The Bolivian creator, playwright and live arts director Diego Aramburo is in Switzerland during March and April 2019 for his/her second research trip supported by COINCIDENCIA. During his/her stay, (s)he is attending the festivals «Programme Commun» and «It’s the Real Thing» and meet the theatre director, author and essayist Boris Nikitin to plan potential future collaborations.
To bring us closer to the complexity of Aramburo’s work, we prepared a portrait of the (fe)male artist, who sees a positive terroristic potential in art and comments on the European and South American theatre.
Written by Katja Zellweger
«I want to blow up certain concepts» says Diego Aramburo. And s/he actually did so by officially changing his/her gender from man to woman. For Bolivia this was «a bomb» as s/he puts it. Aramburo wears a beard and men’s clothes, goes by the name Diego, calls him/herself a father and won’t undergo a surgical sex change. The artist can’t find him/herself in the western binary concept and calls it «hierarchical, manipulative, judgmental and polarizing». Instead s/he prefers to speak of gender as «a fluid concept that’s neither black nor white but falls on a continuum between two poles». Aramburo, who identifies with the «many grays in between», feels «more feminine than other heterosexual men do» and refers to Judith Butler as well as Paul Preciado – s/he calls him/herself «transgender». The aim is to «change the heteronormative society and the machismo in Bolivia» and break with the predominant paradigm of gender by living it in another way.
Living as a woman
Aramburo is legally a woman since 2 May 2018. His/her request to change gender was approved by the Bolivian state, which implemented the law 807 in 2016. Bolivia’s laws are more progressive than Chile’s, an experience the Chilean trans-woman and actress Daniela Vega, of the Oscar winning film «Una Mujer Fantástica» (A Fantastic Woman), had to make. She still isn’t able to legally change her gender and travel under her female name. But laws alone do not change a society. Therefore, since applying the law, as a well-known national and international artist, Aramburo receives a lot of attention, criticism and ill-will: machistas, fundamentalists, social media trolls, some transgender communities and even artists question and doubt his/her intentions. The detonations of his/her bomb had consequences mostly for him/herself. The artist constantly has to explain: no, I am not gay, nor a transvestite, nor operated, nor a man or a woman, I am transgender. Aramburo admits the discussions even became violent at some point: «Especially because in Latin America there is a very big gap between the theoretical, academic discourse and activism on the one hand and the society on the other».
The official gender change is part of Aramburo’s project «Genero» – which means «gender» as well as «I generate» in Spanish. In «Genero», s/he researches a «more performative form, which allows to construct scenic objects close to installations and to realize actions on stage». This abandonment of the fictional allowed him/her to create an ongoing «scenic documentation» and «a written testimonial». So Aramburo can be seen as an artist who lives what s/he stands for, who turned him/herself into «a living paradox», as s/he puts it. It’s not a surprise that expanding theatre is incorporated in the name of his/her company, which was founded in 1996. «Kiknteatr» is a derivation from the Quechan word «kikn». The coined term means «theatre itself» or «a sort of theatre».
«The positively terroristic potential of art»
Asked about how s/he copes with all the attention, s/he gives you a conspiratorial smile: «I’m doing well – otherwise, I wouldn’t be in Switzerland to search for another ‹bomb› to detonate». With «bombs» Aramburo refers to what s/he calls «the positively terroristic potential of art». S/he was in Switzerland for a week upon invitation from Pro Helvetia’s South America exchange programme Coincidencia to get to know Swiss artists and coproduction houses, but also to search for possible further project-partners. The art s/he is interested in is highly related to «selfish obsessions», meaning Aramburo’s personal interest in the deconstruction of concepts linked to the current state of society and its politics. «The question for me is not which concept can be blown up and which one can’t, I’m rather interested in when and where.»
Aramburo stages these «obsessions» constantly by performing femininity and sexuality in a (Bolivian) macho society. Another topic that s/he likes to work with are the incredibly rich ancestral traditions that are visible in Bolivia’s daily life. On the other hand, s/he is not interested in «putting on a poncho and producing the kind of ethno-theatre that was popular in the 90s». In his/her piece «Pornografia», women sitting in bathtubs in front of a classical orchestra explain the idea of «Andean Sex», a practice dominated by men as a tactic against boredom. In «Romeo & Julieta de Aramburo», the first play of the trilogy «Shakespeare in Bolivia», Julieta is shown masturbating and doing drugs in order to escape the patriarchal domination and manipulation and the overly romanticized concept of love. In this play, Aramburo focuses on the urban and young Bolivia, the other two freely adapted Shakespeare pieces focus on the outskirts of cities and the rural Bolivia. «Trilogia boliviana» is another trilogy that deals with the many ancestral traditions of the officially called «Plurinational State of Bolivia». Besides Spanish, 35 indigenous languages are constitutionally acknowledged. While Bolivia itself is one of the poorest economies of South America with only 10 million inhabitants.
«If I don’t work, I don’t eat»
Bolivia has played and still plays an important role to the Cochabamba born director who resides in calm Sucre. Because the only Bolivian acting school was founded less than a decade ago, young Aramburo had to leave the country and study acting abroad. S/he first entered a school in Brazil and, later on, spent an extensive time working in Canada. Now s/he is one of the very few Bolivian artists who can actually live from his/her art without having to work part-time in another field. It is the commissioned work abroad which pays the living. Aramburo affirms pragmatically: «If I don’t work, I don’t eat».
Within South America there is no such well subsidized and interconnected festival circuit like in Europe – on the one hand because the distances between the countries are large and, on another, «it is especially challenging to open and maintain a dialogue about an intercontinental festival circuit if every new government makes drastic changes in its cultural politics. The only political tradition we know is the to govern by improvising». Brazil, for example, especially São Paulo, which has a notable art scene, is very much at risk under new president Bolsonaro. He who has referred to artists as «parasites» even doubts the necessity of the SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio), a very big institution maintaining a complete cultural system with a lot of well equipped, accessible art spaces. SESC also provides a retirement fund for artists, which is unique in South America. This is why Aramburo sees South American art, if it can be generalized as such, as «politicized by nature», because it is directly linked to politics. S/he claims: «It’s not that you need to be an activist in order for your art to be political». On the one hand Aramburo sees South American minimalism as an aesthetical strategy linked to the lack of means. «In Argentina, this goes hand in hand with a strong emphasis on text and acting.» On the other hand, s/he sees European minimalism as an intentional choice made by directors like Frank Castorf.
Aramburo – the Theatre Ambassador
However, some things are actually changing. The Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires (FIBA) switched its date to February, getting closer to the Fundación Teatro A Mil (FITAM) festival, from Chile, which takes place in January. The possibility of such synergies should enable continental tours for companies. Self-proclaimed Bolivian «theatre ambassador», Aramburo wants to see Bolivian festivals and productions appear in this circuit. For now, Bolivian theatre and dance productions remain quite isolated within the country and the continent, which is directly linked with how the society values contemporary art. There is little room for it next to folkloristic music and ancestral, indigenous culture. The public is mostly attending huge traditional festivities, other than that, the preference tends to soft entertainment such as industry films and, recently, musicals. Aramburo names one more challenge concerning the public: the school system. It is one of the things the artist is most critic about: «In Bolivian schools you mostly learn to repeat. Curiosity, consuming culture or any form of intellectual output, as well as reading literature aren’t really promoted and, therefore, the state as a whole leaves the culture and science production unnoticed.» Hopefully, it is only a matter of time (and theatre) until such concepts are blown up.