“The body will always be the territory in dispute”: A Conversation between Iberia Pérez González and nibia pastrana santiago

Puerto Rico-based dancer and performance artist nibia pastrana santiago develops site-specific “choreographic events” to experiment with time, fiction, and notions of territory. In this conversation, nibia speaks about idleness, exhaustion, corporal vandalism, and the tensions between bodies and space in times of global pandemic. 

nibia pastrana santiago. A guide to immobility (Guía para la inmovilidad), 2014. Photograph. Sculpture by Elizabeth Robles. Desbordamiento, 2013. Encaustic on cotton. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist

Iberia Pérez González: Back in March, the government of Puerto Rico imposed strict coronavirus control measures, ordering lockdown, overnight curfew, and the closure of most businesses. As a dancer whose work is bounded by time, space, and movement, how did the constraints of daily reality challenge your practice?  

nibia pastrana santiago: During the initial lockdown phase, I had no interest in dancing. I think this was my response to the overwhelming discourse on productivity that circulated on social media. That initial phase was truly a moment of uncertainty and fear. I think the expectation of “having to do something” during quarantine is a distraction from the opportunity–even if brief–of listening to oneself. Labor shouldn’t define our existence, especially during a pandemic! Why should I be dancing when the world was—and still is—in chaos? In this crisis, when governments and institutions fail and inequality is even more evident, survival becomes most important. I had no desire to dance. But, then again, isn’t the creative process a vital part of survival?  

During this period, I managed to do at least two things. First, I revisited my texts from Taller de Nada (workshop on nothing) (2015) and the lazy dancer manifesto (2013) to understand possible resonances within this new context COVID-19. This led me to question, on the one hand, who gets to do nothing? Who can afford not to work? On the other, why work at all? Can laziness stop the machinery of labor? Secondly, I was teaching remotely an improvisation course at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, where I’m also the Dance Program Academic Coordinator. In the context of this global health emergency, dance became inevitably site-specific. Professors insisted that dancing within the limits of our living situations was an opportunity to raise new questions about creative and learning processes. Of course, nothing replaces the physical togetherness of the dance class but, at that moment, site-specificity, listening to ourselves, and honoring our feelings through movement became the focus of my class. That adaptation was definitively an activation of improvisational tools, not only in pedagogy, but in many aspects of my life.  

nibia pastrana santiago. Danza actual o el evento coreográfico: estructuras temporales para provocar un evento imposible (Current dance or the choreographic event: temporary structures to provoke an impossible event), 2015. Choreographic event. 4 hrs. Casa del Sargento, Beta Local, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo: Tony Cruz 

nibia pastrana santiago. objetos indispuestos, inauguraciones suspendidas o finales inevitables para un casi-baile (indisposed objects, suspended inaugurations or inevitable endings for an almost dance), 2019. Whitney Biennial, New York. Photo: Greta Hartenstein 

IPG: The pandemic safety measures—social distancing and mask wearing—are prompting new ways of moving and behaving in space. How has this experience altered your understanding of the “choreographic event,” or led you to reconsider your ideas of time or territory?  

nps: Hurricane María; the protests of 2019; the earthquakes that began in January; COVID-19; the violent killings of transgender women on the island; and, most recently, the uprisings from Black communities in the US and elsewhere all resonate so strongly with Black and Afro-descendants in Puerto Rico. After these events, there is no option but to reconsider how one positions one’s work. My work draws from the actual times I live in–let’s label it colonial decay. It’s almost a duty that my dance-making is in dialogue with this accumulation of events, because it is the “event” that has the potential to transform the logic of time, power relations, and perception. I understand choreography as a lens to apprehend the organization and manifestation of things in the world in relation to time and space. For example, I consider the San Juan Bay as a highly choreographed site; the entry and exit of cargo ships and cruises is a choreography of imported products that make colonial protocols evident.  

For me, choreography is a tool for resistance. When established choreographed systems pass as given, perception can be a tool to understand and interrupt these oppressive choreographic patterns. Choreography is also a great tool to develop strategies that allow the new reorganization of territories. In times of physical distancing, I’m observing how these protocols become personal scores—a set of instructions that you need to perform in order to be safe and help others stay safe. The body will always be the territory in dispute. The state will always surveil and control bodies. Interestingly, now people are surveilling each other, attentive to others’ compliance with regulations. Public space is now layered with new modalities for consent that are located in the body, and this new self-awareness forges other kinds of tensions between bodies and space.   

nibia pastrana santiago. taller de nada (workshop on nothing), 2014. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santurce, Puerto Rico. Photo: Antonio J. Ramírez Aponte

IPG: It’s interesting how, instead of slack or stasis, notions like boredom or laziness are resignified in your dance practice as a space of possibility. Could you talk more about that? What are the necessary conditions that allow one to arrive physically and mentally at idleness?  

nps: In my early practice, I perceived a separation between the roles of the dancer and choreographer. I needed a new methodology to address this issue. Allowing myself to become bored was the first attempt to get rid of the self-imposed expectation that “a dancer has to dance” and a “choreographer has to make dances.” Boredom became a tool for temporary freedom … but it is hard to be bored with so much stimuli. I was not interested in stillness. You see, Iberia, the thing about being bored is that it might induce you to do something. For example, I look at a window and then I look through the window, but then the window itself sparks my curiosity, and then I’m not bored anymore. Instead, I’m probably wondering how the window was installed. If the task was to become bored, laziness allowed me to prevent entertainment. I realized that boredom led to potentiality and laziness was a tool for transforming desires. My initial concern, then, led to a bigger question: Is my impulse for definition connected to a notion of success? Is the ideology of success heightened in dance training and, by extension, art making? In order to become idle, and fail at something, it’s necessary to consider what needs to be interrupted or changed. It’s not just a physical practice of enacting relaxation, but a radical rethinking of standards of progress and success.  

nibia pastrana santiago. condiciones materiales para la ficción y la fatiga (material conditions for fiction and fatigue), 2018. Choreographic event. 180 min. Casa de Los Contrafuertes, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo: Rolando Meléndez 

IPG: Several months of coronavirus-related disruptions have many of us feeling quarantine fatigue. I have, for sure! Fatigue and exhaustion are concepts you’ve explored, especially in your durational performance pieces. What relevance do these concepts have for you today?  

nps: In performance, I create conditions that provoke exhaustion in order to arrive at a physical state were my decision-making process wears down. I do this purposefully because when one is tired, a new quality of understanding may emerge. I’m interested in the not knowing, although the audience and I know there’s an ending to the event. Right now, no one knows when the pandemic will end, and uncertainty can lead to fatigue. My quarantine fatigue has to do with balancing the amount of screen-time and multiple jobs. But mostly, my exhaustion comes from dealing with a mediocre government amidst yet another emergency. In Puerto Rico, the level of frustration has been unbearable for many years. I’m extremely tired of imagining new futures that get smashed down by a hollow performance of politics and injustice. 

nibia pastrana santiago. los presidentes pisan, o conmemorando lo invisible, o quiero ser una iconoclasta sexy (the presidents step on, or commemorating the invisible, or I want to be a sexy iconoclast), 2014. Public intervention. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Image courtesy the artist

IPG: Recent debates around the removal of racist monuments reminded me of your work los presidentes pisan, o conmemorando lo invisible, o quiero ser una iconoclasta sexy (the presidents step on, or commemorating the invisible, or I want to be a sexy iconoclast) (2014), a public intervention at the Paseo de los Presidentes (Walkway of the Presidents) in Old San Juan. What motivated this work? And, how does your strategy of vandalismo corporal (corporal vandalism) resonate with the toppling of racist statues across the world? 

nps: The Paseo de los Presidentes, which includes nine bronze sculptures commemorating US presidential visits to Puerto Rico, is one of the first stops for tourists arriving in San Juan, particularly for those coming on cruise ships. Aside from the fact that they were commissioned with public funding, the fact that tourists visit to take pictures with their favorite presidents highlights the colonial apparatus: a local attraction for visitors to reproduce images of themselves and imperial history. Only ten presidents have ever visited Puerto Rico while in office. Most of them came for brief trips to fundraise, visit military bases, or play golf. The current US President came in 2017 after Hurricane María and threw paper towels to Puerto Ricans at a press conference. That’s why I use “step on,” instead of “visit” in the title of the work.  

I used the strategy of corporal vandalism to disrupt the situation and the site. Since the monument is surveilled, I used my body in order to channel my fantasies of removal and destruction. My body was all I needed to desacralize the presidents. My strategy was simple. I used erotic and absurd movements based on perreo. I was not damaging the statues; I was taking pictures of myself like everyone else. Some tourists were really offended by this, but some laughed, and some even offered to help take my pictures. This was one of my favorite moments, when my vandalismo corporal became consumable for the tourist. Entrapping the whole act through their gaze, and controlling it with the camera. Isn’t that an imperial act too? I arrive, and then tell you how to do it. In other words, perform for me.  

What is happening now in the US and other cities around the world is powerful in many levels. I wish it would happen here too with the statues of Columbus around the island and those of the American presidents. These protests and removal rituals really speak to me about how people, tired of oppressive public souvenirs, produce a massive threshold in time, manifesting the need for historical change. That past doesn’t deserve to be commemorated. The rejection of what these monuments represent today is what matters. I do believe in iconoclasm! I did my intervention in a sexy way because there is power in the body. There’s empowerment in the act of expressing one’s body and using it to reclaim a symbolic and physical space that has been taken away for imperial veneration. 

nibia pastrana santiago. OUR ISLAND HERE (NUESTRA ISLA AQUÍ), 2019. Waterproof paper. 20 x 4 inches. Rauschenberg Residency, Captiva, Florida. Videostill: Jarrod Dugger

IPG: Can you tell us more about the project you developed at the Rauschenberg Residency here Florida in November 2019? 

nps: At the Rauschenberg Residency, I developed the series “not accidentally given: pesimismo tropical.” I wanted to materialize my movement practice and started experimenting with slogans and waterproof paper. Inspired by Captiva’s ecosystem, which is similar to that of Puerto Rico, I designed a 20-foot long floating banner intended for aerial viewing. With other fellow residents, we glided a banner reading “YOUR ISLAND HERE” along the western shore facing the Gulf of Mexico. All these provocations about submarine futures vis-à-vis changes in sea level came from a desire to develop an anti-tourist advertisement. I also filmed Baliza (Beacon), an underwater performance where my body is floating and in motion with other banners. I felt very supported by the residency staff, and finally had the time to delve into old ideas. 

nibia pastrana santiago. dejemos el engaño, hablemos de ficción (let’s leave deceit, let’s talk about fiction), 2019. Video. 14 min., 39 sec. Teatro Sylvia Rexach, Puerta de Tierra, Puerto Rico. Videostill: Oswaldo Colón Ortíz 

IPG: What are you currently working on? Do you foresee any long-term shifts in your practice or in the field of experimental dance in Puerto Rico resulting from this global pandemic?  

nps: Right now I’m working with dance scholar Susan Homar to co-edit a book on experimental dance in Puerto Rico. Habitar lo imposible includes the voices of an array of experimental artists living in the island and its diaspora. Earlier this year, I also joined the team of Beta Local, an art space and platform here in San Juan. As co-director, I’m concentrating on continuing the organization’s work and devising sensible ways to support artists, particularly during the pandemic.  

Some days I’m really hopeful that this period of uncertainty can somehow improve public policies for artists in the island, but we cannot rely on the state or its institutions. Dancers and choreographers have endured precarious working conditions in Puerto Rico for many decades. When structures are falling apart, artists always know how to deal with the unknown. That gives me hope.  

photo credit: Alexandra Laureano Moenck 

nibia pastrana santiago is based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. nibia is co-director at Beta Local and serves as the Dance Program Academic Coordinator at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, the first program of its kind in Puerto Rico. Currently, she is co-editing an anthology on Puerto Rican experimental dance with Susan Homar that will be published in 2021. Her work has been supported by Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña and Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades. nibia was a 2019 Whitney Biennial artist.