Crossroads for activist art in Argentina
The crisis and unprecedented popular uprising that culminated in the disturbances of December 2001 in Argentina produced an aftermath of institutional instability and ongoing unrest in which new social movements played a leading role.
The crisis and unprecedented popular uprising that culminated in the disturbances of December 2001 in Argentina produced an aftermath of institutional instability and ongoing unrest in which new social movements played a leading role. Many artists’ collectives became involved in the broad call for substantial change in the political system – summed up in the radical slogan ‘que se vayan todos’ (‘out with them all’). Since Nestor Kirchner’s government came to power in 2003, political and economic stability and a hegemonic pact for governance have been re-established. In this new and complex scenario, social movements are disbanding, losing the impetus they once had and, in many cases, reverting to traditional political relations based on patronage and party. Among the new forms of activism, a sharp division has opened between those who support the government and those who oppose it. This divide profoundly separates people who not long ago took part in the same struggles.
The power of the Argentinean uprising caught the attention of intellectuals and activists, as well as artists and curators from other parts of the world, who glimpsed in this turbulent process a novel and vital socio-cultural laboratory. The new term turismo piquetero (picket line tourism) describes, ironically but accurately, the stream of visitors who arrived, armed with cameras and good intentions, to visit neighbourhood meetings, reclaimed factories, pickets and roadblocks. Among other consequences, this focus of interest gave a certain international visibility to activist art practices which until then had remained decidedly on the margins of institutionalized art. In this context, activist art groups were subjected to intense attention and wide international circulation. Certain groups were catapulted into prestigious biennials and group shows in Europe, America, Asia and even Oceania. Today, after other global disturbances have drawn the attention that temporarily was focused on Argentina, we have to face and assess the implications of this enormous international over-exposure for the practices and subjectivities involved. These are confusing and contradictory, but not necessarily dark, times. There are signs of disintegration, of a loss of heart and crisis among the groups that kept up a frenetic level of activity on the streets between 2002 and 2004, groups that suddenly found themselves thrust into the most prominent showcases on the international art circuit. But at the same time, some groups are celebrating their tenth birthdays with gusto, while continuing to work actively and even taking on joint projects with other collectives.
Between March and May 2007, I met with protagonists and asked them to share and reflect on their experiences and expectations. The following collage of voices – sometimes in agreement, sometimes divergent – may contribute something to the prevailing ‘state of deliberation’. Here are opinions and stories from Magdalena Jitrik, Karina Granieri and Carolina Katz, all members at one time of the Taller Popular de Serigrafía (Popular Silkscreen Workshop, or TPS for short, now dissolved); Javier del Olmo, who formed now-dissolved collectives such as Mínimo 9 and Arde! Arte and is currently informally linked to the Frente de Artistas Darío Santillán (Darío Santillán Artists’ Front); Daniel Sanjurjo, who has a long history with various collectives from the 1980s on, and in recent years participated in Arde! Arte and the TPS; Charo Golder and Rafael Leona, members of the Grupo de Arte Callejero (Street Art Group, or GAC); Federico Geller, who left the GAC and now works with Comunitaria TV, an alternative television project based in Claypole; Federico Zukerfeld, Loreto Garín and Nancy Garín, old members of Etcétera, which has now become Internacional Errorista (Errorist International); Pablo Ares, a member of the GAC who has been active with Iconoclasistas (Iconoclassists) for a year; and Julia Risler, one of the driving forces behind the Potlach Festival and the other associate of Iconoclasistas. I have also made use of the written comments sent to me by Verónica Di Toro, who left the TPS not long ago.
This list of interviewees may provide some markers for a map of activist art practices in Argentina since the mid-1990s – practices that have been subjected to a vertiginous reshaping by migration, dissolution, renaming and recycling, conflict, rupture and even expulsion. Through the recent experiences of these groups, we can enquire about dilemmas and new directions responding to two main problems: first, the unfamiliar situation that has arisen for these groups as a result of the human rights policies of the current government; and second, the visibility and legitimacy on the international art circuit gained by these groups and their practices.
Two moments are crucial to the appearance, proliferation and vitality of the street art groups linked to new social movements in Argentina in the last decade. The first, in the mid 90s, is the appearance of HIJOS, a group bringing together the sons and daughters of those detained and ‘disappeared’ under the last dictatorship. The origins of two still active groups, the GAC and Etcétera, were closely related to the planning and realisation of escraches, a form of direct action undertaken by HIJOS to draw attention to the impunity of those responsible for repression and to generate condemnation within society. Both the GAC’s urban signposting and Etcétera’s performances were, to begin with, completely invisible to the art world as ‘art actions’; nevertheless they gave the escraches identity and visibility.
The second moment, in the heat of the revolt of December 2001, involves a significant number of visual artists, film and video-makers, poets, alternative journalists, thinkers and social activists. They invented new forms of intervention linked to social events and movements in the expectation that they would change life in Argentina: popular assemblies, pickets, the reclaiming of factories by workers, movements of the unemployed, bartering clubs and so on. The subversive use of the means of mass communication and the development of alternative means of communication are tools common to the new forms of protest. Of the new groups, some had an ephemeral existence, linked to a particular moment, while others survived until not long ago. Among the latter are the TPS whose distinctive hallmark was printing in situ, during protests, onto the demonstrators’ clothes; and Arde! Arte, which carried out numerous actions and interventions during the mobilisations.2
On 24 March 2004, on the anniversary of the 1976 coup d’état, an event of enormous symbolic weight took place. The ESMA (Escuela Mecánica de la Armada – Naval School of Mechanics) building, in which the largest clandestine detention and extermination centre operated under the dictatorship, was handed over by the Kirchner government to human rights organisations to be turned into a memorial site. Those who under adverse conditions had resisted the military dictatorship – by demanding trial and punishment for perpetrators of genocide and state terrorism – and afterwards had tirelessly denounced the impunity extended by successive democratic governments suddenly found themselves held up as banners for current government policies. As the terrain of activism and opposition was in part annexed by official policy, many activists began to work with different government agencies and ministries. Reactions varied, some activists responding to specific measures, such as the reopening of the genocide trials and the abolition of the so-called “laws of pardon”, with confidence, expectation, or even joy.3 Others kept their distance, interpreting the new policies as rhetorical gestures that limited the defence of human rights to past abuses while suppressing current conflicts (strikes, pickets) and neglecting the investigation of the new disappearance of Jorge Julio López in September 2006, one of the thirty thousand missing people during the last dictatorship.4
Two events on the day of the handing over of the ESMA building demonstrate the extent to which the line now dividing activists with official roles from those in opposition has influenced the practices of art groups. The first, involving Etcétera, took place during the ceremony at which the president transferred the ESMA to human rights organisations. In one of their typical performances, the group distributed to those present – among them the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – hundreds of little bars of soap wrapped in a printed paper that called for a ‘general clean-up’. Phrases such as ‘ideal for washing face or hands, recommended for washing the head’ or ‘with 28 years of experience declaring war on dirt’ alluded ironically to the complicity between the political class and the repressors who labelled guerrilla actions a ‘dirty war’. Nancy explains the intervention:
We had a lot of discussions about whether to go or not. It was a confused, complicated situation. That day Kirchner was taking the block back from a military man, something that was being presented as a sort of reconciliation and clean-up of the Armed Forces, a symbolic gesture by the government. We were thinking about working with the image of ‘face washing’ and had the idea of the little soap, packaged as though for a marketing campaign and using a text that was apparently extremely ambiguous, although it was crystal clear to us.
In this context, however, such wordplay was read as threatening. Later, the group was denounced on television and in various newspapers by Hebe de Bonafini, Chair of the Association of the Plaza de Mayo Mothers.5 This undisputed moral authority in the fight against the dictatorship interpreted the action as part of the campaign of threats the Mothers were then suffering – this despite the facts that the Mothers knew Etcétera and the text was clearly signed by the group with their email address and the slogan ‘Ni olvido ni perdón, no usemos el jabón’ (‘No forgetting, no pardon, let us not use soap’). The impact of the accusation on the group was tremendous. Federico Zukerfeld explains, ‘An escrache by the Mothers against us – that is the worst thing that could happen to us!’ Nancy continues, ‘The following day we went to the Mothers’ house to try to explain ourselves and they threw us out.’ Loreto adds: ‘It threw us into a crisis about the language we had been using… That crisis made us think about our whole history.’
The second event took place the same day in the geographically central and symbolically loaded Plaza de Mayo, where marches traditionally arrive. The TPS set up a printing table for silkscreening onto paper or clothes. The print offered that day quoted a phrase from a recent presidential speech (‘Argentina 2004, Serious Capitalism’) and implied criticism of the profusion of official memorials. The ESMA as a Museum of Memory, but also Congress, the Ministry for the Economy, Government House and the Courts were depicted as supposed museums of corruption, hunger, surrender and impunity, respectively. Unlike most TPS images, which support, affirm and disseminate the struggles they accompany without double meanings, this image used sarcasm and risked provoking those who had come to participate in the march and celebrate the handing over of ESMA. Magdalena reports:
We were assaulted by bands of Kirchner supporters... It was the first warning: watch what you’re saying… We set up in the square as usual with the strange difference that nothing happened, no-one brought along posters or t shirts. We always printed in the same spot on the square, by an olive tree. That day there were some young members from the group Venceremos (We shall overcome) in the area, and they confronted two students from the Partido Obrero (Workers’ Party) Faculty of Psychology, because the Partido Obrero did not join in with the ceremony to hand over ESMA. They used that as a pretext to overturn the table and printing equipment.
Karina and Carolina believe the aggression towards the TPS, who had set up on the spot where the scuffle took place, was a matter of chance. They also point out that the image was ‘very peculiar, inflammatory. Unlike the other TPS images, which expressed support for a struggle, this one was disconcerting, critical. It functioned as criticism of all types of representation, of institutionalisation, of “museumification”.’
As for the GAC, Charo sees the group as having managed to avoid the pro-Kirchner/anti-Kirchner divisions: ‘We never worked with political parties and we never worked to order. That’s why, because we were unattached, we remained friends with the Mothers and with HIJOS. It kept us pretty much on the sidelines of this argument.’ But in 2004, faced with what they saw as ‘the institutionalisation of the human rights movement’, they decided to stop installing the flag/sign saying ‘Trial and punishment’, two metres in diameter, that they used to stick to the ground in the Plaza de Mayo every year. ‘We thought that as a symbol it had already become institutional. Let the institutions do it if they want to. It doesn’t belong to us any more.’
Javier, of Arde! Arte, tells how – as an effect of the prevailing polarisation – his group called off an action during which they had planned to wear Kirchner masks [caretas]: ‘a cardboard mask with just one eye to look out of, which said ‘Presidente Kareta’.6 When we were about to go ahead, we realised we were on course for a collision, or that it was going to be interpreted as pro-Kirchner. It was a bit ambiguous.’
The entry of activists into the state apparatus also affects the groups. Federico Geller explains:
In my opinion co-option is occurring as a sort of fagocytosis, like a creature sucking the vitality out of individuals. Co-option is real, it is an undeniable political process, but not everything can be reduced to that. You also have to see what the state is, that it is not monolithic. One has to have a scheme of action that will allow you to think in every situation and to bring personal identity into play. Now I’m working for the state with people from Comunitaria, giving workshops on alternative communication to young people between seventeen and twenty years old in neighbourhoods and shanty towns around the country. We have total freedom to work with whatever tools we choose, and we try to look at each context and decide what might work… There are places where there are no images of the dictatorship or the desert campaign [the extermination of the indigenous population at the end of the 19th century] even though everyone is indigenous or mixed race. They don’t know the original nation they come from. We try to generate interest, and to provide the minimal tools they need to turn that into a question… In that context the discussion of the institutionalisation of memory makes no sense.
The other topic touched on repeatedly in these interviews was the new visibility of Argentinean activist art in both local and international shows, biennials, meetings and publications. This has undoubtedly affected them, impacting their practices, the ideas they hold, the networks of relationships and affinities they construct – in short, the whole framework underlying their collective and individual subjectivities.
The first group to go through this experience was the GAC. Their most critical moment occurred in 2003 following the invitation to participate in the 50th Venice Biennale, in the section curated by Carlos Basualdo. The swift arc propelling them, with no intermediate steps, from street activism to inclusion in such prominant international art spaces, generated undeniable tensions within the group. These were finally resolved when they decided – after several more experiences and much discussion – not to show their productions in conventional exhibition spaces. Charo summarizes:
In 2000 we travelled for the first time as a group, to a meeting in Monterrey, with a five star hotel and a lot of money for the work. We did our last international shows in 2005, in Kassel and France. We got fed up with it and decided not to go to any more shows. [The invitations] kept coming, we turned them down, and then they stopped coming. We’ve got a black mark against us. Many people think we don’t exist any more. And we had to put up with a lot of criticism, discussion, comments from people who don’t know us but talk about our contradictions or problems. All that contributed to our radical decision not to participate any more…. I could be seduced by the travelling. It’s great to travel for free! But it’s not free…. You think you don’t give a shit about that world, you can just use it to travel, but it’s not for free, something happens to us.
Pablo sees it in pragmatic terms: ‘Venice meant 2,400 Euros for us, and we chose to participate for that sum, which meant printing thousands of posters saying ‘Aquí viven genocidas’ (‘Perpetrators of genocide live here’) as well as other work. Our participation in Venice was very much criticised, but it was only one week’s work for us. I don’t know how Basualdo – that guy from Rosario with the thousand dollar Italian shoes – got the idea of inviting us.’ The issue was resolved by the extreme decision to remove themselves from the circuit, even though it was recognised as a source of finance that could be used for street actions.
The TPS was sucked into this whirlwind of demand at a late stage, but their arrival was dramatic: in a few months between 2006 and 2007 they were invited to four biennials (São Paulo, Moscow, Istanbul, Valencia) as well as major local and international exhibitions. This huge demand forced the group to concentrate purely on these events, disrupting their active links with social movements. ‘For the past year we’ve been working for biennials’, says Karina. The group also had to deal with the members’ different views on how to participate in those spaces. When it seemed attitudes could not be reconciled, the group dissolved. Karina reflects: ‘It was dizzying – four biennials in under five months. There was no time to mature or to prepare what we sent. All of a sudden we were launched into an artistic career we didn’t sign up for.’ Carolina points out that for groups with scant means, the offer of institutional resources is difficult to refuse: ‘I wonder how to say no to these invitations. If they don’t seduce you with their symbolic power, which isn’t of much interest to us, they get you with their economic power. It’s the first time we’ve ever charged anything for what we do, even though it’s not much.’ And biennials have a way of absorbing a group’s time and refocusing their work. Carolina continues: ‘For me the scale is exhausting and overwhelming. It forces us to work exclusively for that, to maintain relationships with curators and the bureaucracy of these mega-events.’ Magdalena, however, interprets this stream of invitations as ‘a huge response that means our work can be seen in a different way.’ She didn’t experience the new challenge as a contradiction: ‘I see it as an arena for us to occupy. It means we expand our capacity for communication.’
Of the crisis that led to the dissolution of the TPS, Verónica notes: ‘The Workshop’s participation in international shows mainly showed up our different ways of thinking about the work and the art object, about artists as workers on the art circuit and our individual relationships to this new situation.’ What became evident was that ‘in some way the coming together and the affinities in the group were more to do with acting in the political sphere and not so much the artistic sphere, let alone the specific area of curated exhibitions.’ Karina adds:
Groups have their time. The TPS was no longer fluid, we already knew how each of us would react in a given situation. The responsibility that came with the demand from the biennials made us inflexible. We had to be very efficient, functional, we had to work hard and well. Everything was negotiated between us. And the relaxed approach of previous years was lost. We took a very radical decision that two people should leave the group. We used to exercise horizontality in our decisions and our work, and suddenly we were asking two people to leave.
About this episode, Daniel says:
The TPS threw me out. I said that if we were going to go to the São Paulo Biennial, we couldn’t just show images. In the end all that was shown was a mural of the silkscreen prints and a couple of flags – the representation of political art. I wanted us to do something more political, something to shake them up: for us to invite the social movements to the Biennale, for them to come with their flags and put them up in the park. We could have contacted all the graffiti and street art groups in São Paulo, too. And we ended up going to an international gathering with a political or social aspect and showing calendars. They wanted to turn the TPS into a trademark.
A NEW MATURITY
More than five years after the Argentinian insurrection of that December in 2001, we realise the extent to which our interpretations and emotional responses to that episode have differed. For many of us, sadness was the feeling that accompanied one phase of this sinuous course of events.
(Colectivo Situaciones, ‘Politicising sadness’)
The Colectivo Situaciones (Situations Collective) speaks in terms of sadness when describing the generalised feeling of emptiness that affected a broad section of Argentinean activists faced with the dissolution of a collective experience of unique intensity. At the same time there is a drive to find a political dimension to that feeling so that it feeds into a ‘new maturity’ capable not only of self reflection in the analysis of what has happened, but also of reinventing forms of action in the existing situation.
Signs of such a ‘new maturity’ are indeed visible. Julia notes: ‘This is a moment of reflection, of introspection in groups and social movements who are thinking about their position, the nature of their links to government and others.’ At the present juncture activist art groups have not disappeared but have reformulated their strategies. These have been affected by changes in individual lives. Many activists have reached the age of 30 or become parents – decisive factors translating for some into a need to choose priorities, become more selective and avoid exhaustion. Additional factors are a weakening or falling off of social protest, as well as the current complexity of politics and the tensions caused by institutional demand. For some, street-based action is no longer the most privileged form of intervention. A number of interviewees have shifted to longer-term projects, and are no longer subjecting themselves to the urgency of the ‘revolutionary calendar’. Daniel: ‘I’m tired of working for immediate demand: today we get together to think about something, we put it together tomorrow and show it the day after. I’m tired of working one day for something happening the next. I’m tired of marches.’
On the other hand, it is worth noting the extent to which modes of action that were the territory of activist art groups a decade ago have been taken up by new social protests around trade union disputes and strikes and in spontaneous actions by the young. The use of creative resources in struggles – especially the political use of stencils, silkscreen printing, street performance and anonymous interventions in political advertising – is an aspect of critical political culture that has expanded beyond the mediation of specific groups of artists. Federico Zukerfeld reflects: ‘People have already adopted all our strategies. They don’t need us to show them how it is done. Lots of small new groups have sprung up. That is better for us.’
Clearly there is some exhaustion after so many years of intense group work, visible in attrition and dissolution among groups. But Federico Geller notes: ‘You have to do things by consensus but not be paralysed if there is no consensus.’ Now the groups take on projects that demand greater preparation, interventions based on process rather than immediate actions. Having recently celebrated their tenth birthday with a massive party, the GAC is working on communications workshops in reformatories, on an experimental video on new forms of subjectivity in Buenos Aires, and on a book documenting the group’s interventions over the past decade. Julia tells how the work of Iconoclasistas, which is defined as a laboratory of communications and anti-hegemonic resources, ‘came from what we perceived as a need or a demand at a couple of meetings with different movements: finding new ways of communicating.’ Following the Anuario Volante (Annual Flyer) that was widely distributed and used last year, they continue to work ‘spreading information that mobilises action, reusing graphic tools available on the web page, and making flyers that can be easily reproduced by photocopying’. They have just edited a magazine/poster: An ABC of how to live in Buenos Aires and not be alienated in the attempt.
Etcétera reached the age of ten and reinvented itself as the Internacional Errorista. Federico Zukerfeld: ‘Errorism isn’t the wave of a drowning man. It’s obvious that the shipwreck happened and we were on it, we can’t deny it. But the opportunity to be part of that discussion at a global level is unique.’ Loreto describes how in the last Errorist action, at a march on the fifth anniversary of the 2001 popular rebellion, they felt pushed out: ‘We were walking to one side because we weren’t with any party, or movement of the unemployed or human rights group.’ She goes on:
The question for Errorism now is whether we want to continue to occupy that public space on the street or to work in ‘normal’ day-to-day situations. At the moment we spend a long time preparing our actions and we are protective of our visual and aesthetic language. Before we would take an afternoon to prepare for an action, now we work on it for months.
Like the GAC, the Errorists are planning a book on the group’s history. They are also working on ‘the idea of making an opera and on plans for a manual of Errorism for children, because we want to influence education’ (Loreto). Magdalena reflects:
Not everyone on the left liked what we did, they expect something from graphic design that we didn’t deliver, but as time passes they are starting to value what we did. I get the impression they are realising that it was effective in disseminating the political ideas that are around today. I hope the TPS influences the leftwing graphic design of this era. Now different sections of the left are beginning to ask us for images for the press and for flyers. This is when we manage to “infiltrate” them. (laughter)
Let us leave it there, then, with a laugh that weighs up and conveys some of the sadness of retreat, a laugh that celebrates, as a small and unexpected triumph, the fact that something from the universe of activist art should be taken on and owned not just by the new social movements, but even by the old Left.
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1. I use the title ‘activist art’ with reservations, given that some of the groups mentioned here refuse to define themselves as ‘artists’ or their practices as ‘art’, understanding them instead as a specific form of militancy linked to creative strategies in political communication.
2. A fuller version of this brief description of activist art over the last decade and its dialogue with the radicalised artistic avant-garde of the 1960s can be found in Ana Longoni, ‘Brennt Tucumán noch immer?/Is Tucumán still burning?’, in Collective Creativity/Kollektive Kreativität, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, 2005, pp 150-174.
3. For example, Federico Geller says, ‘I feel different from most people in this micro-environment where art meets politics in that I’m not as bothered by ESMA being turned into the Museum of Memory or by schools making homages they didn’t used to. While I could see there was a repetition of state interference, and I was sensitive to that, I also saw something original. It’s not original when the teacher always talks with the same tone (whether she’s talking about the Malvinas war, or whatever), but the fact that it has become official meant that the subject of the dictatorship could be introduced in places where it was never discussed, for example, in a whole lot of schools.’
4. Lopez, a nearly octogenarian survivor of the concentration camps of the last dictatorship, was abducted without leaving a trace shortly after giving key evidence in the trial which led to the imprisonment of former repressor Miguel Etchecolatz (ex chief of police of the province of Buenos Aires). Here Verónica Di Toro’s testimony is representative: ‘I’ve just listened to the news on national radio and heard part of Kirchner’s speech campaigning for the presidential elections, appealing to Argentineans to use their memories when voting; of course he used the word ‘memory’ several times during the speech. As I was listening I thought about the manipulation by the State of the struggle for memory, for human rights. A discourse that cannot be sustained while Julio López remains missing.” The four photos that illustrate the article show different art works made during the last year, depicting this disappearance, yet irresolute.
5. This is how the episode appears in the Página/12 newspaper on 27 March 2004: ‘The usual anonymous individuals are at work: In the past few days [Hebe de Bonafini] has received a number of emails from a so-called “24 March Commando”. “The message was that if we didn’t stop making trouble they would liquidate us”, explains the Chair of the Association, Hebe de Bonafini… she considered it to be part of the same campaign when several young people gave out gifts of soap with the slogan “General Clean-up!” to members of the association during the ceremony at ESMA last Wednesday.’
6. ‘Careta’ refers to hypocrisy in the local dialect used by the young.
Photo 1: “López: actions in colaboration”, Lucas Di Pascuale and his family put in the roof of the Centro Cultural de España a big wood legend with only the (very common) surname of the missing witness. Córdoba, 2007.
Photo 2: Taller Popular de Serigrafía, Where is Julio López?, silkscreen, 2006.
Photo 3: Javier del Olmo, calligrame that forms a silhouette (a common representation of missing people) with the name of Jorge Julio López, 2007.
Photo 4: Hugo Vidal, a wine “López” bottle intervened with a stamp that says “Aparición con vida de Julio” (Appear with life of Julio). The action happens in supermarkets, 2007.