Review of Collective Situations: Readings in Contemporary Latin American Art, 1995-2010 | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Collective Situations: Readings in Contemporary Latin American Art, 1995-2010

Collective Situations: Readings in Contemporary Latin American Art, 1995-2010
by Bill Kelley Jr. and Grant H. Kester, Editors

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2017
448 pp., illus. 49 b/w. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 9780822369417

Reviewed by
Jonathan Zilberg
May 2018

This is in essence a book about activism and art in Latin America from 1995 through 2010. [1] Providing a select history of diverse socially engaged art projects, it provides a useful background context for three recent shows on activism in Latin American art, namely Embodied Absence: Chilean Arts of the 1970s Now and Art Activism in Latin America held at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University (2017), Talking to Action: Art, Pedagogy, and Activism (2017) held at the University of Southern California in LA, and Art Activism in Latin America at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid (2016). [2]

The study revisits a wide range of collaborative arts projects that addressed memory and indigeneity, migration and urbanism, (un)civil disobedience and institutional critique. From Lava la Bandera to the EDELO Residency, from Grupo Etcetera and Artistas en Resistencia to the anarchist LXS Collectiverxs, from La Lleca and La Linea and their inter-disciplinary Las Morras Project to Frente 3 Fevereiro amongst others, their purpose was political. The aim in each case was to challenge the conventional boundaries between the arts and activism - aesthetics and politics. In brief, they each describe the mobilization of networks through art for the sake of community empowerment.

Three case histories are particularly compelling. Gustsavo Buntinx discusses the protest art projects against Alberto Fujimoro in Peru (1990-2000) and the dramatically successful and transformational form of dissent in the Lava la Bandera performances organized by the Collectivo Sociedad Civil in Lima. Raquel de Anda interviews Caleb Duarte about the transdisciplinary transformative EDELO project in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico in which the artists collaborated with the Zapatistas. Rodrigo Marti describes the social justice work by the International Errorista, (sometimes, Etcetera), who “outed” selected Argentina’s Dirty War criminals in their collaborations with HIJOS (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Oblivion and Silence).

Building on such cases, Bill Kelley and Grant Kester, the editors, argue that there are two lessons to learn from these collaborations. First, that these targeted political activities use a distinctive set of methods and practices over time through social networks. And second, that what characterizes them is their transdisciplinary, transformational and generative potential. Framed as posing an intellectual and political challenge to prior art historical conventions the case studies focus on the collective rather than on the individual. Their reason for existence was not art per se but rather to have put art into the service of participatory democracy. [3]

Three key terms are used, namely transdisciplinarity, (un)civil disobedience (as opposed to civil), and undisciplined knowledge. The first two can be dispensed with easily enough but what is “undisciplined knowledge”? Allan Desouza and Allyson Purpura, in their article with this term as the title, describe it as a space that “resists categorization and translation into the domain of art history.” [4]. Juan Carlos Rodriguez uses the concept here in Chapter 20 (by Fabian Cereijido) in an arguably somewhat over-determined critique of the objectification and canonization of art. Creatively deploying “undisciplined knowledge” as a tactic to resist classical art history, he explores the possibilities of what a socially and politically collaborative art might be and what it might be able to do.

As the nexus between art and political protest has been a hallmark” of 20th century Latin American art, one might ask to what degree these collaborative projects differ from previous political arts. Take for instance the mural projects in response to the 1973 Chilean coup in which the Communist Party Ramona Para Brigades attempted mass political education. [5] That project was opposed to the elitist concept of art as the work of solitary genius as was the work by CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte) in Santiago in the 1960’s and 1970’s in which the very nature of art was radically questioned through theatrical performance art protests against Pinochet. Similarly surrealist connections could also be further explored regarding their potential connection and consequence. Consider Helio Oiticica’s Parangoles series as mentioned in a note in Juan Carlos Rodriguez’s radical critique of art history or the case of Juan Andralis as mentioned in Rodrigo Marti’s fascinating chapter on Etcetera and the global spread of Errorista cells. There Marti raises a fundamentally important and interesting methodological and theoretical point behind the Errorista Philosophy – namely to accept and use error as a positive and productive attribute.

Art in the service of politics is of-course not something inherently new. One outstanding recent project in Asia in the medium of film for instance is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (and The Look of Silence) that chillingly revisits the mass murders committed in Indonesia in 1965. [6] Perhaps an edited volume bringing together art and politics, murder and memory from Chile to Cambodia and beyond is already forthcoming at Duke University Press, that is – an edited volume about the global scope and potential utility of undisciplined art historical practice in the name of social justice.

References

  1. Also see Grant Kester, editorial, Field: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, Winter 2015 at http://field-journal.com/issue-2/kester-2).
  2.  See Matt Stromberg, “The Ways and Means of Activist Art, from Latin America to LA” in Hyperallergic, September 18, 2017 at https://hyperallergic.com/401034/usc-roski-activism-americas-otis-college-of-art-design/.
  3. In the service of scholarship, a collective bibliography separating on-line and published sources beyond the citations in the notes would have been useful.
  4. Allan De Souza and Allyson Purpura “Undisciplined Knowledge.” In African Art. Interviews. Narratives: Bodies of Knowledge, edited by Joanna Grabski and Carol Magee. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013, pp. 163-178.
  5. Eva Cockcroft, “The Death of a Mural Movement,” in Readings in Latin American Modern Art, ed. Patrick Frank. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 209-211.
  6. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tILiqotj7Y and The Look of Silence at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcvH2hvvGh4.