Coco Guzman is a Spanish-Canadian queer artist based in Toronto. Guzman draws, documents, and gathers stories that are public and intimate. They created Missing Democracy – modeled after pet posters posted on utility poles and community bulletin boards – where a Grumpy Cat stands in for democracy. We speak with Guzman about their approach to working on and in public spaces, especially to deal with memory as monumental in subtle, purposeful ways.
Over the last few months, it has been a treat to get to know Coco Guzman, a Spanish-Canadian queer artist based in Toronto. Guzman draws, documents, and gathers stories that are public and intimate. They created Missing Democracy – modeled after pet posters posted on utility poles and community bulletin boards – where a Grumpy Cat stands in for democracy.
“She's old and grumpy because of too many upsetting and or fake news,” says Guzman.
We speak with Guzman about their approach to working on and in public spaces, especially to deal with memory as monumental in subtle, purposeful ways.
Guzman adds, “I think what is interesting is to figure out if you're not an artist and if you're not an activist, how can you leave traces of yourself in the public space? In a way that is not being co-opted.”
Guzman’s Missing Democracy is a part of the High Line Joint Art Network’s New Monuments for New Cities. Over the last six months, Monument Lab has been research residents of this project and we are speaking with artists from each of its 5 partner cities – New York, Chicago, Austin, Houston, and Toronto – about monuments, memory, and public space.
Paul Farber: Coco Guzman. Welcome to the Monument Lab podcast.
Coco Guzman: Thank you so much Paul for inviting me today.
Farber: It's great to be in conversation again with you. I want to start with your monument proposal, the poster, Missing Democracy. Could you read from it and describe it in your own words?
Guzman: Yes, absolutely. So my poster, Missing Democracy, looks like a missing pet poster, so you can imagine it's like a white page with a picture of a very grumpy cat in the center. And then under the cat, on the top it says "Missing Democracy. Last seen, was she ever? Reward to have democracy, contact your friends." And from the cats grumpy face, there is another like a bubble of speech that says, find me. And in the bottom of the poster there's the description of this cat named democracy and it says, "missing from our city since last elections, she's old and grumpy because of too many upsetting and or fake news. She hates neo-liberalism, patriarchy, fascism and showers. Once she scratched an eye out of a white supremacist, so racists, stay away. She loves chicken wings, public health care, free education, affordable housing and naps. She responds to the end of capitalism and scamming." And at the bottom there's all this little pieces of paper that people can take out, saying, find democracy. So that's the poster, there's also a little drawing on the side, it's like the landscape, maybe like of Toronto. So this is a poster I made. I'm coming from Toronto for this exhibition, so I wanted also Toronto to be a part of the poster, but it's a very simple stick people kind of drawing.
Farber: And you were asked as a part of this project, as a part of New Monuments for New Cities to come up with a monument proposal. How did you go to the missing cat poster as your format?
Guzman: Yeah, it sounds like ... there's such a gap between what we consider to be a monument, which is like this thing that is very permanent and usually made of concrete and sculptures and statues, and then this missing pet poster. For me, I was looking the ways that people leave the traces of their intimate life or their house life, onto the street. I think because I have a pet, I'm always looking for this missing pet poster, and trying to keep an eye out for the missing cat or the missing dog. And I find these posters very interesting because other than getting to see the picture of the cat, you get to know a lot about this household. Because of the name of the cat, because of the things they like, because the words they use, the emotions they put in the creation of this poster, where the poster is distributed, et cetera. And it also works as a kind of memory, because then this cat may be hopefully be found but most posters remain. So I'm very interested in people's interventions in the public space and in a city like Toronto, there are not many ways that actual people can intervene. Like whether it's anonymous, in a way that is just because of their own desire to call for help in this case. So I thought the missing pet poster is actually a way that we continue to leave traces of who we are in our lives in the public space. And I really like also this idea that in the cities like Toronto, and I imagine many of the other cities that we're invited to participate in this exhibition, I think the erasure of public space also brings the erasure of community building and also community support. So for me, the missing pet poster is also a way that you actually are asking your neighbors that suddenly, many of the city [residents] are people who you don't know, you're asking them for help, but you're asking strangers for help. And I think that's something that is very powerful actually. And I wanted to bring that into the poster.
Farber: You mention this idea that it's challenging to intervene into public space, and you've drawn up on your poster this landscape of Toronto that includes the CN Tower and a series of other buildings that look like condominiums or business towers, and in front of it there's a figure that says, "Where is democracy?", and then you've pointed to all the buildings and say, "Not here, not here, not here." How does one intervene into public space, and how is it possible to leave traces or at least leave questions?
Guzman: I mean, I think the intervention can happen in different ways. I think the missing pet poster, for example, is one that is very accessible, and is also done by people who may not identify as artists or activists. And I think that's also an important distinction to have because I think as a visual artist, and I work a lot with the space and sometimes invited and commission and paid to intervene the space, even the public space. As an activist I am not invited but I will probably do it because the cause of the message I will convey, I believe it is worth to take the public space, and there's an acknowledgment of that activist intervention. I think what is interesting is to figure out if you're not an artist and if you're not an activist, how can you leave traces of yourself in the public space? In a way that is not being co-opted. For example, like by co-option, it could be also be good co-options like... okay there's public festivals, right? So I think when we are crossing a street and we are inviting people to come over and then these are very important elements, but there's still very much domesticated by the institution. So how can we do otherwise? I think it's like as like you Paul and Monument Lab, I think it's important to figure out how do regular people while they're not wearing the hat of activists or artists, how can people take that space? For me, I like it very much. I think Toronto's a great city to see how people actually bend the rules sometimes, even if it's just to paint something on the facade of the house that is a strange. Paint their house in a strange color, or create this... leave little maybe papers all around like a fans. I'm trying to think other ways... You can see that people are kind of trying to become a weed, trying to break those rules. But I actually don't have any... I don't have any idea of how that can be done because we are facing a very strong system that is it's not only the privatization of the public space, but it's also how the public space has to be hygienic in a way. And that is also coming from the fact that this same discourse is breaking down community cohesion. So I actually don't know how we can intervene the public space.
Farber: You've talked about with your Missing Democracy poster, the idea of the neighbor and the role of the neighbor. And I think in just the examples you brought up about you saying your house facade or a fence, you're talking about the boundary of public and private space, or maybe public and domestic space. But I guess that question of what does it mean to be a neighbor to a space that's common. How do people operate both as kind of individuals or private residence on one hand, but balance sharing and holding their own space in themselves as well?
Guzman: Well, I think, I mean, I don't know you know this, but I am quite fascinated by washrooms, and I do a lot of work on washrooms and I think it's because they... it's not the kind of public space that you would think about. I don't know, maybe I have a tendency to think of public space as a park, as a square, as something outdoor. But I actually think the washroom and public washrooms or washrooms that even they aren't in business, they are this kind of a space that is the most public of the private space, and the most private of the public space in a way. And I am very interested in understanding the role of washrooms and the intervention in the washroom from a queer perspective. And what is that space? What does the space has meant in the history of the community? But also what does this space means in the way that we transfer knowledge. Either because people write on it, even if it's just their phone number. This is a very important piece of information, but there's also sometimes warnings like, if you see that someone is giving you their drink, don't drink it. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call this number. All these other things that I think they are very important. Very, very important. And in a way for me the washrooms, what is fascinating about that this kind of neighborhood idea of community, but it's this invisible sometimes community, sometimes it's very visible. So, I guess that brings me to the question of the public space I were talking about, and how those spaces have been used or considered to be used to create this community.
Farber: I think it's really important that you bring up washrooms of course for all of the kind of queer legacies that you bring up. But also, in a related way, when I'm thinking about the viability or so-called success of a public space, one of the first questions I ask, no matter what the programming is or what have you, is, are there public bathrooms? Thinking about public bathrooms, public infrastructure as important as the site or the spectacle.
Guzman: I think that the question of public washroom is super important. Not only because... I think because it also brings, a question of... I know how to say otherwise other than being like, humanity, because having public washrooms also mean that you can bring, you can be there with children. You also recognize that people have needs, you can be there for a long time. You also give a space for people to maybe be on their own to wash themselves. There's also all these other things that I think are very important in the context of public space. And if we think also...I don't know Philadelphia, but in Toronto one of the things that we do in the evening to close a park that doesn't have a fence is to close the washrooms, or in the winter. So what does that mean in terms of accessibility to the public space?
Farber: That happens here too. So we've asked this question in our residency with the High Line Network, Who controls the fate of public space? And from our conversation, my mind is going in a number of ways, but I want to ask that question to you in your context, whether that is Toronto or other spaces that you think of as home. Who controls the fate of public space or where does your mind go when we asked that question?
Guzman: Well I think it's a complex question. I'm trying to think also of the different spaces I have inhabited, and how public because space is so different. I'm from Southern Spain, but I live in Toronto and I've lived in France and I lived in different places. And I think in my experience, obviously there is a dominant discourse of neo-liberalism and I think police in discourse in general that is controlling, but is controlling what, and I think for me urban planning , it's a key element in how we construct public space. I think in my experience the cities in North America have been built to not have public space. So it is actually very difficult to then promote it because the roots of a city like Toronto, the construction, the way it has been planned, the way it has been designed, it creates very artificial public spaces, or it creates public spaces that keep being controlled by, I think the neo-liberal powers in place.
Farber: Can you give an example in Toronto whether it's the process behind the creation of public space, or just the kind of intent that you speak about more broadly?
Guzman: Well, for example, I'm thinking of Dundas Square, which is a central square in Toronto. For people who have never been to Toronto, even look a little bit like Times Square in New York, but much smaller. But it is this square that is downtown surrounded by very high buildings built all in metal and glass, and you are completely surrounded by this screens that are very much about advertising. So it is a public space that invites you to go shopping, for example. There's nothing else you can do there. You can just sit in one of the three benches. Or for example, talking about benches, like yesterday I was at my studio and there was a gas leak or something happened. So the fire fighters came and I had to leave the building, and I was okay, I'm going to go eat at the park. But in the whole park there was only one bench. so if you have a public space that is a park with grass and trees and you only have one bench, so you're clearly very much controlling that people are not going to stop by, and they're not going to just be sitting there for a long time. There's actually not public washroom in that park either. So those are forms that limit the time or limit the activities that people can do in those spaces.
Farber: When you bring up advertising as part of what encroaches upon public space, or is perhaps part of the expectation now of having viable public spaces. For you, what is the relationship between the advertisement and the cat poster? Because they both occupy space of course in different scale and a different way, but I'm curious to just hear you talk about their relationship or their tension.
Guzman: That's a very interesting question. The obvious difference is that the cat poster doesn't sell anything, but I think the space they occupy also very different. If I am thinking either my Missing Democracy poster or the missing pet poster, I see more the missing pet poster as kind of a very viral action done by an individual whose interest is just to look for this animal they love. There's no relationship with money, for example. There's no relationship with acquisition of something. There's no big corporation is someone who made these photocopies. So that has that aspect that is very interesting. And yes, they're both occupying in this space, but the space they occupy it is not the same. So for me, how we use the space is very important in relationship to the bodies of the viewers, too. So if you think in advertising, advertisement is usually quite large. It feels bigger than your body. It is usually higher than your body. The colors are very bright so it stands out. But I'm very interested in that relationship with the body because advertising is always bigger than you. What I think the missing pet poster, even for this particular exhibition, the poster was larger than the usual letter size poster. There's is still a one to one relationship that is set to the height of your eyes, and it is set in a format that it is still relates to your body, and to your own experience of what a sheet of paper is. I know that's not exactly, maybe this is not about the content, it's really about the format on how the effect on the body of the viewer, how these two things are very different.
Farber: I love that connection that you make around scale that even though your posters presented at a bigger size than the average missing pet poster, it's that notion of eye to eye contact. And it reminds me of a line that I've jotted down from your artist's statement that that really stands out to me, which has to do with your interest and what is not revealed to the eye, but "lives within our everyday reality as embodied memories or hidden whispers," as you've written. Could you just share a little bit more about this idea and how that lives in your work, both in the poster and more broadly?
Guzman: Yeah. Well, I mean for example, I think I feel that we are surrounded by so many stories. And in my personal life, I'm surrounded by so many things, so many stories, so many secrets. So many things that we don't say, but they're still there. They're still latent, and then we can feel them in our bodies. I'm very interested in this question of the queer memory that is inhabits our body. It inhabits our ways of either body language or our feelings of safety, our ways of communicating, et cetera. So that's where it comes from. I'm very interested in telling the stories that are not being brought to light, but that doesn't mean that they're not there. They're still latent. So I think that the Missing Democracy poster is a kind of a play on that too, because it is a missing pet, so we don't even know where it's missing. It's missing, the stories are missing too. But I think there's something playful, which I think is a very important component in my work, that if we call that pet democracy, then the story becomes so much bigger, because it is missing, it's something that we love. It's something also that we maybe don't fully understand, because we don't fully understand our pets. We think we do, but I think they understand us better than we understand them (Laughs). Personally as I can talk for my dog. But there's all these other elements are very important, and what happens if you create that metaphor of the democracy cat? But yeah, I think we live in a sea of stories, and sometimes we don't get to see them, but that doesn't mean that we don't feel them, that they're not there. So that's where my... my work tries to bring those stories to light, but with that revealing them too much because I also think it's important to keep... because we were talking about the public space too. When I'm talking about revealing or when talking about working with these stories, what happens if I suddenly bring these stories to light? What happens when you bring these stories to the public space? I think that's interesting and important in certain... for certain things. But I also worry because the public space being dominated by the dominant discourses, these stories can be appropriated. So it is also I think important to be careful, and to leave that blurriness because it's also a safety procedure sometimes to not tell the story, but just to let people know that there is a story. I think that's what I value the most.
Farber: In the ways that we're talking about public space as it exists now or as it was designed, what do you see as a possible future or even a possible new reality? What would you like public space to become? And the second part of that is, will we find the missing cat democracy in public space?
Guzman: That's a very good question. Probably the missing cat democracy is hiding somewhere where they can get food, and that's okay. I think for me, I chose the cat to be grumpy for that reason, because I think democracy is uncomfortable and democracy can scratch you sometimes. And it's a grumpy place because it means that you have to be in discussion with a lot of people that sometimes you rather not be. So democracy for me is always going to be grumpy. Then we can decide if we don't want that grumpiness and we want eternal happiness and that's then what I think neo-liberalism strives to sell us. It doesn't achieve it obviously because there's not eternal happiness, but it strives to sell us eternal happiness. So I'm all for... not for unhappiness but for grumpiness and discussions and sometimes being upset and angry. So how can we find that in the public space, or whether we can find them in the public space. I think for that the public space needs to be occupied by people. And I think sometimes it is achieved. I don't know if it happens to you in Philadelphia, but in Toronto I love going to certain beaches where people just bring all their stuff and they do their barbecues and their parties and they play whatever and they put music. And yeah, sometimes it bothers me because I'm in my quiet mode, but at the same time I feel that interaction, and that is important to also let the bodies have fun and let the bodies express themselves, or let the bodies move around. This public space cannot only be about this very sometimes intellectual consensus. The public space is going to involve bodies and it's going to involve that we disagree. So I'm not sure the public spaces in our cities can hold that, because police will be calling immediately. And it will be calling immediately against certain bodies more than others. So that's not democracy. And that's not the values I want to see in democracy. The spaces that are abandoned in the middle of our cities, and for that I think that sometimes it requires to be a city that is not so extremely gentrified. A strong core where there's no abandoned lots. But I think abandoned lots have a lot of potential, because our lots have been... when we say abandoned, it's abandoned by who? Abandoned by the city hall, or abandoned by the owners and then they may be re-appropriated by the neighbors. And then those spaces I think things can happen that are much more democratic, and I'm sure they involve a lot of fights too, but that's not bad.
Farber: In Toronto, is there a space or site or even monument that comes to mind as you're describing this, where maybe it wasn't scripted, maybe it was a little bit of an intervention, but that it achieves a level of grumpiness, but also openness?
Guzman: I really can't think of any right now. It's too sad. It's very sad as I said, because I think Toronto is a very gentrified area, and there used to be a street just right in the corner from my house. But now they build a museum of contemporary art so it's no longer that same space. So it's also interesting to see how art participates in this development so much. But I can't think of any. I can't think of any, other than sometimes when I go to the beach, but that's a space that is aside, that is outside the city. And it's still very policed, but there are ways that the beach space has this fluctuation of freedom too, because the farther you go from the entrance and you can feel the freedom coming in and going out. But in Toronto, no, I'm really sorry. I cannot think of any place right now.
Farber: As we close our conversation, is there anything that comes to your mind that I didn't ask about but maybe it was raised in our conversation that are worth putting out there?
Guzman: Well, I really also think about this idea of public space and what does it mean to be public and for whom, and how I think different populations may have different public spaces too. I think in terms of like... I'm just going to rewind my thinking process. I was just passing by this area that is being gentrified in Toronto, another area. And I saw this gigantic advertising for these new condos. They're supposed to be about community living. But when you when you see obviously the people who are described in those condos or who are in the picture of the advertising, it's really strikingly very white still. So I feel like it's also important to understand the race and gender dynamic involved in public space, and for me as a white person. What does it mean for certain spaces to become public when public means maybe opening it to a larger, whitest public? And that makes me think again about the question of the secrecy. Of the importance of having certain spaces that I don't know about that they may be extremely public in Toronto, and it's good that I don't know about because the moment that someone like me is going to know about this space may be threatened.
Farber: Coco Guzman, thank you so much for joining the Monument Lab Podcast. It was a lot of fun and of course really important to be speaking with again.
Guzman: Thank you so much Paul.