-A text on Alexandre Arrechea’s ‘Garden of Mistrust’
Today most of us live and work in cultural environments where the distinction between public and private space is increasingly a matter of degrees. As we log onto new websites and catch up on blogs, go about our tasks with iPods plugged into our ears, or chatter on hands-free cell phones while driving, we may (correctly) believe that we are interconnecting with other worlds, while radically discounting the degree to which doing so entails separating ourselves from this one. Each miniscule advance in the effort to protect one’s personal privacy from incessant electronic intrusion seems to result in a semi-voluntary trade-off with Big Brother. As a result, every non-cash transaction not only signals your whereabouts, but subjects your choices to routine analysis, for the benefit of those whose business it has become to anticipate your wishes, and then provide for them.
Alexandre Arrechea’s Garden of Mistrust may be the ultimate functional metaphor for the peculiar fusion of electronic surveillance and social isolation which has become a hallmark of our troubled times. A writhing, intrusive, mock-entity, Garden of Mistrust has all the presence and aggression of a misbehaving toddler, yet its motivations are considerably less simple. On the one hand, the work enables a viewer to participate in the dissemination of one’s own image and/or activity as part of an ongoing ‘performance,’ while simultaneously witnessing the experiences of others who may not currently share your time-space coordinates, along with more who do. Ultimately, the Garden’s purpose is not to lull us into ever-deeper moral complacency, but alert us to the extent to which the image of own surveillance has been transformed into an essential currency of our daily lives.
Arrechea, one of three founding members of the Cuban collaborative artist group Los Carpinteros, devoted his creative energies from the early 1990s through 2003 toward unpacking the visual principles of architectural design and construction from the perspective of a post-revolutionary economy. In Los Carpinteros’ work, the future was consistently presented as a promise that could only be realized collaboratively, and whose subsequent flawed manifestation in real time and space invariably suggested that a failure of ideology was as much to blame as the more unavoidable scarcity of resources. This promise of a truly socialist society, dovetailing with its failure to be adequately realized, became inseparably bound up with one another, and have tended to remain so within the daily life of a great majority of Cubans. From its inception, what lent Los Carpinteros’ work such freshness was the possibility that making art communally might provide a built-in self-critical social function, while maintaining an acute sense of the ways in which globalization was transforming the relationship between center and periphery, and the position of the artist inside the new world order.
Since setting out to make art on his own, Arrechea’s focus has been as much on producing short video narratives as on the object-dervied drawings and sculptures that Los Carpinteros continue to be known for. Formally, Arrechea’s videos have a casual, relaxed feeling to them, despite their engagement of potentially unsettling topics. In Arte Publico, for instance, a fixed camera position takes in the view of Havana traffic from the dividing meridian of a main thoroughfare, with a speed limit sign occupying the middle of the frame. Although at first nothing else appears to be happening, over the course of the video’s six-minute length the posted speed limit abruptly changes several times, jumping at one point from 90 down to 30 kph, and with most intervals in between covered. Once the viewer becomes aware of these instant, unannounced shifts, it soon becomes equally apparent that the actual pace of the traffic does not change at all during the course of the video. The state sets out its (arbitrary) rules, and life goes on pretty much as it did beforehand. This sly metaphor for the contrast between ‘official’ reality and the reality of people’s behavior makes it clear that examining social conditions, even at the arm’s length implied by Arte Publico;s tongue-in-cheek satire, is still a fundamental part of Arrechea’s approach to being a contemporary artist.
The most effective of Arrechea’s short videos, Atardecer, employs a similar unwavering camera position, only here the metaphors are more geopolitically loaded. Filling the center of the frame is a single tropical palm tree, viewed from mid-trunk up, its branches silhouetted against a pea-green, end-of-day haze. Surrounding the palm is a small fleet of insect-like helicopters, hovering in place, with their attention never swerving from the tree. At intervals, the whir of the chopper blades cuts through the air as if in response to a change in wind direction, then fades once more. To the degree that Arte Publico serves as a diagnostic read of Cuba from within, Atardecer seems to be concerned with Cuba’s tightening control over its own citizens, as well as with the opportunistic forces waiting just beyond society’s threshold, ready to take possession the moment a change in the power hierarchy becomes evident. The social pact in such a situation, based as it is on leveraging mutual mistrust into some other, hopefully more positive, force, also has afar broader application, far beyond Cuba’s borders.
Arrechea brings to his art a deep fascination with symbols that reverberate on multiple levels, and Garden of Mistrust is above all else a form of socio-cultural icon for an age in which there are few if any limits on the ways that both voyeurism and narcissism can be exercised. Our culture is now a borderless nest of non-stop spying — from web-cams installed in individuals’ bedrooms, which transmit the most private acts to an audience scattered around the world, to city streets lined with hidden cameras that can record for posterity a crime unfolding in a dark alley. Whereas throughout history a daring few labored mightily in order that their achievements be noticed by others, today people’s entire lives are lived out under the assumption that many of their activities are being registered and even recorded without their being aware of it. Being watched is just another way of being noticed.
In such a culture, there is no point in drawing distinctions between the natural and the artificial, because one of the things which is most taken for granted in a high-tech society is that humans eventually identify with the latest technology to come along – provided it satisfies a previously unarticulated need. The necessity for citizens to gather together, for instance, is essential to the workings of a democracy, because without this forum our views cannot be properly exchanged. Today, however, the TV talk show has morphed into the reality show, which has mutated into shows that transform anonymous people into temporary celebrities. All of this has created a media stew of constant slippage and transgression, one which seems to lend credence to the argument that the current U.S. administration’s unauthorized spying on American citizens is nothing less than the inevitable outcome of a society that believes that no event or truth is truly meaningful until it has achieved validation by way of somebody else’s television set.
It is no accident that Arrechea has labeled his installation a garden, since its social function appears to be similar to the framing of nature as a temporary respite from the stress and pollution of an industrialized society. With this Garden of Mistrust, however, one does not flee the burdens of an all-surveillance society so much as plunge oneself into its midst, succumbing to the hypnotic reassurances of the electronic eye as a form of talisman, which in turn represents the surrender of one’s ego in the light of a larger and more pervasive truth. In that sense, Garden of Mistrust suggests that today relief comes in the form of pulling away the veil of concealment from the immense surveillance apparatus which is already in place — an unmasking of the not-so-benevolent motives that compel us to watch each other relentlessly, and to hide ourselves in the act of doing so.
Paranoia is the most universal by-product of this society, and the brilliance of Arrechea’s installation is that it enables us to treat the irrational fear of persecution as a fully justifiable feeling with strong roots in the day-to-day reality surrounding us. Since this electronic infrastructure does not show any signs of going away – on the contrary, our capacity to watch and be watched appears all but inexhaustible – the evolutionary advantage of visiting the Garden of Mistrust seems to be that it enables us to comfortably occupy both sides of the watcher/watched binary. We see ourselves being watched by others, but we can also watch those others ourselves, and they in turn may or may not be aware of our presence, or of our ability to see what they’re doing, and so on. Eventually, the position of voyeur and exhibitionist become interchangeable, and perhaps the complete embrace of this double status is the only way to completely relax in our brave new world.
Although there might be some lingering uncertainty as to how close Arrechea is interested in pushing the metaphor of the garden toward its purely organic prototype, it seems that this deployment of overabundant plant life as a motif can be read as an indicator that Cuba is still very much at the heart of his work. After all, in a country where the immense fertility of the landscape provides little leverage in the state’s ongoing struggle to feed the populace, it is equally true that citizens have been regularly called upon to spy and inform on their neighbors. Even with its famous shortage of new technology, the Cuban state has shown no lack of resourcefulness in maintaining roughly the same degree of paranoia and surveillance among its people that Arrechea’s high-tech work illustrates, and Cuba may in fact have led the world toward constructing a society in which no person, word, deed or image can circulate without at least tacit awareness on the part of the state. For better or worse, with his ingrained suspicion of utopian systems, whether voluntary or coerced, Arrechea may in fact be asking us to look long and hard at our apparent eagerness to embrace a vision of a future society in which all of us will have voluntarily and permanently conceded the right to possess any more secrets.
Dec 05 – Jan 06