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Walking and Listening in San Juan with Ernesto Pujol

Walking and Listening in San Juan with Ernesto Pujol

Students walking together

Ernesto Pujol does a lot of walking, but he still laughs in near disbelief when he recalls the 25-mile trek he took through San Juan, Puerto Rico, earlier this summer.

Ernesto Pujol does a lot of walking, but he still laughs in near disbelief when he recalls the 25-mile trek he took through San Juan, Puerto Rico, earlier this summer.

It was the third day of an eight-day trip with a group of Master of Fine Arts Students from the Weitzman School, and the culmination of a seminar that Pujol, the 2020-2021 Keith L. and Katherine S. Sachs Visiting Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, offered in the spring. Co-led by Pujol, along with Puerto Rican designer María de Mater O’Neill and architectural historian Jose Silvestre, Senior Conservator of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, the students walked through the city engaged in a process of listening, both to the urban spaces of San Juan and the colonized ecology of its post-industrial hinterlands. It was an experience that echoed themes that have threaded through Pujol’s work going back to the 1990s.

“I have a project that is called The Listening School which plays with the notion that, historically, art speaks and audiences listen—the artist speaks and the public listens. But what if you turn the tables on that, and what if artists were public listeners, public servants of listening?” Pujol says. “What if the work of art was not a moment of preaching or lecturing but was a vessel that somehow harvested and thus contained the voices of the public?”

Pujol carefully curated the trip to Puerto Rico as the capstone to his visiting professorship and the performative exercises he led with students throughout the spring semester. It was designed to immerse students in the ecology of the island, a US territory, and to introduce them to a diverse network of interdisciplinary professionals whose work is engaged with restoring the human and natural environments. During the first two days, Pujol and the students visited two nature reserves owned by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, Para la Naturaleza, which served as the trip’s primary partner and host, at former sugar and coffee plantations once operated through the labor of enslaved Africans, as an introduction to the colonial agricultural economy of Puerto Rico. On the third day, the group followed the path of a watershed from the outskirts of the city into its heart. Along the way, they encountered the various crises of contemporary Puerto Rico, from hurricane-related environmental damage to urban poverty, degraded infrastructure, and political upheaval due to government corruption and bankruptcy.

“We walked through the ruins of imported American modernity,” Pujol says. “But if you immerse young people into the gorgeous environments of the tropics and then you walk them into a real crisis, you can’t leave them there.”

During the next few days, Pujol introduced the group to El Departamento de la Comida (El Depa), a nonprofit food and agriculture collective. The students dug irrigation ditches and primed and painted a house at the rural queer collective in the Caguas mountain region outside San Juan. It was work that the group had been trying to get around to for a few years, says Tara Rodríguez Besosa, a co-founder of El Depa who is trained as an architect. Rodríguez Besosa knew Pujol through a network of mutual friends and fellow artists. The artist community in Puerto Rico is small and very active, she says, and permeated by the ideas that Pujol and the students were exploring on the trip. 

“It’s really difficult to make that definition of who’s an artist or not, of who’s an environmentalist or not because a lot of us do more than one thing and our work is interdisciplinary by heart,” she says.

Arely Peña, an artist who earned her MFA this year, says she signed on for Pujol’s seminar because of its focus on “listening to spaces and to the city and to people in a non-traditional way.” On the walk through San Juan, Peña says she tried to stay mostly silent, to absorb the histories illuminated through the land and the buildings. Even though Puerto Rico is in a state of “active colonization,” its resources being extracted without its people having all the rights of mainland Americans, Peña says, it was inspiring to see how groups of artists have created their own self-sustaining communities and support networks.

“Freedom and movement becomes possible because there’s so many gaps in the system of how Puerto Rico is run, so people can do so many DIY, under-the-table things,” Peña says. “And a lot of that is based on trust.”

Prior to the trip, the seminar functioned as a trust-building exercise among the students, says Will Owen, an artist who is entering his second-year in the MFA program. It emphasized listening to people as “experts of their own experience,” and engaging with them in non-extractive ways, Owen says. Those are important principles for an artist whose work engages the public, he says, and it fostered camaraderie among the students while preparing them for genuine interactions with other artists during the trip.

“It was great to both see the resistance to these inequities as well as the act of participation in self-sustenance,” Owen says.

Built around deep social connections, the trip was also especially rewarding after a year of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, Owen adds.

On the second-to-last day, the group visited the urban studio of sculptor Jorge González-Santos, who had prepared clay and plant-based materials for the group to collaborate on a new work of art. Some of the students modeled their own clay sculptures, before piling them in the middle of the studio and stepping on them with their feet, sacrificing individual authorship to the collective, an act of “walking” that will continue to live within and beyond the studio. González-Santos says he received the students in the same spirit of trust that he has established with Pujol and other artists on the island.

“We shared a big moment,” he says.

Throughout the trip, the students were introduced to artists, architects, designers, farmers, biologists, ecologists, historians, queer activists, and educators. Pujol says that he wanted to set them up for genuine interactions with outstanding role models in their fields.

“They met the kind of people that I, for one, seek to meet with while pursuing a project about people and place,” Pujol says. “I would say my role was to open up the country to them, the same way as when I’ve been to Utah or Hawaii or Illinois, someone has opened the place for me to be able to walk in and be trusted.”

Peña, who is working this summer as a PennPraxis Design Fellow and teaching a course in digital photography at Weitzman in the fall, says the listening seminar primed the students to receive insight and information from the people they met.

“In universities, we’re often not exposed in such close proximity to these [places] we talk about in the classroom,” Peña says. “And I think Ernesto just said, ‘No, let’s go and see it and experience it,’ and he closed that distance. That’s something I really appreciate.”