Creating Cultural Bridges: The Art of Edgar Endress

Edgar EndressChilean-born Edgar Endress is a Virginia-based artist, professor, and founding member of the Floating Lab Collective. Endress’ work stresses a context-dependent blend of media that both forges and illustrates an integration of art and social engagement. For Endress and his Floating Lab Collective, the opportunities for social interaction afforded by his work are every bit as integral to the performance as whatever audio or visual elements he uses to stimulate them. Endress recently met with Foreign Policy In Focus to discuss his recent work on immigration, his theories of social engagement, and his travels to the Balkans.

Peter Certo: Can you discuss some of your American work on immigration?

Edgar Endress: Migration has been a central point in my work, because I live in the United States and I have experienced the United States from that perspective. Being an immigrant led me to place myself, and be placed into, the landscape of others as part of the social fabric as an immigrant. Migration plays a central role in the social fabric, in the political arena, in the police state in the United States, as a constant source of “others.”

Migration in the United States is multilayered, and it can be observed from multiple vantage points. In some cases it reveals historical ties as post-colonial through the dominant political structure, like in the Caribbean. I explored that relationship with the project Bon Dieu Bon. Bon Dieu Bon is a project about migration in the Caribbean, and in particular Haiti. In Bon Dieu Bon, I followed the journey of an immigrant from Haiti to Florida, a journey dominated by forms of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

Immigration has also been central to the work of the Floating Lab Collective. In the piece American Landscape of Dreams, ten day workers constructed, in collaboration with the Floating Lab Collective group, ten model houses that represented their dream homes. The house is a democratic expression of belonging. The project was elaborated using a common and unifying symbolic language – the idea that the house is one of the basic elements of the American dream. But ultimately the project centered on the basic principles of identity and dignity by naming a person that has been left nameless (e.g., an “undocumented illegal alien”), where a nameless person becomes ultimately a form of otherness, exclusion, and eventually a source of hatred as a scapegoat.

Peter Certo: It almost seems that there is a normative social understanding underpinning your selection of these themes and your interest in exploring these particular social contexts. What, for you, is social justice?

Edgar Endress: Let me start this way. If you go to Bolivia, you’re going to see that the artistic culture is completely embedded, part of the daily life of everybody. You can think about the simplest thing, say, Carnival. Carnival in Bolivia is a big thing. It happens in every town, and every town makes groups that are going to dance. Each one is going to select a dance that they’re going to perform… They’re going to go to one person who makes a costume, one person who makes a mask, one person who makes instruments. They’re going to hire a band… The financial system in major part goes into that. Culture moves through the people. People don’t put their money in the bank, they just save it for Carnival. Every weekend they practice. They go into the street and they dance, and they practice the dance they’re going to do for Carnival.

So that is my experience with culture. My experience with culture is that it is not fragmented from our daily life. What we do as Westerners is we fragment our society in such a way as it becomes disassociated. We disassociate ourselves from culture; we disassociate ourselves from society. We create this fragmented unit of labor, unit of entertainment, unit of culture, unit of family… We fragment it in a way that fractures our humanity, and we don’t know how to interact. We need to have these fake Facebook pages leading to something we are not. My core interest in this is creating bridges from culture, so that it is not something that is a fragment of your life, but that it is something unified within the context of the human condition in a way.

Peter Certo: It’s a reassociation.

Edgar Endress: Exactly. So we are teaching that the social fabric, the human condition has been fragmented, particularly in this country. That is part of what the Floating Lab Collective does, part of what I normally do in my work. Recognizing that fracture, finding ways to link things. So Floating Lab Collective recognizes a sort of utopia… The exchange that happens with the Eks also reveals a human exchange. It’s not only me purchasing something with money, but it’s a human exchange that happens. So that creates bridges that I think it’s important to reconstruct.

Peter Certo: Can you explain Eks?

Edgar Endress: Eks is a derivation of exchange. Eks is our response to community currency. In that context Eks was a manifestation to provoke exchange, a revalorizing of the most basic notion of human interaction and a form of criticizing the arbitrariness of value by the dominant currencies. Eks was created also as a currency that could be exchanged at an equal rate with any other community currency, bridging between existing communities that use local currency. Eks was used in a performance in Detroit as a form of social manifestation for the lack of support of cultural producers. The idea of the Eks in this context was that it was to be distributed to cultural producers.

Peter Certo: In the American context at least, what do you hope can happen for anyone, whether an individual or a small group of artists or all of us, who is able to forge this reassociation between life and culture? What can happen for people that see the challenges posed in these works?

Edgar Endress: This is one of my big challenges as an artist, because I do everything – from embroidery to interactive displays using sensors and robotics. How do you go from this scientific, technologically developed piece to making embroidery with a group of indigenous people in Bolivia? How can you understand that gap? That gap is particularly hard to understand in Anglo-Saxon society. People have a hard time placing me. And not every piece is successful, but that’s part of the learning. I like to learn how to do embroidery and how they do it and what they think when they do it. Maybe the first piece isn’t going to be successful.

But what I will come back to is that Anglo-Saxons or Americans have this tendency to construct their lives so that they are good at one thing, and it has to be perfection. So here, I’m good at this. So the multitasking, the “multibrained,” the Renaissance man, if you will, has been deconstructed. That [American] way of life has been so effectively created that people just fragment themselves.

So when people look at us, they laugh and they have fun. They say, “Wow, I never thought that way about it.” And that’s it. They are really entertained, but they may not really question anything. In other cultures maybe people will take what we’re doing and repeat it, redo it, expand it.

Peter Certo: So here it’s still confined to the realm of spectacle?

Edgar Endress: Yes. There are people who decide to be the audience, because that’s their job, and other people decide to be the performer. People think, “Let’s leave the performer to do his job, because he knows what he’s doing.” So people are afraid to become performers, to leave the audience, because of that divide… I don’t want to say that all Americans do that, but in my experience is that this fragmentation is a tendency of Anglo-Saxon society. There is a professionalization of the way that they produce things.

Peter Certo: Can you discuss your travels to Istanbul and Albania? Did you get to explore some of these themes there as well?

Edgar Endress: The Balkans is a very complex region, especially coming from the United States and Chile and South America… I don’t want to attempt to define a region that I’m not as familiar with. My experience in Istanbul was an experience based on the Istanbul Biennial that happened to have a lot of influences from the Balkans… A large quantity of work at the show there was from people from the Balkans.

Albania was completely different in a way. It’s a strange country in a sense, but not in a bad way… It was fascinating to go to Albania because I had an image of Communism. I was raised under certain conditions in Chile. Pinochet created this “evil Other” in Communism and the evil Communist countries. That propaganda system was bombarding you every day about [bad things] happening in Albania, in Yugoslavia, in Russia. All this evilness. You create these images of that region. You see an aesthetic.

So I was fascinated to learn about a country that has only recently become democratic. My attempt was to connect some dots – how a society that only just opened to Europe, to that region, how they deal with that conflict. How they deal with the material culture. They see Europeans driving that car, wearing that thing, for example, they are bombarded by commercials. Now you’re a free market. What does that mean? Who are we, what do we do, how do we relate to them? That I found really interesting. Suddenly you wake up with choices, but no money. What kind of new thing can be built from that? How can you create a system to bridge that gap? … I felt that, particularly in Albania. That kind of anxiety to belong to something larger, to have access, was there.

Peter Certo: Many of these “emerging markets” are just that – markets for goods from wealthier countries perhaps, but their economies aren’t yet developed enough to exchange anything back.

Edgar Endress: It’s quite interesting to see the evolution of that country, because it becomes a portrait of who we are as a capitalist society… I think Georgia and Albania are the only two countries that have avenues called “George Bush.”

I also found really interesting the sort of export of the Balkans, the unwanted export of Balkanization. Bolivia has kind of that same conflict. There are two really distinct areas: the industrial south, Santa Cruz, which is more white, and the Andes, which is more indigenous and traditional. There has often been conflict between these two regions, and there’s always been the sense that it is a divided country. A year ago people in Santa Cruz hired three guys from ex-Yugoslavia to start a similar process, to implant a conflict, to escalate it, to create war and division. So they would create two countries. But a Spanish journalist who was following these three guys sent a warning to La Paz when the three guys were in Santa Cruz. So Morales sent the police or whatever and killed them.

So that is a Balkanization of Bolivia that didn’t happen. But the possibility of having this fragmentation through a system like Balkanization is a very interesting idea.

The full interview can be read here.

Peter Certo is an intern with Foreign Policy In Focus.