Allora & Calzadilla: Displacement and Defamiliarization
Conceptual artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are one of the art world’s most dynamic power couples.
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are a collaborative art duo who work in sculpture, photography, performance art, film, and other media.
Allora was born in Philadelphia in 1974 and studied at the University of Richmond in Virginia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Calzadilla was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1971 and attended Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico in San Juan, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and Bard College in Hudson, New York. They met while studying abroad in Florence, Italy.
Much of the duo’s work is inspired by the geography and politics of Puerto Rico, where Allora and Calzadilla are based. Their works are held in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Tate Modern in London, and other major institutions around the world. They represented the United States for the 2011 Venice Biennale with In the Midst of Things, a choral work with music by composer Gene Coleman.
For the past 20-odd years, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have been partners in art, life, and love. Their well-researched work is dense with concepts and connections. Over the years, they’ve explored deep time, civil disobedience, and colonization. Guillermo Calzadilla says that all of their pursuits are united by two words.
Guillermo Calzadilla: Displacement and defamiliarization.
By this, he means their specialty is juxtaposing contexts, to make larger points about the world. A recent project saw them outfit a digger with a bell to demolish a pharmaceutical plant in Puerto Rico.
AJC: What on earth were you thinking?
Jennifer Allora: We have made many pieces, I think, that try to consider, “What is the role of a monument or a memorial? What function of commemoration do they serve?” And obviously, a bell is something that one could associate with having a commemorative function—marking the hour or marking a passing of some sort of an event that may happen—and use it to be the device through which this building is going to be demolished.
But before they were a well-established conceptual art power couple, Allora and Calzadilla were just two college kids abroad, falling in love with art and each other.
AJC: Take it back to Florence. Did you guys know you were going to make art together before or after you knew you were going to be a couple?
Calzadilla: That happened simultaneously. I was starting painting, and Jennifer was starting history—Renaissance history—and we started going out, and slowly started making art together. But it developed out of talking and sharing experiences together, and going and seeing art exhibitions, and slowly developing to making artwork together. But it didn’t happen as something that we planned, “Okay, we’re going to be collaborating now, starting at this point.” So it was more organic.
Allora: We both understood how this common interest in what I would call a kind of criticality, or a kind of idea that art can be a form of asking questions about what the world is, and that the really great works of art challenge one’s perceptions of reality in some way or another. So we had this common desire to want to do that, both, as artists.
Today, the pair exhibits all over the world but remains almost stubbornly based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The island, in turn, informs much of their work. A few years ago, they became fascinated by the observatory in Arecibo. Not only is the 305-meter dish one of the world’s largest radio telescopes, it’s also one of only two remaining habitats for the nearly extinct Puerto Rican Parrot.
Allora: So here you have a life-form that humans are bringing to the verge of extinction, and you have a project that’s trying to find life somewhere else. We found this sort of situation really rich and telling. And for the longest time we wanted to make a film about that.
The film used subtitles to winkingly refer to parrots’ abilities to mimic human speech.
AJC: There are people who would discourage you from getting into business with your wife or your friends or your close relations.
AJC: What’s the upside and what’s the downside?
Calzadilla: The upside is that it’s very productive.
AJC: You’re always at work.
Calzadilla: Exactly. The downside is that it’s too productive. And you don’t have spacing-out time. It’s hard.
AJC: What is the secret sauce of your partnership, do you think? Is it communication? Have you thought about what it is? Because you had a pretty fast, easy connection early on.
Allora: We fight a lot, I know that. We always argue with each other.
Calzadilla: I think what happened with time is that we have developed telepathic capacities with each other so we know what to say. Knowing that, you can anticipate a conversation, basically. So if I know for her to do something, I know how can I do it. Like I know I’m going to say something and she’s going to say “no” to, so I already take that into account.
AJC: But that sounds like every marriage on earth.
Calzadilla: The difference, I guess, is that, then, out of that, there’s an artwork that comes out.
AJC: I’m guessing then that life must be much simpler for you as a married couple when you’re working on this conceptual level in your professional lives, your artistic lives. The other decisions must be really easy.
Allora: I guess so. We try not to have to make many difficult ones outside of the work ones because the work ones always seem so intense. By the end of the day, if the question is “to eat,” it’s like, “Just go to the closest restaurant and get what’s there and order the same thing that we always get.” So that you don’t complicate things.
And for Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, complexity is best kept for their art.