Jota Castro interviewed by Jérôme Sans
Catalogue hardcore – Towards a new activism - 2003
Not All's Been Said and Done
With your studies as a jurist, your work for the United Nations and the European Community, your experience with political science, how and why did you turn to art?
It may seem complicated, but I think that my studies in law and politics along with my professional experience form my art studies. Fundamentally, for someone who wants to interpret their era, the best way to accomplish that is to acquire the knowledge and notions that will enable them to carry out that work and confront reality. Paradoxically, art studies were out of the question for me. Honestly, I’ve always found that it was a waste of time and that what art schools turned out above all were clones. My first love was literature and I won a scholarship to come and study literature in Europe thanks to a poetry prize. Once Octavio Paz explained to me that everything having to do with art, I had in me; the interesting part still to be explored was the subject and the ways of expressing it. At the time I took him for an old conservative, but I quickly understood that what he was saying was true. To criticize you have to understand.
How would you define your artmaking?
I would define my artmaking as being at first a form of observing my era in order to subsequently create an interpretation from that observation. My work is anchored in daily life and the simplification of so-called serious subjects.
Would art be a cultural alibi?
Contemporary art is an emanation of culture. Lamentably, the only culture that seems to truly interest Europeans is the defense of their heritage. It is in that sense that contemporary art is a cultural alibi. For the rest, you cannot create without knowledge…
Why do you implicate your work in the fabric of society?
Because there is nothing more exciting right now. Everything is changing socially and the powers that be are getting scared. People are looking for new references, they’re in search of information, they’re discussing it, sharing it. Our society is like clay waiting to be redefined, to be modeled unambiguously. For an artist, our era is the best of times! No one to prevent you from working, interpreting. It’s all a matter of searching for how to communicate, how to simplify your discourse and how to reach the fabric of society. It’s exciting.
You have been developing a situational “actionism.” Why did you choose to go through the art world rather than act directly in reality?
With the way I look and my accent, there is little chance of anyone voting for me in an election! Aside from such racial considerations, my need for change is so radical that my program wouldn’t be very popular with the ordinary Joe. For me an artist is someone who lives in reality, who has chosen a certain form of communication. I am not socially autistic. Intellectually, I feel I am duty-bound to bring some form of rapid reaction to events or situations that provoke a societal dysfunction and which, as I see it, deserve an interpretation on my part.
What are the limits of your artmaking?
I work on what interests me. I have been making art for only a short while. I haven’t set a limit for myself and I don’t think that’s necessary, neither from a theoretical point of view nor from a practical one. Let’s say that my limit is my intellectual honesty.
Your work occasionally assumes an educational or didactic aspect while remaining extremely violent in the forms it takes. How do you manage to maintain a balance between these two tendencies?
Most of the subjects that I tackle could be characterized as difficult. So, as with any product, you have to find a powerful way of getting your message out. That’s where I try to be educational, to get my message out without talking down to an observer as if they were a child, hence without attenuating the violence of the content. There is an expression I like in French, “rentrer dedans” [to knock, to light into]. That’s what I do. To me the balance between educating and violence doesn’t seem to pose a problem. I make an adult art for adults. Here we might speak of singularity. I want to render myself singular with respect to what I see in a certain type of contemporary art today, the kind that is accepted by everyone and which arises, in my opinion, from what Winnicott called the children’s games that are the basis of our adult experiences. Which means that many artists play at creating whimsical, mimetic pieces. That need to return to one’s chilhood, in order to be happy, has always bored the hell out of me.
You sometimes speak about the sociology of singularity. Could you explain the term?
It’s a concept that I like, that squares with what I am, with my view of art, and which belongs, I think, to Nathalie Heinich. I like the concept because it attaches importance to the person and implies comparisons and above all the use of different disciplines like law or sociology. Humans are social beings, they live in groups and cannot survive alone. Artists, on the other hand, want to be singular, unique, and yet they want to represent and influence the group. When I speak of the sociology of singularity, I am referring to the process of singularization of the artist by which people decide that the artist is singular. That’s not true. Artists are a mix of personal ethics and group ethics, but they don’t claim to represent the group. They want people to take an interest in their work and their person. If I apply that to the exhibition Hardcore, that gives us a series of artists who want to express the feelings of the group from which they come or the group with which they empathize, while affirming a singularity that many call radicalism. Now that I think about it, I guess I should reflect on that notion more.
Can we speak nowadays of a political work of art, a politically committed attitude?
I don’t know—why not! In my case, though I “work politically,” that definition of the political work of art cannot be applied to me. Let me explain. There is no disguised ideology or morality behind my work. On the contrary, what I do is offer information through my pieces in order to provoke viewers to question. Of course that questioning can be converted into a political discourse. Anyone looking at my work can analyze it from a political, partisan point of view. But I think that that outlook is actually part of what I call in my personal jargon the “deep culture,” a kind of culture that is of the moment, individual, teeming with all kinds of information, and which fluctuates according to events and the precise moment when one views my work. I do not control that “deep culture,” I can only partly influence it by spreading the knowledge that has generated my artwork. I try to do it without ideology. Certain artists, without wanting to, or without knowing they are, moralize through their works, which increasingly become political arms. I reject that moralization, those obligatory good intentions.
Can one still be radical nowadays?
In my own case, yes. It is an obligation. My work arises from what I observe, and what that stirs in me I translate into my art. Often I am interpreting my anger. What do we find radicalism in? In subjects? In the way you express yourself, the way you distinguish yourself from others? In your origins, in doing something new, radically new? Not All's Been Said and Done. If that phrase holds for society, it holds for art as well.
What is the artist’s role nowadays?
My role as an artist became clear to me when I understood that the artist is a person like any other. They decide they have things to say and things to do and that they have no time to lose. They sense that their era needs interpreters and they recognize themselves in the world around them. They feel a pressing need to explore new forms of communication without concessions to a dominant ideology or morality.
Isn’t the artist the “mediator” of a certain universal guilt or anger which Western societies bear the burden of?
I think anger is as much personal or generational as it is universal. On the other hand, guilt does indeed seem to me to be a Western specialty. The collective unconscious exists, artists are steeped in it like other human beings, but I think artists are not guilty of what they create. They are only responsible for it.
You have also created your own clothing label (Extracomunitari) and have produced T-shirts with slogans (“Schengen Rebel,” “Bougnoul Lover,” “Kosovo Hope”). Why a ready-to-wear clothing company?
Extracomunitari arose from an action I organized in Calabria in the summer of 2000. I had designed a T-shirt with the slogan “Benvenuti extracomunitari” (welcome extracommunitarians) and I strolled the beaches of Calabria where thousands of immigrants arrive illegally in inhuman conditions. I wanted to respond to the numerous, unbelievable critical remarks coming from Italians and their politicians who were proposing, among other things, to fire machine guns at boats laden with men, women and children. I would ask the people I ran into to take my photograph if they agreed with the slogan plastered on my T-shirt. Italian is the only language of the Union that invented a word for foreigners who are not part of the European Community, extracomunitari. It is a pejorative term that has now passed into many other languages because I’ve heard it used in French and Spanish in television broadcasts.
The idea was right there just waiting to be picked up. Ready-to-wear clothing is a universal business that quite often makes use of cheap labor and which aspires to sell on a global scale. I named my brand Extracomunitari and took as a logo the type of small boat that brings foreigners to our shores. The T-shirts are a way of spreading my artworks and challenging as many people as possible. The clothes we wear are an expression of our tastes and are in many cases produced abroad by foreigners. Extracomunitari insists on this actual situation. The society in which we live makes us dependent on global markets, all global markets. Certain markets drive people to leave, others drive them to consume. I wanted to create intelligent duds because generally fashion is a really stupid business. I see my T-shirts as works of art through which I express my view of Europe and globalization. But these works of art come in an unlimited series.
Does that reflect the fact that you sometimes conceive of the artist as an “entrepreneur”?
I imagine the artist as a survivor rather! We live in a society in which everybody, or nearly everybody feels like an artist and declares themselves creative, different. But to be an artist is to create an entire oeuvre and not just one product, even if that product is yourself. If, with an eye to survival, an artist creates a business, I’m not shocked. The freedom to start a business is a fundamental right. Artists’ survival entails perhaps their taking responsibility for themselves and forgetting the state for a bit. We might see that as a way of being able to create, in complete freedom, works of art that might not otherwise see the light of day. It’s also a question of paying your bills. It’s always seemed curious to me to see that the term entrepreneur caused a problem in the realm of the plastic arts, whereas in the other so-called lucrative arts, the fact that an artist, musician, or director creates their own production company was seen as a sign of independence and control over their output. That applies as well to hog farmers and makers of chèvre cheese. Why the snobbism with regard to artists? Is it because the art milieu has been controlled in France, for many years in any case, by bureaucrats, and that in the art milieu people always behave as if money weren’t important?
What is the relationship that your work is developing with respect to power?
The relationship is simple. For me, power is the knowledge to interpret. It is the information surrounding us. With my work and the help of certain classic tools from the humanities, I try to show subjects that I find thrilling and amusing. Information exists and can always be used to serve anyone’s cause. If we apply the same technique to interpreting political power, for example the power of the European Community, distancing ourselves especially from all mass or partisan or advertising information (I think that most of the information we receive is actually advertising in disguise), we can then interpret capital events. By way of proof I am thinking of two of my pieces, The Flag and The Sleeping Commission. In the former, when I place a European flag on the erect penis of a naked immigrant of Mediterranean descent with the caption “A desire for integration” in the 11 languages of the EU, I am responding to the European Commission’s campaign against racism where you would see blacks running for Europe, blacks singing for Europe and gypsies dancing for the same. The crudity and the humorous aspect of my piece are a way of explaining the irreversibility of the arrival of people from the south and the normality of their desire, without the need to run through all the usual clichés so that the majority of Europeans come to like the “foreigners”!
Sometimes, as in The Sleeping Commission, which is a simple white pillow with the heads of the European Commissioners printed on it and placed in a steel structure, I am showing my displeasure as a citizen vis-à-vis the European hierarchy because it has never proved as ineffective as it has at this historic moment, when what is needed is a plan for Europe. Power deserves an interpretation by artists to the extent that we are not representative of that power.
What are your artistic references?
Toshiro Mifune, Cy Twombly, Maradona, Beuys, Bruce Lee and the artists of the quattrocento.
What is your relationship with Peru?
Painful. It is my country, my childhood, the place where my mother lives. It is a vast mess in my head and my favorite subject with my analyst.
What is your next project?
I’m working on several projects at once: “La Nuit des placards,” which is a very personal work on my fears and secrets, and I’m giving mucho thought to the events in Argentina. I am working on the creation of a credit organization for artists that is directly inspired by “Grameen Bank” of Bangladesh, because artists are the Bangladeshis of the West.