I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Christopher Cozier is running. I am running after him. The wind is in our faces as I shout questions to him. He answers on the run, and I struggle to capture his words. Man running between two non-specific points was the title of a piece in his 1998 show Migrate or Medal/Meddle . In the first nine months of 2002 Chris has been running between several points—Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Montreal, Port-au-Prince—so it has been challenging to conduct this email interview with him.
Though he is an accomplished artist, my first introduction to Chris came through his writings in the Trinidad and Tobago Review, where he introduced young Trini artists experimenting with new art forms and tried to tease out the unfamiliar ideas they were playing with. Eschewing what he and others had identified as the limitations of “islandness,” Chris urged different modes of reception and viewership on the Trinidadian public. Over the years Chris has been instrumental in building a context for new works in new media to be exhibited in the anglophone Caribbean. At the same time he has also been a practicing artist, shifting among installation, video, performance, and good old-fashioned drawing.
None of this has been easy. There has been a tradition in the Caribbean of artists, writers, poets, and even musicians operating in exile. Kamau Brathwaite put it nicely when he said that there seemed to be a persistent belief that it was only possible to “become ‘real writers’ abroad—rather than ‘aboard’ the Caribbean.” What is unique about Chris is that he has developed his artistic practice very much “aboard” the Caribbean. He is emphatically not in exile, and the work he makes is rooted in the problem space of the Caribbean. He articulates local concerns but does so in contemporary lingos that resonate in other parts of the world.
You could think of Chris’s work as being a postmortem, in visual terms, of the Caribbean postcolony. The appurtenances of power, the signs and symbols deployed by it, its fetishes—the regimes not only of violence but also of self-censorship that govern us—these are some of the issues Chris’s penetrating eye lingers on. His framing of the nation as a punitive, manipulatory entity devoid of humanity or humor is often met with hostility, if not outright rejection.
Christopher Cozier is a prime example of what I want to call, extremely tentatively, the alter natives—that is, artists who are not interested in fostering a Caribbean aesthetic or promoting and supporting national agendas. The alter natives are the illegitimate children of the nation who by virtue of differing race, class, gender, or sexual variables find themselves on the wrong side of nation stories in opposition to the majority groups that assert ownership of the national or Caribbean space. Alter natives are a kind of internal refugee and suffer a double illegitimacy when they go abroad because their artistic practice is seen as elevated above or irrelevant to the realities of third-world countries by metropolitan critics. What, conceptual art in the periphery? Perish the thought. And thought does perish, under the circumstances. Chris talks of feeling “storyless” and “mythless.” The alter natives are natives without narratives, or perhaps those with unpopular narratives. Often their talent is recognized abroad before it is accepted at home. In this sense they approximate the unassimilable Jamaican “rude bwai,” the most famous of whom was Bob Marley. Ironically Marley’s erstwhile alter native identity has now reinscribed the Jamaican nation in its own image.
Annie Paul It’s more than ten years since you’ve been back in the Caribbean working as an artist. From your perspective, has the field of art undergone some change in that time, both in the anglophone Caribbean and the region at large? What would you say some of the most significant developments have been?
Christopher Cozier The space has opened up. More locals are making art and constructing the discourse on their own terms with greater confidence. A conversation is building. In the old days we were just a subject to be rendered by someone who came from outside with an alleged knowledge of real art. There was also the hunt for and prospect of discovery of the Caribbean “Billy Budd” type of artist that still haunts places like Haiti. There is more happening within the islands themselves. When I was younger everyone had to leave. My friends and I used to call ourselves “Birdmen,” from the movie about Alcatraz. Even today I still meet new Birdmen. People are moving again now because we are at yet another juncture in terms of development but the reasons may not be the same today. For people like myself, still living here (by the way, people actually ask you that here, “You still here?”), change has been about the shifting relationship to the “cultural.” That project was the lead-up to nationhood and eventually became its byproduct. On my return to Trinidad, someone in charge of a collection called me on the phone and asked, “You does paint ‘culture’?” I could not answer the question. I simply had to say no. I knew exactly what they were asking, though. The artistic enterprise was about rendering or representing an inventory prescribed as Caribbean or as relevant to the Caribbean. Art was supposed to be painting and its subject was “culture,” the things that defined an “us” as separate from all the “thems” or other “usses” out there. Within that narrative was the story of “self-discovery,” of mining and minding one’s space and self for “essential truths” and “national pride.” It had become a sermon with heroic figures. I grew up within this narrative and I am not totally insensitive to it, but it had me asking, “Who am I? What is my own story? What am I doing?” Few of the successful protagonists of those narratives still live on the island, but they still speak in those terms from university departments abroad. The big change is that things have reopened and I do not feel like I am speaking some kind of coded, private, undervalued language anymore.
AP Yes, it’s true, as you’ve hinted, that nationalisms and nationalist preoccupations have been a yoke around the neck of artists in the postcolonial Caribbean. Some even talk of it as an albatross they are anxious to divest themselves of. Your work has grappled imaginatively with these issues. Your installation Attack of the Sandwich Men, 2000, in which you had rows of neatly arranged flag-toting, wax paper-covered sandwiches, is a case in point. As I told you at the time, it reminded me of the novelty of sliced bread in India. Modern Bread was one of two brands of sliced breads available in Abmedabad, where I grew up. I later found out that it was a state project like the Amul National Dairy (“Utterly Butterly Amul”) and other homogenized, pasteurized, mass-produced consumables that ushered us into the modern world. You have talked of being born into a world “outside history,” into a space now lauded for its multiculti-ness but that was originally nothing more than an industrial site. I find that these are common concerns of artists working in different linguistic contexts in the Caribbean. For instance, in writing about the Puerto Rican artist Pedreira Dorian, Lugo Beltran talks of the country’s “stammering ontological condition,” that is, its seemingly permanent condition of being “an underdeveloped adult.”
CC Before I answer the general question, I would like to say that I am very wary of the term “multicultural” in the context of the Caribbean. Multiculturalism as it manifested itself as a term in the late ’80s in the US, for example, was a divisional enterprise of carefully delineated territories. They were designations, as they were useful to the individuals who claimed them. But in the Caribbean I was born into a world of differences; difference as a norm, not as something for an alleged mainstream to swallow or have prescribed like a medication. There was never enough space physically and economically to build thorough enclosures. Every other person was a complex, diverse part of a whole that we called our community. I do not know what I am. I only have my sensibility and my perception to guide me along. In fact the breakdown of contemporary Caribbean society has to do with politicians using those differences in a negative way. I measure ideas of “development” not by scale or infrastructure but by how they function ethically in terms of its human resources. There is a constant slow-motion genocide happening every day to millions of people around the world, apart from the quicker, more sensational ones that disturb us or that we see in the news.
Back to your question. My concerns now have more to do with understanding my sensibility and the shape and construction of my voice or vision. I was quite haunted by the image of sliced bread wrapped in grease-proof paper. To me it represented that time in my childhood just after independence, the promise of modernity and progress. I had this propaganda book from North Korea that showed soldiers marching in the neatest rows I had ever seen. I almost could not breathe looking at the picture. And then I had another overhead photograph of the construction of a middle-class housing development in Trinidad just after independence, with its gridded streets and little two-bedroom bungalows. A sense of the march of progress and the aspirations of that era came to me and I began to wrap sandwiches and place them in rows on the ground with little national flags. A scene from Fellini’s Amarcord came to mind. I was also thinking of people like myself, of mixed ethnicity, whose parents were civil servants in the “new nation” narrative. The other children with whom I went to school had admired my “modern” sandwiches. The others had homemade lunches related to their cultural/ethnic backgrounds, like “bakes,” something associated with African roots, or “rotis,” which were associated with Indians. I would have done anything to have roti or something other than potted meat or cheese-paste sandwiches with no pepper. My lunch was “practical” and “modern” and also easier to package and fit into my Star Trek or Bonanza lunch box (I had both), the little ones made of tin with the figures in relief, probably made in Taiwan or Hong Kong. I was asked recently to take Attack of the Sandwich Men to Montreal. I found an early radio broadcast aimed at children like myself of the newly independent nation. The title music was from the Nutcracker Suite and the broadcasters all had fake BBC accents! They were attempting to correct all the wrong ways that people would have proceeded to sing the new anthem. The correct way turns out to be a kind of Victorian parlor style of singing. High-pitched with rolling Rs. So the contrast between Wonder Bread in neat rows and these instructions defined, for me, the relationship between those who had an American consumer template for “progress” and those with a British template for civility and order. It said so much about how much one had to process growing up and living in places like this. So I had that broadcast playing on a little horn-shaped speaker over and over above the rows of sandwiches to suggest the kind of March Past music we all marched to at sports day in school.
AP Chris, who do you make art for? Who do you imagine your public to be?
CC I make work to investigate or to try to give shape to what I feel or sense or happen to notice while looking. I see myself as having conversations. I come from a particular place. I am curious about what that means to me and to people from other particular places.
“Public” is a big word, like “cause” or “struggle.” And then there is “audience.” They are not quite the same thing; both are as real as they are imagined and can be quite distracting. After my experiments with performance and video I went back to drawing, though it was not fashionable to do so. I like the conversational investigative tone of drawing; like video and performance I saw it as the opposite of the didactic and/or monumental. Random thoughts on paper to me are quite informal and ephemeral. What also brought me back to drawing was the remove and the individuality. What I miss from performance and video is the instantaneity and the dissemination, so I am now hopping back and forth.
AP The figure of the Running Man dodges in and out of your work, whether in drawings, installations or rubber stamps. In your 2001 installation in Rotterdam, Cross Currents, you had two figures running in opposite directions, at cross purposes almost—there was the figure of the Runaway Slave with a bundle over his shoulder and in the opposite direction is a frantic man running with a briefcase in his hand. Do you have a name for him? Another stamp you often seem to use is that of the Ownerman, a rather rotund figure surveying his property, as it were. He’s not running anywhere, it seems.
CC The runaways were scattering or dispersing everywhere. The guys with the briefcases were running in a singular race trying to get ahead of one another. When I first got the image of the runaway from 19th-century advertising stock images, I wrote under it in pencil “Going North,” which was an obvious and broadly associative title referring to the past and the present, and then I drew the man with the briefcase myself and I was thinking of money laundering and capital flight and the new economic positivists. I wrote under the figure, “And to think he was such a polite boy.” I was thinking about betrayal in economic and political terms then. My parents were civil servants. I liked the calm “office procedure” type of indifference of making images and stories by stamping.
Migration and movement have always been significant political and individual strategies of being of and from the Caribbean. The land, for example, was once owned by the Queen of England and a few families, and today it’s owned by the government. In the Caribbean people moved from island to island and to South and Central America, the US and Europe in search of opportunities. In the postindependence era, this movement continues between nation states, the property of politicians, etc. A young Jamaican artist once told me that “the country now belongs to politicians and their gunmen. Jamaicans should jus’ run away.” The rest of the people just move around carrying with them the only things they can possibly call their own: their skin, their skills, their vision, and their dreams. Home is wherever the prospect of fulfilling those dreams might be. Now words like “illegal immigrants” come up. These industrial sites began with an assortment of dislocated people and the politics of devaluation—of being born into a world outside “history,” away from everything. It makes one quite anxious and often circumspect and unable to easily trust circumstances. It can be both a positive and a negative thing. It is more than “attitudinal”; it may even be a theoretical/critical vantage point or a way of being/surviving—one derived from a response to historical circumstances. The “isolationism” (or nationalisms) of the postindependence era may have increased that anxiety. That is what my little flags running along the floor are about, and also my rubber stamps. It was an attempt to create narratives about who is moving and who is staying put and why.
AP What does “new internationalism” mean to you? Increasingly we hear this term being used. You yourself participated in a show recently in Copenhagen that bore this title. Also, how does your work translate in these different spaces?
CC The question is, to whom is it “new” and when will it become “old”? I can go to Port-au-Prince, Johannesburg, Montreal, Rotterdam, and Copenhagen and do projects and have further conversations that transform my work and how I see it by interacting with various discourses. This week I am moving my Terra Stories project from Copenhagen to Haiti. The Haitian curator advised me that my sandwich work, while being relatively acceptable for the Montreal leg of the show, may not be appropriate for Haiti. I could make an issue of that or I could adapt. So I switched my project and it opened new thoughts for me. I got to see how a project initially intended to discuss ideas about history, land ownership, and migration in Denmark would function in a place like Haiti. It also gave me something further to think about with the sandwiches, which I had also used in Havana. However, it was while rereading The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James that this idea about “property” and “ownership” came to mind. All of this implies that as long as it remains economically possible I could remain in the Caribbean and make work rather than having to move to another place to have those conversations about inclusion and exclusion and become a representative entity. To me that is an enclosure—a pre- and perpetually designated space. It’s really exciting when people want to have an exchange and want to know how you see things instead of them saying to you, This is what you are about and this is where you fit in. Or out. Maybe that is new for someone like myself, the fact that people outside my own context are building a wider one and are now interested in what someone like myself has to say. I was in New York in the late ’80s when a few blocks in lower Manhattan were the world. It was something amazing to encounter. I left there quite disoriented. So on the flight to Copenhagen, for example, I was quite anxious wondering what I could possibly have to say to people or an audience there. Even though my project in Copenhagen, Terra Stories, was based on an idea that was in my work for quite some time: my conversation with an immigration officer on my way there, as well as an article about third- and fourth-generation children of immigrants in Britain, which I had found in a discarded newspaper while waiting in an airport, triggered something. I found myself drawing a little rostrum like the ones you see at sporting events, with first, second, and third place marked on it. I had drawn one before while producing a print edition in South Africa. I noticed it while attending one of my children’s sports meets just before traveling. At that time I was thinking about baggage, anxieties about evaluation. Now I am thinking about how historical narratives are constructed. The podium is fenced off; does that mean that one is left out or barricaded in? Should one break down the barrier and try to get in or should one just get on with one’s life relieved of the burden—as in my Original Injury series with the crutches, in which I had said “jus’ walk.” In other words, the idea of injury may have been like that of original sin in Catholicism. How would life be different if you decided to proceed without that conception of oneself? Are you threatening if you look assertive and independent or have you become too comfortable being supported for your enactment of injury? What would happen if you just started to walk around as if nothing was ever wrong with you? Are you brave enough to give it a try? Similarly, the podium is my way of asking or offering the prospect of building other narratives. It is a kind of invitation. It asks us to think about where we are located.
Terra Stories was an outdoor work consisting of two enclosures. One of the fences enclosed a public bench in the square outside the Nikolaj Tower in Denmark. It had a gate and a key, and the typical “No Trespassing” sign from Trinidad hung on the fence. One had to apply for the key to get in to have a seat. The key came with the image of a colonial landowner. The application form asked a range of spurious questions, from personal things to whether one visited museums in various parts of the world like London or Paris. The form required that one answer truthfully and without corrections or errors—even though the initial sign, “No Tresspassing,” had a spelling error. At the end of the form in fine print it said that if one told a really good lie, one could get a key anyway. It was an invitation to see the world from the perspective of people who come from places where one does not expect the system to be fair or orderly or to actually work and they begin wondering what the hustle would be. It also asked, “Why does one want to be isolated?” The other enclosure had no gate or entry point, and inside it was the sports-award rostrum. The third part of the project was called 400 Yearsbecause it was part of my narrative about varied histories. I hung 400 “Made in China” rulers among the buttresses of the old church tower. Inside that area the sound of my voice could be heard through a small speaker, above the sound of the knocking together of rulers blowing in the breeze, saying, “Man running between two nonspecific points,” and also, “and to think you had me believing that all this time.” That last part is also the title of the enclosed podium/rostrum. Maybe the person who makes the effort to get into that game becomes enclosed; out here the prospects may be wider, more open.
By the time my work was developed and installed, there were newspaper debates about further tightening immigration laws in Denmark. If I had been in another location at another time I might have responded to other things and produced another work.
AP You mentioned earlier that moving your Terra Stories project from Copenhagen to Haiti required some rethinking, some real rearranging and reformulating. What form did the project take in Haiti?
CC Certain things that were relevant to Copenhagen may have no meaning in Haiti, like the rule of law and a sense of one’s rights or civic entitlements. In Copenhagen the work was done outdoors; in Haiti the project had to be indoors as no one could guarantee that it would be there the next day. In Copenhagen the worry was vandals after a soccer match. In Haiti it was people’s need for just those materials with which the work was made. I did not want to have anyone guarding my work and intimidating poor people for the sake of art. Instead I placed what would be middle-class garden furniture, a table setting with flowers, wine and croissants in an enclosure inside the gallery. You then had to gamble with me by choosing a card with the image of the plantation owner from among those of the runaway to get a key to get into the enclosure. It was quite a lot of fun, as people of course tried to cheat and I had to cheat also to hold back on giving out all the keys too quickly. We were all trying to hustle one another. Once someone got a key they entered the enclosure, locked themselves in and had some wine while looking out at the rest of us. I left thinking of many things—like why did people not just open the gate and let all their friends in, for example.
AP In Rotterdam you did a sound installation called Sound System: Open Your Ears and See. What is interesting about your work is that it is profoundly influenced by music. Music after all is the Caribbean’s strongest cultural product, so this would seem obvious. But your connection to music seems more profound; your work is permeated by fragments of musical notation, by snatches of song and lyrical phrases. How and why?
CC Music in the Caribbean has been predominantly about language—the “languageing” of things, giving shape to the space we inhabit both mentally and physically. It’s a kind of oral history that keeps shifting to remain alive and open. As soon as governments and cultural officials and the international music industry try to co-opt it, it goes on to something else. It is a means of processing, owning, and defining experiences. I wanted to see how to translate that into visual terms. I used to get underground DJ mixes in Port of Spain by the Downtown Outlaws, Papa Rocky, Chinese Laundry, and Dr. Hyde, consisting mostly of Jamaican mixes of dancehall. The mix, the way things were put together, influenced me. My earliest work upon returning to the Caribbean in the late ’80s was about trying to construct disparate parts, to build fragile structures consisting of diverse materials each with its own history and associative aspects. My accent, the way I speak, is rife with inferences derived from the range of cultures that form the Caribbean space and also the historical circumstances.
I built the structures for Why Does He Always Whistle That Tune While Washing the Car and Bad Blue Blazer Bay in a kind of makeshift manner, consisting of parts of antique buildings that were being demolished as well as parts of my older work, which I had begun to destroy. It was a mystery to me how they managed to hold together; they always made me nervous, the unwieldy shape of them. The way they threatened to fall over or apart. For me it was an investigation of my Creole or hybrid sensibility. It was about it being more of a verb than a noun. Creole is not a thing, really; it is a process, a condition or way of seeing or being that keeps changing according to circumstances. In a discussion about urban spaces in Montreal, I began to think of sound in places like Alexandria Township in South Africa, or parts of Kingston, or parts of Brooklyn, or the Bronx as I knew it in the ’80s. My most recent work, Sound System, has moved back to the idea of “voice.” For now I am more concerned with how it functions in time and space rather than its configuration in physical terms. It began when I placed speaker boxes in each corner of a drawing, referring to how the thump of the bass track (the legacy of calypso, soca, reggae, and dancehall) defined an arena or space. The title Sound System arose because I was thinking about 1990 by David Rudder, in which he sings about an “un-sound system” that blows the children away. I’ve been recording my own voice in a professional studio, narrating the fragments of text that have been in my drawings for the last ten years or so. Some of the phrases when repeated are like a bass track and others become a counter rhythm. I’m working with a basic call and response calypso structure that remains from the Roaring Lion era of the ’20s and continues with the Rasta-revival “consciousness” stuff like Sizzla today. The embarrassment, though, of hearing my own voice is a stark reminder of the idea that “West Indians” are supposed to have natural lyrical skills and rhythm. There is such a tradition of oratory and literary skill in the Caribbean that it is hard to express oneself unless it is in one of the accepted ways. In one work I try unsuccessfully and with much discord to whistle a very sentimental and now sacred nationalist song. The idea that I could have five sequences on a CD and that they could be dealt with in a public and private situation or in multiple locations intrigues me. While the work remains connected to the drawings it starts to take on a life of its own. Music in the Caribbean delineates a physical as well as psychological space via its beat, its volume, and its lyrics. There is a politics to that.
AP You are an unusual artist in that part of your practice has involved playing the role of curator and critic/theorist in relation to developing the field of art itself in the Caribbean. In fact my first introduction to you was through your writings in the Trinidad and Tobago Review in the early ’90s; it wasn’t until your one-person show in 1998, Migrate or Medal/Meddle, that I was introduced to your artistic output. How have you managed to juggle these different and sometimes conflicting practices?
CC I think that art is a critical process. I do not write reviews, but more so things that reflect on art and artists that interest me for various reasons as a fellow practitioner. The few curatorial things I have managed to do also ask questions—they were not comprehensive or definitive projects. Like my work they were unself-consciously speculative, hoping to initiate a conversation. Just like when I might hit on something in my own work. Things occur to me while looking at other people’s work or while talking to them about it. I get just as excited and think of sharing that feeling with others. I begin to imagine, What if this were next to that; what kinds of conversations would that create? People often want me to take an authoritative posture; that is how they see curatorship and criticism. But my approach has been as an artist, one who admits to a critical point of view to the point of having a hands-on relationship with the artists, the work and the context.
—Annie Paul, born and brought up in India, is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in Kingston, Jamaica, where she has lived for the last 15 years. She is managing editor of the scholarly publication Social and Economic Studies and serves as associate editor for Small Axe, a journal devoted to revitalizing the practice of intellectual criticism in the Caribbean. A columnist for the Sunday Herald, Paul is currently at work on a critical history of modern visual art in Jamaica.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee