«This idea of prefabricated art that has no respect for people is what I am fighting against and where I disagree with institutions that already have an idea of what they want me to make. This is against art itself. It’s a very contemporary problem that we have to face: it’s about ethics and art.» (Humberto Vélez, in: Aesthetics of Collaboration, The Art Gallery of York University, Toronto, 2012, p. 45)
Aesthetics of Collaboration
«Collaboration is not an end in itself for Vélez; it is an operative strategy integral to questioning the role of art and aesthetics today. By opening up to diverse cultural input as well as to the participation of non-artists Vélez’s projects develop what he calls the collaborator’s ‹capacity to produce aesthetics›. Through extended periods of development and the final performances, his projects propose different concepts of culture, power and ethics that counter those found in mainstream art institutions. …
These works re-picture the world by imagining new forms and associations of belonging – often for those who ‹belong› within neither society’s norms nor the contemporary art world. The performances appropriate other ‹social› forms of organization – such as parades, sport events, and regattas – and script them otherwise (as stories of migration, identity, race, beauty, and/or class) in order to reinsert them into exclusionary symbolic institutions, art museums or otherwise, crossing many different cultural and aesthetic borders in the process. In many of these performances, Vélez doesn’t necessarily show us anything different, even if the works do propose an entirely different ‹look› for contemporary art. … By radically redefining the form and function of contemporary art, he opens new aesthetic possibilities that open us up to alternative forms of cultural production.
Vélez’s work questions the ethics around collaboration (how we work together) and participation (who gets to participate and why) by making these questions integral to the process of art making. He makes them the subject, not the style, of a way of working, believing that the ethical issue of collaboration in art is not to represent politics but to enact politics. …
His are not top-down ‹community art› projects, either. They do have a pedagogical imperative, however: they are open-ended learning situations intended to transform the structures in which he and his collaborators live and work. …
Never a performer in his own work, neither is Vélez the subject of his performances – even if he shares a similar ‹outsider› perspective. Rather, he is a catalyst for other people’s stories and ideas, playing a role more akin to a conductor of an orchestra or director of a film; he combines and shapes their collective current cultural interests and forms of expression into new narrative contexts.» (Emelie Chhangur, ibid., p. 9–10)
The power to bring people together
To mention but a few of Vélez’s numerous performances that took place over the course of years between Shanghai, Havana, Valparaiso, Limerick, and Venice, here is a brief rundown of some of his projects:
In 2007, Vélez organized his spectacular performance «The Fight» in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London. «The Fight» lasted a whole afternoon and featured a boxing event in a central ring accompanied by music and dance, with members of amateur clubs from the close by London borough Southwark boxing against each other.
In «La mas bella» for the 10th Cuenca Biennale in Ecuador, Vélez had a jury nominate the «most beautiful» llama in an eye-winking analogy to award ceremonies for artists as are still commonly practiced at many international biennials.
In 2010, he arranged a sort of urban cabaret, “Le plongeon”, in the middle of the Seine at the exclusive Parisian «Josephine Baker Pool», with rappers, dancers, poets, and swimmers performing swimming interludes reminiscent of old Hollywood musicals.
His most elaborate performance involved many years of preparation: In 2011, «The Awakening» brought together urban parkour athletes, musicians, First Nation artists, and indigenous Canadian youths and elders in Toronto’s symbolic center of visual culture, the Art Gallery of Ontario.
A further notable project was repeated over a number of years in various locations: With «Miss Education», Vélez intended to confront social, artistic and intellectual prejudices by exploring the elitism and stereotypes of art, education, and beauty through the lens of mass media events and popular culture. Vélez wanted to playfully challenge the concepts of art and education by merging aspects of the global art world with the mass market appeal of the beauty pageant. For this purpose, famous Latin American conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer served 2013 as jury president of the Miss Panama competition and personally chose a new ‹Miss› with the title of “Miss Education”.
Such elaborate, highly complex performances hardly lend themselves to visual documentation in films. Nevertheless, I want to point out two smaller, yet deeply delightful projects from other performances: «The Last Builder», a video piece from 2008, and «La carrera», originally conceived as a radio performance for the 7th Bienal de Panamá in 2005:
«Art empowers. Sometimes it has a real use. It can make you feel better about yourself – and isn’t that the meaning of art, really? Sometimes we forget what the meaning of art is. It’s not the academic meaning, it’s what it means to people, no? It’s to make you feel better, or more intelligent, or understand things, or give you a position in life, all that. My work is a way for me to communicate this, to connect art to the real, that is, having it mean something to other people, not only to the arts but to the people outside the art world.» (Humberto Vélez, ibid., p. 59)