BY George Stolz in Profiles | 01 SEP 09
Featured in
Issue 125

Alicia Framis

Human rights and urban living; knowledge, complicity and the potential for change

BY George Stolz in Profiles | 01 SEP 09

Welcome to Guantánamo Museum, Worktable, 2008, mixed media, installation view at Galeriá Helga de Alvear, Madrid. Courtesy: Centre d'Art Santa Mònica, Barcelona, Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid; photograph: Noemi Jariod

If the executive order Barack Obama signed on his very first day in office is enforced in a timely fashion (which at the time of this writing is far from certain), the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp will soon be vacant, boarded up and shuttered like some grim boom town gone bust. But with its raison d’être gone with the wind, what of all those Gitmo buildings themselves? What will become of Camp Delta, Camp Iguana, Camp X-Ray, and the mysterious, maximum-security, exact-whereabouts-still-undisclosed Camp 7? Will they remain just as they are, at the ready for the next round of abductions and detentions and human rights violations? Or will they be made to disappear, dismantled and bulldozed into the rubble of history? This question is the starting point for ‘Guantánamo Museum’ (2008–ongoing), a project by Spanish artist Alicia Framis (who was born in 1967 in Barcelona, and who currently lives and works in China, where she is the Concept Director of the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art) in which she re-casts the infamous detention centre as a projected museum-in-the-making – admittedly a museum of horrors, but a museum nonetheless, along the lines of memorial museums such those in Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Alcatraz or Robben Island.

In keeping with Framis’ signature working methods, ‘Guantánamo Museum’ blends elements of architecture, fashion and performance, joining fictional constructs with social critique and integrating multi-disciplinary collaborations with writers, performers, designers and students. For example, when Framis first presented ‘Guantánamo Museum’ at the Galeriá Helga de Alvear in Madrid in June 2008, the exhibition included maquettes and sketches for the hypothetical museum (replete with visitors’ reception area, toilets and a gift shop) and prototypes for the museum furniture. Later, at the Santa Mònica Art Centre in Barcelona, Framis added an installation of 274 customized prisoners’ helmets while staging a performance by musician Blixa Bargeld who chanted a poem by writer Enrique Vila-Matas based on the names of the detainees. Later still, at the European Insitute of Design in Madrid, Framis led a series of workshops where fashion design students, working on the premise of a future Guantánamo Museum, developed a variety of projects that utilized the iconic orange textiles of the detainees’ uniforms.

Guantánamo Museum, The List, 2008, performance documentation, Centre d'Art Santa Mònica, Barcelona. Courtesy: Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid

Framis’ surface conceit is neat and rather bleakly clever, but the murkier underlying connotations lend the work a more suggestive complexity. By compressing time – by assuming a stance of looking back on the present, even as we are still in the present – Framis succeeds in questioning the fundamental difference between spectator and witness. This is an ethical issue which, when examined, leads to a further questioning of the relationship between knowledge and complicity. Furthermore, Framis’ part-Utopian, part-dystopian invocation of the museum – a place of commemoration, of the archive and of entertainment – adds memory to the equation, while also implicating art and art institutions as we have come to know them. In the variegated process of the ongoing ‘Guantánamo Museum’ project, many chilling parallels arise, such as between the role of the body in performance space and in the interrogation cell, or between the status-granting nature of the edifice in museums and in prisons.

‘Guantánamo Museum’ is a work of protest, as is much of the artist’s oeuvre: for instance, ‘Anti_Dog’, a 2002 project that centred around designs for clothing expressly intended to protect women from physical abuse, and ‘Not For Sale’ (2007), which brought together jewellery, photography and performance in a denouncement of the global sex-trafficking of young children. But with the same blend of fashion, architecture and performance Framis has also created work that is socially concerned yet less overtly political, such as ‘Remix Buildings’ (1999) – a series of architectural proposals for hybridized urban spaces such as a blood-bank/sushi bar or a cinema/hospital aiming to break down the obscuring constructs hidden within urban conglomerations – or ‘Loneliness in the City’ (1999), a nomadic collective project that assembled people across Europe to seek solutions for their endemic incommunication and loneliness. Framis is also capable of whimsy: in November 2009 she will be included in PERFORMA 09 in New York, where she will present a series of performances and installations grouped under the title ‘Lost Astronaut’. The project revolves around the futuristic proposal of humans inhabiting the moon, and is composed of architectural models, design prototypes for furniture and clothing, all suitable for lunar living, and a three-week series of performances involving a fictional astronaut, lost and wandering in current-day New York.

George Stolz is a critic and curator based in New York, USA, and Madrid, Spain. He is currently working on the Juan Muñoz catalogue raisonné.