Spectacles of Religiosities


Photo: Marlène Ramírez-Cancio

4th Encuentro

New York University

New York City, July 11-19, 2003

The history of the Americas can be productively re-examined as a history of religious doctrines, conflicts, co-existence, transformation, and syncretic practices. From religiously animated cultures such as the Mexica, Maya, and Inca, to 15th and 16th century explorers and conquerors, to contemporary evangelical movements embarked on 'conquering souls' that accompany globalizing forces, members of diverse communities in the northern and southern hemispheres have fought for and against religious domination. Religion has proved a vital conduit for social (as well as religious) behavior in other ways as well, not just in the uneasy tensions between systems but within the religious systems themselves. Syncretic systems 'candomble, vodun, santería, curanderismo' are just a few of the contemporary practices that grew from the co-existence and co-mingling of European, African and Native American spirituality.

Religion, moreover, has played a central role in the demographic make-up and changing ethnic identities in the Americas. Notions of divine chosenness, redemption, and mission, have led to centuries of migrations that included groups such as the Ancient Aztecs, the New England Puritans, the Jews in Mexico among others. It has also given diasporic populations a sense of shared community and traditional values. The Virgen of Guadalupe, to name one example, went from being the patron saint of Mexico to 'Empress of the Americas' and unites Latinos throughout the hemisphere. Religion has served as an agent of social change (liberation theology, for example) as well as an instrument of repression (the collusion of the Catholic Church with dictatorships in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s). It has served to bolster political credibility (Hugo Chavez returned to power in Venezuela after a failed coup holding his crucifix up high) as well as challenge it (Mexico's Vincent Fox is criticized for breaching the country's official rupture between Church and State).

Notions of divine mission, as well as oppositional practices, have been mediated and transmitted through 'acts of transfer' and the modern media. Given the difficulties of communicating religious belief and contesting it through written forms (due to illiteracy, censorship, lack of access to the press, etc.), many communities have passed on their sense of collective identity through performance and the media. Mediated and mediatized transfers constitute the main focus of our study during this project, and include a broad range of cultural practices that include religious 'acts'--baptism, rituals, processions, ceremonies, and services--as well as multiple forms of overt and covert contestation. They include media performances--films, TV broadcasts, radio addresses--as well as the economies of circulation. How, and to what ends, do these mediated and mediatized performances circulate through the public and private sphere? How do the participate in struggles to shape a sense of local and diasporic identities in the Americas.

This year's encuentro, Spectacles of Religiosities, will bring together scholars, artists, and activists who specialize in the multiple religious, media, and performance practices found in the Americas. By focusing on the congruence of performance, religion, media, and mediation we will explore how media, and performance transmit, modify or challenge notions of belief and religious faith?

The work groups developed in the encuentro will continue to work over a two year period to explore areas of uneasy contact and hybridization. The activities developed in the encuentro and the work group will be comparatist, interdisciplinary, and hemispheric in focus. The results--documentary films, books, articles, performances--will be housed in the Institute's forum and cuaderno sections.