At least one more Triennial

The economic crisis of the government has deeply eroded the cultural institutions in the Island. Far from avoiding that discussion, almost counting on it, and as an acknowledgment of the changes in the panorama, from the direction of the Visual Art Program, it seemed essential to involve the artists and agents working actively in the cultural scene of the Island as leading actors in the offer to the international visitors. As a sincere bet to the future and a recognition of the huge failure of the governmental machinery and its inability to coordinate coherently from inside, the Triennial acted as a trench to provide a space to fulfill its purpose and ensure the offering of its services at least one last time; even if that mean passing the baton to the non institutional platforms.

The San Juan Printmaking Biennial (Bienal de San Juan del Grabado Latinoamericano) was founded in 1970, its first edition included artist from almost every Latin American country and it was the result of a collective effort, in which galleries, art critics, and institutions worked together to develop an international forum to present the best and most recent production of printmaking of the southern part of the American hemisphere (from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, passing through Central America, and the Caribbean). During that decade, Puerto Rico used to have a growing cultural scene in which printmaking was turning into a very strong tradition with a heavy political influence in the panorama. Many techniques, such as silkscreen, xylography, and some intaglio methods as ‘punta seca’ and ‘aguafuerte’, were constantly evolving inside workshops while remaining an accessible medium for contemporary artists.

As a student, I got the opportunity to relate with many important printmakers while they were my professors in the School of Fine Arts in San Juan1. Many of them, knew or worked with some of the first and second generation of Puerto Rican artists, those who turns printmaking into something important enough to build an international event around it. The ways we learnt the techniques back then, were very close to the ideological project those generations before us, grew up with. For them, the Biennial was a space for political and national vindication, a legitimate platform to protest against the United State occupation in the Island and a bridge to build a closer relationship to the rest of the countries in Latin America, which were also suffering the new ways of colonialism, liberalization, economical invasion and political segmentation, all of them, indirect results of the Cold War policies that were dividing the planet once more.

To us, the newer generations, we got other challenges, many of us never knew about the Second World War, Cold War or the Printmaking Biennial until we got into college. It last Edition, in 2001, to manyMost of us 

We can tell, the Biennial survived most of the ups and downs provoked by the government 

While the political panorama changes and intensify in the Island, the view of the cultural institutions contracts in favor of an idealization of what Puerto Rican culture should be; advocating for it to remain as a way of resistance against the United States constant colonial menace and impact over our “puertorriqueñidad”. This static and defensive2 point of view about the role of culture in our political dilemma, also develop as “trench” in which art historians assumed a position that started to antagonize the discourses of contemporary and modern art to agree with the institutional views and their agendas. One of the immediate results of that defensive isolation, resulted in a periodical loose of connection and pertinence of platforms like the Biennial, with the needs and conversations that were happening in the artist community in and outside of the island.

After its 13th. edition in 2001, during Humberto Figueroa’s incumbency as Director of the Visual Arts Program, Mari Carmen Ramírez was invited by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña to rethink the curatorial format of the event, and to propose a new scope in which newer approaches to the medium could fit, as well as a new geographical perspective in which the Caribbean, South and Central American diasporas in the United States could be included. In 2004 took place the first edition of the now called San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial, with an ambitious and promising program with a powerful artist selection3 made by Mari Carmen Ramírez as chief curator, Justo Pastor Mellado, Harper Montgomery, José Ignacio Roca, and Margarita Fernández Zavala. The history of the Triennial and its editions could be by itself a topic of research, helpful for anyone who wants to make a critical approach about the development of contemporary printmaking in the countries to the south of the United States, or even to revise the curatorial methodologies proposed by its curators to explore the regions and their discourses around their graphic traditions.

However, far from addressing this text from an historiographical approach —not that it cannot be made— appears to me that a sincere and natural way of confronting the official narration might be more useful; a personal point of view in case somebody in the future wants to come nearer to the details of its production. There are aspects about the way the institution manages its relations with the artist community that might be addressed from a critical perspective to bring to the table how little the organizational structure of the Triennial and the ICP has been renewed. I’m not necessarily speaking about its personnel more than its lack of interest —or capacity— into building more horizontal and direct relationships with the cultural spaces and projects who has been taking charge of contemporary art and cultural production. After the redesign of the Triennial in 2004, the expectations around the event were huge in the Puerto Rican art scene, sadly the official instances in charge of the follow-up were too occupied trying to keep the boat floating. This kind of behavior can be taken as one of the collateral damages of the strategies Puerto Rico’s government is been adopting to confront its financial crisis, at the same time it also looks as an easy way to justify the scarcity in which the State has been maintaining its cultural platforms. We can say, that in a way, the lack of interest was an effect of a long-term-deeper situation in which government will periodically refuse to assumed responsibility on cultural matters; blaming, of course, the financial crisis in which the two main parties, along with the colonial relationship with the US, has sunken Puerto Rico’s possibilities of an autonomous and brighter future.  

Without any doubt, the hype around the 4th edition of the San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial in 2015 was the result of a collective effort between independent agents, such as artists, galleries, private collectors and alternative art platforms along with the most active and important museums around the Island. Whether the process to coordinate the main event and its educational program demanded a great amount of effort an emotional stamina, the results during the opening week showed the energy and projection capacity of an implicated local scene. Coordinated by the few personnel available in the Visual Art Program at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP) and the committed labor of the curators Gerardo Mosquera, Alexia Tala Barril, and Vanessa Hernández Gracia; against every odds, in October 2015 the event celebrated its opening. An ambitious program of daily and weekly events that exceeded a few times, the reach and capacity of the team in-charge. Anyway, most of the activities programmed by the ICP had their opening as planned, with a few exceptions.

The reception took place at the East Gallery of the Antiguo Arsenal de la Marina Española —home of the event — and counted with the presence of Mari Carmen Ramírez, Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cuauhtémoc Medina, as well as Puerto Rico’s Governor during that period, Alejandro García Padilla, a representative of Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, San Juan’s City Mayor and many of the participant artists. As usual, this kind of event happens more like a false display of heroism and less as a platform to be honest with the challenges and the risks taken during its production. From my part, I took it as an opportunity to thank the people who actually were in charge of making the Triennial possible for everybody. Still, I wasn’t there making myself responsible of the voice of the ICP. At that moment, even being the responsible of the coordination of the event, I felt the right thing to do was to vindicate the possibility of making things from a different perspective, in spite of the obstacles put by the same institution and the state agencies involved. 

Thinking retrospectively, this process made me realize how closely related is the instability caused by bipartisanship with the deterioration of organizational structures. And how divorced are the political parties agendas of the ideas of progress, economic growth and professional stability of the cultural sector. At the same time, is hard not to think about the spaces we give up every time a project like the Triennial, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Symphonic Orchestra or Los Ayala School of Folkloric Dances, lose their financial resources because their contributions are being unfairly compared with the insufficiency issues of other governmental dependencies. It’s like their efforts weren’t enough, because no matter how hard they work or how many concessions and volunteer work they do, the government still treat the Sector like they have no responsibilities with them, because the money invested on culture, is placed there like a charity, like a favor, or a donation. Obviously, the administrators aren’t capable of seeing the value of the investment and the impact of the contributions made by the Sector to society, probably because they’re measuring with the wrong ruler. 

For a moment, it might look like there’s no way avoid a pessimistic view of the situation. Anyway, I think there’s the challenge to develop a rubric versatile enough to measure the complexities of cultural production without having to translate its gains into market slang. Sadly, the absence of commitment and the inability of the political platforms to replanned themselves, reveal a huge vulnerability of the organisms in charge. In our case, probably because of the complexity of our political status, it may look like we’re completely unable to react against the avalanche of apathy and exhaustion cultivated for so long.

In spite the mess that surround most of our institutions, even so, there’s an opportunity to make a statement through the ways platforms relate to each other, at least from the alternative and independent art spaces and projects side. May be, some institutions were too bureaucratized —too comfortable or too scared— to react and design new working conditions for the Sector. As I mentioned before, most of them were too busy trying to survived a couple of crisis at the same time. During the years we had to prepare the 4th edition of the Triennial, the measures implemented by the government to answer to the economic crisis had already left their mark. It was pretty obvious that the Triennial and all of its structure weren’t in the list of priorities. 

Having said that, it’s important to recognize how relevant has been the role played by alternative spaces and many independent agents since 2000. During the past twenty years, a generous list of initiatives has contributed priceless experiences that have changed the way local artists perceive their place on society. Each project by itself have teach us more than one lesson on self-management, versatility and consistency, yet, just a few of them has been taken in consideration by the institutions to collaborate. 

During the opening week of the event, my colleagues and I had a high level of confidence with the professionalism and commitment of our scene. For a moment, a “pre-gentrified” Calle Cerra was the battery of cultural evidence necessary to give our guests a small sample of our guild outside the museum aisles. In my opinion, without removing value from the curatorial project, our strongest card was the program designed by the artists that happened in parallel to the opening of the event4. Showing the power of projection of our artists and independent platforms, more than a risk, was an act of trust, and of course, for an institution like the ICP, a risk. But, from my perspective, an invitation to undo the generational wall that separates both management instances and a testimony of how it is possible to rethink from the official spaces the image we project of Puerto Rican art.

The truth is that, during my time as Director of the Visual Arts Program, each project was an opportunity to think critically about the institution. From the National Arts Exhibition, which we dedicate to the artists Olga Albizu and Zilia Sánchez, to the selection of the guest curators and the themes of the exhibitions. There was accumulated work5, and at that time I wanted to bet that it was possible to twist the columns of the institution from the inside. In addition, it seemed the right time, we were living a situation in which we had independent initiatives mature enough to allow us transporting some of its management models to the institution and test what effects they could have had on the structure. Anyway, we had a very varied response, even from the same community of artists that sometimes seems to have preferred the institution to remain as it was.

Although we try to collect some data to initiate subsequent self-assessment processes, but the instability and lack of vision of the central administration, in the end, it prefers to write on top of what has been done, even if it means giving up the possibilities of an open dialogue. It is also true that I inhabited a space in between, my training as artists and my experience as an independent manager in the local scene had allowed me to create a vision of the institution that contrasted with the limits and the image that the institution had of itself. In the end, the incompatibility of the agendas produced marvelous monsters and activated the exchange between parties that would otherwise have accommodated themselves within the parameters of a hegemonic and immovable status quo.

To quote Gerardo Mosquera in his welcome words during the inauguration:

The inauguration of the 4th Poly / Graphic Triennial of San Juan has been little less than a miracle. Complex organizational and communication problems in the midst of the crisis and bankruptcy of the government of Puerto Rico have placed difficult obstacles to its realization. However, the Triennial is carried out, and is carried out without disparagement to its artistic excellence and its cultural and educational action.

Gerardo Mosquera’s opening message for the event. 2015.

To which I would add, understanding today a little more the value behind having insisted on the decentralization of the project, that the Triennial was not the only miracle. I would dare to say that each exhibition, each conference and each publication would not have been possible without the immense amount of dedication and extra effort that each of the team members who committed to change the logic of the results expected from its work there.

I claim in my words:

If Puerto Rico enjoys a diverse and rich cultural scene to offer it is thanks to the joint work of a large group of people, spaces, institutions, platforms and initiatives that have decided on their own will, to produce, despite the regrets. There is no better way to celebrate cultural production, than be honest with the landscape and its circumstances.

Despite the challenges, we have (at least one more) Triennial. Abdiel Segarra’s Directos letter for the 4th. Triennial Catalogue.

Notes:

1) Luis Abraham Ortíz, Haydeé Landing-Gordon, Consuelo Gotay, Orlando Salgado Vicente and Ada Rosa Rivera, justo to mention some. 

2) During the 70’s the Argentinian art critic and historian, Marta Traba had already written on “Propuesta polémica sobre arte puertorriqueño”, published on 1971, about that “cultural defensive behavior”.

3) Some of the artists participating on the first edition were: Alvaro Barrios (Colombia), Regina Silveira (Brasil), Felix González Torres (Cuba), Antonio Martorell (Puerto Rico), Liliana Porter(Argentina), León Ferrari (Argentina), Betsabee Romero (México), Marco Maggi (Uruguay), Luis Camnitzer (Uruguay), Carlos Hermosilla (Chile), Luis García Zapatero (Perú), Waltercio Caldas (Brasil), Antonio Caro (Colombia), José Rosa (Puerto Rico), Belkis Ramírez (República Dominicana), Ibrahin Miranda (Cuba), among others.

4) Some of the alternative spaces and galleries that joined the list of parallel events were: ArtLab, C787 STUDIOS, Espacio 20-20, Galería Agustina Ferreyra, Galería Yemayá, Galería de Arte Matadero, Roberto Paradise, Arte Contemporáneo Walter Otero, 2BLEO, Área: lugar de proyectos, Beta-Local, Departamento de Alimentos, Efecto Paraguas, La Productora, Lanchonete, Cerra Enclosure, Laboratorio de Artes Binarias, Proyecto Ana Mas (Barcelona), El Cuadrado Gris, among many others.

5)  Work related with the management of the collection, the future of the National Gallery, restoration over historical buildings and a lot of critical evaluation over working guidelines and structure.

References:

Álvares Curbelo, Silvia, Marimar Benítez, Osiris Delgado, José Antonio Torres Martinó, Teodoro Vidal, Teresa Tió, José David Miranda, Dwight García, Susana Torruella y Flavia Marichal. Puerto Rico Arte e Identidad. San Juan: Editorial UPR, 1998. 

Traba, Marta. Propuesta polémica sobre arte puertorriqueño. Río Piedras: Ediciones Librería Internacional, 1971.

Ley Para designar como actividad de carácter oficial del ELA, la Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan: América Latina y el Caribe, Ley Núm. 512 de 29 de septiembre de 2004 – http://www.lexjuris.com/lexlex/leyes2004/lexl2004512.htm 

Muscatello, Mariagrazia. Una reflexieon sobre la IV Trienal Poligráfica de San Juan. Artishock – http://artishockrevista.com/2016/01/29/estatus-borderline-del-arte-latinoamericano-una-reflexion-al-margen-la-iv-trienal-poligrafica-san-juan/ – January 29, 2016.

Segarra, Abdiel. 28/9/15. No se trata de ganar – http://nosetratadeganar.com/2015/09/28-9-15/  September 28, 2015.

Velázquez Collazo, Edwin. Parte 1 – Una Exposición de Arte Emergente la 16ta Muestra Nacional de Artes Plásticas del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP). PR Art News – https://www.puertoricoartnews.com/2015/05/parte-1-una-exposicion-de-arte.html

Moldes rotos y ricas polémicas. Trienal poli/gráfica de San Juan. Arte por excelencia. – https://www.arteporexcelencias.com/es/articulos/moldes-rotos-y-ricas-polemicas-trienal-poligrafica-de-san-juan – Mayo 26, 2010.

4ta Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan, América Latina y el Caribe. Terremoto – https://terremoto.mx/4ta-trienal-poligrafica-de-san-juan-america-latina-y-el-caribe/ – December 16, 2015.

4a Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan. Universes-in-Universe. https://universes.art/es/trienal-poli-grafica-de-san-juan

SAN JUAN POLY/GRAPHIC TRIENNIAL. Biennial Foundation – http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/san-juan-polygraphic-triennial/