MARDER Festival

A sign of just how busy I’ve been lately–I went to an awesome young artists’ festival at Centro Cultural San Martín nearly three weeks ago, I blogged about it for Juanele, and I still haven’t linked to it on the blog. It was certainly unique enough to merit a mention. Here’s what I wrote, along with some teaser photographs by Juanele photographer Andy Donohue (there are a bunch more on Juanele and on his very good blog):

Saturday’s MARDER festival at Centro Cultural San Martín was a chaotic mix of young artists painting on giant canvases, young musicians improvising in ad hoc groups, young visitors drawing on paper at shared tables — it was, in other words, a lot of young people making art, and a lot of fun. The “first art festival in real time,” the event was the largest-scale production yet by MARDER, a group of artists and musicians that formed to coordinate “artistic experiences” in  Mar del Plata and Buenos Aires.

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the whole “art festival in real time” claim, but the event’s uncynical enthusiasm quickly won me over. With members of a bunch of different bands jamming together in rotating sets and hip-looking 20-somethings making impromptu art all over the place as a giant countdown clock counted away MARDER’s remaining minutes, the festival seethed with raw energy, and the crowd was loving it. That a big group of young people can get a grant and fill a major cultural center to bursting with collaborative, public, almost anarchic art — it’s just another reason why Buenos Aires is such a cool place to be.

Horacio Zabala at 11×7

At the recent opening of Horacio Zabala’s excellent show, Otras cartografías / Obras 1972 -1975 (Other Maps / Works 1972 – 1975), I learned that I am, in fact, still a wimp–at least when it comes to approaching famous artists I’ve long wanted to interview. Here’s what I wrote about it for Juanele:

I’m a cartophile. I can lose myself for hours on Google Maps, and my bedroom walls are papered with schematics of some of the places I love most. Maybe Horacio Zabala’s are, too. At the very least, the pieces featured in 11×7’s exhibit of his work, Otras cartografías / Obras 1972 -1975 (Other Maps / Works 1972 – 1975), make it clear that Zabala has both something to say and the tools to say it cartographically.

The opening itself was a cultural experience, its onda quite a departure from the typical vibe at the edgier, less-establishment galleries where I most often find myself. That much I could have concluded from the neighborhood alone. Half a block from Patio Bullrich (where one can spend 100 pesos on two coffees and an apple bar, as I discovered firsthand one pecuniarily painful afternoon), 11×7’s located smack at the epicenter of porteño Old Money.

Marta amid the maps

Sure enough, past the tuxedoed waiter with a tray of wineglasses balanced on one palm, the gallery was packed nearly wall-to-wall with the exquisitely dressed and the important-looking. Even Marta Minujín was there, her Andy-Warhol-blond hair and giant sunglasses all-but-impossible to ignore. (I desperately wanted to talk to her, but, seeing no break in her conversation, I wimped out.)

With the gallery so crowded—and the majority of the patrons deep in conversation right in front of the art—it took some maneuvering to see the works themselves. When I did manage to squeeze my way to the front, though, I was like a kid in a candy shop; the very sight of such well-crafted and well-conceived cartography had me smiling broadly.

No doubt, Zabala’s works could be read on a political level; it’s hard not to hear political overtones in a series of Argentine maps, layered one atop the other, each with a larger hole burned into its center than the one below—especially one like Seis imagenes del fragmento 30, created as the country was tearing itself apart in 1973.Visually devouring the works, however, I was struck most not by Zabala’s message but by his precision, by the mastery of geographic form evident in his simultaneously fanciful and plausible Deformaciones y hundamientos I-IV, and by the studied irreverence of Aparaciones/desaparaciones (a) – (f), carefully plotted on sturdy, lined pages torn from a student’s notebook. Zabala might have been building his own world, but he was willing to do so within the constraints of cartographic practice. And I was more than happy to indulge.

Juan Pablo Ferlat at La Ira de Dios

Last Friday evening I headed over to Villa Crespo to check out Juan Pablo Ferlat’s excellent new show at La Ira de Dios. Here’s a recent post about it from Juanele’s blog:

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It’s dark. It’s raw. It’s Juan Pablo Ferlat’s well-concieved, engaging show Crudo (Crude), on view through October 21 at La Ira de Dios in Villa Crespo.

As I stepped inside the door during last Friday evening’s opening, I was immediately intrigued, the gallery — crowded with hip, artsy types — was half-dark, the lighting so low that I could hardly make out the types of cookies being offered to me by a kind, older gentleman.Around me, on walls painted standard-gallery-white and jet black, was a collection of hand-crafted paper and gigantic shots of human faces glistening in the color of oil. Beside the entrance, a sculpture of a tiny, petroleum-black head spun in quick, clockwise circles. It was a fascinating scene to take in.

I made my way around the gallery, impressed beyond expectation by the improbable beauty of all I saw, most notably the paper works in the “Herida” (or “Injury”) series. I’m often taken by works that evidence the sheer mastery of a craft, and these thick, fibrous sheets — fashioned from San Pedro cactus — were no exception. Ferlat conceived them as part of a larger project in which he explores the physical resources of the Argentine North and the symbolic ones of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions as an alternative to the petroleum-dependent methods of industrial production.

I found myself lost in the textures of these works, in the shiny slickness and scabby flatness of Herida #5, in the almost edible stickiness of Herida #7, in the scarred and burned lunar expanse of Herida #2. Under the unyielding stares of the Crudo-series photographs, and accompanied by a helpful explanatory text, these remarkable works may not point to a petroleum-free utopia, but they serve as a poignant reminder that pre-industrial craftwork can play as vital a role in art today as it did in the time before “crude oil” became shorthand for Western economic growth.

Jim Campbell at Fundación Telefónica

A feature on U.S. electronic artist Jim Campbell’s 20-year restrospective currently showing at Fundación Tefefónica, published today at Juanele:

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We live in a high-definition world, as anyone who’s bought a camera or turned on a TV lately knows. US-based artist Jim Campbell knows it, too. And despite his degree in electronics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his self-proclaimed nerdiness, he’s not overly impressed.

“One loses something in high definition,” Campbell told the crowd that had gathered at Fundación Telefónica to hear him discuss Tiempo estático (Static Time), a retrospective encompassing two decades of his electronic art. “I wouldn’t even say that HD is more correct,” he concluded.

Given the mass of blurry images surrounding him, Campbell’s words seemed about right. The works included in Tiempo estático are about as far from high definition as possible. Using LCD lights to pixelate highway accidents and fistfights, Campbell strips his subjects of most of their identifying characteristics — only their movement remains. These low-resolution works invert our traditional understanding of clarity. Because they become easier to read as each pixel becomes less visually distinct, these pieces are actually “clearer” from a distance, or when obscured by frosted screens.

To exemplify his point, Campbell approached a work depicting the rhythmic advance of ocean waves which was covered by an opaque panel. The artist ripped the screen from the piece, and sure enough it went from a meditation on repetitive movement to something much closer to random noise. Campbell then placed the screen over another work, a none-too-obvious one in which a physically disabled person walks with the aid of a cane. (I asked Campbell about his choice of subject for this latter work; he explained that, devoid of other distinguishing characteristics, the person depicted in the work is defined by her disability as she would often be in society at large.) Screen in place, the subject immediately became more legible. “More is seen,” Campbell said as he slipped the screen back off and returned it to its original place. “But I’m not sure more needs to be seen.”

In his commentary, Campbell repeatedly emphasized the distinction between seeing something — visually registering its characteristics — and feeling it. It is the latter, he maintained, that carries us to the essence of an image, conveyed in these works by nothing more than varying tones of light and rhythms of movement. This is particularly evident in the series of works based around a single process: the artist chose a location (the New York Public Library, for example, or Grand Central Terminal), took simultaneous long-exposure photos and video, and pixelated the video across an LCD array under a print of the corresponding still image. The effect that these works produce — rich, monumental spaces traversed by spectral, vaguely human figures — is both elegant and uncomfortable, its complexity worlds away from HD’s simple promise: see more.

In the back corner of the main gallery, “Exploded View” — one of the finest works in the show — takes this same two-dimensional concept and stretches it into three. The work began, Campbell noted, as “an experiment I thought would fail.” Instead, it became the prototype for a much larger work in New York’s Madison Square Park, which used incandescent light bulbs in place of LEDs. When seen from the side, or up close, “Exploded View” is a field of tiny twinkling stars. But when viewed straight on and from a distance, it becomes a series of pixilated human forms (more Grand Central commuters, it turns out) on crisscrossing paths across what looks to be a flat plane. Although it is beautiful from all angles, the work is only coherent from one — the one at which the pixels line up so each of them occupies a single spot on a two-dimensional plane. Movement recorded in a two-dimensions, “Exploded View” reminds us, cannot be recreated in three; simply by committing something to film or video, then, entails a sort of sacrifice, no matter the definition of the resulting image.

One of the two installations in the show, “Frames of Reference,” speaks directly to the limits of our obsession with HD details. In the work, a camera attached to one end of a small, rotating block of wood is trained on a nail sunk into the other end of the block. (At the beginning, Campbell volunteered, a watch had been attached to the nail. But then the watch fell off, liberating the work from cliché.) Always aligned with the nail, the camera captures the tiny metal implement in perfect detail, while everything else in the room appears as a blur. This background is murky, yes, and poorly defined—but it’s also vivid, engrossing, constantly in flux. The nail, in contrast — well, it’s just a nail.

Without taking his eye off the technologies of data accumulation, Campbell turns in his series of “memory works” to the phenomenon of computer memory and its impact on human remembering. The works, on display in a smaller gallery downstairs, consist of various transmitters — clocks, photographs, night-lights — attached to standard sized, succinctly labeled metal boxes. To make “I Have Never Read the Bible,” for instance, Campbell recorded himself saying all 26 letters of the alphabet individually, then used a program to play them in the exact sequence of the words of the Bible. “Cyclical Meter Base” and “Cyclical Counter Base” feature two clocks whose hands move according to the rate of what the attached metal boxes call “her blinking” and “her breath,” both recorded over an hour in 1996. Each of these works, Campbell explained, represents a “contrived representation” of human experience in the form of “computer memory,” and a reminder that it is not raw data, but rather its emotional, human context that structures our engagement with the world, past and present.

Technological advances enable us to gather, record, and display data about the universe we inhabit with unprecedented ease and ever-increasing precision. It’s all too easy to forget that this is a descriptive statement, not a moral one. Our frames of reference, Campbell reminds us, are what really count.

San Telmo Thursday

After a long hiatus–prompted by overlapping visits by three college friends and the first real academic deadline of my master’s program–I’m finally ready to start posting again. Here’s a note I just stuck on Juanele’s blog, about a pair of gallery openings I was able to check out last Thursday in the now-thoroughly gentrified San Telmo section of the city:

Buenos Aires doesn’t have anything like Chelsea, the New York art district where you’ll never visit just one opening in a night. In this city, if you want to see most of what’s happening on a given evening, you’ll likely be booking it across barrios. So I was excited this past Thursday to find two gallery openings just a few San Telmo blocks away from each other. Some decent contemporary art — aided, I’ll admit, by some excellent glasses of wine — made for a very pleasant start to my night.

I went first to Zavaleta Lab, where two shows featuring works by Rosario Zorraquin and Hans Wendel were on offer. Truthfully, I wasn’t much interested in either. The massive, smudgy canvases in Zorraquin’s “Madame Dioz” looked better in miniature in the brochure than as centerpieces, and Wendel’s much more modest paintings on paper were too flat to draw me in. But the gallery — crisp and white and perfectly illuminated — oozed artsy cool, and the strength of the wine selections alone was enough to justify the visit.

The art took a markedly positive turn at 713 Arte Contemporáneo. The gallery was also opening a pair of concurrent shows, Julia Masvernat’s Una acumulación que se transforma en imagen and Leila Tschopp’s Modelos ideales. They’re both lots of fun. Masvernat’s paper assemblages are a masterful embodiment of paper craft — it’s nice to know that someone cares this much about using scissors well — and it’s easy to get lost in a cloudwatching-like search for meaning among its forms. (“Is that a dinosaur?” one of my friends asked me, pointing to one particularly paleolithic blob.)

Tschopp’s galleries were equally enjoyable, less for the individual, Sheeler-light paintings themselves than for the artist’s expert use of multi-dimensional space. The canvases were placed in the center of each of Tschopp’s two rooms, layered strategically and angled against walls painted to compliment the works. It’s one of the better-installed shows I’ve seen here lately, and a highlight of my San Telmo Thursday.

AMIA’s Memoria Ilustrada: Comics to Combat Forgetting

This past Monday saw the 17th anniversary of the 1994 bombing attack on the headquarters of Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, which claimed 85 lives and remains the country’s deadliest act of terrorism. Here’s a feature I wrote for Juanele, a reflection on an exhibition of comics AMIA assembled to mark 17 years of impunity:

At least since the Old Testament declared active memory an ethical obligation, remembering has been a political act — a means to preserve identity and to combat the injustice of a wrong ignored. The advent of modern technologies to register and transmit details of the past might appear to make first-hand memory less important. Yet even as new approaches deepen our collective base of information about prior events, they make our relationship to these events more passive and less immediate. In an age of data overload, it may be getting easier to record and harder to actively remember.

It’s a danger that the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, or the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association) knows all too well. A little over 17 years ago, on July 18, 1994,  a car bomb destroyed the group’s Once headquarters, claiming 85 lives in what remains Argentina’s deadliest single act of terrorism. Coming just two years after a  similar attack on the Israeli Embassy in Retiro killed 29, the bombing further strained an already traumatized community. Subsequent police investigations have been marred by scandal, cover-ups, and gross incompetence. Néstor Kirchner called them a “national disgrace.” To this day, no one has been successfully prosecuted for the crime.

In the absence of judicial remedies, memory represents a crucial political tool. To combat complacency with a massive failure of justice and remind the broader Argentine population of its still-gaping wound, AMIA initiated the Memoria ilustrada (“Illustrated Memory”) series of art exhibitions in 2006. Every year since, AMIA has organized a group show around a changing theme related to the attack. This year’s production, on view in Centro Cultural Recoleta (CCR) through July 31, centers on graphic art. Called “Historietas para no olvidar” (roughly, “Comics to Combat Forgetting”), the show features 28 comics chosen from among the submissions of more than 200 graphic design students at the University of Buenos Aires.

Each of the chosen comics, which line the CCR’s main ground-floor hallway, explores a particular aspect of the attack and its aftermath. The shock of the event itself and the continuing pain stemming from the state’s failure to punish its perpetrators represent by far the most common themes. Because so many of the works address such similar subjects and evoke variations on the same emotions — anger, loss, isolation, and abandonment — it can be exhausting to view all 28 at once. Yet, perhaps owing to the inherent accessibility and digestibility of the comic form, many of the people present at last Thursday evening’s opening seemed committed to taking in as many of the works as possible.

The comics included in the show represent a range of different styles. Some are text-heavy, while others feature few words. Many are action-driven — unsurprising when the central act is itself so dramatic — but others are reflective, hardly moving. A number employ dark and depressing palettes; others are bright and colorful. Several stand out for their engrossing storylines and technical expertise, yet most read as the work of young artists still finding their voices and training their hands.

Several of the most interesting works focus on the disparate reactions of the Jewish community and the Argentine public at large. It’s a dimension of the attack that has yet to be fully explored, although divergent interpretations of the event have been in competition since the day of the bombing itself, when one radio station responded to unfolding events with a news update: While most of the victims were Jews, the station reported, some “were innocent.”

Some of the comics that broach this topic most effectively do so by explicitly comparing popular distress over Argentina’s early July elimination from the  1994 World Cup with its incommensurate response to an act of terrorism that left 85 dead just two weeks later. In the well-named “Tragedia mundial,” for instance, a young man turns away from the TV to answer a call from a friend distraught over the recent tragedy. “Yeah, it’s a disgrace, what happened at the AMIA,” the man agrees. “The AMIA?” his friend responds. “I still can’t believe we were eliminated from the World Cup!”

As I stepped out of Memorial ilustrada, still reflecting on “Tragedia mundial,” CCR presented me with an unexpected analytical aid hanging in an adjacent gallery —  Martin Buber para principantes, an illustrated exploration of the life and thought of the Jewish philosopher drawn by Adrián Malvo with text by Fernando Calvi. (Unfortunately, the series was only on view through July 17.) One of the leading liberal Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Buber wrote about the nature of interpersonal relationships, and of the power of such bonds to promote understanding and acceptance of opposing perspectives, even in conflicts as seemingly intractable as Israel-Palestine. (He supported a bi-national state.) By recognizing the “other” as an equal subject — not just an object — in a relationship between “I” and “you,” Buber argued, individuals can build nonviolent communities of “alterity” in which opposite perceptions of reality can peacefully coexist. Building such solidarity, however, requires an active affirmation of the shared subjecthood of all individuals — something history has proven exceedingly difficult.

Buber, I realized, could help to illuminate some of the AMIA bombing’s continued pain. No doubt, the lack of justice nearly two decades out compounds the sensation of loss. But perhaps even more than this, it is the failure of solidarity that hurts. To many members of the Jewish community — target of the two deadliest terrorist attacks in Argentina’s history — it seems like the country never fully sought to understand their reality or to comprehend why the bombing and its aftermath might make them feel less than fully a part of the national community. Every year that passes without judicial remedy — and with a diminishing sense of national outrage over this gross failure of justice — only deepens this sense of isolation.

Active, shared memory may be the most effective means to channel this pain and frustration into the sort of productive “alterity” of Buber’s thinking. Whatever their technical or compositional merit, the comics that Memoria ilustrada has brought to the CCR remind their viewers that a major trauma has shaped the perspectives of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, and that 17 years out, it remains largely unaddressed. Active memory won’t undo the bombing’s damage or bring its perpetrators to justice, but it may help to diminish complacency in the face of injustice and build social solidarity. Biblical imperative or not, that’s a very good thing.

Street Artists Remake a Downtown Bank

A few weeks ago, a crew of some of BA’s top local street artists turned one of the Centro’s blandest bank branches into a colorful fantasyscape, the opening event in a city-wide urban art competition. For a gallery of much better photos by Andy Donohoe, check out my original post on Juanele’s blog.

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Scaffolding and supplies had arrived late, so Buenos Aires street artists Poeta, Corona, Gone, and Roma acutely felt the pressure to finish before Tuesday afternoon’s press opening. Told they’d be given two full days to complete the giant collaborative mural for Fundación Itaú’s unremarkable bank branch at the corner of Bartolomé Mitre and Suipacha, the team found they would have closer to half that time.

When 5 PM rolled around, three of the four — Corona, Gone, and Roma — were still at work. Only Poeta had finished his part. As artists frantically sprayed and shaded the façade, inside the bank officials from sponsor Fundación Itaú, a new street art NGO called Estilo Libre (Free Style), and Buenos Aires City celebrated the results of their still-unfolding efforts.

More than a face lift for a building in need, this project was Estilo Libre’s introduction to the city, and a high-profile way for it to announce its first major project: an Itaú-sponsored competition that will assign prime city wall space to 70 aspiring painters, with big cash awards for the murals judged to be best. The group, a collaboration between eleven artists and a bunch of professional types, has high hopes for strengthening urban artistic expression in Buenos Aires, with plans to host a local Meeting of Styles event in October and dreams of an eventual BA street academy.

It’s not hard to understand why Itaú chose this particular branch to make over — prior to Tuesday, it was a giant, bland white cube, unadorned except for the orange-and-blue Itaú signage on both street-facing facades–a terribly unimpressive companion to the delightful, mosaic-laced Iglesia de San Miguel just across Bartolomé Mitre. Now, thanks to Corona, Gone, Poeta, and Roma, it’s the liveliest building on the block. The four street artists made excellent work of the few hours they were given.

Poeta’s jazzy tropicalia monster, visible along Suipacha, is undoubtedly one of his coolest creations. (“I’m a person that likes time pressure,” he told me, and I believe him.) At its edge, Poeta’s cool palate welcomes the orange and brown accents of Corona’s multicolored vertical village, a departure from the artist’s usual twisty, interlocking forms and long-faced figures. On Bartolomé Mitre, Gone’s grey lizard faces down a bionic explosion of geometric patterns and scaly tentacles a la Roma. Overall, the mural is surprisingly coherent without feeling forced or homogenized. Its common palate of colors and a shared fluidity of forms suggest four distinct hands working in something close to one rhythm.

Unlike some of the city’s more tenuous street art, this mural has an air of permanence. Its colors seem almost richer for it, though that’s probably just in my head. Either way, the project is the best thing to happen to Suipacha since peatonalización.