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This week we meet Pablo Helguera, an artist, museum educator, and writer, at the Indianapolis stop of his Spanish language bookstore Librería Donceles. His assignment challenges you to give old books new lives through combinatory play.

INSTRUCTIONS - Combinatory Play
1. Bring together a small group of collaborators
2. Each collaborator will pick a play
3. Read the plays together, exchanging lines
4. Upload it using #theartassignment

Learn more about Pablo's work:

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
Sarah:  We're outside of Liberia Donceles, a Spanish language second-hand bookstore that has traveled to several cities around the US, and is currently in Indianapolis at ListenHear, a project space for the arts organization Big Car.  The bookstore was created by Pablo Helguera, and it is named after Doncelles street in Mexico City, which is lined with old bookstores.  It was in Mexico City where Helguera grew up that he gathered much of the original stock for the store from donations, offering his artwork in exchange for books, and producing a bookplate that tells the previous owner of each volume.  Helguera is an artist as well as a museum educator, and those two roles often overlap.  His work focuses on history, memory, pedagogy and sociolinguistics among other topics.  And he explores these ideas through many formats including installation, lectures, and performances, projects that often fall under the umbrella of socially engaged art.  Helguera is also a prolific writer and sometimes cartoonist, addressing many angles of the art world with great insight and humor.  While the bookstore is here, it will be the only Spanish-language bookstore in the city, much like when it travels to other US cities.  Liberia Doncelles provides visibility to the Spanish language and also gives us the increasingly rare chance to browse books and subjects in an unhurried and open-ended way.  Today, we're gonna talk with Helguera, and we're also gonna think about other ways to give old books new lives. 

Pablo:  Hello, I am Pablo Helguera.  I'm an artist.  I am at Liberia Doncelles, and this is the art assignment.  Libreria Donceles is what you would call a third place.  There was a sociologist named Ray Oldenburg who coined this term "third place", meaning that in regular life, you know, we have work, we have home, and then we have a third place, which for many people is maybe the cafe, or a pub, or a plaza, where we find our friends, and where we find people who think like us or share similar interests.  And I wanted this bookstore to be a third place for people who can come and share their interest in literature, their interest in Spanish language and come together that way.  We're kinda like, almost like an open mic space, where anyone in the community can come and propose ideas of things they want to do, and do a book reading, a performance, a discussion, anything that pertains to the larger subject of having a better understanding of Latin American and Spanish language culture.  One of my various ordinary visits to a used bookstore I found this very beautiful book called Rogaland.  It was in a language I did not understand.  It was in Norwegian, in fact.  And it had these amazing photographs of what looked like an archaeological site.  And I was so excited I bought the book, and I decided I did not want to know what it actually said.  I decided that I was going to translate the book without knowing a word of the language that I was translating.  And it kinda became a very entertaining enterprise.  You might have had experienced that if you were in a foreign country were you don't speak the language.  You see a word on the streets or on a sign, and then you try to interpret it based on what you- on how it sounds like to you.  You know, like, how it sounds in English.  And if you do that, you know, the translations can be really funny and very weird and strange.  And I thought that would be like an excellent way to create poetry.  So as I was reading it, reading the language in Norwegian I thought that it would be interesting to see how it would sound to me like in English or Spanish.  And then I started producing these texts that was a, uh, a poetic interpretation of those images.  And later I realized that it was indeed a Norwegian archaeology book--it was about a farm, uh, farming villages in Norway during the Middle Ages.  It was, like, a book that explored the archaeology of what's left of those locations.  But it just became kind of an instrument or a tool for a poetic project.  Our assignment of today is titled, "Combinatory Play".  It consists in bringing together two or three collaborators, each of which will pick a play, a book, from your collection.  It can be in any language.  They will pick lines from that particular play and then by copying them and pasting them together you will create a combined play of all different plays that everyone has selected and then they will perform it together.  

Sarah:  John, there are so many different ways you can do this assignment and there's certainly a way you can do it where you bring together texts willy-nilly and create a king of gibberish that will probably result in some funny moments.  But I really think that it would be most interesting to this in a very conscientious way, where you select passages from each text and carefully combine them to create something that could be truly miraculous and surprising.  

John:  Yeah, I totally agree.  You know, what it made me think of is that Einstein used to do this kind of combinatory play although it was a little bit different.  Whenever he would be stuck on a problem he would leave physics or mathematics behind for a while and go play the violin or go sailing or something.  And he would often find that when doing the other kind of play--because he did think of physics as a kind of play--he would get an idea about physics. 

Sarah:  Oh, I love it.  But for the historical precedent, I actually want to go a little bit further back in history.  During the late Renaissance, German genius Gottfried Leibniz published his dissertation on the art of combinations, proposing a universal language of human thought that could express mathematical, scientific, and metaphysical concepts by breaking them into component pieces, much in the same way words are made out of letters of the alphabet.  Informed by Descartes and working from the Aristotelian theory that all material was formed by combinations of earth, water, air, and fire, Leibniz imagined he could pictographically represent all things and ideas by placing the right selection of those elements in the right order.  Basically, imagine if extremely complex ideas could be easily represented across continents and cultures through a language of signs that would unlock a kind of universal truth.  But Leibniz search proved elusive, of course.  There is truth to the concept that language can unlock thought just as thought can unlock language, whether it's through calculus, Esperanto, C++, or emoji.  Now, Pablo's assignment does not have us seeking any alchemical truths, but it does present creation as a combinatory act, giving us a system through which we can attach ideas from different disciplines and times to create, via a kind of chemistry, a new solution. 

Pablo:  We're gonna do an example of how we would do it here, and of course we're gonna do it in Spanish because we're in a Spanish bookstore.  We're gonna grab books from the shelves to do that, however you can do it in English very easily, you just grab three plays, you know, any play that is famous, that you might want to, to kind of...or you can do a screenplay as well and take that as your departure point. I think a collective reading is a really fun way to do this. Like, do it with two or three friends. You can also do it by writing. You can simply cut and paste all the different phrases from the place and then create a collage of those phrases and see what comes up.

So now we will be reading from three different plays. One of them is a French play by Moliere, "The Miser," a Mexican play by Emilio Carballido Rosalba y los Llaveros keychain, and from a theater piece by Maruza Vilalta. 

Ven aqui, Valerio. Tenemos elegido para que nos digas quién tener razón. Mi hija o yo.

Mejor me es (?~8:19) vivar?

Porque, eres viejo?

Eso- es algo que no.. [laughs]

Es lo mismo.

Nada más seguro.

Pablo: If I tell you, I'm gonna be just reading from Romeo and Juliet, lines from Romeo and Juliet, and you're gonna be reading from Jean Paul Sartre's "No Exit" play, and then we start reading that, it's completely nonsensical at first, but then something really interesting starts happening.You know, and it's also something that we are experiencing with the audience. The audience knows what's happening. They know that I am reading from this play and that this other person is reading from another play and it becomes more of a collective experience, more than a perfect, seamless piece that I am creating for an audience. So, it's kind of like a nice literary experience for an artist or people interested in literature to have. It's a stimulating experience in trying to figure out how you can combine similar things into one entity and how some of these things can actually come together in an interesting way.

[Swoosh sound, then Art Assignment theme music]