New artist-run spaces are popping up under every coconut tree on the island of Puerto Rico. Judging by both quantity and quality, the scene is vital. But the perception could be misleading, especially in an uncertain economy, where any downturn is sure to hit artists the hardest. The fact is, this small Caribbean colony of the United States can’t support its own cultural product.
Though the island has plenty of creative energy, the economic support system is fairly feeble. In addition to production costs, artists in Puerto Rico must also underwrite trips off the island to promote their works in the now-global art arena. And art is still cheap in Puerto Rico -- most collectors are reluctant to pay more than $1,000 or so for an acquisition. Subtract the discount and the dealer’s share, and artists are lucky to clear half of what they need for rent, gas and past dues.
Faced with this reality, young artists are increasingly forming collectives and pooling their energies in mutually beneficial ways. These "New Scenesters" have taken to heart lessons learned from local musicians, launching their own exhibition spaces, publications, performance groups and social organizations in order to survive, not only economically but emotionally.The Caguas Scene
One of the most successful new artist-run spaces is called Area, located in the underdog city of Caguas, an easy 25-minute drive south from metropolitan San Juan. Run by artist and curator Quintín Rivera-Toro and entrepreneur and collector Jose Hernandez Castrodad, Area is housed in a 2,500-square-foot space that belongs to Castrodad’s prefab housing company. An impresario who puts his money where his mouth is, Castrodad has helped artists to complete ambitious projects for many years.
Area has been developed as a multiple-use exhibition space, projection room and discussion group. Each week, Area provides an artist with space in which to make a new artwork. Then, every Tuesday night at 7:30 pm, rain or shine, Rivera-Toro becomes discussion moderator and presents a piece as the focus of a public dialogue.
The lineup of artists who have participated so far is fairly long and diverse. Presenters have included, for instance, theologist Fankie Gonzalez, whose multimedia lecture was titled Altered States of Consciousness and Religion in Contemporary Popular Cinema. In his lecture, Gonzalez examined the clichéd poses that actors assume while finding the sublime and divine in movies.
Among the artists who have exhibited at Area are Elsa Melendez, a printmaker who makes three-dimensional renderings of distorted animals; abstract painter Sebastian Vallejo; graffiti artist Bik Ismo; Coa Group, a dance and graffiti collective; and the Brazilian artist and educator Fernando Paes, who recently presented a series of good-looking paintings depicting the image of the Brazilian vagabond. With their shiny but watered-down surfaces and iconic architectural spaces that resemble archeological emblems, Paes’ paintings have philosophical depth as well as atmosphere. Paes is one of the most accomplished artists on the island.
In terms of artistic activity, Caguas has begun to challenge San Juan, and recent moves by Mayor Willie Miranda Marín have proven positive. One was the launch of a local Museum of Fine Arts, a modest space specializing in exhibitions by artists from the area. The city has also commissioned a series of public sculptures, including one by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, a life-size relief of famous Puerto Rican sportsmen that stands ominously in a side street near the plaza at the city center.
And the most ambitious art project in Caguas to date, the Cement Sculpture Biennial, is now in its third edition. The island has a long history with concrete construction, so the project has a special local resonance. What’s more, the mayor is able to find sponsorship in the business community, a kind of support that wouldn’t be forthcoming without his efforts. Old-fashioned political power is awesome when put to use in favor of artists.Metropolitan San Juan
Back in the metropolitan area, in the Hato Rey financial district, where rent is a bit higher than in Caguas, is Tagrom, run by artists Carlos Reyes and Jose Estarellas. Tagrom has a constituency made up of students and recent graduates of local universities, and its openings are notable for both moda (fashion) and Martinis. A recent installation at Tagrom featured installations by two young talents, Alia Farid and Monica Rodríguez, dealing with the self and the body.
For 3Ayuni, Farid attached a group of fake eyelashes to the wall in a work of considerable delicacy that also seems to deal with questions of genre and displacement. Rodríguez’ work, titled 160 Hours of Simple Repetitive Labor, consisted of long strips of beads, assembled by the artist in a process that took 160 hours of labor, the equivalent of working full time for a month. Rodríguez’ installation was a funny take on the macho performances of Santiago Sierra (who has hired illegal immigrants or the homeless at minimum wage to perform meaningless labor).
Closer to San Juan in Santurce is another artist-run space that works with a discreet budget, the orthographically challenging = Desto, founded by Raquel Quijano, Omar Obdulio and Jason Mena. Small and located in the first floor of a residential building with its own peculiar character, the artist-run locale stands beside a tacky and odd pharmacy-convenience store-souvenir shop where all kinds of trinkets sit in glass vitrines, from pre-packaged St. Valentine’s care packets to toothpaste and Tylenol. The name "= Desto" is a Puerto Rican slang expression translatable as "that and this" or "take some of that."
= Desto’s first opening included a performance by Omar Obdulio, a member of the experimental music collective Projecto Pardo, in which the artist gave free haircuts to all comers. Later visitors to the gallery could see the result of the performance via small, intricate drawings made with the collected hair, tiny treasures reminiscent of the delicate hair-and-fabric works of Chicago artist Ann Wilson. The framed works are poetic comments on the body, and the recycled nature of ideas and artistic creation.
Down the street from = Desto is another alternative space, a favorite among my students, called CUBO, which is sponsored by Noctámbulo, a youth-culture magazine. The space, like the magazine, focuses largely on contemporary music, urban fashion and outsider art. Glossy and supported by plenty of ads for Coors Light, Noctámbulo is one of the few publications that has been open to new cultural trends on the island.
A couple of years ago I was pleasantly surprised to find in the magazine an interview with Macoyo, leader of the cult indie band Icaro Azul, chronicling the glory days of the legendary Longbranch bar in Aguadilla, a place that provided a whole generation, during the early ‘90s, with a space to witness new experiments in sound and art. Many of the pioneers of that era still produce art and have successfully become cult figures for the new generation.Puerto Rico West and Independent Music
A magnet for foreigners, the creative hub in the west part of Puerto Rico extends from Aguadilla, between the surfing beach town of Isabela, to the U.S. Naval Base Ramey (site of one of the few terrorist attacks by Los Macheteros, the radical pro-independence group) and the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez. Sunny and hot, the area has produced a wave of independent music, like the dark gothic and industrial Burning Face, the trash-core Golpe Justo, pop rock El Manjar de los Dioses, La Mancha del Jardin (which sold 5,000 copies of its demo tape), the influential ska band Pies Negros and the post-grunge Arnold Layne. These acts blurred the line between what is considered high art, performance and experimental and ambient music.
The "indie" way of the west hub, in which collaboration was used as a tool for emotional, economical and sociological support, was later copied by artists in the metropolitan areas of San Juan, and more recently, by the Reggaetton artists, who have capitalized on it to its fullest.
Contemporary bands and collectives like Un.Real, Superaquello, Balun, Ariel Hernandez and Introdujos, Los Psiconautas, Cornucopia, Trapnel, Claudio Chea, Circo, Astrid Pröll, ELM, Edgardo Larregui, Coco de Oro, Balún, and the hardcore DJ Cadaver, incorporate interdisciplinary practices, not only in their music but in everything from packaging, live visuals and the expression of their sound as conceptual art. In a conversation with artist Gardy Perez (former guitarist of Arnold Layne), and creator of the band Un.Real, he declares, "To draw a line and call what we do music or art is almost sacrilege -- all of it is art."
Some Sonic Projects
Un.Real, a sonic project that Perez developed in Brooklyn during the mid-‘90s, mingles with the younger scene like the granddaddy of a sonic boom. The Un.Real sound is an endless whirl of soothing yet aggressive sounds from Perez’ guitar, accompanied with perfect synchronicity by the rhythm section, the responsibility of Hector Caolo, Sammy Díaz and Carlos Riollano. Perez’s lyrics deal with issues of laziness, depression and instability, and have a sarcastic edge, in the best tradition of what’s known as the "Shoegazer" or "Dream Pop" genres. Perez also works on soundtracks for exhibitions, a practice that dates back to the early ‘90s and is now common on the island.
Another "elder" of the New Scenesters is Superaquello, a music group that incorporates theatrical lyrics with a sound that could be described as bohemian electronica with an emo (i.e., emotional) sensibility. Some of its members have paid their dues in other influential projects, like Jorge Castro, who is also member of Cornucopia, an ambient noise band. And Superaquello’s lead singer, Eduardo Alegria, is a performance artist who inhabits the stage with the finesse of young Morrisey.
Another popular front man is Fofe, the lead singer of rock band Circo and a product of the Longbranch scene. A genius with words and sleaze, at live shows Fofe collaborates with performance artist Freddie Mercado and Maria de Azua in what could be described as burlesque performed by drunken clowns from hell wearing low-budget costumes á la Leigh Bowery.
Circo’s saccharine brand of pop is smart and its historical references to bands like the Rascals, Jane’s Addiction and The Cure are usually misunderstood because of their catchy tunes and Fofe’s sweet and beautiful voice. Circo’s lyrics are in fact quirky and open to all sorts of non-traditional themes. The group’s most popular song, It Was Only an Accident, contains references to a car crash, fruits, animals from the ocean and a betrayal -- all of it adding up to insinuate a sadistic act of anal penetration.
If Circo’s quirkiness is targeted at a wider public, other collectives work squarely on the periphery with a confusing but exiting fluidity. Such is the case of the ensemble of prodigies Oruga, the jazzy, trip hop product of a 15-member collective known as EML (Elastic Module Laboratories). The group was formed by musician Nico Linares, Terrence Withorp (who calls himself a "sound design artist") and spoken-word artist Sasha Lee Alvarez, an undergraduate at Universidad del Sagrado Corazon.
A recent installation by Alvarez has her in confessionary mode, describing a rape in a slow motion on a video. Only a few of her almost inaudible phrases are actually presented to the viewer, via closed captioning. The video monitor, which has a grainy picture and features a surrounding chorus of stuffed little figures made of patterned fabric, provokes a sense of confinement for the viewer.
Terrence Winthorp’s hotdog con todo is a recording made of only one sound that’s 52 minutes long. The piece changes atmosphere and textures but never departs from its monotone inflection and sense of delay.Balún, Los Psiconautas, Cherry Clan
Probably at the core of the New Scenesters is Balún, a group of three musicians who take a lo-fi approach. The electro-acoustic trio makes use of a wide array of instruments and sources, including glockenspiel, synthesizer, drums, laptop, a bit of guitar, toy piano, celtic harp, violin, accordion, voice and found sounds. All are used economically to produce melodies that resemble soundtracks for Atari video games.
A great example is Senecio, a cute, dreamy song in which the lead singer, Angelica Negrón, uses a voice of a six-year-old to describe how boredom turns a few minutes into endless hours -- and possibilities. The song reminds me of The Suicide Club, a Japanese film directed by Sion SONO, in which a group of teenagers are induced by hidden messages in a recording of a popular teeny band to commit mass suicide.
Also cinematic and epic is the psychedelic Los Psiconautas. During the late ‘90s, one of its members, Raymond "Gadget" Acevedo, was known for the pioneering electronica and video-art ensemble Macroporno. In its live performances, Los Psiconautas use a beat-up opaque projector to project onto the stage a variety of hand-propelled images of pink swirls, dictionary texts and other oddities. A wall of sound and monotone voice makes this postmodern band one of the most retro, reflective and thoughtful shows in town.
Less artsy but interesting visually nevertheless is Cherry Clan, a power punk trio whose lack of musical prowess is saved by the potent voice and stage presence of Janis Sanchez. The singer, who looks like a fashionably dangerous doll, describes their sound as electro clash and anime punk.Candela Records & Bar
If most of these multidisciplinary acts find their niches and their exposure outside of commercial galleries (and commercial business hours), then a key role in the expansion of the New Scenesters movement can be attributed to art promoter, curator, and producer Pablo Rodríguez, who runs Candela Records, Candela Bar and the famous Rumba bar, among others. One recent exhibition featured works by the New York artist Swoon, who installed her large-size woodblock prints both in the Candela Gallery and on walls around the city Old San Juan, along with works by Shepard Fairey, who had a wall of limited edition posters in the gallery (only $50 a pop) and some of his trademark installations on abandoned sites around the city. It was a great exhibition of sophisticated urban art that went mostly unnoticed.
Rodríguez also curated "Suncom Art Nites" at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. For this event, a group of Chicago-based artists, including Dzine, Doze Green and Rostarr, made collaborative paintings on a 12-foot-wide satellite dish in a live performance that also involved painting from projected images. The exhibition included large-scale visuals by VJ Demencia (Rene Juan De La Cruz) who, at night, travels around town in his "mobile unit" -- an SUV equipped with a projector -- and projects images on buildings. Demencia’s imagery comes from both pop culture and his own imagination, including patterns and characters designed by the artist himself. His projections have no apparent narrative but do provide a rhythmic, sensorial impact that has the look of fascist graphic art.After Hours
Sex, drugs and alcohol are familiar fuels for creativity and many of the Scenesters party hard. After openings, the celebrations move to cheap "hole in the wall" bars in Old San Juan, bars such as Marrero, where the artists can grab a bottle of the local Medalla beer for a buck and listen to classic salsa tunes on the jukebox.
Café Seda, El Callejón and Niuyorican Café, a club open to all kinds of multimedia presentations, are all located in the same area. Last but not least is the after-hours hangout and dance lounge Pink Skirt, where the Scensters go dancing like it was 1999. About this scene, Gean Moreno, a Miami-based artist and writer who has worked and exhibited in PR, comments, "In my experience, the art scene in Puerto Rico is inseparable from just hanging out around the island. . . . Somehow there is a kind of organic link between being at an opening and hanging out in the patios of the old ma'-n-pa' bars of Old San Juan and going out to the beach or the rainforest. . . sharp distinctions go soft. . . ."
It was at one of those after-opening hangouts, in the company of documentary photographer Michelle Miner and filmmaker Carlos Ruiz, that we came across a flyer with the image of a topless woman and a headline that read "The Bukakees" and "I‘ve been Fucked." The advertisement was for a private performance of the Bukakkes, a group founded by Bernice Gonzalez that is part punk band and part performance art troupe. The all-girl set ranged from hardcore punk to sweet pop. Gonzalez’ voice is drowned out by her instrument, the bass guitar, which she can barely play.
Overall, the act is aggressive and confusing, not least because the troupe seems to include a person who hangs out in the audience, harassing viewers by insisting, constantly, "I’m in the Bukakees, I’m with the band." At the end of every song, and there are only two, the sexy debutante gives a speech to the audience, in which the word "fuckers" is used vehemently. This anti-feminist performance is one of the smartest and most entertaining I’ve seen in a long time.
Records & Radio
These kinds of audio arts have their own methods of distribution: Noisex Records, an operation that specializes in avant-garde bands that rely heavily on visuals; Frecuencias Alternas, the long-running alternative radio show that originates from the Universidad De Puerto Rico; PulsoRock, a web-based forum for conversations and interviews, which includes a calendar of events; and Frente Sonico, a television program. Strangely, local newspapers have not caught the New Scenester wave, despite its variety and its adoption by traditional institutions like Museo de Arte Ponce and the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture.
A recent performance by Edra Soto at the Museo Arte de Puerto Rico, organized by Marysol Nieves, is a good example of a mainstream presentation of the new esthetic. Titled Rhythm Nation, Soto’s performance was a three-hour tour de force with a cast that included a rock drummer, a chain smoker and the artist herself exercising on a stationary bike. With endurance at its center, Rhythm Nation (like the Janet Jackson hit song with which it shares a title) was a cathartic comment on the non-progressive nature of capitalist society and its obsession with fitness.Rigoberto Quintana at Galeria Viota
Some commercial galleries are also taking steps to make their offerings more in tune with the current scene. One of them is Galeria Viota in Guaynabo City, just south of San Juan. Here, the Cuban-born artist Rigoberto Quintana presented a series of altered desks taken from classrooms at the Universidad Del Sagrado Corazón, where he is a teacher. Using the top of the desk as drawing board, Quintana effects a kind of role reversal, where he as educator becomes instead the recipient of subjective information, which he then channels into drawings with imagery that suggest a young adult in the classroom. The result resembles a woodcut or scratchboard drawing, in which the artist cuts lines and forms in a dark surface to uncover light. The skeleton of the desk is black as well, as if in mourning for the absent inhabitants.
Quintana transforms what is normally an act of transgression, usually associated with daydreaming students, into an archeological investigation. The resulting artifacts are loaded with pop icons as well as imagery from the history of art and tribal designs. In one drawing, a flying spark plug propels itself like a rocket straight at the pornographic image of a woman spreading her legs, who seems to rest in a burst of exploding rays. On other desktops, characters from a Jose Campeche painting float in a surrealist sky, aligned with guns, roses, dinosaurs and red smoke.New Publications
Two other publications, Prototipo and Dildo y Culo (which translates as Ass and a Dildo), are dealing successfully with esthetics and the mingling of mediums. Prototipo’s editor, the performance artist and social butterfly Dyanis De Jesus (a former editor of Noctambulo), has a keen eye for what is fashionable in underground culture. With its elegant and smart editorial approach, her magazine translates into simple terms the complicated byways of contemporary urban culture.
On the other hand, the edgy Dildo y Culo is an anonymously produced email scandal sheet that mixes facts and gossip about the local art scene. One recent issue poked fun at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the husband of the museum curator won first prize in an art contest. The issue provided hilarious instructions on ways that artists could prepare to participate in corrupt contests at local museums.
Another issue attacked the lack of originality of the international jury for the Poli/Grafic Triennial of San Juan, for which the self-proclaimed "master artist" Antonio Martorell was included in most of the sections and venues of the huge event, in a move that was considered by many to be self-absorbed and simply stupid. For this cover the headline read, "Martorell sucks my dick."
The perfect line for a generation that won’t take it from anybody.
PEDRO VÉLEZ is an artist and writer vacationing in Puerto Rico.