PUEBLA, Mexico — In the baroque capital of Puebla, an artist-run residency is attempting to challenge preconceived notions about tradition and context through a program focused on encounters and process, rather than production. Puebla was a hub for international trade and a seat of power, equal to or greater than Mexico City in riches during the 16th and 17th centuries, becoming what’s known today as ‘the city of churches,’ Mexico’s capital of baroque architecture. Here, Arquetopia instructs artists on the history of colonialism through programs combining traditional processes and academic readings. The residency’s Puebla headquarters hosts up to 12 artists at any given time, offering studio space, a natural pigments laboratory, a library, and a stocked kitchen. To date, artists from about 60 countries have made their way through the residency program, where local artists are also included in various projects as part of the mission of the founding directors.
As Arquetopia’s residency and academic offerings have grown in popularity since its founding in 2009, the program has expanded from its headquarters in Puebla to a second space near the state capital of Oaxaca. A third space will open soon in Cusco, Peru, expanding the scope of the organization’s regional dialogue about history and decolonialism. At Arquetopia, artists are pushed to ask tough ethical questions about the nature of hybridity, exoticism, and their own ways of seeing. At a time when artists are grasping for forms of resistance beyond traditional protests, the thinkers working with Arquetopia offer an alternative pedagogy.
I recently sat down with co-executive director Francisco Guevara at Arquetopia in Puebla (where, full disclosure, I was a writer in residence in June and July of 2016), to talk about what makes the program unique as a residency invested in shared responsibility and resistance to power.
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Devon Van Houten Maldonado: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” — I’ve heard you say this a million times. How is this statement by Audre Lorde central to Arquetopia’s program and mission?
Francisco Guevara: Although we use different scholars and different readings with different focuses, most of them are used to understand a complex history and how that plays a role when you’re in a residency program. That specific reading is the one that usually strikes the artists and really changes them, in a positive way or in a negative way. It’s racially charged, of course, also in terms of gender and other things.
Basically, what we share with Lorde is that, no matter what you do, you have to be aware of the structure. You can’t just romanticize the margins, or you can’t just think about the center as the enemy, because there is no center. We create these structures. I always mention and summarize it, in terms of artistic practice, as a shadow, and as long as you keep the shadow visible then you will be able to tackle the problem.
DVHM: You touched a little bit on artists’ emotional reactions to the residency; what makes this such a charged experience for many of them?
FG: Our residency isn’t about just producing but about actually stepping back and looking at the process, and the process is loaded with things you might not know or aren’t aware that you’re carrying with you. So it’s very emotional because it’s not just me dictating what it should be, but also a series of authors that are in dialogue and it becomes very emotional because it taps into deep problems. One of the things that I always try to get artists to step away from is this idea about how we share these same experiences. We don’t. Something very important is the integrity of differences. We can eventually cross paths in terms of the struggle and the problems, but we come with different perspectives.
DVHM: What is Arquetopia’s pedagogy, beyond the traditional model of offering space, time, and critique?
FG: The most important aspect of our residency is the encounters. Mexico has traditionally been the tropical paradise where anything is possible and everything is exotic. To this day, every famous Mexican artist who sells work outside of Mexico explores and uses these ideas that have historically been built around Mexico.
We read Emmanuel Levinas’s theory of encounters and empathy — understanding empathy as a process that’s so complex, but tries to erase differences, and hinders the possibility of change. The difference in our program is precisely the encounters. We’ve had artists from Israel and Palestine here at the same time, or from the north and south of the United States, and they don’t share any of the same problems. However, we find a space where encounters can be renegotiated in terms of race, class, and gender.
DVHM: Is it about creating empathy between artists, or between artists and the spaces they are working in?
FG: It’s actually about destroying empathy because empathy has masqueraded the problems. When we talk about humanism — we’re all the same, and we share the same experiences — that’s false. We have to acknowledge the integrity of differences, and we need to preserve that integrity. Historically, those differences have been erased to enslave people, to conquer people, and to expand the empire. Now that capitalism is so prevalent and it’s organizing everything, we’ve learned that empathy is the possibility of understanding differences by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s not only impossible, but you’re actually crushing the other by trying to be in his shoes and understand a reality that is impossible for you to understand. It doesn’t mean that you can’t connect and you can’t negotiate.
DVHM: Thinking about residencies, especially in Mexico or other “exotic” locations, there is the idea of going somewhere to produce work and live among the natives. So considering the residency as a sort of “exotic” location, the production of contemporary art in centers, and the Eurocentric production of academic knowledge, what’s the discussion happening here within Arquetopia about the centers and margins of art?
FG: It’s very relevant to what’s happening now because there is nostalgia. Even “make America great again,” it really captures the feeling of the world. It’s not only in the United States. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Latin America. It’s happening everywhere, this idea of going back to pre-globalization spaces. Interestingly enough, it’s also going back to how the empires expanded to be able to enjoy disfrutar, meaning taking the fruit from something, taking everything. That idea has seeped into the contemporary art market. That’s why Mexico is a hot spot. Everything that shouldn’t be accessible and available or even comprehensible in other spaces is available in Mexico. It is very colorful. It is very attractive. It also really feeds into the imagination of someone who has never been exposed to different epistemologies.
One of the things I say to artists when they get here — because they usually come from a tradition where time is money — is that in Mexico, time is not money. That epistemological understanding or concept of time really changes everything. When you don’t think of money and time as being the same, it allows for something completely different.
DVHM: What about the specific context of Arquetopia in Puebla?
FG: Puebla has never been on the map, except during the colonial period. However, it makes for a very interesting space for a residency program because we’re not in the capital of the empire, Mexico City. We aren’t in the dominant structure that connects with the gallery circuits. We’re in a different space with complexities that are very different. But that has allowed us to connect with local structures and inform the rest of the country in terms of material culture. It’s about process, not necessarily the market. It’s a program that has always operated based on reciprocity, innovation, shared responsibility, and local networks.
DVHM: How about the context of your residency space in Oaxaca and the next space, which you will be opening in Cusco, Peru.
FG: Going into Oaxaca was very complex. It’s a different language and way of operating. We decided to move the residency program to the mountains; it’s 30 minutes away from the city and this had a profound impact on the way artists are producing. To understand the traditions of Oaxaca you have to understand the environment, you have to be rooted in a community that isn’t just tourism.
Peru was an eye-opening experience because it really completes the picture. Many of the techniques that we have in Puebla are similar, however with a very different language. Peru has a whole different set of challenges about how Europeans had a presence in Cusco. Some of the techniques there are in dialogue with Puebla and with Oaxaca. Many of the scholars whose work we use to understand these complexities and encounters have studied Peru as well. So completing this picture of the 300 years of history that Peru and Mexico share will allow us to have a dialogue regionally.
DVHM: Your residency is unique in that you offer programs specific to certain traditional crafts, techniques, and materials. What’s the role of material and tradition in Arquetopia and the dialogue happening here?
FG: These traditions were rooted in different possibilities that allowed many communities to survive through time and created infrastructure and elements of performativity that are important to identity. Sharon P. Holland describes it as how the West controls time, and how every speech about progress is about moving through time, and technology moving forward. Any other speech that isn’t about the West is about tradition. It’s about how we have the responsibility to preserve tradition, meaning we’re stuck in space. Being stuck in space allows those who control time to move forward and occupy our space. So that’s the challenge we face when we use techniques: To precisely challenge the idea that tradition is something that’s stuck in time, and it goes back to the encounter.