Antonieta Sibaja Hidalgo
Department of Education
Museum of Contemporary Art and Design
Costa Rica


Al mirar hay que abrir los ojos para experimentar lo que no vemos, la evidencia visible que no vemos y que nos mira como una obra (Huberman, 1997)

To be able to see, you have to open your eyes to experience what we cannot see, the visible evidence that we don't see is looking back  at us like a piece of art. (Huberman, 1997)


With this article we travel through the video works of Costa Rican artists. These works have been selected starting from common issues,  which are analysed from the perspective  of historical heritage. The gaze of the spectator will be guided to events that mark today’s identities of Costa Rica. This will allow us to investigate colonial castration, the violence of industrialization and modernization of the Central American countries.

The selection of video’s by Costa Rican curator María José Chavarría enables to realize an exercise in  looking at contemporary representations of local phenomena. Now, to understand the present,  we also need to look back at the past.

Here only a small part of the wide variety of Costa Rican video art  has been represented. Although we are able to construct a portrait with the work of Oscar Figueroa, Javier Calvo, Karla Solano, Adrián Flores and Ronald Reyes, we also have to take in account that other themes for investigation exist and this will allow us to recognize different faces of the same country.



To get acquainted with video art a question comes up: can we make a reconstruction of movement? Movement is an actual deed, a change in the position of the body in time, which in the case of the video, the camera manages to capture.

Video creation or video art is a technique of contemporary art which emerges in the 1960s in the United States and Europe as a result of the consolidation in the mass media with the intention to explore alternative applications of these electric, analogic as well as digital media for artistic ends.
From its inception it included all experimental practices,  used and mixed video with artistic practices, including video installations [1] and video performances [2], among others. The video as a contemporary artistic language, manages to capture moving images and transforms it in a work of art with a defined time.

Outside the North American and European context that marked the early stages of video art as an artistic language, it was inserted in Central America. It had been present as a technique in this region since the 90s, but with a very poor level of exposure due to various reasons, such as the lack of education and spaces for its exhibition.

According to Ernesto Calvo, sociologist and curator:
Some of the reasons of the lack of artistic explorations that are near to video creation and the new technologies, can be explained because of the large limitations of accessibility, the almost non- existent possibilities for education, dissemination and circulation, as well as the unstable and conflicting political social situations of the Central America istmo, all of which restricted the possibilities for the development of the connecting link between art and technology in a decisive manner.

You could say that not until the second half of the 90s one starts to look for different areas of video creation and  all new technologies in general started to reach a certain degree of development and systematics  in the Central American region. Associated  with the greater accessibility of these technological means, the increase of the possibilities for access to information and the incipient democratization of its use, at least among some artists and professionals linked to the artistic field. (2008:2)

In the 90s the panorama permits the arrival of changes in the artistic field. Thanks to a larger political and social stability, the signing of the Central American Peace Agreements , the affordability of technology, the rise of the world wide web and the interest to create museum spaces to accommodate contemporary art like the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo (MADC) in Costa Rica. This is the reason that among the languages of contemporary art that have been worked at in this decade, video art could be given its importance.

In the case of Costa Rica, in the 90s works appear  like Paz en Centroamérica (1992) by Manuel Zumbado, Como Maquillarse (1998) by Priscilla Monge or Cuentos Chinos (1998) by Joaquin Rodriguez del Paso. From the beginning of 2000 a lot of artists start to experiment with the camera and the production increased.  
From 2002 to 2015 eight open calls have been realized in MADC for a contest named “Inquieta Imagen” (Restless Image) for which artists in the region could mix the audio visual with other media. Initially, this contest intended to stimulate audio visual production  as a contemporary artistic proposal. In 2005, in the wake of rapid technological advances the selection criteria were broadened, with the aim to include new artistic media. In this way “Inquieta Imagen” could measure the production in the Central American and Caribbean area in quantity, resources and issues.

The works presented for Over View by curator María José Chavarría, correspond with the selected works from various editions of the contest. In an analysis of discourse, the concerns of Costa Rican artists are shown, very much  linked to the context in which they have been realized.  Therefore they become portraits that, located in a specific context, tell the history of a country.

[1] An art form that uses video as a main component, which relates the video with other objects and materials installed in a specific space.
[2] There are different categories of the video performance. To begin with, the video registration of a performance that uses this medium to document an action because of its ephemeral nature. In other cases video is used as a part of a performance to use projection as part of the action. Also, the use of video is denoted to exploit its expressive properties as part of the action.


No es la personalidad del retratado o su finción social la que nos impresiona, sino la visión que de él nos ofrece el artista (Berger, 2006)

It is not the personality of the portrayed or his social role that impresses us, but the vision of the portrayed that the artist displays (Berger, 2006)

The subjectivity of the person who creates video art allows us the fragmentation and reconstruction of occasions and becomes producer of the traces of his reality.
In this way, Costa Rica is represented by the subjectivity of five artists who frame from multiple codes or meanings related to territory, memory, construction of identities, decomposition of the material, pain, the lack and construction of useless projects. “Tropicalness” is present in some of the works, related with political, social and economic realities.

The work or video performance of Javier Calvo Solo yo (2012) presents us the theme of territory and the construction of identities. In his work  we see the act of whitening a piece of skin for a few seconds by  the thumb and finger of the artist himself, pointing at the location of Costa Rica in the map of Central America. The myth of whitening has been present in Costa Rican societies for many decades, a country who has tried to describe itself as Caucasian in spite of the fact that  it’s population is mestizo, constituted of a mixture of indigenous, whites, blacks and asiatic. This gesture also tells us about the need for constant auto-definition. The gesture might also be related to the religious tradition to castigate ones chest as a sign of guilt: “mea culpa”.

Several questions regarding this theme come up like why Costa Rica is trying to whiten itself? Why do Costa Ricans identify themselves with the expression “Central American Switzerland”?  How does  Costa Rica relate itself with the rest of the countries in the Central American region? Do Costa Ricans feel themselves part of Central America? The territory is presented in the work of art from a political point of view, with social and cultural implications. The division of a territory in political terms is generated from the tension between various parts that result in, among others,  identity conflicts, in power.

The work of Calvo relates directly to Deméritos (2012), a video performance of the artist Oscar Figueroa, that demonstrates the documentation of an action carried out on the 12th of October 2012, date of the commemoration in Costa Rica of the “Day of the Cultures” which was previously named “Day of the Race”. The action consisted of drawing a line of 3275 metres along the railway tracks in the province of Turrialba, Costa Rica, with plastic bags that are used to protect the banana bunches  in the countryside. This route recalls that in the first decades of the 20th century at the initiative of the United Fruit Company (UFCO) the black workers of the banana production company were forbidden to travel  west of Turrialba. This instruction was supported by a governmental policy of “whiteness” , under the pretext of preventing the entry of endemic diseases in het Central Valley.

The UFCO participated in the construction of the railroad in Costa Rica to the Atlantic zone from the  in 1880s, a time in which waves of Chinese and African immigrants began to arrive, who worked in the construction of the railroads and in the banana plantations under terrible conditions, in order to complete this symbol of progress and development.

In the 19th century these ideas of progress and development were even more evident when Costa Rica wanted to present itself to the world as a coffee producing region. This as a symbol of prosperity for a period in which, although from the outside,  it was initially considered as a Banana Republic:  poor, underdeveloped, socially, economically and politically unstable.

UFCO went bankrupt in the 1970s and was reorganized as “Chiquita Brands International”. The production of banana and tropical fruits in the region still has repercussions today, which we can analyse from the visualization of the photo performance of Ronald Reyes, Indeleble (2013) in which the artist starts from the question: Will a thin layer of paint be sufficient to erase a century of exploitation?

Indeleble displays a tropical setting with a container of a truck in the background, painted with an incomplete logo, recognizable and anchored in the memory of Costa Rica: Chiquita Banana. In this setting  appears a character, half Carmen Miranda [3] coming out of a banana waist bag, half shaman of the Caribbean, repeating untiringly the same ritual, the same advertisement spot honoring the reputation of the banana and the blue plastic bag full of pesticides. 

The representation of the image of Chiquita Banana reminds us that the banana fruit as an icon of the dynamics of the socio-economic exploitation in Costa Rica and Latin America in general, with the establishment of a multinational North American company, UFCO, founded in 1899. This company produced and commercialized tropical fruits (primarily bananas) cultivated in the Latin American region and managed to position itself as a determining  political and economic force in many countries in the region during the twentieth century. The company participated strongly in governments and political parties, in order to maintain its operations in the region with a maximum amount of profit. 

According to José Toledo Alcalde:
In this way, in the 70s UFCO turns into the already existing United Brands Company and  in 1985, as Chiquita Brands International  was confronted with a series of complaints based on the millionaire funding of the Autodefensas Unida de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary organization destined to attack the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC),indigenous movements, unionists and militant groups of the political left. So as well as in the context of “good neighborliness”, in the clearest symbol of arrogance, the famous Miranda was crowned with agricultural symbols of the bloody colonization, bananas, pineapples, and other fruits obtained in the region through the exploited labor of the Central American and Caribbean peasantry, as well as through the violent expropriation and exploitation of their lands.

Far from diminishing the production of this fruit, in the period between 1965 and 1973, a phenomenon like banana fever occurred which consisted of the expansion of cultivation by the increase of independent producers. Nowadays the banana is cultivated in relatively large plantations  by independent producers and multinational  companies that control the majority of the cultivated areas. The main exporting companies are Cobal (Chiquita), Bandeco (Del Monte) and Standard Fruit Company (Dole) who jointly own more than 80% of the banana export of Costa Rica to the United States, The European Union and Eastern Europe.

Generally, the current agricultural activity in the country is a pillar of the economy and holds 30% of the Gross Domestic Product.  The export of the agricultural products remains to be an important entry in obtaining  foreign exchange and the development of the country.

The artist Adrián Flores uses the agricultural product as a central element in the video Deconstrucción, decomposicion y muerte de una cebolla (2013). Far from wanting to develop the theme of the “agro” and its importance in Costa Rican society, his intention was to investigate the material. Therefore he realized a structured and systematic analysis of a plant, by way of recording its print for 24 hours during 100 days.  According to Flores any object could not be reduced to the formal  of its structure, but it is also the sum of all of its temporal conditions. The video demonstrates 100 impressions of an onion, exposing the transformation what normally is identified with the decomposition of a vegetable. The decomposition of  the material can also be understood as the decomposition of a political, economic and social system.

To close off, the work of artist Karla Solano Hogar/Sewing (2005) presents a metaphor of the smell that derives from shortage. In this case the artist sews with needle and thread the figure of a house in her own hand, like a useless process of a construction of a project. This figure in the process of creation is doomed to disappear.

Hogar/Sewing takes us back home, it places us in a context and speaks to us about belonging. The house can be seen as a symbol of the occupation of whichever place, tells us about family/homely identity and supports the subjective construction material of its members. The same way Solano links her hands , through the journey through the videos, we can sew more histories with the threads than the ones that are given to us by these artists. These connections sometimes become discoveries of new information, about  the vision that the artist communicates with us.
It is always necessary to gather and analyse the video art production of a country, in order to support the contributions made by the artist in creation and investigation. The artists selected for this exhibition of Over View become agents who explore the possibilities of video, to use them as a carrier of their actions. They show us a landscape charged with history.

Video art today, becomes a manifestation that exhibits the multiplicity of contemporary cultural discourses. The artistic language has been a consequence of a transformation in the arts and politics that continues to surprise us.

[3] Carmen Miranda, Portuguese artist (1909-1955) representing the image of the policy of good neighborliness, friendly facade of the colonial pretensions of that moment. This was a very important stage in the project of American expansion in Latin America and the Caribbean in the period of Franklin D.Roosevelt (1933-1945).  Naranjo represented with the dance the Bahian-Carioca folklore as an icon of a cultural expression excluded in Brazil, aimed at creating frivolous and ridiculing stereotypes of Afro-Brazilian culture.  


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©2015 Antonieta Sibaja Hidalgo