The bull by its horns

In order to be able to deal with the external and internal paradox raised by the curator’s work and by some of the videos, I have decided to apply the “ethic cynicism,” an oxymoron used by Luis Camnitzer to explain his own opinion towards the art market with the bold purpose of “using the corruption without corrupting yourself”: The essence of this opinion is based on the idea that prostituting yourself knowingly is much better than prostituting yourself unconsciously. In the first case it is a strategy, in the second it is corruption. As a strategy, it helps me to identify the line that I am on the verge of crossing, so it is still possible, to some extent, to revert the action. The action, being just some kind of corruption produced by thoughtlessness, is forced to become a justifying rhetoric, so you lose the possibility of assuming the responsibility for your decision.1 So let us face the debate consciously and with responsibility, but without the net to revert the action, because written words remain. Anyway, we leave the door open to future second thoughts… to some extent, of course.

The vulnerable parts of this exhibition are shown in two fronts deeply connected: the controversy hangs over the curator’s legitimacy to develop his or her labor in a transnational context and about the author’s ethic responsibility when choosing to show certain images. Relax, I am not going to walk again Habacuc’s dog, nor Damien Hirst’s shark; I am not talking about provocation –some times more justified than others—, but about the collateral effects that must be faced after the decision is taken, be it in the creation or in the selection. This polemic begins with the incursion in the sensible ground of social and political criticism, and it livens up when the postcolonial criticism and the subaltern studies enter the scene. So let us reflect upon the ethic limits that concern the author, departing from three fundamental questions:

  1. What must be and what must not be recorded: daily life, denounce and pornomiseria
  2. Who can record certain images and who should not
  3. The fact and the fact’s reproduction: the messenger must be killed

I have decided to separate this text from a third part, significantly subtitled (Handbook for quick self-defense), in which I caustically deal with the limits of the metropolitan curator’s legitimacy while working in Latin America and the further complication of focusing on social and political criticism. In this moment, the essay is being rewritten together with the Argentinean curator Andrea Ruiz, and it aims at triggering a critical and constructive dialogue from both perspectives. We hope to publish it by the end of 2009 in a volume directed by Ruiz with texts on curatorship, entitled Hibrido y Puro.

Ethic limits: daily life, denounce and pornomiseria

When the time comes to face more transcendental questions such as poverty or violence, some of the selected works start a dialogue with the ethic limits, even blurring them. Taken as a whole, they might seem conflicting, but it is precisely this uneven approach that enables us to draw better the limits, always hazardous and complex, of what can be and what cannot be recorded. And those limits are inevitably related to the question of who is the recorder. Moreover, to be able to make an accurate analysis, we should not separate the author from his or her context. That is, we need to take into account the environment from which he or she operates, his or her relation to the subjects shown in the images: who says it, but also from where.

The works we now analyze share the same interest in presenting resistance to the passive discourses and the sweet balm of what is politically correct. Working in the margins, blatantly avoiding any conciliatory approach, they are open to suspicion and criticism: it is always easier to point at people who expose themselves. Nevertheless, this exhibition does not include any works made by art corrupters (“lumpenizadores,” following an expression by Rosemberg Sandoval), and does not include any explicit images including horror or provocation, the kind that follows the trend of shock art, in order to exploit the motto of the show business: “more shock, more money.” In this case distortion, and not provocation, is their main goal. And reality appears distorted when seen from another context. These authors present situations that are part of their daily life, opening the camera lens to their immediate environment in order to unveil the things that have always been there: there is no identification nor challenge, there is no recognition nor exoticism, there is no instructive intention nor fake compassion. But they compromise our position when they display the sober harshness of some facts and the vulnerable situation of the represented people.

The key work in the exhibition is Agarrando pueblo. Los vampiros de la miseria [Catching People. The Vampires of Poverty, 1978], a classic film of the Colombian experimental cinema. It is also a kind of homage to its authors, especially Carlos Mayolo, who passed away in 2007. The film takes the form of a mock documentary, as the facts are not real. It criticizes the filmmakers who exploit misery in order to acquire benefits and how the audience of the first world consumes marginal images. These filmmakers form the Group of Cali, Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo, conceived their work as a sharp critique of the pornomiseria (misery-porn) represented by the opportunism of the dishonest documentary makers of the 70s who shot “socio-political documentaries” in the third world so they could sell them in Europe and win awards2 . "When we understood that writing film criticism was not enough, we decided to put that criticism into practice, into the films themselves. It was like a spit into the soup of the third world cinema, and we were criticized and marginalized in the European and Latin festivals, because people were used to have canned misery to ease their bad conscience. But on the long term we were right, because after the controversy the situation became urgent and we started to win awards in the same festivals that excluded us before. Agarrando pueblo was a break in every sense.” This work has not lost the slightest bit of impact and questioning power3. The rest of the pieces in the exhibition hinges on this film.

La lógica de la supervivencia [The logic of survival, 2008] is made by three scenes that deal with pain: about the frightened and desperate mass, about repression and tension. The images of a crowd leaping on food bags and those of a man hounded by a police dog are blurry and slow, sometimes caught in a loop. The author plays with the repetition and the forced slow motion of the actions, as well as with the disturbing sound space that accompanies the images, in order to increase their effect. Besides the exact location of the scene, or its imprecise nationality, the video explores the idea of hopelessness and the metaphor of a humanity that barely survives to its own condition.

The Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija uses in Aranjuez (2003) the strategy of the slow motion to reshape the terrifying effect of an uncontrolled mass of boys leaping on something or someone that we do not manage to see. But the uncertainty held on the first images is followed by the anguish of the end, when we witness how a scared girl struggles to free herself from the pile of boys pawing her. The fact that the action is repeated several times with different protagonists just makes the scenes more dramatic and it increases our impotence and astonishment. And the fact that this is a usual practice during the sport celebrations of Mexico City reveals something much more serious: nobody thinks is urgent to punt an end to it.

Although the violent potential implicitly appears in the collective behavior, the uncontrolled, needy mass of the first video does not have anything to do with the unbridled, animal mass and the pure abuse of the second. In spite of the formal similarities, the strategies used by the two authors are different. In Aranjuez, the artist is recording a long shot from a window with the intention of showing it in an art gallery, and this is something that makes sense when “the oddity of this only, isolated fact” apparently shown in these images, becomes cancelled by the public exhibition (in an art center) of an abusive situation which is also public, repeated, and politically avoided.

However, in The logic of survival, the scenes have been recycled from the TV news. After the economic collapse in Argentina (2001), they broadcasted images of sacking all day long, with the intention of treacherously introducing this kind of terrible, decadent, heartbreaking images in the Argentinean homes. Golder became obsessed with these images while trying to understand them, so her work has been based on reviewing, relocating and giving these public images a new meaning… perhaps given them a real meaning.

Nevertheless, the biggest ethic qualm appears when we zoom into the indefinite human mass and watch a specific, particular subject. In the following videos –Nawpa, Documental [Documentary], Verdadero falso [True false] and _Kung Fu— the symbolism of the mass becomes displaced by the personification: the face and the direct look. Let us see how we hold it.

In Nawpa (2004-2007), the long discourse given by the Kichwa César Pilataxi about how university education should be based on the principles of the indigenous movement in Ecuador makes up for a few images of young indigenous peoples in their graduating ceremony at a traditional university… and they are definitely counteracted by a very brief sequence of a homeless man juggling in front of a streetlight. The previous dissertation on “nawpa” – a concept of development and progress different to the Western one, which contemplates the inseparable nature of the spiritual, political, economic and teaching aspects—is not minimized nor enhanced, it just paves the way to a much more complex reality where the extremes coexist naturally. In a concise way, Xavi Hurtado brings into play the environmental items that are always present in his videos: the subject’s identity crisis, the new mythologies of globalization and the thematization of cultural diversity: “In spite of showing its contradictions, I also try to show how resistance is carried out in different ways to the Western, left-wing projections, different ways that the so called Latin American world, mostly white, generally excludes. The resistance, survival of Indoamérica.”

In Documental [Documentary, 2005], by the Venezuelan artist Alexander Apóstol, the camera spins in panning shots around a poor family seated in front of the TV in their shack. The TV shows an old propagandistic documentary in which the brimming ostentation of the Venezuelan avenues is reaffirmed by the triumphant discourse of a famous presenter. In his usual line of critical confrontation with the development policies in the architectonic and urban space of his country, Apóstol establishes a defying dialogue between two conflicting situations: the crushing reality of the homeless and the fake projection of a golden economic future; and also between two antagonistic images: the existence of shanty towns today and the potlatch of the sixties4.

Verdadero falso [True false, 2007] is a video born out of a certain situation: some friends meet by chance having lunch in a gas station, and some kids come to ask for the leftovers. The Nicaraguan artist Ernesto Salmerón records with his camera the innocent chat between a kid and an adult about truth and falseness, and he goes on recording outside the building the conversation between the mother and his brothers. There is no fake compassion, or redeeming intention, or benevolent indolence either, but the artist does not recreate himself on misery. Salmerón directs his lens towards something that belongs to his daily life: it is the camera catching his reality, not the author going for the beggars’ stereotype. However, this in an uncomfortable situation for the spectator, as it triggers a series of positions and prejudices about which images can be shown and which images should not, bringing into question the complex nature of a world in which different ethic perceptions of poverty collide.

It is perhaps in Kung Fu (2005) where the limits become blurrier. The Honduran artist Hugo Ochoa offers his own interpretation, capturing and trying to suspend time in a series of poses undertaken by the people who appear in his video, placing in the same shot saints, philosophers, and alcoholic homeless in the streets of San José, Heredia and Tegucigalpa. “Facing the kitsch way in which the marginal characters are represented in the Central American TV news, my aim was to give the image of those people a new meaning, so they could present themselves from a different perspective, in order to show that there are different ways of resisting.” And now we go back to the never-ending question: can the homeless truly represent themselves? Are they aware of the projection of their image? Of course, they could not care less, but the debate appears at the same moment someone (from the first or the third world, it does not matter) starts reading those images as they were an objectification and an abuse, as a manipulation of some subjects who are not aware of their shabby appearance and the meaning of their actions. Anyway, in his video, Hugo Ochoa is only interpreting or fictionalizing an environment he knew very well. “They are not representing themselves for me. They just trust me and I can only use those images accordingly, without betraying their trust.” The problematic issue of the subaltern discursive inability and the mediator’s responsibility that Spivak explored in her famous essay “Can the subaltern speak?5 reemerges with vigor in these videos.

The last work in this group is XX (2007), by the Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo, a very special piece because their subjects cannot –literally—speak. It talks about violence, but especially about the solitude of death. It is a recording of a series of facts which took place in the cemetery La Verbena, in Guatemala: several unidentified bodies were buried in the ground –no coffin, no procession, no ceremony, and no marks in the place—, all of them violence victims. The artist followed with her camera the mechanical process of their burial and had 52 marble stones placed in the graves with the inscription “XX” (unknown), so at the end of the action the anonymous patch of land was marked as a real cemetery. The physical transformation of the space is added to another modification that works in the immaterial or spiritual domain: Regina José Galindo and her team held the wake with her camera all the burial long. Also the spectators hold the wake every time we watch the video, becoming part of this modification. The decision of holding a simple documentary record is the aesthetic resource which adds seriousness and sobriety to a harsh piece that confronts us with the transcendence of personal behavior and death. Ours too.

Directly related with the right to use the subaltern’s image, there is another question against these works: the benefits of recognition. Who is more favored, the artist or his/her subjects? In the course of a recent lecture in Tegucigalpa Rodolfo Kronfle asked himself: “Who obtains the added value of the work of art? The artist or those represented by the artist, that he tries to make visible or defend with his work? Who capitalizes the possible interests –symbolic (prestige, recognition) or economic— of a determined action? We enter the field of motivations, level of compromise and discourse coherence. Those who chose to deal with oppressed peoples, or with representations of marginality, should examine these considerations carefully, creating ways that reproduce the cancellation of the ethic considerations which, on turn, are absent at the core of the social conditions that determine their misadventures. As Michèle Faguet has pointed out, these practices have a paradoxical effect because ‘they propose an empowerment of the I through the disempowerment of the Other while pretending to do exactly the opposite.’”6

Besides these admirable observations, I would like to introduce some related questions. Firstly, it is important to consider a truism sometimes forgotten: the subject of a work of art is not the work of art, but the aestheticization of the subject projected by the artist. There is always an elaboration in the presentation of the images, there are always ethic and aesthetic decisions inevitably linked, even when they are direct shots or appropriations –if a “travelling is a moral issue” (Jean-Luc Godard), a social and political video is an aesthetic issue—. In consequence, the one who gets the prestige (or the failure), is the one who created and exhibits the work. This is the artist, who, aware of what has elaborated and presented, exposes him or herself, and that is a synonym for “running the risk.”

Secondly, this platitude is often relegated: the transforming potential of the critical works of art is more an aspiration than a reality. The movements and social agents –politicians, in an ideal world— are those in charge of the social transformations, not the artists. The effectiveness of critical art is a complex matter that must pass for the previous definition of “effectiveness.” And within the domain of the show and the artistic endogamy –artist looking for artist to raise his/her awareness—, the word “effectiveness” could be used as a synonym for echo, visibility, or incitement to reflection. Only sometimes this word means a redirection of previous positions and just in some exceptional cases, real transformation. “When a work of art deals with issues of its time that make the author feel uncomfortable, disturbed, hurt, pushed or paralyzed, there is some political power attached to it,” explains the director Patricia Morán. “It is not about macro-politics, that is professional work, but about micro-politics. And that can be a way of resistance without making too much noise.

If critical art used to be revolutionary, hoping to build up a fair society, then, when it understood everything was a utopia, it turned to denounce. Right now, the only way of resistance is rendering the facts visible. Or, perhaps, as Camnitzer points out, the only way is the identification of the dishonor: “I do not believe violence can be stopped by making art. But I do believe that art can help identifying the dishonor. In this case, art’s effectiveness can be only measured in terms of convincing the people with different opinions of the artist’s. The few examples that become effective tend to be based on the documentary quality, instead of the expressive quality.”7

Lastly, each author’s intention and manipulative ability come on stage. Do these artists really pretend to do the opposite? Do they really want to give the power to the Other through a loss of their own power? We are not doing community service, nor being paternalistic or redeeming. We do not want to stand out in the world of art by means of creating scandals or polemics with their images. These are just authors working with sensitive material, beyond the safe shelter of conventions.

In an era in which every taking of position in art runs the risk of becoming neutralized by the society of spectacle, we should considerate more than ever the distances with the mere exhibitionism, the unstable or ambivalent, but somehow honest attempt and the ethic coherence. Perhaps the news are not good… but we cannot kill every single messenger.

Against the pretended tendency of these videos to play dangerously in the ethical margins, we find the clear, powerful, and brutal determination of Agarrando pueblo. This is the main intention, yes, but, what about the means? Is it possible to talk about pornomiseria without becoming contaminated by it? The character-director throws coins in a public fountain provoking the urchins, who undress and try catch them –some of them even cut their feet with pieces of broken glass— while the character-camera literally hounds beggars and fools in the streets. Perhaps their authors were unaware of using the Machiavellian “ethic cynicism”: the strategy of prostituting themselves knowingly, instead of the corruption of prostituting themselves unconsciously.

Laura Baigorri, January-July 2009

Acknowledgments: Graciela Taquini and Gabriela Golder (Argentina); Fernando Llanos, Karla Jasso and Efraín Foglia (Mexico); Ernesto Calvo (Cuba/Costa Rica), Raquel Herrera, Job Ramos and Xavi Hurtado (Spain); Edgar Endress (Chile), Fernando Moure (Paraguay), Marialina García Ramos (Cuba), Miguel Rojas (Colombia/US), Cecilia Bayá Bolti (Bolivia) and Rafael Pérez Concepción (Dominican Republic).

1Luis Camnitzer, “La Corrupción en el Arte / el Arte de la Corrupción” [“Corruption in Art / The Art of Corruption], in the symposium The Marco Polo Syndrome. Problems of intercultural communication in art theory and curatorial practice, Gerhard Haupt and Bernd M. Scherer, House of World Cultures in Berlin, 1995. Neue Bildende Kunst 4/5 (1995); and in Universes in Universe

2In this sense, one of the most criticized works was the documentary Gamín [Urchin, 1978], by the Colombian director Ciro Durán. It tells the history of a street kid from Bogotá, and it included several manipulated scenes.

3Thirty years later, Colectivo Pornomiseria, also from Cali, Colombia, has taken the baton from this kind of critique, not without controversy, of course. The debate can be followed in Esfera Pública

4Potlatch: ceremony practiced by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast of America, where the host exhibits his wealth and importance by giving away his possessions, in an attempt to show that he is so well-off that can afford to make endless gifts

5Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?", “Can the Subaltern Speak?" In Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg's Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 271-313. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Spanish version “¿Puede hablar el sujeto subalterno?” Orbis Tertius 6 (vol. 3, 1998): 175-235.

6 Rodolfo Kromfle, “Explicando ética a una liebre muerta” [“Explaining ethics to a dead hare”]. Lecture in the Forum Contornos Vacilantes, 8 Bienal Centroamericana de Tegucigalpa, Honduras, November 2008. Published in Río Revuelto Reference to Michèle Faguet (Kiki Acevedo), “Barriobajeando rumbo al prestigio!”, Premio Nacional de Crítica Colombia, 2008.

7Luis Camnitzer, “Arte y deshonra.” In LAB.07 - Arte, deshonra y violencia en el contexto iberoamericano, catalogue from an exhibition curated by Patricia Betancur and Luis Camnitzer in Centro Cultural de España in Montevideo (October-December 2007).

Agarrando pueblo. Los vampiros de la miseria (1978), de Luis Ospina y Carlos Mayolo.

Nawpa 0.1 (2004-2007), de Xavi Hurtado

Documental (2005), de Alexander Apóstol

Documental (2005), de Alexander Apóstol

Alejandro Mejía conversando con niño protagonista del video Verdadero Falso (2005), de Ernesto Salmerón. Estación de gasolina Esso on the Run. Managua, 2005

Kung Fu (2005), de Hugo Ochoa

XX II (2007), de Regina José Galindo

XX II (2007), de Regina José Galindo

XX II (2007), de Regina José Galindo