Güeros is the story of a search without an object, and it offers an approach to making political art that dwells not in the illusion of authenticity, but in the real dissonance of complexity.
Güeros is the story of a search without an object, and it offers an approach to making political art that dwells not in the illusion of authenticity, but in the real dissonance of complexity.
Here’s an essay written for 3am Magazine on Marcel Duchamp’s brief stay in Buenos Aires.
In 1918 Marcel Duchamp left New York for Buenos Aires. When friends asked him why he’d chosen such a remote destination, he spoke vaguely of some distant acquaintance who ran a brothel there. The joke, or whatever it was, clearly masked more candid hopes. As strange as it may seem for an artist so apparently committed to a certain degree of cynicism, Argentina does appear to have offered some brief fantasy of renewal and escape. In a sketch made before his departure titled ‘Adieu à Florine’ he annotates his journey south, placing a grandiose question mark over Buenos Aires. Judging from his correspondence, Duchamp was growing increasingly uncomfortable in the United States amid the growing reach of the First World War. In a letter to his friend Jean Crotti, he wrote of wanting to “really make a clean break with this part of the world.” Two months after his arrival though, he came to describe the Argentine capital as “just a big provincial town full of rich people with absolutely no taste, and everything bought in Europe,” finally declaring that “Buenos Aires does not exist.”
Tambíen se puede leer el articulo aquí en español, cortesía de Círculoa.
A musician I know has recently started talking to himself. For the best part of a year he’s been trying to write a composition based upon the work of Michio Kaku. The intricacy of his ambition has driven him mad. Whether anyone’s listening or not, he goes off on strange tangents. The delusions can last for days, but what really bothers him is their remedy. The only things that bring him round are Woody Allen films. He watches them for days on end, sparing himself no minor work. By his own conservative estimate, he’s seen “Scoop” over 40 times.
Although this is clearly absurd, what’s stranger still is that the musician claims he finds absolutely no enjoyment in these compulsive screenings. He believes his obsession simply thrives on his sheer hatred for Allen’s “sentimental abominations” and their “superficial gloss”. Exhausted by the rigorous demands the difficulty of his music places on his days and nights, he seeks fuel in his own contempt. Now though the affliction has metastasised. The binges only leave him even more depleted. To his horror, each crash comes with more frequency. He suffers an addiction to something he hates.
After sharing this with me, the musician went off on one of his tangents: Years ago, a violin instructor told a story that has since stayed with him. It was about a monk who was sent back into the world with a special mission. A remote village, far from the monastery, had recently fallen into disrepute. Troubadours were said to be congregating there, leading the people astray with their crude songs. The monk was sent to oversee the construction of a bell tower that would remind the people of their faith.
Over the months and years that went by in the tower’s slow rising, the monk was left exhausted. Taunted all the time by the noise of the troubadours, he obsessed day and night over the sound of the bell. He lived in a kind of trance, dreaming of how it would finally drown out the songs that had so deranged the world. Everyone came to know the mad monk. When the day of the tower’s completion finally came, even the troubadours gathered in the village square. The monk, intent on witnessing their awe from above, climbed to the tower’s roof and called for the bell to be rung. It was so loud that he was deafened. In shock, he fell from the tower and was killed.
At the end of his story, the musician asked what I thought. I told him it was probably time to seek professional help, but he’d already left the room looking for his VHS copy of “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. When he came back, drenched in sweat, he claimed that he understood the poor monk, that they suffered in the same fight. Woody Allen was a troubadour. People love his films because he sells them glib fantasies masquerading as artful comedies. But, in whose reality can lowly artists and writers afford beautiful apartments in Manhattan? On what planet do neurotics have anything to offer but their sniveling?
He was shouting now, but he managed to hold back the tears. “Why does art need to have anything to do with life though?” I asked, regretting it immediately. “What else is there?” He shot back, nostrils flared, “Life is difficult, art has to be too! How else will it save us?” The tears were streaming down his face now. It was clear he would not have been interested in my answer even if I had one. As we sat in silence watching the film, I realised he really was like the monk. They both believed that between themselves and the things they hated, there lay a distance. It reminded me of a Woody Allen joke: “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone you love.” I stopped chuckling when I realised that I was the one now talking to myself.
Here’s a piece written for Bright Lights Film Journal on ‘Bitter Lake’, Adam Curtis’s latest film.
In a recent interview, the English filmmaker Adam Curtis described finding “hidden levels in the BBC archive” where a vast collection of extraneous footage has been accumulating over the last 70 years. They include everything from eccentric films to the off-cuts of rushes used for news reports and the glitchy recordings of daily satellite feeds. Despite their obscurity, though, these archives are openly available, and if there is a lingering sense of the occult in Curtis’s choice of phrase, it belies the fact that the footage is only hidden insofar as it is merely obsolete. The vast majority of it will undoubtedly be tedious, anathema to either entertainment or the news. An aerial view of shadows drifting over a desert wasteland. The interminable monotony of another barren horizon. Traffic passing down some city street where life simply goes on, forcing the news to construct itself elsewhere.
The Case of the Grinning Cat proved to be one of Chris Marker’s last films. It would be hard to conceive of a more fitting coda for such a rare body of work. All Marker’s symbols and signs are there. We drift around Paris in the years between the fall of the Twin Towers and the Invasion of Iraq. We watch the passing faces at rallies and protests. We’re forced to confront the politician’s spectacle, delineated by the frame of a TV screen. And then, as if to save us from ourselves, there are the cats. We meet Boléro, who spends his days “with his human keeper” in a Metro station, and the giant yellow grinning cats that keep appearing on rooftops all over the city, drawn by the graffiti artist M. Chat.
M. Chat might just as well be M. Marker. Both are the pseudonyms of mysterious artists who, at one time or another, appeared to salvage something from modernity’s ephemera. Marker says of Chat that he “risks his neck to float a smile over the city”. We may say the same of Marker risking his own neck, bearing witness to the violence of his time, returning from his travels with the fleeting smiles of strangers, the quiet suggestion of something beyond history’s nightmare. In his major films, Sans Soleil and A Grin Without a Cat, despite all the crises and nations he crosses, it is the simple image of the human face that his lens keeps drifting back to in all its ambiguous endurance.
Perhaps it’s strange then that Marker himself was rarely photographed. When asked for a headshot after interviews it is said that he would only ever offer a picture of a cat. A teacher I had once claimed she knew someone who lived across from Marker’s apartment in Paris. She never saw anyone come or go, but there was always a cat up on the windowsill. In Agnes Varda’s autobiographical film, The Beaches of Agnes, Marker appears, which is to say a cat appears, speaking with his name. It is no wonder then that Marker took the emergence of all these grinning cats as a sign. They guide his camera through those difficult early years of the twenty-first century, through all the doubt and incoherency, suggesting some promise of affirmation.
But then they vanish. The film ends in their absence. As bombs begin to fall on Baghdad, the cats disappear. Even Boléro is gone from his spot in the Metro station as commuters hurry by in all their anonymity. Marker’s last major film ends with the question: “Have they left us for good?” A few years later, Marker would leave us too. He died in 2012. But it seems that the cats have come back. These photos were taken recently in Lisbon, where the cats have been in residence since 2010. Marker would have been drawn to Lisbon, as he would have been to Athens. He would have wanted to see what this new Europe looks like on its knees. The cat goes in search of trouble and of change.
Isn’t there something ominous in their grins though? Wasn’t it the cat that led Alice further down the rabbit hole? The cat is just a symbol. It can be either ominous or auspicious, depending on the eye of the beholder. Essentially, it’s just a mere image, dubious and typical, like the print of Che Guevara’s face on some cheap t-shirt. But, as Che knew in his Bolivian prison, a symbol’s power resides not in any fixed referent, but in the infinite possibility of its meaning, its discursive truancy. In Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat, where he charts the rise and fall of the European and Latin American left in the run-up to 1973, we’re left with the final image of a U.S. marine gunning down wolves in Vietnam. The savagery of the slaughter acts as a kind of climax to all the violence and trauma we’re left with in the film’s wake, but then there is an inter-title, ambiguous and strange: “Some wolves still survive”. Perhaps we can say the same of the cat and its grin, with its sly suggestion of something beyond history’s fatality.
It is evidence, evidence that can only be fantastic and not scientific, of the disproportion between everyday tactics and a strategic elucidation. Out of all the things everyone does, how much gets written down? – de Certeau
We have moved from the stage of the acceleration of History to that of the acceleration of the Real. This is what ‘the progress’ is: a consensual sacrifice. – Virilio
I see him most evenings on the concourse between the Metropolitan Line platforms at King’s Cross. He’s always running, always separated from the other commuters by his bright yellow cycling jacket and the speed at which he moves. He’s never caught in the slow, shambling pace of the crowd. As I shuffle along with everyone else, this running man takes on the apparition of some great leader at the vanguard against the tyranny of drudgery, refusing to waste a single moment of his time. But what if our leader’s actually mad? Cracked by the battle and its horrors? Forcing himself to live at this frantic pace, desperately fleeing the nets he’s already trapped in? Or maybe there’s another madness at play here, and he’s just waiting for the crowd to catch up with him, until everyone’s moving at a pace more subservient to modernity’s demands; until the technology exists that will oblige us to complete our commutes at the speed of email. Maybe the running man is at the vanguard of something else then, some stranger tyranny of velocity.
Luis Camnitzer is a Uruguyan artist. Last year he had a major retrospective held in Chile. Here’s a link to my review and an introduction to his work. Below is also an interview he was kind enough to commit to on the occasion of the retrospective’s opening.
Camnitzer’s subversive and complex works range between surreal photography to print making and conceptual art. In his art we constantly find the philosophical and the political converging, though his works are far from the tedious hectoring of an ideologue. Instead, it is often characterised just as much by humor as it is by an alluring sense of ambiguity.
In the following interview, Camnitzer discusses his relationship with Chile and Latin American art in general. He was born in Germany but came to South America when his family fled the Second World War. He was raised in Uruguay and now lives and works in New York, though he returns to the subject of Latin America and it’s troubled history constantly in his art and writing. Camnitzer has also worked as a teacher and has written widely on the importance of arts education in the cultivation of critical thinking.
What is your relationship to Chile? When did you first come here and how has the country changed?
Well, the first time I came to Chile I was 13 or 14 years old. It was the first time my parents could afford a trip and my father decided to take me to Chile. It is a remarkable memory because we went all the way south to the Elephants Strait and Puyehue. But it marked me for other reasons. It was the first time I was on a plane, a hydroplane from Montevideo to Buenos Aires. I was scared shitless and thought this was a good moment to believe in God. Then I thought that believing in God out of fear was not a good thing. The next thought was that if I ever believed in God it probably would be out of some kind of fear as well and that wouldn’t be a good thing either. So, I concluded, I better leave that God stuff away from my circle of interests. In other words, the trip to Chile marked me for life.
Chile probably changed a lot since then, but so did I and it is difficult to make a judgment on this. I was back in 1969 for an installation in the Museo de Bellas Artes to which Nemesio Antúnez had invited me. The show was pretty much a flop and thirty-seven years later Cecilia Brunson decided to reconstruct it in the Galería Metropolitana. It fared better then. And now this, but each time I’m busy and focused on work, don’t have a tourist mind and can only say that I like it. This time actually I like it the best.
You are an artist, writer and teacher – how do these professions inform your approach to the practicing of your art?
I consider all these activities as one and the same, just taking different formats. There are things better communicated through talking, others through writing and finally some by creating some visual (or other kind of) stimulus. I don’t like the concept of me wearing many hats, having multiple personalities, or operating in many different and distinct disciplines. I’m one person living in one universe, and communicating with one humanity respecting localities. The challenge is how to keep all those things together, not how to separate them.
What can the experiencing of art as a form of education offer us in a culture that puts more and more emphasis on art being a commodity?
It can help us to filter data and make boundless connections, something much more important than accumulating data that is destined to be obsolete shortly after we acquired it. Art is not about producing objects for commerce. Art is about speculating, imagining and communication. In that sense it is one of the foundation blocks of good education processes. Unfortunately the prevalent concept of education being a training tool put art into the disciplinary ghetto of production. It is now a quasi synonym of craft, a way of presenting and finishing things for sale. One forgets that while science is limited by logic and the notions of cause and effect, art not only encompasses science but also includes illogical connections and the subversion of conventional knowledge. It’s the ultimate tool for critical thinking.
In a recent interview you made a distinction between a North American form of conceptualism as one that is a “formal process of refinement” and a Latin American one that is more immediate socially and politically, could you elaborate on this?
Yes. In the hegemonic process, the development of dematerialization was used to come closer to an elusive essence of art. It was (in most cases) a spiritual or philosophical search defined within the parameters that seemed to belong to art. In Latin America and other cultures on the periphery, this use of less material based art was informed by the urgency and expediency of communication within a political crisis. The results sometimes seemed to overlap, but the needs that were satisfied were quite different. In order to fully understand a wok of art it is important to include the context in which the piece was created and consider what problems it attempted to solve. Just looking at the skin of the object with the purpose of fitting everything into a formalist and central history of art distorts or negates the understanding of cultures.
What do you see as the artist’s responsibility to and relationship with violence?
The question is like asking me about what’s the responsibility in relation to crime, or to cheating, or whatever. My last lecture during my stay in Santiago, in the Museo de la Memoria, was on Art and Dishonor. The reason was that I believe that violence is a punctual affair that is perceived as a product where somebody is the perpetrator or producer and somebody else is the receiver or consumer. Put in terms of power it is the relation of somebody who abuses the power he or she (or they) have, and somebody who doesn’t have it and therefore is abused. The whole process is one of reification, of making both participants things, and of dishonoring them both. So, answering your question, I see the function of the artist as helping to equalize the distribution of power by empowering people. Dishonoring should be fought, and violence as one of its tools and forms should be fought as well.
How do you think immigration and exile has shaped Latin American artists’ relationship to the US-based art market?
There probably was a change that took place independently from immigration and exile and the reasons are more complex, at least in my personal view. There is a lucky confluence of factors. The economic situation in Latin America improved for the richer classes and they started to pay more attention to local art. Since there always this notion that local art is only worth it if it is validated in the power centers, these collectors preferred to buy art in international auctions. That in turn whetted the taste of the international market and helped create a self-nourishing circle that in turn called for the attention of non- Latin American collectors. Coupled with a decline of artistic innovation and leadership in other countries, the room for Latin America art increased a lot. To that one should add that Bush the Second, distracted the U.S. from Latin America by concentrating his attention on Irak and Afghanistan, gave Latin America a previously unheard of space for economic development and independence. And finally, big collections with an explicit policy of giving big exposure to Latin American art, like Daros and the Patty Cisneros collections, helped a lot to put us on the map.
How did this exhibition in Santiago come into being? What is the significance of involving both MAC and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights?
For several years there were initiatives for shows of my work in Chile and somehow they always failed for different reasons. When MAC approached me again it coincided with the circulation of the show organized by Daros with the works they have in their collection. Therefore it seemed an obvious step to put MAC in the itinerary. Once that was in the works, the Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos became interested in making an exhibit, so I suggested to coordinate both shows. It was serendipitous because, for whatever it may matter, both exhibits together give a much better perspective on my work than either one separately.