by Amy Bell
photos by Jasmijn Slegh
Oscar Santillan is an Ecuadorian visual artist resident at Maastricht’s Jan van Eyck Academie. In a conversation during research week, he questions the autonomy of the artist within a commissioning project such Performing Gender and resists objectification by proposing the performing body as a conduit for larger forces.
Amy Bell: It seems that the Performing Gender research week is offering quite a different way of working than perhaps you are used to. How do you feel about having a workshop leader who asks you to make movement sketches according to a set of rules and underlying presumptions you might not agree with?
Oscar Santillan: There is a difference between that and offering you a starting point to think about something. If someone proposes something [as a starting point], I feel invited, I am free to say, ‘Yes, I want to take that question and I want to find the answer for me, whatever it is’. I feel that’s an invitation in itself because just one gate can take you to different roads in a way. But then I think it’s highly problematic, inefficient as well, if someone starts to model more or less what the arriving point should more or less be. I feel that’s not an invitation anymore.
AB: I have the sense of that, but do you not think that in this research stage there is an invitation to try this way of working for just today in case you find something new or interesting, with the understanding that it can always be thrown away? What you’re going to do later is up to you, you don’t have to use this later if you don’t want to.
OS: Yeah, probably. I just feel like it doesn’t make sense if the group of people that you invited to make their own work within this framework, this larger framework, is highly autonomous. I guess we were invited because of that in fact, among other reasons, and you see the dynamic in the collective is really nice, it just flows really well. I’m really glad about the group of people that were invited to be part of the project. As I told you, I respect very much autonomous creators who are able to take a challenge. In a way that’s where the trust comes into this because then there’s no reason to give direction to the task because that’s exactly the reason why you invited these autonomous creators or artists to do something, they are the ones that own the basic right as artists [to decide] where they want to go with this [gender] question. And that’s the charm of the invitation, that’s the charm of the question as well, to be provocative enough that if you invite someone who’s going to take good care of the challenge they’re going to arrive somewhere interesting. And I think that’s when things are successful, when artists can explore, but you have to explore and exploring means that the routes, if they exist, might take you very, very whimsical directions. I think that’s beautiful, I think that’s wonderful. You know Jordi was saying something that for me made a lot of sense and sort of like opened up another perspective into this. He was saying it’s clear at the end of the day that Peggy [Olislaegers, the workshop leader] is trying to help, she is trying to support us to but maybe the larger negotiation is within herself, is letting go or not letting go too much. I think for me that’s the larger negotiation.
AB: I think to a certain extent though, if I understand, that what Peggy wants to try to do is also offer a kind of confrontation moment for people to work in a way in which they’re not accustomed, to force them possibly to do something they wouldn’t normally do which may not be interesting, or may not be productive or may not be what somebody wants to carry forwards but I think her belief in doing that is that you anyway learn something new. There’s a chance that you might just hate it and it confirms what you already know about your approach but there’s a chance that you might realise that there are other options, that you might find creativity through limitation, that you might try something on or taste something you never did before in a playful way. I’m not necessarily saying that that’s the right thing to do all the time but I feel that that’s what she is trying to offer this week. Do you disagree with that?
OS: You know, there is a really wonderful text by Jacques Rancière which is called The Ignorant Schoolmaster. It’s absolutely brilliant and this essay explores this assumption, and it’s a very old fashioned assumption, that there’s someone with knowledge, with some very special knowledge, a leader who supposedly can see things a little from above and can activate things in the students by giving them the right task, by directing them in the right way, by orchestrating things. And Rancière’s point, I think, is really strong. He talks about the case of a well known professor who had to relocate because of some war that was, if I’m not wrong, at some point during the Nineteenth Century. He was a professor who would lecture and was very used to these well established environments where the professor is kind of in front of an audience. He had to relocate to somewhere in the Netherlands or the Flemish speaking area and he didn’t speak the language. I think he was French, I’m really forgetting a lot of details… But a group of students had heard about his reputation as an amazing professor of French literature and asked him to teach them and he thought he just couldn’t help them because there was this language barrier between them: they didn’t speak French and he didn’t speak Flemish. But at the end the students were able to read French, not only that, but to deeply understand this text, it was a novel that he gave them, which wasn’t necessarily an easy one, on their own. And then he had to start questioning his own system of values about knowledge, how it is shared, how it spreads, how it is processed by people and it’s a really wonderful text, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. So later he considered himself, instead of this amazing professor who would bring light into the ignorance of the students, the ignorant schoolmaster, as someone who would do better by just standing aside. So I’m more on Rancière’s side, let’s say.
AB: That sounds good, I should read it. I think also what we’re perhaps touching on is a difference in the pervasive cultures of learning and creation in dance and performance, and in fine art and performance. I mean, I have no background in a visual art or fine art but in dance it seems that the traditional way of approaching teaching and learning is kind of entrenched, not necessarily always followed, but it seems to me quite common and almost assumed that teachers will follow something like the old model, they have the knowledge and each teacher finds different ways to invite you into that knowledge more or less strongly. Some teachers resist this but I think that old fashioned approach has much more grip over people who come from a dance perspective than a visual arts one. Do you think it’s true that within a visual arts training it’s much more common to be already developing your own voice about how you want to learn and work?
OS: Well I think there is something deeply pervasive about this relationship between knowledge and discipline. So it’s true that there might be some sort of areas or artistic practices where this relationship has been taken for granted, where it has been assumed as natural when it is not, it is obviously a social construction. In the visual arts maybe it’s a bit different but not too different. I think the debate about all of these ideas started a while ago… There is a particular programme that everyone talks about that is supposed to be a wonderful thing and everyone admires. It happened back in the 1950s, Black Mountain College.
AB: Yeah, there’s some cross over with dance there of course with Merce Cunningham and John Cage etc.
OS: But you know, that would be like the perfect romantic example of what an artistic environment should be where people are invited to take the responsibilities, the challenges that they want to freely take, they’re not being assigned to them by some voice up on to some hierarchy. But it’s still very problematic because of the over-academicization of the art world. To actually welcome that way of thinking into an academic system where you have to grade the students for example is problematic. So people talk a lot about Black Mountain College but then practising the reasons why they admire it doesn’t happen too often.
K.I.M. Oscar Santillan in his studio at the Jan van Eyck academy from Alexander Vivas on Vimeo
in Spanish and Dutch only – sorry!
AB: Right! But going back to today’s task for example, the proposition is to make your own physicality the sole content of a sketch. I wonder if that is interesting for you because it seems to me that so far you allow your own physical presence to be incidental or secondary to an action, that the action is the important part and your physical presence is only necessary to carry out the action, rather than holding aesthetic value in itself.
OS: I think Peggy described my work very well, I sort of give tasks to myself and then I accomplish the tasks, I’m focused on them or I give myself some simple kind of focusing path. And I hope that happens in a way that activates certain things. For example, this performance I made for the camera with my friend where I asked him to just cry. He’s an amazing crier, so he cries and you just see him. He’s crying and it’s a kind of portrait of him crying and then there are other shots in which I’m trying to catch his tears.
AB: Ah yes, he’s on the bridge and you’re catching them from beneath?
OS: Yeah, so again it’s a kind of silly, absurd, even sad task but then something happens there. I feel like I’m a carrier, I’m like connecting things, trying to connect things that are unconnected, more explicitly in the performance where I go to the countryside, take milk from a cow, walk for about four hours with the milk in my mouth, holding it, until I make it into the city and then I look for a stray cat that could kiss me, if you want, that would lick the milk out of my lips, out of my mouth. I am in a way some sort of unexpected container that connects these two unconnected beings. So there are cases in which physically it makes a lot of sense to do it and there are cases when the traces are very important to me as well, the idea that something happened, that something was done and then there is an object that holds or tells experience. Very often in the visual arts when you go to a museum, anything you find there is a trace of an action. So, in terms of timing, performing taken like this is quite different because everything comes from the past in terms of the visual arts and in terms of performing, not necessarily but very often, things are related to the present, to the idea of being here now.
AB: I really like what you said about your body being a container because it made me think about the cloud vacuuming piece that you told us about. You made these shapes in order to vacuum up and contain something ordinarily uncontainable, ethereal and so the shapes are maybe only necessary or interesting in their function, they can fulfil in that task. This really differs from looking at them primarily for their aesthetic value as objects and I think it’s interesting to think about the body that way. Instead of saying, ‘look at this person as an object, look at this physicality, this is the content of a sketch’ you are saying, ‘look at this body as a container, as a conduit of larger forces’.
OS: Yeah it’s true.
AB: And maybe the exterior form or the way we read a person’s appearance is also of note and interesting, but what does that container/person do? What forces or energies pass through them? And it seems this week you’ve been channelling stories, or perceptions, it’s about what passes between people or though people rather than the person themselves, which is a very generous approach I think.
OS: Yeah, channelling is a good word for many reasons. It’s a very religious word too. Well Connor [Schumacher, PG participant] made his presentation yesterday [mentioning his religious upbringing] and I was telling him at the table I know this history, this background very well. The idea that there is someone who could channel a presence who is not visible, in this case the religious idea of the prophet for example, or that this person is supposedly being taken by the Holy Ghost, yeah, this is part of my brain structure right now, it’s part of the architecture of how I think about the world and how I think about myself. I am trying to channel this certain narrative, more explicitly now here.
AB: Yes, at the Bonnefanten Museum you told little snippets of stories to someone on the phone and asked them to say your words aloud to a lift full of people. It’s making that person a conduit for bigger narratives again, right?
OS: Yes, I don’t think it ever happened for my practice until now. I had gotten as far as the text piece you guys saw in my studio with the phrase on this black piece of fabric.
AB: What was that text, ‘All my lovers got together in a bar and forgot to invite me’?
OS: [Laughs] Yeah. Something very interesting that I’m trying to work out right now is telling things to the very, very core of them so that they suggest an entire narrative bigger than what has been said. With this black ribbon that’s just what happens, I’m telling a story in as few words as possible really. So there is a question of efficiency I’m very interested in but in a non-capitalistic way. For me the question of efficiency is a very ethical question. For example the time that you ask someone to look at something you’ve done, or something that you’re doing, a performance or any kind of artwork for me that’s an ethical question. I want to make sure I’m asking only for the right amount. I don’t want to take one more minute, I don’t want to take thirty more seconds than it needs. I try to be as consistent as possible, as poetically efficient as possible. In a way I feel guilty. Maybe in a way I wouldn’t ever be a good performer like my peers here because I feel guilty about asking for too much time. I’m always unsure about if something is taking just too long. I’m always worried in a way and maybe a good performer does the opposite, doesn’t worry much about it.
AB: No in my view that makes a bad performer. Having no awareness of the real necessity for something in time means that you’re only considering the right timing for you, for your own internal experience and I think that risks becoming self-indulgent and I have like a morbid fear of self-indulgence. I don’t enjoy watching something that makes me feel like I’m witnessing somebody on an ego trip. There needs to be a balance between honouring what feels right from the inside and a necessity for somebody to see it for that length of time.
OS: You know, the only kind of religious environment that I’ve been able to connect with after my youth are the Quakers.
AB: Ah yes! Because they just sit in silence in their meetings until someone really feels it’s the right moment to say something. And if nobody feels there is a need or feels that it’s the right moment, then they just sit.
OS: Yeah and for me it’s the perfect example of the kind of communities I enjoy because the architecture of the meeting house is a perfect square where the front is absent, where the leader is absent. Then you just wait the moment, for something to happen and you’ve got to trust that something is going to happen and you’re just quiet. And suddenly someone rises and stands up and says something for maybe ten seconds, thirty seconds, five seconds and the people who feel this urge to say something at some point, this very calm urgency, they have the same question I mentioned before in their minds, they want to say just exactly what they have to say, what they need to say and nothing else.
AB: Nothing more, nothing less.
OS: That’s it. So it was very nice for me because it was the first time I willingly went to a congregation, to something I would call a religious meeting and it helped me to realise many questions about my own practice as an artist and a person too.
AB: In terms of leaving quietness or space to enable you to recognise when you have a real need to say something?
OS: Yeah, instead of some leaders squeezing you to do something. Something is going to come out, but I feel you want to make sure that you are connecting with something that is meaningful for you and that it’s meaningful for you to share it. If we live in a world where there are like, trillions of and trillions of objects of artworks, of tv shows, of pieces of advertisement, I feel you better make sure that whatever you share has this basic urgency that something meaningful has, like, the right to exist. I think that something has to earn the right to exist, not just being squeezed into the world because most things are like that.
AB: A bit like this research week too then?
OS: I guess…
Performing Gender, Maastricht, March 2014