Cecilia Vicuña is a poet, visual artist and filmmaker born in Santiago de Chile. The author of twenty books of poetry, she exhibits and performs internationally. A precursor of conceptual art in Latin America and an early practitioner of the improvisatory oral performance, her work deals with the interactions between text and textile, language and earth. Her multidimensional works begin as an image that becomes a poem, a film, a song, a sculpture or a collective performance. She calls this participatory, impermanent work “lo precario” (the precarious), a series of transformative acts or “metaphors in space” that bridge the gap between art and life, the ancestral and the avant-garde. In Chile she founded the legendary Tribu No in l967, a group that created anonymous poetic actions throughout the city. In l974, exiled in London, she co-founded Artists for Democracy to oppose dictatorships in the Third World. She has lived in New York since l980.
April 28, 2013
The first and last time I saw you perform was at Naropa in, I think, 2005. I remember ephemeral fragments of the performance in the auditorium filled with bodies, dim lighting, a soft and gentle movement beginning from somewhere, I forget where, in the room. I remember clearly and for some reason only, the words the word is thread. And red (or was it white or was it both?) thread hung from the ceiling (or was it not hanging, but spread around between bodies seated in aluminum chairs?). I was standing only a few feet away from you and heard whispers, barely audible in memory. I hesitate to listen to your recordings. I am trying to work through memory of that occasion.
“memory is the chain of resurrection
memory is the future
because you will
remember in future tense
you will remember
whatever you did
and others did
and others will do
that is the change”
Facebook was the only way to reach you. I’m thinking now of the three w’s, as in www: waves/weave/we or world? I’d love to hear more about these connections between word (thread), weave (the binding of body and text—written word on paper or digital) and waves (of information in the Internet). “Writing is a sensorial disorder, she says, arranging her threads. Writing wants to be three-dimensional.” (Dennis Tedlock, Spit Temple).
Cecilia Vicuña: Yes, writing wants to be three-dimensional. I wrote a piece long ago about the first forms of “writing” I encountered at the Metropolitan Museum. Long before the clay tablets, the first “inscriptions” were weavings pressed on balls of clay, which acted as “seals.” Once the clay dries and you remove the weaving, the wavy lines it creates form a unique pattern, a testimony of the instant of the pressing. Merchants used them as proof that the vessel sealed had not been opened or altered along the way. So you could say the first inscription was a three-dimensional place for two separate sets of eyes to converge and share an experience. My poem reflected on the perspective of the mud receiving the pressing, as a metaphor for the way the paper receives the ink, or the computer receives the dark letters I am typing now as I write to you on my light screen.
As I see it, acts and thoughts are inscriptions as well, not in 3D, but in a deeper multidimensional field: timespace. My performance comes from an awareness of that field, of the way we relate to it. Timespace and everything in it, including our bodies, come alive when you sense its awareness and move through it as in an ocean of beauty and change. Your memory of the performance is an exquisite testimony of how it works. I see it put you directly in contact with the field of the www, the virtual space where we now live. Yes, there is a mystery in that Anglo Saxon “W” sound in the words “we,” “weave,” “world,” “waves.” In my book Cloud-net (l999) I constructed a poem around the www resonance. It says: www/we will weave/re a lida des /a linea das/weaving clouds/against death. And that is exactly what is happening now, with corporations and governments around the world trying to kill Internet freedom, and the people fight back to keep the Web open and free, “weaving clouds against death.” For me the “we” phoneme is the carrier of the life force.
Feliz Lucia Molina: I’m reminded of “Poem-Object” (1941) by Andre Breton. A wooden bust of a man, a photograph, toy boxing gloves, a keyhole for a mouth mounted on a drawing board. The keyhole mouth is the only part of it that gives any real illusion of depth, of something inside. A locked mouth. I like this metaphor of a mouth as a keyhole. Like we need permission to enter, the ultimate door—an ultimate threshold between what is public and private. Maybe it’s not even a keyhole, but I believe it to be. I don’t know why I’m thinking about this piece now, but in terms of language desiring to be three-dimensional and how this relates to language as we experience it as such on/with/through the Internet, I’m holding on to this image of the keyhole mouth. Unimaginable people with unimaginable power holding keys to Internet freedom. Can you tell me more of what you mean by timespace in relation to acts of inscription?
CV: I like your phrase “unimaginable people with unimaginable power holding keys to Internet freedom” in relation to Breton. When I was a young girl in Santiago, and I hardly knew any French, I was translating his poems to get a feeling for what might be happening “inside” those poems. The act of translating was the imaginary key. Not the translation, but the willingness, the desire to enter into the unknown. Your sense of the poem as a keyhole is very vivid! Then, we match the hole, becoming the key as we read. As a girl, I knew that Dada and the Surrealists had re-opened the way to sense “being” as an act of inscription. I mean to know that behavior itself, the way you moved and acted, was a poem, as much as the act of writing. Latin American thinkers such as Antonio Candido had seen how the Surrealists’ view matched the indigenous, and I could see it was totally true! It came naturally to me to accept the consequences of this knowing. To be in the awareness of “being as inscription” was an endless source of fun and discovery. I played on the bus, creating ad-hoc installations with my hands. I played with the gazes of the annoyed passengers, who did not know what was going on. I loved that edge, where no one was naming my acts as poems in space but me. I knew it was a matter of “time” for all to discover that poetic potential. I had this uncanny sensation that it was enough for a single human being to “see” an image or a thought, for it to be available for all. In other words, I could see it because others had seen it before me, as if our minds were already part of the larger field we now experience as the Internet. For me, it is as if a virtual Internet existed all along! That’s why I wrote many years later that “consciousness is the art.” The awareness of being in timespace, is the art. I think my art and poetry evolved from that awareness, from the embodied memory of the intense freedom it gives me to redefine, transform any given situation, any moment in our daily life.
A few days ago I had a dream: a woman said, “Instead of taking LSD people should give LSD to the space,” and I saw her nourishing the room with a liquid, so that the hallucinatory space would teach us, show us what we need to see.
FLM: In Spit Temple, there’s this wonderful image of you riding in a bus full of saint statues: “Santo pero no santo/Saintly But Not So Much (Bogota, 1978).” I’ve never seen the documentary, and I tried looking for it online but can’t find it. You mention being on a bus and playing with the gazes of passengers and loving that edge. I imagine it in fragments: what might have happened on the bus, orange and yellows, a shakiness with dusk approaching. It also feels dark blue. Some of the statues are chipped. Or maybe it was shot in black and white? I don’t know why the documentary feels this way even though I’ve never seen it—an imagined space, yet I feel as though I am inside it somehow. This unseen documentary plays vividly in my mind, but then it slips, the images shuffle out of order and there’s nothing concrete to hang on to.
What about the statues? Being as inscription—this also in relation to the traces we leave (on the Internet) as instant archival bodies. “I could see it because others had seen it before me, as if our minds were already part of the larger field we now experience as the Internet.”
CV: I am impressed that a few lines in Spit Temple opened a whole universe for you. The field of images and experience is a very real thing, and the deep reason why art and poetry works. A virtual image is the door, and you are fully there, with all the color and confusion each “place” holds. So we are now together seeing a film that is not, because I have never seen that documentary either! It was shot in Bogotá, by a Chilean filmmaker (Wolf Tirado), who lost the negative, so it never found its way into the world, until now, when your imagination calls it up. All I have is a few stills we did during the shoot, and they look great. Buses to me are a sacred territory. I have seen rituals around lake Titicaca where the buses are dressed up as queens, with garlands of flowers, and showered with beer and champagne to bless them before they go on the road. I have seen them in Colombia, painted all over as mobile artworks. My poems of the sixties were full of buses. My parents met in a bus that crushed, so I wrote that I owe my life to a bus. I often did unannounced performances in buses. At the time, they had little altars and lots of images, little statues, or calcomanías (transfers): “Dios es mi co-piloto“, (God is my co-pilot). This was before the advent of the plastic Jesus, or the Virgin Mary lighted from within. The old statues were made of plaster. The shaking was and is brutal. Drivers are angry, their pay is low and the stress high, so they accelerate and brake violently to throw people off, so everybody needs protection from heaven. The film focused on the saints, on the way indigenous cultures embrace and subvert Christianity at once. My studio in Bogotá was next door to a great factory of saints, which travelled in buses, and outside our door was a huge bus terminal, so the camera follows this confluence and contradiction. My “saints” were outrageous images of naked saints painted upside down in large sheets of wrapping paper. I brought them outside, and the drivers and passers-by commented on them. It was a funny thing to see that no one was outraged!
FLM: Whether as text, drawing, film or performance your poems shift in mediums and site specificities (pages, books, public spaces). Returning to this idea of being as inscription, what is the relation between mediums and certain acts and procedures of inscription? Or I guess, what is the (constant/ever shifting) relation between the poems/mediums and site specificities? I wonder if being and inscription are a chicken and egg, an impossibility of one without the other.
CV: Yes, “being and inscription” are shifty, slippery words. In my book Instan I open “being” to disclose ancient or future meanings. It says, “‘Being’ is a compound of three forms: ‘to grow’, ‘to set in motion’ and ‘yes, it may be so.'” A word can be a universe at work, composed of what it brings in and what it leaves out. “Inscription” appears to be far simpler, but it also contains a double dimension: it is at once the act of inscribing and that which is inscribed. The “in” implies a where, a place where the inscription goes, a rock, or a book. We play with these possibilities, modulating potential meanings. We can see it as a physical inscription, and that’s the usual, but if we focus on the act of inscribing, something else happens. Where is an “act” or movement happening? In space or in time? It’s where becomes a nowhere if we collapse space and time. An act dissolves as it happens, and that’s the core, the meeting point between “being and inscription.” Both are movement, waves creating reverberations and change. Is their meeting point, then, a metaphor of the quantum entanglement? Or a display of how the cosmos works? Is a metaphor an image or a reality?
I guess that’s the “place” where I find myself in poetry, a universe of “(constant/ever shifting) relationship between the poems/mediums and site specificities” as you put it, where nothing remains the same for too long.
A playful place of questions, where you never know, because these relationships take off on their own. What really happens between poems, mediums and sites may be quite beyond us. We may grasp some of it, or mischievously wish to provoke this or that, but when you look back and read old poems that predicted events or held other surprises, you wonder. I think our power is in the question. Asking opens the doors. And the art is learning to work with the forces that move of their own accord.
In Andean terms this “(constant/ever shifting) relationship” is reciprocal exchange, “an imperative force that ‘urges’ the linkage of things,” as Gary Urton says. In Quechua this is called yanantin or iskaynintin, a doubling or pairing, a concept now mirrored by the quantum definition of the moment when matter emerges from particle collisions, as “pair creation.” If there is a constant in the many mediums I work in, it is the encounter, the possibility of ex-change. A pen meets the page, a body meets the sea. Movement is the way.
And to mirror our exchange, this morning I found this line by Catherine J. Allen: “Traces are like promises etched into the landscape—past as potential-future.” A beautiful translation of the way an oral speaker of the high Andes (Erasmo Hualla) refers to the memory of past events as a “trace” in the land. A reversible trace because the actions and movements of “long ago” may become tomorrow anytime!
* Postscript by Cecilia Vicuña
In June of this year I was in London for the opening of my art exhibition when Edward Snowden revealed to The Guardian the NSA was spying on all Americans. A few days later, on June 10th, I picked up a copy of The Guardian at the train station. Snowden had emerged from hiding “because his concerns were ignored.” There was this long interview where he said: “I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.” In other words, he was putting his life on the line, sacrificing himself, to make others aware of the truth hidden from us all. This is “being as inscription.” How many people have written books or made films on the surveillance state, without being able to get people’s attention? It was his act, his accepting full responsibility for his words that made all the difference.
Cecilia Vicuña’s recent books are Spit Temple: Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña, Chanccani Quipu and Sabor a Mí. She co-edited The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry. Spit Temple was runner-up for the 2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Her film Kon Kon can be found here.