The Rules of Play On Human Identity and Social Structures
If you were standing outside the international festival of Latin American film in Cuba and didn’t have the money to attend how would you gain admittance? Would you plan a covert path of entry around security cameras and officials or would you confront security with a fabricated identification card to enter? In 1989 Alexandre Arrechea’s passion for the arts was unwavering to such an extent that he was willing fabricate his identification and the identification for several of his friends. After observing the successful entry of his friends, Arrechea attempted to enter only to be pulled aside and interrogated by the police. Luckily for him the police apologized for their “mistake” and gave Arrechea admittance to the art festival. This event happened while was a student at the national art schools in Cuba. In 1994 Arrechea had graduated from Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havanah, Cuba and began showing his art internationally. During one of his travels in 2005 from Berlin, Germany to Madrid, Spain Arrechea was stopped at customs because of an irregularity in his identification. Several years after this event Arrechea created an exhibition that followed the irony of these life stories titled “What Could Happen If I Lie?” NY, 2007 where he examined how truth can be perceived as falsity and falsity perceived as truth based on the control of information.1 This story serves as a template for the way in which much of Arrechea’s subject matter evolves, that is through personal life history.
In 2003, Arrechea left the art collective Los Carpinteros, which he had been involved with for 12 years, to continue his career as a solo artist. To Arrechea the role of the artist is to give visual form and organization to his conceptions about life, conceptions that are coextensive with his personal life story.2 In his 2010 exhibition titled The Rules of Play, at the Savannah College of Art and Design Gutstein Gallery Arrechea displayed his sculptural and hand rendered visual artifacts. He follow the concept of the “game” which functions as a metaphor for nothing less than the human encounter with the political structures in society. These political structures common to all human experience yet stemming from the Arrechea’s personal struggle with the police at the Latin American film festival in 1989. Arrechea uses his encounters with politics in society to induce conclusions about the human encounter with political structures common to all humanity.
Arrechea’s visual body of work regarding the human encounter with political structures is part of a continuing discourse on political constructs in society that was enlivened by the generation of conceptual artists described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the Pictures Generation between 1974 and 1984. This grouping of artists learned from French philosophers and cultural critics such as Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva.3 The tenor of their critique includes the notion that “…human identity [is] not organic and innate, but manufactured and learned through highly refined social constructions of gender, race, sexuality and citizenship; moreover, these constructions [are] embedded within society’s institutions….”4 In the 1980s Arrechea’s instructor, Flavio Garzandia encouraged the approach of American Conceptualism at Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). When Arrechea received formal training from ISA in early 1990s he continued the critique of the Pictures Generation.5 Arrechea conceptual critique includes some discourse on race and citizenship but largely excludes the topics of gender and sexuality. What then does Arrechea set out to do in his exhibition: The Rules of Play? How does Arrechea approach human identity in a world that has been revolutionized by the invention of electricity and subsequent information processing technology? The world of 2010 is radically different from the world of the 1970s and 1980s. The pictures generation proceeded the information age, an age characterized by mass communication and computer processing systems.6 The information age has brought about dramatic cultural shifts that have connected people not only across the globe but ever more between the private and public arenas of human living. These shifts require a new critique, because new rules of play have seamlessly become a part of daily living. What are the rules of play?
What are the rules of play? The Rules of Play exhibit includes two human sized hands (left and right hand) which resemble the symbolic shapes one might see on a flashing “Don’t Walk” sign at an intersection crosswalk. They evoke a sense of caution. They are covered with a cross-word like puzzle. Letters in Arrechea’s native tongue spell truths and falsities about his personal identity. This piece is titled “What Could Happen If I Lie?” Arrechea harkens back to his life experience when despite the fact the he possessed concrete identification he was still withheld from international travel at airport customs in Madrid. Conversely, fabricated identification achieved the opposite results years before when he visited the arts festival. Arrechea invites us into the nexus of struggle between knowledge7 and power. What the customs agent perceived as true empowered her to exercise control over the travel plans of Arrechea, despite the fact that he was truthfully documented. “What Could Happen If I Lie?” reveals the knowledge/power struggle the is ever more prevalent in an age where information is prolific and identity is ever more exposed and conflated. The French philosopher Foucault helped articulate this knowledge and power relationship. Michael Clifford writes the following about Foucault’s conception:
Truth is not something outside of power; rather, it is the concrete forms effected by the juncture of power and knowledge. Every society is governed by a regime of truth, which consists at the same time of (1) “the types of discourses which it accepts and makes function as true,” and (2) political structures whose function is to articulate such discourses in concrete forms onto the social body.8
It is the “regime of truth” that Arrechea seeks to expose by subjecting us to a crossword game composed of both truths and falsehoods about his identity. A game that depending on which truth is adopted identity is reevaluated under the newly adopted and fabricated regime of truth. Does Arrechea’s personal discourse with truth serve as a microcosm for humanity at large? If so, we all must confront regimes of truth in a struggle to rectify our identity.
“Conspiracy”, 2007 is a folding chair burdened by a multi-story skyscraper. This sculptural piece is 87 inches in height and takes on a stale human presence with its smooth wood and formica surfaces. “Conspiracy” continues the discourse on rules of play that “What Could Happen If I Lie?” began. Similarly, the convayed feeling of this piece yields a sense of urgency given the precariously stacked building structure balanced on a folding chair. A dichotomous relationship is presents itself. The human has been replaced by a building structure and the domestic use of a folding chair seats the public space of the building. Though Arrechea may not have an autobiographical narrative behind this sculpture it brings to us a discourse between public structures and private structures. Our conception of how things should be or what should be true about things is challenged in a discourse. A system of interpretation must be adopted to make sense of the dichotomy. Even a negation of interpretation is a kind of interpretation. It is as if the private objecthood of the chair quite literally appropriates the public objecthood of a building structure. The amalgamation of public and private objects demands an explanation; a regime of truth. Could it be that our personal identity shares a peculiar unity with social structures or institutions in our society? Is our identity grown through the appropriation of certain values, practices or regimens that come from social structures and institutions? Clifford describes this fabrication of self-identity through the appropriation of certain values, practices and regimens as subjectivism.9 The idea of subjectivism or the appropriation of values from cultural is perhaps our way of rectifying the struggle we encounter with regimes of truth. Our personal identity amalgamates with the regimes of truth like the visual manifestation of “Conspiracy” eloquently exposes. In this way Arrechea affirms the maxims of the conceptual artists in the Pictures Generation, which said our identities do not form organically and innately but according to the social constructs in society. The question arises if we can become active or remain passive agents in the growth of our identity.
The piece titled “Sweat”, 2004 is a staged basketball quart depicting only two video projections of a backboard, one for each side of the court. The backboards are opposite each other and a soundtrack unleashes the excitement of a basketball game in the space between. People are not visible, yet their presence non-negotiable all the same. You might feel invited to participate; yet your hopes aren’t too high since the falsity of the environment is obvious. Even so, a struggle between passivity and activity presents itself. What role should you take? It might be silly to actually mimic playing basketball and you are left in a state of passivity.
If we are to take into account the narrative and social message of The Rules of Play in its entirety, then “Sweat”, presents another stage in the Arreacha’s discourse on personal identity in society. The question posed in Sweat is whether or not you define yourself in terms of the fabricated basketball game. You must confront the truth or falsity of the basketball game as a reality and choose to appropriate or deny its influence. Yet again, we might ask does this projected basketball game expose the nature of some institutions in our society that require us to accept or reject the appropriation of their values?
The appropriation of values from institutions and their regimes of truth do not often present themselves to us as something to accept or reject. Rather our confrontation with these regimes of truth is seamless and often transparent to our conscious. Just as the old adage says, “Bad company corrupts good character.” the regimes of truth don’t demand power over us as much as they befriend us and we are exposed to their influence. Arrechea critiques the seamless transparency of these regimes of truth within human life in his sculptural piece titled “Secret Meeting” 2007. Large sheets of plexi-glass are layered side-by-side to form the shape of a lawn chair. Protruding from the layers of glass and taking on the presence of a relining human body is the shape of a battleship. Just as in Arrechea’s sculpture “Conspiracy”, “Secret Meeting” exposes the transparent relation between human identity and public regimes of truth blurring distinction between our private life and public life.
The power that regimes of truth have over us is not like the monarchal power of a king or the demanding presence of a battleship. Rather the metaphor for power is the undetectable and transparent effects of a battleship. This power expresses a Foulaultian kind of power which does not limit a discourse on truth but exposes it and places us in the center of a struggle over what is true and what we know. Power operates much like a surveillance camera might operate, in that, an autonomous and automatic gaze keeps the individual in perpetually in public view and in discourse with regimes of truth.10 The relationship between us and these regimes of truth is automatic and it power is not top-down but lateral and dispersed within society. This perpetual gaze of surveillance is literally addressed by Arrechea in his sculpture titled “The Garden of Mistrust”, a sculptural tree nearly 13 feet high is constructed fruit that has been replaced by surveillance cameras. While this piece is not part of the exhibit The Rules of Play it serves to expose the pervasive effects of power present information age, where regimes of truth are increasingly prevalent.
The Rules of Play is not about the power of outside forces upon us, but in the tradition of a Foucaulian critque of society where power has the influence of a friend and the secrecy of a government operation, where our identity is negotiated in a discourse on truth and the consequences of which mold each us into unique individuals according to the values and societal constructs we adopt. Our worldview is seamlessly altered and challenged by the persistent presence of the gaze and the influx of accessible information that feeds into a discourse on truth.
What is the regime of truth? The institutions and social constructs along with their value systems, inform our identity and are described as regimes of truth. They are perpetuated seamlessly and pervasively like “Secret Meeting” depicts. Arrechea contemplates the institutions and social constructs of the country that once colonized his own, Spain. Within every country that Spain colonized a lighthouse was constructed.11 While Arrechea was still part of Los Carpinteros, he constructed 10 large scale lighthouses each of which represented a country colonized by Spain. This was a critique of the pervasive effects a regime of truth that the Spanish brought to the Latin American identity.
The image of the lighthouse is reconfigured in a watercolor painting by Arrechea called, “La ciudad que dejó de bailar” (The City That Stopped Dancing), 2010 morphs the shape of a lighthouse into and object of play; a spinning top. In this image three tops are depicted. What might Arrechea be saying with regard to the rules of play? This piece might propose more questions than answers. What it does expose, through the metaphor of a lighthouse, is the effective power of colonization and the regime of truth it brings. Colonization brings with it social constructs and value systems that change the discourse on truth. Just as a lighthouse persistently surveys the ocean and functions as a reference point, so the regime of truth come to be the centre of whatever society is constructed. The effects of the regime of truth not only cultivate national politics but the politics of a city.
The regime of truth prevalent in the politics of city life is critiqued by Krzysztof Wodiczko in a series of public art works in the city of New York. Wodiczko used his art to campaign against a New York renovation project that promised to recreate the traditional neighborhoods anew as a way of renewing the identity of those people who lived there.12 The effects of this structural change in New York’s urban landscape fall under the rubric of a regime of truth that claims a guarantee on stabilizing daily life. It’s a kind of soft colonization. The city promoted a method of housing development that stimulated economic growth but at the same time constructed a physical manifestation of regime of truth. This regime of truth used outmoded modes of urban planning drawing upon a philosophy of architecture that exemplified a false sense of social stability.13 Wodiczko uses projection art on the surface of the Astor Building/New Museum of Contemporary Art in a piece called “Projection”, 1984.14 The image of a lock wraps the surface of the building, which gives it a multitude of meanings. Rosalyn Deutche describes the restoration projects under critique by Wodiczko as conduits of surveillance or reverse panopticons, a Foucauldian interpretation of society.15 If these buildings are literal constructs of the New York regime of truth, than Wodiczko’s projection of lock and chain depicts the binding grip this regime could hold on the identity of individuals who might seamlessly adopt its claims on truth. Like Wodiczko, Arrechea exposes the rules of play that a city like New York might subject its people to in public policy. For Arrechea, the lighthouse is an object of warning, which exposes the regimes of truth as they bring wind to the waters of public policy.
Arrechea uses another visual device to warn us of the effects of truth regimes in a sculptural piece titled, “Dust (La Habana)”, 2005 and “Dust (New York)”, 2005. These objects are glass blown punching bags, transparent with rubble or dust from the city in a small pile inside the base of the container. They hang from the ceiling with metal chain and their presence is confrontational because of their human size. These two sculptures are part of a series of 10 life-sized bags, the same number of lighthouses Arrechea used to represent Spanish colonization. “Dust” is also an adaptation of Arrechea’s piece titled, “Alarma”, 2005. “Alarma” is a video installation where a boy uses a metal oxygen tank as a punching bag with the bag hanging as a concrete object an the boy projected on the background mimicking a connection between projection and concrete space. Arrechea recalls from his life in Cuba a time when these large oxygen tanks were used to alert the town of military exercises or US air raids in the 1980s.16 The use of glass blown objects, in “Dust” takes on the symbolism of oxygen tanks used to alert the Cuban people of pending danger or military exercise. As part of the rules of play, “Dust” is yet another exposure of the regime of truth found in the institutions and policies in human societies at large and the politics of the city in particular. The regimes of truth are social constructs in society that we must confront as regularly and necessarily as the oxygen we breathe and the dust we kick up. In this case, Arrechea reflects perhaps from his personal life on the constructs and institutions of New York and Havanah.
The Rules of Play exposes the regimes of truth throughout society that permeate from its institutions and social constructs. As Arrechea reveals, it is a confrontation with what is true of false about our identities as members in an ever-expanding global community. The information age in which we live brings many benefits to humanity, but not without forcing us to reevaluate our global and local societies. In a time when information is widely accessible and the accessibility of knowledge empowers the smallest voices in society Arrechea seeks to expose in public what remains hidden, namely, “the rules of play”. In his video installation “Black Sun”, 2010, Arrechea projects a wrecking ball on the NASDAQ Billboard on the Corner of 43 Street and Broadway, New York, NY. The video of a wrecking ball is in proportion to the scale of a skyscraper and is viewed crashing into the surface of the building and bouncing off. The buildings that house our institutions and represent the valued constructs of our society are intellectual assaulted in the video installation, “Black Sun”. The blinding light of the sun is eclipsed and the values and constructs of our society are publicly exposed in what appears to be a moment of frailty and contradiction. For a moment, the sun is covered. For a moment, Arrechea reveals to us how intimately connected the individual identity is to the social constructs that compose the cityscape of our society. What are the rules of play?
1 Alexandre Arrechea: What Could Happen If I lie?, Miami: Panamericana International Press, 2007, p. 2.
2 Trinie Dalton (trans. Eva Golinger): “Los Carpinteros”, Bomb (Winter 2001/2002: 60-65), p. 65.
3 The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2009), p. 17. 4 Ibídem.
5 Trinie Dalton, ob. cit., p. 64. 6 For more information on the concept of the information age consider reading The Fifth Language by Robert Logan. Logan assess the communication and media theorists: Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis.
7 Knowledge should generally be understood as justified, true belief with a de-gettierizing feature. 8 Michael Clifford: Political Genealogy After Foucault Savage Identities, New York: Routledge, 2001. Tomado de: http://0-www.netlibrary.com.library.scad.edu/Reader, p. 99.
10 Michael Clifford: Political Genealogy After Foucault Savage Identities, New York: Routledge, 2001. http://0-www.netlibrary.com.library.scad.edu/Reader/, p. 108.
11 Trinie Dalton (trans. Eva Golinger): “Los Carpinteros”, Bomb, Winter 2001/2002: 60-65, p. 65.
12 Rosalyn Deutsche: Architecture of the Evicted”, Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Ed. Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung (Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: Oxford. 2008. 292-308) p. 151. 13 Ibídem, p. 151. 14 Ibídem, p. 155. 15 Ibídem, p. 150.
16 Alexandre Arrechea: What Could Happen If I lie?, ob. cit. p. 21.