After Pop, We Dematerialize (1967)

by Oscar Masotta

“‘He devoured her with his eyes.’ This sentence and many signs point to the illusion common to both realism and idealism: to know is to eat.”

—Jean-Paul Sartre, “Intentionality: A Fundamental Idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology”


“The idea moving the masses today is called materialism, but dematerialization is the defining characteristic of the epoch. For example: correspondence grows, so the number of letters, the quantity of writing paper, the mass of material consumed expand, until relieved by the telephone. Again, the network and material of supply grow until they are relieved by the radio. Matter diminishes, we dematerialize, sluggish masses of matter are replaced by liberated energy.”

—El Lissitzky, “The Future of the Book”



  1. The Word “Happening” in the Mass Media


We are not a country of happenistas, despite the fact that one of the genre’s founders, Allan Kaprow, referred to Argentines as such a year ago (I don’t remember exactly where: Art News, Artforum?). At that time relatively few happenings had been made in Argentina. Nor were many made afterward: quantitatively speaking, 1966 was not all that fruitful. To be exact, only two happenings took place among us last year. We must neglect to add the following to that number: two “works” of uncertain classification, but whose authors refuse to call happenings; one, whose classification is less uncertain, that was conceived as a literary work and that could undoubtedly be called a happening; and the work of an American artist, Bob Whitman, a film entitled Prune Flat that Marta Minujín brought to Buenos Aires. The film was part of a “work” in which the bodies of three women live on stage served as the screen onto which the film of the bodies of the women was projected.[1]

Still, even if the happenings actually made were very few, the word “happening” spread through the dailies and magazines of Buenos Aires over the course of 1966, from magazines of a certain level of “style” and/or “seriousness,” such as Primera Plana and Confirmado, to pretty lowbrow (sensationalist and with little written information) publications like Así. From dailies such as La Nación and La Prensa to La Razón and El Mundo, and from political articles to humor columns, the word invaded the comic strip and finally reached the billboard. It was a strange phenomenon that, since it didn’t correspond to the facts (that is, to the happenings effectively carried out), appeared to spring from nothing. Nor does it make sense to try to understand it by thinking of the dates, since by the time that a few happenings were actually taking place at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, the phenomenon of the quantitative growth of the word was already quite advanced.

How to explain the phenomenon? There is a sort of explanation that has not appeared in print but is heard around and is, to my mind, rather abominable for two reasons. Firstly, because it is complicit with what the word means within the mass media boom (something irrational and spontaneous, trivial and festive, slightly scandalous). Secondly, because of the ideological charge of an explanation that consists in affirming that Argentine “reality” (I also loathe this sort of use of the word “reality”) is not very serious, and hence the explosion of the word in the press is in some way a positive phenomenon because it somehow represents a becoming aware of our lack of seriousness. Just imagine: the vicissitudes of political power, the circular succession of economic teams. And what of the ridiculous seizing of the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) by an ex-actress and a few young extremists? I would say the answer is nothing. Especially if the point is to make comparisons: Argentina’s domestic and foreign politics are no less serious and more scandalous, nor more serious and less scandalous (perhaps less scandalous) than those of any other Western nation. On the other hand, it would be difficult for Argentines to give ourselves the politics we want. The iron limits of an internal and external economic and social structure determine and decide for us, and without our input, a “reality” that is only ours because it is alien.

In any case, I believe that the explosion of the word can perhaps be explained, or at least understood, via a certain hypothesis that, although no doubt incomplete with regard to the facts it deals with, but at least sensible.

Firstly, in no case do I remember having read the word without it referring in some way to the real facts, that is: that “happenings” are products of a certain type of avant-garde artistic activity. This reference to artistic activity, however vague, indicates a certain relationship, the presence of a certain meaningful distance: it condemns the distance or void that exists between the products of mass information and avant-garde artistic activity.

On one hand, the void signifies the unresolved situation in contemporary culture between the elite and the masses. The slightest consideration, however, reveals a real shortcoming in Argentina: above all, the absence of competent criticism to accompany avant-garde production, especially in the visual arts. I’m referring, concretely, to the lack of written material. The only ones in Buenos Aires who have the information to talk about the most contemporary production (Jorge Romero Brest, Aldo Pellegrini, Germaine Derbeq, Hugo Parpagnoli, Samuel Paz) rarely write for publications other than catalogues, and when they do write for specialized magazines, they are magazines that are not published in Spanish. In one of last year’s issues of Art and Artists, a British magazine edited by Mario Amaya, I remember reading an editorial that discussed the difficulty of distinguishing these days between a journalist and an art critic: the high level of everyday criticism makes the distinction difficult. In this regard, alas, Argentina is not England, or the United States, or France. On the contrary, in addition to the lack of specialized criticism in Argentina, the everyday criticism is ill-informed and adverse. Primera Plana and Confirmado are no exceptions. The critic here rarely commits himself. He is more interested in displaying information he does not have or has obtained hastily than simply in using the information he does have to aid in the comprehension of the work.

But these reflections do not explain the explosion of the word, which surely would not have occurred without a certain anxiety—let’s call it that—or a certain predisposition on the part of the mass audience. An interesting phenomenon, as I see it, and a positive one, in that it points to the fact that whatever the distance between an aesthetic production intended for an elite audience and a broad audience, that distance is never absolute and there are always some points of contact or some sort of rupture of the distance. Now, it is important to understand also that the spread of the word (and all the mistakes regarding its meaning) is not due to the “ignorance” of the mass audience, since, among other things, journalists, and not the receptors of mass messages, are the ones who compose the messages. That is to say, a certain kind of intellectual laborer who bears the pressure of tensions akin to those borne by his audience, and bears as well the theoretical tensions of the intellectual world and of the environment of artistic production that surrounds him.

We must think, then, about this specific situation. I would say that, in Buenos Aires, one of the coordinates points to the activity of the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, and is indissociable from the crave that this activity could not but provoke in groups that are originally or naturally removed from it. Whatever the value or the judgments passed on the works promoted by the Visual and Audiovisual Arts departments at the Instituto, there is no doubt that they contrast with a certain milieu, the bulk of whose artistic production was created inside the traditional canon. There is no “underground” in Buenos Aires, and in a world in which the artistic production is not very big, the “institutionalized underground” of the Instituto could not but exert pressure on that milieu.

But what is happening in the rest of the “field,” in the majority of the cases? Let us reflect briefly on what is happening in Argentine film. The best films produced among us (works by David José Kohon, Fernando Birri, and Lautaro Murúa) did not go, technically speaking, beyond certain more or less Neorealist aesthetic strategies. And beyond the searches of Manuel Antín with regard to time and the thematic searches of Rodolfo Kuhn, there has been no progress among us towards a Nouvelle Vague cinema, for example, or any major avant-garde propositions. Once the city had been explored as a theme, and once a certain testimonial description had been achieved (Alias Gardelito and Tres veces Ana constitute the best examples),[2] young directors generally filmed rather little. The situation can be explained in large part by the economic difficulties linked to production and the uncertain loan policy enforced by the Instituto Cinematográfico Argentino. But looked at the other way, it would be difficult to say that young directors do not film much solely because of money and financing difficulties. I believe that the current impasse in Argentine cinema expresses, at this level, an aesthetic impasse. To give the matter yet another twist, it is not that young people have nothing to say but that perhaps they are beginning to have a sharp consciousness that tells them that the issue turns, not what is said, or even perhaps on the way in which it is said, but on the characteristics of the “medium” at hand to say it with.

To put it another way, at this moment in the process of contemporary art, at a time marked not only by the appearance of new “genres” of expression, like the happening, but also by the fact that the very idea of “genre” as a limit has come to seem precarious or perishable (theater mixes its techniques with those of film, dance blends with painting, film shows the strong influence of the comic strip), it becomes increasingly impossible to remain indifferent to this small proposition of all avant-garde work or exhibitions (and difficult, likewise, not to take seriously the very idea of avant-garde). The problems of contemporary art reside less in the search for new content than in research of the “media” for the transmission of that content. “Media” here means generally what it means in advertising jargon: the information media (television, film, magazines, and newspapers). And if there is talk now of not concerning oneself with content, it does not mean that avant-garde art is moving toward a new purism or a worse formalism. What is occurring today in the best pieces is that the contents are being fused to the media used to convey them. This concern, then—demonstrated explicitly for the first time by Pop artists—is inseparable from a true sociological concern, that of a new way of returning to “content.”

No filmmaker today could trick himself into thinking that, even if he tried—faithful still to the Neorealist spirit—he could comment on or “show” the social “reality” of a city. He would be too late, because it has already been remarked on again and again by the dailies, newspapers, radio-phonic “works,” television, photo-novels, and advertising. The contemporary artist cannot help but become aware of the appearance of these mass phenomena that in some way throw his own work off kilter. And we already know the tactics contemporary artists have used, and are still using, to respond.

One response has been to propose images that, like Lichtenstein’s, are not “of reality,” but images of images. Another has been a radical reflection on the material characteristics of the aesthetic “medium” that is being worked with. Today, the proposals of an outdated criticism that never tired of issuing pronouncements like “this is painting but that isn’t,” “this is theater and not film,” “this is sculpture and that is not,” are being confronted with the idea of making works with materials and techniques taken from different genres, the idea of an area of aesthetic activity where it is possible to mix both strategies and “media.” In short, the idea of the work of art as “hybrid.”

In summary, the explosion of the word “happening” in the mass media information of Buenos Aires may perhaps be due to reasons that still have to do with issues like aesthetics and the history of the works. They are the result of a certain degree of complication among these types of factors: 1) the lack of serious criticism on an everyday level; 2) the lack of a specialized criticism in specialized publications that could have an influence on everyday criticism; 3) a certain positive restlessness, on behalf of mass audiences, that is only satisfied by an indifferent criticism 4) the need—without the slightest doubt—for the groups producing art to find new aesthetic formulas and problems; 5) the way in which these needs, combined with the existence of an avant-garde production on the level of the visual arts, are projected on individual journalists, that is, those responsible for the explosion of the word.

It is not surprising that the direct, personified, concrete emitters of mass messages effectively constitute the terminal point in a series of chain reactions whose mechanism operates similarly to what psychologists describe as ambivalence: the negative and positive evaluation of the same object. This might be the reason behind that atmosphere, tinged with a slightly spicy air, associated with the idea of sex and parties that has often accompanied the word happening when, beginning last year, it started to appear in print in the dailies and magazines of Buenos Aires.



  1. The Avant-Garde and Works of Mass Information



A cycle of lectures and happenings of mine at the Instituto Di Tella in October and November of 1966[3] links my name to the word happening. Despite the spread of the word in the mass media, I should add that I am not a happenista—in the same way that I am not a musician, or a painter, or a sculptor, or an actor, or a theater director: I have not devoted, nor do I plan to devote, the bulk of my activity or my future to any of those activities. I want to add, moreover, that I do not believe in happenings. Now, I think I should explain what I am saying when I say I do not believe in happenings, but it is difficult. Sometimes the time or place for explaining everything isn’t there. I will say in any case that I do not believe in happenings just as I do not believe in painting and theater. And I can discern in the reader a slightly sarcastic and amused fury that will cause him to exclaim: here we have “an avant-gardiste”! Very well, I will not contradict that. I believe that in art, today, there’s no alternative other than to be of the avant-garde.

The problem arises when one tries to define the avant-garde. Although it is not difficult, I will not attempt that definition here. More than offering definitions, my intention now is to give some account of events and complete that account with a few indications and some reflections. I will say that an avant-garde work must have at least these four properties:

  1. a) that there be recognizable in it a certain susceptibility and a completed information about what is happening at the art-historical level, that is to say, about what is happening in art with regards to what has been done before, and to what one images shouldhappen afterward. In this way, the avant-garde consists in a postulation that states that the work of art exists within a historical sequence of works, and that that sequence is governed by an internal necessity. A passage from Henry Geldzahler expresses this characteristic succinctly: “This is instant art history, art history made so aware of itself that it leaps to get ahead of art.”[4]
  2. b) that it not only open up a new range of aesthetic possibilities (that is—as is commonly said—that it be an “open work”), but that it simultaneously, and radically, negate something. For example: the happening with regard to painting,[5]or the happening with respect to traditional theater.[6]
  3. c) that this relationship of negation (with regard to what the work negates of that which has preceded it) not be whimsical, but that it reveal something fundamental about the very core of what is negated. In this way, the passage through or overcoming of theater or painting by the happening would be a “logical extension”[7] of something already latent in theater or painting, and that demanded to be made manifest.
  4. d) (this point may be the hardest to understand and accept immediately; let us say it is the most polemical) that the work, with its radical negativity, call into question the very limits of the great traditional artistic genres (painting, sculpture, music, etc.). For example: the happening with regard to those traditional genres themselves. According to this characteristic—as I understand it—Picasso never would have belonged to the avant-garde since the “plastic arts” of the twentieth century would have had only one outburst (the only one that effectively stretched the boundaries of the genre): the Dadaism of the second decade of the century (and its “revival” during the mid-1950s with Pop art and French Neorealism, which is, historically, when happenings appeared). In this view, the avant-garde of the century is made up of just a few names: Satie and Cage, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Duchamp and Schwitters, Yves Klein, Allan Kaprow. And one would have to add the name of one Surrealist, René Magritte.

One might reach a hurried conclusion on the basis of these considerations: that today only the happening, this hybrid of genres, is avant-garde. But that is not my conclusion. On the contrary, my position is that there was something within the happening that allowed us to glimpse the possibility of its own negation, and for that reason the avant-garde today is built upon a new type—a new genre—of works. We could call these works “anti-happenings,” but there is a problem in that designation: it makes a completely new aesthetic manifestation depend upon a genre, like the happening, that is no longer new. To get to the point, this new genre of artistic activity, which appeared in Buenos Aires in 1966, already has a name: “Art of Mass Communications Media.”[8] I can attest that it fulfills the basic requirements for describing a field of artistic activity; in other words, that it effectively constitutes an artistic genre. This is confirmed, on the one hand, by its capacity to produce “objects” for aesthetic contemplation and, on the other hand, by the fact that it concretely delimits the “material” with which it is possible to construct a particular and precise kind of work. Just as the “material” of music is a certain sonorous material or the continuum of auditory stimuli, and just as bronze, wood, marble, glass, and new synthetic materials constitute the “material” with which and upon which it is possible to make sculptures, so too the “works of communication” define their own area of “materiality.” The “material” (“immaterial,” “invisible”) with which informational works of this type are made is none other than the processes, the results, the facts, and/or the phenomena of information set off by the mass information media (examples of “media” include: radio, television, dailies, newspapers, magazines, posters “panels,” the comic strip, etc.).[9]



  1. A New Cycle



It was in this spirit and with these ideas in mind that I developed a new cycle, also to be carried out at the Instituto Di Tella, which would comprise (did comprise) a happening, the title of which was El helicóptero (The Helicopter), a communicational work (or “anti-happening”), the title of which was El mensaje fantasma (The Ghost Message), and an explanatory lecture that I called “Nosotros desmaterializamos” (“We Dematerialize”). The purpose is easy to discern: to juxtapose a communicational work and a happening so as to allow for an understanding of the distinctive characteristics of the operations, and of the “materials,” that constitute them. The cycle proposed at the same time an “anti-optical,” anti-visual aesthetic: the idea of constituting “objects,” though with the goal of speaking, not to the eyes, but to the mind. The title of the communicational piece commented on the tension of the search for immaterial materials, for anti-things, if you will. As for the title of the lecture—in which I tried to explain, in a less orderly manner, what I am trying to explain now—I took it from the Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky, from an article of his perspicaciously[10] exhumed in a recent issue of the New Left Review, the journal of the independent English Left. Of all El Lissitzky’s nervous and lucid paragraphs, one in particular fascinated me. It can be read in the epigraph to this essay.



  1. El helicóptero



El helicóptero would serve me, a posteriori, as reference with which to define, through differentiation, what a communicational work is. But I had already understood as well, while planning it, that it could be useful to pit El helicóptero to the happening by the French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel that we had seen here in Buenos Aires that same year, as well as to the ideas that he defends in his book, which was recently translated into Spanish.[11] In a country where, as far as happenings are concerned, deeds are scarce and information abundant, it wasn’t pointless to polemicize at the level of the deeds themselves. The image of the happening that emerged from Lebel’s work, and from his book, was that of a generalized irrationality. Lebel espouses what we could call a quasi-psychedelic ideology that accords pride of place to a set of myths the myths: life, spontaneity, sensory and perceptual participation, liberation from the unconscious, and certainly also the current myth that contemporary consciousness is “bombarded” by information. And Lebel thinks that what contemporary men fear above all is the naked expression of instincts. He would perhaps not be half-wrong if ours was a Victorian society. As I see it, what men of contemporary societies fear, and try to hide, is not the irrationality of the instinct but the rationality of the structure. Besides, all Lebel does in his happenings is to arrange, in sealed-off premises (the theater—cube-shaped, with chairs and the stage at the front—of the Instituto, in sum, the tradicional architectonic box of the traditional theater), a cluttered, disorderly, and simultaneous group of messages (slides, films, live performers, his own talk), to produce a sought-for result: a dark and expressionist image. We could describe Lebel’s happening as follows: a neo-naturalist-expressionist “collage.” But this iconoclast, who favors a shit aesthetic[12] and who thinks simultaneity as disorder, does not for all that abandon the traditional coordinates of the traditional theater. This destroyer of traditional art is nourished by the foundation of that art: the closed, post-Renaissance space. It is indeed true that you need a cube to make us believe that the world is a mess! In sum, without rejecting Lebel’s belligerent attitude—or the conceited air, orgiastic and dark, that surrounds his happenings and his person—it is still worthwhile recalling to what extent violent attitudes are not enough to justify the contradictions and meanderings of certain aesthetic propositions.

It was enough to bring the audience out of the premises of the Instituto to change the aesthetics. El helicóptero turned on its head the idea of simultaneity as disorder: by proposing two situations, simultaneous in time but separated spatially, it showed simultaneity as constitutive of the foundations of communication and language. The image of two or more events taking place simultaneously only conjure up an aesthetic of disorder and “bombardment” if these events take place in the same space. In El helicóptero, there were four explicit intentions:

1) that no member of the audience would be able to directly appropriate the totality of the situation (in the happening, none of the members of the audience could “see” the totality of the events);[13]

2) that clock-time is a function of geographic and spatial distance (El helicóptero was nothing if not a “drawing of timetables,” the planning of a set of departure and arrival times that had to be rigorously obeyed);

3) the simple idea that geography does not signify the same thing, and that the control of time is different depending on whether the space is covered on a wagon, a car, or a plane (the presence of the helicopter, by the same token, connoted the 1930s);

4) to produce and allow a certain, and precise, type of appropriation of the global situation: it could be neither direct nor visual, but had to be mediated by verbal language, by oral communication, face-to-face. Allow me to explain.

The audience was invited to arrive at the Instituto Di Tella at 2pm on July 16 (the cycle had been announced through gacetillas (newsclips), a poster on the windows of the Instituto itself, and through the newsletter that the Instituto sends to its members and to the people involved in the Visual and Audiovisual Arts departments). At the appointed hour, around eighty people[14] had bought their tickets and were in the hall of the Instituto. Six minibuses were waiting outside. In the hall, mixed in with the public, six ushers were giving instructions: the public, the ushers explained, had to gather around the first three buses, or the last three, depending on whether the final number on their entrance ticket was odd or even. The public was likewise told that, henceforward, the schedule would be obeyed rigorously and that the buses would leave from the door of the Instituto at 2:40pm and at 2:45pm. At 2:30pm exactly, everyone had to start filing into the buses.

The buses had different destinations. Three of them were headed to the the Theatrón, a theater situated inside the Galería Americana, on the intersection of Avenida Santa Fé and Pueyrredón.[15] The other three were headed instead to the Anchorena station, a train station of the (now abandoned) línea del bajo, in the Martínez area.[16] Once all the buses were on their way, the ushers gave more instructions, which differed depending on where the buses were headed. The ushers on the buses going to Theatrón they stressed the importance of a strict adherence to the schedule: everyone would be dropped off at the entrance to the Galería, and at 3:25pm exactly the buses would depart again, direction Anchorena. The audience was also told that the departure time of the buses would only be revealed to them once everyone was down below—the Theatrón is a cellar theater—and that everyone would have to collaborate in the effort to vacate the premises and reach the buses waiting for them on the sidewalk of Avenida Santa Fé as quickly as possible. Those going to Anchorena, for their part, were told that, once there, all they had to do was to be on the lookout for two things: 1a) the arrival of the helicopter (it would be carrying the actress Beatriz Matar), which would do numerous “fly-overs” between 4 and 4:05pm; the arrival of the part of the audience that had gone to the Theatrón, but was due to join them in Anchorena. In conceiving the schedule, I had arranged things so that those who went first to the Theatrón would only arrive in Anchorena immediately after, or a bit after,[17] the helicopter fly-overs. That was all. The forty people coming from the Theatrón would not see the helicopter; they’d “be late.” But this “being late” was planned, and that gave the sequence of events its “exceptional” character. In daily life, one is late, either against one’s will, or by accident. Here, instead, being late was a necessity of the planned structure. There were, consequently, two chronological times: the time of the deceived group (which had been told to hurry for “nothing”), and the reverse of that time (the time of my consciousness, which “knew”). All of this created a certain semblance between the happening and some mafia operations, like a bank holdup, for example. With a goal in mind—getting hold of the money—one must trace a strategy of schedules and timetables: one must know what time the employee with the key to the safe arrives; one must find a way to distract a cop, in other words, to create a “gap” in the cop’s constant vigilance; one must orchestrate the coincidence of this “gap” with the hour when the bank has the fewest number of clients.[18]

El helicóptero, for its part, also answered a strategic end: to deny half the audience direct view of the helicopter, so that it would be available only through the oral narrative of those who had seen it. In this way, the happening ended with the constitution of a situation of oral communication: the two sectors of the audience, in a way that was “direct,” “face-to-face,” “reciprocal,” and “in the same space,”[19] communicated to each other what the other had not seen. That was all.


  1. At the Theatrón and at Anchorena: the “Images”



The Theatrón holds no more than a hundred and forty people, and is located on Galería’s lower-level. My plans were for the events there to be confused, disorganized. The audience walked into a completely unlit and dark theater; it was up to each of them to decide whether to stand or sit. Waiting for them in the darkness were Louis Moholo with his drum set and a projectionist with a 16mm projector. There were also two musicians, Telechea and López Tejada, who welcomed the public with the song “Yeh-yeh.” The photographers and the flashes; the Telenoche TV crew; the cables and the spots; the disordered public in the theatre; the shouts of the ushers and of Juan Risuleo;[20] my own shouts telling the photographers to make sure that the light from the spots didn’t illuminate the space for too long: there is in all of this certain replica of Lebel’s aesthetic—a set of simultaneous and juxtaposed messages and tensions, the tortured and tortuous properties of the image that lovers of Expressionism find so appealing. On one of the walls was projected an eight-minute film that accentuated the expressionist image: a figure, completely bound in bandages, twisted and turned violently in an effort to free itself from the ties that bound it (it was a replica, a “citation,” of a film by Claes Oldemburg). Louis Moholo accompanied the figure’s movements with his drum kit. A live figure—similar to the one in the film—cleared a path through the audience, enveloped in darkness, to reach the wall upon which the film was being projected, and once there she started to mirror the contortions of the figure in the film.

What the public “saw,” and the expressionist style of the situation, were the result of what I had planned. But it is not amiss for me to point out here that none of this was much to the point, since I didn’t “believe” in that Expressionism. All I’m trying to say, quite simply, is that the events at the Theatrón were not the entire happening: from the point of view of the totality, what happened at the Theatrón was nothing more than a “differential” with regards to Anchorena.

In Anchorena, the image was open and calm, a bit nostalgic and, to put it briefly, touched with some characteristics specific to Romanticism. This old and abandoned British station: the iron rail of the platform that faces the river like a balcony and invitd one to contemplate the “landscape” on that winter Sunday afternoon; the grey river caressing the slightly damp wood and the iron of the rails covered by the overgrown grass. The cold, the separation of the bodies, the open space: everything invited reflection, contemplation, recollection. An atmosphere—it seemed even to me when I reached Anchorena—reminiscent, in part at least, of a short story by Borges, or by Beatriz Guido, or, maybe, by Eduardo Mallea …

But wasn’t the contrast clear? The opposition between Anchorena and the Theatrón was the same as that between a peaceful past and an anxious present, or between an open space and a space framed by four walls. And, maybe, it was akin as well to the opposition between Romanticism and Expressionism, and to the way that the open space of the sky (which takes on meaning due to the expected arrival of the helicopter) is the opposite of a closed, underground space (where nothing is expected since everything arrives before anything can be expected).

Another opposition (or, it could be better to say, paraphrasing linguists: another pairing of opposites): in Anchorena, Beatriz Matar literally “flew over” the audience waiting down below; in the Theatrón, conversely, the members of the audience found themselves in a confined space in which the distance between bodies was unlikely. The public, open space of Anchorena was the polar opposite of the equally public, but promiscuous and more bodily awkward, space of the Theatrón. The idea of promiscuity and corporeal proximity links up to the idea of sex, and that was commented on in the first minute of the film projected on the wall: a slow travelling shot inside a bathroom ends with a close-up of a detail of a toilet. This close-up was at the same time clearly a pairing with the helicopter: this opposition defined the basic coordinates of the happening. Tension upwards, towards the sky, in one; tension downwards, towards the lower-level and the toilet, in the other.

Another pairing: if the Theatrón is situated in the “North” (speaking here from the standpoint of its socio-economic “brand” as an upscale area), the Galería itself and the corner of Pueyrredón and Santa Fé (bars, shops) are transit areas—commercial, but “popular,” two characteristics that evidently “neutralize” its “brand” status .[21] Anchorena, conversely, preserves its brand status: situated on the “cordón verde” (green belt) of the “Zona Norte,” residential area north of the city, it clearly denotes its upper-middle class status. It could thus be said that, within this relation, only Anchorena was situated in the north, while the Theatrón was instead situation south of that north. This relativization of geographic spaces allowed Anchorena to have an absolute definition of its geographic position, whereas the Theatrón was allowed only a relative definition. During the happening, the very words “Anchorena” and “Theatrón”—and this due to the characteristics specific to those two places—composed a connotative field constituted as follows: Theatrón : Anchorena :: neutral status : high status :: no-North : North :: relative : absolute.

But what does all this mean? Primarily, that every “punctual” commentary, that is, that each and every image or object in El helicóptero would be wrong. The expressionist images of the Theatrón could not be judged or understood on their own: they had to be thought in relation to the images at Anchorena, which they were not. Presences—that is, the perceptible and visible objects present—only gained sense (like the phonemes of a linguistic message) within a code and, consequently, in relation to absences (for example: the meaning of what was happening at the Theatrón was in Anchorena, and vice-versa). In short, to understand it was necessary to substitute.[22]

Let us return to our pairs, or binaries. On the one hand, it could be said that they don’t have the same logical consistency, and that they don’t all belong to the same level. On the other hand, simply to accept that the objects and images were nothing more than “fragments” and “differentials,” and that they thereby sketched an ample group of relations, doesn’t gain us much. An organized group of relations, regardless of how “strong” the structure that groups them may be, cannot account for itself, nor can it immediately account for the meaning of a message. My point is that it is only after one has glimpsed the code that it becomes possible to describe the message. Knowing a code, however, is not the same as deciphering a message. Put differently: what was the signification of El helicóptero? What did it signify, as a message?

Let us answer the first question. To do so, that is to say, to introduce a certain order into the disorder, it might prove useful to apply a rule suggested by Lévi-Strauss when it is a question of making sense of a myth through an analysis of its structure: “to isolate and compare the various levels on which the myth evolves: geographic, economic, sociological, cosmological—each one of these levels, together with the symbolism proper to it, being seen as a transformation of an underlying logical structure common to all of them.”[23]


The levels of analysis in our case would be these:

  1. a) cosmological
  2. b) economic
  3. c) socio-economic
  4. d) historical (the level of technical development)
  5. e) cultural (styles or aesthetics)


  1. a) Sky/Lower level


  1. b) Residential/Commercial


  1. c) Middle-class/Neutral status


  1. d) Helicopter/Toilet


  1. e) Romanticism/Expressionism


NOTE>> see here Graph No. 1

It is obvious that the logical consistency of the pairs is not the same. But it is thanks to that, and not in spite of it, that the happening signifies, that it expresses a meaning. Allow me to explain. If we compare the pair of opposites—sky/lower level and helicopter/toilet—we notice that the first pair is stronger. It is quite clear that the sky and lower level are opposites, in the same way as top and bottom are opposites: the members of the pair are each the polar opposite of the other. The same cannot be immediately said of helicopter/toilet, except for the fact that the pair also contains top and bottom as its foundation. But why a helicopter and not two-engine aircraft? And assume I had chosen a two-engine aircraft, why should I have chosen that and not a jet?[24]

Well, the questions just raised are fundamental, because they convert the helicopter into a “differential”: they define it by what it is not. By the same token, the helicopter provided a way for me to “think” the sky: given the differences between the three types of aircrafts (in terms of how fast, and how high, they can go), we could say that the helicopter belongs to the “low heavens,”[25] while jet propulsion airplanes belong to the “high heavens.” And since there are, in turn, differences between jet propulsion and propeller planes, we could say, even more specifically, that the helicopter is a machine that belongs to the “first low heavens.” In other words, the helicopter “divided” the sky and, in so doing, it acted retroactively on our first cosmological level, if I can put it that way.

Simultaneously, as an autogiro, the helicopter constitutes one pole of another opposition: at the other end of that pole are those airplanes that are not autogiros. But doesn’t this other opposition bring to the fore yet another characteristic of the “first low heavens”? It does, namely the fact that, to reach it, and to come down from it, there’s no need for runways or airports. Similarly, Santa Fé and Pueyrredón, or Anchorena, or indeed any place whatever, are all suitable places to navigate by helicopter, something which we can express as follows: the helicopter rendered Santa Fé and Pueyrredón homologous with Anchorena, that is to say, it neutralized the status relation. Here we see, again, how a (historico-technological) level acts retroactively on another level (the socio-economic).[26]

NOTE>> see here Graph No. 2

“A” represents the moment, before the departure of the minibuses, in the hall of the Instituto Di Tella: it was in that situation that the audience was constituted into a group. “B” indicates the moment when the buses leave and, hence, the beginning of a time when the audience is split in two. “C” indicates the arrival of the helicopter (at 4pm, seen only by half the audience). “D” indicates the arrival of the Theatrón audience at Anchorena. “E” indicates the end of the happening (the audience was told to return to the buses, and these took everyone back to the Di Tella). The graph above shows that the start and the end of the happening (segments “AB” and “DE”) are not symmetrical, even though they are similar, since in them the group was not split. These segments, consequently, are opposites of the time when the group was split (segment “BD”). However, “AB” and “CD” differ and are opposed, since in the former the group lacked a common experience, while in the latter it did have some sort of common experience. What was common about that experience was entirely verbal. This final situation of “verbal communication” was a function of two different “real” experiences. Could we not say then—even if it would be slightly pedantic, maybe even banal—that El helicóptero was like a “primitive tale,” or like a myth? [27] And that its myth was none other than the myth of the origin and functions of verbal language? The origin: to relate to the other what the other could not see so that he may tell us what we, in turn, could not see. The functions: to constitute, through the reciprocity of the narratives, the history of the group, that is, its unifying memory, and consequently the group itself as a social unit. We could say, then, that the “theme” of El helicóptero is the origin and the functions of oral communication. But what was its meaning, its signification? I understand that there are at least as many readings of it as the levels of analysis that we established to organize the oppositions. Considering the theme as the empty scheme, and superimposing upon it the schemes that correspond to the cosmological, economic, socio-economic, historical, and cultural levels, we could generate a variety of interpretations, all of which would be, to my eyes, valid. In “the symbolism proper to it,” each level would allow for the symbolism proper to each of the other levels to “resonate” within it. In this way, one could generate, from a cosmological perspective, the following propositions:

By splitting the audience, the happening established a certain direction (before and after the destination points) between the part of the audience that had been at the lower level of the Galería and the sector that had been referred, or turned, towards the sky.

It will be said that the scheme is, for all that, still a fairly empty. But don’t the significations, symbols, and oppositions “resonate” in the words used? Think about it: in the word “sky,” the helicopter as sign of the “first middle heaven”; in the expression, “destination points,” the difference between the Theatrón (without “brand” status) and Anchorena (with “brand” status). In this way, and from a socio-economic perspective, one could generate still more propositions, charged with resonances that are not (or are less) empty, but full of moral and/or ideological connotations:

El helicóptero was both a commentary on, and a beginning of, the very group that constituted its audience. This commentary (a bit sarcastic, a bit mocking) obliged the group to trace a directional scheme similar, or analogous (“iconographic”), to the tensions over status that defines the individuals of the class. The directional scheme (from the Theatrón to Anchorena, and not the other way around) showed the group in the process of being unified and finally reaching its unity, in a trajectory that went from bottom to top, from the “toilet” to the helicopter … The helicopter, a machine of the “first middle heavens,” as an autogiro, filled a certain function as a symbol for the neutralization of the reality of status: according to this function, the Zona Norte—defined by its status as residential—symbolically lost its status. In this way, one can foresee, and it must be said, that at the end of the happening the group regained the unity of its history and its unity as a group through certain contents, communicated orally, that are in some way contiguous with an (ideological) system of contradictory propositions.

These explanatory reflections are, in any case, incomplete. What does the opposition, Romanticism-Expressionism, mean, for example?[28] On the other hand, how much weight should we give to the socio-economic reading? As for the interpretation offered above: is it anything more than a mere interpretation of entirely relative value given that it manifests quite openly my own ideology? I myself think that it is something more. I am not saying that the entire meaning of the happening can be reduced to the socio-economic reading; what I am saying is that if the entire meaning of the happening is to be seized by one or another interpretation, that interpretation cannot ignore the socio-economic level, it cannot ignore the symbolism it releases, or the meaning that emanates from it.

I am perfectly aware of the fact that a happening cannot be reduced to an oral or written interpretation: to think with words is not the same thing as to think with “things.” That said, a certain verbalization is always possible and always adequate, since the “things” of the concrete social universe cannot but manifest the differences—of form, function, name, utility—between them. Like words, each object (an airplane, a table, a knife, a pipe) outlines its signifying universe: on the one hand it denotes its utility and, on the other, it connotes its status: its hierarchical signification, its value, its “image.”[29] In this way, the object—no matter how seemingly or insignificant—cannot but carry within itself this potential to signify, which reveals this precise rupture between culture and economy that defines contemporary societies. From this perspective—the perspective of the Social Sciences and also of the modern Communication Sciences[30]—global societies cannot be studied without passing through the various systems of connotations found at the bases of social life and myths. Conversely, within this enterprise, happenings were not only possible, but necessary. These aesthetic objects, produced for and by small audiences, and which in each case propose a specific circumscription of the global society, are veritable principles of intelligibility: they section off a concrete portion of social life so as to allow us to explore and understand it. The operations that circumscribe and outline are what make happenings real aesthetic “objects.” Happenings are yet another testimony to the fact that, if the social universe is intelligible (if it is something more than a senseless disorder), it is because “things” and people form between them a tightly-knit web of relations. It was this last point that seemed important to suggest here.




  1. The Ghost Message



My intention, however, was not only to make a happening, but to point out the difference between two genres of works, to exemplify the difference between the happening and “media art.” I wanted to point out at the same time that the idea of making works of the latter type was already present in happenings and that the passage emerged as a “logical extension.”

El helicóptero showed the vocation towards communication of happenings, given that its design (watches, spaces) led to a final situation that required an oral account. One could say that El helicóptero was a communicational work, but a work of oral, not mass, communication. In general, the very field of the happening, because it requires the concrete presence of the people in the audience, coincides with the field of perception, that is to say, with the field of stimuli open to the senses. Whatever the function assigned to the audience,[31] the presence or immediate belonging to the place where the events take place is required. In this way, happenings have emerged as prolongations of “environment-setting works,” of “environment-settings,” in which the aim is to envelop the subjects in the audience in direct media and sensory stimuli (smells, colors, etc.).[32]

And while there is a difference between an environment-setting and a happening, since in the latter the audience can be moved from one place to another, the fact is that both types of works require the quantitative determination of the audience. One could not conceive a happening, for instance, in which no audience was called to “participate” in it: in the final analysis, one cannot imagine a happening without “spectators.” But it is possible to conceive and realize other types of work with that condition (without spectators). The proof is that, unlike happenings and theater works, they can “begin” without the need to gather an audience.

El mensaje fantasma (The Ghost Message) was a good example. The 16th and 17th of July I had posters put up in a central area of Buenos Aires (from 25 de Mayo to Carlos Pellegrini and from Charcas to Lavalle) bearing the following message: “This Poster Will Be Broadcast on TV Channel 11 on July 20.” For July 20, I had purchased (through an advertising agency) two ten-second spots on Channel 11, and when they aired the channel’s announcer said: “This medium announces the appearance of a poster the text of which we are now broadcasting.” A sign appeared simultaneously on the screen on which one could read, in another typeface, the very words printed on the poster: “This Poster Will Be Broadcast on TV Channel 11 on July 20.” Although I would not like to act as the critic of my own work here, I can nevertheless highlight these characteristics:


  1. that the media with which the work was carried out (and this was clearly in line with Pop propositions) was the same as that used in advertising;


  1. that the audience for the work was clearlyundefined, in the sense that, within a mass audience, the actual audience could be anywhere between a handful and a lot of people;[33]


  1. its similarity to certain advertising “works” (with the beginning of an unknown campaign); and its difference from advertising (since there were no future steps, the work revealed its “purposiveness without a purpose”);
  2. that its stated purpose was to invert the usual relationship between the communications media and the communicated content: here, and in a reciprocal and circular way, each medium revealed the presence of the other and its own presence, revealed by the other.


The translation of sections 1, 2, 3, and 6 are by Brian Holmes, and first appeared in Listen, Here, Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s, edited by Inés Katzenstein and Andrea Giunta, and published in 2004 as part of The Museum of Modern Art’s Primary Documents series. Reprinted by permission. The translation of sections 4 and 5 are by Emiliano Battista, who also introduced some changes and corrections to the translation of the other sections.


[1] Detailed information about happenings and works carried out in 1966 can be found in Oscar Masotta et al., Happenings (Buenos Aires: Editorial Jorge Álvarez, 1967).

[2] Both from 1961, by Lautaro Morúa and David José Kohon, respectively. – Ed.

[3] The cycle comprised two lectures and two happenings. Alicia Páez gave one of the lectures, and I performed one of the Happenings, while the other happening was planned and coordinated by a team made up of Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, Oscar Bony, Miguel Ángel Telechea, Pablo Suárez, and Leopoldo Maler.

[4] Henry Geldzahler, participant in the “Symposium on Pop Art,” organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Published in Arts (April 1963), p. 37.

[5] See Allan Kaprow, “Experimental Art,” Art News (March 1962), p. 62.

[6] See Michael Kirby, “The New Theatre,” Tulane Drama Review 10:2 (Winter 1965), p. 15.

[7] See the “definition” of the term “happening” in Words: “the term ‘Happening’ refers to an art form related to the theater, in that it is performed in a given time and space. Its structure and content are a logical extension of ‘Environment.’” Words, exhibition catalogue, Smolin Gallery, 1962.

[8] The creator of the genre is, without a doubt, Roberto Jacoby (see Oscar Masotta et al., Happenings), and that is in its purest form. This genre of works, to my mind, contains within it nothing less than everything one can expect from that which is greatest, most profound, and most revelatory in the art of the coming years and of the present. Marta Minujín’s work with sixty television sets, at the Instituto Di Tella last year, remained hybridized with the idea of “environment-making,” even though the work went beyond it.

[9] I distinguish thus between the “aesthetic object,” the “media” in which the work is made, and its “material.” In order to define precisely the field of works of mass communication, one must not confuse the “media” with the “material” of the work. This distinction brings with it a certain obscurity, but its meaning can be considerably clarified if one thinks of advertising. The “material” with which any campaign works is constituted by the consciousness of the subjects that the campaigned is targeted at: the “material” is then, for example, the so-called “phenomena of persuasion,” or, rather, the “effects.” So the “media” is the instrument for reaching those subjects: “posters,” television, stills. Now, between a work of advertising and a work of mass communication there are, nevertheless, differences with regard to the “aesthetic object.” A commercial can be “beautiful,” and those with modern tastes and sensibilities will easily recognize that. But the “object” of the mass work also has a lot to do with that beauty. What is perceived has more to do with certain effects of intelligibility, which are achieved through certain “transformations” of the usual structures of mass communication. The example of El mensaje fantasma (The Ghost Message), to which we shall turn shortly, may serve to clarify these difficulties.

[10] Perspicaciously because El Lissitzky’s ten pages anticipate by more than thirty years the “thesis” of Marshall McLuhan.

[11] Jean-Jacques Lebel, Le Happening (Paris: Denoël, 1966).

[12] I’m not judging, just describing.

[13] In happenings, idea that the audience would not witness what is “happening” is already old, classic even. In a happening by Thomas Schmidt, in Wuppertal (Germany), the actions took place when the public could not see them. Schmidt was in a room surrounded by buckets of water and other objects, and whenever someone entered the room, the happenista would take a rest. That was his way of indicating that the actions would not be resumed until the observer had left.

[14] From an economic standpoint, the cycle only yielded deficits. The cycle’s total cost (the rental of the helicopter, the costs of shooting an eight-minute film, a twenty-second spot on Canal 11, etc.) exceeded 150,000 pesos. The ticket sales (and the tickets were expensive, 600 pesos each) didn’t cover even a third of the costs. But, from the point of view of the happening itself, eighty people was a sufficient number. The maximum we had foreseen was 200 people. Happenings don’t require large audiences.

[15] The Galería—a sort of shopping mall, not an art gallery—is still there. – Ed.

[16] Martínez is its own municipality, and is located in the northern part of the greater Buenos Aires region. The línea, or tren, del bajo refers to the projected, but eventually abandoned, line between Borges and Delta.– Ed.

[17] The only danger, in fact, regarding the timetable was that the buses coming from the Theatrón would arrive before the helicopter. But the drivers had been instructed not arrive, under any circumstances, before 4:10pm. The helicopter pilot, for his part, had been instructed to stop the fly-overs at exactly 4:05pm, thus ensuring that the helicopter would have completely disappeared from the sky before the arrival of the Theatrón group. But there was one glitch: the travel time between the Instituto and Anchorena had been calculated to be fifty minutes. That was the wrong estimation for a Sunday afternoon! And so the buses coming from the Instituto arrived a mere two minutes before the helicopter, which, for its part, appeared in the sky at 4pm on the dot.

[18] The analogy between the structure of the happening and those of the mafia is Kaprow’s.

[19] These four properties distinguish verbal communication from other forms of communication. See F. Chaig Johnson and George R. Klare, “General Models of Communication Research: A Survey of the Developments of a Decade,” Journal of Communication 11:1 (1961), pp. 13-26. See also Gerhard Maletzke, Psychologie der Massen kommunikation: Theorie und Systematik (Psychology of Mass Communication: Theory and Systematics) (Hamburg: Hans Bredow Institute, 1963).

[20] Juan Risuleo was the coordinator of the cycle.

[21] In linguistics, “neutralization” designates an opposition, pertinent at the level of the code, that loses its relevance in some positions within the message. What results from that loss is called the “archiphoneme.” Barthes says, very nicely, that the archiphoneme expresses the pressure of the syntagm on the system. For our example, we could say, analogically, that the neutralization of the “brand” status expresses the pressure, one, of the real distribution of socio-economic areas and, two, of the exchange phenomena on the nomenclature that designates these same areas.

[22] The “substitution test” is the basic operation of structural linguistics. It consists of substituting a phonic segment within a signifier by another, existing phonic segment in the same language so that the final phonic result evokes a different signification.

[23] Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Story of Asdiwal,” in The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism, ed. Edmund Leach (London and New York: Routledge, 2004 [1967]), p. 1.

[24] It will be said: because that would have been an economic absurdity. Who can rent a jet? But this very impossibility is itself a “differential” and, as such, it signifies. Hence the certain air of economic precarity that has always accompanied happenings and that, as I see it, is not that far removed from questions that we would call aesthetic.

[25] These designations are by Lévi-Strauss, who speaks, for example, in his analysis of myths, of the “high,” or “atmospheric” heavens, which are indicated in the myth through the presence of different types of birds, for instance, of by natural phenomena.

[26] To speak about how one level acts, “retroactively,” on another is, in fact, nothing more than a metaphor. What there is are the relations between the levels. But since our analysis is not complete, the metaphor allows us to indicate the methodological level we are using and to suggest what is the intended result. For similar reasons, we shall speak about “resonances” below.

[27] Not forgetting, however, that there are radical differences between the happening and the myth, and that poses a problem for the analytical model—directly inspired by Lévi-Strauss—we have used here. Indeed, while the myth is a story narrated through the mediation of an already constituted language (that of the community that it is about), the happening does not consist of a verbal narrative, but finds itself rather more on the side of “things” than of the word: it is situated “before” words. The myth is thus an enjambed language, while the happening is a sublanguage, that which enjambs the primary language and that, at the same time, is enjambed by the “work” that that language performs on things.

[28] I’m referring to the romantic “space,” which presupposes an observer capable of constituting the landscape, the totality of a situation, as a spectacle. The space of the battles of Victor Hugo.

[29] I say “image” here in the same way as in advertising one speaks of “brand image” or “imagen de fábrica” (trademark).

[30] With regards to Communication Sciences, see Gerhard Maletzke, Psychologie der Massen kommunikation: Theorie und Systematik.

[31] With respect to the function of audiences in happenings, see Alicia Páez, “El happening y las teorías” (“Happenings and Theories”), in Masotta et al., Happenings.

[32] “The term ‘environment’ refers to an art form that fills an entire room (or outdoor space), surrounding the visitor and consisting of any materials whatsoever, including lights, sounds and colors.” Allan Kaprow, in Words, exhibition catalogue, Smolin Gallery, 1962.

[33] There is actually a tautology here, since leaving the audience undefined is the defining characteristic of the term “mass” in “mass communication.”

Graph No. 1

Graph No. 2