Won’t somebody please think of the children?! At a time when few people question how their actions will affect future generations, Oaxacan artist and activist Saúl López Velarde is inviting children in the Abastos Central Market to step onto ‘The Balcony‘ in order to see all the possibilities that are unfolding before them. But he’s not all about the future, he works for the present, for what is happening now, and adults are invited to have a look as well. López Velarde has a magical and powerful ability to fuel action; an ability that is more transcendental than transitional. In this interview we’ll learn more about his projects and the things that captivate him.
How would you define yourself and your work?
I would define myself as a sociologist, removed from the academia. I am particularly interested in the processes and projects that delve into intellectual emancipation and communities as resources for identifying ourselves as intelligent beings.
Performance is constantly present throughout your work. How did your passion for it begin?
It started when I was studying Sociology and building a research project. I found that the concept of performance exists within Sociology. A performance is something that can be done, something that is happening now. It’s an unfinished concept that builds itself as people inhabit it, use it. I began doing some artistic performance and realized that my main interest was the ‘performance of life’. I also explored concepts such as theatricality and came to understand that performance and theatricality belong together and can trigger many interesting projects.
Starting with this theatricality, what is the first image that awoke your interest in performative art?
I can recall seeing a man who was writing on a metal door. It was noon, and the door was very hot. He was writing with saliva and the letters would erase as he wrote them. I found this fantastic! How great it is to imagine there is a kind of writing that disappears immediately, that it is nothing but what happens at that very moment.
What did you like the most about growing up and living in Oaxaca?
Well, I am from Oaxaca, it’s my origin. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all born in Oaxaca. I come from a family of artisans (jewellers), and I have a profound admiration for my family and for what they have achieved here. I also like having intimate references with the city, like understanding the whistled language or having memories from my childhood in the Zócalo or Santo Domingo. Oaxaca has very particular features that you get to know over time.
If there’s a chance for children to discover they have a voice of their own, that they can dance, paint, think, be heard and seen, then everything changes…
What would you say is your role as an artist and activist in Oaxaca?
I think I’ve always been drawn to boundaries and limits. I’m a mobile element; I have no problem socializing with anyone and that allows me to break the limit, to be right on it, or to respect it. I think I am a discoverer of emancipation. I’ve discovered that, in a way, we are all equal and that has liberated me. I do think my job is associated with activism but it´s also related to an ethical position. You don’t spend energy on what you’re doing, but on the way you are performing it.
Inside the Abastos Market you have an amazing project, El balcón (The Balcony). Can you tell us about it?
It’s a project that started during a course about the urgency of theatre. El Balcón is inspired by Jean Genet’s text Le Balcon. Le Balcon is a brothel where people go to impersonate positions of power. The most interesting thing about this text is observing where people place themselves inside the power scheme. Power is always there and we wanted to see how a performance of power builds itself in a given place or situation, so we chose the Abastos Market. Well, we started in a weird way. We had this idea, quite chilanga* to be honest, of fostering a community theatre. We were convinced that we were going to have a final piece within one day, or a few hours. I no longer think that way but back then our goal was to do a casting with the people who worked in the market. We wanted them to do an acting out, an improvised representation of power. Currently, one of our purposes is to trigger theatricality, exaggerated actions oriented towards art and performance, as well as a kind of activism.
Why did you choose the Abastos Market?
We needed a place with a dense entropy, where energy would be released by itself. We decided La Central was the best location as it had a particular distribution of private and public spaces. Every day more than 12,000 vendors work there. It’s a microcosm in which we can see our country represented. We can see the whole system within the market’s condensed universe; capitalism and resistance, boundaries and limits.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the Abastos Market with El Balcón?
Our major challenge was getting people from the market to trust us. The first thing we organized was a masquerade. We had a street salesman offering masks but it didn’t work because it was very theatrical, very absurd. So, we decided to get people involved through a poll about who were the most powerful people in Oaxaca, in Mexico, and in the world. We selected the most voted for characters and created their masks. One day these powerful ones ‘showed up’ at the Market. People were laughing and making jokes. We established that power was our theme. We appealed to people’s gaze. They were watching, enjoying. It was a theatricality that was generated from our mask-acting and from the candid inactivity of the market sellers.
It seems that El Balcón’s history is based on the unexpected. How were the project’s workshops developed?
The workshops started randomly when a Japanese friend of mine was unable to take all her books back to Japan with her. As part of this chilanga banda* idea mentioned before, we wanted to provoke something intense in the market, so we told her to come and sell her books here and we’d see if anyone tried to remove her. But it happened exactly the opposite way, it was amazing! Children started to come closer. The books were written in Kanji and they complained that they couldn’t read them, so my friend suggested making origami out of the book pages and the kids were tripping with origami. We touched a sensitive button; we were sharing through otherness; a cultural difference was the starting point of this exchange. That’s when our work really started. We began with courses in cinema, visual arts, photography… Thus, El Balcon started with the so called ‘transitional actions’. The goal was to build trust in the community and have a positive impact through creative activities. On the other hand, the performative actions started developing as a result of our constant presence.
Among El Balcón’s transitional actions is the wandering library called the Diablito de los libros. What is its purpose?
It is very difficult to keep up with El Balcón’s rhythm; we had to have something permanent that would build trust over a long period of time. We wanted something stable, but nomadic at the same time, something that wouldn’t provoke fear or disapproval, so we started with this ‘pedestrian library’, moving across the Central Market and nearby areas with a very particular selection of books. Reading is considered a good thing, it starts from art and builds trust and community (we read in groups). This is how the El diablito de los libros (The Books’ Little Devil) started. People would wonder, what or who was the Little Devil – they thought it was a play – and then they would realize it was a diablito de carga*, jajajajaja!
What are the children´s favorite books?
There is one, “Where The Wild Things Are”. This book has been read a trillion times, it’s been torn apart. Children love monsters, misbehaviour, naughty things. They also like books with lots of images and animals. We’re not crazy about long readings, we prefer brief, impactful readings. The books that can be acted are fantastic because we do a lot of reading and comprehension. Obviously, Jean Genet’s Le Balcon has been included in the selection so people can understand the purpose of the activism we carry out.
What changes have you perceived thanks to the work of El Balcón, and in whom?
The children and their parents. When children spend time in the workshops they get along better, they socialize and share memories. They grow together and become good friends. Specifically, we have triggered a confident attitude towards art. People are no longer afraid of plays. They accept music too; well… the market is familiar with music anyway. We wanted to show that these ‘happenings’, these circles of trust happen inside the market with or without us. In the end we, El Balcón, are only parasites. In fact, the project’s full name is “The Balcony, Parasitic Mechanism of the Central Market”.
Have you met children who work at the Abastos Market ?
Most of the children work, but we cannot say that they do and that makes their work invisible, in my opinion. Since it is ‘forbidden’ for children to work, nobody says they work; no, they ‘help’… Some are exploited and this is precisely why they need to engage in other activities and go to school. It is not a rule, but the more time children spend inside the family stall, the more they work. On the other hand, working and helping their parents makes them part of the community; the Abastos Market is a work-based community in which they are being trained to face life.
Oaxaca has major educational challenges. Do you think initiatives like El Balcón could raise the quality of education if they were incorporated into official school programs?
Yes, of course. Parents and civil society have to get involved with schools, it would be fantastic. It is clear that these kinds of projects generate discussion and processes that are not part of the orthodox school programs. Most of the time, art is the ultimate realm of freedom and self-knowledge. I don’t know when we left all the responsibility of our children’s education in the government’s hands…
Do you think you’ve broken paradigms or brought an innovative approach to getting involved with art in Oaxaca?
In theatre there are four conventions: text; drama; stage; and actors and audience. We have broken them all. Actors are not actors, they are audience; text doesn’t exist, it is created at that very moment; the stage is unusual. We move away from the convention to observe it, we appeal to contradiction and to what is occurring at the moment. In a social aspect we have also broken the paradigm of what we are, of what those inside and outside the market think they are. The idea that children don’t have a voice of their own or that they don’t move around the market has been shattered. We have destroyed this attempt to see them with pity and instead, we talk about the possibilities they have. I had the idea that we wouldn’t reach the country’s most powerful institutions via the Market. I was wrong. Everyone has done something for those that have nothing, for those that apparently have no power. How ironic convention and power can be!
There are many performative arts within the Oaxacan culture of celebration (mayordomias, calendas etc*) Do you think performative art goes beyond these celebrations?
Yes, it goes way beyond, it goes right into the ‘Realm of Life’. In general, what one lives, feels or acts is a performative action. Moreover, the community-based processes in Oaxaca are very present – in the village’s political organization, inside schools and markets, during assemblies and celebrations. The Oaxacan culture is a performative one.
If you were preparing a performance where you had to be an Abastos Market stall, which one would you be?
There are many, but if I had to choose one, it would be a movie piracy stall. It has all the resources: a screen, many movies, sounds, stories. People come to see what’s going on. You can communicate broadly through a light, through electricity that turns into something amazing. The stall is also kind of shady, clandestine. It depicts wickedness, darkness, treachery, theft… but it is done with a deal of beauty. It is interesting to approach the beauty behind all that has been set aside and silenced and it is important to acknowledge the wisdom accumulated behind all this.
When you are in front of the audience, what do you feel? Does the attention overwhelm you or inspire you?
Fear and vertigo, as if I were falling into something bottomless, as if I were never going to land. That is what I always feel. And then, after this vertigo, this altered state of loss, of coming undone, of limits… when you pass this limit you don’t know what is there, and a strong state of perception arises.
Do you have a special wish for Oaxaca?
I would love a city that takes minorities into account. A city designed for children, in which they could go out freely and without risk. I would like it if deaf and blind people could go out and have their own transport service. I would love it if women weren’t offended or at risk of being attacked all the time. The city has to be better, it needs parks and a public space that we all can enjoy, where urban plans are not designed only for political purposes.
Specifically, I believe we also have to think beyond the infrastructure of the markets, which is also important, but we have to think about the communities living in the markets. They are just like the ones in the city. I wish sellers, buyers and children could have more space, a park, some green areas, an efficient, clean water service and a good drainage system. That would be it.
*Central Market: Central de Abastos or Mercado de Abastos. Here also referred as Abastos Market or La Central.
*Chilanga: Slang. That comes from or lives in Mexico City.
*Banda: Slang. Group of friends.
*Mayordomía: A yearly celebration where the elected host is in charge of all the details. Being a mayordomo (host) is a sign of respect and status inside the community.
*Calenda: A big parade with huge puppets, a band and mezcal that winds through the streets celebrating any given situation (marriage,holy days, etc.). Typical in Oaxaca.
*Diablito: Hand cart. In Mexican Spanish, “diablito” stands for both hand cart and ‘Little Devil’.
Video edited by: Efraín Velázquez