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To speak means to come forward and to locate oneself in one’s sphere of existence; it means to claim a modest quantum of agency.
Michel de Certeau1
My introduction to the work of Minerva Cuevas was Drunker (1995), a videotaped action in real time of the artist sitting alone and writing at a school desk whilst drinking her way through a bottle of tequila. Exhibited alongside the video were the sheets of writing paper, inscribed with such self-reflective statements as ‘I drink not to feel… I’m not drunk… I drink to talk… I’m not drunk… I drink to forget… I drink to remember…’, which traced the descent into incoherence and, according to the artist, total amnesia. On the face of it Drunker seems like a purely personal act with little political resonance. Cuevas’s written statements, however, point to a different narrative, one in which substance abuse is a means to ‘obliterate’ the anguish of trauma, where the sufferer is caught between the compulsion to bear witness to the catastrophe and the impossibility of articulating it. Alone at her desk, the drinker has no witness but the mute, voyeuristic gaze of the camera — and ultimately the empty bottle, which, given the trajectory of Cuevas’s subsequent work, we may retrospectively suggest figures the anaesthetic effect of capitalist consumerism. The problem for the witness to trauma is in finding a language capable of transmitting empathetic recognition of the experience in the receiver. It is tempting, therefore, to regard Drunker as the ‘ground zero’ from which, through experiments in colonising public space and communications systems, including street interventions, gallery installations and her website, Cuevas’s work forges
Michel de Certeau, The Capture of Speech and Other Political
Writings (trans. Tom Conley),
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.98.↑
Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and
Modernity in the Nineteenth Century,
Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1992, p.10.↑
Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, London and New York: Routledge, 2005, p.28.↑
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967, trans.
Fredy Perlman and John Supak), Detroit:
Black and Red, 1983, paragraphs 160 and 157.↑
M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (trans.
Steven F. Randall), Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984, pp.91—92.↑
M. de Certeau, The Capture of Speech, op. cit., p.93.↑
Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy
(ed. Josué V. Hari and David F. Bell), Baltimore
and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, pp.xxv—xxvi and 66—67.↑
Mexico’s native asphalt used since Olmec times (c.1500—400 BCE)
as a waterproofing agent,
commonly applied to clay figures.↑
J. Crary, Techniques of the Observer, op. cit., p.9.↑
Ibid., p.18, note 26.↑
Cuevas’s The Battle of Calliope comprises a music box
manufactured in Germany by Kalliope and dated
c.1900, a C-print, a percussion score by Gordon Odametey, steel discs and an electronic circuit. In Greek
mythology, Calliope (‘the beautiful-voiced’) was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, and the muse
of epic poetry commonly represented by a stylus and waxed tablet. In Germany Kalliope is the name
adopted by the Staatsbibliothek of Berlin for its online project of an networked information system,
which is especially focused on their collection of autograph manuscripts.↑
Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (trans.
Gabriel Rockhill), London and New York:
Continuum, 2004, p.13.↑