Conversation between Marina Reyes Franco and Fortuna

Words by Fortuna

Excerpts of the conversation between Marina Reyes Franco, curator at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC), and Fortuna. We talked about how she came to do exhibitions, the writing of art history in Puerto Rico, and especially about her long-term research around the idea of the concept of “the visitor economy”. March 2023, San Juan and Lausanne.

I was quite influenced by the 2004 San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial: Latin America and the Caribbean, which emerged as a reconceptualization, led by Mari-Carmen Ramírez, of the San Juan Biennial that had existed since 1970. I saw the Triennial when I became disinterested in continuing to study political sciences, and that reactivated my common sense. My mom had a gallery in the 80s, so I grew up surrounded by many artists. It was like esto hace sentido. I realized that making exhibitions and contributing to art history, reading it, and constructing it, are ways of understanding our social and political reality. An exhibition can also be an intervention in history, not just something that reflects what’s happening. There was an exhibition during that triennial that really made an impression on me, it was called Inscrit@s y Proscrit@s: desplazamientos en el grabado puertorriqueño. The exhibition exclusively focused on practices, works and artists left out of Puerto Rican art history. There were pieces that the artists didn’t even consider as works. They considered them as political activism. They considered them as something crazy they had made that day, an object or a poem. In those times, the discourse around art was not as up-to-date here as in other places. Certain practices were easily discarded or were not thought to fit into what we considered art. That is why they were left out of history. The curator herself, Margarita Fernández Zavala, recognized flaws in her own selection criteria at one point. Maybe not flaws, but she recognized that she had been so focused on other things that while this was going on in parallel, she did not pay attention to it or was unaware of what was happening. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be in an exhibition, this reconsideration of history, of how it was necessary to emphasize these things that had been left out, be they people, works, movements, or spaces. How it could contribute to better documentation of the local art scene and be inserted in broader narratives of Latin American art. I studied in Argentina, and compared to the way certain artists and moments of history have been historicized, there has been much more freedom and latitude regarding what enters into the narrative of art. Even within the binary that was constructed in the history of local art with respect to politically committed art and abstract art or art that looked to North American or European influences, many political issues were left out.

One of my first researches was about the ’70s and what I called “graphic manifestations of alternative circulation.” It’s not that they made a work in an exhibition. The work was an intervention in an exhibition. It was a moment, a gesture, a protest that had elements of aesthetic decisions. Still, they didn’t consider it a work of art. I had to put together stories based on people’s stories about what happened in a place. It’s not like you are going to ask an artist for information and he will include it in his portfolio. There is another perception now, seeing how this type of practices have been historicized in other places, such as Argentina, Chile or Peru. We have come to expand the definition of art to such an extent that this already fits within it.

I started hearing the term “the visitor economy” from an organization called Foundation for Puerto Rico. Foundation for Puerto Rico was started by Jon Borschow, who had retired from running a medical supplies company and suddenly became a tourism prophet. At that time, Foundation existed as a think tank that commissioned studies that were analyzed, digested and presented to the government as legislative proposals meant to influence the country’s public policy. Puerto Rico has the “Discover Puerto Rico” slogan and the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) because they came as a recommendation from Foundation for Puerto Rico. They said, “Our study says that, by being part of the Government of Puerto Rico and under the governor’s control, the tourism company is too politicized to develop the country’s public image coherently and consistently and to have an international impact on attracting visitors. So if our goal is to double the number of visitors, we must take the following steps”. That’s when they recommend creating the Destination Marketing Organization, which ends up becoming “Discover Puerto Rico”. That’s the level of influence they come to have. I happened to be on the street waiting for a check and ran into people going to an opening. I thought it was the opening of an exhibition. The opening was for the Colaboratorio, a coworking space for multiple non-profit organizations, including Foundation for Puerto Rico. It was very shocking because there was Sila María Calderón, Ricky Roselló before he became governor, artists such as Silverio Perez, Macha Colón, and Mayra Santos, but also Nicholas Prouty, a real estate investor. It was like a who’s who of cultural management, real estate and government. I felt a little bit gross, like, what is this? I felt super random being there, observing everything, like wow, esto es fascinante. That was the context in which I started to hear the phrase “the visitor economy.” When I started looking on the internet, I realized it was not a phrase that was commonly used to refer to tourism. It is associated more with Australia or Great Britain. Applied in Puerto Rico, “the visitor economy” comes from Foundation for Puerto Rico, and they don’t talk about “tourism.” The point of “the visitor economy” is that various areas of life are transformed to serve the visitor. Technically, “the visitor economy” is the services and goods exchanged between people who visit a place. It’s very broad. In this logic, different experiences of coexistence or exchange begin to be touristified. It serves several purposes. It justifies greater intervention, more money, and greater resources. This policy coincides with the establishment of Law 22, now Law 60, which encourages people with a lot of capital to move to Puerto Rico to avoid U.S. taxes. When I returned to Puerto Rico, I saw how it had also changed aesthetically. Not only changes in Old San Juan, where properties were being bought out, and apartments were being transformed into AirBnBs. I also noticed the transformation of Puerta de Tierra. Now it is radical. Buildings transformed into parking lots in a neighborhood where people live. There were so many things going on at the same time that the only way I could make sense of this was to have conversations with colleagues, with artists, with people close to me and then try to channel that curiosity, that energy, and that discomfort into doing things that we know how to do.

The first event was called Un Verano en Puerta de Tierra. And the first exhibition I did was in Germany in a place called Ifa-Galerie Berlin. The exhibition, titled Watch Your Step / Mind Your Head [2017], included works by Sofía Gallisá Muriente and Irene de Andrés Vega and was based on an archive of photos, documents, videos, their own, from archives, and from YouTube, that had to do with tourism in Puerto Rico. That exhibition was very interested in how tourism developed hand in hand with photography and film. How those industries were a feedback loop of constructing tropes and consumer images that were produced and reproduced. Now we can think about Instagram and how there are spaces that are “Instagrammable.” That was the first exhibition with a budget. In 2016 was when I first took time out of my life to dedicate myself to the research that became the exhibition Trópico es político: Arte caribeño bajo el régimen de la economía del visitante that is now at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC). Between 2017 and 2018, I traveled to the Bahamas, Panamá, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad. It was a crazy time because I was in Trinidad when Irma came through, and I was on another trip to India when Maria came. It took me a while to get back because there were no flights. Then I kept going in and out of Puerto Rico to continue research trips when Puerto Rico was in bad shape. Everything I think about is influenced by that period, by how Puerto Rico tried to capitalize on the destruction of other islands during Irma. They invited tourists from other islands to Puerto Rico to pay for their vacations. Two weeks later, Puerto Rico was without power for one year because of Maria. It made me think about how we are cannibalizing each other, competing for the tourist dollar, and how that destroys other possibilities of collaboration or rethinking our economies regionally. We see the island next door as a competition. As a result of these research trips, the second exhibition, Resisting Paradise [2019], was created. In that exhibition, I focused more on the effects of the tourist industry and the images they reproduce on the bodies of Caribbean people. I’m thinking in particular about racialized Caribbean people, especially black women.

Taken from issue 2 – Buy here