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06 March 2012
“I’m very interested in the potential that art can have today for acting upon life”

Paloma Polo, in her Project “Posición aparente” (Apparent position) as part of the programme Fisuras (Fissures) of the Museo Reina Sofía de Madrid, takes as its point of departure the scientific expedition that the British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington directed, with the aim of proving Alfred Einstein’s theory of relativity. In “Posición Aparente”, Paloma Polo adopts a postcolonial critical stance, analysing the development of contemporary science by way of the debate about the notion of work within the field of art.

PALOMA CHECA: I’m interested in the twist that you give to the relation between the thesis of Eddington and Einstein’s theory of relativity, by introducing it into the context of the art museum. It seems that you subject a supposedly rigid and scientific discourse to the relativity that in principle is representative of every art institution. How much truth is there in these clichés?

PALOMA POLO: In effect I think that there are clichés in what you propose. That every art institution represents a form of relativity seems to me to be a slightly dangerous affirmation. I don´t see that it should be like this, another thing is that the institution respects and includes in its project the liberty and subjectivity of the artist.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity was developed with impeccable scientific care and rigour, but not without setbacks and errors on the way. The first time that someone tried to prove this theory in a practical manner was during the eclipse that took place in 1914, when scientists of many nationalities travelled to Russia (not all with the intention of proving Einstein’s propositions), from where the eclipse could be observed in optimum conditions. The First World War broke out and some scientists such as the Germans were held as prisoners of war, as the scientific equipment they were transporting raised many suspicions. The observation of the eclipse in 1914 was a total failure given the cloudy skies and no results were obtained. This fact ended up being very fortunate for Einstein, who realised shortly afterwards that his calculations and predictions were erroneous and needed to be rectified and revised.

The expedition in 1919 was the second attempt to prove this theory experimentally. The expedition was directed by the Cambridge Observatory and led by the recognised astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington. Due to the cloudy skies the results were pretty miserable. Of the twelve original photographic plates taken during the eclipse only two were of any use for carrying out measurements and they have all disappeared. There is also no existing photographic documentation of the expedition on location. Despite the fact that the data had to be adjusted to coincide with the predictions, the British Royal Astronomical Society emitted a statement on the 6 November 1919 corroborating Einstein’s thesis.

A large number of scientists reacted sceptically, questioning the reliability of the statistical evidence based on the measurement of such a small number of stars on the photographic plates. Communication amongst the scientific community during the war had been interrupted and it was hard to accept that a young German scientist could question the most important figure of English science.

The work that I have developed is based on the notions and general studies surrounding this historic expedition, focussing on the political circumstances that have barely been explored in relation to this experiment, despite the great relevance and historic projection that it had. And these political circumstances are specifically to do with the “here and now” of the expedition, that reached Príncipe, a small island situated in the Gulf of Guinea. This island formed part of the Portuguese colonial territory and was one of the principal producers of cacao in the world, along with the twin island of Sao Tomé. At this time Sao Tomé and Príncipe were a focus of international controversy due to the prolonged use of slave labour in the plantations.
The infrastructure and manual labour of the plantation were fundamental in making it possible to carry out the experiment and thus it was not by chance that the British chose this island.

The stories that portray the history of this expedition come from a wide variety of viewpoints, or to put it differently, from diverse frameworks of reference. My artistic response has been to focus on the spatial-temporal framework, and in the most physical and literal manner possible in the production of the works. This is the area that has been least explored.

My investigations led me to discover the specific place where the observation of the eclipse took place in the plantation that Eddington judged to be ideal for the experiment. A commemorative monument stood in this plantation, installed by some historians in 1989. The site of the original location was symbolic given that nobody knew exactly where the camp had been installed, I also don’t think that this fact was excessively relevant for any expert.

Resituating the monument is a gesture that vindicates the spatial-temporal framework of the expedition that took place there at that time. However, at the same time it is a way of accepting that some spatial temporal coordinates are the equivalent of any other type of given coordinates. And, in line with Einstein, that the system of reference can’t have a real meaning, as space and time are not absolute values. This place, the place of the observation of the eclipse, exists exactly the same as if it didn´t exist. Finally, the truth of this story is the relation that exists between different discourses and the representation that has been projected of the reality that they have tried to apprehend.

Once again, following Einstein, but this time in order to discuss another issue, to confront historical questions with a relative approach seems to be too easy and false. Perhaps this means that I maintain a faith in the ability to approach the reality of a fact, what concerns me less is the means by which this reality is expressed.

PC: In the exhibition project “Posición Aparente” the book appears as an object that makes a statement. What role do you grant it within the project as a whole?

PP: I consider the book to be one more piece in the exhibition. It is not a catalogue.

While developing the project I have maintained a continuous dialogue with different experts who have responded critically to my artistic proposals. Sometimes in a surprising way and on occasions not very positively, but these conversations have been very productive. My project would not have been possible without their generosity and magnanimous collaboration.

On the other hand, the extremely long process and progress of the project isn’t perhaps very clearly reflected in the film and the photographic project in an isolated manner. For this it was fundamental for the spectator to be able to access at least a small part of the framework of reflection that had driven the project. I invited the three experts closest to me (an art historian and critic, an anthropologist and an astronomer) to write a text about the questions that interested me. Though I would have loved to invite many more.

PC: In your piece we see how part of the population of the island of Príncipe becomes involved in the physical act of moving the historic landmark from one place to another. What working dynamics are established with other people in the production of your piece?

PP: This is a very relevant question. As a European, I arrived on the island of Príncipe and proposed to carry out a piece that supposed a huge amount of physical effort, for which I hoped to be able to count upon the help of people who resided on the plantation, the descendents of the slaves who worked in the cultivation of cacao. This to start with placed me in a delicate position, one that was obviously deliberate and very premeditated. Before carrying out this action I had already spent time on the island, where I had built up a very good relationship and friendship with the people of the place, who are marvellously hospitable.

The week before carrying out the transferral of the monument, while I endeavoured to organise a viable plan for moving it, I already counted on the support of some people to help me. I made huge efforts to ensure that the inhabitants of the plantation were familiar with the project and the reasons why I wanted to move the commemorative stele. They were only vaguely informed about the expedition, so for the locals the monument had no great symbolic value.

The resources available to carry out the work were extremely precarious and nobody had much hope of being able to carry out the task successfully. When we began to carry out the work, little by little people being to join in and help. Up to the point when around 50 people had joined in, without counting the others who simply accompanied and watched the work. Another significant question was that the women observed but didn’t offer to help.

The transferral of the monument became a great local event and a personal challenge for the inhabitants of Roca Sundy, the plantation. They carried out the work according to their own programme and totally ignored the recording that my camera barely managed to capture. The reaction of the people and ambiance that was created were so positive that I was profoundly moved.

The images of the film establish, at times, certain parallels with what could have taken place in 1919 in the plantation: Eddington took advantage of the manual labour available on the plantation to construct temporary devices that would accommodate his instruments. Even the fragile system of pulleys and fastenings that we used constituted a visual structure similar to those that were constructed during the expeditions to observe eclipses.

But in this case the relations with regard to the working dynamics are totally subverted or changed. The visual narration of the film demands that the spectator revises or takes a stance with regard to the dynamics of this labour.

PC: ¿Why this romanticism, this displacing of the confines to seek experiences seemingly more au fait with the ones that concern you?

PP: I don’t think that my stance identifies strictly with the romantic. Perhaps the idea of displacing oneself to remote territories, carrying out long and arduous journeys to finally reach or witness brief moments of absolute darkness can have a touch of the romantic, but out of all this what interests me is principally the productive part of this experience, as well as the socio-political consequences that this type of project has, what interests drive them and what they pursue.

An eclipse as a phenomenon, fascinates me, in this sense my appreciation is more metaphorical or poetic. The visualisation and gathering of data during an eclipse occur exclusively in the instants of the consummation of the phenomenon, in the moment when light is concealed, in total darkness.
The experience of making observations in a moment of total darkness is similar to how an investigator begins his task, fumbling around in the dark. However, those instants of darkness can “throw light” on unknowns that a posteriori will contribute to the production of knowledge.
My project also proposes this circumstance (this moment of darkness) as a metaphor to analyse the tensions implicit in the desire to define an experience, as an event and as a scientific experiment.

What concerns me can be more or less to hand, in my works I study specific circumstances that arouse my interest, but this reflects my critical attitude with respect to what I experience in my day to day.

PC: What relation do you find between intervening in the public space in the more traditional sense, in the street, and intervening in this other public space that you occupy, which is memory? What makes you choose one over the other?

PP: I have only carried out one intervention in a public space, a project that I realised in Amsterdam at the invitation of SKOR. I was interested in the work because the location, they offered me, was perceived as public by the citizens and there was no indication that would lead them to comprehend that the intervention occurred within an artistic framework. In this way, the possible interaction between the spectator and my piece or the conclusions about this confrontation always arose according to the logic that governs our “being in the world”. This was where I found my reason to act within the public space. In this sense I am very interested in the potential that art can have today upon life, in discarding the artistic framework that on some occasions serves only as a parapet that justifies the work as art. I am much more interested in art that produces meaning independently of any structure of the industry or art institution.

In previous decades many artists have made huge efforts to go beyond the gallery and the limited space within which art is presented. Many artists have dedicated their work to institutional critique and to thinking about art in its context. For this, I am not so much in favour of artistic initiatives that today still continue to insist on remaining in the “white cube”. I show my work in art spaces but I try to use these spaces in a more practical and direct manner. I am not interested in the exhibition space in sculptural terms or as a receptacle for experiences, I am interested in the mental or reflexive space to which the pieces included within it can lead us.

I am not sure about being able to act within the public space of memory at least to any significant effect. Ultimately I am interested in reflecting about this type of public space to which you refer. Until now my interventions in this area have been discreet and closer to what we understand as an artistic response. But I do believe in the possibility of acting in the public space of memory and to me it seems a very attractive challenge.

My curiosity or preoccupation with history as a discipline is very varied, from the study of rhetoric as a means to getting closer to the facts, to a more historiographic approach that bases its sources on the search for proof. I am interested in the relations of power that condition, through the possibility of access to documentation, the global image that society presents of itself.

Paloma Checa-Gismero is Assistant Professor at San Diego State University and Candidate to Ph.D. in Art History, Criticism and Theory at the University of California San Diego. A historian of universal and Latin American contemporary art, she studies the encounters between local aesthetics and global standards. Recent academic publications include ‘Realism in the Work of Maria Thereza Alves’, Afterall, autumn/winter 2017, and ‘Global Contemporary Art Tourism: Engaging with Cuban Authenticity Through the Bienal de La Habana’, in Tourism Planning & Development, vol. 15, 3, 2017. Since 2014 Paloma is a member of the editorial collective of FIELD journal.

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