Interview in 3 parts: Part 1- Beginnings and Beyond

Six Acts Video Installation by Carlos Motta

Cyprus. It’s almost 3 o’ clock in the afternoon. I’m feeling nervous. The time is drawing near for me to interview Carlos Motta, a prolific, young, Colombian, multi-award-winning artist, living in New York, whose work I greatly admire. Skype is not cooperating with me today as the minutes flash by on collision course with our designated rendezvous, 8 a.m. New York time. I try to log on again and again. Technology is such a fickle goddess… Finally! I get a break! The two hemispheres come together through our computers and time zones merge as planned. I’m grateful this is happening. There are so many questions I’ve been aching to ask since I discovered his work.

 I first met Carlos Motta a few weeks earlier at the Hebel am Ufer theatre in Berlin where a couple of his video installations were being shown. The theatre’s curator pointed him out to me. I had no idea who he was and I had never seen his work before. The installations on display were, Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice (2010) on the ground floor and The Good Life (2005-2008), upstairs. I was immediately drawn into them. Both dealt with difficult subjects such as democracy and human rights through a documentarist approach. I was struck by the emotional power of his work. The elements of challenge, activism and communication in art interest me enormously. I admired the geniality of his narrative solutions and the way the complex themes in each project were presented in an accessible, immediate way. Carlos was there quietly photographing his installations in their setting. I introduced myself and asked him the question that gave birth to the following interview: How does it feel to be Colombian?

CM: The feeling of being Colombian is somewhat contradictory. Especially when you are Colombian internationally, when you don’t live in Colombia, that is. As a Colombian national you represent a country that carries so much stigma with regard to drugs and violence. So of course on one hand it is always a burden to be Colombian. It is also a burden to be Colombian when you travel. When you enter a country you are generally regarded with suspicion. You have to wait in line and then enter a room where you have to answer uncomfortable questions, particularly in the U.S. and in Europe. I think part of the problem of being Colombian is the sense of national identity. I think this is particularly the case when you live in Colombia proper because you get a sense that the country is somewhat falling apart and you live there, you live in the middle of this conflict. On the other hand the positive aspect of being Colombian is the fact that these circumstances have made us a really interesting nation and people that regard themselves highly, that consider themselves capable of doing many things. I also think that we’re a very happy and a very intelligent nation and a people that work really, really hard. So, to sum it up, being Colombian is a contradiction, it’s a push and pull between negotiating with the conflict and then being in a certain positive way because of that conflict.

NE: Do you feel defined as a person by the word Colombian?

CM: Well, I do, personally, in the sense that I was born there and raised there, and I think like a Colombian, and I speak like a Colombian, and I have a Colombian accent as well. But I’ve had the possibility of traveling since I was a boy so a lot of my upbringing has taken place elsewhere. In that sense I wouldn’t characterize myself as a typical Colombian because I’ve had other influences that have shaped my personality.

NE: Does your country define your art?

CM: No, I wouldn’t say my country defines my art. My work has to do with different kinds of artistic research; it doesn’t deal exclusively with a sense of national identity.

NE: What are the main themes in you work?

CM: There are two main preoccupations that make up the core of my work: one deals with the formal and conceptual aspects of developing an art project and the other deals with the political situations I choose to engage with. In the last few years I have been concerned with finding different platforms and ways to investigate the way that we, as individuals, live and behave in politicized environments: How do we understand politics from our own subjectivity and how does that helps us. So I have thought up different ways of approaching this massive topic through various projects, in order to put subjectivity at play and turn it into a political but also – and perhaps more importantly – into a kind of emotional reflection about politics as a concept and how it affects us. As an artist I try to find some reconciliation between my conceptual research and the artistic work presented within the space of an institution or within the context of an art discourse.

NE: Why the concern with politics and why from a subjective point of view?

CM: The perspective from which I can reflect on the Political comes from a sense of personal experience. I’m interested in the way other people, either individually or collectively, are affected by or interact with political situations. I believe this to be something inescapable, simply because we live in a world in which politics overtly determine our lives. Not reflecting on this would be irresponsible.

NE: What exactly is your responsibility as an artist and towards whom?

CM: The responsibility I speak about has to do with being aware of the things that are going on around you, to be engaged and to be responsive to them. Not living in a vacuum but being connected to the world. I believe we can build a better society and a better world through our work, no matter the scale of our actions.

NE: How do you begin to deal with these issues?

C.M: To answer the question we’d need to go into my body of work and analyze the different projects individually, because they all deal with different subjects. So I’d rather limit myself to describing a series of works that I have been developing in the last four years which go under the title, Democracy Cycle.

This cycle of works is presently composed of four projects, either completed or in progress. It is a cycle that will include five works as a whole. The common link between them is that they all reflect upon the concept of democracy. A concept saturated with political issues of course, but which I have tried to approach from different perspectives and see how it features in conversations such as foreign policy or intervention of one nation/region into another one. A good example to cite is a project entitled The Good Life, for which I interviewed over 400 people in the streets of Latin American cities between 2005 and 2008 about how they perceive the concept of democracy in relation to U.S. intervention in Latin America. The result is an archive of video interviews that reflects how a number of ordinary Latin Americans think of the U.S. as a regional power and, in consequence, democracy as kind of imported concept. 

A more recent project, still in progress, of the same cycle, titled We Who Feel Differently, approaches the question of democracy from the perspective of sexual orientation and gender identity. My intention is to speak to activists, academics, politicians, lawyers and others who are actively involved in the struggle to achieve LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer] rights in significantly different geographic, political and cultural contexts [Colombia, South Korea, Norway and the U.S.] This project will also be a platform to discuss the idea of an incomplete democracy when it comes to sexual diversity and gender indetermination. These two things seem to threaten society in inconceivable ways; those of us that reject traditional sexual and gender norms have become one of the most marginalized social groups.

I am also interested in discovering special aesthetic platforms for each work. These two projects share the fact that they exist online. They are both websites that archive the interviews. They also exist as video installations. I would say that the way I approach the work comes of course from the desire to have a political discussion but at the same time to have a conversation from within aesthetic concerns. It’s not enough for me to project a video on a wall. I want to deal with an exhibition space in ways that are specific and related to the content of the works.

NE: What does space do to an idea?

CM: Space is responsible for our understanding of the idea. We need to think of space in a really open way and define it very inclusively. Space is not necessarily a room with white walls but a category which provides room to reflect on certain things. For example in these two projects, The Good Life and We Who Feel Differently, virtual space comes into play as a space of communication, a space of access, a space of interaction, a data bank and a space of memory. The institutional art space is also a space of communication. It’s a space of experimentation with form and that would be thinking of space more conceptually. The physical space, i.e. the space of the exhibition, is one that allows for the molding and the shaping of physical forms and there you could think of Adorno speaking about the interaction of sensitive forms in space. Space forms meaning.