"I still think the social function of art is that kind of negative aesthetic. Otherwise there’s no social function for it."
ART21: How did your video, Under Discussion—shot on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico—come about?
CALZADILLA: The work developed during the time when the civil disobedience movement of Vieques succeeded in demilitarizing the island. Who was going to benefit from this—economically, politically, culturally? How was this conversation about future development going to develop democratically? We got interested in the idea of the conversation being stuck. Nothing was moving, and that was a common frustration for everyone, so we started with the idea that we wanted to mobilize the discussion.
ALLORA: Part of the reason why the conversation was stuck was because it wasn’t taking place between all of the parties that should have been represented in the discussion. The very people who had been involved in the popular resistance to the Navy’s bombing range were among those who were excluded from the conversation. And the policies that had been created since the Navy’s departure had been dictated from above by the U.S. government, as opposed to incorporating municipal and local perspectives.
We arrived at Under Discussion through the metaphor of the discussion table. We just followed through formally on the logic of the words. We were interested in the idea of the discussion table in liberal thought being the place where all different parties come together. So, we took the Vieques discussion table and we turned it upside down and made it into a boat. We put a motor on the back and found someone of fisherman background from Vieques to drive it.
We used this person as a way to trigger that historic group mnemonically and then to take the discussion table into the areas being debated or discussed. So, he drove along the historic fishing route, along the eastern lands of Vieques, where the local fishermen had first witnessed the destruction of the local ecosystem and mobilized against the ecological damage that also damaged their livelihood.
ART21: Can you talk about the contrast between what is happening politically and the landscape in the work?
CALZADILLA: Through the most absurd and basic thing, we wanted to mobilize this discussion, in any way possible. By taking a discussion table and literally putting a motor to it to add speed, we were mobilizing it. We were also interested in the actual image that you see in the video: the most beautiful beach, turquoise water, white sand. Everyone is happy, and then you see bomb craters, tanks, explosions . . .
ALLORA: . . . signs that say Unexploded Bombs. For us, it is specific to Vieques and what happened there . . .
CALZADILLA: . . . but it also reverberates in other places . . .
ALLORA: . . . and other contexts. We think of the work as a case study of a power struggle.
ART21: And what about the viewers who don’t know the context?
ALLORA: For viewers who don’t know this context, there are enough visual signs in the film that give clues.
CALZADILLA: You will never be able to know the full story . . .
ALLORA: . . . there will always be something that escapes.
CALZADILLA: This relates to everything in life, and that includes a work of art. You see the image, you hear the sound: all these moments generate signs. Out of these signs you create images, passions, emotions, experience—but you will never be able to know every little detail about this thing or this work. Tomorrow we will imagine something else, and there will be new things that we discover about the work we did.
ART21: How does this work relate to your video, Returning a Sound?
ALLORA: Returning a Sound and Under Discussion have something in common. The protagonists have reacted, taking control of the events unfolding in the fictitious space of the video. While their actions are absurd—driving around on a moped with a trumpet attached to the muffler, or taking the discussion table of the island and making it into a boat—it’s a way to confront something, which in general may seem overwhelming, and then to own it, have agency over it, embrace it, and contribute something, even if it’s a kind of odd action.
CALZADILLA: The metaphor can also be [of] frustration, absurdity, nonsense, humor. An upside-down table is a metaphor; the absurdity of this guy driving is a metaphor. The muffler is an instrument to reduce sound; the trumpet is an instrument to produce a loud-sounding call. The juxtaposition of two things completely opposite to each other creates a sort of absurd new instrument. There are tons of things like that, but this absurdity, this nonsense, this paradox—all these things constitute part of the meaning of the work.
ART21: How did Under Discussion originate?
ALLORA: We thought of the form first. We were interested in the form of a table boat. And we were also interested in what was happening in Vieques and then somehow we thought, “This is the place to have this table.” It was very organic, arriving at the title.
ART21: As artists, you are very conscious of creating a balance between meaning and form.
ALLORA: In our work, we’re constantly trying to find some sort of meaning in form and then to flip it upside down, because by doing that, all of a sudden you see it differently. That’s the nature of making art.
CALZADILLA: All the videos we have done have a very strong sculptural presence. The trumpet in the muffler is sculptural. A table upside down is sculptural. All of these function as sculptures, only they don’t make sense in the gallery. It doesn’t make sense to put the moped with the trumpet in the muffler in the gallery. Its meaning is more important, or it’s more meaningful, functioning in the world, and then it gets brought back to the gallery not as documentation but as a way to show how it functions in a very particular moment in time. The work is the video but, nevertheless, it has sculptural presence.
This interview was originally published on PBS.org in September 2007 and was republished on Art21.org in November 2011.