Introduced by Anna-Sophie Springer
HD Video, Sound, 14'
Set in a former US Navy base in Puerto Rico, Ojos para mis Enemigos [Eyes for my enemies] observes how multiple introduced and indigenous species—plants and crops, but also animals, humans and not—share this terrain and together constitute a new space, offering poetic as well as very concrete scenarios of the anthropocene, its devastation but also modes of recuperation.
Anna-Sophie Springer: In your film Ojos para mis enemigos [Eyes for my enemies] you follow a man, Obatalá, I believe, through the compound of a former military base in Puerto Rico. There are creatures and plants everywhere and we’re perceiving a strange tension between the anthropogenic leftovers, ruins, and the nonhuman efflorescence taking over at the site. But, at times, it is the human character who appears to be the one out of place. How did you meet him and what is his relation to the base?
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: When I was thinking about shooting inside the closed base, I contacted a small group of local activists—people from the town of Ceiba who wanted the access the base for shore fishing, crab catching, walks, and off-the-grid community housing. I’d heard about what they were doing. Going in at sundown, cutting the locks on all the gates, and spending the night fishing or catching crabs, sometimes even doing some amateur archaeology. They’d resist the local police. I asked them who I needed to speak to about going in. I wanted to meet them but didn’t want to step on their toes. They said, “You go in. It is yours. Ask no one for permission.” I took their word but I also met up with them, went into the base at night with them. Pedro Ortiz, the man in Ojos para mis enemigos, was one of those people.
During the 1940s and 50s there was a land reform in Puerto Rico through which landless farmers and fishermen were given plots of land to use. But when the U.S. Department of Defense claimed the lands, their houses were destroyed and they were forcibly resettled. Or rather, they resettled themselves. The Army (at first it was an Army base, not a Navy base) stacked wood panels outside of what would be the base’s limits, and people were told to rebuild there. The house that Pedro’s parents built then is the house he still lives in. The walls have been slowly rebuilt in concrete but the dimensions are the same.
So, his name is Pedro Ortiz, his head saint is Obatalá—though I suppose you could read him as Obatalá himself, that was not my intention. Obatalá is a primary deity of the Yoruba pantheon. Pedro practices santería (there are a few signs of this in the film—the statuettes, his yellow and green bracelet), so before we went out for a walk through the closed navy base, he needed to ask his saints for permission to show me around. I placed the camera among his saints and left the room. Santería icons are eclectic, it is a syncretic religion—there are catholic saints but also other figures—I thought a camera would not be out of place. I asked him afterwards what he prayed for and he said he had asked his saints to give eyes to his enemies so that they may see what he can see.
AS: Yes, it is true, the film begins with this view into Pedro Ortiz’s room. Would you like to talk a bit about the process of working together on the development of the film? What were your expectations before you started to work on site and what elements and scenes evolved as you were exploring the site together?
BSM: Ojos para mis enemigos is part of a series of films all shot in once-military lands. For a small island, Puerto Rico has a lot of land devoted to military operations. I knew that I needed to see differently in order to shoot within the base and not reproduce its logic. The immediate familiarity and hence recognition of the military footprint, the barracks, California-style bungalows, suburban layout, school, dock—makes it all very hard to recognize other events and forms. You must force yourself to change time and space scale, to see with and next to others. So the series of works are all experiments in forcing myself to see and hear otherwise. I wanted to recognize events and places at the scale of insect decomposition, for example, or to resist reproducing the idea of the ruin, as an inescapable past that keeps on producing meaning, metaphors—in a way over-determining the future—and instead think with Pedro, through what he recognizes, as well as through a sixty or 100-year time frame, which makes Ceiba into a place on its way to becoming a new forest.
AS: A book I greatly enjoyed reading last year was Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: Life in Capitalist Ruins (2016). Maybe you know it? In any case, your film in the ruined, overgrown military base also perfectly conjures images of other forms of life that continue despite damage and destruction. What do you think art can contribute to current social and ecological dilemmas? How do you estimate your own role in this context as an artist?
BSM: I haven’t read it! Though it’s been recommended to me a few times. I think art can be a way of thinking with a place, in ways that are not determined by known and rational processes. For me, it allows for huge jumps. Logic may get me there, but it will take a lot longer. Here is a concrete example: once I started listening to the closed base, walking around with headphones and listening instead of looking, maybe increasing the audio levels a bit, the place was teeming with raucous action. There were iguanas eating bird and frog eggs; there were hundreds of different kinds of insects; packs of abandoned dogs, regrouped, and now quite like the iguana hunters; fishermen sleeping in cars; a kind of tree-film screening between 4:30 and 6 depending on the season; a cinema with the sound of beehives above the ceiling tiles; a few wild boars, at least one caiman in the old reservoir system; a forest of large almácigos where locals say there once happened a toxic spill; and bats in all the barracks. A riot. It is a kind of thinking with the senses. It’s not error proof, but it moves quite fast.
AS: A particularly poetic scene occurs in what seems like the former gym—aligned along the lines of a ball playing court’s circle, various debris seem to form an alternative cosmic model, with a moving disc of sunlight marking the passage of time. I’ve spent the past few days at a conference about the Anthropocene and I am just about to head to the next one about artistic collaborations with natural history museums to confront climate change and ecological collapse. So, the intensity of worlds and cosmogeneses is very much on my mind and I’d really love to hear a bit about your reading of that scene!
BSM: We approached it as making a model of the base that intersected with other forces, in the same way that the old gym was now meeting termites, bats, and humidity. A consideration and rearrangement of forces. Pedro was very comfortable with thinking through materials and objects as stand-ins for ideas. We have this in common and happened upon the traveling disc of sunlight by accident. It’s just light coming through a round hole left by a removed air pipe. We decided to use it, and I accelerated it in the editing to get a sense of the flux of time—it becomes part of the model.
AS: Finally, what can you share about the history of cotton and Puerto Rico?
BSM: Cotton was farmed here in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in large plantations, just like tobacco, sugar, and pineapple. These plantations were usually near the coast, so Ceiba would have been a good place for it. In the twentieth century, the plantations were managed by large U.S. trusts, and in the early 1940s the land reform I mentioned earlier, expropriated any land larger than 500 acres owned by a single landowner. This land distribution system didn’t last long, however. The U.S. took that land back for the Navy in less than fifteen years. The cotton in Ceiba is so overgrown as to be useless to that past logic. Pedro picked some of it as a gift to Obatalá, who takes gifts in the color of white.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
Ojos para mis Enemigos, 2014
HD Video. Color. Sound.
Running Time: 14:00 minutes
Ed. of 5 + 2 A.P.
Courtesy of the artist and Galería Agustina Ferreyra, San Juan, Puerto Rico