Francesco Pedraglio & Tania Pérez Córdova on storytelling, translation, and selling eighty books to break even
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Interview
1,684 words
2020

Francesco Pedraglio (1981, Como, Italy) is a writer and artist. Tania Pérez Córdova (1979, Mexico City, Mexico) is a sculptor, not an artist. Together they run the publishing house Juan de la Cosa / John of the Thing.

Francesco and Tania invite you to read:

Robert Morris LevineTania, who is Francesco Pedraglio?

Tania Pérez Córdova Francesco is an artist and writer. His work occupies different spaces; he started working with performance and has evolved into object making. I always return to a story. When Francesco was running FormContent, a project space in London, he would tour the exhibitions and speak about the works. Eventually he began to add more and more fiction and embrace the performativity around objects. From there he started doing his own objects and telling his own stories.

RMLAnd Francesco, who is Tania Pérez Córdova?

Francesco Pedraglio Tania is, by contrast, one hundred percent an artist. While I’ve wandered all around, she has been doing this from the beginning. But rather than an artist, I describe Tania as a sculptor. She is a sculptor because the way she makes work questions the production and consumption of an object. In this sense, her practice deals with narrative and performativity even if she doesn’t perform or write. This is common ground.

TPCThat sounds right.

FPI have a close friend who insists he is a painter—never an “artist.” I’ve long complained about that. “Why don’t you just say you are an artist?” I’d ask. But now I understand. With Tania, being a sculptor is intentional.

RMLWhat is the first book you read together?

FPWe met seven years ago while I was living in Mexico. Suddenly my father became ill and I had to return to Italy to tend to him. Before I left, Tania and I read a fragment of Roberto Bolaño’s The Unknown University.

TPCDid you play that game as a child where you’d ask a question and open a book at random to find the answer? Well that’s what we did with Bolaño. The poem we turned to was “I Will Gift to You an Abyss.”

FPThat’s the cheesy answer. The more official answer is Luis Felipe Fabre’s Flowers for the Dead (Flores para los Muertos). It became the first book we published with our press, Juan de la Cosa / John of the Thing.

TPCWe were at a book fair and a friend recommended we purchase Fabre’s chapbook. At the time he was unknown in Mexico. We read it on the plane back to Mexico City. We loved it, the text at least. The design was awful. What an ugly book! The paper, everything was so wrong. We knew we had to make it a new object.

RMLJust this year you wrote your first book together, Saliva. How did this come about?

FPAn association of contemporary art here in Mexico invited us to stage a performance at a dinner for collectors. We wanted to tell a series of stories intertwined with the act of being at a dinner table: the food, the rituals, the tools. While the guests were served champagne, we discussed primordial broth. While the table was set with forks and knives, we talked about the development of utensils. Saliva is the script of that performance. I hesitate to call it a book; it is a collection of fragments. Really it is a pamphlet, a libretto for a live event.

RMLFrancesco, you love to write. Tania, you "would love to" love to write.

TPCI would, but writing is so painful. Instead, I collect. I used to make long lists. I would gather phrases or words or parts of sentences that I wanted my work to feel like. I remember that one list had instructions for how to dye hair next to a fragment of an John Ashbery interview in which he was asked how he composed his poems. He responded, I cannot tell you but on the subway the other day I heard part of a conversation so I took that sentence. I suppose this is how I compose too. Words carry feelings that I attempt to recreate as objects.

FPTania’s relationship to language is exactly what I’ve been attracted to in publishing other people. I find that visual artists can approach writing in a way that writers cannot—with their gut, with romance, or as objects in an undetermined space.

RMLTania, the titles and captions for your work are so important. My favorite: Chasing, pausing, waiting, 2014, blusher, bird droppings, cigarette ash (from a smoker wanting to quit), black marble.

TPCEven if I’m not a writer, per se, the narrative of an object is critical to my work. I use titles and captions to place the object in a situation outside of itself. A few years ago I made a series entitled Objects in Pause. All the sculptures refer to something that stopped for the object to exist. Somebody lent me the SIM card from their phone. A friend gave me one of her earrings. I was interested in seeing the situation that produced the sculpture rather than the sculpture itself. What you are seeing is just about the point of view from which you are seeing it.

RMLLikewise Francesco, you have an affinity for titles: Reenactment (Urbino, Italy, ca. 1590; Catania, Italy, ca. 1762), 2020, graffiti on avocado tree branch; The narrator – Spoken Sculpture 3 (3 simultaneous events producing 2 possible stories), 2018, brass, canvas, wood, acrylic paint, spoken words. The "possible story" is central to both of your practices. Your works give us suspended objects, fragments, traces to piece together.

FPIt’s true. I’ve always been fascinated by the unavoidable narrative. In the past, I would conduct very long performances that would border on the nonsensical. There were so many pathways for people to take. By the end, the audience would have made stories from this nonsense, each their own. For me, the story in and of itself could be banal; it is more of a tool to give people the possibility to create different scenarios. I am interested in framing. Likewise, in Tania’s work you will always miss something; the story is always out of frame.

RMLTania, your work is commonly described as minimal. But as you’ve said, the out of frame is always in your work. This appears to be a misnomer.

TPCIt is almost the opposite—maximal even. I have a simple goal: my objects need to reach elsewhere. When I began my practice, I was living in London and would go every so often to the British Museum to study artifacts. I was fascinated by the way that those ancient objects contained such rich stories. I attempt something similar.

FPTania’s work has been pigeonholed as “minimal” or “quiet.” She always tells me that the object needs to speak of something outside of itself—of the world beyond. I have the sense that her objects have a live element, as if the person wearing the matching earring is walking in the streets at this moment.

RMLRoland Barthes used the terms readerly and writerly to distinguish texts that demand no special effort to understand and those that demand effort on the part of the reader. Is it fair to say that you are interested in writerly artworks—objects that demand a viewer's writing?

FPYes. I’m trying to think of a better way to say yes. Definitely!

TPCWhen the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they found the Aztecs worshipping stones. This scared the settlers and they decided to bury them. Some hundreds of years later, German explorers unearthed these relics, only to realize that people still worshipped them, so they buried them again. I’m interested in that process of burial and excavation, and the translations that occur each time. I would like to think of my objects similarly; their meaning should change with each “discovery.”

RMLIn 2016, you established the independent press Juan de la Cosa / John of the Thing as an experiment in translation. Each book is published in Spanish and English. Tell me about this interest in publishing generally and translation specifically.

TPCWhen we started our press, Francesco was living in London and I was living in Mexico. It felt natural to publish each book as bilingual rather than to choose a language.

FPYes. Juan de la Cosa is a labor of love, in every sense: Tania and I work together; we publish the work of friends; we don’t do it for money—we couldn’t turn a profit even if we tried. One day at a book fair, I asked myself how many books we would need to sell just to break even. Eighty just to offset the cost of the table at the fair.

RMLTania, you recall a time when Francesco was translating a previously untranslated Italian poet and adding his own lines into the original. This recalls Walter Benjamin's proposal, in his 1921 essay “The Task of the Translator,” that translation is a form of artistic writing alongside poetry rather than a derivative or faithful reproduction.

TPCI remember checking the English translations of Luis Felipe Fabre’s poems. I didn’t like them at all; they may have been accurate but they felt so distant from my original experience. How could that be? With that we began to focus on translation and all of its problems and opportunities.

In any text, there are parts that can be literally translated and others that will have to diverge to conjure the right feeling. We aim for authenticity of feeling not meaning.

FPI enjoy watching Tania work through the translations. She has such a sculptural approach, almost like she is in a room with the words.