Last Sunday I had a short conversation with Israel about the River of Words project while he drove me to the City of Asylum office to conduct the last of my interviews for the semester. He spoke to some of his inspirations for this collective project, namely, the crucial roles that public names (on houses) play in Venezuela as references to this history of that building and the emotional relationship that it has with its residents. Words, he notes, particular words, or the proper name rather than the common word, are resignifications of the word away from its general or dictionary meaning to one that is more personal and particular. And yet, this is an intensely public practice as well, it is part of the expected visual culture of the city. This insight, about how the words are a terrain for meaning-making, intimacy, and possession, highlights some of the stakes of the project for the word hosts: it is ultimately a question of public identity and recognition. The transcript follows. Thank you, Israel.
CB: Ok, it is March 22, 2015 and I am here with River of Words founder Israel Centeno. Can you tell me about how the project got started and what the goals were?
IC: When I saw that City of Asylum was calling people to a project, I had in mind these two friends from Venezuela who were [working] with me on similar projects in Venezuela. In Venezuela we developed a project in two huge neighborhoods, so I told them and they brought a lot of enthusiasm to think about a project [for Pittsburgh]. We thought ‘What can we do, what can we propose to these themes: words, visual art and design.” Because Carolina is a designer and Gisela Romero is visual art, and I am a writer, and we mixed these together and before, in Venezuela, made similar projects. Gisela thought it would be interesting to work with neurons, the word as a kind of neuron in a neighborhood. So, we shared the responsibility, compartimos the responsibility, [on] my shoulder[s] was [the responsibility for] the words. So I had to think about that, about what kind of words we have to bring, like an Venezuelan artist, to Pittsburgh. I thought, at first, that all of us, human kind share similar archetypes, universal archetypes, and some heroes and some tragedies, and some funny things, so I dug into these things and started to choose some words with that meaning or thought, that we share some archetypes. THe other thing, that was my little knowledge about pittsburgh, has been that moment I was three years living here, and so a few things…one of them, the sense of the Pittsburgh community to be communities in the sense of neighborhoods…I don’t know if i am explaining [it right]. So, the other things were that Pittsburgh people used to be very proud of them[selves], of the things that belonged to them. And one of the thing that the people from Pittsburgh think that belongs to them is a kind of [sense] that we are different, we want to be different. So, I chose some words that reflected that thought. The other thing is a human behavior to protect the thing that belongs to you, and i think when you read a book and you make a link with this book, you are making a link with image, archetype, and word, the meaning of the word. So, I wanted to give the people the opportunity to take for themselves like a property, a word, an image of the word, and, you know, the word in a linguistic way is a sign. An arbitrary sign. And I gave them an opportunity to resignificate the sign. To put their own signifier. So when these people make this connection their sense of belonging grows. Because this word means something that you can find in the dictionary, but means [an] other thing, a very particular private thing, for them.
CB: That’s great. Have you been following what is happening with the Historic Review Commission, and the kind of controversy with the words that are on the houses under the jurisdiction of historic review?
IC: No, I am not very into this matter. I was aware, and some news was coming, and I am reading that news, but I just do not understand the U.S. policies about the communal space. In my country, one thing that is important, in my country, we used to put a name to each house. If you go Caracas City or Barquisimeto, where ever, when the people have a house, the people put a nam to the house. It is common. The city and the council in Venezuela takes this name, like the number, its a similar thing. So for me its a natural thing, but I don’t know a lot about public policies here in the U.S.A.
CB: So in Venezuela, the name that they put on the house, it is not a last name, it is just a word?
IC: The name for a house in Venezuela, when the people have a house, they want to name this house. Sometime they bought the house with the name and they keep the name.
CB: What are some examples?
IC: For example if you buy a house, and this house means to you ‘effort’ you name the house ‘mi trabajo,’ ‘I worked.’ Or, this house came from faith, ‘La fe.’ Or if you love your sons, ‘Mis hijos.’ If you had a meaning about nature, ‘el apamate’, the tree, a river. My residence was a building. Where I lived before, I lived in a big building, of about eleven floors, and all of this building had the name of this big river in Venezuela, ‘Orinoco,’ another is ‘Paris,’ like a city. So, every building used to have a name. For me, it was a natural thing when this happened here [ROW] I thought I was bringing to people a little thing, a little gesture from my, a gentle gesture, from my city. Its rare that you find something without a name in Venezuela.
CB: That is really interesting. Do you feel like the residents you have talked to, do you feel that they have adopted the words, in the same way that people have adopted words in Venezuela?
IC: Yes, and this is a fine discover[y] that people want to name their things. You have something, if you love someone, you put a name, a particular name, not a common name. If you love somebody named ‘Laura,’ ‘Ernesto,’ you put a nickname, it’s for you [the nickname]. It’s the way that you call the people. Its the same thing with a car. I don’t know if here in the U.S.A. people put the names to their cars.
CB: Sometimes, not always, though.
IC: I didn’t put a name to this car yet, so I feel this car is not belonging to me because I am still paying [for] this car. So when I develop this feeling of ownership to this car I will put a name to this car. So, I think at some point we find out that the people wanted to call [their houses something]. We love things with a name. And, sometimes the thing that they don’t put a name, they don’t love. It’s like an archetype. Adam named the things of the universe surrounding him. But, yes.
CB: Anything else that you would like to say about the project that you haven’t gotten a chance to talk about too much?
IC: We are developing right now a project proposed to a little community in Caracas, because we are a group, a collective.
CB: What is the name of the collective?
IC: ACeRo. We are developing a Caracas Birds. We have a huge, diverse, a muestra, how do you say this in English?
CB: A work, a demonstration?
IC: No, a diversity of birds, tropical. Actually, when I came to the aviary [In North Side], I came to the tropical area to see birds from my place. So we are developing haikus with the name of each bird, and making some names with the corners of the streets of Caracas. We put a name to corners of the street, not like, you know, here you find a name like Main Avenue, Liberty Avenue, STanton, but we put some weird names to our place like ‘esquina del muerto‘ or ‘miseria’ ‘esquina de miseria’, misery, death, or…pele ojo, or perico the corner of perico, Perico is a little bird. So we are developing that for a library in a small community in Venezuela, and this library will put, in some point in the same way surrounding this neighborhood some thing with birds, haikus, this little point with seven words and birds, with haikus, and a lot of color. So this is a project for us now. From this experience with River of Words, we want to think about that, about how to put more, more than the word, for example we are trying to make the connection with words, birds, and color, with this project in Caracas. Maybe we will develop more surround this similar thing in Pittsburgh.
CB: Thank you.
IC: You are welcome.