Exodus Alternate Documents
Centro Cultural Español de Miami (CCEMiami) | Oct-Nov., 2014
Exodus, Emigration, and the Recovery of Collective Memory
By Adriana Herrera and Willy Castellanos
Exodus: Alternate Documents, is a project of reflection on the phenomenon of emigration and large human displacements. The proposal of the Aluna Curatorial Collective (Adriana Herrera and Willy Castellanos), is part of the creation of an interactive space that breaks the limits of documentary record, transforming it into an open exercise for the recovery of collective memory. This exercise involved the participation of the Cuban immigrant community in Miami, as well as of the protagonists of the 1994 “Exodus of the Rafters.”
Between August and September of 1994— in what constituted one of the most dramatic episodes in contemporary Cuban history—more than 35,000 Cubans embarked for the United States in precarious boats built with their own limited resources. Designed as a laboratory or a relational workspace that combined artistic and documentary practices, Exodus: Alternate Documents aimed to create a new type of information—content alternative to the original document—that was capable of opening new and unpublished routes to redirect the traditional story about the Crisis of the Rafters in Cuba. The exhibition involved the active participation of the public. The testimonies, memories, and life stories of the participants of the exodus were recorded through various installations and events in order to reconstruct a lost page of history.
Photographs, participatory installations, and video projections made up this exhibition, which was also a tribute on the twentieth anniversary of the crisis to all those who, in the most diverse latitudes of the world, embark every day on the uncertain path of emigration. A video booth was set up to film the testimonies of those interested in the reconstruction of the event from their own experiences. In addition, calls for submissions and other public events were organized. The materials collected during the days of the exhibition will be used for the production of new dialogues on the subject and remain in Aluna Art Foundation’s archives at the disposal of creators and interested institutions.
Exodus: Alternate Documents takes as its starting point the presentation of first-hand historical material: a collection of 80 photographs taken by Willy Castellanos on the coast of Havana during the events that led to the “Exodus of the Rafters” in 1994. Unlike other images published by the international media, Castellanos' photographs record the departures on the coasts of Havana and could well be presented, given their testimonial and aesthetic value, as an exhibition per se. But the artist also displays acoustic installations such as Dry-Feet-Wet-Feet, documentary videos, and participatory works such as Cabina, Album, Requiem, and Water, proposing them as bridges to new content that is not implicit in the stories of the 1994 photographic record. The videos presented included stories and interviews filmed recently, both in Havana and Miami, and make up two complementary thematic segments of the exhibition: On the Quest to Find Those Photographed in 1994, and Memories of the Crossing.
Additionally, suggestive installations were presented by two Cuban-American guest artists: Juan-Sí González and Coco Fusco. González works with different media, from photography and installation to video and performance. His installation Rosa Náutica is made up of a salt screen onto which is projected a selection of videos of the empty rafts found adrift in those tragic days of 1994. Coco Fusco is an essayist, curator, and interdisciplinary artist. Her installation Y el mar te hablará (“And the Sea Will Speak to You”) invites the audience to share an unusual physical and emotional experience: the experience of traveling from Cuba by sea. Participants were invited to leave all their possessions (wallets, money, phones, watches etc.) before entering the dark theater. Traditional seats were replaced by inflated rubbers, the same ones that rafters usually use on their boats.
Exodus: Alternate Documents was a joint effort of the Spanish Cultural Center of Miami (CCEMiami) and Aluna Art Foundation, with the collaboration of the Cuban Museum Miami and its “Sweet Home” program (Knight Foundation). The event was supported by El Nuevo Herald, The Miami Herald, and The Cuban Research Institute (FIU), and received the award for the Best Cultural Event of the Year, granted by the Arts Miami Foundation.
Exodus: Alternate Documents
Guest artists: Juan-Sí González and Coco Fusco
A communitarian and interactive Project curated by Aluna Curatorial Collective (Adriana Herrera and Willy Castellanos).
From September 12th to August 31st, 2014
Centro Cultural Español de Miami (CCEMiami)
Dry Feet/Wet Feet (Installation), 2014
Documentary audio record of a group of “Balseros” (rafters) living Cuba in August 1994 | Courtesy of Caiman Productions
Dry Feet/Wet Feet, 2014
Installation with sound, 28’ L x 9’ H| Photos printed on fabric, acrylic boxes, water, sand, steel wires and industrial tensioners. Documentary audio record of a group of Rafters living the island, courtesy of Caiman Productions.
The “Wet Feet/Dry Feet policy” is the name given to a consequence of the 1995 revision of the “Cuban Adjustment Act” of 1966, that essentially says that anyone who fled Cuba and got into the United States would be allowed to pursue residency a year later. After talks with the Cuban government, the Clinton administration came to an agreement with Cuba that it would stop admitting people found at sea. Since then, in what has become known as the "Wet Feet/Dry Feet policy, a Cuban caught on the waters between the two nations (with "wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") gets a chance to remain in the United States, and later would qualify for expedited "legal permanent resident" status and eventually U.S. citizenship.
From 1995 to January 2017 (year in which it was revoked), this law regulated the arrival of all those Cubans who jump into the sea in precarious boats, in what constitutes a regional tragedy that also affects thousands of Haitian and Dominican citizens.
Alternate Documents (Poliptych), 1994-2014
01/08 The Threat
Shooting with a telephoto lens is to scrutinize the other’s intimacy, to participate in a story to which you have not been invited, or asked to coexist in. Those photographed can’t perceive the photographer, who exists in a fictional dimension of reality, a false proximity that is purely optical. If image reconstructs history, how many of these “interferences” make up the documents that we have of things today? Is photography an instrument of colonization, a way to appropriate intimate space and convert it into editorial material to be consumed and transmitted?
I quote a phrase by Mario Bellatín, as an imposition of silence: “Never has so much been seen as when photography disappeared.” At the same time, I see in this photo a myriad of images: Gericault and his “Medusa”, Heyerdahl, the Argonauts… I look through a prism that overlaps that which is distant and that which is close, but also fear at the threat of death and fascination for the epic of those who face it in extreme situations.
02/08 The Battle of the Stowaways
I usually think about “Blow-Up”, Cortazar’s story, when I see the pictures of that heavy night in ’94. I photographed “blindly”, guided by the flash that illuminated the coast at fractions by the second. Behind the dark veil, I heard the creaking of the wood, and the sound of the sea in the frenzy of the crowd. It was only days later, when I printed the negatives, that I visualized the real extent of the chaos. The image moved me, and my surprise was even bigger when I saw, between all those people, one of my childhood friends, who had been missing for months. Had he given up the journey –as he later told me- or was he simply one of the many stowaways that tried to board the ship? Random, contingency, causality… what keys moderates the eventuality of photographs? Who owns these images? The operator who surprises –by pure luck- the moment, or the subjects that stage a drama that marks them for the rest of their lives?
03/08 The Blue Wall
For those of us born in the city of Havana, and perhaps for almost every Cuban, the sea is an obsessive constant. The sea surround and define us. Its omnipresent aroma be- comes entrenched in our memory. The sea limits us, the sea wall is in…, the Blue Wall.
Then, there are the ships than dock and cast off. Cuba is a necessary stop; a crossroad opens to all destinations. People who come and go. Spanish Caravels, English masts and canons, slavers and pirate ships. Steamships packed with Europeans; foul holds crammed with Asians. American cruise ships, Soviet freighters, border patrol boats and also…, rafts. Slight and fragile, made of old planks and tattered sails. Rowing and riptides, Blessed Virgins and holy cards. Rafts that break through the wall on the foamy crests of waves, some on top, under the searing sun, in the breeze and the uncomfortable feeling of salt residue on one’s skin. Rafts that set out without a return ticket; too little island for so much searching, too many dreams for so much sea.
04/08 The Visitor
Someone wrote that these photographs were a premonition of my own leaving. “Why didn´t you go on a raft back then?”, they asked me. I guess I chose to stay and describe the exodus experience of my own people in these pictures that, in some way, are illegible or transmit the opacity of their own circumstances. Why is this man adrift as if he was accompanying a friends’ raft as a leisure activity? That seemingly absurd gesture is indecipherable.
I read a Feuerbarch’s quote which anticipates Benjamin: “For the present age which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, illusion only is sacred, truth profane.” Perhaps the act of turning a human experience that is unspeakable and untransmissible in to “a mere image”, is a way of desecration. And yet, from all the nonsense that passes through this photo and the act of taking it, there is a remnant for which I still believe it to be necessary.
Document/Alternative fictions. I can´t reconstruct a credible story about this photograph that doesn´t come from my fictions. There is missing information, perhaps more precise elements or situations. It lacks contextual references, and other necessary data to reconstruct the paradigm of the photographic; or rather, to stage the event from a documental logic. It´s these images that need (like crutches) other contiguous images, or perhaps a text, like the one I am writing now, to give them some meaning.
Maybe this photograph will not be published in the press, but it still fascinates me. The girl´s serene look captivates me, her bold attitude towards the camera, and the intruder who carries it. Did she travel in the reckless draft inflated by illusions? I think now, years later, that she stayed in the island, that that afternoon she was just going along with her family for the goodbyes. If this photograph is anything, it is the document of my fictions: An open notebook of an unfinished story, where no possibility is definite; a story lost in the limbo of memory and reality.
How is it possible to situate oneself at the center of such evident antagonism? Very simply: Take out a camera and point it towards the people, in the vortex of an event that´s “sensitive” to the status quo and its definitions. That, perhaps, is the only thing that this picture couldn´t capture on that August morning, where a broken raft hit the shore as a policeman barged into the scene, unexpectedly. The camera documented the return, but not the discourse of the looks that were exchanged, or the implications that situated the photographer at the center of this contradiction. The picture didn´t catch the policeman´s severe look, nor the “unspoken” words of repression (in what foreign magazine would they publish these pictures?); it also didn´t catch the fear and the mistrust of subversion (in what official archive would my face end up.)
In this way, the image is the portrait of the absence of the photographer: The portrait of an “off-screen” – not being in the frame- moment that ended up making me into a “person to distrust.”
07/08 North Bound
The global village has situated its abundance poles in the northern hemisphere, mobilizing in this direction the incessant flux of the less fortunate. If utopic impulse unleashes the passage points –like an irresistible compass- to this hemisphere, disillusion and its sunken ships become “no-man’s lands”, in frontiers to be overtaken. In this way, Tomas More’s island seems to still be sailing adrift, in an imprecise point of the sea of resignation.
But in what latitudes do the images, the photographs, move? Towards the epicenters of power and their stories, or towards the south, to the frontiers of dystopias and their rebellions? Towards the margins of those small stories (like in this picture) that are woven in secret and inserted like nails into the anonymous archive of everyday life? Documents, testimonies, evidence…what notions intervene in the construction of the immovable concept that we call “History”? Who writes the great tales of human experience, and what episodes are included in this narrative of knowledge destined for consumerism and divulgence?
08/08 The Heritage
I took this photograph off the coast of Havana during the Exodus of 1994. In the scene, a young ‘Balsero’ offers up his sandals to a friend before he embarks north. The young man thought he would not need them at sea and that, once in the United States, he could buy new ones of better quality. This is my interpretation of the scene, though I cannot as- sure you that my story is true. A few minutes later the group dispersed, and I could not get more information than what you perceive when viewing the picture. In my version of the story, these sandals are an expression of linkage and of an inheritance.
This photograph has been little disclosed. It is a mute file “moving out” of the archive, or inside a “dead” archive (the set of photos that I took that day). Its story does not participate in the knowledge we have of “footwear”, nor in the reconstruction of a notion of history associated with it or with the island.