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An Introductory Archive: La geometría de la conciencia1

Lissette Olivares | New York University

In the fall of 2009, I received an excited call from my father urging me to turn on the radio immediately and tune in to the daily news program Democracy Now! He explained that journalist Amy Goodman was interviewing the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, and that they were discussing a memorial designed by the artist that would soon be inaugurated as part of the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago, Chile. For my father and others from the exile community, “keeping up” with political and cultural developments in Chile, such as actively tuning in to the news about Jaar’s memorial, is part of a repertoire of everyday tactics that permit an active connection to the homeland left behind, and function as a means of preserving and transmitting cultural knowledge. An effort to extend my father’s cultural relay prompted my first conversation with Alfredo Jaar, during which he generously shared information about this new work: La geometría de la conciencia (The Geometry of Conscience). At the time of our meeting, the memorial was still under construction, and while the conceptual framework was clearly articulated, it was difficult to envision the final architectural manifestation or the affective relationality that was so integral to the work’s completion- especially since any memorial site depends on performative interactions and visitor experiences to activate diverse interpretations. E-misférica’s current issue “After Truth: Justice, Memory, and Related Aftermaths” and its emphasis on creating an interdisciplinary space for the discussion of memory provided an excellent context to revisit this memorial project.

I. Context

The Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos was inaugurated on January 11, 2010, during the final days of President Michelle Bachelet’s political tenure.2 It is a state-funded initiative that currently houses and displays a broad array of historical archives and ephemera that are:

destined to give visibility to the violations of human rights committed by the State of Chile between 1973 and 1990; to dignify its victims and families; and to stimulate reflection and debate about the importance of respect and tolerance, so that these acts are never repeated again (“Historia del Museo”).

In many ways, it is a living archive where visitors interact dialectically with both historical narratives that are framed by the museum’s collection and curators, as well as their own subjective conceptions and fragmented memories of the dictatorship and its legacies, ultimately creating new inter-relational memories that travel with its audience. As theorist Marita Sturken has argued, museums and memorials are important sites where cultural memory is both elaborated and debated, often revealing the divisions and conflicting agendas of how cultural memory is defined.3 This is especially true in Chile, where as political scholars Katherine Hite and Cath Collins emphasize, “Chilean memorial processes also involve a substantial if shrinking bloc of individuals and groups from the political right and the military who are distinctly opposed to the notion of commemoration at all” (381).4

While the museum’s immense and imposing architecture may be seen as part of a desire to monumentalize the historical narrative proposed by the museum’s founders and curators, Alfredo Jaar’s La geometría de la conciencia offers a complementary but formally distinct mnemonic path.

II. Technologies of Memory

In 2006, twenty-five years after his original departure from Chile, Fundación Telefónica sponsored Alfredo Jaar’s first major exhibition in Santiago. In a series of interviews surrounding the exhibition he explained: “ideally, I would have liked to have included a work created specifically for Chile,” but “ surely there would have been some who would have said that its been twenty five years since I left, and that I I arrived and immediately did a new work about Chile, for Chile: I wanted to avoid that problem. It seemed more prudent, in that first stage of my return, to show works I had done abroad. It seemed right to wait for a next opportunity, if it ever comes, to create a work specifically for Chile” (Jaar 2006, 67).

La geometría de la conciencia (2010) is Jaar’s first site-specific work designed specifically for Chilean society since his departure in 1981. Located in the Plaza de la Memoria (the Plaza of Memory), fifteen meters from the museum’s entry, La geometría de la conciencia is interred six meters beneath the ground, constituting an architectural incision opposite to the museum’s massive edifice. As visitors descend into the catacomb-like entry hall, they meet a museum docent trained by the artist to guide them into the memorial’s enclosed inner chamber. Once inside, visitors are submerged in silence, darkness, and visual stasis for a period of sixty seconds. Slowly, a dim light begins to emanate from the front wall, progressively growing stronger, its white rays filtering through seemingly endless rows and columns of silhouettes, an effect made possible through two lateral walls of mirrors. Prior to entering the memorial, the docent explains that these silhouetted profiles have been taken from two sources: one row includes the silhouettes of disappeared victims assassinated by the dictatorship’s military apparatus, while alternating columns feature the silhouettes of contemporary and quotidian Chilean citizens. The light continues to intensify until it reaches its brightest capacity and once again the room slips into blackness for sixty seconds, effectively burning the silhouetted profiles into the mind’s inner retina, producing a haunting after-image. Jaar explains that while the first entry into darkness might produce anxiety, its repetition at the closure of the memorial experience provides a space for contemplation (Jaar 2010). Indeed, Jaar insists that this memorial is unique in Chile because unlike most memorial designs that commemorate only the dictatorship’s official victims, this project is designed for every Chilean citizen, for as he reiterates: “the trauma (of the dictatorship) has affected us all” (Ibid).5 Importantly, La geometría de la conciencia is an inter-generational “technology of memory” designed to cultivate both historical and ethical consciousness for past, present, and future generations.6

Like many of Jaar’s works (for example, The Eyes of Gutetete Emerita, Lament of the Images, and The Sound of Silence) La geometria de la conciencia interrogates the limits of representation in the context of traumatic experiences. By refraining from reproducing explicit images of trauma, Jaar rejects the complicity of the image and, instead confronts viewers with their own reflection as political entities. In this case, the site of the memorial becomes a type of contained movie theatre where the screen of projection is customized to each visitor’s mnemonic interaction.7 The memorial provides a narrative structure that is mutable and transformative but that nonetheless seeks the activation of both memory and consciousness by aiming to create an embodied and affective (rather than voyeuristic) space of contemplation. Interestingly, the memorial’s subterranean home also resurrects current debates about the power wielded by institutions and private entities that attempt to control the domain and storehouse of memory. Indeed, Jaar’s resistance to the image may be interpreted as a subtle critique of the commodification and control of images by companies like Corbis, that own the reproduction rights to a plethora of historical images and media, many of which are stored in a refrigerated cave 22 meters beneath the ground in a storage facility known as the Iron Mountain. Whereas sites like Iron Mountain are restricted to outside visitors and prevent public interaction with historical media, Jaar’s memorial invites audiences into a subterranean archive that is built to promote mnemonic experience and reflection.8

III. Participatory Archives

One year after the inauguration of the memorial, this online multimedia exhibition seeks to provide an introductory archive to La geometria de la conciencia in the hope that other curious but distant viewers will be able to explore and critique its aesthetic and political contributions. In this “multimedio,” viewers will find a collection of materials aimed at providing a virtual tour and space of contemplation for La geometria de la conciencia. To help establish the memorial’s context and environment we include a selection of architectural renderings and photographic registers from Alfredo Jaar’s studio that guide the viewer through an imagistic tour of the memorial experience. Captions have been included for orientation, though online viewers should not forget that this memorial is a site-specific project and that its experience is usually in tandem with a visit to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. To emphasize this dialectical relationship we include a short documentary video by Cristobal Palma that provides a visual topography of the museum’s outer architecture while also featuring the display methods and materials used in its permanent exhibition. In an effort to extend local scholarship about the memorial, we also include a text by Chilean critic Adriana Valdés that explores both the poetic and formal elements of La geometria de la conciencia. Valdés was the first critic to write about Alfredo Jaar’s work in the early eighties before he left Chile, and it is fitting that her short essay reflects upon his first art work commissioned specifically for Chile’s public thirty years later (Jaar 2006, 69). A short bibliographic section is also included below to aid researchers.

As with any curatorial endeavor, the information on this theme is bound to exceed the exhibition venue’s capacity. However, I encourage those who are curious enough to continue investigating this memorial and its impacts to contact me or the editors of e-misférica with any additional resources that are of interest to the scope of this project, in the hope of transforming what is currently an introductory archive into a participatory archive.

Lissette Olivares is a Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz and her dissertation is titled “Literary Repertoires of Resistance: Chile’s ‘80s Decade and the NN Generation.” She is especially interested in the relationship between aesthetics and politics and in analyzing the role of cultural resistance under periods of political repression. She has curated numerous exhibitions, including Chile’s first Performance Biennial in 2006 and most recently Writing Resistance in Crisis and Collaboration at the UCSC Library.


1 I would like to dedicate this multimedio to my father, Juan Olivares, for his unrelenting transmission of Chilean cultural memory.

2 Both the commencement of construction of the museum and its opening have been highly symbolic cultural and political events. For example, the first stone for the construction of the museum was laid by Bachelet in 2008 on the International Day of Human Rights and was accompanied by a highly publicized presidential speech (Bachelet 2008). Furthermore, the decision by the Bachelet Government to inaugurate the museum before the incumbent conservative candidate Sebastián Piñera took office can also be viewed as a political statement, though there are critics who have voiced objection to the museum’s rushed opening.
For an excellent discussion of the contentious history leading up to the museum’s construction, see: Collins and Hite 2009.

3 For an excellent and important exploration of the politics and processes of cultural memory see: Sturken 1997.

4 However, critiques to the museum are not limited by political positionality. For example, Chilean theorist Nelly Richard argues that the periodization proposed by the museum’s historical narrative is problematic because its concentration on the period of 1973-1990 provides a false closure to the legacies of the dictatorship’s abuses. She is especially wary of the afterlife of the regime’s neoliberal policies, which have continued to develop under both the Concertación’s leadership, and the current government (Richard 2010).

5 Relatedly, Katherine Hite and Cath Collins explain that “commemorative artifacts” in Chile have tended to reproduce a funerary association that “keep[s] the focus on the absence of victims – the dead or disappeared- rather than on the presence of survivors or even perpetrators” (4).

6 Marita Sturken explains that “technologies of memory”, “are not vessels of memory in which memory passively resides so much as objects through which memories are shared, produced, and given meaning” (9).

7 Jaar was a film student before he switched career paths and received a degree in architecture - attention to the moving image and the use of video is consistent in his production (see for example: Gold in the Morning, and Muxima). Marita Sturken has also theorized the screen as a technology of memory (Sturken, 1997, 44-84).

8 In Jaar’s The Sound of Silence, for example, a direct critique of Corbis is also present.

Works Cited and Additional Bibliography

Bachelet, Michelle. 2008. “Primera piedra.” Museo de la Accessed on January 1, 2011.

Collins, Cath and Katherine Hite. 2009. “Memorial Fragments, Monumental Silences, and Reawakening in 21st Century Chile.” Millenium Journal of International Studies, 38, no.2: 379-400.

De la Sotta Donoso, Romina. “Alfredo Jaar habla de su obra para el Museo de la Memoria.” El Mercurio Online, December 13, 2009. Accessed on January 1, 2011.

García, Javier. “Alfredo Jaar: Todos hemos perdido algo con la dictadura,” La nación, October 12 2010. Accessed on January 1, 2011.

“Historia del Museo.” Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. Accessed on January 1, 2011.

Hite, Katherine. Forthcoming. Politics and the Art of Commemoration: Memorials to Struggle in Latin America and Spain. New York, New York: Routledge Press.

JAAR SCL 2006. 2006, edited by Adriana Valdés. Barcelona, Spain: Actar.

Memoria Viva. Accessed on January 28, 2011.

Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos. Accessed on January 1, 2011.

Jaar, Alfredo. 2011. “Models of Thinking.” Alfredo Jaar interviewed by Kathy Battista. Art Monthly 342:1-4.

--------. 2010. Personal interview with the author. December 17, 2010.

--------. 2006. “Conversaciones en Chile, 2005.” In Jaar SCL 2006, edited by Adriana Valdés, 67-88. EU:Actar Ediciones.

Phillips, Patricia & Alfredo Jaar. 2005. “The Aesthetics of Witnessing: A Conversation with Alfredo Jaar.” Art Journal, 64, no.3: 6-27.

Richard, Nelly. 2010. “Post-Dictatorship, Memory, and Critique,” Lecture presented at the Department of Spanish of Portuguese of New York University, New York, NY. December 08, 2010.

Sturken, Marita. 1997. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Valdés, Adriana. “Geometría de la conciencia,” Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos. Accessed on January 1, 2011.