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Interview with Nina Höchtl
Mexico City

Austrian Artist Nina Höchtl has also lived and worked in Mexico City for over ten years. In the interview she talks about lucha libre, ghosts and critical humor. Among numerous activities she is reappraising the Archive of the Austrian Association of Women Artists, VBKÖ

We start somewhat unconventionally with lucha libre”, which is Mexican wrestling. You have addressed this very intensively in an exhibition and publication project. Where do you see the strength of this highly popular sporting spectacle that relies on parody and irony? It is the combination of music, costumes, masks, figures and well-toned bodies in motion that makes lucha libre so attractive. But also the erotic tensions and moral role models that are played out and parodied in a highly entertaining manner. But what I find especially fascinating is the way lucha libre inspire different cultural forms: the representations and strategies of the wrestlers have found their way into the arenas of art and politics. And it is not really surprising that you find appropriations and adaptations in the areas of cinema, comics, fashion or animation. What is much less obvious is the fact that lucha libre is considered an important source for artists and left-wing political movements.

Lucha Femenil Final Color 2017

Poster of a wrestling event Nina has organized

Entitled “La múltiple lucha” you describe the project as a “Gegengemeinsam” of lucha libre and art. What does that mean? Gegengemeinsam (“againstogether” in English) is a concept I have developed in connection with my exploration of lucha libre. “Versus” is the key principle of “lucha libre” and is capable of evoking a series of seemingly incoherent counterparts or opposites: Sport versus performance versus histrionics versus melodrama versus mimicry versus spectacle versus art versus action versus corruption versus contradiction versus […] This “versus” does not take place in the ring. The performative participation of the audience is not involved in its construction. “Versus” refers to those situations in which at least two parties encounter each other in some way or other – one party stands against the other. However, the use of “versus” within luchas cannot simply be read as “against” as the audience and luchadorxs also have to work and fight together, so that nothing goes wrong. It is necessary to collaborate in order to create the dynamism that is at stake in the arena. “Versus” means thinking in this way, and implies breaking up opposing categories and practices.

Inside view “La múltiple lucha”

Inside view “La múltiple lucha”

What do you enjoy most about Mexico City? The constant challenge! Mexico City confronts you constantly with questions, it holds up a mirror, and shakes the very foundations of what is familiar and customary. Again and again I have felt moved by how people develop creative strategies or employ resistance to deal with poverty, violence and suppression in a wide variety of guises, and seeing many people support each other in the process: That was and is different from what I experienced growing up. What really fascinates me is how they wrest a kind of control in the chaos, enabling some sort of (joint) influence over the chaotic and insecure conditions; they grasp their fear of violence, are not worn down by circumstances, do not relinquish protecting, supporting one another and sharing.

You find yourself confronted with contradictions and problems here, but also with an enormous amount of energy. Can that get tiring over time? Yes, of course, and it makes me sad and angry. For years, war has been waged here, and officially the war is described as being against drugs, but it is more accurate to say it’s a war against young people, women, transgender people, indigenous groups, critical journalists, political opposition, life that is seen as less worthwhile, and against the country (its resources). But in the midst of this scenario of violence there are simultaneously protests and battles for a dignified life in the form of collective, artistic, trans/feminist and indigenous resistance.

Where does all this energy, commitment and imagination come from? Everything is so colorful, unusual and vibrant. It comes from the combination of so many different people, many different groups, who come together around various historical, ethnic, cultural and political identities and concepts. Many of them are beginning to recognize joint states and structures, and to challenge them. This kind of resistance not only takes place at a purely linguistic level. In the spirit of Judith Butler and Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui such resistance shows that physical action and gestures can also demonstrate political demands. An important example is the decision by The National Indigenous Congress (CNI) to campaign for María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, who is also called Marichuy, a member of the Nahua indigenous peoples. As the spokesperson of the democratically elected Indigenous Governing Council (CIG) 2018, she was to stand as an independent candidate in the presidential elections. She emphasized: “We are not fighting for votes. We are fighting for life, and life means water, the country, the earth and all of that is being destroyed. And because we want to be able to continue living here we have decided to take this step.” For me it is about circulating visions and concepts for another world in order to evoke further transformational actions and attitudes.

Mixed up photographs of “La múltiple lucha”

You are also active in Vienna. With Julia Wieger you are reappraising the “Archive of the Austrian Association of Women Artists, VBKÖ”. Founded 1910, despite its progressive beginning in 1938 they collaborated with the NS-regime and meanwhile most people have forgotten they ever existed. You describe yourselves as Secretariat for Ghosts, Archival Politics & Gaps, Skgal. Would you let us take a glimpse in the archive? The archive of the VBKÖ contains documents, images and other things that were filed in the office over the course of the years. The archives of an association include documents like statutes, records and correspondence, and in the case of an artists’ association the collection of works. What we do not find are for example decisions that were not recorded; opinions that were not uttered; witnesses of resistance, which did not make it into the archive, which perhaps did not exist. […] We see the archive as a place of political confrontation; in order to act and intervene in the present day; in order to draw up concepts for the future and open doors for ghosts. In our film “Haunting in the Archive!” (2017) we are trying to show a long, fragmentary section through the history of the VBKÖ and its archive. Here ghosts of national socialist ideologies encounter the ghosts of colonial phantasies, and share the scene with old and new ghosts of feminist action. The material in the archive is haunted, exposed to discussions and then linked up.

How do you deal with the ghosts of the past and how do you evade their either-or judgments? It seems to us that these ghosts remind us to remember bad actions that were not met by retribution or things that have been forgotten, and they challenge us. Simultaneously, through their appearance it is clear that we cannot be sure whether they have actually seen or heard or understood. Can we trust our senses, our reason, our research and debates? And now we are caught up in an intermediate space of an either and or, because clear divides seem to be disappearing with the ghost hauntings. They are symbolic for the fact that there are always dimensions of our existence, our research and our occupation that slip away from us, which we will not be able to see or capture. Jacques Derrida calls for contact-free contact with ghosts. What shape might this take? Above all when the ghostly in the true sense IS NOT, but rather is produced from the intermediate space between presence and absence? In addition, ghosts do not abide by normal social interaction, they change, double, and lure away meanings, interpretations and contexts. We are concerned with the ghosts of the past and the future, their contradictions, letting them speak and learning to live with them.  

Your work is very multilayered, complex and not easy to grasp. You operate in the field of aesthetic research, concern yourself with feminism, identity, language and communication. What are you looking for just now? With Invasorix we are recording a song in which we try in a parody to share our thoughts and experiences about the “internal and external white” through words, song, rhythm and motion. We bring the white into contact with white noise, which like an invisible and barely audible power hierarchically organizes bodies, countries, resources and access. Through the song we try to interrupt the seemingly less disturbing, indeed even more calming sounds of white noise and in doing so to take up with humor the complex overlapping and power dynamics, blind spots and various privileges that are sometimes more and sometimes less obvious inside and outside of our group. 

As a lecturer (UNAM, National Autonomous University of Mexico) you enjoy interpreting theory through performance. Can you tell us how this works? This is a method that I pursue together with Rían Lozano and Coco Magallanes. In other words, it cannot be realized alone. It is our opinion, and our experience also shows us that dramatic readings can, for example, make people feel less wary about complicated texts. What translation processes take place here?

Is the theoretical treated differently here than in Europe? The contexts where I have been involved, in other words, mainly in Mexico City, largely provided scope for the intermingling of theory and practice, or your own action. That made the mutual dependency of practice and theory much clearer to me, and it also became clearer to me that a lot of what is done is informed by theories, regardless of whether these theories are explicitly mentioned or not. It seems to me that there is often scope here for theories, for planning, designing strategies, having more power to act via various forms of resistance, being able to conceive of and practice visions and concepts of another world.

Is criticism a major topic? In recent years criticism, above all within contemporary art production in Mexico has taken on greater significance. There are various initiatives, for example the Blog de Crítica which was called into being 2015 a. o. by the Fundación Alumnos. Or the project CRITS (Critical sessions of the revision of projects), which for two years has been organized by MUAC and enables students of the art faculties a crit session with an artist and curator.

How can you provide food for thought, become a political movement, motivate activism, above all in Europe? I think the aim is to create more and more collective places of debate and exchange in which contractions are possible.

How can you best soften such hardened structures? Mexico is run through with an (internal) colonialism, which supports structures whereby a few profit a few, a colonialism which is also maintained by those persons who do not expressly support it, but have come to certain arrangements. The question that immediately occurs to me: What arrangements do I enter into, an overly educated white from Europe, consciously or unconsciously? How can levers be found, and what levers are they and how can they be employed in order to alter these structures and arrangements? For me these levers were and still are feminist queer/cuir, decolonializing theories and practices, which (and I rate this very highly) are shared, questioned, discussed and employed in exchanges with other bodies.

Your artist book “Somewhere between Desire and Waiting” is intended to bring about change in the reader. Can you tell us more about it? Back then I was exploring the format of the interview, and its role in research processes: The way that questions, the choice of words or formulations often anticipate answers or greatly influence them, and how an interview tells us something about both the person interviewing and the interviewee. It was only when I spoke to other people about interviews I had conducted that I realized how every time I spoke a little differently about them. The key points might have stayed the same, but the order, or the points where I went into more detail, or what I did not find worthy of talking about, had to do with the questions and interests of the persons I was talking to at the time. The narrations about us alter over time, depending on the context, the persons we are talking to and the language we select.

September 11, 2018 at 7 P. M. opens the group exhibition El derecho agent | Das Recht des Anderen with Nina Höchtl and others at the Mexikanisches Kulturinstitut in Vienna. The exhibition assembles artistic and documentary research on crossed stories of Mexico and Austria. The complex interrelationships between the two countries and the political mythologies that run through these stories.

Thank you Nina!

Interview: Dajana Dorfmayr