Interviews

“I Am an Invented Character”: A Performance Artist on Living in His Utopia

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Papo Colo, “Superman 51” (1977) (image courtesy the artist and MoMA PS1)

“I am back in New York. My lungs need poison air,” began Papo Colo in one of his recent emails to me. The interdisciplinary artist has been traveling back and forth between New York City and his home island of Puerto Rico, and cites the depressing New York City pollution. He speaks in a peculiar way: dramatics are used not for emphasis, but as part and parcel of his everyday colloquialisms. For Colo, life is a wildly vivid thing, intense simply because he’s living it. His art practice, since its inception — according to him, that’s nearly as long as he’s been alive — functions in the same manner, grandiose and theatrical because he is, too.

Together with his work and life partner, Jeanette Ingberman, Colo founded Exit Art in 1982, a radical alternative space of mythic proportions: 2,500 artists exhibited there, all of whom, at the time, operated at the fringes, and many of whom were women and people of color (among them Tehching Hsieh, David Hammons, Ida Applebroog, Shirin Neshat, Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci, and David Wojnarowicz, to name a few). After Exit Art closed in 2012, following Ingberman’s passing, Colo continued to develop his own practice, subversive and powerful in its own right. MoMA PS1 is currently displaying a retrospective of his work, featuring videos of several of his performances, including “Against The Current” (1983) and “La Diferencia” (1986). The exhibition narrows its focus on Colo’s 1977 performance, “Superman 51,” in which he runs, shirtless and gasping, down the West Side Highway, 51 pieces of wood tethered to his body and dragging behind him — the Sisyphean struggle a direct response to Puerto Rico’s proposed statehood.

The retrospective coincides with Colo’s ongoing performance, “The Cleaner (or how to launder money and disappear),” which took place every Saturday, from May through July 4, in Chelsea at 23rd Street and 10th Avenue. Though the performance technically culminated in early July, Colo has occasionally returned to it, each time following a specific series of steps. The titular cleaner is a self-described “impresario,” cleaning coins and arranging them in strange patterns, alluding to occult symbology. The cleaner literally launders money, referencing issues with Latin American tax systems along with cultural stereotypes, and challenging viewers to think rather literally about what, exactly, they ascribe value to.

The piece comes at a sensitive time, during a severe economic crisis in Puerto Rico, and Colo will return to the island in January as part of a festival in collaboration with the Museo de Arte de Ponce. He’s currently preparing for “THE ANCHO-RITE (Mystifarian art making in the rainforest for 13 months – 400 days),” with which the festival will culminate. “THE ANCHO-RITE” will take place in both El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System, and the Pangea Art Republic, a fictional republic founded by Colo himself that’ll function as both a studio and performance space, an incubator of ideas. The blurring of his performance practice and his daily life becomes most evident in Pangea, a place where, says Colo, “the Mystifarians live.” This will be the place, he explains, where his future projects — and thus a series of mythological narratives tied to both his life and his work — are born.

What follows is our email exchange that took place over the course of a few weeks. It flows between a traditional interview correspondence, rants about the weather, poems, and Colo’s random musings (which are like poems, too).

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The Cleaner and one of his props (photo by Laura Boulet)

Monica Uszerowicz: Tell me about your childhood and your early life in Puerto Rico.

Papo Colo: I am an invented character, another fantasy that I need to exist as. Always daydreaming. What’s become more important than the political, the social, or the magical, is the sensuality of those spheres. I see the world as a labyrinth of spheres. I grew up in a bar, a TV station, and a religious school in a very peculiar barrio of San Juan, Puerta de Tierra, now defunct.

I was very aware of all this magic around. I escaped the island at 18 as a merchant marine. It’s where my real education and first adventures happened, too illegal to mention; danger always follows. After coming back to Puerto Rico, my wife was graduating; I took her diploma and did a forgery as a conceptual-performative piece. The fact is that I did get a job, and graduated courses with a false art document.

This was the inspiration for Exit Art’s first exhibition, Illegal America, about artists who used illegal practices to do art. More important than being an artist is the pursuit of happiness with the reality of art — living in that sphere, the joy of creation. To live, observe, and document is an act of magic. Some are splendid at it and others aren’t, but at the very end, it doesn’t matter. We are all condemned to oblivion. It sounds pessimistic, but it’s not if we are aware of disappearing. Immortality is approachable and new myths are created. And at the end, all we have is a name to be remembered by temporarily. Everything for a name that is eventually eaten by time.

Author’s note: Papo Colo sent me the digital catalog for Exit Art’s inaugural show, Illegal Art. He wrote: “It is a tropical night and the moon is half. [The original catalog was] sealed with a real dollar; to open it you have to break money and commit an illegal act.”

MU: Your art challenges moral and legal structures, exposing systems used for control. Is breaking down structures — like legal ones — an act of mythological magic, too? 

PC: Sure, magic is a mythology. There are different kinds of magic. Myths multiply. Sociopolitical art is everything that we do … For me, myths are the reality of cultures. As a Mystifarian, it is a mission to create new myths and update others. The only object to make is an independent country. Does this sound like promotion? It is.

This country is the Pangea Art Republic, Rio Espiritu Santo, c186 k22 e2, El Yunque Rainforest, Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. It’s my performative space in a rain forest, a space that will be opening with “THE ANCHO-RITE.” Is it the result of a whole life of performing, a culmination of all the failures, my teacher? The rainforest is a great cartel for now.

Author’s note: Colo had been in Puerto Rico for some time. He returned to New York City and continued his response in an email with the subject, “la vida es un espacio sensacional”: 

The only magic that exists is in your brain. Ethics and morality have been modified by fire and wars. You can ask the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire about that, or the gentle barbaric people who colonized us … Our history is an accumulation of barbaric events; civilization is destruction and construction. Art should reflect on that. Magic is an invisible world — a world existing in the margins of frustration. I was born in Puerto Rico and like to know about my relation to the world. I came from the people who colonized this island territory — the Spanish who used the island as a garrison and later as a sugar factory — and a small vestige of the natives they found. Populations have moved, invaded, and colonized since our migration from Africa millions of years ago. To say that colonization is part of civilization is not reactionary. It’s a fact.

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Papo Colo, “Against the Current” (1983) (image courtesy the artist and MoMA PS1)

MU: Tell me more about Pangea Art Republic and “THE ANCHO-RITE.” Are you hoping to create a new, conceptual country, even in the midst of your solitude in the rainforest?

PC: The whole project is becoming alive, and is a new, extended life for me. The state of madness is discovering territory. When you understand solitude is when you have more friends.

Pangea Art Republic is where the Mystifarians live. It’s a utopia that was in my mind, and now I’ve gone to live it. It’s a piece of land in the border of El Yunque rainforest and a studio office in Soho, New York. It’s a territory that has a small river on the patio, Rio Espiritu Santo. The myth: Juan Ponce de León, first governor of Puerto Rico (1511), has a mandate from the kings of Spain to find the Fountain of Youth. He went to Florida. My myth claims that he made a mistake, and the Fountain of Youth was right here in the El Yunque rainforest and of course in Pangea. The great value of this river is that we are the first who touch it from the mountain sources.

Pangea Art Republic is a studio and performative area where I can develop experiences, myths, and sensibilities with prototype exhibitions and events. “ANCHO-RITE” will be opening the concept

“400 days in the rainforest” — a series of art concepts. The aspect of everyday politics in art is absolutely necessary. But at this stage, I want to encounter nature and a metropolis that, like Spanish and English, Catholics and reformists, are two parts of a whole. Art Republics need habitats. If Pangea is the capital of myths, Mystifarians are the logical population.

Author’s note: From a follow-up email with the subject line “vida,” copied directly from Colo’s Facebook page, where he posts frequent updates on his projects:

One of the great delight of Pangea Art Republic is that you can escape to the territory of Puerto Rico and enjoy your birthday listening to old bolero tunes with family and friends,(thanks Chino and Bruni). If this sounds to you like fiction, it’s not. Pre-documentation ANCHO – RITE 400 days in the rain forest January 20017 / February 2018 Yunque Rainforest, Rio Espiritu Santo, Rio Grande, Puerto Rico

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The impresario of “The Cleaner” scrubbing the sidewalk (photo by Klaus Biesenbach) (click to enlarge)

MU: Tell me about “The Cleaner,” in which you are an impresario.

PC: “The Cleaner (or how to launder money and disappear)” is a show without the business. It’s almost occult, an insane gesticulator of objects and symbols, a metaphor or an homage to the clandestine, a parody of the ability to beat the system and not pay taxes. The CLEANER is the pirate disguised as cleaner — he looks more like a señorito — that denounces by stealing. His job is to make evidence and people disappear; he is a very dangerous character. His only weakness is social justice.

Author’s note: From a separate email, also taken from Colo’s Facebook page:

THE CLEANER—TODAY’s REPORT: We launder $35,000,051! with the help of LAUREN SCOTT MILLER AND FAWAD KHAN, working in the shady side of the street, where [there was] some anonymous character upset about the operation but harmless. (Look, I explained that we are doing this service for free and that I am a Latino but US CITIZEN, and being Puerto Rican, we clean offices and are supers, so this cleaning activity is in our genes. He was happy and promised not to call the police. With this report, I want to introduce performance-as-fiction, a theme to expand in future posts.

MU: There may be another referendum on Puerto Rico’s statehood this year. How do you feel about Puerto Rican statehood now?

PC: Puerto Ricans are the masters of doubt. Puerto Rico was a garrison until World War II. Becoming citizens of an empire, coming from a colony, is unique, opportunistic, and fruitful. Statehood is the easy-difficult way that some people want. My view is that we must be independent — a republic — but we have to reinvent democracy and all our social and political systems. A country island, like the Cayman Islands, comes to mind — a cross between ecology, economics of pleasure, a utopian paradise that a furious hurricane hits from time to time. In a way, this is part of my proposal with the Pangea Art Republic.

Papo Colo continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens) through August 28. 

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