The Mind’s Eye

Rachel Ellis Neyra on the art of Beatriz Santiago Muñoz

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, That which identifies them like the eye of the Cyclops, 2016, three-channel digital video, color, sound, 10 minutes 11 seconds.

“The increasingly widening circles configure every possible revolution.”1

BESIDE THE ROOTS of a massive ceiba tree, a female figure lies on her back, eyes closed, a circle painted on her forehead.

Ceibas are sprawling giants. This tree climbs 130 feet, its waves of roots measure sixty feet wide, making pockets where herds of horses sleep. In Mayan myth, the ceiba’s roots are portals to the underworld, the canopy a threshold of the heavens, and its encircling umbrage a space of healing.

This ceiba has lived on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, for over three hundred years. It remembers runaway slaves. It remembers detonated bombs. It remembers civil disobedience. Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s black-and-white film Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces (2016) transforms this prostrate figure with 16-mm celluloid. We see stunning, close-cropped frames of fragments: an energy healer working on an eroding black beach, sea foam becoming emulsion, horses that have roamed forests without detonating innumerable landmines. After the image of the grounded figure—artist Ardelle Ferrer, Santiago Muñoz’s collaborator and friend—the film cuts to a horse that appears lifeless. This cut is not a break but a splice: Ferrer becomes the horse. The animal suddenly lifts its body, touched by the toxicity of weapons-testing that convoyed with and persists beyond the US Navy’s sixty-year-long occupation of the island. Ferrer’s direct gaze into Santiago Muñoz’s camera ends the film.

This is not the puncturing gaze of Third Cinema—the anti-imperialist and anticapitalist Latin American film movement that began five decades ago—which flares historical rage. It is an exchange of powers. Santiago Muñoz’s art is not documentary but a cinema of sensory experimentation and ritual that moves intimately with its subjects. Akin to Sara Gómez’s short films, her work shows us that the movies are not just an apparatus of human-made light, a receptive rectangle, and a hegemonic set of visual expectations. In the spirit of Third Cinema and LA Rebellion Cinema, Santiago Muñoz is not invested in the development of individuals, or the normalizing of what she calls “the chimerical ecology” of the Caribbean places in which she loves to make art; her cinema is not one of full-frontal disclosure—so much is seen from behind, in part. Instead, the structure of the film and its title implies shape-shifting and a plurality of subject positions, as does this work’s relation to the rest of her show, “Song, Strategy, Sign,” at the New Museum through June 12.

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces, 2016, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes.

In the long, L-shaped room of the museum’s fifth floor, there are two aural textures: the guiding intonation of a voice overhead, and the distant whir of a film projector. Near the north wall is an array of ten masks positioned at varying heights on simple wooden beams jutting from wooden cubes. There are masks made of mirrors, fishnet, neoprene, Plexiglas, bamboo, carpet, palm bark, bookbinding tape—camouflage for a “chimerical ecology,” materials for transformation. The overhead voice repeats phrases rhythmically, vigilantly, with an androgynous timbre and a Puerto Rican–touched English. The distant percussion of the projector beats out a steady drumroll beneath the voice’s fragmented narrations. A coqui frog’s onomatopoeic fluting comes and goes.

Just beyond the mask display are three staggered screens: That which identifies them like the eye of the Cyclops (2015), a three-channel color video. The title comes from Monique Wittig’s fragmentary, futuristic novel Les Guérillères, set in a world of elles and islands. Blocks of female and androgynous names of fighters for the ends of patriarchy punctuate the text. The first name to appear in the same block as this titular phrase is “Osea.” Resignified in Puerto Rican Spanish, “O sea” means “it could be.” O sea colloquially sets off a list of spoken possibilities equal to what one first said, but undermining its primacy.

O sea arranges a sound-metaphor for how to engage this three-screen space: The camera looks over the shoulder of an artist looking through her colored viewfinders—green, red, blue—at a Puerto Rican landscape; it crews with a pilot navigating her cargo boat along the island’s northern coast; it stands steady beside a farmer, thighs wrapped around a goat as she saws his overgrown horns out of his wounded eyes. The overhead voice is not heavy-handed; it is more like music. It stretches like the canopy of the ceiba, orienting us in space so that we are not just viewers of but listeners to the visual. “This is the beginning. That which identifies them like the eye of the Cyclops…is the circle,” the voice says, quoting and improvising. The voice offers ways to move dynamically with the film, drawing circles of potentiality around exchanges set to different rhythms than that of a finance-capital to which we did not consent.

Reoriented to this cinema with our ears, we can hold the three screens with our eyes simultaneously, taking in their beautifully minimal display. Or look to one at a time in its distinct duration. O sea, leapfrog from one to the other, seeing forests, horses, fire, jevas, chickens, oceans, Puerto Rican flags on a bridge, hallucinatory lights—maybe not in that order. Walking past the projections we come to a dark corridor. There, at forty frames per second, but perhaps 330 beats per second, moves the black beach’s rhythmic metamorphosis. The voice-companion to the three-stream film leaks over the projector’s percussion: “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

In the face of the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, the giant Cyclops of Greek mythology shadows as the hegemon of the US: a financially disastrous, myopic hulk. But this reading of the sign of the Cyclops and US primacy isn’t enough for a show that imagines many collective and autonomous forms of force. From within the ceiba’s growing, reparative circle, the Cyclops’s myopia breaks down, power shapeshifts: as the head-lantern on the farmer Norysell, the light-making device of artist Ivelisse Jiménez, the microphone in the hand of performer Macha Colón. “There are no limits—inside the circle,” said Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth.2 “Song, Strategy, Sign” is about seeing with the sensorium—a frayed, renewing sensorium.

Les Guérillères was published in 1969. With it, Chantal Akerman, Jean Rouch, Charles Burnett, and “imperfect cinema” warmed the world for Santiago Muñoz, who was born in 1972 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Santiago Muñoz’s is a Puerto Rican cinema, a cinema of marronage. But here we learn to come at these signs not through rigid mimeticism, but with visuals that sing as much as they mask radical futures.

1 Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères (1969).

2 See Chapter 1, “Concerning Violence,” in the 1963 translation by Constance Farrington, 56–57.

“Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: Song, Strategy, Sign” runs through June 12 at the New Museum in New York.