Where do communities go after people are evicted and homes are destroyed? Diana Taylor told us about a series of collaborations between Bogota’s Mapa Teatro with the residents of Cartucho, a poor Bogota neighborhood destroyed in the name of urban renewal. Between 2001 and 2005 Mapa Teatro created several community events about destruction and rebirth, drawing on the myth of Prometheus for inspiration. In Prometheus-1 Cartucho residents gathered to perform their own versions of the myth. In Prometheus-2, a year later, they returned to their neighborhood — now a spacious, desolate park — to stage their Promethean myths. Wearing evening dress and carrying household objects and even furniture from their former homes, residents settled into the spaces where their houses stood — spaces now outlined by thousands of small candles. “I’ve incorporated the chain. It eats into me… I’ve gotten used to it,” one woman spoke. “My liberation left me scarred,” a man reflected. In the final rpoject, Witness to the Ruins Mapa Teatro projected images of the neighborhood and its destruction on four moving screens. Large portraits of residents testified to the life of the community. In the final scene a Cartucho resident named Juana walked onto the stage as the empty park shone from the screens behind her. Juana’s presence in the performance, Diana argued, evoked a “topography of the possible” — spaces for meaningful action that emerged in the midst of this war against the poor.
In discussion Diana cautioned that art performances like these walk a fine line between “witnessing” and “disaster tourism.” What prevents them from taking the shape of the latter is the emphasis on presence, on listening and bearing witness, in the sense of the Spanish verb precensiar. Digital media offer interesting forms of transmission, such as ways to take audiences to otherwise unknown sites — obliterated sites, as in the case of the Bogota neighborhood. But as with other media unequal access often creates a one-way dialogue, making “being present” a political challenge.
Part of Diana’s work with the Hemispheric Institute has been to create a platform of equal digital exchange in the Americas. “The digital has been unevenly distributed, distributed in a colonial way,” Diana told us. In this sense absence “is a political problem.” The erasure of communities speaks to that, as does the history of disappearances in Latin America — a history that stretches to the present day. The 43 Ayotzintapa students are still missing, Diana reminded us. When the relatives of the disappeared carry their portraits and speak their names, calling out “Presente,” they are challenging the very idea that a human being can be disappeared.
We asked Diana to speak about the primacy of ethical questions in her work — why is it that she asks the toughest ethical questions? Her reply was starkly honest. As a white person growing up in Mexico, Diana experienced the ethical problems in the contact of white people with people of color on a personal level. “For me it was an ethical problem just being who I was,” Diana told us. “Mexico had been my home,” she said. Presenciar, it seems, is an imperative at every level of this scholar’s life.