ONE LAST WORD ON PUERTO RICO

Stefano Pasquini in conversation with Papo Colo

 

†††††† "I am a robot, telling things that are forbidden"

††††† Papo Colo, written on the wall of his studio

 

 

So one afternoon I venture into Exit Art to meet Papo Colo, its co-founder, and get his opinion on Puerto Rico. Having spoken to him on the phone, I know Iím in for a good time. Heís in great form, he takes me around the space three times, shows me everything, including a new set of huge canvases he just hung for the pleasure of a few friends: "imaginary beings, from Bosch to Star Wars". I keep trying to ask him specific questions about Puerto Rican art, and he keeps moving towards other cultures, in the same way Exit Art operates:

 

PC- ďI talk of different cultures because I am interested in realities other than myself. Puerto Rico is for me sublimation, stimulation, memories forgotten and erased futures. I am not concerned with salsa, itís something I already assimilated in my teenage years, now, I want to assimilate how an Armenian player plays the duduk, and attach it to my guitar playing!"

 

SP- "Michy Marxuach, a cultural impresario from Puerto Rico, seems to think that a lot of things are changing, artists operate from a different perspective..."

 

PC- "Michy is a hard worker. She is promoting a promising change in how to expose and exhibit art in Puerto Rico. Changing it from a conservative, archaic, cultural oligarchy to a more liberated installation, conceptual point of view, creating a kind of alternative space away from the influence of the heavy sacred cows of 20th century europisms that Puerto Rico and most Latin Americans suffer from, to a spirit of ďinstalla inventaĒ, a situation that is new to Puerto Rico.

 

SP- "So how come many Puerto Rican artists donít like to come to New York?"

 

PC- In my opinion there are several issues here.First, you lose all of your identity, friends, critics, family, collectors.You begin with zero identity. You fall into a void. Second, from a unique and primary community where you are the majority suddenly you become a third rate minority and realize what is obvious Ė that Puerto Ricans are second class citizens = second class artists. Third, there is the race issue.In Puerto Rico most of the Puerto Ricans consider themselves white, even if they are some kind of mix.But when they come to the USA, those values are questioned.They have to readjust their racial concepts and discover that they are not considered white. And last, is the reason of language, you have to reinvent yourself in another language, English.And this is the equivalent to altering your persona. And that is very difficult.

 

SP- "So would you advise a young Puerto Rican artist to come to New York?"

 

PC- Come and conquest. It is a great adventure. At 18 I left Puerto Rico, and at 21 I knew all the Mediterranean; I loved it, I loved the adventure. I follow the tradition of Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud, I read Alan Ginsberg as much as Borges, no problema! I also still read Puerto Rican literature and know what is going on there. Information of every culture is food for my appetite.I live in SoHo and other countries for the last thirty years.I know New York from every historical view.Manhattan and San Juan Ė they are my ten fingers. I am in love with the monster.

Artists are an international pirate gypsy type, adventurous. They enjoy life. They have a sense of timing. Politics come and go."

 

SP- "How do you see the artists who show political work?"

 

PC- "Everything is political and nothing is political. The phenomenon of what is political changes with the individual, if youíre supergay you think the quality of being gay is the political thing. It all depends on your cause. For me politics is the way I live life, the dynamics, the contradictions that make me Ďfeelí. My politics are the quality of things: things have to have a purpose, a focus, a message that is transcendental. When this happens, itís political. Everything I do has to have two or three layers, two or three readings.Puerto Rico is similar to Cuba, they have the same emigration, similar culture, but weíre 13 times smaller, so we have to be the Jews of the Caribbean. In reality Puerto Rico is a great non-profit corporation. We are a colony but we have the best roads in Latin America. We want to be free but we are part of the US. Puerto Rico is full of contradictions, itís a very sexual contradictory place. The whole Caribbean is a fucking sensual place. Part of my work is based on that. Maybe Iím lucky, I feel privileged, but I share, and I show young artists, and I love to do that. I love to go to peopleís studios and see what they do. The majority of artists donít do that; itís a privilege that I have. Artists are selfish, they donít have time to share."

 

SP- "So why do you do it?"

 

PC- "I want to share because I learn. I am an artist that is a cultural impresario. I get a great satisfaction and a great knowledge in doing it. There are three things you can do as an artist: you can be a social hustler, play golf with the rich, go to dinner and all; you can be a great teacher, or you can be an impresario. A not for profit arts organization is a perfect vehicle to be an impresario. Puerto Ricans are boxers, baseball players, but they never got to cut the cake. Theyíre never producers, directors, presidents etc. So I decided to be an impresario as a political statement. Coming from a colonized country I wanted to influence my colonizers.

In 1976 I tied fifty-one sticks of wood to my body and I ran on the Westside Highway until I collapsed from exhaustion.The fifty-one sticks represent the fifty states of the USA and the one that wants to be.You can interpret this in three levels Ė the three ideologies of Puerto Rico: pro statehood, pro commonwealth and pro independence....."

 

SP- "So you think artists should suffer for their art?"

 

PC- "Not suffer, but at least work!"

 

SP- "So how do you see the work of Pepon Osorio?"

 

PC- "I never comment on other peoples work.I am not a critic.I wish them luck.Everyone has the right to build his or her own platforms and methods of working.

Often when you come from a minority, you start doing the things of your own culture. Itís like a virus.I want to know what is God, I want to know the meaning of life, understand the imaginary being. Robert Wilson, Mathew Barney can talk about this. But You, the Puerto Rican artist, should stay in the barrio and talk about bodegas and spiritismus and crimes etc, then youíre original! I refuse to be a slave of my own origins.Originality for me is the ability of a person to create their destiny and to alter any stereotypes that are given to him.

 

 

Still laughing, I leave Colo to coordinate the next group show ("NEO" up until August 19th at Exit Art). The following day I get an email from him: he has something to add to my Puerto Rico pages.We meet over a soup, both recovering from the flu, and of course we blame each other for it:

 

PC- "The situation in Puerto Rico is that the whole economical structure is dominated, especially in the last 40 years, by the US and by the Cuban exiles whose majority is Republican and right wing. They have buying power, so the artists are self-censoring themselves and not talking about Vieques or politics, it's ridiculous. After all, you're not selling shoes; you're an intellectual! What Puerto Rico needs is to become aware of itís own geniality and produce more impresarios.Business is the art of culture.

It is impossible for an artist to live in Puerto Rico, and say this.

Puerto Rico has to become an island of opportunity. I think Puerto Ricans, and the Puerto Rican culture, will come to a maturity and a savvyness when they come to realize that they can filter the money from Europe to America, and from America to Europe to Latin America. In a smaller scale, this is what I've been doing with Exit Art. And this is as an individual artist. I don't do this for my ego, when I retire I just want to have a little house by the beach, full of books, the Internet, my animals and my beautiful wife and I'm happy.

As Puerto Ricans, we also have an incredible freedom. ďA contradiction.Ē We can come to the United States as citizens. That's a piece of art in itself.

They have a fantasy: to belong to something great, to be part of the United States of America. But by now, I suppose, they know that the US doesnít want them as a state, because the US is racist, and they feel the Puerto Ricans are inferior, culturally, politically etcetera. So what the Puerto Ricans don't have in this country, and maybe all over the world, is respect.

There is probably only 5% of the population in Puerto Rico who are serious about being independent. I would rather be a minority in New York than a minority in Puerto Rico!

You know, I'm amazed that you spoke to all this people about Puerto Rico and nobody mentioned anything about their real issues, not only the politics, but the cosmology of these politics, the background situations. One reads your article and thinks that these people are 200% American, you think wow, everybody here must be white! What's going on with these guys? Nobody wants to approach the real issues; nobody wants to rock the boat.

The Puerto Rican artist is in an awkward position.Everything they do is compared and analyzed in relation to the United States.The artist that is from Puerto Rico in the United States is valued from the point of view of how Puerto Rican is their work. Originality is equated to your origins".

 

As I leave him, Iím thinking that the more I learn about Puerto Rico the more I realize how little I know about it. I guess my only option is to get my arse on that rocking boat and go there. Iíll keep you posted.

 

Originally published in New York Arts, 2000.