Inside/Out: From the Personal to the Collective.
by Félix Rodríguez-Rosa
Translation by Sabrina Ramos-Rubén
- At 2 years old, I had a fall. With it, I developed three progressive eyesight conditions: astigmatism, strabismus, and far-sightedness.
- At 5 years old, I didn’t like to see familiar photographs. I used to wonder “Why does time stand still? What happens to those bodies that are transformed into images?”
- At 14 years old, I entered the Commerce Program in the Dr. Agustín Stahl High School in Bayamón. I wanted to prepare myself for the ‘world of work’ and I studied Accounting.
- At 17 years old, I entered the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. I was accepted in a program that I didn’t mark in the options of the bachelor’s degree application: The Faculty of Social Sciences with a major in Anthropology.
- At 20 years old, I applied for a transfer to the Faculty of Humanities. I was accepted in the Department of Fine Arts with an emphasis in Photography.
- At 23 years old, I met Andrea Bauzá in the Desayuno Calle #18.
- At 24 years old, I completed my bachelor’s degree.
- At 25 years old, I went to a PISO Proyecto presentation and met Noemí Segarra.
- At 29 years old, I listened to a telephone conversation between my mother and her aunt Nydia. The aunt asked: “Why did Felito study photography when he has all those eyesight conditions?”
One day, José ‘Pepe’ Álvarez –artist, professor, and dance, performance theatre, and multimedia investigator- presented me to a group of colleagues as an ‘operational artist’.
I, Félix Rodríguez-Rosa, frequently define myself as an interdisciplinary visual artist and pedestrian.
Why do I walk?
Walking allows me to explore my daily surroundings and to (re)discover unknown territories. I walk because I identify me moving and I inhabit myself. I walk because I get in contact with people who I wouldn’t usually connect with for any reason; each shows me that their reality is different from mine. I walk because it makes me aware: I can channel ideas and identify tasks. I walk because I learn how to improvise and understand this practice as an exercise in making decisions. I walk because, like Joan Carlisle says, “Walking is good dancing.”
I assume the artistic practice from daily experiences and from objects that relate to the body, space, architecture, and memory. I occupy and occupy myself with domestic-abandoned-public spaces for exploring inhabitation, coincidences in transit and waste as a result of human activity.
When I entered the Department of Fine Arts in 2007, it was clear to me that I didn’t only want to look through the camera’s viewfinder and press the shutter. Since then, for each project I take as a starting point the use of the body, space and memory.
I consider that three projects of my forming years laid the foundations for the kind of work that I’m interested in: (in)side-out space, Flowers for the Dead, and Dead Spaces.
During the semester, I limited myself to work in a corner of the photographic studio with a 4x5” (10x12cm) format camera. It was an exercise of chance and presence. To create each image, I would do variations in the lens opening, in the shutter speed, and would take many exposures per plate. I wanted to minimize the vastness of space while inhabiting it: to solidify a being’s world, its atmosphere, its movements. This process did not only represent a practice for mastering a technique, but it also became a subjective space for (self) discovery.
Since 2009, I’ve been working on Flowers for the Dead. I chose a random grave in the Santa María de Pazzi Cemetery in Old San Juan. During each visit, I care for and place flowers on the gravestone.
In what was the new academic year (August-December 2010), I decided to retake the Project, but added a new research element. I was interested in knowing who the person was that was buried there and in exploring action and repetition as a creative process. I created a blog to keep a log of each visit. In it, I included pictures, texts, and documents. Eventually, I was approached by people who wanted to collaborate: to them I delegated the task of documentation.
The grave suffered constant changes and became hard to identify. The flower vase was removed and the gravestone was undone. My body drew its own route to get there. Little by little, the marble was replaced by old, expanded wooden boards.
The investigation was made difficult because the gravestone only had a first name with no last names and one date:
You will forever live in our hearts
Memories from your mother, your granny and your stepfather.
March 24, 1920
The Cemetery denied me information because “graves are protected by something like the HIPAA”, a law that protects the confidentiality and privacy of patients and their medical data.
That same semester the Department of Fine Arts made an open call in which 4 students would be selected for using the enlargement and exposure workshops to develop an analogue photography work. I was one of the selected students, but a strike, in which the university administration proposed a $800 increase in the enrollment fees, began. They would also cut summer classes, deny tenure to contract hired professors, deny salary increases to tenured professors, decrease capacity and sections of courses, among other issues.
In the face of the University’s closing, the lack of equipment, and space to expose analogue material, I threw myself to the streets to produce/solve in another way. I began to give myself specific tasks to occupy public or abandoned spaces. My work became more ephemeral. I documented it with a cellphone camera.
For the project Dead Spaces, I started to identify unused, empty or unprotected spaces. When I managed to get in them, I would draw the outline of my body with materials I found in the place. I wanted to give ‘corporality to the dead’.
Doing these three projects, I acknowledged that shapes or structures that were given to me by academia did not satisfy me at all. I was producing based on my necessities and lacks in the Department of Fine Arts. How to do a work with and from the body if I wasn’t offered courses in performance or anatomy for artists?
It’s fundamental to eliminate the idea that artistic education is only for producing beautiful objects. It also is the production of transformative experiences, even if they can seem uncomfortable.
It’s not only about expression, ornament or beautifying a space: it’s a vehicle for thought and generating knowledge. If it’s true that we need information in our memory, it’s also necessary to change the process by which it arrives to us.
On February 29th, 2012, I went to a presentation by Noemí Segarra on PISO “a project that wishes to establish and develop a lab which permits the continuous and rigorous experimental practice of a body that takes decisions, observes itself, thinks itself, and moves in the present.” During the course of the presentation, I became aware of the fact that me and Noemí share similar interests: we’re both pedestrians, we use the body to reactivate public or abandoned spaces, we generate ephemeral experiences and we create multimedia documentation. We met three days later and, since then, we’ve been collaborating.
We trust in the body and its knowledge. We understand that art is complex process and requires time. We have been insistent in our individual and collective practices. We give each other feedback and share tools. We believe other practices and models of production are possible. We want to generate a learning community in which everybody learns from everyone.
Producing out of the academia forced me to think of new projects as multidisciplinary and participatory experiences.
In 2012, I was part of La Práctica at Beta Local, an interdisciplinary program for cultural research and production. I developed Los Amigos, a project to reactivate the space of what was the Los Amigos Café in Old San Juan. I divided it in three phases: 1. The gathering of memories, based on vistors’ experiences. 2. Conservation and restoration of the façade. I brought together René Sandín, art conservator, and Natalia Martínez Santiago, a scenography painter of the film industry. From a conversation with both, I would create a plan of action. 3. Los Amigos Festival, a public event proposed as a sandwich tasting. The purpose of the Festival would be to activate the space and share memories. The third phase wasn’t completed due to bureaucratic processes.
I participated in Fuera de sala, a performance exhibition, curated by Sabrina Ramos Rubén in the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art (MHAA) of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. I presented the piece Small Cures and proposed it as a model for an open process, participatory exhibition: a ‘do it yourself’ action. The action was based on directions for the public and indications for the event’s organizers. It was an excuse to rethink the social role of the MHAA and to question and give visibility to its structural condition.
1. The action must be done by the community or museum personnel. Neither the participating artists of the exhibition nor me will be involved in its execution.
2. Walk the Museum’s surroundings.
3. Observe and identify cracks. Each crack must be ‘cured’ with the placing of a band-aid or a curita.
4. The band-aids are ephemeral. They must only be eliminated by time.
I’m also interested in working with the body as a witness of time and as a representative object of vulnerability. The intimate is personal, but in my creative process I have changed it into a shared solitary ritual.
Since 2014, I have been working on the project #TuesdayMorning. I take a picture when I wake up every Tuesday morning and I upload them to Instagram (@ferodro). I’m interested in keeping a register of all the spaces that I inhabit and the details that I may not perceive in the everyday: those that are evident with time’s passing.
In 2016, as a part of the Laboratorio Cuerpo y Ciudad in the Casa de Cultura Dr. Bailey K. Ashford, I developed a series of actions called Sprue. The first action consists of transcribing with a typewriter during an hour a text published in 1920 by Dr. Ashford: Appropriate Diet for the Treatment of Sprue.
The text includes a section titled “Dietary Regimen of Sprue”, which details the foods that can be ingested to treat the condition. I used it as a guide for the rest of my actions: I prepared a breakfast, a lunch, and dinner during activities proposed by the rest of participants of the Lab.
All my artistic production comes from a place. My first explorations were of a personal nature and, little by little, they have been turning to participation and social collaboration. In them, political inclusion of ‘the other’ is key: they are invited to be witnesses and co-participants. I try to initiate and insist in the presence and the (con)tact to experiment plural (co)habitation. How do you inhabit a shared reality? How can an encounter modify two realities in a bilateral way?
Why keep working as an artist in these uncertain times?
I rather not talk of scarcity. Us artists are the perfect model for the system: we work full-time, even if most of our labor is invisible, unpaid or voluntary. Living - and being an artist - requires certain uncertainty. We must learn to say ‘no’ to the system, to ask questions and request what is owed.
I do art because through it I know myself. I do art because it’s my profession. I do art because it’s my passion. I do art because it shows me probabilities and takes me out of my comfort zone. I do art as a healing process: not looking to make problems disappear, but, through the creative process, face them. I do art because in it, as I learned from Elizam Escobar, freedom is practiced.
Image list (in order of appearance):
1. Rodríguez-Rosa, F. (2008). (in)side-out space. Analogue photography in black and white.
2. Gumbe, P.J. (2013). Flowers for the Dead. Photographic documentation of durational performance.
3. Rodríguez-Rosa, F. (2010). Dead Spaces. Photographic documentation of intervention and drawing.
4. Segarra, N. (2012). PISO proyecto. Photographic documentation of a public intervention in public space.
5. Rodríguez-Rosa, F. (2013). Los Amigos. Photographic documentation of a public intervention in public space.
6. Rodríguez-Rosa, F. (2017). #TuesdayMorning. Digital photography
7. Rodríguez-Rosa, F. (2016). Sprue. Photographic documentation of durational performance.