In recent years, Cali has started to win a reputation as a peripheral city with artistic activity of outstanding potential and vitality. To someone of my age—around thirty—this seems a strange turn of events, since the most intelligent strategy for a young person in the 1980s and ’90s was to get out of Cali. The work of an independent space, lugar a dudas, and of a collective, Helena Producciones, has mobilized the local scene, allowing young local artists to view their careers and their city differently.
For its part, lugar a dudas (the name means “room for doubt”) gave rise to possibilities that had never before existed in Cali. In this space, recently graduated artists have been able to find work within their field, thus creating a new job category. Previously, their sole option had been to aim to fill one of the scarce teaching posts, while the rest had to seek work elsewhere. If any of them wanted to exhibit in public, their chance of doing so was dependent on the approval and taste of the only curator in the city, who reigned for decades at the head of its one museum. When it first appeared, lugar a dudas established a policy of extending annual open calls to artists to mount exhibitions, and made two new small exhibition spaces available for the purpose.
Thanks to the way this has been managed, Cali artists now regard residences as one of the opportunities open to them, something that was rarely even mentioned before. An annual program of grants for artistic production was also set up, and consultancy was provided for a local collector interested in acquiring works by artists from Cali and around Colombia. At the same time, workshops were organized and a high-quality, up-to-date documentation center established. Both of these constitute points of intersection between the city’s different schools, many of which offer no encouragement to those interested in conceiving of art as related to other fields, or to problems in the contemporary world.
While I lacked formal artistic training, lugar a dudas was the space where I learned to invent a practice that goes beyond the disciplinary division of knowledge I was presented with by the university system. It was through a series of workshops that I gained knowledge of such things as self-publishing tools, on the basis of which I then constructed my working life. My profession—writing and editing in the field of the visual arts—was practically non-existent in Cali until two years ago. There are many people of my generation for whom this space has either provided a venue for a first exhibition, has (thanks to grants) allowed them to devote themselves to their work, or has introduced them to key works of contemporary artists and curators from other latitudes (through the documentation center’s CALCOS1 program, or as a result of visits by foreign artists-in-residence). For others, it has simply provided an informal meeting place centered on art, books, cinema, leisure, and conversation.
Lugar a dudas has brought new support for a task that Helena Producciones has been carrying out since the 1990s. When Cali’s art scene was a desert, Helena Producciones offered the only opportunity to see art in relation to the city’s history, music, and public life, in an ambience characterized above all by its vitality. Many people, myself included, had their first encounter with contemporary art through the performance festivals that have been organized since then by Helena.2
Both Helena and lugar a dudas share a precedent in Ciudad Solar (“Solar City”),3 the first independent art enterprise in Colombia, which existed in Cali in the 1970s. Ciudad Solar’s members managed to stake out a fleeting but potent scene that involved the production of film, visual arts, and literature, and through which the representation of their own context—a small tropical city enduring a violent process of modernization from rural to urban environment—was placed in crisis. Their productions led to the creation of critical categories that were useful for conceptualizing that context, including the ideas of “pornomisery” and “tropical gothic,”4 which have aided reflection on strategies of miscenegation and the instrumentalization of poverty as a central element of Latin American self-representation.
This initial flowering was followed by a grave cultural crisis during the 1980s and ’90s, when drug trafficking transformed civic values into pervasive violence. Some of the members of Ciudad Solar emigrated to the nation’s capital, regarding Cali as a lost cause. One member died, another became an alcoholic, and some friends of the group are now to be seen wandering the streets as if emerging from a half-hearted battle with drugs. After writing one novel and several other texts about decadent youngsters, the group’s writer, Andrés Caicedo, committed suicide at the age of just 25, leaving behind major contributions to urban literature and becoming a local hero whose fate helped cement a wariness of adulthood and a romanticization of decadence among young Caleños. In this sense, what Ciudad Solar bequeathed to my generation was a myth that was paralyzing as much as it was productive. We know that there is huge creative potential in this city, but the myth made us grow up with a narrative that regarded the past as a lost paradise that would never return. Some members of Ciudad Solar, among them Oscar Muñoz (founder of lugar a dudas), stayed in Cali and continued to work there, despite the great depression and cultural ruin of the city in the 1980s and ’90s.
Other artists who did not leave, and who weathered the difficult decade of the ’90s in Cali, are the founder members of Helena Producciones. The resistance they offered, and their ability to inhabit a dying city with vitality, has given my generation back something that was perhaps lost to the previous one. This is the chance to believe that it is possible to make a living in art, even in a context as precarious as Cali’s, and to seek alternatives to decadence while viewing the crumbling of institutions as an opportunity to take the stage and act. Both Helena Producciones and lugar a dudas have retrieved the best of Ciudad Solar, the idea that “real politics is to engage to resolve problems within a collective with enthusiasm.”5 Their contribution has been to form a platform for the support and promotion of young people in a context whose history of cultural failure and corruption made it even more difficult to feel any desire to grow up and pay taxes, or to believe in something enough to make an enterprise of it. Helena Producciones and lugar a dudas have shown the youngest generation that there are critical and creative ways to grow, become a citizen, and build a life in this city without perishing in the attempt.
- A program for the construction and exhibition of copies of artworks that are central to contemporary art, implemented in conjunction with students and teachers from the city. ↩
- On the history of this collective, see http://www.helenaproducciones.org/cv_quienes_son_helena.php ↩
- On the history of Ciudad Solar, see Katia Gonzalez, “La ciudad de unos pocos buenos amigos,” http://esferapublica.org/blancoynegro.pdf ↩
- Pornomiseria (“pornomisery”) is a term coined by two filmmakers who formed part of Ciudad Solar, Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo. They used it to criticize a certain type of politically “committed” cinema that purported to denounce the social inequalities of Latin America through the instrumentalization and aestheticization of poverty. For more information, see Michèle Faguet, http://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.21/pornomiseria.or.how.not.make.documentary.film and http://premionalcritica.uniandes.edu.co/wp-content/uploads/PNC-IV.pdf. Gótico Tropical (“tropical gothic”) is an expression used by the Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis to designate the search for a new literary genre that would transfer “a form of culture, or (. . .) the Gothic novel to the Latin American context.” Mayolo and Ospina resumed the search for this new genre in many of their films. For more, see http://www.lugaradudas.org/publicaciones/01_carlos_mayolo.pdf ↩
- Alain Badiou, quoted in Stuart Jeffries, “Alain Badiou: a life in writing,” in The Guardian, May 18, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/may/18/alain-badiou-life-in-writing ↩