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A conversation with Alicia Barney Caldas


Errata Magazine #10, 2014

For the tenth edition of Errata# magazine we are addressing the environmental debates that have arisen in recent artistic and activist practices and that aim to denounce and visibilize the disaster of development-based models, searching community-based sustainable alternatives for natural resources. Alicia Barney Caldas is a pioneer in these debates within Colombian art, and this is a perfect opportunity to speak about her work.


Errata#: To place ourselves into the present, what do you think of Bogotá’s model of waste collection by a public entity, the central subject of a possible recall of Mayor Gustavo Petro?


Alicia Barney: I would like to give a response about the true origins of this problem –meaning Petro and our trash— quoting Toritto, a blogger:


Things I find interesting:

The population of the earth is estimated to have been 200 million when Christ was born.

The population of the earth is estimated to have been 310 million when Charlemagne was crowned in the year 1000.

The population of the earth didn’t pass 1 billion until after 1800.

The population of the earth when I was a kid in 1950 was 2.5 billion.

The population of the earth reached 6.1 billion in 2000.

The population of the earth reached 6.454 billion in 2005.

Total population has more than doubled in my lifetime. There are now more than 2 people walking around for every person I saw when I was 10. They all need food, shelter, education, transportation, jobs etc.

In the last five years we have added more population to the total than the entire population of earth in the year 1,000.

(Toritto 2009)


The same blogger explains that it is not necessary to be a scientist or economist to understand: it is suspicious that in the last two hundred years we have increased in alarming quantities the amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by cars and industry without any consequence. The idea that we can continue to reproduce at the same rates, and that we can all aspire to an increasingly higher standard of living is also suspicious. At the end, he says “What, me worry? I'm old enough that the planet won’t get too hot nor will the oil run out for the remainder of my life span” (2009).


E# In Cali, in the 41st National Artists’ Salon (2008), we had the opportunity to see the work "Yumbo", an installation of thirty glass containers which held the polluted air from that city in the Cauca Valley. We remember that Juguete de las Hadas [Fairies’ Toy] is one of your latest individual showings, from 1998, in the Pereira Museum of Art and in the La Merced Museum in Cali. Why haven’t we seen another individual or anthological exhibition from you? What are you working on? In what direction do you see your questions and research heading today?


AB: I should clarify that in the 2008 Salon the two versions of "Yumbo" were shown, with twenty eight years between them. Both were at La Tertulia Modern Art Museum. The first was made in 1980 and was stored in MAMBO for close to twenty-four years. When it was needed for the Salon, only half of the containers were found, which underlines the necessity for the expansion of the museum, and the fact that its patrimony is being stored so precariously. Even keeping in mind the numerous objections, it is still important to protect these works. Ruining them, like ruining nature, is not an ideal practice. The "Yumbo" of 2008 is still complete and shows that the pollution problem there has not changed. My last exhibition was in the now-extinct Espacio Vacío [Empty Space], curated by Jaime Iregui, where I showed Las Flores del Mal [The Flowers of Evil], Hongos [Mushrooms], and Voladores [Flyers]. For the last few years I have dedicated myself to practices, experiments, studies, and investigations of a personal nature. I have experienced a visceral rejection of the art world, which is populated by numerous characters like the pompous and vain emperor with his nonexistent clothing, all of which does not do anything to enrich my journey in life.


E#: During your formative years, studying Fine Arts in the College of New Rochelle (New York) and getting your MFA at Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, New York), what concepts or ideas helped set a direction for your work?


AB: I did my studies many years ago, and I remember living at the time in a delirious state, full of anguish and joy. Yes, my life has always had room for contradictions. I felt very alive, discovering the world and art. For me art should be immersed in life, and, as in life, its transformative quality should flourish through the artist-shaman. This is an idea from Claes Oldenburg and his project The Store, a work I read about while I was working on Diario Objeto I [Diary Object I] and with which I immediately identified; when I collected those objects I felt them calling me as if they were magical. This intimate relation with the object is also supported by my hyper-sharpened sense of the impossibility of real communication between humans.


E#: Do you believe that one can conduct environmental activism through art?


AB: First I should note the activist nature of works like Río Cauca and "Yumbo". Twenty five years later, the river is still a sewer, and air in "Yumbo" still causes respiratory illness, to its inhabitants but among Cali residents living in the northern part of town. This makes me think that art is definitely a failure as a vehicle for activism.


It would be wonderful if, as much through art as through the private sector, one could engage in environmental activism. However, behind the activism is the activist. It’s quite common that, because of the urgency of the problems and the extreme sensitivity of the activists, the result is an exacerbated fervor that tends to lack subtlety: practices like pointing fingers, sermonizing, accusing, and engaging in odious power struggles, none of which help the cause of the planet. These practices are counterproductive, and they push the public towards complacency, to remain blind, lazy, and uninterested. On top of that, they turn the activist into a desperate, frustrated, bitter, furious person. I know this from experience: fury is what I feel when I see that I’m the only person with reusable bags at the grocery store.


I find that the line between civilization and barbarism is very thin. Will this successful predator be able to distinguish civilization from barbarism?


E#: In an interview from 1983 with the art critic Miguel González for Contrastes magazine, published by the newspaper El Pueblo of Cali, after being asked “How do you classify yourself?”, you replied, “I don’t want to label myself because I don’t have any desire to repeat myself. I am not someone who looks for a theme and decides to make variations on it for my whole life.” Now, looking back on your work, how do you see yourself?

Your work has been categorized as ‘conceptual.’ Do you agree with that? Have you found a particular manner of naming or conceiving of your work?


AB: Labels definitely seem miserly to me, and I hate them. I see myself as a living being, changing, in constant development. Art is an aspect of an artist’s life-development and its production should be totally receptive to the changes in his/her life and environment, being able not only of absorbing but being transformed by those changes. I understand style as a reductive formula for those artists who impose their brands, their “ideas” on the world. As an artist I have produced, on a purely formal level, very varied works, using different materials and techniques; however, the thread that runs through it has always been the same: expressing the instructions dictated in various ways through an approach to nature, sometimes focusing on timely problems, such as in "Yumbo" and "Río Cauca". To calm those exaggeratedly rational types who’d like to categorize everything (categories are necessarily external and are not inclusive of all the factors that make up a work of art) rather than flowing in life, there is no doubt that in a purely formal sense, "Río Cauca" and "Yumbo" are conceptual works. I later moved from this formal language when I found that it did not truly fit the Colombian context, in which technology is imported. This clean, emotionally distant nature was neither reflective of, nor honest with, the place where the works were made.


In El juguete de las hadas [Fairies’ Toy] from 1997 (a work which was embroidered entirely by four marvelous women in my house-workshop over most of a year), the formal emphasis is on its artisanal character. In this work I attempt to synthesize a very large problem, taking on the demographic explosion from the perspective of population, reproduction, sexuality, ritualization, and its place within economic models. For example, in the West, after the Roman Empire, marriage was first implemented from the 9th to the 12th century in northern France, through the subterfuge of confession, a practice that the Catholic church used to control, through intimacy, the unions of the first violent and oversexed feudal chieftains, and thus to consolidate the successions of their fiefdoms, with obvious economic consequences. El juguete, with its phallic shape covered by a wedding dress, embroidered with more than five thousand pearls, has been reduced only to its sexual aspect, which leads me to reiterate my thesis of the impossibility of communication.


I later created other works aiming to capture the attitude of the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples toward their natural environment and their production of ritual objects as magic objects. I made them in a realist style, using real objects, like the armadillo shell in "Objeto Precolombino II" (a) [Pre-Columbian Object II (a)] from 1990, or "La Requisa" (meaning literally “The final combing of a field for the last harvest yield,” but also meaning a Pat-Down by Police), a work in which I assembled earth shapes in various metals and corncobs with human teeth in acrylic, to address the theme of hunger. This work was criticized for its spelling, a light bulb was hung in the middle of it, four corncobs were stolen, and the idea was recently copied and I received no credit. But the curators and critics at the time were never interested in the fact that the piece was about hunger.


Therefore, I see my work as a way of building a road, slowly and conscientiously, where each piece is a milestone, the product of a search always renewed and transformative. None of the works are subjected to a style; they rather respond to an urgency, to understand the relationship of human and nature, in the context of the continual advance towards to the destruction of the planet as we knew it.


E#: In 1977 you finished your graduate studies and, the following year, you presented "Diario-Objeto" in Cali, an autobiographical work about your experience collecting objects that appealed to you. Later came "Yumbo" (1980), "Río Cauca" (1981), and "Estratificaciones de un basurero utópico" [Stratifications of a Utopian Landfill] (1981). In those years, how was your work received in Colombia?


AB: The objects of "Diario Objeto" 1 and 2 were collected as magical objects, and I acted as an artist-shaman. These diaries were created spontaneously and they quickly found their connection with Claes Oldenburg’s "The Store". The reception of "Diario Objeto", exhibited for the first time in the Universidad del Valle library, was complicated, if we consider the intervention of the public, which inserted pieces of paper full of insults into the work, or wrote them directly on it. Later, the two diaries were exhibited in the 18th National Salon in Bogotá, and were hung (hidden, really) in a panel that faced the entrance to the bathroom, at the National Museum. When I exhibited "Río Cauca" at La Tertulia museum in Cali, I remember an audible silence. The showing of "Yumbo" was graced by a visit from two or three DAS agents [the Administrative Department of Security], or its equivalent at the time. The threatening, intimidating tone that they used turned to bewilderment when I explained that wind moves the air, and that the polluted air of the Cementos del Valle factory could blow towards the private Caribbean island of the factory’s Swiss owners. Seven of the ten tubes from "Estratificación de un Basurero Utópico", from 1987, were destroyed during their installation in the International Art Festival in Medellín; and it took almost three years before I was repaid for them, at cost. It seems in Bogotá they liked the pieces, and one was sold, which I was never paid for.


E#: We would like you to tell us about the newspaper "El Ecológico" (The Ecological). How did you come up with this idea, and how was it distributed at the time?


AB: "El Ecológico" was made between 1981 and 1982, and wasn’t distributed as a commercial paper, but as a work of art in a newspaper format. I published ten editions, each consisting of forty pages, and copies were exhibited in museums and galleries. When I made "Diario Objeto" there were three diaries made up entirely of texts. When I returned to Colombia I continued clipping texts and photographs until I had an unmanageable amount, and I hired Jorge Cachiotis, a history student, to classify the clippings based on twenty opposing themes under the labels “In danger of extinction” and “Not in danger of extinction,” to paste them into the editorial pages of real newspapers. The result is a catalogue that records daily life from a (commercial) newspaper, the tragedies as well as the frivolity, from war to beauty queens. This unadorned signaling of reality was not well-received in its moment. For their part, "Las Flores de Mal", "Hongos", and "Los Voladores", from 2002, also made with newspaper and magazine clippings and covered in pristine plastic sleeves, registered violence on a global scale.


E#: "Yumbo" and "Río Cauca" are connected by the high level of pollution in "Yumbo", known as the “Industrial City” of the Cauca Valley, and the contamination of the Cauca River, among other reasons by the impact of the residual waters which have caused cuts to the supply of drinking water in Cali. This situation has not changed. When you began working on these two pieces, what made you focus on these two areas of the State? What was the interdisciplinary work required for "Río Cauca"?


AB: I would like to clarify that, geographically, it is impossible for the Cauca River to supply water to Cali. The Cali and Pance rivers --and if it were not (almost) dead, the Dapa River-- because of their location and altitude, are the ones that supply the city. A long time ago, Cali also used the Cañas Gordas and Lilí streams, among others, which brought drinking water and oxygen to the Cauca River. Today, owing to the construction of large neighborhoods, these streams have disappeared. The diminishing supply of water to the city is connected to the deforestation of the mountains, on one hand, and to the excessive demand on the other. I would like to emphasize something: the Cauca River has been a sewer for about thirty years. The situations that led me to make these works are very simple: the river looked terrible, and the air looked and smelled bad. Moreover I was not indifferent.


The interdisciplinary work was very difficult. At the time, it wasn’t accepted that groups could do art. In the Universidad del Cauca there was an academic judgment, promoted by the students, that art is an individual expression, and that it was a heresy on my part to ask them to work in groups. The work in "Rio Cauca" was very dangerous. We went into that sewer called a river without protection, an irresponsibility on my part. The photographer deserted the project after the first expedition so I assumed that role. The biologist held out until the end, but a week before the exhibition he didn’t want to give me the results, as he said that he couldn’t find them. In retrospect, I think that they had been seized, although his explanation for the chaotic disorder was a divorce. The fact is that I, always careful, copied his notes in situ, so I asked him to endorse them. It was an exhausting work because I did almost everything. And probably the health problems that I have now date from that time.


I have the same memory of "Yumbo" : struggling alone in the middle of a desert.

E#: What do you think of the current art-spaces and galleries?


AB: I see much of the academy as a paradisiacal oasis in the midst of chaos. While empires collapse, the letters come and go between Alexandria and Byzantium asking about such important matters as how many angels can pass thorough a needle hole… I see the critics and theorists of academia using word upon rarified word, far from a sense of urgency, using sheets and sheets, papers and papers, without ever thinking of how many hectares of virgin forest are erased every hour in the Amazon.


Goods, like any other merchandise, have their place in art.


Art for art’s sake, profit for profit’s sake. The art shown in fairs, auctions, galleries, elegant spaces totally attuned with the destructive, consumerist framework, not only of the planet but also of the soul; yes, I said the soul. I should clarify that, for me, God is not anthropomorphic and has no name, but I do believe in a non-material aspect of life. I don’t know if the academy is interested, but in a recent art fair in Miami, a pizza made of plaster, two meters in diameter, was sold for 270 thousand dollars, or that work by Óscar Murillo was auctioned for millions of dollars; or that Amazon has opened a new platform for art sales, a virtual art gallery. I ask, what is a gigantic, expensive plaster pizza —although it is exciting, it stirs up the avarice in all of us— for the buyers and sellers of art, next to the disappearance of wild animals that we have never seen and whose absence we will not even notice? If we want, we can appreciate them in a zoo, this parody of nature with its imprisoned animals in their artificial habitats. The shortage of space for wildlife is evident. It’s enough to observe the number of animals conceived in captivity rejected by their mothers. On the other side of the spectrum, breeders of martens, alligators, and other animals indicate that cloning will soon be as accepted and common as in "Blade Runner"; life imitating art.


E#: What else would you like to add? What subjects should we include here, considering that the history of environmental debates is also a history of failure and disaster?


AB: Of greed and self-satisfaction… or on the contrary: assuming responsibility. The desire to have more and more, to consume continually and cumulatively dates back to antiquity and has been the motor of so-called progress, but the coin has two sides. In these times of planetary crisis it is urgent to assume responsibilities for how we get those goods, observing and recognizing our drive towards individual comfort, in order to control it in ourselves for the common good.


Those things that before were insulting but effective devices, such as the small mirrors used by the Spanish Conquistadors to seduce and trap their victims, today appear in the marketplace as a cornucopia spilling out in the streets and shop windows. Before, the victim was innocence, and now it is —and at times they seem interchangeable— self-satisfaction. The perennial trinkets of yesteryear now play a similar role, as is the case with those colorful plastic shoes, nice and shiny, and yes, indestructible, Made in China. People create illusions and desires in order to satisfy them quickly and easily, always distracting the possibility of consciousness and, instead, feeding the need for self-satisfaction.


The idea is that the 99% buys much more than it needs, in line with its greedy nature, the same as the 1%. The little mirrors have turned into a well-oiled publicity machine. The manipulation of consciousness is such, that what was predicted is almost here: colonies on Mars looking for volunteers, who, rather than assuming their responsibility for the planet, prefer to be part of experiments to prepare the terrain for the members of the 1% —who, after making Earth unlivable, will escape it.


A lot of words and precious time are used to discuss and connect the ethical, the political, and the moral. I propose a more direct and effective approach: to simplify things, we should talk about being responsible. These words have disagreeable connotations for our comfort, but this does not have to be the case. It is enough to see the “friends of the Earth” getting ready to celebrate the summer solstice, returning to ancient costumes with flower crowns and bunches of fruit to celebrate life; this is not something to be found in the sterile world of greed.

For some conscious people, who assume responsibility for their health and their life, urban gardens are a solution to the problem of space and food security. It seems a sentimental solution compared to the thousands and thousands of hectares invaded by genetically modified seeds, sown by the wind, which make pollination by bees and bats obsolete. Recently the populations of these animals have been affected by pesticides, made by the same businesses whose top executives are members of the government that allows them to operate. However, the recent protests in defense of the bees have managed to stop the production of at least three pesticides. This is an example of what is accomplished when people celebrate life instead of that which can be purchased with little coins.


In the 1960s, scientists warned about the “demographic explosion”. Now, this expression has been taken out of circulation and erased from the vocabulary by the dictates of political correctness. People’s consciences were bought, in order to cast doubt on what had already been thoroughly proven. Today, ecology runs the same risk. A recent case is that of global warming, which has its own deniers who are getting heated-up to record numbers.

There are actually many problems that affect the equilibrium of the planet, and their effects are devastating.


The demographic explosion condemns great numbers of people to poverty; corruption, rampant in the Third World, and nonexistent or insufficient education make this poverty everlasting.


The endless plunder of non-renewable resources is perpetuated by the well-oiled efforts of the publicity machine, which has been coopted by the interests of the 1% and which is cleverly disseminated among the 99% in a haze which appeals to our self-satisfaction. “It is not the conscience of men that determines their existence but their social condition which determines their conscience,” says the character Robert in Godard’s "Masculin Féminin" (Roud, 1968)... I would add: also their greedy natures.

The most successful predator on the planet is also a predator of its own species.

The diverse systems of governance have been coopted by this greediness. Democracy, a system which seeks a balance between the government and the governed, has everywhere shown to be imperfect. The deplorable education provided by governments to their subjects perpetuates the inability of consciousness to develop and to exist beyond the primary struggle for sustenance. This is not an accident, it is part of a master plan and its power pyramid: banks, government, the mass media of persuasion and the armed forces of coercion, this latest now larger, thanks to the specter of terrorism, in which these forces can be used within the democratic system, against its own civilians. Both capitalism and communism are to blame for this state of things. Both systems are a failure for the masses and both have historically favored the elite few. Both have promoted war, whether it is fratricide or that of conquest. The ideologies of the left have a great share of the guilt, as demonstrated by the great massacres orchestrated by Stalin against his own people; or in Cambodia, where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge explicitly aimed to vanish its learned countrymen. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, with similar intentions, caused more deaths than both World Wars of the 20th century. The extreme left appears to promote paranoia and cannibalism, attacking its own populations. Today, however, they are too occupied with producing consumer goods at whatever cost, including the environmental: in panoramic photographs of any large Chinese city, one can see a dark haze covering the entire horizon.


The current response to this situation comes from those groups that embrace life within the community. This is the case of NGOs, which have multiplied in an unprecedented manner in the last decades, assuming specific tasks, frequently with positive results. In some areas they seem to have had more success than the well-intentioned interventions of foreigners, such as those of the UN in other times. Mass protest and ethnic movements, when they come together, are a wider and more effective umbrella in the search for a balance that will stop this destruction.



Roud, Richard. 1968. Jean-Luc Godard. London: Secker & Warburg.


Toritto. 2009. Online forum comment on the article “Obama Marks Earth Day at Iowa Wind Tower Plant” In The Washington Post. posted 22 April. Available at

<> accessed- Aug 20, 2013.

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