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Remco de Blaaij: Travel Journal

Announcement CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean

I am really happy to announce that my proposal In the Land of the Timid was selected to receive the 2013 CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean. It is truly an amazing opportunity and I will conduct interviews and do site visits to four countries; Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Suriname. Through this website I will put updates on the research travel online and somewhere around the end of 2013 I publish a more comprehensive result of the research. At this point I don’t know what that will be, look or feel like.

Below is an outline of the proposal:

In the Land of the Timid is a series of research travels to Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Suriname attempting to sketch an incomplete map and library of female activist practices from Central, South America and the Caribbean by focusing on complex influences they had within social active reality and the capability to go beyond by copying their ambition to artistic practices. Oscillating somewhere between known and unknown histories, these voices and practices dispute an existing art historical and social canon and can become capable of functioning outside their activist merits were they have been leaving collective traces such as building up art academies, libraries, schools and political parties from 1950 until today.

In the Land of the Timid takes its title from the recordings of Le Corbusier’s travels to South America in the early 1920’s, in essence a counter modernist movement by disregarding North America as the center for culture and life. Without building much, Le Corbusier left South America with a wealth of revolutionary ideas on scale, social architecture and a keen philosophical eye on the development in the Americas. The account of the lectures he gave in Argentina and Brazil record one of the first post-colonial anthropological moves made by a culture maker hoping to reverse the center of the world.

When thinking about this counter modernist move, in the heart of the rise of modernism at the same time, we cannot go beyond making a parallel with other forms of society and cultural life. Whilst producing my publication around border practices in Suriname called ‘Too Little, Too Late’, I stumbled more and more on independent women heavily active in changing their environments through counter moves, turning their largely political activist ‘careers’ into a flexible practice able to seek urgent attention for issues beyond their political reality alone, inventing new systems, ways to work and operating between the ‘timid’ and the ‘radical’.

In the Land of the Timid takes four different activist practices from, Guatemala Jamaica, Nicaragua and Suriname as a departing point to research a transformation from ‘the timid’ into ‘the radical’. By visiting the places that take account of their historical and contemporary traces I hope to find information and new questions that allow me to get a better understanding of their motives, historical relevance and geographical significance, in order for it also to open up their practices and efforts to contemporary context within artistic moves.

Each of the countries visited present a specific era of turmoil, from the 1950’s postcolonial independence struggle in Jamaica by setting up an art academy by Edna Manley, through Nicaraguan Sandinista graffiti movement in the 1970’s with a large role for women, to Guatemalan indigenous controversies and human right atrocities in the 1990’s, as well as Suriname’s Nola Hatterman, actress and painter setting up an art academy throughout the widely unknown revolution taking place in the 1980’s.

Blank Nicaragua

This week I will leave for the series of trips that will bring me to Central America and the Caribbean, the right moment to go through some speculation and expectations.

Obviously there is little I can do or say that goes beyond a naïve understanding of where I will travel. I have not been in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Jamaica before and somehow it all feels like ‘a very first school trip’. It seems a childish analogy for me to use, but perhaps the very naivety goes to the core of why I proposed these set of trips and why it is supported. It feels great when one can enter a territory of the unknown, to go in ‘blank’ with the only luggage I have; a guidance, a loose idea, a far away smell or clue, some contacts, but not much more. But what exactly informs this trip beyond its contents, a complex history of political activity that might transform into cultural life? What to learn from my own methods in preparation of research beyond the efforts I seem to value in the transformation process I expect to find traces of?

It made me think about the foundations of ‘research’ and how it relates to a curatorial practice. At the moment, no reading on the specific conditions that shaped political life in Nicaragua for example can provide me with insight on what has happened. My imagination does not seem to reach far enough to speculate on that, it needs a visit for sure. What I can and wish to speculate on for the moment is the very pre-conditions that constitute this trip. It talks about availability of funds, motivations, opportunities, accessibility of information and much more that is all part of organizing myself. Most of the time I feel these things are discarded as ‘practice’, away from any theoretical information it could provide. I hope it will perform otherwise.

What I want to get away from is to have rhetorical questions able only to perform a set of ideas and outcomes that are more or less already complete, but only need some addition for it to become valuable. These instances form perhaps the biggest danger to something like a curatorial practice as this is not helping to re-arrange, become chaotic, mediate or provide curiosity, but instead it offers a form of acknowledging a representation, bringing very little into the curatorial realm, let alone an honest speculation on what that realm could look like.

To counter this a bit I need to be looking for ways to become even more blank than I already am, leaving everything to coincidence, having almost no clue, downscaling everything to a bare minimum, to be as little aware of conditions as possible. Perhaps this is the biggest challenge, becoming unaware of the conditions of the trip in order to re-valuate the motivations once again.

I was also thinking that somehow this could be close to the struggle against American occupation in Nicaragua, the Sandinista’s, contra-movements and the subsequent move from a political arena to that of a cultural field. In essence, if I want to revisit my motivations, this is what I am interested in; at what point did the people that I will meet realized that the political reality could transform into the cultural? How did they downgraded their interest, in most of the cases quite radical political views, into transforming themselves into organizers of cultural sources such as independent magazines, art institutions, libraries and educational forms? Is it that at this moment of transformation, if it really is transformation, we need to look if we want to understand how similar political and artistic practices can be? How can these violent geographical realities lay bare that contrast between those practices?

How to approximate the interest I have in that transformational process? And how can any outcome of this research not become a model of development, exactly performing an acknowledgement? How can this really become a learning environment?

In essence thus, I want to consider the foundations of why and how to start these trips by considering its infrastructure at the beginning and its supposed outcome that, amongst other things, can become a model. I feel I am not entering into a territory that in the end provides me with new knowledge of things I do not yet know in a linear way, what I hope I am able to do is to let the complex personal and institutional experiences I encounter and are able to record, inform the very foundations of why setting out to do research like this. How can we learn from what happened in these realities and understand completely different set of ‘problems’? What will these personal stories say about the relationship from a ‘backyard’ to ‘a global world’? How can everything not become an example?

These are really to be read for the moment as incomplete notes and thoughts. Both these sketches here as well as the stories I will encounter I see as residues that can never fulfill a complete picture, never to become a clear example, never to become a model. I hope I can stay blank long enough.


“Hey man, you should not be doing that man!” I hear from a distance.  A guy is coming up to me repeating that my actions are not so wise.

I am standing in the middle of Barrio Campo Bruce and struggling to handle two phones as I am looking to call Patrica Belli, whose door I am in front of. I am early, as I am almost always, and I am warned in perfect American English to be careful waving those phones around. I take his advice and quickly tuck away the modern equipment in my waterproof bag.

‘Seguridad’ (Security) is a big issue here, actually in Central America in general. It’s very visually present. Over 40 security companies in Managua alone provide heavily armed high-risk security to simple guards in the streets who in the mean time wash your car. They earn around $400, which, so I am told, is a fairly good salary here. Many people work in this business, making it an essential part of a big economic generator. Hotels are locked behind bars, middle class homes have high walls and barbed wire and every 20 meters has either a makeshift outpost or a chair providing necessary comfort for the guards. Sometimes with shotguns and AK-47, sometimes nothing. There is little to no police on the streets.

What does it say about a spatial experience of a place, either as a visitor or resident? In many of the conversations I had with filmmakers, journalists and artists, we quickly touch upon this ‘seguridad’ and a historic approach to it would be to find its beginnings in the revolution in 1979. When the Sandinista’s overthrew Somoza’s dictatorship and ending the era of his family’s rule over fifty years, many people lost property in the following civil war. It was chaos and everyone took what they could, houses were abandoned, people fled or got killed. This planted the seed towards the feeling of protection and when families came back, regained property (both legal and illegal) they wanted to secure their stuff, eventually constructing a complete economy of security.

How has this economy not only provided jobs and a recognition of ‘one of the most safest countries in Central America’, but also shaped a possible change of a society that rather closes off public access? How does it affect artists working on the streets and the EspIRA, which I am standing in front off?

In the middle of Campo Bruce I find EspIRA, the organisation that Patricia Belli runs since the early 2000’s and has since grown out to a stable source of ‘critical artistic practice’ fulfilling a personal ambition of providing an educational platform departing from art, proposing its critical mechanism as a useful tool to think through ones practice. I hold deep sympathy for those initiatives, as they usually organized without much financial support, infrastructure and exposure, but uphold a strong belief in a certain working of an instrument, in this case the ‘critical element’. Patricia translates that critical element to something one could describe as a conversation, a start from which one can depart to other territories of thought that would be up until the moment of the start of the conversation, unknown. But how does this form of criticality find its way to become a public voice, what is the necessity of such a voice? Or, does one need these instruments to think about those seemingly closed social structures and spatial reality? It’s a quick thought only trying to see how important it can be to bring together the critical instrument that art can provide, a closed spatial experience of a city and a violent history of a country.

In my conversations with people such as Katia Cardenal and Sofia Montenegro and many others, it became clear that the Sandinista memory is never far away. In fact, the reality of what has become current Sandinista politics in the form of the re-election of Daniel Ortega, are definitely not the politics of the early Sandinista’s and those of the 1970’s and 1980’s, a great disappointment is definitely present. For a younger generation of artists this has perhaps translated in more representational forms than direct reference to Sandinista politics in a reality where return of one-man politics, both Ortega and Hugo Chavez (he just got an enormous memorial rotunda in central Managua) are examples in the streets, feed the image machine around it. It makes me feel that one can not yet leave ones guard down just yet, from protection and upholding of Sandinista heritage to inventing systems of criticality as an art institute, to individual artists experimenting with how these histories have shaped their world of security and how to undo it if it does not make sense anymore. The only security that really needs to come down is the own protecting the disciplines of entangling their knowledge.

How to be parallel? Sketches in Guatemala

How to organize yourself in a parallel way? Why would this be useful? It’s a question that came up again during my most recent visit to Guatemala after speaking with a wide range of curators, artists, politicians and performers on a road trip to some rural and urban spots.

This idea of ‘parallelism’ is with me for a bit now, but again was activated mainly by a visit to the 48 Cantones government in Totonicapan. It was a simple visit that showed how a political force could function parallel to an understood hegemonic governmental power. The 48 Cantones in very, very short is a centuries old Mayan governmental body, active until today and existing next to the official Guatemalan government, albeit non-national. Where the state is organized formally through the Guatemalan government, the society however is organized politically and socially through 48 Cantones, so it seems. From protecting the forest concessions within the land of indigenous people to policing, education, and yes, even arts. I meet with a young woman appointed recently to protect forest concessions in the area. This is a big step, so I am told as she is the first woman to be elected into the post in a world that is strictly male. She is young and has energy, so much is clear. The introduction of a publication that keeps oral transferred recordings of forgotten kids' stories translated into Spanish and Quiché becomes a very powerful document holding a memory of a culture soon to be forgotten if ‘art’ does not come in its way. She tells me she has a strong belief in what art can mean for transferring such stories.

But for now, shortly back to speculating about ‘the parallel’. For me, it is much more than seeing in existence two different forces next to each other. It allowed me earlier to think through my research in and around Suriname and how to relate it to an ‘approved’ or ‘tested’ history by undermining the very fundamentals on which that history was built and to expose a parallel existence. It’s not to talk about alternatives where one is promised to replace the other, but offering an existence in relation to each other without becoming an advocate for a good balance between the two. It helps to think about how we see marginal societies, geographies, people, cities, artists, etc. come into the picture of a hegemonic force, ranging from economy to art history. When thinking of parallels, it helped me to avoid comparing two or more forces in relation to each other, but to see how one feeds the other, what their histories were and who dominates whom. It left me with a tool to think beyond the marginal and consider its parallels as they were functioning all along. If you take it into an extreme, none of the values we have learned, from language, economy, and art history seem to make sense at a point, saying that some sort of extreme deconstruction is necessary. The parallel thus gives entry into thinking about marginalization and access to what is organized within it. But, it’s just a thought, it's something I’ll take back home from these trips to chew on for a bit, it seems only at the beginning. For now, visiting Totonicapan very briefly, this is what it made me think.

So, some questions could be on how to connect the operation of a government, such as 48 Cantones, as some sort of a parallel move, to visiting artists, curators, etc.? Could these political practices be used for artistic practices as well, or vice versa? How do we learn from their operation? What are those artistic practices I am referring to? Perhaps it is in the notion of disciplines where a clue can be found. Throughout my visit we spoke a lot about the opening up of disciplines and my host in Guatemala Ciudad de la Imaginacion seems to have found a way to navigate through several fields that occupy interests of economization, violent histories, architecture, and artistic practices. Against the backdrop of Quetzaltenango as a city, Ciudad explores the opportunities of breaking up disciplines, or practices. It’s organizing events, publications, and also exhibitions (still, thank god), taking the temperature of Guatemala in a parallel way by posing its questions in public to a set of local and international architects, sociologists, journalists, feminists, and sometimes curators and artists. I don’t see much ‘radical’ ways of negotiating this in larger cities or places where you would expect the infrastructure would exactly allow for a large and inspiring conversation between artists and urbanists. Of course it happens in academic environments that are supported well financially, but to see it in an independent infrastructure and with great energy, to me, is still rare.

Both 48 Cantones as well as Ciudad de la Imaginacion do relate to the Western influences of institutionalization, human rights, and art history that I know. There is no ignorance of what happens on the other side of the water. But both have found a way to make these influences their own, they are very aware of it and relate to it by accepting funding, organizing residencies/conferences and other cross international events, but they are absolutely not restricted to it. It feels that they have organised themselves in some sort of parallel way, taking the best of both worlds, and able to navigate through a jungle of power relations, interests, etc. They are on their way to inventing structures much better capable of diverting pressures of large capital interests, economization and artistic ambitions, as they formulate through an ongoing and fluid process of public life. They are not the only ones, nor the first. They don’t mention even the word ‘parallel’ or directly consider it as a concept, but I feel that it is addressed somehow. I got a feeling of hope of what we can learn from these initiatives, who feel and smell their parallels, can agitate existing economic or political systems and to make, in the examples that I now see, Central America and the Caribbean a widely interesting place, if one can speak of such a region at all. More and more I believe the large global structures of our world are very incapable of grasping local realities. The inequality of production is a very obvious one, but the promise of thinking about a parallel way of dealing with such matters gives me an equal form of hope in thinking about the future. Hope, unfortunately is never enough on its own.

A Jamaikan Wind

Entering the take away restaurant they instantly catch my eye. On the wall there are two photos of a yet unknown geographical nature. One depicts a tall bridge crossing a brown coloured river and the other shows a jungle, somewhere. They are not particularly photographed well, angles are peculiar, lighting is soft and its focus unclear. They must serve as decoration, but to what?

In all its unclarity however my sympathy begins to grow for the photos and I start wondering where these pictures might have been taken. They definitely don’t hold any reference to the place where I am now, there are no jungles like that and I can’t remember ever crossing such a bridge before in my immediate surroundings. These thoughts come to me in a mere split-second as it was clear to me to what I was doing here, getting some food of the exotic kind, some warmth in cold times.

It’s proper jerk chicken and from the place where I am still observing the peculiar decoration pictures, I can see the fumes of the authentic wood fired BBQ stove, a central part in the magic process of preparing jerk chicken. The owners of this place should get a gold award only for having the stove fitted in the high residential neighborhood in the West End of Glasgow, as the ambition to be authentic is often leveled by ‘health and safety’ regulations involved in ones lives, certainly thick fumes of BBQ smoke will be hard to accept for immediate neighbours. But, they must have succeeded, since business is running like mad.

I have been here before. It must have been 1960 or ‘61 if I am not mistaken and it was my first big trip outside the UK as an intern for Eon Productions. We were all very excited, since the company just started out and the fresh team that found itself in Jamaica was ambitious and eager to start out. We came to Jamaica to scout for locations for Eon’s first big film production. I was at the time not aware of the scale or nature of the business, since I was fresh out of school and got the job through a friend of my father’s who had worked as a photographer for London based film production companies before. I was twinned with the big man himself, Albert, highly unusual a presence this early in the process. It was great. We stayed at the Queens Club in central Kingston and there I learned more about Albert’s obsession with James Bond, our main character in the film. We would often have evenings at the club where Albert was expressing his fondness for conspiracy theories, government fuck ups, girls and everything else Mr Bond seemed to embody. Although invented by someone else, Bond quickly became Albert’s obsession too. He saw it as his own personal opportunity to secure a good enough position within the film industry for Eon Productions. He saw potentiality, however, Bond was to be discarded as soon as his commercial goal was reached. I had the sense that Albert had a plan beyond Bond always and it made us working in the future, never feeling attached to Jamaica whilst we were there.

I was to assist Albert in his search for locations to shoot this spy film. Jamaica it was, since its writer had lived there and everything about James Bond was coming from this tropical island. It seemed good to start there. For the next three weeks it was hard work, we saw over a hundred locations throughout the Kingston area and in the end came back to a dusty road close to the airport where we landed and the hotel where we stayed. The film became a huge success and I kept working for Eon’s Bond productions for another fifty odd years. Skyfall would become my retirement.

I was reunited with Jamaica though in a peculiar way through a freelance job whilst not working for Eon. Walt Disney’s production company had asked me to come on a tour throughout the Caribbean to spot locations for a new pirate themed film series. Forty-five years I was back in Jamaica at the same hotel we used for Dr No.

Arriving at Port Royal is not the most exciting experience. They say it used to be the largest pirate hideout and a safe have for every troublemaker in the region. A wealthy place where families would live and fortunes spent on property, repairing ships and luxurious lives. None of that seemed to remain at the time. I remembered eating at a restaurant where we had to go through a dirt road stepping into a foot deep puddle that not only contained rainwater but much more obscure liquids as well. This completely made us sad and added with the numerous interviews we had with local people in Port Royal it was clear this could never be a film spot. Not only because of the unimaginative derelict house, hospitals and military camps from the real pirate times, but also because these buildings, or what was left of them was controlled by an obscure brotherhood through which we had to arrange everything. It would be impossible to get equipment here, to have the actors stationed and live and work. We had to abandon the place, we could thrive on our ‘inspiration’ for now and forget about this place, its history and its current people. Film is a pretty ignorant industry.

The research for this project was made possible by the generous support of ICI and CPPC through the CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.

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