Conversation with Wilson Díaz

Alejandro Jaramillo and Adriana Mejía

Text from a conversation with Alejandro Jaramillo, Adriana Mejía, and Wilson Díaz

I have had a permanent interest in materials: their history, significance, and what we might call the reality of the material; I explore through them.

For example, in the project Sementerio (Cemetery/Semen-tery 1994–1997), I was interested in ways of creating and producing without resources, and of optimizing the real to produce meaning.  Through of conversations and agreements, people enabled the collection of 700 ejaculations on 20x20 cm cards that, in the end, comprised a large installation on the wall.  People would give me cards containing the ejaculation with the date and hour of its production. The material in this piece— fundamentally drawn from many people—created an ensemble of meanings as well as a reflection on gender, painting, drawing, and action.

In 1996 I began to include live coca plants in my artwork.  I was born and raised in Pitalito Huila, a region of the country in which drug trafficking and war were visible and quotidian because of our proximity to major areas of coca farming, such as Caquetá, and because all of the actors involved in the conflict of that period were present.

I became intimate with much of this business because I lived it firsthand; I had personal relationships with “raspachines,” the day workers who picked coca leaves, since most were of my generation. They were looking for a better quality of life in the coca harvest.  The big gangsters and the money they generated were visible principally in the main cities of the country. 

The contradictions and contrasts between rural and urban perceptions of the same phenomena and how they were expressed in the armed conflict led me to investigate the topic.  In the 80s, the policies of the state regarding farming changed; a series of strategies directed primarily at rural farmers were developed.  These years saw strategies like the substitution of coca cultivation for corn, beans, yucca, and plantain, but above all it was a moment of compulsory eradication policies implemented through agricultural poisons.  Thus I became interested in the coca plant, in this material where multiple historical contradictions intersect, beginning with the arrival of the Spanish on the American continent, and posing problematics related to history, politics, nature, and the economy.  The traffic that began at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s made it possible for the narcos, among other things, to achieve a dizzying rise in economic and social power on a local level, as well as to develop a criminal enterprise on a global scale.

Through this body of artwork developed from the mid 90s, I seek to investigate the connections (or disconnections) between drug trafficking, the coca plant and coca culture, colonial history past and present, Colombian political history, war, state propaganda, fantasy, and nature.  But I am not interested in looking at a narco aesthetic; there are many artists who work on the topic in interesting ways.  If I speak of aesthetics, I see myself identified with a popular subculture, specific and located, influenced by media like film, television, print publication, radio, exhibitions and traveling presentations typical of a certain period in Colombia.  This has interested me because it reveals an aesthetic of the precarious, the home-made, the poor, with a charge of humor, an interest in parody, satire, sarcasm, and irony, giving form and meaning in particular ways to the works that I created and am currently developing.

I look for different methods, attitudes, forms, strategies, and codes to relate with people, communities, their structures and relationships.  I ask myself: what can I do as an artist and a political being, how can I expand these limits?  What does the law say, and how is it relative?  What examples does censorship offer us, what could change and how could that be possible?  What is negotiable and what is not?  What could be the importance, form, and meaning for this or another case of desire or fantasy?

September 11 in the USA gave rise to a new global policy of fighting against “terrorism” and redefined the meaning of this term, which has had a major impact in Colombia.

I had been very interested in the appropriation of images, but the moment arrived when it became necessary for me to produce my own sources and documents.  In 1999, the government of Colombian president Andrés Pastrana was creating the so called zona de distensión (zone of détente): a territory of 42,000 square km in the south of the country where the FARC met with state leaders, businessmen, politicians, artists, foreign diplomats, and "common citizens" to discuss various topics that were transmitted to the whole country by the Colombian state television channel. Vising this site in 2000 for conversations on culture and labor granted me a certain form of direct particpation in a key event happening in national history, and also to document what was of interest to me.

At the same time, I was in search of extraordinary images, and what it meant to have the presence of principally state-run mass media representing these events.  This search brought me to the intimate-everyday-human that reverberated in the middle of the great industry of that event—hyper-visible yet opaque and cloudy—that was transmitted live and direct during those years.  One of my interests was to create fictions and documents in a context so charged in its production of reality and history alongside the production of myths and official history.

On that trip, I made three videos. Rebeldes del sur, recorded amid all these events, presents two original songs by a musical band of that name made up of FARC guerrillas playing traditional Colombian music. Baño en el cañito depicts three adolescent guerrillas taking a bath in one of the nearby rivers.  The video Camilo en Caguanland is a fiction acted by a maladjusted character who is a little useless in the middle of this great particpatory event.  In the case of Rebeldes del sur, these images present again aspects of Colombian popular culture through fiesta, traditional music, the image of Latin American-ness with the component of war and propaganda, a choreography in a tone of farce performed by people armed and dressed in camouflage.  I have always had a kind of fascination with propaganda, for example with Russian Productivism, with its history and also its anachronism.  With the "Rebeldes" I was able to see the present from history and its fatality: decadent, carnavalesque, and extremely violent.

Accompanying these young guerrillas to take a bath in a peaceful, bucolic location, framed by a conflict zone, brought me back to confusion, youth, and also to exploitation—all through an everyday act as gentle as bathing, dressing oneself, actions seemingly unimportant.  There I also sought to establish connections with themes and images from the history of art, specifically of painting.

I emphasize the character, effect, and aesthetic of evidentiary document by means of its format and editing. However, these videos are not only documents. They approximate other conventions, such as video art places emphasis on narrative influenced by television and film. These are videos designed to give the sensation of turning on themselves, paradoxically aiming to subvert in the very effort to grant autonomy and auto-referentiality to the images, through a direct connection to context and to history.

These videos and photographs were made in 2000 during the government of Andrés Pastrana within a legal and legitimate context, and I showed them in an exhibition entitled Long live to the new flesh (original title in English), in 2002, during the government of Alvaro Uribe, during a traumatic historical moment marked by intense pressure to negate recent history—in particular the so called zona de distensión—and also by the escalation of the war against drug traffickers and against the recently-renamed “terrorists” of the FARC, thereafter called narcoterroristas along with other groups.  In this same exhibition I presented three videos and various photographs.  I also made an acrylic sign that read:

"Taking photographs and recording videos is prohibited in this room.  This includes the media."

It questioned the circulation of information in relation to the hyper-visibility, lack of focus, and banalization of the guerrilla in the mass media during the years of the zona de distensión.  As a result, the exhibition was not reviewed anywhere; I think it received only a brief radio commentary.  This was very interesting in relation to the censorship of one of these videos six years later, in another country, by the Colombian state, and its use in the media in Colombia to teach a lesson—ignoring legal recourse—directed at me, at the cultural environment and at society, on the use of memory, history, and images with this type of content.

The video Rebeldes del sur was invited in 2007 to an exhibition in England entitled Displaced: Contemporary Art from Colombia, a project of several institutions with the participation of the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Relations curated by Karen Mackinnon and Maria Clara Bernal. At that time Carlos Medellín was Colombian Ambassador to England, and he ordered the cultural attaché of the embassy to remove from the gallery, in the middle of the "work in progress" and before its opening, the DVD containing Rebeldes del sur, arguing that this was FARC propaganda, calling into question my authorship, and thus ironically using the piece as pedagogical support for his own propaganda. Currently I have made a notice of appeal against the legal representative of the Colombian State, the president of the Republic, for moral damages and for putting my life in danger through this official, who made dangerous allegations against my work and against me, in a country with an armed conflict that is every day more polarized politically.

This whole situation sparked a controversy in the Colombian media and was debated and archived on the website Esfera Publica.  I used this experience, along with the material that lauched the controversy by the un-exhibited work, to create my exhibition Institucional (Institutional), drawings on paper of those who participated in the media debate using charcoal made from the wood of a coca plant, including some caricatures of the event.  I also presented an interview that I did in Caracas, Venezuela, with an important Chavista curator, currently the director of the Centro Cultural Rómulo Gallegos, and through it made a commentary on the similarities between art and propaganda in the right-wing Colombian government and that of leftist Venezuela.

I also began to include live coca plants in my work and developed projects using coca plant seeds: I used its pulp as pigment, presented hundreds of plants in a space, swallowed them in order to bring them to other countries, constructed spaces and planted the seeds in Colombia and elsewhere—all of this following the perverse logic of State actions and policies that decided to persecute this plant throughout the entire national territory, including in nature reserves, affecting not only nature but also rural areas and their human inhabitants.  Thus, since the 90s, I sought to save the plant from this persecution by way of these strategies, bringing it to other countries, showing how the coca plant has survived in gardens and patios of the cities, gifting seeds, and using the wood of the coca plant to make charcoal.

We launched the liberation movement of the coca plant in San Francisco and Point Reyes with Amy Franceschini who joined with Renny Pritikin as historian and poet at the Beulah Gallery. This process was documented in the compilation edited by Amy Franceschini for the publication Art and Text.  Later, I undertook a similar collaboration with Leonardo Herrera on a project called Banco de semillas (Bank of Seeds) for the 7th Encentro of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics in Bogotá.

One important point to underscore is that companies like Monsanto have take full advantage of the persecution of the coca plant by providing the agricultural poison Glifosato (and its improved version, Roundup ultra) to the Colombian government for fumigating fields since 1986.  As we know, Monsanto is also one of the leading companies in the production of genetically modified seeds and have razed their way from Canada to South America to take ownership of native seeds using various strategies, most visibly taking them out of circulation once patented ( ).  The persecution and confiscation of the coca plant is a pretext, a smokescreen to attack the species in this territory.  Because of this, to save the natural environment in Colombia, we must save the coca plant.


Mata que mata

NO cultives la mata que mata