Tropicalismo: Language, latitude, and weather

July 9, 2015

Indeed, the two ways of reading cultural objects made in the tropics presented in the provocation text for this discussion is very precise. I cannot disagree. Nevertheless I propose to go before those perceptions about our framework here, and look at the etymology of the word for some further answers. My first concern stems from the fact that the tropics, “a region of the earth surrounding the Equator”, does not only concern Latin America as is suggested, but also a large portion of Asia and, no less, territories in Africa. (If we also, in the same package, consider the subtropics to include Florida, for example, we should also include parts of the Middle East.) But this text is not about inclusion, but my own journey in search of the implications that the words we use have. Maybe author Raymond Carver was right, and we should start the discussion by asking ourselves: What do we talk about when we talk about the tropics? I would add: and why?

I have been as careful as possible to not have my own work be read through geographical preconceptions. But a couple of years ago I accepted an invitation to be part of a forum conversation about art criticism in Latin America. I thought I would say what I have to say about that definition and forget about talking about it ever again. This text is the proof that I failed miserably.

During my presentation, I had to ask myself what it is that defined Latin America, before getting to art criticism there. Before the end of my talk, I had to argue that I had little, if any, relationship to the term, and that actually we should stay away from it as much as possible.

Latin American was a term coined after very specific ideas put forward in France in the 1830s by editor and statesman Michel Chevalier. The postulation, made after a state research trip to the United States and Mexico, argued that what we now call Latin America was inhabited by people of a “Latin race” and that therefore it should ally itself with European peoples with a Romance culture, and not with Teutonic or Slavic Europe, nor with Anglo Saxon America.

After appearing for the first time in print, the term was immediately put to use by Napoleon III in order to invade a number of countries, which among other important consequences, installed Maximilian of Habsburg as Emperor of Mexico. Luckily, it’s been many years since this happened, and when one reviews the popularity of the term through that time, it becomes clear that peaks of its usage (at least in print) are connected to other countries’ interests in that part of the world, either for political and/or economic reasons.

Today, Latin America is a denomination that clearly transcends its origins. If it is true that it is idiotic to ask anybody to stop using the term, I hope that with a statement like that we start to ask ourselves how a definition that was invented with such colonial purpose changed meaning, how that happened, and why. Who adopted it? Who uses it?

The same happens with the name “tropics”, which was coincidentally coined around the same time. The idea of the tropics as we know them today was established in the 1830s, defined by certain weather conditions and limited by latitudinal lines drawn to facilitate global navigation, and colonization. Before that, the word tropic (singular), first seen in the fourteenth century, came from the Greek tropikus, itself from tropos, “a turn,” and the ancient belief that the sun reversed direction at solstices. Yet such technical classifications—belts plotted out on the globe—have very little to do with the cultural image that has been created during the last century around them.

After being extremely unsuccessful with my Latin America conference goal, I got into making an exhibition that dealt with this in a different way. I thought maybe this time, the word whose origin meant “a turn” might actually help me change things around. So, not long ago, I presented a piece titled R.R. and The Expansion of the Tropics at the Perez Art Museum in Miami. I thought the venue, and the context, were good ground for the discussion to develop.

Again this time, my impulse came from the realization that even today, after decades of discussions about conscious globalization, I have to constantly re-draw a horizontal relationship with other aesthetic and conceptual strategies and languages that are not ideologically connected to third world cultural productions.

It is clear that—at least in the country where I work—the culture industry here is eager to sell (literally, metaphorically, and intellectually) the products that fulfill foreign preconceived expectations about those wares developed in these latitudes. That type of transaction is true but also its opposite: foreign professionals deeming conceptually oriented practices stranger when exhibited in the country where I live.

In order to create a platform to discuss this, I brought to the table two seemingly unrelated entities in the exhibition: the North American artist Robert Rauschenberg, and a phenomenon that has been given far less attention than any other in the climate change discussion: the expansion of the tropics.

On one side, I wanted to put into question an example of an artist who had lived and worked in the so-called tropics for more years than in any other place, but had never been deemed a tropical artist. This had a twofold purpose: to state that either whatever work Rauschenberg was doing in the south of Florida could also be conceived as tropical, or that it was the proof that not all tropical art made in that region of the world was meant to be colorful and connected to “desire and leisure”—to use the words of the provocation of this forum.

On the other, I wanted to use the fact that climate change over the course of recent decades had led scientists to question the tropics’ global borders. Faster than could have been predicted and without question due to human activity, tropical conditions were expanding to cover a larger portion of the globe, creeping toward the poles. If we allow climate change to continue moving, as we have to date, pushing the limits in just a few decades, the tropics could become a planetary norm, and not an exception, with more people than not living in tropical conditions. If this happens, what will define the behavior, the subjectivity or other preconceptions of people from the tropics? Could this still be defined as one entity? If so, who will be the “other” in the world: the tropical people, or the rest of the world?

Scientists have traced the origins of these dramatic changes to 1979, the same year that Rauschenberg was invited to make the cover for Tropics, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald. If the artist pretended to reflect a day-to-day life in Florida, it actually went beyond that. It also started a conversation about how the term ‘tropics’ had expanded from a scientific term to a cultural classification and about how the image of the tropics is constructed and used, as well as about the expectations related to artworks made in such contexts.

That climatic expansion went hand in hand with numerous other political changes in tropical regions; in 1979 the people of Iran overthrew the Shah, and the Soviet Union left Afghanistan following ten years of war. It was also the year Florida witnessed an infamous street shooting that revealed that South American cocaine had begun to be heavily trafficked northward, implying the region was now living a much more complex political situation. By juxtaposing these two seemingly unrelated issues, I wanted to argue that climatic change has actually brought on an expanded notion of the tropics, one where heat had to do with a lot more than just weather.

Art and its practices are precisely that, a framework that functions both ways; on one side it transpires a certain subjectivity (that of the artist) and allows others to build on it, bringing to the surface a number of revelations about ourselves as they are discussed. Sadly, a number of preconceptions about life in the tropical regions of the world are still in place when cultural products made in those regions are discussed. Unfortunately, due to the fact that both those who produce and those who consume take advantage of such preconceptions, it is hard to acknowledge that there are many other realities in these latitudes.

If the tropics indeed “can empower a world view that is different from the ‘western’ mainstream that dominates the global art world” it should be we, the people who live and work in the expanded tropics, who have to define the terms in order to create a horizontal relationship to the rest of the world and transcend that “exotic colonial gaze” that most of the time we happily feed.