How to be parallel? Sketches in Guatemala

photo 3 photo 4How 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 fundaments 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 something I’ll take home back 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 interest 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, socilogists, 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. Ofcourse 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 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 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, nore 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.