Leaving on a High Note
In 2001 I was living in Mexico City where I’d relocated from New York in order to direct La Panadería, an iconic artist-run space that had enjoyed a great deal of attention in the mid the 90s during one of the many cyclical booms of Mexican art that, for over a decade, has guaranteed this city both a steady flow of visiting international artists and curators and a receptive audience for its artists abroad. The Mexican art scene, as promised, proved to be dynamic, cosmopolitan, and—while at times unbearably polarized—reflected the reality of a country whose sense of cultural identity was sufficiently complex and contradictory to problematize the kind of regionalist (sometimes xenophobic) agendas that seem to be inevitable outside of the major art centers. However, as an academically trained female curator working in a masculinist, socially exclusionary (i.e. cliquey), and somewhat anti-intellectual institution that deemed itself irreverent and countercultural (but had in fact become quite stagnant prior to my arrival), my tenure was constantly plagued not only by the conflicting interests of certain founding members of the space, but by the nagging feeling that I could take what I’d learned and do a little better elsewhere.
And so I began Espacio La Rebeca in Bogotá in August 2002, partially in response to this experience, as a critique of La Panadería’s deficiencies but also a recognition of what it had positively contributed to the history of institutional critique in Mexico, and the necessity of developing such a critique in the context of Colombia where the figure of the institution (an anachronistic and conservative one at that) has historically been, and continues to be, so dominant. Named for a public fountain in downtown Bogotá that had once been situated in an elegant park but was then banished to a dead, neglected space created by the construction of a major avenue (Calle 26) in one of the city’s many precarious attempts at modernization, La Rebeca was a project committed to intellectual and organizational rigor, sustainability and economic transparency, and in conceptual terms, the establishment of an international network of diverse, critically engaged artists and writers that ultimately sought to work against the idea of defining communities exclusively in geographical or nationalistic terms. Contrary to the conventional and uninteresting model of privileging the idea of the local, as a means not of preserving micro-histories but more as a strategy of achieving international visibility at the expense of complex readings (i.e. creating the next hot spot on the map), I preferred to adhere to the very common sense idea (derivative perhaps of my upbringing as the daughter of adamantly unassimilated French/Colombian parents in a small, provincial Southern American town in addition to an academic formation in postcolonial theory) that the fortification of a local scene is absolutely dependent on opening that scene up to divergent practices, histories, and points of view. How can we ever understand who we are or what we do without being challenged by difference?
For a little under three years, La Rebeca hosted monthly exhibitions divided equally between Colombian and non-Colombian artists most of whom produced new work or initiated new projects for the space. Operational, production, and travel costs were funded by grants acquired exclusively from abroad (international organizations like AVINA, in conjunction with Daros-Latin America, and the Daniel Langlois Foundation), and this was intentional both as a way of promoting the idea of redistributing global wealth but also as a means to avoid the inefficient and elitist character of local, primarily governmental, sources. Exhibitors who passed through the space’s doors came from many different circuits in different cities like Santiago, New York, Caracas, México, and Bogotá—reflecting my own nomadic trajectory as a curator and perhaps more importantly as a person without roots or an attachment to any one particular place. Artists ranged from not so visible figures working outside of major institutions or commercial networks to others who were beginning to be or were already quite established in Colombia and/or internationally. It is a myth that as an ‘alternative’ space, La Rebeca was necessarily interested in promoting so-called ‘emerging’ artists; this is just part of a huge cliché and expectation imposed on independent or non-institutional spaces to act as filters for institutions. It was never my mission to actively seek out ‘new talents’ (the very idea is so loaded in so many negative ways and the very term ‘emerging’ should immediately be banished from any serious discussion); in fact I primarily worked with artists of my own generation (early-mid 30s) most of whom were already well established in their interests and practices.
As in any other exhibition space, some shows were better than others, although I’ve never been one to measure an exhibition’s success strictly based on the public’s reception—and it’s the intensely social aspect of curating that ultimately led me to abandon it, as it often feels too much like a popularity contest based on simple formulas. Enough years have gone by for me to unapologetically comment on a few of those exhibitions that were most memorable to me. First, Sharon Hayes’ SLA screeds, a performance/video work based on an important piece of the history of political resistance in the United States—the Patty Hearst kidnapping—which, not unproblematically for a complete, contextualized reading of the work, struck a local chord because of Ingrid Betancourt. Then there was Gabriel Sierra’s amorpho, a super simple, austere showing of conceptually sophisticated objects based on the artist’s particular interest in a critical, deconstructive practice of industrial design appropriate to an economically precarious context. And finally, Phil Collins’ el mundo no escuchará: not just because of how that piece so deftly negotiated the slippery terrains of emotional and critical engagement or the magnitude of what it would eventually become, but because, quite simply, those two months of production were some of the happiest in recent memory.
In early 2005, my already growing desire to leave the space and to move on to something else (that implied leaving the country) was hastened by the arrival of the ‘reinsertion’ program to Teusaquillo, the neighborhood to which I had relocated La Rebeca the previous year, in a desire for a better space removed from the official art ghetto (La Macarena). An ill-conceived program to socially and economically reintegrate ex-guerilla and paramilitary soldiers who had voluntarily surrendered to the State, this short-lived initiative transformed a previously idyllic neighborhood into one that was tense and, at times, unbearable. It makes me uncomfortable to even write about this because it sounds like (and probably is) a scenario of betrayal (and the failure of some people to talk about why I chose that particular moment to close the space is testimony to this silent accusation): had I had a thicker skin or actually grown up in Colombia I would have been far more indifferent to this sort of situation. But the flip side is that then I never would have started the space to begin with. And in fact, I’m directing my conclusion of this story to my international readers (conscious of the fact that this publication is meant to reach an international audience) to show how frivolous art can somehow seem in certain contexts which, in turn, necessitates a real commitment to a critical (not heroic or romanticized) and contextualized practice above and beyond the careerism and commercialization of that practice or the naïve idea that art is a cause to be defended. In the end this situation provided a good pretext for La Rebeca to close its doors just in time to avoid becoming redundant or boring, stagnant or institutionalized—its absence seemingly creating just enough nostalgia to contribute to the creation of initiatives like El Bodegón (as Víctor Albarracín has generously claimed in another text on this subject). Whether or not the space was successful in its ambitions is not my place to say. For me, at least, its memory is overwhelmingly positive.