We had the opportunity to talk over email with queer performance artist Elyla Sinvergüenza about her project Cartas Mojadas, which took place last year at Red Gate. Elyla discusses the context surrounding the project and her experience in Beijing while tackling larger questions about her work and the relationship between art, queerness and activism.
China Residencies: Could you give us background on what the issue is with the Nicaragua Canal, how China is involved and how Cartas Mojadas/Wet Letters is engaging with it all?
Elyla Sinvergüenza: The idea behind Wet Letters is to create dialogue between the people of Nicaragua and China in order to facilitate cross continental empathy. The project acknowledges that for empathy to take place, direct contact and communication are necessary and urgent for both countries, as it would facilitate to push forward the cultural and legal agenda from land right protest movements in small communities getting ready to face the impact of the $50 billion canal project.
Nicaragua, because of its geographic location, has always had the dream to build an Interoceanic Canal that would function as an international shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In June 2013, the National Assembly approved a bill that granted a 50-year concession to finance and manage the construction of the canal to the private Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (HKND Group) headed by Wang Jing, a Chinese billionaire who created the company only for purposes of the project. President Daniel Ortega approved the law within one week of private negotiations. He has stated that the canal is the second phase of the Nicaraguan Revolution, that it will pull Nicaragua out of poverty and lead to the creation of 250,000 jobs. HKND also states that the project will create 50,000 jobs for workers that will come from abroad, mainly China.
HKND was granted the right to expropriate land within 5 km (3.1 mi) on each side of the canal and pay only cadastral value, not market value. The farmers and indigenous communities that live there have their culture and cosmovision rooted in those lands. The government's disregard towards them proves that the Nicaraguan Ortega-Murillo government has never really cared about a multicultural democratic nation. We must raise awareness and use our voice in times where basic human rights are denied and systematic state violence is winning.
The estimates of the number of people who will be displaced range from 29,000 to more than 100,000. The environmental and cultural impact to farmers and indigenous communities is immeasurable. Protests are happening everywhere in the streets of Nicaragua, in small communities and also in Managua (the capital). They are led by the Consejo Nacional en Defensa de la Tierra el Lago y la Soberanía (National Council in Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty) coordinated by Medardo Mairena along with Francisca Ramirez. On August 15th of 2017, for example, protest #91 was held in the community of La Fonseca, Nueva Guinea, which faced national police repression as usual.
China and Nicaragua are politically involved in the Interoceanic Canal Project and I think countries are not determined by the state but by the level of consciousness and knowledge of its people. That’s where an art and activist project [like this one] can help and where our privilege as artists can be used as a tool for change.
CR: You were shortlisted for the first two editions of Crystal Ruth Bell Residency before you were selected for the 3rd open call. How did the idea change over time?
ES: It changed a lot. The changes were directly related to the conversations held with China Residencies. That’s a fundamental part of China Residencies’s work: to help acclimate the artist to what the project could face in a completely different context. The first time I was shortlisted, I was going to do a relational art project that was more focused on identity, sexuality, gender, and body politics, working along with LGBTQ+ people in China. I was excited and happy about it, but living in Managua, working as a human rights activist attending protests against the canal and watching it all unfold in front of me - I had no other choice but to create a project to address the situation, using my role as an artist to activate spaces for resistance even though it meant dealing with a very delicate subject that could easily get me in trouble. I had already created an intervention with Alejandro Guerra, but I couldn’t let the opportunity to go to China pass without addressing the Canal.
Artists should create political work to generate change because our world is not looking fucking pretty right now! So the idea to talk about this canal project is as simple as that: fucked up situations are happening everywhere so why not talk about the one that is closest to me and that I feel in my body?
CR: How did you go about preparing and executing the project?
ES: I was in Cuba for the Havana Biennial with my then boyfriend and collaborator when we started throwing around ideas about how to address the canal situation from a performance and audiovisual point of view. For me, it was really important this time to create something that could be felt by the public but also be understood because it is such a clear land rights issue that needs more people to be aware. A conceptual performance art piece that could scare away people instead of attracting them for a horizontal and honest dialogue would not have fit the issue.
We had to think of the best way possible to articulate the situation through a performative approach without becoming “the face” of this conflict. We did a lot of research about the Canal before traveling to China. We knew we needed to talk directly with people whose houses that had been already marked to be destroyed and to have their land expropriated. We knew language and translation were going to be a huge part of this project. In fact, at one point we were thinking of doing an installation/translation online machine (maybe one day). We also knew we needed to record voices and have not only translation but also audio that could be heard and be felt emotionally through sound. We needed to act quickly because, right before leaving to China, elections were happening in Nicaragua and the government was “sensitive” to subjects like the Canal. Furthermore, the to-be-expropriated lands were already militarized so in order to enter you had to explain why were you visiting the community.
We started by going to all the communities that were closest to Managua. We talked and recorded as many families as we could. We told them we were just two Nicaraguan guys working as mailmen and that we were going to take letters for them to the people in China. We asked them to write what they would want to say to them about the Canal situation. We did that for more than a week and then we flew to China - it all happened very fast. A lot of audio was lost due to not having proper recording equipment.
Wet Letters installation at Red Gate's open studios
CR: Wet Letters started as research and spanned into performance, the letters themselves, and a website? Tell us about this evolution.
ES: I really do hope it keeps changing and evolving into different ways to make this problem known. Regarding the evolution - it has to do with being in China and talking to other artists in residency, not only from Red Gate but the larger artistic scene in Beijing. Those discussions helped us redirect our project to something that could really work out given the short time frame we had. That’s how we realized how much of QR codes and smartphones are used for the spread of information and how adopting that technology could have a big impact. We also came to understand how dangerous land rights protests are in China because of the government’s long tradition of expropriating land. We needed to be extremely careful. We had to create a radical strategy that was site-specific and time-controlled in order to protect ourselves.
A big part of our work as soon as we got to China was to review, listen, edit and translate all of our audio. It was hard, meticulous work that took time, especially because it was not recorded with proper equipment. Listening again to all of the messages, we knew we didn’t need to do much besides finding a smart and unique ways to get their voices out there. Public performance was considered but it required too much production. So we decided to make it simple and direct: to work as mailmen delivering letters and audio.
Visitors were able to listen to the audio of some of the people affected in Nicaragua that the duo met
CR: What was it like to deliver the letters?
ES: It felt a bit crazy to do it in the hutong area where there’s so much police presence and cameras are everywhere. I kept thinking: “what if they see us giving out the letters and ask us for one?” Fortunately, we were with local friends who helped us navigate the streets. We gave as many letters as we could face-to-face while others we left in mailboxes or we slipped them under the door.
Images taken during the delivery of the letters in a hutong in Beijing
CR: What were your impressions of Beijing?
1. Where the hell am I? What is this?
2. Is this weather for real? What is that? Wait… is that pollution or esta nublado like en el crucero (small town in Nicaragua where it gets cloudy) I can’t leave the apartment then?
3. Those buildings are hiiiiigh. This metro is awesome! So fast! Metro feels like I’m in an airport. There’s a sea of people coming! I’m getting crushed into metro! Help!
4. How am I going to communicate now? I don’t understand anything… not even tryin’… screw it. I’ll point my food, show pictures, smile and look stupid. Don’t know what I’m eating, don’t care, I’m in China. (Lady goes to table to correct how I grab my chopsticks) ok… ok, got it.
5. Apps, apps, apps. Smartphone is life.
6. State surveillance is scary AF. You mean I should not investigate online about land rights while I’m in a research residency about land rights because police could break into the apartment and take me away? Ok, dead.
7. So many cameras in the streets! Public art performance in front of government offices idea, CANCELED. What was I thinking? Crazy Radical Performance art in me, go away.
8. I love you wechat! Todos queremos wechat! Everything is wechat!
9. Wait... I'm in love with the Baijiu?
10. China residencies team and Red Gate team are family. I wish all residencies were this free and openings so organic. Loved every time we did artist talk or open studios for visitors. Barbecue outside and beers all the time!
11. Let’s knock doors and deliver letters, wait for answers online and get out of here before we get in trouble. Zài jiàn!
CR: Did you pick up some Mandarin?
ES: China Residencies kept telling me to practice before getting there. I did lots of YouTube lessons but it was too difficult in such a short timeframe. Once I got there too, the culture shock of seeing so many differences from my usual surroundings just made me forget everything I had practiced. I kept forgetting the right way to say the tones to even the simplest things, so I just concentrated on surviving and making Wet Letters.
CR: Are you planning on expanding Wet Letters now that you are no longer in Beijing?
ES: Wet Letters is not over. Each letter we gave out has a QR code that the person who received can scan with their phone and then reply to the person that wrote the letter. Once we have a large group of answers, we will translate them from Mandarin to Spanish and then deliver them back to the communities in Nicaragua. We have received some answers but we want more. Hopefully we can also find funding to keep this going, especially for the translation. My main partner in keeping this alive is Zhuxin Wang. We want to organize an event just for people to get together to answer letters. We also want to use the web page as a news portal for land rights organizations in Nicaragua and in China. I hope that is something we can start very soon. I’m also thinking on going back [to China] and if I do I’ll make sure to make Wet Letters happen in a new way. As long as the Law #840 isn’t repealed and the farmers’ movement in Nicaragua is still fighting, I’ll contribute in any way I can.
CR: What did the people in Nicaragua think about the project?
ES: We kept it quiet because it was a politically charged and delicate situation for us to be trafficking letters while national elections were happening. Only our closest friends knew and we did not reach out to press. It wasn’t until we left that we posted something publicly about Wet Letters.
CR: Did living in Beijing and being in China change the way you think about the work you do? Would you want to go back?
ES: It did teach me how to navigate a completely different culture and it definitely changed the way I think about my work, which is what art residencies are supposed to do, to challenge artists. So far it has been the best art residency experience. Fuck yes, I would go back.
CR: Some of your other work explicitly engages with “queerness” - how does Wet Letters fit with the rest of what you’ve done?
ES: Wet Letters is related directly to my queerness. Queerness, in my context and in my work, means to denounce with anger or softness, to speak up on everything that matters to me, that affects my body, my freedom, my community and the future that I want for myself. Just because sometimes I don’t wear makeup, glitter, wigs and heels to make a performance, it doesn’t make it less queer. All of my work will always be informed by my “queerness” because I’m always performing, even though sometimes it might not seem like it because it doesn’t fit certain aesthetics. I did think of making a cute pink mailman outfit to deliver the letters… then I remembered, wait bitch… is this necessary for this project?
CR: Would you consider yourself an activist?
CR: How did you and Guillermo meet? Are you still collaborators?
ES: We met while both being in University doing theatre like most faggots or cochones (Nicaraguan term for faggot). Guillermo and I were just friends then after years we became lovers, he started working with me in some of my art projects and slowly started making collaborations together. I still have much love and respect for him but we are no longer partners.
CR: Where you now and what are you working on?
ES: I’m working on a new project regarding a Nicaraguan ritual that my father used to take me when I was little. Personally, I’m going through a process of loving being single, of healing wounds and becoming a better queer human/monster. I’m also working as a social organizer in Managua with the Operación Queer collective that I founded with some friends 5 years ago. It’s a group of academics, theater people, activists, artists - just a bunch of weirdos - creating art spaces and safe spaces for lgtq+ bodies and queer reflections. If you want to know more about this cochon and my projects go to www.fredmanbarahona.art or Elyla Sinverguenza on Facebook.
This interview was conducted over email in Spanish & English by Josue Chavez for China Residencies in August 2017.