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The fire and its embers Part 2

by Syd Krochmalny[34]

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.

3. The Crisis of Success

A general context of strong economic growth,[35] increased consumption, reduction in the external debt, and falling rates of unemployment, poverty and homelessness[36] led to a marked increase in the numbers of informal spaces[37] and of active artists on the scene, and a qualitative and quantitative growth in art institutions, and in the cultural industries in general.

With surprising speed, the field of Argentine art expanded and updated its institutional systems to international standards through new museums, collections, foundations, residencies, archives and schools of art. Numerous public and private institutions started to focus on the contemporary art scene and put on exhibitions open to the public. At the same time the market expanded as a result of various factors. These included the growth of a new collectionism, the art fair ArteBA’s adoption of international standards in its aesthetic criteria, the implementation of a law of patronage in the Federal Capital in 2010 and the development of around 200 exhibition spaces dedicated to contemporary art in Buenos Aires, many situated in the neighborhoods of San Telmo and Palermo. In this context both the sales and value ​​of artworks increased exponentially. In addition to continued growth in the volume and density of the art field locally, transnational networks were also developed and reinforced. Illustrations of the latter include the increasing international recognition accorded to many mid-career Argentinian artists and to Argentine art of the 1960s to the late 1990s in general.[38] In addition, academic tourism from the centers of the art world to such ‘peripheral’ locations increased, new intra- Latin American connections sprang up, and the development of networks of artists’ residencies allowed Argentine artists to travel abroad while bringing others to the country.

Many art collectives participated in the expansion of art institutions through curatorial positions and exhibitions, and achieved recognition through the award of prizes, scholarships, and grants as well as invitations to show their work both nationally and internationally. These new social circles generated and expanded their own markets, developing links with commercial and institutional platforms. Their influence among emerging artists and new exhibition spaces,[39] was further increased by recognition from national and international contemporary art institutions, curators, prizes, and even collectors.

Paradoxically, however, this same period of general economic growth and relative political and social stability, as the government pursued important human rights cases and accepted citizens’ rights and demands, is also associated with the dissolution of many of these collectives. Between 2005 and 2007, M777, Proyecto Venus, Belleza y Felicidad, Grupo de Arte Callejero, Taller Popular de Serigrafía, Etcétera, Oligatega Numeric and Proyecto Trama, to cite some of the best known, all split up.

It is not possible to provide a simple explanation for such a complex phenomenon, however some broad approaches to analysis are proposed here. Politically, a change of climate allowed many flash points to be subsumed and channelled by the state thus diluting the urgency of many protest movements and causing internal ideological disputes within each collective.

In this new social context, the anti-institutional ideology of these groups, with its emphasis on equality and horizontal decision-making, collapsed. The new frameworks implied greater specialization and the centralization of organizational tasks, and led inevitably to an unequal distribution of roles and responsibilities among group members. At the same time, some artists began to challenge their leaders, and particularly those who had taken a pragmatic approach to the promotion and sustainability of their projects. Such developments reflected a similar dynamic to that described in the 1940s by Wilfred Bion in his classic analysis of groups.[40] Meanwhile, other conflicts emerged around the notion of authorship -supposedly rejected by these artists - and the recognition increasingly offered by institutions and the market. Unequal access to the benefits of such recognition affected the groups’ internal equilibrium. Notably, the need to make decisions as to which members would benefit from scholarships and other opportunities to travel abroad eroded their internal bonds.

As a result, as their opportunities for exhibition in institutions and galleries increased, artists came to see their practices as embedded in a series of ideological contradictions between ‘artistic practice’ and ‘political action’, and between being ‘inside’ or ‘outside of art institutions’. Conflicts arose between ‘being an artist’ or a ‘social agent’, between art as ‘a labour of love’ or becoming a ‘professional artist’, between working ‘for oneself’ or ‘for others’. These ideas were often presented and experienced by artists as inherently incompatible, leading to disagreements and, in some cases, separations, break ups and new alliances.

From these observations, a few preliminary conclusions can be drawn:

In the midst of social, economic and finally political crisis, a self-managed and self-legitimised artistic movement emerges in Argentina and grows in a context of social mobilization influenced by new social actors (1997-2003). The movement achieves recognition from art institutions (2002-2007).

The simultaneous expansion of the institutional framework (2000-2005) and of the art market (2004-2007) increases artists’ opportunities for, and expectations of, professional advancement and allows them to work within official projects.

As of 2005 many of the groups, collectives and networks analyzed start to fragment and split up. At this point, it seemed that the rich creative scene generated in the preceding years was losing momentum.

4. Phoenix Effect

The third set of Multiplicity workshops in late 2013 highlighted that although the will to collaborate and work together was fuelled by the crisis, it endured beyond it. After the conflicts of the years 2005-2006 discussed above, a new generation of artists joined those who had never abandoned activist work. These new alliances promoted innovative forms of organisation and exchange, of poetics and education, and of the production and circulation of art. It is clear that, as discussed, there were reasons for the disappearance of the groups mentioned. What then might be the potential explanations for this resurgence of new forms of collaborative working?

One factor that cannot be dismissed is tradition. Not only does Argentina have a strong cultural tradition of collaborative work, but the field of Argentine art itself was founded by artists rather than by other public or private actors. The first public art institution, the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts, was established by Eduardo Sívori, Eduardo Schiaffino, Alejandro Sívori and Alfred París in 1876.[41] Eduardo Schiaffino, who as an artist, critic and patron, embodied all the major roles of the art field, also founded the National Museum of Fine Arts and wrote the first account of Argentine art. Moreover, in the 1930s, artists set up their own anarchist or communist-leaning labor unions. Further, the activities of the canonical abstract art movement Madí in the 1940s were intensely collaborative. The neo avant-garde of the 1960s and the political radicalization that culminated in Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is Burning) were also driven by artists themselves through influential group relationships.[42] In turn, shows, self-managed spaces, collaborative work and groups were important elements of the art scene in the 1980s.[43]

This management by artists and for artists was therefore instrumental to the establishment of the art scene in Argentina and has remained alive through a process of permanent renewal. It may be asserted confidently that the culture of collaboration is an integral part of the Argentinian art world. Of course artists have always worked in groups. However, it seems that in Buenos Aires this phenomenon is more widespread, dynamic and influential than in other centers.

Although established over time, these initiatives have taken on a particular dimension in recent years. Previously, group initiatives were primarily a means to an end. In the current context however, they may be seen as an end in themselves and as such, as shaping a singular poetics.

Further, a conception of art that regards the ‘work’ in terms of processes and relationships between people rather than as an external, singular, distinct, material object, perfectly definable in its contours, is increasingly widespread. Many artists operate as cultural agents promoting social ‘works’ and a social aesthetic. It would seem then that out of the weakness of institutions and the market, Argentine[44] artists found the strength to create their own world of exchange and, further, to engender a poetics based on their own ways of living.

Over the course of the last decade- as illustrated by the testimony of the artistic collectives that participated in the 2013 Multiplicity workshop – it is clear that collaborative groups proliferated as the art scene grew, within a context of greater democracy, and alongside an increasingly flourishing art market. As such, it can be shown that collective work and self-organisation by artists are not only possible in circumstances characterized by scarce resources, a hostile political environment and a lack of exhibition spaces. Other structural factors are of significance here. In particular, it is important to emphasise that the will to collaborate, driven by desire, is a fundamental condition for the autonomy of art and indeed an inherent characteristic of modernity. Alongside money and prestige, what might be called the desiring economy also deserves attention. This is an economy in which bodies create fictional spaces, enter into alternative worlds and imagine realities beyond monolithic and fixed meanings. The regulation of this desire shares the scene with other logics of social relationships including those oriented towards more immediate political or commercial goals.[45]

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the growth of these new groups is not seen as compromised by participation in the art market or the receipt of sponsorship from large public or private institutions. The developments in the art market discussed above have provided groups with collective and individual ways to support themselves. While in previous periods, working within or outside of the system were considered ideological opposites, in the current context, artists cross these boundaries freely, without any such crises of conscience. Participants in collective activities sustain economies of friendship and gift, creating and conserving certain autonomous spaces beyond their involvement in establishment activities such as fairs, biennales, museums and prestigious galleries.

Another important distinguishing feature of the current groups is their more casual attitude towards organizational structures. Rather than ‘groups’, one can identify diverse structures which might include partnerships, makeshift alliances in response to particular situations, mock institutions, cooperatives, publishers or hallmarks. As such the previously unquestioned ideal of the collective is problematized in this emerging discourse.

The present approach may also be seen to have placed the utopian element of collective art, and associated consensus-building and horizontal decision-making processes aimed at the survival of the group itself, to one side. If in the late 1990s groups were moved by a non-cooperative and anti-establishment ideology, the current approach is to seek common ground through negotiation or exchange. It may be that this change of heart was forged in the 2001 crisis of hegemony, which led to the legitimization of new social actors and new rights that have had to be taken into account by state institutions. As a result, artists have been able to develop spaces for collaborative work through a chair in the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires for example, in the Ministry for Social Development, in public schools in the province of Buenos Aires or in a public hospital. Shopping arcades, financial institutions and art fairs have also provided spaces for collective initiatives.

While it is artists who design these projects, the current movement is located therefore in diverse social spaces, and often involves collaboration with curators, critics, scholars, collectors and activists. In turn, the roles of production (artist) and promotion (curator or gallery owner) have become more flexible and sometimes interchangeable: an artist can take on the role of curator, and vice versa. In many cases the boundaries between the work of artistic and intellectual management have been diluted, not only because artists have taken responsibility for the production, documentation, promotion, management and assembly of work, but also because aesthetic practices have come to be considered forms of knowledge and of social organization.

Some groupings that participated in Multiplicity III, including Isla flotante (Floating Island), Cobra and Naranja y verde (Orange and Green) focus on the production of sociability – constructing spaces to bring together and build relationships between artists working with the same or different media. In turn, others are concerned with the socialization of technique. Examples of the latter include Actividad de uso (User Activity), Labor, Forest 444, Serigrafistas Queer (Queer Silkscreen Printers), Iconoclasistas (Class Iconoclasts), the Liliana Maresca School of Art, and the Laboratorio de Arte Comunitario (Laboratory of Community Arts). Illustrations of their activities include the books and reviews they publish on their practices, open access art studios, archives of techniques and materials, manuals for community mapping, art schools and clinics and the dissemination of film-making techniques in the poorest sections of society.

The socialization of technique builds on the ‘pedagogical turn'[46] identified by some theorists and curators. Many of the projects analyzed here work with curatorial platforms or through the founding of schools, while also aiming to disseminate techniques. Many of these groups consider all of the participating audience to be artists, while others interrogate the boundaries between art and non-art. Similarly, the uni-directionality of the educational relationship is challenged by their work. Everyone can teach and everyone can learn.

These practices of sociability and socialization have now spread in the same way that contemporary art as a whole has greatly expanded its sphere of influence, the institutions that promote it and the specific protagonists involved. At the same time, participants, from the public to the artists themselves, can find it difficult to keep up with the constant innovations that form an intrinsic part of this complex and dynamic field.

The integration of art into society – ‘everyone is an artist’ as Joseph Beuys would have it - turns out to be a utopia set in motion by today’s collective groups. In practical terms, this is only partly true. The central product of their actions is the creation of ways to replicate their practices, ensuring their visibility and sustainability. The transmission of certain sensitivity and the development and education of publics is therefore central to this work.

Here it is important to emphasize the almost universal adoption of information and communication technologies over the last ten years. These technologies are tools but are also important as models of working through decentralized networks, as media of reproduction, and as social technologies that emulate the programs, platforms and devices of the digital world.

Further, the scale of this phenomenon has increased exponentially in recent years. One only has to compare the current situation with the intense but highly circumscribed levels of activity with that at the time of the Di Tella Foundation or Rojas Cultural Center.[47] As such, the hiatus of 2006, used in this analysis, cannot be interpreted as representing a collapse in [artists’] aspirations, but rather their multiplication and diversification.

An oft-repeated saying of Juan Domingo Perón, ‘We Peronists are like cats. When they hear us shouting they think we are fighting, but really we are multiplying’ can shed some light both on the crisis analysed earlier in this paper and the multitude of initiatives discussed in the last section. In our opinion, the political objectives of the groups of the 1990s and early 2000s were largely fulfilled by the middle of the first decade of this century. Moreover, it can be argued that, even beyond these groups’ dissolution, many similar initiatives have taken up the convictions they nurtured in various forms. Similarly, it is important to emphasise changes in the underlying situation. The phenomena discussed here emerged in a favorable ambient and cultural context, in which new alliances were formed between and within all social classes. These changes were inevitably reflected on a political level. Many social movements that saw themselves as progressive moved closer to the government taking the same direction as the latter in national politics.

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.

[34] Part 1 of the essay was published in Seismopolite issue 16. 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.

[35] This period was characterised by accelerated growth with an average annual growth rate of 8.2%. See Anlló, G., Kosacoff, B., & Ramos, A. (2007) Crisis, recuperación y nuevos dilemas: la economía argentina 2002 y 2007. (Crisis, Recovery and New Developments: the Argentine economy 2002-2007) In: B. Kosacoff (Ed.), Crisis, recuperación y nuevos dilemas: la economía argentina 2002 y 2007 (Crisis, Recovery and New Dilemmas: the Argentine economy 2002-2007) (pp. 7–26). Buenos Aires: CEPAL.

[36] The economic recovery which started a few months after the end of the convertibility policy which pegged the value of the peso to that of the US dollar, led by the middle of 2006, to the reduction of unemployment by more than half to a level around 10% (or 12% if one considers the beneficiaries of employment programmes to be unemployed). By the end of 2006 unemployment had fallen to under 9%. See Beccaria, L. (2007). El mercado de trabajo luego de la crisis: avances y desafíos. (The Labor Market After the Crisis: progress and challenges) En: B. Kosacoff (Ed.), Crisis, recuperación y nuevos dilemas: la economía argentina 2002 y 2007 (Crisis, Recovery and New Dilemmas: the Argentine economy 2002-2007 (pp. 369–408).

[37] In 2006, four years after the first Multiplicity encounters Roberto Jacoby and I examined collaborative training, production and dissemination in the ‘Technologies of Friendship’ workshop, which took place in the Borges Cultural Center as part of the Peripheral fair, base art, an exhibition by 24 artists and three academics. Please see Jacoby, R., & Krochmalny, S. (2007, April) Tecnologías de la amistad. (Technologies of Friendship) Ramona, (69).

[38] Farver, J. (1999). Global Conceptualism. New York: Queens Museum of Art.

[39] Appetite, Rosa Chancho (Pink Pig), Jardín Oculto (Secret Garden), Oficina Proyectista (Planning Office), Crimson and others.

[40] Bion, W. R. (1980). Experiencias en grupos, dinámica de grupo. Barcelona: Paidós. (Also see (1961) Experiences in Groups: and other papers London: Tavistock.)

[41] The Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts has focused on the education of artists since 1878. Nationalized in 1905, it was the precursor of the current system of public colleges of art. See Amigo, R, "Sin título" Apuntes para la discusión sobre la gestión de artistas, (Untitled. Notes relating to current debates on the development of artists) Proyecto Trama (Trace Project),

[42] In 1968, a Congress of Radical Artists was held in Rosario.

[43] In the 1980s, art by producers for producers was developed in spaces not usually associated with the art world- Bar Einstein, Medio Mundo Varieté, Palladium, Parakultural, Bar Bolivia. In the post-dictatorship period, these artists did not participate in the official discourse of art criticism and art institutions, and worked apart from collectors, art dealers and local gallery owners, as well as official institutions. Their public was constituted by peers, artists, writers and intellectuals. In their own way, these cultural personalities bestowed credentials of legitimacy on new generations of artists.

[44] Here the focus is on Buenos Aires but each region and city in Argentina should be studied individually.

[45] These relationships can be highly complex. By way of illustration, three different approaches characterised the participants in the Multiplicity III workshops. First, the review Adelante (Forward) pursues a more organic relationship with the political, since this group works within the structures of the Partido Obrero (Workers’ Party, a Trotskyist group) and its aesthetic is determined by the ideology and programme of the party. Its members and their discourse are subordinate to the political objectives of this organisation. The second approach consists in engaging in political work independently from and alongside each member’s own work, as illustrated by Proyecto Vergel (the Vergel Project) and some of lecturers from the Liliana Maresca school of art. A third approach reflects the aim of creating its own particular field in which professional practice is linked to social processes, a position clearly illustrated by the work of the Iconoclasistas (Class Iconoclasts) and the Laboratorio Audiovisual Comunitario (Community Audiovisual Laboratory).

[46] The Centre for Artistic Research (CIA) itself, founded by three artists, may be considered in this light. See Madoff, S. H. (2011) Art School: propositions for the 21st century. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[46] O’Neill, Paul, & Wilson, Mick (Eds.) (2010) Curating and the Educational Turn. London: Open Editions/De Appel.

[47] It would be difficult to identify more than 30 people working as artists in and around the Di Tella Foundation and the Ricardo Rojas Cultural Center.

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