PRINT April 2010



DURING HER FREQUENT TRIPS to New York in the 1960s, Argentinean artist Marta Minujín noticed that “cocktail parties were very important” to the denizens of America’s cultural and economic capital. And so, in the third week of May 1968, for her project Minucode, Minujín held four such soirees in as many days at Manhattan’s Center for Inter-American Relations (CIAR). Each party was attended by people from a different field—politics, economics, fashion, and art—who were filmed, photographed, and recorded as they milled about. This documentation in turn became the raw material for an immersive film installation, which opened to the public at large at the end of the month.
Until April 30, Minucode, unseen for forty-two years, is again on view at its original venue (since renamed the Americas Society), in an exhibition curated by José Luis Blondet and Gabriela Rangel. Watching the films now—footage from each party flickering in multiple synchronized projections on the walls of a darkened gallery, as well as on visitors’ bodies—one is struck less by the period look of the guests’ clothes (and cigarettes) than by the attendees’ curiously deadpan quality. People idly chat, sip their drinks, notice the camera, glance away—and gradually it becomes apparent that these are not really cocktail parties, but representations thereof. This impression is considerably strengthened by a perusal of the archival material the curators have assembled: The attendees, it turns out, were solicited via newspaper and magazine ads and then selected by a computer, which tabulated their responses to a questionnaire in order to find the people who were most obsessive about their respective jobs. The spruced-up flirtations of the fashion and art contingents and the banal networking of the political and economic technocrats, we realize, are in truth subsumed within the same ascendant meritocracy.
Minujín has long been recognized as a pioneer of the Happening, and Minucode is one of a series of projects for which the artist used different media to build intricately interlocking circuits of information, image, and experience, facilitating a highly self-critical mode of participation. Minucode, however, is the most context-specific of these works; it cannot be fully understood without a consideration of its venue. The CIAR, funded by the Rockefeller family, was one among many nongovernmental organizations that formed a phantom arm of state, practicing the soft diplomacy so essential to the prosecution of the cold war. A closer look at the work suggests that it contains a subtext of institutional critique in its mimicry of the center’s ideology and outreach. At each of the cocktail parties, eight guests were sequestered in an ancillary gallery with the artist Tony Martin, of the Electric Circus discotheque (where Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable had been first staged in 1966), to produce colorful slides and transparencies for light shows. These collaborative objects, now on view at the Americas Society, are striking in their resemblance to the examples of color- and light-based abstraction in Latin-American showcases of the period. The most salient example here is “Beyond Geometry: An Extension of Visual-Artistic Language in Our Time,” an exhibition curated by Jorge Romero Brest, which immediately preceded Minujín’s show at the CIAR. Mixing Op, kinetic art, and Minimalism, that exhibition posited a network connecting the CIAR to its counterpart in Buenos Aires, the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, which was supported by the eponymous Argentinean industrialist; at the same time, the show unabashedly sought to strengthen the link between the internationalization of Latin American cultural production and the region’s “development.” A work in “Beyond Geometry” by David Lamelas made direct reference to this enterprise by arranging nine Di Tella–made televisions on a shelf along three gallery walls. Minucode, for its part, staged a farcical send-up of Pan-American optimism: Anyone, it would seem, could craft a “Latin American” work.
One little-discussed aspect of Minujín’s art at this time—her involvement with the extrainstitutional pedagogy of Oscar Masotta—sheds light on the critical dimension of her practice. A cultural theorist and occasional artist who periodically lectured at the Di Tella, Masotta gave a series of talks in September 1965 advancing an idiosyncratic and brilliant reading of Pop that would profoundly influence the emergence of Conceptual art in Argentina. He argued that instead of merely reproducing the content of advertising and popular culture, Warhol’s deadpan repetitions guide the viewer to apercepción (apperception): a heightened awareness of the semiotic and mediatic structures underpinning the mass media message. Masotta later led weekly reading groups that, particularly after the military coup of 1966, were directed toward critical resistance to media’s power in society. A strategy that Masotta, Minujín, and others attending these lectures, such as Eduardo Costa, Roberto Jacoby, and Lamelas, came to deploy in the service of this resistance was that of discontinuidad, or discontinuity—a term denoting the breaking up of artworks into temporal or spatial stages or sections. To experience or participate in such projects was necessarily to have a partial or contingent view. Minucode exhibits precisely this discontinuous structure. No participants experienced the work in its entirety, nor was anyone permitted to be wholly present—the hovering cameras neutralized the possibility of unself-conscious, spontaneous experience. The exhibition stage, however, enabled visitors to follow the artist in surveying the entirety of the project, juxtaposing the rituals of different professional tribes. Viewers in this final phase of Minucode partook of the distinctly critical participatory mode that characterizes Minujín’s works: They were prompted to assemble an impression from disjunctive parts that, when cobbled together, unveiled parallel operations of institutional and international power—allegorized through media’s conversion of partygoer into information. —Daniel Quiles

Black-and-white and color photographs from Marta Minujín’s Minucode, 1968.

IN 1968, the Center for Inter-American Relations was a very uptight place, so my idea was to use the center as a way to produce a subversive work. I’d noticed that cocktail parties were very important in New York—a way of social climbing. I decided to have a series of these parties, inviting the people who were the most fanatic about their jobs: politicians who only talked about politics, economists who only read about economics and who decorated their offices with portraits of other economists, people from the fashion world who only thought about clothes and how to be beautiful, and artists who really lived to create art.

Minucode was an extension of my interest in media—I was crazy about media. In Buenos Aires in the mid-1960s, I used to go to Oscar Masotta’s lectures and reading groups. Masotta produced a lunch called “The Raw and the Cooked,” after Claude Lévi-Strauss—we were reading a lot of Lévi-Strauss and also Ferdinand de Saussure, and Marshall McLuhan, whose book Understanding Media was very important to us. So in Buenos Aires in 1966, I did Simultaneidad en simultaneidad [Simultaneity in Simultaneity], which was originally intended to be part of the famous “Three Countries Happening,” with Allan Kaprow and Wolf Vostell organizing simultaneous events in New York and Berlin. I’d persuaded sixty famous people to participate—the biggest celebrities in Argentina, based on how many times their faces had been reproduced in mass media. It was a very complex work involving simultaneous radio and television broadcasts, which the celebrities watched together in a theater at the Di Tella Institute. The public could tune in to the broadcasts, and five hundred preselected people received phone calls and telegrams while this was going on, so that they would be totally invaded by the media.

Then, the next year, I was invited with other Happenings artists to Montreal for Expo 67, and I did two works, Superheterodyne and Circuit. I didn’t have any money, but I wanted to use computers—a technological filter—to select the participants. So I showed up at Sir George Williams University and asked the dean, Please, will you give me all the computers you have? And somehow I got access to this gigantic mainframe. I persuaded the newspapers to publish surveys asking people to list their physical characteristics and sexual preferences and to say whether they thought they looked like celebrities—Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe. And then, I don’t know how I did it, but I got Montreal’s most famous boxer, most famous tennis player, most famous actress, most famous theater actor, and most famous writer . . . I think I was one of the first artistas de gestión, management artists.

So for Circuit, all of the celebrities sat around talking about nothing; the conversation was broadcast and also shown on televisions in the studio, so that the celebrities were watching themselves, as if in a mirror. Meanwhile, for Superheterodyne, we’d coded the survey responses and used the computer to sort the respondents by similarities into three groups. The groups met in separate spaces in the Montreal Youth Pavilion, watching one another, watching images of themselves—projected Polaroids, several different media.

During these years I’d been spending some time in New York, and I’d become well known there, especially after I did Minuphone, a multimedia environment in a phone booth. That got written about in Time and Newsweek, which may have been why Stanton Catlin, the original director of the CIAR art gallery, invited me to do a show there. I told him my exhibition would involve producing four cocktail parties, with people selected by computers and filmed, but I don’t know whether he really understood what I was planning. I published questionnaires in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Women’s Wear Daily, and so on. A thousand responses came back, and I used computers again—these were at New York University—to sort through the answers. We had senators, famous economists . . . I don’t know why some of them applied. There was a curiosity factor, I’m sure, and maybe people also responded to the fact that the center was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation—maybe it was prestigious to show up and have a cocktail with a crazy artist from South America. That was something I was trying to play on—being a South American artist in New York. At the time, I was creating Cha Cha Cha, a magazine I founded with Juan Downey and Julian Cairol, to point out how Latin-American art was not being included in the global discussion. So at a couple of the center parties, I think the last two, I decided to dress like a stereotypical Puerto Rican as they were depicted in those days, with a tiger-print shirt, a big hairdo. Like the title of the magazine, my outfit at the parties was a joke. The concept was traslacíon de clases, or translation of social classes—I was staging a passage from high to low.

View of “Marta Minujín: MINUCODEs,” 2010, Americas Society, New York.

Wednesday was the fashion party—Diana Vreeland, Veruschka—and Thursday was the art party: Viva, John Perreault, Al Hansen . . . Charlotte Moorman came and played her cello. A lot of people crashed, because by that night word of the events had circulated. Free cocktails! At each party the cameras would be on, six 16-mm cameras filming simultaneously. Each night we also had the eight most “fanatic” members of the group, the biggest workaholics, the most obsessive ones, selected by computer, and we put them in a separate room. We were looking to expand their sensibilities. So we had Tony Martin bring all the materials that he would normally bring for a light show, gels and so on. And the eight politicians or the eight economists would sit there picking colors, making slides, listening to Jimi Hendrix.

We edited the film over the weekend, and for the actual exhibition, which opened the following Monday, we put projectors in the same place where the footage had been recorded. The public was invited into the gallery, where they were completely surrounded by the film. So you could see what each group did, how they behaved, how the people moved; and you could see the differences among the groups but also the similarities. The idea was that I was the connective tissue, the thing that linked all the films, since I appeared in each one. When the people who’d been at the parties showed up, they would look for themselves in the projections. I wanted them to see themselves “backward,” to observe their own behaviors, to watch their own social interactions. And possibly to change some of their attitudes.

I believe that Minucode is still avant-garde. Although today, everything is mixed together: Politics is mixed with business, business with art, art with fashion, fashion with Hollywood. So I suppose if I were to do it again, I’d only need to have one big party.