PRINT March 2011



Workers covering a portion of Roberto Jacoby’s El alma nunca piensa sin imagen (The Soul Never Thinks Without an Image), 2010, at the 29th São Paulo Bienal, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, July 27, 2010. Photo: Syd Krochmalny.

ON MARCH 24, 1976, the bloodiest dictatorship in the history of South America began in Argentina. I was nine years old. At the time, Roberto Jacoby was living with my aunt Laura, a theater director. They were forced to abandon all public cultural and political activity—the alternatives were exile or “disappearance.” Everyone’s life was at stake, and many lives were lost.

My cousin Miguel, Laura’s son, and I collected comics. One day, Roberto asked us whether we had multiple copies of any of our comic books, and we scrounged up two of the same issue of Superman. Roberto got out scissors and glue and said: “Look, I’m gonna make the bad guys win.” He then proceeded to excise word balloons, captions, and illustrations from one comic and paste them into the other. Sure enough, the bad guys won, just like in the horror we were living. Roberto had showed me the possibilities of détournement and the relative motivation of linguistic signs before I could even pronounce the names Debord and Saussure.

Over the following decades, Roberto would invite me to participate in an art magazine without images, a residency program that had no requirements beyond simply showing up (naturally, everyone overproduced), and an educational think tank. The design of all these more or less institutionalized forms of production was such that participants had total control over the content they provided and created. There was no hierarchical power structure—simply an intangible contract among all the people involved.

Heavily influenced by the enigmatic critic, psychoanalyst, and semiotician Oscar Masotta’s theorizations of media art, Roberto took his own practice in a direction that transcended semiotics. In this sense, he diverged sharply from what would come to be called Conceptual art. Language alone did not offer the possibilities that Roberto saw in communicative operations, whether mediated or not.

Roberto’s works are not utopian. They are not abstract, ahistorical constructs, but concrete situations that occur in particular places and at particular times. They do happen, and at times they die or degenerate. His piece El alma nunca piensa sin imagen (The Soul Never Thinks Without an Image), 2010, which was commissioned for the last São Paulo Bienal and is an element of his current retrospective at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, eschews the utopian, melancholic, symbolic, testimonial opposition to late capitalism one sees so often in contemporary art. He decided to advocate for the presidential candidacy of Dilma Rousseff, a member of the ruling democratic-socialist Workers’ Party (and the eventual winner of the 2010 election). This gesture in support of the party already in power highlights the fact that, as a result of the new redistributive democracy ascendant across most of South America, there is currently no revolutionary political movement, nothing to the left of the Center-Left. The equation is brilliant. The pioneers of the most radical art of “the ’68 generation” are being canonized as heroic figures; Roberto focuses on the analogous process by which the political figures of ’68 are being mythologized, highlighting the overlooked fact that some of the era’s former militants now make policy and engage in all the compromises that this entails. It’s a devastating commentary on the prevailing myopic, idealized notions of art’s relationship to politics. Jean-Luc Godard once said that art’s permanent struggle is the imperative to resist becoming culture—which is to say, to resist instant uptake into the culture industry. Jacoby’s seminal strategy expands the battlefield, encompassing historicization itself. This article is now part of his project.

Nicolás Guagnini

Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, and Raúl Escari, Happening para un jabalí difunto (Happening for a Dead Wild Boar) (detail), 1966, materials disseminated to media outlets documenting a fictitious event.

IN ORDER TO ORGANIZE a museum overview of my work, it’s necessary to resolve a serious contradiction. Almost all of my actions explore the borders of the art institution; the very status of these actions as “artworks” is called into question due to their immateriality, discontinuity, ephemerality, and dependence on context. The works encompass a wide range of fields and take many forms: celebrations, songs, T-shirts, experimental communities, and experiments with mass media, obsolete technologies, and social networks. Moreover, my projects are always collaborative and jointly authored. So first and foremost, the exhibition’s curator, Ana Longoni, and I had to find an exhibition concept that would make sense for a practice like this.

We were well aware that what would prove dominant in the narrative of the exhibition would be the “presence of an absence”—namely, the absence of situations that no longer exist as such—and so we made use of different strategies for presenting the material that we did have. We would work with the archive, using remains, ruins, hieroglyphics, the vestiges of almost half a century of work. Certain elements would serve as points of orientation along the way, sketching a trajectory through a vast and heterogeneous group of documents. These would be made accessible to the public in a digital archive and in a book by Ana and her team, to be published in conjunction with the exhibition. The title of the show, “El deseo nace del derrumbe” (Desire Rises from Collapse), suggests a conclusion that is both cataclysmic and hopeful.

Participants at a discussion organized for Roberto Jacoby’s El alma nunca piensa sin imagen (The Soul Never Thinks Without an Image), 2010, for the 29th São Paulo Bienal, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, September 22, 2010. Photo: Julia Ramírez.

One component of the exhibition is the project I developed for the São Paulo Bienal last fall. On that occasion, I formulated an idea in response to the tirelessly debated catchphrase “art and politics,” which was the biennial’s thematic focus. What I proposed was an intervention into the Brazilian presidential campaigns that were under way at the time. About thirty artists, philosophers, poets, historians, musicians, and sociologists formed an Argentine Brigade (a reference to the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War) to support Dilma Rousseff. This work, The Soul Never Thinks Without an Image, attempted to establish the art-politics relation in real time. It consisted of ludic pedagogical workshops held in the biennial’s exhibition venue and of other activities related to the campaign. The two enormous photographs that presided over the space seemed to speak for themselves through the physiognomy of the two candidates: a likable and colorful image of Dilma and a bitter and dreary image of José Serra, her conservative opponent.

Was this a real electoral campaign or an artistic fiction? Isn’t the art institution the space that confers the status of “the ideal” on any image or process that develops within it? The Spanish artist Marcelo Expósito offered a realist reading: “What happens when an artist takes seriously the need to render an artistic space a public space in order to produce political confrontation—as opposed to false consensus—in real time and at the very heart of the art system?” This question highlights a tension unresolved within the work itself. Despite the fact that the display of the photographs and the nature of the piece had been accepted beforehand by the curatorial team (they deny this), the institution revealed its limitations. Declaring that the work propagandized in public space in an election season, a violation of Brazilian law, biennial officials covered the two photographs, which were a crucial component of the work.

In a sense, this work is not very different from the now-canonical Argentine art project known as Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Is Burning). At once the name of a collective, a research initiative, and (eventually) an exhibition, the term Tucumán Arde designated an extended effort to raise awareness of the crisis of the sugar industry and its terrible consequences for the population of the province of Tucumán. The project was ultimately shut down in the wake of grave threats by dictator Juan Carlos Onganía’s security forces. Interestingly, the documentation of Tucumán Arde, which took place in 1968, had been chosen by the São Paulo curators to grace the walls of this edition of the biennial as a tidy group of large prints. I was a participant in Tucumán Arde; when we produced it, we called it an “avant-garde art biennial” in order to distract the generals from its political objective, legally protecting the project by presenting it as an “artistic” activity. Yet this didn’t prevent the police crackdown, while the response to The Soul Never Thinks Without an Image was legal action. In both cases, in other words, the outcome was censorship.

But the historical contexts of these two occurrences are very different, of course. When Tucumán Arde took place, revolution seemed to be a real possibility, hence the action expressly opposed the dictatorship. The intervention at the São Paulo Bienal, on the other hand, took place in a context of democracy—during an election, no less. It was not an act of subversive dissent but a demonstration of support for the ruling party. As such, it ironically contradicted the demands for nostalgic pseudoresistance implicit in the curatorial statement, which gestured very vaguely toward the idea of political art as resistance, using generic phrases such as “the affirmation of [artmaking’s] responsibility before life” and the exhibited works’ “capacity to critically reflect on the world in which they are inserted.”

In a neither planned nor desired series of events in São Paulo, the project underwent a kind of contextual becoming. The act of censorship, its repercussions in the media, and the debates that ensued, came not only to form part of the work but, very likely, to constitute it retrospectively. This form of existence, whereby something unleashes a process and ends up being subordinate to its effects, was also operative in the manifesto “Un arte de los medios de comunicación” (An Art of Communication Media), which Eduardo Costa, Raúl Escari, and I wrote in 1966. We posited that the production, distribution, and consumption of art had all merged in the arena of mass communication, thus generating a poetics of dematerialization that implied that the physical and temporal location of the “work” had been rendered radically indeterminate.

This holds true for most of my production, which is not located in any specific place and is made from models or schemes that can be completed by writings, information, collective actions, encounters. What of all of this can be displayed? Probably just the traces of the dissolution of those projects in social life.

That is why one of the galleries at the Reina Sofía contains 1968, el culo te abrocho (a fairly nonsensical phrase that could be literally translated as “1968, I pin your ass shut”), 2008. This is an installation composed of reproductions of twenty-eight documents from that crucial moment when a growing movement in Paris, Mexico, and Prague, as well as in Argentina, changed world culture and politics. Each document has been modified with poetic or philosophical texts produced either after or long before that year. Hence, what is left of 1968 has been both crossed out and resignified. In other galleries, the archival vestiges of other works are exhibited, and videos evoke and display the remains of unrepeatable projects such as La Castidad (Chastity) [2006], an action in which artist Syd Krochmalny and I lived together platonically for a year, expressing affection only in nonphysical ways. For better or for worse, time takes its toll. We don’t know where it takes us, but we do know that everything will eventually become the dust that floats in rays of light.

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.