As an artist transplanted from New York, I came to Buenos Aires trying to connect with a community of other artists. To collaborate, commiserate, to evolve and hopefully to show work. From my involvement with two related groups, Once Libre and Articultores, I have begun to achieve all of this. However, on May 17 this was interrupted abruptly and violently.
It all began with Articultores
I moved to Argentina in late 2004, and first met Judith Villamayor, the organizer of both OnceLibre and Articultores, participating in a public art event “Estudio Abierto Buenos Aires” in December 2005. Judith is a person who, while an artist in her own right, puts more energy into organizing other artists, primarily young and talented unestablished artists. And to her credit, she does this in a very open and non-exclusive way, where she is open to including anyone with incentive.
In 2009, I became reacquainted with Judith when I visited the gallery Appetite in my neighborhood. Judith was working there, arranging sprouting plants in the inside of a gallery that had no natural light.
Plants in a gallery? Well other artists have used living plants in art installations, but this resembled more a nursery than a gallery installation, aside from the surrounding artwork and signature mylar-covered walls. I was drawn to the idea because of the fusion of seemingly disparate interests of mine, gardening and creating art. Judith immediately asked me to give a hand and I soon became a regular participant with Articultores. One of the primary activities of Articultores has been the creating of golf-ball-sized seed bombs which are thrown in functional and ceremonial ways at various forgotten and abused parcels of open land in Buenos Aires. As important in this is the ritual of making the bombs ahead of time, where various people at once participate in the process, chatting and getting to know each other and sharing knowledge of growing vegetables.
In any city this would be a vital activity, but Buenos Aires is a place where there is little regard for the environment, with garbage and cement winning out over nature. Here activities like those of Articultores can make the difference between an inhospitable city and a humane one. Though seed bombs are not a new concept, the seed bombs and plantings of Articultores are unique in that they emphasize plants that grow vegetables and herbs. In addition to creating awareness in making a city more livable, Articultores encourages individuals to grow and harvest their own food.
In the founding year of Articultores, although in a limited space, we managed to perform regular activities at the gallery and around the city. And the word spread. Now there are spin-off groups in the cities or Bahia Blanca and Córdoba, and local and international press have taken notice. One day last year we were filmed simultaneous documentaries for television in France and Brazil, while bicycling through downtown Buenos Aires throwing seed bombs at designated areas. And the Spain Cultural Center hosted an installation by Articutores for several months.
Personally, I see the success in Articultores up to this point, more in publicity than in directly sustaining successful urban gardens. (I personally tried to tend one garden myself, but it was eventually quashed by pile of festering garbage.) I also realize that this is a good thing, and being an activity integrated with art the spectacle can sometimes be more important than the product. Because of Articultores, a community and network of urban farmers has grown giving support to individual gardens at home, and more ambitious projects in public areas.
Moving from San Telmo to Once: The birth of Once Libre
Last year in September, after a winter pause, and the closing of the hosting gallery, Appetite, Judith had acquired the use of a new space in the neighborhood of Once. On my first visit I was awestruck, by both the grand size and character of the place. And also was impressed at how neglected it had been, making it a challenge to work in. Here was an entire floor of a former hotel, where supposedly Carlos Gardel (Argentina’s most famous singer of tango) had performed on occasion. Now it was full of wine bottles, rubble, broken windows, pigeons and rats, and its share of water damage. I saw potential under it all and ths possiblities for Articultores to have just a small corner of it to work in.
This place in Once also contained many former hotel rooms and other spaces that could make excellent artist studios. How I understood it, Judith had been loaned the entire space for an indefinite length of time through the cultural ministry of Argentina. (An arrangement, that at the end had come under dispute.) What a great country that can support its emerging artists in this form! I wanted to be a part of this, to work on my own projects in a creative environment with others. Thus I took over a damp and musty old room, full of decades of dust, a crumbling ceiling and peeling paint. And later, after giving up that space for another artist, I took over a former bathroom that was in such disgusting condition that no one had considered even using it. With the help of my boyfriend Guille I transformed it into a charmed space where I began to work with silkscreen again for the first time in 20 years.
In order to function, Once Libre not only needed cleaning, but lacked electricity and running water. The building is unusual in that it is likely not legally habitable by building codes, but it is under the control of the federal government and sympathetic political groups. We got to know some of the people of the CMP political group on the floor below and they were very welcoming and open to helping us get access to water and electricity. At first this involved filling individual buckets with water and hauling them upstairs to water plants or clean up from painting walls white. But eventually, we installed ourselves a network of electrical connections, and with the help of the hard-working Jorge, a few connections of water. It is amazing how the presence of these two basic things, water and electricity, can transform how one can use a space. In addition to sharing in the work to improve and maintain Once Libre, each month we have chipped in a modest sum of money to pay for materials and compensate our neighbors for the access to electricity and water.
Successes at OnceLibre
In addition to fixing up and working in my studio, I have built and maintained the website of the group, oncelibre.com.ar. Over the months we have cleaned and improved the space, and artists have come and gone, some from other countries including Columbia, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay. Plus a friend of mine from New York, Ivy Haldeman, worked there for a few weeks creating “intraventions” with bricks, as seen in the photo. Artists submit proposals for how long they wish to work at Once Libre, and what they hope to accomplish. Judith considers all of them and has done her best to accommodate as many artists as possible, using every last corner of the space. For several artists this was their only chance of having a dedicated space to get work done. Once Libre has been home to dozens of artists over the course of just 8 months, and things were only getting better. How the space was transformed from a forgotten dumping ground into a vital and growing community has been amazing, perhaps reflecting what we have tried to do via Articultores to plots of forgotten land.
In addition to regular meetings of actions of Articultores, several well-attended events have been held at Once Libre. We held two very successful open studios of the resident artists. Classes and workshops in painting, electronic music, paper making, and much more. Meetings of a burgeoning artist union, a weekend conference for open software, and now a weekly radio program. And recently we began offering an excellent series of classes teaching how to grow an urban vegetable garden in one’s own balcony or terrace. All this was open to all and for no cost. As the participation has been increasing, also so has the publicity. Numerous reporters from both domestic and international news organizations have visited us in Once Libre.
Suddenly things weren’t right
A few weeks ago at Once Libre hints of trouble began to emerge. Judith explained that there was a conflict with the people on the second floor (we on the topmost third floor), that was sure to blow over. The space we were in was really the domain of the people who were to eventually develop a museum to the veterans of the Malvinas War. But there was no plan for a museum in the near future and they were happy to have us there indefinitely. What I thought was a mere bump in the road, evolved into our lights and water being cut off. What I hadn’t realized very well was that the bosses of the union on the second floor, wanted the space for a reason that was never made clear, and they were making a power play. Still the space belonged to the families of the Malvinas War veterans, and they were supporting us.
Well, how I understand it, something happened behind the scenes, and on Tuesday, May 17, a group of beefy union guys, led by the famous instigator Luis D’Elia, forced their way into the space and began breaking locked doors and setting up the place for a big gathering the same day. I was not there when it happened, but how I understand it, there would be no violence if we didn’t get in their way. We were invaded by force. At the same time, the representative of the Malvinas War veterans changed positions and informed Judith that we had to accommodate the group on the second floor in any way they wished. Since the people on the second floor now wanted us out that implied we had to leave. On learning this, I rode my bike to Once to meet with the rest and see what I learn and how I could help. The talk was around negotiating our time there, trying to get three months more to find a space to move to. But one month seemed more attainable.
Though things didn’t look good, they also didn’t look terribly urgent. Then, at 8pm, back at home working, I saw on Twitter that we had until 10pm that same night to move things out and then we would be locked out.
I ran to the space where so much had been built over the past 8 months, and everyone was suddenly scrambling in the dark to load their supplies and work into taxis and moving trucks. A very sad moment, but everyone in shock and desperate to save their stuff, there was no time to reflect. It was partly like escaping a natural disaster such as a fire or tsunami, where everyone had to make sudden choices on what they could grab most quickly. Evidence of other artists who still hadn’t learned of the recent developments was apparent in their work and materials set up as if they were coming back tomorrow to continue work. I wished I could help them out, but it was enough to get my own things out in such short notice. I called the number of one friend who wasn’t aware of what was happening. I interrupted him at his own art opening at an important art fair, from where he came as fast as he could to rescue his things.
It turned out that over the next few days we were able to return on limited occasions to get stuff, and fortunately most things were recovered. I have my things comfortably at home, aside me as I type things right now. But there are others who are more in limbo, including a young woman from Columbia who came to Buenos Aires just to work on her projects, and hasn’t the means to secure a hospitable space to work at all.
I have yet to hear any concrete motives for us being kicked out, other than it’s not our space. In retrospect, a big mistake was made in that the agreement for the space was not in writing. Judith confirmed verbally many times that we were more or less indefinitely. After the conflict on Tuesday, the new leader of the Malvinas group, published a public letter stating that the agreement was that we were to have the space only through February. Judith denies this was the agreement; and even if it were the agreement, why did they wait so long to do anything to get us to leave? There never was an official letter ordering us to go, just the presence of a group of men mimicking a scene from a Sopranos TV episode.
My mood and that of my companions has varied between anger and sadness, and disappointment with business as usual in this banana republic under the rule of thugs; but overriding it is the emphasis on the future, finding a new space, and how to continue working. It’s difficult to keep up momentum in one’s work once upended so abruptly, and a few have wanted to strike out at the aggressors (an understandable desire), but the majority would rather put their energy into building something for the future rather than retribution for past deeds. Plus the bonds everyone involved have become stronger than ever. The seeds of Once Libre have been planted.