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Parsons School of Design MFA Photography program theses2015 (PC020403.11) ➔ La Patria es America


Related people/organizations

James Ramer (thesis advisor)
Parsons School of Design. Photography Department. (sponsoring body)
Marco Bell (photographer)


May 2015


LA PATRIA ES AMERICA “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” –Hannah Arendt 1. The ordinary North American often forgets that he shares “America” with 500 million citizens from thirty three other nations. Alfredo Jaar, a Chilean who has developed his career as an artist in New York, commented about his piece A Logo for America: “The United States has co-opted for itself the name ‘America’ and even our everyday language forces us to picture only one dimension of America”. A Facebook group with almost 4000 followers titled America Continent, assures that: “America is a continent: 35 nations, over 942.7 million people and more than a 1000 languages”, times statement”. Following the Latin American tradition of calling U.S citizens “Estadounidenses”, the Wikipedia discussion group Names for United States citizens (a website that may be perceived as hoax by many) proposes alternatives that perhaps are unacceptable: “Statians”, “Unians”, “Usonians”. Maybe the problem many Latin Americans have with the word "American" is motivated by anti-Americanism and inherited pride. Nevertheless, the equivalence of “America” with the United States is particularly ironic, because that name (America) “first appeared on late XVI Century maps identified with South America, whose northern coast were explored by Americo Vespucci” who was famous for his writing skills, and his chronicles were widely read in Europe. Three centuries after Columbus’ “discovery”, with the founding of the United States, “America” would also start being used for the northern part of the continent. Edmundo O’Gorman has declared that “America was invented, not discovered. Its invention began with the first European chroniclers, who often projected onto their “New World” the Old World’s fantasies of the exotic, and this habit continues to the present day”. The term “Latin America” is an invention as well. "Latin America" was coined “in the nineteenth century in France, under Napoleon III, to describe the nations that had once been colonized by “Latin Europe”–Spain, France and Portugal”. As Professor Peter Winn, director of Latin American Studies at Tufts University, details in his book Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean: “The notion that the United States is “America” is not the only misconception that its citizens have about “their” hemisphere. So is the stereotype of Latin America and the Caribbean as lands of fiestas and siestas where nothing changes”. Jaar, of Dutch descent, was surprised to be categorized as a “Hispanic” in the United States, a compliant echoed by Brazilians, who do not even speak Spanish. One of the misconceptions that many North Americans have about Latin America and the Caribbean is that it is a homogeneous region, whose people “all look alike”. On the contrary, the diversity of its population is as complex as those that formed the United States. It’s not a secret that Latin American cities have been portrayed in U.S. mainstream media as ruined hell-holes , deserts with palm trees and poor-looking buildings. My own fascination for Latin American identity began two years ago, when I arrived to New York City to pursue my MFA. In this regard, I identify myself with the pioneer of Latin America’s magic realism movement, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who said: “The most important thing Paris gave me was a perspective on Latin America. It taught me the differences between Latin America and Europe and among the Latin American countries themselves through the Latinos I met there”. My Paris is New York. Although I was born in the U.S. (My Anglo-Saxon heritage is evident in my family name: My grandfather was a Missouri-born WASP adventurer who settled in Venezuela, a prototypical character extracted from of one of Joseph Conrad’s post colonial novels), my roots are deep overseas, in Venezuela, the turbulent land where I grew up. Born in Florida, with a Cuban-American father and a Puerto Rican-Venezuelan mother, my own existence has embodied the conflicts and the intertwined nature between the two subcontinents. Back in Venezuela, I grew up surrounded by the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the chavismo– random people in the street used to called me “gringo”. In the U.S., I’ve been called “spanish”, and have faced the typical "why do you speak Spanish, you don't look Mexican” commentary. Shortly after I was born, my mother brought me to Caracas, at the beginning of the economic collapse, at the end of decades of an opulent prosperity that –as a consequence of several oil bonanzas– characterized Venezuelan society. Until February 18th, 1983 (now called Viernes Negro by many Venezuelans), the bolívar (Venezuela’s currency) had been the region's most stable and internationally accepted currency. It then fell prey to a high devaluation that has never stopped sinking. My interest in Venezuela’s culture, politics, economics and oil is the result of these years, distinguished by a crescent sentiment of Antiyanquismo. The tensions started long ago, but the anti-American rhetoric per-se begun 100 years ago, when the first oil drilling was registered in the country’s history. Venezuela’s dependence on foreign capital emerged in the 1910s and US involvement in Venezuela grew dramatically after World War I, when US corporate interests participated in the development of the oil industry. When multinational corporations shifted from Mexican to Venezuelan production in the 1920s, they did so in part because productivity of Mexican fields was declining and because political circumstances and anti-Americanism in the Aztec nation made expansion difficult. By 1929, Venezuela was the second largest producer of petroleum of the world and the biggest exporter. Seventy six percent of export earnings came from petroleum, and the government increasingly depended on revenues from the oil sector. As U.S. oil companies brought their Americans engineers and technicians to Venezuela, along with different ways of thinking and being, Venezuelans begun expressing their anti-American sentiment. “The early concentration of American influence in the petroleum-rich region of Lago de Maracaibo, and after in Caracas, and the segregation of Venezuelan corporate officials caused resentment. In the words of cultural historian Darlene Rivas, written expressions of Antiyanquismo focused on the disruption of agriculture, increasing racial tensions (due in part to the preference of the Americans for black laborers from the West Indies) and the physical and human consequences of drilling, as oil polluted the lakes and conflict between oil workers and Indians led to the killing of some natives” After decades of struggle and turmoil, upon his election in 1998, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proclaimed a Bolivarian Revolution, identifying his policies with the legacy of El Libertador, Simón Bolívar (a character inserted in the tradition of Latin America’s real life romantic heroes, amongst César Augusto Sandino, Anastasio Somoza and Ernesto Che Guevara). Bolivar’s legacy and thought has been subject to a variety of interpretations. In the late 19th Century, Colombia founded a conservative party inspired by Bolivar’s philosophy. To the Venezuelan military caudillo Chavez, Bolivar represented social equality and freedom for the poor and oppressed, as well as an independent foreign policy free from colonialism. A popular (or rather populist) saying in Venezuela states that “Simón Bolivar wakes up every hundred years, when the pueblos awake”. For the past 15 years, the phrase have been repeated ad-infinitum by the leader Hugo Chavez and his fanatical followers. Mr. Chavez, deceased a year ago and substituted by his successor, the “Presidente obrero” Nicolas Maduro, worshiped Simon Bolivar, who liberated Latin America from the Spanish rule and dreamed of a grand union of the states of Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. He has memorized all of Bolivar’s declarations and officially changed his country’s name to “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”. The “Bolivarian Revolution” –that has spread through many countries of the region– manipulates Bolivar’s legendary status in Latin America to mobilize populist support, shield the government against economic globalization and justify the persistent flirtations with authoritarianism. Nonetheless, Venezuela, an oil-rich yet profoundly poverty-stricken country, as much of the rest of the continent, depends on the petroleum income (provided mainly by the United States) to survive, and some scholars are claiming that the country is now a Cuban ideological colony and a Chinese economic colony. 2. Bolivar, NY, is one of the five U.S. settlements named after the Venezuelan founding father. Located in the remote Allegany County, the village rose to significance during the oil boom era of the late 1800s, when it was occupied by the infamous "Robber Barons" (and appeared to be the wealthiest locale, per capita, in the United States). By the early 1900s the initial boom, with its economic and population impacts, had significantly faded, but secondary oil recovery techniques applied to the oil fields (starting around 1920) drastically rejuvenated the industry in the area. In a clear analogy of what would happen later in the the "Third World", most of the investors abandoned the village decades ago, leaving a devastated and impoverished town. There are many coincidences between the small village and Bolivar’s fatherland: the most relevant is the vestige left by the oil extraction. The town has been treated like a colony inside the U.S. territory. If Chávez revived Bolivar in Latin America, why can’t I revive him in New York? After all, I have had the privilege of eye-witnessing the last 32 years of Venezuela’s socio-economical catastrophes. Bolivar, New York, is the convergence of my two homelands: both Bolivar and oil are foundational components of Venezuela’s idiosyncrasy. I displace and replace Simon Bolivar’s rhetoric and sculptural visage. I removed his dusty bust from a tiny room at the Pioneer Oil Museum and placed it on different sites in the town. I intended to emphasize the barriers but perhaps the possible connections between Latin America and the United States. I sought to introduce Bolivar and his words in a neutral way that was neither empathetic or undermined of the town’s own beliefs. In this context, I see the bust of Bolivar as a symbol of emancipation and friendship between the Pan-American nations. Brought back to life by performative actions and provocative inquiries, Bolivar becomes a mirror between Latin America and decaying small-town America. How would Bolivar react to the current post-colonial realities? With the end of decades of oil fueled prosperity, in the midst of anti-yankee chavismo, the ghost of Bolivar has awakened to ask difficult questions long dormant. I seek to bring the same uncomfortable questions to North America as well. I’m fascinated by many aspects of “America” as a country and as a continent, namely, in the relationship between United States and what is known here as “The Americas”. My work addresses the symbolic constructions of social identities, and the regional domination over the control of oil and natural resources. I’m interested in the failure of an industry, the loss of the city and the devastation of an economy. This project is a reflection on U.S. conservative radicalism paralleled to Venezuela’s identity crisis after Chávez, and on my own heterogeneous upbringings growing up in the highly americanized –yet theoretically Anti-American– chimera of Venezuela. 3. This is an ongoing project that does not end here. It has been an extended commitment to the community. One of the main projects that I’d like to materialize is the foundation of the Simon Bolivar Cultural Center in the same building where the luxurious Bolivar Hotel used to function. As an inaugural event, I plan to curate a contemporary art show that will reflect upon the industry and the post colonial condition. The collective exhibition, titled Dilectics of Liberation, will be installed in the remanent structures of an abandoned oil refinery. The buildings will be recovered and reconditioned by the local community in an action of Guerrilla Architecture. In the context of what scholars have referred to as the “colonial present", a growing political and economic inequality, and the ongoing Unites States-led wars for security, natural resources and economic power worldwide, Eight Latin American contemporary artists (ideally Marcos Lopez, Juan Manuel Echavarria, Guillermo Gomez Pena, Coco Fusco, Javier Tellez, Alexander Apostol, Alfredo Jaar and Marco Bell) and an invited guest from the United States (Martha Rosler) will survey the political, social and economic effects of the oil industry and it’s social and cultural impact. They will also revisit a Non-Official spectrum of the Libertador, far away from the official rhetoric and censorship of the chavismo and explore the boundaries between the United States and his "backyard". The main purpose of the exhibition is the intercultural exchange between these artists and the communities of New York’s southern tier, a marginalized area lacking in museums and other cultural institutions. Through exhibitions, workshops and artist talks, the creators will address the Latin American experience to the main problems of the community, such as unemployment and isolation. After 200 years of his only travel to this land, just before the South American Revolution, the ghost of Bolivar returns to the United States in the form of art to generate debate, change perspectives and emancipate the peoples of La America. 4. Looking back at economic history, we realize that the colonial process have always had the same motivations. Centuries ago, the timber was the core commodity used for energy and construction. The British empire, with its forests in decay, saw in the colonies a practically infinite source of wood. These dynamics of economic power were my original motivation when I started to develop this project, and the notions of process-based and socially engaged art started to function as an influence to my practice. In specific, the works of by Piero Manzoni (Consumption of Art by the Art-Devouring Public), Alfredo Jaar (The Skoghall Konsthall) and Thomas Hirshorn (Gramsci Monument) were my referential starting points. My purpose was –rather than to produce enduring icons– to work in terms of process and time. With Bolivar NY the main objective was to create work that would include the community. Interested in history and time, I wanted to rescue the ideas of Robert Smithson of the epicenter of art, and decided to bring something from the periphery, to search for meaning through examining the surrounding world, to transform the spectator into an active agent and the spectacle into a communal performance. For this purpose, I saw –and projected– myself as an ambassador of my culture in Bolivar, New York, challenging again a colonial tradition of representation. My deep desire was to generate enlightenment through shock, as a provocateur. The clash of two cultures, the Latin American and the “American”, my exposure to an isolated community of small town U.S., considering the lack of contact they have with minorities, and the current tensions regarding immigration topics, makes this project even more fascinating to me. I’d like to conclude this thesis statement quoting Jeremy Deller: “I went from being an artist that makes things to being an artist that makes things happen”. Marco Bell



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