Ballroom, 2014. 200 outdated, sanded world globes, installation view. Photo: Diana Larrea

Cracks in the System: A Conversation with Agustina Woodgate

Agustina Woodgate, who divides her time between Buenos Aires, Miami, and Amsterdam, sees the human landscape—its spaces, systems, and representation of values—as a conceptual geography open to questioning and improvement. Her socially activated interventions, objects, and installations query relationships between the infrastructures and information technologies that configure daily experience, exploring how design shapes those links, conditions the social fabric, and determines access to resources. In 2011, she co-founded, a nomadic online radio station that addresses issues such as mobility, migration, and climate change. In 2015, she co-founded TVGOV, a media company that provides environmental data visualization, and in 2017, she became a founding member of PUB, an experimental publishing platform within the Sandberg Instituut, Amsterdam. Always focused on research and process, Woodgate delves into the urban fabric for her multidisciplinary aesthetic, which includes using consumer waste as a creative resource.

Concrete Poetry, 2016–18. Public sidewalk intervention, view at intersection of SW 42 St. (Bird Rd.) and SW 149 Ave in Miami. Photo: Courtesy the artist

María Carolina Baulo: What are the key ideas that motivate your work?
Agustina Woodgate:
Through my practice, I try to highlight the role that tools and technology play in the distribution of the landscape, the resources and power systems that are exercised to implement it. I study the artificial construction of political, social, and economic limits, making them evident through objects, as well as installations and interventions in public spaces, with the intention of revealing the policies that regulate our daily lives. I question the origins of these regulations, finding cracks to hack the system, proposing gentle and mindful ways of relating to the environment and resources—an ecological and non-extractive relationship—and speculating about possible futures. Through art, I manage to infiltrate government departments of urban and communication design. From an experimental place, I can then dismantle certain norms that experts in those fields cannot, simply because they are part of the system. I consider myself a visual journalist.

MCB: Your various bodies of work are grouped into complex project-series. The “Infrastructures” works, for example, explore how poetics and politics organize public and private space. What is the object of these investigations, and how are they structured in practice?
I am very interested in negotiations between the actors regulating planetary resources, such as water or the electromagnetic spectrum. For instance, I find it fascinating that the global conventions and agreements reached by an agency like the International Telecommunication Union, which regulates radio waves, establish a kind of “air architecture” to avoid noise in communications.

I like to work in sectors like urban planning that typically do not include artists as part of the team. Much of my production time is occupied by negotiations with government agencies, engineers, plumbers, electricians, and inspectors, adapting ideas to be integrated into public spaces, discovering the standards that regulate our lives, and the reasons why they were designed. At the same time, I am looking for spaces where art can propose new ways of relating to the environment. Where is the limit of the private? Where does public space begin? Who has access, and how are these borders determined? What are the hierarchies and the criteria that regulate them? What are the policies and technological tools that reinforce these regulations?

Común y Corriente, 2016. Cement, metal, PVC water pipe, water pump, water filter, and national water, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist
Común y Corriente, 2016. Cement, metal, PVC water pipe, water pump, water filter, and national water, detail of installation. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: The “Infrastructures” series includes outdoor works, gallery exhibitions, and installations. The Source (2019), first presented at Art Basel Cities, Miami, and later at Art Omi in New York, turns plumbing infrastructure into an interactive sculpture. In Común y Corriente (2016) at the Barro gallery, Buenos Aires, you created a similar, indoor dialogue. Could you explain the different approaches of these works?
The Source is a public drinking fountain that reveals the urgency of ecosystems. The context where it is installed builds on and informs its narrative, which focuses attention on water policies and infrastructures. In Miami, it was placed in a public park, almost as an activist gesture of providing free water to passersby. Miami has a paradoxical relationship with water. Drinking water is abundant there because the city is built on the largest aquifer in the United States; at the same time, South Florida is ground zero for sea level rise caused by climate change—Miami is projected to be underwater by 2050. As seawater and heavier rains infiltrate the Biscayne Aquifer, Miami’s essential source of drinking water, the city’s survival is put at risk. The four fountains in The Source form an interactive monument to water. They are made from Miami Oolite and Keystone, which were formed in the Atlantic Coastal Range and the Florida Keys and contain coral, mollusk, and algae fossils. Visitors must scale the structures to gain access to the water.

Común y Corriente, installed in a private space in a neighborhood where drinking water reaches only a privileged few, is very different. Barro gallery, which is located in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires, used to be a garage for Brinks, whose trucks carry money and make it flow. The installation of 12 drinking fountains carried an equally valuable flow. The design of the fountains recalls the luxurious façade of the Palacio de Aguas Corrientes, the water pumping and distribution plant built in the center of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century. This huge public project was rendered practically obsolete after 30 years, as new waves of immigration quadrupled the population. These sources offer
a glimpse into the limits of colonial-era projections and the ongoing need for sustainable public infrastructure. If the movement of water follows the force of gravity, what kind of economic policies govern the forces that modify its course? How do these forces shape public and private spaces,
and the bodies within them? In both cases, the formal design and the choice of materials represent a local context, and the exposed plumbing pipes draw the space, tracing the path that water travels from the source to visitors’ mouths.

The Source, 2020. Miami Oolite, keystone tiles, concrete, iron, plumbing grid, and water, installation view at Art Omi. Photo: Bryan Zimmerman

MCB: Concrete Poetry (2018), another public intervention in the “Infrastructures” series, has an antecedent in Hopscotch (2011–15), which you developed through different stages around the world, including Buenos Aires, Palestine, Denver, Miami, Greensboro, and Krakow. What do you intend with these collaborative and participatory works?
AW: Concrete Poetry is a sidewalk activation created in partnership with O, Miami Poetry, Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places, and the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works.
The project, which had its first iteration in the Kendall neighborhood, inscribes short poems on Miami sidewalks, fostering pedestrian curiosity and community awareness. The poems, collected by O, Miami through open calls and workshops, are arranged in Scrabble mosaic patterns, creating a simple game of interpretation. They tell local stories, strengthening the bond between residents and the built environment. The poems are installed at the same time as scheduled sidewalk repairs, so the process integrates seamlessly with the city’s infrastructure protocols.

In the case of Hopscotch, number 1 was painted in Buenos Aires, in Plaza Cortázar, in 2014. Since then, with the collaboration of different communities, Hopscotch has toured the sidewalks of various cities. Each segment exits one street drain and enters another, using city sewer systems to traverse the world. The numbers pick up where they left off at the previous location, counting forward, proposing a game on existing territory. The last section to date was painted on November 6, 2015, in the underpass of Highway 443 between Tira (Palestine) and Beit Horon (an Israeli settlement in the occupied territories), ending at number 5101.

In both interventions, the sidewalk—one of the most complex public spaces in terms of governance—is the context in question. Sidewalks are regulated by many jurisdictions and departments simultaneously (transportation, water, civic authorities, private agents). This makes them very interesting in terms of what they reveal about existing limits in society. Through these works, I have discovered that these invisible limits are not accidental but designed to manage policies and economies.

Hopscotch, 2010–15. Sidewalk intervention in Palestine, Denver, Miami, Greensboro, Krakow, and Buenos Aires. 2 views of installation in Buenos Aires. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: Another recurring theme in this series is time. The installation National Times (2019), presented at the Whitney Biennial, addresses time in terms of labor, as a value in itself. How does it represent the equation “time is money?”
AW: In National Times, a master clock installed on the center wall provides 40 slave clocks with electricity and synchronizes them so that they all pulse at the same time. The electrical infrastructure of this centralized network reveals the hierarchy of a system that regulates our daily lives. This type of master/slave configuration was introduced in the era of industrialization, appearing in factories, schools, prisons, and hospitals. I modified the hands of the slave clocks, adding a small piece of sandpaper under each one so they sand themselves. Time does the job. This work is a reflection on the future of work and an experiment that automates my own occupation.

National Times, 2016–19. Closed circuit of 40 analog clocks, 1 digital master clock, and electrical metal tubing, installation view. Photo: Ron Amstutz

MCB: The “Paisajes Nuevos” (“New Landscapes”) series employs the maps that orient us and define the world’s boundaries, positing the potential disappearance of cartography and implying a kind of social, political, and economic implosion. The Country in Flames (Map) (2017–19) and The Time Atlas of the World (2012) address this theme from different material perspectives. Could you explain the thinking behind these works?
AW: In my artistic practice, I have spent a large part of my time sanding, painstakingly hand-eroding outdated maps, globes, and atlases. It’s a very laborious and time-consuming process. The development time is the work. This process proposes an unlearning of current geography. Sanding 500 pages of an outdated atlas removes the details of nation states, landmarks, and political markers, leaving behind smooth, blank sheets of paper. The authority of cartographers, explorers, politicians, and writers is erased, unfolding a proposal for a new type of territorial exploration. Instead of nations or countries having priority as visual anchors, the earth as a whole—all at once silenced, but still there— becomes the main focus.

MCB: Though outside this series, your exhibition “Cosmética” (“Cosmetic,” 2017) at Spinello
Projects, Miami, treated similar themes. Sanded map dust becomes a concealer, sustaining the illusion
of perfection. The dust is etched on headstones from a gravestone company, which becomes another way to express our relationship with the passage of time.
AW: The word “cosmetics” derives from the Greek kosmetikos, “skillful in ordering or arranging,” and kosmos, which means “order” and “ornament” and also refers to the organization of the cosmos. Over the last 10 years, as I’ve hand-sanded more than 300 maps, I’ve also collected the dust and separated it by color. Sanding maps was an excuse to create the dust. It is composed of ink particles that represented historical and economic data, names of territories, and other references to the distribution of land and water. The colors are pale, and like the paper maps, they are old. A powder-pressing machine compresses every last bit of this dust into cosmetic compacts, where it appears as makeup, cover-up—it’s an unusable palette to disguise imperfect terrain, to perpetuate an illusion of smooth, clearly defined features. The terrain of a face is a condition of the landscape, an imitation of erosion, a planetary complexion, just as today’s landscape is a face—accentuated, impoverished, reformed—an enlarged corpse.

The Country in Flames (Dust), 2017–19. Pulverized ink extracted from U.S. pull-down map (American History Series) embedded on Indian black granite tombstone, 15.5 x 24 x 10 in. Photo: Diana Larrea

MCB: In the “Currency” series, the issue in question is money, and everything that revolves around it. In Emergency Exchange (2019), Time Capsules (2016–18), and Cambio de Divisas (Currency Exchange, 2017–18), you allude to the increasing obsolescence of banknotes. How do these works posit a new global exchange policy?
Money is a means of representation. Phrases like “current currency,” “withholdings,” or “capital flow” remind us of the parallel movements of water and money. Banknotes have been increasingly displaced by virtual transfer technologies. Some governments, like Canada, are considering the replacement of paper bills and coins with digital currency. Sweden has already started to implement digital currency. The banknote is more than ever a symbol rather than an object of real value. By silencing banknotes and reducing them to dust, they are reinvented, questioned, and left without hope. They again become a commodity to be exchanged for necessities and survival.

MCB: As part of this series, you initiated an interesting social project in the U.S. and Germany, directing the production of rugs made from recycled stuffed animals—a recent collection is called “Catastrophes.” How did this project come about?
AW: ARC (Animal Rug Company) is a social enterprise that manufactures luxury rugs from toy animal skins. Abandoned stuffed animals stored in thrift store basements are rescued, dismantled, and rearranged into rugs, each one a functional collage of discarded toys and reconstructed love stories, as well as a sustainable, washable, vegan alternative to animal-skin rugs. Dozens of hands and hundreds of hours are embedded in each rug, in a ritual that charges them with compassion, salvation, and healing. Local communities are involved at all stages of production. For the sewing stage, ARC partners with Goodwill, a U.S. nonprofit that provides job training, job placement services, and other community programs for people who face employment barriers. Part of the proceeds from sales are donated to Goodwill and other charities. ARC has developed a strategic plan with a circular economy, and it is structured to be a socially and ecologically resilient company.

Cambio de Divisas (Currency Exchange), 2021. One-dollar coin, ink dust from 14 hand-sanded 10 Argentinian pesos bills, and bronze, 8 x 8 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: You’ve worked with rocks, tiles, concrete, iron, PVC pipes, water, dolls and toys, paper money, ink, coins, paper, textiles, stainless steel, maps, marbles, cement, metal, and video. How do you choose the materials that best reflect your ideas?
AW: Surplus and excess are the result of a broken industrialized system driven by accelerated production and consumption. There is an urgent need to find proposals for the future of this huge volume of garbage. All of the materials that I work with are discarded or abandoned. I think of art as part of a system of recycling, both material and symbolic. The material is determined by the context, the concept, and the process. I have no aesthetic preferences—my work does not go through those channels. It is a sometimes journalistic investigation of situations or conditions, which is why the choice of material is revealed in the process, following a rigorous methodology in which everything is considered and nothing is discarded.

TRANSMISSAO FORDLANDIA, 2017. A 24-hour live online radio broadcast from a former Ford rubber plant in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: Do you take site and audience into account when conceiving your projects, or do you think
of them as actors after the realization of the work?

AW: Each space and context contains a history, an ecology, and a potential. My intention is to present that to the public. This is why I consider the viewer from the beginning, together with the space and in relation to it. The relationships between all agents—human, non-human, natural, and artificial—are considered equally. My intention is to present the contained narrative in situ, and to propose possible considerations for global well-being.