I is for

Institute

I is for

Institute

Conversation with Stefan Benchoam, Proyectos Ultravioleta

Tausif Noor

Let’s start by talking about your role at Proyectos Ultravioleta. Can you give us some background on the organization, and how and why it was founded?

Stefan Benchoam

I’m one of the four co-founders of Proyectos Ultravioleta along with Juan Brenner, Byron Mármol, and Rodrigo Fernández. We were four artists and friends, and we were hanging out, talking about art and other things. We often found ourselves struggling with the lack of opportunities that we had as artists, and we were lucky if we got one or two invitations to participate in a group show per year. Furthermore, we weren’t seeing work in Guatemala that we could relate to personally. Most of the work that we found interesting and would discuss would be found online or if we had the privilege of traveling, but not so much locally. After meeting regularly for maybe about six months in 2009, we realized we were complaining a lot and we were like, “This is not good, let’s start doing something.”

That’s where Proyectos Ultravioleta started around 2009. At the very beginning, what we did was brainstorm and try to map out, or at least name, all the resources that we had available, whether it was spaces or contacts who were in the scene, and whatever material resources that we had in terms of equipment, knowledge, or skill sets. So in the beginning, what we were looking at was a very misinformed idea of what Kurimanzutto, which is a gallery in Mexico, was. At the time when they started, they didn’t have a space and we really liked the fact that we could kind of do pop-ups. We thought we could follow what they did and do shows in different places and through that, try to discover different places in Guatemala City that our audiences might not know and also might be surprised by.

As soon as we started to scout places, we came across this one place in the historic center of Guatemala, which at the time was pretty derelict. Not a lot of people were coming in, but it was a place that we actually wanted to work from because it was, and still is, one of the most diverse areas of the whole city.

Guatemala is super polarized in general, and fairly conservative as a society, but the historic center seems to be one of the only places in the city where you have people from all walks of life and all types of ethnic groups. It’s also one of the most tolerant places in terms of gender, and it’s actually where the LGBT marches have happened in Guatemala City. So, when we were looking for places, we came across this building which was an office for a old theater that a friend had. She said she would rent it to us for $200, which we thought was per week, and she said, no, no, a month.

AK

Wow!

SB

We were blown away, and we abandoned our plan to do pop-ups and just took over that space and started putting together exhibitions. For the first show, we showed our own work and lots and lots of people came. That initial turnout helped us find a way of financing the project. We started throwing parties after our openings, which was also a way of getting a younger generation to come see art. They’d typically much rather just go to a party and get drunk, but we thought if we could get them over here, they’d also look at art and we could sell them alcohol and generate a revenue for the space.

AK

Has that funding model continued?

SB

The funding structure has changed a lot, and that has been one of the nice things about working from a place where there’s really not a lot of infrastructure for the arts or supporters, whether private or public. We have a Ministry of Culture and Sports, but most of that budget goes to football and specifically to the pockets of the people in the football federation. It’s super corrupt, and what’s leftover for culture mostly goes for preservation of cultural heritage, which is super important, but that means hardly anything for art and especially contemporary art.

We were looking at different options, but it’s hard to generate an income whatsoever for the arts. Our problem was that the parties got really good—too good—and with that came a series of issues. The two issues that were decisive was when a really wonderful young philosopher from Guatemala, who loves to drink, came by a show and threw up over the whole exhibition, and the bathroom, and the bar, and the stairs. It was disgusting.

AK

Oh no—so that was kind of the end of that?

SB

It was a really, really difficult problem and then literally, a few days later, we were walking through the downtown and somebody stopped to ask if we were the owners of “that new club.”

AK

Was that when you had to figure out how to shift identities a little bit?

SB

Right. We went cold turkey and stopped having parties immediately. By that point, there were three of us; Rodrigo only lasted a couple of months, and Juan had taken some time to focus on some of his personal projects. So Byron and I invited Emiliano Valdés, and he accepted. The three of us heard about a funding opportunity from an international arts organization from Holland. We were able to get a grant from them, but we had to become a not-for-profit in the process. As soon as we got the money, they told us it was non-renewable and that we had to be really careful in how we used the money. We thought, “Okay, we have money for the first time, money to last us for a whole year. Let’s really make the most of it.”

We started a series of collaborations and we were pretty austere with the way that we were using the money—or really smart, depending on how you look at it. By the end of the fiscal year, the funding organization was really upset because we had spent only half of it, which of course put them in a difficult position, but on our end it was great because it showed we could stretch the money for two years.

AK

Did they let you do it?

SB

They said, “You have to have a party and blow it all out.” Typically, it’s a reverse situation, where the young artist-run space wants to have a huge party and spend all this money. But what we managed to do is kind of push them off for a while and built this new model that we’ve been operating with for the last six years.

It’s a hybrid model where locally, we’re still thinking of ourselves as a kunsthalle and doing shows that we think are really important to do here. Often, these are non-commercial, and even if we wanted to sell the type of work that we show, it would be hard. But we feel it’s super important to be doing shows that otherwise would not happen. It also gives us a chance to do other projects, or to fund other projects that we think are important. We have a commercial side and we go to art fairs internationally to do presentations of the artists that we’re representing. This generates sales and incomes for both the artists and the space, and gives us the independence to operate and do whatever we want.

AK

That’s interesting—locally, you’re a not-for-profit, kunsthalle space, but then in the international sphere, you’re more of a commercial gallery?

SB

Exactly.

AK

It’s great to see the different roles between your local identity and then your international identity. Is Proyectos Ultravioleta still based in that original location of the cinema space?

SB

We’ve changed locations twice, and we’ve been in three spaces. Our first location was in the cinema. About a year into having that space, the city decided to change and develop that zone and started this municipal gentrification process. They cleared out one of the main streets that had a lot of informal commerce, put very wide sidewalks, and made it into a pedestrian street, which I think was actually really good for the city. But what that brought was a lot of economic speculation by the land owners.

At that time, the mother of my friend, who owned the building, came back from the U.S., where she’d been living for almost three decades. As soon as the municipal development projects started, she decided to come back and remodel the whole theater. She sold her original apartment, and needed a place to store her furniture, so she decided to take back that space. It’s funny because we wanted to be involved in the planning of these new developments on the street and to see it from a completely different point of view, and we were trying to get cultural partners to come into the same building to create a type of local cultural hub. The architect who was remodeling the building is also an artist and a good friend, so we explained the situation to him. He drew up plans to create a storage unit within the building, but the owner really didn’t want to give it to us. A friend of mine who’s a lawyer proposed taking her to court, so that we could essentially be rent-free until we got a settlement, but that would have been a terrible situation for everyone.

To make a long story short, we left the space and did a series of collaborations with different spaces, not only in Guatemala City, but in the rest of the country and also abroad. We eventually found our second venue, which was a really crazy place: it was the second basement of Guatemala’s first shopping center, which is now a place where a lot of youths hang out. It’s a really wild five-story building, with three floors that are above-ground and two that are the lower levels. You’ve got everything from bumper cars to restaurants, internet cafes, secondhand clothing shops, gun shops, and beauty parlors ran by members of the transgender community of Guatemala. We thought that was pretty great, because if they were part of the community, it was likely an incredibly tolerant place. We were in the very lower level, the second basement, which made it more difficult for people to just come as passersby. So we thought, “If they can’t come to us, we’re gonna go to them.”

Our first space was accidentally a very typical white cube, but this second space was actually the antithesis of that. The walls were wooden and the floors were the type of industrial linoleum that you find in restaurant kitchens. The linoleum was laid down in these curved strips in repeating red, yellow, and blue patterns, like waves. It was just bonkers.

We were there for maybe two years until a friend called me up, very mysteriously. He said, “I want to show something, where are you?” I told him I was in my flat, and he asked me to come downstairs, and there was this big SUV, bullet-proof dark windows. He opens the door, I get in the car, and he drives me around and we go inside this lot that I had driven past thousands of times. It used to be Guatemala’s biggest woodmill from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

It turned out that it was owned by his family. He said, “If you have any ideas about what we could do with the space, let me know.” Of course, I had ideas. Inside the lot, and next to the mill was a house, which hadn’t been functional in twenty years. We asked if they could open it up, and that’s now the gallery that we have today.

TN

Very cool.

SB

It’s amazing. What’s lovely too is that we rent just the house, but they’re very nice and they give us access to the whole site. With that we’re able to also host a series of projects for people to develop their projects on-site, rent-free.

AK

That’s so great—so it can function like a working studio?

SB

It’s not so much a studio, but there are two incredible things happening that we started this year. The first is a pedagogic program called CAP, which stands for Creatorio Artistico Pedagógico. It started with a group of teens, but the program is now working with kids from ages five to eighteen. For the most part, these kids have difficult home situations or come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they’re learning art making, art history, and critical thinking, and they’re really advanced. The instruction methodology is really good and these kids are really bright.

With Jessica Kairé and NuMu, we’ve been supporting CAP in different ways. They first invited us to do a workshop with the kids and since then we’ve been supporting as much as we can. And at the beginning of the year, Esperanza, who is one of the founders of CAP, mentioned that they were losing the place where they had been hosting the classes, and asked if I knew of any place that could host them. I kind of begged her to see if they could move in.

Now we’ve got the 13- to 18-year olds that are actually taking classes weekly in the same space, and what we’re starting to work on is a series to make the most of the resources that we have at Proyectos Ultravioleta to feed into them. For example, when artists come in and do shows, the kids will have access to them, and in a best case scenario, the artists will do a workshop for the kids. But even if a workshop isn’t possible, it’s still important for the kids to be around artists. If they’re interested in helping set up shows, artists could teach them how to do that, or if they’re interested in professional skills, we can facilitate that. We have a paid intern who’s actually a graduate from this group who’s working now in the gallery and is kind of like a bridge between both projects.

The second thing that we’re about to launch is called a consultorio, which in Spanish used to refer to a shrink’s clinic. It’s a play on words: consultario also refers to a place for consulting books. We’re turning a small cabin in the woodmill into a library that will be free for anybody to come and use and work, but ideally it’s also a library for the kids.

AK

What is the area like where the woodmill is located? Is it very remote?

SB

When they first bought the property in the 1920s, it was located on the outskirts of the city, but now is very central. The area is next to a series of ravines. People with very limited resources improvised settlements near there in the late 1950s, and because of systemic discrimination, and lack of opportunities, education, and resources, that they have faced since, some have gone into crime. There’s a system of gangs that work and operate from this area, which is sort of close to where we are located. Many of the shops and commerces close by have heavy security because they’ve dealt with extortion and robberies from those gangs that are close by. So, it’s a bit of a challenge in that sense, but also it just makes the work more necessary, I guess.

AK

Got it. About how big is your gallery space?

SB

The gallery space is about 180 square meters, but the lot itself is huge, it’s maybe a whole block on its own.

AK

Amazing. When you work with an artist, if they want to do something that has more of an intervention in that bigger space, is that acceptable too?

SB

Yes. It’s funny—we’re a very small art community in Guatemala, and as such, there tends to be gossip. For a while, when we began to work as a hybrid with a commercial site, there was another gallery here and there were a lot of rumors being spread about Proyectos Ultravioleta—everything from artists leaving the gallery to some really wild rumors that the gallery was closing. My personal favorite, which still makes me laugh, was one I heard saying that the only way we were able to participate in fairs was because they would give us discounted stands next to the bathrooms, where it smelled bad. It’s such a creative piece of gossip. If we would only put those resources to something productive.

I mention all of this because for our very first show in 2014, we invited all of the artists that we were working with already, kind of like a takeover of the entire space. We didn’t move anything—if we found a broom that was leaning against a wall, we left that broom there. If there were no lights, there were no lights. Water flooded the gallery space every time it rained. We decided to play around these limitations, which was great. Because it’s a wood mill and there’s so much wood around, we called the show Knock on Wood as a play on words, and also to dispel all these rumors and bad energy.

AK

That's so cute.

TN

From the beginning, when you were talking about operating out of that second floor basement and throwing parties, it seems like your organization has always been dynamic and responsive to what people need and want. It seems like a very flexible organization. I’m interested to know more about who your audience is, and how you identify their particular needs.

SB

To take a step back, I’ll say that personally, I’m very into these very small-but-agile organizations. NuMu is a clear example of that. I think what we’re often taught about art, and especially about art within the Western canon, is that bigger is better and that there is such a thing as an institution with a capital “I” that dictates thinking of art itself: how it operates, everything. It’s this very rigid, big organization and the problem that now is resulting is that when funding is a bit scarce, or if politics are involved, these institutions are big dinosaurs that don’t have the agility to move around, whereas smaller organizations have the possibility to actually be as responsive as possible to the local context.

This is something that has always been of interest to me, because if you choose to work with art in Guatemala, it’s understood you will be working in a precarious environment. It’s this big act of faith, which at the same time, is incredibly liberating because you’re almost expected to fail before you even start anything. People ask, “Why are you doing that? That’s crazy, you shouldn’t do it.” Yet, given you are expected to fail from the outset, you can actually try and do the impossible. If it sticks, it’s incredible—it’s kind of like this ephemeral utopia. And if it fails, of course, it was expected, so there’s no hard feelings or a great sense of despair or distraught.

Because there’s so little around, I think you’re more conscious of the efforts that you’re doing and engaging with. And because there’s such a small audience for this work and because there’s such a limited infrastructure, you’re always trying to be as conscious of your surroundings. There’s an awareness, or special kind of attention within that way of operating, which is important too, because ultimately we do this to create a community and to create an ecosystem of artists, whilst simultaneously creating an audience of thinkers that would actually engage with it.

Working here and understanding that everything is so limited, you’re always just trying to be as responsive as possible on the one hand, and trying to engage and educate without sounding, for lack of a better word, woke. You’re always trying to lead a conversation about things that you think are important and trying to get people to engage in a way that’s dynamic—that engagement is what makes it rich altogether.

TN

Right.

AK

Can you tell us about the community of artists you’re a part of and a bit more about who your audience is, and whether that’s the same thing as your community? Maybe it would be helpful to give a little more context on the arts in Guatemala.

SB

Definitely. We have a very, very, very rich history in Guatemala, going back to the Mayans, who had one of the most sophisticated and advanced civilizations of their time. Geographically, Guatemala is incredibly small, but it has over 40 volcanoes and what that means is that there’s a lot of differences in altitude and with that, many microclimates. If you’re driving on the road, you can drive for 20 minutes and you’ve gone from a coniferous forest to possibly a desert. It’s all super immediate and very diverse, so there’s an abundance of resources that have been here for a long time, which of course was something that not only drew the Mayan civilization to be here, but to stay here for as long as they did.

With that, of course, it was a place for a lot of resources for the Spanish colonists, which led to a very troubled and difficult colonial period, which in a way we haven’t been able to shake out of. Nowadays, most of the resources are concentrated in a few families that branched off from those colonial structures.

Furthermore, we had a very brutal civil war that officially started in 1960, and in a way, started from a coup that was backed by the U.S. in 1954. It officially ended in 1990. The 1954 coup was the first in the Americas and the U.S. made an example of our president at the time, who in today’s political terms was pretty center, not even a leftist. He was a sound, very smart guy and while his language was a bit more “leftist” his actions and his politics were not. They took him out and that led us into this very brutal civil war, which lasted for 36 years. We had more murders and forced disappearances in Guatemala than all of the civil wars that broke out in Latin America in that period combined.

As a result, there was a massive brain drain, because of persecution, murders, disappearances, and people that actually fled. All that to say, that there are a lot of layers to Guatemala, and even if we haven’t had infrastructure for the arts, there are many artists that have been drawn to this context for a long, long time. We have a very rich and wonderful art history here, which hasn’t been recognized as much internationally.

We’re trying to engage with those artists and engage with those thinkers, and trying to foster connections amongst artists and thinkers, which is something that hasn’t happened so much, or as much as it should. Again, I think it’s a result of a war that fractured the population.

We try to connect different disciplines, too, and from different paths of life, which has been in a way part of our ethos from the very beginning—to create these spaces for people to connect where they normally would not be able to.

AK

Is there an art school? I’m curious about how you set about making these connections.

SB

There’s one art school, the National School of Plastic Arts, which has gone through a lot of ups and downs—mostly downs. The few peaks that it has had were when certain artists decide to get engaged in education and actually teach a future generation of artists who were in their formative years. But if you go in now, I kid you not, there are people with hammers and chisels because it’s still an art school in the modernist tradition. It’s kind of taboo to talk about contemporary art; the impression is that contemporary art is all ideas and that anybody can do it. So, it’s challenging in that regard and there are a number of artists who have left Guatemala to pursue their artistic education.

Traditionally, there used to be an apprenticeship period of sorts, but now there are a lot of artists who are self-taught. There are some who have gone through the channels of the national school, but then others, like Jessica Kairé and myself, who’ve had the privilege to actually study art abroad. Jessica and I have known each other since we were babies; our families are friends. When I was 18 or 19, we had a lot of friends in common and of course we were always talking about art so the friendship really started to strengthen there and now she’s like a sister.

AK

That’s great. Is there a community of artists like yourself and Jessica who studied abroad and then have come back to Guatemala to be engaged in an art scene or build up an art scene?

TN

Perhaps we can frame that within the past 10 years, too, looking between 2009 to 2019. If at the beginning you were looking to fill in where there wasn’t infrastructure for the arts, do you feel like you’ve achieved some of that now?

SB

To a certain degree maybe, but the reality is probably not. We’ve created more spaces for things to happen, and it’s happening through the efforts of people with the drive to actually do that for themselves and others, in a kind of DIY spirit. One place where we’ve actually been able to add value is in that we’ve started to create ways for people from Guatemala to show their work abroad. By work, I mean that if they’re visual artists, it’s their artwork, but we’ve also connected thinkers and curators so they can develop their own platforms, and to also have people from abroad come and visit to learn more about the scene and engage in a better way. In the shows that we do, we’re trying to raise the profiles of the artists we’re working with. We’re very fortunate to be working with some really incredible artists, a lot of whom were already here.

AK

Can you talk about who you show as artists?

SB

One of the artists we work with is Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa. Naufus is Guatemalan, and his family was very involved during the civil war here. From a very early age he was forced into exile with his grandmother. When he was five, they went to Mexico for a couple of years; they actually thought that the war was coming to an end so they came back to Guatemala only to realize that it was in its most brutal moment, so they fled to Canada and were exiled.

Naufus knew he wanted to be an artist from a very early age, and he had a mentor who was a performance artist in Vancouver. His mentor told him that if he wanted to work in performance, he should work from intuition rather than pursue a formal art education. Following the advice of his mentor, he worked on performance between the ages of 16 to 23, developing some very wonderful work. He then went to Emily Carr for his undergraduate and soon after to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for his masters.

From there, he got some institutional recognition, mostly in the form of residencies. I had seen his work in a catalog for the New Museum Triennial in 2009, the Younger Than Jesus show, and I was like “Who is this guy from Guatemala?” I found his email online about a month after the show opened and I was like, “We don’t know each other, but I really admire the work that you’re doing. We’re artists, we just opened this space, we don’t have means to actually fly you over, but if you’re ever interested in doing a show, maybe you can send us some instructions or maybe you can send us video or photos that we can print here and we can do something.” He wrote back almost immediately saying that he was going to be visiting his family a month later, so we immediately scheduled a show and it was his first first time presenting work in Guatemala.

We didn’t actually have a gallery yet, and I remember telling people from here and elsewhere, “You have to check this guy out, he’s great, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen. He’s got an incredible sensitivity, it’s just magic!” We had a couple of curators from here that went to see the show, and they were at a loss for words—not good or bad, they just didn’t know how to access it. About six years ago, when we started to do these art fairs, we took Naufus to a fair in Torino and he won the illy Present Future Award, and with that, an exhibition at Castello di Rivoli, which is incredible. From that moment on, he started to get a lot of recognition and has been traveling a lot and getting a lot of attention. Right now, he’s at the Toronto Biennial and two years ago, he showed at the Venice Biennale. His work is now collected by major museums and he’s gotten a lot of attention, which in turn has given him a way to connect to Guatemala and paved the way for him to resettle here.

AK

Oh, wow! So, you’re actually bringing artists back to the city with what you’re doing?

SB

Yes, which is great.

AK

That’s incredible.

SB

Being here has really fed his research quite a lot and it’s also given him a sense of community in the end with like-minded individuals who are into different types of art and he’s able to share ideas and experiences that resonate with his personal experience.

AK

Right. I noticed some of the shows you’ve had are also bringing artists who haven’t exhibited in Guatemala to be on view. Would you say that your core commitment is more about supporting artists in your local community and fostering them to have these dialogues internationally and locally? Or is it a mix of those things?

SB

I think it’s a mix. When we’re working abroad, we’re sharing what we do on the ground here in Guatemala: showcasing the types of works that we’re into; the types of artists and thinking that we’re into; the types of shows that we’re into. We’re trying to commercialize to generate economies for everybody involved. Selling the type of work that we’re into is so difficult locally, so here it’s really more about generating conversations that we think are important to the context.

Right now, for instance, we’re showing Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas, who had a show a few years ago at ICA Philadelphia. They’re absolutely wonderful artists who I got to know first as friends through my partner who is also Palestinian, and I connected with them a lot. I saw their work, and was blown away. And then, about a year and a half ago, our president had his tail kind of stepped on by the U.S. government for corruption, and he decided that he would move the embassy of Guatemala from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He announced his decision immediately after the U.S. announced their plan to move the American embassy, acting as a really good pet. That, of course, was a really embarrassing situation, but also it was a chance for us to say, “Wait a minute, we barely really understand the Palestinian issue here in Guatemala.” It’s a very Zionist culture altogether, not only because of a small, but very influential Jewish community, but because of a very strong Evangelical community.

What’s been wonderful about having Ruanne and Basel’s work here is that the connections between the Palestinian struggle and that of Central Americans as they travel to the U.S., and what it means to be labeled as an “illegal” body, become very apparent. It highlights what it means to be somebody that’s there, but it’s not there—someone who is in the shadows. Who is there when the government needs them, but is completely discarded when that government decides they don’t need them anymore.

We’re also able to see some structural parallels. For example, when the March of Return was happening at the border between Gaza and Israel, where they were shooting those canisters with tear gas, it was the same time of the first March of Migrants who went to the U.S. from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and those migrants were actually met with the same tear gas canisters from the same companies at the border.

AK

Right, and that’s been part of questions funding issues with the Whitney Museum. Because you bring it up, what is the current political context that you’re in in Guatemala? Do you find any censorship or is there any attention to the things that you do from political structures or do you get to operate outside of that?

SB

Our politics are nasty in every way. I mean it’s deplorable and it’s kinda like I guess, possibly even, or just as bad or even worse, than the U.S., with of course, less power and less influence. But also less decorum. Our politicians here just don’t give two shits; they’re corrupt and they don’t even care to hide it. They almost boast of the levels of corruptions that they’re involved in. It’s ridiculous, it’s like the wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild, wild west. It’s nasty.

TN

Do you know that old joke that goes, “Why has there never been a coup in the United States?” Because there isn’t an American embassy here.

SB

It’s funny to see Americans scandalized that somebody interfered with their elections.

AK

Do you feel that the political context in your country affects the work that you do as an artist-run space? We have our own version of that in the United States, with censorship and culture wars that get framed differently, but everyone has different kinds of pressures against the programming that they do.

SB

In the last year and a half, things have been getting especially critical here, politically in Guatemala. For a few years, we actually had a glimmer of hope and some light at the end of this very dark, corrupt tunnel. We had this international commission fighting corruption and impunity that was generating research and resources that they would then pass on to other ministries to make evident the different structures of criminality and corruption operating with impunity within the government. They were very agile in producing research, and through a series of nationwide protests, we were able to get rid of our last president and vice president, and about 60 of the people that supported them and their corrupt ranks were sent to jail. That was massive, but again, it’s very difficult because it’s such a dense and complicated situation.

In response, we’ve started to do very political shows at both NuMu and Proyectos Ultravioleta. In 2018, we did a group exhibition with Naufus, Hellen Ascoli, Alberto Rodríguez Collía, Jorge de León and Regina José Galindo titled When He Woke Up…. The title alludes to one of the shortest short stories out there, by Augusto Monterroso, who was a writer from Guatemala who passed away in 2003. The short story referenced is called The Dinosaur, and the story goes: “And when he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” That’s the whole story. The dinosaur is war, it’s corruption, it’s racism—it’s all these bad things.

The exhibition included works from different artists of different generations and it was kind of a call to action. It was a way of saying, “It might be decades after the war, but we’re at the brink of this very tragic situation so we have to do something.” But to answer your question, our government isn’t sophisticated enough to see the show, so nothing in terms of censorship happened, maybe because they didn’t really know about it. But we’re becoming more and more vocal, I guess in those positions.

AK

Because you brought up NuMu, I’m curious about the programmatic missions of the two organizations and whether or not you do vastly different programs. I know they’re different types of spaces and obviously, NuMu is a very particular space, but do you see a different ethos to the programming that you do between them?

SB

Both are very committed to building on issues that are very important for the local context. Of course, for the gallery, I think the biggest difference is that you’re working with a core group of artists, with whom you’re sustaining very long-term conversations. You might not be able to do that in a museum because maybe you do one show with the artist, but then you can’t do another show with them later on.

What’s been happening at NuMu is that we’ve kind of intuitively developed a few lines in our curatorial practice there. One of these is in response to the lack of conservation of cultural heritage in Guatemala, which has become a very important series of projects that’s most visible with the exhibition we did in 2016, Paisaje Sonoro, which is a soundscape with the composer and sound artist Joaquín Orellana. He’s been working since the 1960s, and in 1967 he got a grant to go to the Torcuato di Tella Institute of Buenos Aires. There, he had access to all these machines and synthesizers to work with electro-acoustic music, which we take for granted now, but at the time were really, really cutting edge and expensive. When he came back from his grant two years later, to Guatemala, he realized that there was no equipment here for him to continue his research so he essentially developed his own instruments that, when you start to play them in an analog way, you start to get the layering and the textures that he was managing to get electronically.

The guy is incredible. He calls his works accidental sculptures, and it’s really sophisticated work. NuMu became a vehicle to help preserve his cultural legacy. With the great commitment of our dear friend Alejandro Torún, and the generosity of artist Carlos Amorales, we created a fundraiser through Kickstarter, with which we were able to generate enough funds to record four of his most emblematic works and with that, restore his instruments themselves, and scan a lot of his scores because he has his own notation system. We also recorded him explaining how each instrument should sound and be played to kind of hold the bulk of knowledge and information. He’s about 85 now, so we wanted to make sure to get his voice and instructions so that people can still interpret his music. That all went through NuMu.

AK

So, there’s a kind of a dialogue between those two organizations in a way. You refer to NuMu as the museum and Proyectos Ultravioleta as the gallery hybrid that is a kunsthalle locally and a commercial venture internationally. What terminology do you use to describe yourself? Do you think of yourselves as an organization? Would you say you’re an institution now you’re 10 years old?

SB

I’ll start with NuMu because it’s easier. We really started with calling ourselves a museum because there is a lack of contemporary museums in Guatemala, so it was really important to put that terminology out and it was also kind of tongue-in-cheek. During our first opening, so many people came, even though we didn’t announce our location until the day of the opening. But we had a very formal looking logo, and as soon as we saw that we were in the egg, they were outraged and they took it personally. A bunch of people left because they were like, “How dare these people?” It’s been important for NuMu to insist on being a museum because what we’re hoping is that this will one day give way to an actual museum of contemporary art in Guatemala.

In terms of Proyectos Ultravioleta, I personally prefer it to be more liquid, and to kind of confuse or blur lines. There are certain aspects that are more institutional, now with this library that we’re putting together or just being able to do the show with Ruanne and Basel. We’ve never had a show quite like that here in Guatemala, where audio and image are so carefully considered and presented. I’ve heard from a few people that it was a museum-quality show in the gallery, which it is because the quality of the work is impeccable. The way the presentation came together, it looks really good in that way, but I like the loose terminology because it gives us more freedom.

TN

Absolutely.

AK

I’m seeing we’ve gone a little over here, but I’m also realizing that never asked you how you came up with the name for Ultravioleta.

SB

There are two answers to that question. There’s a more honest one, which is that at the very beginning we knew we wanted to be “Proyectos [Something]” because “projects” imply that you do anything and everything. That allows for more fluidity. So we started inserting nouns, like “Proyectos Pillows,” “Proyectos Windows,” just really going at it, but nothing was sitting.

AK

It’s like finding your band name.

SB

Yes! Then, what happened is that Rodrigo, one of the cofounders, went to this lecture where a physicist was talking about ultraviolet rays and the importance of ultraviolet light. Without it, you’re not able to see at all, from a physics point of view, but if you get too much of it, you’re not able to see at all. It’s inside a spectrum of visibility, and we thought that was actually pretty cool.

TN

We’ve been asking people to do is to reflect back on the organization, especially now that you’re 10 years old, and to think about some of the challenges you’ve faced What you might have done differently, but also what you’re looking forward to. We want to kind of think about both your past, but also your future and what you’re anticipating and maybe how you see the future of Ultravioleta going?

SB

I think that the most exciting part is that it’s been a lot of trial and error, and it’s given to a lot of experimentation and fun. And with that, it’s become a vehicle for friendships to develop, as cheesy as that sounds, and that’s ultimately the key aspect for forming community. I think that’s been the most special part of it all. It’s been a real learning curve, but one of the things that I value most is having been able to make those mistakes and learn the hard way.

AK

Heading forward, what is the most exciting thing on your horizon? And as someone who is an integral founding member of the organization, is it dependent on you? Could you extract yourself and could it go on without you? I know there’s other people involved.

SB

One of the goals is to be able to create something that’s a lot more solid, that doesn’t demand or need one person specifically—in this case that’s me—but something that is strong enough to continue. I think the most exciting part is to see a lot of the artists who we’ve been working with finally getting their due. It’s such a diverse group of artists and work, and it’s great to be able to show how that can go hand in hand. When you see the extensions of those branches weave within themselves, that’s the nice thing. Hopefully, Proyectos Ultravioleta continues to be a platform that allows for a richer and deeper conversation altogether, and for more friendships to prosper.