In Monique Wittig’s 1969 novel “Les Guérillères”, the writer describes a post-patriarchy world ruled by women after a bloody war between the sexes. Evidently nothing remotely similar has happened to this day but that didn’t stop artist and filmmaker Beatriz Santiago Muñoz from documenting a world that gets close to it. Weaving the narrative of the fictional book with the lives of real feminists who live in women-only communes, with “That which identifies them with them like the eye of the Cyclops” (2016) Santiago Muñoz has composed a video installation that offers a third alternative reality between the symbolic and real.
Part of her show and residency at the New Museum in New York, “Song, Strategy, Sign” the three-part video is made of footage from years of contact between the artist and the group of women, each video-channel corresponding loosely to a different theme in Wittig’s novel. The women portrayed live in Santiago Muñoz’s native Puerto Rico within the context of Caribbean cities and bankrupt states while attempting to develop their own language and a new tangible feminist reality—not in theory but in real terms.
The revealing exhibition also includes other video works by the artist that give an account of Puerto Ricans grappling with toxic bombings, political activism, and US colonialism. All these stories interlaced form a bigger narrative of individuals who strive to construct new political possibilities and new identities in their own terms. We met Beatriz Santiago Muñoz at the New Museum to discuss the struggles in forging languages of liberation, Puerto Rico as a still colonised territory and her upcoming feature film.
“I come from a place that is not post colonial but colonial” -BSM
Some of the women in your films have had enough of patriarchy and decided to start a commune in the woods where they are completely self sufficient. How did you find them and why did you start this project?
I’ve known them for a long time and I approached some of them specifically for the project. I knew I wanted to do something related Monique Wittig’s book, which is concerned with creating a universal female subject. I was trying to think about what this idea meant in a specific place and with real people, who have their own subjectivity, especially in a non-European and non-academic environment.
How does the post-colonial condition inform your work?
Actually I come from a place that is not post colonial but colonial. I live in a territory that is a colony of the United States – Puerto Rico. We have been US citizens since 1917 but we don’t have the right to vote. The individual voting right is actually not the most important aspect of it being a colony but rather all the different consequences of having political agency as a territory. At some point I was really interested in post colonial theory and ideas of subject but I was more interested in the relationship between the symptoms of physical expressions of colonial power on your psyche and the way that you move, speak, love.
“People begin to see colour in a different way when it is crossed over with class and power issues–it’s really fascinating and also fucked up”
Is it a racialised type of colonisation and society?
Yes definitely. It is very similar to the Dominican Republic, where the whitest people have a strong identification with colonial power and where class structure is really tied to racial identification. To the point that when a darker-skinned person has more access to the upper class structure he is described as a light-skinned person. People begin to see colour in a different way when it is crossed over with class and power issues–it’s really fascinating and also fucked up.
How does this awareness influence your work?
For me there is a relationship between the idea of creating an autonomous language and the idea of creating a new order. So in radical feminism in order to create an anti-patriarchal order you have to start with very basic ways like a new language with which you begin experimenting in very formal ways. Even naming things differently is seeing differently as a precursor to a different political order. This is a conversation and a wish that is also present in other political forms, in terms of autonomy for a colonised group of people. In works that I’ve done I’ve been more interested in how to represent a visual language that undoes or breaks the rational visual domination of space.
I was in Haiti recently, where we had this conversation around creating a new visual or verbal language, which is something that was always very present in feminism but also in all of the 20th century art avant garde.
“I don’t think that we can only talk about the patriarchal order in theoretical terms so that’s what really interested me in these women”
In one of the films there is a harrowing but tender scene of a woman sawing off a goat’s horns. What was that about?
That was in the women’s colony, which is in a rural area. It was a really amazing moment for me to see her do that because it wasn’t even her goat. The horns were hurting the animal and someone had to do it. When I asked her if she knew how to do it she replied: “I’m learning now.” That attitude was very telling in the context of personal autonomy and female subjectivity. Just like with the goat episode they constantly ask themselves about their broader lives and goals: are we going to do this now or wait a few more years? These women make very physical decisions every day, even violent ones. I’m really interested in the book “Les Guérillères” because it has so many violent aspects in it and questions I struggle to answer. But I don’t think that we can only talk about the patriarchal order in theoretical terms so that’s what really interested me in these women.
So the world they live in is a post-patriarchy world?
In the world they are making—yes.
In one of the scenes there’s also this amazing punk band with a female lead singer?
That’s a character created by Macha Colón who has a huge cult following. We are part of the same scene in San Juan. For this show I’ve also created sculptures that will support her performance at the New Museum Theater on 2 June.
You’re also using this exhibition in preparation for your feature film?
Doing this exhibition has helped me clarify questions that I had about the longer project. The feature film is called “Verano de Mujeres” (“Summer of Women”) and is mostly based on “Les Guérillères” but with completely new footage.