Pola Weiss and The Crystal Door
Posted on 17 February, 2015
My first encounter with Pola was as haphazard as my stay at UNAM’s Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales. Both chance events left their imprint on me forever. It was 1983, I was doing the fourth semester. It was near the end of term.
I saw her, she wore a long, multicolored skirt, dark glasses, and red high-heeled shoes, which I found quite charming. It was obvious she was lost. She was looking for her classroom. I was outside, filling my lungs with nicotine along with other guys. Pola came over and asked for directions to get to room 17. Someone told her, she said thanks and left. I finished my cigarette and threw the stub into the bin. I took my leave from the guys. I went to the second floor and I entered… no just the classroom, but a fantastic friendship from that day onwards, at first as her pupil. I worked in at least three of her works, like César Lizárraga, with whom I later founded Video 2. I went on to become her teaching assistant. Suddenly, I was teaching, something I’d never imagined, even though that’s how I make my living to this day.
I’d like to rewind the tape of the end of the analog era. Honestly, I never wanted to study at Facultad de Ciencias Políticas, but rather at Filosofía y Letras, because I’ve been a poet since I was very young, and I wanted to follow in the footsteps of some of the great Mexican writers that have graduated from there. But in life, fate and chance decide everything. I remember opening the letter from the University, turned into a nervous wreck, and reading I had been accepted, but not where I wanted to. When you apply at UNAM, you must put down three options; Ciencias Políticas was my second one. My mother, who is definitely a wise woman, said when she saw me so dejected: “The main thing is getting in. Attend Ciencias Políticas for a year and then you can ask for a change…” I never did it. I found myself enthralled by communication studies, linguistics, production and design. Once I had a video camera in my hands, I felt I could write with that tool. Simple logic: unfortunately, in our country people don’t read, but they watch TV endlessly; so let’s make literature for television, poetry for the “idiot box”.
I was into that when I met Pola: intelligent, creative, hypersensitive, gorgeous. There’s no denying many of her pupils were in love with her, platonically, of course. It happens all the time, it’s a natural reaction, inherent to the learning process. As a teacher, you know when you’re connected with a certain pupil, and how they process the things you’re telling them. This feedback generates a good vibe, akin to falling in love. For those who don’t know, Pola Weiss is the pioneer of video art in Mexico.
Sometimes we’d go to the market in Coyoacán looking for toys, and the Chopo tianguis to buy mirrors or strange things that reflected or distorted images. “Video art is, first of all, a playful product”, she’d say. Bear in mind there was no image manipulation and editing software back then, everything was done manually. Pola valued more an effect created with the imagination than one made with and editing machine. She liked to put things in front of the camera, such as concave crystals, mirrors and lenses; strange, symbolic objects she could dissolve over another image using Chroma Key.
My generation was the last of the analog era. To make a good quality product, not in terms of format (3/4, VHS), you needed a studio; well, actually two: an audio and a video studio. As far as I recall, just to give you an idea of the process, in the video studio there were three video players and one video-taping machine with the master tape on it; a light oscilloscope, a color corrector, an image mixer, four video monitors, an effects box, and wires everywhere. As a norm, effects boxes were very limited, and the audio manipulation capabilities were very poor, since there were only two channels available. The cameras had a wire connecting them to an exterior tape machine which contained a videotape; it was all very heavy and required at least two people. If it were very hot or humid, there was the risk of the tape scratching, audio oxidation, or something else… Pola made me sleep with one of those cameras, so that it would connect with me at one point during the night, in my sleep.
One of her favorite places in campus was Espacio Escultórico. More than once, when I was her assistant, we went there for lunch, between classes. We jokingly compared it with Stonehenge. That’s where she came up with the idea of doing experimental portraits of Mexican creators. Thus a video series she called The Crystal Door, was born. For some reason, the series didn’t take off. Lizárraga and I were the cameramen. Working with Pola was very instructive and definitely influential. From her I learned professionalism, responsibility, a taste for experimentation. When it came to work, she knew how to trace the boundaries and be demanding; when it came to friendship, she was generous.
She had just recovered from the traumatic aftershock of Mexico City’s earthquake in 1985 when she invited us to a party at her father Don Polo´s house, whom we had met, with her husband, Fernando Mangino, a good friend of ours. We celebrated that Mi corazón had been selected for a festival in Europe. I remember she was delighted with her new toy the whole evening: a plastic bubble used as protection when filming under the water – part of the couple’s income derived from underwater filming large ships before they went into the repair yards. Pola was an expert in deep water diving. Interesting, isn’t it? She was also a dancer, a creator of lovely mail art pieces and the godmother of Video 2. She always encouraged us to be independent video makers, relying on our own means, unafraid of a project, no matter how hard it were, and freely expressing “what the heart tells the imagination, and vice versa”. Under her tutelage, we dared to show her in 1986 what would become the second of the two dozen videos that Video 2 made during its 10 years of existence: Collage. Later on there’d be: Presión por opresión, Tolo and Pedro Mártir. The latter was shown in Paris, at the Ecrans du Mexique festival. This piece also opened the doors for two projects which earned Video 2 the Jóvenes Creadores grant in 1992: La gallina del monitor and Asesinato en masa o para matar a la televisión.
Pola taught us that a TV screen could be used as a canvas or a sheet of paper, but also as a crystal door opening up to a vast piazza, to a landscape. Video 2 was dissolved in 1995, in very good terms, and to this day César Lizárraga and I are still friends. As chance would have it, I had to leave Mexico City for Boston, where I worked in Public Television for a few years. I also retrained there in the new digital technologies.
Pola’s death took us by surprise. It was very sad. A few months before her passing, I had come across her at Cineteca Nacional; she was alone, she told me about her therapist and how she wanted to travel, perhaps to New York, where Shigeko Kubota, the wife of Nam June Paik, awaited her. I told her about a piece that I eventually called Continent of Nothingness. I asked her about the series she was working on. She acknowledged she was depressed. She told me she was in therapy and was focusing on that. I said goodbye, the film I was going to see would start in less than three minutes. I hugged her and ran to where my girlfriend was waiting, holding our tickets. Years later, I regretted having done that: instead of running to the cinema, perhaps I should have stayed and talked to her a bit more, encouraging her to keep producing and playing, for as she used to say, that’s what this is all about.
On Pola Weiss’ web page there’s a Polaroid of her with Kubota. I was there when that picture was taken. At that time, she used to live near Río Churubusco Avenue; from her studio window you could see the constant traffic. I remember Pola, beaming with joy, thrilled because she’d be showing Shigeko some of her favorite places in Mexico City, her second great love. I remember her smiling, like a playful Alice “about to go through the electronic looking glass and finding the door”.
Alberto Roblest, poet, installator and videoartist. He’s the author of five poetry books and one of short stories, as well as the video compilations: La muerte de lo analógico and El arte de existir. His videos have been exhibited in several museums, galleries and international festivals. He lives in Washington D.C., where he’s the director of the Hola Cultura project: www.holacultura.com.