The Peruvian collective NN had work in the central ‘Tres Mundos’ (‘Three Worlds’) exhibition of the 1989 Bienal, installed at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The four founding members of NN were Alex Ángeles, José Luis García, Alfredo Márquez and Quique Wong, all architecture students at the Universidad Ricardo Palma in Lima. They worked together under this name from 1988 to 1991.
Alfredo Márquez: The third edition of the Bienal de La Habana was a turning point for us. I also think there’s a history to it, both at the personal and the collective level, that was censored, partially even by ourselves. It has taken us a long time to recapture a sense of what we were trying to do at the time. Previously, we’d come from an architectural collective, Bestiario. The Bienal came up at the perfect time. It’s not the kind of thing we would normally have taken part in. We wouldn’t have been invited had it not been for Gerardo Mosquera visiting Peru, as he did other places. He gave a talk about emerging Cuban art as part of the art programme at the Universidad de San Marcos, where Alfonso Castrillón was the dean and Gustavo Buntinx a professor. It was through them that we learned about Mosquera’s visit and ended up going to the workshop he led, which was a talk with a slide show. That was in 1988, a year before the Bienal. We could have very easily not attended the talk – it wasn’t arranged for a certain group, but open to all students. We could have not chatted with him, but what he showed was so interesting – and we felt so close to some of its aspects and were so engaged by what we saw by Cuban artists – that we stayed talking with him afterwards. This prompted him to say he would like to visit us to see what we were making. Four of us who had worked collectively as Bestiario got together. We didn’t have a name or collective identity at the time; we’d just rented a house where we were starting to organise the legacy of the work we’d done previously. What Gerardo Mosquera witnessed when he visited us was the organisation of that legacy. He then asked us to make a proposal for the Bienal. We got the invitation as an architectural group, and by this time we had an identity: NN (no name, no identification). Things were very different for us then. The war had made internal conflict very harsh. Our work was very critical of images of the war, from various points of view, but we didn’t really exist within an art context. Our work stood within the space of the academy and in the street.
Alex Ángeles: We were a group of students working within our department and we had created certain encounters with the central government and the leftist town council. We recognised the kind of contradictions created by our stance and also among this group of intellectuals which could have offered us the ‘perfect’ space in which to produce, but we actually faced conflict. We came to be associated with ‘regressive marginalisation’ because we had an almost anarchist discourse on power, and we were also very keen to not hide the representation of insurgent groups from the conversation. We didn’t assume positions; we just communicated what was happening. When we got the invitation to participate in the Bienal we saw it as a chance to raise debate in another space, to make waves on another level. We thought we could make the effect bounce back: while here no one had paid attention to us, suddenly by doing something over there in the Bienal de La Habana we would be received as something foreign, and in Peru there is this feeling that whatever comes from abroad is good or better and has value. However, the invitation found us at a moment of collective crisis, and we actually split up – or we were at least considering taking a break – before sending the project to Havana. Once the actual invitation arrived it caused us to get back together. This project revealed contradictions, and we decided to confront them.
AM: We can now articulate all of this but at the time we did not know it – it was not a familiar narrative. From my point of view, going to the Bienal didn’t just mean having to set up a project for exhibition; what really mattered was going there and making the project in situ. Our actions always included being physically present within the architectural or artistic work. That was very important. We worked hard collectively so that two of us would be able to go, since the Bienal did not subsidise artists’ travel or accommodation. It is important to say this, mostly because the presence of those two members represented all those who had actively worked on the project. We decided everything together. The two of us who ended up going [Alfredo Márquez and Quique Wong] were close friends but nevertheless had many arguments, and it was a good thing to have a non-complacent rapport, so as to keep discussion going the whole time. This is how we came to the Bienal de La Habana – through a tortuous path.
Rachel Weiss : I am aware that the Bienal had different kinds of relationships with each country, in some instances working with official institutions, and that it was easier with countries with which they had a good relationship, but I’m not sure how things worked with Peru.
AM: As far as we know there was no kind of local presence, no mediating institution to round up calls, selections or proposals. Gerardo personally tried to make a thorough research tour, and then people who seemed the best fit were selected to make proposals. Peru had an eclectic representation at the Bienal. There was Jorge Eduardo Eielson, a very important Peruvian poet and visual artist, who only became known as such after leaving Peru. There was also Esther Vainstein, a Peruvian artist of Jewish ancestry who was active in the 1980s but not part of the Peruvian art mainstream. A group of artists from Huancayo who called themselves Minka were also invited. They were a collective more interested in folk technology and crafts.
AÁ: We do not know which were chosen by Gerardo; I have no idea how he could have come into contact with Minka. Of all of those representing Peru, we were the youngest and the only ones who did not have a relationship with an institutional art space. In fact there was even a complaint made offstage, so to speak, questioning why we were going since we weren’t artists, had never shown in a gallery and did not have any presence in the field.
AM: However, we had currency in what was happening elsewhere, with a strong presence in the underground music, poetry and architecture scenes, which were spreading throughout Lima. We were closely connected with Cloaca, a group of anarcho-socialist poets from the city. They are now all professors at Harvard and other universities in the USA, but at that time they were third wheels, without any links to spaces of power. No one knew exactly who we were. A kind of shifting and disappearing presence was part of our strategy.
AÁ: You asked about the official relationship between Cuba and Peru at that time. The context had moved on from the time when we worked on an event for Alan García’s central government. Up to that point he had been positioned as the first young, so-called ‘leftist’ president. Everyone knows about the wide political range of leftist parties, but that event included Cuban musicians such as Silvio Rodríguez among its guests. But then in 1986 the Matanza de los Penales [Prison Massacres] took place, for which Alan García was politically responsible.1 In the following years, Peru went through massive inflation, an economic debacle that showed the government’s astonishing repression. What the actual relationship between the Cuban and Peruvian states was we do not know.
AM: State artists, those with a relationship to the establishment, were not part of the discussions around what was happening with the Bienal. The embassy had not proposed anything either, contrary to what often happens with international representation in general, in which the ambassador handpicks his or her choices. That definitely did not happen in this case. Mosquera’s physical presence in Peru was a determining factor. I feel that he was very excited by us and that he liked the irreverence with which we approached things and our personal attitude. There was a personal bond, a nice feeling of empathy. He even invited us over to dinner at his house and we had a chance to spend more casual time with him. He named the kind of art we made ‘pepillo’, a Cuban word that means playful and young, and, even though what we made there was dry and severe, that’s how he perceived us.
RW: Can you expand on the ‘dry and severe’ nature of your work?
AM: A friend of ours, someone close to the group, had been kidnapped with some students from San Marcos and the [Universidad] Católica, and all of them were killed. This happened months before we went to Havana for the Bienal and it made us rethink the situation. We had to put serious effort into our contribution. July 1989 meant the loss of innocence. We saw that there was a serious situation and we felt we needed to build bridges in order to meet other people because here we couldn’t breathe. We thought the Bienal was a great chance to meet others who felt something similar or found themselves in similar situations elsewhere, to make a network, because no one would shelter us from what would come after. Right before heading on the trip, repression in Lima increased. It felt as if they were already looking for us. And this was the local situation from which we set off. The studio in Lima continued operating with Alex responsible, while two of us went over there to work in parallel.
RW: And what did you think of Cuba at that point?
AM: My family is not aligned with the left and has no history of personal involvement with political activity. This is something the four of us from NN share, a similar family history: sons of first or second generation immigrants from inland Peru who moved to Lima. Our parents never had anything to do with organised politics, and never worked for the state’s authority. Our education was a bit self-organised. I built my own set of references with my friends. I saw Cuba as the latest revolution to triumph through a project that turned to socialism. But when I arrived, I sensed a situation that was hyper- controlled by the state, something that I did not like very much but that I could understand.
RW: But weren’t you anarchists? Anarchy and socialism not being the same thing…
AM: We are socialists. Anarchy has to do with the notion of utopian socialism. There’s no need for a centralised space for administering power when it can be dispersed instead. Our outlook was definitely critical. We were there to critique the powers of the moment, but if those powers changed, we would also be critical of that. We were aware of the history of all those who had taken part in projects driven by a desire to take power, who had ended up dead or exiled, something that also explains our tolerance. I understood that what was happening in Cuba wasn’t socialism in the terms that I would have liked, but instead that it was a state dictatorship in which all social systems were hyper-controlled. This is why we quickly befriended the people behind the Arte Calle [Street Art] project and everything that was being developed outside the Bienal, because the Bienal was an official project serving the Cuban state.
RW: Did you discuss this with Gerardo?
AM: Yes, of course. Gerardo was very sincere and had a critical yet participative outlook. He believed that it was very important for there to be a critical programme for Cuban society, and for Cuban youth. I think this is why he invited us. There was an initial chemistry between these rebellious youths and Gerardo. Once we were over there he couldn’t assume responsibility for us. Even he has his limitations! He had built his career but at this point was almost a superfluous symbol; he wasn’t comfortable within the structure of Cuban art but nevetheless he was tremendously useful and efficient. He was honest about what participation would mean and didn’t know what would happen to his future. In fact, in the immediate future he would cease to decide on participants for the Bienal, but at that point we did not know this would happen.