The Collective Memory

The Collective Memory

Una conversación con Emilio Chapela

Rose Mary Salum

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Rose Mary Salum: You are young and yet, your work has been exhibited in museums and has the recognition of curators and art collectors. Can you tell our readers about your proposal?

Emilio Chapela: I started doing artwork as a photographer, but quite soon I felt the necessity to explore different media that seemed to work better for my interests at the time. Quite soon, I started moving towards video, painting, drawing, etc. I became interested in the communication processes, language and the tools with which it’s supported: Internet, books, dictionaries, etc.

RMS: Your work shows an intimate connection with the Internet world, specifically your series Ask Google. Can you tell us why?

EM: The Internet changes every second because its users are constantly building it. It is like a big mirror: If we move, the reflection follows. But in this case, it leaves a trail. I am interested in directing the attention to some of those traces that evidence how a group of people think about certain matters. It is like a glimpse into the collective unconsciousness.

Ask Google consists of a series of text-works based on search suggestions–prompted by Google–which are the most popular queries at any given time. It is shocking to discover what people search on the Internet when nobody is looking. Anonymity is a very powerful thing; but so is freedom of speech. In a more recent piece called Mexicans, I show all the tweets (as they happen) that contain the word “Mexicans” in the body of the text. The result is a constant cascade of racist comments, prejudices and aggressions towards Mexicans. All signed by the authors.

RMS: This is a fascinating idea. You make it look like the Internet has so many layers of interpretation, like the human mind does, or a piece of art. By working with that subject, you are unveiling what Jung called the collective unconscious. Can you elaborate on that?

EM: Absolutely, Marshall McLuhan said that technology was an extension of ourselves; “The medium is the message,” he said. And the Internet is no exception. It is an extension of our mind that inherits its complexity. Not only that, it is also a refl ection of the collective since it is built horizontally by millions of users. The Internet is an extension of all of them.

I think Carl Jung talked about the collective unconsciousness in a more primitive way; he said that it was possible to dream about the sea without ever seeing it before. I really like this idea, but nowadays it is potentially possible to have access to every picture of the sea ever posted on the Internet. This is very powerful.

I have been working on some pieces by extracting images from the Internet and animating them into videos, like Gun from the Google similar having seen that shows hundreds of pictures of guns flashing very rapidly in front of us, growing in caliber and power. It is quite scary to think about this video in terms of the collective unconsciousness and what it suggests.


RMS: Hello Chicago is at the same time playful and philosophical because it deals with the eternal problem of knowledge. Not even the machines could interpret that for which they were made.

EM: Computers are incapable of interpretation; this is something that interests me a lot. We make extraordinary efforts to “teach” computers how to interpret just to watch them fail. I find this beautiful. There are many accurate and efficient approximations to computer interpretation or translation. But it is essentially impossible to achieve. Hello Chicago speaks about this impossibility, but it is also about humor. Political speeches are about control and all words are selected very carefully. Processing Obama’s inaugural speech through a voice to text application gives place to unwanted accidents, glitches and humor.

RMS: You force the spectator to question whether communication is even possible, static or dynamic.

EM: For me, it is very important to talk about communication in terms of miscommunication. But that does not make the phenomenon static. There is a lot of exchange when we fail to communicate. I like to think that my work deals with the deconstruction of language, more than simply nonsense. The metaphor is another fi gure that interests me a lot. Being precise in the wording while motivating different interpretations. This is something very present in my Google translation pieces.

RMS: Yes, it shows. The metaphor adds to the meaning of your pieces. It seems to me that you are dealing with the most fundamental questions in philosophy. Even the philosophers of language worked with the deconstruction of language.

EM: Interpretation is a key aspect of the metaphor. And also of translation. But when a computer that is incapable of interpretation is in charge of translating, things get more playful and confusing. Messages get truncated. I like this. Ambiguity can be a great starting point for meaningful metaphors.

RMS: It seems to me as if you were using the scientific method to obtain mathematical answers through your art.

EM: Mathematics are very important in my work but not in a literal level. I’m interested in asking questions that are relevant to science, but from the point of view of an artist. I tend to be analytical on how I conceptualize my pieces, but I’m very concerned with beauty, social responsibility and criticism as well. I do not think art has such a strong responsibility towards truth as toward science. This is great because it gives you more freedom. Pursuing the truth is a really complicated matter and can be restraining at times.

RMS: And yet you are concerned with social responsibility like no other artist of your generation. That is a disjunctive that has been around for so many years. How can art take on that responsibility?

EM: I do not think that is possible to say that my work has less or more responsibility than that of other artists. I think that art becomes social and political by the simple act of showing it inside a gallery or a Museum. But this does not mean that the work is about politics or social awareness. I feel a responsibility to speak about the things that I like and think. This the type of social awareness and responsibility that interests me. It’s more basic. However, I have been advised recently not to show some of my pieces that speak about how Mexicans are perceived in other parts of the world. It seems that there is governmental policy concerned with improving our image as a country even at the cost of freedom of speech. Teresa Margolles knows this better than anyone. However, they have it all wrong. We have to show these things, not hide them.

RMS: Your series Corporate Logos is an experiment that relates to the globalized world, the economy, and the collective unconscious. However,
what results is abstract art. Can you elaborate on this subject?

EM: I am interested in abstraction in terms of determination. The combination of colors and the proportions for each of these paintings is not decided by me, it is determined by a series of decisions made by marketing, psychology and advertising specialists. I do not have control of the final outcome. This strategy moves in an opposite direction than that of artists like Ellsworth Kelly or Joseph Albers: Their work is about control and perception, while mine is about predetermination.

Corporate Logos are part of our visual landscape and they stay fixed in our minds, I am interested in triggering the collective memory in such a way that the logos become partly recognizable but remain abstract (and anonymous) at the same time.

RMS: You are in Berlin. Are you working on a new project?

EM: At the moment I am working on a project that is called Die Kurt F. Gödel Bibliothek , that consists of a library that will hold thousands of books made entirely out of wood. No book will be written or read, they only will be named. To follow the progress of this project visit


YoDeltaRose Mary Salum is the founder and director of Literal, Latin American Voices. She´s the author of Delta de las arenas, cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos (Literal Publishing, 2013) among other titles.

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