Though it is not well known to the world, Venezuela experienced a period of revolutionary cultural experimenting that has much in common with the glorious period of Soviet constructivism. One of its key figures is Kael Abello, a member of the Comando Creativo artist collective which since 2008 has created some of the most emblematic images of the Bolivarian Revolution. In this interview, we talk to him about the challenges of visual communication during Venezuela’s revolutionary process. Abello is also a member of Utopix, a collaborative initiative that recently got underway in Caracas.
Before the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuelan culture was known mainly for its beauty pageants and (to a lesser degree) for its op and kinetic art. When Chavez arrived on the scene, it might seem that the main aesthetic idea became simply redness, which is the color of the Bolivarian movement. In truth, however, aesthetic production in the Bolivarian Process is complex, having gone through different periods and witnessed varied approaches. Can you summarize the main changes in aesthetic production – in the revolutionary camp – during the last twenty years?
The Bolivarian Revolution proposed to completely sever with [the old politics of] Puntofijismo and the Fourth Republic [1959‐1999]. Of course, that effort at making a rupture [with the old way of doing things] had effects in the sphere of cultural production. However, we should make some clarifications beforehand. First, some of these cultural expressions were not new: many fed off of existing traditions, currents that were there long before but had been marginalized because they didn’t fit with the old official narrative of the “Venezuela of progress,” based on exporting beauty pageants and building large concrete structures.
Another important clarification is that the forms in which this new culture presented itself weren’t uniform, just as the composition of forces within Chavismo wasn’t (and isn’t) homogeneous. Finally, we should also point to the fact that not everything was rupture. In the cultural production of the Bolivarian Revolution, many of the conventions of twentieth-century representation remained intact – with the red hue sometimes thrown in to indicate “Revolution” but without problematizing meanings or canons! However, I do believe that in the last twenty years, Venezuelan cultural production has developed some clearly-defined features in an attempt to break with what existed previously.
Going from the general to the particular, there are two features that are of great interest to me. The first is the construction of a new popular subject, and the second is the return to the Bolivarian epic. The Bolivarian Revolution announces that the “pueblo” is now the protagonist and maker of its own destiny. That affirmation forced us [as artists] to begin a search for a representation of this new subject. It was a subject that had no prior representations; before the pueblo figured as the “encapuchado” [hooded figure] or as a figure who lived in the shadows, in the urban misery belts or in the campo, and there wasn’t any imagery where this subject might appear as the protagonist of a new national narrative.
Additionally, the pueblo subject is, necessarily, a collective subject, so that forced us, as producers, to search for ways of representing collective undertakings. Hence, the multitude appears in almost all forms of representation of the Bolivarian Revolution. On the one hand, we have the “marea roja” [red tide], the march which represents the spontaneous but collective force of this new popular actor called on to do the revolution. On the other hand, we have the communal assembly, which also became a way of representing the collective exercise of direct power.
Regarding the reopening of the Bolivarian epic, it is true that the independence struggle has always had a central place in Venezuela’s patriotic narrative. However, the Bolivarian Revolution proposes a fundamental shift that narrates this story in the present tense or talks about the independence struggle as an unfinished process. It also locates in that popular, collective subject the responsibility of giving continuity to the independence struggle which is, again, part of the present.
In other words, the great shift that took place in the sphere of cultural production was to begin narrating our history in the first person and in the present tense. First, we see how the pantheon of elite patriotic leaders [that dominated the old narrative] was replaced by the anonymous masses that fought for independence: shoeless, shirtless plainsmen, who are humble people just like the ones called upon to do the revolution today.
The second change, which is the shift to telling the story in the present tense, can be seen in the new way of showing [Simon] Bolivar. He is no longer depicted solemnly posing in front of a portrait artist, but is rather a Bolivar that is in motion, galloping and with his sword drawn. (Or sometimes what we see is just the horse of the national heraldry, which is no longer turning around but is galloping.) The same thing is seen in the use today of the national anthem, which is no longer sung with chilly pomp and protocol, but which now expresses a collective vocation.
I think we should also highlight the profound reconfiguration of these symbols (which was done without their losing their meaning). To give you an example, codes from the military sphere were mixed with symbols of the popular world – from Yoruba and barrio evangelical symbolism to local histories and traditions and, of course, all the range of images employed in the past by revolutions and anti‐capitalist movements.
I think there is still a lot to discover, and we are not fully conscious of the richness of the new forms of representation that emerged during the Bolivarian Revolution. Perhaps it is a bit like the production of posters in the [Spanish] Civil War. At the time, they may have looked like a mere reflection of Russian propaganda, and only later were we able to appreciate the complexity of a very rich phenomenon whose footprint is still present in antifascist representations today. It was work that marked a milestone in antifascist graphics.
How do you locate the work of Comando Creativo – and the more recent Utopix project – in this history of Venezuela’s cultural production?
Comando Creativo is a collective made up of people who came together with the shared concern: creating a different kind of cultural, symbolic, and communicational work. We took on some challenges that our society seemed to be facing at that time. The making of a communal state and the structures of communal self‐government became a central issue for all of our work. Early on, we attempted to build a narrative from the institutions which would give an account of a new way of understanding power, highlighting how the popular bloc was called upon to activate and exercise this power, without delegation and without mediation.
That is precisely why we committed ourselves to looking into new forms of communication that were emerging in the communal councils, such as the handwritten flipchart, the barrio billboard or the painted sign. We tried to take those forms of popular expression into formal, traditional institutional spaces as an attempt to change the existing paradigm. All this was done at a time when institutions were slowly beginning to shift towards a state with new power relations that would be built by the people.
A key issue for us was to consider how to apply participative and protagonistic democracy to the sphere of communication. We saw ourselves as catalyzers of sorts, and we took on the task of democratizing our communicational tools, so that organized communities themselves would be prepared to project their own messages. In that way, they wouldn't just be message bearers, but would rather become message producers. With this in mind, we organized workshops, we sought new ways to teach the use of stencils, silkscreening or muralism, all this with the objective of putting these resources in the hands of the people and particularly those involved in communal, self‐managed forms of government.
Another central concern of ours was to look for new ways of relating what was happening in the communes. While it is true that the commune had a central place in the state media discourse, the ways of narrating this, in our opinion, fell short of what was really happening there.
In other words, there wasn’t a narrative that was on par with the scope and implications of the fact that the people – through assemblies and processes of collective decision‐making – would be exercising direct democracy and administering resources in a novel exercise of local power. Organized communities would now be diagnosing, planning, designing and executing public policies at the community level. In other words, there was a new power emerging from and by the people, but in the [state] media that story wasn’t being told.
Finally, Comando Creativo committed itself to the collective attempt to build a new representation of the Bolivarian struggle. For instance, we participated in the construction of the bicentennial imagery [symbolism produced for Venezuela’s independence bicentennial], which was a sort of manifesto of how Chavismo saw history, with a Bolivar with the sword drawn and [the whole project having] a continental sweep.
Utopix is a new project that we have launched. It comes from Comando Creativo and other collectives and individuals who gathered around the idea of reinforcing and deepening our work, understanding that conditions have changed. We are trying out new forms of production, we are experimenting with new formats, new media, and new technologies. We are also trying to achieve autonomy and be more self-managed. However, the aim remains the same: finding new forms of communicational production that are useful in times of social emergency.
If capitalism despite its increasingly socialized production, tends to privatize everything, then Comando Creativo seems to work in the opposite direction. Like Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, it wagers everything on the social and is committed to the common. Is that why it so often makes street art including murals, stencils, graffiti, and posters?
For me, the richest expression of Bolivarian culture and communication was in the street, public spaces, and the spaces where life in common happens. Additionally, I think they were the most effective. With the important exception of the Alo Presidente program, conventional mass media showed little ingenuity and a very limited capacity to convince. It had a narrow reach, and much prudishness… So it was the street that imposed itself not by design or by decree. The street earned its place as the most efficient space for circulating alternative discourses.
I talk about the street because that is where it happened in material terms: the graffiti on the walls, the posters, the banners, the murals. However, it is important to underline that what happened took place among the people. People became powerful communicators, with the contradictions that this brings with it, because when people themselves are communicating the barriers of mediation come down. But we are not going to go into that debate. Let’s instead explore the very interesting consequences of this rupture.
First, as I said before, the privileged spaces for the reproduction of messages changed. Now the wall, a small radio transmitter, the communal council whiteboard, a handwritten flipchart, word of mouth communication, or the communal assembly itself became a means to communicate with greater efficacy and impact than conventional media. This deprived journalism of the aura of specialized work inaccessible to the common people – the monopoly of communication. Public communication became a quotidian, widespread practice. Anyone could do it.
This also opened up a very interesting process of dynamic collective and collaborative authorship. It was dynamic, because the discourses in the street changed from one place to another, but also from one day to the next. A graffiti carried a certain message one day, but the next day there was a complimentary message on it or the message was turned on its head by a new intervention. Thus, our way of understanding communication in the Bolivarian Revolution begins to abandon those forms of one-way transmission used by the mainstream media and begins to demand conversation and debate.
Additionally, these forms of communication happened (and it is very important to highlight this) not only in a spontaneous way. They became massive thanks in part to the structures of popular organization that emerged with the Bolivarian Revolution. The latter problematized or questioned property relations in traditional cultural production. When you communicate, when you project a message in a place that is nobody’s, this becomes everybody’s. Suddenly, not only the large media conglomerates had the right to express themselves.
Obviously the contents produced under this new logic of property and circulated through new social relations had different qualities. I can give an example, which is what we experienced in Comando Creativo with stencils. Stencils became one of the preferred media used by the communal organizations to directly communicate, first because they were easy to produce, and second because they made it easy to massively project a message.
The only limitation of the format is the radical synthesis that it requires, and people were able to turn that into a strength, appealing to popular creativity. So the stencil became a sort of Twitter of the street. Brief and robust messages spread across territories, wall after wall, until they created circuits on a national scale.
Regarding stenciling, we dedicated ourselves to creating tools that would help to “democratize” the technique and make its use widely known. We designed manuals [see the manual here], distributed them, and gave workshops to more than six thousand people. We also designed open-format templates so that people could modify them. Other forms of communication that we tried to popularize include silk screening, mural‐making, and movie forums.
This is one of the Comando Creativo contributions that I value most, but, if the truth be told, it can't be chalked up only to our intentions. In fact, all this became possible because there was a tremendous desire in our society to look into new means of communication that would not be mediated by external agents. And this aspiration is, in itself, a reflection or a consequence of the majority's efforts to exercise power in a direct way.
Cultural production has its own relatively autonomous development, but there are sometimes attempts to contribute to processes of social transformation. Are there any formal features of a revolutionary nature in your artwork or that of other Venezuelan artists today? Are there specific characteristics of artistic production in our context that can lead to social change?
Well, it’s a question that takes me a bit out of the comfort zone of reflecting and forces me to enter into the sphere of action. It could seem foolish, but I think that we have always reflected on the relevance of what we make, always questioning the real necessity of our work in light of social processes taking place, and wondering if it affects life, if it has an impact on reality.
I know that this is a complex debate because, in the West, we have arrived at an idea of the artist that is precisely the contrary: a subject whose merit consists in producing work that is outside – or it is supposedly outside – of any social consideration. However, I am convinced that what we do must have an impact on life. If it doesn’t, then, for me, it makes no sense.
In fact, it has been that way through much of history. An example would be that crazy idea that somebody had of giving visual representation to sounds and that led to written language, which in turn allowed us to hack the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, accelerating this process.
The impact of cultural or communicational production on life is well known by the centers of power. That is why they shield all their operations with propaganda that has one fundamental goal: reproducing their myths. And by repeating these myths they have tried to make us believe that the current social order is part of a natural order, so that the oppressed and exploited will consider that the relations of exploitation to which they are subjected are simply the way things must be.
In Utopix, we believe that it is imperative to try out new forms of communication, precisely those forms that will address the central social emergency of our times, which is no more and no less than looking for alternatives to capitalism. That is why we make it our central task to explore an alternative, post‐capitalist communication.
Obviously, many paths open up from there. We have been talking about three navigation routes. Of course, many more will emerge, and we know that these three are not the only ones to advance toward a post‐capitalist society.
So, we are focusing on the following: the first could be called “telling our stories to see ourselves.” We do this to give shape to those stories that emerge at the margins of power centers, to bring a more precise and characteristic portrait of what we are – with our language, with our colors, etc.
Second, we believe that communication must struggle and resist. This means that we want to locate our work at the points of friction between capital and people. Along with the people, we denounce, summon, protest, organize. Communication, I believe, has a role to play in those spaces where the current power relations are being confronted.
Finally, the third route of navigation is perhaps the one closest to my heart: building the new in that tradition of the Russian constructivists, the Soviet avant-garde. A hundred years later, even though the capitalist mode of production continues to dominate, that proposal lingers and carries its message. We believe that there are spaces where new forms of organization – different from those proposed by capital – are being tried out.
There, in those spaces, is where we must invent a new kind of communication, one that should be capable of generating new relations. Sometimes we understand this as an invitation to imagine the [new] forms of communication in the world we want. So the question is not so much how books are today, but rather how books will be read in a better society; the issue is not how comic strips are today, but how they will take shape in a society with alternative social relations; or again how a poster should be under different schemes of property than the current world of private property.
Recently we carried out a super-interesting experiment with the Productive Workers’ Army to conceive their visual identity. That meant relearning a collective and collaborative dynamic in a process that brought together more than 25 people. In that process, we had to relearn everything that we knew about brand design. Now we are also working on some things hand in hand with El Maizal Commune. The transformative capacity of these exercises, of these attempts, is still to be seen, but for us, this is the main challenge right now. You can see some of these experiments visit utopix.cc.