THIS IS THE 46th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Isaac Cordal, a Spanish Galician artist whose work involves sculpture and photography in the urban environment.
BRAD EVANS: Throughout much of your work, from the tyranny of education, homelessness, to ecological catastrophe, the realities of violence are depicted in their stark and all too human forms. Before we go into the details of this, can you explain what you understand violence to mean? And why do you believe it is important for artists to deal with such issues?
ISAAC CORDAL: Violence today has changed its external appearance; it is more interiorized like a small micro-organism attacking us from within. Violence, like politics, is omnipresent in each of our daily acts, but despite its televised appearances it is not always made explicit to us, even if it continually limits and controls our way of being. We have normalized this violence. While there are traces of it in our DNA since remote times, this violence can also be seen as surgical. Contemporary violence is incisive. We live in societies, for example, that use fear as a way to create complex systems of control. We manufacture fear in order to make people submissive. Fear is the most visible aspect of this surgical type of violence; it paralyzes and controls us, within us.
In a way, we are still somewhere lost in the cortical night, outdoors, alone, besieged by the uncertainty of an existence that surpasses us, that bends us, vulnerable to its desires. I think the phrase “Beauty is always domesticated terror” by Regis Debray expresses this predicament very well. We live permanently in that visceral tension between calm and anger.
But violence takes many different forms, and that’s what I try to address in my work. Let’s consider stock markets who administer a more elaborate form of violence, which leaves no visible traces and blurs any sense of responsibility, but which enslaves us mentally and physically. We no longer perish on the battlefield, countries are bought, their debt is appropriated as a form of conquest, the future of their citizens is mortgaged, that is, people are made submissive, their souls are taken away and they are turned into slaves.
But this doesn’t happen overnight. Our societies have been built on violence, and that heritage, that colonial hangover which is capitalism today still remains.
In the age of the spectacle, it is often the case that the spectacular is required to demand our attention. Art is no exception to this, as many have sought to either sensationally shock or capture our attentions through the production of works, which due to their size simply cannot be avoided. You, however, work with a different and more intimate method. Can you explain to me why you have chosen more the miniature style for engagement, and what do you think it offers in terms of focusing the attention?
I reduced the scale of my works mostly for logistical reasons. But this too can also be political, I have learned to see. This small format gives me more freedom of movement so that I can carry the sculptures in a backpack for example. They are like stowaways. Normally a sculpture tends to be big, and heavy because of the materials, and I realized that semantically my sketches (the previous model to make it big) already worked well to talk about the topics that interested me. So, I turned to making the sculptures in cement and I found it interesting to use the urban space as an extension of the studio, as its “natural habitat.” The fact of reducing the scale turned the street into a kind of scenery that added to the work; it was part of the composition and the sculptures mimicked it perfectly. Cement fascinates as a symbolic material — it distances us from nature, there is no longer any possible camouflage for us.
I also like to play around with the inversion of space. Art is, after all, a matter of perspective. The small format makes the sculptures blend into the space, creating an interesting optical effect, in a way the sculptures get bigger and the city gets smaller. This is perhaps what Gilles Deleuze had in mind when talking about the micro-political.
In cities today, everything is forbidden or about to be forbidden. We can hardly participate in their construction in any way, we are mere spectators. This is part of the great aesthetic colonization of every aspect of life. And in that sense, I found interesting the idea of people meeting the sculptures in a casual way — if you look at them, you see them, and if not, then nothing happens. We have to introduce contingency, the unexpected into our fight. These interventions seek a more random gaze, without imposing anything. There are too many equestrian sculptures besieging our cities.
Can you explain more about this use of cement and how the built environment adds to the drama of art? Is it your intention to expose more fully the brutalism of city landscapes?
We see cement everywhere, and yet how often do we really consider it? And yet it does often return and get exposed in times of tragedy. Just think of the images after the fall of the Twin Towers, where people appeared covered with dust like some apocalyptic attire.
The cement is part of that trail of destruction that we leave behind as we go along; we tarmac nature so that it does not rebel, to extinguish it with a concentrated ingenuity. Many cities today are full of ruins of the most recent mishaps. In Spain, for example, with the real estate boom, many buildings were built that have remained unfinished due to the economic crisis. They have become ghostly spaces, without inhabitants, that speak of a new concept of ruin, a brand-new ruin. Perhaps these are the monuments of modernity.
But also, nature has a way of warning us and reclaiming what was hers. Too romantic perhaps given the current events in Brazil, but I am reminded that the roads of the Amazon were always in a battle with nature that slowed down the progress of industry. Nature could outlive us. Yet we seem intent on destroying her just as we are destroying ourselves.
I’d like to now turn to your powerful and compelling series Follow the Leaders, which addresses the coming environmental catastrophe and the poverty of the political imagination. How did this work come about, and what message do you hope the work conveys in the viewer?
Progress has left a spectral trail in its path, a denatured landscape, on which we continue to move forward, surely until it all ends. The idea of this series of works is based on a personal reflection on that trace that we leave as we advance, on paying attention to facts in order to mitigate their side effects as much as possible. Reflecting on the role that our leaders have in this drift in which we are immersed. It is all politics.
I have made several installations under the same title. One of them is a ruined city full of businessmen, around two thousand sculptures living together among tons of debris. For me, one is a metaphor for a system that does not work, collapsed on its own pillars.
Following leaders is a series of installations in which I choose a social stereotype — a representation of middle-aged businessmen as a metaphor to reflect on decadence, patriarchy, and power. In this society where the system of patriarchy dominates and manages everything, it seemed important to me that the project was represented by man, through a kind of aged and lost Adam in a grayish paradise, where apples no longer grow.
This gray character is a counter-aesthetic, arguably a more truthful aesthetic to the elegant looking collective that manages the world. We need to expose the violence of these unimaginative beings sitting on their salaries, those who write the fine print, those who enjoy bureaucracy as a trench; my task is to represent this stereotype in its decadent stage. Today in the cities, we see many characters like this, they are everywhere, the prototypes, talking on their mobile phones with little regard for others, running big companies, with gestures of magnates, with airs of a conqueror, yet in a limbo of appearances.
While some might see in my works a depressing vision, my intention is quite the opposite. I wanted to work with current issues, of a “political nature,” to talk about reality, about the problems we have as a society, but also in my own micro-political ways to try as much as possible to change the inertia of events. I do like to see my work as an attempt to reflect upon the world through sculpture, and through these small-format characters open a space for a new public conversation. I am interested in art as a form of combat. Using creation, irony, and humor, it can fight to offer an alternative reflection on society.
My vision perhaps is an army of miniature Bartlebys all chanting from below, “We’d prefer not to!”
In another of your installations, The School, you address head-on the question of education. Drawing upon Deleuze’s notion of the control society, the work has been explained in terms of highlighting how thought itself has become part of system of enslavement. How would you explain this in respect to an education in art and the humanities?
The education system is moving away from the promotion of critical knowledge to become an industry closely linked to the needs of exploitative systems of production. Explaining it in a sculptural way, the education system is a kind of matrix, a mold, which proposes identical copies of a model of knowledge. A model firmly related to profit.
With this installation I try to reflect on this system of education and the uniformity it creates, like a form of human laboratory where the students are nothing more than lab rats who can be prodded into various impulse reactions. The school is a huge library turned into a factory, and a factory turned into a site of medical experimentation. And what becomes of knowledge is a virus stalking each of the workers/readers.
In this regard, we need to continue to defend the arts and humanities for the sake of the human condition. After all, what is their purpose if not to make students question their relationship with the world? We need to keep hold of the idea that education is about creative experimentation and not for an experiment imposed by those already in power. If we need any form of surgical intervention, it should simply inject a dose of freedom due to their connection with creation and affirmative experimentation. We know that indoctrination kills. And it does so more effectively when the system is no longer the object of study.
I should also acknowledge that when making this installation I was influenced by the reading of Nuccio Ordine’s essay called “The Utility of the Useless,” which alarms about a society in which those areas of knowledge that do not produce immediate benefits are disposed of in accordance with the prevailing dictates of what has fleeting value.
I’d like to turn to your remarkable LandArt sculptures in the forests of Lapinjärvi, Finland. While these ghostly figures are also dramatized in the extreme ecological setting into which they were placed, they do seem to speak both of the terror and beauty of existence. If these figures could speak, what would they say to the world?
That installation was done in a week in complex weather conditions, the mud was freezing, the daylight was short, and we had to load all the material on foot. We spent time in the dark in the forest, and in that sense the connection with nature and the elements was sharpened. Looking back, I think what was more interesting about the work was the whole process than the final result. I had the opportunity to work with a team of people who, despite the exhaustion of the effort, always had a smile on their faces.
The sculptures were located in a felled part of the forest. There was something both eerie and magical about the spectral silence. When everything is frozen, there seems to be a tension in which nature seems to be watching us. We could be terrified by this, but only if we fear her and believe nature needs to be tamed. The sculptures seem to reflect that drive that exists between a denaturalized humanity and a dehumanized nature.
In conclusion, I want to ask your thoughts on the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. What do you think the pandemic has revealed about our societies, and what impact do you believe it will have on art?
Even if we protect ourselves with a mask, the pandemic has unmasked us. The reality is that we continue to observe the world from the entrance of a cave, and nature is the one who dictates the rules. The pandemic shows the fragility and vulnerability of human beings. In a way, we can see it as a wake-up call to our arrogance as a species. It is as if we have just woken up from the sofa with a huge hangover after a long party that has lasted all through the 20th and early 21st centuries. A completely dazed demiurge searches through all the remains of the evening for an antidote that will cure the side effects of our own actions.
Politics once again shows its total inability to make decisions that will alleviate the situation. They are immersed in improvising patches for a boat that is about to sink. The sad thing is that we are those patches. A conflict of economic interests erupts with the making of every single decision. And the rich during the pandemic have gotten richer in the slippery park of Wall Street. And the poor are poorer under that permeable roof called neoliberalism.
We are in the middle of an economic world war where several countries are playing for supremacy. It is a delicate moment in history with an unprecedented environmental crisis. The battlefields have been replaced by complex graphs showing countries’ economic statistics (a somewhat dismal skyline). It seems to me that the pandemic is part of the side effects of this global inertia of chained self-destruction. Creation and the solidarity it fosters may just be the only thing that saves us.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.