Alicia Framis

Centre d'Art Santa Mónica

The prison at Guantánamo has become a synonym for ignominy and torture. Recently, the United States Supreme Court recognized that prisoners there actually do have constitutional rights. But if human rights organizations have been demanding for years that the prison be closed, President George W. Bush seems determined to keep his notion of an anti-terrorist prison operating until the end of his mandate. In this context, an exhibition called “Guantánamo Museum” cannot go unnoticed. Its presentation in Barcelona was the second phase of a journey that began at the Galería Helga de Alvear in Madrid, where Framis showed a sort of notepad with her impressions of and concerns about this detention center in an occupied area of Cuba. Since then, she has been making her own artwork on the topic and leading workshops in schools and institutes in Barcelona and Madrid as well as at Can Xalant art center in Mataró, where she works with architects, designers, design students, and others.

Upon entering the ground floor of the Centre d’Art Santa Mónica, one became aware of a steady sound interrupting the silence: the voice of the musician Blixa Bargeld reading aloud the names of all the prisoners at Guantánamo. Like a litany or mantra, the series of clearly Muslim names served to remind us that the prisoners are not an abstraction, not numbers; they are, rather, real people, flesh and blood. On an orange platform rested 274 motorcycle helmets—one for each prisoner. The helmets evoke the defenselessness of the prisoners at Guantánamo and the physical and psychological attacks they suffer. Each time a name was heard, a light over the row of helmets turned on quickly, giving this installation, Guantánamo Museum: The List (all works 2008), a ghostly and slightly sinister air.

Elsewhere, Framis installed a worktable with computers bearing information about the detention center; there were also works by some of her collaborators, the result of the Guantánamo Museum: Workshops. These include a wide array of advertisement-like videos, objects, and garments, many with a comic, even sarcastic, tone: kneeling-prisoner key rings, clothing for dogs in the shade of orange used for the prisoners’ uniforms, etc. Some of these projects might seem cynical or even insensitive. Though they were not conceived by Framis, by including them in the exhibition she seemed to endorse them. Making Guantánamo into a museum or tourist attraction risks trivializing or commodifying the atrocities wantonly committed in its spaces. Is the artist fully conscious of this risk?

Framis is known for dealing with thorny subjects; in the Anti-Dog Project, 2002–2003, for example, she addressed the violence suffered by nonwhite women at the hands of racists by manufacturing protective clothing out of a material that resists fire, bullets, and dog bites. Here, the artist seemed to ask whether Guantánamo will not simply become a museum brimming with trinkets and souvenirs like Auschwitz and Alcatraz. Is it legitimate to turn horror into just another cog in the machinery of spectacle? In this work in progress, Framis does not provide an unambiguous answer to that question, but for the most part, she skillfully and intelligently negotiates these difficult ethical questions. Her work critically addresses the global tendency to make historical memory into just another theme park, where horror and injustice are sweetened for a numb, undemanding public.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.