It’s become such a common sight, these past seasons, to visit someone over Skype and watch their form swim into view before a bookshelf. One can grow cynical about the signifiers of this particular set décor, the intellectual props and preening of politicians, cultural figures, and public intellectuals. There’s a popular Twitter account devoted to these libraries’ signifiers, skeptically titled “Bookshelf Credibility.” However, as the artist Dora Garcia floats onto my screen, her in Barcelona, and me in Madrid, and both of us regretting that we couldn’t conduct this interview in person, I see her background piled high with books, and know – credibly – that I am talking to an artist who reads.
As testament to this, Garcia goes by many names: Rose Hammer, Alexandra Kollontai, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Gloria Anzaldúa, Ulises Carrión, Tina Modotti, Lars Von Trier… Her numerous literary references, although they may seem like pieces of different puzzles, fit together perfectly. The artist inhabits masks, but not like Harriet Burden, the vindictive protagonist from the novel The Blazing World (Siri Hustvedt, 2014) that profits from them, but as a way of conveying divergent ideas that collide in the light -or the darkness- of the current state of events.
Love with obstacles, at the Rose Art Museum, is García’s first solo exhibition in the United States, marking a significant occasion for the artist unfortunately muted by the pandemic. Inside the rooms sit a collection of new and recent projects, such as On Reconciliation (2018), an annotated selection of correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. This plays out as an unsuspected love story, a bizarre relationship of two antagonists, a pro-Nazi professor and a Jewish student. . García premieres the work that serves as the show’s title, Love with Obstacles, a film-prologue of a larger project, a feature film called Amor Rojo. This work gravitates around the figure of Marxist-feminist diplomat and October Revolutionary political exile, Alexandra Kollontai, issuing an invitation to revisit a century-old moment of euphoria, when the Soviet Union opted for equality, feminism, and revolution. A new chapter of García’s “Golden Sentences” series (2001- ongoing) frames the show with the refrain, “She has many names.”
The second enterprise, The Radical Flu (2020), brings us back to Europe, even though we keep looking at events from a hundred years ago. History that repeats itself, unfolds: in 1918, there was a convergence in Norway between the Spanish flu hitting the country and the socio-political convulsions caused by the Soviet revolution. Now, a pandemic is converging with the exacerbation of extreme ideologies. In 2019, García became part of a group of artists who created the collective artist persona Rose Hammer and produced National Episodes, an Agitprop theater experiment commissioned by the Oslo Biennial. Rose Hammer was working on a theatrical adaptation of Camus’s novel The Plague when the health crisis broke out, forcing them to turn it into a radio play called The Radical Flu (beyond its own site, you will be able to hear it from on October 29 on radiOrakel, “the world’s oldest feminist radio station”). The irony of featuring a fictional plague in an exhibition canceled by a very real one is not lost on the artist. As she gravely notes, “We were working with Camus’s plague, and then the real plague came to us.”
The third work that Garcia has produced through this altered six months was commissioned by the MOAD (Museum of Art and Design Miami), which in the spring of 2020 asked Garcia for contributions to help their audience, locked in their homes, to remain connected with each other and their city. I Remember Miami (2020) is a palimpsest of the voices of citizens who have sent audio files describing places and sensations of their home pre-pandemic. A choir that invokes memories looking from its window to an emptied city.
These three artistic events offer a crowd of different voices, stories, histories, and names – a comforting cacophony for times of confinement, times in which the barriers that separate us – the walls of our homes – end up widening ideological boundaries. Times that demand a new form of camaraderie.
I Remember Miami, The Radical Flu, and Love with Obstacles are linked by the idea of solidarity and collectivity in adverse times. What is your reading under these extraordinary circumstances?
Yes, of course, there is a relationship [between them]. Except for I Remember Miami, which was a commission designed precisely because the Museum was closed, and the city was confined. The other two were in progress when it all started, and some have adjusted themselves better than others. I Remember Miami is part of my previous work, a project I started in 2007 called “Prayers”, and the root was the book “I remember” by Joe Brainard. I thought of that. Since people were in their homes and couldn’t go anywhere, they should describe a place in Miami that was especially loved or significant.
The Radical Flu is a work that is not mine, but by the collective artist persona Rose Hammer, of which I am part. It began with the adaptation of the novel The Plague by Albert Camus. We started work on it in the summer of 2019 as a play, to be premièred in 2020. Little did we know that the plague was going to hit us. It was a problem: how do we adapt it to these times. We changed the name; it was renamed from The Plague to The Radical Flu. The pandemic is underlining social inequalities, the dismantling of the public, injustices. The logical thing is that, as with the Russian Revolution, it goes from an unsustainable situation to a revolution. What kind of revolution this will come, remains to be seen. That’s why radical is in the title. Because of the difficulty to perform in a theater, it is now a radio play, to be broadcast live and also available on podcast.
Kollontai considered “comradely love” to be an important political force, elemental in shaping social bonds beyond the limitations of property relations and distance. Is there or could there be a love between comrades today?
Yes, I believe it exists. On the one hand, romantic love (or what is sold to us as romantic love) is an instrument of the patriarchy to guarantee women’s submission. Kollontai wondered what kind of love will exist in a new society, the new Communist society, after the war and the revolution, in the 1920s. What will sexual relations be like. We are talking about the enthusiasm of the ‘20s, which has nothing to do with what happened next in the Soviet Union. But at that time equality between men and women, equal pay, children care, the right to abortion, was represented in the Soviet state, which was a feminist state. Kollontai said that love was meant to be a relation between equals, a love that could and should be extended to the entire society. Comradely love is similar to the love Barbara Hammer described in lesbian communities, Mario Mieli when writing about homosexual communism, or what Foucault said in the interview Friendship as a Way of Life (1981), in which he declares that a sexual act, as unconventional as it may be, never worries the power or the system. What worries the system is the happiness of living together. All these ideas were defended by Kollontai and many “feminists” (they would not call themselves that) of her time, such as Rosa Luxemburg, or Emma Goldman. Ideas of a love not based on property, exclusivity, or economic status.
Love with Obstacles is the first part of the feature film Amor Rojo (to be completed in 2022) and seems to end with the diplomatic work of Kollontai in Mexico. I do not know if in the next part you will address Kollontai’s relationship with the Mexican feminist movement, but I was thinking it could also easily have a link to the current moment, in which gender violence and femicides have skyrocketed in Mexico during the confinement.
It is a bit more complicated. I don’t think Kollontai made ever an explicit connection to gender-based violence. She went to Mexico in 1926, a time of great cultural effervescence, and when the Mexican Revolution was institutionalized. There was already feminism in Mexico. Stalin sends Kollontai not to encourage the Mexican revolution, but to establish the Soviet Union as a commercial partner with Mexico, and thus save it from bankruptcy. Kollontai, although frequents artists committed to the feminist and communist cause, such as Tina Modotti, tries to be discreet, in order to be diligent with the business purpose of her position. She made the first screenings of Sergei Eisenstein in the American continent, because she wanted to sell them to Hollywood. At the same time, Kollontai’s texts were published in Argentina and Spain, and would be widely read decades later by Mexican and Chicana feminists. What I find interesting is the relationship between writing and revolution. I think the life of a revolutionary is above all the life of a publisher: writing, translating, correcting, distributing. Right now, in Mexico we see how myths of a nation and its patriarchy are attacked by writing on them. All that anger that I relate with images that I have seen in the archives of Moscow, about how the education of women in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan was made by the Soviet Women’s Department, trying to skip like 400 years of patriarchal culture. So, the film is not so much about the influence of Kollontai in Mexican feminism, because there is not a direct line; it is about a complex network of influences that begins with her, with Kollontai.
She describes everything that happens to her in a diary, admitting that she has burned her love letters, and that she is interested in the psychological effects of heartbreak. At some point, Kollontai is thinking about whether future generations will write letters like those.
Yes. She also wonders what’s the point of keeping her letters. If her anguish will be understandable. She wrote a story called Three Generations, on the disappearance of romantic love. And that girls who were 15 years old in 1920 would not have that romantic love, precisely because they will be free. Little did Kollontai know that there was going to be a brutal regression in the Soviet Union and in the world. If we think about the present, in many ways we are in a much more reactionary moment than in Russia in 1917 – as far as women are concerned, of course. The problems Kollontai was referring to remain the same: lack of equality, heteropatriarchy, the idea of love that is sold to us; dependency on the male partner for women’s social status. But it is very interesting to read Kollontai’s love letters, because despite being such a liberated woman, she does not stop having incredibly passionate relationships.
In this and previous works you show a strong interest in the diary format. What attracts you – is it the sincerity of the form, a more honest delivery of writing and self-analysis?
I am interested in using a character to analyze a very complex time. It is very difficult to analyze the Argentine dictatorship, or the relationship between feminism and revolution. It is better to find a character who takes you by the hand to make all that understandable. Kollontai, in that sense, is exemplary; she represents enthusiasm, disappointment, and resistance. The enthusiasm of the 1920s, when she can’t sleep because of fervor, the disappointment in 1922 when she realizes that her husband is cheating on her, and her decline in the Communist party. At the same time, she realizes the regression of the achievements she had accomplished for women. As she says, the only thing left for her was to write her memoirs.
You also include in the exhibition the phrase She has Many Names. Where does this come from?
I started reading Chicana feminists following this concept of revolutionary love, by Chela Sandoval. Through Chela Sandoval I discovered other Chicana feminists, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, who is a wonderful writer. “She has many names” is a sentence written by Gloria Anzaldua in the book Borderlands. She talks about the Aztec female deities and how they were transformed into Christian icons, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe. Anzaldúa refers to that female deity who has many names but is always the same.
I would like to stop at On Reconciliation. It is undoubtedly a love with obstacles, between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, a teacher and a student who will live ideological and physical separation.
And it’s a very hackneyed story, love affairs between a student and a teacher. But of course, Heidegger is not just any teacher, and Arendt is not just any student. But it is a strange love story between two thinkers, one with a Nazi ID, and the other who barely escapes from a concentration camp. There are some phrases in the correspondence that help you understand that relationship, which is, above all, a question of loyalty, which for Arendt was sacred. Besides that, she was in love, even though she was aware of his meanness. Because Heidegger was so mean. As a study of female psychology, it is an exciting case.
Let’s discuss your work within the Rose Hammer collective. How would you describe their work?
Rose Hammer is an agitprop theater group in the tradition of Brecht and Kantor, in the line of public education within the anti-fascist ethics. At the beginning we were 20 artists, now we are 12. This work was commissioned by the Oslo Biennial, and the idea was to do three works in three years. This is the second. The first revolved around the construction of Norwegian social democracy. In this second case we wanted to look at how Camus parallels the plague and fascism – but as I say, our real subject is how a plague can be fertile ground for a revolution.
The author as a collective is something that also appears in your career. Do you see yourself, when you’re working with a collective performance, more as a choreographer or as a performer?
I see myself kind of a stage manager. In Rose Hammer there is an exceptionality, because I also act, although I think I am a terrible actress – but terrible, terrible. What happens is that in agitprop you cannot choose according to talent, it is assumed that everyone does everything, even the electrician acts, there is no concept of acting well. It suits me. It’s an exercise that’s very good for me because I have a hard time working in a group … or not so much if everyone does what I say [laughter]. At Rose Hammer, we decide everything together.
I Remember Miami is a kind of “time capsule” of the pandemic in Miami. I don’t know if you want to highlight or choose any of the stories you’ve been receiving? What was the general feeling of the participants?
The vast majority of contributors of this project have chosen to think about what they miss. More than places, they think of activities. And there is a story of a Jewish family that comes from Venezuela, that speaks of a series of generations that come from exile until they reached Miami, for instance – an impressive story.
These are all initiatives that don’t allow for humor, an aspect that interests you a lot in art. In fact, you have cited Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) as one of your favorite books. Can we still expect some humorous spark in these works?
There is a lot of humor in Rose Hammer. It comes out naturally. For example, when we thought about where to locate the work, we realized that the place where there are more celebrities per square meter in Norway is the cemetery. Everything happens in the cemetery. There are dialogues between great artists, between the wives of great artists, a Catholic priest and a notorious sodomite … it is all told in a humorous way. We drink, when we do not steal directly, from Brecht. In I Remember Miami there is nothing humorous, it’s rather melancholic. And in Amor Rojo, more than humor, there is a kind of irreverence. The idea of laughing at solemnity.
You have stated on an occasion that you are not interested in the viewer understanding your works, following the advice of your beloved Ulises Carrión: “Dear reader, do not read.”
The pretense of understanding art has always stunned me. That is not the verb that would occur to me; I go to the museum to understand art. The action that art requires of you is not that you understand it. As a spectator, the works that interest me the most are the ones I understand the least. Ulises Carrión is certainly a very good example. When I see a strange work, and I don’t know where that strangeness comes from, but I identify with it, that is where what is called aesthetic pleasure is activated. It is a bit like to feel a camaraderie with the work, camaraderie that means looking in the same direction. There is a great book by Jodi Dean titled Comrade (2019) that makes the difference between a comrade and a friend. The difference is that comrades are looking in the same direction, they are on the same side, confronted to the same thing, striving for the same goal.