Hunger for Change: France / Argentina

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An exchange on the Empyre list and the current exhibition of Etcetera in Paris got me thinking of a million things….

Maybe the reason I felt so close to Etcetera and the Grupo de Arte Callejero when we finally met in 2004, is because we went through similar relations to the inflated art scenes of the 90s. Guattari describes it perfectly in Chaosmosis, when he says that art “can move in a direction parallel to uniformization, or play the role of an operator in the bifuraction of subjectivity.” That was exactly the story of cultural consumption in the decades of Mitterand and his culture minister, Jack Lang. The “landscape of French art” became so uniform in those years, with its pseudo-diversity of minor differences always trying to find a way into the institutional market. Meanwhile you knew that the whole world was changing, new divides were opening up in society, new possibilities too. The question was how to break out of this slick, sophisticated conformism, to touch something real in this life? In the mid-1990s I was struggling with the economics of globalization and demonstrating with artists out in the streets. To be an activist then was not fashionable in any way, it was considered totally retrograde in artistic circles. I think that must have been even more intensely the case in Buenos Aires, when HIJOS started to form in 1996.

Etcetera came together on a parallel track, sometime in the mid-1990s, just kids but wild and determined ones, creating their “Globalized Boy” with the desperate eyes and the pump to blow up the swelling stomach, so the public could participate in class relations. As far as I know they started working with HIJOS around 1998, doing surrealistic theater in the streets as they still do today. Argentine society was in the midst of the huge and phony postmodern boom, with the aesthetics you would expect: a soaring painting market dominated by colorful and ironic abstraction. Arte Light, I think they called it. In France it was different of course: it was the heyday of relational aesthetics, the perfect machine to take over the institutions in a period of centrist socialism. I suppose conditions were more extreme in Argentina (that’s a truism) – after all, in France we had been through 1995, the biggest general strike since 68. So even though culture had not budged, there were many things happening, interesting discussions in philosophy and the social sciences, breakthroughs in the leftist analysis of globalization. And by the end of the decade you started to hear the rumors of amazing actions in the streets, in England and Italy.

I remember Next 5 Minutes 3, in early ’99 I think, where I went to talk about the street art group Ne Pas Plier in which I was involved at the time. Those three days of meetings blew my mind with images of possibility that all started coming true immediately afterwards. Soon it was June 18th in London, then Seattle and the IMF/World Bank protests in Prague… One of the members of the Grupo de Arte Callejero, Federico Geller, told me it was the inspiration of the Prague protests that got him started in activism. The relation between the GAC and Ne Pas Plier was striking: the same kinds of clear, bold effective graphics, the same commitment to the social movements, the same understanding of how powerful printed informational forms could become, when they are taken up by crowds of people who put their bodies on the line. Only one difference: in France we were working with unemployed people, homeless people, sans papiers, and trying to kick the supposedly left governments into action. In Argentina the neoliberals were in power, with their dogmas of amnesia, and HIJOS were going out in front of the houses of former accomplices of the dictatorship, and trying to make sure people remembered what had happened in the 1970s, and could happen again tomorrow.

At the time we were reading about the piqueteros in the newspapers: insistent stories, they were cutting roads in the faraway provinces, Neuquen, Salta… They were burning tires on the highways, demanding jobs, welfare payments, something to eat. A whole middle class that had fallen through the gaping cracks in Carlos Menem’s corrupt dream of a neoliberal economic miracle. At exactly the moment when the antiglobalization movement reached its peak, then took September 11 in the face and staggered, the piquetero movements reached Buenos Aires and unleashed the Argentine insurrection. December 19-20, 2001: just a few days before that I was out with all the gang in Brussels, at the Laaken summit, the first big European demo after S-11. We had no idea neoliberalism was gonna crack and burn in Argentina. But to tell you the truth, I’m not sure they did either.

In Europe we had become something like a huge minority, active throughout society, connected across the globe, using the new tools and the old ones too, mounting transnational actions that were anything but virtual, always that smell of teargas and the asphalt pounding under your feet. In Argentina they were suddenly the majority, the banks had closed, the very essence of capitalism was on hold, the middle class itself wanted a radically new order – or said they did – and the city was wide open. The Social Forum movement was rising in Latin America and in Europe. We thought maybe it was gonna be the revolution everywhere and they were sure a whole new society could be invented. Well, by the time I went to Argentina for the first time, on a spontaneous trip with my neighbor Stephen Wright, I think it was in February of 2004, in reality all that was finished and the antiglobalization movement too. What you had was this immense aftermath, total enthusiasm from everyone involved and the desire to go further, but how? where? The answers would come in Venezuela, in Bolivia… But for sure not in Europe and not really in Argentina either.

The coincidence of our trip to Argentina was that the whole fantastically interesting endeavor of Ex Argentina was already underway, Alice and Andreas Siekmann had been in the country several times, organizing their impressively deep and radical exhibition project. Colectivo Situaciones was involved, Lazzarato came and spoke in Buenos Aires, very interesting stuff. Actually we had no idea what was gonna happen, neither Stephen or I had a clue about Alice and Andreas, but most of the artists we met would be in that show. I remember smoking joints in the afternoon with Etcetera (our first meeting) and trying to translate for Stephen the hilarious videos of the Etcetera events, particularly the Mierdazo seemed the most delirious… When I got back to France after a few weeks with so many brilliant people it was a natural to just get in the train and go to Cologne for the opening of Ex Argentina in March 2004. Some European friends were in that show too: Bureau d’Etudes, Alejandra Riera… Two books have been produced of that work, one for the Cologne show and another for the Buenos Aires version, called La Normalidad. You get the picture, right? Back to normal here, don’t kid yourself anymore. Or as they say in France, “Circulez, il y a rien a voir!” Just keep moving, there’s nothing to see….

What opened up in the meantime was an amazing circulation of radicalized artists between Latin America and Europe. Sometime in 2005 I think, Suely Rolnik and I met with the WHW girls in Rio (that’s What, How and for Whom? from Croatia) and helped set up a lot of contacts for a great exhibition called Collective Creativity. Among all kinds of others were BiJaRi, The Revolution Will not be Televised, Etcetera, Grupo de Arte Callejero, Contra File, the Tucuman Arde archive… I actually wrote my text for that catalogue while in Rosario, on my second visit with Claire Pentecost. Brazilians from Sao Paolo also took part in La Normalidad, in January 2006 – I regret I didn’t make it but Claire and I were in Caracas for the World Social Forum! I would love to hear more about how people in North America started to meet the new generation of Latin American artists. It seemed important to put that culture into circulation, to let people know that if circumstances were right, you could try something, you could really experiment. At the same time it was back to normal, it was the art world, the onset of the new conformism. With Federico Zukerfeld we always joke about something Tunga once said to him, about the artistic mafia, the deals that you make. Something illicit, the rules of dirty tricks between old and new friends in a parallel society with a very “normal” front end – what I also called Liar’s Poker, in a text that Spanish speakers seem to love with a particular ferocity….

Do you wanna live in a white cube? Or in a virtual network? Does art somehow gnaw at the pit of your stomach? Or is it just a ticket for an endless world tour? Etcetera began with the Globalized Boy, and they always brought the memory of hunger out into the streets. In France we demonstrated with empty shopping carts, the unemployed people would do these amazing charges with the clattering metal on wheels. Today it’s out there, everywhere, bizarrely more and more in this age of affluence. Argentina has gotten rich again, off soy for export, and there’s hunger riots in the streets. 100 million more people go hungry this year than the last. The grotesque neoliberal speculation of the 1990s has never stopped, it has just moved down the hierarchy of needs, from our imaginations when it was centered on the Internet, to the roofs above our heads with the subprime bubble, to the commodities markets today – and that’s not just gold and oil, but above all grains, rice, wheat, corn, soybeans. This system is insane. And how are we gonna find a way to put some ethics back in out paradigm? That’s the question I see on the horizon. And I think all our mafias should get into action again….

un abrazo grande,


Christina McPhee wrote:

dear -empyre-

While awaiting Jennifer, I ‘ve come upon a text by Felix Guattari which I really enjoy and that seems an ideal provocation surrounding this months’ artists positions and production.

This quote comes from an excerpt from  “Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm” (1992), reprinted in Participation, the compilation edited by Claire Bishop– l (London : Whitechapel and Cambride: MIT Press, 2006). The translation from the French is by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis, and was  originally published in a book by the same title, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

“The growth in artistic consumption we have witnessed in recent years should be placed, nevertheless, in relation to the increasing uniformity of the life of individuals in the urban context.  It should be emphasized that the quasi-vitaminic function of this artistic consumption is not univocalo.  It can move in a direction parallel to uniformization, or play the role of an operator in the bifuraction of subjectivity…. this is the dilemma every artist has to confront:  ‘to go with the flow,’ as advocated, for example, by the Transavantgarde and the apostles of postmodernism, or to work for the renewal of aesthetic practices relayed by other inovative sements of the Socius, at the rist of encountering incomprehension and of being iolated by the majority of people.

“Of course, it’s not at all clear how one can claim to hold creative singularity and potential social mutations together… it nonetheless remains the case that the imense crisis sweeping the planet– chronic unemployment, ecological devastation, dereugulation of modes of valorization uniquely based on profit or State assistance — open
the fild up to a different deployment of aesthetic  components…. today our societies have their backs up against the wall; to survive they will lhave to develop research, innoviation and creation still  further — the very dimensions which imply an awareness of the strictly aesthetic techniques of rupture and suture.   Something is detached and starts to work for itself,  just as it can work for you if you can ‘agglomerate’ yourself to such a process.  Such a questioning concerns every institutional domain; for example, the school.  How do you make a class operate like a work of art?  What are the possible paths to its singularization, the source of a ‘purchase on existence’ for the children who  compose it? And on the register of what I once called ‘molecular revolutions,’ the Third World conceals treasures which deserve to be explored….

“Perhaps artists today constitute the final lines along which primordial existential questions are foldeed.  How are the new fields of the possible going to be fitted out?  How are sounds and forms going to be arranged so that the subjectivity adjacent to them remains in movement, and really alive?


empyre forum


One Response to “Hunger for Change: France / Argentina”

  1. ‘∞’ Etcétera… curada por Claire Fontaine « Grupo Etcetera… Says:

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