The Artist As Witness: An Artist’s Testimony
Rolf Abderhalden Cortés

I am only the spokesperson for the project I am going to discuss here. One of its many authors, one of its many actors. This project, which forms part of the work Heidi Abderhalden and I have produced over the past twenty years in Mapa Teatro, has brought together a very diverse group of people, artists and non-artists, from different fields and disciplines. It has also joined us to a very significant area of Bogotá, the Santa Inés-El Cartucho barrio. Between 2001 and 2005, in this place—a place that has since disappeared from the map of the city—Mapa Teatro carried out a transdisciplinary artistic project: the Proyecto C’úndua. This project demonstrates the intimate relationship that can be forged between art and the city. Its unique resonance was due to its particular qualities and implications, which were not only aesthetic but ethnographic, anthropological, sociological and above all human and relational. In fact, the Proyecto C’úndua can be characterized as belonging to the sphere of what some theorists are now calling relational art.

In 1998 the local administration undertook an ambitious urban renewal plan in Bogotá. In doing so it made radical decisions that had important consequences for the social make-up of the city. Because of its geographic proximity, the community of the Academia Superior de Artes de Bogotá experienced at close range the impact of the transformation that the Centro zone, in particular, suffered. At that time the Santa Inés barrio, commonly known as El Cartucho, was a stigmatized area burdened not only by its own long, rich urban history, but also by a plethora of mythologies that all of us in the city carry around with us: some more than others, perhaps, depending on our proximity to or distance from that physical and symoblic location. For me, as a child growing up in a distant neighborhood in the north where I had little contact with it, the Santa Inés barrio was the object of fears and fantasies. It was a specific site of fear—the city’s center of fear

The Santa Inés barrio, now an empty space in the collective memory of our urbis, has a long history: it is one of the foundational neighborhoods of Bogotá. The decision made in 1998 to completely demolish it—to turn it into a tabula rasa and put a park in its place, an empty space covered in greenery—put an end to a part of our history, a part of our social, urban history that is, in short, a history of ways of doing, of unprecedented social practices, histories of irreplaceable lives, unparalleled stories of survival. It is the end of the history of a local singularity that upon disappearing becomes a homogeneous and global non-place.

El Cartucho, that floating street that lent its name to an entire neighborhood, was the site for the creation of what Giorgio Agamben calls a virtual field. For Agamben, a virtual field is the physical space in which the establishment legitimizes a state of exception: a portion of territory thus remains outside the established juridical order. In this virtual field of the city a modus vivendi sui generis organized itself, with its own laws and its own rules, under the blind eye of the State.

For decades, an extraordinarily heterogeneous human community lived there: recyclers, shopkeepers, small business owners, prostitutes, single men and families; and, because of the affordability of the multiple forms of lodging and housing that developed in the area, it was also home to immigrants from other regions of Colombia who had been displaced by hunger or violence. Due to that particular state of exception that characterized it, the area became a strategic point in the city for all sorts of business and transactions, both legal and illegal, as well as for the development of the most ingenious activities of the economía de rebusque (informal economy).

From 2001 to 2005, Mapa Teatro-Laboratorio de Artistas developed an artistic project, initially with the support of the new local administration at that time, led by Antanas Mockus (2000-2003), and later independently, until it ended in 2005. In spite of the financing awarded by the Bogotá Mayor’s office for the development of the first phase of the process, the C’úndua project always maintained a critical distance and complete freedom of action in relation to the local administration.

In 2001, when we arrived in Santa Inés-El Cartucho, the Mapa Teatro team was confronted with the sight of a partially devastated urban landscape. The construction of the first phase of the Parque Tercer Milenio (Third Millenium Park) was advancing in parallel with the negotiations over and purchase of the remaining buildings. The terrifying image of the demolition of vacated houses immediately made us want to stop time, to keep the tangible traces of history from being erased. The city’s architectural patrimony was collapsing before our eyes and before the eyes of its inhabitants. Throughout this experience, which was devastating in every sense of the word, we became conscious of the fact that each and every demolition of a building erased the perspective of a fundamental—and foundational—memory of the city. An architectural memory and a social and cultural memory, but also an intangible patrimony, constituted by a kind of narrativity that relies on nothing but orality as the ground of its existence.

Our project began with an initial artistic action whose starting point was the myth of Prometheus: Prometheus: First Act. Why did we resort to myth? Myth is the consummate story. Its generative nature makes it a catalyst for stories; they repeat themselves like dreams, continually forming and deforming in a mobile structure that always reanimates itself. The community’s stories were a substantive part of the architecture of the neighborhood’s memory. A form of resistance in the face of oblivion, a potential footprint among the ruins.

Along with the eagle, Prometheus is the fundamental figure of this myth. Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to men. In giving fire to men, Prometheus transgresses a law, a pact he has made with the gods. When the gods discover that Prometheus has transgressed the law, he is condemned to exile in the Caucasus: there, he is chained to a rock where an eagle feeds everyday on his liver. In turn, Prometheus nourishes himself with the eagle’s excrement, maintaining a cycle that makes survival possible for both the eagle and himself. Three thousand years later, the gods decide that his punishment has lasted long enough and they send Heracles to free him. Once he is in the Caucasus, Heracles must surmount the wall of filth that surrounds Prometheus in order to liberate him. This image and the description of this place corresponded for us to the devastated landscape of Santa Inés-El Cartucho.

This myth, translated and reinterpreted by authors in every era, among them Kafka and Gide, was also taken up by one of the most important playwrights of our time: the German Heiner Müller. This “post-dramatic” author revises the myth, he updates it, but unlike his predecessors, he places it in a new perspective: a kind of paradoxical tension, a contradiction that makes it impossible for his fable to conclude in a definitive and univocal way.

We chose Müller’s version of the myth because in it, Prometheus, once he is face to face with Heracles, isn’t so certain that he desires his freedom. Heracles doesn’t understand how Prometheus can not want to be free after so many years and so much struggle. Prometheus hesitates and indicates that he has grown accustomed to the eagle: he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to live without it. It is at precisely this point, at this turning point of the fable, that the story’s “center of fear” is generated: Prometheus is more afraid of freedom than he is of the bird.

Abandoning El Cartucho represented many things for its inhabitants, including the possibility of liberation and, at the same time, exile. That is how we arrived there: with the intention of proposing possible readings of this myth to a group of the neighborhood’s residents.

At this point, I think it is important to underline that from the moment they start out, the artist and the ethnographer maintain different viewpoints and positions in relation to the same object or, in this case, the same subjects. In general, a social scientist arrives with hypotheses that will be the object of verification; the artist, above all, has intuitions that allow or do not allow him to make visible objects, practices, images, stories. Although this opposition might seem a bit reductive today due to the transversal optic that both artists and social researchers now apply in their work, it is interesting to observe that the end point or destination of a project like ours would not have been the same from the perspective of a “pure” social researcher.

So, without knowing quite how we were going to do all this and knowing even less how it was going to end, we approached a small, heterogeneous group of the great community of El Cartucho, represented by women and men of different ages, socio-economic strata and origins. With this experimental community we carried out, over the course of a year, a creative laboratory that took the text written by Heiner Müller as its point of departure. Müller’s text functioned in the way that a ready made functions: as a found object that is taken out of its context to be interpreted and re-signified by a multiplicity of readings, gazes and gestures. As the text was being read, each person reinvented his or her own story, updating the original text and re-writing his or her own myth.

This laboratory took the form of a laboratory of the social imaginary, as Müller calls it. When it was over, one night in December of 2002 in a half-destroyed neighborhood, we staged Prometheus: First Act, a “performative” act, an install-action, in which a group of residents participated. In this public presentation, attended by many people who lived in the neighborhood but also by people who came from other parts of the city, we staged the stories and the visual, aural and gestural narratives born from the experience of the laboratory.

A year later, on another December night in 2003, we presented Prometheus: Second Act. Among the ruins of the neigborhood, thousands of candles were used to once again mark out streets and the walls of some of the houses of the former inhabitants. In the absence of any trace, we had proposed that each one of the participants choose the most meaningful place in the house: some chose the bedroom or the living room, others the bathroom or the kitchen, depending on the relationship they may have had with those spaces. In that temporarily re-constructed fragment of the neighborhood, we installed their furniture and chosen objects and, right there, each one of the participants re-installed himself or herself for the space of a night. Small actions, individual and collective, alternated with video projections on huge screens that chronicled what had happened over the past year, in their lives as well as in the neighborhood. At the end, the group of participants, along with about a hundred former residents of Santa Inés-El Cartucho, danced to the music of a bolero on the neighborhood’s ruins. Just as the god Shiva danced on destruction: something in life is reborn and regenerated.

The project’s third artistic action took place in the headquarters of Mapa Teatro: a republican house, with architecture very similar to that of some of the houses in Santa Inés. Physically, the house functions as an installation, while symbolically, it functions as a metaphor for the neighborhood; by means of different interactive devices, each space activates a particular dimension of the living memory of Santa Inés-El Cartucho. By the front entrance we installed a device that sounded the shout of the neighborhood bell ringer whenever a visitor entered. Remnantsof the last house to be demolished—rubble, doors, windows—were placed in the central courtyard, beneath two facing video projections in which that same house was being simultaneously demolished and endlessly re-constructed (by the image shown in reverse). Recycling, one of the principal activities of the area’s informal economy, was present in another bedroom in the form of traditional recycling carts; television monitors took the place of recycled objects and showed images of different routes the recylers took through the city. A balance allowed the spectators to weigh themselves and, at the same time, see their equivalent in recycled material on a projected image. The sound, smell, touch and image of thousands of bottles suspended from the ceiling of another room in the house generated a sensorial and semantic experience that was at once simple and complex. The projected image of the façade of the last house to be demolished appeared in an empty room whenever someone crossed the threshold. When the spectator went through the door (a hole in the wall) into the adjoining room, he or she entered—literally—the interior of a room in Santa Inés-Cartucho: projected onto a wall was the image of the room of one of the neighborhood’s former residents as he described it, enumerating each one of its objects. In another “empty”room the visitor could perceive cracks and holes in the walls. Upon nearing the cracks he or she would hear the voices of former inhabitants telling stories related to their scars; upon nearing the holes the visitor would see those scars projected onto the wall of the adjoining room. And upon leaving the room, the visitor would find himself or herself in a hallway closed off by several wooden crates blocking the path. A television monitor placed in between these crates allowed him or her to see identical wooden crates being recycled and to see the recycler’s route through different locations in the city. Finally, the visitor entered one last room, where there were old illuminated radios, each of them broadcasting a particular narrative about the life of the neighborhood.

The fourth action, The Cleaning of the Stables of Augeas, began in 2004 with the construction of the Parque Tercer Milenio and took place in two locations: on the lot of the former neighborhood of Santa Inés, where the park was being built, and in the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá. The title of the work once again referenced a mythic narrative: “The tasks of Heracles,” one of which is “the cleaning of the stables of Augeas.” This piece, a sound video-installation, linked the two locations in real-time by transporting into the space of the museum two images of the lot under construction: the image of the fence that enclosed it and the interior of the lot under construction. On one side of the fence we installed twelve television monitors that transmitted looping footage of the demolition of the last house in El Cartucho, on the so-called “Callejón de la muerte” (The Alley of Death). Opposite these twelve “windows into the past” we built three columns, each containing a camera. Whatever the cameras recorded was transmitted direct via Internet to the room in the museum, where the life-size image was projected onto a huge wall. Another camera was installed on the roof of the only building that was not demolished (Medicina Legal); from there it recorded, also in real time, the process of the park’s construction, which was invisible to the public. So there was a back-and-forth between the project’s original site, Santa Inés-El Cartucho, and a public destination like the museum, in the setting of the Salon of National Artists. However, in neither of these spaces was it possible to grasp the entire project. Those who wanted to see the transmission had to go to the museum, while those who wanted to see the actual object and the installation had to go to the park. This back-and-forth between two physical sites in the city also involved a displacement in time: a continual movement between the images of the past and the images of the present; not a mechanical exercise of recall but a dynamic experience of memory, understood in the Benjaminian sense of a “constellation” of heterogeneous times. Likewise, the project spurred a movement of people between one location of the city and another; workers and former residents of Santa Inés-El Cartucho visited the Museo de Arte Moderno for the first time and the usual museum visitors went to the former Barrio Santa Inés, also for the first time. Contrary to what many expected, the twelve television monitors installed on top of the fence were left untouched until the exposition was over: for the area’s residents, the images were worth more than the objects. Symbolic necessity took precedence over economic necessity.

This was a project under continuous construction, like the work, that culminated with the inauguration of the Parque Tercer Milenio in August of 2005. With all of the material that we had gathered since the beginning of the demolitions in 1998 up till the time the park was finished, we created one final artistic project: Witness to the Ruins.

This piece, which combines audiovisual materials and performance, condenses our experience as witnesses of one of the most ambitious urban proejcts in the city on the threshold of the third millenium. It synthesizes our choice as artists confronted with the great paradoxes of the real: our testimonial role. Presented in theatrical and museum settings, as well as in non-conventional spaces, Witness to the Ruins brings together, on an apparatus of four moving screens, the images, testimonials and stories of the area’s former inhabitants before, during and after the disappearance of the Barrio Santa Inés and the appearance of a non-place, the Parque Tercer Milenio. In view of, and through the view of the last inhabit of El Cartucho, who performs the same action that she performed everyday during her final years in the neighborhood (preparing arepas and chocolate), we attend the farewell ceremony of an important episode in the history of our city. This act of leave-taking nevertheless constitutes an act of resistance in the face of oblivion and the disappearance of the trace. This woman’s vitality, her final burst of laughter amidst the solitude of the park, are a resounding testimony to the vital force of human beings in the face of the disaster produced by the vagaries of power.

In 2006, the Parque Tercer Milenio was awarded the prize for best public works project at the Bienal de Arquitectura in Colombia. It was a prize awarded, in truth, to a cemetery.

Rolf Abderhalden Cortés
Transdisciplinary Artist
Co-director of Mapa Teatro-Laboratorio de Artistas
Professor of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia

This text was part of a talk given in December 2006 at the Academia Superior de Artes de Bogotá.

Translation: Sarah Townsend


Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002).

This is an expression that Müller uses to refer to the place in the text where the crux of the drama is located.