Back to list

Ernesto Pujol: Building Consciousness and Community Amid Crisis

August 5, 2020
Ernesto Pujol

The following features an excerpt from our book, More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press.

“The only way to walk into a community is to do so from a vulnerable point of view.”


The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly transformed the tempos of everyday life, affecting the physical and emotional responses we have to each other, to our livelihoods, and to our shared spaces. Ernesto Pujol’s practice has always been finely attuned to such matters, and, while the current moment is still very much defined by isolation, loss, and apprehension, his work may help us wrap our minds around the complex nature of social connection and labor and re-orient our thinking towards compassion and collective experience, in hopes of building something better. Pujol is a performance artist and social choreographer whose work centers on the creation and sustainability of a culture of consciousness. His site-specific, durational group performances consist of minimal repetitive gestures that generate silence, slowness, and stillness, creating a space for interiority, if not the awakening of consciousness. They are both ethereal and uncanny, exploring our relationships to work and labor, to public space, to our bodies, and different forms of collectivity.

For 9–5, produced in 2015, eleven performers sat and wrote silently in the atrium of Brookfield Place — a commuter hub, office building, and luxury shopping center — for eight hours a day, three days in a row. They continued their silence while in transit and at home, and were instructed to write about what saw throughout the day. This passage is excerpted from an interview with Pujol reflecting on the project, in which he responds to a question about the role of vulnerability in his work and, as he sees it, in leading an ethical existence; it was conducted in the fall of 2016 and published this year in More Art in the Public Eye.

Many communities feel under siege, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income level. They feel threatened. So I believe that the only way to walk into a community is to do so from a vulnerable point of view. Otherwise, artists and curators can be perceived as arrogantly invading, colonizing, and exploiting. We must disarm if we wish for others to disarm. Our transparency invites the transparency of others. For 9–5, I planned for the performers to take public transportation, just like everyone else; to arrive by subway or train, just like the corporate workers. There was no fanfare around our entrance or exit, no applause, no special treatment. Our vulnerability consisted in our sameness, in a democracy of gesture. The performers arrived in full public view with personal, plain bags containing notebooks, pens, and lunches. They had to climb the lobby’s long escalators, mixing with the office workers. They had to set up their work stations with prosaic movements: lifting folding chairs and tables, setting up their individual glass cubicles, putting down their water bottles and implements; then, sitting down, beginning to write, pausing to see, listen, think, and write some more. They got up for lunch and bathroom breaks. They were not angels or 9/11 ghosts, though they were uniformed in bright whites. The realities of office culture and the needs of the body were integrated into the piece. It was real work, to come and go, to sit for three days, to write pages and pages — volumes. And there was the added fragile fact that people could look over our shoulders and talk to us, even as we remained silent and simply smiled back. Indeed, many people tried to peek at what we were writing, getting physically close, without the benefit of the architectural boundaries that often protect performers. Our bodies were truly available — fully present. And we let them approach; we sustained the healthy tension of being witnessed, but not consumed as entertainment. It was the performative embodiment of the vulnerability of labor and life.

“I practice vulnerability as a methodology.” Read more about Pujol’s principles and practice as related to the COVID-19 crisis in an interview with Common Edge from earlier this summer.

Join the conversation — follow More Art on Medium and Instagram as we share updates on current projects and revisit past work to better understand our present moment and what’s to come.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.