Conversation with Anna Giribet i Argiles & Cristina Maldonado22/11/2023
Festival Fira Tarrega, Spain
Cristina Maldonado is a Mexican interdisciplinary artist and the Associate Artist from Czech Republic. She works in the fields of immersive, participatory and relational art, video performance and site specific.
In the context of (UN)COMMON SPACES, the current project of IN SITU, Cristina is developing an artistic research to examine the performativity of death in everyday life.
In this podcast she talks to the Artistic Director of FiraTàrrega - Anna Giribet i Argilés - about the content of her artistic project, about funeral rites, beliefs and practices that accompany death and also about her experience in relation to the artistic residency held in Tàrrega and what she has learnt from various specialists and events that deal with the administrative and historical aspects of death in this specific place.
She also talks about the process of translating this knowledge into artistic experiences that help us to reflect on our relationship with this subject and to rediscover a place for death among the living. All this is a prelude to the piece that Cristina will design in collaboration with the local population and which will be premiered at Fira Tarrega 2024 with the support of 4+4 Dny v Pohybu and Divadelní Ustav.
Listen to the podcast in Spanish :
Transcription of the podcast in English :
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘What Tàrrega Has Taught Me About Death is a wonderful title that lets us go deeper into a world that eventually will touch us: death. Cristina Maldonado is the person who will lead the way for us, ask us questions, challenge us, and guide us. She is a Mexican artist, who has been based in Prague, Czech Republic for some years. Cristina is an interdisciplinary artist who works in the field of immersive art, video-performances and site-specific performances. She is an artist of the IN SITU network, an international platform specialising in artistic creation in public space. FiraTàrrega forms part of the same network. Thanks to IN SITU we have had the opportunity to meet and work together on the project that Cristina is managing. The project will be available to see in FiraTàrrega 2024, due to the co-production between IN SITU, the IDU Institute of the Czech Republic and FiraTàrrega.
Hello Cristina, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. It may seem like an obvious question but why death?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Hello, Anna. Hello everyone. I’m pleased to be here. Thank you for opening this space up to think and talk together. Well, I prepared myself for this question. Many people think about this subject for personal reasons and that’s how I came to it too. When my father died in 2016, I realised that I didn't know anything. I didn’t know what to do, how to resolve things nor how to accompany him. From that moment on, as an artist, I began to reflect on the distance that we put between ourselves and death and I started looking for some points of reference. At first, I was looking at it through my grief because that was what was affecting me at the time. I found several interesting things. There were theories that offered another relationship with death, with memories, and how certain connections are still possible with our dearly departed through experiences using memory and gifts. However, afterwards I became interested in how we practice this, I mean, this perfomativity, on a daily basis in relation to death. That’s how I became involved in this project with IN SITU, which is also supported by the National System of Art Creators of Mexico.Therefore, I am also grateful to them for being involved in this adventure, where I began asking myself about what we do, how we do it and what is behind what we do.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘That’s interesting. Then, you landed on Tàrrega in 2022 and you conducted your first piece of research in one week. The title of this conversation is very literal, isn’t it? What does Tàrrega bring to this research? Why? Why Tàrrega?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Well, the tie to Tàrrega is through FiraTàrrega and as part of the network. I also think that there was a good connection at the first meeting of IN SITU in Tàrrega. I loved the place. I felt very connected with you and with the Fira team. After that I was very happy to receive the invitation because it enabled me to work in Castilian Spanish. I thought that I understood Catalan very well but at times I get confused. So, of all the network's countries, this country let me use my knowledge of the language. It was the first city where I began to research with, let's say, a focus on what the city could offer me and with more open-ended questions. When I arrived here, I looked at what network was available and what it had to do with death. I met local archaeologists, Anne Colet and Oriol Saula of the Museu Comarcal (County Museum). I began talking to other people. For example, I met Carles Quevedo of the Arxiu Comarcal (County Archive) and we talked about the subject and my closeness to it because it was the study’s prime focus. It was incredibly open. I just wanted to observe how death relates to everyday life and to people who are very passionate, doing what they love. That was how the research began in 2022 and it changed my idea about the initial project. When I began the project, I presented it to the network in the following way. I am going to study the dramaturgy behind what we do in our practices around death. This simply means: why do we do what we do? What do we feel? What does it tell us? Why do we choose this way of dealing with this situation, whether it’s funerals, grief or whatever? What are the narratives behind this? However, I took a step back after coming to Tàrrega. As I saw it, first, what I had to do was be more open to the subject matter.It’s not because it’s a difficult topic and nobody wishes to talk about this until you’re forced to, or you already have some interest in it. No, after talking to specialists, I realised that I had to take a step back and focus on seeing how people deal with or cope with death in their profession. How do they deal with death on a daily basis? How do they perceive it? How do they manage it? For my part, I also had to familiarise myself with these issues to stop being afraid of the subject.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘Wow! You have said some nice things and in fact, as an organisation we are also learning about all the creative processes in that regard. When you came to Tàrrega for the first residency, we put you in touch with different cultural organisations and facilities in the city. You mentioned the County Archive and the County Museum, which we were already collaborating with, although we did it in terms of formats and assigning spaces. We collaborated on content on very few occasions. You also mentioned that you had the chance to talk to Oriol and Anna from the Museum when you were in your first residency.However, now I remember - and I would ask that you share this with us - of your experience with Sisco, the Caretaker of the Municipal Cemetery Brigade for Tàrrega. What happened Cristina then, during that residency?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Well, to be honest, I have heroes in Tàrrega from the first time that I came here. Mr Sisco, Don Sisco has been a marvellous person from the very first day. You were kind enough to set up the meeting with him. María Capell came with me and introduced me to him. Don Sisco must have thought, “What does this woman want?” Nonetheless, I began visiting him. He oversees tending the cemetery where some people go specifically to remember their relatives, while others don’t return. So, that place has a combination of oblivion and remembrance, and it is Don Sisco who keeps that place alive. That’s why it was wonderful for me to be able to be with him and see what sort of things he did. The truth is my visits were short but I tried to do as much as I could. Bit by bit, he told me what his work entailed and how he did it. He let me document it too. And goodness me, what I learnt here in Tàrrega enabled me to lose my fear of this taboo subject. The thing is, Don Sisco is there every day doing his job and he must see it from a very particular point of view. That’s a fact, isn’t it? At the same time, he's also incredibly careful. For example, one day he was working on a gravestone, and he said to me, ”All of this must be perfect before the person arrives. They can't see something that is half-finished.” He was very respectful in creating a space so that the relative would find it perfect. So, yes, he’s one of my heroes, Mr Sisco, and I hope to be able to keep our friendship going because the truth is it motivates me a great deal.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘I am sure that you will maintain that friendship. But you said “heroes,” you used the plural. That means that there are more. Were there more people who helped you in your research?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Yes, yes. I experienced a great deal with Anna Colet last time and this time too.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘Anna Colet, the Museum worker?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘That’s right, yes. She is a historian and archaeologist too. She has told me many things. A few days ago, she took me on a walk around the city and we visited all the cemeteries which have had houses built on top of them . A lot of buildings have been built on top of the old cemeteries, like squares, and well, to be exact, the Main Square.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘Do you mean that under the Main Square there’s a cemetery?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Yes, yes. There are several cemeteries like that, about four or five. One day we toured all the cemeteries and she said to me, “Here we can excavate, there we can’t excavate. When people pass me by, they say such-and-such a thing.” So, well, she is teaching me a great deal about continuity after someone dies. The matter remains here. There is still a story to tell and sometimes up to two hundred years later the departed are still telling us something. And she is the one who finds us and asks us questions, let’s say.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘You've mentioned as well that you were in the County Archive of L’Urgell, because you won a research grant and spent July 2023 researching in the archive. What did you do? What type of archive documents were you interested in that enabled you to expand your artistic research?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Well, what I found were death certificates and some information about the cemetery expansion. I decided to look at current certificates to compare the vocabulary used and to analyse what was requested before. For example, the reference to a particular neighbour living at such-and-such a place, apart from the entry that the deceased was the child of so-and-so. Now, it’s enough to have your identification number because the former isn't used. Vocabulary changes. However, the project that I set myself was called Death on Paper, which is a review of the emotional life of the documents that govern death.Therefore, as an artist, I interpret what is there. For example, I interpret the published obituaries. I have fallen in love with Nova Tàrrega magazine, and I am reviewing editions of the 1940s and 1970s. I am analysing some of the obituaries that were published in this magazine. Local people are helping me to analyse these obituaries and we're reinterpreting them from a contemporary point of view. They’re going to be exhibited. And I’ve also had access to current death certificates, although it is hard because of data protection. The Justice of the Peace, Teresa Rubert, gave me permission to view her family’s certificates as that was the only way that I could see the forms. So, I’m including that material too. Well, it’s in the archive too. I think that what I’m doing in the Archive is to connect the information there with something alive, that’s to say, someone is giving me a thread and I can use it to sew all that information together. In Nova Tàrrega, for example. I’m interviewing Rosa Colilles too.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘Yes, Rosa Colilles.’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘She also worked on Nova Tàrrega and wrote and produced the obituaries because she was the designer. This is what fascinates me about Tàrrega: I find the past with the present in everything. I find it immediately. I’m from Mexico City. I’m anonymous. I could rediscover my life there, where I was born fifty years ago, but not anymore because the people there are immigrants, so it’s not possible. It’s a massive thing. I would have to invest much more time to be able to discover those connections.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘Regarding your Mexican roots, we have the impression that in Mexico death is not taboo. Is it that true, Cristina? What is true and what is cliché? Have you approached death for personal reasons or because of your Mexican cultural influence?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Yes, death has almost been converted into an emblem of Mexican culture. Those little skulls with flowers and all that. The thing is, there are many different Mexicos and there are many different types of death. In Mexico, death is expressed in the cities in a manner that is very similar to how it is expressed here in Europe or in any western society. Therefore, I can say that for some of us it is not true to say that death is not taboo. Every year, altars are built where loved ones are remembered. However, a burial is done in the same way, for example. That said, maybe, in smaller towns with more closed cultures, there are other customs. Coming from a long line of urban people, I have lost all of that. So, my motivation doesn’t stem from being Mexican. My motivation stems from the sheer amount of people who I have known here, in France, in Switzerland and in various places. I have met a ton of organisations that are trying to refine how we manage death and what relationship we have with it. Most of them come from an experience where they say, “This cannot be. It is completely dehumanising. We are trying to create and going to create a different way of doing things.” And well, as I say, I am working with a funeral cooperative in France. In Switzerland, I was talking to people who hold a festival in a crematorium. Amazing. There are people all over who are doing things.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘What unexpected things have happened?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Well, as a case in point, we are doing a project here with FiraTàrrega next year. What I was not expecting was that I would end up doing the project with local people. In other places, I had different artistic collaborations, but here the people are so generous and devoted that I am going to work with local collaborators to create this piece.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘Do you have an idea about how this future piece that will be exhibited in September 2024 is going to be, or how it's going to be experienced or haven't you reached that stage yet?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Well, we’re flirting with ideas.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘Flirting is good.’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘We're flirting with some ideas. I already have a clearer idea about the collaborations that may be possible. I imagine it to be like a travelling documentary, where you can go to different places and understand things. Now, you’re asking me about the unexpected. Everything that I observe here is how people live life connected to, or including, death without being afraid of it. This is not what I expected to find. I think that somehow, I am going to end up talking about life. I’m going to talk about the lives of all these people and their experiences. Let’s see how that goes. That’s what I’m toying with now. It’s the idea of a travelling documentary. Yes, yes. Over the course of the last two years, Tàrrega has taught me many things. Now, I must give Tàrrega something back.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘Will it be in the form of a show?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Yes. A show, experience, or something that communicates to others the things I’ve found here, like the marvel of integrating the dead here, so they’re not exiled and that in some way they form part of ourselves. There are a lot of specialists and locals from Tàrrega who are teaching me.’
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘What you're sharing is lovely. However, before finishing, is there anything that you would like to add, that may have been overlooked, that you think is important?’
Cristina Maldonado: ‘Well, I’m toying with other ideas for something else. I’m thinking about possibly working with these audio recordings. It won’t be for next year’s piece but to continue the conversation over the long term. Now, I am not going to return until next year. So, I’m thinking that maybe I could leave behind some of my experiences which people could activate using a QR code and listen to them on their headsets in the cafés of Tàrrega. And you may just learn that you're drinking your cup of coffee on top of a cemetery.The thing is, whether it scares people or not, that is a fact. And well, we live with the dead, don’t we? It's also something nice because a dead person is saying, “I’m going but I haven’t disappeared. I will continue to be here sharing life with the living in two hundred years’ time.“ ‘
Anna Giribet i Argilés: ‘I think that we will continue flirting with ideas, Cristina. We have entitled this conversation What Tàrrega Has Taught Me About Death, but I would end it calling it What Cristina Has Taught Us About Death. Thank you, Cristina. Thank you also to Radio Tàrrega for its collaboration and for putting sound to these words. See you soon.