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Dissent as a Pedagogical Exercise


by Ernesto Rivera

Ernesto Rivera is a Dominican artist based in New York. His work moves through different formats, materials, and techniques; using a fragmentary methodology, he follows traces and unfinished processes. His expressive drive pushes his works along allusive and intuitive paths taking the form of drawings, installations, or video performances. He answers La Escuela___’s invitation to reflect on and share his techniques, methodologies, processes, and influences in the archive of Practices.

Ernesto Rivera: "Mesita anfibia" (2019). Installation.



The principle of art is to move things around, so I started by making that movement with myself: in 2016 I gave up my trade as an interior designer, I changed cities, work, and identity with pirate determinism, to embrace the liberating possibilities that come with uncertainty and to devote myself full time to being an artist.

I prefer to say that I am an artist without adjectives because in that imprecision fit many identities. The first task was to learn the rudiments of the trade, to go through formal education — first, in the Dominican Republic and later, in New York — to immediately rethink a practice that avoids, as far as possible, the formalisms learned and which affirms a personal voice. I believe that arriving at art with different professional and academic experiences infuses my work with a certain hybridity.

Perhaps this contemporary trend of works that are not constrained to the medium is a metabolized reflection of the convulsions of a time where content is more interesting than the format and where information has to be able to migrate smoothly from one platform to another. It could also be a response to the economic reality that forces cultural products to conform to the market’s programs and categories. In my case, I consider it to be a will to be on the move. I am a nomad.


Pedagogy and art have in common being motivated, in the best of scenarios, by doubt and curiosity. I do not consider education to be an artistic practice in itself, but I do believe that in all artistic practices lies the will to socialize contents and create new experiences through the senses. So art has the potential to be a pedagogical tool.

Bringing up controversial issues, placing a provocation or aspects of dissent on the table is also an exercise in a pedagogical dimension. By creating small articulations (or disruptions, depending on how you look at it) I fulfill the triple personal purpose of building up citizenship, politics, and making art — all of which are essential aspects of my artistic practice.

Provocations are allusions, veiled codifications and free associations of dissimilar things that arouse curiosity. The goal is to open up questions that challenge the status quo, and this includes the status of the artwork and its author. One of the strategies for bringing forth dissent is to put a contrary and unpopular opinion on the table, the least comfortable one. I am interested in building the cases and sometimes I have fun being a spoilsport. There can be no conciliation by ignoring reality or forcing the collective to believe in unsubstantiated arguments. I resist conciliation out of comfort or convenience.

I currently take part in two groups of criticism among artists. They are alternative and independent spaces where we support each other in the mission of learning. The dynamic of the virtual meetings is flexible. The guiding principle is friendship, the desire to listen to each other. That is why in each meeting there is space to catch up before moving on to the presentations’ calendar where we show works in progress and open up questions that give them perspective. We share references and collectively think about possible strategies for their circulation. It is a task of weaving networks between those who make up the group, with the extended relationships and contents to which each person had access. The meetings open up questions that are not necessarily meant to be answered.


A transformative experience for me happened when I was pursuing a master's degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I took a seminar on theory of the essay as a writing genre with Dr. Liliana Weinberg. The class was structured as community reading sessions where we made pauses to comment freely on the texts among the group of students, which was plural in interests and backgrounds.

That time in Mexico (2013-2015) went by amid student protests over the crimes committed in Ayotzinapa. It was an event that mobilized the university community, calling on student assemblies that brought together other struggles of higher education. The experiences in that country helped me to understand the vastness of the world and to see my place of origin with critical eyes. These experiences inclined me to think about the social dimension of what I do and to stare suspiciously at authoritative figures and institutions. I am very attentive to the theatricality of power.

Another experience was here in New York, in a workshop with artist Lydia Matthews. The goal was to walk as an aesthetic research practice. One day we reactivated Janet Cardiff's performance Her Long Black Hair at Central Park. With an audio file downloaded to my cell phone and using headphones, I walked about an hour to the beat of the steps of the narration. That exercise, and that whole workshop, opened up a world of possibilities for me because we worked with a definition of art that went beyond the visual. That same year I was an intern for an important collection of Latin American art, working for the registration department. Being in contact with the works and their archives, and thinking about art from the perspective of collections, opened up fields of work that are beyond the usual spaces of consumption of the works.
Regarding the theoretical background, there are Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistory texts or Ricardo Piglia’s fictions. From art, I specially appreciate the works of Luis Camnitzer, Alejandro Cesarco, Andrea Fraser, Narcisa Hirsch, Waltercio Caldas, Tania Bruguera, Silvano Lora, Ulises Carrión, Harun Farocki, Shahrzad Changalvaee, Rayyanet Tabet, Henri Michaux, Hito Steyerl...

Ernesto Rivera: "Vestigios" (2019). Process image (detail).



Sometimes a play on words or the peculiarity of a material on the street trigger ideas for a new project. I am always following the trail of the incidental, no matter where I am. The starting point is always a wish to say or to ask, a written provocation that I have to take out to walk until I find a working route that recovers abandoned ideas or makes free associations with the immediate context. I see projects as accumulations of time and fragments of ideas. I am more interested in the journey and the processes than in achieving final results.


I come from the Caribbean, the place of all doubts, all uncertainties, and all contingencies. It is our way of surviving. I prefer to work with open-ended questions. I invest a lot of energy in the conceptual formulation of the work and in the economy of resources that the context presents, making decisions based on contingencies and the unexpected. Those things, far from frustrating me, I see as opportunities.

It happens that a file takes me to another file, a material to another material, and a reference to another reference with which there is some conceptual affinity; I think reflection happens in that Warburgian way. And sometimes, the most fruitful thinking occurs in times different from those of the creation or circulation of the works; it is not a linear construction but a chain of reiterations. I always have more than one project going on and that allows them to dialogue with each other.

I am aware of the danger of unnecessary contamination in the research process. That is why I don't consume art magazines and avoid going to galleries and museums when I am in the early stages of projects. I rarely purchase materials from specialty art stores; being consistent with the current environmental problems, I think twice about the materials I use and the processes I follow. Moreover, I like it when the works disappear. I am increasingly inclined to devoting more time to the cultural implications of the works than to the aesthetic factor. I am more interested in problematizing than in achieving very concrete results.

Procedures and strategies

I organize the work starting from certain limits or parameters given by the budget or by a series of previous steps. I spend time researching the cultural history of words, materials, and techniques. After making a minimal reference map, I ask myself how I am bringing a new perspective with the project and why it is relevant at the time and place where it will be presented.
I am interested in the symbolisms that link reality with fiction. There is a certain ritual component to my proposals. When I am drawing or working with materials, I take off my wrist watch because I want to experience the particular speed of time of the work process.

Ernesto Rivera: "Vestigios" (2019), video performance.


For the time being, I set out to make projects in which I can use my own technical skills; I follow this restriction. However, I involve other people in my processes in specific works such as Ensayo (2020), where the active participation of seven artists was crucial because it was a goal that the end result reflected the democratization of the processes we followed.

When I reach a noteworthy breakthrough, I like to share those results with friends from different and far apart cultures. I want my work to dialogue with a broad group of people beyond my local context or home culture. In this effort toward diversification, I invite people who are not used to the discourses of galleries and museums to review the projects.

Currently, I am developing a cultural management project with curator Leonor Ortiz called La Precaria. It is a collective effort to open alternative and independent spaces for cultural and artistic discussion in the Dominican Republic. It is a project that I am very excited about.


In progress

Sculpture is a mystery to me. I am in the midst of a series of exercises in which I reuse paper scraps to make shapes that are assembled on wooden structures. It is a very laborious process boiling the paper to soften the fibers and then kneading. The paper takes days to dry but the mechanical qualities of such a light material provoke me a lot. The resulting artifacts are like giant tools with no particular use that people will be able to manipulate and relate to. At the same time, I am making a series of drawings that emerge as fragments from the images of a book. Since I use tracing paper, the boundaries between original and copy disappear.

There are two very important concepts in my work: immediacy and distance. Generally, immediacy relates to the contact with the materials, and distance has to do with the critical elaboration with multiple interpretative layers. The content of my works is not obvious, I am interested in people approaching them as they would a crime scene.

Ernesto Rivera: "Salamander Stays Overnight" (2017).

In perspective

Edward Said says that texts are mundane objects which exist in the world independent from their authors. I think of my works in the same way: when they leave the studio, they stop belonging to me and begin to exist in the world by their own will. A misinterpretation is also a possible interpretation. Every now and then, I go through my archive to establish connections between works. As I have experience with art archives, I am always tempted to propose works that complicate the categories of registration.

There is a work that I really enjoyed making: Mesita anfibia (2019). It was a table that floated on four buckets of water, the top had a furry material and a tool that people could use to draw, but when they did, the table would move affecting the results. I learned a lot building it and watching visitors interact with it. Another interesting thing happened with the Contrauno (2018) installation, which was a filer filled with materials such as bread, wine, and sand. When I showed it in New York, people touched the work freely but in the Dominican Republic, the reactions were quite different. With this project I confirmed that I was operating on different cultural realities.

The first contact with history is to recognize that working processes are also historical processes. The same goes for words. That is why I believe that histories are more or less plausible reconstructions and are conditioned by archival policies, and by the effects (and affections) of memory. One risk of the diaspora is nostalgia, this sort of caricatured vision of the past is dangerous because of its distortive potential. A strategy that I have used in some works is contrasting the stories with the traces on the site and with the documents and contents in the archives. Lately, I have taken a special interest in Dominican art history to better understand the trajectories upon which I am building. I am concerned about Dominican art history books being private commissions, so it will be necessary to question what they omit intentionally.


Being a migrant in the United States contributes to deepening the political dimension of my work and to having class consciousness. I have learned a lot from the discussions about social disparity based on racial, socioeconomic, gender, or immigration status. It is ironic that such a violent society is also the one that shows the most openness towards talking about these issues; perhaps to exculpate itself.

I would say that my interest is to politicize myself, and as a natural result, the works reflect those ways of seeing the world. Being "the other" pointed me the need to question who I am and where I come from. That is why I think I discovered my country by leaving it. The most significant influence of migration has been to rid myself of the nationalist romance.

There are also other unsettling issues, such as work precariousness in the cultural sector as a direct consequence of the implementation of neoliberal policies in institutions worldwide. This austerity is further complicated when those in charge of cultural management do it with much mediocrity, with little interest in transforming things from their position of social agency.

However, this unguardedness provides opportunity for not having to render accounts. Precariousness can be uncomfortable and frustrating, but in that space of freedom, judgment is suspended and creativity expanded. On the other hand, abundance can be an obstacle and success can cloud the clarity of thought. Integrated as a working methodology, precariousness can help to debug strategies, optimize resources, and sharpen the arguments.