v.1 is RISD’s student-led publication. Its form and content change from year to year (it’s always “volume 1”).

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Pandemic Publishing ︎

  1. Call for Submissions, SOS Edition
  2. 3.29.20 Irina V. Wang
  3. Let Yourself Be Lifted Jackie Scott
  4. Art Is Everything Jen Liese
  5. Two Poems Ella Rosenblatt
  6. Living Room Dance Party Ariel Wills
  7. On Walking When Walking Is Advised Against Keavy Handley-Byrne
  8. Untitled Cita Devlin
  9. Ads in Corona Hannah Oatman
  10. COVID-19 and Communitas Elaine Lopez
  11. A Time for Pie Elizabeth Burmann
  12. How to Stay Motivated When You’re Stuck at Home Clarisse Angkasa
  13. Coerced Harmony (A Tour) Hammad Abid
  14. Zooming In and Out Tongji Philip Qian
  15. [Form] Ciara Carlyle
  16. Hi.txt Dan Luo
  17. A poem about boredom, a composite Maixx Culver-Hagins
  18. Eyewitness News Tristram Lansdowne
  19. Distance Maps Marcus Peabody
  20. Therapeutic Suggestion Maria Aliberti Lubertazzi
  21. Keep Your Heart Six Feet Away From Mine (and other moments) Arielle Eisen
  22. Twenty Instructions for COVID-19 Charlott Isobel Dazan
  23. Cuerno 1 y 2 Yan Diego Estrella Wilson
  24. A Monolith of Grief Regarding the Absence of Touches, or Letter to a Future Lover García Sinclair
  25. Coronavirus by the Thousands Drew Dodge
  26. Two Poems Kathryn Li
  27. Beds Are Burning Aleks Dawson
  28. Still Lifes Yidan Wang
  29. Fragments of Seva Jagdeep Raina
  30. Packing Up and Staying Woojin Kim
  31. Chronic Pain and Fermentation Ralph Davis
  32. Quarantine Letters Hannah Moore
  33. Sounds of Silence: An Isolation Soundscape Dara Benno
  34. 14 Day Detox for Designers Erica Silver

Winter 2020

  1. From the Editors
  2. The Phantom Audience, or How to “Really Do It” Asher White
  3. Some Dry Season(ing) / 5 Tales in an Embryo Room Yuqing Liu
  4. Throwing Salt, Constructing the Homeland Ariel Wills
  5. Infinity Balloon Man Jack Zhou
  6. Texas Triptych Ali Dipp
  7. Phenomenology of Bones Chris Shen
  8. Erlking Yiqun Zhou
  9. Trouble in Reality Elena Foraker
  10. Family Stories Gina Vestuti
  11. Treasure Reilly Blum

Fall 2019
  1. From the Editors
  2. Architecture and Its Ghosts Xuan Liu
  3. Fit/O!de Jeff Katz
  4. Desde La Chinaca y La China Poblana Ariel Wills
  5. Ballast Tiger Dingsun
  6. Love Letters Brenda Rodriguez
  7. The Anxieties of Plant-sitting Carol Demick
  8. Zadie & Teju Ariel Wills
  9. Smooth Stones Ali Dipp 
  10. Kantha’s Melodies Michelle Dixon
  11. Glory West Megan Solis
  12. The 50 Best Albums of the 2010s Asher White

Spring 2019

  1. From the Editors
  2. A Room without a View: Reflections on Studio Practice from a Privileged Poor Chantal Feitosa
  3. Between the Battlements Jeremy Wolin

  4. Accessing Color: Dissecting the Harvard Art Museum’s Forbes Pigment Collection Makoto Kumasaka
  5. British Club Tattoos Nasser Alzayani
  6. Making Space: Creativity and Resilience in War-Time Sri Lanka Elizabeth Dean Hermann
  7. How to Become Trans: A Proposal for the Modern-Day Gender-Agnostic Asher White
  8. Making It Up: A Conversation with Kent Kleinman Wen Zhuang
  9. “In Peace”: A Conversation with Matthew Shenoda Mays Albaik
  10. Suburbia_hours.mov Nora Mayer
  11. Negative Spaces Emily Wright
  12. Centerfold: Urgency Lab
  13. Rise Up: The Sunrise Movement Takes Root in Rhode Island Irina V. Wang
  14. After Strand Nafis White and García Sinclair
  15. Soldiers of Love? Karen Schiff
  16. Decoding Ghosts Molly Hastings
  17. An Annotated Bibliography Eli Backer
  18. Jesus, Marilyn, and Britney: Relationships between Religion and Celebrity Culture Nina Yuchi
  19. The Social (Antique) Network: Empathy in the Age of Digital Antiquing Zola Anderson
  20. My Little Episodes Michael Brandes
  21. Seeking Fair Game on Hidden Fields Reilly Blum
  22. The Should Be Here Is Not Here Joss Liao
  23. Index of Agency Sophie Chien
  24. Don’t Eat the Models Barbara Stehle
  25. Hypothetical Drink Personality Test: Who Said What, and When? Eliza Chen
  26. Dear Arabic Mohammed Nassem

Fall 2018 

  1. From the Editors
  2. How to Make a Person: A Recipe Mays Albaik
  3. Providence Votes Marcus Peabody
  4. Encounters with the Codex: Redefining Forms of Publication June Yoon
  5. How to Encounter a Puddle Anny Li
  6. A Brief List of Premises from a Maker Stuck with Paper, Politics, and Performance Yasi Alipour
  7. Art Writing and the Place of the “I” Randy Kennedy
  8. Written in Stone: Lineage, Legacy, and Letterforms Irina V. Wang
  9. The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (a Graphic Designer) Tiger Dingsun
  10. Colliers/Necklaces Théïa Flynn
  11. When One Door Closes: Examining Issues of Space and Student Curation on Campus Wen Zhuang
  12. Addressing the Empty Plinth: Lessons from Gallery Shows and Public Art Jeremy Wolin
  13. Modern Usage: In Conversation with Remeike Forbes Eliza Chen and Tiger Dingsun
  14. Dangling Threads: Remaining Unclear in Capital Everett Epstein
  15. A Vagabond Viking Voyage and Midsummer Daydream Mike Fink
  16. Everything is Interdependent Angela Dufresne
  17. La Bolita Elaine Lopez
  18. Bread Day Olive B. Godlee
  19. Against the Archive Satpreet Kahlon

2017 - 2018 

  1. Birds, Bees, and Beyond: The Nature Lab Evolves
  2. Concrete Mixer Drum Solo
  3. Negative Spaces
  4. “Printer Prosthetics” at NYABF
  5. On Writing: Nader Tehrani and Katie Faulkner
  6. On Writing: Marie Law Adams and Dan Adams
  7. On Writing: Kunlé Adeyemi
  8. Connecting Food and Design
  9. Remixing Architectural Discourse
  10. Genesis : 1: Beret Shit
  11. “No voy a actuar en el mundo antes de entenderlo”: Una conversación con Alfredo Jaar
  12. “I Will Not Act in the World Before Understanding the World”: A Conversation with Alfredo Jaar
  13. Imagining Irmgard
  14. Afterwords: Bite
  15. Afterwords: Portals
  16. Afterwords: Calendar
  17. Seeking Drafts

“I Will Not Act in the World Before Understanding the World”: A Conversation with Alfredo Jaar

Tatiana Gómez (MFA Graphic Design 2018)

Alfredo Jaar is a Chilean artist whose conceptual work engages his audience in both intellectual and emotional ways, responding to contemporary ethics, politics, and violence around the world. His background in architecture and filmmaking—he never studied art—is reflected in the way he builds narratives using space, light, and language, among many other materials. This interview, which touches on topics from ambiguity and clarity to the artist’s responsibility in the world, took place in Spanish at the artist’s studio in New York City in March 2018. I translated it and co-edited both the Spanish and English transcripts with the artist.

• • •

TG: You work with both images and language. Can you tell me how you understand the relationship between ambiguity and clarity in language and how you apply it in your work?

AJ: Many of the pieces I have made are pure language. I have made work on paper, neon, and installations that are just text. When I use language, I rarely work with ambiguity. I try to be very clear. This does not mean that the texts I use cannot suggest different readings, even contradictory ones, but the very first meaning of the work is always a quite clear message. If some of my projects have any ambiguity, it is related to the poetic forms that I use in my work. For example, A Logo for America is a project on semiotics that I made back in 1987. My intention was to react against the shocking situation I confronted when I got to this country. I was horrified when I discovered that people said, “Welcome to America” and “God Bless America” when they were referring just to the United States, not the whole two continents. This was shocking to me. For me, America is North and South America and we are all American. Chileans are Americans, Colombians are Americans. The concept of America is treasured. There is a whole romanticism to being American, it has a rich history behind it. I was hurt to see that people from the United States had stolen the word America to refer just to their country. To me, this is a way to erase us from the map. So, when I was invited by the Public Art Fund to make a project, I took it as an opportunity to say something. You have seen it, right?
Alfredo Jaar, Un logo para América, 1987, animación, 45 segundos. Imagen cortesía del artista.

TG: Yes, of course! But I did not know that it had started as a commission by the Public Art Fund.

AJ: Yes. A Logo for America is a forty-five second animation that was shown every six minutes, in the middle of other ads, for a month. It was very controversial. It was in the newspapers, on the TV news, it turned into a media event. I was attacked from all fronts. Even National Public Radio sent a journalist to Times Square to interview people and ask them what they thought about the artwork. You could hear, live, on public radio, somebody say, “This is illegal! How did they let him do that?!”

This is a problem about education, and there is not much we can do about it. But more importantly, it has to do with the fact that language is not innocent. Language is a reflection of geopolitical reality. Therefore, as the United States rules the continents, it is very obvious that, through language, they also dominate the name of the continents. That political, cultural, and social control is reflected in language. And this is something that is not going to change until the domination of the empire of the United States over the continents ends. It is sad, but it is true. It is the geopolitical reality we live in. So, this is how what started as a semiotic piece about language ended up being a very successful project. It is my most reproduced artwork in art books and in school books.

TG: In school books here in the United States? You entered the education system then!

AJ: Yes, school books that are teaching children what America really is. Twenty-seven years later, in 2014, the Guggenheim Museum acquired the animation and to celebrate their acquisition, decided to show it in Times Square again. But Times Square had changed since 1987. Then, there was a single electronic sign, while in 2014 there were more than a hundred and twenty. You have seen how it looks today, correct?

TG: Sure, it is crazy.

AJ: So, in August 2014 at midnight we screened it again simultaneously on sixty signs and repeated it over three days. It was amazing! But something quite extraordinary happened. This work was born as a semiotic project—I have always been very interested in language, semiotics, and signs—but in 2014 the reading of the animation changed. It changed because the Obama administration was in the process of expelling millions of immigrants, almost four million of them. So the meaning itself of being American was being questioned. People were talking about it. Mexicans and Latin Americans in general, some here illegally, were saying, “I am American too.” So in 2014 nobody is talking about the language issue, no, people are talking about the significance of being American. After that, we showed it in Mexico and in Piccadilly Circus in London. The Guardian published an article called “Anti-American Art,” which read the piece as anti-American, when in my opinion there is no artwork as American as this one.

In conclusion, I can say that I completely lost control over this work. And this is one of the cases where, for me, language is not ambiguous at all, it is a reflection of power. Whoever has the power controls the language and adjusts it to their own convenience. This is what is so extraordinary about power. Whoever has the power says: this word means this, but from now on, I decide that it is going to mean this other thing. There is nothing ambiguous about that.

TG: I am intrigued by the Guardian response because I have been thinking for a long time that this way of referring to the United States as America actually comes from the British.

AJ: Well yes, this situation is quite generalized in Europe. When I go to Italy and my friends tell me, “I am going to America next week” I am always correcting them. “Do you mean you are coming to the United States next week?” “Yes, right, I am sorry.” This problem is part of the universal language and is transmitted worldwide through the media, and we have no control over it.

TG: I also want to ask about your perspective on the clarity and ambiguity of visual language.

AJ: It all depends on the goal of the artist, but as I said, I generally do not use ambiguity in my work. For example, in 1992 I made a work titled 1992. In that moment, the European Union was starting to close their borders and expel immigrants. I thought that Europe could sadly become an anti-immigrant fortress, which is exactly what is happening nowadays. So I made this piece where you can see, at the bottom, a section of the flag of the European Union—with the blue background and yellow stars representing the countries of the Union. On the top, I used a horrific fence, an image from a concentration camp for Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. There is no obvious sign that this place is in Hong Kong, so I decided to use this image as a generic one to suggest that Europe was becoming a prison. The composition implies that the circle of stars completes itself with the symmetry of the image of the fence. To me, there is no ambiguity in this piece. I am sending a clear message about what is happening in Europe in 1992. Now it has become so pertinent that we are going to show it again. People will see it and will understand that things have not changed, at least since 1992. So, there are artists who use ambiguity but, I am very Cartesian, and I try to make sense.

Alfredo Jaar, 1992, 1992. Image courtesy the artist.

TG: Yes, you are very generous with your audience and also very responsible. I have read about your research process, how you understand a topic you work with before you decide to bring it to the light. What do you think about your responsibility as an artist?

AJ: This comes from my architecture background. I studied architecture, I never studied art, and for architects, context is everything. For an architect it is impossible to think about starting a project in a specific place without having an understanding of, for example, where the sun rises. Or where is the wind, how is the soil, who lives next door, who is in front? Where does this road take you? These are basic things that, believe me, artists sometimes do not even ask. They make art while totally ignoring the context. To me this is unconceivable. I am an architect who makes art and I use the methodology of architecture where the context means everything. Therefore, my modus operandi, my manifesto is this:

“I will not act in the world before understanding the world. In my practice, the process of research, of understanding the place before acting, is very important. I act only when I reach a certain level of responsible understanding. Only when I fully understand the place do I allow myself the right to formulate ideas, thoughts, and speculations about the place. When I visit a place for a couple days, people invariably ask me: “Do you have any ideas?” No, I do not have any. When I was younger I could have ideas in two seconds. But I have done this for so long that I have trained myself and reached a point where I know how to control myself and I do not allow my brain to think about any ideas because they are very likely to be stupid. They will not resist the passing of time if I have not fully understood the place.

TG: As a graphic designer I relate very much to your research process, but I wonder: How do you digest all the information you work with? Do you have a formula to balance the strong topics you constantly work with? Does it ever become an overwhelming task?

AJ: Well, I am used to it. I have always done it like this and I have grown a sort of alligator skin, if you know what I mean. I think we can all develop these psychological or mental abilities to deal with certain tasks. It takes time and a lot of experiences in different places on the planet—many of them terrible ones—but I have built psychological tools to be able to do this kind of work. 

TG: The Rwanda Project—a series of projects in response to the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s—involved a very long and I would imagine very difficult process. Can you tell me more about this particular experience?

AJ: I worked on that project for six years and it probably would take forever to explain it in detail. But to answer your question, I can say that I faced a very hard situation in Rwanda, the hardest I have ever had in my life, and I did not have any answers. Nobody had answers for that horror. What I did is that I collected data to try to understand, to be responsible with the material I had. Then I decided to turn the Rwanda Project into a series of exercises. I knew that I was going to fail, so the exercises were failed exercises even before starting them. It was a situation I did not master. I had never done something like this, so I was just going to make exercises. I wanted to learn from each of them and be able to apply what I had learned to the next exercise. That is what I did and I ended making twenty-five projects in six years. The exercises relieved me from the fear of failing, allowed me to learn but also to release everything I had accumulated inside of me. In the end some of the projects ended up being better than others, but the most important thing is that I learned so much through those six years. I always say that in my career there is a pre-Rwanda and a post-Rwanda. The strongest effect that it had in my practice was that I had always used photography in a more indiscriminate way that I do now. After Rwanda I learned to have much more respect for the images I work with and to use fewer images. I think that this summarizes what Rwanda represents for my practice.

TG: I want to ask you about your relationship with Chile nowadays. You left the country in a very complex moment and since, it has changed a lot.

AJ: Yes, I left Chile in 1982 in the middle of the dictatorship. I did not show my work there until 2006, when I returned with a large retrospective. At that moment, a beautiful encounter was triggered with the new generation of artists, and since then I have had a much better relationship with my country. Also, we are now a democracy. I had a lot of trouble with people from my generation when I lived in Chile, so I have always felt like there is a chasm between us. But with the new generations, things are different. I come back to Chile with pleasure now and I have had small exhibitions there once in a while. Now people there—from the art world and also the general public—know about my work. In 2013 I got the National Prize of the Arts (Premio Nacional de Arte). I also created a memorial for the victims of the dictatorship for the Museo de la Memoria in Santiago. This work gives me a certain presence in Santiago as it is part of the permanent collection. All these things have straightened my presence in Chile’s cultural life.

Alfredo Jaar, The Geometry of Conscience, 2010. Museo de la Memoria, Santiago de Chile. Image courtesy the artist.

TG: Your piece at the Museo de la Memoria is so beautiful. I am happy that Chileans have the chance to experience your work at home now. I have one last question. I know that you start your day reading newspapers from all over the world and accumulating information from different sources. In terms of politics, what is on your mind these days?

AJ: I think that our generation is facing an unprecedented political reality. I find it exhausting, depressing, and I think that, until now, we have not found the right models, in the world of culture—nor in the political world either but I am interested in culture—to react to this new political reality that we are living in, in this country and in the world. It is a world-wide phenomenon. Trump is not alone, a dozen fascists like him have emerged in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. We are living a sort of new fascism that makes me very nervous. And I am very pessimistic in this regard, as I do not see that the opposition to these fascist winds has created an adequate model to counteract, to confront them, to defeat them. And that is where we are.         

TG: That is why we need to keep making art.

AJ: That is right.

TG: Thank you, Alfredo.