A foreign vision of critical video in Latin America and the Caribbean

The name Videoarde (literally, “burning video”) does not refer to the pretended inflammatory quality of these works –nothing burns in our conscience anymore—, it refers to works which talk about Latin America and not from Latin America, from a discourse of metropolitan domination, or perhaps from a vision dominated by curiosity and fascination for an alien culture… the subject is uncomfortable enough to burn in our hands.

Videoarde because, for some time now, the countercultural and sociopolitical trend in the arts –even more in this territory—, has turned it into a burnt trend. But the video burns, most of all, because of the audacity, cruelty, subtlety or irony of these authors, who interpret their environment artistically and critically, questioning the ethical limits of daily life, denounce and pornomiseria.

PART I. Still, critical video

The aim of this exhibition is to insist on visibility as the only way of resistance; the obstinacy to continue putting under pressure the mainstream media through micro-politics, in this occasion through personal images, ethically and aesthetically elaborated, juxtaposed to the manufactured images ready for a quick and irresponsible consumption. The selection questions us about the effectiveness and the scope of action of critical art, about the author’s ethic responsibility while working in this field, about the subaltern (in)capacity to represent him or herself, about the need of recognition in the works dealing with social and political issues, about the role assumed by Latin American art and artists in the international context, and lastly, about the curator’s legitimacy to undertake his or her work in the transnational context.

All the works in Videoarde are inserted on the field of mediation and transformation of the social space, sometimes showing the peculiar ways to confront daily life and some others reflecting upon critical aspects: politics, history/memory, identity, social crisis, violence, machismo, sex, religion, frontier and emigration, urban space and art. The exhibition features 32 videos by artists from Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, US and Spain.

This exhibition, focused on Latin America and the Caribbean, is part of a global and wider project centered on these areas –a book about the history of video art in each country and local symposiums—, for there is not any will to assign any identifying characteristics to a certain country, not even to a certain area. We all know that adverse conditions can be found everywhere; the same happens with the wit to show them and to give them a new meaning. So far, we are defining what this exhibition is not1 . This is not an exhibition of Latin American video: Latin American video does not exist, in the same way that European video does not exist either. It is somehow forced to join trends just because of their nationality, so it becomes even more unnatural to apply this idea to continents or large areas, anywhere on this planet2.

The exhibition does not transmit a coherent and monochromatic vision of critical video art in these countries, neither conceptually nor formally; there are not fixed stereotypes in the subjects or in the ways of working chosen by Latin American artists who inhabit the world. In any case, the key idea of the book Video en Latinoamérica becomes relevant again: to join specific visions. Thus, even though in the individual level well-defined trajectories and trend can be found, they cannot be extended to a particular “Latin American style.” The works represented are sometimes harsh, exposing, or deviously metaphoric, sometimes charged with humor, sourness, irony and even sadness, rage and impotence; they are poetic and nostalgic, stark and incisive… they are approximations unrelated to fixed rules, they are supported by the creative process, individual and unique in each artist. Some of the works are direct records of random events (Aranjuez), and also actions controlled by the author to some extent (La Torera). There are also works in which the careful setting predominates (Celeste), and those marked by artificiality (Destablishing Shots) or an elaborate post-production (11 de septiembre). At a formal level, the connecting thread in these videos is the location: the facts take place in outdoor urban spaces.

Videoarde features works made by young artists (improvised productions with a low budget, even none), and works by renowned artists made with more or less means. All of them strike up a dialogue through three different programs: Men, Wolves and Men, Vital Space and My Way: Lessons on Local Survival.

Men, Wolves and Men gathers some of the harshest works in the exhibition, focusing on the feelings of disappointment, dejection and impotence. It is an astonished look to the darkest part of the soul. These works operate in the blind spots of human ethics, whether it be at a general scale –through transcendental or symbolic questions—or at a particular scale –when they allude to concrete facts or specific social agents. The program opens with Gabriela Golder’s La lógica de la supervivencia [The logic of survival, 2008], an allegory of the devastating human condition, not because its brutality, but because its hopelessness. It is followed by two of the three parts of XX (2007), by Regina José Galindo. They deal with violence but, specially, with the loneliness of human beings facing death. Both of these works strike us harshly, forcing us to reflect upon the transcendence of individual behavior and the limits of the impotence3 Next, there are four videos focusing on politics, power and its agents, from different perspectives: the first two even create an additional dialogue at a local and international scale. In this sense, in 11 de septiembre [September 11th, 2002] Claudia Aravena gathers in the same shot the images of the Chilean military coup in 1973 and the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, juxtaposing (that) present and (her) past with the purpose of showing the gaps between the representation of violence and the show presented by mass media. The elaborate treatment of sound and image –slow motion, fades, in and out frames, whispering voices— presents a very dense personal universe, built up through a superposition of layers displaying an almost physical presence of memory.

The Peruvian artist Luz María Bedoya uses a completely different strategy to interrelate politics, memory and violence in Superhéroes [Superheroes, 2004]: through several direct shots she celebrates the improvised meeting of some boys shooting toy superheroes with fake shotguns, and the appointment of some local authorities in a small town of the Peruvian Andes, reminding us these toy guns were, not a long time ago, army weapons at the service of the “heroic” politicians.

But if we talk about two-bit heroes, none of them represents the role better than the militaries blessed by the Church. Following his research about the power of religion and its side effects, Colombian video artist José Alejandro Restrepo mixes in Soldados de Cristo [Christ’s soldiers, 2004] different TV images to show the sinister bonds between the priests and the army, between the Catholic faith and violence, between religion and war, truly dangerous liaisons. From the recycled material we go to the found material with Poli II (1999). In it, the Mexican artist Yoshua Okón captures in a minute the obscene conversation between some policemen that are going to meet some prostitutes. These two irreverent visions of the sordid side of power have been presented mercilessly, without any discourse elaboration or personal commentary, just bare audio and image, displayed with the intention to exhibit contradiction in its purest form.

Sexism presents its most disheartening side in the slow motion images of Aranjuez (2003), shot by Gonzalo Lebrija during the celebration of the second Football World Cup held in Mexico City in 2002. In it, a mass of young men leap on some teenage girls to harass them. It is also present in the intelligent piece by the Ecuadorians Valeria Andrade and Pedro Cagigal, significantly entitled Cañón de carne [Cannonball meat, 2006], a performance brilliantly shot, part of their series Prácticas Suicidas [Suicidal Practices]. Its main interest lies on the simultaneity of elements these authors display: on the one hand, they visually force the limits between the sensual provocation and the right of the women to “walk down the streets,” on the other hand they use a conciliatory telephone conversation with the Hope Telephone line to show how chauvinistic prejudices are deeply rooted. These series of actions echo the first Rhythms by Marina Abramovic. In them, the artist assumed some kind of risk as a way to get to know herself better. “I take up again physical urban habits in order to conquer public space and to get into its plots unexpectedly, by means of the metaphor, the game, or the complaint” –Valeria Andrade explains— “taking, as a suicidal, all the risks through the bitter end.”

Lastly, the program closes with Body Art (2008) a videographic record in which the Cuban artists Javier Castro, Luís Gárciga and Grethell Rasúa decide to explore the Cuban collective subconscious and to question with a humorous note the unavoidable relationship between love and sex, recording a street sale of Viagra/Elevex on Saint Valentine’s day. Of course, the perspective of a good screw wins by a landslide over romanticism. The fact that illegal medicines sale and the high rate of sexual tourism are found in the same country illustrates and reaffirms the myth of the paradoxical Cuban context.

The program My Way. Lessons on Local Survival is based on the testimonial experience. On the formal level, it takes the form of an interview or an individual or collective portrait, on the conceptual level it deals with the notion of resistance. With the exception of one performance and a fiction piece –or, more exactly, in spite of this— all the works included are documentary pieces. The program opens and closes with two works that deal with the daily traffic in the cities, showing the same dose of enthusiasm and temerity. In La Torera [The Torera, 2006], Valeria Andrade and Pedro Cagigal repeat a new “suicidal practice,” linking the figure of the bullfighter with the daily risk of crossing the streets in Quito: a woman dressed with the hat and cape typical of the bullfighting costume becomes the added extravagance to the daily action of fighting cars. In Surfing Buena Vista (2008), Alfredo Ramos and Kasia Badach show us some black Young men from this Havana district playing guaguasurfing, that is, surfing while holding on cars, vans and buses that come and go through the flooded avenues on rainy days. Both videos relate to the game’s adrenaline and to the constant danger of being knocked down in societies with limited regulations, and also to the proud defiance of those who decide to make the most of their disadvantages.

The artists display portraits of people who share their daily life from different perspectives: from the accurate description of a specific place, a proper name or a daily action, to the fictionalization of a life which can explain even more than reality itself. Thus, the nostalgia of older times, the working honesty and a small touch of madness necessary for the emotional survival —Buque tanque pasa cargando 500 toneladas de combustible [Tanker passes by loaded with 500 tons of fuel] — become clear in the tiny portraits of the workers form the port of Bahía Blanca in the series El Puerto [The Port, 2004-2005], by the Argentinean artist Nicolás Testoni. However, Entrevista con el taxista [Interview with the taxi driver, 2006], is a perfect fiction orchestrated by the Dominican artists form Colectivo Shampoo, taking a short story by Juan Dicent as the starting point. The Dominican sense of humor and relax are perceived through the explanations given by a taxi driver during a “dangerous” night ride. A witty dialogue superimposes the dark and well-aimed images, managing to show in a short time both the life of the character and the outskirts of the city.

The portraits/interviews suggested in -Kung Fu (2005) by Hugo Ochoa, Verdadero falso_ [True False, 2007] by Ernesto Salmerón, and Nawpa (2006) by Xavi Hurtado, take a further risk, peering out the ethical abyss also present in the videos from the previous program.

From the individual to the collective portrait. The second section of My way is called Communities and it features three documentary videos that take their time to plunge us into the daily life of three social groups with very different profiles, as different as each author’s approach. The Brazilian video artist Lucas Bambozzi communicates the suspension of time and space in Oiapoque/Oyopock (1998), a place close to the border between Brazil and the French Guyana where life has come to stop, waiting for a different future somewhere else, through a suggestive poetic treatment, very elaborated in the audiovisual level. Caught in the waters surrounding them, the small personal stories founder in a deadlock between desire and delusion, between the pursuit of happiness and the daily dissatisfaction. In this case, the closeness transmitted by the video suggests the complicity and mutual confidence created while the artist-traveler and his “subjects” were living peacefully together.

The Brazilian artist Patricia Morán is diametrically opposed to this forced quietness, introducing us into the frenetic activity of those who inhabit Minhocão, the busiest avenue in the most stressful city in Brazil: São Paulo. À Plenos Pulmões (2006) is a short documentary film in 35 mm with a quick rhythm and lively style. The interviews are displayed over the visual background: an unavoidable noise of cars passing by, night and day. For Morán, “Minhocão is the balcony where all the dreams, desires, projects and peoples from the whole Brazil, even Paulistanos, meet. Minhocão is the place for diversity, it is a portrait of the hope’s persistence maintained by the people from a country named Brazil.” There is a significant coincidence: in the two Brazilian pieces, the one showing the cosmopolitan city and the other the forgotten village, there is a place on the street where dominoes are played.

In Entre nudos, calaches y otras cosas [Among knots, junk and other stuff, 2006], the Salvadorian artist Alexia Miranda uses barter, the pre-Columbian method, to establish contact with different people in a market in the historic quarter of El Salvador in order to portrait their community life. Halfway between the genre of performance, exhibition and documentary, the piece shows an open dialogue between the author and the sellers to link their offers and their desires, ending up sharing the same goal: to rescue from oblivion and old cinema, Cine Libertad.

The particular universes these communities form are portrayed in these three videos emphasizing the overcoming of limits imposed by daily life and the projection of desires and dreams. In short, by hope.

The third and last program, entitled Vital Space, directly relates to the physical space –architecture and city plan, territory and frontier—as well as to the space for identity. It is divided in two different sub-programs: Urban, Isolated and Transplanted and Latinos in the Art Market. The second one relates to another vital space necessary for the survival and visibility in the world of art.

Celeste (2007) is a video made of time (contemplation) and spaces (monumentality). The Paraguayan Valentina Serrati personifies the figure of Celeste, the foreigner. She is a woman whose dress is made by pieces of diverse traditional Latin American costumes, but she always appears outside her context, posing lost in her thoughts in different urban spaces in Santiago de Chile, almost always in high locations. Inspired by the novel The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector, the video brings to mind mystery and inscrutability, while evoking an idea of isolation and timelessness, of indifferent coexistence between alien realities, of not belonging to a certain place.

In stark contrast to the poetic subtlety of this video, Documental [Documentary 2005], by Alexander Apóstol, takes up again the emotional impact of previous works, showing the contrast between the old promises of urban prosperity in Venezuela and a crushing reality of underdevelopment. Destablishing Shots (2007) also focuses on urban architecture, on this occasion in Panama, stopping in different buildings in the city through several static shots. Jonathan Harker offers us the fixed and disturbing portrait of a city seized by the current Spanish and North American property speculation. The soundtrack recalls the old colonial city, founded by Spanish conquerors in 1519 and destroyed by English pirates in 1671. Different times, different strategies of imposition.

The Chilean artist Edgar Endress opens an ephemeral parenthesis of poetic subversion, taking the image of a policeman performing his ritual walk in a space dominated by a watch tower as the starting point. Sharing music and title with the composition by John Cage4 Prelude for Meditation (2006), Endress divides time into fragments just for some seconds, to make us reflect upon the transcendence of one of the main power tools: surveillance and vital space control.

The territorial division into isolated spaces is treated in two videos in which the artists perform in different ways. Following the painful tradition of the most ritualistic performance, David Pérez, aka Karmadavis, records an action as it were a documentary in which he channels with catheters his own veins in both arms, letting the blood flow while he goes down a walkway in Santo Domingo. “In Isla abierta [Open Island, 2006], the body stands for the island divided in two; the left arm is the Republic of Haiti and the right arm the Dominican Republic.” The presence of Haiti is both a protest and an allusion to the complex relations between the two countries, and it is one of the characteristics features in the production of this Dominican artist. His performances tend to be harsh and direct, the video becoming just a means of recording.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla work in a more elaborate fashion but with a similar allegoric power. In Under Discussion (2005) they point out two pressing problems in the suburbs: the use of other people’s territories and the toxic and military pollution generated by imperialist armies in the underdeveloped countries. Through excellent aerial and sea views, the camera follows a fisherman who puts upside down a round table on the sea, adds a motor and sails the coast of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The conversations about the devolution of this island to Puerto Rico, now in the power of the US army and the NATO forces, came to a deadlock long ago. This work represents a very powerful metaphor both at the visual and the conceptual level, and that is one of its main qualities.

Lastly, this part of the program deals with the consequences of those people who, forced or not, have been uprooted from their land and their people to earn a living in another country. The huge physical frontier of Latin America borders with the US, the country with one of the harshest frontier policies in the continent. It is precisely there where the three little stories of The Borders Trilogy (2002) take place, the documentary by Alex Rivera. From the transnational picnic made by some separated families who meet a few days in both sides of the border between Tijuana and San Diego, to the horrifying X-ray images which show some immigrants hidden in containers to cross the border. This is not only a concise meditation on the contradictions of the frontier policy of the first world, but also a sad vision about a world order riddled with incongruities, in which products are able to cross borders which are forbidden to human beings.

The kindest side of emigration is presented by the Costa Rican artist Christian Bermúdez in Estimados vecinos [Dear Neighbors, 2008], the video record of a letter sent to their neighbors in Oslo to explain them why he had painted his house fuchsia and white striped, in order to “transplant” the colors of the flowers of his homeland to the walls in the cold Norwegian landscape (pointing at the absent warmth at the atmospheric and emotional level). Elaborated with the same dose of nostalgia and irony, the images reproduce the action of painting while the artist explains in English –the lingua franca, a language in-between Norwegian and Spanish—the emotional and artistic reasons for his action, firmly rooted in the reaffirmation of his culture and identity.

Latinos in the art market is a different issue: two selected videos expose its comings and goings in the last times. Videoart: The Iberoamerican Legend (2002) is the first part of The Iberoamerican Trilogy. In his video, the Uruguayan artist Martín Sastre tells us, as it were from the afterlife, how Iberoamerican video art saved humanity from the “World crisis of dreams.” This satire is set in the year 2492, a thousand years after the discovery of America, to reveal this destiny shift in which the desperate attempt made by the Iberoamerican video to integrate itself is just a bad memory, as it has beaten Hollywood industry. The English title, the sophisticated production and postproduction, the icons of consumer society and the mainstream’s pop aesthetic are the formal resources that frame the critique. The artist is very aware of this paradox, questioning through his trilogy the model of the Latin American artist who triumphs in the international market, whereas his own trajectory has made of him exactly this.

In No-Latin Party (2003), the Peruvian artist Diego Lama uses the opposite formal language –suitable sound and images and low budget—, to deal again with Hollywood film industry and the recognition of the Latin American artists in the geo-political West. To this end, he uses a scene from The Godfather in which the capos appear sharing out a cake. On top of the cake, the artist places the logo of the Venice Biennale; the song “South America Way,” by Carmen Miranda ironically refers to a Latin American context, in order to criticize the lack of importance that the great metropolitan events give to peripheral countries. Nevertheless, the few years separating the date of this video from today have conferred a change of meaning to the piece. Nowadays, the trend in the international art market is “the exoticism of the periphery” –created by the foreigners as much as by the Latin Americans--, and that implies that the reading is still critical, but the direction has changed: right now all of us share out the Latin American cake.

The incoherence goes on when we realize that, in spite of the suggestive stereotype of the “triumphant Latin American artist” and the curator’s concern with the “trendy Latin American art,” we still find ourselves facing a mirage: both products are rare and colorful species that, while exhibited behind the glass in a museum, catch all the media attention from the metropolis. But in their home countries, the majority of Latin American artists do not have an easy time, not to mention Latin American exhibitions!

Pelota [Ball, 2009] works as a kind of epilogue for the three programs. It is a very short video by the Bolivian artist Douglas Rodrigo Rada: in just 9 seconds, it allegorically sums up the intention of this exhibition: to hit lightly the head of the watching observer.

1 Art, like God, is more easily described for what is not,” Luis Camnitzer

2 The text written by the Spanish philosopher José Jiménez for the exhibition El final del eclipse [The End of the Eclipse], held in Fundación Telefónica (Madrid, 2001) states that: “The End of the Eclipse is not an exhibition of “Latin America art.” Just for one simple reason: “Latin American art,” by itself, as a fake unity, does not exist. It does not exist beyond the pressures of the market and the centers that administrate the institutional art system.” This kind of opinion appears in numerous exhibitions by Latin American curators and I cannot avoid thinking that this attempt of permanent justification must be significant, as it insist in something that was never thought or stated. And I also want to clarify another definition of what is not: the title “Videoarde” has nothing to do with the political and artistic collective Tucumán Arde, operating in Argentina by the end of the sixties. I just thought it was clever to change the “t” for the “d.”

3 These videos, together with Aranjuez (2003) by Gonzalo Lebrija, Kung Fu (2005) by Hugo Ochoa, Verdadero falso [True false 2007] by Ernesto Salmerón, Xavi Hurtado’s Nawpa (2006) and Alexander Apóstol’s Documental [Documentary 2005] are commented in detail in the section “Ethic limits: daily life, denounce and pornomiseria.”

4 John Cage, Prelude for Meditation 1’19” (1944).

La Torera (2006), de Valeria Andrade y Pedro Cagigal serie Prácticas Suicidas

The Borders Trilogy (2002) Alex Rivera

11 de septiembre (2002), de Claudia Aravena

11 de septiembre (2002), de Claudia Aravena

11 de septiembre (2002), de Claudia Aravena

Poli II (1999), de Yoshua Okón

Soldados de Cristo (2004), de José Alejandro Restrepo

Soldados de Cristo (2004), de José Alejandro Restrepo