The Process of Making Writings: A Conversation with Verónica Gerber Bicecci
A year ago, while I was on vacation in Bogotá, I met with a group of friends in the Hojas de Parra bookstore, a welcoming place near the Universidad Nacional. The store takes full advantage of its location in one of those old Bogotá middle-class houses and also of the emotional link felt by many of us who spent long afternoons hanging out on the campus. While we exchanged views on the cover designs and titles that attracted our attentions, a friend of a friend took Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Conjunto vacío (Empty Set) from my pile of potential purchases and informed me that she was one of her favorite authors. The cover of the Almadía edition had caught my eye: a simple black background with a huge symbol, denoting an empty set in mathematics. Nothing more. No information about the writer, not a hint as to what might be inside or why. Flicking through the pages, I found Venn diagrams and a wide variety of lines, squiggles, and shapes on many of the pages.
Back in Chicago, Verónica Gerber Bicecci was, by coincidence, invited to participate in the 2019 Lit & Luz festival, where she presented a performance of Jaguars y monarcas (Jaguars and Monarchs), co-authored with Michel Rodríguez. I then heard that she’d been invited to give a class, and I joined it from sheer curiosity. Naturally, you always want to know more about the person behind the books you’ve enjoyed (the books that make you want to sit down and write). What sort of link would Verónica Gerber Bicecci actually establish with writing, given that her work seems to have close ties to the visual arts? What was the origin of her particular attempt to, one might say, write the gaze and draw literature? When the class finished, we continued the conversation along other lines in another university, far from the Bogotá bookstore, and then later exchanged a few voice messages, the result being this text you’re now reading.
Óscar Campo: Looking back at my notes on Empty Set and Mudanza (Moving Out), I found I’d written the word method several times. I think I was, in part, referring to a working or writing method as something that intrigues me in relation to how your novel and the collection of essays were made. But I also have the impression that method is one of the themes explored in the literary sense in both works. In Empty Set, for example, the narrative voice begins by talking about how good she is at beginnings, at collecting beginnings that never become stories. So I wanted to ask about the importance of method in your creative process and how it might (or might not) mean different things for literature and the visual arts.
Verónica Gerber Bicecci: That word method feels wrong to me. And the reason is that it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not sure why, but I don’t like it. Maybe it’s because I associate it with something that’s always repeated in the same way, like a recipe. I’m thinking of scientific method, which has a particular order. Even though the process involves transformation and each step has its own rules, the stages are predetermined. That’s what feels wrong to me about the word method, the implication of predetermination.
In that sense, trying to follow the tradition that Carrión emerged from, I prefer the word structure. While it can be linked to concepts in philosophy I don’t know much about, in its simple, everyday acceptance, I like structure because I think it can be moved around, reorganized in many ways. It seems to me that in scientific method you can’t begin with the last step, go on to the first and finish with the second. You can with structure. Perhaps not with a practical structure like scaffolding that has to be assembled so it will hold your weight when you climb it, but a structure in abstract, diagrammatic terms, that you can use to speculate and where you can change the positions of all the elements over and over.
And all that is just to say that I associate my artistic practice and its intersections with the word structure. What I’m trying to do is more like an analysis of structure (and not the creation of a method) in which the image and the text can coincide. I try to think of structures in which the relationships between the image and the text change and posit different kinds of readings.
Ó.C.: I’d like to add another element to our conversation. I said “method” and you replied “I’m more interested in structure than method.” However, maybe structure isn’t exactly what motivated my original question. So I’ll add the word procedure, which I know has a cold, formulaic side, but can also allude to one of the tasks of writing, the writing process, which I think is present in your novels, in the process of Empty Set or La Compañía (The Company), though maybe they each involve different processes in each case.
V.C.B.: I agree that structure doesn’t completely explain things, and I like the way that you suggest procedure after method—they both refer to scientific logic, and I don’t really mind the cold side of that—but it still doesn’t really sound very flexible (though I may be guided by faulty impressions in that). I think it’s important to point out that there are many pseudo-scientific elements in my work. I’m only interested in science as a part of my research. So, strictly speaking, it’s a rather unscientific science. I’d like to add another word that you yourself have mentioned and that underlies procedure: process.
Visual artists are trained to think in terms of processes and structures rather than methods and procedures. Particularly processes, if you think in terms of 20th century art since the first the avant-garde movements. So I’m still interested in the word process and I think that each project (another word we can discuss) generates its own processes. Every project has its own triggers; they begin for different reasons. Sometimes a curator triggers them, sometimes a publisher, something you’re reading, a painting, a personal need, an intuition, a previous project you want to develop. The beginning is never completely clear and there doesn’t have to be a specific trigger either.
I’m not sure if that answers your question. Maybe not. But process is the part I enjoy most. I find it hard to describe a single process because it’s different for each project. In the end, what interests me in making the process visible is that the reader can access what you could call the geology or archeology of the multiple elements woven together or configured in each piece. I’m interested in what Donna Haraway talks about in Staying with the Trouble. And based on some of her ideas, I’m thinking about the processes of the composting of writing, and the pieces as organisms that grow from the organisms we already know. And maybe that’s all an attempt to distance myself from 20th century appropriation.
Ó.C.: You mentioned Ulises Carrión, and that gives me an opening to ask about his influence. He’s not particularly well known in all Latin American countries. In Columbia, for example, his work isn’t discussed much. However I’ve heard contemporary writers like Cristina Rivera Garza mention him in relation to the rather unconventional relationship he establishes with writing. I’d like to ask about Carrión’s importance for you since it is so central to Mudanza. Why does an artist with such radical ideas as Ulises Carrión have so strong an impact on or nourish the exploration undertaken by someone beginning to write? Why is that type of exploration so contemporary?
V.G.B.: Ulises Carrión was, you could say, a writer who became a visual artist. And who practiced conceptual literature or writing. The term conceptual writing is very much in circulation nowadays. But when I first came into contact with his work, it wasn’t really prevalent in literature or art. The first time I saw his work was in 2002. I was twenty, halfway through a visual arts course in La Esmeralda (the university where I studied) and, back then, the Museo Carrillo Gil was one of the most important galleries in Mexico City when it came to contemporary art. In fact, many of the exhibitions I saw there were central to my formation as a visual artist. Martha Hellion—a visual artist and friend of Carrión—curated a retrospective of his work. As I wandered around the salons, through the nooks and crannies of the exhibition, I felt something sparking off right in the center of my brain, in my guts, and even my heart. It was hugely important for me to come into contact with the work of someone like Carrión who had brought two apparently distanced worlds into dialogue: writing and images, even though it sounds absurd to say such a thing (there are thousands of experiments—beginning with children’s—that bring those two worlds together). Although I’d chosen to study visual arts, I’d always been torn between art and literature. Writing, rather than literature per se, was moved to the margins. And when I saw Ulises’s work, I realized that they could go together and that it wasn’t necessary to make a choice between them, as teaching methodology insisted. I spent hours in the gallery, and returned to see certain pieces again. In my opinion, Ulises Carrión was a structuralist, in the engineering sense: a structural engineer of the book, the page, the sentence. And as he dismantled the girders or buttresses (that’s to say, everything needed to make the structures), he took writing to its limits (and also the image). That’s one of the greatest lessons his work has taught me.
Ó.C.: Before we finish, I’d like to ask about the differences you see in the processes of Empty Set and your latest work, La Compañía. I’m curious to know how each of the two projects involves a particular form of process, but also about their shared elements.
V.G.B.: I think what these two projects have in common is that, in both cases, there was an attempt to produce what I now call a calligram. Carrión himself said this at one point: writers don’t write books, they write texts. But in those two cases the process did in fact have to do with making/writing books and not just writing texts. What do I mean by making books? I mean thinking of the object in its entirety as an artifact with relationships and exchanges between the container and the content, but also, as far as is possible, of objects that are increasingly conscious of the social and political relationships of their production. And in future projects I’d even like to increase the consciousness of the carbon footprint involved in the chain of its production and distribution (though I’m still not certain how to do that). As a part of “making books,” I also want to be as closely involved as possible in the process of the making, though that my not always be possible. For one thing, many of my books were initially installations or special pieces that made the leap to artifact books. They aren’t always primarily texts on the computer or on paper, though they do sometimes begin that way.
The processes of the production of Empty Set and La Compañía were very different but they both contain the notion of montage. Montage is another interesting word to discuss. I think of it in terms of Georges Did-Huberman, who says that images are a montage of heterogeneous times. I think both La Compañía and Empty Set involve a montage of heterogeneous times in terms of portentous figures (The Company and the mother, respectively). Plus, in the ways they rewrite time, these two books attempt to bring into the present or make present, as Cristina Rivera Garza puts it. But returning to something I said earlier, they are perhaps books that opted for composting processes of rewriting (and when I say writing, I’m always referring to image and text) rather than strategies of appropriation, collage and so on, which were so prevalent in 20th century art. But I’m still thinking that idea through, based on the things I’ve been reading lately, so I’m still trying to understand just what I’m referring to in all this and, above all, where the differences would lie.
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Óscar Daniel Campo Becerra was born in Barrancabermeja, Colombia in 1985. He is a writer and professor. Días hábiles (2020), his first novel, was recently published in Spain and Colombia. In 2013, he won the Ciudad de Bogotá Award for the short story book Los aplausos (2014). He coordinated the writing and publication of two collective books of historical memory along with a grassroot organization: Vidas de historia: Una memoria literaria de la Organización Femenina Popular (2016) and Escrituras del desarraigo: Historias de vida, Floridablanca-Santander (2019). Since 2018, he has formed part of the Museum Advisory Committee of the Museo Casa de la Memoria de las Mujeres y de los Derechos Humanos. Currently, he is writing a doctoral dissertation on Latin American unfinished novels at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In this same city, he was part of the organizing committee of the third Feria Latinx del Libro (2019). He is cofounder and editor of the independent publishing house, Himpar Editores.
Verónica Gerber Bicecci is a visual artist who writes. She has published the books: Mudanza, La Compañía, Otro día… (poemas sintéticos), Empty Set (translated by Christina MacSweeney), which won the 3rd International Aura Estrada Literature prize and the Otra Mirada Cálamo prize, and Migrant Words (bilingual, translated with commentary by Christina MacSweeney). Her most recent projects in other media are: vocabulary b in muca Roma, Mexico City; The Dystopian Machine in the Museo Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguérez, Zacatecas; and In the Eye of Bambi, a curatorship short story (translated by Christina MacSweeney) with artworks selected from La Caixa Collection and presented in Whitechapel Gallery, London. She was an editor at the Mexican publishing cooperative Tumbona Ediciones. She presently teaches on the SOMA art program in Mexico City and is a beneficiary of FONCA's National System of Art Creators grant.
Christina MacSweeney was awarded the 2016 Valle Inclán Translation Prize for her translations of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and her translations of Daniel Saldaña París’s novel Among Strange Victims was a finalist in the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. In 2017 she published a translation of Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman, followed in 2018 by Empty Set (Verónica Gerber Bicecci), and Tomb Song and The House of the Pain of Others (Julián Herbert), all of which have received critical acclaim. Her work has also been included in various anthologies of Latina American Literature. Christina also collaborated with Verónica Gerber Bicecci on the bilingual book Palabras migrantes / Migrant Words. Her translations of Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino (Julián Herbert), On Lighthouses, a book-length essay by Jazmina Barrera, and Elvira Navarro’s short story collection Rabbit Island are forthcoming in 2020.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.