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Decolonial Aesthesis: Arte Nuevo InteractivA and A New Generation of Decolonial Thinkers, Makers, and Doers 

Brittany Chávez | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, La Pocha Nostra
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Arte Nuevo InteractivA
© Laboratorio Cartodigital, 2013



From May 30-June 6, 2013, I participated as an invited performance artist in Arte Nuevo InteractivA—a Biennial of Latin American decolonial artists and pedagogues in Mérida, Yucatán, México. This year’s theme was Creative Decolonial Strategies for Mayans, Afro-Latinos, and U.S. Latina/o Transnationals. The curators of this year’s Biennial included: Chief Curator Raul Moarquech Ferrera-Balanquet, Kency Cornjeo (PhD Student, Duke University), Rosalia Romero (PhD Student, Duke University), and Jose Luis Garcia Pérez (Mérida), with the coordinating maestra of the event Veronica García (Mérida). The other invited artists included: Brittany Chávez (US-Afro Latina), Adolfo Albán Achinte (Colombia), Maurico Andrade (Uruguay / México), Dalia María Benfield (US Latina/ Panamá), Isaac Esau Carrillo Can (Yucatán, México), Benvenuto Chavajay (Guatemala), Alex Donis (Guatemala / US Latino), Miguel Garrido Capellini (Tabasco, México), Pedro Pablo Gómez (Colombia), Cristina Liana (Yucatán, México), Pedro Lash (México / US Latino), Arlan Londoño (Colombia/Canada), Rocio Chalets (Yucatán, México), María Luisa Papua Molina (Yucatán, Mexico), Laura de la Mora (México / España), Miguel Rojas-Sotelo (Colombia /US Latino), Rosalía Romero (México / US Latina), and Marco Vera (Mexicali, México). 

Given the range of artists included in this event, I would like to be explicit by what I mean when I say “new generation” in the title. I in no way mean a generation that refers to a genealogical construction of age and career/life trajectory, that therefore, privileges youth. Nor do I refer to artists who are “emerging” by any means. In fact, the urgency with which I write this piece deals with troubling any conception of “emergent” and what art and performance gets to count and who gets to be seen in broader circles. This definition of the “next generation” of decolonial artists/scholars/activists, exceeds the limits of age and linear career or life trajectories. Most importantly, it exceeds false constructions of what lime lights artistic careers happen in. “Generational,” doesn’t even refer to those “coming up through the ranks,” within academic, artistic, and activist realms (each of these realms constantly getting blurred in their distinctions). This is about building community among peers just as invested in decolonial artistic practices. We require spaces that Biennials like Arte Nuevo InteractivA create in order to sustain ourselves by learning from one another and continuing to build our respective crafts. Local communities and one another are our audiences. The next generation of decolonial thinkers, makers, and doers are those of us who come together in conversation to continue to keep our practices alive, regardless of who is paying attention. We are a part of what has now become a large transnational web of decolonial thinkers, makers, and doers. 

Arte Nuevo InteractivA Biennial began in 2001, with additional Biennials in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, and then again in 2013 (the gap in years is a result of the normal funding woes of artists doing this work). Ferrera-Balanquet explains how the Biennial was born: 

Arte Nuevo InteractivA was born as a consequence of the invisibility of many artists in the big biennials of electronic art, to the marginalization experienced by new media artists with limited access to technology and to the need for creating a space for future generations, the new generation of Latin American and “third world” new media artists who are constantly excluded from museums, galleries and festivals only because they do not live in the “metropolis” or because their limited access to technology forces them to produce “rudimentary” work. (Ferrera-Balanquet 1). 

Following this explanation, the Biennial is for artists who work from what Walter Mignolo might call “las sombras” (the shadows). The types of art included multiple and mixed forms like: performance, sculpture, installation, music, visual art, sound, and writing. We came together for a week as Latin American and “Third World” artists to contest the norms of art making, art praxis, and pedagogy, by sharing our practices, engaging in decolonial dialogues, and teaching workshops to the youth in the community. 

Further, the Biennial is also a curatorial process. Ferrera-Balanquet continues: 

The curatorial processes underpinning the Art Nuevo InteractivA Biennial are very much inspired by current Latin American neo-conceptualist practices. Employing Internet technologies, the biennale addresses the interconnectedness of historical and economic positions, conceptual grammars, and the formation of informal social network in relation to global territories. These curatorial aims attempt to showcase the dynamics of economic production of art in many regions of the world, to expose the discursive formation of artistic practices, to address the persistent exclusion of these artists in Western art history, and to focus on the difficulties of curatorial practices outside the museum (Ferrera Balanquet 1). 

The curatorial component is essential before, during, and after the Biennial. The artists are carefully selected for the consistency and rigor of their work and commitments, their emphasis and abiding in decolonial thinking and praxis, and their potential for contributing not only to their community of artists, but to the community in Mérida. We met together during the week for casa adentro (discussion groups and panels about art, queerness, feminism, politics, and indigeneity in relation to the decolonial) and casa afuera (public roundtables, panels, and community workshops (particularly with Mayan youth). The week culminated in awards for the youth we worked with for different projects with the respective artists. Prior to meeting together, we each had the opportunity to share work from our archives with the larger web of artists from all previous Biennales and to generate critical conversations. 

Each of the aforementioned artists/scholars/activists contest the norms of art making and art exhibiting. We gather in a community saturated by Mayan indigenous knowledge and practices that face their own ongoing struggle to keep them present in Yucatán. We are artists/scholars/activists who are frequently if not always excluded from mainstream academia, the art world, and even the “popular” circles within alternative forms of artistic practice. In order to delink from the way artistic production happens, we make work that goes against expectations normally be required for full acknowledgment and legitimizing forces. We engage with and in decolonial aesthesis. 

Decolonial Aesthesis and Reducing Western Art-Making to Size

Decolonial aesthesis, as a term, was conceptualized collectively and asks how we employ the various uses of our multiple senses in order to think, know, and do art differently in artistic Biennales. Decolonial aestheSis asks why Western aesthetic categories like ‘beauty’ or ‘representation’ have come to dominate all discussion of art and its value, and how those categories organize the way we think of ourselves and others: as white or black, high or low, strong or weak, good or evil. And decolonial art (or literature, architecture, and so on) enacts these critiques, using techniques like juxtaposition, parody, or simple disobedience to the rules of art and polite society, to expose the contradictions of coloniality. Its goal, then, is not to produce feelings of beauty or sublimity, but ones of sadness, indignation, repentance, hope, and determination to change things in the future.1

Decolonial aesthetics, which became decolonial aesthesis (as a critical intervention in the contemporary art scene) was first introduced into the conversation by Adolfo Achinte Albán. Achinte Albán has taught us about the possibilities of re-existence through everyday aesthetic practices and the senses.

Decolonial aestheSis is a movement that is naming and articulating practices that challenge and subvert the hegemony of modern/colonial aestheSis…decolonial aestheSis, seen as a critical intervention within the world of the contemporary arts. This practice runs parallel to decolonial epistemic critique being made in the realms of philosophy and academic thought. It circulates not so much around the question of the re-existence of practices and forms of sensing that remain present in everyday life, but more around biennales and curatorial projects. It stands as a confrontation with modern aestheTics within its own field. (Mignolo and Vázquez)2

This project is in parallel trajectory and conversation with the decolonial epistemic critique in academia and philosophy, asking how arts practices are perceived by bodies and institutions, hoping to open up new spaces for experiencing and presenting art. 

Decolonial aestheSis are processes of thinking and doing, of sensing and existing, in which the modern distinction between theory and practice has no purchase. Decolonizing the senses means, in the last analysis, decolonizing modern, postmodern, and altermodern knowledge regulating aestheSis, in order to decolonize the subjectivities controlled under the modern imperial aestheTics and their aftermath. (Mignolo and Vázquez) With these prerogatives, Arte Nuevo InteractivA makes no distinction between theory, praxis, and pedagogy. Each is engaged as crucial elements of the Biennial practice. 

In the week of the Biennial, through panels, including the one I participated in, “Decolonizing Female Desire,” public performances, panels, exhibitions, and internal discussions, we had the chance to engage with and in decolonial aesthesis. Decolonial aesthesis for us meant engaging all of our senses in community together and in Mayan communities in Yucatán, and rethinking the way we sense, think and believe about artistic practice. This gives us a chance to run contrary to mainstream contemporary art practices.

For three days of the Biennial, each of the invited artists taught workshops to the youth on painting, performance, installation, poetry, writing, among other courses, offered from the perspective of instigative learning, rather than additive. I taught a workshop on arte acción, or action art, using the space that I had performed in just nights before. I worked with high school aged youth, incorporating exercises from my work with La Pocha Nostra and from my own performance practice to get them to engage their bodies in new ways, without the help of text. 

We began with simple physical exercises with the body and then continued to work with conceptual elements of telling stories using movement, still images, and actions (all without the help of any objects). We then proceeded to using elements, objects, and items found in the space. In just three short days, the students came back with eagerness, a new investment in how their body can be used in space, and with new sources of agency. Their maestro was just as eager as his students to learn to use his body in new ways. What the workshops do is expose youth to a range of decolonial arts practices and ways of creating that are accessible to them. Students were selected from each art/performance class to receive a prize and be featured in the International Mayan Festival in Mérida in October of 2013. From October 17-22, 2013, Raul Moarquech Ferrera-Balanquet and I returned to Mérida to give panels and performances, and to present each of the youth in the various categories with their certificates for the art they produced with us in the Biennial. At this time, the students’ work was showcased to a much larger and international community. The continuity of presence in the community is another goal of decolonial art and performance. This is also a chance for those of us working in this way to foster these arts practices in youth, who then might also find or come to art and performance in different and new ways.

Arte Nuevo InteractivA is just one example of a group of artists/scholars/activists leading the decolonial turn/gesture in art and performance. Through Biennials of this kind, decolonial thinking and practice are taken into communities that include transnational Latinos/Afros, and Mayans, among other marginalized groups, such as youth in Mérida. Together we hope to create a new way of approaching arts practices and whose work gets to be seen in the world. 


Brittany Chávez is a genderqueer artist-scholar-activist based between North Carolina and México. She is currently a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in communication studies and a core troupe member of La Pocha Nostra. For more info on her work see www.brittanychavez.org


Notes

1 See: http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_topic/decolonial_aesthesis/

2 For more, see Mignolo and Vázquez (2013)


Works Cited

Ferrera-Balanquet, Raul Moarquech. 2013. Work-in-Progress. Arte Nuevo InteractivA: International Biennial, Merida_MX

Mignolo, Walter and Rolando Vasquez. 2013. “Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings”Social Text. 13 July. Web. http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/decolonial-aesthesis-colonial-woundsdecolonial-healings/