‘Your Application Is Beautiful’: Colombian Artist Juan Obando’s Inspirations [Interview]

on Thursday, Sep. 22nd

There’s nothing new about controversy in the arts.  Many artists, from Chris Ofili to the National Endowment for the Arts Four, have had to defend their work, and their belief that it was worth showing and worthy of being tolerated and supported in their community.  Usually, the results of these disagreements about the “appropriateness”, or value of a work of art, are pretty clear; the NEA decides to no longer fund individual artists, a planned exhibition of Ofili’s work at the National Gallery of Australia is cancelled.

In the case of artist Juan Obando’s proposed “Colombia Caliente” installation, things were a little less resolved. Obando currently works between Colombia and the U.S., and holds a position as assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Elon University in North Carolina.

It was in nearby Greensboro where artist and curator Lee Walton invited Obando to apply to the Super G Residency Program  — an “Experiential Art Residency” located inside a local international foods market.  Obando’s initial proposal to install an online matchmaking service for men in the Greensboro area to meet Colombian women was initially approved by Walton, until a description of the project was posted on Super G’s Facebook page.  What followed was a breakdown of communication between Obando and Walton.

After almost a year of unfinished work and numerous unfruitful attempts to contact Walton, Obando decided to re-enact his adventure by live blogging all of his materials and correspondences related to the project, and installing his home office at the Greensboro Center for Visual Artists for its July 2010 “Paper Planes” exhibition. The name for this kissing cousin of “Colombia Caliente” was inspired by the early words of encouragement he received from Walton: “Your Application Is Beautiful.”

Visit the online component of the piece here.

Turnstyle: What inspired “Your Application Is Beautiful?”

Juan Obando: Lots of things, I think. Specifically my experience with the Super G Residency in Greensboro, NC, but also (and more generally) my discontent with contemporary artistic practices that sell themselves as activism or community-oriented work. “Social Practice,” to put it in academic terms.  That American (and almost Christian) version of “Relational Aesthetics.” It seems that art in the United States has become more of a place to make friends and be a “good person” than a space, free of moralisms, where the most acid form of critique could find a home. Still, my main inspiration was to just bring some closure to that unfinished process that started on September 2010, with the application for the Super G residency program.

Turnstyle: While the most obvious subject of YAB is the aborted installation of “Colombia Caliente” at the Super G residency program in Greensboro, NC, it feels like the structure and choice of mediums present the possibility for subject matter beyond “Colombia Caliente.”  In what way is the medium the message with YAB?

Obando: I think, in many ways. But I don’t know, you know? For almost seven years I’ve been making art that, in my mind, is extremely clear. I use commercial aesthetics (bold fonts, logos, slogans, posters) and practices, in sculptural ways, in an attempt to get through unnecessary conversations about craft and skills and right to the point(s) I aim to expose. Still, I’ve heard the most distorted versions of my work by the people who experience it. So, I’ve given up. And that’s great, I think. It taught me a lesson. Art is still such a free space, where people will always come up with their own interpretations, no matter how clear and in-your face you try to be. That would be the difference between Graphic Design and the work I do. Even if this is highly influenced by the urgency to universally communicate that Graphic Design has.  So, in this case, I used blogging and home furniture (and appliances) to make my point. Blogging, to perform. I’ve never blogged before in my life, and it did feel as an exercise of performance: Putting myself through the regime of gathering all this documents and memories from last year and systematically posting them in a public platform where people could comment. I also moved my home office to the gallery and installed it in the same way it placed in my apartment for the whole year that I was working on Colombia Caliente.

For me, these mediums were just perfect for my own personal catharsis. Getting out of my chest, and sight, all that unfinished deal with the Super G. In an ideal world, I would hope that the public exposed to this piece would see it as an exercise of full-disclosure. A sneak-peak to the backstage of these small-town art scenes. Specially those who sell themselves as “liberal” and “open to anything.” What you see there is something that happens all around the art world: Rigid social circles, young people hanging out, older people pretending to be young, some establishing themselves as local celebrities, some improving their sex appeal. All in the name of art. And now, thanks to the humanitarian delusion imposed by American academia: in the name of “Political Activism” and “good intentions.”

Turnstyle: The core of the YAB is a series of email exchanges between yourself and artist, and curator Lee Walton.  Aside from posting the exchange as proof of your interaction with Walton, what is it that attracted you to create, or rather re-post this document?

Obando: Mostly, and again, it was all self-motivated. I wanted to close that chapter and have a link that I would be able to send to the next person that asks me “Hey, so what happened with that supermarket residency you were supposed to be in?” I’ve been telling this story to my close friends, former professors and even some students that ask me about my current work, and it really is getting old. Using the emails was just my way to construct the illusion of fairness and objectivity, but also to be as clear as possible as to what went down in those months.

Turnstyle: With email, the recording of a conversation is the actual conversation.  Do you have any thoughts on what that means in terms of the expression of ideas, meanings and fulfillment of this relationship?

Obando: Well, that’s what Google tried to do with “Google Wave” almost two years ago, to have this real-time conversation-based email system. With Wave, you could “replay” a whole conversation you had with someone by email, in this very analog-looking way.  It had “play,” “stop,” and “forward buttons,” and all. But people didn’t embrace it much and they called it off.

In terms of art, mail has always been very interesting as subject and medium. I remember friends in Mexico telling me how upset people were when the first Warhol exhibition went to Mexico City  (In the late ‘90s!) and a big chunk of the show was some of the “Warhol Letters” (a series of correspondences the artist held with the likes of Mick Jagger, MOMA, and even the Campbell Soup Company).  Most people didn’t see those as “art” or relevant at all.  I think they are great. They expose the real social work (and skills) of the artist. No matter what medium you choose to create your body of work, you always use correspondence to deal with collectors, curators, and program directors. Sometimes the writing process takes over the actual “artwork,” and, in some cases, that is more interesting to me.  Robert Smithson letters, for example. They are amazing. I couldn’t care less about his work, but those letters are beautiful. There’s one in particular where he rejects the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies invitation to take part in the US section of the São Paulo Biennale, saying: “To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts.” That was great.

In my case, and if I knew how things were going to end up, there would have been way better ways to document my attempts to communicate with Lee Walton. For example, he’s a very active Facebook poster. So there would be times that I would be on Gmail, writing an email to him asking about the status of my residency project and then, almost at the same time, Facebook will pop up with posts by him asking people to apply to the Super G residency.  I think a video screen capture of those moments would have been perfect for this piece.

Turnstyle: To what degree does documentary work in any form influence or inspire your work?

Obando: Quite a bit, I’d say, especially mockumentaries. I think any “non-artistic” format can be interesting, once it is re-interpreted or re-contextualized. Newscasting, for example. What Stephen Colbert does: to take the aesthetic of news/propaganda and turn it up a couple of notches to expose the ridiculousness of hyped-up media discourse, and make people laugh. In that same vain, I like to use academic formats and aesthetics outside academia: publications, catalogs, podcasts, and such. The overly serious look and feel of these forms is ideal for channeling and disseminating questions and images under the disguise of “knowledge.”

Turnstyle: Would you say that, aside from use of documentary as an attempt at an authentic telling of a story, that there is an aesthetic to documentary work regardless of medium?

Obando: I think so. I think that is what mockumentary is all about. Using the aesthetic of documentary work to validate fiction. It lowers costs of production and by so, it brings the story closer to the viewer, in this lo-fi way that even relates to the general public own means of production. I wonder how Spinal Tap would have worked if it hadn’t been shot and presented in that style. Or Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, that supposedly caused mass panic at the time because of its presentation as a real news bulletin.

Turnstyle: How would you say that your previous work utilizes or comments on documentary or documentation?

Obando: Mostly by mocking it, or using it to mock other things. Documentation is the holy grail of contemporary art and somehow you can’t get away without using it. So you might as well make it work in your favor or embrace it as your art form. I’ve used video podcasting as a stage for public performance, “industry-standard” printed publications to validate things that outside that format would only be seen as incoherent ramblings, and video collage made of found material to accentuate and exaggerate certain social gestures.

Turnstyle: Does a project like YAB, which appears to be a straightforward document of emails, in fact pose questions about the validity or meaning of such documents?

Obando: I wonder. I guess no one will ever know if I constructed those conversations or photoshopped the screenshots. Only Google knows.

Turnstyle: You’ve invited people who experience YAB online or in the gallery setting to contribute to it via responses to the re-posted exchanges between you and Walton.  Do you feel that in some way re-defines the document of the exchange?

Obando: Not for me. Since I’ve been manipulating these documents for so long and since I’ve been so closely involved, I’ll always have my version of the events. Also, as expected in an all-smiles conflict-avoiding small context, peoples response has been extremely silent. So far, response has been limited to an anonymous commenter that claims to know me and says I’m an “aggressive,” “bad,” “mean-spirited” person. This is where we are at right now.

Turnstyle: Is YAB asking the viewer to consider documented events or relationships in any way?

Obando: No. Or I don’t know… That’s a question for the viewer, I think. Like I said before, I think it is very naive and pretentious to predict what art does in the viewer/participant. I make these things and I’m content with being able to just get them out there. Whatever the audience makes of them, is their problem. If anything, YAB is asking the viewer not to trust artists. Especially those who present themselves with “good intentions.”

Turnstyle: Does that process of re-definition and participation serve as a proxy or model for the dialogue that you might have hoped had been inspired by the realization of “Colombia Caliente?”

Obando: Sure. Still, I think Colombia Caliente would have been a more dynamic and engaging platform for that process. Managing a booth for international matchmaking and having people record video profiles for potential romantic adventures overseas sounds way more exciting than a guy blogging about his experience with an art residency in Greensboro, NC.


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