PHOTO: vale andr!
PHOTO: vale andr!

¿Arte ≠ Política?: In Defense of Performance Praxis

For those of us who are suspicious of the Cartesian legacy of binomial thinking this question is indeed provocative, for it forces us to consider whether or not we believe that these are two separate and discrete fields—one called art, and one called politics. ¿arte≠política? conjures two events in my recent memory, both of which claimed to feature contemporary political Latin American art, and which may help to trigger a discussion of the expanded field of performance and politics within contemporary art-culture systems.

I. Anecdotal Considerations : Latin American Political Art Adversaries @ Salon 94 & the 2011 Armory Show

In the Fall of 2010, I attended the exhibition opening of Liz Cohen in Salon 94, a gallery on Bowery adjacent to the New Museum. Flooded with visitors, the exhibition space featured a tricked out tan automobile and a series of black and white photographs showcasing tools used by mechanics. I was drawn to this exhibition because I had heard that the work included a performative element where Cohen 'fixed up' her body in conjunction with the automotive design work, transforming herself into a bikini clad model showcasing her own low rider, a project which my colleague who is completing a documentary on the role of women in lowrider culture had described as 'problematic' and which I was curious to evaluate for myself. At the opening however, this performance work was barely on display (though present in the magazines on sale in the foyer), and instead the exhibition space was dominated by the eager bodies of voyeurs who quickly circled the “Trabantino” before heading to the free beer dispensary. Unmoved and unaffected by the cold phallic objects on display, like the majority, I headed for the beer. As I stood near the door sipping the tepid liquid and watching the crowded mix of hipsters and chic fashionistas, a homeless man from the street entered the space. His clothes were stained, bulky and gray, his hair and beard matted, his odor a violent intervention amidst the noxious designer perfume, and his presence, a potent interruption to the constructed idyllis of the white cube. Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, owner of the gallery and Bravo's Work of Art TV personality, upon seeing him enter her domain, grew rigid, the lines of her face creasing into an angry disposition as she quickly moved into action, grabbing a can of beer and intercepting the movement of the man, “You can have one beer but you have to leave immediately,” she commanded.

The man accepted her condition and exited quietly, perhaps intuitive that he would not be missing anything in the exhibition below. I followed him quickly, anxious to leave the gallery and unhappy that I had been part of this scene.[1] Oscar Wilde once wrote that the attention the artist seeks is that which the homeless person cannot escape, and in the context of this anecdotal scenario, his statement was confirmed as a truism. One could speak of the “politics” of Liz Cohen's artwork, of the appropriation of Chicano aesthetics and its transformation in the commercial gallery context, of the politics of representing the Latina female body as an object of desire that conforms to normative standards of beauty, but in the context of the question that emisferica's editors have asked, arte≠politica?, I have shifted the attention away from the art objects on display, focusing instead on the politics of the art scene I witnessed, on the regulation of who is welcomed to the scene of display, and more importantly, who is not. In the telling of this story I seek to problematize the separation of these two domains, and to focus instead on their interconnection, emphasizing how we as critics must consider not only the performance of intentional art objects, but also the performance of audiences and the type of scenarios created in venues where objects (and performances) are displayed.[2]

Photo: Ivan Navarro
Swatch design by ivan navarro
Photo: Ivan Navarro

The second scene ocurred in the Spring of 2011 at the New York Armory Show, an event hailed as one of the most important art fairs in the world, and recognized as a significant commercial venue. To my surprise this year's brochure was replete with events claiming to include an important array of political art from Latin America, promoting what they called a special profile on the region. In particular, the work of one Latin American artist dominated the arena, that of Chilean designer Ivan Navarro, who has recently enjoyed broad publicity, including representation by Saatchi Gallery, the commision of a watch design for Swatch, and a solo exhibition in Chile's Pavillion during the 2010 Venice Biennial. His works rely on the use of (primarily white) fluorescent tubing, arranged in figural representations including a shopping cart, briefcase, wheelbarrow, etc.[3] Working under a commission from the Armory Show, Navarro constructed a large white fluorescent gate around an exhibition stall, creating a lighted fence that kept visitors out of the usual area of display. Numerous galleries within the Latin American section also featured a new series of Navarro's that constructs illusion boxes made of mirrors and fluorescent lighting which produce the effect of an infinite void, some with lighted fluorescent slogans that infinitely repeat, such as one that utters “Die.” Despite the recent attention given to the rich history of Latin American performance art in mainstream venues like el Museo del Barrio, the stalls of the Armory Show, overall, elided this history, making only slight gestures to its existence through the minimal inclusion of some performance registers that tended to transform forceful live repertoires into framed and collectible limited-edition photographic prints.[4] Meanwhile, the fluourescent void lighting of Navarro proliferated, making me wonder how Latin American “'political art” had, in this venue, come to be represented by these cool impenetrable and ultimately commodifiable objects. Chilean theorist Tomas Moulian has convincingly argued that Chile's post-dictatorial period is dominated by a rhetoric of purification, what he calls a whitening (blanqueamiento) of the abuses committed by the military regime in an attempt to reframe Chile's political history as one of progress and developmental success. The international acclaim of Ivan Navarro's work, and its promotion in venues like the Armory Fair (as well as the Venice Biennial) become paradigmatic (and literal) reflections of this whitening of political history. Navarro claims that his work resists the dictatorial legacies of Chile's recent history but one might ask whether his work's representationalist approach is enough to truly pose an interruption or critique to this brutal history, or perhaps more bluntly, if rainbow fluorescent tubes arranged in the representation of a concentration camp's crawl space can adequately resurrect or resist the horrors of the military regime's torture apparatuses. Furthermore, if the intention of this arts venue was to seek the diversity of Latin American political art, then it is important to ask why the performing body was eliminated or obscured from vision. Regina Jose Galindo astutely observes that art from the so-called Third World tends to be evaluated primarily in relation to its site of production and context, with little attention paid to its formal construction or its relation to prevailing structures within art-culture systems. If we extend this critique to the scenario of the Armory Show cited above, then we should not only consider artist statements and their claim to engage political histories, but also the formal methodologies employed and their (privileged) relationship to dominant art institutions and commercial markets. Furthermore, while it is no surprise that commercial venues find it easier to sell artworks that pose no threat to the status quo (or that reify current regimes of power), it is extremely troubling that there is a current trend that denotes these works as political.

II. Blurring the Lines: Dialectics of Art & Political Committment

In his recent book Didactics of Liberation, Luis Camnitzer provocatively names the Uruguayan Tupamaro Revolutionary Group as a historical influence in the development of what he calls Latin American Conceptualism, arguing that their political agenda “set in motion the breakdown of boundaries that kept isolating art from life.”[5] He explains that “the Tupamaros had, with their operations, created the only work of art that managed to deeply change the political consciousness of the people and, probably the only political work that succeeded in establishing parameters for aesthetic perception in Latin America.” He laments that even though the history of art will likely never register these events, he is hopeful that in the future “the instruction of art should not be possible without this information.”[6] Despite his desire to incorporate the aesthetics of this revolutionary movement into art history, Camnitzer nonetheless reinforces a separation, framing the Tupamaros’ interventions not as art, but, “as close as possible to the art side of the line.” On the other side of this line, Camnitzer historicizes the Argentine Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Is Burning) project in 1968, where artists “attempted to become publicists and activists in the social struggle in Tucumán,” manifesting the desire for an “art that transforms, [and] that destroys the idealist separation between the artwork and reality; an art that is social, which is one that merges with the revolutionary fight against economic dependency and class oppression.”[7] Camnitzer claims that these two cases are distinct because the Tupamaros aestheticized politics, whereas Tucumán Arde was an example of art’s intervention in the political arena.[8] Unfortunately, Camnitzer's decision to distinguish between these two movements may unnecessarily limit the potentiality of how we re-frame the function of art in our society. Ironically, as is evident in the statement made by the artist-activists involved in Tucuman Arde, no solid line was believed to exist between art and politics. Instead they emphasize the blurring of these domains as a way to enhance revolutionary potential, proposing a dialectical movement between art and politiical commitment that creates alternate potentialities through an arts praxis. A similar critique is proposed by Latin American revolutionary icon Che Guevara, who openly disregards the imposed separation of art and life in bourgeois society, arguing that:

The superstructure [of capitalism] imposes a kind of art in which the artist must be educated. Rebels are subdued by the machine, and only exceptional talents [read with irony] may create their own work. The rest become shamefaced hirelings or are crushed, meaningless anguish or vulgar amusement thus become convenient safety valves for human anxiety. The idea of using art as a weapon of protest is combated.[9] [emphasis added]

This quote emphasizes the problematic depolitization of art in capitalist society, calling attention to art's limitations within ideological state apparatuses such as bourgeois universities and other venues which create a caste system among artists. As he finishes his critique, Guevara reiterates the importance of art as an element within social and political combat, a critique which is oft repeated within the realm of Latin American performance art. Inspired by Guevara's statement, the Tupamaro aestheticization of politics, Tucuman Arde's dialectical proposal (as well as the rich history of political performance in the Americas), and in an effort to continue to blur the lines between the fields of art and politics, I would like to propose the consideration of political performance art in the Americas as a transdisciplinary movement that exceeds the boundaries imposed by traditional art historical canons, with no formal, stylistic or political uniformity, and that is better compared in its political objectives to the diverse range of guerilla struggles in this region.

III. Hacia una Guerrilla de Performance en las Americas

Flyer from Consecuentes
Flyer from Consecuentes, 2011.

Following theorists like Nelly Richard, I contend that the representation and/or reflection of political themes in art is not enough to denote these as politically committed works, or what Richard refers to as “lo politico en el arte.” Indeed, one of the fallacies of many curatorial framings is that they substitute one politically themed artwork for the political trajectory of an artist, creating a misleading metonymy of political commitment. In an effort to pursue a curatorial framing that exceeds this pattern and that focuses on the continuous development of radical epistemologies within art agents' extended repertoires, in the Spring of 2011 I brought together 16 multimedia artists in an exhibition titled Consecuentes: Radical Performance Art from the Americas. The intention of the exhibition was to create a public forum for the display of diverse experimentations in political performance, transforming the exhibition space into a manifesto that affirmed that performance art must be political.

In a region like Latin America, so scarred by legacies of violence, the live body harbors exceptional potentiality as both a specter of memory, able to resurrect histories of oppression, and as an active agitator and integrant of liberation fronts and imaginaries. Importantly, the artists selected to participate in Consecuentes all describe themeselves as activists.[10] For them, art is not (and cannot be) separate from the political, but rather made possible by their confrontation with prevailing political structures that cause suffering within society. They rely on performance practices to disarticulate structures of oppression, developing political lexicons grounded in a semiotics of the body, while articulating an array of approaches to political agency. The exhibition relied on showcasing agents who articulate their discourse by using their bodies as part of a larger social body-in-resistance, or as Regina Jose Galindo articulates:

Mi cuerpo no como cuerpo individual sino como cuerpo colectivo, cuerpo global. Ser o reflejar a través de mi, la experiencia de otros; porque todos somos nosotros mismos y al mismo tiempo somos los otros. Un cuerpo que es, entonces, el cuerpo de muchos, que hace y se hace, que resiste y se resiste...

My body not as an individual body, but instead as a collective body, a global body. Being or reflecting through me the experience of others; because we are all ourselves and at the same time we are others. A body that is, then, the body of many, that makes and is made, that resists and is resisted against.

Galindo's statement is important to this discussion because it emphasizes a domain of the body that extends beyond the liberal democratic conception of the individual, positing the (performance artist's) body as a plural and common ground for both suffering and resistance. While it is impossible to recount the numerous oppositional tactics employed by the 16 artists included in the exhibition, and while the exhibition space was impossible to contain all of the radical voices in Latin America's contemporary performance scene, as a fellow performance artist and curator, it became an extension of my activism to showcase a group of creative agents who clearly identified a range of political adversaries.

In her discussion of antagonistic democracy, political theorist Chantal Mouffe distinguishes between “the political” and “politics”; where “politics” relies on eliminating or sublimating antagonistic passions of political difference, in an attempt to construct order and organize co-existence among an idealized notion of consensus that eliminiates the antagonistic passions of political difference, while 'the political' assumes that people will have incompatible differences, but tries to work constructively with these differences as adversaries in hegemonic struggle rather than as enemies (which tend to be violently repressed). This distinction can also be productively applied to the field of art. For political performance artists in the Americas, identifying adversaries—institutional, structural, societal, etc, is part of their responsibility as social agents; radical performances often seek to make visible the structures of oppression that threaten or undermine the vision of a world which they believe is possible. Risk and surprise attacks are vital elements in their formal methodological approach. Importantly, however, there is no unified position about how to resist against diverse obstacles or adversaries, producing customized guerrilla tactics that depend on varying historical and political contexts.

Photos: Courtesy of The artist
Prem Sarjo, Ravotril, 2009.
Photos: Courtesy of The artist
Prem Sarjo, Ravotril, 2009.
Photos Courtesy of The

When Chilean performance artist Prem Sarjo takes an overdose of the anti-depressant Ravotril in the middle of the inaugural party of Chile's First Art Triennial—plummetting to the ground as President Michele Bachelet passes in front of him—his body becomes a visual grenade, an explosive interruption to the smooth protocols of the celebratory event. Despite President Bachelet's concern for the artist's fallen body, Chilean cultural minister Paulina Urrutia ushers the President away from the site of his fall, claiming that Sarjo's work is “just theatre.” As his limp body is violently detained by the police, Sarjo's completes his critique of Chile's dominant art-culture system and what he understands as a false facade of democratic progress within the Triennial's mission statement and its lineup of artists.[11] For artists like Elena Tejada Herrera, who recently returned to Peru after many years of residency in the US, the return home prompted immediate reintigration into the political resistance circuit, where she coordinated a “Communal Texting” intervention amongst a group of poets and cultural activists as a means of protesting the Peruvian judiciary's attempt to indemnify torturers. In a radically different guerilla performance, artist Regina Jose Galindo removed her own body from the performance scenario in “Curso de Superviviencia,” a workshop setting that the artist funds as a means of offering undocumented border crossers the survival skills to make it across the desert and past the US-Mexico border, constructing a scenario that frames the role of the performance artist as an orchestrator or fascilitator of radical pedagogy.[12]

As a curator of political performance I have had the privilege of seeing the amazing diversity of resistance tactics developed by artists and cultural producers, from the use of strip tease to fight for sex workers' civil liberties (Cybil Libertease), to Atom Cianfanri's illegal appropriation of garbage to create revolutionary recipes that raise awareness about the egregious waste of food and resources in the US, to the violent mnemonic methodologies of Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis, Naufus Ramirez Figueroa, Nako Tako, Regina Jose Galindo, Francisco Papas Fritas and Soledad Sanchez, whose bodies become living memorials as they inflict pain upon themselves to resurrect the disappeared and the marginal, as well as the ongoing legacies of neoliberal colonization and state-sponsored violence. It is impossible to name all of the radical guerilla performers from the Americas and their relevant interventions in this essay, but I offer these few examples as an introduction to this worthy field of investigation and participation. Even at this moment, as I write this article, students in Chile erupt in protest over President Sebastian Pinera's attempt to further privatize all public education. As I watch the news develop, it is possible to see the bodies of political performance artists (including Julia Antivilo, Victor Hugo Robles-El Che de los Gays, and Francisco Papas Fritas, as well as many others) united with this mass collective struggle, constructing an oppositonal front that threatens the prevailing hegemonic system. I am sure that across the Americas there are similar movements and bodies on the line.

If you, as a reader interested in political performance, are unaware of the (very few) agents I have cited, then you (we) should ask yourself (ourselves) why is it that the leading art institutions in the world tend to eliminate these projects from our field of vision? Furthermore, you might ask how we, as active resisters, can make each other aware of the plethora of oppositional struggles being organized now.

In closing I am reminded of one famous citation by Ernesto Che Guevara: “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine.” I would be so bold as to add... “Guerrilla Performers of the World Unite!”[13]

Lissette Olivares, an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, pursues interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge production. As an artist, activist, theorist, curator, and storyteller, her work emphasizes feminist epistemologies and draws from a diverse range of methodological approaches in critical theory, performance theory, cultural studies, visual studies, postcolonial studies and posthumanities. A doctoral candidate in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she is finishing her dissertation, Repertoires of Literary Resistance, which explores how literary performances during the 80s decade in Chile provided a symbolic space for the articulation of diverse democratic imaginaries. Lissette is also an alumna of the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program and an independent curator and critic specializing in contemporary art with an emphasis in performance and transmedia. She has curated numerous individual and collective exhibitions, including Chile's first Performance Biennial in 2006, Grotesques at Toronto's A Space Gallery in 2008. She is a 2010/2011 fellow at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.


 [1] Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn's resistance to the trangressive potential of performance was also made publically visible on Bravo's Next Great Work of Art TV Series, particularly in the episode when she objected to what she called a 'scatalogical mess' while judging Nao Bustamante's risqué performance which implemented a grotesque aesthetic. As Mikhail Bakhtin reminds us, “Comedy tends to be conservative, while the grotesque tends towards the revolutionary” For an extended exploration of the political potentiality of grotesque aesthetics in performance, please see both the exhibition Grotesques and its catalogue essay: Grotesques: Enactments of Sublime Transgression, published by A Space Gallery, Toronto, 2008.

 [2] Paying attention to audience performance is a critical tactic I have learned from my colleague Lucian Gomoll, who is currently completing a dissertation which includes an extended theorization of the ways that audience performances transgress and/or interrupt the intentional narratives proposed by curatorial frames.

 [3] Notice how the caption of this video introduces Navarro's work as a site where “politics and neon converge,”<> (last accessed 07/25/2009)

 [4] One exception to the general absence of performance was a scheduled talk between Curator Rocio Aranda Alvarado and Costa Rican interventionist Mauricio Miranda.

 [5] Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art. Didactics of Liberation, University of Texas Press, 2007, p 12.

 [6] Ibid.

 [7] Ibid., p 66.

 [8] Ibid., p 71. For an extended analysis and critique of Luis Camnitzer's notion of Latin American Conceptualism, please see the forthcoming co-authored article by Lucian Gomoll and Lissette Olivares: "Inversión de la Materia: Reframing 1980s Chilean Conceptualism as Performance and Transnationalism," which explores the radical performance practices of CADA & Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis in Removed from the Crowd: Unexpected Encounters, eds. Ivana Bago, Vesna Vukovic & Antonia Majaca. Institute DeLVe: Zagreb, Croatia.

 [9] Che Guevara, “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” in Manifesto: Three Essays to Change the World, ed. Adrienne Rich (Verso 2010) p 161. Cited in Adrienne Rich, “Preface: Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Che Guevara” Ibid. p 4.

 [10] The art-agents included in Consecuentes: Radical Performance from the Americas (vol.1) included Elena Tejada-Herrera, Julia Antivilo, Prem Sarjo, Cheto Castellano, Soledad Sanchez, Atom Cianfarani, Marcela Saldano, Jorge de Leon, Oscar Saavedra, Francisco Papas Fritas, Coco Rico, Regina Jose Galindo, Inti Pujol, Carola Jerez, Amapola Prada, and Samuel Ibarra. This list only begins to cite the diversity of political performance in the Americas, and it is my hope that Consecuentes will continue as an ongoing collective curatorial platform. A limited edition catalogue is available if you contact the author. Those artists without their own website can be found on facebook).

 [11] For more information about “Ravotril” and Prem Sarjo's performance repertoire, see: < de Chile&orden=1&ultimo=1&titulox=PERFORMANCE RAVOTRIL&ficha=Inauguración primera trienal de chile&grupo=year&sel=2009>

 [12] (2007, Curso de Superviviencia) See <> for more information.

 [13] Please send me your work and contact information if you are interested in creating a transnational alliance for guerrilla performance. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.