moscow art mag

Moscow Art Magazine, 2006.

By Zanny Begg

La Normalidad (normalisation) was the theme for the third exhibition component of the Ex Argentina project which opened in Buenos Aries at the Palais de Glace on February 14th 2006. Ex Argentina was initiated by Andreas Siekmann and Alice Creischer after the dramatic economic collapse in Argentina in December 2001. They travelled to Buenos Aries in November 2002 to begin an investigation, through artistic methods, of the global and local power relations which precipitated this collapse and its aftermath. Through the exhibition program, and its associated discussions and publications, they hoped to create a geneology of the crisis in Argentina which would help foster a minoritarian and local critique capable of challenging the production of global knowledge on the collapse in Argentina, situating this within a global context.

Andreas Siekmann and Alice Creischer use the analogy of an embedded journalist to describe their approach in Ex Argentina: someone who, in contrast to the investigative journalist, commits to the place and the context from which they are reporting. They arrived during the tumultuous upheavals and street demonstrations of 2002 and through their connection with two local artistic collectives Grupo de Arte Callejero (GAC) and Etcetera immersed themselves in the political events unfolding at that time. They participated in the defence of the occupied clothing factory Bruckman and in the struggles of the piqueteros, assemblies and other expressions of popular counter-power.

Just three years on and the theme for the culminating exhibition of the Ex-Argentina project is normalisation. The government of Nestor Kichner has re-stabilised the Argentinean state, reigning in the scope, if not the actual existence of extra-parliamentary organs of direct democracy and channelling discussions surrounding questions of power and government back through the parliamentary apparatus. The potencia of collective counter-power has retreated and the space it leaves has been filled by the potestas of parliamentary democracy and the state. Of course after a rupture a deep as that of December 2001 this process is not absolute and significant sections of the community remain occupied or under autonomous control. As a small example of this the international artists for the exhibition were housed at a hotel collectively managed and the catalogues were printed at a printing press still occupied by workers. But normalisation sums up a certain feeling of hiatus after the turmoil of economic collapse and social resistance.

La Normalidad involved 45 artists from Europe and Latin America many of whom worked in collaborative projects between the two regions. Andreas Seikmann explained that one of the intentions of the Ex Argentina project was to break down process of “national identification” in international shows. As he explained “people look at the names, look at the country and then they do the configuration – people in Beirut make work about car bombs, people in Brazil make work about favellas, people in Germany make work about Nazi’s etc. We wanted to break up this kind of geopolitical structure, to escape from it.”

One example of how such an escape may be realised is the collaboration between Matthijs de Bruijne (from Holland) and artists from Tucuman Arde ( Argentina). Tucuman Arde (Tucuman is burning) are a group of avant-garde artists, formed in 1967, who hold a legendary status in Argentina for their pioneering attempts to create a counter-discourse in art. They aimed to dissolve barriers between artistic and political action and went to the troubled province of Tucuman to create an archive of images, interviews and other material which documented the crisis unfolding there: they were rewarded for their efforts by sharp police repression. Tucuman Arde disbanded in 1969 and Ex Argentina marks one of their first forays back into the process of making art after years of exile, obscurity and repression under the dictatorship.

Over 30 years since the original archive was created de Bruijne went to Tucuman and took a new series of photographs of the people there, some of whom he had already worked with in a previous project with cartoneros in Buenos Aires. De Bruijne’s 2005 photographs have an eerily similar feel to those taken in the 1960s, both emanate a powerful sense of radical humanism. The social conditions which are clearly apparent in both sets of photos confirms the message in a stencil which has appeared on the streets of Buenos Aries ‘Tucuman sague ardaeno’ ( Tucuman is still burning).

Of course escaping from geopolitical expectations is not about denying geopolitical realities and de Bruijne work is sensitive to his position as an outsider from a relatively more privileged country. The Tucuman Arde archive is displayed on the walls and de Bruijne’s photographs are shown in a revolving slide carousel – each image washed out with a filter which creates a sense of distance from the subject and from the original photographs. De Bruijne also includes two audio recordings, on one a founder of the soup kitchen in Tucuman talks about what living conditions were like there in the 1960s and on the other he explains his own feelings about going to the province. This work is a unique collaboration, across generations and geography, which provides one of the more moving works in the exhibition.

A key theme which underpinned the Ex-Argentina exhibition is the troubled nexus between art making and political praxis. In the upheaval in 2001/2002 this aporia was breached in practice through the participation of art collectives such as Etcetera, Taller Popular de Serigrafiaand GAC in direct political and artistic actions. For example in February 2002 the artists’ popular assembly agreed on a proposal for a ‘mierdazo’ where people carried human and animal shit to parliament for a visual and actual protest against the government. Artist collectives were important contributors to the escrache campaigns (“scratches” a campaign where people who benefited from The Dirty War in Argentina were outed), the piqueteros, the assemblies and defence of the occupied workplaces.

But outside of the framework of a popular uprising (in a period of normalisation) how comfortably do art and politics set together? Can an artistic work which has life within a social struggle maintain its potency inside a museum? What visual language can we create which communicates political ideas? Ex Argentina was not just another “political exhibition” but represents a deeper attempt to build an archive (or geneology) of political struggle which could contribute to the visualisation of the crisis in Argentina. In this sense the exhibition expanded outwards from the museum into the life of the multitude and drew inwards from these struggles in a dynamic and at times unresolved way.

In contrast to other curatorial approaches in political exhibitions, which have tended to rely on documentary footage to provide social context, the curatorial team for Ex Argentina Alice Creischer, Andreas Seikmann, and the three local curator/artists Frederico Zukerfeld, Loreto Garin and Eduardo Molinari, actively encouraged artists who work with video to explore other means of exhibiting their work with several artists transforming elements of video works into stills, wall paintings or objects. When commenting on their curatorial approach Creischer explained that their interest was not in commenting on social situations themselves but where “they transport into art”. This desire to avoid a one to one relationship between content and visual expression opened up a poetic and surrealist vein which ran strongly through the exhibition in works from artists such as Aduardo Molinari and Jugen Stolhans, Sonia Abian and Carlos Piegari and of course the humorous and absurdist work of Etcetera.

This surrealist element was evident in the line of decorated suits made in collaboration between Creischer, Seikmann and the workers of the Bruckman clothing factory. Bruckman is a supplier of luxury suits to business people but has also been occupied and run by workers since its owner fled during the economic crisis. The line of suits swinging gently from a clothing rack, decorated with descriptions of the G8 meetings and the conditions of life for workers at Bruckman, thus creates a telling metaphor of the social and political contradictions evident in Argentina.

The Brazilian art collective Contra File were also able to create a powerful metaphor when their exhibition of a turnstile on a plinth in the city of Sao Paulo touched off national debate which culminated in a storm of media interest and students setting fire to turnstiles outside their universities. This work highlights the potential of artists to find visual symbols which can speak to complex social and political issues (it even created a new word to explain this reality: turnstilism) and was a key work within the exhibition. By drawing on a pattern of social change developed with art critic Brian Holmes Contra File were able to trace the dynamic process from the exhibition of the original work to its dramatic conclusion through a series of photographs and newspaper clippings.

There were two other Brazilian art collectives, Frente 3 de Fevereiro and Grupo Bijari, who were part of Ex Argentina and who also have strong connections to social struggles but in this instance their work lost a little in the transition from the movement into the museum. Frente 3 de Favererio exhibited a massive banner which had been used in an action at a soccer match which read “Where are the Blacks?” and Grupo Bijari exhibited a series of posters and postcards which explored the process of gentrification in a suburb in Sao Paulo. In fairness to these groups, however, this may have been because of the curatorial decision to de-emphasize video as in the panel discussion on Brazil both these groups showed videos which added depth to their work and it seemed a pity that they were not included within the exhibition itself.

For the Russian collective Chto delat?/What is to be done? the transition of their work Sandwhiched from a two screen video projection to a collection of photographic stills was a smooth one. The original work drew on the visual imagery of a protest by showing a group of people wearing placards with their back to the viewer who turn around one by one and reveal the lines from a Bertolt Brecht poem In Praise of Dialectics. This work explores the tensions between subjectivity and collectivity in political protest – each participant both makes an authentic claim “it will not stay the way it is” or “whoever is lost must fight back!” but also fills their preordained place in the stanza of the poem. Sandwiched thus encourages the viewer to identify with the emotional appeal against injustice contained within the poem but also observe, with Brechtian distance, the collective subject presented as capable of changing it.

In the context of this exhibition the transition to photographic stills created a visual dialogue between this work and the Tucuman Arde archive, in both cases the photographs explore communities in conflict and communicate an uncompromising humanism. Tucuman Arde are an avant-garde art collective who sought radical ways of communicating and displaying their works in the 1960s. This tradition is continued, albeit a contemporary context, by groups such as Chto delat?/What is to be done? whose artwork, newspaper project and investigations of urban space such as “Drift ” seek to radically redefine relationships between art, activism, theory and audience.

Whilst video works were de-emphasised in this exhibition cartography was certainly in ascendance with artists such as Andreas Seikmann, CAG, Meine Akademie and Bureau d’Etudes contributing a complex array of mapping projects. In many ways the crisis in Argentina is a metonym for the process of globalisation as a whole both in its limits – the iron fist of the IMF – and its possibilities – the power of the multitude. Perhaps the most defining aspect of globalisation, which is also described as the information age or the communication economy, has been the way it has changed how we conceive of the relationship between time and space. Globalisation has been accompanied by an astonishing feeling of time-space compression – the world feels like it is getting smaller and faster to the point where our idea of space has collapsed into our understanding of time.

Much was made of the transition during the enlightenment from the multi-dimensionality of medieval mapping to the single point perspective of the modern world. What is interesting in the mapping projects of artists such as Bureau d’etudes ( France) is the process back from a single point perspective into a post-modern multidimentiality of time and space. For Ex Argentina Bureau d’etudes made a map of the crisis of 2001 which aimed to contextualise it within the global economy. This ambitious project defies the possibility of a single-point perspective as the map weaves between diverse factors, places and time scales.

Ex Argentina is a densely packed exhibition in the elegant but crumbling halls of the Palais de Glace. Whilst it geneology may be partial (those included those not) is has played a role in rendering visible knowledge about the crisis in Argentina. Alice Creischer explains “in art we don’t discuss the real things… we don’t discuss if the action was good, did it change anything, what we can discuss is methods and self understanding and reflection.” In this sense the exhibition successfully analyised its own methods and encouraged its participants, both artists and viewers, to reflect and understand more deeply the impact of the collapse and subsequent process of normalisation in Argentina and the implications this has for the global economic and political system.