Pirates and Heroes

On ‘The Economy of the Imaginary: Pirates and Heroes’ by Minerva Cuevas, featured in Untitled Magazine spring 2008

Salvia: Knowledge is power, but I cannot stand on my head!!!!
Oscar: The nature of fantasy is like that, uncontrollable, irrepressible… It is public domain, it is not for sale, no one has rights on it [sic].
Capital: Against the forbidden there are always the streets of the possible.
Liberdade: Although it is true that later we ended up asking ourselves what did we fight for… we created the best possible world and we remain willing to defend everything for everyone.
Imperio: I was someone that believed that the perfect world was the fulfilment of material desires…

‘The Economy of the Imaginary: Pirates and Heroes’ is a five channel video installation, in which five superheroes are featured, resembling a gigantic comic strip come to life. When the piece was recently shown at Luckman Gallery in Los Angeles, where it was projected on the long back wall of the darkened ballroom-size space, the visitor had to become accustomed to the sound levels in the space and the cacophony of our five heroes chatting before he or she could begin to look at the work. Once that is done, the fun begins. Each character is dressed in a seemingly homemade disguise and takes a break from their super powers and daily ‘saving the world’ activities to address the visitor individually. From left to right, our first hero is a young girl called Salvia. She talks about the history of Hollywood, when film studios moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles for tax purposes and about film industry ‘pirates’ crossing the Mexican border at a time when legal problems were major. Next to that is Oscar, a spider man look alike imagining the viewer to be real whilst talking about fantasy, dreams and imagination. In the middle is Capital, a man using more pancake makeup than Jack Nicholson when he played The Joker, telling us that his only power is to have money and that yesterday’s heroes are today’s pirates that will be heroes once again. Followed by Liberdade, a wonder woman in a red convertible, pointing out the differences between the good old days and the uninspiring, hopeless new ones. Meanwhile the last character is Imperio, whose tight bodysuit cannot conceal his physical decline, hiding his bitterness and defeat behind a veil of knowledge, admitting that hard work and determination are not enough.

The scripts for these monologues are based on Cuevas’s research into the history of the Hollywood film industry, superheroes, social heroism, the dynamics of piracy and the public domain. The (amateur) actors were recruited through an open call audition advertisement published in a Mexican newspaper that read ‘Looking for Superheroes’. In addition to which, flyers were distributed and people were approached on the street. Subsequently the people that were called in to audition were dressed in costumes and interviewed about themselves and their own super powers. The final recording for the video took place in different locations across Mexico City, opening up the possibility that these sites could be the environment for new superpowers and superheroes to emerge.

What struck me initially about this particular artwork was its name. The title ‘The Economy of the Imaginary’, is something that it shares with the sixth chapter of literary theorist Thomas G. Pavel’s, book ‘Fictional Worlds’ (1986). In this book Pavel sets out to make his readers grasp the domain of imaginary worlds in order to understand the reasons for their existence. By emphasising the relationship between fiction and the human abilities of invention and imagination, Pavel makes a case for understanding fiction along with imaginary worlds or even possible worlds as an integral part of our culture – an alternative to a more common perception of these worlds as just another aberration. It is worth keeping this in the back of our minds, when discussing the different issues raised by Cuevas’s piece.

Let’s start with Cuevas’s use of the archetypical, almost archaic, commercial superhero imagery. Re-appropriating images that are anchored in the public’s collective unconscious in order to reveal economic imperialism, is a strategy Cuevas has successfully employed many times before. A striking example is the intervention she created for Palais de Tokyo in Paris where she positioned a man, dressed as Ronald McDonald, in front of a local McDonald’s restaurant in order to inform customers about the poor quality of the food and non existent worker’s rights. Another illustration of this strategy are her alterations of the logos and slogans used by multinationals like ‘Nestlé, where she added sentences to their labels such as ‘All the Nestlé allure has been gleaned from the systematic destruction of the world’s landscape’. Referring to the superhero imagery is no different. We have been exposed often enough to these images not to be shocked by a grown man in tights sporting a black cape and displaying impressive special powers. But to see that guy weakened, admitting failure… potentially might make the viewer re-evaluate these images and question their hidden motives.

The second interesting feature of the work is the multi layered way in which it touches on everyday life in the public domain, which, as we have seen from the previous example of her work, is not an out of the ordinary concept in Cuevas’s oeuvre. This is evident first of all in ‘Economy of the Imaginary’ in the processes used to recruit the actors. They are all amateur actors that were cast as they went about their daily business, for example whilst reading a paper or walking to work. The casting process was taken away from the traditional moviemaking model of using agencies, and brought to structures that determine everyday life. Then there is the fact that our superheroes are not displaying their powers or saving the world from some evil villain. Relaxing and reflecting is also a part of the daily life of a hero, as we see by the fact that Spiderman and Superman have day jobs and Batman somehow still finds time to date. This is the part of their story that the average viewer can perhaps relate to with ease, based on their own experience of the world, rather than the part where they fly off with Lois Lane after reverting a comet that would have destroyed the planet. In addition to which the costumes have a DIY quality and are made of humble, off the rack materials and the movie was shot across a real city, not in a made up set. Interestingly enough, by referring to the everyday in the way that she does in this piece, Cuevas gives it back some meaning, significance or perhaps even metaphysical qualities that have been lost in modernity.

Lastly let’s have a look at economy. Minerva Cuevas is probably best known for Mejor Vida Corporation (http://www.irational.org/mvc/english.html), the nonprofit company she set up in Mexico City in 1998. Instead of selling products and services, and making big profits, the Mejor Vida Corporation gives all her merchandise away for free. Fake student ID cards, recommendation letters from galleries, barcode stickers that enable you, the customer, to price goods yourself as you see fit, subway tickets, pre stamped envelopes, it’s all available for free through MVC. This demonstrates Cuevas’s interest in informal or alternative economies and their potential to disrupt the capitalist programme. It also shows how she goes about it: infiltrating political, economic and social structures (including the art world) in order to subvert them.

With this background, it seems inevitable that in response to an invitation to show in Los Angeles, Cuevas zooms in on the omnipresent film industry in that peculiar city that has been capitalizing on the imaginary for so many decades. Obviously, Hollywood’s level of imagination and originality is highly questionable, and the movies that are being produced could be argued to limit and control rather than widen viewers imaginations, because of their simple submission to and underlining of social, political and economic values without, in most instances, questioning their validity. To read Cuevas’s work as a one on one critique of the film industry and all the evil that comes with it however would be selling the work short. But it is a strong statement on the impossibility or maybe even paradox of trying to first comprehend and then, by emptying it of any meaning, reduce imagination to a commodity. Imagination, fantasy cannot simply be codified to serve consumer capitalisms needs.

When we now go back to Pavel’s ‘Fictional Worlds’, it is interesting to note that these worlds are by definition incomplete. Obviously, in literature, it would take a text of infinite length to produce a ‘complete’ world. In movies, it would take an infinite number of reels of film. Therefore the reader (or audience) has to reconstruct the fictional world that has been constructed by the author or artist. In parts this reconstruction is guided by a certain set of conditions already put in place by the work of art itself and is, in that respect, controlled. But there are also gaps that do not belong to this ‘structure’ and it is precisely these gaps that open up the possibility for – and even demands – the audience to use their imagination. This ‘imagining’ is a subjective act, which each individual undertakes in their own way, making their own decisions. What is then remarkable to note is the fact that this imagination is strongly connected to our everyday life experiences, our relationship to our ‘realities’, complete worlds and objects where the existence of ‘things’ is dependant on how we talk about them. This mimesis, the copy and the original operating on the same level bearing equal truths, is guiding our act of reassemblage. What in my opinion then is intriguing about the art work discussed here is that with it Minerva Cuevas visually bridges the gap between the imaginary world of (in this case) a movie, and the reality of everyday life. More than that even, she opens up this ambiguous space and makes it an authentic space, or in Pavel’s words an integral part of culture.

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