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Place the body. Forms of artistic activism in the Americas during the 80s
by Sharon Lerner

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Laying the body on the line. Art-related activism in America during the 80s.
Fourth Meeting of the Network of Southern Conceptualism. Lima, 24-27 July 2011

The Fourth Meeting of the Network of Southern Conceptualism (Red de Conceptualismos del Sur – RCS) was held at Lima’s Spanish Cultural Center from July 24 to 27, 2011. Formed in 2007 as a collective platform for reflection and consensus reaching, the RCS is now made up of more than 25 researchers from the region. The purpose of this event was to share some of the research under way with the public.(1)

The focal point of the meeting was a series of Latin American art-related experiences that took place during the eighties and soughtto promote the development of strategies to take a critical stand against political repression. These experiences were viewed as case studies in which the idea was to analyze exchanges, frictions and forms of dissemination with a view to activating forms of political engagement that could offer alternatives to current issues through creative practices. Within the context of each of these presentations, the title of the seminar embraces different meanings: the “body” viewed as a political body, as a sexed and belligerent corporealness, or perhaps even as a way of leaving a mark. All in all, it is a metaphorical image that embodies the RCS’s desire to assess the way such agents came to the fore in response to extreme social situations. According to the Argentinean Ana Longoni, conducting a reassessment of this decade in the region is important if, for example, we contrast this art practice with the return to a formalist, apolitical approach in the United States. From this standpoint, the South should be noted for proposing productive alternatives for generating an aesthetically-based political engagement.

Nonetheless, as was pointed out in several presentations, the RCS does not mean to unify those experiences in any way.(2) On the contrary, the idea is to retrieve, on the basis of their specific differences, the creative approaches taken in response to different, pressing social needs. Nevertheless, undertaking an in-depth analysis of all the topics and cases broached during the sessions would be counterproductive in the limited space afforded by this review. I propose two things: firstly, a brief account of the panoply of interests explored by the four roundtables: i) street players, ii) the taking of spaces, iii) post-identifying forms of art, and iv) the transformation of the mail-art network in the 1980s. Secondly, I will briefly assess the development and the relevance of this public RCS seminar in the context of Lima.

Four roundtables

(i) “Challenging terror: forms of art activism and creative practices linked to the human-rights movement” was the first roundtable, consisting of presentations that explored the direct linksbetween art and politics. The experience of the Argentinean Siluetazo was the emblematic case that opened the symposium, with a short video by Marcelo Expósito. This video, “El Siluetazo: la política del acontecimiento” (El Siluetazo: the politics of happenings, 2011), examines one of the most effective means of bringing protestsin public spaces to the fore and structuring them in the history of Argentina. Originally conceived by artists and adopted by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, making silhouettes became a codified way of representing those who disappearedduring the dictatorship. The life-sized silhouettes(3)took over streets and squares, making them one of the eeriest examples of participatory socialization. They began to be produced on September 21, 1983, during the Third Resistance March organized by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and together with the demand for a “living reappearance”, rapidly spread virally. Expósito’s video points to the effectiveness and economical nature of the process, conducted using rollsof paper that made mass, serial production easy and prompted a spontaneous means of organization and socialization.

Jaime Vindel explored the notion of “art activism”, a provisional term used by the RCS to refer to the different experiences under analysis. To that end he outlined a semantic framework to define it (4) and mapped out a range of different experiences, many anachronic, that took place in the region and acted as creative forms of mobilization in the context of dictatorships. One of Vindel’s approaches is to differentiate between what is commonly understood by art activism -its identification with the shaping of ways of producing images, symbols and texts that give preference to social action rather than on interaction with art institutions- and the activism that arose in the 80s which, distancing itself from the simple activism/institution binomial, was to work along relational and intersubjective lines, giving priority to immediate concerns and abolishing a contemplative distancing. In short, it was a form of activism that escapes discussion through the institutional framework, seeking instead alternative ways of being subjective in societies in which bonds of affection have been damaged.

Another presentation explored the work of graphic reporters during the Videla dictatorship. The approach taken by the Argentine Cora Garmanik was to identify the different stages and types of photo journalism developed between 1976 and 1983. Initially, when the dictatorship became a cultural producer in complicity with the mass media (1976-81), photojournalists developed veiled denunciation strategies in the graphic documentation they handed in for publication to a condescending press. During a second stage, towards the end of 1982 when the arm of censorship had curtailed these images, photojournalists began engaging in a more direct form of confrontation that was to reach a climax in the “Cámaras Caídas” (Fallen Cameras) protest. Garmanik thus focused on image and document-based forms of resistance that did not necessarily stem from the sphere of institutional art and managed to reach a critical mass.

(ii) The “Delincuencias visuales; marginalidades creativas; la fiesta y la ocupación como nueva política” (Visual delinquency; creative marginalities; gatherings and occupation as the new politics” roundtablecentered on examples of non-traditional political responsesthat did not subscribe to the party politics of the left and instead were characterized by a certain spirit of marginalization: an underground sensibility, “parties” and “gatherings” thus gained ground as a locus for engaging in an alternative means of political resistance.

In that framework, the researcher Miguel López gave one of two presentations that looked at the Peruvian case (the other was by Emilio Tarazona, who offered some reflections on the actions of the Grupo Chaclacayo and its project Todesbilder: Images of Death). López made a detailed examination of the montage of a single image: a graphic piece made by the N.N. in Peru in 1989, and used as a flier for a concert featuring the bands Kaos, Sepulcro and G?3 in Lima. To make the poster, N.N. appropriated a newspaper image of the removal of corpses killed during the “Pucayacu slaughter” (1984) from a common grave in the province of Ayacucho. The photograph was one of many testimonies of the violations of human rights and extrajudicial killings, mostly of indigenous subsistence farmers, in Peru during the two decades of domestic armed conflict.

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