Castle of Innocence, by Joel Jiménez, highlights the importance of critical thinking in the interpretation of historical narratives. Set entirely in the Children’s Museum (Museo de los Niños) of Costa Rica, Joel confronts the viewer with two layers of the building’s history, which formerly housed a high-security state prison. Transcending the shallow representation of its past, and suggesting a story that shifts away from the one officially shaped.
Álvaro spoke with Joel, discussing his work, his experiences of the space growing up, and how images affect our notions of truth, identity or power.
Your project documents the Children’s Museum in Costa Rica, a building with a past life as a high-security penitentiary. The combination of imagery from its different periods of history suggest an institutional strategy to redirect history, an effort that fails to conceal a darker past. How is this museum officially introduced to the public?
That’s a very interesting question because there was a lot of uncertainty in the aftermath of the prison closure about what to do with the building. Throughout my research I discovered that some parts of the government wanted to demolish it because of its dark past. Other people wanted to rebuild it into the National Assembly or into another institution related to law and order.
The government decided in the end to open a Children’s Museum, thanks to the efforts of the former First Lady of that moment (Gloria Bejarano). She was an extremely important figure in the development and promotion of the idea.
For the most part of its first decade operating, the museum was really innovative and its efforts were very valuable for children’s education. It is still a very concurrent place for school trips because it is something that’s very specific and unique to our country.
What motivated you to question the seemingly harmless mission of this building?
I believe there are really good motivations from the museum and I do feel it is a good asset for kids to go and learn about different issues. But to me, something that happens a lot in museums or educational institutions is that history is often told from a very specific direction (even though that subjectivity is not affirmed in the pedagogic narrative) or it is a shallow case that works aesthetically but doesn’t really offer deep discussions or questions about how to reflect on our past.
Even though the project is set in its entirety in that building, I’m trying to use the historical context and visual representation of the museum as a symbolic space to talk about more universal issues related to how we perceive structures of control, violence and truth.
In a sense, that’s also really relevant to our current context of image making. The way the museum reshapes its history and the strategies that the imaginative objects use are good metaphors to our post-truth era and photographic production. The space between reality and fiction seems to be disappearing and the notion that images are used to purposely dictate a narrative is a strong issue that we’re facing culturally and socially.
Once I started to research about the Children’s Museum, I knew that the place gave me very different elements to work with and build a narrative about all these issues.
How did you get access to the different strands of archival imagery?
The access was one of the biggest challenges of the project. And I think the easiest way to talk about it is dividing the research-production processes in two parts that happened at the same time: the archival research of the prison history and the image production inside the museum.
For the archival research, I had to go to the National Archive and do a thorough search inside its database to find the archives of the building. I later found out that a lot of materials were impossible for me to access because of the confidentiality of the building and the people related to its history. (prisoners, protected identities, political parties)
I had to navigate through a lot of people so that I could access some material that I knew was extremely valuable to my story, and so even though I couldn’t access all the material that I wanted, I knew that I had something of value with the images, documents and documentaries that were available to me.
I believe that’s also something that adds to the project, the fact that the story is built on archives that are available to the public because they seem inoffensive, but in reality, once you dig into them, you find a lot things to discuss and to reshape the way they are perceived.
What were the challenges in producing your images for the project?
As I said before, the production process took place alongside the research of the archives from the prison. Originally, I thought that I would be able to just shoot as a tourist inside, but then I found out that no cameras were allowed. Since my production method requires observation, contemplation and just time to feel the images that I wanted, I knew that I had to take a different approach.
I talked to the manager of the museum, and had to write an extensive letter to express my intentions of the project (not really telling the whole truth, because I knew they wouldn’t let me shoot the project if I did that) and after a few months I was granted access to the building.
The funny thing is that I was only allowed to photograph when the museum was closed. It was like I was spending time with the ghosts that inhabited the different environments. It made me reflect a lot on how to see the space and what elements were interesting to think about.
And again, there were places where I wasn’t granted access to (like the bodega where they keep items not in exhibition). I know there are probably really good images in that space, but in the end working within that control and structure is a challenge that I liked and I believe it helps to confront the surface and to dig deep into the other issues indirectly.
Your previous project, When The Dust Settles, is a necessary invitation to observe the nature of our identities in a frantic and information-fuelled world. In relation to Castle of Innocence, it almost looks like a guideline, as the latter stands on very thorough archival research. How conscious was this direction, and how do you think this project will influence your future work?
There are a lot of interesting things that I’ve reflected about the nature of both projects and how they relate to each other. I think one of the main aspects for me is the fact that my first project had a macro scope to our relationship with space, time and identity, while this current project is narrowed down to a specific situation/place as a way to talk about those issues. The images themselves provide that approach as most of the images of When the Dust Settles are photographs with a general or wider approach, and the images from Castle of Innocence are much more intimate.
Both projects are manifestations of my own understanding of how to approach my work throughout time. But commonality lies in the fact that I’ve always been really interested in how the perception of an environment/landscape can be a relevant representation of psychological/emotional expressions of our contemporary society.
I think that as a collective, we struggle a lot with the speed in which progression or advancements affect our daily lives, that causes a deep exhaustion that we see reflected on our psyche. And with that effort, we often look back to our past with nostalgia to find a solution, but I also think there’s an idealized approach to this strategy and we do not confront how to see that past with a critical eye.
That something that I wanted to confront within my own practice and self, and luckily I found the Museum to be a rich universe to dwell in these issues. Personally, multiple themes also cross both projects: time, absence, contemplation, silence, memory, among other issues which have deeply affected me and my experience with the world.
What has the reaction to the project in Costa Rica been like? How do you think the work taps into the current socio political state of the country?
That’s a very interesting question, because in my country we do not have an artistic ecosystem that supports photographic practices, so the opportunities to present a work like mine are really narrow. In fact, I haven’t been able to formally present the project in my country as an exhibition, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon because of the economical situation that we confront as the pandemic lasts.
There’s also the issue related to the fact that my project is set in an institutional place like a museum, so I do believe that it’s going to be very difficult to present this project within a museum (like the Contemporary Art Museum of Costa Rica) because there are political connections within the institutions that may be an issue. That’s just my hypothesis but I do believe that my best approach to exhibit this project in my country is through independent art spaces, and there are very few of such spaces right now.
That being said, I have showed the project and talked about it with different people in Costa Rica and the first thing that stands out is the relationship between the children’s museum and the former prison. The way history in my country is left forgotten or hidden within passive mechanisms of power that are taught through aesthetic devices such as the ones presented in the children’s museum.
I believe this project has different layers of meaning, the project sets a discussion about the perception of images, power and truth, but reading further in to the local context, the historical narratives that cross the images become really interesting in thinking about the ways in which Costa Rican identities are constructed, and the ghosts that lie undiscovered within the surface of our territories.
Finally, what is the next step in your practice, is there anything new in the making?
Regarding how this project affects my future project, I think my next project, which is in early stages of research, is going to be a mix of both practices. The scope of the project is not going to be so strict, but also not as broad as my first project. I also want the flexibility that my first project provided me to work in a more intuitive approach; for me, producing images from an emotional perspective is a goal that I thrive for, and I want my next project to start from that idea.
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores belief through worship, mourning, loss of faith, superstitions and the possibility of other worlds.
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