Interview by Brian Whitener
Clemente Padin (b. 1939 in Lascano, Rocha, Uruguay) is internationally known as a visual poet and mail and performance artist, as well as a critic of Uruguayan and experimental literature. As a mail artist, Padin has participated in more than a thousand mail art shows (from 1967 forward), and he has had individual exhibitions in a number of countries (including Japan, Germany, South Korea, and the United States). Among his most important critical works are: La poesìa experimental latinoamericana (1950-2000) (2000)(*1), De la representaciòn a l'action (1975), and Art and People (1997)(*2) . A series of important performances in the 1970s, including Poetry Should Be Made For All (Montevideo, 1970) and The Artist Is at the Service of the Community (Sao Paulo, 1975) established Padin, along with Carlos Zerpa of Venezuela, as one of the pioneers of performance art in Latin America. During the Uruguayan military dictatorship (1973-1986), Padin was jailed for two years and three months (1979-1981) for causing "harm to the reputation of the Army." This prison sentence was, in fact, retribution for the artistic actions that he had staged against the dictatorship and for his role in organizing a Counter Biennale in front of the Latin American section of the X Biennale of Paris (1977).
As a writer and editor (of Los Huevos del Plata, 1965-1969; OVUM, 1969-1975; and Participaciò n, 1984-1986), Padin played an important role in the movement from Noigrandes-style concrete poetry to the amplified positions of visual poetry or, as Padin has written, from the word to the sign or from semantics to semiotics. Even though he has been based in Montevideo for most of his career, it is more productive to view his work in a transnational context than a solely national one, as a contributor's list from Los Huevos or OVUM would indicate. It was an environmental of constant exchange and cross-fertilization between Sao Paolo, Rio de Janiero, Buenos Aries, and Mexico City that Padin developed an approach to visual poetry and to arte acciò n distinguished by its concern for the social aspects and repercussions of artistic production.
While his visual poetry evidences the post-Saussurian concern with signification typical of this period, what differentiates Padin's work is its frequent referencing of poetry to the social, expressed by a thinking of the reader as co-creator, poetry's relation to consumption, and the nature of communication. These concerns are perhaps best seen in his No-Object poems written during the early 1970s and distributed in English and Spanish, not in journals, but via the mail art network. Building on the work of the Poem/Process poets (Rio de Janeiro) and Edgardo Antonio Vigo (Buenos Aires), Padin's No-Object poems can be seen as a radical attempt to create "a language of action" and a fully participatory poetry (in a sense fulfilling the theoretical arc of visual poetry's opening of poetry to other types of signification by almost severing Its ties with language). It is important to note that Padin's insistence on the importance of creating communication and creating alternative channels of communication, seen in these works and other works, is very much related to the social and cultural conditions generated by the decade-long dictatorship.
Since the mid-1980s, performance, specifically performance in public spaces, has become Padin's main axis of work. However, he remains active within the visual poetry and mail art communities(*3) and an engagement with the social continues to define his work, as can be seen in his recent minimalist visual poems concerning the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States government.
3. And other communities as well, see Chain 12 for example.
1. Clemente, you are well known internationally for your work in the areas of visual poetry, performance, and mail art. Could you explain how and when you began working and perhaps a little about how these areas are related for you?
CP: My artistic life began around 1960, when, in my early 20s, I experienced the first frustrations of love and their subsequent sublimation into poetry. Also at this time, I began to study literature at the Universidad de Uruguay and my contact with the classical tradition confirmed my desire to write. After experiencing difficulties in gaining access to the media of diffusion, which were in the hands of the Generation of 45, a group of poets and artists decided to start our own medium, the journal Los Huevos del Plata (circa 1965). The exchanges that we realized in this journal placed us in contact with the international vanguard and with the latest artistic tendencies: mail art, experimental poetry, performance, video art, etc. As for our movement, looking back on it now, it was decidedly political. That is, above all else, it was art with its own intrinsic specifications and with our aesthetic demands but with numerous elements of a socio-political nature as well. The distinct areas of human activity are joined together like interrelated groups and, without confusing themselves, participate in common areas or zones. So, a work of art is fundamentally art, but it shares some areas with the social, the political, the religious, etc. If, in a work of art, the aesthetic elements cede their primacy in favor of the political and/or the social, it ceases to be a work of art; that is, it transforms into a hybrid known as a "panfleto."(*1) Here, the subsumed artistic elements are at the service of other ends; in this case, political or social ends. The same thing occurs when social movements are imbued with political goals. Art, in order to be art, should have predominantly aesthetic characteristics or involve symbols of substitution for the real (the "poetic function" of the structuralists (Jakobson) or the "rhetorical function" of the Groupe Mu) (*2).
2. You played an important role in establishing and defining the field of experimental writing known as visual poetry. How should we understand your statement that visual poetry "managed to expose the fragility of the literature based only in the semantic"?
CP: Poetry, as we know it, is based in the semantic, in the verbal signification of each word and of the text in general. And this, necessarily, restricts expression to this single dimension of the word, offering us a limited and restricted version of poetry. In my view, the existence of a single or unchangeable concept of literature based exclusively on verbal semanticity enormously reduces poetry's range of action. It is necessary to accept the participation of other dimensions, such as the visual or the oral, in order for poetry to expand its range of expression to other areas, thereby gaining communicative possibilities. In fact, a restricted notion of poetry damns itself, since para-linguistic or asemantic elements are essential in creating meaning (I'm referring here to stylistic means and formal structures such as rhyme, versification, rhythm, etc.). For my generation, the next step was to propose a broader conceptualization of literature that took into consideration the pan-semiotic elements of language (Jakobson), those elements that operate in all language--thus creating a poetry based not only in the semantic, but in the semiotic as well.
3. The work of Edgardo Antonio Vigo (*3) and the Poem/Process movement have an important place in your theoretical writings. In what manner have these ideas influenced your work?
CP: The Poem/Process was a creation of the poets Wlademir Dias-Pino, Alvaro, Neide Sa, Moacy Cirne, and others, who, around 1967, began this movement with a variety of poetic manifestations in Rio de Janeiro. Edgardo Antonio Vigo was important in the evolution of Latin American (and world) poetry as he established the creative participation of the "reader" (circa 1970) with his proposal, "Poesìa para y/o a Realizar," by means of which he intended for the spectator to assume, via the "constructive-activation," the position of co-author of the poem. The consequences of his proposal were that the first realized performances in Latin America (circa 1970 as well) had their roots in poetry and not exclusively in the plastic arts as was the case generally in the United States and elsewhere.
4. In a recent interview, you were asked if there is currently a crisis in Latin American poetry. Could you explain your views on this for a North American audience?
CP: Like every area of human activity, poetry can enter into a crisis. But a crisis can evolve forward with new proposals or backwards towards areas already surpassed by history. To the extent which habit and fatigue (caused by the repetitions of forms) erode communication, poetry (or any other artistic form) enters into a crisis in the manner described by William Blake: "Do not expect but poison of stagnant water." Because of this, we believe that the adjectivization of "experimental" is an error, as poetry should be experimental per se. If there is no experimentation with difficult forms, poetry cannot develop and be in step with its times (this has occurred always&it is enough to examine history). A poetry does not exist that is not radical, that does not go to the source. As a result, before the apathy and lack of development of the present poetry of Latin America, it is possible to speak of a crisis.
5. In your book, From Representation to Action (Doc(k)s, Marsella, Francia, 1975), you write, "Since 1971, there is art that has done away with the object and the art-work and replaced it with action, understanding that art is what a person does in direct relation to his or her environment and not what a person does in relation to a system of representations of this environment. With the object eliminated, art returns to the point it should never have left: art = life." How has your work engaged this set of ideas?
CP: In actions, especially in those known as "artistic-social events," the work, within the range of its expressive possibilities, must realize that which it extols. Thus, in my performance "El Artista debe estar al Servicio de la Comunidad"(*4). I loaded spectators into a cart and took them through all the galleries of the exhibition, explaining what could be seen there (stopping, above all, in front of the posters that I had hung with key words, which allowed me to explain things in more detail). Not only through the representation (the title of the performance), but also through the action itself was the proposal, namely that the artist should be at the service of the community, realized. That is to say, the words were not only said but made. In From Representation to Action, I proposed an "art of action" that I called a "non-object poetry," in which the sign of the language of action was a coin with two faces (in a Saussurian sense): one was the signifier (the action itself) and, the other, the signified (the meaning that the action awakens in us).
6. In what has become a central text for Latin American performance, "Art in the Street," you talk about the idea of social interaction and the creation of a direct relation with reality. For example, in a very beautiful passage you write, "It is in social life, really, where artistic matters can overcome their symbolic limits and affect radical changes not only on the level of representation but also on the level of reality itself." Can you expand for us on the difference between affecting representation versus affecting reality?
CP: This concerns the eternal discussion of whether art can influence our reality and alter undesirable situations at the level of everyday life. It is clear that it is possible, although not in a direct manner. Art has its own area of action, similar the other dimensions of reality: society, politics, religion, education, etc. However, these areas are not completely unrelated, on the contrary, they are interrelated and that which occurs in one has repercussions in the others. The examples are many: any change at the level of technology gives birth to new bases of expression that by themselves alter artistic forms. That which one discovers exists for all the rest: we can't separate the areas of human activity into watertight compartments, they are not autonomous (although the discourse of the system strives to make it appear so to us). The new and the recently discovered, in any area of human activity, picks its place under the sun and supplants and buries the "permitted" in the repertoires of social knowledge, thereby provoking irreversible changes in all areas of knowledge. On the other hand, in some circumstances (for example, with the obstruction of the paths of social communication under dictators or authoritarian governments) art can supplant the circuits of information by means of certain genres (i.e., popular song, street theater, clandestine radio, or alternative video), thereby creating new networks of communication.
7. In the theoretical writings of yourself, Vigo, and other Latin American artists of the 1960s and 1970s, the distinction between creation and consumption was critical. As well, this idea, or variations on it, have been very important for experimental poetry in the United States for the last thirty years. How does your work approach this distinction?
CP: The concept of "consumption" is, without a doubt, a concept of the market. It was in reaction to this that the commitment of mail art was born. In addition to the obvious limitations of mail art (including the determination of the size, weight, distance, speed of reception, and cost by the means used) and the precariousness of the channels (the post, fax, the Internet, etc.) it is necessary to note, as well, its tacit rules and its trademark anti-consumption and anti-commercial stances ("Money and mail art don't mix"). Mail art attempts to keep art in the area of use, in its unrestricted social function, freeing it from the area of exchange. As mail art returns art to the area of use, it immediately upsets the market and halts the search for profit or gain. The same occurs with other forms of anti-system alternative art, such as video, performance, underground cinema, graffiti, fanzines, and street art.
8. Speaking of mail art (which is an area of your work that really fascinates me), you have written a great a deal about the idea of the network in mail art. What is this idea and how does it get translated into your works?
CP: Mail art recuperates the pristine sense of art as communication and not as comodification. It recuperates the use function by means of the function of exchange inherent in the market. The work of art is, before all else, a product of communication and, because of this, an inseparable part of social production. On the other hand, it is similar to the rest of the products that we create or produce, which position themselves in relation to this same system of production (favoring or complicating its processes). In some contexts, its "artistic" nature prevails (in museums, galleries, cathedrals), while, in others, it becomes a transmitter of information and a generator of dialogues. But, without a doubt, both facets are inseparable--it's only that mail art places the emphasis on the second. However, the dialogue of mail art is only possible if the "other" exists. From here to the natural formation of systems or networks (or the system of "communicators at a distance" as Edgardo Antonio Vigo called it) was only a small step. The objective proposed by mail art found expression in an aphorism of Robert Filliou: "The Eternal Network." This objective was the utopian project, perhaps unrealizable, of the permanent communication of every individual across all available media, the development of communication without limits. It is a tragic paradox, because thanks to the phenomenal expansion of communication, capitalism via globalization has managed to impose its economic structure and its culture of profit on almost the entire world. In contrast to the globalization of capitalism's ludicrous form of life of enrichment at any price, the globalization of absolute alienation, the living outside of ourselves for the Molock of our time, and the rule of money, stands the Network of Filliou and of mail art that seeks the globalization, not of the market or profit (today sadly concluded in almost all of the world), but of human values. All in the interest of achieving an enjoyable and peaceful life without the daily drama of living like animals on scraps of bread in an impoverished environment due to the savage exploitation of natural resources carried out by the transnationals.
9. Finally, I'd like to ask you about the current generation of Latin American writers and artists. Whose work do you like? And what, in your opinion, are the problems that this generation faces?
CP: I can only speak about the artistic circles that I move in. In poetry we have seen born, in Santiago, Chile, a group of young artists, working out of the Foro de Escritores, that are making extraordinary works with every conceivable means of linguistic expression and in every area of writing. Not only are they recreating and transforming the past, but they are also creating new poetic forms sustained by the new mediums that information technology has placed in our hands. In performance, beginning in 2000, there has been an enormous push in our region that today is translating into a solid, well-established movement. Already there exist spaces, more public than private, that are slowly consolidating their strength and show no signs of turning back. Although these have been born out of individual wills, little by little, intuitions are being created and a tradition is being established. It is not an accident that time after time, and in greater numbers, Latin American performers are invited to show their work in the cathedrals of performance throughout the world. Neither is it an accident that we are receiving regular visitors from these centers, who come to personally learn of our advances. As well, the recent wealth of printed material (books, magazines, articles) concerning Latin American performance is a result of our years of preparation.
1. A "panfleto" (pamphlet) is a newspaper or broadsheet distributed to passersby in the street.
2. A research group of French linguists (see Rhètorique gènèrale, èditions Larousse, 1970).
3. Argentinean artist (1923-1997). More information about Vigo and his work can be found at http://www.eavigo.com.ar/menu.htm
4. "The Artist Should Be in the Service of the Community" realized at the Museo de Arte Contemporà neo de San Pablo, 1975 and at the XVI Bienal de San Pablo, Brasil, 1981.