Claire and I are in the midst of something fantastic: a Continental Drift from Chicago to the Argentine city of Rosario and beyond, through the Pampa to Bahía Blanca, a port ten hours south of Buenos Aires. This trip is a chance to meet old friends again and see what’s been happening since the 2001 insurrection, which brought huge changes to politics and society in a country deeply shaken by neoliberal globalization. We’re also trying to compare different experiences with mechanized agriculture, because the Pampa, just like the Midwest, is a blue-sky experiment in genetically modified food production on a massive scale. In the area around Rosario, GMO soy has been an agro-boom since the early 1990s, interrupted for only a few years by the collapse of the finance boom in 2001. Nowadays prices are rocketing upwards and the big landowners are pushing the expansion of the soy frontier. All of this is quite foreign and yet wierdly familiar. In the past Rosario was known as “the Argentine Chicago” because its grain production was key to the formation of global prices. So one of the titles we’re using for our project makes Argentines laugh out loud: we call it “Chicago, the Rosario of the USA.”
The trip goes beyond ourselves, because we are invited here by the El Levante group of Mauro Machado, Lorena Cardona and Graciela Carnevale, whom Claire and I met on our previous trip here in 2005. I’ve had the occasion to write about Graciela’s work in the late 1960s, when she was part of the Tucumán Arde project — an essential landmark for the transformation of art practice into something very different, which still has no name and which maybe we are carrying out in a contemporary form. Tucumán Arde was an attempt by a large group of artists, sociologists, film-makers and photographers to investigate the transformation of the sugar industry in a distant province that was portrayed as a tourist paradise, while for its inhabitants it was becoming a living hell. You’ve got to understand that at the time (1968) Argentina was under the Onganía dictatorship, a prelude to the later military junta. At that time, the country was hooked directly into the latest developments in contemporary art, with fascinating experiments that are not so well known outside. Yet it wasn’t enough for these impatient artists. Graciela says that the work became an investigation to understand a context which had become completely incomprehensible. The aim was then to find a language which could allow the artists to intervene in a real political struggle — in this case by engaging in a stealth investigation, then immediately holding a highly public exhibition in a union hall, using media, information, testimony and public activities of resistance. When I first learned about this project it seemed to have everything to do with the counter-globalization protests of the early 2000s (see “The Revenge of the Concept” part 4). There would be much more to say about Tucumán Arde, but let’s get on to what we’re about, which is something else again.
What we’ve been doing with our friends from El Levante is an experiment in the collective perception of contemporary territories: first around Rosario, then on the 800-kilometer trip across the Pampa, and now in Bahía Blanca. This involves visiting all kinds of places and meeting all kinds of people: in the major port around Rosario from which most of Argentina’s exports leave; in gardening and home-building projects around the city; at the Bolsa de Comercio which is something like the neoliberal brain of the whole operation; at farms and in homes on the Pampa, along the old French rail line that leads to Bahía Blanca; and now in the port of Ingeniero White, where people from the Museo del Puerto are taking us out to the huge grain exporting installations and petrochemical plants. Each day on this trip brings us into contact with the scales of contemporary existence, from the intimate and territorial to the national, continental and global. In our exchanges of emails with the friends of from El Levante we struck a chord somewhere early on and realized we had had crisscrossing inspirations, based on the desire to go beyond the usual limits of our practices, to meet people in different walks of life and to find out something more precise about how the world is being made before our eyes and in our own bodies, even if mostly we are not aware of it. The point of this continental drift is to find out how contemporary territories are produced, and how inhabitants and even drifters take part in that production.
One of the very interesting things in Rosario were the two discussion evenings when we brought together people from different professions and cultural backgrounds to talk about the current social and political questions, which are very intense in Argentina these days. One gets the impression that history is happening right now. Last night I spoke with Sergio Raimondi of the Museo del Puerto, who said that they are experiencing a strange kind of time that increases the amount of past: the present becomes so brusquely different that it is cut off from what went before. For example, a huge petro-chemical plant was installed in the mid-nineties, the ports were privatized, the national grain board was dissolved and every aspect of exportation was taken over by multinationals, which then made a bid to replace the public sphere entirely, by selectively funding schools, cultural programs etc. However all that culminated in the monetary crisis and the insurrection which brought the country to an economic standstill for over a year. When I first came in 2004, and then again when Claire and I came for a longer stay in 2005, people were enthusiastic and passionate but also shaken, cynical, highly uncertain about the future. Since then something has deeply changed: folks we are meeting now seem broadly convinced that after such desperate straights, they must rebuild some kind of national-popular state that can stand against the forces within the country that seek only their own benefit and could easily again lead everything to ruin. This means that you constantly encounter something unimaginable in today’s USA or in most of Europe: you meet people who believe in their capacity to contribute to a national project that is egalitarian and participatory, with the conviction that only this can save them from the chaos of the global market. The nineties are widely considered to have been a time of resistance, when everything was being torn down, when the remains of the welfare state were being destroyed along with most people’s livelihood. Now is understood to be a time of construction.
The geopolitical analysis of the Continental Drift seminars was founded on the intuition and the direct perception of something like Karl Polanyi’s “double movement”: global capitalism was expanding vertiginously but it was also destroying its own foundations, and its expansion was being checked by a self-protective movement which could take the form of continental blocs, nationalist projects, security fever, brutal aggression. In the United States from the attacks of 2001 onward we saw an incredible wave of nationalist protectionism and fear, accompanied by the horrors of outright war, even as the illusions of a false prosperity were pushed to the point of financial collapse. At the same time this geopolitical analysis was inspired and encouraged by the emergence of strong left projects at the national level in Latin America, and also by the moves toward the formation of a continental bloc that could help Latin Americans develop a more solid regional economy at a distance from the wild swings of financial capitalism. We wanted to understand these changes, we wanted to grasp how they were affecting us on the national scale, but we also wanted to begin changing ourselves by developing a practice of perception and expression, a new way of inhabiting and forming solidarities. All of this came together in 2008, with the Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor — a territorial practice of “cartography with your feet,” developed by a bunch of friends who have taken the name of the Compass Group.
Today, a decade after the high points of the counter-globalization movement, it’s quite amazing to see the transformation of the political debate in Argentina. The Keynesian measures of the two Kirchner governments (Nestor, then his wife Cristina Fernandez) have made a positive impact on a majority of the left, and to judge from the votes, on a majority of the country. Strong policy moves include the imposition of a special tax on windfall profits from soy and other grain exports, allowing the country to climb out its debt; the expropriation of private retirement insurance companies for an egalitarian national plan; and most importantly, the trail and conviction of a large number of assassins from the time of the murderous Videla dictatorship, who had been granted immunity by earlier governments and left to continue poisoning Argentine society. Neoliberalism is now recognized as a colossal failure by very many people; but there is still a major struggle with its remaining proponents, along with the struggle to develop some kind of functioning national and perhaps continental filter that can regulate transnational flows and stimulate investment in constructive projects that give people some chance to participate in the productive process. It is as though an epochal corner has been turned, revealing a new landscape with very different challenges.
On our excursions and in our meetings, at our lunch breaks and during our car rides and in whatever chance encounters we stumble upon, these same debates come constantly back to the fore — to the point where your head spins and nothing is the same as it seemed one minute ago. Yesterday in the small provincial town of Colonel Suarez we visited a shoe factory employing 4,200 persons, humming with activity, even though it broke down and closed its doors in 2002 leaving the area in crisis. This is cultural labor at its most basic level, the classic fashion commodity of the present: branded tennis shoes, high-status items with lots of crazy glitz. The day before we had met the caretaker of a 2000-hectare farm, whose absentee owners held 40,000 hectares — typical of the old Argentinian oligarchy which gained its rural wealth by exterminating the native peoples. Later that afternoon we were talking with a wonderfully friendly and generous couple who supplemented the income from their 140 hectares by running harvesting machinery for other small producers around the region. We heard our fellow traveller Leandro’s father playing the polka on his accordion as we ate flame-roasted beef in a village of Volga River Germans — people who left Bavaria in the 18th century to live in Russia, then migrated again the 19th century to Argentina. Today we walked along an industrial corridor from the old national grain board (now operated by the multinational group Bunge) to the massive silos and quays of Ingeniero White, in the company of people from the neighborhood, listening to their stories of yesterday and today. Crossing the bridge into the port city constructed with English capital and immigrant labor at the turn of the last century, we saw a bunch of strange cast-off stuff on the left-hand side: old iron stays from some forgotten dock, a beautiful wooden fishing boat, a pathway made of railroad ties, an old building of corrugated iron built on short stilts and painted in bright fresh colors. It took a while to realize that this was the mythical Museo del Puerto.
Mythical because this small and extremely friendly archive of local material culture has a reputation for exploring the role of ordinary people in constructing the Americas, and for bringing the struggles of the past directly into the complexity of the present. You enter through the dining room, which already says a lot. Later on there will be food and words and welcoming. Outside, where it already begins, there is a bright yellow sign next to an old rusty anchor. The lettering reads:
The AIR you are breathing is not natural. It has a history that dates back to the industrial revolution. Inhale: there is the dust of grain, the emanations of the petrochemical plants, a million volatile particles of production.
Stop, look, listen, breath it in. The mind reels, the head spins. Even the seasons are upside down here. The sense is common, but it’s different: neoliberalism in reverse. Something has changed, maybe even for the better. Welcome to the worlds of continental drift.