Atlas San Juan: Tropical Depression

Pablo Delano: Museum of the Old Colony (detail), 2015–17, 59 inkjet prints. Courtesy Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, San Juan. Photo Antonio Ramírez-Aponte.

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IN MAY 2016, novelist Juan López Bauzá published an entry on his blog, where he posts what he calls “texts from a sinking colony.” Describing the fiscal challenges facing his native Puerto Rico, López Bauzá employed an extended metaphor: “It seems that we are still at the stage of cyclonic gusts that precede the storm at its peak. Still none is sustained wind. If the economic crisis were a category 5 hurricane in real life, the eye would be Southeast of Vieques moving Northwestward at an eighth of an hour per mile, scheduled to enter the East Coast of the island, between Ceiba and Humacao, at the beginning of the month of July.”1 In September 2017, metaphor and reality collided.

Puerto Rico has been making international headlines since June 2015, when then governor Alejandro García Padilla declared the United States territory’s bond debt unpayable. Puerto Rico’s notoriety has only increased in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as images of the disaster went around the world, and the negligent emergency response from federal and local officials became evident.

The ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis predates the hurricane. The storm exacerbated chronic problems associated with a stagnant economy, a colonial client state relationship with the US, endemic corruption, and the legacy of an assortment of half-baked neoliberal development initiatives that have been foisted on the territory for the past thirty years. In fact, the current economic decline began in 2006 with the expiration of a 1976 tax code provision known as Section 936: a package of financial incentives for American manufacturers to operate on the island. Lawmakers in the US had once prioritized development in Puerto Rico, if only to counter the allure of Communist Cuba. But with the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the island was left to languish.

With high rates of emigration and a shrinking tax base, the local government took on more and more loans, eventually accumulating over seventy-three billion dollars in bond debt. The crushing austerity measures that have been imposed on the population to narrow the deficit include the firing of thousands of government employees since 2009 and the closure of over three hundred schools last year. Most drastic of all, in June 2016, the US Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which introduced the Federal Oversight and Management Board. Known locally as the Junta, this board has near total control over Puerto Rico’s finances. Clayton Gillette and David Skeel Jr., the American legal theorists behind the plan, have referred to it in their academic writing as a “dictatorship for democracy.”2

The Junta has already scaled back the local government’s powers, effectively stripping the territory of the relative autonomy codified in its 1952 constitution. The government has used its limited tax policy authorities to stimulate the visitor economy, foster tech start-ups, and entice foreign investors to live in Puerto Rico with special tax rates. These initiatives, of course, horrify many of us who believe the territory should find a path to sustainable development that doesn’t rely on temporary tax gimmicks.

For years, journalists have compared Puerto Rico to Greece, Detroit, and New York of the 1970s, prompting myriad articles about its economic woes and the population’s resilience. Central to many of these stories are inspiring narratives about artists and entrepreneurs responding to the crisis. Indeed, since Hurricane Maria, the art scene in Puerto Rico has become, if anything, more visible. The last time this kind of attention was paid to the territory’s artists, curators, and writers was in the aftermath of a wave of civil disobedience that began in 1999 to protest the killing of David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian security guard at the US Navy base on the island of Vieques who was hit by an errant bomb. The incident sparked widespread resistance to the US military’s presence in Puerto Rico—long a source of grievance—eventually leading to the closure of the base.

This wave of activism coincided with the emergence of a strong, socially engaged art scene, anchored by M&M Proyectos, a residency program led by curator Michy Marxuach and supported by many collaborators. Marxuach also co-organized international exhibitions, symposiums, and online discussion forums. These initiatives still resonate today because they were among the first opportunities for artists to contextualize their work in relation to global production. Puerto Rico’s art world became more international overall during these years, through increased participation in biennials, public art commissions featuring local and foreign artists, the establishment of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) in 2000, the inauguration of a remodeled building for the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC) in 2002 and the reinvention of the defunct San Juan Print Biennial as the Poly/Graphic Triennial in 2004, spearheaded by Mari Carmen Ramírez, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The enthusiasm of the new millennium was dampened by the economic crisis that started in 2006. Many commercial galleries closed. Still, artists and cultural workers continued to establish their own organizations. One such project is Beta-Local, founded in 2009, which provides an alternative education program for artists and other arts professionals, as well as an international residency and public program series.

Exhibition and gathering spaces, most located in the neighborhoods of Old San Juan, Río Piedras, and Santurce, have provided an essential outlet for artists and created a sense of community. Diagonal, El Lobi, El Local, Km 0.2, Hidrante, Taller Malaquita, Souvenir 154, La Casa de los Contrafuertes, Clandestino 787, Taller Secreto, and Recinto Cerra are among the most important venues to emerge over the past decade. The now closed Estación Espacial, Zawahra Alejandro, La 15, Espacio 20/20, Mondo Bizarro, La Loseta, and La Productora also fostered Puerto Rican artists at the grassroots level. These organizations range from shared studio spaces to galleries attached to bars or cafés to relatively professional institutions with curatorial agendas and an international profile. In a small place where careers in the professional art world can only progress so far and the preferred escape valve has always been migration to the US, such institutions provide an incentive to stay on the island. In the aftermath of the hurricane, some of these same spaces also provided ad-hoc assistance to their immediate communities and even organized relief brigades that traveled throughout the island.

 

TO SAY THAT last year’s Hurricane Maria disrupted the frail equilibrium of the art scene would be a massive understatement. On the institutional front, damages to the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, which owns historical buildings and collections ranging from archeological artifacts to contemporary art, have not been officially revealed. Over the past few years, the budget has been progressively cut, leaving barely enough cash to cover basic operating costs, but not enough to program its gallery spaces. It was recently announced that the much anticipated National Exhibition will open later this year, but the organizing body has not issued an official statement about the plans for the fifth edition of the San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial. This lack of accountability and transparency is a disappointment to the arts community.

More important, Puerto Ricans are still reeling from the official report, released only in August, that nearly three thousand people died in the storm. The mental stability of a whole country has been thrown out of whack. Darkness, literal and metaphorical, enveloped Puerto Rico. Shady deals were struck to provide emergency supplies and services, Donald Trump threw paper towels to people in a shelter, and Congress denied any kind of debt relief, offering more loans instead. Even as most of the population remains vulnerable, a textbook implementation of disaster capitalism, to borrow activist Naomi Klein’s term, is well under way. The shock of the storm has, if anything, accelerated the Junta’s plans to transform Puerto Rico into a tax haven—high-profile cryptocurrency hucksters like Brock Pierce have already moved here—and to advance the visitor economy.

The term “visitor economy” denotes the economic activity— goods consumed and services rendered—by people who visit a place. Prioritizing the visitor economy can affect practically all aspects of life, transforming a society to serve the visitor. Hospitals can be medical tourism destinations, and university systems can be geared toward foreign students paying high tuition. A vibrant art scene can make a place a “great destination,” creating a permanent performance of culture and nationality in which spectacle is encouraged and the long-term sustainability of the artistic community is mostly neglected. For Puerto Ricans, all this prompts the question, whose idea of paradise are we building? Are we even expected to stick around?

Two recent exhibitions exemplify this dichotomy: “Contemporánea Internacional. Nuevos coleccionistas en Puerto Rico” at MAPR, and “Entredichos” (In Question) at MAC. “Contemporánea Internacional”, which opened in July and is the first post-hurricane show at MAPR, offers a selection of works from seven local collections. According to an exhibition wall text, the show aims “to facilitate the enjoyment of contemporary art for all audiences, reaffirming its mission to make art from Puerto Rico and the world accessible.” Organized by MAPR chief curator Juan Carlos López Quintero, the presentation is messy, providing few clues as to why it matters that these works are being shown together at all. Regardless of the merit of the works—which are mostly by international artists, including Martin Kippenberger, Maurizio Cattelan, Ana Mendieta, Neo Rauch, Cindy Sherman, and Anish Kapoor, as well as well-regarded Puerto Rican artists such as Jesús “Bubu” Negrón, Gamaliel Rodríguez, and the lone local female artist, Dhara Rivera—the exhibition misses the mark by fostering the illusion of normalcy. A display of things devoid of serious ideas, “Contemporánea Internacional” seems to come out of a need to present an aspirational, celebratory, albeit empty grin to the visiting public. Everything is all right, please come again.

In contrast, “Entredichos” was organized less than three months after the hurricane. The accompanying text, by director Marianne Ramírez Aponte, reads like a statement of purpose for the institution. She stresses the need for museums to be aware of the values, structures, and practices that they legitimize. The museum’s role as facilitator of experiences and images, Ramírez Aponte argues, determines how art is consumed in Puerto Rico and who has access to it. Socially engaged institutions should offer a glimpse of “the best goals for social development for Puerto Rico, taking always into account our island’s and our people’s dignity, and in dialogue with the rest of the world.”3 The exhibition featured a selection of recently acquired work by Puerto Rican artists who address the territory’s history of social and political struggle.

A representative project was Pablo Delano’s Museum of the Old Colony (2015–17), an installation comprising archival photographs and films of Puerto Rico, most of which were created by US photographers and filmmakers to represent life in the territory to US audiences. Delano’s juxtapositions of different images—depicting alluring landscapes, agricultural laborers, interactions between American colonists and “natives,” and triumphant military parades—suggest the colonial attitudes, racism, and “othering” implicit in the films and photographs. Though much of Delano’s source materials date to the early twentieth century, the attitudes they embody remain prevalent, with PROMESA providing a stark clarification of the uneven relationship provided by Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” status.

The values Ramírez Aponte invokes in her curatorial statement were manifest as the museum became a hub for artists’ recovery after the storm. As part of their “MAC in the Barrio” initiative, a program to combine art classes with social services for San Juan’s poorest, the museum served as a collection and distribution site for foodstuffs and other essentials, ran a school program that replaced lost school days with activities in the museum, created a psychological support and art therapy program, offered assistance for those artists completing applications for grants, and aided in the rescue and conservation of artworks.

These efforts complemented those of smaller arts organizations. Beta-Local was able to secure over $350,000 from US–based nonprofits and individual donors for El Serrucho (The Handsaw), a post–Maria emergency fund for artists and cultural workers. Through a regranting process, applicants were able to receive up to $10,000 to mitigate lost income, property, materials, and works, as well as to subsidize new projects. Existing collaborative projects also turned toward emergency efforts. Escuela de Oficios (Trade School), for example, a project organized by artist Jorge González that supports artisans and organizes workshops around the island, sprang into action to help its collaborators return to their work with traditional craft techniques. Scholars and students in the diaspora have also been instrumental in channeling institutional support back to Puerto Rico. Numerous universities temporarily received Puerto Rican undergrads, and some summer fellowships were granted at New York University and Princeton. In a show of solidarity, a number of artist residencies held specific open calls for Puerto Rican artists.

 

IS A CRISIS still a crisis when it’s the permanent state of living? Many in Puerto Rico’s art community rallied to secure an emergency safety net and provide mutual aid, but more than a year after the storm, the issue of sustained support for the arts community is as relevant as ever. Recently, Northwestern University’s performance studies program put in place a two-year professionalization program in collaboration with MAC. The university is also sponsoring a residency program called La Espectacular at the independent San Juan art space Diagonal. Confronted with the progressive dismantling of the state, residents are finding power in self-organizing, but the necessity for seed money remains. To mitigate this, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer of the musical Hamilton, recently established Flamboyán Arts Fund and announced its multiyear project to support the cultural sector beyond the immediate relief effort.

Individual artists, meanwhile, have returned to their daily lives. Puerto Rico has always had advertising campaigns—whether by banks, beer companies, or the tourism board—that seem to stoke the population’s self-esteem, invoking pride in national achievements and highlighting the island’s natural beauty. Lately, popular culture has been flooded with feel-good motivational phrases that encourage Puerto Ricans to power through the crisis. Eye rolls and ironic laughs abound whenever popular phrases like “Puerto Rico se levanta” (Puerto Rico rises) or “Yo no me quito” (I don’t quit)—the latter officially copyrighted by a car dealership some years ago to boost morale among its employees—are heard in the media or seen on a t-shirt. For some people, these phrases, however corny, provide real motivation and a sense of purpose. A more accepted positive note was sounded by Puerto Rican trap sensation Bad Bunny, whose song “Estamos bien” became a mantra for the summer. Are we really doing well, though?

Among the artists who have addressed this question is Rafael Vargas Bernard, a noise musician, performer, and visual artist who creates installations and interactive sound sculptures, programs robots to draw for him, and uses sensors that transform colors into sound. At a moment when the hurricane damages seemed overwhelming and the weather images too abstract, Vargas Bernard created a series of robotic drawings that feature schematic maps of Puerto Rico with Maria’s trajectory drawn on top. Interactive “synth sticks” of his own design respond to the colors he used on these maps, producing an array of dissonant sounds. The piece Se voló la puerta and everyone could see inside (The door blew off and everyone could see inside), 2017, consists of a broken door hanging from the ceiling. By embedding speaker parts that vibrate according to the speed and direction in which it is swung, the door itself becomes a speaker blaring sounds reminiscent of wind gusts. Recordings made during the storm were used as reference to design the algorithm that generates the sounds.

For many artists, daily life post–Maria means work in the hospitality industry. As the impact of international media and tourism grows, there is an increasing awareness of how Puerto Ricans are looked at by visitors. Writer and illustrator Mariela Pabón’s hilarious zine Turistas includes cartoon depictions of cringe-worthy interactions with American tourists that she experienced during her front desk shifts at an Old San Juan boutique hotel. “Here’s my credit card, please don’t steal it,” says one woman. “You Puerto Ricans are so colorful,” declares another. José López Serra—a photographer who runs the gallery Hidrante in Santurce, the first art space in the city to reopen after the hurricane—went to great lengths to photograph the aftermath of the hurricane, all while holding a day job at another hotel’s front desk. The series was published by Independent Curators International.

Artist and Beta-Local codirector Sofía Gallisá Muriente told me in a recent email exchange that, in the context of permanent crisis, the drive toward “decolonization forces an engagement with media beyond a subservience to the outside gaze.”4 Some of her work is directly related to the aesthetics, ideology, and impact of the tourism industry. Created before the hurricane, her video B-roll (2017) comprises promotional material that the García Padilla administration used to attract American investors to Puerto Rico. This extra footage is usually used to enrich storytelling and give editors flexibility in constructing a project. By focusing only on the B-roll, the artist emphasizes the visual tropes recurrent in this type of marketing of the Caribbean. A drone camera glides over the land, surveilling and making it simultaneously photographable, marketable, and controllable. These are the views of paradise future investors would enjoy on their own helicopter trips. Techno music contributed by a local DJ, Daniel Montes, accompanies audio from the interviews in the unseen A-roll, as well as recordings of investors who moved to Puerto Rico to avoid paying US federal taxes, which the artist herself made while attending the Puerto Rico Investment Summit in 2016. It’s clear the visualization of spaces is key to possessing them, and the underlying idea of “development by invitation” of the 1950s has changed very little in the colony.

In a similar vein, while on a residency immediately after the hurricane, Roberto “Yiyo” Tirado started experimenting with drone footage of Puerto Rican cities that showed numerous houses roofed with blue tarps. In a developing body of work that includes painting, photography, and digital imagery, he has explored the inherent power and multivalent associations of the color blue, juxtaposing depictions of the tarps used to cover roofless homes with stereotypical images of the Caribbean skies, beaches, and resort pools.

The relationship between memory, awareness, and the physical state of the island after the hurricane is key to understanding life post–Maria. López Bauzá recently published a book that had long been in development: El resplandor de Luzbella (The Glow of Luzbella), an allegory of Puerto Rico, tells the story of a journalist sent to interview the president of Luzbella, a mysterious island in the Atlantic. Rumors abound about the country’s perceived economic prosperity and political stability, yet very little is known about the place. How has it managed to stay hidden for so long? His novel presents an alternate reality for the “sinking colony” described on his blog, providing a roadmap for how we could be living in a more just, equitable society—exactly what we want to build after Maria.