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Fran Ilich

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Aug 08, 2009
Location: Mexico
Topic: Interview with Fran Ilich
Interviewer: Jennifer Flores Sternad

LatinArt:  In January this year you gave a keynote speech in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas as part of the Primer Festival Mundial de la Digna Rabia, organized by the EZLN. You opened your talk with a series of questions about la Otra Cultura, which would include cultural practices that respond ideologically and strategically to the demands and ethics of the Zapatistas. You talked about possibilities you see for developing an Otra Cultura and you also talked about existing practices that associate themselves in theory, through not always in practice, with social and political struggles. In speaking of the latter, you pointed out that these might represent or speak to a certain political position or alignment, but, given their means of production, they are, as you put it, "continuing business as usual." First off, how do you negotiate this issue in your own work in relation to funding, infrastructure and the organization of your projects?

Fran Ilich:   "La Otra Cultura" refers to the Zapatista group for culture and the kind of culture it proposes, which can be thought of in terms of its functionality within the low-intensity war being fought within Mexico against the oligarchy and State or from the point of building a more grassroots and less vertical culture than the one promoted by the national government. In regard to la Otra Cultura, I would say I've been involved with this full-time since 2006. I started thinking about the possibilities of any community of producers and consumers and creators to build this "otra cultura." Meanwhile "La Otra Caravana" that was commanded by Delegado Zero (Being Subcomandante Marcos) was traveling all around the country and being assisted by militants and he was meeting and talking to people in order to build a matrix of relationships. It’s globalization manifesting itself across different latitudes. At the same time, we decided that we need another culture, another production. I had worked on this on the internet, but now we needed to get offline as well and communicate with people who wanted to work outside of institutions. There were lots of practitioners who didn't want to continue if there wasn't funding involved. We had to become auto-sustainable.

We made a telenovela and two animation shows, there were also podcasts and everyday we would produce this material. Within a few months our economy was completely devastated and we couldn't continue with this track of production. This was emblematic of how this other culture wasn't the same as capitalist culture. We weren't getting much attention from the Otra Campaña because they're more focused on social and political issues. Nevertheless we insisted in this other culture which wasn't pamphletary, meaning that we weren't into the creation of other heroes, idols or martyrs. We wanted to arrive to the same conclusions via different paths. During the presidential elections of 2006, I did a reality show called "La actriz interactiva" where you could vote on issues pertaining to the actress' life, such as economy, health, education and so on. We wanted to test democracy because if it doesn't work with one person it will be even more difficult in a nation-state. For example the actress was always complaining about money so we voted to have her start a strike against the national theater group in Mexico City because they weren't paying her a livable wage. we believed we can do this leftist "other" culture not only by changing the discourse or content, but also by changing the form and its process.

We also started a closed virtual community that was password protected. We did that so that our ideas could be streamlined. We charged $1 a month which helped sustain the effort and also had the benefit of filtering out the people who were not serious about these processes. Many leftist groups are supported by the state so we decided to rely on our audience. People came to this virtual community where we posted important news.

LatinArt:  In your talk in San Cristobal you referred to the internet as a neo-liberal space and as a reflection of urban gentrification. Could you elaborate on that?

Fran Ilich:  It’s a superior stage of neo-liberal urban development. By definition, the public space is eradicated, its non-existent online. Of course there were investments in fiberoptics and other technologies but later these were privatized by corporations. The only kind of space where people meet are servers. But most of these servers are owned by private companies. All communication comes through satellites or telephone companies, domain names are controlled by private registries, etc. There used to be a public space called usenet. It was a series of servers that mirrored what was on other usenet servers. Unfortunately, it was really expensive to keep up with this amount of information. If you could compare it to other forms of public space you could compare it to ham radio. In the city we go to shopping malls. The internet is kind of the same thing. There is no actual public sphere...everything is privately owned.

LatinArt:  I want to return to this issue of artists and cultural producers aligning themselves with leftist political ideologies and social movements. You addressed this in the talk you gave earlier this year in the conference on Radical Art Practices at the Centro Cultural España en Mexico City. But you talked about this is light of the particular cultural politics of the Mexican state: specifically the fact that so many artists depend on funding from the state and so many arts organizations are sustained by state subsidies. How does this affect political discourse within the cultural sphere?

Fran Ilich:  My response would be somewhat post-modern. A lot of artists, intellectuals and academics say that revolutions are impossible nowadays, yet they are all state funded. How can we produce change if we're inside this funding? It’s very difficult. So as we admired the Zapatistas we noted that, okay, they didn't create a revolution by 20th century standards, but then again, that was not the intention. The objective was to do any small poetic gesture that could be done. A gesture of a certain autonomy. That was the intention.

In Mexico there is funding for every kind of discipline and artistic endeavor. Poets get the most funding. I was having this conversation with one my colleagues from La Otra Cultura and he was talking about the kind of Otra Cultura that he envisions, which is not moralistic but more hysteric. We were talking about an example of revolutionary poets from Chihuahua in the 70s. They wanted to do erotic poetry and so they took over this truck that was transporting Kotex and they wrote their poetry on them -- like object books. They were trying to be congruent with their work. As you know, poets in Mexico, even though they might be very progressive, they tend to be funded by the right wing and they cooperate with the right wing. An example would be Octavio Paz, who is an important fascist in Mexico.

LatinArt:  What happens then to the notion of culture as a public resource or public charge when so many of the public institutions are controlled by political interests?

Fran Ilich:  In a country like Mexico where 30% of gross domestic production is owned by 0.18% you can imagine that these people are the oligarchy and right wing and the kind of interests they have. Those interests are anti-democratic; and they do not include education, because an educated citizenry would perhaps fight for its rights. Institutional art and culture has collaborated with this oligarchy. Art throughout the Modernist program of Mexico has neither become democratic nor popular. It has been dedicated to the idea of art as an elitist thing that only a handful of people can understand. Yet, they get funding as if this is going to be distributed to millions of Mexicans. You have a mise-en-scí¬®ne that costs millions of pesos for every presentation in theaters that only 50-100 people can access.

LatinArt:  What would you like to see happen in the cultural sphere in Mexico?

Fran Ilich:  This is going to sound very bad, but maybe the cancellation of the state art and culture budget would be a healthy thing because then we would see how many of these people would actually do work. Art and culture in Mexico is somehow like an industry. The optimal thing would be to have an equitable distribution of those funds because in a supposedly democratic society all different kinds of people and thoughts and practices should be included. And of course, that isn't happening. Only a small handful of people, numbering in the hundreds, are benefiting from this.

LatinArt:  Do you think it’s possible for cultural initiatives to work towards having a real coherence between their discursive practices, like the ideological positions they champion, and the economy that underlies their projects? What are the difficulties in doing this? Do you see examples of this type of coherence?

Fran Ilich:  Even media labs or think tanks in Europe and the U.S. show that it’s possible to do this. Is that possible to have this kind of organization inserted into Mexican society? That's a serious question. I wouldn't say it’s impossible. What I wouldn't like to have is "superstars" of the left. Because being a superstar is already in dissonance of what left thought should be. Producing them is easy but we would be reproducing the patterns of the right wing. The right wing has been very successful in synthesizing theory and practice. For the left it’s more difficult because the world it inhabits is right wing.

LatinArt:  What you mean when you say the right successfully synthesizes theory and practice?

Fran Ilich:  You might be protesting and you get thirsty so you go drink a Coke. So then it really doesn't matter because you're feeding on their products. For them it’s very clear: talk is cheap. It doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you advance your goals. For the left it’s a bit more complicated because you’re talking about creating a more fair mode of production. Production in a post-industrial world tends to be inhuman by nature.

LatinArt:  Can you speak about how you understand language and narrative to have a real and immediate importance in society? And also address the efficacy of myth?

Fran Ilich:  Fiction and language are some of the most important weapons of any political system. Like with the story of Che Guevara, which has been very important. Like the way the right wing has turned it into an image of a devalued saint. The original image was given by a Cuban photographer to an Italian photographer. He gave it because he thought it was an important thing to do. But the Italian guy copyrighted it and made a lot of money on this image. A post-modern artist would say Che is just an image on a T-shirt. But that image is also of someone who dedicated his life towards putting theory into practice.

The left has wasted a lot of time into creating an academic or intellectual artistic class. And it has often failed at establishing a relationship with what is known as the popular class. I mean the people who watch mass media. Why aren't they into a kind of leftist emancipatory kind of narrative? Maybe because they don't have access to it? That is something we have to change. We have to invest more in different kinds of fiction. Including legends and rumors. The right wing is very good at rumors, like the CIA kind of rumor. And those become real once they are seeded in people's imaginations. Fiction is about the heart, not the mind. So much of the left’s discourse is lost in rationalities.

LatinArt:  I’d like to know your thoughts on propaganda. Propaganda is often seen as being antithetical to good art - even among those sympathetic to socially engaged art. What are your thoughts on this?

Fran Ilich:  As a doctor you have to say things the way they are. For example the doctor can say "take care of your teeth or they will rot." If he says it in some poetic fashion it is considered misinformation. In art if you say things the way they are its propaganda and if you hide its a poetic gesture. I think that's very perverse and its ideological manipulation and accreditation by the right wing. For example in this debate about freedom of expression in individualist versus collectivist societies, you have for example the group Reporters Without Borders always say that Cuba is against free speech, but Castro points out is that in the U.S. you can have freedom of expression as long as its not in important media and in terms of Cuba he says that they won't pay for people to oppose their government. They have freedom of speech, but we're going to give them jobs if they're against our government. On that level I very much respect his clarity because NBC will never give you the microphone.

LatinArt:  Can you talk about what you're working on now and possibly tell us a bit about Spacebank?

Fran Ilich:  In 2005 we started the cooperative internet server Possibleworlds in order to be able to practice another internet politics. When we did this we tried to forget about all the excesses of new media arts and tried to get into providing infrastructure in order to join the Zapatistas in their struggle. At that point we opened Spacebank, something in opposition to the World Bank or Citibank.

There was a debate over what was more important; Possibleworlds the server or Spacebank and we settled on a natural balance to both of them. Space bank has tried to create certain investment funds, like sabotage funds and started the Cafe Zapatista commodity market where we buy certain kilos of coffee a Zapatista municipality and share the risk of taking it to the city and share the benefits when its sold. We also started a Social Security system but it has had limited results. We also stated a reserve of precious metals, silver and gold as a reserve for the bank. A couple of months ago we recieved an email from the World Bank and we're trying to establish a kind of protocol of communication with them.

We're establishing them under the name Diego de la Vega, which is the name of El Zorro when he is not wearing his mask. Diego de la Vega is very incompetent, superficial, effeminate, upper-class person. so its was decided to open this corporation "Diego de la Vega Social Anónima de Capital Variable" which would be a way to hold these various enterprises under one face, which is not at all confrontational, because Diego de la Vega just sounds like a lawyer. Its a corporate finance administrative unit. It holds different projects such as Fiction Department which is a work group dedicated to research and development of narrative media, Possibleworlds which is the autonomous server, Radio Latina which is a streaming server with seven shows a week. We're also working on which is a social network about gentrification in Mexico City. Then there is the economic fund Space Bank and Tijuana Media Lab which is a garage media lab.

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