ARTIST ITINERARY:

  • La Exposición
  • Vidrios Panameños
  • Veracruz
  • Parque Metropolitano
  • Casco Viejo
  • click for more information

Let me set the stage for you. Panama is a country of many contrasts, bruised by a variety of social, political, and cultural crises. These tensions grow even stronger in its capital, Panama City, where an impressive skyline rises over an often struggling population below it. It’s as if the Panama Canal hadn’t been built to divide the land masses of North and South America, but the masses who inhabit the city — the one side who profits from it, the other that’s left behind.

Panama City is home to Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker, the duo of artists whose video works have shown us, time and time again, that the reality is much more nuanced than what I’ve just written above. Collaborating since 2006, they have produced seventeen video works to date, all of which comment on life with an unmatched sense of humor and subtlety. I am visiting them in preparation for a retrospective of their work that I am curating at Casa Santa Ana in 2021 which will showcase their entire oeuvre for the very first time.

The focus of their work is on the everyday realities of Panama, which in many ways can be defined as a century-long lab experiment in capitalism — involving notably the United States, who have been omnipresent there since 1914. As the Panama Canal remains one of the chief sources of revenue for the country, the political attention paid to it stays high. Yet Donna and Jonathan’s videos often focus on the beautiful things that don’t seek out our attention: falling mangoes, upturned bricks, floating bottles, all calling out to us to discover their overlooked beauty.

Their guided tour bypassed most of Panama City’s main attractions, focusing instead on sites that tell a personal story about the duo and their art practice. The places we saw pointed to the origin of their video works, the ideas behind them, or simply served as stages in their pieces. It was an exercise in sneaking through fences to reach former recycling plants, imagining how things looked before the skyscrapers took over, and navigating the complex social fabric of Panama City — all while getting a taste of local food between every stop. It was a great opportunity to learn about their personal aspirations in creating each work, free from any nostalgia or sentimentalism. How can one use a changing city as a fruitful playground for the arts? Or make it the starting point for the series (Video) Games? How can found objects be playfully integrated into a video work that discusses U.S. and Panamanian military history (Capapults) or gentrification (Domino) and the tensions they produce? In a way, our time together served as a reminder of both the world’s complexity and the need to find a universal language when discussing it. And although sly humor may not be the best language for getting urgent political challenges under control, it’s one of the best for reminding us that things are out of control.

Donna and Jonathan have a sharp eye for pointing out the anomalies of an ever-consuming society, one driven by an economy that isn’t far from consuming itself. They did this not just by discussing the situation in the country, but by actually taking me to the unusual spaces and ruins its singular history has produced: rundown shopping centers, overcrowded streets where only the strongest survive, and even a world where dreams run wild — a public place where the lottery is drawn every week. When we eventually made it to a hill at the top of the Parque Metropolitano, I thought we had reached a form of peaceful distance from the city and its history, only to learn that it had once served as a military outpost to enforce U.S. politics in Panama.

The duo’s work is rooted in Panama, but its power lies in their ability to give this meticulously observed reality a wider scope. Each of their pieces moves with ease through questions of provincialism, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism, all while using metaphors that sharpen the viewer’s understanding of their own experience, should they choose to pay attention to it. While none of their stories shied away from criticism, Donna and Jonathan don’t lose themselves in darkness, either. Not only does their work see the shadowy underside of things, it also sees the light those shadows are necessarily bound to.

For these two artists — who also have their own individual art practices — making art is both working on reality and reminding us that progress can stumble over its own legs, as it takes shape. Especially when taking big steps.

— SANDINO SCHEIDEGGER

LA EXPOSICIÓN La Exposición is a neighborhood in the center of downtown Panama City. It was designed and built in 1915 to accommodate an international exposition, hence its name. Because of its origins, it is one of the only areas in the city to benefit from urban planning during its initial design and construction. Starting around 2004, a real-estate boom fueled a wave of demolition and construction which leveled entire blocks of houses and buildings without regard to their historic and architectural value. Many of the tiles and mosaics we used in our “(Video) Games” series from 2008–9 were recovered from demolition sites around this neighborhood.

VIDRIOS PANAMEÑOS Our video Dry Season (2006) was filmed on the grounds of Vidrios Panameños, the only glass fabrication and recycling plant in Panama, located on the outskirts of the city, close to the airport. Glass production and recycling turned out to be an unfeasible business in Panama, and Vidrios Panameños halted operations in 2010.

VERACRUZ The beach, mangrove and forest scenes in Lottery (2017) were shot in Veracruz, a small coastal town of around 24,000 inhabitants located 15 kilometers outside of Panama city, on the other side of the Panama Canal. It was originally a fishing village, but its population increased due to the influx of people from the countryside seeking temporary work on and around U.S. military bases. After the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, many of the impoverished inhabitants of the El Chorrillo neighborhood (site of the most intense and deadly battles), were displaced to Veracruz.

PARQUE METROPOLITANO Parque Metropolitano (Metropolitan Park) consists of 232 hectares of protected secondary tropical forest, and is the largest natural park in the Americas. At different moments, the park housed both U.S. and Panamanian military installations. Our video Capapults (2012) was shot on a concrete platform that is a vestige of its military history, and now serves as scenic overlook of the city.

CASCO VIEJO In 1671, the Spanish governor set the original City of Panama on fire in anticipation of pirate Henry Morgan’s attack. Shortly afterwards, a walled version of the city was reconstructed nearby on a small peninsula, and it remained the economic and political center of Panama well into the twentieth century. In the 1950s, its wealthy inhabitants left in search of space and modern accommodations, and working class families moved in. The Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) fell into disrepair until 1997, when UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. Ironically, this ushered in a wave of gentrification that still continues to this day.

— DONNA CONLON & JONATHAN HARKER

INCIDENTS
(OF TRAVEL)

PANAMA CITY,
PANAMA

SANDINO SCHEIDEGGER
AND
DONNA CONLON
& JONATHAN HARKER

TAP IMAGE TO READ CURATOR'S COMMENTARY
CLICK FOR CURATOR'S COMMENTARY