Three Works of Explicit Import

by Inés Katzenstein

Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires

1.

Defining a position, towards the world and oneself, has been one of the more permanent, and coarse, obssessions of Argentinian art. As Luis Felipe Noé puts it, the issue has hung like ‘the sword of Democles over the head of every artist in this part of the world’.[1] Referring to the regional dimension in Latin-American art, Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera writes: ‘Latin America has not cured itself of its identity neurosis.”[2] There are multiple alternatives to this self-definition, but the most extreme of them, simply by virtue of the polemic they generate, are the ones that succeed in putting the item on the agenda time and again: either an openness to the world through a relationship of fluid dialogue with the “outside,” or a celebration of specificity in search for our own authentic language.

In our globalized contemporaneity, these positions not only persist, but are pushed to extremes, regardless of how hackneyed they sound. In either case, we need to examine the political dimensions of those positions. The dominant logic today is based on the open circulation of information—a reticular logic of immediacy capable of dissolving the abysses that yesterday kept the borders of national cultures in place and clearly defined—, and this means that the play of forces between the two arguments has changed radically. What I would like to suggest is that, perhaps, the most progressive voices today are not necessarily those that defend an internationalist argument and the existence of a global zeitgeist. On this issue, Suely Rolnik writes: “it was clear by then that, in order to respond to industrial capitalism (with its disciplinary society and its identitarian logic), it was necessary to oppose a fluid, flexible, and hybrid logic that had been appropriated from the 1960s and 70s. It has now become a mistake to take the latter as a value in itself—since it came to constitute the dominant logic of neoliberalism and its society of control.”[3] We know that, even if the dynamics of cultural exchanges have intensified and diversified exponentially, the circuits of exchange remain strongly conditioned by power structures that determine valuation of certain languages and the exclusion of others, and also that these power structures imply, more importantly, differing levels of access to the resources needed to produce and maintain the vital cultural practice of artists, and to develop powerful and sustainable institutional structures. We know as well that, in the last decades, the dominance of a transnational imaginary has actualized certain emphases—nationalist, localist, protectionist—that function as a counterweight against the conception promoted by globalization of a generic, consumerist, and de-territorialized culture. Against this background, the integration of art and context, production and dwelling, advanced by these arguments has acquired a new relevance.

Despite the changes brought about over the past twenty years thanks access to the internet, the free circulation of capital, the lower price of travel, and the intensification of migrations, the relation Argentinean artists entertain to external referents (which they influence through lectures, images, and ideas), remains, as a general rule, beset by guilt. Except for those periods when one’s training and formation as an artist or intellectual was explicitly based on learning to handle and appropriate from a foreign culture, the importance of external referents has tended to disappear from the discourse of the artist, as if they had become taboo. Nothing is considered lower than the art based on the acritical mimesis of foreign models, something the Argentinean artist Kenneth Kemble defined in 1968 as the ‘dictatorship of the tardy fad”:[4] the artist who imports, traffics, or repeats continues to be regarded as synonymous with inauthenticity, speculation, and mediocrity.

We have not had our Oswald de Andrade in Argentina. And although we did have Borges—who makes the case for the right of Argentineans to the entire Western tradition in his famous essay, “The Argentinean Writer and the Tradition”—his ideas don’t seem to have had an impact on the guilt I just mentioned, perhaps because, in contrast to Andrade, Borges assumes a position that pretends to dissolve the political drama implicit in the problem of nationality and influence by defining it as nothing more than a mistake.

That said, what I would like to do here is present three works by Argentinean artists based on the sacrilegious practice of working by repeating foreign model. These are three works that, at the outset, present themselves as politically incorrect: Oscar Masotta’s cover of multiple Happenings; Marta Minujín’s explicit cultural import; and a simulated international filiation by Leopoldo Estol and Diego Bianchi. By analyzing the temporalities implicit to each of these cases, we shall be able to distinguish between procedures that are based on the acritical enthrallment for the other, and those that use repetition as a procedure that, paradoxically, enables both self-definition and critical resistance.[5]

We are at the heart of the happening boom in Buenos Aires, in 1967. Jean François Lebel had recently visited Buenos Aires and talked about the topic at the Instituto Di Tella. Marta Minujín had already organized a few happenings, like the ambitious Simultaneidad en Simultaneidad (Simultaneity in Simultaneity), which consisted not only of sixty TV monitors projecting back to the public its own image, but also of simultaneous live actions from an Allan Kaprow happening in New York and another from Volf Vostell in Berlin, both of which had been scheduled to coincide with Minujín’s. Also, a group of artists with links to theory had organized a false happening to provoke repercussion in the press and thus give entity to the work as a new “art of communication media” capable both of showing the obsolescence of the ritualism inherent to the acción happenista, and of signaling a new and uninhibited definition of the artist as a mediatic operator of his or her own image. In the midst of this boom we find Oscar Masotta, a fundamental figure of the 1960s in Argentina: a brilliant theoretician, a pioneer of the concept of the “dematerialization” of art in the 60s, and, later, a key figure in the introduction of Lacanianism to the Spanish-speaking world, Argentina and Spain in particular. What was Oscar Masotta doing at the Instituto Di Tella?

After writing a book about Roberto Arlt and publishing an essay about Pop Art, Masotta, who had a marginal relation to the university institution, befriended some of the younger, and more intellectually-inclined, artists then working at the Instituto Di Tella. He became their interlocutor as well as an influential and heterodox art critic.

To put it in the briefest of terms: Masotta theorized about, and against, happenings (he distrusted the role of the auratic and ritual presence of bodies in them), and he proposed instead a more contemporary way of working, one that consists of using communication media itself as the object, and material, of the work. But to artistically improve the happening (improve is Masotta’s word), it had to be installed, deployed, in the local scene through the concrete existence of the happening as a material of study.

“The more information we gathered,” Masotta writes, “the stronger grew the impression that the possibilities—and ideas—had been exhausted. The idea not to do an original Happening, then, and instead collect various Happenings that had already happened into one Happening suddenly seemed more important to us.” Masotta wanted to put himself “beyond” or “after” the happening as a historically closed genre. “We would be didactic,” he says.[6] The didactic part consisted of the production of a cycle that would include two conferences, a happening by Masotta himself, another by the architect Mario Gandelsonas, and the montage of a series of successive Happenings entitled About Happenings. This is the work I want to present here as the first case of “import.”

Since what interested Masotta were the circuits of communication (more on a semiotic than a geopolitical key), he decided to work using the information about the genre that he had at hand: the script for Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, which had been published in the magazine Some/Thing, in New York; the description of a happening by Claes Oldenburg, whose title Masotta did not know, but which he had read about in Art News; an account, published in Michael Kirby’s Happenings, of Oldenburg’s Autobodys; and, lastly, a description of a happening by Kirby, title also unknown, but which Masotta had seen during a trip to New York. As is well known, this sort of relation to works—mediated by photos and accounts published in languages one has no command of (Masotta didn’t speak or read English)—is one of the most decisive sources influencing and shaping Argentinean, and indeed Latin American, art. That is why Ricardo Piglia talks about Argentinean culture as a ‘second hand’ culture.[7] But, if in general the relation to these sources is experienced as an embarrassing scene, and consequently hidden, in this case the literal repetition of works known only through spurious sources constitutes itself publicly, and for the first time, as a type of art—an art of media—that manifests the historical overcoming of the arts based on the immediacy of contacts. While “the Happening is an art of the immediate,” the art of “mass media” is an “art of mediations, given that mass communication implies spatial distance between those who receive and the things themselves, the objects, situations, or events to which the information refers.”[8]

With a group of artists,[9] Masotta decided to combine all the happenings he read about and assemble them into a single Happening—a sort of anticipation of postmodern pastiche or, as Masotta himself defines it, as a “colony of Happenings and a history of the Happening.”[10] The succession of Happenings took place at the Institute Di Tella to an audience of two hundred people while a voice over the loudspeaker could be heard saying “that it didn’t believe much in Happenings, that the genre was dead or out of date.” Masotta explains that they were excited “by the idea of an artistic activity put onto the ‘media’ and not onto things, information about events and not the events themselves.”[11] The repetition, based on the information, is the work.

2.

Marta Minujín’s Importanción-Exportación. Lo más en onda (Import-Export: What’s Really Hip) is the height of treachery in what concerns the traffic of information from the center to the periphery: the aim of the project is a cultural actualization and the establishment of a fad (in the case, hippism) hailing from the US. The export phase of the work never took place. The text that presents the work says: “Information obliges us to adopt actions, ideas, and fads in total disregard to their nationality. The economic factor (country of origin) does not confer nationality onto the product. Importing is an interpretation of the materiality of information.”[12]

With funds she received from the Institute Di Tella, Marta Minujín brought back from the US all the hippie paraphernalia she could find. In a first room, the public came across a pair of glasses that distorted reality into surprising specters; on the floor were painted fluorescent flowers and arabesques that shone under a black light. There was smoke, colored lights, strange smells, psychedelic music, and Hare Krishna chants. In a second room there were strobe lights, as well as projections of homemade slides and of short films by Gerard Malanga, Ira Schneider, and Yud Yakult. Lastly, Minujín set up a stand, operated by underage kids who had been recruited via an ad in the paper, that sold hippie products.

In a classic trade operation between North and South mobilized by the artist as agent who retributes her context of origin with upgrading, Minujín wanted to bring to Buenos Aires all the elements that constituted the psychedelic experience she had discovered in the US. It isn’t as if there were no hippies in Buenos Aires before 1967, but it’s certainly true that there weren’t many. The setting was supposed to influence young people, to promote, simultaneously, an altered vision and peaceful, laid back ambiance in order to mobilize the porteño, who had to get with ‘what’s hip’.

As I see it, the most radical aspect of this work is the substitution of the artistic object for the presence, in the artistic space, of a social group. And even if the rhetoric of the piece was more semiotic than relational, what the work proposed was a sociological art that presented youth culture as a new, vital paradigm and as a consumer niche. We should recall that this work took place in a context in which there is an enormous interest in the social transformations that were taking place as a result of the emergence of a mass society: new ways of dressing, new ways of behaving, new habits. The intention, in this sense, was to make the relation between the public and the imported information (in this instance, the young and hippism) the work. As Roberto Jacoby, a colleague of Minujín’s in Argentina, wrote that same year: “art and life have become so confused as to become inseparable. All of the phenomena of social life have been converted into aesthetic material: fashion, manufacturing, and technology, the media of mass communication, etc. ‘Aesthetic contemplation came to an end because the aesthetic go dissolved in social life.’”[13]

Insofar as Import-Export sets as its objective a cultural actualization, it adds a new level of political complexity to the social and relational question. The text that follows the work’s title (“Information obliges us to adopt actions, ideas, and fads in total disregard to their nationality”) announces that national borders had been eclipsed as designators of the origin of “products.” It does so, one imagines, simply to distance the act of importing from the geopolitical map and thus to dismiss, at the outset, any suspicion of cultural imperialism. What is posited, then, is a proto-globalization scheme in which nationality does not matter. All that said, I think the failure of the export phase of the work is a clear demonstration of the fact that what the work announces is false.

The work’s temporal scheme is evident, and the mimetic intention complete. Importing corrects underdevelopment. As in the classic modernizing narrative, the future arrives from the North.

3.

Lastly, I want to discuss is La Escuelita Thomas Hirschhorn (The Thomas Hirschhorn School House), a work co-authored by Diego Bianchi and Leopoldo Estol that took place at the Belleza y Felicidad Gallery in Buenos Aires in 2005. A first and essential piece of information necessary to analyze this piece is to mention that it was conceived as a direct response to reviews that had tacitly suggested that these two artists were copying, in their work, the precarious and excessive aesthetic and the expansive installations of the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, who had come to be known in Buenos Aires as a result of a large installation (Critical Laboratory) at the Malba Museum. Faced with this accusation, Bianchi and Estol decided to exaggerate the influence and make a work in which Hirschhorn would be used both as the style and as the explicit titular figure. La Escuelita Thomas Hirschhorn, consequently, brings the ghost in question into the open and places it before everyone. As in the tributes to philosophers and writers that permeate Hirschhorn’s work,[14] Bianchi and Estol use the Swiss artist as a sort of DNA for the work: Hirschhorn is present not just in the title and poster, but also in the very character of the installation, where his presence can be identified in the themes (over-information, hyper-connectivity) and in the formal strategies (excess, precarious constructions that rely on wrapping tape and aluminum foil, spatial expansion).

Prior to this, Estol and Bianchi had been making installations using materials deriving from the dysfunctional urban situations that had emerged in Buenos Aires in the wake of the crisis at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. In this sense, the installation at Belleza y Felicidad was just as much the result of an act of outrageous juvenile cannibalism as a deepening of their field research.

For La Escuelita, Estol and Bianchi subdivided the gallery into a series of very tiny but interconnected spaces designed for a variety of real uses: cavern, classroom, drugstore, cybercafé, mini-disco floor, library, gazebo, patio. Parties and classes were organized in the cavernous spaces they produced.[15] The use of a relatively small space for multiple, and in some senses irreconcilable, ends was a direct reference to the multi-functional spaces that were popping up then, like the convenience store-cum cybercafé-cum bar. The emphasis on parties, for its part, underlined a particular moment in the city: because of an accident at a disco that had left almost two hundred people dead, Buenos Aires saw the emergence of hundreds of places to go out dancing, with parties going underground.[16]

For Diego Bianchi, the idea was to use “Hirschhorn as franchising.”[17] For Leopoldo Estol, it was a project “with an ambiguous authorship, and the local public is very reticent about that. The public here is always paranoid, always worried that it is being taken for a ride: the classic commentary is, ‘they’re just copying that from foreign magazines.’”[18]

But the most interesting thing about La Escuelita is that, in it, Thomas Hirshhorn functioned as a toolbox with which to radicalize the observations that the artists were putting forward about their own context: Argentina in the wake of the crisis, consumed as it was by issues of provisionality, precarity, and compensation. Hirschhorn could declare, in Paris: “I love the power of forms made in urgency and necessity”; and he could as well include in each of his shows posters that said: Quality, no! Energy, yes!.[19] But it was in Buenos Aires that these premises found their most fertile context.

Identification becomes an occasion to learn from Hirschhorn, who is constituted into the fictional father of the duo of artists because of his capacity to dissolve the tension between a political art and an art anchored in the formal, a division that exacted a heavy price from Argentinean art, which is those years was transitioning from the eminently aestheticist paradigm that governed art in the 1990s to the militant art of new artistic collectives that were working in relation to the crisis.

In this sense, La Escuelita is, like About Happenings, a pedagogical work (a work-school) that uses the model to underscore a preexisting local situation and to redirect attention from the outside to the inside.

4.

The differences among these works are essentially manifest in the different models of temporality implicit to each: Minujín aspires to a classic movement of actualization; in Masotta, the aim is to provoke a gesture of anticipation with regards to the model, achieved through a copy that establishes a new genre that “overcomes” the model; Bianchi-Estol, for their part, create a situation of synchronicity with the model.

But we see that, in these three cases, the explicit, scandalous mimesis of a foreign referent is a strategy to create a polemic with the local scene through a questioning of two ideas: the notion of a heroic origin and a passive repercussion, and the idea of ex nihilo invention. They are all, to borrow Hal Foster’s expression, anti-foundational works that invoke the original/copy convention only to shatter it. They are brazen examples of what Gerardo Mosquera defines as “the paradoxical anti-colonial resistance that Latin-American culture expresses through its inclination to copy.”[20] And they lay bare, publicly, the scene that tends to remain hidden: repetition as the radical demonstration of the connection between scenes. They are Argentinean examples of an anthropophagic approximation, of an “opening to the Other, the elsewhere, and the beyond.”[21]

  • 1. Luis Felipe Noé, “El arte en América Latina necesita pasaporte?” (1988), in Noescritos sobre eso que se llama arte (1996-2006) (Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo Editora, 2007), p. 281.
  • 2. Gerardo Mosquera, “Contra el arte latinoamericano’, available here: http://servidor.esteticas.unam.mx/edartedal/PDF/Oaxaca/complets/mosquera_oaxaca.pdf
  • 3. Suely Rolnik, “Avoiding False Problems: Politics of the Fluid, Hybrid, and Flexible,” trans. Rodrigo Nunes. Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/25/67892/avoiding-false-problems-politics-of-the-fluid-hybrid-and-flexible/
  • 4. Kenneth Kemble, “Ideas para un examen de conciencia sobre el proceso creativo en nuestras artes plásticas,” in Escritos, Kenneth Kemble, ed. Justo Pastor Mellado (Buenos Aires: JK, 2012), p. X.
  • 5. We should perhaps make clear that this term, import, alludes to an artistic system organized according to national schemes in which the circulation of information crosses concrete borders. The rupture of this system would have us think about the obsolescence of a term that, nevertheless, survives in the language of artists, either as a result of inertia or of a situation of reaction.
  • 6. Oscar Masotta and Eduardo Costa, “On Happenings, Happening: Reflections and Accounts” (1967), in Listen, Here, Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde, ed. Inés Katzenstein (New York: MoMA, 2004), p. 201 & 202, respectively.
  • 7. Ricardo Piglia, “Notas sobre Facundo,” in Punta de Vista 3, no. 8 (March-June), 1980.
  • 8. Oscar Masotta, “Prologue to Happenings” (1967), in Listen, Here, Now!, p. 181.
  • 9. The artists who participated are Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, Miguel Angel Telechea, Oscar Bony, and Leopoldo Maler.
  • 10. Masotta and Costa, “On Happenings, Happening,” p. 202.
  • 11. Masotta and Costa, “On Happenings, Happening,” p. 205 & 202, respectively.
  • 12. Brochure of the exhibition at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, 1968. Archive of the ITDT, Library of the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella.
  • 13. Roberto Jacoby, “Message in the Di Tella,” in Listen, Here, Now!, p. 290.
  • 14. Thomas Hirschhorn once said: “I want to work as a fan,” and also, “I want to connect my brain to this Foucault battery.” See “Thomas Hirschhorn: Philosophical Battery,” available at: https://www.papercoffin.com/writing/articles/hirschhorn.html
  • 15. The classes on offer were: “Marxism,” with Roberto Jacoby; “Improvisation,” with Fernanda Laguna; “Damage Reduction,” with Andrés Schteingart; “Photography,” with Miguel Mitlag; and “Work Clinic,” with Eduardo Navarro.
  • 16. These came to be known as “post-Cromagnon spaces. República de Cromagnon was the name of the disco where the tragedy that left 194 people dead and thousands injured happened late in 2004.
  • 17. Diego Bianchi, in an email to the author, 2010.
  • 18. Leopoldo Estol, in an email to the author, 2010.
  • 19. For both, see “Thomas Hirschhorn: Philosophical Battery.”
  • 20. Mosquera, “Contra el arte latinoamericano.”
  • 21. Manuela Carneiro da Costa and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, cited in Rolnik, “Avoiding False Problems.”