I found a copy of Vicuña’s book Cloud-Net and reached out to her shortly thereafter to ask if I could conduct a video interview with her. That I did not already know about her work is perhaps indicative of the erasure her work has endured up to the present—remedied to a certain extent by her appearance last year in documenta 14 as well as in four recent one person shows in the New York area featuring her monumental quipu installations, large-scale sculptural works employing raw woolrs, suspended or draped overhead. As Vicuña wrote much later in an e-mail, that her work “is not better known is less about “her” being erased and more about the systematic erasure of the idea that different fields of knowledge are interconnected—especially where these concern indigenous women’s knowledge. These structural blocks to the dissemination of feminine knowledge prevents women from finding out about each other.” Happily we did find out about each other when I emailed her and she invited me to her loft near the Holland Tunnel, although I think she shared David’s shock that I would enter her studio space without better knowledge of her work. She channeled the impact of this shock into her replies, which were complex and transporting.
In our recorded interview, Vicuña describes how after she first learned about quipu, she immediately integrated the system into her life. Quipu, the Spanish transliteration of the word for “knot” in Cusco Quechua, is a system of colored, spun and plied or waxed threads or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. They were used by the Inca people for a variety of administrative purposes, mainly record-keeping, and also for other ends that have now been lost to history. For Vicuña, the quipu system demonstrates that there is more than one dimension to speech, memory and understanding. Though the practice of quipu was suppressed by Spanish conquistadors, Vicuña herself lives their possible meanings in the present day, giving form and voice to their conquered history. She also noted that her work exists in relation to other works, in itself forming a kind of trans-artistic quipu connecting the work of different artists, both past and present.
It is somewhat embarrassing now to watch this video and hear my bumbling questions. At the same time, I’m glad to have this video record of a cross-cultural, cross-generational dialogue: it is a testament to a moment when my own art practice expanded. I thank Ann, David and especially Cecilia for facilitating this. I hope other young artists are inspired to seek out the unknown, and thus redefine their personal art historical narrative(s).