Simultaneously a live performance, experimental film, and installation, Conversations on Tragedy reimagines Sophocles’s Antigone with a cast of untrained performers from Puerto Rico the island and the diaspora in the United States. Her work creates a meeting place to collectively uncover the spiritual consciousness that emerges from decades of cumulative tragedies. While at Amant, Natalia carry out on-site research with members of the Puerto Rican diaspora in South Williamsburg, Bushwick, and the Lower East Side, and initiate an intuitive filmmaking and rehearsal process with collaborators from these communities.
Natalia earned an MFA in Theatre Directing from CalArts and a BFA in Drama from the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her work is part of the KADIST collection, and she has been a resident artist at MASS Moca (North Adams), Fonderie Darling (Montréal), Miami Light Project (Miami), Beta-Local (San Juan, Puerto Rico), and Konvent (Barcelona). She is a 2022 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, and her work has been presented at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, TEA Tenerife Espacio de las Artes (Santa Cruz), SeMA (Seoul), MOD Theater (CalArts, Los Angeles), and the USF Contemporary Art Museum (Tampa), among others. Natalia was born in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, and developed her creative practice nomadically between Puerto Rico, New York, Montréal, Miami, and Los Angeles. She is currently based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Meet the Residents Natalia Lassalle-Morillo
“For me, my process is like an octopus… Right now my research is really geared to immersing myself in the experience of migration here, a lot of the research happens in companionship, like sharing space, allowing them to take me places, allowing them to show me places allowing them to introduce me to people. They can tell the story better than I can. So how can I, how can I be a facilitator also, in that process, or when I bring it back into into the creative process.”
A few useful references:
Puerto Rico Needs Independence Not Statehood by Jaquira Díaz; La Memoria Rota by Arcadio Díaz Quiñones; Somos Islas by Marta Aponte Alsina; There’s Nothing Natural About Puerto Rico’s Disaster by Naomi Klein; The New Great Migration; The Emptying Island by Frances Negron-Muntaner; Nation on the Move by Jorge Duany
Sarah Demeuse 0:03
This is Meet the Residents, a series of interviews with Amant’s studio and research residents in which we speak and digress about research, impact of context on artistic processes, serendipity and making community. Amant is a nonprofit arts organization and residency in North Brooklyn. Our studios are at 306 Major, where we host four artists for three months, one cohort in fall, another one in spring. This is our spring 2022 season. My name is Sarah Demeuse. I’m your host and Amant’s head of publications: welcome. Today I’m in Natalia Lassalle Morillo’s studio. Natalia has been with us for a little over two months already. So Natalia, thanks for letting us into your studio. This conversation was originally recorded on June 22 2022. When we edited the piece with Natalia in September 2022, Hurricane Fiona had made landfall on Puerto Rico. Natalia was in Washington DC when it happened, but she was still feeling the resonance of this storm and it’s complicated aftermath from a distance. Many people describe Fiona as a deja vu of hurricane Maria, and anticipated a repetition of the same governmental incompetency in the distribution of emergency aid. While Puerto Rico endured historic floods and island-wide blackouts, leaving 1000s without electricity or access to drinking water. At the date of publishing this interview, it is clear the devastation is enormous once again, and that the damage is immeasurable. Many insights shared by Natalia about how her practice had been shaped by hurricane Maria, its aftermath, and the accumulation of political and economic tragedies that followed, are now again very raw, and a cause for new questions, as she foresees, how this event might bring about a new cycle of displacement and migration, showing how the past is never a closed category.
Let’s jump right in before coming to Amant. Where did you spend your time?
My name is Natalia Lassalle Morillo and I am joining you from Bayamon Puerto Rico. Great.
When you’re here at Amant, Natalia, what are you working on, maybe you can share what you planned out to do when you came here and what you’re doing now. Because there’s always a time lag between ideation and then arriving here. So it’d be great to hear how all of that is going.
So I mean, the project I set out to do here, it’s called “En parabola”. And it’s a project that I’ve actually been developing since 2018. And I think the root of the project is to, to this rewriting, redirecting of the myth of Antigone in collaboration with Puerto Ricans who reside in the diaspora of Puerto Rico, in the United States, and in Puerto Rico. And the original idea was for it to be, you know, thinking a lot about this original conception of the tragedy in ancient Greece as this forum of communal catharsis, but also communal dialogue and discourse kind of thinking of how, using that same system, and creating a meeting place between, you know, between these different experiences of being from this place, and also as a way to process the accumulation of, and phenomena of environmental, political, economic, and spiritual tragedies that have accumulated over the last 200 years in Puerto Rico, particularly the last time that I think has been a concentration. That was my original idea. And I’ve been working on it since 2010. But then at arriving here, I have, you know, I used to live in New York. But I think now, seeing and experiencing New York through this project, and through the lens of a lot of what I’ve been thinking has really shifted the anchor for me in the project, because one thing that I realize, you know, in the research, because my research is both historical and archival, mostly searching for what’s not in the archive, quite honestly. I’m thinking about what’s not in the archive, but then I’m also talking to, so it’s a lot of personal resource, I think, research, like I talked to a lot of people and it’s very social, and I spend a lot of time with people. And I realized that, you know, when thinking of tragedies in the context of Puerto Rico, one of the biggest tragedies was actually the great migration.
Sarah: What do you understand as the great migration?
Natalia: The great migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States, you know, the great migration of Puerto Ricans that you that migrated. When Operation Bootstrap happens. This is your motto. But I was this government agenda to industrialize the country to change from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy. And when that whole project failed, that’s when a lot of people had to migrate, because there were no jobs. And this is something that I’ve started thinking about being here. Mostly, they the first governor, elected Governor of Puerto Rico attributes. One of it, he says that if it wasn’t for the great migration, he doesn’t know what would have happened to the country in the 50s. It was also a whole, his whole agenda was also thinking about progress in a very, sort of Western way, or thinking about how to bring progress to this place to this island that has just inherited this colonial history. So being here, I’ve just been thinking a lot of that migration, I’ve been thinking about broken memory, and how one of the biggest wholesale gaps in Puerto Rican history is the fact that all of these people left. And there’s this in between space that is empty.
And talking to people knowing that they know and they have ideas of this place. And but there’s all of these missing links. So I’ve been really thinking about that a lot. When I’m here. I’ve also been thinking about how, of course, these communities reimagine Puerto Rico from a distance, how they recreate that unformed, transform into, transform their idea of this place into a totally new thing. And, you know, I think you’re going but also I’ve been thinking about that there’s a huge gap between the Puerto Ricans that reside on the archipelago, and the people that migrated in terms of what it means to be from this place. But also in Puerto Rico growing up, what I realized being here is that I never I have family in the Bronx, and I have family in different parts of the United States. And they were seen as like, they’re, they’re not Puerto Rican like they, they’re from over there, you know, there’s a gap. And I’m thinking of how communities came, you know, communities were formed here, Puerto Ricans moved here, mostly many coastal communities, because I’m looking at Brooklyn, so South Williamsburg Red Hook, and faced their own set of tragedies here and how they’re not understood as part of Puerto Rican history. They’re seen as something different. There’s a separation. So I’ve been also thinking about how, how do I comprehend these mythologies and the stories that happened here as part of this other history as missing links of this other history, and then seeing how Antigone falls into all of that?
Wow. So kind of recomposing that history. It’s done both for say people who live in Puerto Rico and the communities here like how where where do the direction go? Or is it? Or is the emphasis mainly in the process of doing the research and engaging in that conversation with with participants? Maybe it’s everything.
I think it’s everything that I’ve been thinking about originally, I was really I am still am very much interested in bringing these bringing people together that come from very different ideas of, of what it is to be from this place. But for me, the act of of thinking about Antigone, as a group is much more of like having a meeting place like having a meeting place like the we’re going to we’re going to try to rewrite this text, we’re going to try to really think about this stuff. But there, it’s just sort of an excuse to have all these other conversations. So I don’t know that answers your question.
Yeah, in a way. I mean, you’re creating a common ground for all of these different contexts. Exactly. Working together. I do want to backtrack a little bit, because we’re sitting in your studio now. And on the floor, there is kind of a big map of Brooklyn. And on the one hand, it seems you have a lot of, you know, one-on-one conversations that I imagine can go on, can unfold over a long period of time. But I also wonder how the historical document feeds into that and how you share that with your, with your conversation partners,
I mean, it’s, you know, two different things. I think it’s fascinating, too, because what I have found, you know, many of these conversations that I’m having one-on-one, what I’m really trying to do is bring everything, you know, bring people together, but it starts as a very intimate process. Like I think there is a process. I think my process functions in an inverse way where I’m. I don’t do a casting call. And I’m like, everybody wants to show up, show up. It’s more like I go to people and have these conversations. And then I bring information. You know, like I learned, I read this the other day, or I’ve been reading, you know, I’ve been reading particularly about the Bronx fires, so, and then I bring it up. And they, they have another wealth of knowledge that I don’t know about, you know, and they give me more more information that actually could ever give them
During the 1970s, 80% of housing in the Bronx was lost to fires. Around 250,000 people were displaced, mostly of Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and African American descent. Many people believe these fires, now known as the Bronx fires, were the result of landlords burning their own buildings for profit. Still, the blame for these fires was placed on African American and Puerto Rican people who lived in the neighborhood.
So then it becomes, for me a process of you know, there is this, you know, and I think the archive or the idea of the archive, there’s many problematic things about the archive, but I’ve been working with the Puerto Rican studies are the Puerto Rican, the center of Puerto Rican studies archive here. And it is really a really amazing place, because this is a story that was never archived. So the fact that it’s all in this place, is actually realy incredible, and also bringing that information to people. And then also realizing that what I know maybe is, you know, how to print toward, like, sometimes I know things from a very, you know, studious way of like, Oh, I’m doing this research, and then they give me “no, no, this is actually what this is what actually happened, I was there, or my mom was.” Actually, you know, my mom actually migrated. And, you know, my grandmother took the ship with her. And this is what actually what I remember from the stories that my grandma used to tell me, so then there’s this process of this is, you know, from this is what I’m reading, and this is what I’m seeing from this other place. And then I’m being countered with the reality of what happened. So archiving. That is, I think, part of the process for me at the moment. And then in terms of, for example, this map in particular, I think, one of the questions that I’ve been having, that actually has emerged from conversations with, you know, the people that I’ve been talking to which, you know, I have, most of the people that I’ve met literally have been from asking somebody to ask somebody to ask somebody’s like an octopus, and asking people about their family members, and then I need somebody because it works that way. That when I asked them, you know, if they have been to Puerto Rico, when they were kids, like I asked them, What do you remember? Or why do you why are you connected to this place, or somebody who has never been there? They usually have these really vivid memories that are very, like usually they talk about the mountain, they talk about water, they talk about smell, they’re very sensorial memories. And I remember even spoke to somebody who told me Orchard Beach was my river. Like when I thought about rivers, and I imagined a river in Puerto Rico, I actually went to Orchard Beach, and I made these associations. So I’ve really been thinking and trying to go through the city with like, 40 goggles and really try to imagine what this place was when it was a forest like what was New York, like when there were no buildings or like, what would the space look like as indigenous land?
Orchard Beach is a man-made beach situated along the Long Island Sound in Pelham Bay Park. In the 1930s, parks commissioner Robert Moses invested 8 million to develop the area into a public beach by adding sand from the Rockaways and queens and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, Orchard Beach grew to become a haven for Puerto Ricans living in New York.
So I’ve been thinking about that a lot. While I’m here, also, because I’ve been thinking about how Puerto Ricans have taken care of land litter in a literal sense by building community gardens and saving space for community to have public space to access and how that relates to like another process of stewardship or custodianship of territory. But I think I still have to think about that more. It’s just something that has been on my mind, but I’ve been trying to mark out the where the, you know, where the people that I have met, lived or migrated to, to or where where did they first move to when they got here just to kind of get a visual to because for me lands and the relationship to the geography is super important when thinking about this as well.
Right, right. Right. Now, I kind of want to hear more about Antigone too because this is a very participatory experience. You also have a theatre background. So it’d be really interesting, I think, for us to understand how you landed on on tyranny beyond just being a tragedy, what is so specific about this play that you feel like you want to share with your, your research companions?
See, I mean, I think I landed, I mean, like I said, I started thinking about this actually, in 2017, I realized now, and I landed it, an epihany, in a very specific moment in time, which I mean, I sometimes become very sensitive talking about it, but I think it’s the reality it’s, it was after the hurricane, um, because I wasn’t in Puerto Rico, when the hurricane happened. For me, it was one of the first experience of chaos, chaos in terms of like, I wasn’t physically present there, you know, because I left a couple of months before, but my family was and my friends were. And from the exterior, you couldn’t really understand what was going on, there was no way to contact people, I was able to contact my family fairly quickly. But there was, it was a really bizarre experience of having this really catastrophic event happen to me without being physically present there. You know, like, it was happening to me, like I couldn’t do anything, but think about this. And try to find ways to help knowing that I couldn’t go there. Because if I wasn’t there, I’m just picking up resources for people that actually need them. So during that time, I actually started reading a lot about the Greeks and reading a lot of tragedies. And it was the one thing that I remember I was in, I was in grad school, and it couldn’t, nothing entered my head, like nothing, I couldn’t nothing. I was so out of it. And then I found I read Antigone. And I was like, Oh, this somehow makes sense to me. Because I think it aligned with a moment that I started reading where I started, I had a friend who was actually working on the ground, doing photography, and she was telling me about last fall, like people had to bury people in their back yards. Because nothing was working. And then you know, people, you know, people in the hurricane, which is part of like a larger, I think commerce a sector like cacophony of events that happened after the hurricane, like there was some there were these massive protests in 2019, that took place in Puerto Rico, where the governor was ousted. This center of investigative journalism in Puerto Rico actually did this whole reportage. And it was actually over 4000 people that died, really in relationship because there’s people that died when the hurricane happened, but then people didn’t have power. So hospitals, people died because they couldn’t have access to chemotherapy. That’s the cause, you know, and the government was extremely irresponsible in terms of dealing with the aid afterwards. So I really started thinking about that about, about bodies, about ghosts, about how how do you deal with with the bodies and the ghosts that emerge from these events? And how do you actually find a proper way of finding closure with this. And it became more clear in 2019, because when the protests happened, I was there. And it was this really incredible moment in time where cycles aligned cycles of history aligned. were people that were not aligned politically, because politics is a big sport and Puerto Rico, were able to align and like literally think about one specific thing. And in the protests, which is I’ll send this guy but it wasn’t really like he honestly, like it wasn’t him. It was the fact that people on the ground like in the middle of the protests, would always talk about the dead would talk about like, no, he messed with something that sacred, he messed with my grandmother who passed and all these people who pass that they didn’t recognize and what like that, you know, that I wasn’t able to bury.
Natalia is referring to Ricardo Rocio was governor from 2017, during Hurricane Maria, until 2019, when he was ousted by the Puerto Rican people after three intensive weeks of protests.
So I really started thinking about I’m thinking in the context of that history. And that event, which for me, was has been one of the few moments of collective catharsis like that, it was totally Dionysian, in the sense that people, you know, these protests, people would go out and get it, you know, we, you know, it was there was tear gas, there’s all these things that were going on at the same time, but it was extremely subtler, celebratory, and it was kind of like a part. It was nothing like it’s gonna we’re gonna happen again. But after these, and that’s one of the reasons why I started thinking a lot about Antigone, but then when I’m now I’ve been thinking about it in a month. More extensive way. I actually had a conversation last week with a writer and scholar who’s now, who is actually was a professor still is a professor at Princeton.
Unknown Speaker 20:15
The professor’s full name is our Ricardo Diaz Quinones. Natalia refers to his 1991 essay, “Memoria, cultura,”.
Unknown Speaker 20:27
And I opened up the conversation saying, so I’m doing you know, I’m trying to do this adaptation of Antigone, and he’s like, “Oh, Antigone, that makes total sense.” Because you have to think of the cycles of disappearances and the cycles of bodies in Puerto Rican history that haven’t been accounted for from since, you know, before Puerto Rico became a US colony. But also in terms of afterwards, you have all of the people that have gone to war that don’t ever return that go to war to fight for the United States. And he was telling me about his first encounter with death was his uncle that died. I think his uncle, I think, was that who died in the Korean War. And he’s like, we never, he never returned, he never returned. So and then you have women, you know, there was in Puerto Rico and also in the community here, birth control pills were first tested on Puerto Rican women. And there was massive sterilization of Puerto Rican women or to control the population. So he was saying, like, what that’s also part of that. So is the cycle of interferences and disappearances. That makes me think, well, he said, that makes me think also of Antigone. So I think all of it is interrelated for me, with the play, but I’ve also been thinking mostly recently, as Antigone, not even as a character, but as like a state of being. Because in one of the translations that I’ve read, Antigone says, “I’m a strange new kind of in between thing, I’m not aligned with the dead nor with the living.” And it really makes me think of that as a state of mind, for a Puerto Rican consciousness where you don’t really belong anywhere. You’re just in this in between space. Not here. Neither there. You know. So I’ve been thinking also about how does that translate into into this process?
Why is the project called “En parabola”? I never really asked you.
Yeah, to be honest, I didn’t, I think I’m trying to remember. When did that happen? Was in 2018, I remember I did. So as I mentioned, I’ve been working on this project for since 20… 2017. And actually started working on it in various stages since 2018. And the first iteration of it was actually with my mom, because I worked with my mother. For many years, she’s been a collaborator in many different forms. And when I started working on this project, I mean, to be honest, I realized later that one of the reasons why I even got to the Greeks was because of her. Because she really like I honestly, at that point in time, couldn’t care less about classics ever. And I still my relationship to it is very much about like, how do I deconstruct this thing that is seen as canonical? And how do we enter this from a different place, but my mom was loved has always had a relationship to history and the Greeks and we were working on this piece together. And I did a performance with my mom that literally is us talk, reading Antigone and talking about Antigone, over a month. But in that process, I started thinking really about literally like this, the parabola like to figure like the figure, because at that point in time, she made a comment about how her and I were like, parabolic. I’m like, we’re, this parabola is like moving in this motion. And then I started thinking much more about that in relationship to like Puerto Rico, like Puerto Rico, like the archipelago of Puerto Rico being this node. And this larger Atlas of different sort of parabolic relationships to these other these other countries that exists outside of Puerto Rico, because there’s, I think, I mean, I honestly don’t know that that like the actual statistics, but there’s more Puerto Ricans and descendants of Puerto Ricans outside than inside. So I just been thinking about what is that exchange? What is that, you know, what is this relationship? What is this movement between these multiple territories on lands that connect back?
We typically ask people what it means for them to work outside of their contexts because you’re in a residency, but in a way it seems that, for you, context is always already something diasporic. So I don’t know how the experience of a residency and working from a different position matters to you. I, it feels like it’s really an intrinsic part of this project, how would you say it?
Oh, for me, I mean, I think from the beginning that I thought of applying here I was, I already was kind of clear that, okay, this is a great opportunity for me to like, just go deep, and just be there and do research with my body, you know, like, be physically here and physically talk to people and show up to places. But for me, context is everything. Because I think I’m always thinking about the land that I’m standing on, you know, and how being there affects how I see how being there affects how I talk to people, how I how I think to so even though I’m here, and the project is very much related, you know, the context is very much related to a lot of what I’m thinking about. It’s very different to be here for a specific moment of time in a temporary way, too, because I’m not from here, you know, so it’s, it functions, I think, both ways that we spoken
It’s a lot about talking to people, archives. You have this beautiful metaphor of research being like an octopus. What does research mean to you? Like, what is artistic research for you?
See, I mean, for me, it’s interesting now, because I’m doing so much of research, but for me research gets so you know, it becomes it becomes a cloud sometimes. But for me everything, research to be honest, like I, there is, you know, especially because at the end of the day, what I’m really trying to do is bring people together. My process has all of these layers where for me research is every process that I am physically implied in, you know, if I’m physically, you know, I’ve been, like I said, doing historical research and reading and going to these archives, but that, for me is very physical, it’s very much about literally digging through and trying to find things that I that that have just been hiding in these archives that maybe nobody has seen in years or decades. It’s also about talking to people and really kind of getting a sense to, to find myself also implied in the fact that maybe I don’t know, things, you know, maybe everything that I have in my head is totally a creation of or, you know, a projection. So it’s also about how do I find myself implied in these situations that attainments are actually not comfortable to. So for me research spans in different layers from you know, reading and, and having more intimate processes of thinking and conceptualizing. But also spending a lot of time with people. And sharing space with people is really important, because I think that’s when the most of the research whatever that means actually happens. It’s also a lot of the research happens in companionship, like sharing space, allowing them to take me places, allowing them to show me places allowing them to introduce me to people. So right now my research is really geared and verbatim or like, yeah, immerse myself in, in, in the experience of migration here, so that I can also, you know, I there, they can tell the story better than I can. So how can I, how can I be a facilitator also, in that process, or when I bring it back into into the creative process,
we have a study line at Amant that is called “hearing voices”. And it seems that a lot of what you do is listening to specific anecdotes, I wonder if there’s also an element that is maybe more transhuman that has to do with kind of picking up on something that is, you know, not as rational, you were talking about an in-between stage, which I find quite interesting and productive to think about too. So I wonder, are there certain voices that you’re hearing as you’re undertaking all of this?
For sure. I think it’s sort of spirits and ghosts for sure. Many ghosts, so many ghosts, personal and not personal. But even you know, the person I was referring to, the writer and scholar referring to earlier, wrote it in a very beautiful way where he was saying when bodies migrated here spirits also came with them and how to find their way here in this land. And also I’ve been thinking about similarly those ghosts and and sort of is ghosts, but it’s just more of these entities that don’t have form, you know, these energies that don’t have form in the context of a have, you know of the ancestors of those migrants that you know, that their ancestors that actually grew up in that land? And also my own? I’ve been thinking a lot about my, my grandparents and my great grandparents because I could have very easily been born here. You know, like, it was so common to leave. My family didn’t leave, but it could have I could have been born here, I could have had a totally different existence to if they had made that decision, but they did it. So those are, you know, that’s very present, I think. Or accompany me as I as I think. Yeah.
Do you have any questions for Amant?
I think I have two questions. Actually. They just came up, I think the first one that I have is, I’m really curious as to how, you know, because, you know, I’ve been here for two months. And I know, you know, there’s a crew of residents that is here now that, you know, some of the research intersect some of it don’t. But I’m really interested like, from the other side, like, what, how am I it relates to, to the somatic and the work that the residents are doing and what, what is like, if anything is learned from the other side, or in that learned is the word that I want to utilize. Because somebody picked the people, you know, somebody made the decision, somebody curated, that these, you know, these particular folks were going to be here during this moment in time. So that is one my one of my questions. And I think the other question has to do more with land, and like this building being in this particular place, and like how, you know, there’s tensions in that too, you know, the fact that this building is in this very particular street in this very particular neighborhood. And it’s the reality of it. So I’ve also been thinking about how, how you are seeing it from that other point of view, like, how are you comprehending the institution, from that other point of view from the fact that, that the community that was here doesn’t exist anymore? Really, you know, it’s part of a cycle in a wave, so So displacements that have been going on, so I’m also really, and it’s not what you know, it’s just part of the reality of the space. So I’m also curious about how from the other side that is being thought about
Right, and we in a way we inherit this new site. Those of us who work here, we didn’t decide that this was going to be the place but we make a program within it knowing that there is this history, you know, whatever came first is no longer here. But I think also what you’re saying about us learning from the residents, it goes over a very slow time period.
We are incredibly thankful to Natalia, who during a tragic and chaotic moments still found time to reflect and work with us. She also shared the following list of organizations that are doing great work on the ground, the Maria fund, Tierra Salud. Casa Pueblo, Brigada Solidaria de Losaida, el departamento de la comida. Find the links to these organizations, as well as more references on our website. Our theme music is composed by Silas, who also recorded a conversation, sound editing and engineering is by Isaac Silber. Finally, we’re thankful to our artists for letting us into their studios and thought processes and for finding time in their busy schedules. In our next episode, I talk with Rianna Jade Parker. Thanks for listening.