Published in LARMAGAZINE.033 Crazy World / Jul-Aug 2018
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The Toilet, 2016 In collaboration with Santiago Sierra
Catalina Restrepo: Yoshua, for me the acuity with which you manage to put your finger on and quickly catch those defects or curiosities of the society we’re immersed in, -the same ones we seldom don’t notice and you show through scenarios as absurd as they are accurate- is a trait that characterizes your work. How do you find those subtleties? How would you describe your creative process?
Yoshua Okon: We are part of a civilization with a very low capability to self-criticize. We’re extremely optimistic and we’ve built a grand narrative that creates the illusion of wellness and sustainability. Art can give us the critical distance to break these illusions. For me, making art is an exercise in looking at the world with a personal and critical perspective, beyond mediatic filters and beyond dominant narratives. Art can give us the chance to look with different eyes at what’s been normalized, to make the familiar turn rare and alien.
CR: In your work, It’s hard to draw the line between documentary and fiction, isn’t it? What do you think about that?
YO: Navigating the space between documentary and fiction is a strategy I’ve used since the beginnings of my practice. This strategy’s purpose is precisely to destabilize dominant narratives so that we can construct our own interpretations of reality. When we as spectators confront a representation that navigates this space between fiction and documentary, our mind instinctively activates and begins looking for meaning, starts a process of interpretation and a construction on meaning. That is to say, we go from being passive consumers to entering a creative modality in which we actively build our own interpretations of the world. This is one of the main goals in my work: the re-formulation of our ideas about reality.
Oríllese a la Orilla, 1999-2000
CR: You have very acidic humor, some of your videos are incredibly funny and the people who participate in your projects are out-of-this-world, but at the same time we see them daily, for example, the policeman who believed himself to be Rambo in Orillese a la Orilla, 1999-2000. I suppose that by creating these scenarios, you find yourself in situations that are, let’s say, peculiar- Can you tell us an anecdote or anything that wasn’t registered in any piece, but you’d like to share?
YO: The use of humor is another one of my strategies, and more specifically, black or acidic humor, as you call it. Usually, humor is considered superficial, and of course it can be. But there’s also a long tradition of critical humor, black humor that can be very profound. Generally speaking, I’m interested for my work to touch on aspects that have to do with structural violence; that is to say, violence that is part of the system we all inhabit and in which we all, consciously or unconsciously, participate. In that sense, considering this is a structural theme that concerns us all, for me it’s very important to situate my spectators in a central position. A position where they see themselves reflected, where they can identify with the works from within.
However, due to the enormous degree of denial that exists in our culture of consumption - in which we’re used to exteriorizing problems, to look from a comfortable distance and occupy a passive position, to always blame someone else-, implicating spectators ends up being especially complicated. In that sense, black humor has always been an excellent tool. This is due to laughter being an automatic reflex, and once we laugh there’s no going back, we’ve joined in and can no longer remain passively in denial. I’m particularly interested in the uncomfortable moment in which we suddenly realize what we’re laughing at and it’s too late to go back, it’s too late to ignore our complicity.
CR: Tell us a bit about Oracle, 2016, which is now, in the middle of the migrant crisis and Immigrant family separation at the U.S border, seems particularly important.
YO: This case is a perfect example of how our perception of the world is being highly manipulated by mass media. The humanitarian crisis at the border is nothing new, in fact, many of the photographs of the separated children we’ve seen recently are actually from 2014, and were taken during the Obama administration. The policies haven’t changed, really, what’s changed is that under Trump these policies have been made visible. No president in the history of the United States has ever deported more people and separated more families than Obama. In that sense, Oracle was always current. I filmed this piece in 2015, even before Trump ran as a candidate, and since then this huge tension existed because of the abismal disparity between a small portion of the world that benefits from our global economic system and another much bigger portion living in miserable conditions. Oracle questions the adequacy of nationalism and borders in this global era. An era with a single economic transnational system in which we are deeply interconnected and interdependent. This piece highlights the huge systemic contradiction that exists between the paradigms of the nation state and global capitalism.
CR: When Trump started his presidential campaign, thinking of him as the president was basically a joke. I remember Obama laughing at his bad taste and at how his White House makeover would it be. And then, he won. With that event, the sewage was unclogged and the barrage of shit that people hid for fear of being seen badly socially came flooding out. Oracle, 2016 warned us of what was coming.Tell us a bit about your perspective and how you’ve seen that transformation in society from 2016 to today.
YO: I think I answered this in the previous question. Deep down, things haven’t changed that much. The only thing that’s changed is that now, those kinds of problems have been made visible. It’s a mistake and a sort of denial to think - as many people are -, that these problems were caused by Trump. The huge social conflict reflected at the border, with hundreds of thousands of poor and desperate people who have no alternative but to emigrate, is structural. It is caused by the global economy’s forces, by neoliberalism.
The Trump phenomenon is nothing more than a symptom, a faulty and badly proposed reaction to a system that isn’t working. Oracle reflects the erroneously channeled rage that exists within the United States whose roots can be found in the failure of an economic and social model. Trump is nothing more than a populist who figured out how to capitalize on that rage, but is nowhere near the root of the problem
CR: Did the piece Bocanega, 2007 -with its nazi-mexican protagonists who could easily be the targets, of those immigrant hunters- ever crossed your mind while producing or exhibiting Oracle, 2016?
YO: Sure, just as in Oracle, Bocanegra also questions nationalism as a viable model to confront the challenges of globalization, That is to say, both are works that reflect the huge identity crisis in which we live in the neoliberal era and which has provoked, as one of its symptoms, the resurgence of extreme nationalism around the world. In that sense, both pieces allude to certain contemporary anxieties that frequently translate into xenophobia.
CR: In a great measure, today’s social schizophrenia is attributed to social media, data analysis, Facebook, Google, algorithms, bubble filters, artificial intelligence, lots of things… but in some work you did even before smartphones existed, we see these same sick traits in society that seem very contemporary. What do you think about that?
YO: I think the social generalized schizophrenia you allude to is caused by consumer culture and the emptiness such culture produces. A culture in which our self-esteem is based on the amount of money we earn and the products we consume, in which money is our new god. This paradigm precedes social media, but social media has definitely helped accentuating such emptiness, it has taken consumer culture to the next level.
CR: The project Miasma, 2017 also talks about the relationship between the American and Mexican governments, this time centered on espionage, particularly the CIA - and since you seem to predict some crises with some of your projects-, I’d like to ask: What made you focus on that aspect in particular?
YO: As I mentioned before, from my point of view the root of the current crisis (violence, ecological collapse, extreme poverty) is due to a large degree to our neoliberal economic system. A system where, beyond official discourses, private interests are above government control, public interest, and the common good. Miasma, tracks the origin of such a system in our country, that is to say, the infiltration of the US government into the Mexican government since the 1960’s with the agenda of implementing neoliberalism.
Miasma alludes to this age’s media illusions, to the discrepancies between surface and background, between oficial discourse and what happens behind closed doors.
CR: To end this interview, what are some of your thoughts that may still remain after Colateral, it being such an important retrospective?
YO: Well, rounding up my work after twenty years is an interesting process. This process helped me understand the meta discourses of my work and opened a lot of different perspectives. It helped me understand my own practice more thoroughly and project that into the future.
This Interview is part of
LARMAGAZINE.033 Crazy World
cover by Jannet Thomas, Animal Condensed - Animal Expanded #1, 2016
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