superchat guatemala city: stefan benchoam

photo: stefan benchoam seriously hard at work for a project by buró de intervenciones públicas

superfuture came across stefan benchoam through a mutual friend and when checking out his art works and projects, we noticed a sensibility that we associated with a place more or less similar to our own rather than his native guatemala city. but then again, our knowledge of that central american boomtown has been limited to bad press and ditto hearsay. benchoam aims to revive the local arts scene with projects that may initially look merely poetic or witty but they in fact aim to scratch the surface of a society that’s stubbornly conservative. if he’s not crafting a new piece of art, he’s at work at quirky downtown art space proyectos ultravioleta, which he runs with six of his friends, or he’s traveling around latin america to form new art alliances. superfuture got in touch and asked him a few questions.

how would you describe your art work and what inspires you? i’m always critical towards the 'system' i belong to. this system could either be the city i live in, the art scene i belong to, and so on. once i took part in a project that was to be presented at a contemporary art fair in puerto rico, a rather formal event. i came up with this idea of criticizing the video market by making pirate video art. we used footage of several well-known artists such as nam june paik and created our own. we produced 400 dvd’s and made a small fortune selling them, ha!

what’s the arts scene like in guatemala city? i’m rather frustrated with the current arts climate. compared to the 1970s, an era when the arts were flourishing here, today’s arts scene is stagnant. these past 30 years have been totally void of new ideas. with my work and also through the exhibitions that i stage at proyectos ultravioleta with the team, i try to change that. the art space should function as an incubator of new ideas, a place of cross-fertilization. most people actually end up going to the prime arts institute here, the escuela nacional de artes plásticas, or become self-taught. because of the economic gaps and implications, only very few of us are able to go abroad to pursue a 'proper western-style art education'. on top of that guate doesn’t have a good mayor and city council. they lack vision which means that many of the city’s problems aren’t really solved. you know, i once addressed the necessity of improved public spaces in town by installing suspended, colourfully-painted car tires at various spots. i noticed that almost immediately kids took to these dangling tires, using them as swings. within days all tires had been removed by the municipality.

photo: proyectos ultravioleta - transo/avanzo [2009]

just how liberal is it then? it’s relatively liberal but there certainly is censorship. let me tell you, i had inititated an arts project called working with religion. it was all about oneliners varying from witty to, let’s say, more intellectually challenging, but all related to religion and put up on billboards just like ads. these would have been featured in all city buses. well, it turned out that all ads are screened by city hall and my art project was considered too controversial and simply was cancelled because of that.

what's guatemala city like, how would you describe it to an outsider? guate is a frenetic city, fast-paced in its own way. as you can imagine it’s very different from the countryside. it's a city of three million inhabitants, and can be intimidating, violent and polluted like any other big city. but it also has a fun side.

where do you usually hang out, any fav spots? proyectos ultravioleta is my prime hangout. it’s housed in the office section of a former theatre, a beautiful historic building in zona 1, a downtown district. this area has seen a big revival lately, lots of colonial buildings are being restored and small businesses and artists have now settled here. zona 1 is one of the few relatively safe areas in town. we’ve seen a steep increase in crime and violence in guate lately. due to more effective law enforcement in both mexico and colombia, drug criminals have started relocating here.

what’s next, is there something you're working on? i’m working on an exhibition with curator and my good friend natalia valencia from bogotá that’ll open at proyectos ultravioleta later this month. it’s called ultra marica, and it’ll be a daring arts show with a solid dose of controversy. you must know that 'marica' is slang for fag or gay in colombia, but when uttered with the right tone of voice it’s also a term of endearment among youngsters. homosexuality is still very much frowned upon here, you know. the ultra marica show will feature contemporary art from colombian artists, and yes, some of them are indeed gay. it’s a sequel to our first ultra show, dubbed ultra puñeta, held earlier this year. the word 'puñeta' is popular among puerto rico's younger generation. literally it means two things: a stab [like one with a knife] and to masturbate. however, it is used in the way that anglophones use the expression 'fuck'. so, if something goes wrong, people say puñeta! but also if something is amazing, or shocking, it's puñeta, puñeta, puñeta! we decided to use it as part of the name of the exhibit, because it rhymes with violeta.

photo: stefan benchoam - iglesia de los últimos días [2010]