Building a Better Encounter
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.
A very interesting thing happened when I was asked to blog for the Encounters episode of the Civilization series — I couldn’t open the video the first day. Luckily there is also a cache of scripts for the series. Just in case, I began the process of cutting and pasting the narrative and looking up the artworks and people who are “experts” in various cultural histories and time periods—the historians, the art historians, the academics and archeologists.
The process of having to read and read again, let me “see” the layers of story that we won’t see when we are transported by the images that will thread their own visual story, that will take us so swiftly, we don’t have time to question or reflect. Especially with art, when we see one beautiful or strong art image after another, when we see magical or timeless or “exotic” places, we, as the viewers, become enchanted.
And when I, or when you, or when we have more time, we have an opportunity to feel the backstories in ways that the visual narrative, through its very nature, disallows. For most of us, what we see leaves us with the feeling that it is the truth, it is complete.
For most of us, what we see leaves us with the feeling that it is the truth, it is complete.
A great example of this is the image created by Durer of a rhinoceros. The rhinoceros was verbally described and out of his imagination he drew it. For two centuries everyone agreed that this is the fantastical exotic creature, the rhinoceros; it looked like Durer’s woodcut. The image was shared, marveled upon, and accepted, though it has notable differences to what is a rhinoceros.
I am a social practice artist. What that means to me is I look at my relationship to the societal and natural world. Since I was a small child I recognize that I am a product of encounters.
“Encounters” references the meeting of Cortes and the Mexica (Aztec) Emperor Montezuma, which is not only a story of meeting the art and architecture of that Empire, it is the foundation of how the Europeans related to the Americas and its peoples.
My ancestors were on both sides of the encounter in the "New World.” Some were Conquistadors who decimated my other ancestors, the Muisca or Chibcha people, in their quest for gold, fame, and fortune. On the other side, I have ancestors from New World, the Muisca people, who were connected to the land of the Andes — Cundaramarca the Condor’s nest, what is now named as Bogota, Colombia. So my own heritage is the amalgam of gold, emeralds, and Earth. My people are also Portuguese and other unspecific cultures, as my father’s people came to the new world much later by way of Madeira at the turn of the 20th century. Since I could understand that there’s been a lot in the mix that brought me to the world, when I was nine or so, I looked at the world as a puzzle.
When we are products of “encounters” we carry stories that will often contradict each other. And in the way that civilizations emerged out of “Western” histories—the Greeks, the Romans, the first conquests of Europe, the fiefdoms and royal lineages of England in particular—I realize that the land I was born to and stand upon here, the United States of the Americas, is completely packed with the history of encounters. It is a history of often difficult, if not terrible, encounters for those who were met by greater force, disease and a complete disarray of what had been life before the encounter.
When we are products of “encounters” we carry stories that will often contradict each other.
The common theme that civilizations meet, encounter to acquire valuable things, things to trade, things to take, is something that is normalized. Yes we tell the story of that line of history—but what of the other encounters that are about meeting with something that are completely different? There is a huge unnamed history of us, human beings, meeting each other that will have nothing to do with building a country’s strength or reputation. We meet each other with curiosity,” Who are you?” “You do it what way?” “ Really, We do it like this.” This is an open-ended way of encountering.
Artists can be super curious about works of art that they want to learn from. Often, they will share a work with each other, because out of sharing everyone will have more to work with when they have new skills and insights into a process of making something or expressing something. It’s a win-win model. As an artist, I look at this world with curiosity, including our histories. I’m part of a project “Not Afraid to Look,” which is about looking at things we face in our society today that stem from choices that are not working so well for us. Using artistic tools and creative insights alongside peers, I strive to talk about things that are harder to see or acknowledge. Some of the problems we have created as societies come out of not looking at the cost of our choices.
We (nation-states, societies, cultures across the Earth) face a lot of difficulties in our time. Water is at risk in the ocean, as well as our fresh waters. This issue is not a national issue; it is a planetary one. Regardless of what we acknowledge in the mainstream media, many shared spaces that we depend upon as a species are at risk. The basics: food, air, environments are no longer a given in our time.
I see that we are creatures who continue to create delicate and intricately beautiful, poignant, often sparked by encountering, works of art. Today some of us live with almost miraculous godlike technologies and capacities that were not even conceivable to our ancestors’ imaginations.
As a collective of human beings, we have creative vision to address what is not so fun, what scares us, and creates a climate of uncertainty in our time. Although the encounters described in this episode have many rich histories behind them, revealing many art pieces that we treasure, that will inspire us, I see that the whole reason to meet each other has to change in our time. We have to build a history that is about learning rather than amassing things, or resources, or owning. I have no idea what that will look like as it is a potential. It will take many human beings imagining a new history to build. As an artist and a human being, I believe this is totally possible.
Alicia Marie Rencountre- Da Silva is a social practice artist working closely and collaboratively with her husband, Charles Rencountre and other artists. As Artists Make Art they develop projects with and for communities about stories that need to be shared. "Not Afraid to Look" at Standing Rock was one of those stories. Currently she's part of the design team for a monument project "Manifest Destiny" (highway 80 in Nebraska).
Alicia is also in love with the medium of glass and makes abstract glass paintings that reference internal and external environments. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org