Katrina De Wees on Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla

Jennifer Allora (b. 1974, Philadelphia, USA) and Guillermo Calzadilla (b. 1971, Havana, Cuba) began the collaborative, activist, conceptual art duo Allora and Calzadilla in 1995 and currently live and work together in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Their visual art practice stretches between video, sound, installation, performance, sculpture, and social intervention, as they utilize inquiry-driven experiments to broaden awareness on historical and contemporary social conditions, especially around militarism and political violence. Their works evoke a rich sense of place often achieved through extensive research and site-specificity.

Materials are critical for Allora and Calzadilla. Each object they employ is scrutinized for its practical function and symbolism. Chalk (2002-Peru) for instance, is an artistic social intervention by way of material objects. The artists placed 24 enormous pieces of chalk in Lima, Peru’s central square where protesters often gather daily adjacent to the parliament building and the President’s mansion. The protesters—generally only permitted during a specific hour—used the chalk to write temporary messages on the plaza’s pavement thereby expanding their visual and ideological presence. The ground became a sounding board for individuals to develop collective messages and ideas. The writing became a form of resistance, with a “potential to actively disrupt what are the norms of a particular setting;”* resulting in the ‘arrest’ of the chalk which was taken away by police in a vehicle.

Alternatively, Allora and Calzadilla’s video Returning a Sound (2004) employs sound objects primarily as symbolic tools. They consider the sonic violence in Vieques, Puerto Rico; a community that witnessed constant detonations—250 days out of the year—where the U.S. Navy tested bombs and as revealed in 2002, secretly tested chemical warfare agents on the islands people in 1969. The video features Homar, a young civil disobedient and activist, riding a moped across the now abandoned military-occupied territory with a trumpet attached to the bikes exhaust pipe. A trumpet often commemorates victory on land, typically playing an anthem. Breaking ‘anthem’ down to its Greek origin, Allora and Calzadilla found ‘sounding an answer.’ The trumpet became “a counter-instrument whose emissions follow not from a preconceived score, but from the jolts of the road and discontinuous acceleration of the bike’s engine as Homar acoustically reterritorializes areas of the island.”† Returning a Sound literally returns and reflects on the constant, omnipresent sounds of violence filling the region until the U.S. Navy’s departure in 2003.

In the Fall 2009 issue of BOMB Magazine, Carlos Motto claims Stop, Repair, Prepare (2008) represents Allora and Calzadilla’s “greatest synthesis of conceptual rigor, political awareness, and sensitivity to form.” The critically acclaimed installation and performance involves a performer standing in the center of a grand piano that has been cut through its center, laboriously moving throughout the space, struggling to play the song Ode to Joy by Ludwig van Beethoven, which was both the anthem to the European Union and the inauguration song for a Nazi propaganda building. Stop, Repair, Prepare, Returning a Sound, and Chalk are only a few examples of Allora and Calzadilla’s extensive body of work that spans almost two decades. Their practice addresses ‘conflict as an aesthetic force,’ continually birthing new works through their interest in the ‘excessive potential of metaphor.’


*Jennifer Allora on Art 21: Paradox: Allora and Calzadilla (2007)

Jennifer Allora. Bomb Magazine Fall 2009 Interview with Guillermo Calzadilla and Carlos Motto