Felipe Dulzaides in Conversation with Irene Small
IS: Let’s talk about one of these early works "Next Time it Rains the Water will Run" (1999), which you made upon your first return to Cuba after moving to the United States eight years earlier. In this work you cleaned the gutters of the unfinished ballet school at the Instituto Superior de Arte, which were clogged with debris. The Instituto was designed by Vittorio Garrati shortly after the revolution. In the mid-1960s the architecture was denounced and construction abandoned, even though the school was already in operation. As a result, it consists of a series of buildings that Robert Smithson might have described as a “ruin in reverse”—a construction that rises into ruin before it is completed.
FD: I see this art school —as I also see the San Francisco Art Institute, where I got my MFA— as a very important place in my artistic formation. It was an incubator of artistic creativity, a factory of artists, in some sense. At that moment in 1999 I needed to identify some aspect of my Cuban heritage in which to base my practice. "Next Time it Rains the Water will Run" is about embracing futility and failure but also about understanding my practice as a journey. It is a very personal piece, about allegorically appropriating a structure that channels movement as a structure to channel my artistic activity. I was building the foundation of my work, and I felt that trip, and that site, was the perfect occasion to do it. Although I had a personal connection to the Instituto, people never spoke about the story of the buildings when I studied there. Paradoxically I became conscious of the issues related to that site living abroad. It was a process of consciousness that arises from distance.
IS: This project performs maintenance. Is this idea of establishing or conserving a kind of equilibrium elaborated in subsequent projects, for example, your 2001 work "Structure That Keeps the Ball Off the Gorund"?
FD: The 1999 piece was a gesture with allegorical resonance, a strategy I use frequently in my work."Structure That Keeps the Ball Off the Gorund" is about fragility: the fragility of a revolutionary attempt no matter where it is made or in which field. I should mention that process, as well as a sculptural idea of using substance as content, is a very important part of my work. These aspects, as well as the subtly subversive nature of my work, are also related to Bay Area conceptual artists like Tony Labat, Paul Kos, and David Ireland, who have been important influences.
IS:"Next Time it Rains the Water will Run" involves facilitating movement; we don’t notice the movement of water through the gutters unless it is blocked. In more recent billboard projects like "Double Take" of 2004–5, you adopt an opposite strategy of interrupting or stalling movement. These billboards stage photographic repetitions, often at large scale, of a given environmental element, thereby throwing the viewer back upon his or her perceptual habits. What kind of virtualities are you interested in provoking by inserting these images within a quotidian urban environment?
FD: I was interested in subverting the commercial use of what is essentially a giant picture frame that is part of the urban fabric. The question for me was, what picture would make sense in this giant picture frame? The project was about scouting sites and finding the right detail to be recontextualized. I have been living in San Francisco for many years and enjoy the physicality of the city. The project allowed a poetic gesture to become subversive and vice versa.
IS: Your subsequent billboard projec "To Remember is to Construct" (2007) anticipates your project for the California Biennial. What are some of the relations?
FD: As I mentioned earlier, "To Remember is to Construct" is related to the graphic style of El taller de grafica del ICAIC. It is a project about appropriating a visual language with historical connotations to deconstruct the present. For the California Biennial, I was invited to do a billboard outside the museum. We spoke about the fact that the biennial will coincide with the election, and about what is happening politically at the moment. For me, art is about the possibility of positive change. Originally I thought about recontextualizing a poster from Cuba with the words “Las ideas son el arma esencial en la lucha de la humanidad” (Ideas are the essential weapon in humanity’s struggle). But that might have been lost in the translation. So I decided to use a graphic poster from the 1970s that is about transforming defeat into victory. That kind of message does not belong to a specific period or context. It is a timeless message for more equal and better social conditions for all of us.
IS: In some ways it attempts to provoke politically what "Double Take" prompts perceptually. It stages a historical repetition that throws the viewer back upon him or herself.
FD: Yes, but the piece is not limited to a political provocation. I am appropriating the language of political propaganda to address something that goes beyond politics. It is about transforming one thing into another, something negative into something positive. We always have that possibility in front of us.
2008 California Biennial Catalogue