Claudia Claremi, Junta de Vecinos (Avenida de América 13), 2014. All images courtesy of the artist.
“I see the possibility of doing something, but it has to be close.” For Claudia Claremi (Madrid, 1986), closeness is a physical proximity and a personal space. Her work utilizes a fascinating mixture of methods and materials based on what and who are in her surroundings to investigate themes of shared memory, political systems, and community structures as they intersect with her own personal experience. At the center of Claudia’s practice is her own heart, which is deeply committed to opening art and art making to others. Her work challenges traditional definitions of what art is. Her projects blur the boundaries between physical spaces, history and personal stories, close and far.
Claudia currently lives and works in Cuba but I met her on a recent trip to Madrid, where she grew up. Claudia considers herself Cubanized, but not Cuban. Her first prolonged trip to Cuba was in 2008, and she is currently enrolled in the Escuela Internacional de Cine y de Televisión de San Antonio de los Baños. But her relationship to Cuba stretches farther back: her father and his family left Santiago de Cuba and came to Spain (and the USA) in the 1960s and 70s to escape revolutionary political unrest. Her father’s family always planned to return to Cuba, but eventually those plans did not materialize, so Claudia was the first person in her family to ‘return’ years later. Arriving in Cuba was a complicated experience; despite her stimulating new environment, she felt she “did not have the right to make anything” at first. Claudia’s familiar-foreign status gave rise to a special sense of responsibility. The colonial Cuba she heard about from her family growing up was from a generation ago- it had a different political, social,and economic milieu than the Cuba of today. But how different were they?
For her project Polvo de Cobre (Copper Dust), Claudia traveled to Santiago de Cuba to the places where her family once lived using old family photographs as her guide. When the houses and buildings were still intact, Claudia photographed them again and spoke with the new inhabitants about her family's connection to its past. She then sent the photographs with letters, as well as copper dust from the Santiago copper mine, to Cuban relatives in Spain and the USA. Polvo de Cobre asks what changes and what doesn’t after a massive political upheaval and an exile’s memory freeze. The images show time as an eroder (architectural changes, deteriorations, or deletions), time as a progression (saplings become tall trees), time as a vacuum (colorful floor tiles remain the same for decades), and time as something of all three (a little girl neighbor in an old photograph is now an older woman who still lives next door). This was Claudia’s first project to really exist somewhere between ‘personal’ and ‘work,’ and it has informed her practice since.
Claudia continued to examine how physical structures organize and shape individuals’ lives in Salitre 22 and Junta de Vecinos (Avenida de América 13) (Neighbors’ Committee), two projects conducted in Madrid. In Salitre 22, the name of her address at the time, Claudia invited all of the residents of her apartment building to lend a personal possession that they valued for a pop up exhibition in her home that would coincide with the 2014 Los Artistas del Barrio tour. Each neighbor’s object was displayed with a story that Claudia had recorded about why it was chosen. At the end of the day, all neighbors were invited for a reception in her home. Claudia conducted a related project, Junta de Vecinos (Avenida de América, 13), at the Sala de Arte Joven de la Communidad de Madrid (Youth Art Gallery of the Community of Madrid), a city-run gallery space located inside of the Colonia Virgen del Pilar, a decades-old apartment complex in a suburb of Madrid. Although it is meant to serve and enrich the community, very few residents had much to do with the exhibition space inside their building prior to Claudia’s project. Claudia studied the building and its residents through informal interviews, photographs, and films as well as research of its history. In the process she discovered two neighbors who often photographed sunrise and sunsets from the roof of the building, and another who wrote poems about the building itself. She invited these residents to exhibit their work in the Youth Art Gallery, and she collected their photographs and the poems into a publication called Viejo rascacielos (Old skyscraper).
Work from Salitre 22 and Junta de Vecinos came together in an exhibition at the Colonia Virgen del Pilar building’s Youth Art Gallery through the Centro de Investigación Técnicamente Imprevisible (Center for Technically Unpredictable Research). Together with another of Claudia’s apartment-based projects from the period, the exhibition featured materials and information contributed by her and residents of three Madrid communities. More than a comparative study of residents’ possessions and surroundings, these projects explore how the physical spaces that Claudia and her neighbors occupy impact who they meet, how they spend their free time, and what makes this space their home. She combines the language of fine art display with mass produced or hand-crafted objects or artworks contributed by neighbors, decentering herself as artist and empowering her neighbors to participate on their own terms. In Claudia’s exhibition, she and her neighbors navigate their own lives; she is not the central protagonist. Residents are artists and participants in that they, like she, determine how they contribute and how they are depicted. The Youth Art Gallery was inside the building but rarely visited. She wanted what it represented “not to be so distant.”
Most of all, Claudia wants her projects to work for people. In 2013 she collaborated with Oficina Final Feliz and Tony Play, a Dominican-owned bar in the Lavapiés neighborhood, to create the Vuena Bista dance party series dedicated to bringing Latin grooves to the Spanish capital in an intimate, monthly setting. That same year, Claudia collaborated with Elgatoconmoscas and Architectura Expandida within the project Latinoamérica GO.es on “Corte Latino” (Latino Cut), an exploration of Latin American immigrant life throughout Madrid. The project mapped Latin American commercial, recreational, and community presence in the Legazpi neighborhood where the Matadero Madrid Art and Cultural Center is located and culminated in a free summer concert by the Bachata artist Tu Francis at Matadero. Both projects strive to unite social groups while “Corte Latino” challenges the art institution to become more flexible, more inclusive, and to connect with the barrio it shares. “It’s not that art has to be for everyone,” Claudia says, “but there is a question of coexisting with respect.” Amid an art world of self-important statements and fleeting projects, Claudia’s work calls for sustained, human contact and basic dialogue on a common-sense level that opens up what art can be, who can access and create it, and how it can serve the people who intersect with it.
Claudia’s ongoing project “La memoria de las frutas” (The Memory of Fruits) came from a trip to Colombia where she noticed a greater variety of fruits than those available in Cuba. Some of these fruits grow natively in Cuba, but are not cultivated on a national scale for consumption. During a residency at Beta-Local’s La Práctica program in Puerto Rico, Claudia conducted informal interviews with people on the street about their memories and experiences with fruits that are outside of commercial circulation. Her final installation is markedly stripped of any colorful or tropical aesthetics. Black and white 16mm films of hands holding absent fruits form a choreography of remembrance while written transcripts of participants’ commentaries span themes of memory, botany, travel, capitalism, and modernization. The transcripts preserve the particular speech patterns, syntax, and vocabulary of the area, which like the fruit vary by region and are in some cases in danger of disappearing entirely. In capturing the spoken language, “I am always bringing out and editing reality,” Claudia says. She will continue developing this project next summer in Puerto Rico and Cuba.