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Text in English about
Helena Producciones


Me voy pa' Cali: Reclaiming a Regional Identity and Practice
Michèle Faguet

Helena Producciones
María del Carmen Carríon

Festival de Performance de Cali

8th Festival de Performance de Cali







Me voy pa' Cali: Reclaiming a Regional Identity and Practice[1]
Michèle Faguet

(excerpt from the book)
Six Lines of Flight
Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art
by Apsara Diquinzio
Hardcover, Published 2012 by University Of California Press, United States
ISBN-13: 978-0-520-27431-0, ISBN: 0-520-27431-8


In a recent essay narrating the history of Helena Producciones, the Cali-based artist collective he cofounded in 1998, Wilson Díaz contextualizes the Colombian art scene of the late 1990s against a backdrop of violence, economic depression, and general cultural malaise that characterized the decade.[2] For a city still reeling from the impact of the brutal drug cartel that had been active there between 1977 and 1998,[3] and shaken by a phase of corruption and greed in the 1980s that nearly destroyed its already delicate social fabric, this period seemed particularly bleak even for a region long accustomed to the effects of war and social conflict. Significantly, the pessimism that motivated Díaz and a group of like-minded art professors and recent art school graduates to actively contribute to bettering the cultural landscape of Cali was premised upon a nostalgia for the city’s golden age—the 1970s—when an incredibly vital artistic community had emerged, transforming this small, peripheral city into an important cultural center that became a reference point for successive generations of cultural practitioners from other parts of the country and throughout Latin America. With its first significant project, Terror y escape (Terror and Escape), in 1999, Helena explicitly reclaimed this historical lineage by drawing upon “tropical gothic”—a local tradition articulated in the writings of Andres Caicedo and the films of Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina, among others.[4] Terror y escape included a film series, a publication, and an exhibition featuring canonical works from the 1970s as well as more recent projects by young artists from Cali and Bogotá.


Shortly after Terror y escape, Helena began focusing exclusively on the activity for which it has become best known: the organization of the Festival de Performance de Cali. Initiated by Wilson Díaz and Juan Mejía (prior to the existence of the collective) in 1997, the festival began as a relatively informal one-day event that featured (among other actions) an artist who quietly defecated in the corner and then ate what he had excreted with slices of bread and apples;[7] an invitation to snort lines of cocaine forming letters that spelled out the names of canonical figures such as Beuys and Oiticica; and a serenade to a lover on the eve of his departure from the country. Like the collective itself, with its constantly shifting configuration of members, the festival experienced many transformations, mostly related to funding, over the next decade.[8] Yet its spontaneous, sometimes chaotic, and democratic character endured. As a forum in which a great many artists—both emerging and established, Colombian and international—have participated, the festival helped resuscitate the vitality and status of the cultural scene of a city that once contributed greatly to the country’s artistic and cultural patrimony. The medium of performance, with its economical nature and inherent element of surprise (as Mejía has pointed out, you never know what the work will be until it has taken place), has proved most appropriate to the precarious, unstable context of life in Cali.

A review of the performances, interventions, workshops, exhibitions, lectures, and other events that have been part of the Festival de Performance de Cali over the years provides a comprehensive picture of contemporary art in Cali and Bogotá. The festival’s very structure encourages artists to engage critically with the local context, and the opportunity to create interventions in public spaces has led to diverse performances. Carolina Caycedo, for Ser caleño (Being from Cali, 1999), videotaped conversations with locals who were asked to describe the city and their attitudes toward it. Santiago Sierra’s 2002 Lona suspendida de la fachada de un edificio (Canvas Suspended from a Building Facade), a giant American flag mounted on the exterior of the Museo La Tertulia, was vandalized within days by local agitators, much to the artist’s dismay, and had to be removed[9]. El Vicio TV (2006) was a mobile television studio mounted by the Bogotá video collective El Vicio Producciones; passersby as well as other festival artists were invited to perform spontaneously, and the resulting variety-show-type footage was edited into a documentary about the festival later broadcast on national television. The emergence of dialogues between festival works from different years has been particularly interesting; for example, Rosemberg Sandoval’s performances with homeless adolescents in the second and third festivals (1998 and 1999) were protested in the sixth festival (2006) by Colectivo Pornomiseria (Poverty Porn Collective), a group of artists who first bathed homeless people in a busy plaza and then asked them to don white T-shirts with Obra social (Social Work) printed on them. In addition to critiquing the ethics of Sandoval’s work, the group cited an important local cultural reference: Mayolo and Ospina had coined the term pornomiseria in Agarrando pueblo (known in English as The Vampires of Poverty), their 1978 satire of exploitative Colombian documentary films. The festival has also fostered an engagement with political and social issues that would connect with a wider audience. For example, the fifth festival (2002) received extensive media coverage in response to an act of self-mutilation by French artist Pierre Pinocelli, who cut off part of his pinky to protest the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia: FARC) kidnapping of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt earlier that year.

In 2006 Helena was selected to curate the 11 Salón Regional de Artistas, zona Pacífico, one of many annual national exhibitions organized by the Colombian cultural ministry. In response to the methodology of these conventional Colombian salón-style exhibitions,[10] which tend to favor a predictable roster of local artists and works likely seen numerous times before, Helena conducted field research for subject matter in remote cities and towns in the departments (that is, states) of Cauca, Chocó, and Valle del Cauca, large portions of which have long been isolated due to the extreme violence experienced there. The exhibition not only included a number of self-taught artists but also sought to expand the terrain of the visual arts to include a broader arena of cultural and social practices, thus breaking with the elitist, hierarchical character of typical salóns. One of the most interesting participants was a fencing school from Puerto Tejada, where descendants of slaves continue to practice a tradition unique to the area, fencing with machetes. They use the blades in their daily lives as sugarcane workers; however, because the machete was frequently employed as a weapon throughout Colombian history, it also carries powerful symbolism. During the wars for independence, slaves were trained in the art of fencing and then sent to battle. Many of those who survived were able to escape, and the practice of this once aristocratic activity was appropriated and transmitted, secretly, from generation to generation. The sport was transformed and further developed through a series of illustrated handmade books that were carefully preserved by the school’s founders.

The experience of curating the salón proved significant to Helena, prompting its members to conceive of new working methods and formats with which to research and help preserve small slices of cultural history and tradition such as the Puerto Tejada story, an important contribution in a country fragmented by geographic barriers, class and racial hierarchies, and violence. Since 2007 they have conducted numerous workshops and community-oriented projects throughout the country’s Pacific region as part of an initiative they call La Escuela Móvil de Saberes y Práctica Social de Helena Producciones (Helena Producciones Traveling School of Knowledge and Social Practice), which is funded by the cultural ministry. Always collaborative in nature, the projects are informed by discussions with community members that clarify local interests and how Helena’s presence can be of benefit. They have initiated a wide range of activities, including (to name just a few) a painting workshop with children at an indigenous reserve where community leaders are actively trying to resuscitate a language and culture threatened with extinction; a palm-weaving workshop in a palenque, or settlement of former slaves, that also involved discussions about the sustainability of microenterprises; and, in the provincial city of Popayán, a symposium at which Colombian art professionals discussed the viability of practicing art in their country. Social engagement enacted by visual artists is often a polemical issue, and in Colombia it has been a point of dissension for decades. The Escuela Móvil is unusual because it functions as a pedagogical project, the results of which are meant to be retained by the communities it serves rather than used as raw material for artworks made and disseminated in a very different context. The school gives Helena the rare experience of engaging with social and historical formations that have been systematically excluded from official cultural discourse in Colombia (and are often much more interesting than what transpires in the Colombian art world), while it challenges the conventional understanding of what it means to be an artist. It also provides the economic means to sustain the collective and the practices of individual members.






1. “Me voy pa' Cali,” which translates as “I’m Going to Cali,” is the title of a hit 1992 song by Venezuelan salsa star Oscar D’León.

2. See Wilson Díaz, “Una versión de la historia de Helena Producciones,” in Festival de Performance de Cali-Colombia (Cali: Helena Producciones, 2006), 7–25.

3. Sadly, outside Colombia, Cali is perhaps best known for the product exported by the cartels.

4. Mayolo described “tropical gothic” as a Latin American variant of British or southern gothic literature and film. His two feature-length films, Carne de tu carne (Flesh of Your Flesh, 1983) and La mansión de araucaima (The Mansion of Araucaima, 1986), are paradigmatic of the genre, as are Ospina’s Pura sangre (Pure Blood, 1982) and Caicedo’s unfinished novel Noche sin fortuna (Unfortunate Night, 1976).

7. A concise interpretation of this rather extreme action is offered by Juan Mejía: “[Fernando] Pertuz had traveled all night by bus from Bogotá and arrived that morning. He went to Cali to eat his own shit and then returned to Bogotá. I’ve always said, if that’s not art, nothing is. Aside from the metaphor, which can be read in several different ways, was the conviction and motivation behind this important gesture.” See Mejía, “Welcome,” in Festival de Performance de Cali-Colombia (Cali: Helena Producciones, 2006), 166, my translation.

8. With the exception of a four-year lag precipitated by a failed experiment with private funding, the festival has for the most part taken place annually or biannually. Since 2006 it has received financial and organizational support from major international foundations as well as the Colombian cultural ministry.

9. The protestors, a group of students from the Universidad del Valle, burned a small portion of the flag. They then stormed into the artist’s talk carrying a Colombian flag, although they neither identified themselves nor made any statements. Sierra cancelled his talk in frustration.

10. Although the legitimacy of these archaic and expensive presentations has been debated for years, they have nevertheless persisted, to the detriment of perhaps more efficient and productive uses of the state’s uneven allocation of cultural funding.