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Interview with Allora and Calzadilla on putting everything in context

The duo discuss the political and humorous aspects of their work before a major show at the Moore Space in Miami

Since the launch of their collaboration in 1995, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have become an ubiquitous fixture on the trans-international biennial circuit, their subversive aesthetic rapidly spreading swelled by a hunger for the exotic or marginal. The Hispanic-US duo divide their time between Puerto Rico and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and deals specifically with issues of regionalism and globalism.

Allora & Calzadilla work in a wide variety of media, from video to sculpture, to pose challenges to our inherent complacency. Having been closely involved with protests against US military testing on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, Allora & Calzadilla celebrated the island’s liberation with the video Returning A Sound (2004) which shows a trumpet playing in a motorbike exhaust. Their critique can often be comic, turning a conference table into a motorboat for the video work Under Discussion (2005), as well as highly informed, creating the new scientific term “ciclonismo” to describe the effect of cyclones and other extreme weather on colonial politics. With their latest solo installation Clamor at the Moore Space in Miami (9 December-1 March 2007), the pair present a montage of war music from different historical periods.

The Art Newspaper: Could you describe the ideas behind your current work Clamor at the Moore Space in Miami?

Allora & Calzadilla: We have been researching the genre if war music as the basis for a new body of work. We’re interested in the relationship between sound and war, sound as a weapon, sound as an instrument of war, and in tracing the history of this form of sonic expression back to the earliest military encounters. Clamor investigates the bodily and physical dimensions of this relationship. The work consists of a large sculptural form—a hybrid chamber resembling a bunker, a meteorite, a ruin, a cave, and a sound booth. It will accommodate a group of live musicians playing various repertoires of war songs from different geographical territories and historical periods. The simultaneous performances, at times harmonising and at other moments in complete discord, will cumulatively generate a monstrous montage of war music, somewhere between a symphony and cacophony.

TAN: How do you feel about having to explain or talk people through your work?

A&C: We don’t feel that we have to explain anything. Works of art have teeth. They first and foremost speak for themselves. They’re filled with codes and meanings. Nothing exists in a vacuum. There is always a linguistic, cultural, political, historical, and social dimension embedded in form. It is a matter of the work, as a register of these processes, to communicate those meanings. We believe that, in order to do this, the work should affect and interrogate before anything else itself—to critically engage its own vulnerable and violent constitution.

TAN: Is there something deliberately didactic about your practice?

A&C: For us, the title of the work, the medium and material are neither supplemental nor separate from the work, but rather constitute its most basic frame, they are the work’s molecular mule.

TAN: But do your works, such as Puerto Rican Light, 2003 [in which the artists shipped a solar-powered battery-bank to Tate Modern where it was used to power Dan Flavin’s fluorescent-light sculpture Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake), 1965] for instance, only appeal to art insiders?

A&C: We don’t think that this piece appeals only to art insiders. There is a logic communicated through the work that does not require any art historical expertise. You can clearly deduce a complementary or parasitic—depending on how you look at it—relationship between the two works. One consists of three fluorescent light bulbs and the other a set of batteries. The link between them is literal—it’s a plug. There is a transfer of energy or power. But of course this link can be read in many ways, among them, as a way of complicating the...tropicalism at work in the title of Dan Flavin’s sculpture, certainly the light in the tropics is not always such a lush tone of orangey-pink…So the “original” Puerto Rican Light was brought to life by the second Puerto Rican Light. And of course, it goes the other way: our work is only possible as a response to his. So they exist in a reciprocal relationship to each other. One might say, “well, we are just temporarily altering a work that is essentially autonomous”. But the point is to suggest that Puerto Rican Light by Flavin was never autonomous in the first place, not even in 1965.

TAN: Can your works be appreciated just in formal terms, a room of beautiful light, without knowing or understanding the underlying concept?

A&C: As we’ve just been describing, we believe that forms are imbedded with a history, a politics, a social and a cultural dimension. We can understand “form” in art historical terms. But also there are forms of violence, forms of economic inequality, forms of war, forms of society, forms of expression, forms of affirmation, forms of love, which all at some moment or another take on a concrete shape—a form—and leave a mark on the world. For us the word “form” is a good glue to link all these different interests.

TAN: There is a humour and wit in much of your work which gets overlooked?

A&C: Humour is monstrously and radically subjective.

We always like it when a work has the potential to affect you physically, when it generates a physical and internal explosion in your body in the form of laughter. This physical and undeniable recognition that something has affected you in this very particular way has a great disarming potential and can often serve as a productive entry point into a work.

TAN: How important is the concept or idea behind a work and the physical execution; can you leave the latter to assistants?

A&C: Everything is important; if the work requires our physical hands in it, then we use all four of them. Nevertheless, concept, execution—sometimes we have executed things to make new things, sometimes we have glued things, sometimes we have grown things—each means something different. We would like for this work to not be reduced to a “concept”. Concept alone does not guide or measure our practice. We prefer the work not to be born as a single ideal form, but as a composite of heterogeneous parts that do not add up to a whole or fit together to form a stable, finite body.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Putting everything in context'