Coco Guzmán: Language, accessibility and the art space
I had the pleasure of stopping by Pio Centre for Drawing to pick the brain of director Coco (Riot) Guzmán: queer visual artist, comic-maker and all around rad character. Originally from Spain, Coco has lived in no less than four cities and was kind enough to sit down with me and chat about their practice, influences and thoughts on our art communities. We had a lively conversation in Spanglish about accessibility, translation, challenging the art hierarchies and bringing voices together.
Back in Spain, what’s your first memory related to art?
My parents used to make jewellery to sell in the streets and I remember sitting on a table and watching them make all of this bijouterie: earrings, necklaces… I’m from a small town so we didn’t have a lot of access to museums and I also remember laying on the floor of my bedroom and copying out paintings from my mom’s art encyclopedias. There was this specific painting of a child playing the flute that I would copy out so many times. My aunt also used to work in a comic publishing house so I guess my influences were either comics or French Impressionists. (laughs)
How long have you been in Toronto for?
I moved to Canada seven years ago. Before, I left my hometown in Spain to study in Paris for four years. I then moved to Toulouse, then Montreal and finally here.
Do you find that having lived in all of these different cities has affected your practice?
Totally. In France, for example, I didn’t actually study art in university. I studied literature. I was involved in a very DIY culture and was making art for squat movements and for queer and feminist movements. It’s funny because studying literature from the Middle Ages and living in a squat house might seem completely unrelated, but I actually feel like a lot of my drawings were influenced by that time period. It was a period of storytelling, right? There weren’t many comics in French at the time, or access to the Internet so that’s when I started making my own comics.
What role does language play in your art-making? Do you find that certain languages express ideas better than others?
Absolutely. I speak Spanish, English and French and sometimes one of them bring up the most in text-based stories. When I first moved here, all of my comics were in French and I started translating them into English and later on a friend of mine helped me translate them to Spanish as well. We ended up making a book called Llueven Queers and included a whole section in which we talk about language and translation. We actually spent so much time designing the title of this book because initially we didn’t want to use the word ‘queer’.
Why didn’t you want to use the word ‘queer’?
It’s not directly translatable in Spanish. In Spain we use one word, in Argentina and Venezuela they use another… We ended up using it because sadly, it’s the only word that’s somewhat understandable in the majority of Spanish-speaking countries. I’m very aware of these different dialects and very consciously choose to not have a language. I like to focus on the visual aspect to make it more accessible.
Do you find that accessibility isn’t prioritized enough in the art community?
I think it’s very elitist not to think about accessibility. One of the reasons I actually opened Pio Centre for Drawing is because I think we’re not talking enough about accessibility as a maker. We need to give people more access to make art. Not only the access to see art, but to make it. We need to change that idea and help the audience be active in the creation as well.
Do you think people should be engaging in art through a more mutual interaction?
They should, by creating new ideas. Projects of mine such as Gender Poo and Los Fantasmas exist because people are experiencing them and thinking about them, giving feedback or bringing new ideas that elevate the projects to another level. I’m totally unable to do that on my own.
What power does art have in its capacity to bring social justice and innovation?
It’s all about conversation. What I try to do - and something I think I’ve achieved - is to not have a this is how things are mentality. I find that, for example, people think that Gender Poo is about breaking binaries. More than breaking binaries, it’s about questioning what is ‘normal’. I’m trying to challenge people to question who they are, what their role is… I think that it’s when you enter this conversation in which both people are involved in that access is so important. Art has so many hierarchies already, we need to break them down. It’s also really important to be open about the questions you ask. If this is my story, it’s one of many. It’s not the truth. We need to start asking questions and really valuing people and their answers.
Especially in Toronto, I find there’s such a multiplicity of stories. We’re in such a perfect space to bring all of these cultures and backgrounds and experiences together to create something vibrant but it’s not quite there yet because there are certain risks that aren’t being taken, or aren’t accessible to certain people.
Having access to taking those risks goes back to the access of art-making itself. We need to change the idea that art is something to be observed. We need to give people the tools to make it. That’s when art can actually create change. In that way, it changes your life by giving you a voice that you didn’t have before and that many people never get to have.
It’s important to challenge the pre-established norms and institutions of our art communities.
Totally. To really create social change, you have to destroy the art industries - or better said - the art hierarchies, to make space for something new. In Toronto, what makes it difficult is that there is one voice that is the only one that considers what is ‘real’ or ‘good’ art. There is no independent cultures outside of that. Montreal has more artistic power in that sense because it has spaces where people can go and make art. In Toronto, there aren’t that many spaces in the city where you can just come in and create. The more spaces there are, the more diversity is created. I think we tend to undervalue the space. It’s easy to go work in a library on a poem or a drawing, but that’s not how it should be, really.
Having a specific space to create is also valuable in the sense that brings people together and you can see how your work affects others in and outside of collaboration.
I always have a lot of envy for performance artists because they cannot work alone. They learn to work with a team, with people and they need to have a space. I would love for the visual arts to take those elements. As an artist, I never seek expectations. I only show the pieces I like, really, and that’s not possible with an actor. It’s much more challenging.
Where do you think the bridge between art and activism is formed?
In the conversation. I actually think a lot about this… I think it’s formed with the people. Anything political is seen through the content but it’s also important to take the process into account. When I start a project, the format is very political to me. Format, production, money… I take all of these things into consideration. That way, I can try to make it as accessible as possible. I think it’s easy to think about content in activism, but how are those political ideas translated? Through the process, the result, the distribution. It’s easy to be like viva the revolution but you can totally be exploiting other people or not make it accessible.
You have a lot of responsibility when advocating something because all angles need to be explored in detail to represent those voices in a respectful and well-educated way.
You have to be very humble too. You always need to include others. When talking about yourself, you need to be honest and understand that it is impossible to talk for or about everyone. This is your little piece in a very big mountain and everyone comes to the mountain together.
What do you think about art in Toronto?
I find that art in Toronto… lots of great brain, great ideas but where are your guts? Put some blood in it! Come one! (laughs) I think there are many interesting things in the city but the problem is that there’s this brick wall where we don’t know about the older generations and they may not know about us, so there’s no mentorship. So many people have this idea of artist and genius and I’m not interested in that. When I exhibit my work, I put my studio out there. I don’t want to sell my art to people without them being involved or participating actively in it. We’re forgetting the fun in art. When someone can enter an art show and smile and have fun, that’s all I want.