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Regina Galindo, Radical Exposure

Earth (2013)
Diana Taylor, NYU

In the video, we see her, a diminutive woman, standing naked as a bulldozer methodically
crashes down, digging a hole in the earth all the way around her. We hear it before we see
it, the giant claw that pushes down, grabs massive mouthfuls of earth, gyrates jerkily,
noisily, and throws them to the side, gyrates wildly back, closer and closer to her small
body. The hole gets deeper. The machine grinds, and buzzes, and crashes just behind, in
front, or to the sides of her.
She stands still, looking into the distance, her hair in a braid down her thin back, her
hands resting on her thighs. There is nothing erotic about her. Resolutely non-glamorous,
her body refuses to transmit a promise of pleasure. Rather, it bears signs of wounding.
Whats that on her right leg? She seems to have a scar right above her pubis.
The simplicity and the power of the piece are impressive. The frail human seems both
central and incidental. The earth, so green and rich, crumbles under the claw. Gentle gusts
of wind push her hair onto her face. She stands silent, rooted like a tree. Her face
impassive, her eyes open, blinking but never flinching. She breathes deeply, as if she
were trying to stay calm. She sees it, and registers it, and does not collapse or falter. The
it is the encroaching and seemingly insurmountable danger-- the bulldozer that lurches
closer, the pit that widens and deepens in front of her. All she has is an attitude, the
slightly defiant show of human dignity and resolve in the face of devastation. The
machine seems so intractable and inhuman, as if it were simply doing its job of digging
up the very land she just so happens to be standing on. But we can see a man at the
controls. The grinding mechanical noise is deafening. Yet her body remains still. The
performance is all about proportion and scale, the smallness of the human, the magnitude
of the crime. In contrast to the relentless, mechanized violence, the countryside has been
domesticated. Swaths of the tall grass have been cut. We see a fence, and a house in the
background. The material supports of life seem intact. Occasionally, a car drives by in the
distance. Its all so civilized. Life goes on.
The only thing that moves is the enormous bulldozer. Even the camera moves minimally.
The close-up fades into a wide-angle shot and back again. She is increasingly isolated
and soon shes standing on an island of earth. The pit is now many meters deep and its
clear that she can never get out. Its simply a question of time. The live performance lasts
an hour and a half; the video of the performance runs about thirty-five minutes.
****
How did they kill people? The prosecutor asked.
First, they would tell the machine operator to dig a pit. Then trucks full of
people parked in front of the Pine, and one by one the people came forward.
They didnt shoot them. Often they would pierce them with bayonets. They

would rip their chests apart with bayonets and take them to the pit. When
the pit was full, the metal shovel would drop on the bodies
(Testimony given during the trial against general Efran Ros Montt and
Mauricio Rodrguez Snchez).
Between March 1982 and August 1983, Efran Ros Montt's military dictatorship in
Guatemala enacted a scorched earth policy against its Mayan population, killing over
two hundred thousand people. The army completely exterminated Mayan communities,
destroyed their livestock and crops, the report said. In the north, the report termed the
slaughter a genocide.1 An additional one million were displaced between 1960-1996.
While Ros Montt was the first head of state convicted in his own country of genocide
and crimes against humanity, his conviction was overturned ten days later.
Yet Guatemalan artist Regina Jos Galindo chooses not to include the testimony in her
video performance, Earth. Only a handful of spectators and three cameras witnessed the
live event in Les Moulins, France in 2013.
I asked Galindo why viewers are not made aware of the testimony.
I never speak or give information, she answered. I dont make it didactic; I just carry
out an action. The work has several readings.
What does this performance do or transmit? Does it expose? Denounce? Bear witness?
I agree that, like all art, the piece has several dimensions. Can we understand it as a
reflection on the human existential condition: the well of desperation gets deeper, the
silence and isolation more profound and unspeakable? Ancient tragedy is all about
asymmetrical relations of powerOedipus confronting his inevitable fate.
Indigenous commentators also might note the brutal violation of Mother Earth. Or, if we
overlooked the violence of the machine, we might align the pit with the insatiable mouth
of Tlaltecuhtli, the Aztec god/dess of the Earth who devours her creations. Before too
long, the earth will consume not only the woman, but the machine, the driver, and all
else.
Or is this another instantiation of what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls bare
life, the life that can be excluded and killed not only on the margins of social life but as
the very foundation of the political order?
I see these facets, of course, and can relate all these interpretations to the piece, but it is
impossible for me to overlook the role, intentionality, and politics of the violence. I note,
as Judith Butler does, that the performance enacts the dependency of the body on the
material supports that sustain it: The material supports for action are not only part of
action, but they are also what is being fought about.2 Rios Montt knew this in destroying

the food and housing that Mayans required for living. Galindo cannot live or struggle
when the land is taken from beneath her feet. The threat to the human and the
environment seems so ordinary, mechanical, a jobthe way the soldiers and machine
operators in Guatemala during la violencia (the violence) were only doing their jobs.
How can one convey the asymmetrical power-relations more directly or more simply?
Dont you see, she might be asking us. Or better, where are we, the spectators, to
witness this atrocity? Performance can bring atrocity to light, stripped of the specifics of
the when, who, where.
No one, it seems, is there to see. She exists alone in the frame except for the shadowy
figure of the bulldozer driver. Her gaze (as is often the case in Galindos
work) resists human contact. She does not look at him or beg for mercy. She does not
look inward, nor seek reciprocity or acknowledgment from the spectator. Bubers I /
Thou has been severed. The performance, like the Guatemalan context, negates the space
of appearance. Hannah Arendt refers to the space as the organization of the people as it
arises out of acting and speaking together and its true space lies between people living
together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.3 There is no together, no
shared space for empathetic connection or recognition. Galindo stages the emptying of
the between.
Galindos body faces an enormous pit, the very vacuum of the political that withholds
recognition of the indigenous peoples. Two hundred thousand murdered. Who was there
to witness and demand an end to the genocide? No one. The spectators were missing.
Instead of empathy, the destruction of so many was met with apathy, perhaps even
antipathy. Indigenous peoples in Guatemala have long been seen as an impediment to
progress that underwrites modernity. Cruel modernity," Jean Franco notes, is massacre
on behalf of progress.4 These others do not elicit a positive affective response from
other groupsbe they national or international. A recent study on empathy finds that
[d]espite its early origins and adaptive functions, empathy is not inevitable; people
routinely fail to empathize with others, especially members of different social or cultural
groups.5 Galindo stands alone. No one serves as a witness to the violence. Her look, in
turn, is alienating, and for many, off-putting. Its hard to take spectatorial pleasure from
this performance. And yet performance, almost by definition, relies on spectators to
complete it. She evacuates the performatic contract. She also denies us being, Jean-Luc
Nancys existential condition, for being cannot be anything but being-with-one-another.
How can spectators even become a we without some form of shared recognition?
Solidarity has given way to a very profound solitude.
Nothing apparently can be done to evade the devastation.
And yet she does something. In the face of nothing can be done, she exerts her choice.
She stands still. She enables us to see it. Not with her, perhaps, but through her. The it
now is not just the massacre recounted in the testimony. The historical facts surrounding

the crimes that left the two hundred thousand dead in Guatemala are gradually coming to
light now that the archives of the dictatorship have been recuperated. Kate Doyle,
director of the National Security Archive Guatemala Project, and Kirsten Weld in Paper
Cadavers: The Archives of the Dictatorship in Guatemala recount how stacks of
yellowing and molding papers were found, abandoned, in an old warehouse that had
served as a torture and detention center. Galindos Earth enacts the crime without
referring to it, exposing the fact that massacres not only happened then/there (the work of
the historian and the archivist), but they continue to happen in many places around the
world.
No matter where Galindo performs, this background informs her approach to her work.
She recounts being at work in an office when she heard that Efran Ros Montt was
running for office as President of Guatemala in the 2003 elections even though the
Constitution forbids the participation of former dictators and coup leaders in the
democratic process. She says she went home, locked herself in her room, screamed and
kicked her legs. On a lunch break shortly afterwards, she put on a simple long black
dress, took a basin full of human blood, and walked slowly, dipping her feet every few
minutes in the blood, all the way from the Constitutional Court to the National Palace in
Guatemala City. When she stopped at the National Palace, the sight of the soldiers
stationed outside so incited her that she walked up to them with the same determined,
implacable expression on her face we see in Earth and placed the bowl of blood at their
feet. She then washed her feet, changed her clothes, and went back to work. The Regina
Jos Galindo lunch hour. This piece is called Who Can Erase the Traces? (2003).
When she was invited to be in an artist in residence at ArtPace in San Antonio, Texas, she
proposed a performance on the increasingly urgent issue of migration and detention of
Central Americans in the U.S. ArtPace rented her one of the cramped detention cells used
to incarcerate entire families of undocumented immigrants. These detention centers have
been outsourced by federal and local governments to private companies such as the
Corrections Corporation of America, simply the largest and most profitable. CCA has the
majority of its centers in Texas. An estimated four hundred thousand people, most from
Mexico and Central America, are confined in very small cells for a year or more while
waiting for a judicial hearing on whether they can remain in the U.S.
These migrants, or more accurately refugees, flee the violence in their home countries,
much of it generated by decades of U.S. intervention and support for repressive regimes.
In Guatemala, the CIA backed 1954 coup against Jacobo Arbenz, ousting the progressive,
democratically elected president who tried to reign in the United Fruit Company and
legislate land reform. In response to the Cold War, the U.S. increased its support of the
Guatemalan military, including the training of its officers (including Ros Montt) in the
infamous School of the Americas. Since 1946, the SOA has trained over 64,000 Latin
American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and
psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. Hundreds of
thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, disappeared,
massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.6 Ronald

Reagan circumvented Congress to ship armaments to Guatemala in spite of evidence of


escalating massacres. He visited Central America in December 1982, and declared:
"President Ros Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. ... I know he
wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.7
But all of Central America, as Greg Grandin has persuasively argued, has become
empires workshop and a laboratory for counter-insurgency throughout the region.
The burgeoning drug trade has complicated the volatile situation by redirecting the drugs
on new routes through Central America and Mexico on their way to consumers in the
U.S. The recently removed president, Otto Fernando Prez Molina, who won the 2011
elections, was also a military officer trained in the School of the Americas. Guatemalas
transition from dictatorship, as in much of Latin America, was not a transition to
democracy but to a particular savage brand of neoliberalism. The Central American
children now arriving to the U.S. border are only the most recent chapter of the history of
that ravaged region.
Galindo doesnt tell this story, but she performs it. Earth took place in France, an
interesting choice. Why France? Part of the answer is pragmaticLucy and Jorge Orta in
Les Moulins offered her an artists residency in 2013. They could offer her the land and
the financial support to carry forward a project of this size and expense. The timing of the
residency was also fortuitousGalindo felt the urgency of responding to the recent
testimony from the trial. Nevertheless, the choice of France for Earth reveals two deeper
connectionsone that points to the history of colonial violence in Guatemala and another
to its updated, neoliberal presentation. Marie-Monique Robin, in Death Squadrons: The
French School, outlines how the French army developed counter-revolutionary and dirty
war strategies in Indochina and perfected them in Algeria, including covert action, secret
centralized information, surveillance, psychological warfare, terror tactics, and torture.
This model was exported to the U.S. at the beginning of the Cold War and the word
disappearance enters our lexicon in 1954 in Guatemala.
Fast forward to the post-dictatorial present. The extermination of the hundred of
thousands of Mayans and the dispossession of their lands has left many traditional lands
free for the taking. Those indigenous people who happened to be standing on the land
have disappeared. Canadian mining companies, backed by French capital, now extract
resources from that earth, bucketful by bucketful. Galindos acts subtly reveal the
networks and practices that create and sustain this ongoing violence, the neoliberal
policies that enabled the dictaduras and what some have come to called the dictablandas
(soft rather than hard power) such as those in Mexico and currently Guatemala.
Earth is known only through photos and video. Criminal practices, such disappearances,
are hard to see directly. They take place at the margins of the public gaze and are visible,
if at all, through acts of performance or documentation. Yet I would argue that this is not
an archival performance. It does not reveal a specific transaction or event such as a
particular massacre. Although it performs testimony, the work is not directly about
testifying or witnessing. If anything Galindo withholds reference to the detailed

testimony that inspired her. Rather, the aims of the work seem broader, more far reaching,
more about embodying the countrys ferocity, the unilateral and seemingly endless
violence directed at women, at indigenous people, at the defenseless. Like the violence of
the bulldozer, this more generalized violence crashes down repeatedly on the defenseless
targets. No one seems to acknowledge or care. There is no one to appeal to and little in
the way of solidarity. She assumes the dignity and courage of those who have faced
annihilation before her. Rather, I believe we understand performances such as Earth (and
Prison and many others) in their larger frameworks; her minimalist gestures depersonalize the singular event to expose the ongoing traffic of weapons, drugs, and
people. The disappearance and disposability of populations constitutes an unending
moneymaking, transnational event.
When Guatemalan author Francisco Goldman asked Galindo in an interview what their
poor country had done to deserve so much tragedy, she responded:
"You ask me what Guatemala has done to deserve all this? Maybe the more appropriate
questions would be: What have we not done? Why have we been so fearful and tolerated
so much fear? Why have we not woken up and reacted? When are we going to stop being
so submissive?"
For Galindo, the difference between artists and activists is that activists protest specific
issues, and they evaluate the efficacy of the act by whether or not it can change the
outcome of the cause. As an artist, she claims the right to reflect on these issues in a more
personal, idiosyncratic manner. She will not claim her work has testimonial weight. She
has no illusions that she can change the political situation, but she does everything in her
power to make the situation known in the most powerful way possible.
But Galindo wants to avoid the romanticism of those who struggle for social justice. And
unlike activists, she does not believe that its crucial for her to change the system of
power. That expectation might paralyze her, and make her resign herself to the attitude
that nothing can be done. In 2008, she was invited to participate in Horror vacui, a group
show of young Guatemalan artists around the theme of "Denunciation." How had they
intervened in a society marked by criminal violence? Galindo's contribution was to pay
an intelligence expert who had worked for the security forces during the dirty war to
investigate the artists participating in the show, just as he had during the dictatorship. He
prepared a dossier about each artist containing personal data (address, names of family
members, daily routine, bank transactions, everything). The intelligence expert came to
the show and exhibited his findings: all those artists who considered themselves
"denunciators" had not, in fact, decried anything that was not already well known. He
concluded that they posed no threat to the army or the government and were, rather, more
like children at play. She presented this as the performance Infiltrado/ Infiltrated.
So, what is the political force and efficacy of Galindos performance? Perhaps none. She
certainly would not call herself a denunciator. Does her standing naked by the open pit
communicate anything that was not well known before? Maybe, says Galindo, it is

sufficient for the performance to impel the spectators to reflect on the issue. For her, this
modest goal is sufficient. But she needs to do something.
Some say that there is nothing people can do to change the world, or even the immediate
situation. There are many reasons for not acting: they are not from this country, or from
this community, and so on. How does someone dare involve herself in the business of
other people? Is she exploiting them? Appropriating their pain, their stories? Is that
ethical? The asymmetries of power leave others feeling impotent. Who is able to
effectively confront military might? But for people like Galindo who feel the need to
intervene these excuses don't hold up. The question is not if but what can be done and
how to do it in a way that is powerful, responsible, and ethical.
I asked Galindo about her future plans. She confessed she didnt know.8 She cant make
plans. She has a notebook filled with project ideas, and she is working on a new
performance now. But life is too uncertain in Guatemala to plan ahead. She was recently
offered a prestigious two-year residency in Berlin and was excited about going, but she
was denied a visa. So how can she plan? Guatemala doesnt have a future, she said,
and I dont know if I have one either.
And still, she keeps working, exposing herself to the cruelty and corruption she lives
with.
Whenever people lament that theres nothing we can do about some awful situation or
other, I suggest they go tell that to Regina Jos Galindo.

1 Reagan and Guatemalas Death Files. By Robert Parry (Originally published May 26,
1999) From the Archive section Consortiumnews, Nov. 3, 2011,
https://consortiumnews.com/2011/11/03/reagan-and-guatemalas-deathfiles/Washington Post, Feb. 26, 1999
2 Judith Butler, Bodies in Alliance, lecture, Sept 2011.
http://eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en
3 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969, 178
4 Jean Franco, Cruel Modernity. Durham: Duke U.P., 2013, pg. __
5 See M. Cikara, E. Bruneau, J.J. Van Bavel, R. Saxe Their pain gives us
pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic
failures and counter-empathic responses. Journal of Experimental Social
Psycholog, 55 (2014) 110125,
http://www.psych.nyu.edu/vanbavel/lab/documents/Cikara.etal.2014.JESP.pdf
6 What is the SOA? http://www.soaw.org/about-the-soawhinsec/what-is-thesoawhinsec
7 Ronald Reagan, Remarks in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Following a Meeting
With President Jose Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala, December 4, 1982.
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=42069
8 Telephone interview, 9-21-2014