Representations of Crisis in Argentina
For us it’s clear that if we want to strengthen a grassroots democracy, we have to make a definitive bid for radicalization. It’s no longer a matter of ‘returning to normal,’ of returning to political rhetoric, of getting the game of formal democracy into gear, or of constructing a ‘true representation of the people.’ We have to strengthen other tendencies, other logics. We have to reinforce the popular struggles, and not to channel them back toward power.
Colectivo Situaciones, March 24, 2001
Puerto Madero, the former port of Buenos Aires, was renovated in the mid-1990s under the direct influence of Barcelona’s trademark urbanism, within the broader paradigm of the “creative city.” Following the classic neoliberal model, the land was handed over to a private entity charged with seeking out the necessary investments, and granted any profit that might arise from the operation. A strategic plan was drafted by Catalonian consultants; corporate buyers were sought around the world; architectural commissions were given to national and international firms. Today the construction is almost complete, and the post-industrial docks look as pretty as a postcard. The cranes that used to unload ships have been left standing, carefully repainted to preserve the patina of age, as if to say that work was once done here. The remodeled warehouses offer a mix of residential spaces, offices and urban entertainment destinations, with a private university at one end and a millionaire’s museum at the other, followed by a crown of hi-rise towers whose logos include Microsoft, Bell South and IBM: the perfect recipe for success in the “information economy.”
The visitor wandering down the quay is greeted by the sight of an elegant white suspension bridge with a single cantilevered support, signed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava: a must for any waterfront redevelopment project. A memorial plaque informs us that this Puente de la Mujer, or “Bridge of Womankind,” was inaugurated on December 20, 2001. But that’s impossible – because that was the second day of the Argentinean revolt against the consequences of neoliberal globalization, and the city’s elites were in no position to do any celebrating.
With its postmodern historicism and its grandiose dream of participation in the information economy, Puerto Madero appears as a speculation, in all the senses of the word, on the prospects – and the profits – of a total erasure of memory. Its paradigm is the experience of déjà vu, where you watch yourself doing what you’ve already done, performing a prescripted series of actions that seem to have become a destiny. It raises a question about how to represent, or better, how to enact a counter-memory.
I’ve taken my inspiration from Paolo Virno’s book Il ricordo del presente; from the unusually searching art show Ex Argentina; from the clues to be found in a wide range of books and articles; and above all from the testimonies, viewpoints and interpretations offered by friends and acquaintances in Buenos Aires and Rosario.1 This is an inquiry into the representations of crisis and the enactments of counter-memory in Argentina. The aim is to provide a discursive frame for some of the most impressive experiments in political art to have emerged around the turn of the millennium. Of course this can only be an incomplete and uncertain reflection of events in what is, for me, a faraway land. The hope is that others may see through this view from afar, and come closer to their own potentials for life in the present.
For the exhibition Ex Argentina, the artist Azul Blaseotto carried out a portrait in oils of the people who built the facade of Puerto Madero. This enormous painting – a neo-expressionist grande machine with a central panel and two lateral wings – depicts the cultural, economic and political elite of Argentina, gathered together in a glass-walled room that looks down on their creation. On the right side of the canvas you see the architects, tinged with green, always willing to change color for the needs of each new regime. One of them has spilled champagne on a table decorated with a map showing the so-called “ecological reserve” just behind the port. The nineties were the era of “pizza and champagne.” Another places a scale model down on the map. Outside the window you can see the residential tower, built within the reserve by virtue of a special exception to the law.
Some of the figures are internationally famous, for example, the financier George Soros, portrayed as a winged chimera, a monstrous angel; or the omnipresent French designer Philippe Starck, represented as a kind of cross between a spider and a Hindu god (he is the architect of the so-called “Faena Hotel + Universe” completed a few years after the crisis, an unrepentant monument to all the opulence and arrogance of the nineties). In the corner of the painting is the art patron and millionaire, Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, or “Amalita,” the arbiter of contemporary Argentinean culture, looking down with satisfaction at her private museum. At the opening of Ex Argentina, Azul Blaseotto told me how much she hated these people and their “cultura de mierda,” the non-culture they impose on all the others. “They want to dominate everything, even the horizon,” she said.
In the center is Carlos Menem, portrayed twice for his two terms, from 1989-95, then 1995-99. During the first, while his administration sold off the state-run industries and public services, he became extremely popular, distributing welfare packages to the people and massive kickbacks to his cronies – corruption money that has been estimated at 20% of the product of each sale.2 The problems came in his second term, when there was nothing left to auction. At his left, eating pizza, is Roberto Dromi, the author of the Law of State in 1989 – the first step toward the privatizations. At his right is finance minister Domingo Cavallo, an ultraliberal who learned his doctrine in Chicago, like the economic advisers of Pinochet. Cavallo had already been responsible for the so-called “statization” of private debts in the 1980s, during the dictatorship – a way of using public money to pay back loans that were taken out by the oligarchy.
Further down is Fernando de la Rua, of the radical Party, who succeeded Menem as Argentinean president, until the day he had to leave the Casa Rosada in a helicopter, fleeing from the insults of the crowd. The woman next to him offers a piece of sushi – which had become chic as a diet food during the fat years of globalization. Above De la Rua, dressed in blue, is Enrique Fazio, former president of the Corporación del Antiguo Puerto Madero, which is the quasi-autonomous agency that auctioned off the dock land in the mid-1990s. Finally, on the lateral wings of the painting are half a dozen wide-open eyes, filled with civil-society figures staring in at the private party. At lower right you see the great Argentinean political satirist and history painter, Antonio Berni. Next to him, looking out at us, is the painter of the picture. What does she see, when she looks beyond the illusion of the “creative city,” at the contemporary reality of her country?
Less than a mile away from the Puente de la Mujer is the ruined riverfront of La Boca, filled with the hulks of rusting ships that are no longer called to carry off the products of now-inactive factories. The abandoned infrastructure offers a glimpse of the relatively short period of import-substitution policies, from the thirties through the sixties, when there was something like “endogenous development” at work in Argentina. Today that period is long gone. The old houses of the riverfront lie in ruins. Despite the emergence of a small, Disneyesque tourist zone in a former riverside harbor, no one one has bothered to haul off the remains of an industrial past whose interruption still hangs like a pall over the city.
What happened, on December 19 and 20, 2001, in Argentina? How to understand the images of revolt that reached us from those days? The sacked supermarkets? The burning tires? The highway roadblocks? The solidarity between the urban middle classes and the disenfranchised industrial workers, who together raised first great popular revolt against the consequences of neoliberal globalization?
One way to grasp the Argentine crisis is to look at a very different kind of “history painting,” by the French conceptual art group Bureau d’Études. This work was also presented in the exhibition Ex Argentina, which sought deliberately to bring radical European artists of the late 1990s into contact with politicized Argentines, so as to conduct an international inquiry into the turbulent collapse of the so-called New Economy and the reemergence of an anti-capitalistist movement on a global scale. Entitled Crisis, the work by Bureau d’Etudes functions as a chronology of the world financial system in the 1990s. It situates the Argentine revolt within the general framework of a worldwide economic cycle – essentially the period of so-called globalization, from 1989 onward.
In the lower third of this long, lateral graphic chart, you see three horizontal axes corresponding to events within the three great currency zones of the Yen, the Euro and the Dollar. A special bar at the top is devoted to the management of the IMF, while a line below shows the frequencies of so-called “payment incidents,” or delays in the reimbursement of the Argentinean debt. The same bar also serves to mark political events, such as the election of Carlos Menem in 1989. The middle section of the chart widens the focus to look at strikes and riots against privatization processes across the globe in the single year of 2002. Finally, the top part unfolds beneath a phrase by Michael Linton, the inventor of the Local Exchange and Trading Systems (or LETS), who speaks of “money as an information system for recording human effort.” This section relates the development of alternative monetary systems over the decade of the 1990s, culminating in the spectacular expansion of the Red Global de Trueque or “swap network” in the years of the Argentinean crisis. In short, the chronology looks both at the failure of the financial markets, and at the popular responses to these failures.
The first third of the time period covered by the chart deals with the restructuring of the Japanese and American banking systems in the early 1990s, after the initial round of financial expansionism during the preceding decade. Next we see the tumult of the great Asian crisis, with the radical inflation that hit the currencies of the East Asian region in 1997, after years of excessive speculation on the “tiger”economies. The crisis began with an attack on the Thai currency, which inflated from 30 to over 50 bhat for one US dollar, as you can see in the jagged line spiking suddenly upward. Even worse was the case of the Indonesian rupee, whose rise is capped at the height of its climb with a representation of the head of the authoritarian leader Suharto, who would then fall along with the precarious living standard of the Indonesian people. But the graphic chart also shows very clearly that the capitals fleeing the speculative krach of the East Asian economies found a perfect new home on the US stock market, where the value of companies like WorldCom and Enron shot up precipitously at the end of the millennium, before falling dramatically when the new economy bubble burst in mid-2000.
There is a perfect correlation between the fall of the Northern stock markets and the rise in the “payment incidents” affecting the reimbursement of the Argentinean debt. The world economy is so tightly integrated that the long process of Argentina’s economic decay entered its crisis at the very moment when the American bubble finally burst. The same line of rising “payment incidents” shows the key events in the social history of those tumultuous months: first the corralito, or the closure of the Argentine public banking system, just before the currency’s radical devaluation but not before the country’s wealthiest citizens had converted all their holdings to dollars; then the withholding of a final loan by the IMF, followed by the flight of De la Rua and the formation of the Piquetero Bloc of unemployed industrial workers, etc.
Seen from the perspective of Marxist crisis-theory, what happened in Argentina is the monstrous fact of a crash in the international financial system, engulfing enormous quantities of fictional capital in a speculative maw, which reduces that money to nothing even while it swallows up the jobs and the savings of the working classes. And in economic terms, that’s what happened. But is that the whole story? The only story? Does econometrics provide an adequate language for describing the global division of labor and power? Is money an adequate information system for recording popular resistance? How do those who forced De la Rua to leave in a helicopter tell the story of December 19 and 20, 2001?
Theater of the Streets
The contemporary Argentinean Left has built itself around the memory of another date: March 24, 1976, when a military coup inaugurated the Videla dictatorship that lasted until 1983. I first saw that date on a wall in the barrio of San Telmo, in Buenos Aires, where it had been painted by a popular assembly during the insurrection. The Right explains the coup as a necessary response to the military tactics of the Guevarist guerrillas. But there was also a powerful workers’ movement in Argentina, struggling against exploitation both by the national bourgeoisie and by foreign capital. The workers had begun to exert their power in the street with the revolt of the city of Córboba in 1969, the “Cordobazo,” which ushered in a period of intense crowd mobilizations, culminating in the return to power of the exiled popular leader Juan Perón in 1973. However, despite the victory represented by his return, the movement became increasingly divided between those who remained loyal to union hierarchies seeking a new compromise between capital and labor, and those who joined the students and the guerrilla movements in a call for outright revolution.
By the time of Perón’s death in 1974, the split was consummated. The radical workers became increasingly well organized, using shop-floor coordinating committees to escape the control of their union representatives. To carry out a major strike, they would begin by surrounding the union with a crowd of workers, thereby forcing their representatives to follow the movement. Meanwhile, the student movements intensified and the guerrilla activities escalated, with targeted assassinations and attacks on military or police installations. The upper classes felt seriously threatened, less in their formal grip on power than in their ability to maintain a hierarchical society based on Christian values. The death squads of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) had already been operational since November of 1973. After the March 24, coup the oligarchy unleashed military force on the population.
Soldiers occupied the factories and the universities. They applied counter-insurgency techniques learned from the French and the Americans. Little by little they identified the ideological elements. It was in 1976-77 that the worst was done. Everyone knows the figure of 30,000 disappeared. Often they were thrown from airplanes into the river. Many more were tortured. An estimated nine hundred children were born in prison and adopted by the torturers, after the disappearance of their mothers.
For Latin Americans, the dictatorships of the 1970s, and not the financial globalization of the 1990s, mark the beginnings of neoliberalism. Economic historians on the Left now characterize this decade as an initial phase of strategic de-industrialization: a way of disciplining national working classes by breaking down their opportunities to exert any influence on the development of the productive process. But in Argentina, the 1970s were also a period of full-scale cultural war, “the clash of two civilizations, ours and the Marxist, to determine which one will be dominant and thus inspire or direct the future organization of the world,” as stated in 1981 by Leopoldo Galtieri, one of the junta generals.3 The rebellion had to be quelled; but the very thoughts which inspired it also had to be eradicated. The logical culmination of the ideological struggle was the reduction of the population to silence, which also entailed an impossibility of mourning.
The contemporary history of Argentina can be represented as an empty silhouette: an absent body whose vanished image becomes part of a struggle to remember.
photo Marcelo Brodsky
An immensely influential political art project began just before the end of the dictatorship, on September 21, 1983, under the name of the Siluetazo, or “Great Silhouette.” It was launched by three artists, Rodolfo Aguerreberry, Julio Flores and Guillermo Kexel, and taken up by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, along with other human rights organizations and participants in the “Third March of Resistance” held in Buenos Aires on that day. The technique was extremely simple: it involved tracing the outline of a human body lying flat on a large sheet of paper. But the effect was fundamental. I quote from a text by the photographer Marcelo Brodsky:
The Siluetazo was one of the most powerful artistic events in twentieth-century Argentina. Where are the disappeared? What did they do with them? That unanswered question flooded the streets of the country when the dictatorship fell and democracy began its return. The silhouettes were stamped on walls, window shutters and city billboards, pleading for truth and justice. Little by little they vanished from the streets, but they left their demand impressed on collective memory. The artistic interpretation of what was happening melded together with the popular mobilizations demanding trial and punishment for the assassins of the dictatorship, and thereby it gained legitimacy as a powerful tool of struggle in the streets.
The challenge for the Argentinean Left was to build up the legitimacy of their struggle within what was still a radically hostile institutional environment, even after the end of the dictatorship. In their very mutism, in their accusatory emptiness, the silhouettes were a potent symbol; but even more important was the possibility for this symbol to be created by those whom it directly concerned. As Ana Longoni and Gustavo Bruzzone have written: “The Siluetazo points to one of those exceptional moments in history when an artistic initiative coincides with a demand from social movements, and is embodied by the impulse of the multitude. It involved the participation, in a huge, improvised open-air studio that lasted until midnight, of hundreds of demonstrators who painted, who put their bodies on the line to sketch the silhouettes, then hung them on the walls, monuments and trees despite the imposing deployment of the police.” The authors stress the collective status of this creation: “The Siluetazo entailed the socialization of the means of artistic production and distribution, to the extent that the spectator joined in as producer. The visual deed is ‘done by everyone and belongs to everyone.’ This radically participatory artistic practice encourages the massive appropriation of an idea or concept, and of simple but striking artistic forms and techniques for the repetition of an image.”4
The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo used the silhouettes in their marches in memory of the disappeared, as part of the impossible but deeply meaningful demand for aparición con vida, or “appearance alive.” Since their foundation in 1978 the Madres had worked to reconstruct justice from below, by tirelessly appearing in public space with the portraits of their missing family members in their arms and an increasingly broad social network behind them. As Susana Kaiser writes: “By turning motherhood into a public activity, they were crucial in setting new boundaries of what politics or political spaces are.”5 Their strategy of deliberately non-violent militancy, based on the legitimate public presence of socially repressed memory, is fundamental for understanding how the Argentinean Left would react to the crisis of the late 1990s and the turn of the millennium. But in in urban centers throughout Argentina, this expressive role would be taken up quite differently by a new movement that emerged in October of 1995, under the name H.I.J.O.S., or “Children.”6 That’s an abbreviation of a longer name, which translates as “Children for Identity and Justice, against Oblivion and Silence.”
This is the second generation of Argentinean human-rights activists, who invented an extraordinary new form of political intervention, the escrache. The word is derived from the Argentinean slang word escrachar, meaning “to uncover,” “to reveal,” “to show someone’s face”; the escrache is an act of denunciation that aims to inform the public of the crimes of unpunished collaborators of the dictatorship. “Si no hay justicia, hay escrache,” repeat the members of H.I.J.O.S.: “If there is no justice, there is denunciation.” It is an utterly serious public practice, but it takes the form of a satirical carnival, full of farce, raucous noise and biting black humor, carried out by crowds of young activists and accompanied by the music of traditional marching bands known as murgas.7
At first, the escraches were conceived as media actions, directed against well-known figures of the military regime living in the center of Buenos Aires. But from 1998 onward, H.I.J.O.S. changed their approach and begin to engage in long preparatory periods of popular education before each action, now typically held in popular neighborhoods. Even while the antiglobalization demonstrations in North America and Europe reached their height in summit-hopping campaigns against transnational institutions like the G8, the IMF and the WTO, the protagonists of H.I.J.O.S. were attempting to radicalize ordinary people on the ground, in resistance to the local agents of the repressive forces that had ushered in the first phase of neoliberalism. In Argentina, the grassroots critique of present injustice was inseparable from an historical consciousness of the way the country had developed over the past twenty-five years, with a sharp awareness that the same classes that had profited from the dictatorship could always reassert their power, if their impunity was simply accepted and their crimes left unremembered.
Once again, people put their bodies on the line, expanding the concept of art into direct action. Among the protesters from the very beginning were the members of Etcétera, who thought of themselves less as an artists’ group, and more as a political movement of the surrealistic imagination. During the heyday of the escraches from 1998 to 2001, they staged delirious theatrical events in front of the houses of former murderers and torturers. Protest tactics of the usual sort will never be enough for Etcétera, whose story is filled with improbable encounters and unlikely inventions. While seeking to squat an empty building for their activities, the collective chanced upon the abandoned premises of the former Argonauta publishing house founded by the surrealist artist Juan Andralis, filled with dusty books, photographs, images, paintings, sculptures, costumes and old mannequins form the 1930s and 40s. It was a turning point, a moment of “objective chance,” just as Marcel Duchamp had described. They built up a library, a darkroom, a studio and a small theater with seats recovered from an old cinema, and they used the materials around them as the accessories of a unique aesthetic.8 Their relation to the public became clear when they created the Niño Globalizado (Globalized Boy), with a hand-pump that the art audience could use to bloat the child’s belly into a distended globe of hunger. But that was only one station on a longer journey. The point was to develop an art as poetically unpredictable as a dream, and then hurl it like a football into an unbelievable reality.
One of their early protest pieces was the satirical soccer match, “Argentina vs. Argentina,” held before the home of the former dictator, General Galtieri, in June of 1998 during the World Cup pitting Argentina against England. It recalled the waste of life in the Malvinas war under the direct command of Galtieri, but also the shame of the 1978 World Cup, held in Argentina beneath the spotlights of the media even while torture and assassination continued off camera. The mock soccer match reached its conclusion when a member of H.I.J.O.S. kicked a penalty ball full of red paint into the former dictator’s house, triggering the climax of the public denunciation. Video recordings show the paint spattering onto the hats of police lined up in rows around the building. At other escraches, like the one against Dr. Raúl Sánchez Ruiz, the Etcétera performance served as a lure, a decoy, distracting the attention of the police at a critical moment. It’s impressive to realize that interventions like this unfolded at the exact time when groups such as Reclaim the Streets were inventing the carnivalesque demonstrations of the antiglobalization movement. In the Argentinean case, the political carnival would culminate in a national insurrection.
The graphic work of the Grupo de Arte Callejero, which translates as the “Street Art Group,” can exemplify the way that the escraches acted to make history public. The GAC was formed in 1997; but its members prefer not to talk too much about their own history. Their actions speak for them. Before the day of an escrache, they would help print fliers giving the date and time of the event and also the name, address, telephone number and portrait of the agent of the dictatorship, along with a list of his crimes. In addition to fliers and posters, the GAC makes extremely direct iconography that simulates the codes of commercial operations, such as the private security firms that now employ many former soldiers and policemen. Above all, they appropriate the codes of street signs, creating plaques that become like historical markers on the road towards the construction of a counter-memory. “300 meters ahead, ASSASSIN, Luis Juan Donocik, Honorio Pueyrredon 1047, first floor,” reads one. “50 meters ahead….” continues another. The GAC provide a graphic presence and a clarity of information that reinforces the ritual theater of the escrache. The approach to the criminal’s dwelling is very consciously staged by all the participants, as a pathway toward the living history of a violent struggle that can’t just be forgotten, because there’s no guarantee that the other side won’t again use the weapons it employed in the 1970s. Finally the crowd comes before the house of the murderer, and it is at this culminating point that a public speech is made along with others gestures and performances.
To give some idea of what this moment could be like, I will translate an extended quote from a book entitled Genocida en el Barrio, produced by Colectivo Situaciones, a group of militant researchers who have worked directly with many different Argentinean social movements – not only H.I.J.O.S. but also groups of unemployed piqueteros, marginalized peasants, popular education associations and so on. Colectivo Situaciones typically contributes by forming hypotheses about the autonomy of the groups they work with, and about the meaning of their struggles, then engaging discussions with the groups on that basis, after which they transcribe and publish the results in cheap booklets that serve to distribute the results of the collective process. What follows, however, is not one of these interviews, but rather the text of a speech that was given on the street by a member of H.I.J.O.S. on the day after such a discussion session, at the culminating moment of an escrache:
Today we are before the house of another torturer: Ernesto Enrique Frimon Weber. Subcommissioner of the federal police, he acted as an agent of repression during the military dictatorship, in the clandestine extermination center that operated in the Naval Engineering School. Assigned to the logistics department of the working group 3.3.2, he practiced kidnapping and torture and was responsible for the capture of 3,500 persons. He worked under the pseudonym of 220, a nickname given to him in recognition of the classes he gave in torture with electric wires. Free in accordance with the end-point or punto final law, and under an international warrant of arrest issued by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, he is accused of genocide and state terrorism. He lives at 1245 Virgilio Street, apartment 3, and his phone number is 45 67 21 12.
From this point onward the speech continues in a more philosophical, self-reflexive tone, which tries to sum up the meaning of the process of denunciation itself:
Almost four years have now gone by since our first escrache, in December of 1996. Over the course of these four years, the escrache has become a new tool of struggle. The escrache has been and continues to be a way to turn memory into action, an innovative way to denounce impunity. A way to show that impunity is not just an abstract word. Impunity is a very concrete term: impunity is called Emilio Eduardo Massera, supposedly detained in his palace on Avenue Libertador; impunity is called Miguel Etchecolatz, strolling around Cordoba square; impunity is called Turco Julián, having a coffee in the Congresso district; impunity is called José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, giving his advice from the City on the progress of the Argentine economy… Impunity lives on in each of these figures, agents of repression, torturers, expropriators, genocidal killers, the ideological authors of the massive extermination of thousands of popular activists who were struggling against privileges and inequality, the same inequality that is now the supreme law of the Republic of Argentina. This is why the escrache has been and continues to be a blow on the side of justice. A justice founded on the certainty that true justice will not fall from the heights of power like a ripe fruit. A justice which understands that if crime is organized from within the State, then it is society that will have to identify the criminals, judge them, condemn them, pursue them even in their dreams. A justice of the popular sectors, who do not forget and who do not pardon State terrorism, concentration camps, torture, death flights and the abduction of children….9
At this powerful culminating moment of the escrache, red paint balloons are thrown against the house of the individual, in order to mark the blood that was spilled years ago. But despite the emotion of those whose parents or relatives were killed during the dictatorship, what appears quite clearly in these public events is the attempt to invent an effective judgment from below, one that relies not on violence but on symbolic force, whose purpose is to ostracize the individuals in question, to achieve what Colectivo Situaciones calls “social condemnation,” and at the same time, to inscribe a public warning against the continuity of the past in the present. To this end, the Grupo de Arte Callejero worked with H.I.J.O.S. to create a map of all the places where escraches had occurred, under the title AQUI VIVEN GENOCIDAS, or “Assassins live here.”10 The map was posted throughout Buenos Aires on March 24, 2001, and then again on the same date in 2002. It’s hard to imagine the experience of reading this historical map of your own city, of your own history, so far from anything humanly imaginable, so frighteningly close in both time and space. The wealthy Center, Barrio Norte, Palermo and Recoleta neighborhoods require a special enlargement to show all the collaborators of the dictatorship living there.
Having considered the larger history of the dictatorship as well as the specific ways in which activist artists on the Argentine Left sought to evoke the memory of its victims, let us now return to the economic collapse and the revolt of December 19 and 20, 2001, with which we began. Martial law was declared on December 19, a month after the crisis had opened with the prohibition on withdrawals from the banks (known as the corralito) and just a day after the sacking of supermarkets had commenced on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Masses of unemployed piqueteros, who had begun their revolt long years before in the provinces, were now advancing on the capital. No one could predict what would happen when they reached their destination. But what December 19 and 20 ultimately proved was the effectiveness of all the efforts to maintain the people’s latent awareness of the historical danger embodied by the oligarchy, the army and the police. There was no question of any return to dictatorship. The middle classes of Buenos Aires heard the strange swelling roar of thousands of people streaming by their doorsteps, beating pots and pans; and often without knowing what exactly they were doing or where it would lead them, they took their own pots and pans out of their kitchens and streamed to the city center, passing through innumerable intersections blocked to traffic by protesters. Upon arrival in the center, they joined forces with the piqueteros and launched the urban insurrection that forced Fernando de la Rua out of the presidential palace in a helicopter. It was the “Argentinazo.”11 These two days opened up the two years of crisis during which Argentina would renegotiate its internal political system and its relationship to the outside world, and above all, to the IMF.
From that point forth, the escraches went beyond the specific aims of HIJOS to become the major form of public demonstration, often planned by direct-democratic process in the vast asambleas (popular assemblies) that gathered for direct-democratic deliberation in public parks and squares. Many different art groups intervened in the turmoil that followed, including the Taller Popular de Serigrafía, or “People’s Silkscreen Workshop.” These were artists whose studio practices didn’t allow them to contribute directly to the revolt, and who decided instead to work with a process of collective image-making, including silk-screening directly on the tee-shirts of piquetero protesters. The themes were indicated by the piqueteros, often to commemorate the victims of repression. The work was exemplary of a desire to leave behind the professional role of the artist, to cross class lines and to explore the most immediate use-value of aesthetic creation. The results are a pragmatic, wearable symbolism, an artistic language that moves through the streets, based on drawings which are quite beautiful in the traditional aesthetic sense – as could be seen in an installation of prints on paper at the exhibition Collective Creativity in Kassel, Germany, in 2005.12
A larger organization arose from a gathering between some 120 people who had documented the two-day uprising of December 2001. The meeting was called by Boedo Films, Cine Insurgente, Contraimagen and Indymedia Argentina in the face of a veritable black-out on the events by the major national media. It was held on January 19, 2002, at the University of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, around the slogan “Vos lo viviste, no dejes que te sigan mintiendo” (You lived through it, don’t let them go on lying to you). Out of this first meeting came Argentina Arde, named in homage to the radical artistic research project Tucumán Arde, exhibited in Rosario in 1968 and rapidly censored by the authorities. The group immediately subdivided into photography, press and video committees, which then multiplied and spread throughout the country with the aim of producing valid and useful information from below, outside the professional hierarchies.13 Exhibitions, video compilations and an excellent photo-reportage newspaper were realized during the two tumultuous years that followed. Indymedia Argentina remains exceptionally active even now. From the larger network emerged the visual art group Arde Arte, practicing a variety of street actions that emphasize participation. One of their most striking interventions, in March 2002, involved groups of demonstrators advancing toward the police with large plaques of reflective material, on which were inscribed the slogan “Vete y Vete” (see yourself and scram).14
Etcétera did some of their wildest actions at this time, including Otra realidad es posible (Another Reality Is Possible), in which they dressed up as a kind of medieval troupe of knives and forks with tin-pot helmets and silvery shields, comically attacking transnational corporations like McDonalds, YPF and Shell with the oversized tableware they had made in an occupied aluminum factory. Their riot-performance recalled the desperate hunger stalking the provinces, but it also represented a fusion between the pot-banging middle-classes and the more militant piqueteros, armed with shields and batons. Etcétera’s most outlandish event was the Mierdazo, in February 2002, when they invited people to hurl shit at the Congress building and to “crap on the system” during the vote of the 2002 national budget.15 The action had been approved by due process in the inter-barrio assembly and was destined to a huge popular success, leading to a similar assault on banks like HSBC. Television news clips – often the only trace of Etcétera performances, since the group was more concerned with acting than recording – portray the protest beneath the caption, “Algo Huele Mal en el Congreso” (something really stinks in Congress).
Many other artists’ groups and representational practices could be discussed, but I will close with one last series of works by the Grupo de Arte Callejero, which are the ceramic plaques they created at street level to preserve the memory of those who fell in the uprising of December 19 and 20. One of these plaques recalls the life and death of Gustavo Benedetto, a 23 year-old protester killed by a gunshot outside the enormous HSBC tower in downtown Buenos Aires, alledgedly by a bank security guard named Jorge Varando (who was a former collaborator of the dictatorship and had been trained in counter-insurgency at the infamous School of the Americas). The memorial plaque was destroyed several times by the police; but that act was finally filmed and revealed in the media, and the ensuing scandal gave the popular movements the legitimacy they needed to impose this piece of history on the built fabric of the city.16 This use of visual representation within a social process in order to create a memory of the present can be contrasted to the architecture of Puerto Madero that I described at the outset, with its clear intention to make sure that nothing whatsoever will be remembered – except, perhaps, the non-event of the supposed inauguration of the Puente de la Mujer on December 20, 2001.
The specific opposite of Caltrava’s multi-million-dollar bridge could be found in a horizontal monument, a kind of warning sign made by the Grupo de Arte Callejero from a simple piece of printed paper, showing the heraldic insignia of a policeman’s cap with a text that calls for Juicio y Castigo (“Trial and Punishment”). The paper is fixed to the ground and covered by several coats of clear plastic resin. It’s a cheap and practical technique, but one that can remain visible to the public eye for years, if the social forces of memory are strong enough to keep it there.
The artists discussed here would hardly be known in the North – or recognized in their home country – without Ex Argentina, the exhibition organized by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann. The show, held in Cologne in 2004, included most of the artists I have discussed, as well the Argentineans Sonia Abián and Carlos Piegari, Leon Ferrari, Eduardo Molinari, Proyecto Pluja and Sergio Raimondi. They were juxtaposed to politicized artists operating in the European context, including Bernadette Corporation, Alejandra Riera and Fulvia Carnevale, Jürgen Stollhans and many others. A philosophical foundation was provided by the investigations of Colectivo Situaciones and by the proposals of John Holloway, an Irish emigré to Mexico whose book Change the World with Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (2002) was as important to the antiglobalization movement in Latin America as it was in Europe.
To stage the confrontation between these different experiences, the organizers created a conceptual map of the exhibition, which they hung on the wall near the entryway (and placed on the cover of the catalogue). To create this map, the choreographed arrival of the Western heads of state at the G8 summit in Cologne on June 18-20, 1999 – a meeting held at the Ludwig Museum where the art exhibition was later staged – was superimposed on the outline of a Buenos Aires freeway bridge, Puente Pueyrredon, where two protesters, Maximiliano Kosteki and Darío Santillán, were killed by federal police on June 26, 2002. Thus the outbreak of the anti-globalization movement at the moment of the transnational “Carnival against Capital” on June 18, 1999, was contrasted to the beginnings of a “return to order” in post-insurrection Argentina. Inside the museum itself, a simulacrum of the G8 negotiating table was decorated with pig’s heads, to which were attached the names of the heads of state. At this table a German activist group, the Glücklichen Arbeitslosen (“Happy Unemployed”), shared a bacchanalian feast with the invited artists on the night before the opening, leaving the remains as an ironic message to the public. Only in Germany can vanguard Marxist intellectualism still be publicly expressed at this level of sophistication and symbolic violence.
No doubt the allegorical complexities of Ex Argentina were not fully translatable to the context of Buenos Aires, where a new version of the show – including contributions by some of the Brazilian artists of Collective Creativity – was finally exhibited under the name of La Normalidad (“Normality”) in February of 2006.17 The change of name is attribuable to the Argentines themselves, to their awareness of the inexorable repression to which their historical memory is subject; they preferred to explicitly designate the process of normalization against which they continually resist. The exhibition, with its international validation, gave a chance for local residents to measure the extremely innovative character of the interventionist work that had been accomplished in Argentina before the return to normal. Yet perhaps an even more effective statement came one month later, in March 2006, with the exhibition Estéticas de la memoria (Aesthetics of Memory), held at the Recoleta Cultural Center thirty years after the onset of the Videla dictatorship, where Etcétera and the Grupo de Arte Callejero proposed “a collective work that seeks to appropriate the institutional space of art, using words as a medium in the face of the empire of the image.”
The exhibition took place in a vastly transformed social landscape, where the government of Nestor Kirchner had sided with the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and H.I.J.O.S., reopening trials against the agents of the dictatorship and proposing the establishment of a museum of memory in the former Naval Engineering School (ESMA), which had served as a clandestine torture center. For the two organizing groups, it was a matter of inviting all the activist-artists who had worked on human rights issues over the long period of impunity to come together for a moment of collective debate, reflection on the past and evaluation of the challenges ahead. The medium was to be words, not images. Therefore the walls of the gallery space alloted to them were left blank until the day before the opening. Only then, when it would be too difficult for the museum management to intervene, did the artists write on them the question, “HOW DOES THE STATE JUSTIFY THE VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS TODAY?” They also listed on the walls the names of 1,888 persons killed by the security forces of the democratic republic, since the end of the dictatorship in 1983.
1 Thanks for a warm welcome and a lot of insight to the members of the groups Arde Arte, Etcétera, Grupo de Arte Callejero, Taller Popular de Serigrafia and Colectivo Situaciones, as well as Azul Blaseotto, Graciela Carnevale, Ana Longoni, Eduardo Molinari and Santiago García Navarro.
2 See the estimates provided by the critical economist Eduardo Basualdo, in Sistema político y modelo de acumulación en la Argentina: Notas sobre el transformismo argentino durante la valorización financiera, 1946-2001 (Buenos Aires, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes Ediciones, 2001).
3 Quoted in Antonius C.G.M. Robben, Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), p. 172. Robben gives extensive development to the notion of “cultural war.”
4 Unpublished manuscript.
5 Susana Kaiser, “Escraches: demonstrations, communication and political memory in post-dictatorial Argentina,” in Media, Culture & Society, vol. 24, no. 4 (2002), p. 505.
6 For an account of the origins of H.I.J.O.S., see Temma Kaplan, Taking Back the Streets: Women, Youth, and Direct Democracy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2004), ch. 6, “Youth Finds a Way.”
7 On the murga, see “Carnaval es dar vuelta el mundo,” in HIJOS 4 (1998), at http://www.hijos-capital.org.ar.
8 The story is told in an interview with Etcétera, “Al que lucha por la realidad la hacen fama de loco,” in Ex Argentina: Pasos para huir del trabajo al hacer, exhibition catalogue, Ludwig Museum Cologne, March 6-May 16, 2004 (Buenos Aires: Interzona Editora/Cologne: Walter König, 2004), pp. 238-41.
9 Colectivo Situaciones, Genocida en el barrio: Mesa de Escrache Popular (Buenos Aires, Ediciones de mano en mano, 2002).
10 The image can be seen at: http://www.pushthebuttonplay.com/dlwd/scotini/disobedience/imgs/aquiviven.jpg.
11 The two best books I have found on these events are Colectivo Situaciones, 19 y 20: Apuntes para el nuevo protagonismo social (Buenos Aires, Ediciones de mano en mano, 2002) and Raúl Zibechi, Genealogía de la revuelta (La Plata: Letra Libre/Montevideo; Nordan-Comunidad, 2003).
12 Kollektive Kreativität/Collective Creativity, exhibition catalogue, Fridericianum, Kassel, May 1-July 17, 2005. The exhibition, curated by the What, How & for Whom group from Croatia, included Etcétera, the GAC and the Taller Popular de Serigrafía, as well as the archive of the Tucumán Arde project, preserved by Graciela Carnevale; it gave the Argentine artists a chance to meet radical art groups from all over the world and to strengthen ties with the Brazilian groups Bijari, Contra Filé and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
13 A master’s thesis exists on Argentina Arde, in English, by Veronika Miralles; it can be consulted at http://ir.lib.sfu.ca/handle/1892/2046?mode=full.
14 An image can be seen at the group’s website, http://www.geocities.com/ardearte2001/arde_acciones.htm; it is also reproduced in Collective Creativity, op. cit., p 173.
15 Both these actions are discussed in the interview in Ex Argentina, op. cit., and documented in the video that Etcétera prepared for Collective Creativity.
16 For this case and its background, see the article by Naomi Klein, “Out of the Ordinary,” published in The Guardian, January 25, 2003 , http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,,880651,00.html. Also see Klein’s film The Take, 87″ 05″, 2004.
17 For this version of the exhibition, Bureau d’Etudes realized a Spanish-language version of the work Crisis, printed as a foldable map in thousands of copies which could thus be distributed freely to those who had inspired its creation.