Voices from SACO - Dagmara Wyskiel
curated by Daniela Veneri
“Eventually, we realized once again that working from the absence of means and spaces, against cultural obstacles and the current of the immediate surrounding environment, stimulates and accelerates the determination to turn the field into a possible scenario, looking for alternative solutions that are applicable and necessary here and now.”
- Dagmara Wyskiel
Dagmara, what are your most important objectives as director of the Contemporary Art Festival SACO?
First of all, to continue to resist the unbearable fragility of cultural projects in Chile. To ensure continuity for those of us who organize cyclical non-commercial events, a condition that consumes us and often defeats us. Each year, once again miraculously exceeded this goal, I dedicate myself to plan the exhibition, educational and residential contents with the main goal of linking them effectively and affectively with the territory, its inhabitants and their potential with the world outside the desert, generating both transcendental and contingent reflections.
SACO is a project that was born in and from the Atacama Desert, which responds to its surroundings, that grows with the city and that attends to, listens to and feels the local community. It is not like a serial project that is installed in several locations regardless of the context. On the contrary, SACO is unique. This recipe has an aroma of this sea, ingredients of this land, it is kneaded by several hands here and is baked under this sun. SACO believes in breaking established drawers of knowledge and in tearing down the isolation of different areas of knowledge, coherently with the most advanced contemporary world, to blend conceptual creativity with astronomy, the depth of images with archeology and, why not, existential reflections with mining.
The world today is heterogeneous and so is the festival, since its supra objective is to contribute to the autonomy of individuals and their way of feeling, thinking and acting beyond learned structures and inherited gaps. Free people are those who think by themselves. It sounds obvious but it is not. You have to exercise contemplative and deep thinking, as if it were a muscle.
What values and principles guide your work?
Chile is around five thousand kilometers long. All university schools of visual arts, cinema, photography, theory, history and pedagogy of art, philosophy, sociology and related fields, as well as specialized exhibition spaces, archives, research and bibliography centers, are located in less than a fifth of the length of the country. The inequality of access to higher artistic education and the consequent professional void, which already affects three generations, deepen the knowledge gap, leaving aside the majority of the creative potential of the entire north of Chile, simply due to distance and lack of resources. In this context, generating a fissure, a scratch, became a challenge not only in the field of education but also in the realm of values.
Antofagasta is a city of passage built on pure mineral-rich soil, economically thriving and culturally lame. The historical value system, which was based on numbers, added to the blackout implied by the dictatorship from which nothing has ever been recovered, has left the scope of reflection outside the elements of relevance in the citizens life. Within this context, my work aims to art de-elitization, decrease the inequalities regarding the access to art and creation, the re-signification of the relation between center and periphery, and the appreciation of Chilean richness from its ethnic, geographical and cultural diversity.
What was your initial intention when you started working on this project and what has changed since then? What are the main insights that you collected as the project unfolded?
I arrived in Antofagasta in 2001. I began to connect with artists, theorists, curators and ask about museums, galleries and documentations centers; I looked for art publications and culture programs on local radio and TV. And I realized that I landed on the moon, in several ways, including because of how far I was from any cultural center as well as because of the nakedness of the landscape, and the incredible sky over it. Nothing with capital N.
The multiple abandonment of an extensive territory, reduced to its extractive role and anesthetized for decades by consumerism, corresponds to the historical series in which the only thing that changes is the object of world desire: guano - saltpeter - copper - lithium, but the territory itself never becomes a place to live by choice. It is also in this same place that, in the middle of the first decade or so of my permanence in Chile, thanks to a qualitative change in the local cultural micro scene, the view was recomposed starting from new platforms originated in the city and the territory, with extensions and ambitions that went far beyond the regional borders.
From the first actions in 2004, SE VENDE Collective induced the encounter of the public with the transformation activated by objectual, conceptual, experimental and ephemeral practices. The first collective interventions were located in significant buildings for the city, in architectural heritage or on the streets. A fundamental element was the realization of forums that initiated a reflection on critical art issues at a local level, with the participation of guests, authors and academics from cities such as Santiago and Valparaíso. The Collective managed to consolidate a connection and network format that was giving it notoriety.
Eventually, we realized once again that working from the absence of means and spaces, against cultural obstacles and the current of the immediate surrounding environment, stimulates and accelerates the determination to turn the field into a possible scenario, looking for alternative solutions that are applicable and necessary here and now. I think it was at that time that we understood that decentralization is achieved by bringing ideas to life, by doing homework after studying and researching, without copying, that one should decentralize and not wait for decentralization, since claiming for it is a symptom of subordination, so typical in the regions. There is no other way than to empower oneself and lead oneself story, even if the panorama seems unfair and disadvantaged.
What specific challenges and opportunities the local context offers?
There is no better chance than starting, generating something from nothing, the void in all its layers.
How do you cultivate the relationship with the local community, and how did it respond to SACO?
Through two great utopias: museum without museum and school without school. Free from nineteenth-century architecture palaces - the ones that mark the distance with citizens on the sidewalk - we can dialogue from any corner with the community, generate flexible routes, without walls, adaptable to each particular edition. We imagine and create an exhibition circuit merged by a curatorial project, with a rigorous formal coherence, alignment of duration, mediation, dissemination, visual communication and above all with the same way of thinking about art, territory and the public.
SACO intervenes the art scene not only by de-monopolizing the circuit of conventional museums and galleries, but above all by enriching and diversifying the use and interpretation of urban spaces, by renewing the ways to inhabit, flow and observe.
If we understood the school as an academic and hierarchical space, structured and fossilized according to obsolete standards and canons, we would not be able to operate, since our organization is independent of universities and we maintain a critical vision of what a university career in the artistic field means today. Our challenge is to create an educational platform conceived as a space for constant transfer of knowledge and techniques, for the development of critical thinking, interdisciplinary connections, relation with the territory, mediation, creation of human bonds through common goals and work, dialogue, reflection and interpretation; that is our school.
SACO today is one of the most visited visual art event in Chile, but what matters most to me is that the community appropriates the festival, the museum-without-museum path becomes a familiar routine and our ISLA education and residency center is full of people for most of the year.
Who are your most important partners and interlocutors?
Science world. Listening to the first source of meaningful content, such as astronomy, geology, archeology and anthropology in northern Chile, among other areas of knowledge, allows us to formulate really contemporary questions, transversal to different fields of research. In accordance with this multidisciplinary approach, the Archaeological Museum in San Pedro de Atacama welcomes each year, as host, one of the festival's international residences. Our other great ally in the field of science, Guillermo Chong, from the Humberto Fuenzalida Geological Museum, opens the possibility of creating crossroads by generously introducing artists to the world of rocks, minerals, volcanoes and tectonic plates. Eduardo Unda-Sanzana, of the Astronomy Center of the University of Antofagasta, invites creators to explore the common spaces of the infinite. In this way we build a two-world approach platform, bringing together art and science, where we already have the certainty that they do not have to exist separately. In the field of art we have a wide network of spaces inside and outside the Latin American metropolis, which favor the development of alternative dynamics of operation built through the resistance and the connection with the local context.
On the macro scale our most appreciated partners are curators, artists and researchers involved in any of the festival's editions, as many of them became SACO advocates in the world.
What parameters do you consider to evaluate the impact of this project?
The most superficial parameter, which is at the same time the most measurable, is the amount of audience. In 2019 we had more than forty thousand people who visited the exhibitions of museum without museum, in a mining city of half a million inhabitants. Based on the market criterions, those that do not resonate with me, this number represents, without doubt, a success. The impact that I am interested in achieving is actually related to a qualitative change in the local society, a change of the mining and consumerist paradigm, with a shift towards critical thinking, creativity and reflection. These types of impacts can be measured after decades and are always the result of a combination of several factors. I think that just aspiring to measure the real impact of an artistic event is something pretentious, established from the technological and economic worlds - those that believe that all the dimensions of human experience are transferable to numbers - and thankfully, it is not so.
How can arts and culture make an effective social contribution today?
Simply by doing their job. To fulfill their role they must take care of their autonomy; In times of crisis there is no lack of attempts to instrumentalize art, on one side or the other. I will respond with a fragment of the curatorial text of SACO8 Destiny:
“If there is someone who knows how to advance the present, they are the creators. They have the gift of feeling what is coming, even without understanding it; of perceiving for example the danger before thunder turns into a storm. These are not supernatural powers or hidden knowledge but probably consist in a particular sensitivity, that conjugates the ability to pay attention to what goes beyond the visible with a mind that deconstructs what it perceives. Outsider within society, or at least guardian of what looks marginal compared to norms, herd dynamics, beliefs and rituals. The architect distrusts the glorious future, both here and there, sitting on the armchair when society performs its contingency show. (...)
We have two powerful cranes capable of lifting up self-esteem - with decayed reason - as Homo sapiens: science and art. The evolved society will replace priests and politicians with scientists and artists. We must prepare for this by exercising our abilities: by selecting what to leave behind and what we can keep with us, foreseeing the waves that await us towards ports and interconnections, planning transfers and intimate as well as universal final destinations”.
Where do you see the current shifts in the transformation of the art and culture system, where do you see the risks and challenges and where do you see the opportunities?
SACO is carried out in one of the most neoliberal countries in the world, with much inequality in education and health, not to mention the access to cultural goods, where everything is conceived as a consumer good with a price that defines its value. However society woke up. I am writing these words four months after the popular and massive outbreak in Chile, and nobody knows how this will end. As in all Latin American countries, in these cases the risk that society runs in wanting to transform the country is to receive state oppression, the challenge of society is to resist and the opportunity is to be part of a pivotal moment.
If you could change one or two things in the area of responsibility of art curators, cultural producers, institutions, artists, what do you think would create the greatest value and benefit for all?
- The inbreeding of the metropolis causes myopia in its cultural agents. In Poland doctors to get their professional degree must practice for several months in remote places, deprived of the facilities and accessibilities of a city, for example in a rural location with minimum equipment. I would propose something similar not only for curators, but also for state cultural administrators and art critics.
- I would ban missionary artistic tourism, the neo-colonial tendency to evangelize the most remote or suffering communities on the planet through contemporary art; the instrumentalization of the other through a sophisticated conceptual research.
- The third factor for de-elitization is to listen to the public, to generate a bidirectional flow. Have you ever wondered why all areas of artistic creation have their own tools to measure pulse and taste except visual arts? Film and theater festivals have audience awards, music and literature measure sales of tickets, albums and copies. Institutions dedicated to visual arts normally underestimate their audience by applying a lot of mediation that involves group dynamics and physical motion, without considering any tools to collect concrete feedback.
At this very moment there is a public health crisis spreading all over the world and museums, exhibitions, arts and cultural sites, schools and educational programs are closing the doors in many countries. What is your feeling about how this condition will influence our approach to producing, sharing and experiencing the arts? What questions are arising for you?
The situation is very dynamic, it is worth mentioning that what I will answer next corresponds to the information that we have at the beginning of April 2020.
The global crisis generated by the pandemic did not leave us much time to wait for clear seals marked on the art landscape. I imagine that, although it is not my area, at the moment we talk the international market is frozen, since fairs postpone their openings and galleries are closed. I do not see a boom in virtual auctions, new sales platforms or other symptoms of speculation around art. This seems very significant to me, as I get the impression that there is a silent agreement beyond words, that nobody is in a position to play the winner role today. In response to the closure of physical spaces, a boom of online exhibitions emerged, including vernissages and virtual guided tours, online encounters with artists and curators, the streaming of conversations, podcasts and talks. Films about art and artists abound in networks, video recordings of plays are released, photographic archives and cinema jewels once difficult to find now circulate. And, the most incredible thing is that we have a little time now, a little more than what each of us had yesterday. We are at home and there is no rush. Paradoxically, it seems like a dream situation, but of course it's just one of the horror scenes. Will we learn something as a species thanks to this storm? I doubt it. But surely some of us will change forever.
Is there anything that I did not ask you that you would like to mention?
In 2021, after nine versions, the Festival of Contemporary Art will become the Biennial of Contemporary Art of Chile, expanding the boundaries of the city and art with significant actions across the desert. The biennial exhibition format will give us more time to deepen research, education and residency programs.
Can you identify three or five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about the content of this interview?
Fragility, conviction, continuity, resistance, work.
Dagmara Wyskiel, Polish, PhD in Art from the University of Fine Arts in Krakow. She has made public interventions with performing objects in the Valley of Meteorites and at the ALMA astronomical observatory, both in the Atacama Desert; Laguna Amargo in Chilean Patagonia; an old Jewish neighborhood in Krakow; the British coast and the Port of Valparaiso. Likewise, she has made various interventions in the salt flats of the Argentinian Andes; in public spaces in Manizales, Medellín and Bogotá in Colombia; in London and Hastings in England; in Antofagasta, Coliumo and Castro in Chile; in the Great House of the People and in the Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia.
She has participated in biennials in Russia and Poland. Her works have been exhibited in the National Museum of Art in Bolivia and in the Contemporary Art Space in Uruguay, among other galleries and museums in the United States, Spain, Poland, Chile, China, Mexico, Indonesia and Argentina. In 2016 she was awarded first place in the XVII Asian Biennial in Bangladesh, with the video Joint Game.
Dagmara is co-founder of SE VENDE, collective that from its first exhibitions involved relevant artists, curators and experts from Chile and abroad. Later, these experiences gave birth to SACO Festival of Contemporary Art, an event that spreads contemporary art among new audiences in the north of Chile starting 2012. From 2016, she is also the coordinator of ISLA Center for Artist in Residence in Antofagasta.