Penn Station: A New York Tragedy

Nada que ver, but just this evening I saw for the first time some striking pictures of New York City’s original Penn Station (above), a grand if imperfect 1910 entrance to the city, which was demolished in 1963 to make way for a charming little basketball arena (seen dressed up for Britney, below). The contrast is depressing enough to warrant a post.

I’d known for a while — as anyone who’s entered New York by train knows — that the cash-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad’s decision to tear down its original station and build Madison Square Garden was a massively bad idea. But looking through these before-and-after images (reproduced in the gallery below, thanks to Wikipedia), it’s hard not to feel deeply sad for the way we’ve so often resolved the conflict between narrow interests and great things.

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.

DAIA Research Article Preprint

I know this isn’t really typical blog fare, but I figured I’d mention that I’ve just uploaded a preprint of one of the academic articles I’ve been working on these past few years, which will finally be published in this fall’s issue of the International Journal of Transitional Justice. In case you’re curious, the full thing is available here on the blog, footnotes and all. The abstract’s below, in case you’d like the story in under 160 words:

A New ‘Normal’: Political Complicity, Exclusionary Violence and the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas During the Argentine Dirty War

Abstract: The military regime that controlled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 sought to radically depoliticize Argentine society through a violent campaign of social exclusion. Although this campaign required the active participation of the country’s major civil institutions, scholars of Argentina’s dictatorship and subsequent democratic transition have largely neglected the behavior of these key groups. This paper examines the conduct of one such institution, the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA, or the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations), the Jewish community’s official political representative. DAIA’s drive for normalcy in the face of disorienting violence led the group—like many civil institutions—to cooperate with an abhorrent regime. DAIA’s cooperation entailed no obvious crimes, but it did contribute markedly to the climate of fear and isolation central to the military’s repressive social project. Rather than continue to ignore the critical role played by groups like DAIA, transitional justice mechanisms must be developed to account for this ‘political’ sort of complicity.

WordPress won’t allow me to upload a doc file, but if you’d like a digital copy, just let me know–I’d be more than happy to pass one along!

New Series: History by the Bill

The blog’s been pretty thoroughly dominated by art stuff lately, so when I discovered yesterday that I had, by chance, peso notes in all six denominations, I decided I’d try something different. People outside of Argentina tend not to know very much about the country’s history, I think it’s great, and everybody loves money. So, in the weeks to come, I’ll post short historical and historiographic pieces about each of the six 19th-century figures featured on Argentina’s bills, starting with Bartolomé Mitre on the $2 and working my way toward the ever-controversial Julio Argentino Roca on the $100. It’s a fascinating group, one that could only be presented as a coherent selection of foundational statesmen well after the fact. For much of the 19th century, after all, Argentina was plagued by civil war between city and province, and these guys didn’t all come down on the same side. (If Sarmiento knew he was sharing the honor of a bill with Rosas, he’d be rolling over in his plush Recoleta mausoleum.) As much as possible, I’ll try to limit myself to the Argentine literature–partly because I wasn’t able to bring many books with me to Argentina, but in larger part because I think it’s more interesting to see how these “nation-builders” have been treated here on their home turf. Stay tuned for the first post in the series, which I’ll hope to make this weekend when I should have a bit more time.

Paul Ryan: The Don Bernaldino of 2011?

Diego Rivera's depiction of the arrival of the conquistadors

Reading a 1573 letter from the Licenciado Matienzo to the King of Spain documenting the abuses of the  Peruvian landowner Don Bernaldino this morning, I came across a passage I had to share. Following a detailed description of the unreasonable demands Bernaldino placed on his indigenous laborers in order to fund his lavish lifestyle and meet his debt obligations to the Crown, Matienzo says of Bernaldino and his ilk (in fantastic 16th-century Spanish), “lo que peor era…que querian agrauiar a vnos y rrelebar a otros y esto lo hazian tiranicamente cobrando todo lo que podian de los pobres de vno treinta y de otro veynte pesos y de los rricos y poderosos muy poco o no nada.” (“The worst was that…they wanted to relieve some and make others worse off and this they did tyrannically by taking all they could from the poor, from one thirty and from another twenty pesos, and from the rich and powerful, very little or nothing.”) The 1573 edition of Paul Ryan’s “debt reduction” plan, perhaps?

One Book About Argentina Everybody Should Read

Monica from the University Committee on Human Rights Studies is coming to Buenos Aires to teach a course on human rights in Latin America this (northern) summer. She asked me to suggest books on the human rights situation in Argentina, and I didn’t have to think twice: Marguerite Feitlowitz’s A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture is far and away the best book I’ve read on the Dirty War, and one of the most gripping, if heart-wrenching, works of nonfiction I’ve encountered. No one with even the slightest interest in human rights, the mechanisms of totalitarian social transformation, or language’s potential to disorient and atomize can justify skipping this book. In case you don’t believe me, Susan Sontag’s reaction: “A magisterial work on a great subject. This is a book everyone should read.”

On April 1st, Oxford University Press released a second edition, revised and with a new epilogue that covers developments since the mid-90s. You can find it on Amazon.com; I promise, you won’t regret the $20.

Luis Camnitzer’s Memorial

Framed phone book pages from Camnitzer's Memorial

March 24th was Argentina’s Dia Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y Justicia (National Memorial Day for Truth and Justice), a holiday which takes place every year on the anniversary of the 1976 military coup that brought the “Dirty War” regime to power. The following Saturday, Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria, a monumental park devoted to preserving the memory of the dictatorship’s “disappeared” victims, inaugurated its new exhibition space with Memorial, an installation by the German-born, Uruguayan-raised, New York-based artist Luis Camnitzer. Memorial sticks the names of the approximately 300 Uruguayans murdered by their own dictatorship of the same era back into the Montevideo phone book. I think the understated installation works very well as a complement to the much more traditionally monumental sculptures that dominate the park itself. (I’ve included photos of two of these below.)

Dennis Oppenheim, "Monumento al Escape"

I wrote about Camnitzer’s Memorial for Juanele; in fact, it was my first review for the site. I’ve copied the write-up below; you can also read and comment on the article on Juanele’s website.

* * * * *

Great art raises more questions than it resolves. But that doesn’t mean it can’t answer one every once in a while. Luis Camnitzer knows this. So when the curator of Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria asks, “Can the pages of a phone book become a place of memory,” Camnitzer doesn’t just reflect on the question. He answers it.

Camnitzer’s Memorial, on display in Parque de la Memoria’s new Sala PAyS, transforms the Montevideo phone book into a commemorative locus by re-inserting into its alphabetized pages the names of Uruguayans forcibly disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 300 Uruguayans were disappeared by the regime in their own country over 13 years of military rule (1973-85). Cooperating closely with Argentina’s own dictatorship, the Uruguayan military also arranged for the kidnapping and execution of an unknown number of political exiles living across the   Rio de la Plata in Argentina.

William Tucker, "Victoria"

It is a difficult subject close to Camnitzer’s heart. Although the German-born Uruguayan citizen has spent most of his career in the United States as a professor at the State University of New York, much of his best work has focused on the legacies of Southern Cone dictatorships and the manner in which the devastation they wrought has been remembered, or obscured. Even his more conceptual work, Camnitzer has said, is political: “In the sense of wanting to change society.”

The concept art that Camnitzer has contributed to the permanent collections of venerated institutions like MOMA and the Met has earned him a reputation as an “artist’s artist,” a thinker who uses the conventions of art history to critique modern artistic practice. Yet for all of Camnitzer’s academic heft, his Memorial is not some esoteric exploration of the themes of loss and disappearance. It is a list of names on display in a space explicitly designed to promote personal reflection and collective commemoration: It’s as prototypical a cenotaph as they come.

A fully functional memorial, Camnitzer’s piece is also a reconfiguration of contemporary commemorative ritual. In late capitalist society, scholars of memory tell us, memory isn’t “alive” the way it used to be. We don’t lead our lives aware of the past in the same way our ancestors were, transmitting our histories orally and structuring every day according to the same religious rituals that guided our parents. Instead, we confine memories of people or events to specific places whose monumental architecture reminds us just how different those places are. (Think, for example, of  the Libertador statue and Malvinas War memorial in  Plaza San Martín.)

What is the opposite of Plaza San Martín? Something ordinary, something that we use every day without even a second thought. Something like a phone book. Leaving aside marble and bronze, Camnitzer roots memory in a totally quotidian object, one with no pretension to anything but utility. The manner in which he presents the pages of his alternate-history phone book — framed and arranged in neat rows, yes, but obviously photocopied, with gray blotches, stray marks, and seemingly accidental creases — only further underscores the ordinariness of Camnitzer’s memorial.

By placing the names of desaparecidos where they “should be” in the Montevideo phone book, Camnitzer reminds the viewer that these individuals were ripped from a very real place in the social fabric, and that as a result, Uruguayan society is different in countless ways — even in its telephone listings. We need not travel to a special site to remember this; we can do it by opening the phone book, too.

This is a highly savvy way for Memorial‘s host space, Parque de la Memoria’s Sala PAyS (Presentes Ahora y Siempre, Present Now and Always), to introduce itself to Buenos Aires. True, Memorial‘s physical presence in Sala PAyS is a bit awkward. Confined to the walls of the giant room, the work doesn’t take full advantage of the hall’s physical potential. Yet as the inaugural exhibit in Sala PAyS, Memorial accomplishes something more important — defining Sala PAyS as a space with a purpose related to but still separate from the rest of the park where it is housed.

Surrounded by monuments and symbolic reflections on the dictatorial past, Camnitzer’s work argues that Sala PAyS can be a bridge between commemoration and daily life, an invitation to think about what it means for those who have disappeared to be present — not simply in occasionally-visited, self-contained memory-sites — but always.