What follows is the edited transcript of a conversation that took place on February 6, 2015, as part of How Far Is Near, a series of conversations organized by Triple Canopy at the Material Art Fair in Mexico City. How Far Is Near considered the ways in which political representation might be achieved—or recognized as a chimera, or disavowed—by representing politics, whether through art or literature or graphic design. In doing so, the series examined the affordances of new and old media; the ways in which culture circulates and attains meaning; and the various responses by Mexican artists and writers to social and political crises in recent months and decades.
The conversation was primarily in Spanish and included the artist and publisher Felipe Ehrenberg, who died in 2017; the artists Waysatta Fernández and Juan Caloca, who at the time were members of Cooperativa Cráter Invertido, which was founded in 2011; Sofía Olascoaga, a curator and researcher; and Alexander Provan, Triple Canopy’s editor. (A video of the conversation can be viewed here.) Titled after Felipe Ehrenberg’s 1985 essay on the legacy of Los Grupos and the “collectivization of artistic practice,” the conversation was devoted to the promises (and perils) of various models of collectivity and to publication as a means of forging and distributing relationships and representations. How does the work of publication test, in public, the ideals and aspirations that so many collective models aim to realize? What does the history of such models in Mexico—where publication has so often been an essential medium and mode of circulation, especially for artists living in exile—tell us about their ability today to create potent representations and to foster powerful actions?
Alexander ProvanThe loose prompt of today’s conversation is the promises and perils of collective endeavors. Let’s start with Waysatta and Juan, who can detail the promises and perils as they’ve experienced them in their ongoing work with Cooperativa Cráter Invertido.
Waysatta FernándezJuan and I are two out of the ten members who make up Cráter Invertido, an art collective that was started three years ago to manage a space in the Obrera neighborhood [of Mexico City]. We’re now located in San Rafael. We decided that we needed a space to hold workshops, and that by sharing our work as individuals we could also work together. We wanted this process to find its way into publications, which is why we have a small press and produce works with various themes, characteristics, and workflows. We are ten artists—ten heads, ten different positions. Each publication reflects this in one way or another.
Juan CalocaTo clarify, we are not here as representatives of the collective. We’re talking from our own perspectives as members and individuals who can speak about the work that our friends are doing. We are ten artists, but the space, at the beginning, was not a platform to exhibit artworks. We are more interested in the intersection of art, politics, and affect. We used the space to work alongside activists, hackers, and direct action groups. We started working from the assumption that artistic practice is also social practice, and we realized that publications were a great medium to distribute all of the ideas that were gestating in the space.
Now we have a tiny exhibition area, but the exhibitions are always linked to the work that is created by the groups that gather in the space. Currently, we have a seminar that explores the relationships between sound and political representations, a group researching the violent acts that took place during the mobilizations last year, a drawing group, a group working on anarchism and sci-fi. In sum, there are distinct groups that work in a collective and collaborative manner. The publications are the result of this collective work.
ProvanThere’s not a single way of working: each publication is distinctive in terms of the subject matter and form, and represents the working processes of the individuals who are involved.
Felipe EhrenbergI’m going to speak in English. It’s strange: everybody here speaks English, but only one person doesn’t speak Spanish. That’s more or less the way Mexico is going, slowly. Everybody will be speaking English and half-assed Spanglish. And we’re in the blackberry or blueberry auditorium or whatever this building is.1
My dad arrived in Mexico empty-handed [from Germany]. All of us in the family, being eight siblings, had to work from a very young age. Eventually, he and some of us made money; a few made a lot of money. But at the beginning we had to work. And I happened to work at Imprenta Aldina, which was run by anarchist Spaniards who had sought asylum in Mexico. Most of them were anarcho-syndicalists. Most of them were from Catalonia. There I learned the trade. You had to learn how to set type, print proofs, set up the machine, and separate colors. All of that I learned as a craft. I was still young—quite young—when Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragón met. In 1961, they founded El corno emplumado (The Plumed Horn), which has a beautiful exhibition right now at the Centro Cultural Tlatelolco—one of four that deal with the cultural panorama of the ’60s, which is a period in Mexican cultural history that’s almost unchronicled.
My experience with El corno emplumado was incredible. It was a bilingual magazine with poetry and visuals. I collaborated with them until 1968, when Margaret was forced underground. The government was really tightening the screws on Mexican thinkers, artists, and writers, and I fled with my two kids and their mother to England and sought political asylum. But England does not offer political asylum—we were allowed to stay there under “attenuating circumstances.” We lived in a very beat-up neighborhood, Islington, which later—quite a few years later—became totally gentrified. It’s really snazzy now. But at that time, the kids at the public school beat the shit out of my two children, who were rather dark-skinned in comparison. We decided to move to Devon, in the southwest of England.
Now, before then, just around the corner from where I lived, there was a secondhand store. We had no money, but I still went out and spent fifty quid on a standard duplicator, a tool that, in Mexico at that time, was highly suspect. With that, I taught myself how to use a stencil and actually print multiples, small images, letter-size, A4, on different papers, which I flogged at openings and theater queues and all over the place. And I made money with it—I was able to sell my images. There were, well, unlimited editions. I usually made editions of eighty, a hundred—you never know when an image is going to be approved and sell well. And friends of friends, poets, came, knowing that I had a duplicator there and that I had become quite skilled at using it. We brought out some small poetry publications, completely independent, completely one of a kind for poets.
When we moved to Devon, I decided to set up Beau Geste Press, or Libro Acción Libre—it had two names. And in three and a half years we printed 153 titles in editions of between four and two thousand. You can see them in two collections now: the whole archive of our publications and correspondence is at the Tate in London and the publications are also at the Cecil H. Green Library at Stanford University.
When I came back to Mexico, I thought I could continue with BGP/LAL, but circumstances were scabrously difficult for anyone who had returned. I came back with two children, without their mother, and I met a wonderful woman who had two children, so we suddenly had to feed four. And, out of nothing, we had to feed five. Another one came along. I was also feeding two of my nephews, whose mom had been in a very bad accident. So there were seven kids that I had to take care of, and that was difficult.
We settled in a very small city in the coffee country of Veracruz. Every Friday, I would take the seven-hour trip from Veracruz to Mexico City. And on Saturday I’d give a workshop in one of the backyards of San Carlos to a group of students of Ricardo Rocha. I called the course Pasos así a la Socialización del Arte [Steps to the Socialization of Art]. It had nothing to do with socialism or communism or any of that shit. The point was just to socialize art and the practice of artists. And what better way than to bypass a practically nonexistent gallery system and produce your own magazines and books? The first publication was called El libro de las 24 horas [The Book of the 24 Hours], because my bet was that, in twenty-four hours, using just the photocopy machines and duplicators that were around the Academy of San Carlos and the streets of downtown, the students could print a book. And they did. In twenty-four hours.
I’m not sure what the difference in Spanish is between colectivo and grupo. I’m not quite sure why, at that time, we didn’t use the word colectivo; we used the word grupo. Language has a way of shifting so quickly that you sometimes feel you’re standing on quicksand. Like, for example, we used to have feelings, sentimientos. Nowadays, we have políticas afectivas, affective politics. In Mexico language shifts even quicker, because we use this strange mishmash. We now say, “Voy a ir a un opening, porque voy a presentar unos canvases.” Language can impede you from properly thinking. Chomsky was very clear about this: you don’t speak what you think, you think what you speak. So the more unsure you are about the language you’re using, the less clear you’ll be in your thoughts.
Anyway, money was always a major problem. Before, we were able to invent a system and make profit, and we lived off the work; when I came back to Mexico, it wasn’t so easy. In fact, it was very difficult to make money off your work. At that time, in 1974, there were eight galleries in Mexico City. Period. So I formed a group of twenty-six teachers—some of them were artists—and offered our services, first to government agencies. And they started hiring us. We visited different towns and created networks throughout the country. Each teacher would stay for exactly one week and, for four hours each day, show people how to publish using the duplicator, which was a ubiquitous tool. The point was not just to use the duplicator—a lot of people knew how to use it, because every school, every teacher-training school, had one—but to set up a publishing enterprise.
We never used the word “alternative”; we sometimes used the word “small.” Now everybody is: Somos artistas alternativos. Es una galería alt. It’s one of these catchy, trendy phrases that you use nowadays to make yourself interesting. But, in fact, we were a small press and hoped to grow and become a good business. On the first wave of visits, we founded about four hundred small presses. The second wave gave us another 150 to two hundred, but because we were also teaching people how to teach, we registered nearly 680 small presses. Eventually, when I lost track, there were 810 small presses throughout the country. These were founded in cultural centers and teacher-training schools. We visited Ayotzinapa ten times, and as a result I know some of the parents and grandparents of the missing forty students.2 We would stay in Tixtla and teach at Ayotzinapa. I managed to convince our sponsors to enter the penitentiary system. And we would give courses to people in jail. Then I was able to enter the army. And we not only gave seminars, courses, workshops, whatever you want to call them—some people call them clínicas in Spanish—on publishing; we were also forming groups of people to collectively create murals. In every one of these instances, we trained people that took these courses to train other people to give the courses. It was a reproduction mechanism.
My wife is not at all interested in visual arts. She’s not only not interested, if she opens a book she can’t see the difference between the reproduction of a watercolor, an engraving, or an oil painting. I’m so thankful for that, because she represents 99 percent of the population of the world. But she is most knowledgeable about literature, and she enjoys what you call literatura negra: thrillers, detective fiction. So we started a small press called Biombo Negro [Black Screen], in homage to Black Mask, which was a pulp magazine in the United States in the 1930s. We started producing our own stories—thrillers, illustrated fiction, pulp—because there were no magazines doing that in Mexico.
So that is, in very few words, my involvement with publishing. I’m sorry I took so long; I’ve been living for a long time. I know that Juan Caloca was worried about the title of this event, In Search of a Model for Life, which is the title of an essay that I wrote that is included in the book about the death of the grupos movement—the catalogue for an exhibition at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, “De Los Grupos los Individuos” [From the Groups, Individuals]. Sylvia Pandolfi, the director, asked members of the groups to present an exhibition.
ProvanThis was in 1985?
EhrenbergI guess. I don’t remember anymore. I should have written it down. The grupos movement was, like all movements in art history, very short-lived. Groups don’t have a life any longer than six to eight years. If something lasts more than ten years, it is an institution. It’s no longer a collective or a group. As a good anarchist, I am all for institutions. They’re the only way we can actually make society work. I’m an anarcho-syndicalist. I was trained as such.
CalocaThe Zapatistas are over twenty years old now.
EhrenbergThey already are an institution and not a collective, for sure. And they are a respectable institution. And the National Liberation Army in Colombia is no longer an institution, it is a government. Speaking of instability of language—“government” is a word that describes an action, not an entelequia.3
As an example, I can tell you about what happened right after the earthquake in 1985. I formed a nonregistered nongovernmental organization. At first, the Centro de Enlace Díaz de León worked with nearly eighty-five people, all volunteers, in three eight-hour shifts, attending to the immediate problems after the earthquake. After thirteen years, we were an institution.
Now what’s happened? I was in a tent on the street and five or six people ran up to me and said, “Felipe! Felipe! The government came and they told us that we had to leave this building that’s falling down.” I said, “Woah, woah, woah! Take it easy.” They said, “The government came and told us!” Jesus Christ. I said, “What happened? What do you mean, ‘the government?’” “Well, there was this guy who came.”
There was this guy who came. Not the government. A guy. So what was the guy’s name? “We don’t know, he just told us to leave.” They’re scared shitless. “Ah,” I said. “Well … fuck him.” He—one guy!—told you to leave. You don’t leave when one asshole comes over and says he’s the government. “Next time, ask for ID. Take the ID in your hands, write down the number and his name, address, and phone."
When that happens, people stop being scared, they start using first and last names. We have a government that is occupied by people with first and last names. Now, I think Mexico does need a government. The government is an institution. What it doesn’t need is the assholes who are running it.
OlascoagaFor a very long time, I’ve been really intrigued by these collective practices not just as proposals in relation to a form of production but as ways of imagining models for working, organizing, living—as the title of the event and Felipe’s essay proposes. The starting point for a collective process is a need plus a desire for an alternative. But what pushes people to articulate a platform for such a model? Most of the time, a desire for—or an idealized notion of—collectivity more than any concrete need, right? To talk about the dynamics that are being questioned or staged through these collective strategies is to enter into a space of contradictions.
I’m interested in how to generate a different model not simply for production or artistic practice, but for life. How to think of the commons not as a promise, or a model that can be applied and replicated, but as a premise, as a place from which to imagine? In the context of the generation of the 1970s, there was an infrastructure for artistic practices and a sense of art as a profession that now seems very distant. To me, collectivization allows us to blur the professional profiles that define what curators, artists, and editors do. It allows us to challenge not only our relationships to institutions but the manner in which we institutionalize what we do and who we are. There is something about collective work that allows us to challenge forms of production that tend to demand signatures, personal brands, and authorial intent. To work collectively is also to establish a contrast with the kinds of behavior and organizations that characterize the crises that plague Mexico and so many other countries. In other words, if you behave in a way that is shaped by a particular economic model, what kind of relationships are you reinforcing or reproducing? What are the institutions that you’re upholding?
What does it mean that Cráter Invertido’s work is sometimes used as a reference for the types of practices that the grupos from the 1970s developed, and for other initiatives that have existed in Mexico and elsewhere? In terms of publishing, it seems important to register the processes that characterize groups or collectives, to have the form of production manifest in the publication. The experiences of working with others, and the learning that happens in these situations, often isn’t registered. The records that exist are often created from the perspective of art history, which focuses on the practices of individual artists. Rarely is there deeper research on the complexities, crises, and challenges that are part and parcel of collective negotiation. How, then, can these processes become tools for others to use?
No one can tell you how to start a collective, how to work as a group—as if it were simply a series of steps to follow. What might a resource for this kind of cultural education—which has to do with alternative forms of behaving, organizing, and learning that are often at the margins, or antagonistic toward institutions—look like? How can we engage with these models not simply through the historical record but through lively exchanges? That is precisely what Printed Matter did ten years ago with the publication of the book Group Work, in which Temporary Services, a San Francisco–based collective, interviewed other collectives, asking them about negotiations, divisions of labor, and problems around sex, drugs, leadership, money management—all of the issues that come up in group dynamics.
CalocaOn the difference between cooperatives or collectives or groups: before becoming one or the other, before naming this project a cooperative, we worked as a group, as a collective, as friends that hung out together and organized events at school, like dances and cooking contests. We weren’t thinking about the term “collective,” since we were simply hanging out and learning from each other, proposing more exchanges between more and more people. One very important factor: there was no cash flowing between us. All of our projects relied on our own resources; we didn’t spend much and we liked what we were doing. The moment we got together to think up a project with other intentions, with a shared space, money came into the picture. From the start, how to get money? The cooperative model was the most appealing because, in the beginning, we were going to collectively invest our work and money in order to create something that we’d all share.
When creating work, what is most important to us is the process: getting together, listening to each other’s opinions, debating and sharing texts. We don’t have open workshops. None of the seminars we spoke about in the beginning are online, there’s no sheet of paper outside the space that lists and annotates the readings. There is no open call. Everything is by affinities. We start from a topic we are all interested in and move forward based on internal discussions, shared reflections. That’s how we started to think of publication as a container for all of these ideas and as a mechanism to distribute them. The product is not as important as the process. But we understand that the publication is an integral part of the process: the space where ideas take shape and reflections are allowed to exist by themselves. The publication is not a representation insofar as we are not drawing or photographing an event that exists or existed. We do not understand politics, as Felipe was saying, as a foreign entity; we understand politics as what we do every day in our relationships. Rather than representation, we're engaging in the presentation of diverse types of thought and action. Politics doesn’t take place in the distance but in everyday life and, above all, in social processes, right? In other words, politics exists in the form of work and the ways in which we work with each other.
FernándezBut there is also a need for distribution. Or, I mean, there is a need to socialize this process. Isn’t a publication an attempt to socialize the process as much as an attempt to socialize the work that emerges from the process? On the other hand, publications are driven by economics; to create them you have to be solvent, you have to, at least, cover the costs of publication and equipment. So publications have this double character. On one hand, they are about socializing, on a small scale, the entire process and contents of each publication. But they are also about financing.
1 The conversation took place at Auditorio BlackBerry, in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.
2 For more on the disappearance of forty-three students in the Mexican state of Guerrero in September 2014, and the botched investigation and nationwide protests that followed, see “It Was the State,” a conversation between John Gibler and Gabriela Jauregui, published by Triple Canopy in 2016.
3 In Spanish, entelequia means something that is not real; but the word also refers to Aristotle, who coined entelecheia to mean something that is an end in itself.