“Social transformation will not be written along a straight line”. A conversation with Felipe Rivas and Jorge Díaz (CUDS)

CUDS participating in LGTB pride in Santiago de Chile, 2004

The University Collective of Sexual Dissidence (Coordinadora Universitaria de Disidencia Sexual – CUDS) is one of the most active, experimental and provocative queer and transfeminist groups to emerge from the university context in recent times. Its theoretical production and street activism is characterized by an endless array of non-normative sexual expressions, which are reflected back into the public sphere with bold creativity. Over a period of more than ten years, its interventions in Chile and other spaces in Latin America have not ceased to produce new subversive fictions that refuse to inhabit one single identity. In this conversation, Felipe Rivas San Martín and Jorge Díaz, members of CUDS, reflect on the territorios of sexual dissidence, the relationship of the group with militancy and the left, the spheres of art and activism, the role of writing, the distinction between university and academia, and different strategies of constructing resistance against heteronormativity in our everyday lives.  


Miguel:  Since over ten year CUDS is working in a crossing of radical activism, cultural production and theoretical thinking. How does the collective come into live? What kinds of alliances have been forged with other social movements during this time?

Felipe:  The collective emerges in 2002 continuing the work done by a prior group: the Left Committee for Sexual Diversity (Comité de Izquierda por la Diversidad Sexual – CIDS). This Committee was a gathering of the most radical sectors of local LGBT activism that were also connected to the cultural activism and the feminists of Radio Tierra. The goal of the group was to generate an as yet non-existing bridge between the left sectors (movements and parties) and militant homosexual activism. The CIDS emerged from the Communist Party (Partido Comunista - PC) and, to a large extent, the reason it came into existence was the very close friendship between Gladys Marín (the PC’s president) and [artist and writer] Pedro Lemebel, who was always present during the activities. 

When the CDIS comes to an end, we, the activists, decide to continue the work in our local venues. Some members of the group later formed a union. Two of us were entering university, so we thought it only logical to continue activism in this domain. Never before had a homosexual collective been politically articulated within the university realm, so there was a lot of uncertainty, no straight direction, and it had us wavering between different practices. Besides we were so young, so the CUDS was our space of political “deformation.” We only had three points of demarcation: the left, the university, and critical sexuality.

Those three signs have distinctly demarcated the processes of the group and have also delimited our political alliances. In the first place, we should consider the “left” not to be understood as a political party or a precise programmatic agenda, but rather as a dissident positioning against the institutional, its reification and naturalization. This brought us closer to countercultural and anti-systemic practices, to anarchism and underground culture. 

Secondly, there was the University, the place of self-legitimation of institutionalized knowledge. In this sense, the University is a locus of political intervention precisely by subjects like us who traditionally have been the object of discourse in science and the humanities (homosexuals, women, transvestites...). And we are articulating now our own discourse, that permeates from the outside towards the edges of the University.  

CUDS emerges at the exact moment when Latin-America starts to receive the so-called “queer theory.” In that same year 2002 the Revista de Crítica Cultural (Magazine for Cultural Critique directed by Nelly Richard,) publishes the first dossier with texts about queer theory that precisely reflects critically on the problem of its entry into the local context. So our relationship with academia has been ambivalent: at times critical, at times with tactic alliances. 

 

CUDS, Dos veces santa: peregrinación por Karol Romanoff [Twice holy: the pilgrimage for Karol Romanoff], Public Intervention and video-performance. Santiago de Chile, December 8, 2010.

Miguel:  I would like to put the emphasis on the role visuality plays in their work, the way you incorporate artistic strategies and parody into your activism, producing forms of transgression that differ from traditional politics. What is your relationship to art? In what way your aesthetic fictions are questioning conventional means of left political action?

Jorge:  Considering your question, I would like to take it answer towards the nomination “artist.” I think that some members of the collective feel more or less comfortable with the idea of being considered an artist. Myself, in particular, I feel uncomfortable with the category of artist, I prefer to be considered an activist. But even so, I would say: artist, yes of course, but understood as it was experienced and proclaimed by the neo-vanguard movement, then yes, of course. “Everyone who works to broaden, even if mentally, his vital spaces is an artist,” was the social art statement of the Chilean activist group CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte – Art Actions Collective) from 1980s. Even so I prefer the idea of being an activist. 

I think that there is high political potential in a concept like artistic activism, in that it recovers the relevance of art in breaking down signs and practices in which political and sexual militancy have been working since many years.

I would like to say that the activist practices of CUDS, have allowed us to establish a militancy in the sexual realm in a rather unprejudiced way, and what is more important, without discipline. When I say discipline I refer to both the academic character and to the martial tone the word holds. Perhaps both acceptances of the word point to the same. Therefore, the work at CUDS allows us to move between disciplines without seeking coherence and rigid bibliographical references. From philosophers to prostitutes, performers, playwrights, actresses, and scientists we are constructing resistance against the disciplines that organize us. We allow ourselves this chance, at least in regard to activism. But of course, there is no such thing as being outside the system, and we know that. 

It seems to me that aesthetics should be a thorough tool for us activists who don’t think that social transformation will be written in a straight line. Indeed I think that by recovering left political action, we gain a notorious distance, at least in our context. In fact the emergence of the student movement that demanded free-of-charge access, has also distanced itself from those left politics as being obsolete, sexist, and traditional (and those distances widen when we talk about feminist movements within the context of student protest). We don’t think that there is only one way of achieving transformation. Often those who work with signs, aesthetics and words are accused of being elitist. “Anything you do is worthless,” they say. There is a permanent attitude of suspicion towards activisms that particularly experiment with words and micro-politics as signs of resistance.  We, however, continue to go for an activism that doesn’t shy away from theoretical work or feminist writing. Here I would like to recover the words of a militant friend from the collective, the philosopher Lucha Venegas, who a short time ago wrote “Writing is not something that belongs to academia, it doesn’t exist just for its controlled business use. For working women and feminists writing becomes vital, a place of resistance, a frame for experimenting and twisting reality, a place from where to attack.”

Poster from the Second Circuit of Sexual Dissidence "Por un Feminismo sin mujeres" [For a feminism without women] in Santiago de Chile, 2011 


Felipe Rivas San Martín, Ideology, 2011. Video. Cortesy of the artist.


Felipe: To continue with your question Miguel, I would like to say a couple of things. To begin with, I have less of a reluctance to use the nomination “artist” partly because of the obvious reason that that is my education, that art is my field of work. Mainly however because I think that we should step down from our “artist” pedestal. There is a way of understanding the “artist” in association with a series of metaphysical and bourgeois concepts like creation, genius, enlightenment, etc. And I have the impression that these are chains of associations that turn the notion of “artist” into a suspicious category.  But if we understand the artist as a producer rather than a “creator,” no longer a minor god, we could think of the artist in a more material sense in equivalence with other categories such as philosophers, prostitutes, performers, playwrights, actresses or scientists that Jorge mentioned. As artists we are also operators who work with sensitive materials.

Some days ago, we were discussing about this at some meetings on “the constituent role of art” and another one about “art and politics” with several artists from my generation who were involved in the 2011 student demonstrations, probably one of the most provocative political events of the entire post-dictatorship. There is a problematic and highly productive node in the fact that we are workers of the sensitive, that art is experiencing a critical re-politicization and that there is an ever-increasing attention paid to the sensitive nature of reality, to the fact that any transformation of such reality necessarily has to be aesthetic. And that poses a problem because now the question arises whether we artists should or should not have a privileged role in such aesthetic transformation of the world. The risk is that again we drop back to the idea of the “enlightened artist,” but this time due to a revolutionary conscience, as though it were superior to that of others.

But to get back to Miguel’s question and the relationship of CUDS with the artistic practices and the left, I would say that there is a back-and forth relationship. When CUDS emerged in 2002, the “Funa movement” was in full gear. During the post-dictatorship (from 1990 onwards), the left and the Human Rights movements that were fighting for truth and justice against the cases of dictatorial violence (assassination, disappearance, and torture) had used an institutional strategy: appealing to the state and the tribunals in order to try to apply justice, attacking the framework of impunity and the Amnesty law. This strategy had no result. So then several groups of young people and Human Rights activists from the end of the 1990s, adopted the Argentinian “escrache” (slang word meaning “revealing”/ “putting out in public”) tactic, applying the similar notion of “Funa”, a mapuche word. So the “Funa movement” went to the homes and workplaces of the killers and torturers of the military dictatorship and they would make a scandal, a public finger-pointing. They would incriminate them before their neighbors, family, and colleagues. It was a means of direct action: “if there is no justice, then there is funa.” This meant an anti-institutional deviation from left practices and at the same time an aesthetic transformation of their means, because the “funas” were rather visual. It was all so powerful that in fact the first actions by CUDS were precisely “funas” against colleges, schools and universities where lesbians and gays were discriminated against. At that point, we didn’t think of the act of appropriation and the shifting of Human Rights tactics towards strategies of sexual politics, in terms of quoting, of appropriation and artistic activism; in reality, we started to use it because we thought it was very efficient, but also because homosexual activism, at that time, wasn’t using it.  I think that those “funas” carried out by CUDS were very important in regard to the delimitation of the aesthetic dimension of our activism. It later on continued with marches, video-based tactics, Internet, performances or urban interventions, social networks, fiction as a tool, work voided of prejudice through signs, dismantled.  And it seems to me that this has come back today in a wider sense through demands for abortion that have been recently launched by feminist and sexual dissidence groups. Today the demand for abortion in Chile is formulated differently: removed from all drama and its lugubrious connotations, abortion-rights activism uses playful, irreverent, and humorous language and it is definitely making a change in the way we view abortion. So in fact it is not only a question of art adorning protest or making it more appealing, but rather how art alters our ways of perception.

 

CUDS, Andres Bello más bella que nunca [Andrés Bello more beautiful than ever], Intervention on the public monument of the jurist and legislator Andrés Bello, founder and rector of University of Chile (1842-1865) and co-writer of the Civil Code. Santiago de Chile, May 30, 2008. 


Miguel: Given that CUDS originated within the university context somebody could reduce its actions to a sort of “academic activism,” when in fact the kind of political activism you have carried out has various channels, many of them positioned in the periphery of institutions and formalized LGTB discourse. Which are the spaces / locations / realm of the CUDS movement?

Felipe: There is a distinction which has shown to be very useful for us,  namely the distinction between “university” and “academia.” I think that the university is an important space for political intervention that we should not abandon. The university as such is a permeable space with two interesting dimensions for CUDS: the university both as a space for the production of knowledge (of its critical confrontation) and as a fostering place for student movements. Both these environments of polemic intervention justify our work in the university. 

The problem arises when dealing with “academia” and its contemporary configuration as an entity that controls, regulates and disciplines a single and legitimate mode of thought production. Such mode of thought production is linked to a thought market that favors capitalist purposes and has structured university production within strict formats: the paper, quotation systems, indexation of publications and its monopoly in international agencies, rankings, a clear and precise language, market efficiency: without any shocks, shadows of doubt or critical wavering, and obviously without the affected, baroque queer language. It concerns a “straight” model of academic production, which is masculine and heterosexual in its form and neoliberal in its focus and which we are openly starting to resist based on models of critical and dissident reflection. 

Yet independently from this, as you say, CUDS does not limit its activism to the university space, as what I think is even more important, is that the way of understanding each “space” has to be dissident, has to produce fracture and contamination. So for example in the case of interventions by CUDS in public spaces or on the street, “public space” or “street” do not become autonomous, closed-in locations, but are part of other spaces, such as social networks. Therefore our street interventions also focus on being recorded, edited and circulated virtually. Today street protests are also measured by their reach in the media, so the recent re-politicization of the public space is very much linked to the emergence of alternative means of communication and social networks that break away from the communicational enclosure of TV monopolies and allow protest to circulate in different ways from the official media. 

Within CUDS as well as in other sexual dissidence groups, in Chile the possibility has been questioned of using media or even gossip language as a critical means, like for example Frente Jilista [1] or Josecarlo Henriquez, a feminist male prostitute and CUDS activist who has had a very important media presence in Chile and who succeeded in permeating television with a sexual dissident discourse. At the same time, after the 2011 student mobilizations and in regard to abortion-right feminism, we have tightened our link to recent student and feminist movements. Today the student movement has started to demand “non-sexist education,” a question that goes beyond simple “sexual education” as part of the state programs. At CUDS we talk about “sexy education.”

So our spheres of action have become multi-focused (from the “difficult writings” of theoretical-critical practice to the massive TV languages; from social networks to the streets, from feminism to celebrity attention).  A few years ago, we started to call ourselves “neighborhood-girls:” we are “the CUDS neighborhood-girls.” Now everybody knows us by that name and people think that’s a lot of fun. Being a “neighborhood-girl” (a vecina in Spanish) means that you are part of the neighborhood, a territory of proximity, a common space of circulation, of certain practices and rituals that make sense but that are not necessarily mutually coherent. The territories of sexual dissidence are ambiguous spaces of intermittent and discontinuous intervention, experimental approaches without a predetermined course. 

 

Hija de Perra in a march for the right to abortion in Santiago organised by CUDS

Miguel: Finally, could you comment on your link to and complicity with Hija de Perra (Daughter-of-a-Bitch) a marginal and stunning figure in queer activism who just passed away? What do you think is the place of her bizarre and gore performance style within the local or Latin-American context?

Jorge: Hija de Perra was a great and inspiring companion in the cause of sexual militancy. Her physical passing leaves a large empty space, which I am sure others will continue. She meant a desperate cry for breaking the limits between what is called performance and activism, between what is understood as pedagogy and aesthetic transgression. In CUDS we kept a strong tie since her first appearances as a bizarre and underground trash diva, going around in the most sordid and punk places of post- dictatorial Santiago with performances where excrements, blood and partying allowed us to establish a kind of space of existence. I remember how surprised I was by her capacity to be concerned about every detail of her presentations and the quality of her performances in places that didn’t even gather the most basic means to present a show of this kind. She turned precariousness into glamour, with a powerful and irreverent discourse in party and sex bars. She was concerned with feminist and sexual dissidence theory and went wherever we would establish a deep political and affective friendship, crystalized in writings and performances that caused great polemics. With Hija de Perra we have interrupted as dissidents into many marches and academies, have entered museums and upset seminaries. Our very trajectory as CUDS is marked by the presence of Hija de Perra, we would not be able to understand our activism without her and I think this was reciprocal. The positioning of what queer involves and our insistence on post-identitarian policies in which abortion occupies a central, enigmatic and urgent place, was what kept us as close and political allies. 

Hija de Perra wasn’t afraid of talking about sex in a country suffocated by traditionalism, homophobia, sexism, racism, and the fear of anything different. She didn’t want her discourse to go unnoticed or to be pronounced in a low voice. She used a strategy of exaggeration as the reflection of a country where everything was restraint in regard to sex. She applied a radical pedagogy as to the practice of sex in her classes about venereal diseases that she took to a large part of Chile and Argentina. Her presence troubled both left and right conservatism. With her latex vagina she contaminated the academic space and her bizarre aesthetics surprised any hetero-normatized spectator of her work. Perhaps censorship was one of the words that ran along her disobedient body. I remember that she was often recorded for TV programs but was never aired.

Hija de Perra was that insolent bomb against normative institutions. A bomb like Hija de Perra accelerated our dissident hearts ready to explode. Let's make bombs against the ridiculous idea of never seeing you again, Perra.

Hija de Perra, El aborto [Abortion], 2011. Performance during the launch of the book "For a feminism without women" edited by CUDS, Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago de Chile.

[1] Note: Named after a revolutionary anchor-woman, Pamela Jiles, who infiltrated in the television network