During the lockdown, I spoke with Rafael Pérez Evans about the urban-rural divide and the violence related to it. How can we shift towards a more cooperative system of solidarity, not just with other humans, but also towards animals, plants, soil, and the biosphere as a whole? Instead of extracting and consuming, how do we transition towards a circular metabolic system?
TP — Tell me about Southern Spain and how growing up there affected you moving towards art?
RPE — I grew up in a town in southern Spain near Malaga. I’m half Spanish and half Welsh, and on the Spanish side, my ancestry were farmers and agronomists; land workers. They had various cultivations of lemon trees, oranges, and later avocados. I was involved with the land, and as a queer person, that relationship was always very complex and sometimes difficult. When I started arriving at a place of having a sexuality that was different from the common of the place I grew up in,I felt that the rural landscape and town I lived in didn’t have much space for me. It was a relationship between loving the land and also hating it for its conservatism.
TP — What about London, what’s the role of the city as a physical context in your practice?
RPE — London is a site I always come back to. It’s complex because the idea of London was always a kind of queer utopia for me. My idea was that I would come here and be free, become this sort of emancipated gay, which in the end didn’t quite work out . This promise of metropolitan freedom got sold to me - or rather, I bought into it. So that’s where I’m at now, waking up from a long metropolitan hangover and thinking about what’s really happening in the city , but more importantly . what’s missing, what ways of being am I missing.I don’t want to say London is an unkind place, because it’s generous in some ways. However, there’s also something lost in the city; it’s very fast-paced, the exchange is usually transactional. There’s not that much time outside business time.
Especially in the past ten years since I left London and then came back, that issue has become quite concentrated. There is an issue of how precarity in the city creates more business like relations - and business relations are cold by nature. Kindness is really important - in terms of just being able to exist in the world. That’s becoming more and more important the older I get, and the more I think about the difficulties and complexities of the city, and what it is that I want that’s not here. It’s a big question for me if being a cosmopolitan gay is ever going to be enough.
TP — Can you tell me about the origin of the images of farmers’ protests in these works? What is the origin and context of these images?
RPE — The images of farming protests are significant to how I want to be relating to the countryside. This pastoral romanticized relationship or imagery that the countryside has been written and painted as, is not the countryside I know. For me It’s a special ecosystem of people, land, plants and animals. There’s a force in the countryside that I’m very interested in. It can be a sort of anarchic force. When rural workers get upset because of changes in taxing systems, often, there are rural protests. That means farmers come to the city, they stop roads with tractors, and they bring their produce — fruits or vegetables that has been devaluedand dump it in the city— this happens regularly. It happened to my dad when I was young. There was achange in taxation that made it more costly to grow and collect the produce — in that case lemon trees — than the price we got for selling them.
This irradiates the whole ecosystem of those people and their culture. And it’s a culture that, in my understanding, really aligns with solidarity and kinship. When these communities get affected by a centralized government, it devalues them as humans by devaluing their produce. They get upset, they come to the city, and they dump vegetables and fruit. I’m interested in that gesture of dumping and creating a physical protest. And people start reacting to that. They also see food rotting. And that’s something that I also have in my sculptural practice. Objects that are rotting and losing their livelihood.
TP — What about the symbols of the rainbow and the red goats that you associated with the images?
RPE — The rainbow is usually an iridescent, gay, lucky symbol that implies luck or almost salvation —an utopia, like the treasure at the end of a rainbow. Iwanted to take this positivistic image and idea and turn it dirty, and murky and muddy. The color is a brown that looks like mud, or earth, or soil. I am working with imagining what a kind of rural salvation would look like. Maybe I don’t need the gay rainbow; maybe I need a rural salvation. Salvation that gets me entangled and dirty with the basics of life, which is eating, for example. Foods, and how do we produce those foods, the plants, the animals... That’s what I was playing with, this reimagined rainbow as a site of possible salvation from metropolitan hell.
And on the other side, I looked at a lot of cave paintings, these primitive markings. There’s something really immediate in them. It’s like the goats are about to fight one another. The animal is always a territory that’s wonderfully charged, and I like to place it at the core of my concerns. I believe we have a blindness to anything non-human, especially in the city. So when I introduce animals to my practice, I want us to try to engage with the alterity, the difference of being non- human and create a sighting in which you can almost brush against that alterity. This is aligned with the protests I talk about, and the alterity of the difference in agriculture. I wanted to align it with the difference of the animal. Animals are always trying to resist taming, they are anarchic entities. It's important to remember that, even small chickens that are in factories, I recently read how they try to escape the machine that collects them. Animals don’t want to be labourers, they are always ‘wild’ and we could learn a lot about that ‘wilderness’, we need to re-wild.
TP — You often talk about transparency and opacity, related to both food production and identity — that creating some opacity can be a way to resist a reductive spectrum of identities, especially in the west.
RPE — I would say categorization, but also expression of identities and expression of difference. It’s like when we talk about animals and their possible alterity. An animal is not just the food we eat, a pet or Disney-like cute creatures. It’s something in and of itself. It contains difference. Some of the things I realize with contemporary politics of identity specifically, is that we are also homogenizing ourselves into a kind of American or Anglo-Saxon script of what it means to have a specific type of identity. That’s where I’d bring in Edouard Glissant, and his text on opacity. Especially in our social media era, where everything has to be shared, what happens if we stop sharing? If we make ourselves more opaque, less transparent. What happens if I let myself be me, I don’t give a 100% of who I am, I don’t make everything available to you - but I trust that you are ok with that, and I trust that I don’t need to know everything about you either. And we exist with those things that are not shared. We exist in a new peace opaque pact.
I think Hyper-transparency creates space for capital to control and take over if you think of systems of surveillance, for example. I guess with my practice where I’m trying to get to a place in which we start getting disoriented away from this western metropolitan way of being— I like to think about navigation — how can we get disoriented and navigate away from that colonial compass of thinking we need to have everything available to us.
TP — I like the way Glissant talks about the word’ to grasp’ meaning actually to hold something towards yourself in an enclosing gesture. When you talk about industry and the market, do you think there’s a point of sufficient representation of diversity without an appropriation of identity?
RPE — I think the word grasp is a good word or action to be thinking about identity politics and discivility. The issue of discivility also comes from metro-normativity. Which is a structure in which gay people — especially those who come from the rural periphery — have to subjugate themselves to, in order to exist in the city. It’s almost like to be gay or to be queer; you have to pass through that transition of becoming a “city gay”. It’s a metropolitanization of the self. And I like to extend that to not only queer people but also to people that have been pushed and forced to migrate to the city, especially laborers and farmworkers who suddenly have no work available and have to transition to thecity. There’s a major violence there, the city is a place of freedom but also a place of violence.
TP — Where do you stand in this question of rootedness now? Do you think it’s possible to findsome serenity with those ideas?
RPE — No... rootedness it’s a very complicated place for me. There’s no solution really. The city gave me a certain amount of agency and power and autonomy, but it also stole from me powers that I had as a guy from a village. And that’s the paradox, that’s why I make art. For me, this meansgoing and making things dirty and messy and sticky with those paradoxes. That’s where art as a site starts to operate as a place where the biographical can become critical. The city is very clever, it creates a new kind of hierarchy of pleasures, that’s then taking away or diminishing the power of other pleasures — The pleasures of being with your neighbor or building something together on weekends. I know that sounds romantic, but there’s a significant pleasure in coexisting with people, co-creating with people, and building something.
The alienating and forceful precarity of the city makes us suspicious and takes away a lot of those pleasures. I’m trying to navigate this, but it never quite adds up, and that’s the place of paradox in which I like to exist in the world. It doesn’t get resolved. I come close to a solution, and then the opposite arrives. It’s always a possibility, and then you get lost. It’s a mess.
TP — I identify with this conversation about the rural very much since I’m navigating the same questions, being from Lapland, where the line between urban and rural is very fluid, and now living in the city and having that contrast be very present.
RPE — It’s interesting because I wonder what the relationship of people from Lapland is to the land orthe animal kingdom. City people have blindness towards that. I’m reading a lot about ontology, and how some indigenous communities have a different relationship to the plant kingdom. Some see plants as ‘people’. That’s the shift that I’m trying to get to. If we start seeing things, as people, if we give thema ‘soul’ — in the Christian sense — the so-called inanimate becomes animated. This way of thinking can create a whole new ecology. Maybe what we need is an ontological transition to change how things are classified. There’s this kind of hierarchy that we need to break from. Having a new relationship to plants, animals, soil, and with that creating a new planet, that’s the transition I’m hoping for. It’s a transition of classification and proximity, of how we relate to these ‘non-human’ things.
Some indigenous cultures in the global south have a relationship with plants even though they eat them. They have an understanding of the fact that there’s a violence in that. I’m not saying we should not eat plants, but that we have to thenIs think about replenishing and giving back to that kingdom because we’ve taken from it. replenishing is a circular metabolism. But capitalism came in and created a crack in that metabolic system. The city is a machine, a monster that just eats and doesn’t give back. And that’s the issue. Through colonial capitalism, we’re now just taking. We have to start returning. It’s a new ethics of classification, of return, of solidarity and of kindness to other things, to everything, not just humans.
TP — This is why I wanted to talk about carnivorism. My relationship to nature has always been very affected by fishing and hunting practices, in a respectful way and giving back to nature. So the questions of carnivorism, cannibalism, or consuming the other (within the capitalist world) very much resonate with me.
RPE — As you said in cannibalism — if you’re eating a person — there’s a violence there, but not in plants or animals. I'd like to think that if you take, you have to give back. You can’t just take. We have to return to a planetary metabolic system in which we do give back for that metabolism to function. Soil needs to rest; it can’t just be exploited, workers have to rest. Animals can’t just be all eaten. We also need to rest. Bifo Berardi talks about breathlessness. About how we’re in a state of breathlessness, through capitalist competition. It’s like we never quite arrive at a proper breathing. And through competition, we’re reaching a global depression. Because in competition there are only so many people that are going to win. So whatever happens, most of the time you’re going to lose. Competition is depressive, and it has been naturalized through scientific Darwinian thinking that the natural kingdom is competitive. But then you get people like Donna Haraway or Lynn Margulis who say no, actually the world and the biosphere, and all the creatures in it are in forms of corporation with each other. We’re not here competing. I think we need to go towards that cooperative solidarity, which is going to heal and replenish the earth, the biosphere, and us within that. All these questions about ‘naturalness’ of human and non human behaviour have to be questioned because a lot of these’ natural’ ideas have been constructed.
Paul Breciado talks a lot about biopolitics, refining what that natural construction of heteropatriarchy has been, and how those violences exist in that “naturalness”. The more we unpack these questions, the more sticky it gets. But at the same time there’s a scope of possibility, which is optimistic: let’s shift — from competition to cooperation. What could happen? It’s a very simple idea. We have the tools to do that transition. We just have to reproduce it socially. It needs to be like a virus that helps us transition to a place where the biosphere and us in it can exist — if not, we’re gone.