It’s not an exaggeration to say that Cecilia Vicuña, at the age of 24, and without even meaning to be, was way ahead of her time as a maker of conceptual art in Chile. It is also not an exaggeration to emphasize that as a performance artist, feminist artist, visual artist, and literary artist, she was way ahead of her time both now and 45 years ago, not just in Chile, but around the world as well.

Of Vicuňa’s contributions to the “artistic, political and cultural revolution” of Chile in the 1960s and 70s. Juliet Lynd, the primary scholar of Vicuna’s work in the U.S., has written the following:

Cecilia Vicuña was on the vanguard of this cultural scene: she lived in the margins, but her work (visual, performative and also poetic) of that era anticipated the important artistic and academic movements in conceptual art and performance that took off in the 70s and 80s encapsulating even the discourses of second wave feminism…..Lucy Lippard has classified her small sculptures made from objects found on the beach in Concón in 1966 as a precursor by six months to Robert Smithson’s Earthworks in the US; they also predate the silhouettes of Ana Mendieta, the exiled Cuban artist who sketched feminine figures into the landscape in the 70s as well as the earth-drawings made by Atsuko Tanaka in Japan in 1968. Nemusio Antúnez, in response to Otoňo in the Museum of Bellas Artes {in Santiago} in 1971….informed Vicuña that she was making “conceptual art.”

This was the first time Cecilia had heard the term “conceptual art,” yet in her journal notes about the installation of Otoňo/Autumn, where she filled a museum exhibition hall with dried leaves, she analyzes the piece as if she were an experienced practitioner. She writes that Autumn is “an interior piece rather than exterior one, because its conception and the experience of doing it counts more than the sculpture itself.”

At this moment in unitedstatesian poetry, when the term Conceptualism has been linked with racist ideology, it seems important to emphasize that the racists don’t own the term, that it predates the present, and that if we look to the South we see that Conceptual modes, in the form of documentary approaches, nature-based installation, political critique and performance, were being used by Cecilia to advance what Lucas de Lima, in the last post in our series, called a cross-racial “blueprint for solidarity and transformation.”

As you can see from her post here, her scope and breadth and influence and interest weave back and forth between indigenous thought and tradition, canonical Latin American poetry, on the ground engagement with everyday people on the streets, and a wide-reaching critique of militaristic abuses of power.

Aside from creating poetry, visual art and performance informed by indigenous practice, Cecilia has conducted workshops in Mapuche communities in Chile, worked with children to help restore forgotten indigenous traditions, and she has worked dedicatedly in her literary advocacy for indigenous poetics. She has edited an anthology of Mapuche poetry; and her inclusion of indigenous authors in the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry grounded indigenous writing as essential to Latin American literary history.

There are many things I love about Cecilia’s work, and for me what’s exciting about this post is the way in which Cecilia asks us once more to literalize the spiritual and to accept the impossible as necessary realities of our lives. I keep thinking about Cecilia’s statement in this post that “we need to translate language into itself so that IT sees our awareness.” And I keep thinking about her discussion of the creation in Ecuador of a new verb that combines Quichua and Spanish to form a word that embodies both “awareness” and “repair.” What do we need to do with our minds and bodies to translate language into itself? What do we need to do to be able to allow for awareness to generate repair?

Finally, in my previous introduction, I situated Lucas de Lima as an author writing in a context of a transamerican, hemispheric poetics whose poetry and criticism is fueled by the dual presence of North and South America. Cecilia left Chile in the early 70s and has lived in New York for many decades. She continuously moves back and forth between the U.S. and South America, between English and Spanish and other linguistic traditions to form a body of work that depicts life in Chile and South America, life in the U.S., and life in many other realms of the universe.

—Daniel Borzutzky


Language is migrant. Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants, cells and bacteria are migrants too. Even galaxies migrate.

What is then this talk against migrants? It can only be talk against ourselves, against life itself.

20 years ago, I opened up the word "migrant," seeing it as a dangerous mix of Latin and Germanic roots. I imagined "migrant" was probably composed of mei, (Latin), to change or move, and gra,"heart" from the Germanic kerd. Thus, "migrant" became: "changed heart," a heart in pain, changing the heart of the earth. The word "immigrant" really says: “grant me life."

"Grant" means "to allow to have," and is related to a far more ancient Proto Indo European root: dhe, the mother of "deed" and "law" in English and sacerdos in Latin: performer of sacred rites.

What is the rite performed by millions of migrants displaced and seeking safe haven around the world? Is it a way to let us see our own indifference, our complicity with the ongoing wars?

Is their pain powerful enough to allow us to change our heart? To see our part in it?

I "wounder" said Margarita, my immigrant friend, mixing up wondering and wounding, and I thought what a perfect embodiment of our true condition!

Vicente Huidobro wrote: "Open your mouth to receive the host of the wounded word."

Can we look into the wound? Rosario Castellanos wrote: specialty is not feeling, just
looking, so I say:
(the word is a hard look.)

Octavio Paz took it even further saying:

I don't see with my eyes: words
are my eyes.

In 1980 I was in exile in Bogotá, where I was working on my Palabrarmas project, a way of opening words to see what they have to say. My early life as a poet was guided by a line from Novalis: "Poetry is the original religion of mankind."

Still from the film “What is Poetry to You?” by Cecilia Vicuña, Bogotá 1980


Still from the film “What is Poetry to You?” by Cecilia Vicuña, Bogotá 1980

Living in the violent city of Bogotá, I wanted to see if anybody else shared this view, so I set out with a camera and a team of volunteers to interview people in the street. I asked everybody the same question: "What is Poetry to you?" and I got great answers from beggars and prostitutes, but the best was: "que prosiga," "that it may go on." But that's not it, how do you translate the subjunctive, the most beautiful "tiempo verbal" (time inside the verb) of the Spanish language? "Subjunctive" means next to, but under the power of the unknown. It is a future potential subjected to unforeseen conditions. It may or it may not happen, and that aspect matches exactly the quantum definition of emergent properties.

If you google the subjunctive you will find it described as a "mood," as if a verbal tense could feel: "The subjunctive mood is the verb form used to express a wish, a suggestion, or a condition that is contrary to fact." Or "the present subjunctive is the bare form of a verb (a verb with no ending)."

I loved that! The image of a naked verb! The man who passed by as a shadow in my film saying "que prosiga" was present only for a second and then he disappeared into the crowd having expressed in two words the utter precision of indigenous oral culture.

People watching the film today can't believe it was not scripted because in 36 years we seem to have abandoned the art of complex conversation that was widely available then. In the film you hear people in the street improvising responses on the spot, displaying an awareness of language that seems to be missing now. I wounder, how this came about? My heart says it must be fear, the ocean of lies we live in, subjected to a continuous stream of doublespeak by the powers that exert violence on us, and the media that supports it. Living under dictatorship, the first thing that disappears is the fun and freedom of saying what you really think. Complex public conversation goes extinct. Maybe the extinction of playful free speech is related to the extinction of species we are causing as we speak.

Still from the film “What is Poetry to You?” by Cecilia Vicuña, Bogotá 1980

The word "species" comes from the Latin speciēs: a seeing. Maybe we are losing them, and so many languages, because we don't wish to see what we are doing. I think of the contrast between the desire to observe language in the expression "que prosiga" and our desire not to see the numbing / dumbing consequences of doublespeak in our body and soul.

I hear a "low continuous humming sound," the "unmanned aerial vehicles," the drones we send out into the world carrying our killing thoughts.

Drones are the ultimate expression of our disconnect with words, our ability to speak without feeling the effect of our words on others.

"Words are acts," said Octavio Paz.

Perhaps now words are becoming drones, flying robots, as we are "unmanned" in a new sense, becoming less human, desensitized by these acts? I am thinking not just of the victims, but also of the perpetrators, the drone operators. Tonje Hessen Schei, the director of the film Drone, speaking of how children are trained to kill by video games, said: "war is made to look fun, killing is made to look cool... but this 'militainment' has a huge cost," not just for the young soldiers who operate them, but for the society as a whole.


I recently saw Astro Noise, an exhibition by Laura Poitras at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where the language of surveillance migrates into poetry and art. She invited the viewers to lie in a collective bed where you see the night sky crisscrossed by drones. She turns around the search for matching patterns the algorithms use to liquidate people with drones, to reveal the workings of the system. And, of course we are being surveyed as we survey the show! Hers is a new kind of visual poetry connecting our bodies to the real fight for the soul of this earth. Are we going to be human, or we will de-humanize ourselves to the point where the Earth itself will dream our end?

Astro Noise de Laura Poitras, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2016

The fight is on, and this may be the only beauty of our times. The Quechua speakers of Perú say: "beauty is the struggle."

I watch TV and I see the creation of new digital languages designed to counter the desensitization forced on us by the media: the invention of a new kind of immersive journalism that can make us feel the power of words. (The irony of our robotic self today is that we don't seem to feel language, unless it is digitally enhanced.) In the virtual reality film Across the Line, shown at the Sundance Festival, users try to enter an abortion clinic while violent screams are shouted at them by anti-choice crusaders. In the dark, the users wearing the virtual reality mask actually feel the hurt caused by the violent words.

Life regenerates in the dark. Maybe the dark will become the source of light.

I see the poet/translator as the person who goes into the darkness, seeking the "other" in ourselves, what we don't wish to see, as if this act could reveal what the larger world keeps hidden.

Eduardo Kohn, in his extraordinary book, How Forests Think, Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human notes the creation of a new verb by the Quichua speakers of Ecuador: "riparana" which means "darse cuenta," to realize or to be aware. The verb is a Quichua transfiguration of the Spanish "reparar," to observe, sense and repair. As if awareness itself, the simple act of observing, has the power to heal.

How Forest Think, Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

The invention of such verbs is true poetry, opening a possible path, or a way out of the destruction we are creating.

As for the role of the poet in our times I only have more questions: are we a "listening post," composing an impossible "survival guide," searching for an "art that shows how power works" as Paul Chan says? Or are we going silent in the face of our self made destruction?

Comandante Marcos, the Zapatista guerrilla transcribed the words of the Indian sage El Viejo Antonio: "the gods went looking for silence to reorient themselves, but found it nowhere." That nowhere is our place now. We need to translate language into itself so that IT sees our awareness, translating us into another state of mind.

Language is the translator. It could translate us to a place where we cease to tolerate injustice, abuse and the destruction of life. Life is language. "When we speak, life speaks" says the Kaushitaki Upanishad.

Awareness is the only creative force that creates itself as it looks at itself.

A state of mind is transient and eternal at the same time.

Todo migra. Could we migrate to the 'wounderment' of our lives? To poetry itself?

—Cecilia Vicuña, Marzo 2016

Originally Published: April 18th, 2016

Poet and multidisciplinary artist Cecilia Vicuña was born and raised in Chile. In her poems, she engages themes of language and memory, with particular attention to decay and exile. As art historian Roberto Tejada observed, “Vicuña's work, at its very essence, is 'a way of remembering'—as if exile and recall...