in Features | 06 JUN 07
Featured in
Issue 108

Trumpets and Turtles

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s videos and installations fuse comedy, journeys, music and absurdity to provoke curiosity about social and political issues

in Features | 06 JUN 07

It sounds like the antics of a merry prankster: a trumpet attached to the exhaust of a scooter plays an erratic fanfare as it speeds and pootles over undulating terrain; six turtles take a ride downstream on a floating log; a pig roasts on a spit rotated by the wheel of a car; and a sea voyage is undertaken on an upturned table equipped with an outboard motor. The work of Puerto Rican-based artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla is indeed funny and performative, drawing on narrative forms of entertainment from comedy to concerts to road movies, but this compulsion to provoke a snigger is more sustained and complex than a straightforward urge to entertain. As Calzadilla puts it: ‘Experience generates an internal explosion […] laughter is the recognition that something has affected you.’1

Laughter is one of the few signals that a communication has hit its target, and it is a wonder that artists with political intent don’t employ it more often. The possibility of art’s social and political effectiveness, whether immediate or long-term, is under constant revision, though. The legacy of Modernist autonomy sidelines art as a rhetorical tool, while contemporary liberal claims for art as a social salve soften its potential criticality. Allora and Calzadilla’s four videos selected for exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in February this year, fold these conflicting modes into one another. As they explain, the art works are ‘filled with codes and meanings. Nothing exists in a vacuum. There is always a linguistic, cultural, political, historical and social dimension embedded in form.’2 The effectiveness of their work, then, comes not from direct confrontation but from an oblique representation that then provokes curiosity, so that whether the issues at stake are immediate, dawn on us later or are entirely overlooked is down to our own sensibilities and our requirements of art.

At the beginning of Returning a Sound (2004) a young man mounts the modified scooter by a wall graffitied with the word ‘Vieques’, then sets off on a hilariously unmelodious tour of fenced-off military enclosures, scrub-lined roads and ocean coastlines. For those who don’t already know the significance of the reference to Vieques, a brief rummage on the Internet or in the exhibition notes reveals that the Puerto Rican island was acquired by the US government in the 1940s and used for bomb testing and for storing munitions, subsequently establishing an exclusion zone that displaced local residents and landowners with little or no recompense. When, in the 1970s, the local fishermen’s trade was threatened by the accrual of toxic waste from the thousands of tons of ordinance exploded each year, the Viequenses began a campaign of resistance and retaliation. Chains welded from scrap metal were tied to buoys and thrown in the path of warships to jam their propellers, while on land people became human shields, interrupting military procedures. Sticking a trumpet into a scooter’s exhaust pipe is Allora and Calzadilla’s response to the Viequenses’ contingent creativity, thereby not simply flagging up issues as subject matter but making them a part of their own methods for generating a work.

With international media attention focused on the island, the US eventually gave up the site as a military base and handed it over to the US Department of the Interior in May 2003, which has now lifted the exclusion zone and designated it a wildlife refuge. The sanctuary status of the island, however, means that the government is not obliged to clean up the toxic waste. The trumpet blaring, guttering and parping around the previously inaccessible landscape is a victory fanfare, but it is also a warning: there is still work to be done.

The island of Vieques has become a laboratory for Allora and Calzadilla, providing fixed geographical limits through which vectors of social and political importance pass. But, in contrast to more explicit protest art, the possibility of effecting social change is not really part of the remit of the art works: ‘They first and foremost speak for themselves’3 claim the artists. The intractability of subject, form and meaning inherent in their trumpet call recalls Craig Owens’ distinction between structural allegory and allegory that is appended to a work after the fact: ‘Let us say that allegory occurs whenever one text is doubled by another […] In allegorical structure, then, one text is read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent or chaotic their relationship may be.’4 Similarly, the broader significance of Allora and Calzadilla’s videos is apparent if we think of the young man retaliating noisily with the only means to hand as a response to the situation on Vieques, which in turn is emblematic of more widespread tendencies within capitalist economic structures.

Whereas political rhetoric aims at, or at least aims at the illusion of, transparency, Allora and Calzadilla construct comparatively opaque situations. They leave the task of legibility to texts that accompany the work, and these explanatory notes, along with exegetic titles and the choice of medium and material, become part of the works, their ‘molecular mule’. In Sweat Glands, Sweat Lands (2006), with the automobile-rotisserie roasted pig, a formidable atmosphere of sweat, heat and brutality is conjured through language and scenario.

‘[…] Precise / Like fried pork stalactites / That fall / And reverberate / Like a collective hiccup / That gets stuck / Gets you stuck / That doesn’t open or close / Like the ethic of the drawer / Leave it semi-open / Leave it semi-closed / The manta ray can’t be trained / The blind tick can’t be trained / Like a hiccup / Spastic / Civilized? / Barbaric? / What does that have to do with traffic? […]’

Recited urgently in Spanish by Residente Calle 13, a young reggaeton singer from Puerto Rico, the meaning is scrambled by poetics that insinuate the insect-like collective bustle of industry and the hard work of economic survival.
More identifiable references accumulate and spill over into an undercurrent of significance in Amphibious (login–logout) (2005). Turtles hitch a ride with a log as it drifts along the Pearl River delta region in China. Like emissaries from an amphibious world, they appear to crane their necks to observe the shore-side activity of import and export trades and the evidence of a newly, and explosively, expanding global economy. The turtles, with their apparently curious yet passive role, are perhaps a tragicomic avatar of the disenfranchised Westerner: at a remove, they remain untouched and ineffectual.

The prevalent theme among the four videos shown at the Whitechapel Gallery is that of journeying and, more specifically, ingenious modes of transport. A table fitted with an outboard motor in Under Discussion (2005) is driven around Vieques by Diego, the son of a local fisherman. Skirting technologically well-endowed compounds in his Duchampian craft, he navigates the table under a narrow jetty like a removal man negotiating a corridor. It is a simple set-up with complex subtexts. The table connotes stealth, ad-hoc-ism and local know-how, as well as the diplomacy of the negotiation table and the imposition of bureaucracy, while the potential of the journey to represent contrast and progression is brought to bear on the significance of ad-hoc-ism. Making one’s own way becomes a powerful metaphor for the oppressed.

Throughout Allora and Calzadilla’s work as a whole, though, the trumpet is the most recurrent motif. They call on its history – its domestication from military tool to harmonious orchestral instrument – as well as its declarative characteristics. In Reveille (2007) the military wake-up call is interpreted by a number of musicians, who during a performance at The Renaissance Society, Chicago, were hidden behind white walls bisecting the gallery. Soft-coloured lighting responding to the audio and the differentiation of pace, tone and harmoniousness within the music would have made for an almost formally choreographic piece, but once again cultural and political rumbles – on the aestheticization of power and the emotive application of music, for instance – could be detected.

On the other hand, Clamor (2006), first installed in the Moore Space, Miami, and more recently at the Serpentine Gallery, London, expresses associated ideas sculpturally. Inside a large brutal structure, like a bunker carved out of a rock, the slider of a trombone or the horn of a trumpet can be glimpsed through the narrow fort-like windows as hidden musicians play songs selected for their military and humanitarian relevance. From ‘Chee Lai’ (the battle cry of the Chinese nationalists) to ‘I Love You, Barney the Dinosaur’ (used to torture detainees in Guantánamo Bay) and ‘We’re Not Gonna Make It’ (a US counter-anthem from the Panama invasion of 1989) the urgent, stirring or downright irritating tunes are locked in cacophonous combat, individual effect lost to a bloody racket. Clamor could be considered in the tradition of military parody, from 19th-century lampoons of Napoleon to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), as a critique on the current global situation or a comedy within a tragedy, but then again it could simply be enjoyed as a dysfunctional cabaret inside a well-turned sculpture.

Sally O’Reilly is a writer and co-editor of Implicasphere.

1 Interview with Hamza Walker, The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 2007
2 Email from the artists, April 2007
3 Ibid.
4 Craig Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse’, in ed. Brian Wallis, Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984, p.204