Where Are We Going, and Why? (Shooting Notes)

by Andrea Valdés

“Maybe tomorrow, when we’ll be impatiently thinking about the day after tomorrow, we’ll know. We go to the Colón Theater, to the Opera, the to Palacio de los Deportes, to the Olimpia Londinense, to Covent Garden, to the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, we see Boca play River, we learn from the seals at the zoo. We’ll have fun, kill time or let it kill us with an orange pip, we shuffle in our seats, we pay to be subjected to unjust aggression, to have a premeditated desire to laugh, cry, jump, eat some Laponian food or chocolate with almonds, yawn, stay frozen in place, or exalted, but, most importantly, we don’t miss the date. Out of curiosity, our friends the Greeks, and the Romans too, and all the generations that have preceded us, would go to see what was happening at such and such a place or in such and such a time, that is to say, a spectacle organized, by one or many people, who confessed publicly so as to be judged under various avatars. But what one is only half-conscious of are the spectacles that are not organized, the ones that exist on their own and are part of daily life, living cells that nourish the organized spectacles and that oblige us to be spectators and actors at one and the same time.

Society has invented a lot of disturbing things, but these are in their own way useful and they fulfill their ‘social’ function: it invented those big boxes called theatres, within which things happen. It gives you pause to think that, sometimes, we leave an organized spectacle and, later, on the street, we come upon a manifestation of orangutans that excites us a lot more than the theatrical function: the spectacle has taken place outside, and not inside, a box. (…) When we hear an actor read lines he has learned by heart for the umpteenth time, we think—and this does not require a prodigious imagination—that there is a false note in there somewhere, and so we end up not listening to the text but to how the actor declaims it, or we attend to how he moves. What is more, the text isn’t his, but a writer’s. The logical thing, then, would be for the writer to play it on the stage, either solo or accompanied by the rest of the cast, which in their turn try to express the ideas of someone else. The world of interpreters/performers is a fading a testament to another era.”[1]

These lines were written over forty years ago, and their author now asks me if she put on too much make-up. Her name is Graciela Martínez and I invite her to sit down while the others around us change between vast numbers of plastic chairs.

1.

It’s nine in the morning in Buenos Aires. It’s a Thursday and I’m on the second floor of a luminous building with dirty windows. The first time I came I had a hard time finding the entrance to the building. I walked in front of it twice before realizing that I had to walk through a shop to reach the lobby. One of the façades faces a train station. The other faces a vacant lot where there are many vegetable plots, an improvised garage, and an abandoned train car. The building isn’t very old, but it looks a bit as if it’s abandoned. Maybe it was the scene of a mass eviction, though there are still signs of activity inside: handwritten signs and doors secured, incongruously, using bike locks, plaques indicating someone’s office. On the—generous—stairwell there are people going up and coming down. I don’t know any of them.

When Dora García invited me to take some notes about her latest project, I accepted immediately, since I knew that it turned around Oscar Masotta, a figure who had by then already caught my interest, but I’ll explain that later. It’s still early and in the building on Lacroze Street the ashtrays are on the verge of overflowing with butts. Maybe that’s what conjures up for me a second ghost, Julio Cortázar’s, who was himself an inveterate smoker, like Masotta. One of Cortázar’s short stories is being filmed today. From what I know from an earlier conversation, what links the short story to the rest of the project is the notion of repetition and its echoes in literature and psychoanalysis.

Dora García is not an artist of intermediate ambitions. So as not to lose myself, I always associate her with keywords, like the tabs that appear on the website of a project that allows multiple entry points and possible deviations. That always happens with her. There are videos, images, and texts that refer to a specific universe. Kaprow, Agamben, Debord … Here, documentation is treated in the exact same way as any other element. We see that in the leaflet with which she invites us to attend the reproduction of Para inducir al espíritu de la imagen (To Induce the Spirit of the Image), a happening by Masotta that Dora has integrated into this new work, which for its part is divided into five parts and is also called Segunda Vez (Second Time Around), like the short story that brought me to this strange building.

The shoot today is a run through, though it is possible that, during the editing phase, material from today’s shoot will end up in the final cut. The actors don’t seem bothered by that. “The thing is all these people come from the under, not from TV. They’re used to dealing with any situation,” Lila (Lisenberg), a line producer, tells me. I run into her on the first floor, where the shooting is to take place, after having chatted a bit with Graciela.

On a corner, right by some elevators that are not exactly trustworthy, a table with coffee and pastries has been set up and it is attracting more and more people. Some forty minutes have passed. I don’t see Dora or her team: two cameramen and a soundman. Where could they be? It turns out that their cab crashed into another one when it was on the way to pick them up, so they will be a while still. But no one here seems in a hurry, and no one waits to be introduced. Each does it his or her as they flow in.

“It’s not so cold today.”

“There’s coffee, coffee …”

“And lots of smoke.”

“Wow, I’m beat.”

“But we just started. Do you want a napkin?”

“No. And put your apron on or they’ll bitch us out.”

“Apron?”

“The gown.”

I hear a lot of yawns. Now and then some footsteps.

“I got these earrings last week. I like them because they are light. Back in the day, when jewels were all made of bronze, that was a pain. But these are light as a feather.”

Greetings. Someone puts an end to them.

“Why are the cookies just thrown all over like that?”

“They’ve been like that for two years.”

“Don’t you see that there are mice here. There are mice … Imagine the party!”

Someone whistles.

“We’ve suffered a lot from hunger in Argentina …, it’s good thing that our union always demands catering.”

“And to think I became an actress so I wouldn’t have to wake up early. I don’t get it.”

The cast is quite mixed. There are about twenty actors of varying ages. Most of them already know each other. What I understood is that they do their own wardrobe, provided they respect a couple of (no doubt) quite vague instructions—as happens in the original story, where a number of people are summoned by letter to an office where a group of functionaries urges them to carry out a transaction.

“Did you get the notice?”

“Yes.”

“Me too. But it doesn’t explain anything. There are a lot of people in there …”

“It’s the second time I come.”

“The second?”

“And you?”

“First.”

“Me too. How did it go?”

“Fine. They ask your name, address …”

“Then why did you come a second time?”

“I was told to come back.”

“That man has a strange look.”

“Strange face too. He’s a weird guy.”

“They don’t ask anything about your family?”

“Yes. Studies, occupation …”

“And do you have to bring a photo?”

“Nobody asked me for one, no.”

“But when was the first time?”

“Three days ago.”

“Three days … Well, at least it looks like things go quickly in there.”

“It depends. With some it takes five minutes, with others twenty.”

For being set in another era, the characterization is pretty discreet. What’s more, when the time comes, Dora is actually the first to “ignore” it by deciding to start the filming with the arrival of the propmen. Until that day, those boys had never acted before. They had just been walking around the set, hanging up curtains and fixing things while some of the microphones were being hooked up. She liked their presence: one was obese, the other thin, with delicate eyelashes and wearing an Obey winter hat, the clothing line of the street artist who immortalized Obama’s face. Dora didn’t ask him to take it off, nor did she yell “Action!” when it was time.

Instead, she just said this: “We’ll record everything at once. It’s a long take with three cameras. That means that, even if there is a main camera, all three are recording nonstop. Which isn’t to say that you have to be acting all the time. The idea is to try to record all of you, everything you improvise inside, and outside, the character. There isn’t a dominant dialogue. I didn’t think it was imperative to read Cortázar’s story, since everything is very ambiguous in the story anyway. It’s not really clear what’s happening.”

“What is clear,” she continued, “is that there are three groups of people and a hierarchy between them, though it isn’t explicit—it’s in the gestures, in how the characters move. It’s in the spaces too. In the waiting room, the front offices and the office located all the way in the back, where the final questioning happens. You glimpse the movement through the doors … Rocco is the only one who has an idea of what the place is like, since it’s the second time he’s been summoned. So the point is to do what you’d do if you were really in that situation, and that’s basically what we all do every day.”

Little by little smoke had contaminated the atmosphere and, as the actors improvised around a map, an office stamp … the dialogues started to become singular and distinct. In the room at the back, the interrogation room, the cameraman started turning very slowly around himself. And Rita, the protagonist, followed.

“You smoke?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do you want a smoke?”

“Ok.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a student.”

“What are you studying?”

“Literature.”

“What sorts of books do you like?”

“Right now I’m reading Argentinean literature. I really like intimate diaries.”

“How come? You like to meddle in people’s lives?”

“I like the recording of intimacy.”

“Are you nervous?”

“No.”

“Do you like to spy?”

“I like to read.”

“And when you were little, did you go to the office?”

“The office?”

“The principal’s, in high school, for bad behavior.”

“Yes, once.”

“Why?”

“Because I spoke too much in class.”

“Why?”

“I had things to say but the teacher couldn’t stand me so she sent me to the office.”

“And the office, was it like this one, or smaller?”

“It was smaller, just a room.”

“I see …”

“Do you have any concerns about us?”

“Do I have any questions, you mean?”

“Concerns are not questions. Otherwise I would have asked if you had any questions. Doubts … do you have any doubts?”

“No.”

“No doubts. Of all of us, who’s the boss?”

“The boss … the boss … it’s you.”

“And tell me, are you always formal when you address your elders?”

“Not really, no …”

“Did you come alone?”

“…”

“Well done. And did you speak to anyone?”

“Yes, at the reception.”

“When you addressed your teachers in school, were you always formal then?”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“And how did they react?”

“Just fine. If I was formal to them it’s because they had made it clear that that’s how they wanted it.”

“So you weren’t trying to seduce them with formalities to get something in return.”

“Our exchanges were normal.”

“Normal? Like this conversation, or more normal?”

“I don’t know.”

I had to cover my mouth to suppress a laugh—we laughed regularly at the improvised dialogues. As we eat, I mention to Rita (Pauls) that it must be odd to be born with the vocation for acting, but she downplays it and Dora, in her way, echoes her: “People are still debating what good acting is; I think it was Robert Mitchum who used to say that he had two acting styles: with and without a horse.” Andrea (Garrote), for his part, bemoans the fact that there are so few fictions about the good. “Most plots are paranoid. Why aren’t there fictions with different structures?” I don’t know what to tell him. Now I think that maybe the blame falls to Roberto Arlt, the subject of an important text by Oscar Masotta, though it was not through Arlt that I found my way to Masotta.

2.

Fate had it so that, just at that moment, I was involved in not one but two Masotta operations: the one led by Dora García as she repeated his actions, documented them, and put them in dialogue with the work of other authors, as was happening that day; and the one that provides the title for a 1991 book by Carlos Correas, La operación Masotta. That text is the autopsy of a friendship and its era, but it is also the intellectual biography of a figure whose memory helps the author come to terms with himself. Correas is very hard on Masotta, and I recognize in his pages two fascinating subjects whose lives were forever changed and split by what they read.

With this in mind, I go the next day to see the filming of Para inducir al espíritu de la imagen, which is being shot at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, where Masotta had organized his happening, though back then it was at a different location. I hear a buzz and before me I recognize many of the actors from the day before. But today they’re standing in line clothed in rags and tired faces. For today, they’ve been asked to dress like bums, like people down on their luck. One moves around slowly, another counts his money and a third moves his lips, as if he were mentally reciting something. They are the focus of attention of an uncomfortable action: they had been paid, in public, to stand on a platform in total silence for one hour, subjected to the continuous glare of light reflectors and to a sharp, shrill sound—all so that we, the public, could look at them.

If Carlos Correas had closed Masotta off for me with his writing, I find that Dora García recuperates him for me with this action. And the figure I find here is different. Indeed, as we talk about what her actions mean, she tells us that a happening does not depend so much on manipulating the public as on “creating the condition for something to happen again.” It’s a lovely idea, which in its turn takes me back the idea in Cortázar, who also flirted with the happening and even tried to define it: “it is, at the very least, a hole in the present.”

The irony is that, in his story, there is no hole. Where did Carlos leave from? I’m back at the building. It’s the second day of shooting and the protagonist scrutinizes the interrogation room with her gaze while the camera keeps rolling. The questions continue.

“How long did it take you to get here?”

“Fifteen minutes, maybe less.”

“Fifteen? Or less?”

“I couldn’t say. I rode a bike.”

“Do you live far?”

“In Villa Crespo.”

“And do you like the cigarette?”

“I haven’t finished it yet.”

I hear all this on the headphones, since I’m now tucked away behind a partition, in the first room, the waiting room, where a mere few minutes earlier Nathalie had answered her phone and started speaking in Swedish, an odd occurrence in a story where strange details are not in short supply, like this woman with dirty hands or the poster no one understands or the assorted background objects: a whisk, a motorcycle, a plaster bunny … Junk that you’d never expect to see in an office. Not in 1973, not today. In the story, this strangeness is described and even justified in passing: “Her sister had said that they were setting up offices all over the place because the ministry buildings were becoming too small,” says the narrator, who is embodied in a “we” that is never quite identified. Actually, this narrator mentions almost everything in passing—the summons, the questions, … it’s like a dialogue that started already a while ago and that no one wants to take charge of—at least not openly, or entirely. It’s too monstrous.

3.

A month later I went back to that building. I walked up to the first floor and knocked on the door. A man with bad teeth opened the door. I explained that not long ago I had been here, in that space, as part of a film shoot. The space was less cluttered, and cleaner, than the last time, but the tables were still there, as was the red clothes hanger and the poster that had been splashed with coffee to make it look like it was old and stained with cigarette smoke.

DO NOT ENTER

Staff only

The man told me then that the building belonged to the Administración de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias (ADIF), but that the government had granted its total use to a cooperative. For the last ten years, it has been the headquarters of Mutual Sentimiento, an association founded in 1999 by former political prisoners and exiles, to mitigate not so much the abuses of the state, but the effects of its abandonment. Inside there is a community radio station and a space for workshops; on the paved area outside, where I saw an abandoned train car, there is a storehouse for locally produced vegetables, and, on the third floor is the greatest accomplishment: a pharmacy that sells only generic drugs. Now and then the place is rented for film shoots.

After our chat I ask him if I can have a look at the place, but there is no trace of Rocco. Or of Rita and Raúl, who in the film wonder why they had been summoned. All but one leave the way they had come. I keep going. In the back room, the interrogation room, I do feel a presence.

“Don’t be scared,” the man with broken teeth tells me when he opens the door. In front of me now I see a dog that barks at me then licks my hand, as if he remembered me.

“I’m sorry, I have to get going, I’m already late for an appointment at seven,” I tell the man.

“Federico will be here in a couple of days. If you come back can explain everything you, better too. He has all the data.”

 

 

 

  • 1. Graciela Martínez, Primera Plana, 2 April 1968.