Aesthetics, Gestures and Spiders: a Philosophical Conversation with LUIS GUERRA

Luis Guerra is one of this years fellows at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen*. He was born 1974 in Santiago de Chile and is currently based in Helsinki as University Researcher at the Academy of Fine Arts. In his research project „Gestural Philosophy“ he focuses on the work of the French pedagogue Fernand Deligny (1913–1996) and his archive. We had the chance to meet Luis Guerra at Café Central for an extensive conversation on his philosophical approach to aesthetics and ended with theories about spiders and robots.

(*From March 28th-29th, in the frame of „Gestural Philosophy“, Luis Guerra hosts the seminar „Paradoxes of the Apparatus“ together with artistic researcher Mika Elo at Büchsenhausen. The seminar engages with the complex relational status between artistic research and scientific public debate. Info: here)

WANDERING ECHOES, series of watercolors, 2020-2021 | Luis Guerra

komplex: As a visual artist, what interests you about philosophy as a research discipline? 

Luis Guerra: First, I studied art in Chile. I’m coming from a very conceptual tradition from the 70ies in Latin America. My teachers were all conceptual artists, and at some point, I thought, if something is very conceptional, it is philosophy. In this connection, I see philosophy as a form of art. And therefore, of course, in traditional terms, my main philosophical discipline is aesthetics. 

How do you apply philosophical theory to art? 

As part of my PhD, I studied the work of the French philosopher Alain Badiou. My research was related to his philosophy and to the condition of art. Very briefly: I applied his ontology and logic to the arts. In my thesis, I say that the arts are non-existent. Why? Badiou presents this idea of non-existence. A more precise way of saying the same thing would be we live in a world with different intensities of existence. These intensities have different ways of appearing in an already predetermined structure. To mention a simple political example – which Badiou also uses –, „les sans-papiers“ or the illegal immigrants, they certainly exist, but in Western societies they have a lesser degree of existence, they are not recognized in their fullness as the citizen of a country like in France, or the States, or England. For that State, these immigrants may be completely inexistent, they are not fully recognized within the fixed rules of social participation, while the State, on the other hand, has a full existence for them. 

I have applied this idea of inexistence to the context of the arts. Many art practices are happening at the same time, but with an intensity that does not correspond to the existing structures of recognition. It’s one thing for institutions to hold the power of intensity in a society and say, „That’s a valuable work of art,“ because it’s framed by their institutional weight. But a lot of people are making art outside the institution. For example, my grandmother knitted, my children draw in school, others sing in their homes, or dance. 

Art is a tool that we are using basically all the time and we don’t need a censor with a predetermined measure for other power functions to tell us if something is good or bad or important in the cultural context. At that time, when I was developing my doctoral studies, I was still participating in that context, working with an art gallery, but eventually I moved away from these actions and institutions.

Is your understanding of art intertwined with the question of whether art must have an audience that recognizes something as art? 

This is very fascinating. The art historian and philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman uses this idea that we are not aware of the art that is being produced in our time. We have to wait for that which was happening to appear before us later. For example, when we think about the Renaissance, the rediscovery of the Greeks by Renaissance artists, why did Renaissance artists create white sculptures? Because when they rediscovered the Greek sculptors, they thought that those works were completely white, but in fact, over time those sculptures had lost their patina of paint, the Acropolis was painted in colors. Thus, the Renaissance remade Greek art from a big mistake. From today’s perspective, this is beautiful. Theorists like Didi-Huberman, or philosophers like Badiou and others point to this phenomenon that we are not aware of the contemporaneity in which we live. Many things are happening around us and we don’t have the lenses to see them. We need to wait.

Coming back to your question, institutions and their audiences are trying to see something in the arts, but I would say, the thing is to play with the possibility to returning to the audience the tools of the arts instead of expecting them to decide about good or bad art. Lots of people are making art and we are not seeing it, maybe we will never see it. But they are acting. Like in anarchist squats, they are making arts, comics, drawings etc. nobody is going to be famous, but it doesn’t matter, they are doing arts – what means that? I guess, what I’m trying to say is that we don’t know yet what art means. We need to go further. We have been living in this westernized, New York-London sort of cage, stating what is art, but now they are also realizing: there are all these other forms of arts…

You just said, we didn’t know yet what art is. Do you believe there is a true answer to it that we are just not able to see (yet) or will art always change as a concept?

It will change, I guess. That’s the thing – we have a concept or an idea about something that is not fixed. In philosophy, thinkers like Benjamin, Deleuze, Guattari or Foucault… all of them were trying to say, we need concepts that are not fixed, they will change, and we must be open to the change that they will bring too. I moved myself to this philosophical direction, especially to this French pedagogue that I have been studying in the last years –

Right, I read about Fernand Deligny in your biography, but I haven’t encountered him before –

– nobody has, this is the beautiful thing, there are only a bunch of people around his ideas. I encountered him when I finished my PhD, I was invited by the architect and artist Maria García, from Barcelona to develop a seminar program, Topographies of Urban Discrepancy, at La Virreina Image Center. She mentioned that what I was talking about reminded her of Fernand Deligny. I checked on him and immediately I started to fall in love with his ideas.

GRAMSCI SEMINAR, 2012, La Capella Art Center, Barcelona, Spain | photo: Luis Guerra

What made Deligny so special for you?

He had this phrase which for me was like an enlightenment. He said: “l’art c’est pour rien” – The art is for nothing – You just make art. It doesn’t mean anything. It is there. It is alive. It’s not something you learn how to do, it is something that happens through you in network with others. It is a knowledge as Francisco Varela expressed: a know-how: a form of knowledge that would be previous, more basic and generic than symbolic knowledge. 

Deligny had an interdisciplinary approach of philosophy, pedagogy, and social work – how is it connected to aesthetics? 

Deligny studied philosophy and psychology, but never ended it, instead, he got a certificate for working with delinquent and autistic children, he started working in this field after Second World War, when France was in a state of rebuilding. 

The reason why I fell in love with Deligny is the fact that he shows the importance of materiality. It’s about this anarchist, very material-based notion: we are here – how to understand our situation? Deligny had the tools for that. For him, social work was a tool for opening the gaps. It offered ways to free the conditions of the institutions within the institutions. In his social work practices, he used artistic tools like drawing, cinema, theatre, writing, etc. In all of them you can see the aesthetic side that he has built. It’s about building because it has a form. With these tools he was forming and building relationships. He built a community. What I see there is an aesthetic discourse that gives an answer to culture, filling a gap. Which is not about producing art for institutions, it’s just about this connectivity, about connecting possibilities. 

On your website you published a text that you wrote on Deligny, titled “The Raft, the Map and the Spider”, what is it about the spider-metaphor in the context of societies? 

Deligny says, the spider is knitting the web, but the web is not to be understood as a trap. It is the perceptive tool, the medium of the spider, to understand the conditions in which she lives. Building the web is a tactile way of understanding what’s going on around her. It’s a biological cognitive tool developed by herself. Like we are constantly touching our surroundings, just we have not been that intelligent with touch recently. I see that the spider is a very beautiful metaphor for us to understand the role of the artist and the social worker within the community. While building these ephemeral cognitive tools we are making possibilities visible, but then, they can be destroyed completely. It’s not the intention of the spider to make a web-sculpture. When it gets destroyed, the spider will build another one after. 

What do you mean by the term “Gestural Philosophy”, the title of your current research project?

I’m just in the middle of understanding what I mean by it. With “Gestural Philosophy” I’m trying to describe what I see in the practice of Deligny. A philosophy based on gestures – What is a gesture? We relate gestures to communication, but gestures are not only based on language. There are some gestures that are not based on communicational exchange. And here Deligny is valuable, because in the context of his practical work, he started to make maps in which he was tracing the wanderings of the autistic children in the space. He realized that these children were repeating same gestures every day, like there was a memory in their movement. Maybe they were understanding something through the repetition of the action. The gesture was used as a tool.

Is a “gesture” necessarily related to a human body?

In these terms – yes, absolutely. 

So, you wouldn’t apply the term of a “gesture” also to robots that look and behave like humans?

That’s a beautiful question. I don’t know if I’m the person having an answer to this. I would love to work with people talking about these things. Perhaps, this is also why I invited the Spanish artist Citali Hernández* for the opening lectures to Büchsenhausen. She is dealing with these questions in her work. 

(*In her lecture “Building Spaces for Solidary Encounters: Bodies, Technologies and Performativity” from 19.01.23 at Büchsenhausen, Citlali Hernández presented her research on how social and technological codes are inscribed in the way of inhabiting the body within the framework of electronic and digital arts.)

After that lecture, I remember, we shortly discussed the question if robots were able to improvise or if improvising was something only humans are capable of…

There are many of these ideas in the current discourse on AI, but we are still far from this capability. What does it mean to improvise? Some philosophers dedicated to the study of jazz said that improvisation was kind of a repetition that can create new possibilities within and for that same repetitive sequence. In other words, improvisation would be born from a repetition that has created a certain pattern. The gesture of improvisation would generate a bifurcation in that existing sequence, interrupting it but without destroying it. By improvising, something else is added to the repetitive sequence, generating a new sequence of repetition. Improvisation arises from a learned pattern that allows us to create new ways of responding to a contingent circumstance. As in aikido, the sequence of movements learned in constant repetition will be confronted with the contingency of a conflict and the patterns must be coupled or adapted to the circumstance, generating an improvisation, a response to the condition of that moment or environment.

It was beautiful for me when I understood what they meant by that: improvisation is something you can create when you already know how to behave in a given situation. In theater, you can improvise when you have already developed a relationship with the other. That confidence for the generation of an improvisation comes from the possibility that the other will respond to it. Again, it’s a tricky question: how can a robot become something that can improvise?

Returning to your biography, you have been living quite a nomadic life, growing up in Santiago de Chile, studying and teaching in Barcelona, currently doing research at the University of the Arts in Helsinki and at the same time at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen in Innsbruck. In terms of your “Gestural Philosophy” – do these geographical places have an influence on your theory? 

I must say yes. Since 2005, when I left Chile, I have been wandering around in many different places. Now I have a professional connection to these places and I’m part of their cultural communities. I discovered that I can’t behave in the same way all the time, there are kind of protocols of how to behave in certain places. I must place myself in some sort of improvisatory with my philosophy – to allow the different conditions to be present in my theory. I must situate myself in this kind of flowing situation. 

For example, in terms of my academic management, people in Helsinki are much calmer, they relate with another timing to things, which is great for me, as I tend to be very anxious about everything. Spain is totally different for me, maybe because of my Chilean background, we share a history with them. The more I live there, the more I realize how much we are engaged with them culturally, economically, also in terms of Catholicism. Southern American behaviors are related to this place, Spain, because of their colonial past. And well, the other places like here – I’m just amazed, it’s the first time for me in Austria and it’s very different from Germany. You hear people saying it’s the same, but it is not. History is so heavy here. With Spain, Austria shares this imperial history of defining modern Europe, both were imperial powers. I have just been wandering around, looking at places, trying to understand what’s going on here. I can sense, it’s a very influencing part of the modern European project that we are not yet fully aware of. There are so many voices present that we are not fully conscious about… also the history of Tyrolian region, its fight for autonomy, seems very similar to the Catalan region. There are many connections. The regional structures of Europe, which were present before the building of nation states, are still alive. For me as a foreigner it’s very interesting to having a new map of Europe, or of Austria, which is not based on main capitals or on the histories that we were told. 

Luis Guerra

You mentioned to me that you were into engaged arts. What is your intention with your artistic research in a politically engaging or ethical sense? 

Well, I will point here to my references on anarchist philosophy – which means that we need to learn tools through which we can build different possibilities, without restating or fixing these tools, without defining concepts around them as norms. For me, the anarchist philosophy is based in the idea of learning to manage constant change. Our capitalist, neoliberal, Western cultural conditions are ephemeral conditions. We are privileged, but on a very thin platform. Something can happen, an economic or natural disaster, a war, a disease, and suddenly we are no longer privileged. This focus on the necessity of understanding permanent change also comes to me from Buddhism, which exposes very clearly that all the identity subjectivities that the Western project has built, are not very good at dealing with change, because there is aging, climatic conditions, social conditions, and so on that confront these fixed figures. That’s why I think, following Deligny, we need new institutions for new gestures, open to be built and to disappear. Generally, when I say something like that, people in archival studies start screaming. But those changes don’t mean that we can’t also create sedimentary forms of accumulation of experiences and knowledge.

I understand, but also, I like the idea of a dynamic archive – why should an archive necessarily be static? 

Exactly, but the problem is not the archive, the problem is the value that we give to that archive. Where are we going to put the value of things? There are so many examples which are not visible enough yet. There are people working with children, working in the hospitals, working with people who are going to die. These are all sorts of arts. This is the thing: we are not valuying them, we don’t make history of them. It’s a good moment now after COVID to start thinking about these things. 

| Brigitte Egger


Luis Guerra

(*1974, Santiago de Chile) is a Visual Artist and Philosopher. Currently he is a University Researcher at the Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki, Finland, and Fellow Researcher at the research group Post-foundational Contemporary Thought: Critical and theoretical analysis of the contemporary ontologies of negativity and the question of the violence of the foundation (2022–2025, University of Barcelona). Former Associate Professor of Aesthetics and Theory of the Arts at BAU University Center of Arts and Design Barcelona (2020-2022), GREDITS Design and Social Transformation Research Group Coordinator, and co-editor of the scientific review Immaterial, Design, Art and Society.

His praxis inhabits a zone of visual encounters between drawings and acts, writings and objects. His work revolves around the imaginary line that Western culture has created between art and philosophy. Among the concepts framing his artistic research are three main notions: the un-domiciled, the echoicity and the inexistent.

Kommentar verfassen

Trage deine Daten unten ein oder klicke ein Icon um dich einzuloggen:

Du kommentierst mit deinem Abmelden /  Ändern )


Du kommentierst mit deinem Facebook-Konto. Abmelden /  Ändern )

Verbinde mit %s