[music playing] We're outside of Libreria Donceles, a Spanish-language secondhand bookstore that has traveled to several cities around the US, and is currently in Indianapolis at ListenHear, a project space for the arts organization Big Car.
The bookstore was created by Pablo Helguera, and is named after a Donceles Street in Mexico City, which is lined with old bookstores.
It was in Mexico City where Helguera grew up that he gathered much of the original stock for the store from donations, offering his artwork in exchange for books, and producing a bookplate that tells the previous owner of each volume.
Helguera is an artist as well as a museum educator.
And those two roles often overlap.
His work focuses on history, memory, pedagogy, and sociolinguistics, among other topics.
And he explores these ideas through many formats, including installation, lectures, and performances-- projects that often fall under the umbrella of socially engaged art.
Helguera is also a prolific writer, and sometimes cartoonist, addressing many angles of the art world with great insight and humor.
While the bookstore is here, it will be the only Spanish language bookstore in the city, much like when it travels to other US cities.
Libreria Donceles provides visibility to the Spanish language, and also gives us the increasingly rare chance to browse books and subjects in an unhurried and open-ended way.
Today, we're going to talk with Helguera.
And we're also going to think about other ways to give old books new lives.
Hello, I am Pablo Helguera.
I'm an artist.
I am at Libreria Donceles.
And this is the Art Assignment.
Libreria Donceles is what you would call a "third place."
there was a sociologist named Ray Oldenburg who coined this term "third place," meaning that in regular life, we have work.
We have home.
And then we have a third place, which for many people is maybe the cafe or a pub or a plaza where we find our friends, and where we find people who think like us or share similar interests.
And I wanted this bookstore to be a third place for people who can come and share their interest in literature, their interest in the Spanish language, and come together that way.
We're kind of like an open mic space, where anyone in the community can come and propose ideas of things they want to do, and do a book reading, a performance, a discussion-- anything that pertains to the larger subject of having a better understanding of Latin American and Spanish language culture.
One of my various or routinary visits to a used bookstore, I found this very beautiful book called [inaudible].
It was in a language I did not understand.
It was in Norwegian, in fact.
And they had these amazing photographs of what looked like an archaeological site.
And I was so excited, I bought the book.
And I decided that I did not want to know what it actually said.
I decided that I was going to translate the book without knowing a word of the language that I was translating.
And it kind of became a very entertaining enterprise.
You might have had the experience that if you were in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, you see a word on the street or on a sign, and then you try to interpret it based on how it sounds like to you, how it would sound in English.
And if you do that, the translations can be really funny, and very weird, and strange.
And I thought that would be like an excellent way to create poetry.
So as I was reading it-- reading the language in Norwegian-- I thought that it would be interesting to see how it would sound to me like in English or Spanish.
And then I started producing this text that was like a poetic interpretation of those images.
And later, I realized that it was, indeed, an origin archeology book.
It was about farming villages in Norway during the Middle Ages.
And it was like a book that explored the archeology of what's left of those locations.
But it just became kind of an instrument or a tool for a poetic project.
Our assignment of today is titled "combinatory play."
It consists in bringing together two or three collaborators, each of which will pick a play-- a book from your collection.
It can be in any language.
They will pick lines from that particular play.
And then by copying them and pasting them together, you will create a combined of all the different plays that everyone has selected.
And then they will perform it together.
John, there are so many different ways you can do this assignment.
And there is certainly a way you can do it where you bring together texts willy-nilly, and create a kind of gibberish that will probably result in some funny moments.
But I really think that it would be most interesting to do this in a very conscientious way, where you select passages from each text, and carefully combine them to create something that could be truly miraculous and surprising.
Yeah, I totally agree.
You know what it made me think of is that Einstein used to do this kind of combinatory play, although it was a little bit different.
Whenever he would be stuck on a problem, he would leave physics or mathematics behind for a while, and go play the violin or go sailing or something.
And he would often find that when doing the other kind of play-- because he did think of physics as a kind of play-- he would get an idea about physics.
I love it.
But for the historical precedent, I actually want to go a little bit further back in history.
During the late Renaissance, German genius Gottfried Leibniz published his dissertation on the art of combinations, proposing a universal language of human thought that could express mathematical, scientific, and metaphysical concepts by breaking them into component pieces, much in the same way words are made out of letters of the alphabet.
Informed by Descartes and working from the Aristotelian theory that all material is formed by combinations of earth, water, air, and fire, Leibniz imagined he could pictographically represent all things and ideas by placing the right selection of those elements in the right order.
Basically, imagine if extremely complex ideas could be easily represented across continents and cultures through a language of science that would unlock a kind of universal truth.
While Leibniz's search proved elusive, of course, there is truth to the concept that language can unlock thought, just as thought can unlock language, whether through calculus, Esperanto, C++, or emoji.
Now, Pablo's assignment does not have us seeking any alchemical truths.
But it does present creation as a combinatory act, giving us a system through which we can attach ideas from different disciplines and times, to create-- via a kind of chemistry-- a new solution.
We're going to do an example of how we would do it here.
And of course, we're going to do it in Spanish, because we're in a Spanish bookstore.
We're going to grab books from the shelves to do that.
However, you can do it in English very easily.
Just grab three plays-- any play that is famous that you might want to kind of-- or you can do [inaudible] as well, and take that as your departure point.
And I think, like a collective reading, it's a really fun way to do this.
Do it with two or three friends.
You can also do it by writing.
You can simply cut and paste all the different phrases from the plays, and then create a collage, really, of those phrases.
And see what comes up.
So now, we will be reading from three different plays.
One of them is a French play by Moliere, "The Miser," a Mexican play by Emilio Carballido Rosalba y Llaveros, [inaudible] and the Keychain," and from a theater piece by Maruxa Vilalta.
[non-english speech] [non-english speech] [non-english speech] [non-english speech] [non-english speech] [non-english speech] If I tell you like I'm going to be just reading from "Romeo and Juliet," lines from "Romeo and Juliet," and that you're going to be reading from Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" play, and then we start reading that, it's just completely nonsensical at first.
But then something really interesting sort of starts happening.
So that's really what I think it is.
And it's also something that we're experiencing with the audience.
The audience knows what's happening.
They know that I'm reading from this play, and that this other person is reading from another play.
And it becomes more of a collective experience, more than a perfect, seamless piece that I am creating for an audience.
So it's kind of like a nice literary experience for an artist or people interested in literature to have.
And really, it helps, or I think it is a stimulating experience.
And you're trying to figure out how you can combine two-- these similar things into one entity, and how some of these things can actually come together in an interesting way.