Santiago Rueda strikes back with a Line of Powder, quieter and more effective in his analysis of a particular local artistic phenomenon. Art and Drugs in Colombia, the winner text of the District Historic or Critic Essay Contest about the field of Arts in Colombia, 2008.

Quiet, because unlike what happened in his previous book,1 the subject of research seems to be less compelling in professional terms. Effective, because he proposes –and he knows he is doing it- a preliminary exam about the way in which some Colombian artists have dealt with the subject of illegal drugs in their works.2 About this last point, one has to be grateful that Rueda’s research is not overacted by suggesting pedagogic-therapeutic elements,3 creating concerned inventories4 or justifying absurd statements of territorial domination like: “The main purpose of the USA is to prevent the flow of illegal drugs to the United States, as well as to help Colombia to promote peace and economic development as it contributes to the Andes’ regional security”.5

And to achieve this effect, Rueda begins by providing us with a definition of the phenomenon. By following a series of authors who have dealt with the subject from the Political Sciences, Research Journalism, or Human Sciences’ perspective, we are shown that the reading of this matter should start by making a distinction between the concept of “narco issue” and the most popular term, “drug dealing” since the former covers a more comprehensive economic dynamics which, according to Saul Franco, “includes the stages of production, processing, dealing and consumption f certain Psychoactive illegal substances”, where dealing would only be “just one of the stages of the process”.6 This idea is reinforced in flashback with a statement included in the text that accompanied the exhibition Political instruments, with pictures of Rueda himself, stating that part of his interest in dealing with subject was to sound the “implementation of violence and […] the relations that can be established with war as a way of life”7. Continuing this sketch, A line of Powder… would translate tour years later the same desire to integrate visual production from several generations of Colombian artists into the specific social circumstances that the society in which they had to develop faced.

Hence, the question that is present in the three first chapters of the book seems to be “What made our contemporary artists from that time so stolid and so unconcerned?” To give a series of answers which analysis would exceed the limits of A line of Powder …According to Rueda, the disappearance of the local artistic field during the 70s and the 80s in front of the increasing rise of the mafia culture could be the result of the convergence of:

–Some carefully rationed mechanisms of promotion for the younger artists. For the decade of 1970 and early 1980s, “the limited space for the emergence of new artists and the only few opportunities offered by National (Artists) Salons and other exhibitions dedicated to local Plastic Arts [they stood out for showing the strong] predominance of just a few names”.8

–A possible expression of rejection against the superficial politization and paternalist militancy that created a great part of the artistic proposals of the 70s. In the 80s there was a quick (and dumb) assimilation of post-modernism in its most conservative version- be it neo-expressionism or transvanguardism- by a generation of artists specialized in foreign aspects that returned to the country and determined, to a great extent, that a great volume of the artistic contemporary production was undermined by the production of experiments that rejected “social and political concern that were so echoed in the previous decade” as part of their formulation.

–An active intervention of the mafia in the orientation of certain segments of the Arts market, some influence on some artists production criteria and on some gallery people’s forms of negotiation: “[while] during this decade the mafia is interested in the massive acquisition of Art Works not only a way of socially scaling, but economically speaking; as it is precisely at this point that the global art Market booms, in association to the financial system – legal or illegal- [on the other hand] the local art market was not unaware of the demand generated by drug dealing and, even when it is not clear the role that art dealers, gallery dealers and art collectors have had as direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious beneficiaries of drug dealing, the narco boom explains, to a great extent, the high prices that Colombian Art would have as of that moment”.9

–An equally absentminded critic. Even when, at that time, Eduardo Serrano wrote maybe the only text that is worth reading out of his tortuous production in which he mentioned this issue – of course in a smart way- he did not continue treating this matter with attention. From Santiago Rueda’s perspective, among the great number of critics that exerted on those days, only Serrano tackled the issue.

During the 90s, Rueda keeps trying to show how local artists configured the approach to the issue. At this point, he even formulates it in a comic way by quoting Paloma Porraz, the Coordinator of the Project For my Race will Speak The Spirit in Mexico, who, in 1996, was equally worried about the Colombian artistic field. For Porraz it seemed “that among Colombian artists there is a consensus about reality and the way in which violence and uncertainty feed their creativity and reinforce its reflection”; and, in comparison, “after analyzing the attitudes of [colombianos] artists towards surrounding reality we ask ourselves why Mexican artists are not interested in their environment”.10

A few pages forward Rueda talks about the indispensable José Alejandro Restrepo (even if presenting a somehow problematic equation within the book structure: 1. the work “Heavenly Muse” is the work the better tackles the narco subject) and numbers a series of artists who dealt with it, configuring what is maybe the strongest idea of his reflection: young art introduced the issue of narco economy and cultural values to conventional spaces of artistic movement, widening its level of influence, even up to already established values.11 To consolidate this idea, he launches some hypothesis that, in fact, make the need of more questioning like this , more evident. Among them we find the eternal question about the level of implication of Money, managed or obtained by the mafia in the local art circulation market or the doubt about the absence of a bigger number of curator houses that deal with this matter. About this last subject, it has to be said that Rueda dares to state the exhibition Status quo,12 is the breaking point as here “it is announced by Colombian Visual Arts that he has entered the narco genre”. This is not to be disregarded, mostly because it backs up the idea of the subject’s inoculation process and, guided by himself, young art, started to be made within Colombian artistic institutions as of middle 90s, where pioneers like José Ignacio Roca are critical.13 Alter following the way proposed by Santiago Rueda, to make a contrast between the socio-political circumstances in relation to their impact on Colombian Art production to the end of the 20th Century (and feeling admiration and envy for not having done something similar), it is possible to ask oneself if the appreciation and abundance that this type of proposal has had in several contexts have been at all useful. That is to say, if one could think that because there are many- and there are too many-versions of drug dealing, consumption, and object customization to better enjoy the substance and Tania Bruguera, one could say that artists have correctly understood the issue. Or if, in order to calm down the segment of public that use to ask about the level of commitment of young artists there is a rationale to say that artists now do look to their country’s problems. It is not a reason to be happy either, because when you look at the point where Rueda stops his revision we are in the position to balance a great group of related expressions and decide if involved artists have ended up presenting a kind of export-type national style that includes some variable doses of drugs, exoticism, soft porno- misery, imitation of young culture, cynicism and ambiguity. Going back to Rueda, yes, more curatories are required to observe the problem as a whole. It is not enough to just mention some already prestigious names.