[Theme music plays]
Carolina Caycedo: And I think what the arts can do is to open up conversations between people who feel differently about these things and that maybe have. Different understandings, different perspective,s and different opinions about our environment, about those common goods.
Lita Albuquerque: It seems as if light has come in and is expressing itself through shining on darkness. So it's quite an upheaval. The reason I call it a fulcrum year into transformation, is we've all had to go inward. As we've all talked about. And are able to observe what we've done, what we've done to nature. And so, I was able to just really observe nature and all of us felt this, how it came alive, you know? Like, our retreating, all of a sudden, nature comes back very quickly.
Sarah Mundy: Hi and welcome to ARTiculated, I’m Sarah Mundy and I work as an archivist here at the Archives of American Art. This podcast receives support from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
This is the third in a four-episode series on the visual arts and healing co-curated by Fernanda Espinosa, a National Endowment for the Humanities-Oral History Association Fellow.
Each episode explores perspectives from practitioners whose work blurs the borders between nations, communities, self, nature, and time.
To listen to the first episode of this series, go back to Season 3 Episode 3.
Over the past three years, the covid-19 pandemic has reshaped our understanding of physical, mental, and communal health.
Through distance and isolation, we evaluated our relationships with one another, raising questions of belonging and interconnectedness beyond individual experiences.
As we enter the fourth year of this public health emergency, we also approach the third anniversary of the Archives’ Pandemic Oral History Project, which comprised more than 80 short-form interviews to gauge the state of the arts at the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
To commemorate that project and to reflect on how the world has evolved since, we have invited four artists to reflect on healing and belonging in their work, which we have put in dialogue with the oral history collection.
In this episode, you’ll hear from two multidisciplinary artists based in California whose lives and work have crossed borders and whose practices raise questions about the boundaries between our environment and ourselves.
This episode is divided in two parts. In the first part, you’ll hear from our guest artist, Carolina Caycedo as she walks me through current reflections surrounding her ongoing research project, Be Dammed, her ideas around healing and reparations in terms of environmental justice, why art can be a platform for different conversations, what she hopes to achieve with her work, and the transformations that she observed in 2020.
And in the second part, you’ll hear excerpts from a 2020 interview of Lita Albuquerque conducted by Mathew Sims for the Archives' Pandemic Oral History Project. In this interview, Lita shares experiences and perspectives as the health emergency started to develop and she provides a view into her thought process and inspirations
Fernanda Espinosa: Part One - Carolina Caycedo: the environment beyond a scenario.
Welcome, Carolina. Thank you so much for joining me in this interview for the ARTiculated podcast at the Archives of American Art. Can you introduce yourself and tell me more about who you are as an artist?
Carolina Caycedo: I'm a Colombian visual artist living in Los Angeles. I was born in London in 1978 from Colombian parents, and I moved back to Colombia when I was six years old. I went to art school in Colombia, graduated from art school in ‘99. Then moved back to London as a young adult, and a budding artist, and started my career there in London. In 2005, I moved to Puerto Rico. And the Caribbean, a colony of the United States. Lived there for seven years with a one-year intermission in New York. And in 2011 I moved to Los Angeles.
And I'm a multidisciplinary artist. I use different mediums: sculpture, performance. I also work with communities in socially engaged practices. I do drawings, I do artist books. I've worked with film and sound. And my work in the last decade has examined different environmental issues, especially around the extraction and how communities resist. So from an environmental justice perspective, and before that have always been kind of entangled in different social issues, migration, motherhood, and, you know, social justice issues.
Fernanda Espinosa: I had shared with you that this series of episodes are, in part, to commemorate the start of the pandemic. During that shift there was this overarching theme of health and healing, and maybe the difference between those two. Thinking about that, why do you approach reparations in the way you do through your work?
Carolina Caycedo: Those reparations—that healing that has to do with remembering the kind of relationships and original natural contracts we have with different entities of nature and kind of restoring those original contracts of reciprocity, of protection, of, taking what you need, but not taking until depleting, until complete extraction—are pathways for us as humanity to stay in this planet. So there's like a consciousness of survival in the very bottom of it.
As a mother of two, a teenager or a young adult and a toddler, you know, it's inevitable for me to think about future generations too. Like what we do in the present, how does it affect future generations?
And, like understanding that my responsibility as an adult in the present is to take care of those common goods that are natural entities that I prefer to call common goods. because that's a way make sure that those coming generations will have access to those common goods, which are basically our sustenance.
Fernanda Espinosa: Before, you spoke about a project that you’ve been working on for several years, can you say more about why you started doing that project and why you think it is important to do that work with communities?
Carolina Caycedo: Be Dammed is an ongoing framework for research and practice. that allows me to both work close and learn from communities on the front lines of environmental justice that are resisting extraction specifically about rivers—construction of dams—and allows me also to then kind of process this learnings, process this fieldwork and present it to different audiences within an artistic context. And I think, even within the same communities that I work with because a lot of the folks in these communities don't have any alternative, but work for the same companies that are extracting their territory. Right? So even at a very local and basic starting point of the project, there's a lot of polarization or conflict, you know, which is also these contradictions are kind of the base of our colonial and plantation kind of culture, if you wish.
For me it's important, and I think what the arts can do is to open up conversations between people who feel differently about these things and that maybe have different understandings, different perspectives, and different opinions about our environment, about those common goods. And I think a conversation as a starting point is needed because otherwise, other decisions cannot happen, right?
If we continue to headbutt ourselves, you know, against the other, instead of reaching out and saying, okay, what's our meeting point, we will never find solutions, real solutions, equitable solutions, right? So I think that the art definitely is a kind of platform to ignite these difficult conversations. It also allows for people to see and to consider other perspectives that perhaps in other arenas, like more arenas of political decision or legal arenas or even mere educational arenas, they won't even consider. But through visuality, maybe understanding at least, perhaps even empathizing with these other perspectives and other experiences of these problematics may be a starting point for finding those middle points or encounters.
Or what I try to do with my artistic practice also is to tap into other, not only intellectual but maybe sentimental and emotional aspects of the audience, waking up those emotional aspects is part of a healing of remembering, part of what we call in Spanish, [spanish phrase] like to feel/think. And to be able to ask the audience to do both that feeling and thinking together. You know, they're not inseparable. They're actually always kind of weaved together,
and to remember to feel/think is already a starting point for healing. And to remember, you know, through a document like a visual, artistic piece, or a written piece, or a video or sound piece to remember certain things that have happened is important, right? Because remembering, creating a historical memory of stuff, and creating a environmental, historical memory of things that have happened is a first step for the nonrepetition of that violence that has been perpetrated either to a community or to the environment itself. So the environment is not only a scenario of things that happen, but is also a victim and a survivor of certain violences.
Fernanda Espinosa: And if you could put into words, although I know it might be hard with a short interview, but what do you hope to achieve with the kind of work and engagement that you practice?
Carolina Caycedo: So when this art illuminates pockets of our society and of our reality, and of our stories and our communities that are not violent, but positive, that are change making, even at a little scale. When art can highlight those aspects. I think that's good for all of us to remember that not everything is violent because that's not the case. There's so many people working from, true love, from looking forward, imagining other worlds.
I think art is a very useful tool. To contribute to the construction of environmental, historical memory as a way for nonrepetition of these structures of power and violence. So to kind of construct these alternative histories, which are as truthful as any history or as weird, or as malleable, or as complicated. those perspectives and those histories that are not included in hegemonic narration. Again, tap into the emotional world and possibilities of an audience in a world where the emotional is not political, the emotional is not intellectual, the emotional is considered weak, right? Or the emotional is not a tool for struggle or battle. So kind of tap into the emotional strength and possibilities of a community, of an audience, of a society. And kind of, allow us to remember through these processes, of art interaction, that there's a strength that humanity carries in that emotion and that, you know, universe of emotions that we can feel: empathy, anger, dignity, break down the hierarchies that exist within the art world themselves. Right. And, maybe implode from the inside, Those structures of, you know, who is an artist, what does art look like? What is good art? What is bad art? who participates of those spaces of privilege that are museums or galleries or art markets. Who has access to those? Also, safeguard a little space for other things to happen within this art world that can reflect so many of the structural violence that our society has too.
Fernanda Espinsoa: I’m going to shift a little to questions around the pandemic. In the interviews we conducted back in 2020, we asked asked artists to reflect on what had changed for them as well as how it had or it was changing them. How has it been for you?
Carolina Caycedo: You know, The pandemic is very paradoxical for me because, while the whole world was experiencing death and misery, the more vulnerable, and I'm speaking about the whole world, like the majority of people. No, of course there's a, there's a 1% that perhaps didn't experience those things or to a certain extent.
But the majority of people were, you know, experiencing losses of their loved ones, losses of their jobs or their livelihoods, an erosion of their rights. And my family. I gave birth to my second child. I gave birth at home, taken care by an excellent midwife and the company of my partner, my elder daughter.
We—it's my partner—we produced a whole body of work that has been successful in the sense that it has been exhibited in different venues across the United States, and we received excellent funding to pursue this research and to finish this body of work that includes a film, a couple of installations, and you know, and it has, it has shown in university galleries all the way to a place like MoMA in New York, so, important venues. It's, it's been a moment in, in my career where I've received a lot of attention and where I've had, important solo institutional shows with good funding.
My first monograph was published in the United States. I received a couple of like important Latinx grant, so I was part of the inaugural cohort of the US Latinx fellowship. Which kind of anchors my voice as a migrant Latina in the conversation of American art. And so it's been an important couple of years, or three years for me, both personally and professionally.
How I have changed? Intellectually a lot of growth. I feel I've changed, and, and became more aware and became more careful with the decisions I take. In terms of my career, I've learned to set boundaries more clear and, am in the process of learning to not over-commit. Hmm. And then maybe what has changed drastically is the set of questions or what I'm questioning myself about. I would say,and, and that has to do with becoming a mother during this moment of the pandemic and of the career. So understanding that, when you're experiencing success in the art world, it's very easy to get sucked by this success and become disconnected from certain things.
The fact that I had a child was a way to connect back and to pay attention to the important things. yeah, like around sustenance, basic sustenance of another human being. and in that sense, a general sense of being responsible of sustenance for, for the world, for the planet. and I think this question has started a few months ago, but I think it's the result of this whole process of pandemic in these three years and then, you know, the baby growing up and whatnot is like, How do I wanna do art? Where do I wanna do art? And under which structures do I want to do art? And who is at this moment establishing those structures for me? Or am I actually building those structures myself? Or am I actually complying to a set of expectations and structures pre-built who am I making art for? you know how I am the artist of my neighborhood, right? If you think about smaller community settings, what can an artist do for their neighborhood?
Fernanda Espinosa: The other part that I was trying to imagine when I was conceptualizing this series, is the question of belonging. During the pandemic, this came up a lot for me. So for you you, what’s your sense? What does it feel to be you in the United States ?
Carolina Caycedo: We need a diverse planet in all its senses. Right. If you think about an ecosystem, an ecosystem that thrives is a diverse ecosystem. The more diversity in terms of the species that interact with each other, the more healthy that ecosystem. And the same for our human societies. The more diversity in, in sense of backgrounds, cultures, gender identities, or what you call it, the healthier our societies would be.
And the fact that there's a bunch of us that has this transnational subjectivity,that we can call ourselves from here and from there and from over there too, is healthy for our societies. So I understand that. I bring health to notions of nationhood, to notions of identity because I bring diversity, a pluriversal
perspective to notions of identity that can be so closed and so rancid.
There's a beautiful book by a Haitian American writer called Edwidge Danticat, Creating Dangerously: The immigrant artist at work, I think it's called that way. And I read that book a little bit before the pandemic she had, when she was writing the book, I this questions about belonging. someone who, who lived, I think New York, I think, or East Coast, also with deep roots in Haiti and always being questioned by one side of the other. Like, how can you dare talk about Haiti from your privileged position in New York or when she's in New York, how can you dare talk about the United States when we have like received you here and given you all this privileges as an immigrant and you have been able to study and make your career here and whatnot. And expresses this to an elder, to a mentor of her and this guy, I can't tells her, well, you know, you actually have the right to speak about those two places because you have one foot in Haiti and you have one foot in the United States. And that gives you the right to speak critically about both places.
And so this sense of rootedness in a single place, for a person like me or you or any transnational subject doesn't make sense 'cause we have roots in many places and our roots are connected t other people that have the same migration stories. And you know, I'm a third-generation migrant. It was the sisters of my grandmother left Colombia in the fifties to travel for work. So this is not a new history. It's kind of already in my blood in a way, you know? And, that has reflected in my life. I've lived in Colombia, in the United States, in Puerto Rico, in Los Angeles, in New York, in London. So, I feel like I have the right, like to speak about all these places that I've lived in and that I have contributed to as a subject, as a political subject, as an artist, as a citizen. And I have the right and the responsibility of providing a critical account when needed.
[Theme music transition]
Fernanda Espinosa: Part 2—Interview with Lita Albuquerque—Us and the Cosmos
Matthew Simms: So, I'll just start by asking you. How've you been? How are you weathering the pandemic?
Lita Albuquerque: I had all kinds of anticipations, as we all did, about 2020. But for me, I really feel that this is a transformational year, and that the way we're getting there is not the way we would have expected. I'm really interested in this cultural historian. His name is Thomas Berry. he wrote a book in 1999 called The Great Work. He's no longer with us, but he was saying how we're the end of the old story that started 2,000 years ago and that we need to create a new story, and that new story is of us in the cosmos, which made my heart sing, since that's really what my work has really been about, that kind of perspective.
And then he talks about, there's three universal laws. The first one is of multiplicity and diversity, the fact that everything in the universe is unique. The second one, which really has taken my attention, is that everything, everything, has an interiority and a subjectivity that expresses itself, that is continually expressing itself. And the third one is, through that subjectivity and through that diversity, we're all interconnected. So, I have experienced this period, as light itself, expressing itself in a way—in a much greater way than—I mean, physically, I feel that. I mean, I've always taken the pulse of that kind of energetic things going on. But it seems as if light has come in and is expressing itself through—you know, obviously, it's shining on darkness. All of this.
So, it's very—it's quite an upheaval. And also, the reason I call i ta fulcrum year and into transformation, is we've all had to go inward. As we've all talked about. And are able to observe what we've done, what we've done to nature. And so, I was able to just really observe nature and all of us felt this, how it came alive, you know? Like, our retreating, all of a sudden, nature comes
back very quickly. And I think that's a very important point. Whether or not it's going to stay that way is something, obviously, to be seen. But I think one of the things that's happened is it's really been a very interior time, since the lockdown. we've all had to adjust, you know, being home with husbands, wives, children, you know, all of that. But obviously, as an artist, it isn't that different, in that, that is what we do, But in my case, I wasn't here in the studio in Santa Monica, so I was able to kind of settle in. I really had time to dream. I really had time to write.
Matthew Simms: kind of, nature tentatively is trying to figure out, "Wait a minute, can we spread over into these areas now? Is it safe?" So, it's interesting to wonder will—you know, what the future holds.
Lita Albuquerque: Yes. Yes, it certainly is a time that makes you think about our effect on the environment. And you see it very rapidly. And I think fact that we can be quiet, we can be in one place. I mean, I feel very fortunate that I'm in this nature place to begin with. But to be able to see what we do to the environment, and then, what do we do about it?
Matthew Simms: the environment is a catch-all in a way, but you've been interested in environmental systems, relationships, from macro to micro, temporary, site-specific performances that you've done, So, I can understand how all of this would resonate in a very, personal and aesthetic way for you in terms of your practice.
Has it pushed you in new directions? In addition to thinking, and in addition to having that moment—have you thought of ways that, "Oh, this is something I want to do to respond to that in my practice as an artist?"
Lita Albuquerque: I have thought in terms of opera. You know, the idea of really performative, narrative, operatic, One of the things I've been doing is editing this film, it's a series of films I'm making, and the next piece I want to do is going to be in Africa. So, I'm just beginning to develop what that's going to be, So, I wouldn't be surprised if it encompasses it on some level.
Matthew Simms: I was interested to hear you mention the work that you had done for Desert X in Saudi Arabia. That had to do with sound and listening. I'm just interested in that, because you work on many levels. Your work is so complexly and finely integrated, that I was just wondering about the question of sound.
Lita Albuquerque: Yeah, one of my first loves was dance, and then theater. but I went into the visual arts. and then I wrote—I started really writing, and I had this text for quite a while, and didn't quite know what to do with it. I thought it was going to be a book. And then I started incorporating that into my work. To be inspired and to inspire, think we all have that as artists. And we all have that as human beings. So yes, definitely—the piece at Sunnylands at Desert X in 2017 was so thrilled, because it was the combination of writing, the libretto; singing; the Los Angeles Master Chorale was singing; there was music that—someone I collaborated with, did the music. There was the choreography; there was dance; there was, then, the sculpture; then there was the performance. But then, there was the site. And every single one of things were equal, which was really fascinating to me. It was like a living painting, but it was, like, the music, dance, performance, color, costuming. All that had equal, you know, had equal say, kind of.
Matthew Simms And the idea that at the center of this was this body, female body, that had its ear to the ground. At first, we weren't quite sure what the posture was, and then it was, oh, listening.
Lita Albuquerque: At Desert X, she was listening to the earth. But she was also telling us to listen. For me, the piece at Desert X, the first one, was a very political piece. It was one of my first political pieces. It was right after the election in 2016, but it was in 2017.
Matthew Simms: I did want to give you a chance to say anything else, if you had anything else that you wanted to say about 2020 and—
Lita Albuquerque: Well, the main thing I want to say is for people not to despair because it is—and to take the opportunity to go inward and to revolutionize themselves, you know?
And I think what's happening in the social, political—well, I won't go into politics, but in the social, is incredibly positive. And having everyone able to express themselves. I mean, it's that whole thing going back to, everything in the universe, whether it's a human being, an animal, a rock, a planet, a galaxy, light, air, expresses, right? And so, we need to allow for that happen. And I think we're doing that. I think we're in process; I mean, it's a lot of work
and it's been going on for a long time. And I think this is the beginning of something extraordinary.
And I do want to conclude with this. I've spent the last five days packing up the fire archive, the objects that my friend Amy Sue had put together at Lauren Bon's place, of the remains of what you had seen. And it was an extraordinary experience. Yesterday was the last day, and I feel I'm at the beginning, the ending, and the beginning of a completely new phase. And it's like you—one has to be in the moment now. We have to be now. Can't be burdened with any notions of the past. And yet, understanding history and understanding the past. But to really be in the moment, in order to be able to survive, but also, in order to be able to inspire.
Matthew Simms Yeah, and to take advantage of this moment.
Lita Albuquerque: And to take advantage of this moment.
Matthew Simms: You've used the word "revolution" several times. A turning, a kind of—a movement around starting. But also, up and out, perhaps.
Lita Albuquerque: Yes.
Matthew Simms: Like you said, into a new moment.
Lita Albuquerque: Yeah.
[Theme music plays through end]
Sarah Mundy: This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman at the Archives of American Art. It was edited by the team at Better Lemon Creative Audio
Our theme music comes from Sound and Smoke composed by Viet Cuong and performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble with Harlan Parker conducting.
For show notes, work cited, and additional resources, visit aaa.si.edu/articulated.
The Archives is especially grateful to Fernanda Espinosa for curating this episode, and to Carolina Caycedo for sharing her wisdom and strength. An extra special thank you goes to Lita Albuquerque and her luminosity.
If you enjoy ARTiculated, please consider rating and sharing it.
The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from individuals like you to sustain our ongoing operations and special programs like ARTiculated. To support our work, please visit aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.