SAN SALVADOR — It is one week after the general elections in El Salvador that split the winning left party from the right by a margin of 6,300 votes — less than 1% percent of the total — electing ex-guerilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén president. Tensions in the country are high, and even more so within the nation’s community of artists, who are rallying to defend Víctor “Crack” Rodríguez, who is facing up to six years in prison for a performance piece.
On March 9, Rodríguez, one of San Salvador’s celebrated contemporary artists, walked in to a ballot station and announced, “this is an artist action,” and then proceeded to eat half of his ballot in front of polling station onlookers before casting the remaining half. As with most performance pieces, the action was caught on video by a colleague, and the artist can be seen holding a copy of Landings: New Art and Ideas from the Caribbean and Central America 2000–2010.
Within hours, the video of the artist’s nonchalant performance had gone viral. However, the situation quickly turned ugly as the Salvadoran legal system reacted, accusing the artist of electoral fraud — a criminal offense punishable by up to six years in prison. If one has ever watched MS-13 gang documentaries, prison in El Salvador is no picnic, which makes the fact that the authorities are persisting with the charges all the more unbelievable. However, Rodríguez acknowledges he knew his action would provoke a reaction, explaining in an email to Hyperallergic on March 23:
The only thing that was clear for me was that the action would have strong consequences. I was throwing myself into an abyss, and I would have to be prepared for the worst.
The artist is no stranger to bold statements — he has for many years worked with intervention and performance, placing an upturned Volkswagen Beetle shell in the middle of a busy street to film the reactions of passersby. But Rodríguez’s collaborator, artist Ernesto Bautista, shifts nervously in his chair as he sits across from me at a restaurant in San Salvador. It is March 11, only two days after charges were filed against Rodríguez, and Bautista explains the electoral fraud charges to me, interspersed with the repeated line, “I just can’t believe it.”
Not everyone shares this sentiment of consternation — for instance, a collector overheard by the author whilst attending an exhibition reception on March 12:
I don’t get the point of what he did; now everyone is just joking that they are waiting for him to go to the bathroom to decide the final winner.
In acts of performative protest, it can be hard to determine what is effective and what is just plain stupid. Take Maximo Caminero, who a few weeks ago walked into the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) and smashed an Ai Weiwei artwork, mimicking the image behind him. His reasoning? A protest against the museum for not showing local artists. Aside from being completely untrue — the museum hosted a New Work Miami exhibition last year — Caminero later retracted this statement with a meek apology.
Víctor “Crack” Rodríguez, on the other hand, seems to have more substance behind his actions. He goes on to explain in an email:
I felt the responsibility to do the action even more so when I felt so much fear, that is what pushed me to do the work.
Later this year, Rodríguez is appearing in a MARTE Contemporary exhibition in San Salvador, titled 10 and curated by the author and Lucas Arevalo, that celebrates the most promising artists affiliated with El Salvador over the past decade. Yet, despite this overwhelming evidence that the artist is ‘seasoned,’ the judicial system is pursuing this case, perhaps attempting to make an example of an artist to incite fear in any future prospective protestors. Renowned Salvadoran artist Simon Vega is appalled by the charges and explained the importance of the action in an email to Hyperallergic on March 13, stating:
The fact that many of us feel there is not one political party or candidate in which we can believe or respect yet having the authorities tell us that the vote is “the people’s most powerful weapon,” makes many of us identify with his action. According to the law, “Crack” could be facing from 2 to 6 years in prison for expressing himself in this way, how senseless! We won’t allow it. I think the action is one of the most important, consequent and effective works of contemporary art in Central America’s history, no doubt.
In order to drum up additional support, the artists’s collaborators Ernesto Bautista, Mauricio Kabistan, and Melissa Guevara, fellow members of the collective The Fire Theory, have created a petition in order for the art community at large to show their appreciation for the artist’s intention. The artists are hoping to use this petition as evidence to show that Rodríguez is a seasoned artist and that this “call to action” forms part of his practice and is not a crime.