Monday, 16 April 2012


Juan Downey, Video Trans Americas, 1973

Pablo Helguera, The Panamerican School of Unrest, beginning of the journey in Anchorage, May 20, 2006

Capacete Road, exhibition by Ducha at Galeria Metropolitana, Santiago, Chile, 2004

Carla Zaccagnini, Museu das Vistas, 2004-ongoing, a collection of drawings mediated by discourse. This is the record of the Valparaiso Version (2005), with the collaboration of police artist Larinca Lobo. Done as part of Capacete Road Project

Raimond Chaves and Gilda Mantilla, portrait of Raimond and Gilda drawn by Armando, a street draughtsman in Caracas, part of Dibujando America, 2005

The Peripatetic School, catalogue
See images of the exhibition The Peripatetic School, Itinerant drawing practices from Latin America, curated by Tanya Barson at the Drawing Room, London, for whose catalogue this text was written, here.

Des(dibujando) America: Incidents of Art Travel in the Continent and Beyond
Pablo Leon de la Barra

1. Travelling without Return

Paul Bowles introduces the third chapter of his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky by quoting Kafka: ‘From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.’[1] The story presents us with two postwar characters, a couple, Port and Kit, dissatisfied with western civilisation, who travel through Morocco trying to save their relationship while also trying to find themselves. At the beginning of the book, Bowles, the narrator, explains to us the difference between a tourist and a traveller:

[Port] did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveller. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another… another important difference between tourist and traveller is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking. [2]

The dialogue in the 1990 film adaptation by Bernardo Bertolucci, illustrates better this difference:
Tunner: ‘We’re probably the first tourist’s they’ve had since the war.’
Kit: ‘Tunner, We are not tourists, we are travellers.’
Tunner: ‘Huh, What’s the difference?’
Port: ‘A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive, Tunner.’
Kit: ‘Whereas a traveller might not come back at all.’

2. Travel and Revolution

On 4 January 1952, medical student Ernesto Guevara, who would later be known as ‘Che’, together with his friend Alberto Granado leave Buenos Aires on top of a Norton motorcycle, baptised as ‘La Ponderosa II’, on a journey that would take them to the Atlantic coast of Argentina, across the Pampas and over the Andes into Chile, up the desert to Peru, across the Peruvian and Colombian Amazons, and which will end seven months later with their arrival to Caracas on 26 July. Guevara and Granado’s journey, which started as an improvised trip with the dream of reaching North America, is ‘not a story of incredible heroism’[3], but one of an internal journey of political transformation through confrontation with a Latin American landscape of social reality and injustice: ‘…at least I’m not the person I once was. All this wandering around “Our America with a capital A” has changed me more than I thought.’[4] On 7 July 1953, Guevara set out on a new journey, this time to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and ending in Mexico in 1954, where he met Fidel Castro, where they planned the Cuban Revolution, and from there they set off to Cuba on 25 November 1956.

Guevara and Granados’ trip is not that different to another journey happening in a parallel reality. On the Road is an almost autobiographical account of a road trip across the United States written by Jack Kerouac; the story takes place in 1947, was written in April 1951, and was not published until 1957. On the Road was typewritten on a scroll of taped pages in a spontaneous and continuous prose, using a freestyle language influenced by jazz improvisation, and fuelled by drinking. While Guevara’s journey will ultimately lead him to self-discovery and revolution, Kerouac takes his main characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, to a different kind of journey where they get in touch with a darker side of themselves and of their country while revealing the fissures within the ‘American dream’. The journey will also take Sal and Dean to Mexico, where they will find, temporary freedom:

Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had previously known about life, and life on the road. We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic… think of this big continent ahead of us with those enormous Sierra Madre mountains we saw in the movies, and the jungles all the way down and a whole desert plateau as big as ours and reaching clear down to Guatemala and God knows where, whoo! What’ll we do? What’ll we do? Let’s move![5]

3. Video Trans Americas

This automobile trip is designed to develop a holistic perspective among the various populations inhabiting the American continents, thus generating cultural interaction – a videotaped account from New York to the southern tip of Latin America. Playing back a culture in the context of another, the culture itself in its own context, and, finally, editing all the interactions of time, space and context into one work of art – a form of infolding in space while evolving in time. Cultural information (art, architecture, cooking, dance, landscape, language, etc.) will be mainly exchanged by means of videotape shot along the way and played back in the different villages, for the people to see others and themselves. The role of the artist is here conceived as a cultural communicant, as an activating aesthetic anthropologist with visual means of expression: videotape. The expedition will leave in July and return to New York in early September, where the videotapes will be edited and presented in final version.[6]

Between 1973 and 1976 Juan Downey, a Chilean artist living in New York since 1965, developed the ‘Video Trans America’ project. As part of it he took several road trips within the American continent, visiting locations in the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and Chile. In each location he would film artistic/anthropological videos in black and white, in a visual style somewhere between a travelogue and a documentary; he would film urban and rural landscapes and customs, including political marches in Mexico, indigenous village life in Guatemala, and visits to archaeological sites in Peru. In total 14 different videos were made, the idea being that ‘Video Trans Americas’ could also function as a travelling exhibition. In each new location visited, the videos of the previous journeys would be shown, thereby transcending the disconnection and lack of knowledge about each other that existed between the different inhabitants of the Americas.

4. To Travel by Foot is not the same that Walking, Hiking or Backpacking

From 23 November to 14 December 1974, filmmaker Werner Herzog travelled by foot from Munich to Paris. Upon learning that filmmaker Lotte Eisner had suffered a stroke and was dying, Herzog decided not to fly to Paris, but to walk there instead. ‘I walked against her death, knowing that if I walked on foot she would be alive when I got there.’[7] The experience of this walk was later recorded in the book Of Walking in Ice (2007). Previously Herzog had walked across the German Alps all the way to the border of Slovenia to propose to his first wife. In 1984 Herzog left Sachrang, the village where he grew up, and in a personal and poetic act walked the entire border between East and West Germany, with the hope to heal the wound of a divided culture. Herzog has been a big advocate of travelling by foot, ‘humans are not made to sit at computer terminals or travel by aeroplane; destiny intended something different for us. For too long now we have been estranged from the essential, which is the nomadic life: travelling on foot.”[8] Travelling by foot is also a way of accessing the subconscious: ‘When you travel on foot with this intensity, it is not a matter of covering actual ground, rather it is a question of moving through your own inner landscapes.’[9] It’s the revelation of this interior landscapes that produce the visions that illuminate his work:

When you come on foot, you come with a different intensity. Travelling on foot has nothing to do with exercise. I spoke earlier about daydreaming and that I do not dream at nights. Yet when I am walking I fall deep into dreams, I float through fantasies and find myself inside unbelievable stories. I literally walk through whole novels and films and football matches. I do not even look at where I am stepping, but I never lose my direction. When I come out of a big story I find myself 25 or 30 kilometres further on. How I got there I do not know.[10]

On different occasions Herzog has said that film students would learn more by walking from Canada to Guatemala or from Madrid to Kiev than they would ever learn in school.[11] More recently Herzog has started the Rogue Film School, an informal travelling school that exists temporarily in different locations (so far it has taken place in London and Los Angeles) that teaches none of the technical aspects related to filmmaking.

5. Air tickets, Boarding Passes, and Across the World in 35 Days

During the 1990s artists in Latin America questioned the promised emancipation produced by the democratisation of flying: Gabriel Orozco made circular drawings on airline tickets while in transit, and Jac Leirner works made of accumulated boarding passes, luggage stickers, airplane ashtrays and airsickness bags. In the case of Orozco, being described as an international nomadic artist was a way of distancing himself from being cornered into representing a national stereotype, and with this becoming ‘the quintessential, end of the century artist whose work is continuously shifting and moving between all cultures’.[12] Meanwhile, Francis Alÿs’s 1997 contribution to InSITE, a cross border ‘biennale’ that takes place between San Diego, US and Tijuana, Mexico, consisted of a project called Loop: a circular trip from Tijuana to San Diego without crossing the Mexico/US border. In a 35 day itinerary Alÿs went from Tijuana to Mexico City, Panama, Santiago, Tahiti, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Bangkok, Rangoon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Anchorage, Vancouver, Los Angeles and finally to San Diego. By complicating the simple act of crossing a small distance (and by spending all of his production budget in airplane tickets), Alÿs made evident the impossibilities faced by normal migrants in crossing the US border.

As a reaction to globalised travel, and as a way of obtaining knowledge from himself and from the local context, Alÿs has also integrated the act of walking as a key part of his artistic strategies. As a foreigner in different cities where he has limited knowledge of the place, he applies a Situationist psycho-geography in order to orientate himself and to make evident particular circumstances of the particular context. For Alÿs walking, in a similar way to Werner Herzog constitutes a space of personal privacy and of consciousness ‘it’s a state where you can be both alert to all that happens in your peripheral vision and hearing, and yet totally lost in your thought process.’[13]

Within globalisation, the contemporary traveller seems to be trapped inside transit salons in airports that all look similar. There seems to be no departure and no arrival. Voyages become circular, with no beginning and no end. Tourists are herded from one aeroplane to another, from one waiting room to another. With artists, curators, gallerists and collectors travelling constantly around the world, the art world could seem to be at the forefront of international cultural understanding. The truth is that the scenario is the opposite, one of international homogeneity: the same people meeting in the same places, exhibitions showing the same artists, and galleries, art fairs and biennales looking very similar. More and more there seems to be an international art language, which instead of negotiating difference, neutralises it and tames it. Meanwhile for many normal citizens legal border crossing is almost impossible. It also seems that there will always be a local critique, sometimes bordering on xenophobia, towards foreign art ‘tourists’ attempting to represent a context, suggesting that these visiting artists will never be able to fully understand their surroundings or that they will simplify it. On the contrary, on many occasions not belonging to a culture, allows the traveller to question, compare and make evident particularities of the context which the locals have normally overlooked, or to see that which the locals avoid acknowledging.

6. The Capacete Road

‘Road’ is a mobile residency programme developed by Helmut Batista as part of Capacete which has been happening on and off since 2004 with the aim to reach different kind of publics in different locations in South America by travelling. The idea of the mobile residency is opposite to Capacete’s normal way of operating which is a permanent international residency in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.[14] Normally, residents go to Capacete to experience Brazil; with Capacete’s ‘Road’, the residency travels to new publics and places. The different cities are reached through a car journey, driving from one city to another. Each trip initially consists of two participants Batista and the artist in residency; upon arrival at the designated city the reach of the project is extended to include those in the location. In each trip a series of events which establish a relationship between the artists and the local residents and contexts of each place visited is organised.

‘Road’ takes the form of a road trip in which each leg becomes a continuation of the previous trip, without the need of them happening immediately one after the other. The ‘Road’ adventure began in 2004 with a trip from Rio de Janeiro to Santiago de Chile with artist Ducha. The trip, called ‘Diários de Motocicletas e Aquarelas’, was a critique of the cinematographic version of Che Guevara’s road trip. During the journey Ducha drew watercolours, which upon arrival in Santiago were exhibited in Galeria Metropolitana – a corrugated metal shack that acts as a gallery in a working class neighbourhood. ‘Road’ then went to Valparaiso, Chile with artist Carla Zaccagnini who developed ‘Museo das Vistas’, a project she began in 2002 where a police sketch artist produces a collection of drawings according to descriptions of landscapes, real or imagined. The drawings are sketched on carbon paper, with the person that tells his/her landscape keeping the original, while the portable museum keeps the copy for its expanding collection. ‘Road’ then travelled to La Paz, Bolivia with artist Olivier Poujade, continued to Lima, Peru with artist Joao Mode, and then to Quito, Ecuador where resident artist Gabriel Lester attempted to do a ‘road‐movie‐in‐a‐moment’. The following trip began in Huaquillas, Ecuador, where the ‘Road’ vehicle had been confiscated in the previous journey, and from there it continued to Medellin, Colombia. This last trip was done with artists Julia Rometti and Victor Costales who exchanged posters of different city landscapes which they carried with them, with similar posters found during the trip, in cafes, hotels, and shops.

7. The School of Panamerican Unrest

In the spirit of Guevara and Downey, but also in response to Bolivar’s dream of a unified America, from 20 May to 22 September 2006, artist Pablo Helguera travelled the American continent by land, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, as part of his project La Escuela panamericana del desasosoego or The School of Panamerican Unrest[15]. Travelling the continent by van, Helguera was equipped with a foldable structure that would become a portable school. A bell, a banner and a hymn composed by the artist would announce the arrival of the school in the different ports. The travelling school of unrest made 27 official stops during its journey. At each stop, The School of Panamerican Unrest was received by the local arts communities, who through open discussion forums would present to him the themes that were vital and urgent to their own scene, as well as issues regarding their own local and regional identity, and issues they thought were relevant in the quest of pan-American ideals; resulting in many of these communities producing their own ‘pan-American address’ a letter/manifesto which addressed these issues. The School of Panamerican Unrest, managed with its presence to question the identities of each of the localities it visited, with it unsettling stratified ideas that local art scenes had about themselves and their relationship with other pan-American’ locales.

Helguera sometimes travelled alone, doesn’t really like driving, doesn’t know much about car mechanics and isn’t really an adventurer; during the journey, he became known as ‘the Mexican with a van who doesn’t look like a Mexican’. In each border crossing he had to confront pan-American bureaucracy and corruption. He had his laptop stolen in Bogota and in Venezuela he had to abandon the van and continue the trip by bus. Every frontier, every border crossing was an attempt against pan-American unity. The beginning and the end of the road trip, at the two extremes of the continent, were marked by two symbolic meetings: in Anchorage, Helguera interviewed Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of Eyak, a native Alaskan language, and in Villa Ukika, south of Ushuaia, he met Cristina Calderón, the last speaker of Yaghan, a native language of Tierra del Fuego. In the last stop of the trip, in Ushuaia, a snowstorm forced Helguera to cancel the final pan-American ceremony for which he had written a closing speech that was never read or heard.

8. Drawing America

For the project Dibujando America (Drawing America, 2005–08) artists Gilda Mantilla and Raimond Chaves, drew part of the American continent while travelling by road from Caracas to Lima – crossing Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and the north of Peru – during 100 days in 2005.[16] On their following journey in 2006, they went from Lima to the triple Amazonian frontier of Peru, Colombia and Brazil, and past Tarapoto, Yurimanguas and Iquitos, in three weeks. For the third journey, they rode a horse around Rio de Janeiro over the course of two months between 2007 and 2008. Mantilla and Chaves travelled with the intention of connecting the act of drawing to the act of thinking, and linking this drawing/thinking to the production of knowledge on a specific territory: ‘We like to draw; we think it underlies all we do as a knowledge and experience tool. Those connecting dots allow us to create an image of the world. Drawing may allow us to rethink it or imagine it in different ways.’[17] Different stops in the journey included temporary exhibitions, drawing workshops, collective mural drawings, talks and DJ sessions, and the sharing of knowledge. Most importantly, Mantilla and Chaves were constantly learning from the ‘anonymous’ drawings found during the trip: hand painted street adverts, shop signs done by sign painters, street murals, draughtsmen drawing portraits in the plazas, and other kinds of ‘vernacular’ drawings found during their journey and done by ‘unrecognised’ artists.

Epilogue: Des-Dibujando America

Since its invention, America has been drawn incessantly, starting with the first cartography maps and the first imagined European representations of the new territories. There is also a long history of Western travellers in the American continent (from Albert Eckhout, Alexander von Humboldt, Frederick Catherwood, or Frederic Edwin Church among others) who have drawn and represented the continent from the outside. The independence of the American countries two centuries ago prompted a process of self-drawing and with it the production of images to represent the new emancipated nations. But, if we follow historian Edmundo O’Gorman’s line of thought, America (and with this I mean the whole American continent, not what US and British citizens call America, which for them consists only of the United States of America) was not discovered, but invented,[18] and as such was a European invention. The issue becomes much more complex[19] as the creation of identity after independence focused on differentiating the inhabitants of the Americas from their European forefathers (problematically, many of these inhabitants were from European mix or descent) .The arrival to power of the mestizos[20] – an identity built on the mix of the different races–did not solve the indigenous question, with the indigenous inhabitants of the continent still being excluded,[21] and with the mestizo elites (including the new artistic elites)[22] in most of the cases, assuming Western customs and behaviours and an internalised form of colonialism, which continues to exist today in an unspoken racism, a division of class through colour – a contemporary form of apartheid.[23] 

One could say that many of the artistic practices presented in this text are not drawing with their hands, but are actually drawing with their actions and journeys – with the lines traced by their itineraries and the paths drawn with their travels. In the same way that Herzog walked along the border that divided Germany, these practices walk over and across boundaries, with the hope of making them disappear. I would like to be more radical, and suggest that in reality what these practices are doing is ‘des-dibujando’, de-drawing or un-drawing. My argument would be that the aesthetic practices of Helguera, Capacete and Mantilla and Chaves are not drawing America, but are de-drawing it. That is to say, more than drawing their landscapes (and with it continuing a tradition of drawing the continent in order to colonise it), they are de-drawing it in order to be able to empty the social, urban, natural and political landscape of previous ideological constructions, and with this re-thinking these landscapes in a new manner. What this text and these artistic practices are proposing is to de-draw, not by drawing what has already been seen and represented ad infinitum, but by using travelling and drawing, in the same way that Mantilla and Chaves do, as instruments for re-thinking the territory. I use the term de-drawing in a similar way as Ivan Illich’s[24] concept of de-schooling and Walter Mignolo’s concept of de-colonisation. For Illich, de-schooling was a way for creating horizontal, non hierarchical forms of education; for Mignolo de-colonial thinking is a response to more than 500 years of oppressive modern European ideals projected and enacted in the non-European world [25] With it, Mignolo proposes the end of the reproduction and perpetuation of a Western colonisation of time and space.[26] In the same way des-dibujar or de-drawing would be an act of de-schooling and de-colonising and time and space in an attempt to draw and construct new realities.

[1] Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, Penguin, London, 1949, p.283.
[2] Ibid., p.5.
[3] Ernesto Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries, Harper Perennial, London, 1993, p.31.
[4] Ibid., p.32.
[5] Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Penguin, London, 1957, p.276.
[6] Juan Downey, ‘Beyond Technology’, Radical Software, vol.2, no.5, Winter 1973, p.4; quoted in Nicolás Guagnini, ‘Feedback in the Amazon’, October, no.125, Summer 2008. I am thankful to curator Julieta Gonzalez for pointing me in the direction of this text.
[7] Paul Cronin and Werner Herzog (eds), Herzog on Herzog, Faber and Faber, London, 2002, p.281.
[8] Ibid., p.280. Unfortunately, I had to spend five days on my laptop in order to write this text. When I felt desperate or blocked, I tried to apply Herzog’s method of going for a walk and hoping for illumination so as to make my ideas visible to the reader.
[9] Ibid., p.282.
[10] Ibid., p.281. While writing this text I dreamt of a village whose plan was like a labyrinth, where different streets had artists’ names, and the artists actually lived in the streets with their names. The labyrinth-city contained the whole history of art, or at least the history that interested me. Learning from the labyrinth was a process of experiencing it, one only needed to walk the different streets of the labyrinth to learn. I woke up before knowing if there was a way out of it, or before feeling claustrophobic.
[11] This could also be applied to art students, especially now, with the institutionalisation and professionalisation of art as a career, with art students applying to masters degrees in order to gain access to the art system, and in the process learning how to produce not only art school art, which has a certain recognisable style, but also art which can be more easily consumed by the economic and cultural markets.
[12] Benjamin Buchloh, Gabriel Orozco: Clinton is Innocent, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1998, pp.85–87.
[13] Russell Ferguson, ‘Russell Ferguson in Conversation with Francis Alÿs’, in Russell Ferguson, Jean Fisher and Cuauhtémoc Medina, Francis Alÿs, Phaidon Press, London, 2007, p.31.
[14] See
[15] See the project website,, which also contains a blog/diary/travelogue with detailed accounts of all the stops.
[16] See Raimond Chaves and Gilda Mantilla, Dibujando America, artist book, 2da Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2009; see also
[17]; accessed July 2011.
[18] Edmundo O´Gorman, La invención de América : investigación acerca de la estructura histórica del Nuevo Mundo y del sentido de su devenir, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, 1958.
[19] I ask the reader to forgive me for the simplification of five centuries of confrontation into one paragraph.
[20] See for example José Vasconcelos’s notion of the mixed race of the Americas being the race of the future – the cosmic race – in José Vasconelos, La Raza Cosmica, Espaca Calpe, Mexico, 1948.
[21] The colonisers of the US solved this question easily, by annihilating the indigenous population. The indigenous question is also complex, and one must be careful not to romanticise it, we must also not forget that many pre-Hispanic cultures dominated their own people and other indigenous populations through oppressive regimes.
[22] Artists in most of the cases have been (and continue to be) from the more privileged middle and upper classes, and even when they attempt to represent the indigenous ‘other’, in an attempt to turn around colonial thought, this continues to be paternalistic and/or patronising perpetuation of old colonial order.
[23] This internal colonialism is evident still today for example in the division existing between slums, barrios or favelas and wealthy neighbourhoods, many coexisting next to each other.
[24] Ivan Illich was an Austrian philosopher and Catholic priest who worked extensively in Mexico and Puerto Rico. In 1961, Illich founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Ilich proposed the concept of de-schooling in order to liberate education: a self-directed informal education, where through the formation of networks one would share knowledge, and in exchange acquire the required knowledge, thereby avoiding the institutional monopolies on education and reawakening the potential of social imagination. See Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Calder and Boyars, London, 1971.
[25] ‘The de-colonial option emerges when the geography of reason is shifted, when we no longer attempt to understand the colonial wound in which transcultural subjectivities and aesthesis are grounded and incorporated from the perspective of European poststructuralist critics but, rather, interrogate them from the perspective of transcultural subjectivities (e.g. writers, artists, philosophers, activists).’ Walter Mignolo, ‘From Central Asia to the Caucasus and Anatolia: Transcultural Subjectivity and De-Colonial Thinking’, Postcolonial Studies, vol. 10, issue 1, 2007, p.118.
[26] See Walter Mignolo, ‘Coloniality: The Darker Side of Modernity’, in Sabine Breitwieser, Modernologies: Contemporary Artists Researching Modernity and Modernism, exhibition catalogue, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2009.

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