Twenty Years of Despacio 2008–2028
by Fabiola Carranza
The bilingual publication Twenty Years of Despacio 2008–2028 marks the beginning, the end and a speculative decade ahead in the life of an art space in Central America. Despacio was started by Costa Rican artist Federico Herrero to give artists in the region an opportunity to think and act autonomously. Despacio is also the Spanish word for “slow” and for “slowness,” and although nothing at this venue was ever fast or too concerned with artistic careerism, this gallery helped shape an entire generation of practitioners—myself included.
The idea to start an art space came to Herrero in 2008, a few years after he had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, at the young age of 22. Herrero’s work was chosen for inclusion by Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, a man who worked hard throughout his career to show artworks produced outside North America and Europe. At a time when few others in the art world did, Szeemann paid attention to work from Central America. His approach and mentorship registered with Herrero who—like fellow Costa Rican Virginia Pérez-Ratton, the brilliant late artist, writer, curator and collector, had done before him—chose to use his privilege and share his appreciation for cultural production by investing free time, energy and resources into a small independent venue where emerging practitioners could work with curators and fellow artists for the first time. (Pérez-Ratton had founded TEOR/éTica, one of few ongoing places in the country exclusively devoted to the dissemination of contemporary art, critical theory and ideas.)
While many of the individuals who put together this publication have familial or geographical ties in Central or Latin America, back in 2008, many had a hard time tracking down and articulating what was going on in the local scene. Despacio was a platform where cultural experiments and alternative practices could flourish and were celebrated. It was never meant to become an institution or artist-run centre in a traditional sense and this might be the reason it’s closing its doors today. In fact, in many ways this publication is one of the most internationally professionalizing endeavours the gallery has ever undertaken.
The first of the book’s three parts comprises writings about the space and the region, including essays—most notably by the book’s editor, Jens Hoffmann, and the gallery’s chief curator, Sandino Scheidegger—and interviews with independent curator Pablo León de La Barra, conducted by Erno Hilarion and Cristina Ramírez, the manager of Despacio and the book’s Spanish language editor, respectively. These texts articulate the ties between their authors and the gallery and situate its efforts in great detail, providing the unfamiliar reader a conceptual and geopolitical framework within which to understand Despacio’s past and suggesting ways to imagine future possibilities of dissemination, experimentation and professionalization in the region. The second “section” is interspersed between the essays and compiles visual documentation of the projects the space helped produce, including artworks by Adriana Arroyo, Sol Calero, Julian Gallese, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Sergio Rojas Chaves, Dino Urpí and Mimian Hsu, to name just a few. The documentation of these projects is somewhat unframed, making the book a kind of family album whose photos are best understood by its members. The only didactic information provided about the work is a list of exhibitions held at Despacio, tucked at the end of the section. Unknowing readers might not linger with each work, but overall, the book demands that the reader support transcultural exchange rather than limit a potential for cultural growth—by seeking, for example, full-fledged definitions or a clear identity mapping of the artwork from the region.
The space performed like a sun or an orbit, a ruling member around which we revolved. In this way, the publication, designed to mimic the format of a daily planner, also asks the reader to be a witness from the future—not only of the gallery and what has been produced there but also of the community and what it did and can offer. The third section of the book interposes blank sheets of ruled paper with a series of photographs by the artist Pablo Cambronero. These images show San José, a modest, clumsy city inhabited by workers closing shops, pigeons, storefront reflections, soccer fans, carnival masks, pedestrians and bejewelled body parts. The empty space between them is presumably dedicated to the venue’s imaginary future (until we reach the year 2028 mentioned in the title) while acknowledging the emptiness left by its closure. The more romantic reader can fill in the void while a more cynical person can close the book and leave those pages empty.
The English texts in the publication were translated into Spanish by the country’s favourite poet, Luis Chaves, and the Spanish texts into English by art editor and writer Lindsey Westbrook. The graphic design collective Åbäke (who co-founded the London-based publishing house responsible for the publication) and Alyssia Lou are responsible for the book’s futuristic layout, which features thermo-chromatic red decals, similar to those on a Formula 1 car. Like a race car, cultural production requires machinic assemblage, where one thing relies on the next. This is echoed in the web of interdependence that shaped the publication and the gallery’s continuous efforts.
In “Ask the Artists,” Fernanda Brenner examines the parallels between Despacio and other spaces in Latin America, like Beta-Local (Puerto Rico), FLORA and Lugar a Dudas (Colombia) and Casa do Povo (Brazil), all of which are part of the region’s future. It is because of venues like TEOR/éTica and Despacio that more and more artists in San José are seeking to self-initiate and come up with new models for artistic discourse. None of them would have had the chance to get far had it not first been for Herrero and Pérez-Rat-ton, two visionaries who spread the goal of creating a critical community of artists in Central America without expecting any returns—and thus single-handedly opened the Costa Rican art scene to an international audience.
Despacio was open, plural and full of inventiveness. Its absence will be felt and its past should be celebrated. The book ends speculatively, as a notebook which readers may or may not use to face the challenges ahead: the need to secure living wages for artists in the region, to develop curators and to open commercial spaces that in turn will help to promote and sustain this growing community of practitioners.