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Part I:  Aug. 31 – Sep. 27 2016
Part II: February 5 – March 5, 2017 

FRANCISCA BENITEZ

Francisca Benítez (b.1974) is a multidisciplinary artist born and raised in Chile who lives and works in New York since 1998. Recent exhibitions have been held at the XII Bienal de La Habana, Cuba (2015); The High Line, New York (2015); Museo de Artes Visuales, Santiago, Chile (2013); El Museo del Barrio, New York (2011). Francisca graduated as an architect from the Universidad de Chile in 1998 and Master in Fine Arts from Hunter College CUNY in 2007.

PROJECT PROPOSAL: PART I

On-site Live in Las Galerías from August 31- September 27, 2016
My work as an artist is the record of my effort to comprehend the world in which I exist and to collaborate in its construction. My practice has developed from the study of public space and the social forces that shape it. Some of my projects have entailed the documentation of a situation taken for granted or rendered invisible, while in others I have attempted to contest or criticize a certain condition. I am concerned with the privatization of everything inherent to neoliberal policies applied everywhere at every scale, and the shift between democracy to oligarchy. I want my work to be part of larger collective efforts to search for better alternatives to exist as society. The tools and mediums I use change according to the concepts I am working with, the particularities of specific contexts and the availability of resources. I have used video, photography, drawing, sound, rubbing, collage, performance, installation, writing and combinations of different media. In recent years, my work has moved towards a more direct engagement with the public, creating actions that subvert established limits and create unexpected areas of coexistence, interaction and dialog.

For my residency at El Museo del Barrio I plan to continue my research on relationships between concrete poetry and sign languages, using performance, drawing and video.

PROJECT PROPOSAL: PART II

On-site Live in Las Galerías from February 5 – March 5, 2017
Francisca Benitez returns to El Museo del Barrio’s residency program with a new proposal that aims to focus on the power of the collective through music. The artist’s new project, Residency / Resistance: trilingual choir (ASL, English, Spanish), comes out of a response to today’s times: the choir will be trilingual, with participants singing in ASL, English and in Spanish. The idea is to gather and share the common experience and effects of singing classics like Power to the People and No Nos Moverán as well as allow through the process to collectively compose new songs that would be sung a Capella with the artist throughout her residency at El Museo, culminating with a public performance on the closing day of her residency March 5th.

A Conversation Between Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful and Francisca Benítez

NDER: We share a common interest in the so-called public space, which I call spaces of public use, because most of these are no longer public in a political sense, or there are restrictions on how people can actually use them. In your travels, have you come in contact with a truly public space?

FB: Unfortunately we are privatizing everything, and the little we have left, we are not taking care of. In terms of restrictions on how people use public spaces and/or spaces of public use, it is worth asking who is defining those restrictions and how are they being enacted. Are they the result of a democratic process? or on the contrary, are they forced by a dictator, or by a democratically elected official but with invested interests in real estate, by whom? How? I think we need to be constantly participating and building the commons, because if we don’t they will disappear completely, a vital public space is a requisite for a healthy democracy.

NDER: You are originally from Chile, the homeland of artists and collectives like CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte), y Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis, the Mares of the Apocalypse. Can you talk about the influence that this artistic lineage may have had or continues to have on artists of your generation?

FB: There are very interesting echoes of the Chilean Student Movements of 2011, where site-specific street performances carried out by students played a vital role as political tools for peaceful protest and resistance, bringing attention to the problems of the neoliberal model, gathering wide public support and demanding government action. Flash-mobs and other internet-era strategies were obviously a big part of it (the Revolución Pingüina of 2006 had largely been coordinated through the internet) but there are local histories of art and activism that sieve through all this, for example in 1800 Hours for Education, a durational performance where more than 300 students took turns to run for 1800 uninterrupted hours around La Moneda, the government palace; or Thriller for Education, in which nearly 3000 students dressed like zombies took over the Constitution Plaza in front of La Moneda to perform the choreography of Michael Jackson’s thriller. In one part of his book Háblame de amores (2012), Pedro Lemebel (half of Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis) talks about “la política del arte relámpago” where he describes some of the protest actions planned and carried out against the Pinochet dictatorship in the 80s, among them a “tree of legs”, to bring attention to the tortured and the disappeared. I see that artistic lineage continuing in the work of Francisco Tapia, also known as “Papas Fritas,” the artist who stole and destroyed $500 million worth of student debt from Universidad del Mar and then presented the remaining ashes of the burned documents in an exhibition at GAM. He is currently leading the project Desclasificación Popular, working with victims of the dictatorship to declassify the Valech Report, which recognizes 40,018 victims of human rights abuses yet protects the identity of the perpetrators with a 50 year pact of silence. I came into contact with his work for the first time when we were exhibiting in the first Beijing Biennial in 2009. Papas’ contribution was done remotely, in the form of a video and installation titled The Great Firewall. Even though he is an individual artist, not a collective, I see a link between Las Yeguas’ work and his, mainly because of his guts, integrity, humor and disruptive strategies. But this opinion is really spontaneous, the artistic lineage you mention is so strong and its influence widespread on so many artists of my generation, it would be really difficult to pin it down in the space of this interview, it could be a Ph.D. thesis.

NDER: Chile is also the homeland of Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, and a significant number of poets and writers like Alejandro Jodorowsky. Does this have a connection to the use of poetry in your work?

FB: When I was a kid I went to an “encuentro de payadores” (popular poets encounter) in Molina, the nearby town in the rural part of Chile where I grew up. There I saw for the first time improvisation duels by popular poets in “décimas” and “cuartetas.” I was deeply impressed. It was the mix of improvisation and structure, the personal spontaneous thoughts in the collective creation in situ that attracted me, more than any particular idea of national identity. I would find the same exhilarating feeling 10 years later in jazz jam sessions, and later witnessing beatrhymers’ battles. It also might have to do with poems I learned from my grandma and with my architectural education in Chile (which in turn has been influenced by the philosophy and methods of Open City and the school of architecture of the UCV)… Everything finds its way into my work, the things I see on the street, just as much as the verses I read.

NDER: I have become increasingly enamored of poetry, the spoken word and with choreography, and so I have been opening my senses to the work of The Peace Poets, Caridad ‘La Bruja’ De La Luz, Pedro Pietri, Josefina Báez, Arthur Avilés and Luis Malvacías. Who are the contemporary poets and choreographers that are nurturing your soul and imagination?

FB: As I’ve been learning sign language (mainly LSCh, in Chile and ASL in the United States) and more about Deaf culture, I have become interested in Deaf poetry, first as a form of expression in Deaf communities, as an art form, performance, and a literary form that happens in space. I’ve been looking at the work of different Deaf poets through the internet and at Deaf poetry jams, and I’ve been focusing on how some rhyming structures obey hand shapes for example, some other movements, or how the possibility of multiple meanings works here, how some structures become recurrent (like A to Z stories or number stories). There’s a great poem by Peter Cook called Need about our society’s addiction to oil. In this poem the handshape and movement for the word “need” becomes a classifier for an oil-extracting pumpjack and from that moment on, the narrative spills out to engulf us. I’ve been frequenting ASL poetry events, attending seminars about the subject, and creating participative performances to go further into this, but I have barely scratched the surface.

A couple of memorable pieces that I keep thinking about: Christine Sun Kim’s Face Opera, in which a group of Deaf performers, including the artist, take turns in acting as a choir “singer” or conductor through the use of face markers or visual nuances (eyebrows, mouth, cheeks, eyes) to “sing” without actually using their hands. I’m also very interested in Christine’s drawings and how she works with notation merging conventions from ASL and music. There is a piece by dancer-choreographer Paul Wenniger that I can’t take out of my mind; it’s called 47 ITEMS, Ingeborg & Armin that I saw in 2009 in Vienna. Based on a poem by Michael Donauser, the story is narrated by the movements of 4 dancers (Ewa Bankowska, Laia Fabre, Lisa Hinterreithner, Esther Koller) that spend nearly 70 minutes stacking and re-stacking consumer products commonly found in a supermarket, creating space and making it evolve, conveying movement, characters, and the passing of time. The sound design by Nik Hummer is also fantastic, consisting of several mp3 players concealed inside different products that change volume and sonic predominance depending on where on the stage they are placed; on top of that there is a layer of live music with Franz Hautzinger playing the trumpet.

NDER: So much of New York City has changed since I moved here a quarter of a century ago. Are any of these architectural developments reshaping your actions in spaces of public use? I am asking because you have a degree in architecture, and because I am a stubborn New Yorker who refuses to relate to the glass towers that dominate the city’s visual landscape these days. I personally move and walk among the older buildings I so much love.

FB: Change is inherent to New York City; I moved here in 1998 and oh boy, it has changed! as it always does, but to me something that is also inherent to New York is its diversity in terms of cultures and economic realities. It’s what made me come here as an immigrant. Unfortunately more and more of the change we are seeing is put forward by the homogenizing forces of gentrification and luxury development, while low income people are ignored and displaced. And it’s not just being done by market forces, but also by top-down racist planning policies and unscrupulous politicians. I live in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, a neighborhood filled with blatant examples of what I’m talking about: look a the recent sale of the city-owned care facility Rivington House to developers to be transformed into luxury condos (through a shady deal involving the mysterious removal of a deed restriction); look at the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), whose promise of affordable housing got somehow lost and after laying around empty for 50 years; now market rate housing with barely a 20% “affordable” component is being built in place. We saw the city approve a 2008 rezoning plan to protect the East Village and leave Chinatown and the Lower East side unprotected to be easy prey for developers, look at the Extell tower and the coming JDS and L+M luxury developments. We are seeing the Bloomberg-De Blasio accelerated privatization of NYCHA, and now we are seeing the De Blasio plans for “affordable” housing with upzonings in many low income communities across the city, a move that will only accelerate displacement in exchange for a few units of housing affordable for middle class people lucky enough to win this lottery. It’s really terrible. If you look at the data on wage stagnation and people living under or near the poverty line (45% of the population of New York City according to 2014 office of the mayor’s data), and then compare it to the rates of housing production it doesn’t make any sense: it’s a recipe for disaster and for more homelessness.

Somehow I still have faith in this city and in New Yorkers, outrage and mobilization can change things. The Tenement House Act of 1901 started to respond to terrible housing conditions, the Lower Manhattan Expressway plan was stopped by local communities and activists who took to the streets, the demolition of the old Penn Station propelled such an outrage that the Landmarks Commission was created in response, Occupy Wall Street changed the conversation nationwide. I have been meeting people who are engaged in active resistance, in my neighborhood for example, I have joined the efforts of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, composed of several community groups and organizations advocating for social and environmental justice. We are advocating for the adoption of the Chinatown Working Group plan, the result of more than 5 years of meetings that included over 50 community groups in addition to the expertise of two planning schools (CUNY and Pratt). The plan aims to preserve the character and affordability of the area for its working-class immigrant population by stopping the privatization of public assets and land (NYCHA in particular), upzoning some areas while stipulating affordable housing requirements above current city standards, placing height limits on significant parts of the neighborhood and creating a special district with a variety of anti-displacement strategies. We’ve been encountering staunch opposition in City Hall, where the administration has dismissed the community-led rezoning saying it’s “too ambitious” but we are not backing down. Our actions are varied, from gatherings, conversations, door to door organizing, marches, protests, pickets, participation at public hearings, community board and town hall meetings. Positive change takes a lot of work and a functioning democracy needs so much more than our participation via the ballot box; being part of the shaping of our cities is crucial. This is full of complex and opaque processes, and this complexity is used as an excuse by people in power to exclude us from planning and decision-making. Part of my work has been collaborating with different organizations to demystify those processes, to make them accessible to the people and to facilitate community participation.

NDER: With the advent of the Internet, e-mail and FB, there is a proliferation of information that feels extremely overwhelming. The more e-mails one deletes the more one receives, or so it seems. Do you have any advice for helping one to employ language in a heartfelt way?

FB: I value real time face to face interaction, with loved ones, friends, community, random people in the streets, humans in general, and nature. I don’t feel comfortable online at all. I have a hard time communicating via Facebook, it’s overwhelming. Sure it’s a place where everyone is sharing their thoughts and has a lot of potential for political action, but then I wonder how much does it connect us and how much does it alienate us, enclosing us in narrow echo chambers and collecting our data. The Yes Men are on point: no amount of clicking can replace people getting together in a plaza. I don’t think I can be called paranoid, everything is being stored and we have seen crazy episodes in history where some really dubious characters have risen to power. It is perfectly possible that some global dictator would end up in power, won’t be into what you post (or posted 10 yeas ago) and will send a drone to your home to kill you. Without due process. Oh wait, right, that’s already kind of happening. We must speak up, yes, but there are so many ways of doing it.

NDER: Can you talk about what you have been doing at El Museo as part of the Office Hours (OH) residency? Why El Museo? Why a gallery space and not a plaza?

FB: A gallery space and plazas. The first part of the residency took place this past September 2016 and the second part will be in February 2017. In the first part of the residency I used the gallery to continue my research on sign languages and Deaf poetry, engaging the audience in this learning process, collecting assignments from visitors and staff (assignment box) encouraging them to participate (brainstorming rhymes by handshapes), and inviting Deaf collaborators, the highest point being when Opal Gordon performed her History Music. The study of handshape rhyming extended the confines of my own studio space to include the concurrent exhibition, Antonio López: Future Funk Fashion, through a close look at the handshapes in Antonio’s amazing drawings, and coming up with rhymes based on them. Among the visitors was Tanya Ingram, an organizer at the House of Justice Deaf Club in Harlem who invited me to perform at the ASL Harlem night organized by the club at The Shrine, a gathering that usually happens there once a month.

Throughout my one-month residence I also got to walk through the neighborhood and continue working on a series of graphite rubbings on paper of foundational stones of buildings, starting by the two cornerstones of the building El Museo occupies (built in 1921 as an orphanage). Each rubbing bears the year in which the building was built; 1962, the Lehman Village NYCHA Houses; 1954, the Washington Carver NYCHA Houses; 1958, the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex. I have been looking for buildings that were created pursuing the “public good”, however hard to define what that idea might be.

During this first part of the residency I was also doing two projects remotely, both involving art institutions, public spaces and Deaf communities. The first one, Moebius Path, a performance in collaboration with SITE Santa Fe and the New Mexico School for the Deaf, was an evening of ASL poetry along a walk through both institutions and the park in between them. The other project, Creación colectiva: El ciclo de la vida, was a workshop/performance developed long distance, in Cuenca, Ecuador, in collaboration with students from the Unidad Educativa Especial Claudio Neira Garzón, Estefaní Juca, the Cuenca Biennial and presented at Parque de La Madre for the biennial’s inauguration. All this has been a tremendous learning experience, and it makes me think again about the lessons from those student movements I mentioned before, interacting through cyberspace and traditional public spaces to devise new strategies and mechanisms for social change.

NDER: If you could use one single word to close this conversation, what word would that be?

FB: Thanks!

This interview is part of Back in Five Minutes, a residency program conceived by Nicolás Dumit Estévez for Office Hours at El Museo del Barrio.

For more information, please visit http://franciscabenitez.org

Canto Visual, performance, 2013 | Oro Dulce, performance, video, installation, 2011 | Son en Señas, performance, video, 2015 | El tiempo subterráneo, graphite rubbing on paper, 2012, 14 piezas de 102 x 67 cm, Arco total 268 x 510cm, foto gentileza Die Ecke Arte Contemporáneo | Soliloquy in Signs, 2014, performance, photo by Liz Ligon, Commissioned and produced by Friends of the High Line.