How does art face crisis? What paths and means does it find in a state of emergency? How does it overcome shock and paralysis? What possibilities for lived solidarity does it allow us to imagine? The report by the Chilean curator César Vargas, co-initiator of the Sagrada Mercancia art space in Santiago, describes possible answers to these questions. Using the example of this space and related initiatives in Puerto Rico and Argentina, he shows how independent art projects and spaces were able to foster solidarity and collaboration networks in the face of state terror and the global health crisis. His report outlines an attitude and vision of independence beyond individualistic maxims, and he locates the power of (in)dependence in the commitment of the here and now and of life itself. Vargas’ experience makes clear that the freedom of non-institutional places and spaces does not only rely on not becoming an accomplice to oppressive practices. Their potential also lies in actual transformation – in the power and ability of becoming something else.
The Figure in Common Space
An essential characteristic of independent art spaces is that they all seek their own place in history; that is, they have wrested themselves from the dominant flow of culture in order to carve out their own path. It is a form of existence that continuously risks not even having a path. In many ways and to different degrees, this path has been forged by fragility—constant struggle and ideological resistance against the predominant context. Considered together, these factors offer a clear explanation of the historical discontinuity that characterizes independent spaces. This discontinuity, however, articulates a strange form of experiential connection. In other words, a micropolitical temporality sensitive to multiplicity, within which different experiences of independent art from our continent have existed, exist, and move.
Here, the continuum of our own colonial and postcolonial history and, crucially, our recent history, has made us all too familiar with precarity and a permanent sense of crisis. And it is precisely because we share a common history of suffering that independent art spaces in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean are able to create spaces of resistance, meeting, and recognition. In a sense, independent art spaces critically appropriate the unfavorable historical, economic, political, and, of course, cultural conditions that led to their emergence to make way for the collective definition of a voice, the occupation of a space, and the creation of a distinct way of doing things. All these critical factors are inextricably linked to the emergence of independent art spaces, and they connect to an interwoven network of historical and contemporary experiences—whether they want to or not. This fabric of experiences has no creator, nor does it need one. Rather, it is an undergirding form of life, one in which the independent practices that overflow into the different cultural realities of Latin America can interconnect.
Seen from this perspective, the concept and meaning of independence are not only born out of a strong political need for self-visibility, but are also vital for the critical conscience of said art spaces in relation to the dominant cultural context in which they exist. In this vein, what is truly profound and interesting about the claim to independence is its irrevocable association with a degree of freedom, or, to put it more aptly, with a form of safeguarding that feeling of freedom through the artistic practices that occur in these spaces. For they are spaces of freedom, spaces of thought, and thus experimentation is just as integral to them and their mode of operating within visual arts.
Independence does not entail self-marginalization, nor does it mean forgoing dependence on anything else. Much to the contrary, art spaces rely on a set of relationships, of greater or lesser importance, that they organize in such a way that favors their autonomy and the freedom to manage themselves. I would like to emphasize that it is these social ties and bridges that truly make a space exist. It is these bridges that define a common zone, an enlarged existence that gives form to the collective subjectivity of independent spaces.
Self-Transformation and the Power to Protect Life
Following the conceptual constellation of the idea of independence outlined above, I would like to examine the social and artistic activation of three contemporary art spaces: Sagrada Mercancía (Chile), KM 0.2 (Puerto Rico), and UV Estudios (Argentina). These three spaces are united by a shared commitment to relational practices based in autonomy and freedom and, more importantly, have all forged independent paths of collective self-management.
The Chilean context is especially complex since the country has passed through two consecutive crises: the social uprisings of 18 October 2019 and the COVID-19 global pandemic. For us at Sagrada Mercancía (hereafter referred to as SM), as members of a project space,but also a team of workers, the experience of this double crisis has been a challenging process in terms of production capacity and job security.
In the second half of 2019, we were working with the Costa Rican artist Christian Salablanca. His research residency was focused on technologies of violence, especially those used during the period of the military dictatorship and the establishment of neoliberalism in Chile. His project “Alza de Mira” opened on Friday, 11 October 2019. Exactly one week later, one of the most important popular uprisings against the neoliberal economic system in the recent history of our country began. All normal sense of time came to a halt. Our artist’s project offered an unexpected critical correspondence to the violence that had taken over our reality. Everything was happening in the streets. What began with a subway boycott organized by high school students in response to a fare hike quickly spread all across the country.
In response to the magnitude of the looting, the government of president and businessman Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution less than 24 hours after the start of the protests. The police and the military enacted state terror in the streets, apprehending, killing, and blinding dozens of young people. Systematic human rights violations spread across nation. During the most critical weeks of the protest, all the commercial, banking, and cultural institutions located in the most important cities closed their doors and barricaded their entrances. The violence of the military dictatorship had returned and was used to defend its most important legacy: the neoliberal economic model.
Faced with this volatile situation, we decided to deinstall the exhibition with the permission of the artist on 18 October 2019 and reopen our space as a shelter. The socio-political events happening around us were overwhelming; in only a few days, they had reached historic proportions due to the unprecedented use of violence and terror. It was under these conditions that we reactivated our space with the goal of offering shelter and all kinds of basic medical aid. After we improved the coordination of our internal resources, we decided to form the parallel collective SM – Apoyo Mutuo (SM – Mutual Aid) with the help of some friends. This allowed us to focus and increase the work we were doing out of the space: receiving, stockpiling, and distributing medical supplies to the different medical brigades and centers active in the street protest zones.
SM – Apoyo Mutuo was an autonomous and multi-faceted organization composed of artists, designers, architects, journalists, doctors, writers, and audiovisual workers, among others. Its principal objective was focused on devising and activating new forms of collective aid, playing off the different strengths of each of its members. Creating this organizational experience allowed us to resist as a community and to redirect our collaborative efforts immediately thereafter to attend to the COVID-19 health crisis, focusing especially on the impact the crisis had on different communities that have gone unrecognized in the institutional sector. For more than a year since then, this collaborative network has been channeling its activity through a variety of different actions, among them:
- Protection from and resistance against police and military brutality
- The management, purchase, and distribution of medical supplies to the different health centers established to aid protestors wounded by repressive police violence
- The design and construction of protective equipment for health workers and rescuers
- The development of first aid workshops and roundtables for civic education
- Direct monetary contributions to different community funds and communal and social organizations born in response to the COVID-19 health crisis
A critical analysis of our context highlights the verticality, rigidity, and social sterility of institutional culture. Indeed, its entire infrastructure and administration have been engulfed by the neoliberal economic model and revealed to be impotent in practice. Neoliberal governmentality and its policy of cultural commodification (understanding culture as a consumer good and treating citizens as a simple audience) is precisely what suppresses the people’s connection to the here and now. The 2019 protests and the pandemic unleashed a series of brutal policies onto the population, enacted a permanent state of emergency, and led to the total mobilization of institutional and police apparatuses for the protection of the extreme model of neoliberalism under which we live. The generalization of the market by all sectors of society has endangered people’s very lives.
We broke with that logic by means of a different kind of social practice, one that was capable of operating in an organically flexible and horizontal way. This practice established connections with organizations outside the art world and activated a network of solidarity. SM – Apoyo Mutuowas our political and social response to our immediate situation. We were one of the few spaces, if not the only, to keep its doors open and to commit to protecting people’s lives. Because of this, the space gained a reputation for radicalism as an independent art space operating as a shelter and aid center, an example of parallel organizing that can provide a model for other similar organizations navigating situations of serious social crisis.
The Free Quotidianity of the Market
We more or less agree that no moderately healthy or mature cultural field is exempt from the dialectic of the institutional and the independent, the inside and the outside. Rather than a death sentence, this relationship—and the organic multiplicity it may assume—reveals itself to be necessary and even enriching. Having said that, two things have become clear through our empirical local experience. First, that a mutually beneficial relationship does not exist. The governmental bodies that govern culture do not consider independent spaces—that is, those spaces that exist outside the institutional model—to be valid interlocutors. Second, under a state of emergency, the institutional cultural sphere is paralyzed and subjected to the security apparatuses of the sovereign power.
In our country, the historical development of neoliberal policies and the privatization of culture, in which institutionality acts as the protector of its superficial public character, have finally revealed culture to be but one more resource within the government’s technologies of corporate power. Privatization is nothing but the state of emergency extended and made permanent. It is a logic that combines two simultaneous tactics: the meritocratic restriction of access to culture to an elite and the precarization of a wide spectrum of workers who exist both within and outside the institutional cultural sphere. It is a disastrous logic in which everything must become corporate in order to have a place in culture. This is how institutionalization functions under a corporate model that consolidates culture as a property right that can be denied, granted, or taken away, all the while claiming to contribute to the success of the nation.
Contemporary neoliberal governmentality has overflowed into a process of democratizing the entrepreneurial self. Not only does it mobilize culture in order to drive this process, but it is culture that generates and defines said self’s economic comportment. It is a mode of subjectification that defines our epoch and keeps a complex network of the powers of individual financial agents, philanthropy, and public and private bodies in play—a whole tangle in which what could be called corporate sovereignties of cultural management operate: a power dynamic that implements as much competition as possible and as much planning as necessary; a process that is inevitably correlated with the exclusion of communal feeling of a cultural here and now; a drastic cancellation of the vital and immanent idea that culture constitutes a place for the human condition in all its plurality.
Collaborative Subjectivity and Exercises in Mutual Aid
In the context of the present COVID-19 global pandemic and the concurrent intensification of the constant precarization of life, the activation of independent spaces has become crucially necessary. In response to the quarantine policies that took a profound toll on cultural activity deemed unessential, alternative art spaces have made possible avenues of resistance and support for artists and different nonprofit organizations. Gallery and art space KM 0.2 (San Juan, Puerto Rico) is a special case among these because it was a pioneer in propelling policies of collaboration and providing direct economic aid to the island’s artists. The directors, Roberto “Yiyo” Tirado and Karlo Andrei Ibarra, initiated the project “La Cuarentena” (“Quarantine”), an emergency fund devised for the immediate aid of visual artists, designers, illustrators, curators, and art historians. They made an open-call for applications and established an ethical framework ensuring that the aid could not be spent on financing projects, art materials, publications, or exhibition catalogues.
Launched in the middle of the pandemic, this initiative had two iterations. In its latter edition, they were able to award 25 grants of $600 USD. On a practical level, this aid process was made possible due to the mutual collaboration of two different entities: the gallery and independent art space KM 0.2, which created, designed, and promoted the call-for-submissions through its website, and the Fondo Flamboyán para las Artes de Puerto Rico, which provided the money. This example clearly illustrates a model of association that makes providing direct support and having a positive impact on artistic communities politically possible.
The establishment of work organizations that span the institutional (both private and public) and the independent is totally legitimate and necessary, as is demonstrating the ability to operate flexibly in a common sphere, supporting the lives of artists, protecting them, and contributing in crisis situations. Independent art spaces are able to activate themselves as platforms and networks of support because they are in direct contact with the world of artists. This proximity to a shared reality—the here and now of the cultural phenomenon—allows them to access the knowledge necessary to effectively offer aid. For it is not simply being able to help that is important, it is also knowing how to help in situations in which the existence of artists has become critically difficult.
Another significant initiative organized by KM 0.2 was the collective exhibition “Landmark” (2020), which featured the work of 35 artists and established a transgenerational visual dialogue staged from different geographical vantage points. “Viral Spring,” an online exhibition in which five Latin American artists participated, is also worth mentioning. Both initiatives, in each of their modes of activation, were very important because they were developed during the first phase of the pandemic. They brought together a multiplicity of artists in the spirit of collaboration, supporting their livelihoods by offering them visibility and the possibility of selling their work. The significance of this kind of collective project, which included international Latin American artists, is its intersection of the personal and the regional. What was transcendent about these initiatives was precisely their ability to generate a narrative field where experiences could be shared—that is, their ability to give meaning to the work of artists in the middle of a pandemic.
Work as the Self-Management of Encounters
A transversal and vital aspect of independent spaces that allows them to remain alive is the construction of bridges of relationships. This task has become more complex in the current health crisis, and art spaces have had to seek out new ways of making connections. However, as we have seen, work relationships and bridges are essential for protecting life and sustaining a feeling of community. These bridges not only constitute the work relations that bring the lives of spaces together with the lives of artists. For many years now, they have also helped to mobilize an interwoven network of self-generated experiences, a practice of freedom and mutual recognition, and, now more than ever before, a feeling of camaraderie. This has become possible because sensitivity is an essentially political element that operates as a collective matrix through which bodies fold back in on themselves, creating a space where we can feel part of the critical fabric of independent art experiences and their ability to give voice to shared narratives.
Experiencing art from within independent spaces has always had a difficult side to it, one that often runs the limits of the very existence of those spaces. Indeed, the independence and freedom these spaces have is the freedom to become something else. In this sense, the art space UV Estudios (Buenos Aires, Argentina) is paradigmatic in respect to the modalities of self-transformation.
For a variety of circumstances, this space had to leave the house where it had previously operated and transform itself into a mobile project office. Its director, Violeta Mansilla, who recently relocated from Argentina to Uruguay, began to develop new models for itinerant activation. One of the pieces that they reactivated during the volatile year of 2020 was the project “Restorán de Hoco Huoc” (“Hoco Huoc’s Restaurant”). I believe this performative work was especially significant as an encapsulation of the transformation UV Estudios was going through at the time. The work in itself served as a space of experimentation where the broader context of the health crisis and the project space’s process of internal evolution could intersect.
The collaboration between Violeta Mansilla and the artist Hoco Huoc was very important for the development of the project. In fact, an earlier edition of this piece was performed in the house that UV Estudios formerly occupied. In that earlier version, the artist created a restaurant out of the entire house, making use of the kitchen and producing different dining environments. The installation in itself was made using different found objects like fabrics, planks of wood, and curtains that served as room dividers. Once the performance was over, a large curtain was removed from the wall to reveal a series of paintings that completed the experience.
This artistic process was repeated in 2020, but this time in delivery format because of COVID-19. The artist used the quarantine to his favor, endowing the experience with a new mobility and affective meaning. The third version, titled “Salón Air,” took place at the Teatro de Artes Independientes (TAI, Villa Ortúzar, Argentina), where six dinners, each of which featured a middle-class Argentine menu and personalized tableware and linens, were served between November and December 2020.
What was interesting about this process was its successful staging of social encounters in the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine. These encounters served to repair subjectivities made vulnerable by the experience of the pandemic. The ritual around food became a kind of “affective situationism” and achieved something as simple as allowing people to look each other in the face, share, and cope with the isolation of the pandemic in a better way. In all of its precarity and with its noble use of materials, “Restorán de Hoco Huoc” and its many reiterations opened up a critical field that dealt with the same idea of the body folding back in on itself. I think that this kind of work, especially when considered in terms of the artist’s desire and motivation, constitutes an irreplaceable political contribution, especially since it makes encounter and dialogue possible and gives meaning to everything that signifies creating connection.
Experiencing the fragility of existence in the tumultuous time we are living through continues to be difficult; however, it is life itself—in its wide-ranging capacity to act politically on reality—that organizes us, and it is within life that we organize ourselves. The ability to transform themselves, to become something else, is what is so profoundly important about independent art spaces. Not having a fixed identity, risking the very boundaries that give them form, endows them with a different flexibility and critical fluidity. Of singular importance is the fact that independent art spaces function more similarly to artists engaged in their production process than to rigidly organized institutions. Their challenges and precarity are simply a result of the fact that they are places where art continues to be radically questioned by individuals and the collective.