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Art & Social Space
Suburban Thoughts : Part 1
by Maria Angélica Melendi

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II. Wash the flag

It is fall in Lima, and the year is 2000. Every Friday, exactly at midday, a group of artists arrives at the cityí­s Plaza Mayor. They carry tubs and red buckets, Bolí­var brand soap, ropes and Peruvian flags of all sizes. They gradually place themselves behind the chains that surround the fountain in the center of the Plaza de Armas and wait. The people are not long in coming. Men, women and children, old and young, workers, professors, journalists, actors and actresses, bureaucrats and the unemployed, they all stand in line to wash, rinse and hang their flag — the one they themselves took to the plaza — on the ropes hanging in the gardens. Every Friday that autumn, from one to three in the afternoon, Limaí­s Plaza Mayor was transformed into a luminous and fresh laundry yard.

Some months before, a group of artists had met together in front of the National Electoral Processes Office to build a coffin and enact a performance. That act, in addition to officially recognizing the death of Democracy in Peru, also marked the birth of the Collective Civil Society formed by Gustavo Buntinx, Susana Torres, Emilio Santisteban, Claudia Coca, Fernando Bryce, Abel Valdí­via and Luis Garcí­a Zapatero. With the exception of Buntinx, who is an art historian, all are artists. (2)

"Wash the flag" was a performance aimed towards producing an emotional image capable of arousing the collective consciousness based on a re-emphasizing of some of the nationí­s most enduring symbols: the Plaza Mayor and the Peruvian flag. The traditional space of Limaí­s Plaza Mayor, where the Palace of Government and the buildings of institutional power are located, was the place selected to evidence the corruption of the regime and confront it with the sacred symbol of national unity: the Peruvian flag. The motherland was dirty, corrupt, and it was therefore in need of a wash — with soap and water — in the space most representative of the countryí­s social and political life: the Plaza de Armas.

As Gustavo Buntinx explained later, the splendor of "Wash the flag" took place as a result of the discrediting of the countryí­s political class, shortly after the death of seven people in the "Marcha de los Cuatro Suyos" . Fujimorií­s government had spread the idea that the deaths were due to the infiltration of a terrorist group in social protests. At that time, the purpose was to discredit any dissent through accusations of sympathy with the Sendero Luminoso. (3)

In this way, and as Buntinx states, "Wash the flag" represented pressure from a sector of civil society that would not allow ití­s arm to be twisted and that had resolved to carry the protest to its final outcome. Citizens who had never agreed to negotiate politically with an obviously discredited and corrupt regime found, in "Wash the flag" , their best form of resistance. This performance therefore became the strategic vanguard of the movement of opposition and, curiously, began to make itself known beyond the frontiers of Peru.

The flag (signifying territorial and imagined unity) and the public square (signifying the centralization of power) became the devices utilized to illuminate the absolute crisis of the social pact in Peru and, above all, to propose a new way of representing the Nation. Based on day-to-day elements and domestic practices, the action made clear the connections between ordinary and political life and showed that new meanings could be constructed from a radical interpretation of signs at the cityí­s symbolic center.

III. Art, city and policy

Between the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies, Latin American artists living in countries almost exclusively controlled by authoritarian governments developed plans of action that were addressed, primarily against the political system and only afterwards against artistic institutions which, in those years, had not yet been very clearly defined.

Events such as Opinií£o 65 (1965), Apocalipopótese (1968), in Rí­o de Janeiro; Do Corpo ç Terra (1970), in Belo Horizonte and Experiçncias 68 (1968), in Buenos Aires, to mention only a few among the many taking place throughout the continent, responded not only to a generalized desire to take an active part in political and social life, but also proposed an expansion of the limits of art.

These decades were impregnated by the spirit of response, a link that connected local protests with the Cuban Revolution, the Black Panthers, the movements against the war in Vietnam, the Bolivian guerrillas, May in France, the student revolutions which exploded throughout the length of the continent, from Tlatelolco and Berkeley to Rí­o de Janeiro, Sí£o Paulo, Montevideo, Córdoba, and Buenos Aires.

Almost 40 years later and within a completely different socio-political situation, we in Latin America can see the appearance of a new group of street actions similar to those political/conceptual practices. This centuryí­s young artists appear, in principle, to oppose neo-liberal globalization policies but, above all, they respond to specific situations, point out the Stateí­s disinterest in cultural institutions and denounce the voracity of the art market. In some cases, they appear in the urban space solely to introduce other viewpoints, some lyrical, others sarcastic.

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