They spoke in tandem, the way an old couple entertains a dinner party. The stories began with one, filled out with the details provided by the other. At one point Muma interupted Magui, immediately apologized, and Magui smiled knowingly, told her she was about to say the same thing.
Sitting with them reminded me of my own best friend, the way we work off of one another, the way it feels like our support of one other gives this presence to a room when we’re together. The creators of the monthly live literature event, El Verbo (The Verb), Magui Testoni and Muma Casares command rooms. They are both writers in their own right. They are creators, curators, directors, and feminists doing their best to defend independent art and to create spaces for women and dissidents.
I first became privy to El Verbo (The Verb) two years ago when I was drinking a beer in Casa Sofia. The idea was simple: a verb a month and two writers who’d read something they’d written based off that verb. I remember making one of the million mental notes you make living in this city. Sounds cool. Go to this. Don’t Forget.
But like a lot of things we mean to do, the monthly dates came and went. When I finally made it to one (the verb, Emerge) I mentally chastised myself for not having gone earlier. Each event they mix a variety of disciplines with readings and music and always something visual. It’s much more comprehensive and inviting than your average poetry event. And there’s a necessity to the spaces they create.
As the interview ended and the bill came, they refused to let me pay. It felt only fitting. We split the check, because that’s what they do. They invite you in to join them, to share with them. They create spaces like El Verbo, spaces that are beautiful and political, sensitive and strong. Do yourself a favor this Sunday and see for yourself with the last edition of the year in the Villa Crespo cultural center, Wara Wara, at 17:00 on December 1st. Make your reservations by emailing [email protected] and we’ll see you there.
Who are you? How did you meet and how did this project start?
Magui: I’m Magui Testoni, she’s Muma Casares. We met in school and we’ve been super good friends for many years. At the end of 2015 we started to work as the central programmers of the cultural center, Casa Sofia. We we’re in charge of the different branches of programming. I wanted us to do something together, so one rainy day we met up to generate ideas because we didn’t want to put on a poetry event that would just readings, we wanted to put on something that contained the word movement. I come from a literature background and she writes and studies playwriting and we’re both into the visual arts, but above all we’re multifaceted artists. We wanted to create a space where people who do many things, not just writing, could get into what they do, so El Verbo came out this.
Muma: We were really interested in transcending the idea of a written series as if it were a formal space, or transcending the image that this person who writes is in some office, or at their desk writing and nothing else. And that it’s something formal or I don’t know something from the “elite” culture. We wanted to break away from this idea so that it wasn’t just this boring event of people reading and nothing else. We came up with the idea that this series would have something different. So we started to think and we chose El Verbo (the verb) because we could choose a verb for each edition and two people could write a new text based off that verb, based off of whatever this verb inspired. A part of of this series is that people aren’t presenting texts that they’ve already written. It’s not their master work of art or their book that’s already been published and perfectly polished, but something that they are writing in that moment. What the material offers is so fresh. Everyone that is participating in the series is showing something for the first time, something they’ve written for the occasion.
So it’s always the same form, music and readings?
Muma: Almost all of them have music and literature, either poetry or a short story or a more theatrical piece. These two texts are then mixed with other disciplines, sometimes it’s dance, sometimes printmaking, sometimes it’s visual, installations…
Magui: live drawing, or puppets…
Muma: Yes, puppets. We always try to have other disciplines interacting in real time with the readings. It’s a fusion: we get two artists that in general don’t know each other, we give them the person’s text and see what they do, how they collaborate. There are two people writing about the verb, two people that interact with these texts, and then we invite two musicians. We give those musicians previously written works of the writers that are going to perform so that they can compose a song with lyrics based off that writer’s work.
Magui: So the word is transformed from the body, into collaboration, in readings, in song, and also in collective text because we always create a collective text with the audience. And we always have a mini editorial fair of texts, fanzines, and works that we’ve curated.
I went to another event that was a bunch of artists reading and it wasn’t based off of one theme.
Muma: Yes, that’s the difference between Libre (Free) which came out of El Verbo. In El Verbo we choose two writers, but in Libre we put out an open call to get to know new writers.
You select these writers, it’s not that anyone can just come up and perform.
Magui: No, we have certain restrictions. For example, we won’t reproduce anything with a sexist attitude, nothing patriarchal, basic. We give a ton of priority to the texts promoting feminism, trans-feminism, lesbians, texts that are sensitive, like something that’s producing another perspective of masculinity. There are texts that in general are more fun and others that are more sensitive.
Muma: We choose 10 texts for each one. Sometimes we think man the majority of these are just bummers, okay, we need to pick one a bit lighter. Or also when the vote was happening for abortion, there were so many texts from women talking about that. We try and give those texts spaces. We’re listening to what’s happening on a social level and the open call is a reflection of that in terms of the content and themes and also in the form that they’re sent.
Magui: We are feminist women, so we’re always questioning ourselves, like okay… what is the form of feminist work? It’s not enough to say I’m a feminist and that’s it. For example if someone sends us a mail without saying hello, we feel like that’s super bad. It’s about how we interact. We are super aware of how people are treating us and others, what pronoun the artists want to use, what type of visibility they want to have, how they want to be named in the publicity for the event, these are all things we ask, we want to pay attention to all these things.
I love that idea, of questioning what it means to do feminist work. So, what does it mean to you both to work as feminists?
Muma: I think it’s a bit inevitable; it’s organic to work in this manner, because it’s just how we are. There’s not a difference between our personal life and our work life, because the way we’re working is personal. We work like this and relate to one another in this way. It’s more natural than we think, or what we set out to do. As women, or other marginalized groups, we are responsible for occupying more spaces and leadership roles and roles of power and the only way of doing it is to just be there, getting it done. Taking those spaces and then giving that space to other women and marginalized groups, so that this power can start circulating amongst ourselves. I think this is the only way of getting more women on the stage, is filling that stage with women. Not asking, I mean of course we have to say it, but the only way is to go and do it. We want to give these texts, these writers the space, because we think it’s incredibly important that there be more women and marginalized groups in these roles.
Magui: Almost all of our events, maybe 80% of the artists are women or dissidents.
Muma: The whole time we are in it together, from a place where we are constantly questioning ourselves, asking one another, “Hey, what do you think of this?” There’s not a division of work, there’s a sharing of this space. We are giving the space, but more than that we’re sharing it. It’s not ours, it’s also yours, and yours, and yours, and mine.
I think that’s something that really comes across in each event. It feels like a group of friends and that makes it this space where you feel comfortable and free. But, how do you choose the verb?
Magui: We get together every summer and think about every month and the social context that makes up of the following year. For example in March we picked “Power” because it’s Women’s Month. In April, we picked “Choose” well, because we thought we’d be presenting the legalization of abortion again… in September we chose “Emerge” because obviously in spring everything is emerging.
Muma: We always think in relation to what we’ve already done and sort of in terms of creating a line with the first verb of the year until the end of the year.
Magui: The very first verb we did in our lives was “Enter” and the second was “To arm—or piece together.”
Oh wow, so it’s completely thought out and planned.
Muma: We try to pick verbs that are sufficiently metaphorical or open-ended. We’d never do a verb like “Eat” or “Buy,” but more verbs that can branch off in different ways. Or for example we might throw out “Love,” but then think no, it’s too cheesy…things like that. We are always working with verbs that we think will be inspirational or that won’t only take you to one place, but rather that can open the writer up. Sometimes the verb is super evident in a text, other times it’s a starting point and they end up in a developing a different direction.
Magui: First we choose the verb, then we choose the writers for that verb, and from there we find a space. Once we have the space we decide what artists are going to intervene with that space. So for example if we know we have a projector in the cultural center we think of visual artists, if we know we have a wood floor we might think of dancers.
We want to generate these mixes between sound and the written word and the visual. We want to create a space that is good and interesting and that provokes.
Muma: What exists in El Verbo and in Libre is that it offers other doors for you to enter into the text. If can’t get into it through the words, maybe you can by how the artist is reading it, if not by how they are reading it, maybe you can through the ballerina, or the lights, or whatever the screen says. This mix helps people to concentrate on what’s happening, to try to avoid the distraction and access the art.
Magui: For us, from the beginning, as feminists we come from the perspective that writing is a form of power. Power as a verb and a noun. Power to speak, power to communicate, power to share, power to understand. Power through words allows you to realize what you think about something, what positions you have. It’s always a political act. To bring the act of writing closer to this point of view, that’s the point. To get rid of the idea that writing has to be perfect, that you have to have studied it, that you have to read a ton in order to do it. We want to wash ourselves clean of this idea, to bring writing closer to something more quotidian, more like speaking. We want to share this idea that we can all, all of us, be writers in some form.
Muma: Writing is a tool. A tool that we all have, that’s super accessible. We want to try to erase this barrier that appears with things like academia.
How do you choose the artists that you have come perform?
Magui: I remember when we started to do El Verbo we made a list and Muma said, “Think of who you’re a fan of, who would you love to come to come perform even if you don’t know them, who do you admire? Try to get those people involved.” I mean it’s also a complicated proposition. The writers have to write a whole new text for the event, the musicians have to write new songs.
Muma: Right, we ask them to work.
Magui: The most incredible thing is that every text is so different. For that reason we chose to have two artists, to see how the same verb can produce such different results. I remember one writer wrote a text where every paragraph started with each the letter of the verb. One girl wrote a monologue, another something else completely. The only thing we give them is a time limit, everything else is up to them. We don’t intervene directly with the text, at all.
What about the two of you? Both of you write and produce so much art. What are your creative processes?
Magui: Yes I write, poetry and essays more than anything. I mean we work a lot in cultural centers. We are always putting together different events, creating networks of people. But I remember last year when I was writing for El Verbo I realized that this particular month I wrote so much more, so I try to do that. Instead of giving myself a verb, maybe I’ll give myself an image. Generally, I really like the mornings, because that’s when I’m alone in my house. I usually have about two mornings free per week. I wake up, drink some mate, and sit down to write and see what comes out. When I have an event I’m reading at I’ll go through my notebooks or emails I’ve sent myself and start piecing together my poems. I really like to steal, from myself, from others, from things I like. I love a sort of intertextual collage. I think it’s super rich.
Muma: I think I vary my form depending on what I’m working on. I don’t know if I have a particular process, but rather it depends on the situation. For example the songs that I write maybe I’ll start to sing, put on a melody, then maybe an instrument, or no. But some days it’s reversed, I’m playing the drum and then a melody comes. Or sometimes they come at the same time. What helps me the most is when the things start themselves, it’s not that I think okay from 4-6:00 I’m going to sit down and work on this. Rather, that the things come to me on their own. I’m walking down the street and a melody appears, or a phrase, or a text, and then I develop it. In general the things present themselves to me. I sound sort of mystical, but I think that when I’m more open or relaxed, more perceptive to what’s happening around me, everything because a source of inspiration. If I’m in this plan of being attentive to what’s around, things just come.
In what’s happening now in Argentina, what is the importance of defending art or culture in general?
Magui: Not only culture, but above all independent art. We’ve never worked for cultural centers from some institution or the state. We think that doing things ourselves is a window of power to enter into a different type of economic system, to create a network of artists. We know that we all need money to live, because, well this is the game we are playing, but we think that creating something yourself, independently is a nicer way of dealing with this context. Defending culture for us implies doing things ourselves, so that we can make our decisions autonomously without someone giving us orders. In another sense, as feminists we’re putting other women in these roles so that we can transform the culture with a new way of viewing the world, a more trans-feminist way. Through every cultural center we’ve worked in, through El Verbo, we’ve formed this huge network of people. Everything that we do we put on ourselves, independently.
Muma: It’s also a form of resistance to everything that is happening, a way of confronting and resisting the political censorship that we’re living in Latin America. It’s a way of saying, “You’re not going to stop us. Even though you don’t pay us any money, even though it’s a ton of work and time, and we’re up until 3 am making the flyer for the event, you’re not going to stop us.” Unlike the Centro Cultural de Recoleta that’s a super official space that has a bunch of employees that they haven’t paid in months, we’re not depending on anything or anyone. We’re not going to slow down. We are not going to shut up. We are going to continue doing what we think in terms of how we work, how we connect, the spaces that we create. We’re not for sale. We’re not dependent on any institution, on any political party. It’s from this sort of place that we can resist.
Magui: Another way we defend the culture is giving value to the work of the artists. It’s something we’re always super aware of, in every event we split all of the proceeds between all of the artists evenly. For us, this is a way we can value their work, so that they can keep making this art.
What are you hoping to accomplish with El Verbo?
Muma: For me ideally,
Magui: What would be ideal?
Muma: For me the best would be that the event continues to grow, to start to be able to put less force in getting spaces and artists. If the event becomes more and more popular it just becomes easier to get these spaces and have these artists want to participate. To reach a place where we can relax a little. I mean it would be ideal if a place offered us the space without us having to pay anything for it.
Magui: On a more abstract level, something we always have in mind is the idea that we are searching for a way to circulate, in this world, in this city, in this system, with these words. We talk about the bad people (laugh) I mean the people that are reproducing this patriarchal system. We are trying to find, in what already exists, new ways of circulating artists, generating networks, ways of circulating ideas, ways of living. We’re looking for horizontal ways, that aren’t so vertical, maybe diagonal, always coming from an affectionate place. The way we relate and connect to the people we work with is essential. How can we reproduce these forms of working, that we see as having this power.
Muma: And it’s possible.
Magui: It’s possible.
Muma: It’s possible to work with your friend and treat each other well. To treat the people you work with well, writing them politely, with a “Hey, how are you?” It’s possible. And this form of working also means we don’t have one objective only in mind that’s defined. But that instead we want to be open to go about learning, modifying, and adapting, being permeable to the reality and necessity of whatever comes.
The final El Verbo is The Opportune Moment and the reading will be from Magui, with music from Muma, and another friend of theirs will be dancing. It’s at 17:00 in Villa Crespo, a la gorra.
Go to this. Don’t Forget.