Interview with Gabriel Vallecillo by Sebastián Eduardo @ ZK / U Berlin (July ’19)
This interview arises from a conversation with the Honduran artist Gabriel Vallecillo, which we had during a visit at his residence in ZK / U – Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik, in the frame of the cooperation with Agora Collective e.V. under the program: ¡n[s]urgênc!as 2019 – Ecologies of protest. Artist-in-focus: Gabriel Vallecillo (Curated by Paz Ponce). We talked about his background and the means he works with, as well as about the importance of poetry as a creative mechanism, about migrations and the defense of human rights and land as cross-border phenomena. In addition, Vallecillo shared the process of his videomapping piece “The river told me so”, which is based on the death / planting of Lenca defender Berta Cáceres and which will be transformed once it is presented in Berlin.
Sebastián: I was looking at your page and the various media you work with and have worked attracted my attention. Regarding your academic training, you studied …
Gabriel: I haven’t studied anything I am doing at this moment.
S: Is there no relationship with your current practice?
G: I am self-taught in what I do. I graduated from philosophy at TEC Monterrey, the human part is there. But my creative restlessness began with poetry. At fifteen, I published my first poetry book and realized many things, since it was financed with my money and, well, my parents. At 18 or 19, I published my second book, at 22 my third. Pure poetry. Then, with all this philosophy background, postmodernity … I began to think about the idea that poetry exists no longer on paper, but on the screen, an invention equivalent to printing. Then I began to make poetry for the screen and write with the logic of the image, that is to write text but with image and create that interpretation game between both media. And I discovered some programs that allow you to mix live videos. Then, instead of reading poetry, I mixed it live. My video art is a reading, after all. I grabbed books and took pictures of the fragments.
S: Your books?
G: Everything. I cut the fragments in the computer, put them on top of each other and made a mash-up of fragments and images. Then I started to play VJ, but more focused on poetry. That was my first jump. My friends were DJs, they did underground parties, when techno was not known in Honduras. And I started to make the visuals for the party.
S: Ah, that makes a VJ …
G: Yes, it is the equivalent of DJ but with moving images. I also did VJ in literary cafés, projected words and images, instead of reading. It was part of my way of breaking with the logic of traditional poetry. Some time later, I made my first officially artistic work for my own exhibition: a video installation with the technique of videomapping. At that time, there was no software for that, so it took me two days to fit the image into a specific space. Now it takes me two minutes on the computer.
S: So videomapping is projecting a video that suits non-flat and white surfaces. Right?
G: Yes, that suits the physical characteristics of an irregular surface. Because the video usually has a standard size.
S: And was it then merely an analogical work? A physical work?
G: Yes, it was about trying again and again. That was my first experimentation, and from there I started working as a visual and audiovisual artist, among others with videomapping, which by its characteristics is more commercial, but that has fed me many times.
S: Do you mean videomapping in public buildings? Like for the Festival of Lights in Berlin?
G: In fact, the building I have been assigned for that festival is called “Weinhaus Huth”. I’m going to be there for five days. I had already presented three pieces in Salamanca, my work Xibalbá won an audience award. The third year I attended I did an experimental work, I was getting tired of the same videomappings. One in which the building falls, for example. I love dance, so I built a box proportional to the building I was going to project into, inside which I filmed dancers. Projected on the building, their tightened bodies on the box generated the feeling of fighting against the walls. In addition, I converted these images into data, removing the bottom of the drawer and translating the bodies into pixels. They fell apart and formed again, responding to the bass of the music. The idea has to mature, but after that project I came here. And as I say, the world of videomapping is very commercial, there are few spaces to be really creative.
S: When you say commercial, I don’t fully understand what you mean. Obviously they are public events, spectacular and, to some extent, entertainment. But artists like you work from other concerns, political, historical, beyond the technological. Do you not?
G: Political, historical and cultural. Always. But there are things that I would like to do, which are more personal and experimental, more avant-garde.
G: That they are groundbreaking, as opposed to what’s being produced at the moment. That they really include another way of approaching the artistic work. I already saw a lot of videomapping in which the building falls, or where leaves grow. I have done it myself, I have sinned [laughs]. But I want my work to take other expressive forms.
S: So it’s about investigating the possibilities of the medium?
G: Exactly. But as I say, I am self-taught. I have no knowledge in coding and I know little of all these programs, such as Cinema 4D, which are so complex and complete. It is a universe of possibilities, but the problem is that it goes so fast. Like capitalism itself, right? Everything is going fast and constantly changing … Then you have to choose your battles.
S: And the poetry has been diluted over time?
G: No: for many of my video installations, I first write a poem and from there I derive the images, the sound. No one sees the poem, only me. In fact, the work you saw at ZK/U a couple of weeks ago [Memory, refraction and time, 2019] contained fragments of a poem I wrote. I told the participants to translate it into Italian, German, Portuguese so I could record their voices saying fragments of the poem. Then I later assembled those fragments. Poetry is always there. Personally, I do not like the coldness of certain works that do not have a poetic inside, I mean works where there is no transformation of materiality, even if it is digital. Because in poetry, a word next to another can mean one thing, but you put a third element and completely change the meaning of the poem. So you can transform a video into something else. The poet does that, he changes the meanings to the raw material. For me the work must change, transform, even destabilize that raw material.
S: Like the dancers who become image, right? Those who you can already mold as an image and no longer as bodies. Or better said, as other types of bodies.
G: Exactly, in that case these bodies became data, they are no longer human. And that was part of my idea, then, that the human being was lost in these worlds. They are recurring themes …
S: Poetry as a mechanism, then. And what is the relationship between sound and image in your work in general?
G: It’s the same as in the cinema. The movie doesn’t work for you without sound, it wouldn’t transmit you those emotions, there wouldn’t be those sounds that squeeze you inside. Then you always have to coordinate the image with the audio, not only at the musical level. Because what’s most interesting is the relationship between visual and sound effects. If I move a building in a way and in the background you start to hear a breath, you already come to think that it is alive. I am infusing vitality into a stone, “she” is negotiating her corporality with something else. I have very good hypersensitive microphones, for example for water, or to detect vibrations that you don’t hear normally. I place them onto an electric tube and wonderful things start to sound. In the water, for instance, sounds that if you get under it you won’t be able to listen, like cracks. It is a completely new universe. That type of sounds, for example, I am incorporating into the work of The River told me so.
S: But then, thinking about the dancers, the difference between your pieces and the movies, or at least many of them, is that yours is not a secondary sound, as in a support for the image, but rather it is its engine. It is the image that reacts to the sound.
G: Sometimes yes. Other times they go hand in hand, other times the sound transforms, or enters into a dialogue. For example sometimes the sounds of our own bodies tell us that we are tired. And that knowledge makes us react. It’s another level of …
G: A feeling that something is alive. It is a way of the body to manifest itself not only through screams, but integrally.
S: Returning to the poetic as a mechanism or strategy, I would like to link this idea with your practice of projecting an image on surfaces that are not white, flat, seemingly neutral, but for example on a historical building, or on ruins, as in the case of Precipitation of tenderness. That is also a transformation, isn’t it?
G: Sure. For example, I was recently invited to Irun, in Spain, on the border with France. I did a videomapping on the “Corps of Border Guards”, an abandoned building, which is right next to a bridge, through which the Spanish fled and the French entered during the Civil War. So I did a work on migration. I turned the building into a bridge, under which migrants passed. Mass migration from El Salvador and Honduras to the United States had just happened. I also included the exodus from Africa and elsewhere. I really liked being able to work with a very current, universal and local theme. In front of the work and the building, many spectators remembered the history of that bridge, of that country, of the relationship they had with France, also raising awareness with other migrant cultures. The theme is cross-cultural and cross-border.
S: Regarding The River told me so, the project for which you are working during your residency in ZK / U: where was it going to be projected into and what is it going to be now? And, in general, how has the process been so far?
G: Originally the idea was like this: in this river [he points to a photograph on the wall] I was going to project on its margin’s walls.
S: Is it the river defended by Berta Cáceres?
G: It’s one nearby. It was going to be a mirror, the projection was going to be reflected in the river and the river in the projection. But it was very dangerous, Berta’s daughter told me: “They will kill you.” There is no law, but military, paramilitaries and the interests of the investors in the dam that won’t yield. And they do kill.
S: Berta’s daughter is the director of COPINH [Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras], right?
G: And she’s a congresswoman as well. I was with the three daughters of Berta and with her mother. I immersed myself deep in the logic of the Lenca culture. The daughters said shocking things to those of us who are oblivious to their culture, for example: “my mother is here, because of her spirit. And I’m sure she laughs with us. The spirits of our ancestors are also here.” They believe that Berta, being killed, became a spirit defending the rivers. In this way they didn’t kill her, but they planted her instead; Berta did not die, she multiplied. She is now part of Mother Earth and a spirit that protects the sacred rivers for the Lenca culture. For those who practice their cultural beliefs, it is necessary to do a ritual: a “cleaning”, to ask the spirits for permission and access the rivers. They are beautiful worldviews and practices, very different from those of us who have been trained and raised in a Catholic household in the city.
G: Yes, I’m from “Tegus”.
S: And what was your initial motivation to get to know Berta, her fight and her family? Was it to begin this work?
G: When I heard about Berta’s murder, I was completely shocked. I could not believe that such an incredible person, such a fighter, without fear, had been murdered in this way so cowardly, so horrible. I kept thinking and listened to her speech when she was awarded the Goldman Prize, which is the equivalent of an environmental defense Nobel prize. Tears came to my eyes. She said: “Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We are out of time. The river told me so”. Then is when I started with the work. I thought: “What better place to honor her memory than making it in the river she defended, her raw material?“ Because, as I said, Berta’s spirit is there. Then I went to interview the mother and daughters. The daughters are as brave as Berta and the mother was a guerrilla in El Salvador. That is a true matriarchy, the Lenca culture in general is matriarch: it is women who provide, say and do.
S: Are there also Lencas in El Salvador?
G: Yes. And they have many similarities with the Mayans. In addition, it was Berta who managed to unite the Lenca and Garífuna cultures, which previously did not fight together. It’s incredible because they have a lot of respect for one another and are together defending the earth; before each group did it on their own.
S: And on top of that the Garífunas are an Afro-diasporic culture, right?
G: Yes, and they are combining their rituals and offerings, which are fusing with each other. By the way, the leader of the Garífunas is also a woman. One thing Berta’s daughter told me is that they had no clash with other native cultures or other countries. She said: “We are all in the same harmony, they are only different ways of expressing the same thing.” It is only with Western cultures that they collide, because there is a history of competition and imposition. Well, returning to the work and the process, I also came to the conclusion that it could be done anywhere, as long as it was a river because, poetically, a drop of water in this part of the world is everywhere too, isn’t it? So if I do this work in a river here, it is the same honor as in Honduras, because they “planted” her and, like water, she is everywhere. It is the poetics, everything is connected.
S: And your media have some of that spirit. Your works are not materialized and fixed, they are presence …
G: But it’s a presence that you can’t grasp. That is why, usually, I do not use hard materials, because I prefer that the work can never be grabbed. There is a projection that I am doing on smoke, in which the image disappears and reappears.
S: Apart from the defense of the river and the planting of Berta, what other references do you work with?
G: Well, I started reading the “Popol Vuh”, the conceptions of the universe that they had, because I don’t want to do a pamphleteer work on Berta, rather about a culture and about a way of thinking. And although in the end she will appear, the idea is that the river water is the one that will speak.
S: The Popol Vuh is a Maya-K´iche´ book. Does it also have relevance for the Lencas?
G: They have many things in common, such as corn and the rite of composure.
S: And now, how will you present the work?
G: I want to do a 360 degree videomapping on a dome. The dome is the celestial mantle, that also works. It does not have the same poetic charge, but it can work.
S: And the water?
G: Water is the mechanism through which the work will speak. Being 360 degrees, you will not necessarily be looking at the sky. The water will be there as a discursive mechanism. It is going to be filled with water, definitely: water flows, torrents, whirlpools. In addition, the dome will be full of helium, since it is a soft architecture: it negotiates with the wind, with the weather. It is a challenge to make a videomapping against a surface that is in constant motion, that is not fixed or rigid. Because I have to be controlling the live image, adapting it. As we say in Honduras, those are “another twenty pesos”. [laughs]
S: And what does it mean to translate such a local work to, for example, Germany, Berlin?
G: Notice that it doesn’t change that much, it means working with new weapons, new possibilities. You have to throw yourself so that your wings grow. Making such a work with these logics is an unexplored field for me. Because there is something that I criticize a lot about art production with new technologies: that it becomes a technological show, devoid of soul. For me, the work must have a soul, it must have poetry. That is the challenge.
S: And regarding the public that will experience The River told me so, perhaps in relation to Berta Cáceres: if your work is not pamphlet-like, is it not pedagogical either?
G: No. In the end the appearance of her image only helps establishing a context. Like any work it should generate curiosity: “Why are they using corn in a spiral, and these candles and smoke in the middle? (…) ” They are images that in some cultures have no referents. In addition, in Europe, there is a need to return to more earthly things and see things more stuck to the ground, from other world views.
S: Returning to the earthly through videomapping in 360 degrees, I love that paradox. [laughs]
G: I see it for example in Berlin, in something as simple as community gardens; people want to belong more to earth, to be more conscious. Instead, in our countries they want to be hyper-modernized.
S: And do you still have contact with Berta’s family? Are they aware of your work here?
G: Not lately, but just before I came I met them and we were talking for a while. They are still fighting, although there was an attack against a defender recently. In Honduras things are looking pretty bad, for everyone. Murders and constant harassment. Also against the lgbti * community.
About the author
Sebastián Eduardo [Dávila] (* Guatemala, 1993) was born in Guatemala City and studied History of Art and Film Sciences at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena (BA), at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and at the Freie Universität in Berlin (MA). He will begin a doctoral project at the Leuphana Universität in Lüneburg on decoloniality in contemporary art in Guatemala. In 2016, he took part in a lecture at the 91. Kunsthistorischen Studienkongress in Leipzig and has published articles in the Lateinamerika Nachrichten magazine and in exhibition catalogs in Jena and Weimar. In 2015, he curated the Kunst und Krise exhibition in Jena and has worked as a student teacher and assistant at the universities of Jena and Berlin and as a practitioner in the collection of the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City. He is currently working as a mediator at the Galerie Wedding and at KINDL – Zentrum für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Berlin. Since 2018, he has volunteered in the organization of events and in the writing of articles for the Peace Brigades International website.
About the artist
See more of Gabriel Vallecillo’s work on his website: https://www.gabrielvallecillo.com