interview with juan arturo garcía

Juan Arturo Garcia (2015). Image courtesy of the artist.

Juan Arturo Garcia (born 1988) is Amsterdam- based visual artist. He trained as a designer and completed his studies at Centro de Diseño, Cine y TV in Mexico City, and the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. His work has appeared at BIENALSUR–Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de La Boca, Buenos Aires; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, among others. He is currently undertaking a residency at Rijksakademie.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How would you define your relationship with the printed matter and how do you see it within your practice?

JUAN ARTURO GARCÍA: My educational background was very heavily influenced by printed matter as I studied graphic design with a focus on typography. So, I had access to a lot of the material side of print from a very hands-on perspective and that’s how I learned how to do different kinds of print techniques. I researched what are the implications of using print not only as a technique but also as a medium of communication. What does it mean to publish serially not just multiples? And also, what happens with material matter that is printed? This also led me to have a lot of questions about the role that languages play in print. Thinking about oral language fixed into material support.

Such questions further led me to learn a lot about type design, I started to question a lot why the shapes of the letters are the way they are. Typography is one of the material legs of language now. Talking about the printers’ sphere, I also started to inquire if there is a possibility to have a critical discourse on the materials of language itself. I started to do work and research on type — the design of letters themselves— as a space of inquiry and also to see if I could find a way to find an appropriate output with printers for printed matter.

I did a project called Niebla with a typeface for road and traffic signs. It was a very interesting approach for me because even though it has to do with the design of the typeface with a very functional approach, it needed to be extremely legible in very challenging conditions as a signage typeface. I started to think about this tradition in signage which is Euro-centric, but most particularly Anglo-centric, and in this way, I started to confront these modes of thinking about the material – the materiality of language. The language that is used in Mexico is mostly Spanish. Other languages are not as present but have found a way into everyday language in Mexico. So, the development of this signage typeface included a lot of analysis of all the etymologies and letter combinations that come from in pre-Hispanic languages, such as Mayan.

Through my research I began to use frequency analysis of different names in Spanish: of names of places in Mexican Spanish but also in European Spanish, as well as in English names. Just to have a sense of how it has been in more real ways. How does that distinct linguistic influence have a weight on everyday interactions with the city and with the country at large?

So out of those different letters that are more frequent in many Mexican names, they are different than the most frequent letters in Spain or the US and also have very different patterns than in French. The words are longer so it’s sort of triggered, let’s say, a very embodied approach to language. And more specifically for me, a distinct place from where to develop a critical approach, a critical stance with language.

Letter count per word, image courtesy of Juan Arturo Garcia (2015).

LŠ: It is incredible to understand the breakdown of the letters and how frequently they’re used in different languages.

JAG: It’s something that you never think of unless you literally start counting letters. I mean, it’s so invisible. Niebla project found a way into how certain kinds of letters are actually produced and how a language is composed now and that’s a good way to connect to another project called Dead Tongues. The name in Spanish is Lenguas Muertas, literally translated into English as dead tongues. It’s a bit of wordplay, and also research on the lives and lifespans of a language in many different ways. So, it was a compilation of all the dead languages that I could find and when were they extinct. What was the name of the last person that spoke it? And also, the material aspects of a language? An oral, historical, and graphic approach.

I made a list in which there are unknown languages, one of them a language called Witchita. It is almost a sort of an obituary that spans 4000 years and the whole globe. And it produces a different way of understanding – what is a language? Or how can languages die? What happens to them when they die? Were they translated or not? Is a translation good enough? What is lost in translation? Is it even possible to do or aim for a perfect translation? These kinds of questions started popping up with this approach. It was printed in a medium-sized run of 500 copies that were distributed in shows, but also in small libraries.

LŠ: What appealed to you working in riso printing in connection with Dead Tongues?

JAG: I find that riso printing occupies a really nice spot between the small and the medium-sized productions, that is good or viable only for very small runs.

Print shops are good, up until a certain point, and then you have offset and these extreme and very expensive things that are great if you want to run a print of 1000 or more copies. But riso, occupies this space in the middle – fast, cheap, easy to read and produce. And it had the added benefit, what is now a result, it has seemed to conjure up a special kind of community around it. At least in my case, whenever I bumped into someone that had a riso printer, he was most likely also an editor and he most likely runs a small publishing house. It was also a way to do things, a door to another kind of community that I might not have necessarily found otherwise. It made me question a lot – what is the meaning of publishing? What does it mean to publish and to have a public? What is a public? And then as well, to consider the lifespan of any given application. What happens when you release something into the open as a publication?

LŠ: Would you start your own publishing company?

JAG: From a very romantic side, I would love to do so, because I think it’s a very noble medium. It’s also a great way to know people and you can take the craft to incredible levels of sophistication. You can also be very punk about it or anything in between. It’s a lovely practice but it’s also one that demands a lot of time.

LŠ: We talked of the meaning of language in your practice yet how do you see the connections between language and technology in your work? You already addressed it through the printed matter but it would be great to hear more of your video work.

JAG: Yes, that has been an ever-developing question for me. When it became clear that there was an interrelation between language and technology, and that I could work from there, I started working with video more concisely.

More crucially, when I moved abroad I bumped into all these discussions about, for example, biometrics or other strategies like face recognition, that are very widespread and also very critically disputed. But there are other ways of tracking vital signs that are much more obscure, or at least out of the public’s vision, and I think language is one of those now. It should be critically investigated and it also has a different space.

Now, I think the angle might not necessarily be always about the surveillance aspect, but what other implications are there, for example, in terms of speech. Probably the first layer of encountering the issue of speaking with an accent, lives in oral interactions. But even then, the accent can also be counterintuitive as its sounds can also be fixed into writing, for example, by the way, you generate language. The kinds of mistakes that you may or may not make, also reveal a lot about a character. They can reveal from the mother tongue you’re speaking or thinking from. It reveals your linguistic tradition or background. So, it’s always interesting. Certain linguistic traces are very much tied to everyone’s own identity, and it’s very hard to conceal them. Then having either one accent or the other—what are the implications that they may have in real-life interactions? What are the affordances of speaking? Let’s say speaking English with a US accent or with a Caribbean accent. With an English or Scottish accent? Just speaking within the accents from the regions where English is the main language. We’re not even discussing language abilities or lexical availability yet. That still applies even within one single country, such as England, for example. Maybe even at a smaller scale, like London, just one city.

LŠ: Perhaps we could also revisit your work, Nothing really matters unless it was written in English.

JAG: The way I see it, the statement in the title of the work shouldn’t be necessarily taken at face value, but rather from a systemic point of view. I mean, there is no denying that art is made in many different languages all around the world at the same time, and probably also in a shared space. However, there’s one language in the art that is the most prominent, that is singled out as the most visible one, that has the most presence, and the one that travels the most. And the one that has the largest economic value attached to it.

That’s not only in art, but the same thing also happens in literature, music, technology as well as in many different realms now. When you start to look at language, or languages, from that antagonistic perspective, then suddenly speaking in a language other than English, can become a point of resistance or a point of struggle, which is something that I find very attractive. It’s not just the language itself, as it also implies other socio-economic, cultural and historical, and even racial conflicts that are just cooking under the surface, but always in the background now.

Nothing really matters unless it was written in English (clip, 2018). Images courtesy of the artist.

LŠ: How did your moving image practice develop over time with linguistic connection?

JAG: It started more or less with these linguistic experiments. Nothing really matters unless it was written in English is one of them. An even older one is Colorful language that you can also see on the website. I started with small linguistics exercises. But the aspect that really drew me into the video format allowed me not only to work with language but incorporate the component of the voice.

So, in a way that’s how I started doing videos by trying to see what could be done with these linguistic acrobatics on a time-based medium. And I still play a lot with synthesized voices or voices created with non-vocal sounds. That’s something that I’m currently testing. I am trying to explore the potential that voice in itself can have in the moving image medium.

LŠ: What are some of the properties of video that you find particularly appealing?

JAG: I think one of the most interesting perspectives today is that there isn’t just one monolithic tradition about working on the film. In the past 50 years, there have been discussions that question the ‘cinematic gaze’, from a wide array of angles (intrinsic eurocentrism, or a patriarchal point of view, to name a couple), coming from different locations around the world. When these other visions started to enter into conflict with the monolithic or mainstream approach to filming, suddenly it became evident that there is no one way, one correct way to approach the moving image. Moving image is also a language. There are many different ways to speak that language, and those other ways have been creating a stronger presence and discourse. It’s still very much a work in progress, according to me, but I think it’s very important.

LŠ:  Your recent project Pattern tests: Times, Cycles, Automata paints this complex relationship between production conditions within a defined space – factory setting, while also addressing the notion of surveillance and how our bodies respond to all these factors.

JAG:  Just to make a recap, Pattern tests is a project that is a five-channel video installation that documents the automated and manual processes in a hybrid factory in China. It’s hybrid because half of the factory’s processes are automated and the other half are still undertaken with manual labor. The factory itself is a very high-tech environment, with lots of sensors and measurements that are being taken to gauge both the performance of the machines and the performance of the human workers. The problem of understanding efficiency brought to the fore in this particular work is the conflict between machine efficiency and human efficiency. How can those two be reconciled? Or can they not?

So, it doesn’t matter if you’re a human being or a machine, the more you produce in an hour, the better. But then, when you start looking at real situations, it’s evident that machine efficiency can most likely always be improved. The efficiency of human labor, on the other hand, is not limitless. What are the implications when those limits are reached? We have started to find out what those limits are. There might also be a problem in how this efficiency is understood and therefore quantified. Another aspect that we mentioned in a previous conversation was that the efficiency of the human workforce is now not only quantified but also gamified. It is also a different strategy to make an efficiency index grow by not just pushing your employees or deploying measures to make them more efficient, but by turning it into something desirable, which is a very contemporary turn of events.

Single stills from Pattern tests: Times, Cycles, Automata (2019). Images courtesy of the artist.