Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti ,|
Jun 02, 2012 - Aug 05, 2012
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Mirrors: The Uncertain Road to Wonderland
by Santiago García Navarro
Rerouting the codes of the spectacle in the context of the politics of memory
How should one intervene - through an exhibition - in the historical memory of a building that sums up the political conflicts, debates and projects in post-dictatorial Argentina, but whose value in that memory has been threatened? This is the crux of the interview we held with the artists Loreto Garín Guzmán and Federico Zukerfeld, both founding members of the Etcétera collective... and of the Internacional Errorista extraterritorial network, regarding the Espejos. El camino incierto al País de las Maravillas (Mirrors: The Uncertain Road to Wonderland) exhibition, which they curated at the Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti (CCMHC) in Buenos Aires.
The CCMHC operates at the heart of an enormous municipal complex built next to the River Plate (at the northern edge of Buenos Aires), which originally housed the Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (Army Mechanical Engineering School - ESMA). During the last dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983), ESMA also acted as a clandestine detention center, but in 2004, "as a sort of inverted mirroring of its former repressive role", Garín and Zukerfeld state, it was transformed into the Espacio para la Memoria, la Justicia y los Derechos Humanos (Space for Remembrance, Justice and Human Rights). The main issue tackled in Espejos... is the gap left by a leftist political administration when it leaves its own cultural project to the spectacular logic of the contemporary art system, without any kind of questioning, via an elimination of the building’s historical markings by the very people in charge of managing it.
The discussion of that policy determined the design of the exhibition space in particular –a rambling, centerless montage resembling a labyrinth—and the general reuse of the room based on an analysis of its historical background. Zukerfeld and Garín invited the following artists and collectives to take part in the show: NSK (Slovenia), León Ferrari, Mathijs de Bruijne (Holland), Hernán Cardinale, Iconoclasistas, Khaled Jarrar (Palestine), ChtoDelat? (Russia), Democracia (Spain), Diego Perrotta, Eduardo Molinari, Azul Blaseotto, Fabián Crespi (Uruguay), Carlos Trilnick, Juan Carlos Romero, Leopoldo Tiseira,)elasunto( , Daniel Murgel (Brazil), Ezequiel Verona,Sebastián Díaz Morales, Sergio Lamanna, SubCoop, Víctor Hugo Bravo (Chile), Yaya Firpo, Alejandra Fenochio, YaelBartana (Israel), Ezequiel Monteros and Jenny Wolka (Germany).
Santiago García Navarro: What has it meant to curate an exhibition in a place that was the center of repression during the dictatorship of the seventies and now houses human-rights organizations that have been participating in shaping of government policies since 2003?
Grupo Etcétera...: The show was conceived with the aim of reactivating the symbolic-testimonial role of the ex-ESMA space, by reflecting on its historically controversial nature. As part of our curatorial research, we investigated the building’s architecture and the context of its social role, focusing particularly on the exhibition spaces of the buildings containing the Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti.
It’s not often one gets an opportunity to work in a space that bears such a heavy symbolic burden, and that is also an unprecedented political and cultural experiment. However, unlike what we supposed would be a rather different cultural management than the usual approach takenby the contemporary-art circuit (bearing in mind that the public that visits this site is motivated by concerns that are not art-related), we discovered that the visual-arts space is in fact designed along the lines of a gallery or public art center.
We then noticed that, paradoxically and despite it being a Space for Remembrance, the institution had not placed any signs or designed a museography to narrate or render a political account of the history of the place and its memory. We therefore took it upon ourselves to show artistically that the building operated as a place of repression and a center for torture and extermination, in addition to being a military school. These initial issues were highlighted all the more as the militant research unveiled, layer after layer, the shortcomings and difficulties of presenting a uniform political account that didn’t follow or remained independent of the guidelines set forth in official narratives.
Talking specifically of the government human-rights policies established since 2003 in Argentina, we’re certain that it was the perseverance and continuity of the demands made by human-rights organizations and civil society that brought about the circumstances needed --more than thirty years after the 1976 coup d’état—for Nestor Kirchner’s administration to make those historical demands a priority on the national political agenda. We believe that, following the deep-seated crisis in representation that came about as a consequence of the dramatic events of 2001, governance would have been impossible ifthe issue of human-rights policieshad not been addressed.
Usually when one tries to organize an artistic event in a public (whether government-run or private) institutional space, cultural programming in fact follows a series of micro or macro political strategies applied to the cultural sector. That’s why we say curating an exhibition is a political act in itself, regardless of the form it takes, its contents or its participants.
Based on those considerations, we sought to explain our presence in that institution and what was expected of our project. We then launched a hypothesis to enable us to create a specific context in which to exert political influence.
SGN: Can you be more specific as to the way the exhibition criticized the vacuum and "industrialization" of memory that are implicit in opening an official cultural centerthat makes no reference to its past? How was this shown in the artworks, the montage, and the dialogue with the building?
GE: We’d already visited the former ESMA at its opening ceremony on March 24, 2004, when together with Etcétera... we did a series of performances that were misinterpreted. Our intervention had sought to call attention to the symbolic operations implicit in the so-called "post-crisis recovery processes", which we felt were leading to a state of normalization (a topic that we continued to address in 2006 at the La Normalidad exhibition at the Palais de Glace in Buenos Aires).
We returned to the site six years later, but this time to organize a collective showing. ESMA had been transformed. The buildings that had housed the schoolrooms and barracks of the military school had been given over to different human-rights organizations. One became the Archivo Nacional de la Memoria, and others were turned over to the Grandmothers, Mothers and HIJOS (Sons and Daughters) organizations, among others.
A human-rights neighbourhood had been incorporated into the site. On walking along its corridors, we came across many friends, sons and daughters of people who had been arrested and gone missing, who now carry out activities and work at the former ESMA. The paradoxes were overwhelming, but we were there to visit the space where the exhibition was to be held, so we continued down that uncertain path.
We reached the CCMHC, which is subordinate to the national government’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Haroldo Conti was a novelist and schoolteacher who was kidnapped and disappeared in 1976. The outside of the building had been restored but remained the same. On entering it, however, we came