The work of performance artist and social choreographer Ernesto Pujol is deeply invested in space and place. He is an artist who listens and responds to architecture. Often staging his work in emblematic and historic buildings, Pujol is a master at mining the silences between the spaces. His work encourages and inspires deep listening. Pujol is a longtime educator who has taught at, among other places, the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the School at the Art Institute in Chicago. Last year he published Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths, an aspirational guide to conscious walking and living. In recent months, prior to the pandemic, he was working in Puerto Rico on rebuilding an area devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. As the world began to turn collectively inward, I reached out to Pujol, whose insights into our particular moment in time seem striking and relevant.
RK: Rori Knudtson
EP: Ernesto Pujol
I feel that your training as a monk equipped you better than any architectural education to understand the notion of place. What called you to become a Cistercian-Trappist monk? And why did you leave the monastery?
As a young artist, I became a cloistered monk, a man vowed to place, for a long list of reasons. As the child of immigrants growing up in a tumultuous world, I came to love the sheltering tranquility that monastic architecture seemed to promise. Their location in rural settings also appealed to me because I desired to experience an immersion in nature. As a student of humanities, I was also drawn to the silence and solitude of a cloister. Sociologically, I wanted to experience a community of men who were not out to compete, bully, or kill each other. I wondered if a vulnerable masculinity was possible in the world.
I left the cloister because there is an invisible calendar of psychic acuity to all human life. The core formation that I needed in order to face the world was complete. Monastic space and its dynamics gave me a greater knowledge of the depths of the human condition, in terms of our aspirations to transcendence, while also testing me from every conceivable angle. I learned what I needed to learn in order to confront and survive the brutality of the world and create.
What did that cloistered time instill in you about being in the world?
The cloister provided me with a disciplined formation that has allowed me to remain centered and at peace, even in the midst of speed and chaos. It also gave me the firm stance of a lightning rod atop a building, so as to be able to be struck by great forces without being destroyed. This inner architecture has become pivotal in the sustainability of my creative process, in remaining a creative entity no matter the storms raging outside. That experience provided me with a psychic architecture that remains standing to this day.
There’s a line in your walking book that recalls the current state of everything: “More and more individuals need to give up control in order to reclaim their balance.” Elaborate on this pre-pandemic statement and how you think this is actively affecting individuals now.
We have lived with a false sense of control. Entitlement to abundance and waste through constant consumption has given us an extravagant sense of our power in the United States. That perverse power is at the core of our disconnectedness from nature. We’re barely in control of our souls yet we think ourselves the architects of the Earth. We unleashed the current pandemic because our greed encroached the few wildlife spaces that remain, dismantling a natural architecture that held viruses otherwise contained. The only way to reintegrate back to nature, and thus restore its natural orderly architecture, is to give up the fantasy of this inordinate control.
What benefits do you see in our current collective loss of control? Is it really a loss of control or a loss of perceived freedom? I say “perceived” in that we know it has been the opposite.
I do not believe that we face a loss of control, because that so-called control was never real. I believe that this situation is a tragic reality check on what I call the architecture of civilization. Our so-called freedom to do whatever we want, whenever and wherever we want, regardless of the consequences, is a perversion of freedom, an immature and indulgent notion of spatial freedom.
You practice radical inclusion, encompassing aspects of living that are unseen by most people. What challenges have you encountered over the years in having your commissioning agencies let your social choreography determine how space is occupied?
I practice performance art as a radically inclusive portraiture of people and place. And I always site my group performances within emblematic and historical architecture, as the metaphor for localized human aspirations. I believe that places are both visible and invisible. We do not see how trees communicate with each other through their root systems. I see you, but I do not see your metabolism or the hormones emitted by your body. People and places are filled with secrets, with unhealed episodes that cry for release and healing.
I have been lucky to have worked with curators who are true citizens of the architecture of place, like Saralyn Reece Hardy in Kansas and Michelle Marxuach in San Juan, who are invested in the creation of a conscious culture. But, yes, I have had curators who have recruited me seeking a style, who have later become afraid of what could be revealed and unleashed. Those relationships have been challenging and have terminated quickly, sometimes painfully. My practice does not tolerate anything other than the real. It requires great curatorial trust for what I ethically do in space.
How do you open up your collaborators, viewers, and participants into becoming vulnerable?
I recruit from mainstream populations. I form site-specific groups in the cities where the projects are commissioned, seeking the bodies of those cities. My performance groups are not primarily staffed by artists, they are primarily composed of untrained civilians. There are students, parents, and grandparents. I first share the initial project proposal with everyone involved, to establish full transparency. I then create a written manual for all to study, followed by free workshops that begin to create a safe space that fosters deep sharing. I become a tour guide to their monuments. We do group tours of the architecture that we are going to inhabit, to deconstruct and understand it historically and psychologically.
I practice vulnerability as a methodology. Therefore, the vulnerability of the entire process and final performance begins and ends with me, role modeling it for the group, which I protect throughout. But I also seek the vulnerability of titanic architecture. So I work with the stewards of the historic spaces where we are going to perform, to strip them back to their original walls and floors. We remove their furniture and signage; we take away all their embellishments. That stripping mirrors the inner stripping we do with ourselves. We become vulnerable in a space that is revealed just as vulnerable.
I think of your work as the architecture of the immaterial, but inclusive of lived experience and flowing energy. Have any projects altered a physical reality or the material matter once your work commenced or concluded?
I seek to embody, even if temporarily, an otherwise invisible architecture of desire and loss, of love and destruction. I believe that all visible architecture contains an inner invisible architecture of past and present human longing. I seek for my performers to find, inhabit, and reveal that intangible architecture, sharing it with audiences so that it is equally accessible to them.
We have had many experiences regarding this integration and revelation. A number of our projects have palpably altered people’s sense of the passage of time, among our participants and viewers, particularly during performances lasting between 24 and 48 hours. We have cracked invisible walls, opening blocked corridors to repressed memories, releasing and allowing people to cry and mourn. We have recovered old patterns of traffic in places that used to be full but now stand empty, allowing people to see the agency of old spaces, glimpsing views we had lost over time.
We have experienced the presence of invisible human residue invoked back to contemporary surfaces. But this last experience has been something that already begins to happen during the creative process, if the project is deeply true. Like catching glimpses of old shadows as you do a walkthrough through a cathedral. I recall the experiences I had in Utah and Hawaii, where I felt that ancestors welcomed us; they witnessed, joined, and walked among us. They were performances of the living and the dead in place. In some cases, our walks exorcised the long-held collective pain of place.
What can walking teach us in the current pandemic? What of those who can’t physically walk due to quarantine? There are other methods of “walking,” for instance?
We have walked ourselves into an unhealthy place, so we need to retrace our steps back to heal what we have violated in nature. We also need to walk on to a very different future than that envisioned by unrestrained global capitalism. But in a more immediate sense, we need to walk inside our quarantine. We need motion to stay healthy, perhaps walking a circle or a square inside a room. You can walk for miles inside a small room. The Buddhists do it within their Zendos. It is an ancient practice. We used to do it within cathedrals, but lost the practice to a notion of modernity based on achievement through distance and speed. Yet we are experiencing a global secular retreat, so it is time to revisit these mindful practices.
How can one establish their own Zendo practice within the physical confines of quarantine?
I am an urban monk and a social choreographer. So this may be a good time to reconsider our urban and suburban living spaces, because so many are cluttered and messy. Hoarding has become a secret among many. Start with a simple test. Stand and open your arms. Can you do two full gentle turns across your living-room like a slow human helicopter without stumbling or knocking something? We suddenly have the time to inventory what we have and its placement in space. Do we truly need all we have? And can we create an internal order with what we decide to keep? Our spaces can psychologically expand through editing and order. Can we also clear our windows to let in some natural light? If we can unclutter, reorder, and brighten our spaces, can we dedicate an area for stretching and reflection? Can we have an area that we associate with meditation? I do not see this as an imprisonment period, but as a time to reinvent our domestic spaces for the sake of a healthier human choreography of interiors.
Can you speak about the project in Puerto Rico, how it began and your intention? And where are you in process?
I come from a very diverse family that is Iberian, Cuban, and Puerto Rican. The core of my family consists of physicians practicing in San Juan. During the past 25 years, I have also forged a working relationship with Puerto Rico’s Conservation Trust. I have served as an interdisciplinary creative consultant for them in two projects, creating a new nature reserve and launching a native ecological restoration program. These experiences taught me about the needs of the island, particularly after a Category 5 hurricane devastated it. I wish to continue serving the people of Puerto Rico by establishing a green public design laboratory that supports fledging community-based projects. Currently, I am using my life savings to acquire a property in the island and open the center in spring 2021.
Will the land you acquire in Puerto Rico find you?
I recently launched a Kickstarter initiative to help fund my project in Puerto Rico. But because of the pandemic, ensuing quarantine, and economic downturn, I decided to cancel the campaign, not honoring the pledges. We have to sacrifice and be generous right now. That funding is currently more needed by my backers to assure their health and wellbeing, and that of their families. Nevertheless, I believe that the land will find me. I never wish to find, like an explorer. I wish to be found. It is not a passive stance but an open perceptual stance. I seek with detachment; I swim, but it is the current that takes me places.
I am also flexible to not acquire land but to acquire a piece of architecture that hosts visiting public intellectuals, scholars of perception, mindful makers, and small organic growers. I am in conversations with various project partners who might put forth the land, so that what I contribute is a historic building for the workers of the land. Right now, my job is to remain totally open to what may find me, regardless of its form.
How would you first occupy it?
Everything will depend on the site’s form and location. Like I said, it could be architecture or land. Nevertheless, I would prefer to be located in an urban setting because the island is polarized between nature reserves and parks on one side, and extremely paved urban spaces on the other. I want to create a middle ground that has been absent so far. I remain clear in that this is not going to be my design project, but a generous incubator of other public designers’ projects. And I plan to live in it, eventually. That is what this project ultimately requires of me, a full immersion for the entire decade.
How will you bring others to it if they are not already there?
The future has already arrived in Puerto Rico. The climate crisis has happened, and it’s generating a very resilient society that may still be poor for now, but that has a lot to teach us already, and tons more to teach us in the near future. More and more island architecture has been retrofitted with solar panels, cisterns, generators, and edible gardens. More people are learning how to plant, nurture, harvest, and process their own food. Their government is bankrupt, and they have to do everything for themselves. Farming was institutionally discouraged in Puerto Rico for decades in order to promote an architecture of dependency. But people are now seeking their nutritional sovereignty. There is a remarkable farming renaissance right now, mostly organic, spearheaded by young farmers with no support other than family and friends. Puerto Rican society functions like an intimate network. I am already known within the collective family.
You recently concluded a social media interaction, which I see as an extension of your social choreography. One of the last entries was about farming. I paraphrase here: “Seek the news of the soil; seek the postings of the people who work the soil. Seek the frank, honest and sincere voices of the real. Seek them locally, statewide, and regionally. Read and recover your inspiration. Recover your hope in humanity. Even if you’re deep within the heart of a city, surf the Internet for the farms that feed your city.” So much of our current global infrastructure is built on industrialized mechanisms of just about everything, right down to the food on our plates. To reclaim our innate ability to create, grow, and thrive, what would be some first “steps” we might take to reclaim walking our own path, listening closely to what is not always seen?
I lived in New York City for several decades, but moved out some years ago to live in a historic farmhouse and barn in northeastern New York State, originally built in 1725 by the Dutch and then inhabited by a Quaker family for 100 years. It was a very pure space, never Victorianized, deep within a rural community. I had worked with numerous small communities over the years, but had never truly lived long-term in one. The experience taught me an incredible lot about food production. I research local organic and artisanal farmers of all kinds. I did a brief internship with a shepherd. I created a perennial garden, an orchard of my own.
I now reside in a loft in an upcycled industrial building in Philadelphia, which has been undergoing a building boom. Yet I remain connected to the news of the soil through these and other farmers who have blogs, pages, and websites. I keep a plant-based diet. So in my new neighborhood of Fishtown, I have sought the farm stands and grocery shops that have direct relationships to local farmers. So my most honest response to your question is that we have to look around and find the sources of all we consume. We have to research our town, city and region to find growers who are farming right. It is our nutritional and ethical responsibility. If we reclaim the architecture of our food sourcing right, it would be an enormous step in healing humanity and the Earth.
Featured image: “The Listeners” (curated by Lili Chopra), River to River Festival, LMMC, New York, USA, 2019. Photo by Nisa Ojalvo (c).