I first saw a drawing for The Garden of Mistrust on the wall of my garage. Alexandre Arrechea was using the space as a studio and he scrawled, in blue pencil, an attenuated tree whose branches blossomed with surveillance cameras. This was August, 2003, a few days after a group of us had returned from a work trip to the big island of Hawaii. One evening in Kona, under a starry sky that is at the latitude of Havana, Alex looked up at a tall palm tree and said, “What do you think about the idea of a tree… or a series of trees… where the fruits and flowers are all surveillance cameras?” Many drawings and technical designs, made in Los Angeles, Havana and Madrid, developed those initial ruminations. Eventually, the piece was fabricated in Los Angeles. As of this writing, in July 2005, Alex has not seen the piece. Since that summer of 2003, he has been denied entry to the United States under the Homeland Security Act. In this interview, conducted on June 11, 2005 between Havana and Los Angeles, the artist speaks about his obsession with context in The Garden of Mistrust and other recent projects.

AA: At the moment the power’s out. But I’m recording my part on the little Olympus.

ROSA: I’m recording my part on this end.

AA: Well, we should begin saying that today I had an appointment at the British embassy [in Havana], but it was cancelled because the roof of the building caved in due to the heavy rains we’ve been having. No one was hurt. But a bunch of passports were buried in the debris. Imagine that? What bad luck for those who had that happen.

ROSA: So begin at the beginning. Summer 2003 and The Garden of Mistrust.

AA: If you recall, that was a pretty chaotic period in my life. My mother had died a month earlier. In July I’d separated from Los Carpinteros. That type of personal experience weighed heavily on this, my first solo project. In el Jardín I don’t speak solely of vigilance. There are other, new categories that began to interest me more, and one of those is the idea of the object as something that is not autonomous. The object will tell you a story. Its meaning will be firmly rooted into the context in which it’s situated.

ROSA: Can you explain how that idea arises from that chaotic summer?

AA: Actually, that idea begins to be realized in el Jardín, but it’s something that I’ve been contemplating for a long time, even before I left Los Carpinteros. But I explored it on my own, in the short films we did with Nakever.

ROSA: They always seemed to be about place, didn’t they?

AA: Well, now I’m taking that relation between context and the work, and using it for pieces that are even more ambitious than El Jardín, where I take advantage of sound, color….

ROSA: But wait, let’s not get off of el Jardín yet.

AA: …scent, and even texture… oh, what? Right, right, let’s stay with El Jardín.

ROSA: You haven’t seen the piece yet, but as I told you, it makes a particular sound as the cameras whirr. A low, hoarse rumble, like something coming from the throat of an animal.

AA: Ahh. Nice. It’s a strange thing, to have a piece of yours exist and not be able to see it. It’s like it begins to exist in stages. The piece itself has three distinct moments: one, when it’s on exhibit, two, when a person goes on the internet to access the information it gathers, and three, when I make a film based on the images the piece records. The entire relationship is between object and context. A dialogue begins between the public and the piece that goes beyond the immediate. And let’s face it, the dialogue arises through a means that’s used fundamentally by governments, businesses and even private individuals as a means of control. I’m talking about surveillance of course, but when I talk about the theme, I’m not simply concerned with what I see.

ROSA: You also seem to be talking about what’s generated by that surveillance.

AA: Exactly. People seem to have gone a little crazy with that whole theme. We try to control everything, and in the end we don’t even know why we’re doing it. To protect ourselves? From what? It’s a form of manipulation, of course, generated fundamentally by governments to instill panic in the public. It makes people think twice about what they do.

ROSA: In airports these days you aren’t even allowed to say certain words -like bomb or gun- near the security area, or you can be arrested. So those are exactly the that pop into my head each time I approach those areas.

AA: Of course. Surveillance creates a condition of self-censorship. In museums, you are asked not to touch the works, that you don’t interact with them. There’s a respect for the piece, as there should be. In El Jardín the piece is the one that touches the people. The piece gets into people’s faces, it invades their space. That’s why the context in which it’s exhibited becomes so important. When the doors to the gallery close, the piece continues operating. The images that the cameras record will be accessible by Internet. You’ll be able to access the space where it’s located. At that point it becomes also about understanding the emptiness generated by the absence of people in the space.

ROSA: So far your only means of seeing the piece is also through the Internet.

AA: Yes. And there’s the point, isn’t it? This whole thing is a result of my actual state of life at this moment. My only access to this work for its construction, transportation, design, is through the Internet. What I’ve done is take advantage of that to a certain extent.

ROSA: You were in Hawaii when you first designed this piece.

AA: Yes. Being there, that month after my mother died and I separated from Los Carpinteros, gave me a certain tranquility about how to begin a future strategy. El Jardín arises as an idea there, in Hawaii, but the implications of this piece, and what it would mean to me didn’t come up until much later. It grew over a period of eight months of work.

ROSA: The way you root it in context has much to do with your personal situation

AA: Exactly, exactly. I use the same idea in Sudor. It’s also about context. Installations don’t always use context in this manner. In the case of Sudor, which as you know is about projections of a basketball game onto backboards on an actual court, but where no one participates, it becomes a form of manipulation. You are in the arena of the game, but you can’t participate or change anything. The game’s already happened; it’s been filmed; it’s done and you can only be a spectator. You look like a participant, because you’re on the court; but you’re not. This is an attempt to understand the notion of participation. For this reason Sudor (sweat) has a title that alludes to a product of physical exertion.
But no one was sweating there. Everyone was simply watching.
Another of my works that has a parallel concept is Dos nuevos espacios. That’s the project I did in Aglutinador, that alternative space created by Sandra Ceballos and Ezequiel Suarez. The piece addresses the concept of alternative space, using the same resources as Sandra and Ezequiel used when they opened Aglutinador. They took a small piece of their house to make an art space. This reduced their living space in physical terms, but amplified it mentally. This is what I did with Dos Nuevos Espacios.

ROSA: You’re talking a great deal about space these days. To me this is all in relation to what you’re living -how you’re going between countries, and not able to enter the U.S. at all.

AA: It’s a bit more complex than that. I’m trying to understand space in general physical terms as well as mental terms, and originating in the specificity of certain determinate moments. For this reason I reflect on public space, domestic space… recall that I began that domestic reflection with the magnet pieces, the reminders series. I used materials that were related with domestic space [powder coated steel, resembling enamel and magnetic strip]. Space is conformed by various situations, various events, let’s say. In my particular case, I divide my time.. I spend time in Madrid, in Havana… That’s been happening more and more to Cuban artists… and artists in general, but I like to concentrate on the connection to Cuba because in my case that’s the determining factor. That third space, the United States, is like a mental space… you’re there without being there, because that’s where your work is made and where, indeed, I have a more direct dialogue with the work because that’s where my galleries are. So I’ve got those three spaces intervening in my head… states of mind… and through this I try to understand my personal situation, and from that explain a phenomenon that is best described as ubiquity. That idea of being present in all places… it’s not about any one place, not about Havana, or Madrid, or Los Angeles, or New York. I’m seeing it all as one great context.
ROSA: You make it sound very fine and all, but your drawings betray your feelings…

IN UNISON: El peso del vacío [the weight of emptiness.]

ROSA: And also the drawings of origami boxes made of maps. They have a fragility, an inherent emptiness and sense of loss.

AA: Yes, but before I go onto drawings I want to mention a piece that perhaps I don’t pay too much attention to, but which is also very concrete in that regard. That’s the photo I did of myself holding a large block, like a column of cement. The idea of carrying all that weight that extends indefinitely… it has a density, fragility, weight, texture. It depicts a burden, but that burden is no one’s fault in particular. It’s a matter of bearing your burden, of accepting it.

ROSA: You’ve sure given this some thought.

AA: (laughs) Recall that I always used to share my thoughts with others. Now I have to think through everything myself. I’m more ambitious in that regard. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I like having everything under control in my projects. I like the piece to have some sense of dramaturgy, a specific literature. In the case of El Jardín de la Desconfianza the piece will be dialoguing constantly with me and with the public. If it dies, it won’t be because something was left out; it’ll be because something happened, like a power outage. That shouldn’t happen in Miami [where the piece first goes on exhibit] but you never know.

ROSA: But it would be interesting if it did, and it would coincide with your methodology, with the drama of your work, if you think about it. In two short years you’ve created a huge body of work, and much of it is quite theatrical in nature.

AA: I sought that theatrical space with Jardín de la Desconfianza, with Sudor, and now with that new project I’ve been designing, and which does not yet have a title because it’s hard to condense it all into one word or phrase…

ROSA: The one with the horses in the classroom?

AA: That very one. I’ve used music and actors in my videos, and now I’m trying to develop a type of dramatic conflict, as in a theater. In this piece there is a lot to consider-the horses and riders on top of the desk, the classroom lined with those drawings of boxes made of maps.

ROSA: Correct me if I’m wrong here, and maybe this seems trivial to say, but you seem to have taken the world or at least your situation in the world and turned it into a personal classroom.

AA: Oh!!! Classroom!! That’s the title. Absolutely. (laughs.) Well, then, speaking of Aula, or Classroom… there you have another reflection on surveillance.

ROSA: Your work of these last few years is all related to El Jardín in one way or another.

AA: Hopefully I’ll get to see it soon in person.


Havana-Los Angeles
Telephone interview
July 11, 2005