Imagination is not a luxury: Fellows Friday with Gabriella Gomez-Mont


Gabriella Gomez-Mont founded cultural salon Tóxico Cultura to build bridges between the arts within Mexico City. Today, she’s transforming Tóxico into an international platform for synthesizing art with a wider range of disciplines, creating new “blueprints for reality.”

You’ve said that being a TED Fellow messed with your mind. Why?

Tóxico Cultura — the independent art lab and cultural salon I founded in 2007 — is very much about exploring the unmapped gray areas between artistic disciplines, creating experimental territories and temporal states of exception, since creativity and imagination have a way of becoming unbound in those types of spaces.

But since the TED Fellowship I have come to realize that I was defining “multidisciplinary” within the scope of arts and culture itself — art, design, film, literature, music, and so on. Now, because of TED, it’s become a bit more wild and untamed. Among the Fellows there are writing doctors and filmmaking scientists and space economists and space archeologists and do-it-yourself neurologists, and the list goes on and on — so many inspiring and madly creative people reinventing the edges of their own worlds.

So I’ve become fascinated by what it means to amplify and to make even more complex a multidisciplinary bridge-building platform, and what it could mean to take it further and to help generate a creative ethos in Mexico City that traverses many different territories.

So it’s blown open what art means to you.

Yes. Art at the edge of other things. And it’s blown open what it means to create multidisciplinary projects, and what it means to work in a multidisciplinary manner, what we could learn from each other if we learn to import thought structures from elsewhere, and learn to “speak” in different languages, if you will. As Wittgenstein once put it: the limits of our language are the limits of our world. And the question is how to sometimes untie those languages, limits and boundaries. There is a certain comfort in defining ourselves tightly and safely, but it also stops us from exploring what lies outside of the things we already know and who we already are.

Oscar Ruiz Navia, award-wining Colombian Filmmaker, discusses working with non-actors at Tóxico Lab — a series of workshops specially designed for (and by) young talented creatives. Photo: Tóxico Cultura

My time with the TED Fellows has also made me become avidly curious about people and projects in Mexico focused on other areas of knowledge. I have started doing in-depth interviews and mapping different fields, and suddenly I’m seeing that there’s so much creative thought outside of arts and culture, and so many links to be made between different disciplines and people, both locally and internationally. So many things could be possible with a nudge here and there.

So that is what Tóxico will focus on: helping certain conversations catch fire by putting the right people in touch and creating meeting points, or building knowledge structures through talks, seminars or workshops around different subjects — human rights and censorship in journalism, to name one upcoming example, an urgent conversation in Mexico nowadays — all on intimate territory because I am a huge believer in the power of small encounters that lead to larger repercussions through chain reactions. I am reworking the way Tóxico functions as a catalyst, an intoxicating agent…

This all happened because of the TED Fellowship?

Oh, definitely. Before the TED Fellowship I was really happy with our projects. It’s already a large world in itself, right, working between the different disciplines that make up the arts, plus also doing my own personal projects, consulting and designing multidisciplinary art programs, guest editing international magazines, curating, writing and now directing film. But it has been so intensely inspiring to see what other Fellows are doing that I have become utterly captivated with what it means to help create an innovative and creative society across disciplines.

It has also made me ponder on the place of culture in the whole scheme of things. I still believe in art for art’s sake, of course, but I also find it really interesting to think both about how art can be provoked by other areas, as well as how other disciplines can benefit from incorporating artistic thought processes into their inner workings. What I find most alluring about the art world — the reason why I got into art in the first place, in fact — is that it manages to create territories composed of a mix between so-called fiction and so-called reality: inject life with imagination and create symbolic narratives that then have the possibility of creating worlds unto themselves. Art can become a blueprint for reality in that way, and a hypothetical playground for minds let loose.

Audience members at Tóxico conference with Perry Chen (Kickstarter). Photo: Tóxico Cultura

I love your tagline that imagination is not a luxury.

I think many of us who are drawn to the arts are seduced by the notion of how reality gets constructed through imagination, narrative and symbolic structures — all these mysterious intangible things on the other side of reason. It’s humbling to think that most everything we see outside ourselves started at one point in a tiny corner of somebody’s mind: just a tiny electric jolt between one synapse and the next and then: voilá. This.

Take Fellini, for example. He often said that he felt most alive when constructing his big strange sets and picking the people that lived in those sets and imagining scenarios and this or that type of sensation: building an outlandish reality and spinning stories for all to live out together. In fact, he was often quoted saying that this life solely created by his imagination was the only reality that interested him. That might be taking things a bit too far, but I do find it fascinating that in so many ways one invents and sets up the rules of engagement in artistic projects: “I will now write as someone I have never been, or I will make a film that will be one magnificent excuse to get to know another side of life and ask all sorts of questions that would have been too intimate or impertinent in another context, or design an impossible city that maybe one day someone else will make real.” So many doors open up. It’s an exercise in creating adjacent possibilities; it’s a gym for the muscles of the mind and the imagination. And everything from the way we think of ourselves to the way communities engage are very much built upon certain social stories — the drawing of borders, the make-up of religion, politics, identity — we first invented and then collectively decided to be true. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s tragic. Culture, in its widest definition, is the great a priori.

Someone once said that stories are tools for living. I agree. Narrative is such an important thing. Sometimes even a single word can do the trick: “Give me the right word and I will move the world”, Joseph Conrad wrote. So right now, I’m profoundly interested in deepening my understanding of how narrative plays out and creates a social imagination that then births that thing we call reality, and how to apply fiction to the everyday. Mexico is going through very tough sociopolitical times just now, but, simultaneously, so many interesting things are happening in so many fields, there is so much potential, so much hunger for things different. But what are the prevailing narratives we are focusing on, what could the counter-narratives be, and how do they get constructed and where? How to inspire individuals and back projects so that we engage with the more interesting and imaginative possible scenarios?

Cinematographer Agnès Godard Tóxico Workshop, day five at Salón Los Ángeles. Photo: Tóxico Cultura

So how does Tóxico work?

Tóxico has a fluctuating, liquid structure. It becomes whatever I need it to be month by month. Even the structure itself is thought of as an artistic project, and its main drive is to further creative excellence in Mexico City, and spread the idea that imagination is not a luxury. I change spaces for each project, hosting events in super-sophisticated auditoriums, in a 17-story abandoned hotel in the city center, in state-of-the-art film studios, in a stunning colonial house, in universities, open plazas, in museums.

Besides the workshops and lectures, we have a local mentorship program and an international internship system for young artists, and also create our own content such as collective art, editorial and film projects, curate exhibitions, and so on. And Tóxico extra-officially also functions as an agency: we have connected hundreds of people both locally and internationally. We just got a nice national grant to create a digital platform concentrating and showcasing Mexican creativity to a worldwide audience, helping to build that narrative I mentioned, and helping us visualize and realize how electric our cultural scene is nowadays.

I think one of the biggest strengths of Tóxico — and the reason why a relatively small independent project has been able to have an exponential impact — has come from understanding the power of catalytic points: of finding those precise places that when touched or provoked slightly create a magnified effect, in the same way a tiny tap of the doctor’s triangular hammer on that strategic place of the knee makes the leg jump into the air.

We are continuously trying to identify new creative needs, and then invent ways to help fill the gaps. The workshops and lectures, for example, started as a way of creating concentrated mind-spaces, complementary or even in contrast to more institutionalized academic programs, as well as to create intimate international dialogues. The Días de documental festival and lecture series was born because in 2004 documentary film was greatly under-appreciated in Mexico. Our new mentorship program evolved when I saw that certain needs of young talented artists were not being met. In 2008 I created a multidisciplinary pilot program for the 12 best students of a private university, teaching them the possibility of socially aware creativity; the program was a huge success and continues to this day. Agnès Godard, one of the few women cinematographers to make it into the big leagues, was invited to give a week-long course when we found out about an exciting and growing community of Mexican women photographing in film.

Our relevance is in being a catalyst and a bridge and having a very flexible structure so we can quickly start necessary conversations with the right people at the right time, and move on when those specific conversations have caught a fire of their own. Our relevance then, paradoxically, is our desire to become irrelevant, one issue at a time.

Perry Chen (Kickstarter) and Gabriella Gómez-Mont (Tóxico) in public conversation during a TelmexHub event in Mérida, Mexico. Photo: Tóxico Cultura

You must have a lot of people around you in support.

That is the most beautiful thing of all. For some mysterious reason Tóxico has become a “strange attracter” for amazing people. I really do feel so fortunate because we’ve got these young, super-talented, energetic, hungry people that want to do things, that are just trying to figure out the world anew. And then on the other hand, I also have a really solid relationship with institutions, embassies, very established artists, designers, filmmakers, museum directors, international projects and so on. It’s exciting to be able to access the best of all worlds, remain independent and bypass bureaucracy.

Also, among the TED Fellows I have found new, grand accomplices and muses. Benji Zusman — scientist and filmmaker — was my most valuable advisor this past year while I was directing my first feature length documentary. Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz and I are in continuous contact to create a Latin American cultural network. Erik Hersman and the rest of the Ushahidis have been a huge inspiration in thinking about the possibilities of re-envisioning national narratives, helping build an innovative society in so-called developing countries, plus breaking international stereotypes. A long conversation I had with Perry Chen, co-founder of Kickstarter, while he was in Mexico made me revise some fundamental ideas and had very palpable repercussions. And the list goes on. TED has been amazing. I feel very fortunate to be part of this nomadic, polymath and slightly crazy community.

012 will be your last TED as a Fellow. How are you feeling about this?

Very, very nostalgic. So what I’m doing now is setting up bridges for the future. Besides the ongoing Tóxico workshops and conferences series, I’ll soon be starting seminar-type programs, as well as a residency in Mexico City which will hopefully become a gathering place for Fellows; already we are planning the visit of several TED Fellows for the next year to start several conversations across borders and disciplines. During my six months at Yale as a World Fellow — which coincides beautifully with my last TED conference — I will be gathering ideas and putting everything into motion for my return. Mexico City is one of the most fascinating, complex and layered cities on Earth and I love the idea that it could become, through Tóxico, a meeting ground for bold, playful, imaginative thinkers: TED Fellows, Yale Fellows, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists and more, sinking their hands into the city, spreading their ideas throughout it, and conversing over tacos and tequilas galore.


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