The Fourfold Matrix
of Contemporary Social Movements

Published in the catalog of Living As Form. Dedicated to Graciela Carnevale.

Texto en español.

Art into life: Is there any more persistent utopia in the history of vanguard expressions?

Shedding its external forms, its inherited techniques, its specialized materials, art becomes a living gesture, rippling out across the sensible surface of humanity. It creates an ethos, a mythos, an intensely vibrant presence; it migrates from the pencil, the chisel or the brush into ways of doing and modes of being. From the German Romantics to the Beatnik poets, from the Dadaists to the Living Theater, this story has been told again and again, each time with a startling twist on the same underlying phrase. At stake is more than the search for stylistic renewal; it’s about transforming your everyday existence.

Theory into revolution: Is there any more ardent desire for the future of leftist thinking?

The fundamental demand of the thinkers and rioters of May ’68 was also “change life” (changer la vie). But from a revolutionary viewpoint, the consequences of intimate desire should be economic and structural. Situationist theory had no meaning without immediate communization. “Marx, Mao, Marcuse” was a slogan for the streets. The self-overcoming of art was understood as just one part of a program to vanquish class divides, transform labor relations and put alienated individuals back in touch with one another.

The ’60s were full of wild fantasies and unrealized potentials; yet significant experiments were undertaken, with consequences extending up to the present. Campus radicalism gave new life to educational alternatives, resulting in large-scale initiatives like the University Without Walls in the United States or the Open University in Britain. The counter-cultural use of hand-held video cameras led to radical media projects like Paper Tiger Television, Deep Dish TV and Indymedia. Politics itself went through a metamorphosis: autonomous Marxism gave rise to self-organized projects all across Europe, while affinity groups based on Quaker conceptions of direct democracy took deep root in the U.S., structuring the anti-nuclear movement, becoming professionalized in the NGOs of the ’80s, then surging back at full anarchist force in Seattle. Since the AIDS movements, activism regained urgency and seriousness, grappling with concrete and progressively more complex issues such as globalization and climate change. Yet, society still tends to absorb the transformations, to neutralize the inventions. The question is not how to aestheticize “living as form,” in order to display the results for contemplation in a museum. The question is how to change the forms in which we are living.

Social movements are vehicles for this metamorphosis. At times they generate historic events, like the occupation of public squares that unfolded across the world in 2011. Through the stoppage of “business as usual” they alter life paths, shift labor routines and career horizons along with laws and governments, and contribute to long-lasting philosophical and affective transfigurations. Yet despite their historic dimensions, the sources of social movements are intimate, aspirational: they grow out of small groups, they crystallize around what Guattari called “non-discursive, pathic knowledge.”1 Their capacity for sparking change is widely coveted in our era. Micro-movements in the form of trends, fashions, and crazes are continually ignited, channeled and fueled by public relations strategists, in order to instrumentalize the upwelling of social desire. Still grassroots groups, vanguard projects and intentional communities continue to take their own lives as raw material, inventing alternate futures and hoping to generate models, possibilities, and tools for others.

Absorbing all this historical experience, social movements have expanded to include at least four dimensions. Critical research is fundamental to today’s movements, which are always at grips with complex legal, scientific, and economic problems. Participatory art is vital to any group taking its issues to the streets, because it stresses a commitment to both representation and lived experience. Networked communications and strategies of mass-media penetration are another characteristic of contemporary movements, because ideas and directly embodied struggles just disappear without a megaphone. Finally, social movement politics consists in the collaborative coordination or “self-organization” of this whole set of practices, gathering forces, orchestrating efforts and helping to unleash events and to deal with their consequences. These different strands interweave, condense into gestures and events, and disperse again, creating the dynamics of the movement. A fourfold matrix replaces any single, easily definable initiative.

No doubt the complexity of this fourfold process explains the rarity of effective interventionism. But that’s the challenge of political engagement. What has to be grasped, if we want to renew our democratic culture, is the convergence of art, theory, media, and politics into a mobile force that oversteps the limits of any professional sphere or disciplinary field, while still drawing on their knowledge and technical capacities. This essay tries to develop a concept for the fourfold matrix of contemporary social movements. The name I propose for it is eventwork.

But wait a minute—if we’re talking grassroots activism, why insist on complexity? Why even mention the disciplines and the professions? The reason is that the grassroots has gone urban and suburban and rurban, and it’s us: the precarious middle-class subjects of contemporary capitalist societies, which are based on knowledge, technology, and communication. Our disciplines create these societies. Our professions seem only able to maintain them as they are. The point is to explore how we can act, and what role art, theory, media, and self-organization can have in effective forms of intervention.

Like the sociologist Ulrich Beck in his book on The Risk Society, I think the movement outside the modernist institutions has been made necessary by the failure of those institutions to respond to the dangers created by modernization itself.2 The dangers of modernization grew clearer at the close of the postwar period, when the Keynesian-Fordist mode of capitalist development revealed its inherent links with inequality, war, ecological destruction, and the repression of minorities. It became apparent that not only “hard” science, but also the social sciences and humanities were helping to produce the problems; yet nothing in their internal criteria of truth or legitimacy or professional success could restrain them. The most conscious and articulate exponents of each of the separated disciplines then felt the need to develop a critique of their own field, and to merge that critique into an attempt at social transformation. Only in this way could they find an immanent response to the sources of their own alienation.3

So there is a paradox of eventwork: it starts from within the disciplines whose limits it seeks to overcome. In this text I’ll start with the internal contradictions of avant-garde art in the late ’60s, and with the attempt by one group of Latin American artists to go beyond them. With that narrative as a backdrop, I’ll sketch out the emergence of an expanded realm of activism in the post-Fordist era, from the ’70s up to now. The aim is to discover some basic ideas that could change the way each of us conceives of the relations between our daily life, our politics, and our discipline or profession.

In this movement, certain truisms will run up against their shortfalls. What I want to make clear is that despite their rhetorical attractions, the twin formulas of “art into life” and “theory into revolution” are too simplistic to describe the pathways that lead people beyond their professional and institutional limits. The failure to describe those paths with the right mix of urgency and complexity leads to the bromides of “relational art” (intimacy on display in a sterile white cube) or the radical chic of “critical theory” (revolution for sale in an academic bookstore). Through their weakness and emptiness, these failures of cultural critique provoke reactionary calls for a return to the modernist disciplines (as when we are enjoined to restrict artistic practice to some version of “pure form”). The result is a disjunction from the present and a lingering state of collective paralysis, which is the most striking characteristic of left politics today, at least in the U.S.

As living conditions deteriorate in the capitalist democracies, one pressing question is how artists, intellectuals, media makers, and political organizers can come together to help change the course of collective existence. The answer lies in a move across institutional boundaries and modernist norms. Each of the separated disciplines needs to define the paradox of eventwork—and thereby open up a place for itself, beyond itself, in the fourfold matrix of contemporary social movements.


Let’s go straight to the most impressive example of eventwork in the late ’60s, which unfolds not in New York or London or Paris, but in Argentina. This was the moment of the country’s industrial take-off, when an expanding middle class enjoyed close links to cultural developments in the metropolitan centers. In capitalist societies, utopian longings often accompany periods of economic growth, because the abundance of material and symbolic production promises real use values. But since mid-1966 Argentina was under the grip of a military dictatorship, which repressed individual freedoms and imposed brutal programs of economic rationalization. Under these conditions, a circle of self-consciously “vanguard” artists in Buenos Aires and Rosario began to sense the futility of the rapid cycles of formal innovation that had marked the decade of pop, op, happenings, minimalism, performance and conceptualism. They became keenly aware that inventions designed to shatter bourgeois norms were being used as signs of prestige and intellectual superiority by the elites, to the point where, as León Ferrari wrote, “the culture created by the artist becomes his enemy.”4 Therefore these artists began an increasingly violent break with the gallery and museum circuits that had formerly sustained their practices, using transgressive works, actions and declarations to curtail their own participation in officially sanctioned shows.

By mid-summer of 1968 they decided to organize an independent congress, the “First National Meeting on Avant-Garde Art.” The goal was to define their autonomy from the elite cultural system, to formulate their social ideal—a Guevarist revolution—and to plan the realization of a work that would embody their aims.5 In this work, the aesthetic material, as Ferrari explained, would no longer be articulated according to formal innovations, but instead with clearly referential and immediately graspable “meanings” (significados) which themselves would be subjected to transgressive profanation, in order to generate a powerful denunciation of existing social conditions. Echoing Ferrari’s approach in the language of semiotics and information theory, another contributor to the meeting, Nicolás Rosa, insisted that “the work is experimental when it proceeds to the rupture of the cultural model.” This rupture was to be frank, direct and irreversible, enacted in a visual, verbal and gestural language that would allow anyone to participate. It would also be disseminated in the mass media. Situated outside the elite institutions and linked to the social context of its realization, the work would “produce an effect similar to that of political action,” in the words of the artist Juan Pablo Renzi, who had drafted the framing text for the meeting. And because “ideological statements are easily absorbed,” Renzi continued, the revolutionary work “transforms the ideology into a real event from within its own structure.” Such was the theoretical program that led to Tucumán Arde, or “Tucumán is Burning.”

Tucumán Arde: photos from the research phase

What was meant by the title? The group sought to denounce the process of restructuring that had been imposed on the sugar industry in the province of Tucumán, resulting in widespread unemployment and hunger for the workers. Beyond Tucumán itself, they wanted to reveal the larger program of economic rationalization being carried by the national bourgeoisie under dictatorial command, in line with U.S. and European interests. To do so would require the production of “counter-information” on the strictly semiotic level, using factual analysis to oppose the government propaganda campaign that surrounded the restructuring. So the artists collaborated with students, professors, filmmakers, photographers, journalists and a left-wing union, engaging in a covert fact-finding mission which they disguised as a traditional cultural project. In the course of two trips they visited fields and factories, circulated questionnaires, interviewed, filmed, and photographed workers and their families, putting their preliminary analysis to the test of experience. This on-site research was the first phase of the project, culminating in a press conference where they ripped the veil from their activities and explained the real purpose of their work, hoping—in vain, as it turned out—to raise a scandal and push their messages out into the mass media.

An effective denunciation would also require the production of what the artists called an “over-informational circuit” (circuito sobreinformacional) which would operate on the perceptual level, in order to overcome the persuasive power of the official propaganda both quantitatively and qualitatively.6 For the second phase they formulated a multilayered exhibition strategy, beginning with teaser campaigns that introduced potential publics to the words “Tucumán” and “Tucumán Arde” through posters, playbills, cinema screens and graffiti interventions. They then created two multimedia exhibitions in union halls in Rosario and Buenos Aires, attempting in both cases to use not a single room but the entire building. They deployed press clippings and images from the government propaganda campaign and contrasted these to economic and public-health statistics as well as diagrams indicating the links between industrial interests, local and national officials, and foreign capital. They displayed documentary photographs, projected films, delivered speeches, and circulated a critical study prepared by the collaborating sociologists. At roughly half-hour intervals the lights were cut, dramatizing the kinds of infrastructural failures that were typically endured by people in the provinces. Bitter coffee was served to give the public a taste of the hunger affecting a cane-growing region where food, and sugar itself, was in chronically short supply.

Tucumán Arde: event at CGT Rosario

The exhibition strategy was a success. The opening in Rosario on November 3 attracted over a thousand people on the first night, resulting in a prolongation of the show for two weeks instead of one. It was restaged in Buenos Aires on November 25, this time including the covertly produced “Third Cinema” film, La Hora de los Hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, whose projection was halted every half hour for immediate discussion. The level of courage implied by this process, under conditions of military rule, is difficult to imagine. The show in Buenos Aires was censored on its second day by threats against the union, exposing the repressive character of the regime and inviting a further radicalization of the country’s cultural producers.

Because of its collective organization, its experimental nature, its investigatory process, its tight articulation of analytic and aesthetic means, its oppositional stance and its untimely closure, Tucumán Arde has become something of a myth in Argentina and abroad. The American critic Lucy Lippard, who would later be active in the Art Workers Coalition, repeatedly claimed that she had been radicalized by her meeting with members of the group on a visit to Argentina in October 1968.7 The French journal Robho devoted a dossier to the work in 1971, emphasizing its break with bourgeois art and its revolutionary potentials. In its more recent reception, which has included a large number of shows and articles from the late 1990s on, the project has been linked to “global conceptualism,” and to an interventionist form of media art based on semiotic analysis.8 This attention from the museum world testifies to an intense public interest in a process that emphasized common speech, direct action and a break with bourgeois cultural forms. But that same attention opens up the questions of absorption, banalization, and neutralization. In the most thoroughly documented analysis, the Argentine art historian Ana Longoni vindicates the aims of the project by asking the obvious disciplinary question: “Where’s the vanguard art in Tucumán Arde?” She responds: “If Tucumán Arde can be confused with a political act, it is because it was a political act. The artists had realized a work that extended the limits of art to zones that did not correspond, that were external.”9

So what was achieved by the move to these zones external to art? At a time when institutional channels were blocked and the modernizing process had become a dictatorial nightmare, the project was able to orchestrate the efforts of a broad division of cultural labor, capable of analyzing complex social phenomena. It then disseminated the results of this labor through the expressive practices of an event, in order to produce awareness and contribute to active resistance. What resulted was a change in the finality, or indeed the use-value, of cultural production. As one statement indicates, the project was conceived “to help make possible the creation of an alternative culture that can form part of the revolutionary process.”10 Or as the Robho dossier put it, “The extra imagination found in Tucumán Arde, if compared for example to the usual agitation campaign, comes expressly from a practice of, and a preliminary reflection on, the notions of event, participation, and proliferation of the aesthetic experience.”11 That’s a perfect definition of eventwork.

Its effectiveness comes from a perceptual, analytic, and expressive collaboration, which lends an affective charge to the interpretation of a real-world situation. Such work is capable of touching people, of involving them, not through a retreat to the exalted dreamland of a white cube, but instead within the everyday complexity of life in a technocratic society, where the most elusive possibility is that of shared resistance to the vast, encroaching programs of government and industry. My question is how to extend that resistance into the present, how to make it last past each singular event. Graciela Carnevale, who preserved the archive at great risk throughout the Videla dictatorship, said this to me in a conversation, “There is always a great difficulty in how to transmit this experience or make it perceptible, beyond the information about it.”12 Her dilemma is that of everyone who has been involved in a significant social movement: “How to share an experience that produced such great transformations in oneself?”


The four vectors of eventwork converge into action beneath the pressure of injustice and the anguishing awareness of risk, in situations where your own discipline, profession, or institution proves incapable of responding, so that some other course of action must be taken. “I don’t know what to do but I’m gonna do it,” as my comrades in the Ne Pas Plier collective used to say. Activism is the making-common of a desire and a resolve to change the forms of living, under uncertain conditions, without any guarantees. When this desire and resolve can be shared, the intensive assemblage of a social movement brings both the agonistic and the utopian dimension into daily experience, into leisure hours, passionate relations, the home, the bed, your dreams. It brings public responsibility into private passion. That’s living as political form.

Ne Pas Plier: Protest with jobless association l’Apeis, Paris, 1994

Of course it’s not supposed to be that way in modern society, where an institution exists, in theory at least, to address every need or problem. Experts manage risks on government time; artists produce the highest sublimations of entertainment; the media respond faithfully to popular demands for information; and social movements are the disciplined actions of organized laborers seeking higher wages, all beneath the watchful eye of professional politicians. That’s the theory, anyway. This functional division of industrial society reached its peak of democratic legitimacy in the decades after WWII, when the Keynesian-Fordist welfare state claimed to achieve stable growth, income equality and social benefits for an expanding “middle class,” which included unionized factory laborers alongside a broad range of university-trained technicians, service providers and managers. What revealed itself in 1968 and afterwards, however, was not just the inability of the industrial state to go on delivering the goods for that expanding middle class. What revealed itself, with particular intensity inside the educational and cultural circuits made possible by economic growth, was a shared awareness that the theory doesn’t work, and that despite its supposedly corrective institutions, capitalist modernization itself produces conditions of gendered and racialized exploitation, neocolonial expropriation, mental and emotional manipulation, and ever-worsening environmental pollution.

The sense of a threat lodged within the utopian promises of Keynesian social democracy and Fordist industrial modernization was a major motivator for the emergence of the so-called “new social movements,” which could not be reduced to workplace bargaining demands and which could not be adequately conceived within the frameworks of traditional class analysis. In these movements, to the dismay of an older and more doctrinaire political generation, issues of alienation and therefore of identity began coming ineluctably to the fore.13 The people involved in the civil rights and antiwar campaigns, and then in a far wider range of struggles, had to bring new causes, arenas, and strategies of action into some kind of alignment with thorny questions of perception knowledge, communication, motivation, identity, trust, and even self-analysis, all of which became only more acute as immediate material necessity receded in the consumer societies. Artistic expression now appeared as a necessarily ambiguous mediator between personal conviction and public representation. The intersections of theory and daily life became more dense and entangled, with the result that each movement, or even each campaign, turned into something original and surprising, the momentary public crystallization of a singular group process. The simultaneous inadequacy and necessity of this way of doing politics has come to define the entire period of post-Fordism: it is our actuality, our present tense, at least from a progressive-left perspective. If an intervention like Tucumán Arde can still appear familiar, in its modes of organization and operation if not in its ideologies and revolutionary horizons, it’s because the basic sets of objective and subjective problems underlying it are still very much with us today.

The similarities and the differences will come into focus if we think back on one of the most influential social movements of the post-Fordist period, which is AIDS activism. I wasn’t part of that movement and I can’t bear witness to its intensities. But what’s impressive from a distance is the collective reaction to a situation of extreme risk, where the issue is not so much the technical capacity as the willingness of a democratic society to respond to dangers that weigh disproportionately on stigmatized minorities. Rather than widespread police and military repression, as under a dictatorship, it is the perception of an intimate threat that lays the basis for militant action. A totalizing ideological framework like Marxism can no longer be counted on to structure this perception. Instead, subjectivity and daily experience become crucial. The questions of who you are, who others think you are, what rights you are accorded and what rights you are ready to demand, are all life or death issues, felt and spontaneously expressed before being formulated and represented. A recent book called Moving Politics makes clear how much these affective dimensions mattered, after a threshold of indignation had been crossed and grief could be transformed into anger.14 At the micro level, the “event” could be a glance or a tear in private, a gesture or a speech in a meeting, no less than a public action or a media intervention. These are all ways to elicit and modulate affects, which mobilize activist groups while exerting a powerful force on others—whether friends or strangers, elected officials or anonymous spectators.

ACT UP: Let the record show… (1987) — window installation, NYC

Yet indignation and rage, along with solidarity and love for fellow human beings, can only be the immediate foundations of a social movement. Critical research, symbolic expression, media and self-organization were the operative vectors for AIDS activism, just as they had been for a vanguard project like Tucumán Arde. At first the issues themselves had to be defined, and they were highly complex, involving the social rights to fund or instigate certain lines of research, to legalize or ingest certain kinds of medications, to receive or dispense certain kinds of publicly supported care. Scientific and legal investigations, often performed by AIDS sufferers, were an essential part of this effort.15 At the same time, it became apparent that the rights to treatment and care were dependent not only on scientific and legal arguments, but also on the ways that risk groups were represented in the media, and on the ways that politicians monitored, solicited or encouraged those representations, in order to advance their own policies and ensure their own reelection.16 The struggle had to be brought into the fields of education and cultural production, whose influence on the structures of feeling and belief should not be underestimated. But at the same time, it had to reach into the mass media. This breakthrough to the media required the staging of striking events on the ground, often with resources borrowed from visual art and performance. And all that entailed the coordination of a far-flung division of labor under more or less anarchic conditions, where there could be no director, no hierarchy, no flow chart, etc. To give some insight into this complex interweave of AIDS activism, I’d like to quote the art critic and activist Douglas Crimp, from an interview conducted by Tina Takemoto:

Crimp: Within ACT UP, there was a sophistication about the uses of representation for activist politics. This awareness came not only from people who knew art theory but also from people who worked in public relations, design, and advertising … . So ACT UP was a weird hybrid of traditional leftist politics, innovative postmodern theory, and access to professional resources … . One of the most emblematic images associated with ACT UP was the SILENCE=DEATH logo, composed of a simple pink triangle on a black background with white sans serif type. This image was created by a group of gay designers who organized the Silence=Death Project before ACT UP even started. Although they didn’t design the logo for ACT UP, they lent it to the movement, and it was used on T-shirts as an official emblem.17

Again, what lends resonance to the event is the difference of the people involved, and therefore of the techniques and knowledges they are able to bring to bear, whenever they find the inspiration, the need, or the courage to overstep their disciplinary boundaries and start to work at odds with the dominant functions. That all of this should only become possible under the menace of illness and the direct threat of death is, I think, of the essence: it’s not something one should avoid or shirk away from. Social movements arise and spread in the face of existential threats. The issue then, in our blinkered and controlled and self-satisfied societies, is the perception of a threat and the modulation of affect in the face of it—or in other words, the way you rupture a cultural pattern, the way you motivate yourself and others to undertake a course of action. This paradoxical figure of a social solidarity founded on an experience of rupture brings us back to the larger, trans-generational question of eventwork, exactly as Graciela Carnevale expressed it: “How to share an experience that produced such great transformations in oneself?”

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve also participated in a large movement, or really a constellation of social movements: the global justice movements opposing financially driven globalization. Starting around 1994, they arose across the earth, in Mexico, India, France, Britain, the U.S., etc. From the beginning these movements interacted very extensively, first through labor, NGO and anarchist networks, then in counter-summits mounted in the face of the transnational institutions such as the WTO and the IMF, then through the veritable popular universities constituted by the World Social Forums. The people I worked with, mainly in Europe but also in the Americas, were able to twist or subvert some of the utopian energies of the Internet boom, combining them with labor struggles, ecological movements and indigenous demands to create a political response to corporate globalization. In the course of these movements, the relations between critical and philosophical investigation, artistic processes, direct action, and tactical media opened up a vast new field of practice, more vital than anything I had previously known. The Argentine insurrection of December 2001 was a culminating moment of this global cycle of struggles; and for those involved with art, not only the history but also the actuality of social movements in Argentina seemed to confirm the idea that aesthetic activity could be placed into a new framework, one that was no longer freighted with the strict separations of the modernist institutions.18 All this convinced me that contemporary art in its most challenging and experimental forms has indeed been suffering from the “cultural confinement” that Robert Smithson diagnosed long ago, and that its real possibilities unfold on more engaging terrains, whose access has mostly been foreclosed by the institutional frameworks of museums, galleries, magazines, university departments, etc.19 The concept of eventwork is based directly on these experiences with contemporary social movements, which have generated important cooperative and communicational capacities and helped to revitalize left political culture.

Global protest, February 15, 2003

It’s obvious, however, that the global justice movements were not able to overturn the ruling consensus on capitalist development and economic growth. In fact, the recent financial crisis has both vindicated the arguments we began making as much as fifteen years ago, and also shown those arguments to be politically powerless, incapable of contributing to any concrete change. A similar verdict was delivered to environmental activists by the debacle of the Copenhagen climate summit.

All of that fits into a larger pattern. If I had to offer a one-sentence version of what I’ve learned about society since 1994, it might go like this: “The entire edifice of speculative, computer-managed, gentrifying, militarized, over-polluted, just-in-time, debt-driven neoliberal globalization has taken form, since the early ’80s, as a way to block the institutional changes that were first set into motion by the new social movements of the ’60s-’70s.” In other words, cultural confinement does not just affect experimental art, as Smithson seems to have believed. Instead it applies to all egalitarian, emancipatory, and ecological aspirations in the post-Fordist period, which now reveals itself to be a period of pure crisis management, one that has not produced any fundamental solutions to the problems of industrial modernization, but has only exported them across the earth. Yet those problems are serious; they have accumulated on every level. What’s the use of aesthetics if you don’t have eyes to see? It would not be a metaphor to say that the U.S., in particular, has been living on credit since the outset of the post-Fordist period. Now, slowly but inexorably, the bill is coming due.


The question I’ve tried to raise is this: how do cultural practices become political acts? Or to put it more sharply: how does the operative force of a cultural activity, or indeed of a discipline, somehow break through the normative and legal limits imposed by a profession? How to create an institutional context that offers a chance of mutual recognition and validation for people attempting to give their particular skills and practices a broader meaning and a greater effectiveness?

These questions can be framed, in an inversing mirror, by an image from the wave of protest that swept over the state of Wisconsin in the face of Governor Scott Walker’s ultimately successful bid to impose an austerity plan that includes an end to the right of collective bargaining. The image is a protest snap from someone’s digital camera, reproduced widely on the web.20 It shows a middle-class white woman standing in front of an American flag, next to a Beaux-Arts statue. She holds a sign in her hands that says in bold capital letters: “I AM NOT REPLACEABLE, I AM PROFESSIONAL.”

Who is this woman? An artist? A curator? An art historian? A cultural critic? Why does she proclaim her security in this way? Does she still have a job? Does she still have rights? And how about ourselves? Where do our rights come from? How are they maintained? How are they produced?

It seems to me that in the United States right now, as in other countries, there is a rising feeling of existential threat. Endless warfare, invasive surveillance, economic precariousness, intensified exploitation of the environment, increasing corruption: all of these mark the entry into an era of global tension—a tension that has not been seen since the 1930s. As economic collapse continues and climate change becomes more acute, these dangers will become far more concrete. We urgently need to prepare for the moments when adherence to a social movement becomes inevitable. Yet it appears that laws, ethical codes and the requirements of professionalism in all-absorbing, highly competitive careers, still make it impossible for most Americans to find the time, the place, the medium, the format, the desire, and above all the collective will that would help them to resist the threats. This reminds us of what Thoreau taught in his time, namely that being a citizen of a democratic country means always being on the edge of starting a revolution. Something about our forms of living and working has to change, not just aesthetically and not just in theory, but pragmatically, in terms of the kinds of activity and their modes of organization.21 Or as Doug Ashford once put it, “Civil disobedience is an art history, too.”22

This essay was written in the summer of 2011, while major social movements continued to unfold across Europe and the Middle East, and a dead calm weighed on the U.S. As we go to press, the game has changed. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country have taken to the streets, set up encampments in public squares, and begun activating all the social, intellectual, and cultural resources at their disposal in order to carry out a deep and searching critique of inequality. Alongside organizers, researchers and media activists, artists have played a role, which continues to expand as more people overstep the boundaries of their disciplinary identities. Social movements come in great waves, generating unpredictable consequences: no one knows what this one will leave behind. But the inspiration of Wisconsin has been fulfilled and its paradoxes have been overcome. Floating above crowds across the country, a very different sign could be seen, pointing to what now appears to be a precarious destiny: “LOST MY JOB, FOUND AN OCCUPATION.”




* Concepts of eventwork have previously been developed by Suely Rolnik, “Politics of Flexible Subjectivity: The Event Work of Lygia Clark,” in Terry Smith, ed. Antinomies of Art and Culture (Duke U.P., 2009); and also by Sylvia Maglione and Graeme Thomson in their exhibition “Blown Up! Eventwork” (2009), documented at http://facsoflife.wordpress.com/blown-up. The notion developed here is somewhat different, but I am grateful to both these inspirations.

1. Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: an Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm (Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 25.

2. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage, 1992, 1st German edition 1986).

3. The most striking example of this self-critique in the social sciences is the reaction of anthropologists to their discipline’s participation in the Vietnam War; see for example Dell Hymes, ed., Reinventing Anthropology (New York: Random House, 1972).

4. León Ferrari, “The Art of Meanings” (1968) in Inés Katzenstein, ed., Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avante-Garde (New York: MoMA, 2004), p. 312.

5. Four typescripts of texts delivered at this meeting are preserved in the archive of Graciela Carnevale; they are the sorces for this paragraph Three of them (including the one by León Ferrari quoted above) are translated in Listen Here Now! ibid., pp. 306-18; the fourth, by Nicolás Rosa, is reproduced in Spanish in Ana Longoni and Mariano Mestman, Del Di Tella a “Tucumán Arde”: Vanguardia artística y política en el 68 argentino (Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 2008), pp. 174-78.

<6. See María Teresa Gramuglio and Nicolás Rosa, “Tucumán Arde” (1968), declaration circulated at the Rosario exhibition, reproduced in Del Di Tella a Tucumán Arde, ibid., pp. 233-35. The text is translated under the title “Tucuman Burns” in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds., Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), pp. 76-79; but circuito sobreinformacional is rendered as “informational circuit,” losing a crucial emphasis.

7. Concerning Lippard’s visit to Argentina and her declarations, see Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: UC Press, 2009), pp. 132-38.

8. See Mari Carmen Ramírez, “Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960-1980,” in Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss,, eds., Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin: 1950s-1980s, (New York: Queens Museum of Modern Art, 1999) and Alex Alberro, “A Media Art: Conceptual Art in Latin America,” in Michael Newman and Jon Bird, eds., Rewriting Conceptual Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1999). Another important book is Andrea Giunta, Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). Among major exhibitions featuring the archive of Tucumán Arde are Global Conceptualism (Queens, 1999) Ex Argentina (Berlin 2003); Documenta 12 (Kassel, 2007); and Forms of Resistance (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2007-2008). A copy of the archive of Tucumán Arde has been acquired by the MacBa in Barcelona.

9. Ana Longoni and Mariano Mestman, Del Di Tella a Tucumán Arde, p. 216.

10. “Frente a los acontecimientos políticos….,” unsigned document in the archive of Graciela Carnevale (2 pages), apparently a sketch for a broadside to be distributed at the Rosario exhibition.

11. “Dossier Argentine: Les fils de Marx et de Mondrian,” Robho no. 5-6, Paris, 1971, p. 16.

12. Conversation with Graciela Carnevale, Rosario, Argentina, April 11, 2011.

13. For the concept of “new social movements” and a review of the most prominent theories about them, see Donatella della Porta and Mario Diani, Social Movements: An Introduction, 2d ed. (London: Blackwell, 2006), chap. 1.

14. Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and Act Up’s Fight against AIDS (Chicago: U of C Press, 2009).

15. See Steven Epstein, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: UC Press, 1996).

16. See Douglas Crimp, ed., AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (Boston: MIT Press, 1988).

17. Tina Takemoto, “The Melancholia of AIDS: Interview with Douglas Crimp,” Art Journal, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 2003),

p. 83.

18. For the role of artists in Argentine social movements, see Brian Holmes, “Remember the Present: Representations of Crisis in Argentina, in Escape the Overcode: Artistic Activism in the Control Society (WHW: Van Abbemuseum, Zagreb and Eindhoven, 2009); also available at https://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2007/04/28/remember-the-present. For a book that literally attempts to rewrite the history of contemporary art on the basis of Tucumán Arde, see Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (Texas: U of Texas Press, 2007).

19. Robert Smithson, “Cultural Confinement” (1972), in Nancy Holt, ed. The Writings of Robert Smithson (New York: NYU Press, 1979).

20. See among many other blogs and websites, http://thepragmaticprogressive.org/wp/2011/02/19/a-letter-from-a-union-maid-in-wisconsin (accessed 07/11/11).

21. This is exactly the conclusion of Dan S. Wang and Nicolas Lampert, “Wisconsin’s Lost Strike Moment,” at http://www.justseeds.org/blog/2011/04/wisconsins_lost_strike_moment_1.html.

22. Doug Ashford and 36 others, Who Cares (New York: Creative Time Books, 2006), p. 29.


4 Responses to “EVENTWORK”

  1. diana recagno Says:

    Dear Brian,
    A very interesting point of view in this article. Complex.
    I ask: What can we know about Tavistock Institute, working methodically since 1930s on brain manipulation? USA has worked on this through different universities, corporations, etc…
    Brain washing and plans to make people ” decide ” their ways of living, recently putting into action the technique of ” self aid “.
    It´s just market strategies, more capitalism in action. There is always something new to ” buy “.
    Rand Org., NGOs, supported by USAID in most “underdeveloped countries “, and so on and so forth.
    I would like to know more about this.
    Maybe you can ” clarify ” this DARK matter!

    • Brian Holmes Says:

      Hello Diana!

      There would be a lot to say about any of the subjects you just mentioned. Since I was born in the USA, I feel a sense of responsibility and I spend much of my time (for example: the last three days) looking into exactly such things. Not only in the past, but also in the present.
      If you would like to read something further by myself, with lots of references and links and above all, with reference to a great experimental film that you can surely download, check out this:


      un abrazo, Brian

  2. diana recagno Says:

    Dear Brian,

    Just to say Thanksssssss for your efforts and generosity about things that matter to all of us, specially for the links !

    Abrazos, desde Rosario, tu ciudad también,

  3. EVENTWORK « Continental Drift « Contextual Practice Blog Says:

    […] EVENTWORK « Continental Drift. […]

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