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The fire and its embers [part 1]


Written by Syd Krochmalny[1]


In the wake of severe economic and social crisis in 2001, Argentina became known as a hotspot of self-managed artistic initiatives, a hunting ground for the world’s curators. Today, this tradition of collaborative artistic activity endures, but with different coordinates reflecting an economy that has doubled in size and a more democratic society in which the contours of social conflict have changed.


In December 2013, over the course of a long day of heated debate, ‘Multiplicity III’, 16 groups of artists active since 2006 reflected on their fluctuating experiences and on the convictions informing their work at the Center for Artistic Research (CIA).[2] This encounter took place a decade after the first ‘Multiplicity’ workshop, which brought together the activists of the new millennium in the now legendary space Tatlín,[3] allowing for the identification of significant developments in this type of collective practice, a now well-established tradition of Argentine art. This evolution was also highlighted by comparative analysis of the records of the 2002-2003 Multiplicity workshop, (published in the journal ramona 33), those from 2007, (in ramona 69), and the discussions of contemporary collaborative activities which appeared in a recent special edition of the CIA Review 3.[4] The organisation of the 2013 encounter around a series of guideline questions, to which seven other groups responded by e –mail, further amplified the echo of previous workshops (held in 2002, 2003 and 2006).


Nearly all of the most influential groups established in the streets and assemblies of the 2001 crisis, are now established as references of contemporary art. The invitations to the 2002-2003 workshop helped the participating groups to recognize common elements in their work and to learn from each other. They also influenced the thinking of the writers, theorists and historians who documented these groups in books and articles. This essay aims to shed further light on these collective practices, one of the best Argentine customs, as a kind of epilogue to this work.


1. An explosive context

The political effects of the 2001 economic and social crisis, one of many to have battered the country over the last century, were concentrated in the diverse and spontaneous mass demonstrations of 19 and 20 December 2001. Neoliberal policies initiated by the ‘Rodrigazo’ in 1975 (a huge devaluation of the Argentine peso alongside significant rises in the cost of basic items), and reinforced by the economic policies of Martínez de Hoz during the 1976- 1983 military dictatorship reached their high water mark during the double mandate of President Carlos Menem (1989 -1999). Ultimately, savage cuts to public spending, debt restructuring and the freezing of all private bank accounts, proved to be the last political measures of this neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. These measures only deepened the country’s economic problems, which alongside widespread urban protests and looting, led to the abrupt end of the Alliance government and the resignation of President Fernando de la Rúa on December 20th 2001.


The change in Argentina’s capital growth strategy from one based on imports to one based on the financial sector led to de-industrialization, the concentration and centralization of wealth, price rises, pay cuts, unemployment, job insecurity and a huge increase in inequality. The subsequent dismantling of the state only deepened the resulting social divisions. Ultimately, the social eruption of 2001 was the result of this long-term process that brought about economic stagnation; four years of recession, an unemployment rate that climbed to 23% and a lack of external and domestic investment as Argentina’s ‘country risk’, as determined by international credit ratings companies, rose. A widespread distrust of institutions was exacerbated by the devaluation of the peso and the freezing of bank deposits, and by successive governments that failed to stabilize the political situation.


During this period (1996-2001), new social actors came to the fore and attracted widespread support. Impoverished and precarised sectors of society employed strategies of self-management and social protest against the dismantling of state institutions and the fragmentation and deterioration of the labor market which characterised periods of growth and crisis during the 1990s.[5] Diverse sectors of society adopted strategies of self-organization, from the piqueteros in Cutral Co and Plaza Huincul (centres of the oil industry in SW Argentina) to huge demonstrations in the Plaza de Mayo in the centre of Buenos Aires. Other strategies included riots, blockades of motorways and local streets, neighborhood assemblies, worker-led occupations of factories and other economic hubs, self-sufficiency (including waste recycling, soup kitchens, community gardens and workshops), and bartering clubs which maintained their own currencies. The middle classes took to selling their belongings and protested by banging pots and pans in the streets. Furious members of the propertied classes physically attacked banks. Previously localised forms of protest, such as picketing, were adopted more widely and, for the first time, the poorest sections of society made their presence felt on the streets of Buenos Aires.


2. Ferment


In the late 1990s, significant numbers of artists developed ways of working together. These included self-managed spaces, networks of production, pedagogical resources (ranging from artists’ clinics to the Kuitca scholarships and grants), and social networks employing information technologies such as Bola de Nieve (Snowball) 1998, Proyecto Trama (Trace Project) in 2000 and Proyecto Venus (the Venus Project) in 2001. Other collaborations resulted in journals such as ramona, founded in 2000, and galleries and art education centres[6] whether in more upmarket areas of the Federal Capital or shantytowns (villas). The latter included Belleza y Felicidad (Beauty and Happiness) which set up in Almagro (City of Buenos Aires) in 1998 and in 2002 in Villa Fiorito,[7] the militant interventions of the Grupo de Arte Callejero (Street Art Group), Etcetera, the Taller Popular de Serigrafía (People’s Silkscreen Printing Workshop) and Arde Arte! (Art on Fire!), among others. The emergence of small publishing houses such as Eloísa Cartonera (Eloisa Street Recycler), collectively written books, installations, and artist-driven cross-disciplinary performances and projects also characterise this period.[8]


These practices ranged from ‘more artistic’ work – presented as personal, capricious and self-referential – to group projects that set out to influence the political situation, independently from, and sometimes in opposition to, public and private social welfare organisations and the institutions of the art world. Other projects involved some degree of participation, however ambivalent, within and outside of institutions, drawing on counter practices of dissent and institutional critique. From performances and installations to street activism, these actions mushroomed to become a defining feature of the period and a symbol of the 2001 crisis of political legitimacy.


The distinctiveness of these social and political protest movements, both in form and magnitude - the significant involvement of artists’ collectives within them and the recognition of Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is burning)[9] as a reference in international art theory and practice, converted Argentina into an international symbol of self-organisation and artistic activism. As well as being a profoundly local phenomenon, the ‘Argentine case’ also established itself as an international paradigm to the point of finding its way onto cultural policymakers’ and curators’ agendas in the most influential centers and institutions of the art world. Examples include the inclusion of Grupo de Arte Callejero Etcétera, Taller Popular de Serigrafía, Eloísa Cartonera, Proyecto Trama and many others in numerous books, catalogues, conferences and congresses, articles and theses, and in the V Moscow Poetry, the 52nd Venice, the 27th and 29th São Paulo Biennales, as well as several other Biennales in Mercosur countries. This work was also highlighted in touring curatorial projects such as Pasos para huir del trabajo al hacer (Steps to Escape from Work and Do) in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and other cities,[10] and the first Encuentro entre dos mares (Encounter Between Two Seas), at the Biennale of Valencia- São Paulo. In each case, Argentina was presented as an example of collective and political art. For many influential theorists, the country became a role model, a reference point in the glossaries of contemporary art.


Another factor that influenced the degree of recognition accorded to Argentina on the world stage was the adoption in the 1990s of similar practices of sociability or cooperation in many cities across the world, including Paris, Los Angeles, Liverpool, San Sebastián and Warsaw. These international examples prompted much reflection and debate among philosophers, such as Jacques Rancière,[11] and historians including Hal Foster.[12] In Argentina too, there was much discussion and analysis, notably in the context of day-long workshops such as Multiplicity[13] and Arte Rosa Light and Arte Rosa Luxemburg,[14] which included contributions from Daniel Link, Ana Longoni, Andrea Giunta, Roberto Amigo and Magdalena Jitrik, among others.


The collective dimension of aesthetic experience acquired a central place in the theory of international art at this time. Claire Bishop defined events in which spectators take on the role of producers as ‘participatory art'.[15] She further argues that the social turn[16] in the arts in various parts of the world since the 1990s has its antecedents in the Dadaist cabarets and street events of the 1920s, as well as the mass spectacles and propaganda of the Soviet Union. Similarly, Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette situate collectivism[17] not only in the vanguard of modernism- Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism-, but also in muralism and productivism. Unlike Bishop however, both identify a paradigm shift after the Second World War as modernism abandoned utopia for immanent critique and for romantic expressions of the political which took the material of social life as their artistic subject matter.


Over the last 20 years, this type of global art has been conceptualized as ‘connective aesthetics’ by Suzi Gablik,[18] ‘new public art’ by Suzanne Lacy,[19] ‘contextual art’ by Peter Weibel,[20] net art by Vuc Cosic,[21] ‘relational aesthetics’ by Nicolas Bourriaud,[22] ‘dialogical art’ by Grant Kester,[23] and ‘artistic activism’ by Ana Longoni,[24] each term reflecting the particular author’s focus on different but not necessarily contradictory features of this phenomenon.


Art criticism and academic research have highlighted three primary themes in this work reflecting particular links to the art scene. Nicolas Bourriaud put forward a curatorial model for works which take social relationships and communication in the context of art institutions as their artistic material. Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga reflected on the development of this phenomenon.


Art criticism and academic research have highlighted three primary themes in this work reflecting particular links to the art scene. Nicolas Bourriaud put forward a curatorial model for works which take social relationships and communication in the context of art institutions as their artistic material. Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga reflected on the development of models of experimental and cross-institutional social life.[25] Meanwhile, Ana Longoni researched collective artistic actions, involving performance, urban signage, the production of iconographies, and interventions in real and virtual spaces, that aim for direct political effect through media coverage working alongside social campaigners and human and environmental rights organizations. Longoni first used the term ‘activist art’ for such activities but has since adopted the term ‘artistic activism'[26] in order to emphasise the militant rather than the artistic dimension of this work. For his part, Reed studied what he termed ‘the art of protest’.[27]


Beyond the possible genealogies that can be traced through collaborative art, these practices have spread on such a scale over the last few decades that Reinaldo Laddaga argues that a profound cultural shift has taken place. According to Laddaga, this break in artistic regimes was produced when life itself became a space of exploration and experimentation in the wake of an historic global wave of demonstrations and other types of collective action.[28]

Andrea Giunta further observes that Argentine society developed multiple creative strategies of action in response to local and global crises, and that Argentine artists kept pace with developments in other social activists’ repertoires of actions by collectivizing forms of artistic production.[29] Similarly, Ana Longoni developed a branch of research that focused on ‘artistic activism’. She observed the emergence and development of groups, collectives and networks over time, noting a marked increase in their numbers and expansion in their methods from the mid-1990s until post 2001.[30]


A very significant feature of these movements was that artists and activists produced accounts of their own practices through the meetings and public discussions that accompanied this process from very early on. In late 2002, Sebastián Codeseira, Nicolás Squiglia, Daniel Link and Roberto Jacoby organized the Laboratorio Multiplicidad (Multiplicity Laboratory). This was a series of meetings set up through the Venus Project (Proyecto Venus), which then had its epicenter in Tatlin (the home of the same project), and later in the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (Malba), Brukman (a factory occupied by its workers) and, in 2003, in the Cabaret Voltaire Cultural Center. At each meeting, around 24 groups discussed the relationships between art and politics and art and society, as well as organizational structures, objectives, funding mechanisms and the use of new technologies.[31] According to Daniel Link ‘the idea was to reflect on multiplicity, at a time in which it seemed that not only political, but also aesthetic action, was organized primarily through networks, frames ... as well as new forms of action, new forms of organization, new forms of relationship’.[32]


José Fernández Vega, who followed these meetings in detail and later published his observations in the journal ramona number 34, came to a descriptive synthesis to which the author of this article subscribes and has used as a starting point for his own observations. Fernández Vega highlighted that similarities between the groups were much more striking than their differences. In particular, he emphasised their vocabulary and predominantly anti-institutional ideology, their discourse of equality and horizontal (non-hierarchical) organisation, as well as their principles of consensus decision-making, and open membership.[33] Another similarity identified by Fernández Vega was the significance of voluntary work. These groups depended on having members with enough spare time and cash to support their own activities, and thus maintain their economic and political independence. Further the groups present in the first Multiplicity events employed distinct media and artistic languages​​, avoided pigeonholing themselves within one particular genre and did not emphasise individual authorship. [They also shared the same principles of organization.]


It is interesting to note however that beyond the similarities noted above, there were glimpses of disagreements between those nicknamed ‘Rosa Lite’ and ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ by the Ramona review. These names alluded to attempts by some involved to emphasise putative divisions between ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ collectives. Since the groups reflected two sides of the same coin, such distinctions were meaningless. Ultimately, several core members of these supposed factions worked together on various projects and those calling for confrontation were side-lined.




xxx



Syd Krochmalny is an artist and writer interested in the relationship between art, biography, society, politics, and sexuality. He is involved in the Center for Artistic Investigation (CIA) and was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship by the Argentinian Research Council CONICET at the Institute of the Theory and History of Art Julio Payró in the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts at the University of Buenos Aires. His recent exhibitions include Diarios del odio in collaboration with Roberto Jacoby at Fondo Nacional de las artes, The Naked Soul at Old Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh, and International Sociological Association, Yokohama, and The Origin of the World at the University of Stirling, United Kingdom. Krochmalny is a visiting scholar at Columbia University in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Studies.








[1]This essay is the product of numerous conversations and revisions with Roberto Jacoby. As ever, the important insights are his, and any major errors, mine alone. Translated from Spanish by Dr. Sarah Wilson

[2] The Centro de Investigaciones Artísticas (CIA) was founded by Graciela Hasper, Roberto Jacoby and Judi Werthein as a non-profit organization under the legal umbrella of the Start Foundation. In early 2006, during the International Residence for Argentine Artists (RIAA), these three artists engaged in an exhaustive discussion of art education, prompted by concerns raised by Judi Werthein. It took three years to analyze and find the means to realize their aim of an inter-disciplinary and international project. By the middle of 2009, CIA’s infrastructure and project launch plans were in place. The development and continuity of this project depends on the engagement of artists, scholars, private and public cultural institutions and enterprises, as well as philanthropic organizations and individuals: http://www.ciacentro.org/who_we_are

[3] Tatlin was one of the main nodes of artist Roberto Jacoby’s Proyecto Venus (Project Venus).

[4] http://revista.ciacentro.org/

[5] Salvia, A. (2003) Mercados segmentados en la Argentina: fragmentación y precarización de la estructura social del trabajo (1991-2002) (Ghettoized Markets in Argentina: fragmentation and precarisation in the social structure of work) Laboratorio, 4(11/12), 5-11. Svampa, M., & Pereyra, S. (2003) Entre la ruta y el barrio: la experiencia de las organizaciones piqueteras. (Between the Highway and the Neighborhood: the experience of piquetero movements) Buenos Aires: Biblos. Auyero, J. (2002) La protesta: retratos de la beligerancia popular en la Argentina democrática. (Protest: portraits of popular belligerence in Argentina under democracy) Buenos Aires: Libros del Rojas.

[6] LeLé de Troya (Lele of Troy), Belleza y Felicidad (Beauty and Happiness), Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc), El club del dibujo (Drawing Club) etc.

[7] Villa Fiorito is a shanty town which forms part of the Greater Buenos Aires urban conurbation.

[8] m777, Oligatega Numeric, Grupo Soma, Diccionario de arte (Art Dictionary), Grup00 (Group00), Suscripción (Subscription),  Discobabynews, Zapatos Rojos (Red Shoes), Ácido Surtido (Assorted Acids), among others.

[9] Principally as a result of Ana Longoni’s research which culminated in the book: Longoni, A. & Mestman, M. (2008) Del Di Tella a ‘Tucumán arde’: vanguardia artística y política en el 68 argentino. (From the Di Tella Foundation to ‘Tucumán is Burning’: the artistic and political vanguard of the Argentine ’68) Buenos Aires: Eudeba.

[10] Creischer, A. y Siekmann, A. (2004) Pasos para huir del trabajo al hacer. (Steps to Escape from Work and Do) Buenos Aires:  Interzona;  Museo Ludwig, Cologne, Germany.

[11] Rancière, J. (2005). Sobre políticas estéticas. Barcelona: Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona/ (2006) The Politics of Aesthetics London: Bloomsbury.

[12] Foster, H. (2005). Arte Festivo. (Festive Art)  Otra Parte, (6), 1-6.

[13] Codeseira, S. (2003, July). Multiplicidad (Multiplicity) Ramona, (33), 3–23.

[14] Jacoby, R., Longoni, A., Giunta, A., Montequín, E., & Jitrik, M., et. al. (2003, June). Arte Rosa Light y Arte Rosa Luxemburgo (Art Rosa-Light and Art Rosa Luxemburg). Ramona, (33), 52–92.

[15] Bishop, C. (2005). Participation. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[16] Bishop, C. (2007). El giro social: (la) colaboración y sus descontentos. (The Social Turn: collaboration and its discontents) Ramona, (72), 29–37.

[17] The authors use this term in a different sense to the forced collectivisation of kulaks by the Bolshevik Party in the Soviet Union.

[18] Gablik, S.. (1992). Connective aesthetics. American Art, 6(2), 2-7.

[19] Lacy, S. (1995). Mapping the Terrain: new genre public art. Seattle: Bay Press.

[20] Weibel, P. (1994). Kontextkunst-Kunst der 90er Jahre. Cologne: Verlag.

[21] Cosic, V. (1995). Net arthttp://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/ Accessed on 8 November 2012

[22] Bourriaud, N. (1995). Relation écran, l»art des années quatre-vingt-dix et ses modèles technologiques. En: Troisième biennale de Lyon d’art contemporain, installation, cinéma, vidéo, informatique. Lyon: Biennale de Lyon/ Touch: Relational Art from the 1990s to Now. San Francisco: San Francisco Art Institute, 2002.

[23] Kester, G. H. (2004). Conversation Pieces: community and communication in modern art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[24] Longoni, A. (2010b, abril). Todos somos López: activismo artístico en torno a la segunda desaparición de Jorge Julio López. (We Are All Lopez: artistic activism around the second disappearance of Jorge Julio Lopez. Cuadernos del Inadi, (1). http://cuadernos.inadi.gob.ar/numero-01/ana-longoni-todos-somos-lopez-activismo-artistico/ Accessed on 8 November 2012.

[25] Basualdo, C. & Laddaga, R. (2004). Rules of Engagement: art and experimental communities. Artforum International, 42(7), 166-169.

[26] Longoni, A. (2007, September). Encrucijadas del arte activista. Intersections in Activist Art. Ramona, (74), 30–42.

[27] Reed, T. V. (2005). The Art of Protest: culture and activism from the civil rights movement to the streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[28] Laddaga, R. (2006). Estética de la emergencia. Aesthetics of Emergency. Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo.

[29] Giunta, A. (2008). Postcrisis. After Crisis. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI. [Chapters 1 and 2].

[30] Longoni, A. (2006) ¿Tucumán sigue ardiendo? (Is Tucumán Still Burning?) Sociedad, (24), 163-179.

[31] The participants were Grupo Soma (Soma Group), Juliana Periodista (Juliana the Journalist), Diccionario de arte (Art Dictionary), the review ramona, Grup00 (Group00), Taller Popular de Serigrafía (People’s Silk Screen Printing Workshop), Suscripción (Subscription), FeriaHype! (HypeFair!), Buenaleche (Good Milk/ The Goodies), Discobabynews, Ejército de artistas (Artist Army), Zapatos Rojos (Red Shoes), m777, Proyecto Venus (Project Venus), Ninguna Persona es Ilegal (No One is Illegal), Ácido Surtido (Assorted Acids), Tango Protesta (Tango Protest), Grupo de Arte Callejero (Street Art Group), Proyecto Trama (Trace Project),  Por un Arte de la Resistencia (For an Art of Resistance), Indymedia, Intergalactica (Intergalactic), Belleza y Felicidad (Beauty and Happiness) and Oligatega Numeric.

[32] Link, D. (2003, August). Encuentro Multiplicidad. (Multiplicity Workshop) Ramona, (33), p. 24.

[33] Fernández Vega, J. (2003, September). Variedades de lo mismo y lo otro. (Varieties of the Same and the Other) Ramona, (34).










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