it.  They take it over long before I leave town, and certainly afterwards.  It is funny that you ask, because I have sometimes thought of running for office.  But it would have to be on a very small scale because I dislike large bureaucracies.  Part of enjoying what I do has to do with sidestepping all local red tape and going directly from conception to production to enactment, in free flow.

Tell us a bit about “The Field Schoolinitiative and how you see these programs developing in the coming years.

EP:  The Field School is something humble that developed organically, through graduate students wanting to study and work with me during and beyond school.  For years, I have turned every project that has been commissioned to me into an ephemeral school.  We need more training like that, beyond school walls, in the field.  I would like to see more art schools with experimental storefronts and partnerships with hospitals, clinics, etc.  Art students should intern in places other than galleries and museums.  Art students are always looking for content; that is the great worry of youth, not having something to say.  Volunteer in a dog shelter, in a small organic farm, in a poor nursing home one long hot summer and you will have a lot to say by fall.

What is your take on artistic skill—do all people have the capacity to be artists?  What about the ability to see things from an artistic perspective?

EP:  Are you good at everything?  I do not believe that everyone has artistic skills, just like I have no mathematical skills, nor am I able to withstand the sight of blood and open wounds.  I could not be a mathematician or a physician.  Yet, if we provided universal education as a right for all our people, all people would enjoy some form of more complex intellectual life.  And all people would be creative, at some level, because creativity is at the core of every discipline, its research and analysis.  Not everyone is a surgeon.  Not everyone is an artist.  It would be na├»ve to think so— sentimental.  But everyone is potentially creative.  Regarding everyone seeing things from “an artistic perspective,” I am going to assume that you mean from a creative critical thinking perspective.  Everyone is capable of that, given education, openness to experience, ongoing curiosity, and humility.

More and more in recent years, I’ve come across various reports that MFA’s are a worthless degree (here and here) not to mention seeing, first-hand, a growing number of disenfranchised artists funneled into a work-force that is predominantly industrial and commercial, by design.  I found your article for “dis magazine” online to be extremely relevant to shaping a more appropriate trajectory for artists.  Could you build on any of the specific points from that article with examples of programs that may be best-case examples of the innovations you recommend?

EP:  I have written so much about this.  I am interested in American art training reform.  I believe it is in crisis; much of it is morally bankrupt.  There are some new graduate programs developing, new or reinvented, but I do not think it ethical to promote one program over another through this venue.  So, let me just say that all students need to take control of their education and lead it assertively where they want to.  The problem is that, in order to do that, you need to know who you are, that is: where do you come from and where are you going, individually and collectively?  And those are tough questions because we live in a culture of entertaining spectacles that keep you distracted and immature, infantilizing everyone and everything.

Writer Carol Becker has said (and I am probably paraphrasing her incorrectly) that sometimes we seem to be a country without culture, having instead a mammoth entertainment industry.  If you add our advertising media to that, and the new information technologies as multiple 24-hour portals, that leaves the American persona with no time for silence and solitude—for reflection.  I do not believe that we will survive for long like that.  An increasingly impoverished diverse society needs to reflect.  Democracy can only survive if there is space for reflection.

Farmers Dream, Dreaming Kansas, 12 hour performance, Salina, Kansas, 2009.

I’d like to hear more from you regarding the state of our culture.  Your description of the Dreaming Kansas project describes a region that is often hijacked by electoral politics.  The text is furthered by mourning the loss of something that runs deeper than demographics: the loss of a rural American culture whose values and traditions were intrinsically dependent on survival with the landscape.  What else has the country lost by way of losing our rural, farming families and communities?

EP:  It has lost a connection to the land and its resources and cycles that, although far form perfect, it was intimate.  We need to reconnect with our environment and food sources.  It is time that visual artist residencies should begin to take place in nature preserves and organic farms across America.


Image (right): 
Farmers Dream, 12 hour performance,
Salina, Kansas, 2009.

Discussions of an American culture—with its origins in multiple waves of European settlement—are under increasing scrutiny for the massacre of indigenous peoples.  As someone who was born and raised in the Caribbean, you are no stranger to the traumas and injustices that are carried through the generations following the European Conquest.  How have you formed an appreciation for any traditions of “American” culture at the expense of such extensive bloodshed?

EP: Indeed, I was born and raised in the Caribbean, specifically, in Cuba and Puerto Rico, two little countries that historically were and remain under US influence.  In the 1960s, my parents were young progressive professionals, intellectually interested in the Christian democratic socialist politics of Scandinavian countries.  They were socialist pacifists; they were not communists.  America has yet to learn the difference between militarized communism, as a form of fascism, and liberal socialism as an evolution of democracy.

In my case, both of the islands where I have a family heritage witnessed their native indigenous populations wiped out early on and replaced by African slave labor.  My white European family owned slaves until Emancipation and remained white until the Cuban Revolution of 1959, when it began to mix, slowly.  I grew up surrounded by that new cultural mix.  American culture is very new yet complex, where people are just beginning to consciously mix rather than blindly assimilate.  But its native peoples remain one of its great shames.  They remain a muffled voice.

Nevertheless, there remains an openness to North American society.  There are castes, but it is not a caste system.  There are aristocrats, but there is no aristocracy.  There remains an upward mobility, through an increasingly hard to come by good education and hard work, in spite of widespread corruption.  The genocide of the Native Americans was horrendous, and their situation remains tragic, but when you read the great innocents of the West, like Willa Cather, a book like My Antonia, there is still an American seduction that makes one wonder about possibilities.

A number of your projects are located in remote and sparsely-populated regions—I’m thinking of Utah (UTEHAUS  and Awaiting), Kansas (Dreaming Kansas), and Hawaii (Walking Ground).  What is it about your imagination that responds to these locations?

Speaking in Silence, 12 hour performance, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2010.

EP:  I believe that everyone has the right to culture.  And I mean critical culture rather than entertainment.  Critical culture is a human right.  I am fascinated by isolated peoples, particularly the landlocked. I grew up in islands, locked by water, surrounded by deep dangerous waters.  When I finally travelled to the Midwest, I fell in love with the prairie.  I had finally found a safe ocean where one did not drown or was torn apart by sharks.  The prairie has the same horizon and sky as the ocean, endless, dreamy.  But returning to your question, I feel a deep compassion.  I work long at having a generous practice.  It is about love.  And there is no use in preaching to the choir.  That is easy, intellectually lazy.  I do not care for artists showing to artists.  What is the social gain in that?  I prefer to face my fears and test my beliefs.  I have sat down with hunters and ranchers to dinners.  When you dine with conservatives, you get to know your true beliefs and you might just find your true strength in your vulnerability.

Inheriting Salt, Installation, New York, 2007.

And yet, you work in New York City!  How do you merge these high-contrast environments into a coherent lifestyle and art practice?  I hear that you are even making weekly trips to upstate New York.

EP:  I came to NYC to study, never planning to stay “forever.”  I am still not planning to stay forever, although it has been 27 years.  New York is a crossroads.  I live in Downtown Brooklyn.  It is filled with immigrants, expatriates, refugees.  I live in a very tight community and talk to my neighbors daily. I know my shopkeepers.  I live in an urban village under the shadow on New York.  And I recently acquired a very small old cottage by the river, upstate, so now I live in two villages, an urban and a rural one.  I negotiate the city down to a human scale.  I think that many shy people do.

You make concerted efforts to promote community and a relationship with our environment; what about contemplative meditation . . . do you see yourself as an advocate for meditation in daily living?

EP:  I was once a cloistered monk in a monastery, a contemplative.  I have found that I have a remarkably strong, rigorous foundation in the combined practice of study, meditation, contemplation, mysticism.  I thought that everyone secretly had it but it seems to be rare.  I used to meditate very consciously but now it is second nature.  It is organic, fully integrated into my days, like water flowing among rocks.  My art work is imbued with it.  But I define spirituality as something imbued with the human spirit.  So, everything is spiritual.  And everything is silence.  This conversation is part of my silence, because it is “right speech,” so it comes from my silence and feeds my silence.  I live a meditative day.  Nothing is outside the realm of meditation.

Meditation is often described as self-cultivation, self-reflection, self-help, etc.  Isn’t there a risk of cultivating so much of an individual’s notions of self that concepts of the collective and the political can become neglected . . . or ignored, altogether?

EP:  The narcissism of our culture appropriates everything.  But meditation is not narcissistic.  I think that that popular definition of meditation is a misunderstanding.  Meditation is self-less.  It is about the no-self.  In other words, meditation is not about self regard; true meditation is not related at all to what is commonly known as self-help culture.  So, there is no war between it and social presence or social practice.  In fact, I cannot conceive of having a political life, individually or collectively, without a rich interior life, without meditation.  Otherwise, that political life is superficial, flat, reactionary.  That is the problem with our political space, it does not include time for silence and solitude, for meditating complex situations.  We should not think that our 24-hour news culture is any better prepared to decide anything if it never takes time to meditate the news.

These narcissistic tendencies are precisely what prompt my questioning . . . meditation and Eastern practices as they have come to be known in the US seemed to flourish during a time of prosperity and a rampant commodification of our own culture.  Eastern philosophies, deities, and religious practices appeared to be profitable "trends" for the privileged.  I think mostly of yoga and meditation retreats.  How could the benefits of something quite accessible—like meditation—reach a wider socioeconomic base, in order to help people who could benefit immensely from releasing their own egocentric ways?

EP: I think that you are showing your prejudices here.  But that is okay.  We have all had cartoonish experiences with transplanted imported Eastern practices.  Buddhism is the spiritual practice of millions of poor citizens worldwide.  In North America, it may be currently associated with a cultural and intellectual elite, with amazing figures such as John Cage, for example.  But I do not sell meditation any more than I sell spiritual practice.  Spirituality is nothing but whatever is imbued with the human spirit.  Anything filled with the human spirit is spiritual.  What is the so-called human spirit?  It is the desire to transcend.  How do we transcend?  We transcend through creative thought and the suspension of tired thought.  We transcend through our intellect, our imagination, and the wisdom of the body.  However we reach that interior life, through meditation, yoga, etc., it does not matter.  The point is to achieve interiority.  “The masses” do not need to meditate.  The masses simply need to be less distracted and more conscious, however they achieve it.

Baptism, work in progress, Maine, 2008-12.

Please tell us about your upcoming projects so that our readers across the US may experience your work (wherever they may be?)

EP:  I am developing several new projects in the US and abroad for 2013, but it is truly too early to announce them, as they are all in their very early stages.  So, please stay posted.  In the meantime, I just published a book called “Sited Body, Public Visions: silence, stillness & walking as performance practice.”  It is available through McNally Jackson Books, the independent publisher: http://www.mcnallyjackson.com/bookmachine/sited-body-public-visions.  It was a labor of love, which I would like to share with your readers.

Thank you. I hope that we may share your upcoming projects with our readers when the time is right.  For now, we have a few additional links where people can find more your work:

Two additional publications with essays by the artist on American art education reform:

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