Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
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I first met Las Nietas de Nonó a few years back while traveling to a familiar place in my parents’ hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico. Along with some students, I went to Patio Taller—the community art and performance space that sisters Michel and Lydela Nonó created on their grandparents’ parcel of land—to see Manual del Bestiario Doméstico (2014). It was one of the most compelling performances I’ve seen on the island in years. The experience of standing alone in an empty bedroom as the sole witness of an interrogation, while car horns and headlights from the street filtered through the house windows, felt traumatic and real. Afterward, we traveled back to town in absolute silence, except for one student who was crying; the other was just staring at the passing landscape; and I drove on, trying to figure out what I had just witnessed. That moment informed the points I wanted to bring up when I spoke with Las Nietas over the phone—I was home in Philly, while they were in Berlin for the Biennale.
As an artist, I try hard not to take anything for granted. I have always been curious about what we assume and how we become implicit in those general assumptions. Making compromises with our own history is not an easy thing, and one way or another, it gets in the middle of our creative process. Addressing colonialism inevitably initiates a radical transformation of existing boundaries. As I become a senior artist in my community of origin, I can’t escape the question that I wish I had asked myself earlier on: Was it worth it? As you might expect, our answers are as complicated as our creative processes. For me, the more you think about the other, it is always about yourself.
Translated by Nathan Osorio.
Pepón OsorioIt’s a pleasure to chat again! I may not be able to see you two, but I’m imagining you both.
Lydela Nonó And we’re imagining you.
POWell, I’ve been thinking about various things and I like to improvise, letting the conversation flow. I want to talk a little about what’s obvious in your work. When I say you, I mean you two as collaborators.
Michel NonóWhat’s obvious?
POYes, in your practice and in your collaboration. People reject the obvious because there’s a tendency within contemporary art not to be explicit. People tell me I’m very obvious, which brings me to this curiosity of wanting to understand what’s obvious in your practice.
LNWhat a question! I love it—but you first, Michel.
MNRegarding our work in the Berlin Biennale, Ilustraciones de la Mecánica (2016–18), my first instinct is to say that the objects we use are obvious—especially in how they’re contextualized or make reference to what is already more or less explicit. These objects we rescue, the elements we integrate into our practice—food, living organisms—say something on their own about the quotidian or domestic space, or the barrio.
POThere are many ways to think this through, of course. I see your performance, the body in juxtaposition with the object and the quotidian, as being able to mediate the obvious. And this brings me to another topic: What’s urgent in your practice? Urgency, for me, is creating a balance between art and the political.
MNMicrohistory is very urgent, and how these microhistories fit into the collective history. It’s been a priority in our work to depart from these microhistories that have been made invisible. Our approach is to insert them in a context that resignifies them.
LNWhat’s also urgent is everything you feel deep inside of you that suddenly comes out in a shriek because up until then you were being silenced. Through how we do our explorations—not through what is said in our pieces—we can come to understand them in their totality, in the exact moment, as they flourish, because they are only that, the result of a moment. I might ask why this work suddenly takes a particular form. As I go to great lengths trying and failing to comprehend the logic from a more conscious place, I begin to understand on a visceral level. This visceral thing sometimes has a terrible or incomprehensible form. For example, while presenting Ilustraciones de la Mecánica in Berlin, I’ve noticed how people ask certain questions to validate their understanding of what they’ve seen. They expect that as artists we can do the work of explaining, that we can decipher and interpret for them. There are times they ask me questions about things I myself don’t understand yet at a rational level, because it’s energy and emotion. Because it comes from the interior, from the profound, from the visceral, it’s going to take some time to understand. And that’s the most genuine thing that can reveal itself. That’s where I see the urgency.
POBut you don’t think these moments are just luck, right? Are your intentions unconscious?
LNWhat do you mean?
POIf something in my work arises that I don’t understand, that I’m honestly not conscious of, it comes from a place you describe as “profound.” But I don’t think this is a coincidence.
LNI haven’t considered this, but the idea interests me. The things that reveal themselves in our explorations and later comprise the dramaturgy of our pieces can tie together at their own pace, because our process is long. When I discover that the revelation of the piece comes from a day when this one thing happened to me, bringing with it a memory that then becomes conscious, it allows me to have another type of understanding—and this takes time. When the audience needs me to explain the significance of something with certainty, I’m often still processing because we present work that’s in progress and still not fully understood, only resolved at the level of the soul.
POYou lead me to another curiosity I don’t know how to explain…What pushes you to do what you do? There are times, when in order to do the work one does, there has to be a necessity or urgency—maybe a political one—to take a stand, no? But we also have an artistic urgency, and then from there, we translate and create an equilibrium, and devise maneuvers to articulate these realities. Lately I’ve been going for walks in the Bronx. One thing that has caught my attention is the possibility that my work could suggest change and that its process could be evolutionary. I don’t know; perhaps I’m the one who needs to change. It’s the process of the artist to understand if this possibility exists. Sometimes I enter an artwork, it transforms into a political question, and then it translates into an artistic question, and I’m trying, in some form or another, to unite the two spaces to create this balance I’m talking about. This happened for me with one of your pieces, Manual del Bestiario Doméstico (2014), where after seeing the work I say, “¡Coño! What the hell is this?” (laughter) Because there’s a very clear balance in the process between the performative translation of the work and what ends up being its political necessity. Do you follow me? I want to learn more about this process, about the balance between art and the political.
MNI’m very interested in the experiences you’re talking about, about how the different forms that your art takes can allow you to change. We’ve also reflected on how, for example, performance or theater, for the moment, are excuses.
MNAha! They are pretexts. They transform, and it’s almost as if the same piece asks for an alternative to what we’re signaling. So what you’re saying brings me there, to think of those forms that will respond to what needs to be said or needs to be changed. I understand our process to be extremely chaotic, but there’s also an order to it. Manual del Bestiario Doméstico began with Lydela and I finding ourselves discussing our own memories—the same experiences, but we had processed them differently. We found ourselves saying, “Okay, this is how I lived it, and this is how you lived it, and that was the political context that we were living in.” Also, there was a text Lydela wrote, reflecting on a newspaper article about an educational program where young people from a high school were taken to a jail for an orientation that was designed as a warning, to teach them how to conduct themselves for the future. They dressed the students as if they were incarcerated, handcuffed them, and put them in the jail cells and fed them hotdogs. Young black people submitted to this “educational” program. Visceral! Lydela wrote a response about this punitive system of dressing young people like they’re incarcerated and taking them to lunch at the penitentiary to say to them, “Look at what’s going to happen to you if you don’t stay in school.” And that text and the performance piece aren’t separate from our work running Patio Taller, which we opened in order to explore independent forms of sharing wisdom with youth from our neighborhood.
LNYes, I’m still thinking about the question of art and the political and how to create a balance. I’ve never really given this much thought before. I’m wondering if I create this balance or not, and if this consideration is important to me. I’m not sure. My need to create is motivated by all that I’ve lived and by the day-to-day. I can’t make a separation between the political and the artistic. If what I’m going to say is totally political, I also wonder about the content, references, and experiences contained within the work. I view the artistic from precarity, from the resources and possibilities I have, from what is present, from the convenience of the found object. And those elements also nourish and sketch out what we’re puzzling, pushing and moving what we’re going to say. There’s an urgency to communicate through our work using the image. In my life everything is half together, scrambled, and I don’t see clear classifications in practically anything. I always appeal to the body, the daily practice, nourishment, the geographical space, the home. These things compose the totality of our practice. I’m more for seeing everything united.
MNYes. What comes to my mind, for example, is your piece—Pepón, remind me of its name. The one about the school?
POAh, reForm (2014–17).
MN reForm! Lydela and I discussed recently how, in the end, processes lose control of what was being created. They go beyond what was proposed at the start. Like what you were telling us, Pepón, about the management of the community school space for reForm, which remained open after the piece “ended.” I believe that those other lives or manifestations that the work can take on are super rich.
POWhat have we left out of this conversation that you’d like to bring in?
MNImprovisation. Improvisation in the Caribbean is intense. You have to reinvent yourself all the time with what you have—at first there was a bucket, and then it was converted into a table. Our work has a lot to do with improvisation. You don’t have the element on hand that you were imagining, but you have another that’s similar enough and you glue it, tie it together, so that it works. It’s important for me to have the ability to welcome and embrace this practice. The way I use the resources available to me, it’s evident that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to make art.
POAnd also, understanding and recognizing the methodology you discussed earlier, it has to do with them taking everything from us, but honestly they don’t successfully take it because we have more resources in our minds and in our bodies than what they take from us materially. We’re constantly reinventing and searching for the form—and we’re talking about colonial realities, right?
POOn one hand, they take one thing, and on the other, you invent four, and it’s inexplicable how you arrived there and how you respond to that. This is nothing new. What’s new is that they keep taking from us and we have to reinvent what we’ve already invented. I think in part that is what I see in your work and practice, and up to a certain point also in my own. We draw on history as though it were an inventory because the materials exist there, sometimes hidden, and they lead us to the need to reinvent them.
MNAnd the consciousness to see what we have. Recently we’ve had to remind ourselves what it is that we do have, what we have access to—to begin our work from there. In communal processes too. We remind ourselves constantly because what we have is what we’ll use to reinvent in so many ways. Asking that question all the time is part of our practice—an idea appears one way and then we have to reconsider that idea with what’s at our disposal and figure out how it must adjust in order to express what we want to express. What were we talking about?
POWe were talking about improvisation, although a form of it that’s totally different. The kind of improvisation I practice and that you’re describing doesn’t correspond to an institutional model. I have a conflicting relationship with my craft. The existing models favor that the piece eventually concludes within the institution, but the process is the axis that nourishes work pertaining to public/neighborhood/social spaces. I always think the work is incomplete. And one’s reading of the work depends on the space where it’s developed and exhibited. We return to: What is the relationship between practice/process and the product? Is it perhaps equilibrium that we most long for?
LNWe’ve insisted on the process completely. We don’t have any type of pressure to have a final product with any of our works. Every time I see one of our pieces—and when I say “see,” I’m talking about when I’m submerged in it, living it—I notice other possibilities and imagine things that could have happened, but I don’t know how to get to them. And when that happens I put my trust in the process. I look back at the end of 2015, when we did one of our first interventions of Ilustraciones de la Mecánica, and it was composed of a very unpretentious image: two bodies, a table, a kitchen grater, a beet. In our insistence to continue with Ilustraciones, all this time pushing on in a process that has its own life, we’ve taken the time it requires. There is no rush, and there is no judge presiding over the process, but it has been important to understand the way the work has revealed itself over time, for itself only. That, for me, generates a lot of satisfaction. Each time I’m curious about what’s getting assembled, and I love being surprised by what keeps happening in a piece already three years into its exploration. Presenting Ilustraciones in different places—Cuba, Haiti, Chicago, and now here in Berlin—we discover new information that all of a sudden, without needing to, validates the piece as it is because the past is also present in it. Allowing the process to take its course, without the pressure of having to be ready for a final performance, liberates me and leaves me feeling relieved. I don’t submit myself to the institutional pressures of finalizing a piece—rather, a piece is in process and it’ll continue forever because life is a process.
POAs you were talking, two things came to mind regarding the self-imposed pressure on some artists working with communities and attempting to resolve issues. Almost always, what the artist and her work end up presenting is evidence of thought, not the action of thought. I believe in the need to give ourselves permission to be inconclusive. All of my work is inconclusive. Simply put, I don’t arrive at conclusions because I didn’t begin by looking for them and I didn’t create that problem. And I wonder if it would interest you to talk more about this because I don’t think improvisation looks for conclusions.
MN Thinking about the inconclusiveness of Manual, I understand that as it evolved and responded to the necessity of the moment, more curiosities rose to the surface. More desire to look back and ask again, not only about the piece itself but about our family, our communities, el caserío (housing project), and la parcela (the parcel of land). And to put a final point on it: we keep eating, living, dreaming, thinking, conversing, meeting, disengaging, manifesting. The moment we began Ilustraciones de la Mecánica for the Biennale, we had to recognize and remember that the work keeps building on itself and it’ll continue taking its course.
POAs a form or process, or both?
MNThe form is that continuous process because the works are realities in force, always unfolding.
LNThe process itself nourishes and also lends its form to the content, to ourselves, our bodies, our movements, our being, our presence, to the decisions that we make—because there’s a point where we begin to make decisions based on what we decipher and the elements revealed during the process. Last week when Ilustraciones de la Mecánica was presented for the third time, I felt like the piece suddenly asked something of us. That something was to enter a process of exploration with those objects, with those movements, with being, with feeling. This exploration in the middle of a continuous process forces the dramaturgy to expand in form. The working forms are ever changing; they aren’t written or rigid.
PO No! And that’s the beauty of what we were talking about earlier, how in the end it’s like, “What the hell is this?” (laughter) And these are the inexplicable conversations. I wanted to get into a conversation where we didn’t have any kind of pressure to justify anything. The reality is that neither you nor myself started these problems addressed in our works.
MNYes, thank you. It’s something I’ve needed to unlearn.
POMost of the process that you’ve developed is exploring within your daily lives. It’s an extremely complicated process. To take it into another space naturally makes things easier.
MNIt’s very complex and comprehensive to work with your sister, and it also represents that daily living you mentioned. So, although I understand that the performance is outside the space designated as “quotidian life,” this separation doesn’t occur to me. I see it dimensionally; it isn’t only an artistic work, because to achieve it we make conscious the emotional, the relational, and the living.
PO I have a question. It’s a preoccupation I’ve always had, but it has become more evident in the past five or six years: this question of if it was worth it.
My plan wasn’t to become an artist. (laughter) Because of the realities when I left the island, I’ve always had another idea about what I could have been. Recently, I wonder in retrospect if it was all worth it? Throughout the years I’ve had many concerns, and I’ve taken them to a place that I never thought possible. Art gave me the liberty to think, act, and create my own system…Well, you don’t have to answer, but it’s important.
LNBut what is the question?
POWas it all worth it? Was it worth it to get to where you’ve arrived, reaching these conclusions, dragging each piece behind another, moving and making all this methodology of work and practice. I don’t assume anything in this life, which is why I’m asking this question of myself as well.
LNYes. We keep on advancing down this path. I’ve grown and discovered along the way, and where I find myself now is exactly where I feel I can be present. I’m convinced that my art heals me, heals the memory of my family, and connects me to those who are no longer embodied. All this time spent dragging one work of art behind another, as you say, has contributed to alleviating the past and the pain. All that tension I let go, and I share my reflections with others. I think of the spectator as the other person responsible for that moment, which depends on their presence and energy. Returning to the obvious and thinking of the spectator, what comes to mind is ritual. Ritual permits us to negate the need for applause, which doesn’t have the possibility to exist within our work. That happens so smoothly: the spectator forgets the mania of applause, while the drink and the food become an essential part of the ritual. Up until this point, no one has asked me about the absence of applause in our work. The forms of theater and performance, which I had very little access to in my early years, establish a distance between the spectator and the artist. Our desire is to link ourselves with the other—whereas applause separates, interrupts. I go on a voyage when I’m embodying one of my characters, and I want people to travel with us.
MNYes, in fact, our art has become a strategy to discuss what has been silenced, those discomforts that keep squeezing the heart. I was terrified of memory, and that prevented me from evolving emotionally or connecting compassionately with others around me. Observing the wounds has given me permission to take care of myself, to reestablish the links that colonialism and its violence have made it their job to break.
But I’m still interested in your notions about the obvious. What’s obvious for you?
POWell, this is a little freebie: one thing is that humor heals. And when you see it and understand it, you can get incredibly uncomfortable. There’s this interaction with the absurd. People laugh at me a lot, but what I understand with my own work is that, in a single moment, one can virar la tortilla (turn the tables) and create a space of empathy, and do so without discussion. All of us are implicated together. For me, that’s very obvious, though I don’t think the entire world sees it. But at a physical level, emotionally and spiritually, people do get it. I see this in your work, and I think it reaches people on a profound level, even if they don’t understand what to do with it. I myself can’t figure it out either.
MNWe are barely beginning to understand it ourselves.
Pepón Osorio is a sculptor and installation and video artist from Puerto Rico. He has worked with communities across the US and internationally, creating art in unconventional places based on real life experiences. He currently lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
Nathan Osorio is a poet, translator, and community organizer. His work has appeared in Poems for Political Disaster (Boston Review, 2017), The Offing, the Grief Diaries, and elsewhere. He is currently a PhD candidate in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Originally published in
In the process of putting together each new issue of BOMB, we often come across distinct resonances between interviews—shared themes, creative preoccupations, and even specific phrases crop up time and again within otherwise disparate features. In these pages, artists discuss their expansive notions on collaboration. Their practices tend to split, reapportion, or redefine authorship, privileging process over individual intention and encouraging unique partnerships with spectators, local communities, film subjects, and one another. These willful acts of reaching out and beyond are as vital as ever, and worth emphasizing here.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.