Faculty Feature: Ernesto Pujol

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The months of September and October have been busy for Ernesto Pujol (AP Faculty). On September 25th he spoke at The Ruben Museum with Carol Becker, Writer and Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts as part of The Ruben Museum’s program on Ignorance. The topic was socially engaged art practice. Pujol was also featured in an interview in the October issue of The Brooklyn Rail with fellow AP faculty member Thyrza Nichols Goodeve and on October 3-4, he and a group of 40 performers presented “Time After Us” –a 24 hour walking performance— commissioned by the French Institute Alliance Française as part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival 2013. It was held at St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway, near Ground Zero. 

Time After Us: St. Paul’s Chapel, New York City

For 24-hours the group, all in white, circled counterclockwise around a small rock.  “Walking backwards is countercultural, in terms of the forward-driven culture of capital achievement,” says Pujol in his interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, “it instantly places the body in a vulnerable position. And it is a wonderful metaphor for second chances, for revisiting the past, our past. It gives us a chance to forgive and be forgiven, to say ‘I’m sorry’ and perhaps hear someone lost say it to us; to apologize and be apologized to. I like to believe in redemption. I cannot tell what is happening in the mind of my walkers, but I use this exercise as part of my practice, to release and be released.”

By walking backwards each participant loses one’s self-consciousness and falls into a timeless sense of flow. As Kate Harding (MFA AP14) put it, “A powerful aspect of Ernesto’s piece for me is a kind of reclaiming of time, whether it be now or that of the past, or both and all together. Or even the arc of how you’ve moved or move or will move in time. Reflecting on that. Walking with that. Walking with others doing the same in their own way. Reflecting and being a site and part of a site of reflection. I feel that with the performance, I’ve been given a gift and am part of Ernesto’s larger gift at the same time.”

The rock at the center of the inverted vortex is crucial to the spiritual density of the performance. It was given to Pujol thirty years ago, as a gift from a woman friend who was dying of cancer and who has since died. Since then, he has kept the rock with him everywhere he has lived. “It is an ancient rock, used by Native American women to grind corn. It is a river rock. Granite, I believe, incredibly dense and heavy. Every circle needs a center, or its walkers will wander off.”

Pujol was the only one to walk the full 24 hours but some, like Michael Severance (MFA AP13), walked from 2:30 in the afternoon until 10 the next morning with only a break to go walk his dog. But anyone of the performers could sit and take a break at anytime as there were substitute walkers available. 

Spectators came and went during the 24-hour period, sitting in chairs that surrounded the moving circle. The effect on the spectator was mesmerizing. One sensed one was in the presence of both an unwieldy organism morphing in and out of shapes to its own accretion of rhythms, as well as an intricate collection of individuals whose differences in body type, manner of walking and mode of dress were testament to the cliché no two people are alike. While one person rested her hands awkwardly against her thighs and threw each leg back one at a time, a bit like a mechanical toy, another, erect and staring straight forward, placed each leg lightly on the Chapel floor with the grace and discipline of a trained dancer. And then there were those who just shuffled, moving backwards in staccato steps, clearly lost in time and place—particles of an astonishing event of timeless moving stillness, Pujol’s signature artistic practice.

Sited Bodies: An Urban Performance Workshop 

Ernesto Pujol is one of its most beloved core faculty members in the MFA Art Practice program. Pedagogy is one of his interests and talents. His mother —in her 80s—is a committed progressive teacher in Puerto Rico where she lives. (Pujol was born in Cuba but lived in Puerto Rico and Spain before coming to the United States.)

During the summer Pujol runs a rigorous week-long workshop called “Sited Bodies: An Urban Performance Workshop.” In the opening statement of his syllabus, he situates the history of performance within a wide-ranging critical tradition:

“Formally born as a critique of the art world as an exclusive space of high- end consumption structured through the European painting salon for the bourgeoisie, performance art was fed by cabaret, theater, dance, shamanism, religious and secular rituals, psychodrama and, more recently, feminist, queer, civil rights and environmental activism. ”

In his workshop participants are given daily tasks that they perform in the “urban laboratory” of New York City. They return each afternoon and share their experiences with the group and sometimes with a visiting artist such as Lesley Dill. Here is Bradford Kessler’s (MFA AP13) description of the seminar: 

One day we had to go around to people (one must be a complete stranger) and tell them our life story and then have them tell us theirs. The idea is that you get so sick of your own bio, you begin shedding it. Another day our project was to ‘harvest clouds'—this could be interpreted in any way.

Each session develops its own intimacy and sense of group identity. Inevitably there are participants in each seminar whose work has never engaged with performance but, by session’s end, are transformed by their experience—released as Pujol puts it—newly opened to an entirely new paradigm of artistic practice.

For more information on Pujol, he has written extensively about his own work and philosophy of “vulnerability as method” in his collection Sited Body, Public Visions, silence, stillness & walking as performance practice.

This piece was written by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (AP Faculty).