For all you couch potatoes, this one really sounds adventurous: Luis Berrios Negron, after recently finishing his studies in architecture at the MIT, went to Kabul to do a workshop with art students in Afghanistan. The Puerto Rican ended up doing an architectural performance involving the remains of a huge swimming pool from the Russian occupation and a gigantic green cloth. All on top of a hill right in the center of the city. And he did that where? Yes, in Afghanistan – the place you usually only hear of when it’s in the sad news about bombing attacks and international military presence. What you probably also didn’t know is that Kabul hosts a young and emerging art scene led by Rahraw Omarzad. He founded the Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA) in 2005 that specialises in video performances.
Written by Verena
Currently residing in Berlin Luis Berrios Negron was happy to talk about how he came to Kabul in the first place.
Luis, I just flipped through your online photo journal Kabul Matters. Wow, this must have been quite an intense experience! Ute Meta Bauer, curator and teacher at the MIT encouraged you to do this adventurous trip to Afghanistan and thanks to the Aga Kahn Program for Islamic Culture, the Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan in Kabul finally invited you over to conduct a workshop with students for about a month. Well, Afghanistan sounds a bit risky to me. Weren’t you afraid at all?
Luis: It was my first time there. And yes, especially the first night was pretty intense. They fired two mortars on buildings three doors from where I was staying. Furthermore, I went only two weeks after the Danish caricature incident, so things weren’t really ideal. I had no idea what I was getting into. Also in addition to all that I was completely on my own in the first hour after my arrival and that got a bit scary, but for the rest of the month the people at CCAA cared for me greatly.
Now I’m really curious to hear about your architectural performance. What exactly did you do there?
Luis: When I walked through the city I saw this pool, which was build by Russians during their occupation. They also set up a huge billboard next to it to express their propaganda. But miraculously the pool never worked. The Russian occupation did not work well, either, so then came the Taliban. These people performed not only the public executions and stoning in the stadium, but also conducted the clandestine executions for the politicians or professors right in this empty swimming pool. As it is on the top of a hill right in the center of the city, you can see this billboard from all over Kabul. It’s like the Hollywood sign. The bizarre thing is, that the whole city is literally littered with billboards – but this one has been abandoned for years.
I thought we could use the pool not only as a performance space but somehow dive in and create a new volume metaphorically: transform the meaning of what the pool stands for through a performance. Like some sort of emotional therapeutic washing in the pool, since this place is so loaded with the most awful expressions of humanity. I thought the students could try to change their meaning of themselves and re-define what their role in this city is.
So you went up to the pool with the art students carrying this gigantic green cloth. You then unfolded it, attached rocks on it and covered the billboard with the cloth by throwing the stones over the billboard. I guess the people must have been pretty surprised by your actions…
Then the students throw stones attached with the cloth over the gigantic billboard to cover it up completely. Photos by Massoud Hosseini.
Luis: Well, in the beginning they thought: Who is this crazy guy? But then there was a moment when the sun came out and the cloth turned into this beautiful glowing surface. Everybody got really excited. From that moment on they began to understand what the performance was intended for. Then they began to pick up stones from the pool. Now you should know that these stones were used to kill women. So we transformed these stones to a tool to install the cloth on the billboard. That’s why we were throwing the stones over it.
Why a green cloth? Has this colour a symbolic meaning for the Islamic faith?
Luis: In Puerto Rico green is the colour of hope whereas in Afghanistan specifically it’s the colour of rebirth. This huge piece of cloth with no text, no propaganda, and no symbols on it was an offering, a simple expression of hope. There were so many billboards covering the city: advertising cars, clothes, etc. And yet the people can barely afford to eat. I found it profoundly shameful that companies find the nerve to put up advertisement in the first place.
Luis: Instead of advertisement or commerce, we used this gigantic billboard for the sake of art.
This is kind of blunt, but I have to ask: why did you choose to bring art to Kabul of all places?
Luis: Before I arrived I wanted to go there to learn from the people and not do an art project. As a Puerto Rican I have an American passport and feel responsible for what Americans do. I thought I could make some kind of contribution and wanted to learn first hand why and how it is that we are not communicating at all. Now it reveals to me that it’s a myth, this appearance of incongruence of cultures is absolute nonsense to me and sadly driven by the media.
To what extent matches life in Kabul to anything we watch on TVs in the west?
Luis: Of course the media only portraits the moments of violence. Despite this huge international presence there is nobody involved with the community. They don’t go out because of the fear of security matters. So I found myself walking through the streets of Kabul with the students and I would only sometimes see a military convoy driving through rapidly.
I would like to know more about the cultural diversity in Afghanistan. Can you tell me something about that?
Luis: There are 17 languages in Afghanistan. Two of them, Dari and Pashto, are mostly spoken. Within the Muslim religion it is very fragmented, looking at the many ways the Koran is interpreted. It’s still a very tribal environment. And although the country is supposed to be a farming state, one main problem is the harvesting of opium. I mean, it is harvested like any other product, for example coffee. But the peasants have to deal with terrible people.
So overall you tried to invoke a certain “mood” with your performance. In one of your earlier projects you showed how one could do this with a certain kind of architecture, too. I’m referring to the tsunami-safe(r) house where you were part of a team that developed safe houses for tsunami victims. The specific structure of these houses is high-tech design, whereas the building is made out of low-tech materials to keep the costs low…
Luis: Exactly. The tsunami-safe(r) house was a collaboration of the SENSEable City laboratory at MIT and the Harvard Group. These houses are getting build as we speak by the Prajnopaya Foundation in Sri Lanka. The point of the safe(r) house was a more emotional prop. Of course if a tsunami comes and you’re inside the house you will probably die as well, but at least you have a higher chance of keeping your property. Especially when you have a government that wants to remove all the people that live near the ocean and force them to move five miles inland… Therefore this designed house was a kind of an urban statement trying to provide a solution for the people to stay.
It was really inspiring to talk to you, Luis. Combining art with architecture and finding thech savvy solutions at hand, while being conscious about the problems faced by developing countries earns my deep respect. Thank you so much!