A Counting, an Account: A Conversation with Teresa Mulet
In times of crisis, what might we ask of art? Venezuelan artist and designer Teresa Mulet, who created the cover for the 2018 edition of A.i.A.’s Annual Guide, has responded to the disastrous political events in her country by tallying the violent deaths there since 1999, the year of Hugo Chávez’s presidential victory. After his death in 2013, the number rose exponentially according to Observatório Venezolano de Violencia (Venezuelan Violence Observatory), the nongovernmental organization that produces the statistics that Mulet uses. Mulet’s counting “exercises,” as she calls them, are a powerful enunciation of each death—most of which are neither registered nor investigated—out loud, in print, and in physical space. Instead of presenting only statistics, which, she argues, obscure the reality of the deeds, Mulet infuses the rigidity of counting with the intimacy of the breath of each number said aloud or with the trace of a mark on paper. The exercises were most recently exhibited at the Cultural Center of Belgrade, in the group exhibition “Personal Geographies,” where the artists’ preoccupation with violence resonated with the audience’s own experience of civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
Born of the loss that touches many in Venezuela—almost everyone has lost a friend or relative—Mulet’s investigation prompts broader questions about violence across cultures and historical periods. This month I called Mulet at her current home in Barcelona. We discussed her projects that give space, substance, and matter to the memory of those killed by violence in Venezuela, as well as her transdisciplinary interest in poetry and design.
ZANNA GILBERT I wanted to begin with your book Informe [Report], begun in 2013, that documents violent deaths in Venezuela from 1999 to 2016. The book deconstructs the statistics into grids of typed numbers, one number for each death, and its cover is a sheet of black plastic. Each page is allotted one year, so the length of a page is determined by the number of violent deaths in the corresponding year. The more recent years seem to unfold endlessly across the table. What was the genesis of this project?
TERESA MULET I had dealt with the issue of violence before, like in cada-ver-es. cada-vez-más [cadavers. more and more, 2010] where white outlines of dead bodies, like the ones made by police with chalk, accumulate in paint layers transferred from a matrix to a sheet of black plastic, until it is difficult to distinguish the individual contours of each outlined body. After the fifth layer, you can’t see the individual outlines anymore. The layers are a metaphor for memory and forgetting, of erasure by accumulation.
In 2013, the year of Chávez’s death, there were 24,763 violent deaths. There was anarchy, impunity, guns in the streets. That’s when I began the exercises. Informe is made from the records for 2009–16. Each death is enumerated in print. Contarmeans not only “to count” but also “to tell,” to try to say what happened with language.
GILBERT Why did Informe need to be a book? Is it important that it should be a kind of historical document?
MULET A book leaves a register, certainly. But it is also an intimate object, more so than a political pamphlet. I work as an editorial designer, so my sensibility for books is natural.
The first edition of Informe had one hundred copies. Dissemination is very important for me, but my projects are self-financed and I couldn’t do a bigger edition. I see this book as a ritual and performance that happens as the reader unfolds the folios and sees how the length of the paper increases over the years, especially when it reaches a six-digit number: 283,636. They become these savannahs of printed paper with the sequence of increasing yearly numbers. It is a bound idea, as the book’s printer and editor Javier Azpurguas put it. It’s horrifying to realize that these numbers would take months to count, and even then, it is not naming but counting. How can we understand these numbers that can’t be counted?
GILBERT A related project is Ejercicio Volumen [Volume Exercise, 2014] in which a sheet of A4 paper represents a violent death. Amassed together, these sheets of paper become reams of paper, and then columns, giving a spatial representation of the yearly statistic. Can you tell me about this project, which is much more legible in terms of space and a phenomenological experience?
MULET It arose as the idea of making a book where each page represents one violent death. When I calculated how many pages were necessary I was surprised by the volume given. A ream of paper contains five hundred pages, which is about two inches thick. I made the first exercise in 2014 with the figure from 2013—24,764 violent deaths—and once the paper was stacked up, the resulting book was over eight feet tall. Initially I did the volume exercises year by year, but for 2017, I wanted to make the exercise for the whole period (1999–2016). If all the years were stacked in just one column it would measure almost one hundred feet high. This exercise allows us to compare. It’s like a three-dimensional statistical chart, visibly and physically growing as the violent deaths increase each year.
GILBERT How do you choose the paper?
MULET I use maculaturas, the paper that has already been used by the printers for their color and register tests. The root of the word means “stain,” so its stained paper, not white. And the exercise is about deaths tarnished by violence. Every time the work is installed I have to contact the nearest printer to get one and a half tons of paper. The paper is cut into size A4 and the outcome is always different. The paper is cut and the color has often bled into the edges. This is a term from graphic design, but it’s useful to me: these are bleeding pages. For me, the varied colors refer to the differences and histories of the assassinated people. Most of these killings are never officially resolved. They are forgotten deaths, unpunished crimes. The exercise pays homage to each of our dead. But it is more of an anti-monument than a monument because it’s ephemeral. All that is left after each installation are the metal plates that sit on top if each column of paper; they are inscribed with the year and the number of deaths. The paper is recycled.
GILBERT You worked with your father for the Ejercicio Contable [Accounting Exercise, 2014], in which each death is counted one-by-one on a printing calculator. What is the significance for you of working with a member of your family?
MULET My father was a child of the Spanish Civil War. He emigrated to Venezuela with his parents right after World War II. He studied accounting and established a hardware store with my uncle. I grew up seeing my father counting all the time, on an adding machine. So I asked him to help me count all these deaths. For each death he would type “+1.” This created a particular printing method, since each of the rolls of paper used in the counting machine has a red line that lets you know when the roll is almost done. The indifference of the roll to the escalating figures created a kind of metaphor. The dimension of the tragedy is registered in time and space: one digit (+1), is repeated across over a mile of paper rolls. In total, there are fifty rolls of around forty yards in length. This sums up the eighteen years of a disastrous regime.
GILBERT You often make use of wordplay, which you call “double-writing,” and fonts in your work. The cover of A.i.A.’s Annual Guide is an example of this. Can you comment on your interest in text as an artistic tool?
MULET My fascination begins with the letter. Typography is a discipline where every gesture immediately becomes a metaphor. The union of letters creates meaning—a system, a weaving, or a text. This is how aesthetics and ethics come together. A visual communicator (I prefer to call myself this rather than a graphic designer) has a huge responsibility, because embellishments to text can mislead people even before they read it. A lot of designers don’t read. Some clients say that designers don’t think. But we do, and if we don’t then that’s our responsibility. The banality of evil is explicit in these times. Design can sustain destructive words, repeat lies, help totalitarian regimes, reaffirm and approve all types of violence. There is a lack of ethics in communication. In contemporary art I found space for transdisciplinarity, the space to ask questions without precise answers.
GILBERT How does the history of Venezuelan design inform your art?
MULET Design has an illustrious history in Venezuela and there are fundamental names like Gerd Leufert, Gego, Nedo, Alvaro Sotillo, Luis Guiraldo, and Carlos Rodriguez, all artist-designers. In 1989 I helped found the new school PROdiseño, which tried to be critical and question the contemporary context. In Italy, I studied with AG Fronzoni, who spoke about “total design,” which is what I think of as transdisciplinarity. With philosophy I question, with art I give form to ideas and concepts, with design I communicate visually, with poetry I lose myself and drift. In performance, what animates me is the relationship to others in the present.
GILBERT What’s next?
MULET I’ve been in Barcelona since the beginning of the year. I’ll continue to research and to be alert to what is urgent. The situation in Venezuela has forced me to become an exile. Although my exile isn’t legally required, I feel like an exile because I’m unable to walk freely and without fear in my home country. My parents are there, growing old in a kind of imprisonment. Now I understand the Chilean exiles, the Spanish diaspora, the Cubans, the Jewish Germans in Venezuela who always spoke of their tragedies. Even the option of emigrating doesn’t allow one to disconnect emotionally, morally, and politically from the reality of your own country. I will continue practicing different ways of making my personal history and that of my country visible. This is a human horror that repeats in distinct geographies and times. I offer my testimony as a way of alerting other places and future generations.