Shortly after that crisis that happened this March at MACBA due to an act of censorship executed by the then director Bartomeu Marí in the context of the exhibition “The Beast and Sovereign”, the board of CIMAM (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, including in its board among others Charles Esche, director of the Vanabbe Museum in Eindhoven, and Vasif Kotun, director of SALT in Istanbul and Ankara), endorsed the continuation of Marí’s position as CIMAM’s president.

Furthermore, CIMAM announced that „important questions regarding freedom of expression, censorship and institutional responsibility“ would be discussed at the committee’s next meeting this November (November 7–9, 2015) in Tokyo (1). Keynote speaker of the respective session is Patricia Falguières, who has had already the opportunity to articulate her thoughts about the “MACBA case” at the online platform of L’Internationale (2) – a five years European project involving among others the MACBA, the Vanabbe Museum, and SALT.

In terms of censorship Falguières clarifies at the very beginning of her text that in her perception “censorship is … a buzz-word that blinds both those who use it and those towards which it is destined.” To me this position completely disqualifies her from any keynote lecture that should introduce issues of censorship in a differentiated way. It’s a bit like someone who should give a keynote lecture about sexual abuse, and who is convinced that in the most of the cases people who say that they had been sexually abused do not know what they are talking about – and / or just want to blame someone else. The awkward problem of censorship in democratic Western societies is not only that it silences a certain articulation, but that the one who got censored mostly also gets deprived to call this publicly an act of censorship.

Not enough: Falguières calls Ines Doujak’s sculpture “Not Dressed for Conquering / Haute Couture 04 Transport” – the very sculpture that Marí wanted to remove from the exhibition the day before the press conference – a Trojan Horse, an instrument aiming to destroy “the fragile strongholds called museums.” She suggests that the artist and curators of the exhibition “The Beast and the Sovereign” would have had the mean plan to destroy the MACBA using a sculpture that they clandestinely smuggled into the museum … camouflaged as what? The MACBA – like many other museums – not only is a “bastion”, as Falguières again and again writes, but rather a maximum security prison. You simply cannot bring something into this museum, which would not have been beforehand squeamishly scanned from tip to toe.

And why should we have done this: bringing a Trojan Horse to MACBA? Falguières speculates, that we all are “political, commercial and media backers” that cannot stand “permanence” but instead “need scandals”. In place of “medium and long-term in-depth work”, we would go for “one-shot scandalous exhibitions” and “short term media effects”. She obviously has no clue about Doujak’s more than 30 years long research on textile production. She obviously has also no clue about Hans and my institutional and curatorial work. Fine –, but this fact should have irritated her at least: how could she not know anything about us when we are such media bitches? But what really strikes me: she should at least know Valentín Roma’s and Paul B. Preciado’s work, especially in the last two years at MACBA, before writing such an article. Their work was definitely not about short-term effects, but about rethinking this museum – on the basis of a profound knowledge and a long-term perspective – with, against and beyond its intellectual founder. And this “with, against and beyond” in my point of view is the very, and the challenging sense of continuity at the place of a museum.
But let me speculate what Falguières really means with “scandalism” and “Trojan Horses”, with “bastions”,” strongholds”, and “hunting-grounds”. Can it be, that it’s more about those dissident bodies, critical thoughts and institutional detournements, which were at the very heart of Roma’s and Preciado’s work at MACBA? Where they too much calling into question the neoliberal and heteronormative logics of power that – as everybody knows – are also at work at an art museum, and for sure at the MACBA (just take a closer look at the configuration of its consortium)? Were they at least a bit too queer, too critical for that “fragile bastion” called museum? Not to forget: Roma and Preciado were not smuggled into MACBA hidden in a fancy cake, but invited and engaged by Bartomeu Marí: like were Friedrich Meschede, Chuz Martínez, Carles Guerra, and Ines Doujak.
But again: What is the problem with Ines Doujak’s sculpture at all? What makes it so unbearable and menacing for a Spanish contemporary art museum?

Falguières admits, that she herself is fine and fully “Charlie” when it comes to those two-dimensional “most outrageously daring cartoons … of … presidents, … the pope, bishops etc.” to be found in magazines and being produced, as she believes, “to the delight of a small readership and the indifference of most of the population.“ Should that be the aim of caricature? Can our society stand caricatures – those impudent jokes about authorities and sovereigns – only as long as the most of the people do not notice them – as long as the people are ignorant of them like the beast should be ignorant of the law?

Howsoever, the problem of Doujak’s sculpture, according to Falguières, is that it is three-dimensional! A cartoon – under certain circumstances – might be fine. “But”, as we get instructed, “a drawing is not a naturalist sculpture, a magazine is not a museum, a press drawing is not a three-dimensional effigy exhibited in a public building.” Is Doujak’s sculpture naturalist?
Anyway, Falguières is convinced: when it comes to the three dimensional form and the museum, fun definitely ends. And that is why, as she assumes, most of the directors of European museums – who “prudently” kept silent about the MACBA-affair – would agree not to show Doujak’s sculpture in a Spanish art museum. Honestly: I hardly can imagine that most of the directors of European art museums are afraid of three-dimensional works. So what is it that kept them – like many other representatives of the art world – so silent once the big-bang of Barcelona was over? Agreement? Lack of interest? Gloating? Fear?

What is missing in the art world at large – a world whose main currency, as we all know, is “being friend with”; and whose basic law says “you’ll be with us, or you’re out” – is a profound culture of conflict and disobedience. If we really want to protect the museums from being absorbed by neoliberal interests, we have to start here: to work collectively and in the long run on a serious culture of conflict; and to rethink the open and hidden hierarchies, forms of intimidation and silencing, power plays and players, which are at work at today’s art institutions in the name of “professionalism” and “friendship.” It’s about redefining what we mean by friendship, professionalism, solidarity, critique, emancipation, the freedom of expression, the potentiality of art and of the institution. The project “The Beast and is the Sovereign”, whose unexpected conflict became an integral part of it, revolves around these redefinitions.

Iris Dressler

(1) http://cimam.org/program-2015
(2) http://www.internationaleonline.org/research/alter_institutionality/26_verifica_dei_poteri2


Sitting in Darkness; Graeme Arnfield, interview with Leo Goldsmith

Leo Goldsmith: My first question was going to be a banal one: to ask you about all of the different types of images you've included here and their provenance. But instead, perhaps something slightly more abstract/pretentious: can you say something about found footage as a material/medium, as a cinematic practice (with roots in collage, montage, etc.), and as a horror genre? 

Graeme Arnfield: I’ve always had an interest in mediation, the event, the representation and the repercussions of that representation’s creation. Found footage is the ideal form to deal with those ideas, it’s an unavoidable part in their use. On top of this I think it’s important to better our understanding of the images we currently have, rather than allow their logics to flourish without notice. We should reconfigure these artefacts of the past in order to create better conditions for a more ethical future. Not alter them, but to throw light on their undisclosed politics. This is especially important for images like those that populate my film, whose capital has been based off their sensational value, and relationship to fear mongering apocalyptic visions. Which is to be expected, as you mention horror cinema and cinematic genres haunt these images. It’s hard to watch them and not think of the rush of handheld faux evidence horror films that still kick around cinemas. Even the scientific reason for this sound’s appearance suggests the return of the repressed, one of horror’s favourite themes. On a personal level, as someone who finds filming in public or organising actors an incredibly panic inducing experience, the safety of re-use is sometimes the only way I can face making a film. With other people’s footage that crushing spell of disappointment that often accompanies the creation of images isn’t there. I can accept the images as they are and think about what they are doing, not what they could have been. 

LG: You use a lot of compositing here: pictures within pictures, almost like having many windows open on one's desktop. What is this strategy's relationship to other (maybe more modernist?) ones like montage or collage? Do you see this aesthetic strategy as particularly useful in approaching the contemporary and/or the Internet?

GA: The experience of browsing the Internet, the logic of hyperlinks and the algorithmic curation of YouTube in particular were definitely some things I was considering when working out the composition. In YouTube’s network, images are brought into attention by the viewing of previous work, often filmed by different people, at different times, in different places which are nevertheless grouped together by shared tagging and spit out as a form of continuity. In this sense the past dictates what is watched in the present, leaving a trace of this past on the screen, allowing it to literally frame the current film seemed like a way of aesthetically highlighting this experience. The thing with YouTube is that it demands that all images become insatiable; they ask for suggested sequels and spiritual successors. So if the videos of people filming the sky have a capture all logic, then my film has a case of rabid auto-play, coupled with a nasty case of multiple browser tabs, which start to colour readings of the videos. This auto-play extends to the point where these various mobile phone videos were actually dictated by YouTube’s algorithms, the order in which they appear is the order that the videos appeared to me, one after each other, feeding off the search term “strange noises in the sky”. Of course I had the say on when to start and end this survey, but I think it still shows a good cartography of the network. But this networked programme is one thing; there are always more browser tabs. There is continuity, and there is distraction and temporal reduction. These days I am never less than five tabs open at once, emails from dead friends rub against soundcloud techno mixes which rub against clips of the latest catastrophe; it is everything all the time. This nature of distracted vision was something that I tried to embed in the film through the text passages and the other images.

LG: In working with images taken from others, both individual video-uploaders and corporations (like Google or YouTube), how do you characterize your collaboration? Do you consider yourself as having certain responsibilities? Rights? On a more practical level, do you contact the the makers of the videos you use?

GA: Responsibility is always a tricky one and depends on what you are using, how you are using it and for what purpose. At least for this work I felt I had a responsibility to these individual filmmakers not to take their work wholly out of context, one as their context is what I’m really interested in, and two to allow people to speak for themselves. I wanted to find room for both our voices in the same image. I don’t know if I’ve fully done that, but I tried. The important thing is that I have to disrupt, renew and critique these images but I also have to be able see myself on the street at their creation, equally confused as the filmmakers were. I have the privilege of distance; they had the panic of the event. It would be wrong to speak down to them. With this responsibility I tried to make myself complicit in my own myth making. In this sense of complicity I mean to say this is a speculative document, its science is shaky, its history is tear stained. Especially in the latter sections, where the language drops its guard and I start to fill in gaps of understanding with my own emotional investment and interpretations. But I hope even with these speculations the videos still stand for themselves and the original filmmakers don’t feel misrepresented. Curiously though some of these videos are re-edits or re-uploads by others. The original accounts are gone; so all is left are the copies of their circulation. Reposting and appropriating is a major factor in the success of films on YouTube. The philosophy of ripping a video, writing a more algorithmically appealing title and uploading it for some quick views saved some of these films from oblivion. In a way the identities of the people who shot some of these videos are now as shaky as the origin of the sound they were trying to document.

LG: You use images of a sort of sci-fi gaming environment a 3D-simulation, of an alien landscape, which in some moments seems complete, at others partially constructed. My first thought was that these images suggest the extraordinary expansion of the ways in which images are generated and circulated now and that they are an index of image circulation of which this is just one example. But my second thought was sort of the opposite: that in fact this was an example of one sort of worldbuilding, and that your assemblage of various images, textures, and orders of reality was another. Briefly: do you consider your video as a kind of worldbuilding, like that of these simulated CG environments?

GA: Worldbuilding is a great term for it. Along with the flow of hyperlinked mobile phone images, I wanted to include side plots, things that on the surface seem disconnected. But on closer inspection all come together, just in a discursive way. Connoting multiple browser tabs if I’m keeping up with my own clumsy metaphors. The images from the video game and Apple Maps are an example of this. They are both attempts to make a world, but one whose stitches and cracks are showing. In the game world through turning the tools of development inwards, in this case using the developer console inside the game the player can enter “god-mode” and float through the complex maths, surveying the hollow mountains that float in grey nothingness. While video games are actionable, the engines they are built on allow for non-proscribed forms of action as well. I believe there are new worlds to be built out of these hidden images. I certainly am interested in this worldbuilding in my own work, the credits sequence at the end which list all the filmmakers almost sets a challenge for people to de-make my film, float through it’s surfaces and expose it’s hollow mountains. It is a world filled with my ideologies and politics, no different than any other construct; one like any other world that should be challenged.

LG: Since this video is partly composed of videos found online and will be viewed online, could you say something about the exhibition of this work? Do you have any preference among the varying potential contexts for viewing this work, e.g. cinema, gallery, laptop, phone?

GA: I think the ideal way to view it is in bed, on a laptop, 3am, unable to sleep, falling into one more link, letting your pupils dilate and your anxiety keep your muscles from settling. Or at least these were conditions of its production. If possible I would love people to stumble upon the film, have it come up in their own searches for “strange noises in the sky”. To have it embedded in the culture it is about would be fantastic. After all there are a myriad of videos compiling these type of videos, mine isn’t so different, it just has a more critical eye. Ultimately it is adaptable work though, I can’t afford to be specific, and so wherever people want it I will curiously see if it works. I have no real preference for where it is to be seen. I am just happy for it to be seen.

LG: While watching your video, I was at first seduced by the variety and texture of the images, but given the subject matter of the videos you draw from the mysterious drone I became increasingly aware of your sound design, making use of as many sonic layers as you do visual ones. I also started to think about this idea of a strange sound coming from nowhere/everywhere, one that links disparate locations around the globe, and also, more generally, the concepts of recorded sound, of synthesized sound, of disembodied sound. I wonder if (any of) these ideas of sound were a guiding principle in your treatment of the images, or vice versa?

GA: I tried to treat sound as its own thing, tying it to the images, as much as the images are tied to the sound, neither of them being privileged over the other. The films I’m archiving do take a stand on this though; they are often incredible non-visual in some sense. These people were filming sound; this was one of the aspects of the videos that initially seduced me. Here were people enacting ritualistic gestures, point cameras into the sky, something not unlike the films Peter Gidal made, anti-illusionary in their own way. It makes perfect sense, this is the age of high-definition smart phones so why just record the sound when you can produce an image as well. This is increasingly our first response, at the first glimpse of interest our phones come out; they are an extension of our nervous system. Along with the sounds of the event I want to complicate things further though scoring the film, blurring the line where the event and the representation meet. It was important to me to use an instrument that was tied into the themes of the film; as such I started experimenting with synthesizer samples. The sounds of synthesizers are tied to distant planets and far off futures. Yet if anyone has had to lug one around they know they are very much of this present material world.

From Videodrome October


“We were learning by doing”; An Interview with Charles Esche, 2013.

Reviewing the last years, Charles Esche touches on aspects of curatorial networking, the pursuit of redefining the institution and its inevitable necessity to affront people, as well as his notion of Experimental Institutionalism, which echoes in his current directorship at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.
Lucie Kolb & Gabriel Flückiger: We thought a possible starting point would be the situation you found yourself in when you started at Rooseum and the formats you developed.
Charles Esche: When I started, that was in 2000, the concept of an institutional solidarity and that we’re trying to change institutions together was not really so apparent to me. There were certain individuals that were interested in similar questions, but in most cases they weren’t really in charge of an institution. Biennales and larger temporary events were the things a few friends and I had access to, rather than institutions. We were concerned with a wider—what I would call then but not now—leftist, understanding of what institutions could do in terms of emancipation, in terms of community engagement, in terms of art as a potential way in which the reimagining of the world could take place. I saw the institution as a tool to investigate this question. Can art be a useful democratic device? A device to install other forms of democracy than the ones we had? From the beginning, the entrails of social democracy in a country like Sweden were immediately fascinating.
LK & GF: Would you say that this vision was already established when you were at Tramway, a Scottish art space—or asked differently: was it connected to certain places?
CE: When I started at Tramway in 1993, it felt like Scotland had been largely removed from the cultural-political economic map, more or less from the Second World War onwards. It was marginal and most of the ambitious artists left for London. Yet, a new generation was more conscious of wanting to make Glasgow an active place. So the main topic was how to get noticed and how to constitute an experimental Scottish art community, which wasn’t simply a regional outpost of an English cultural discourse. I came from England but quickly felt at home, maybe because of my German family and working-class origins. In the mid-1990s, I felt part of a team that was working to build a situation where art could flourish. I worked with great pleasure with my own generation, but I have to say that the political interventions by artists whom I invited, such as Allan Sekula or Stephan Willats, were less understood and not that well received. It’s a complicated path, but this was a sign to me that I needed to formulate my relation between art and politics in a different way.
LK & GF: Would you say that the exhibitions at Tramway had the form of rather conventional exhibitions and then at Rooseum you also started to focus on other formats?
CE: For sure. I wasn’t the boss at Tramway. I had the charge only of the exhibition program. I would have done things in Tramway differently, if I had been able to structure it fully, though I am proud of a project like Trust that engaged artists as curators in a team. The questions that came to me once I took up the director position at Rooseum were new, however. They involved structuring a whole institution, marking it out from others and also doing what I really believed in. I didn’t want to answer the usual expectations in a traditional way, where you basically wheel in the material from outside, put it into the room in a nice way and open the door. I wanted it to be a place of what we then called knowledge production.
LK & GF: What does this mean?
CE: We developed different platforms; we worked with Critical Studies and the local academy, we had a thing called Open Forum that tried to create links with certain communities and activists, we developed a Future Archive of musical, filmic and literary influences on artists and we had residencies and studios. I think people who came to Rooseum got very involved. At the same time, we alienated other people who liked the old ‘modernist’ Rooseum. At the time it hurt, but nowadays, I’d say you have to have people that are really pissed off with you and say that you destroy the organization in order to know you are achieving something. If you don’t have that, you’re probably not really doing your job as director. Your job requires you to bring in new impulses and a new direction to a situation while there are many people for whom this is simply not necessary.
LK & GF: What about the institution’s relation to the public, did you attract a group of visitors or even a new public that didn’t exist before?
CE: There is this quote from Vito Acconci that I very often used, which is that “a gallery could be place where a community can be called to order, called to a particular purpose.” That still appeals to me. I like the idea that you do indeed create a public through your activities and I have seen that emerge in Malmö. I recently talked to a few old colleagues and I have to say that people from that time in Rooseum seem to look back with great fondness on the projects we did. Also, I don’t think you would be here today if it hadn’t had an effect. Yet that public we created was not the one with sufficient influence to shape the city council’s opinions. It was a younger public, not politically active for all the right reasons of cynicism about 21st century politics. Yet, as all social democratic art institutions, we were dependent on political patronage for survival—and in this case local political favors. It is a complicated story because Rooseum was founded by a neoliberal collector, but then became dependent on the social democrats, who in many ways hated its origins. This was all before my time but it was a legacy I had to deal with. What I asked for, very naively, was far-sighted politicians with an interest in art as a way to think about and act out social change. Unfortunately they didn’t exist in Malmö (or many other places). Also, the art community can be very isolated or internally focused. In Malmö, for instance, there was no relationship between the small activist community and the art community at that time, so we didn’t have good routes into local political networks. I think this was failure of our approach and something I tried to address differently in Eindhoven. The other important issue, looking back, is that it seems an urgent public probably only forms in a moment of tension, like it was formed in Istanbul during the demonstrations this summer (2013). But often this public is a very incoherent group of people and the question is how to sustain it. A public also formed around the Van Abbemuseum last year, when we faced the opposition (again) of the social democrats; they wanted to reduce our funding very severely in order to control and popularize the program. This time we could mobilize and successfully resist, because it directly concerned the museum. At the Rooseum, in the early 2000s, the tensions of today still seemed far away. The city was hardcore social democrat, the economy was growing, optimism about the new bridge to Denmark made everyone quite content. The major issue that was brewing was identity of course. We did a project called In 2052, Malmö will no longer be Swedish which consisted of residencies and productions. It included Esra Ersen, Yael Bartana, Can Altay—a group of artists who could reflect on this from different perspectives. But it was not really picked up in the media or in politics at the time, again because things were still just too sweet to bother or because an art institution was confined to the cultural and entertainment pages. Again, I think the lessons of this went into the project in Eindhoven.
LK & GF: Could you name certain projects or exhibitions at Rooseum that were successful?
CE: Fundamentally, I think those years were about trying to shift the map of the place of art within the social framework. There wasn’t a real space for social critique in northwestern European society; social democracy is a sort of totalizing system in an odd way, in that it embraces critique to nullify it. We wanted to change that, given the apolitical condition post-1989. I think we succeeded to the extent that ‘institutionalism’ and what to do with art institutions became a topic in general cultural discourse. It was no longer ‘do your job well’ but more ‘what kind of job do you do?’ I think our publication Rooseum Provisorium is a rich source for these debates. The other map that I think we were trying to shift was the geographic, which in early 2000 was still a cold war map in which the socialist states were not really recognized. There was still a reluctance to recognize that a Polish or Latvian artist is as competent as an American or a German artist in a place like Sweden. So we needed to recognize our immediate Baltic region for instance, or art’s new capacity to intervene in the social after the end of liberal autonomy as a progressive discourse. Those changes seemed to be important, shifting the place of art within the map of social democracy and shifting the map of art itself within art historical narratives. Thinking about the most successful projects, I’d list a few solo shows like Superflex and Nedko Solakov, group shows like Baltic Babel, or We—Intentional Communities, and also the Critical Studies course. There were also some great residencies by artists like Luca Frei, Serkan Özkaya or Lynn Löwenstein.
LK & GF: How was the relationship to the board and the financial backer?
CE: None of it really worked. We had a board that didn’t really function. There was a board of two people, nobody else wanted to be on the board. When I took on Rooseum it was more or less bankrupt. We had one moderately rich collector who was on the board, Lars Tullin, and he was the main person who supported us with bank loans. We also got money from the city and some foundations in Sweden but it was not much. To the extent that we were smart enough and aware enough we would identify certain funds that had an agenda and then try to join our agenda to theirs. There was a Stockholm-based Future Fund for instance that funded us three times and then said they couldn’t do it regularly. But we weren’t great at fundraising, to be honest, so sometimes I couldn’t pay my salary for a month. In that sense, it was a constant struggle. But somehow you put things together and you survive. I don’t think money is the main issue, when you have a sense that you are trying to achieve something, you find the means to do it. It was experimentalism that we were interested in and that drove us. We couldn’t sell experimentalism to a company and we couldn’t really sell it to a newspaper. Perhaps because we weren’t good at sales—I think it’s my great weakness as a director—but also because they’re interested in short-term results above processes. Nowadays we know that the neoliberal model ignores 70% of human needs— yet even so it is still dominant. I think in those days that idea of failure wasn’t something people understood yet. There were no challenges to neoliberalism then, only moderators.
LK & GF:Did you follow the institutional work of other people, e.g. Ute Meta Bauer or Roger Buergel?
CE: We were a bit young and naive and weren’t that connected. The artists locally were very important to me. People like Superflex, Jens Haaning, Luca Frei, Alexander Gutke, Anna Ling, Kajsa Dahlberg as well as curators like Simon Sheikh or Gertrud Sandqvist. Catherine David, after she did Documenta, I had huge respect for. Maria Lind for sure, and Vasif Kortun, of course. More than any other individual. Adam Szymczyk and Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, an independent space at that time, were a crucial link for me, as were the beginnings of whw in Zagreb. I was looking East mostly, while keeping Scotland in mind. It was also more about peripheral places. The centers—London, Paris, even Berlin—just didn’t feel right. They were already too occupied with the market, and Rooseum or Malmö were an irrelevant inconvenience to them. Or that’s how it felt. I guess you link with people who are hospitable in the end. Also, I like the provinces, you are less under the microscope and can develop things. I think the impact of Rooseum was less immediate but more lasting because of that.
LK & GF:Did you follow a certain vision with your institutional practice?
CE: What’s important with that sense of New Institutionalism, or Experimental Institutionalism as I would prefer to call it, is that education or relationships with small, just forming communities were very important for us. I think all of the places that fall under that umbrella were interested in small and deep, not wide and shallow, in terms of audience engagement. We needed to work with the public, to turn them from audience to collaborators, to switch the idea from passive reception to people becoming active shapers of that institutional message. That meant that you reduce in a sense the scope of who you really want to talk to, and the danger was that you start to talk to the people who share an interest with you and close off to the rest. We could move more quickly than if we had to carry the mass of the public with us, who did not quite understand what we do—and we weren’t very good at or interested in explaining it to them, because we were busy with the experiment.
LK & GF: What was the size of Rooseum’s audience?
CE: Maybe 30,000, depending on the years, but probably between 25,000 and 33,000. But we did get committed people, and there were art press articles, I would be interviewed by Artforum, Frieze etc. There was a certain awareness of what we were doing. What I was learning to do was how to talk about it in an academic way, rather than popularizing it. When I came to Eindhoven, I was determined to learn from that and do things differently in terms of a broader public.
LK & GF: Concerning the discourse and people writing about New Institutionalism, the historical context or the historicizing isn’t really present. There are some examples, but they’re not making a genealogy or the like.
CE: That’s why New Institutionalism bothers me, because I think we were in an experimental phase and I don’t think we were conscious or striving to be ‘new.’ We were learning by doing, it was really pragmatic in that sense. Let’s find out how things work, but on our terms. I don’t feel happy about the word ‘new’ because it is such a neoliberal term. It sounds like “new, improved washing powder” or whatever product to me, and that’s not what it was really about. It was not a marketing tool and I think this is why it failed within the contemporary framework of economic attention in a sense, although it did clearly establish a certain identity. Nevertheless I want to put the emphasis on an Experimental Institutionalism, because I think this releases you from the idea of creating a grand narrative of ‘newness’ which implies that now all institutions should become like this—it was not the case that there was an old institutionalism, but now there’s a new one that will replace it. Rather we said times have changed since the modern age and the institutions don’t know how to behave, so let’s push them and see what happens.
LK & GF: Did the discourse around institutional practice have a legitimating or catalytic function?
CE: Definitely, if you speak about things they become real. It was about what the institution could be—again, the experimental nature of it meant that the statements you were making were also speculative or aspirational. This is where we wanted to place ourselves, working with a form (the institution) in a place (Malmö, München, Rotterdam or wherever) and asking what it meant in 2000 to be doing this.  We wanted the institution to become an active place and it felt like we could learn from other institutions while maintaining the traditional right to free space and experimentation that we inherited from the avant-garde and the Cold War. We looked at the community center, the library, the laboratory, even the church, as models to eat up and reuse. These institutions were part of that comfortable northern European ecology that needed reformulating, abandoning, reshaping. So that’s why I said at the beginning that we could be part community center, part laboratory, part school and not so much the showroom function that traditionally belonged to the art space. To create waves and movement—that was experimental institutionalism for me, to move in existing society. So it also felt like the school, the laboratories and the community center would have to make room for us—and that was definitely an aspirational statement.
LK & GF: How did you perceive the 2003 publication New Institutionalism by Jonas Ekeberg that coined the term?
CE: I know Jonas and I like him a lot. But as I told him, I don’t like the ‘new’ bit, though I liked the -ism. I wanted my work not to be judged as a proposal for what could happen generally, but as experiments that produced an analysis. If we look now, we see that the things we called New Institutions didn’t actually produce anything stable and lasting as ‘new institutions.’ But they did produce experimental results, which certainly informed what I’ve been doing here at Van Abbemuseum and I think informs what other people like Maria Lind or Vasif Kortun, for instance, have been able to do elsewhere. But it wasn’t that it became the new model. Which is again why I think that the name is wrong.
LK & GF: How were you connected with other curators at that time?
CE: We had a small informal group with Barbara Steiner and Bart de Baere called ‘Leipziger Gruppe.’ I also tried to form a closer alliance with Catherine David at Witte de With. But she left, then I left, and the work took more shape in Eindhoven. We weren’t claiming those strategies as collective or combined, but there were joint learning experiences. There were two NIFCA conferences—Stopping the Process and Changing the System—that were important to connect us, but I think we were all just responding to what we saw. The question I asked in that last exhibition at Rooseum, What happened to Social Democracy?, was something that we shared; it meant that we wanted to build different kinds of institutions that could address the world as we saw it and not the world as the social democratic authorities saw it. But I think people like Jonas and Alex Farquharson actually made us more conscious that we were doing similar things and I am for a comparison of these institutional experiments, as I think they each result in different outcomes. It is absolutely necessary now to write a historiography of that time and to understand what happened in order to build on it and experiment anew. It’s vital to analyze its strengths and weaknesses. When it’s not written down it’s lost. Perhaps we need to be historicized by another generation, by you who weren’t involved and who need to come along and validate (or not) through your own experiences.
LK & GF: If you reflect on your momentary position, can you still apply the term experimental to it?
CE: Van Abbemuseum is a bigger platform. But fundamentally, it’s the same question: What can you do with the museum in the 21st Century? Can it be the source of social and political questions, which visitors can investigate through the exhibition, rather than a treasure chest where you just show some beautiful jewels? This still seems experimental to me, in the sense that we don’t know how to answer that research question. I think as long as you maintain that methodology you’re still experimenting. The moment you know the answer, you become an institution reproducing its own power. I feel that the experiment is still urgently needed. As I said, we know now that neoliberalism doesn’t work for the 99%, which we didn’t know in those Rooseum days. We know that the system of capital reproduction serves only a very small number of people at the top and that trickle-down is actually trickle-up away from the poor. We know that the systems that have been put in place as globalization allow economies to grow, while demolishing social cohesion. We’re much more critical of the current situation than we were back in 2000. But we still don’t have any answers or any bigger political projects. In that sense we’re still in the experiment.

Charles Esche is a curator and writer. Director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and has been appointed as curator for the Sao Paolo Biennial 2014. Co-founder and co-editor of Afterall Journal and Books and the Exhibition Histories series. Between 2000-2004 director of Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmö.

From On Curating.

Aesthetics of Repetition: A Case for Oscar Masotta ; Juli Carson, 2012

From the theater’s booth we explained the idea of the [re-enacted] Happening over a microphone. We gave information about the authors and the actions of each of the original Happenings and we said–which was the truth–that it was not our intention to repeat Happenings but to produce for the audience a situation similar to that experienced by archeologists and psychologists. Starting from some remains that had been conserved to the present, they had to reconstruct a past, the original situation.1
-Oscar Masotta, 1967
In Seminar XI, Lacan sustains that repetition is one of the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. But if, as Heraclitus says, “you can’t step in the same river twice,” repetition seems to be something of a misnomer, consisting in the return, not of the same, but of the different–the return of something else, something other. Thus in fact it would seem there is no return… For no two “things” are ever identical or exactly the same.2
-Bruce Fink, 1995
In 1966 Allan Kaprow christened Buenos Aires a “city of Happenists.” It was the year Kaprow collaborated with Marta Minujin and Wolf Vostell on Three Countries Happening, a simultaneous event in three cities: New York, Buenos Aires, and Berlin. Meanwhile, the Argentine trio Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, and Raul Escari were devising their Total Participation Happening, in which press releases and photographs of a Happening that never took place were given to various Buenos Aires newspapers. El Mundo (circulation 300,000) bought the story and ran it. There were also the “deconstructed” Happenings by Oscar Masotta, an Argentine artist and critic who deftly combined avant-garde aesthetics with Lacan’s theory of the subject and Sartre’s political imperative for committed art. What connected these experiments was a relentless focus on an event’s repetition, a rogue take on Kaprow’s Happening given his famous axiom that Happenings should be performed once only.3 But for a generation of Argentine artists–one associated with a flurry of neo-avant-garde strategies imported from the Northern Hemisphere and staged at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (ITDT) in the mid-1960s–what mattered was the way a Happening’s secondary documentation in the media was, in and of itself, a singular event. As Jacoby put it, “[A] mass audience does not see an exhibition, attend a Happening or go to a soccer game, but it does see footage of the event on the news…. In the final analysis, it is of no interest to information consumers if an exhibition took place or not; all that matters is the image of the artistic event constructed by the media.”4 Whether or not we experience the original event, its reproduction ushers in another one. Perhaps, following Lacan, it’s because repetition involves the return of the different, not the same.

What follows is a case study for a practice of repetition, one conceived in Buenos Aires by Oscar Masotta amidst an onslaught of military coups that would eventually lead to the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s. On this Argentine field we encounter Masotta’s Lacanian interpretation of the Happening, a model that lays the foundation for a psychoanalytic branch of Conceptualism highly relevant today for a group of international, contemporary artists interested in critical aesthetics–that tripartite investigation of art, politics, and theory. In Masotta’s times, critical aesthetics entailed simultaneously negotiating the strategies of the neo-avant-garde, a wave of military coups, and the introduction of Lacan’s theorization of the subject. This combination of disciplines, historical events, and intellectual ruminations now repeats among a select group of contemporary practitioners.5 But this repetition is no mere duplication. Rather, these events–aesthetic, political and theoretical–are happening (again) for the first time in the discursive field of contemporary art and politics. For some the events are quite literally new, as they have no memory (primary or secondary) of the historical or neo-avant-garde vis-a-vis contemporary art. For others it’s figuratively new. But it is the latter–that subject who knowingly repeats, always as if for the first time–who functions as a courier of historical memory and is thus an interrogator of cultural practice–that concerns me. And this contemporary practice of repetition is happening at a moment when the discovery of Oscar Masotta (led in large part by the Museum of Modern Art’s 2004 publication Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde) has piqued an international interest in this kind of critical aesthetics.
First, a brief history of the Argentine campo.6

Oscar Masotta, c. 1966. Photo courtesy Susana Lijtmaer. reproduced in <em>Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde</em> (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004).
Oscar Masotta, c. 1966. Photo courtesy Susana Lijtmaer. reproduced in Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004). Used with permission of the estate of Oscar Masotta. © Susana Lijtmaer.

Buenos Aires: 1960s

Located in Buenos Aires, the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (ITDT) was Argentina’s most dynamic and modernizing cultural organization. It was founded in the mid-1960s in honor of the industrialist and collector Torcuato Di Tella. Run by Guido Di Tella, the institute not only displayed the Di Tella’s collection, it also sponsored national and international awards. Lucy Lippard, Clement Greenberg, Pierre Restany, and Allan Kaprow all acted as jurors for the ITDT. In 1967, when Masotta delivered his lecture “After Pop We Dematerialize” there,7 he began by citing the Russian Constructivist artist El Lissitzky; “The idea that moves the masses today is materialism: however, it is dematerialization that characterizes the times.” Masotta argued, via Lissitzky, that as “correspondence grows, so the number of letters, the quantity of writing paper, the mass of material of supply grow until they are relieved by the radio. Matter diminishes, we dematerialize, sluggish masses of matter are replaced by liberated energy.”8 In this spirit, Masotta urged, “[I]f there is talk now of not concerning oneself with content, it does not mean that avant-garde art is moving toward a new purism or worse formalism. What is occurring today in the best pieces is that the contents are being fused to the media used to convey them.”9 And if the medium was now the message, as Marshall McLuhan said, it was up to the artist to chip away at the imaginary nature of this message in the context of mass media. For Masotta, this entailed, as we will see, a Lacanian consideration of the looking subject in the context of neo-avant-garde strategies that migrated between disciplines and regions.10

A year later, the American critic Lucy Lippard published “The Dematerialization of Art,” in Art International. For her, “dematerialism” evoked an “art as idea,” whereby “matter is denied, as sensation has been converted into concept.” Ostensibly this was a dialectical turn away from Greenberg’s Modernist painting–known as “art for art’s sake”–on the road first to what Lippard termed a “rational-esthetic” and then a “post-esthetic.” That said, she offered a caveat: “Dematerialized art is post-esthetic only in its increasingly non-visual emphases. The esthetic of principle is still esthetic, as implied by frequent statements by mathematicians and scientists about the beauty of an equation, formula or solution.”11 And yet the heart of Greenbergism–essence, beauty, harmony, and order–was still beating. Like Greenberg’s Modernism, Lippard’s dematerialism had less to do with the signifier–the material of an artwork–than it did with the signified–the artwork’s non-visual aesthetic fact. Even though Lippard tossed aside Greenberg’s notion of “medium specificity” in favor of a logical positivist Conceptualism, the essence game of transcendentalism that defined high Modernism remained in its place. Moreover, it may have been enough for Lippard to reject the visual, but in so doing, the subject who looks at a Conceptual artwork wasn’t taken into consideration.

While Lippard was devising her Conceptualist formulations in New York, Masotta was devising a model of dematerialist art production around this issue of the looking subject, a redirected investigation he made while discovering the structuralist psychoanalytic writings of Lacan a full decade before artists in the Northern Hemisphere would do so. Moreover, while those in Europe and America would later encounter Lacan through the institutionalization of his writing in academia throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Masotta’s discovery was made contingently as a “lucky find” in the early 1960s. This entails another story.

Following the death of his father in 1960, Masotta fell into a deep depression, to the point of contemplating suicide. As historian Mariano Ben Plotkin recounts, this was the moment that Masotta discovered psychoanalysis: “Suddenly I had to forget Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, ideas and politics, ‘commitment,’ and the ideas I had invented about myself. I had to look for an analyst.”12 Meanwhile, the Argentine sociologist Enrique Pichon Riviere had taken the bereaved Masotta into his home, where Masotta gained access to the structuralist writings of Lacan and Levi-Strauss. His studies with Riviere, which began as a means of distraction from melancholia, would lead to Masotta’s seminal paper introducing Lacanian theory, a text he wrote in 1964 and published in 1965 in Pasado y Presente.13 A key periodical of the New Left, this choice of venue attests to Masotta’s continued interest in politics–or at least a psychoanalytic turn within the political field. Even more significant, Masotta’s essay–in which he sought to reconcile Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and Marx’s materialist theories through Lacan’s structuralist phenomenological lens–was the first discussion of Lacan in Argentina and most likely the first one in the Spanish Language.14

Oscar Masotta, <em>Para inducer al espíritu de la imagen (To Induce the Spirit of the Image),</em> Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1966. Reproduced in <em>Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde.</em> (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004).
Oscar Masotta, Para inducer al espíritu de la imagen (To Induce the Spirit of the Image), Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1966. Photo courtesy Susana Lijtmaer. Reproduced in Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004). Used with permission of the Estate of Oscar Masotta.

And the results? Having read Lacan’s Seminar II on “The Purloined Letter,” a seminar Masotta would later explicate to artists in a lecture series delivered at the ITDT,15 his focus shifted to the subject’s relation to the symbolic register–that linguistic field of signifiers through which the subject is determined. Following Lacan, Masotta was concerned with the efficacy of the symbolic world (conscious thought) in contrast to the complete inertia of the Symbolic register (unconscious thought) that is anomalous to the subject. Against Lippard’s formulation of dematerialism, this was an anti-positivist approach because it took up more than what the subject knows to be true. In tandem, it took up what is unconscious in the subject–those inert “thoughts” that paradoxically determine the subject’s consciousness relationship to the Symbolic signifying system. This followed Lacan’s axiom that the unconscious is structured like a language and is therefore knowable in the field of the Other, even though the subject’s own consciousness is “incapable of accounting for the eternal and indestructible nature of unconscious contexts.”16 Like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, the subject’s unconscious thoughts are always hiding in plain view of the Other. It is thus to the field of the Other that the subject turns to find the “truth” of his or her shifting desire. Notably, because Masotta delivered his Lacanian lectures to artists at the ITDT, the Symbolic register to which he referred delineated more than the socio-political field, which was the primary concern of the Argentine Lacanian Left. Masotta purposely extended his investigation to consider the aesthetic field as well.
In the mid-1960s, it was a radical and even precocious move to wage a tripartite investigation into the limits of representation within the visual field (dematerialist art), the subject who looks within the discursive field (Lacanian theory), and the social function of aesthetic critique vis-a-vis the political field (New Left).17 But it wasn’t without political application or ramification. This burst of hybrid intellectual activity by Masotta and his cohorts at the ITDT was concurrent with the military coup d’etat of June 1966, led by General Juan Carlos Ongania. Whereas previous military coups in Argentina established temporary juntas, the Revolucion Argentina, headed by Ongania, established a new political and social order, one opposed to both liberal democracy and communism. 

Unapologetically fascist, Ongania immediately waged La Noche de los Bastones Largos (The Night of the Long Sticks), when police stormed the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, beating and arresting students and professors. This attests to the bravery–or frivolousness, depending on your ideological bias–of the combined revival of psychoanalysis and the avant-garde amidst the advancement of a totalitarian dictatorship that would eventually enact genocide upon the Argentine Left from 1976-83.

A Happening Redux

The 1966 coup set the political mise-en-scene for Masotta’s essay “I committed a Happening,” written to counter the condemnation–made by one Professor Klimovsky in the newspaper La Razon–that “perpetrators” of Happenings would better serve the Left by investing their creative “imagination in lessening this tremendous plague (of ‘hunger’).”18 For Masotta, this choice–either Happenings or Left politics–was a false dialectic. His rebuttal evoked Walter Benjamin’s address to the Institute for the Study of Fascism, made in 1934, when he denounced the false choice the Left was forcing artists to make between political correctness and aesthetic engagement.19 For Benjamin, the Left needed to interrogate aesthetic tendencies, not merely reject them. Similarly, Masotta argued that Happenings reclassified the materialist basis of Art with a capital “A” (its most noble form being bronze or marble) and site (traditionally confined to the museum). As such, Happenings had the potential of interrogating and demystifying the hegemonic value system of art production/consumption by formally imbuing (critical) aesthetics with a social function. This entailed reorienting the subject’s imaginary and symbolic relationship to a conventional artwork or art event, returning from the repressed the evocation of a form’s different connotative value that’s over-determined by standing aesthetic convention. The Happening’s critical potential, then, was not ontological. In its most conventional application, a Happening could just as easily reestablish cultural hegemonies, as was the case of a Happening performed by La Monte Young in New York City, in 1966, which Masotta had attended.20
In “I committed a Happening,” Masotta described his experience of Young’s event:
After climbing the last staircase [into a downtown New York City loft], one was assaulted by and enveloped in a continuous deafening noise, composed of a colorful mix of electronic sounds…. Something, I don’t know what, something Oriental, was burning somewhere…. The lights were turned out; only the front wall was illuminated by a blue or reddish light…. Beneath the light, and almost against the wall, facing the room and facing the audience…were five people…sitting on the ground, one of them a woman, in yoga position, dressed in what was certainly Oriental clothing, and each of them holding a microphone. One of them played a violin, while…the four others remained as though paralyzed, with the microphones almost glued to their open mouths…. [T]he four, stopping only to breath, were adding a continuous guttural sound to the sum of the electronic sounds…. There was in this timeless spectacle a deliberate mix–a bit banal for my taste–of Orientalism and electronics.21
Upon returning to Buenos Aires in April 1966, Masotta decided to repeat Young’s Happening. Though it might be more appropriate to say–employing Guy Debord’s term–that Masotta detourned it.22 Entitled To Induce the Spirit of the Image, Masotta’s Happening waged a dual critique of Western Zen-fetish, a social phenomenon that disgusted Masotta in the context of American capitalism, and class stratification, something one saw everywhere in Argentina.
Performed at ITDT, Masotta retained Young’s idea of “putting on” a continuous electronic sound at a high volume for an hour, as he would the arrangement of the audience and performers–face to face, with the performers being lit. However, instead of five performers seated in yoga positions, Masotta hired twenty elderly actors, dressed as “motley-colored downtrodden-looking” individuals, to stand on an illuminated platform. When Masotta discharged a fire extinguisher the event began:
I told [the audience] what was happening when they entered the room…that I had paid the old people to let themselves be seen, and that the audience, the others, those who were facing the old folks, more than two hundred people, had each paid two hundred pesos to look at them. That in all this there was a circle…through which the money moved, and that I was the mediator. Then I discharged the fire extinguisher, and afterward the sound appeared, rapidly attaining the chosen volume. When the spotlight that illuminated me went out, I myself went up to the spotlights that were to illuminate the old people and I turned them on. Against the white wall, their spirit shamed and flattened out by the white light, next to each other in a line, the old people were rigid, ready to let themselves be looked at for an hour. The electronic sound lent greater immobility to the scene. I looked toward the audience: they too, in stillness looked at the old people.23
In the context of Young’s original Happening–a past someone may or may not know independently–it’s helpful to read Masotta’s experimental Happening through the logic of a double-blind study. Based upon a technique in clinical research where neither the researcher nor the patient knows whether the treatment administered is considered inactive (placebo) or active (medicinal), in a double-blind study no one knows who is in the inactive control group and who is in the active experimental group. Analogously, in Happenings one finds an attempt to deny the distinction between audience (passive group) and performer (active group), following the neo-avant-garde axiom that audiences should be eliminated entirely. “All the elements–people, space, the particular materials and character of the environment, time–can in this way be integrated,” Kaprow concluded in 1959.24 The two groups constituting a Happening–audience and performers–would thus mirror each other, the reality of one being bound up in the other. Of course this symbiosis would have occurred in Young’s Happening. However, given the absence of any ostensible critique, this imbrication of positions–which by 1966 had become quite conventional–was left unexamined, which meant the chiasmic relation between self and other wasn’t really seen. Rather, the participants passively reenacted these positions, with Young seated in the privileged location of conductor.

Brochure for <em>Acerca de: Happenings (About: Happenings)</em>, a series of lectures and happenings organized by Oscar Masotta at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1966. Reproduced in <em>Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde.</em> (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004).
Brochure for Acerca de: Happenings (About: Happenings), a series of lectures and happenings organized by Oscar Masotta at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1966. Reproduced in Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004). Used with permission of the Estate of Oscar Masotta.
In Masotta’s Happening, by contrast, the rules of the game were explicitly established as a critique, such that the artist (investigator) would also be blind in the sense that what would happen between the two groups, vis-a-vis the investigator’s action (in situ), was unknown by all. The only thing known in advance was that all the players–the two groups and the artist–would be positioned in a triangulation of inter-subjective gazes. “The old people were rigid, ready to let themselves be looked at for an hour. The electronic sound lent greater immobility to the scene. I looked toward the audience: they too, in stillness looked at the old people.” We might ask what they all were looking at? Or rather, who was given to be seen, and by whom? Within this galaxy of signifiers–the elderly, their weathered clothes, the Argentine flags, the spectator-audience, the artist- conductor, the Instituto Di Tella–an Imaginary field of multiple, fractured identifications were played out via each person’s relation to the Other. This recalled Sartre’s observation that in the look “I am possessed by the Other; the Other’s look fashions my body in its nakedness, causes it to be born, sculptures it, produces it as it is, sees it as I shall never see it. The Other holds a secret–the secret of who I am.”25 Like a double-blind study, a secret thus structured the Happening, embedded, as it were, in the various discursive fields mentioned above.

Meanwhile, the Happenist who wrote the score–“You will stand here for an hour and be looked at”–initiated the scene with an implicit “declaration”–I am a sadist. In this way, Masotta self-reflexively radicalized the Sartrean theory of the look, because the subject–as Lacan would have put it–was hiding in plain view. Which brings us back to the unconscious, a concept Sartre soundly rejected. From a Lacanian point of view, we might conjecture that the entire point of Masotta “committing a Happening” was to call attention to the subject’s unconscious relationship to the Symbolic register, in which the participants were embedded, and through which they were determined. Moreover, given the particular signs he mobilized–the people, the clothes, the weapon-ness of the fire extinguisher, the exchange of capital, and the look–this point was explicitly political (to the chagrin of Klimovsky, who implicitly conflated the Happenist with the criminal). Masotta’s point was, however, made performatively, not didactically, which confused many on the Left. As Masotta explained: “When my friends on the Left…asked me, troubled, about the meaning of the Happening, I answered them using a phrase which I repeated using exactly the same order of words each time I was asked the same question: My Happening, I now repeat, was nothing other than ‘an act of social sadism made explicit.'”26

Basically, Masotta transformed Young’s Happening into a Sartrean “situation.” But what confused those on the Left was not that Masotta had done this–the Left was squarely behind Sartre–but that he did it in order to interrogate those on the Left and the Right, artist and politician, a move that made a critical demand upon all the participants. According to Sartre, a situation is the position from which a person engages with the world–where one is presented with a set of conditions that he or she can passively accept or actively interrogate. The active position entails recognizing that the quotidian choices we make–between this or that action–is an affirmation of a given “image” of humanity as a whole. As Sartre put it, in making a choice, “I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be.In fashioning myself I fashion man.”27 As a means of interrogation, the committed artist might repeat these situations. In so doing, the artist would visualize the conventional choices subjects make in life, ones that could be made differently through art as a critique of life. Accordingly, when scoring his Happening, Masotta made several choices that implicated his fellow practitioners of art, some of which have already been mentioned. For instance, he did not accept the pseudo-scientific notion of dematerialism as defined by Lippard. Nor did he choose, in his Happening, to maintain the Orientalist components of Young’s original event. Rather, Masotta chose to visualize what was hiding in plain view: the truth of the subject within the double fields of Argentine politics and the International avant-garde, which is to say, to visualize a certain strain of social sadism among artists and politicians alike.28

For most, this collapsed dialectic was understandably counterintuitive. Certainly the psychedelic yogi scene staged by La Monte Young and his collaborators defined the “zeitgeist” of many artists, which, like the Left, protested an American right-wing administration that would back Argentina’s Dirty War. But in reality, when it came to each group’s ethnocentrism–an attitude that often entailed a sadistic relationship to the Other–there was little difference between the two groups, even though this connection remained in the register of unconscious thoughts. The issue of this unconscious reality, no doubt, formed the basis for Masotta’s disgust with the American social phenomenon of Zen as he encountered it within Young’s Happening.29 Another of Masotta’s descriptions illuminates the Happening’s underlying sadism in physiological terms, and we should note how readily Masotta discounts the conscious intentions of the participants’ Orientalism:
[I]n this sum of deafening sounds, in this exasperating electronic endlessness, in this mix of high-pitched noise and sound that penetrated one’s bones and pummeled one’s temples, there was something that had very little to do with Zen…. I felt isolated, as though nailed to the floor, the auditory reality now “inside” my body…. How long would this last? I was not resolved to pursue the experience to the end: I didn’t believe in it. After no more than twenty minutes I left.30
By leaving the Happening, Masotta made a choice. Not only did he refuse to participate in Young’s so-called Zen mise-en-scene, he further resolved to commit another Happening at the conceptual margins of Young’s event as a means of critique, a situation about a situation. However, Masotta’s situation disregarded Sartre’s imperative for a committed art opposed to the avant-garde,31 in that the Happening wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the avant-garde. Instead, in a move that foretold the aesthetic theories put forth by Jacques Ranciere–and read by so many artists today–Masotta used the Happening to demonstrate (in real time) the extent to which aesthetics and politics were bound up in a reciprocal relationship–neither being pure in and of itself. He thus gave us another axiom: There’s a politics to aesthetics and an aesthetics to politics. Further anticipating Ranciere, and departing from Sartre, Masotta knew that underscoring the role of the unconscious was central in demonstrating this reciprocity. Here, again, Lacan enters the picture.

Oscar Masotta’s <em>Ensayos Lacanianos</em> (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1976).

Oscar Masotta’s Ensayos Lacanianos (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1976).

The Purloined Avant-Garde

In his 1955 seminar on “The Purloined Letter,” Lacan declared, “a letter always arrives at its destination.”32 In saying this, he wasn’t claiming that a letter always arrives at the address typed on its envelope. Rather, the implication is that the letter’s rightful addressee is by definition the person who receives it. This idea relates to Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation, whereby a subject (of gender, nation, class, etc.) becomes defined ideologically the moment s/he answers a “hail” or call from the Other (be it a parent, politician, or artist). This call and response happens every time we (unconsciously) recognize a hail and know that it is I who has been hailed. If a hail always reaches its rightful destination, it’s because someone is always there–as if by chance–to receive it. Likewise in the case of the purloined letter, the receiver is merely the holder of the letter, not the “rightful” possessor of it in any prescriptive way. We can think of a purloined letter as an anonymous message placed in a bottle and cast out to sea. When it lands and a subject recognizes it and picks it up, s/he has answered its call. The artist is one such subject, as was Masotta.
In 1966, Masotta answered a Lacanian hail, initiated by his mentor, after which he considered the role that unconscious thought played in the Symbolic field and paid it forward to his colleagues at the ITDT. In the context of Sartrean situations, this was an ethical act. For if Masotta intended to expose a secret that was hiding in plain view within the aesthetic and political fields–social sadism–then making this secret explicit entailed confronting participants with a repressed reality and a series of concomitant choices. Moreover, by simultaneously inducing a Sartrean situation, the Happening’s overall “event” was extended to include the sites of prior production and subsequent discursive representation, including this one. And in each site–production, exhibition, and distribution–the question remained: Who would receive what hail?
Returning to Masotta’s description of the event in “I Committed a Happening,” the production entailed hiring twenty actors to “work” for four hundred pesos. He explains that he wanted them to evoke those people whose normal job was to be “hawkers of cheap jewelry, leather goods and variety material” that were sold in “those shops that are always on the verge of closing along Corrientes Street.” He speculated that at their usual work they must earn less than what he was going to pay them. The event thus began with a negotiation between the artist and his “workers”:
I gathered them together and explained what they were to do. I told them that instead of four hundred I would pay them six hundred pesos: from that point on they gave me their full attention. I felt a bit cynical: but neither did I wish to have too many illusions. I wasn’t going to demonize myself for this social act of manipulation, which in real society happens everyday. I then explained…that they had nothing to do other than to remain still for an hour…I also told them that…during this hour there would be a very high-pitched sound, at very high volume, and very deafening. And they had to put up with it, there was no alternative. And I asked whether they accepted and they were in agreement…. As I began to feel vaguely guilty, I considered offering them cotton plugs for their ears. I did so and they accepted.33
In this situation, the performers received the hail of “worker” once they negotiated with Masotta, who, in doing so, received the hail of “management.” The repressed fact that returns here–afforded by the exchange of money that Masotta later reveals to the audience as part of the performance–is what Brecht claimed to be the (masked) reality of theatre: the non-distinction between actor and worker, and, by extension, the stage and the world. It’s not a matter of “all the world’s a stage,” but rather that the stage is the real world, with all the social acts of manipulation that accord it. One doesn’t leave the world for the theatre, which “represents” reality. Rather, in theatre–and in art–one enters another situation where real choices have to be made.
In Masotta’s case, a public situation was established once he announced the agreed upon exchange of money at the beginning of the performance. But this utterance didn’t begin or end with the Marxist intent to expose the circulation of capital in art. Rather, the exchange of money–establishing the purchase of a scene–set the stage for the transparent exchange of looks, something that producers of conventional theatre and performance take great efforts to mask. As Brecht noted in The Messingkauf Dialogues, in theatre “the audience sees quite intimate episodes without itself being seen,” or so they believe. “It’s just like somebody looking through a keyhole and seeing a scene involving people who’ve no idea they are not alone.” But in reality, this is an imaginary arrangement that theatre simultaneously sets up and conceals.34 In Masotta’s Happening, however, there was an attempt to establish a situation whereby participants were not just seeing the performers. To the contrary, they were looking at the circuit of gazes in which they, themselves, were self-consciously caught.
Herein lay the potentiality of critique. In Masotta’s mise-en-scene, the participants were hailed to acknowledge the ethics of the look, which they had either sold or purchased, within the circuit of the gaze. The question of who looks at whom, and for what purpose, could not be ignored. Absolutely central to this scene–to the critical act of looking–was the stark difference it conjured up in the art viewer in respect to the normative circuit of exhibitionism/voyeurism that characterized events such as Young’s, events that laid a claim for a cutting edge aesthetic. Certainly, this consciousness would have indeed been the case among those attending art events at the ITDT–recall Kaprow’s announcement that Buenos Aires was a “city of Happenists,” a claim the mass media ran with. In this way, Masotta’s commitment to avant-garde practice as a strategy of social critique relied upon his tactic of repetition being recognized by the viewer. However, even without consciousness of the first event, there was critical potential in Masotta’s iteration. For what was grounded here was the unabashed, naked act of evaluative looking–an act in which we regularly and problematically engage in our quotidian affairs and one, moreover, that is masked by conventional realist art and theatre.
Which brings us back to why the work of Oscar Masotta matters today. For this tactic of repetition is to be found everywhere in the best instances of contemporary critical aesthetics. Witness Andrea Geyer’s Comrades of Time (2011) project, in which the artist videotapes young women repeating the speeches and writings of historical avant-garde thinkers and collectives–Rosa Luxemburg, the November Group Manifesto, Heinrich Mann, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Margarete Susman–as a means of critiquing the amnesic nature of contemporary art and politics. Or Constanze Ruhm’s Crash Site: My_Never_Ending_Burial_ Plot (2010), in which the artist-as-filmmaker revives and re-scripts the identities of iconic female film characters–in this case, Hari of Andrej Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Nana of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962), and Giuliana of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso (1964)–as a means of putting the legacies of neo-avant-garde “auteur” filmmaking and Postmodernist feminism in dialogue with each other and contemporary filmmaking. There’s also Kerry Tribe’s 2010 re-performance of Hollis Frampton’s 1971 film Critical Mass, in which a couple improvises a break-up that Frampton edited into a series of stutters and repetitions. In Tribe’s redux, her actors re-perform Frampton’s script–both in its improvisation and final edit–whereupon the actors, given to be seen, are objects of the audience’s simultaneous identification and disidentification with a spectacle that’s both real and reconstructed–a performative metaphor for gender identification in the public sphere.

These are but three examples in which a purloined avant-garde tactic gives rise to critical art production, to the chagrin of such contemporary thinkers as Peter Burger, who continues to argue, as he did in 1974, that repetition of these tactics “institutionalizes the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste intentions.”35 Many excellent critiques have been made of Burger’s claims,36 but suffice it to say that Burger squarely adheres to the belief that one can be in step with one’s times. That, indeed, we can step in the same river twice–the first time being real, the second being false. This myth of authentic origin versus fraudulent repetition is a notion that tenaciously plagues a conservative facet of contemporary art production. It is against this myth of origin that I revive–no, repeat–Masotta’s call for a dematerialist practice that utilizes the detourned signifier–be it the word, the image, or the look–to interrogate the limits of representation in which we are both caught and split. And, in repeating Masotta’s own repetition of an event, it is my hope that Masotta’s legacy will continue, after the fact, to bear fruit in the work of those artists today committed to the politics and aesthetics of repetition.

Juli Carson is Associate Professor in the Studio Art Department of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at the University of California, Irvine, where she directs the Critical and Curatorial MFA Program and the University Art Galleries. She is author of Exile of the Imaginary: Politics, Aesthetics, Love (Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2007) and The Limits of Representation: Psychoanalysis and Critical Aesthetics (Buenos Aires: Letra Viva Press, 2011). Her forthcoming book, entitled The Conceptual Unconscious: A Poetics of Critique, will be published by PoLYpeN.
  1. Eduardo Costa and Oscar Masotta, “On Happenings, Happening: Reflections and Accounts,” Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde, Ines Katzenstein, ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004), 204.
  2. Bruce Fink, “The Real Cause of Repetition,” in Reading Seminar XI, Feldstein et al, eds. (New York: SUNY Press, 1995), 223.
  3. Allan Kaprow, “Assemblages, Environments and Happenings,” in Art in Theory: 1900-1990, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. (Cambridge: Blackwell Press, 1995).
  4. Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, and Raul Escari, “An Art of Communications Media” (manifesto), in Listen Here Now!, 223.
  5. Most notably this context characterizes a group of artists working within an international network of cultural institutions that have a critical program–the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, El Centro de Investigaciones Artisticas in Buenos Aires, the Generali Foundation in Vienna, and the Museu d’Art Contemporani in Barcelona are key among them–as well as with various biennials, most notably those held in Sao Paolo, Berlin, Gwangju, Havana, Istanbul, and Saint Petersburg. For a contemporary case study of aesthetic intervention as political action, one that was an impetus for a public debate about cultural memory, see Simon Sheikh’s review of Roberto Jacoby’s contribution to the 29th edition of the Sao Paulo biennale: “The Politics of Art and the Process of Biennialization,” in Text Zur Kunst (December 2010): 112-17.
  6. In Spanish, campo literally means “field.” But this notion of a field, in English and Spanish alike, denotes more than a literal place in the natural world. It also designates the site of language, the domain of discourse into which the subject is born. Hence the term “discursive field” is what campo denotes in this context.
  7. In 1966, after acting as a juror, Lawrence Alloway declared, “Buenos Aires is now one of the most vigorous Pop centers in the world.” As Director, Romero Brest shaped the program with his vision for Modern art that combined abstraction with the integration of art and architecture. Roberto Jacoby, Marta Minujin and David Lamelas are three of the most renowned artists to spring forth from this moment. For a comprehensive account of the activities associated with ITDT and its artists, see Ana Longoni’s chapter “III: Oscar Masotta and the Art of Media,” in Listen Here Now!, 155-258.
  8. El Lissitzky, cited by Masotta’s “After Pop We Dematerialize,” in Listen Here Now!, 208. Lissitzky’s comments on dematerialism were originally published as “The Future of the Book,” New Left Review (February 1967), 40.
  9. Oscar Masotta, “After Pop We Dematerialize,” in Listen Here Now!, 208.
  10. My consideration of 1960s dematerialist Conceptualism in Argentina and the United States originated in my research for Roberto Jacoby’s exhibition 1968: el culo te abrocho, which I curated at the University Art Gallery at the University of California, Irvine, in fall 2009. The accompanying brochure essay has been republished in its entirety in my book The Limits of Representation: Psychoanalysis and Critical Aesthetics (Buenos Aires: Letra Viva Press, 2011).
  11. Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,” Art International (February 1968), 31.
  12. Mariano Ben Plotkin, Freud in the Pampas: The Emergence and Development of a Psychoanalytic Culture in Argentina (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 187.
  13. Oscar Masotta, “Jacques Lacan, o El inconsciente en los fundamentos de la filosofia,” Pasado y Presente 3.9 (April-September 1965).
  14. Ten years later, after Masotta had accrued upwards of four hundred students of Lacanian theory, he would found the Escuela Freudieana de Buenos Aires, which still exists today. That same year, 1974, Masotta fled the dictator- ship to Barcelona, where he founded five more Lacanian libraries and institutions before committing suicide, in 1979, as a response to his advancing throat cancer.
  15. Masotta’s lectures on Lacan were given at ITDT on July 16, 23, and 30, and August 13 and 20, 1969. The text has recently been published as “Psicoanalisis y estructuralism,” in Oscar Masotta, Introduccion a la lectura de Jacques Lacan, introduction by German García (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2008).
  16. Bruce Fink, “The Nature of Unconscious Thought,” in Reading Seminars I and II (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 183. The italic emphases are Fink’s.
  17. Masotta’s combined interest in aesthetics, psychoanalysis, and politics recalls the early Bolshevik support of a revolutionary psychoanalytic component of Communism, lead primarily by Lev Trotsky. In the 1930s, with the rise of Stalin–and Trotsky’s subsequent exile–the Soviet Left (and International Communist Party) banned psychoanalytic practice. In 1960s Argentina, the traditional Left still viewed psychoanalysis as elitist bourgeois folly, as they did the Avant-Garde art showcased by the Di Tella Institute.
  18. Oscar Masotta, “I Committed a Happening” (1967), in Listen Here Now!, 191.
  19. Walter Benjamin published his address as “The Author as Producer,” collected in Reflections (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 221.
  20. The work was 7, from The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, by La Monte Young. Performed by The Theatre of Eternal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, voices; Marian Zazeela, voice, light projection design; Tony Conrad, violin; Marvin Carpenter, David Hayes, Jim Kirker, projectionists; February 24, 25, 26, and 27, 1966, at Larry Poons’s The Four Heavens, 295 Church Street, New York, NY. According to Young, “this was not a ‘happening’ but a series of music and light concert performances” (email correspondence with the editors, November 7, 2011).
  21. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 194.
  22. Guy Debord, writing for the Situationist International, defined “detournement” this way: “Detournement [is] the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble….The two fundamental laws of detournement are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element…and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.” From “Detournement As Negation and Prelude,” Internationale Situationniste 3 (December 1959).
  23. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 200. Emphasis is Masotta’s.
  24. Kaprow, 708.
  25. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 364.
  26. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 200.
  27. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism and Humanism,” in Art in Theory: 1900-1990, ed. Charles Harrison (New York: Blackwell Press, 1995), 589.
  28. Masotta’s work is very different from the sadistic “actions” of Santiago Sierra, who provides an “antagonistic” branch of relational aesthetics today. See: Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (autumn 2004). A notable comparison would be Sierra’s action for the 2001 Venice Biennale, Persons Paid to Have Their Hair Dyed Blond, where Sierra invited illegal street vendors to have their hair dyed in return for 120,000 lire ($60). In this work, Sierra enacts an unconscious repetition of Masotta’s Happening, a repetition that echoes the La Monte Young paradigm. In Sierra’s case, as in Young’s, neither the viewer’s nor the artist’s subject position is interrogated within the (ethical) circuit of the gaze staged for the audience. Moreover, Sierra’s lack of specific political context–beyond the art world as stand-in for neo-liberal capitalism–and his complete lack of theoretical intentionality should be noted. For Masotta, the dual context of the 1966 coup and his discovery of Lacan were essential to his model of critical aesthetics, which maintained an aesthetic, political and theoretical mandate in the production of art. Santiago’s relational aesthetics, on the other hand, maintains a political aesthetics of relational situations alone. In this sense relational aesthetics is a continuation of the Lippard’s model of dematerialism, a Conceptualism stripped of any explicit psychoanalytical consideration of the subject (artist, performer, and viewer).
  29. Edward Said’s well-known critique of Orientalism is pitch perfect here, though we should note that his text, published in 1978, had yet to be codified within Latin American critical theory. That said, of particular relevance is Said’s observation that “[T]he Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either…. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony….” For Said, this hegemony held true in politics as in art. See: Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 4-5.
  30. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 195.
  31. Sartre asserted: “Poetry is the loser winning. And the genuine poet chooses to lose, even if he has to die, in order to win. I repeat that I am talking of contemporary poetry…. Thus if anyone insists on speaking of the commitment of the poet, let it be said that he is the man who commits himself to losing.” Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature, in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, ed. Robert Denoon Cumming (New York: Vantage Books, 1965), 370.
  32. Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,'” in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, eds. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988), 28-53.
  33. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 199-200.
  34. Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues (London: Methuen Drama, 1978), 44.
  35. Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 58.
  36. One critique that has shown remarkable staying power is Hal Foster’s “Who’s Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde,” in Return of the Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
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