Just before the Pandemia outbreak!
Firstly I would like to thank my family for supporting me in this experience, as well as the team at Unpack for treating me so well and helping me every step of the way.
My name is Ariel Peguero and I am a human who currently resides in Columbus Ohio. Originally from Boston, MA and born to Dominican parents. My first language is spanish, I learned english in grade school. Needless to say this was an advantage to me during my stay. I am a graphic designer by trade. I also work with recycled materials to make jewelry, sculptures, etc. Currently my work (apegdesign.com/hiddenlayers) focuses on combining Augmented Reality with traditional mediums to bridge the gap of ‘fine arts” and” tech arts”. I work with traditional artists i.e. painters, photographers, musicians, and introduce them to the ways augmented reality can be implemented into their creative processes. The most common use of AR is in the form of mobile phone applications, where the camera recognizes an image superimposes a different image or animation over the physical image in real time and space. Think snapchat or instagram face filters.
This was my first time in Havana and my first time working with Unpack Studio. My stay would last for three weeks. During that time I would be setting up to host an augmented reality workshop to local artists. The objective was to introduce AR to these artists who work mostly with traditional mediums and give them another tool to create with. Now that we have gotten the introduction out of the way, I will be sharing my experience with you through the journal I kept for three weeks.
On the day that I landed in Havana I was greeted at the airport by Laura and Ene, two of the program coordinators. We jumped in a yellow cab and headed to the residency Vedado. On the ride to Vedado they immediately began to make conversation with me and welcomed me to Havana. They would throw in historical facts everytime we passed an important monument or building on the road. We arrived at the residency and I met Omar, a fellow artist and the Unpack Studio program leader. I would be mainly working with Omar during my stay. Laura and Ene then walked me around the vicinity of the residency and showed me where the main roads were as well as all of the quick spots to grab a bite to eat. My first day went by quickly. I must have slept 12 hours that night.
On day 2 Laura showed me how to catch a cab to Old Havana. We got out in front of the Capitolio (Capital Building). It is a replica of the Capitol building in Washington DC with the addition of gold plated bell top. We began walking around Havana, stopping through multiple museums, where I got to look at art from the 1920-60’s as well as some contemporary works. As we walked through the city Laura would stop to inform me of the rich history of Cuba’s revolution. At the end of this day I finally figured out how to connect to wifi so that I could call back home and reassure my family that I made it safe.
First mission of the day was to get my skateboard put together and hit the pavement. I skated down to the Malecon Y Paseo. This was also a wifi park. To get on wifi you must first purchase an Etecsa wifi card. They only last an hour at a time. You must then go to wifi park where there is a not very reliable connection. I would often call home and get on my apps from there. On the way back from Malecon I stopped at La Changuana, a local food spot I frequented, and there I met Quembe and Adrian. Two local skaters, who were in their twenties or so. They told me about a skate competition going on the following day at Fuente La Juventud. I remember thinking to myself, “It’s gonna be hard to find”. They said it was in Miramar. Earlier that morning Omar came by to pick me up and bring me to a Jiu Jitsu class. We had connected the day before on our appreciation for martial arts. It was an eye opening experience. I did not expect to see Cubans practicing this originally Japanese art form. They practice a very traditional form of Jiu Jitsu which is mainly done standing. I was only familiar with the techniques that are practiced rolling on the knees and back. I didn’t get to participate in the lessons but they let me record the class and I got an inside look at one of the many subcultures of Cuba. That night Omar and I went to an inaugural exhibition showing at a local alternative gallery. The art at the gallery was a mix of found art and new mediums. The gallery had a cool concept where one week one artist would work with the space and the next week the next artist would build on the previous artist’s work. I really enjoyed that aspect of the exhibition. There I met a handful of local artists ranging from students at the local university and artists who have been on the scene for decades. There is where I started building a small network of artists and collaborators.
Went to Malecon then got a Ham and Cheese for breakfast and set out to catch a ride to the skate competition. I tried and tried. I stuck my thumb out as far as I could to try and catch a cab. Every once in a while one would stop and I would tell them, “Miramar” and they would drive off. So I decided to walk. I walked and skated for about 20 blocks and nothin’. Just when I went to turn back and call it quits I found a group of skaters who were also on their way. There was Fabio, Sergio and three others. They brought me to the skate competition. It was the stair set of a gazebo in the center of the park. The skaters were flying down left and right. No sponsors, no corporation logos, just skaters and love for the culture. The prizes were some new shoes, wheels, or skateboard decks. They judge on effort mostly and they also consider who needs it the most. In Cuba there are no skate shops or ways to buy products online. The skaters rely on outsiders to bring in products. After that we took a bus to Acapulco, an old basketball court surrounded by apartments. It had a pole jam, a flat bar and a gap. All the skaters from the competition earlier slowly trickled in. The most impressive was Laurita La Bebe. A 9 year old skater, the little sister of Fabio. She is only a few inches taller than her skateboard but she can skate better than any of the boys her age. She landed a heelflip within 3 tries. She will be an olympic skater in 5 years, mark my words.
I had my first workshop meeting with Dannys today. Dannys is an established curator in Havana. I also met with Omar and Laura. We reviewed my AR portfolio and the previous experiences I have developed like “Hidden Layers’ as well as some client work. We started to create a plan for what I could do for the workshop and how to present it so that the artist could digest it and start to think how they could implement it in their lives. In this meeting I truly discovered how tough it was to gain access to apps and mobile phones. Due to the embargo implemented by the United States one cannot access, amongst other things, the Apple or Android app store.
The last time I wrote was about 10 days ago. I’ve really gotten into a flow here. Not that I am doing a lot but I feel like I caught the rhythm of the people. I don’t need GPS anymore. I can normally find places within the hour. Anyway, I found Ciudad Libertad which translates into Liberty City. They have a DIY skatepark that the skate community has been working on for the recent years. There I met Miles. Miles is a skateboarder of Cuban descent from the US who has been working with the Cuban skate community for the last ten years. Through his organization CubaSkate he has been facilitating skateboarding in Havana. One of the forms of this is the DIY in Liberty City. This time around Miles had come down with a crew of pro skaters from the states to who came to help build a ramp to add to the DIY. A handful of the locals and I jumped in to mix cement and shape the ramps. We mixed cement with two and half shovels and shaping tools made from old sheet metal. Over the next two days we spent it building this ramp and skating it as well. 20+ hours of hard labor and it was the most fun I have had skateboarding in years. It’s an aspect of skateboarding I had yet to experience. I loved it. We all worked on something for the betterment of all the surrounding skaters. That day I formed some great relationships and I have no words to describe how much it meant to me.
In the last ten days I also worked on planning the AR workshop. The toughest part of the planning process was actually finding snacks and drinks. I spent two hours going to every mercado in the area and could only find butter crackers and cheese crackers. Luckily all I had to do was ask Omar for help and he would go down the street and find everything I needed. That Friday the 24th I hosted the AR workshop at the residency. I was very nervous to host and present my ideas to this new group of artists. They really seemed to enjoy the concept of my work however. The concept of using Augmented Reality to bridge the gap between traditional art and technology. After the initial presentation the attendees stuck around for a quick Q&A and then shared ideas amongst themselves for an additional 2 hours. For the next week I had a few private meetings with some of the local artists who weren’t able to attend the workshop as well as some follow ups with artists who did attend. We weren’t able to do the exhibition at the end but overall I think the workshops served its purpose. The conversation about augmented reality as it pertains to traditional art, was initiated. I want to continue this work and progress the conversation. Through the experience of meeting and working with the local artists I realized the need for digital resources which the concept I was introducing heavily relied on. For my next visit to Unpack I will better equip myself with digital resources to share with others.
Now that the workshop is over I feel so much more relaxed. I still have about a week left so what else can I get into. A few days before I met Orlando ”Orly” a skateboarder who also works with recycled materials and turns them into jewelry and sculptures. We both recycle our old skateboards and turn them into rings, necklaces, earrings, etc. From that moment we told each other that we have got to work together one day. “A workshop on recycling skateboards is what I should do”, I said to myself. So the next day I saw Orly at Ciudad Libertad and pitched the workshop idea. He loved it and immediately invited me over to check out his studio which was attached to his grandmother’s house. He showed me his processes for making his pieces and then we began planning the workshop. For context, I did the AR workshop on Friday the 24th and we planned the Skate Art workshop on Wednesday the 29th. Orly really helped out on this one because all I brought was about 20 rings that I was working on before I left for Cuba. He offered up all of his tools from his studio to use them for the workshop. Only problem is that he lived in Nuevo Vedado about 25 blocks away from the residency in Vedado, so transporting all of the tools and supplies was going to be a feat. There was a heat gun, a drill, a mid sized lathe, wood glue, and a few broken skateboards. The day before we threw it all in a travel luggage case. I was about to arrange for a car but Orly insisted we walk all of that over the residency. He said, “That’s a waste of cash, we can take a shortcut through the cemetery”. So we put the luggage on a skateboard and walked it to the residency in about 15 min. I remember thinking how I did not utilize the cemetery enough to get to places faster. That night I quickly made a promo graphic to upload to instagram and whatsapp and we had also been telling people and other skaters about the workshop. It was mostly word of mouth promo. The day of the workshop about 15 skaters and 2 or 3 traditional artists showed up. We did a quick intro and speech about the importance of recycling and repurposing materials. We also shared the impact skateboarding has had on our lives and how it can be a tool that transcends skateboarding and art. Then we got into the ring making process. It’s a very simple process that can be used to make not only rings but also sculptures and other items one might use around the house. At the same time we handed out a ring and a piece of sandpaper to each attendee so that they could have a hand in the process for making their own ring. Before we knew it an hour had passed by and we were showing all of our different little processes we have created since we started working with the material. Orly had a group on one side and I had another group on the other. At the end of the workshop everyone had their very own custom skateboard ring and also the knowledge of how to recycle something and give it a new life. It was a success. We had a few bumps along the way but we made an entire event happen in less than a week. Our purpose with the workshop was achieved. The participants walked away with the tools to be able to look at something and dissect it and turn it into something else. Over the next few days before I left I went around town skating and hitting all of the spots one last time and saying my last goodbyes to the people I have met along the way and it was pretty cool seeing some of the skaters wearing the rings we helped them make.
Overall my experience at Unpack Studio in Havana was life changing. The three weeks I spent there really tested me in ways that I never expected. Limited food, water, and wifi forced me to focus on my work and to be a more present person. It was like I went from being a passenger in my life to the driver’s seat all of the sudden. As I networked my phone became a notebook for the most part. Since I wasn’t constantly connected to the internet the only apps that worked on my phone were the ones already on there. I found myself talking with people about a project and getting it done that same day. That doesn’t happen back home. The Cuban artists taught me how to take advantage of the opportunity of even just occupying the same space and time as another person and work together to get as much done as possible in the moment before it’s gone. I will forever carry that mentality with me in everything that I do. Thank you Unpack for believing in my artwork and my abilities.