"Against a background and foreground of crisis, of technology dazzling in means and maniacally violent in substance, among declarations of resignation and predictions of social chaos, I have from time to time--I know I'm not alone in this--felt almost unbearable foreboding, a terrifying loss of gravity, and furious grief."
Adrienne Rich, from "Arts of the Possible," 1997
After a year living and working in Guatemala City, I fall apart. I feel attacked and tired and my body is wrecked. It's a common experience of working in another place as an outsider, I've been told. The grace period is over, the shine has worn off, and I feel expelled by the place and by my interactions with others in my artistic community.
We could say that in many ways this exhibition is about the ways our emotional lives make themselves manifest in our relationships with others. That is, Acts of Aggression is about how we connect with each other, how we break those connections, and how we define and redefine our chosen intimacies. This exhibition is about intimacy, about loss, about play and humor, about imagining others, about indignation and discomfort, about sex, about solitude, about friendship, and about being stuck together, even when everything falls apart. Or maybe, especially, when everything falls apart.
This exhibition is also about how those emotional connections develop into ephemeral gatherings, those imagined constructions that we sometimes call communities. The artists here all know each other, all participate in the cultural community of Guatemala, both in the capital city and in smaller towns around the country. But, I think it is worth hesitating for a moment over what we mean by the word community. Sometimes what we think community is gets slapped in the face by the practicalities of how community forms and destroys itself, how it tries and then fails. Why are we so often committed to the idea of community as being constructive? what is at stake when we imagine community as an ideal? and what happens when community actually feels like a series of aggressions? Alternatively, how do we describe the fissures and discomforts of a community that is built in the face of large-scale aggressions: the kinds of systemic failures, ecological disasters, post-war insecurities, and violent encounters of daily life that happen in Guatemala, as they do in many places--even here where you are standing or sitting and reading this right now.
Writing about aggression in 1937, English psychoanalyst Joan Riviere describes the interactions between feelings of hatred and love. She describes the human pursuit of pleasure as one which also necessarily includes aggressions; that is, she allows for bad feelings in understanding how we look for happiness. We don't like to acknowledge this about ourselves, she adds: "Now, though we all know, or ought to know, that aggressive feelings do exist in ourselves and in others, on the whole we do not much like the idea of them, so unconsciously we minimize and underestimate their importance. We do not focus our eyes on them, but keep them in the outer edges of our field of vision and do not let them form part of our whole picture of life; by keeping them a little blurred, they do not appear so near and vivid, so real and vital, and thus so alarming as they would be if we saw them clearly."
In her Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes that "...what is relegated to the margins is often, as we know from deconstruction, right at the centre of thought itself" and I cannot help but consider the center-ness of the "centre of thought" as I write this from Central America, a place at the center of the Americas that is at best a margin of American thought, at worst an exploited fantasy land for the imaginations of other Americans who are actually not at the center, though they (we!) might imagine themselves and their ways of life to be central. Indeed, Central America has been the recipient of generations of U.S. aggressions, military actions, and business interests. And at the same time, the interpersonal micro-aggressions that Riviere describes, those that we push to the margins of our consciousness also seem central, seem essential to understanding this falling apart that I experience here, and to understanding how a cultural community makes and protects itself. These two things are not unrelated.
Since the early 2000s, Mario Santizo's production has looked to the strange and perverse, to the odd cruelties and incredible sense of humor of Guatemala City. This exhibition takes its name from his newest series of drawings: in it, Santizo approached artists and curators in Guatemala and asked them for a hug. Each resulting drawing is a portrait of a member of a contentious, fractured, dynamic community of artists, in which a hug might have many layers of emotional meaning. There's something about touch, about being wrapped in someone's arms for as long as it takes to read this sentence, that is inherently uncomfortable or silly or loving, or all those things at once. In this juxtaposition--between the title, Acts of Aggression, and the gesture of the hug--Santizo describes the ways we make community, the fragile balance by which we connect to one another, the insecurities we bring to such encounters. There is a thin line between affection and aggression, between giving and taking, between belonging and not, between falling apart and being held together.
Anthropologist Diane M. Nelson, who has been working in Guatemala since the mid-1980s writes about the ambiguities of identifications and affective connection in her research and activism: "...victims and enemies are not solid or timeless... they are formed in relation to each other, constantly in process, fluid. The pueblo we are in solidarity with is revealed as split, heterogeneous, asymmetrically gendered, and sometimes violent." There are many kinds of encounters in this exhibition, and they include remembrance, solitude, grief, play, misunderstanding, collaboration, love, and care. There are different kinds of relationships, of family, of artistic circle, of pueblo - which in the Spanish means both people and town. Each bears different emotional weight, each consists of different methods of coping, of reacting, of contributing. Sometimes the aggression is between us, and sometimes we face the aggressions of the world. I write this as the curator of the exhibition, but I want you to know that I am talking about us, about we. That we are woven together, that I am participating in these encounters, too. As are you.
Edgar Calel gathers clay from Panulh, a place surrounded by landslides. With his family, he balls the clay into bodoques, small pellets, that he imagines distributing at a political demonstration. Imagine throwing them at the Ministry of Justice, he says, like bullets made by hand. I think of the dry clay popping and exploding against the ornate walls of government buildings in Guatemala City. I think of the wet clay sliding down, smothering a small town outside the city. But, Calel says, "I also thought that they could be shown and each person could imagine what they want from the artifact. Because I thought also that each bodoque is like each one of the people that I have been meeting, that each is a point of reference, that each point of reference is where it needs to be... each one has its own size and space, and there are no two points alike." Bullets or persons or clay, the balls are explosive in what they might do, how they might make contact.
Riviere writes that aggression is caused by a sense of loss generated by an attack from outside. But it also derives from unfulfilled desire, from wanting and not having. She writes that an organism is dependent upon its surroundings. But when these surroundings are missing something integral, when they allow an attack upon the organism, when they crumble, the organism often responds with an aggression of its own.
In her series of prints Estar ahí / To be there, Verdugo's body is contorted within the blueprint of a house. She pushes against walls, hunches down with the ceiling pressing down on her neck. The feeling of claustrophobia is matched by the contained energy in her body, the push back against the space that closes in around her. In her devastating text, "Fridays" (included in this catalog), Verdugo recalls another domestic space: that of her friend and fellow artist, Raul Torres. For two years, Torres's home served as an informal site for a small group of artists to gather and share work. It was informal school and community and home until it wasn't any more. Verdugo cuts apart her childhood dollhouse, piling the small pieces into columns, after giving up on rebuilding it from its pieces.
I understand why we feel the need to make divisions between work and life, between friendship and professional collaboration. And yet, those divisions have never struck me as true to how we actually live and work. A friend who is a poet talks to me about that crippling doubt we feel when we insert ourselves into our work. And yet, we agree, there is something about what we do that is connected to intimacy, to constant interactions of love and hate and everything between them. "...intimacy also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way," Lauren Berlant writes. So then, inserting ourselves is also a way of trying to make connections with others, of searching for a community of like-minded souls, for affirmation.
Within the specific context of Guatemala, trust is hard to cultivate. Fear is not only a constant state, but also a privatized business interest. Shoe stores have guards who carry rifles. Homes are covered in barbed wire and broken glass security walls. Public space is not only a space of commerce and daily life, but a space in which casual assaults are often met with indifference and quiet acceptance. I find this mirrored in Guatemala's artistic community. "It can feel like a grievous loss to find that identities are contingent, that the pueblo is not united or the enemy solid and easily identifiable, that radical social change is not around the corner, and that our understandings are deeply partial--limited and incomplete," Nelson writes. Life and work are infinitely muddied.
When I began working in Guatemala, I was struck by its absence of institutions for art despite a flourishing artistic scene. With a handful of public art spaces, few collectors, no graduate education in the arts, and little to no government support, many artists have turned to alternative spaces and tactics for their work. Simultaneously, I realized, many artists have initiated education and community projects: Inés Verdugo founded and runs Puro Arte in Guatemala City, an art school for people with cognitive disabilities; Jorge de León founded Pintas in Guatemala City, a design project with people he knew from his years working as a tattoo artist on the street; Manuel Chavajay co-founded and runs Canal Cultural, an arts workshop for children in San Pedro La Laguna; Edgar Calel opened his studio, Kit Kit in Comalapa, to be a community gathering space and experimental project space for other artists; Fernando and Angel Poyon co-founded Kamin in Comalapa, a community-run multidisciplinary project for the arts. Other artists have started independent gallery or museum spaces: Gabriel Rodríguez Pellecer's (literally underground) Sótano 1 is the basement of a bar and music venue, where he shows work by emerging artists; the Taller Experimental de Grabado de Guatemala is a hotspot for artists, and Mario Santizo runs a nonprofit gallery in the front of the printshop; Stefan Benchoam and Jessica Kairé's famous NuMu is a tiny contemporary arts museum in a former egg-vending kiosk; Benchoam's project space Proyectos Ultravioleta in a 1950s-era sawmill has become an internationally known gallery with an impressive roster of Guatemalan and international artists. This ethos of making something from what is available is nothing new in Guatemala (or in the region, more broadly). Belia de Vico's Contexto project, for example, was a hub for local and international artists to make performance and site-specific projects throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Grupo Vertebra, Octubre Azul, Casa Bizarra.... the list goes on, and back, and many projects have been lost to the caprices of time. But in some ways, this indicates one way of responding to an aggressive absence of official "opportunity" and institutional structure. And these informal responses to that absence seem (at least to me, at least now) significant ways of remaking the world that we arrive in, the one in which the institutions around us are fractured and fracturing and the aggressions are endless.
In 1937, on the eve of the second world war, Riviere wrote, "the vicious circle of aggression and disruption is increasing its momentum; the Western civilization which owes so much to the power of love may even be destroyed. I do not suggest that life itself is in danger of extinction by the destructive forces in man, but that at the moment, love with its power of unification being at a discount and so hard pressed by aggression, the civilized form of life seems to be in danger of disintegration." Indeed, strategies of resistance are simultaneously strategies of self-preservation, of survival, of getting through the day alive, sometimes together. Strategies of resistance, including acts of aggression, of imagination, of hospitality, of reparation, are often what connect us and, also, disconnect us from each other. When I open an apartment gallery in my home, I am met with a widely-shared sense of disbelief among my Guatemalan colleagues. There are no apartment galleries because no one feels safe opening their homes to the public here. The home, instead, becomes a shelter, sometimes oppressive or violent, but contained. In Reyes Josué Morales's video Tierra y Casas (Land and houses), tiny precarious houses sit uncomfortably near the violent construction of a parking lot; bulldozers and backhoes tear apart the land they sit on. The home and the safety it signifies is also a threatened space.
In his poem "Tz'aneem," Manuel Chavajay writes:
"every day there are fewer spaces
spaces that are made violent
spaces kidnapped by the architectures
Play is where one learns to enjoy,
to shout, to laugh, to share, to cry, to invent, no matter the time - time
in our contexts is seen reflected in our military
that have impoverished our pueblos. Fear that has followed the
armed conflict and that persists in different forms.
To make use of the traditional games or non-traditional games to tell our
history, our reality, where we continue to be stuck in a process
When Chavajay commissions local fisherman at Lake Atitlán to bind their cayucos together and try to row out from the tight circle they make, he thinks that they will untie the ropes. Instead, they patiently row, an endless exercise in futility, a game that both connects them and thwarts them, together.
Naufus Ramírez Figueroa's series of works and performances in the color blue, his Blue Abstraction, uses the color to look at memory and haunting. Considering apparitions, seances, and ghostly presences, Ramírez uses the color as a way of processing the loss of his uncle Xito during Guatemala's armed conflict, as a way of speaking back to art history (in an interview with Pablo Picasso about his blue period), and of channeling the unconscious (in his stream-of-consciousness typewritten pages).
"The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water... The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go," writes Rebecca Solnit, in her essay "The Blue of Distance". In Abstracción Azul, Ramírez paints artist Diego Sagastume blue. Set in an almost grayscale environment, Sagastume's body becomes strangely two-dimensional as Ramírez covers it with paint. Ramírez tells me that after the action, as he walked Sagastume back to the car where they would wash off the paint, he felt overwhelming warmth for his friend, for this gesture of vulnerability and trust.
When we travel together to the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, Hellen Ascoli makes a series of photographs of herself, looking for that blue space of the horizon, connecting the mountain ranges with her body wrapped in a woven textile. Her sculpture Lo que queda / that which remains was made in 2016, the year her brother Hans was murdered. Blue is the color of sadness, the color of loss, but also of water and sky, of reflections of a distance you can never cross. In the sculpture, the stains of the decaying flowers mark the textile, which Ascoli has pieced together from scraps of weaves. The smell of the flowers remains embedded in the textile long after the flowers are gone.
If aggression is a response to unfulfilled desire, if it is a way of managing attacks from the outside, the ways we navigate it reveal much about what exactly we are desiring. While this exhibition draws the contours of a specific community of artists, it also looks at intimate emotional experiences of individuals. In the contours of a community, we find the definitions of many selves, individuals who share a place and a time, who understand certain experiences and exchanges, and who remain also separate, alone in their practices. And, I realize, much of this work we do is about balancing between solitude and connection to those around us, in response to the contexts within which we live and work. While Santizo's hugs were a form of connecting to other artists, they also allowed him to face his own discomfort with touch. The act of aggression was not only one of requesting an abrazo, but also of forcing himself to give one. And so, broken and weary, we go back to our communities and ask them again to build something with us, to try again, to row against the currents of crisis, of chaos, of fear, of grief.
 Melanie Klein and Joan Riviere, Love, Hate and Reparation (New York: Norton & Co., 1964): 6.
 Sara Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion (London: Routledge, 2004): 4.
 Diane M. Nelson, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999): 68.
 Lauren Berlant, "Intimacy: A Special Issue," Critical Inquiry 24: 2 (1998): 281.
 Nelson, 71.
 Riviere, 52.
 Manuel Chavajay, "Tz'aneem," 2017. Translation by the author.
 Rebecca Solnit, "The Blue of Distance," in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin, 2005): 29.