Edin Velez interview
by Lillian Jiménez
Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 99-105, 6
Edin Velez has been making independent videotapes for over twenty years. A prodigious maker, he has also worked as a teacher in Young Filmmakers, now known as Film/Video Arts, at the School of Visual Arts and as vice-president of production at MPCS Video Service in New York. A recipient of numerous awards and grants like the Guggenheim and U.S.-Japan Friendship Fellowships, he recently received the prestigious Maya Deren Award from the American Film Institute.
Born and raised in a small mountain town in the heart of Puerto Rico, he studied fine arts at the University of Puerto Rico and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Influenced by Marshall McLuhan during the middle sixties, he traveled to New York's Global Village to study video. Unable to acclimate to New York's frigid weather and populace, he unsuccessfully attempted to convince the Puerto Rican government to subsidize community video training programs. His self-imposed exile in New York began after years of struggling to change social attitudes in Puerto Rico and spread the gospel of video as the new art form of the future,
Resettling in New York in 1969, after the introduction of the portapak, he was involved in all aspects of video production-documenting rent strikes in the Lower East Side of New York and experimenting with image processing. Originally a member of the video scene established by the Vasulkas, artists who turned their attention to video in its infancy, he experimented with finding a personal form of expression in video. Historically eschewing labels, he has created a special and unique niche within the video art world. An active member of the Latino Collaborative, a New York based support organization for Latino film and video makers, he has served on its hoard of directors.
His name is invoked as one of the top video artists in the country and his work has been exhibited at festivals in Italy, England, Spain, France, Brazil, Germany Holland and Japan. Broadcast nationally and internationally, his work is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Constantly interrogating the limits of the video frame and its ability to represent time, space, the process of cognition and cultural identity, Edin has established new levels of aesthetic creativity with his work. Beginning with TULE, a representational documentary and continuing with META MAYAN II, he has created poetic and enduring visual testaments to indigenous people. In AS IS and OBLIQUE STRATEGIST, his structural concerns and vivid imagery provide subtle insights into the dynamics of the City of New York and British composer Brian Eno. With MEANING OF THE INTERVAL and DANCE OF DARKNESS, both of which were made while he was living in Japan, he has created complex, layered and evocative work. Whether in the highlands of Guatemala, New York or Japan, Edin's work is exciting, stimulating, provocative and engaging. For years, his work has been a blend of interrogating other cultures from the perspective of the Outsider and his structural concerns. Straddling many genres and defying easy categorization, his work begins with the documentary image. Through technological manipulation of that documentary image, new levels of meaning are created. Overall, his concerns are both social and aesthetic.
While not yet finished with SIGNAL TO NOISE, a videotape investigation of Puerto Rican culture and twenty years of video practice, he is beginning a new piece on Columbus and the Quincentenary for which he received a production award from the TINS (Independent Television Service).
Two interviews were conducted with Edin, the first in December of 1989 and the second in January of 1992. Here he speaks about his involvement with video, his Muse, his role as an Outsider and reaching middle age.
What was it like growing up in Puerto Rico?
I grew up in an extremely small town where everybody knew everybody else's business and therefore, you had to behave in certain patterns and ways that couldn't be changed at all. If you didn't happen to agree with the values, it could become a difficult thing to live with. There were a lot of us who didn't agree with many of the values in Puerto Rico. The difference in large urban centers is that there are enough people who disagree with certain established values, that they can he left alone. In smaller places, it's impossible to do. Growing up in Puerto Rico, I found that walking down the street dressed differently would be enough to provoke violent attacks. On the other hand, the good side of the people was so wonderful that you always felt that you had to keep trying to change attitudes.
That was where you knew the cultural background, where you decode all the social patterns quite easily. That is where I come from; that's where I feel I'm actually home. So, for the last twenty odd years, I haven't been home. Here in the U.S. I had to relearn everything quickly cause this is still an alien culture. While I can move about in it quite well, I never kid myself into thinking that this is my culture — it never has been, it never will be. I can feel very comfortable in it but I've always had the perspective of an Outsider. I kind of like my self-imposed role as an Outsider. I enjoy the perspective it gives me.
Does that Outsider perspective find its way into your video work?
Very much so. Basically the work has in one way or another dealt with how a person who is not a part of a given society, looks at that society. Even the tapes that people have assume are Latin American — I've made tapes in Panama and in Guatemala — these are not my culture. The interesting thing is that North Americans and Europeans will say, well those are tapes that you've made in your culture! A Puerto Rican is very different from a Guatemalan just as an American is very different from an English person. So, all of my tapes have been as an Outsider looking in at another culture and it's my way of dealing with not having stayed in my own culture — working out what that means in my development as an individual. The fact is that for all my adult life, I've never been in my own culture and there have been repercussions.
Why did you choose the San Blas Islands for TULE, your first video tape?
It's funny, we make decisions that we might feel were made totally on the spur of the moment and later discover that not that many things just happen. Originally, my interest was piqued because the Kuna culture in the San Blas Islands was ostensibly considered a matriarchy, unusual for a Latin American country like Panama. They were an indigenous group that was not oppressed and thriving. I thought that was unique and worth experiencing. The video was almost secondary — the primary purpose was to experience a culture that seemed almost idyllic, a culture that did not seem to have many of the problems that we experience in our own culture. At the time, I had been living in New York for quite a while and this was a way of going back to Latin America. But I never made a conscious decision to make a Latin American tape.
Tell me about META MAYAN II because it seems a real departure from a romanticized representation of another culture.
Well, once I finished TULE, it seemed I might get support to make another tape. I had been to Guatemala to make a documentary on applied technology and had spent most of my time in the slums around Guatemala City documenting community self-help groups in the slums — open sewers, all sorts of problems. One weekend, we went to the countryside and I fell in love with the country. About a year later, I decided to go back there and make a tape. Now the reality of Guatemala was so different from the reality of the San Blas Islands because Guatemala was then and is now going through horrendous social turmoil. When I went back to Guatemala, I realized that I couldn't deal with it the same way I had dealt with the previous work.
At the time, I was also shaping a more personal vision and grappling with how to deal with social reality in a poetic manner and he true to the horrors within that situation. I attempted to make an expressionist tape — personal and poetic. Yet any person who watched it could not help but feel the tension, the problems that were endemic in the country. I think it's a more mature work than TULE and it pointed the way for new work. I decided that each tape was going to be radically different from the previous one, so l would force myself to start again stylistically.
Tell me about the aesthetic choices you made in META MAYAN II, where time and space take on an other worldly quality, and ritual and brilliant imagery are juxtaposed.
Originally when I went there, I didn't realize that the political situation was as bad as it was. I knew there was trouble but…
I think being there and experiencing it really turned the tape around and I worked it out almost totally unconsciously as I was shooting it. There were images I recorded, that at a very instinctive level, I felt were fleeting glimpses that we seldom store or capture and are usually lost: a look over a woman's shoulder is lost in the chaos of different stimulus when you're traveling in a foreign culture. Those fleeting glimpses are usually the most telling; the ones that build up slowly over a period of time when you're in a foreign culture. So, I wanted to call attention to a kiss on the hand or a look, feet running. The cumulative effect of them is very strong and creates that feeling of mistrust and paranoia, of something about to happen.
Standing with the camera on some mountaintop, I knew that I wanted to delve into time and how we perceive it. For example, if I was traveling from one town to the next, I would actually record the entire trip as opposed to picking out parts from it. I was trying to blend a structural concern with the social and political reality of a place like Guatemala.
From the beginning of the tape, you've seen distorted slowed-down time. So, if you've watched fifteen minutes of slowed-down time imagery, the minute you see real time imagery, it seems speeded up simply because it is three or four times the speed you've grown accustomed to. In addition, there are very fast cuts which heighten that impression. So in away, I was using the time distortion with certain imagery that would call attention to the social issues.
What about the other tape that you've made, AS IS and MEANING OF THE INTERVAL?
I could tell you they are about time; they are about representation and time, but they are all really tapes about the Outsider. They are all about how it feels when you are not part of a given culture, when you are not part of a given milieu — how that affects you, how your vision is different from those that are within it — ultimately it all comes down to questions of cultural identity, through a truly round-about way. There are these sayings about artists, "the painter paints himself/ herself," I can say that I basically make the same tape over and over again. I'm asking the same questions in all of these works, they're just phrased differently, they are still the same search.
Is this the search for a home? Not a home in the sense of a place where you live and reside but a place where you feel secure?
No, I know where my home is. [laughing] First of all, I think there has to be a large healthy dose of insecurity in order to push things forward and that secure, comfortable people do not really have a need to create. I've heard many talented people say, given a choice between being secure and comfortable and neurotic and creative [laughing], I'll go for secure and comfortable. At this point in time, I'm questioning things most people take for granted because they are born and raised in a given cultural situation; they fit in. I never quite fit in my own culture in Puerto Rico because my ideas did not quite agree with the mainstream there, but on the other hand, because of my upbringing as a Puerto Rican, I never quite fit it a place like New York. So, I've grown used to not being able to fit and I think now, that is my strongest suit.
I seem to be on the edge of some new approach to work and I'm not sure how it will happen, but it has a lot to do with not feeling the usual insecurities. [laughing] I think I'm looking for brand new insecurities.
Does SIGNAL TO NOISE, your new tape deal directly with your own culture?
This work is basically cleaning out my attic; it will deal with having worked in video for twenty years and will incorporate pieces of work that I felt could never stand on their own but will work now within the context of a larger piece. It will incorporate 20 year-old work plus brand new work that shot in Puerto Rico. I feel comfortable enough at this point that I can look at Puerto Rico in the same way that I have looked at New York, Tokyo, Guatemala and Panama. Now I feel comfortable enough with how ideal with my own culture that I can go back and look at it and not be absorbed and lost by it. So it will be interesting to see how much of that comes through. I end up distilling my videos so much that sometimes what I mean to say and what people get are separate. I'm concerned about how I will deal with a subject that is so personal that it will be difficult to distill in some sort of essence. I'm afraid of it.
I want to use the Spanish language throughout it. When I'm traveling and meet Spanish film and video makers dealing with issues out of the mainstream, and I hear Spanish spoken, it gives me a thrill because that's reiterating my roots. Serious experimental work can he done from your own cultural roots. So, it's very important that I make a work that incorporates Spanish.
I think I got nervous about talking to you about SIGNAL TO NOISE because I was feeling a certain responsibility to talk to people who float between cultures, who basically have aspects of these two cultures and can go in and out of them. You can speak fluent English, write and be taken seriously, and yet you can go and hang out y bailar Salsa.
But wasn't your concern that you might be saying something negative about Puerto Rico?
I don't think I can really say negative things about Puerto Rico because it's filtered through me. I'm not sure I would be saying negative things like pointing a finger because actually I don't think that's the issue. I think one of the issues, after listening to the 1989 interview, is that, I never fit in the U.S. The fact is that from the moment I was born, I never felt like I fit in over there. Even though I call Puerto Rico home. I don't remember what my definition of home was during the 1989 interview but three, almost four years later, it's still the place I can decode. So while I know exactly what's going on and that's home, in a certain sense, I don't feel that's my place.
A phrase that Coco Fusco used has been going through my mind, "I'm not going to perform an emotional strip tease." I'm more selective about who I want to speak to about how I feel. I don't know, it's still kind of shifting around, but I have this material from Federico Garcia Lorca that I want to use in SIGNAL TO NOISE which changes the whole meaning of the tape. Garcia Lorca talks about "el duende." Lorca talks about the Muse and the Angel but,
"The duende is the inspired cry of the fires of those on the rack; it is the impatience to have done, to break free from all material beginnings which appear never to develop. It is an attempt to transcend those beginnings by abandoning everything to the moment."
In Spanish, it's even better. I'm trying to find a dual level for the art. Perhaps for being less intellectual. Now twenty years later — looking back at all my tapes which I'm very proud of — I feel that there is an intellectual shield in them. There are other levels which I've been avoiding and I want to explore those levels now — I'm not sure yet how to go about it, how to do it, and to what levels the exposure ends.
There are other film and video makers that are Puerto Rican, who may have similar cultural detachments because they were not raised in Puerto Rico. Do you feel an affinity with them, do you have the same preoccupations?
Most have different preoccupations but basically I feel an affinity. I think after living more than two decades in New York, in a way I probably have much more of an affinity with them than I do with film and video makers who have remained on the Island.
The basis of your tapes is the documentary image and its manipulation based on the circumstance, the inspiration, the concepts. How would you categorize your tapes?
When I did MEANING OF THE INTERVAL, I was telling people that this was not to he considered a documentary in any way, shape or form and that it had nothing to do with Japan. The fact that it uses Japanese imagery was just a coincidence. It really was a new way of representing thoughts and ideas on a screen and it was my thinking about the process of depicting cognition on a screen. I just happened to be living in Japan, so I used the raw material of Japan.
I was really trying to develop, and I still am working on way of representing what goes on in our mind as we walk down the street, how we filter information. Of course I'm dealing with this in a very aestheticized manner — anesthetized manner [laughter]. Because basically you're walking down the street, thinking about where you have to go and you're at a red light and you're thinking about crossing the street and you glance over to your right and there's somebody next to you asking you for money and you smell something in the air and you hear a siren and you're still waiting for the light to change. All this input is being processed and you filter out material at different levels. These were the ideas on my mind when I was in Japan so MEANING OF THE INTERVAL became a tape on the simultaneity of images. I tell people this is not a documentary, although on a superficial level, it would seem that this is basically a documentary about Japan and traditional rituals juxtaposed with contemporary imagery. I was thinking that these things happen simultaneously. For example, while a priest is blessing a waterfall in a mountain, at that same instant, there are people taking a subway train in downtown Tokyo.
I would say the only recent piece of mine that I call a documentary is DANCE OF DARKNESS because at one 1evel I am fulfilling all the conditions of a documentary. As I was making it, the primary purpose was to convey information about these dancers. Of course, there's a secondary level which is my usual work — exploring imagery, exploring thought processes. Yet, I see it as much more than a documentary — an exploration of a darker side of humanity — not necessarily negative when I say darker, which I saw through Japanese lens. So I find it really difficult and very restrictive to deal with labels.
But isn't it really about strategically defining a body of work in a similar way that you strategically define yourself at a given period of time and that definition is constantly changing and shifting?
I think you have a very good point. What we do is shift a label around, so when I made TULE in 1977, it was simpler for me to say, this is a documentary. But I remember, in trying to break away from labels, I started to call my work video essays to open it up. In a number of years, the term video essay became a commonplace term and a label. If I had my way, I'd take the labels away. I think as in life, the things that I prefer the most in art are indefinable. I would say each work should be looked at on its own terms. Right now I would tell you that my work is about research. It's as simple as that.
In an earlier interview, you talked about asking the same questions in the tapes, what are the questions you're asking?
I think asking questions is research. So, I've actually compressed it from two words to one word. It kind of flows from one into another. I think that any person who does anything creative repeats what they do over and over again. I'm basically trying to work out questions of identity but as I grow and mature, the questions open up further and further. I'm constantly looking at identity and reassessing it rather than figuring it out. As I said in the earlier interview, my identity is clear to me as an Outsider. So therefore. I've figured out who I am; I'm just trying to reassess what that means in relation to society. I'm dealing with the age old questions that everybody asks — I'm just repeating them, re-asking them: Who am I, what am I doing here and how can I perform more efficiently as a human being?
Your tapes are all very different one from the other yet in most of your work, you focus mostly on faces.
If I was shooting in film and it was projected on a large
In a certain sense, it's a way of working out the fact that I'm very shy, so it's difficult for me to establish links. But when I have a camera, it becomes much easier because then I have an excuse for interaction.
In TULE and META MAYAN, both of which are about indigenous people, there is minimal sync sound which is never translated. Why wasn't the material translated? Because in TULE which is a very direct piece of work, I really wanted to convey that there is a certain element of magic in things that you can't quite understand. As people view the grandmother with a baby on her lap swinging back and forth singing, do they need to know that she's saying, "Oh little boy, when you grow up, you'll have a canoe." I think we know much more about her by just watching her singing in her hammock than by understanding the words. What is being conveyed is her warmth, her love for that child. On the other hand, when I was there, whatever was happening was done in their language and you eventually figured it out or somebody whispered in your ear. In a way, I was putting the viewer in the same situation that I was in. I didn't understand what was going on; I had to rely on body language, on nonverbal communication. I wanted the viewer to feel that.
In the next tape, META MAYAN which is also subjective, the women and men never spoke. There is a North American commentator talking about the political situation in Guatemala.
There is very little sync sound — it's all voice-overs — and we don't understand what they're saying. Within the first minute of the tape, we hear the commentator. I felt he was necessary to establish a very strong statement — it was NBC news — obviously a white male commentator trying to be unbiased in his reporting, which meant that it was nothing. I was underlining the political instability of the region. The voice-over is a critique of the media because you are listening to this commentator trying to sound objective and balanced while he's describing a pretty horrifying situation — people being burned alive at the embassy. The people he calls leftists are basically indigenous people struggling for social equality. You see the depiction of what he's calling a peasant or a leftist when you're watching this indigenous woman who obviously is more complex and deeper than his thumbnail peasant label. I think had it been used throughout, it would have changed the work from a critique of news.
While there's no sync sound, I felt that the images would be more powerful. I tend to mistrust the spoken word. Actually for practically all of my tapes there is a minimal amount of spoken word with the exception of DANCE OF DARKNESS. I made a tape on New York City which basically has no spoken word. The only spoken words are from James Joyce's Ulysses. we could ask why doesn't anyone speak in AS IS?
AS IS, which is about New York, is not about indigenous people — it isn't even about people, its a structural investigation, so that imagery has a different meaning. But I think that giving somebody a voice doesn't have to be taken literally and that to the best of my ability I gave the people a voice through the tape. I think the opening shot of META MAYAN, where the woman looks at the camera with a combination of mistrust, fear, anger — all those things are clearly seen on her face — are giving her much more of a voice than if you actually sat her down and heard her say I'm afraid for my life; I never know when I wake up if the National Guard is going to come here and kill me or not. To me seeing that face is an interview. You might not know specifics — what town she lives in or that her brother has been killed already — but you certainly have the same feeling you would get if you heard that information. My feeling was there are other documentaries being made on this subject. This is not a unique piece; I am not, as it were, the newspaper record. This piece could be poetic because there are a number of very well-made documentaries on the situation, so I didn't feel the need to carry the entire weight of the Guatemalan situation on the shoulders of one tape.
The TULE, META MAYAN, MEANING OF THE INTERVAL and DANCE OF DARKNESS tapes, in contradistinction to OBLIQUE STRATEGIST and AS IS, are more visceral tapes. Why is that?
Yes, that's true. Making META MAYAN was an extremely painful experience psychically. It was painful to be in a place where you see obvious social injustice on such a base level and you really can't do anything about it in a direct manner. I think that's reflected in the piece — the fact that it hit me viscerally. I tried, as honestly as I could, to make a tape that reflected that.
The tapes that were made directly after that were a recoiling from it, trying to get a little bit of healing time because I really felt kind of distressed after I made META MAYAN. I remember getting an award for META MAYAN and when I got up to thank the people, the image that came into my mind is the woman who opens the tape. I thought, she might be dead now; she might have been killed a few days after this. And here I am in a country that is at least superficially much more politically stable, accepting an award, wined and dined. Meanwhile this woman has suffered and may he dead and she represents a lot of people that are going through that. It was a painful thing to feel, so after that I tried to look for subject matter that engaged me more intellectually and less emotionally.
What about MEANING OF THE INTERVAL and DANCE OF DARKNESS?
I think MEANING OF THE INTERVAL reflects a time when I was more intellectually engaged and so it's a much more intellectual tape. It doesn't hit you on a gut level because it was never meant to. DANCE OF DARKNESS does but it's diluted because of the voice-over, which was my way of explaining Butoh. The easiest thing would have been to make a tape that was a visceral attack on the viewer. I think it would have been very easy to do that in DANCE OF DARKNESS but the performers are friends of mine and I really wanted to promote them in the U.S. When it was on public television, I heard comments from people who turned it off, who wrote letters saying, how could you do this. So, I know for a fact that it affects people very emotionally. I might like to work with the Butoh performers in the future to create a piece with a similar sort of visceral approach but now it won't need to be explained or rationalized. I feel that there is no reason why something can't punch you in the stomach, and after you get over the stomach punch, your intellect kicks in. I believe that would be the best of all possible worlds.
I've heard people comment that they feel that your work is a celebration of technology because of the multi-layering, the special effects that you require. Have you heard this before?
Not a lot. I thought I'd hear that a lot more because the work is equipment intensive. While it uses a lot of technology, I've never let the tail wag the dog. Usually what has happened is that I've had concepts and not been able to execute them because the technology has not been there. 1 could only do multi-layering in very recent years because the technology didn't exist. Now with digital video, it will be a lot easier to do it with higher quality. So what I find myself doing is waiting for the technology to catch up with some of the concepts which are rather simple. I don't think combining images in the way I've done is that high tech, it goes back to collage. actually thought I'd hear a lot more of those comments and I haven't because many people realize that I'm still working with content no matter how complicated it is to arrive at it.
What about the critique that the work is irrelevant for Latinos? How do you feel when people say that?
People say that about practically every person who doesn't make a social documentary and actually it's even said about people who make social documentaries [laughing]. So, you find people who make documentaries about social issues and you have people who always say that's the wrong issue or the wrong approach to the right issue, so there will always he critique. It's quite simple.
There are different levels at which one can make a statement or have an impact. I believe that being a Latino able to survive in the art world is a statement. My empowerment is saying, you are not going to tell me what I can and can not do based on where I was born and raised. To me that's the ultimate statement. Not every Latino has to make tapes on Latino issues and for somebody to tell me that, is patronizing. Nowadays, I feel much more comfortable working with Latino issues simply because I feel I've made my statement. I've proven to myself, which is who I want to prove things to. So, for somebody to come and tell me you can or cannot do this, I find irrelevant to my being.
What about being the Outsider on the margins? Your work seems to focus on marginal people, situations, performances or even a juxtaposition of mainstream versus marginal. Are you on the margins, is it an activity or a place you acknowledge, or is it coincidence?
When the term margin is used, the implication is that it is outside the areas of relevance as it were. The margin in anything is what's off, what you don't write in, but again, I feel an empathy with the Outsider. So rather than call them marginal, I would call them Outsiders with no negative connotation. I feel that is where positive things happen. The people on the outside are the people who affect changes on the inside eventually, and move the whole culture ahead to prevent it from becoming stagnant. We could say rap, hip hop — outsiders — are affecting white mainstream society to one degree or another. So, this enriches the culture. You could, in a certain sense, say indigenous people are outsiders if we assume that Western white is the inside — and they enrich the culture. I find molas made in Panama in upper West Side apartments and they are viewed as art. In a certain way they are expanding the culture. The center is irrelevant in my hook.
You have gotten a lot of grants, awards, accolades. You've received a Maya Deren Award (from the American Film Institute), does that mean that you are now in the center, now you are mainstream and do you fit in?
It's all a matter of perception. It's always a surprise when I go to speak some place and people have seen my tapes a number of times. This never ceases to be a surprise simply because I don't socialize, I don't go to art world events; I basically stay to myself and close friends who are not in the art world. I have no real feeling of connection to a world that would validate me in any way, shape or form. The grants and awards are a form of validation, but my day-to-day life is so distant from all these events, that I don't see myself as successful or mainstream. So, I've never seen myself as part of anything other than the outside. I might be kidding myself but I don't feel that my work reflects a mainstream mentality. I think it reflects the mentality of someone who is outside looking in. Getting grants is not a sign of success. It's my job to make tapes — it's simple — that's my salary. I want to work on something and I get the money so that I can pay for the equipment. I don't see this as validation; I see it no different from a garage mechanic who fixes a car and gets money for it.
What advice would you have for young emerging artists, especially Latino artists?
I think that as many organizations have to close down, it would seem that the art world is not a great investment or a great career. The good thing is that art careerists will no longer be interested in it — it's no longer a good career choice to try to become an artist. Maybe now, the only people who will attempt to be artists are those who have no other choice, whether they make money or starve, they are driven to make art. So basically you have to do what you feel driven to do.
You can't think about the lack of money to edit these days. Many of us were making work when there was no funding available. We still managed to make work — it might not have been as slick and as wonderfully produced — but it was made.
Then the money arrived and we were able to do more technologically advanced work. Now money might be tight but many of us will do the work anyway and if it means it has to be less slick, that's the way it is.
I would love to see more Latinos and people of color expand, to look beyond what somebody else tells us we should be doing. I constantly bemoan the lack of experimental work by artists of color in video. There's no reason why the work can't be socially aware and experimental.