Photoshopped image taken from Gabriel Mejía’s exhibition “El Adiós,” illustrating the end of El Bodegón. Courtesy Victor Albarracín
In the following text, artist and writer Victor Albarracín recounts the four-year lifespan of El Bodegón, an art space founded in Bogotá in 2005 by a group of art students and professors. The essay describes their attempt to create a vital gathering place that fostered an ethos of experimentation, risk, and spontaneity that stood in contrast to the city’s burgeoning art scene. In a self-serving manner, policies used by Bogotá institutions to broaden contemporary art’s relevance in the Colombian capital only reinforced institutionally recognized practices according to Albarracín. El Bodegón’s antagonistic relationship to the city’s art infrastructure, compounded by internal disagreements about how to sustain its position of relative autonomy, ultimately led to the decision to close the organization in 2009.
Albarracín’s reflections, although grounded in a different context and aspirations, resonates with the Museum as Hub’s current project After-after Tears, conceived by the Johannesburg-based Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR), following its “institutional suicide” in December of 2012. In a previous contribution to Six Degrees, CHR member Gabi Ngcobo positions the organization’s “institutional suicide” in relation to questions about contemporary institutional models as well as other endings in South Africa’s social and political history. Art institutions often endeavor to formalize their structure, so their cultural contributions can span an extended period of time. The self-determined endings of El Bodegón and CHR unpack the relationship between institutional longevity and efficacy by inviting a more nuanced consideration of an institution’s lifespan—one determined by specific conditions that shape its formation, growth, and sustainability.
An earlier version of this text, “Antagonismo y fracaso,” was published in Spanish in Premio nacional de crítica. Ensayos sobre arte contemporáneo en Colombia, quinta version, 2008. “Antagonism and Failure” was published in the Art Spaces Directory (eds. Eungie Joo and Ethan Swan), a resource guide to over four hundred independent art spaces around the world, which was copublished with ArtAsiaPacific and accompanied “The Ungovernables” in 2012.
In the middle of 2005, a group of twelve students and professors from various Bogotá, Colombia, art programs (all friends) decided to organize a series of one-night artistic happenings on an almost-weekly basis. They called their idea El Bodegón 1—a word with several definitions in Spanish, including “tavern,” “warehouse,” and “still-life painting”—and the activities were to encompass parties, concerts, and magazine launches as well as art exhibitions and artist talks. Through a panoply of activities in a small warehouse, in a poor and underpopulated neighborhood in downtown Bogotá, El Bodegón sought to create a map of artists’ real practices: the kind of things done for one’s own enjoyment rather than a commitment to a certain social status or the maintenance and furthering of professional aspirations.
El Bodegón also hoped to create a space where artists and the public (consisting mainly of other artists and art students) could meet and interact in an informal setting, unburdened by the search for prestige so typical of Bogotá society. This impulse was based on a fundamental distrust of certain institutional policies, in the public and private sectors alike, which were static despite supposedly being structured by discourses of inclusion, participation, and consensus. Such policies ignored the real dynamics of a cultural context that was precarious in several senses: First, Bogotá lacked the opportunities, exhibition spaces, and policies that could help artists outside the mainstream and the social strata (who were otherwise ignored by gallery owners, museums, and other cultural institutions); second, there were pervasive forms of censorship that complicated the consolidation of critical practices and durable, stable artists’ communities; and third, there wasn’t an infrastructure that could, in any way, guarantee the artists’ commercial aspirations.
Institutions seemed engaged in an effort to mask this precariousness and make it appear sophisticated, increasingly confusing the sphere of art with that of social work, redemption, and—why not say it?—the promotion of a rather closed group of artists mostly engaged in the production of merchandise to satisfy the demand of contemporary and decorative art collectors. This last strategy would lead, months later, to the creation of ArtBo, Bogotá’s first art fair.
At the positive end of the spectrum, this same precariousness enhanced the exclusion felt by a certain group of artists, encouraging them to develop idiosyncratic works that didn’t fit into the interests of the market and the existing institutions, and nurturing an antagonistic spirit. Indeed, El Bodegón looked to create a space for proposals that were less comfortable and more immediate; that is, unmediated by ulterior motives. The idea, as writer and curator Michèle Faguet said about her experiences during the final period of the artist-run center La Panadería, in Mexico City, was to create a space that was “at once spontaneous . . . historical [and] intellectually challenging, but that at the same time didn’t take itself too seriously.” 2 Its members wanted “to force some sort of dislocation in the metaphysics of contemporary art in Colombia.” 3 The only way this gamble could pay off, however, was with a clean break from all local artistic institutions and the discovery of a way of working that avoided the commercialization of the featured works.
With monthly dues for basic operations paid by all members, activities were organized at a near-frantic pace, making a wager destined to fail: El Bodegón would produce close to one hundred artistic events over a four-year period (including several pauses). This preserved a certain level of coherence without the aid of a solid institutional framework, a visible face, or enough resources to maintain consistent levels of appeal from event to event. Convinced that it was a necessary condition for every show to have the artist in a state of self-exposure—precarious, weak, and staggering—the initial cycle of exhibitions included a group show of mediocre still lifes made by more than forty participants (from students to well-known artists); a show of all the failures, conflicts, religious conviction, and militancy of Wilson Díaz’s professional and personal life; and an explicit video projection of a complex and grotesque surgery performed on Liliana Vélez next to piles of photocopies with often-taboo erotic narratives written by Vélez herself. It was a long series of events with no pretensions of defending what was being exhibited. The shows were opportunities to congregate a broader community of artists, to generate friction and debate that confronted the current vision about what artists should be in Bogotá (were they merely agents producing aesthetically indulgent commodities for the rich, or something else?), and, finally, to create room for the articulation of these events in a less-than-fancy neighborhood. El Bodegón built a strong reputation for existing far from institutions that were too fearful to go beyond their stated aims as measured in their performance indicators.
In subsequent years, El Bodegón’s reputation grew: It organized extremely popular events that alternated between parties, concerts, and shows by well-known artists, students, and recent graduates. It therefore managed to break the apathy of a public accustomed to attending events whose outcomes they knew beforehand. In that regard, El Bodegón’s performance indicators were strong: The cost/benefit relationship (understood as “cultural capital production”) exposed the paradox that a flexible operating platform got much better results than a rigid institutional machine. And El Bodegón did produce, but its insistence on doing things its own way and the value it placed in its autonomy would end up being largely responsible for its exhaustion and eventual collapse.
When the notion of “success” entered a group that had started—to use Hakim Bey’s category—as a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone, sensitive to the intrinsic value of failure and with an undeniable fascination with its experiment’s suicidal character, the collective was one step away from being understood as an institution. The space continued working with a flexible structure, and its members continued to choose their roles based on their affinities, but the organization of accounts and the definition of roles started to become more complex. Internal functions became specialized and a sort of social order was established via categories that included writers, designers, installers, accounting assistants, doormen, bartenders, and cleaning personnel. Slowly, and accidentally, El Bodegón re-created a social model where the voice of those who wrote or managed the money carried more weight than those who swept the floor. The acceptance of those roles in the social pyramid was not, however, mediated by salary, so its articulation was based in rather confused abstractions. The arbitrary character of this stratification meant that some of the assigned functions were not attended to, causing ill feelings and fights that ended in the departure and replacement of members. Maybe nobody realized that this space, supposedly against the bureaucratic practices of cultural institutions, was starting to internalize the logic of the very structures it opposed.
Since the lack of money contributed to some of the emerging conflicts, members decided that the space needed a legal constitution, which would turn this informal group of people—“between a gang and a museum,” as noted in their founding statement—into a foundation, an organization that could ask for resources from public and private institutions both in Colombia and abroad. But a complete naïveté and ignorance about the specific legal procedures and tax obligations of a foundation caused the newly formed organism to soon start owing money to the state. The members of the group turned out to be completely incompetent when it came to tapping into local resources, creating alliances and finding support elsewhere. They discovered that the same institutions they attacked were also the ones in charge of assigning resources. The self-interested realm of galleries, collectors, and commercially known artists was barren land. International institutions, if they replied, said that they were already financing other “independent artist-run spaces” with similar objectives in other parts of the country, and were not interested in helping similar regional initiatives, especially one as conflicted as El Bodegón. It became clear to the members that the art world operates through complex channels of friendship and convenience, and apparently, none of them had the right friends.
The antagonistic spirit that gave birth to the group ended up making its existence impossible. It had been a mistake to believe, following political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that antagonism could be understood as some sort of “relationship” with a “constitutive outside” that, as explained by art historian Rosalyn Deutsche, “affirms and simultaneously prevents the closure of society, revealing the partiality and precariousness—the contingency—of every totality.” 4 Unnoticed by the institutions it was targeting, El Bodegón’s declarations of war only seemed to reverberate inside its own walls, making an atypical tragicomedy of all the actions therein. Here was a space with no place in the established social structure, blighted by a self-inflicted dissidence where members left and were replaced, one by one, by others who, following the most basic instincts of self-preservation, would also retire. It’s obvious, then, that Laclau’s idea that “there is politics because there is subversion and dislocation of the social” was completely out of place; the only thing dislocated by El Bodegón was El Bodegón itself.
What started as a pretense of an independent space ended up becoming its own negation. El Bodegón’s rejection of social links and identity brought about a lack of public interest in shows or events whose curatorial statements, more and more ideological than logical, represented the interests of an increasingly small number of people.
After losing its venue in late 2007, El Bodegón stopped its activities for six months, beginning again in a small garage with a version of “Behind the Facts: Interfunktionen 1968–1975,” curator Gloria Moure’s exhibition about the paradigmatic conceptual art magazine Interfunktionen that was running, at the same time, in the large parking lot of the Museo de Arte del Banco de la República. El Bodegón’s version of this institutional show, entitled “After the Fact: Dysfunktionen 1968¬–1975,” consisted of piles of salt spilled on the floor at regular intervals, a couple of bottles topped by a baguette, a microphone connected to and hanging in front of an amplifier, posters of vertical stripes printed on a plotter, and an old, fourteen-inch television showing videos by Dan Graham, Joseph Beuys, and Vito Acconci that had been downloaded from the internet. By stealing an internationally prestigious show from a big institution in order to produce a miserly event that was seen by little more than five or six people, El Bodegón’s final goal was explicit: the group reappropriated a bunch of historical pieces produced by working- and middle-class individuals during a period of social conflict. These works had been reduced, soon after their creation, by academia, institutions, and a market that was into simple, trendy commodities. El Bodegón removed the glamorous appeal of the exhibition at the Museo de Arte del Banco de la República and made a statement, by reclaiming the right to make free use of the names and the pieces shown there, that aspired to be a declaration of class struggle.
A new generation had become part of the diminished space—with a little bit of pity inspired by contemplation of the ruins, a little bit of sincere solidarity, and, maybe, a little bit of vanity about participating in one of the biggest and least-famous failures of independent artistic organizations in the country. With its arrival, enough money was raised to rent a small space in a nondescript commercial passageway. Activities resumed, and for a year, various precarious (and therefore meaningful) projects were realized. In a social atmosphere that doesn’t like to think that dissent has a value—two of the last city slogans, for example, were “Everybody on the same side” and “Positive,” alluding to a rhetoric of consensus and to the promotion of culture intended as a series of “spectacles,” “community platforms,” “emerging markets,” and “creative industries” that, obviously, denied every chance for negativity—the real effects of an antagonistic inclination were visible. The space experienced the progressive loss of visitors, the collapse of its operative scheme, and the radicalization of its fights, while other spaces and commercial galleries arrived with new proposals, contacts, and money. A fresh and wealthier scene occupied the gaps left by El Bodegón. It was 2009 and the country had, in those days, the doubtful title of being “the happiest in the world.”
In the midst of a general silence, El Bodegón closed its doors for good in September of that year. One important and curious footnote is that—aside from all the internal crises that shook it, the clumsiness with which it assumed often incoherent political stances, and the lack of interest from the general public—the space was always backed without restriction by a sizable contingent of Bogotá’s contemporary artists, who were always open to participating in the shows and helping with the programming of activities.
In recent years, Bogotá has seen a great number of new spaces emerging with very different intentions. They want to align themselves with the modern dynamics of public and private institutions offering incentives and opportunities for artist-run initiatives. El Bodegón now receives all the attention it didn’t get while it existed: It has been the subject of a feature-length documentary, 5 and tastemakers and policymakers alike have adopted many of its strategies and views on the artistic field. Such tacit recognition, and the apparent inclusion of the space in the official history of Colombian art, may bring with it the ultimate and complete annulment of El Bodegón’s potential as an antagonistic force. As a local saying goes, no hay muerto malo (“the dead are beyond reproach”).
1 Through El Bodegón’s blog, learn more about the activities that took place in the space, read some of the curatorial texts, and see a list of people who were part of the collective.
2 Michèle Faguet, Marginally Successful: A brief account of two artist-run spaces, in On Cultural Influence: Collected Papers from Apexart International Conferences 1999–2006 (New York: Apexart, 2006).
3 Statement by Víctor Albarracín during the presentation of El Bodegón at MDE07 in Medellín, Colombia.
4 All quotes in this paragraph were taken from Rosalyn Deutsche, “Agoraphobia,” in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 274.