New Website

Hello friends! It’s been years since I’ve posted to this site (though I do come back with some frequency to mentally relive the BA glory days). In the interim, I’ve been pursuing a PhD in Latin American History at Columbia University in New York, NY. I haven’t been blogging much lately, but as I prepare to head back to South America for dissertation research in a few weeks, I’ve realized that it’s time for a new platform. So I’ll be posting, at least occasionally, at my new personal website: Check it out!

A New Post for a New Year: My Roommate Alicia Herrero

[Images courtesy of]

The end of 2012 was oh-so-hectic down here, but it’s a new year now, and to make good in a small way on the whole seasonal rebirth/renewal theme, I’m posting an update. It’s a long-overdue introduction to my indefatigable roommate/dueña/friend, visual artist Alicia Herrero.

One of my luckiest breaks in Buenos Aires was finding my way into Alicia’s beautifully restored turn-of-the-century PH. She’s not only a wonderful person to live with and a constant source of insight and intellectual challenge; she also makes great art. Her most reject project, Museo de la economía política del arte (Museum of the Political Economy of Art), just ended a solo showing at Buenos Aires’ prestigious 11 x 7 Gallery. It’s wonderful.

The show uses images, video, and three-dimensional pieces to critically examine contemporary art market practices and their influence on artistic production and on the capitalist system at large. At its heart stands the Action-Instruments Box, a “toolkit” that enables anyone with a computer to develop alternative metrics for the success of art. Model graphs show works reshaped along two axes, one measuring the piece’s price per square centimeter at auction, the other the overall average for the lot in which it sold. A neatly designed catalog incorporates dozens of these lushly colored analyses; the huge mutli-fold pages reproducing elongated Rothkos and Warhols force a visual confrontation with the far-from-aesthetic forces bubbling just beneath the surface at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I love this box, and I’m not alone. MALBA, BA’s leading museum, acquired one for immediate display.

[In the Banco Nación]

Alicia has done lots of other stuff, too, including a bold series of performances/ interventions in spaces like the Banco Nación and the Argentine Capitol planned under the aegis of the University of Buenos Aires’ Laboratorio de Investigación en Prácticas Artísticas Contemporáneas, which she leads. It’s all on her website, in Spanish and in English. Right now I’m helping Alicia update the English side, and the more time I spend there, the more enganchado I get. Check it out if you’ve got some time.

Welcome to 2013 — ¡E.M.A.N.C.I.P.A.C.I.O.N. ya!

[In the Capitol]

Three Things to Read this Election Season

I’ve been a terrible custodian of my blog these past few months. To break the silence, and to mark my re-commitment to regular updates, I’d like to share three fantastic essays I’ve been thinking about in recent months. None explicitly addresses the 2012 election campaign — a simultaneously sad and electrifying spectacle that has me hopelessly transfixed — but each speaks in its own way to the America moment, to all the cracks we’ve failed, and will likely keep failing, to fill.

* * *

George Packer, Coming Apart (New Yorker, September 12, 2011)

I missed this essay when it was first published, ten years after the September 11 attacks. More than anything else I’ve read in the past months, Packer’s piece conveys just how thoroughly we’ve squandered the opportunity afforded us that terrible day. Instead of confronting the mounting failures of our major institutions, our political leadership and our cultural establishment have left our democracy to decay. Casting our embrace of  post-9/11 militarism as escapist cover for our growing weaknesses, Packer offers a sober critical frame through which to view the 2012 election.

* * *

Benjamin Kunkel, Forgive Us Our Debts (London Review of Books, May 10, 2012)

In this essay, Kunkel — another self-exiled American here in Buenos Aires — reviews two recent books on debt for the LRB: Paper Promises: Money Debt and the New World Order, by financial journalist Philip Coggan, and Debt: The First 5000 Years, by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. Though Coggan gets his due, it’s Graber’s book that dominates Kunkel’s essay. (For his sheer ambition, both intellectual and temporal, I don’t see how Graeber couldn’t.) The piece is a tightly crafted and original introduction to a book you *really* should read, and a topic I wish we’d all spend a bit more time thinking about.

* * *

Paul Tough, What Does Obama Really Believe In? (New York Times Magazine, August 15, 2012)

Tough’s well-reported piece takes us to Roseland, the struggling Chicago neighborhood where Obama got his start as a community organizer. A portrait more of deep poverty than of a politician, Tough’s essay is a stark reminder that new approaches to building opportunity for poor children and families have all but disappeared from the political conversation — in fact, the children themselves have, too. Such omissions, Tough shows, have real human consequences.

Pittsburgh Visit

Back briefly for the first time in a year and a half early this June, I was able to snap a few photos of my hometown. Situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, spread across steep slopes and punctuated by three rivers and countless gulleys, Pittsburgh is a geographically striking city, unlike any other place I’ve known. A better photographer could convey this in pictures; I’ll have to ask you to take my word for it as I show you a few images from the four-mile walk between my brother’s apartment in Victorian Friendship and Pittsburgh’s downtown:

Popping In (Again)

The website for Juanele AR, the bilingual online arts magazine to which I contributed a bunch of stuff last year, went down yesterday afternoon. I worried it was gone forever — and not unreasonably; the project’s been bankrupt for months. But my fears were premature; as of this morning, it’s back.

I’ve already cross-posted most of what I wrote for Juanele on my blog, with one notable exception: a 3500-word narrative feature about a multi-day open-studio-cum-intervention in an abandoned mansion in Las Cañitas that I wanted to call “Popping In” (Juanele called it “The Energy of Open Art”). It’s long, and I already posted the opening paragraphs more than a year ago. But Juanele’s day off was an unexpectedly sharp reminder that online doesn’t mean forever, especially when it refers to the vast stretches of the interwebs beyond my control. So I hope you’ll indulge my posting the whole thing here, punctuated by a few of Andy Donohoe’s pitch-perfect photos.

[Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

Popping In
A Weekend with Poeta and the Red Bull Crew

The original idea was to blow it all up. FInd a crumbling building, assemble a group of artists, give them 72 hours to transform it — and then, kaboom.

“I wanted to remove the idea of possession,” Christian Riffel explained to me, casting his explosive fantasy in a more intellectual hue. Yet the long-disused 1930s Las Cañitas mansion doubling as backdrop for our conversation — a space suddenly teeming with a dozen artists launching into three days of creation — wasn’t going to be detonating any time soon. It was going to become a boutique hotel.

Riffel — a Buenos Aires street artist better known as Poeta — had put his initial plan on hold to organize Pop Up Galleries, the first in a series of artistic “interventions” in “unconventional” spaces. It was to be, he told me, “something very new” in a “very old house.”

Bringing together young creatives from across the visual arts spectrum — street muralists, gallery painters, a photographer, a performance artist — Pop Up Galleries gave its participants a theme (“the passage of time”), three days to work, free supplies, and their own rooms. For two of those three days, Pop Up would invite the public in to watch it all unfold. And then, after one final afternoon of public viewing, it would close its doors, leaving the art to be preserved or destroyed according to the future hotelier’s whims.

Poeta and I were standing in what felt like an impromptu supply room — a gorgeous wood-paneled salon that had weathered its years of abandonment remarkably well, and that the Pop Up crew wasn’t allowed to touch. There, sharing space with paint-splattered tarps, brushes, and a full spectrum of spray paint cans, was a small army’s worth of Red Bull promotional products waiting not to be appropriated (as street artists are wont to do) but deployed. The company’s House of Art campaign — already responsible for a two-year-old artists’ residency in Sao Paulo — was going to make its Buenos Aires debut by bringing Poeta’s vision to life.

Red Bull had given Pop Up its wings. I had come to see if it could fly. Continue reading

The View from My Roof, Take Two

I’ve just moved from a small apartment in posh Plaza San Martín to a gorgeous, sprawling house at the intersection of San Cristóbal, Parque Patricios, and Constitución, three working-class neighborhoods in the south of the city home to some spectacular turn-of-the-century architecture. The reactions this news elicits from the porteños I’ve told say quite a bit about the area, and about Buenos Aires as a whole. The young and hip uniformly congratulate me on a great find in an affordable, tight-knit community, while denizens of the capital’s rich northern stretches usually let slip a pointed “Really?!” or a “Why?!”, mouths sometimes literally agape.

Those who know me can guess which of these two sentiments better approximates my own. I’m falling hard and fast for this century-old house, and for my new neighborhood in general. Very soon I’ll post some pictures of the former; for the moment, here are some views of Buenos Aires’ southern stretches from the I-need-to-pinch-myself-is-this-real? 200-square-meter, Wi-Fi-equipped terrace (!) that doubles as my roof (pictured at the top of this post).

First, the next block over, with some great street art at the corner:In the center of the block, just behind the house, is a stretch of industrial buildings that Charles Sheeler would have loved.A few blocks away, the massive Torres de Matheu stand unchanged since 1967, dwarfing the nearby apartment towers of San Cristóbal, below.The terraza’s bordered by wonderful concrete ventilation tubes that run the length of the house. The first one below points up toward a downtown skyscraper, less than 30 minutes from the house by public transit. The last one is home to a big bees’ nest that yields fresh honey.The plant-encircled stairs to the living room, where I’m currently typing away. More pictures soon to follow…

Kony 2012: Where are the Local Voices?

This is Invisible Children’s video about Joseph Kony and his murderous, child-soldier-fielding militant group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s filled with bleak details about human rights abuses in places that Americans don’t often think about. And, as of today, it’s been viewed on YouTube nearly 80 million times:


One of these YouTube viewings was my own. (If you still haven’t seen Kony 2012 and don’t want to, here’s a nice concise description of the whole affair from the Guardian.) Watching the video, I was struck less by its message (i.e., in the internet age, we can save the world through our awareness alone, and let’s prove it by suddenly caring en masse about the LRA) than by the extent to which the whole 30 minutes felt like one big vanity project. More than just about anyone else — perhaps more than Kony himself — the film centers on one unknown-to-me-before-Sunday narrator/director/principal screen presence, Jason Russell. The photogenic Russell spends an enormous amount of time in front of the camera, and he’s very clearly the hero of his own sleek production. That much is clear from the moment, about 7 minutes into the video, when Russell promises to get the bad guy in an emotional conversation with Jacob, a young boy from Northern Uganda who lost his brother to one of Kony’s attacks. The exchange is a striking illustration of the self-gratifying over-promising that people trained to do human rights fieldwork are told over and over again not to do:

Russell: Jacob, it’s okay.
[Jacob crying.]
Russell, narrating: Everything in my heart told me to do something. And so I made him a promise.
Russell, again to Jacob: We are also going to do everything that we can to stop them.
Jacob: Yes.
Do you hear my words?
Do you know what I mean?
We are, we’re going to stop them. We’re going to stop them.

How to stop them? Share the video, buy some Kony 2012-branded products, and support the good guys (above all, Invisible Children and the Ugandan military) in their efforts to take down the bad.

There are a lot of intelligent ways to frame this video: as a manifestation of a new sort of internet-based activism that has the potential to transform human rights work, as a savvy internet-age marketing tool, as an unacceptable oversimplification of a damningly complex geopolitical situation, as a rebirth of the “white man’s burden” trope in sleek 21st-century guise. (And there is, it must be noted, an eerie resonance in Kipling’s reference to “…new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child.”) Each of these perspectives has been bouncing around the internet this past week, and I suspect that there isn’t much latent demand for me to weigh in on them. But there is one angle that, owing to my interest in transitional justice, I do want to reflect on for a moment: the impact on the halting but critical process of recovery and reconciliation currently underway in Northern Uganda.

Although Kony 2012 tells the black-and-white story of an evil man’s quest to do terrible things to innocent Ugandans, the Lord’s Resistance Army did not in fact arise in the vacuum of a sick man’s mind. It took shape in the late 1980s, part of an ongoing violent struggle between the Acholi-dominated north of the country and the central government, led from 1986 by Yoweri Museveni, who remains in power today. All sides in this conflict (including the Ugandan military) committed horrible abuses, although Kony’s LRA soon earned a reputation as the worst of the worst, and their pillaging of local villages soon lost the group whatever Acholi support it had once had. Yet even as Museveni consolidated his power and the militant group lost any semblance of a political agenda, the LRA continued its attacks in northern Uganda, funded by Sudan in retaliation for Ugandan patronage of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in its campaign against Khartoum.

Since a 2006 cease-fire, though, the security situation in Northern Uganda has improved markedly. The International Criminal Court put Kony at the top of its most-wanted list, and the Ugandan military is now in pursuit, aided by a contingent of US military advisors dispatched by President Obama last year. Although Russell’s video implies that Kony is still active in Uganda, in fact new geopolitical realities have pushed him (and his much-reduced band of followers/child conscripts) into less-stable parts of the nearby Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Although Kony remains a threat to the region, he is no longer anywhere near the top of the agenda in the video’s area of focus, Northern Uganda, where aid for mutilated and orphaned victims, poverty reduction, disease eradication, and reconciliation are vastly more pressing concerns. Given that several groups are currently working to promote recovery in the wake of horrendous multi-lateral conflict, one wonders how blanketing the world with a no-shades-of-grey video that makes the fighting seem current and the bloodstained Ugandan army an uncomplicated force for good could possibly have a positive impact on transitional justice efforts in the region. Surely the money that Invisible Children is charging for its $30 bracelet-and-poster-filled “Action Kits” could be better spent responding to the actual needs of victims — especially because Invisible Children’s publicity campaign might push Kony deeper into the brush and thus make him more difficult to capture. Perhaps that’s why Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama called the video “misleading” in his sharp takedown, and why residents of the Northern Ugandan town of Lira responded to a local screening with rocks and harsh words:

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I should clarify — I think it’s wonderful that Western teenagers are responding so favorably to a YouTube video that doesn’t involve singing dogs or baby pandas. And vanity aside, it seems hard to doubt that Invisible Children’s staff and supporters have their hearts in the right place. But Kony 2012 is obviously a campaign that does not take its cues from those it’s aiming to help, one which in its oversimplification-bordering-on-distortion may even set Northern Uganda back. I hope the world’s next humanitarian viral sensation can raise the bar just a little bit.

Cristina Likes Us! (Maybe)

Passing the Casa Rosada on my way to the Subte this past Thursday, I came upon an exhibition of photos by Victor Hugo Bugge, Argentina’s official presidential photographer since 1978 (when military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla held the office). I wasn’t in any particular rush, so I figured I’d pop in for a quick shot of fuzzy Kirchnerista fondness. I made my way down the first row of photographs, taking in the carefully chosen images of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner doing what politicians have done since long before Videla — hugging babies, posing beside imposing neoclassical statues:

And doing some excellent things that past presidents didn’t do so often, like standing together with HIJOS, newborns taken from their disappeared parents by Videla and friends, then given away as spoils of war to families favored by the regime:

None of these photos surprised me much — until, that is, I noticed some familiar characters:

Wow, a lot of yanquis here. (And look, it’s Pittsburgh!) Then again, Argentines don’t hate Obama, and his relationship with Cristina seems to be on the mend right now.  And next to Bush, Clinton must have glimmered like a mirage in the Kirchners’ rearview mirror. Maybe, I began to reason, it wasn’t actually so strange to see these two icons of Northern imperialism guarding la presidenta‘s front door.

But HIM?

And again! (This one wasn’t very well received by the photo-viewing public, it seems.)

And strangest of all:

What’s going on here? Is Cristina trying to show a friendlier face to the US? Or to underscore Argentina’s importance on the global stage? And why is Bush in so many photos? Especially that dopey-faced one with Condoleezza Rice — the only photo, I believe, in which neither Cristina nor Néstor made an appearance. They must be messing with us, right?

Casa Rosadology’s a tricky game.

Argentina Consolidates its Oligarchy, 1879-1916

Roca Conquers the Desert

[This is the second in a series of posts synthesizing the last century or so of Argentine history, with some help from Luis Alberto Romero and Wikimedia.]

If I had to pick a symbolic birth year for modern Argentina, it wouldn’t be 1810, when a council of Buenos Aires’ leading citizens forced the resignation of the Spanish Viceroy, an event now celebrated as the origin of independent Argentina. Nor would it be 1816, when the Congress of Tucumán formally severed its ties to Spain (without, it should be noted, the participation of any Federalists, who opposed Buenos Aires’ dominance and were actually at war with the nascent central government at the time. Funny, the detailed museum that now occupies the Congress’ old meeting quarters in Tucumán doesn’t mention this).

Instead, it’d be 1879, when General and soon-to-be-President Julio Argentino Roca launched the last massive campaign to defeat the indigenous groups of Argentina’s interior and open the fertile pampas to agricultural production. The successful campaign capped a period of rapid territorial expansion and state consolidation. The Paraguayan War, concluded in 1870, had established a fixed and advantageous border with Argentina’s northern neighbor (while killing perhaps 70% of Paraguay’s population in the process). Increasing portions of the continent’s southern stretches had come under Argentine control. And with the growth of a competent professional army, the civil wars that had dominated the country’s first half-century of independence had largely subsided. Within the year, Buenos Aires would be federalized and Roca’s National Autonomist Party (PAN) would dominate Argentine politics through the system of sharply limited suffrage known as voto cantado(“sung vote”), a reference both to the requirement that votes be declared aloud and to the certainty that elections would follow the PAN’s preestablished script.

  (The History of Paraguay’s Borders Really Deserves a Post of its Own)

With the pampas in hand and the political system largely stable, Argentina could finally set about exploiting the vast natural resources it had definitively secured. The result was something like the US’ contemporaneous Gilded Age, but on steroids. At the same time that the US government was distributing Western lands under the Homestead Act and massively subsidizing the creation of a national rail network, Romero explains, the Argentine state set off down a similar path, acting “systematically to facilitate Argentina’s insertion into the global economy and to adapt it to a role and a function that — it was thought — fit it perfectly.”

To the government, it was obvious which role would be a “perfect fit.” Argentina would be the breadbasket (and butcher) of the cresting British Empire. Britain had long been eyeing Argentina’s many natural gifts, but in the late 19th century its involvement reached historic highs. Between 1880 and 1913, British capital investments in the country increased by a factor of twenty, funding an extensive railway network (expanded from 2500km in 1880 to 34,000 in 1916) and an advanced system for meat processing and distribution. This infrastructure not only reinforced the presence of the state in newly acquired territories; it also meant that the rich agricultural lands of the pampas would be seamlessly connected to Argentina’s main port at Buenos Aires — and to the world.

Such integration made these newly available lands extraordinarily profitable. The single-party regime charged with distributing them — representative, as it was, not of Argentina’s population at large but of its wealthiest male citizens alone — set about “transferring huge tracts at minimal cost to powerful and well-connected individuals,” thereby ensuring the consolidation of a genuine aristocratic class — Romero terms it “an oligarchy.”

Argentina’s dramatic expansion wasn’t seamless; in 1890, reckless Argentine loans brought down Britain’s Bearing Bank, setting off an international crisis and plunging Argentina into severe recession. Nor was the country’s newfound prosperity a genuinely national affair; instead, growth concentrated in the central pampas and the large cities of the Litoral, which developed critical industries to supply the country’s grain-and-meat engine. With the exception of Mendoza (ideally suited to wine production) and Tucuman (the heart of the country’s massively subsidized sugar industry), the interior of the country remained a sleepy, impoverished backwater.

But, despite these caveats, growth in the cities and on the pampas was dramatic enough to earn the now-underpopulated country international renown. Seeking both to build a productive labor force and “Europeanize” the population, the classically liberal leaders of the late 19th century heavily promoted the country as a destination for European immigrants, launching advertising campaigns and subsidizing transatlantic voyages. Their efforts met with great success; by 1914, a country that 45 years before had 1.8 million residents was now home to 7.8 million.

Argentine demographics shifted with amazing speed; by 1895, two out of every three residents of Buenos Aires were foreign born. But the political system did not move with them. Though the state sought to insert itself ever more deeply into Argentine daily life — creating a European-style Civil Register and enacting civil marriage, establishing a Ministry of Labor, imposing obligatory military service, and offering free mandatory primary education — political enfranchisement remained the province of the landed elite. As many immigrants and, especially, their children began to climb the ladder to the country’s emerging middle class — and as many others remained trapped, without representation, in low-wage jobs as tenant farmers and factory workers — members of Argentina’s “oligarchy” came to see themselves ever-more as “owners of the country to which these immigrants had come to work.” The result was a proliferation of new political demands and a political system unable to moderate among “parties with divergent and legitimate interests, capable of disagreeing and agreeing.”

Heroes of the Revolution of ’90

As conflict among social sectors grew, many came to see Argentina as a sick society. This was certainly the view of Leandro N. Alem’s Civic Union, which launched violent political uprisings against what it characterized as a corrupt and illegitimate order in 1890 and again in 1893 and 1905. But it was also the view of an ever-increasing share of the PAN elite. The election of reformist President (and luxury shopping-mall namesake)  José Figueroa Alcorta in 1906 laid the groundwork for the 1910 ascension of emphatic Roque Sáenz Peña, whose largest achievement, the electoral reform law of 1912, made voting secret and obligatory for all naturalized and native-born Argentine males beginning with the elections of 1916. Electoral reform, Romero notes, wouldn’t have succeeded if the political elite hadn’t been “absolutely convinced” that “traditional interests” could retain power through an electorally successful “party of notables.”

But decades without real political competition had blinded the PAN elite to the reality of their increasingly diverse country. With the prospect of real success on the horizon, the country’s middle-class revolutionaries — now calling themselves the Radical Civic Union (UCR) — rapidly built themselves into a movement with a base far broader than the “notables” of the now-fractured PAN. In the elections of 1916, UCR militant Hipólito Yrigoyen captured 46.8% of the vote, more than three times the share earned by conservative Ángel Rojas, his closest competitor. Millions of newly enfranchised Argentines were buoyant; traditionalists were aghast.

A new, Radical era in Argentine history had undoubtedly arrived. But the characteristics that shaped the country in its formative years — the rivalry between surging metropolis and stagnant interior, the tensions between a territorially fortified elite and the immigrants they now held in contempt, the tendency of actors across the spectrum to view opposing politicians not as rivals but as dangerous enemies — weren’t about to fade away. It would take much more than a 33% margin of victory to turn democratic aspirations into real institutional change.

Yrigoyen Assumes the Presidency

La Vida Carlotense

I spent last weekend at my roommate’s family reunion in La Carlota, a pampas town of some 12,000 people in the south of Córdoba province, about six and a half hours by car from Buenos Aires. It was a welcome reminder that porteños alone do not a country make. Grassy fields stretching past the horizon, small-scale farms where carlotenses still raise crops and cattle, giant but close-knit families, even a gleaming new swimming pool — I couldn’t have asked for a better end to a January I won’t soon forget.