Photo: wokitoki
Teresa Margolles, ¿de que otra cosa podríamos hablar?, 2009. Photo: wokitoki.

Performance ≠ Life

Two scenes of postcolonial return, from the Americas to Europe:

Scene 1: Teresa Margolles was the sole artist sent by Mexico for its national pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennial in 2009. Then suffering its third continuous year of staggering death rates in a widening field of narco conflict, Mexico sent Margolles’s ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?), a six-month art action that literally exported the dried blood of Mexican victims to a Venetian palace: the blood was re-humidified and used to wash the marble floors of the otherwise nearly empty building, allowing the material to gradually build up over the six months of the Biennial. If the Venice Biennial is a trend-setting center for the global art world, what trend might Mexico offer back? As Margolles said in relation to another piece, Mexico might give back “death, en masse” (Margolles 2009: 87).

Scene 2: Regina Galindo is invited to present her work at the Hause der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2010. She too asks what America should bring to a cosmopolitan center of European art and culture. Her answer is the performance Looting: in Guatemala a dentist bores eight holes into her teeth and fills them with Guatemalan gold. In Berlin, a German doctor extracts the fillings. The fillings—small jewels of the finest Mesoamerican gold—are carefully placed on a red velvet pillow, encased in glass, and exhibited as art. The body disappears completely and we are left with pure presence. Disappearance is reclaimed. The 8 gold sculptures are again exhibited at the 2011 Venice Biennial.

These paired actions function well as an entry into the concerns of this issue of e-misférica, devoted to performance art. Together they demonstrate the ongoing relevance of thinking about Latin American performance art as a network of connected practices bound by the shared colonial histories and shared concerns—aesthetic, formal, economic, political—that shape performance practices today. Galindo’s action is an exercise in extraction that is both material and aesthetic: she literally leaves holes in her body as she surrenders the gold in her teeth and, in the process, extorts aesthetic-political value from the pilhagem, as “looting” translates into Portuguese.  As these golden fillings grace the cover image of this issue, we too become part of the economies of art production, extraction, and circulation of value that Galindo illuminates. Margolles also extracts—soaks, captures, stores, salvages—the bloody remains from crime scenes once the forensic teams and tabloid photographers have left. Hers is an extended act of cleaning that is both recuperative and harrowing: she cleans the crime scene, and by extension the street, the town, the nation, perhaps even cleans a palace in Venice, in a Sisyphean act of art production. So long as the blood flows, the residue accumulates and the cleaning, like the violence, spirals without end or purpose. Both Margolles and Galindo hone precise actions that activate their chosen material—blood, gold, bodily remains—in aesthetic registers that, in turn, limpidly return us to the urgency of the violence that produced them. Both enact the practices of “political dematerialization,” to borrow a phrase from Luis Camnitzer, as one signature of Latin American performance art (Camnitzer 2007: 6).

This issue of e-misférica builds on the landmark exhibition Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960–2000 held at the Museo del Barrio in New York City from January to May, 2008, and which travelled in 2009 to the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City and the Museo Amparo in Puebla; and in 2010 to the Museo de Arte del Banco de la República in Bogotá, Colombia. In our three multimedios in this issue, we share key work produced or presented at Arte ≠ Vida, all of which sets the history of performance art into new critical motion, establishing complex genealogies and geographies of performance production. To present all of these materials we have relied on the enormous generosity and labor of Deborah Cullen, Director of Curatorial Programs at El Museo del Barrio and curator of the Arte ≠ Vida exhibition, as well as that of the staff at El Museo, and on the generosity of so many artists and artist estates in granting permission to reproduce their work in this venue. We are immensely grateful to them for this opportunity.

First, we produce an online version of the invaluable timeline of Latino/a and Latin American performance art published in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog: the timeline is the first, to our knowledge, to map the extraordinary production of non-objectual art across in the Americas. Precisely because it is not organized by country, the document illustrates the extraordinary movement of artists across the continent, the cross-pollination of their aesthetic and political projects, and—perhaps most importantly—it deftly illuminates the key participation of Latino/a artists in a larger scene of Latin American art production. Latino/a artists were not only were full participants in these artistic experiments, but also often themselves crucial bridges between art worlds in Latin America and wider international currents. In her essay for this issue, Deborah Cullen powerfully makes this case in relation to the New York-based Raphael Montañez Ortiz. An innovator in the early “destructivist” projects, Montañez Ortiz was both an internationally recognized avant-garde artist and a community-based artist/activist in the Nuyorican scene. Cullen suggests that his founding of El Museo de Barrio—a crucial nexus between Latin American, Latino/a, and international art worlds—was precisely the synthesis of these global and local roles. Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes amplifies Cullen’s argument about the particular mobilities of Puerto Rican artists in his essay “Translocas,” which explores the complicities of transvestism and migration in contemporary Puerto Rican performance. Similarly, the Latino/a artists who participate in our dossier on art and politics—Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Nicolás Dumit Estevez, Nao Bustamante, Ricardo Dominguez—illustrate the complex geographies and artistic genealogies that inform the positions from which they now speak.

Second, we share from Arte ≠ Vida a remarkable documentary about the ground-breaking Argentine project “Tucumán Arde.” The film, originally produced as a collaboration between the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires and the Queens Museum of Art in New York in 1999, was again presented in Arte ≠ Vida. Created in 1968–69, Tucumán Arde offered an analysis and trenchant critique of the military dictatorship’s heavy-handed economic policies designed to attract and favor foreign capital, the consequences of which were nowhere more evident than in the rapid impoverishment of the already-poor northern state of Tucumán. Beyond this, however, Tucumán Arde posited a radical reformulation of the categories at hand, proposing a mode of aesthetic intervention that continues to animate rebellion and utopian figurations today. As we write, a broad and highly intersectional social insurrection in Chile is demanding the impossible: a new Constitution. The performativity of the Chilean multitude in 2011 is unthinkable without understanding, for example, the role of Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis and other collectives, whose actions in the late 1980s and early 90s—in our view—transformed the universe of signifying possibilities across the domains of art and politics in Chile. Tucumán Arde and their technologies of proliferation—their particular invention of the “art of mass media”—are inaugural of our present, in ways akin to the foundational contributions of ACT-UP to the strategies and tactics of the anti-globalization movement.

Revisiting Tucumán Arde today reminds us that performance art in Latin America has been a consistent site for the analysis and critique of neoliberalism from its inception. This is an insight taken up by Graciela Montaldo in her essay “La invasión de la política,” in which she returns to Oscar Massotta’s appropriation of the then-explosively new genre of “happenings,” which coincide historically with the moment of Tucumán Arde. Montaldo reads Massotta’s politicized experiments in staging “reality” against the 2007 experimental documentary Estrellas by León Marcos and Marcos Martínez in order to explore recurring patterns in politics, art, and the market in Argentina. Anabelle Contreras Castro, in turn, shares the work of Costa Rican artist Oscar Figueroa, whose “Proceso de secado” (Drying process) from 2008 is an interesting contemporary rejoinder to the economic critique of Tucumán Arde. To engage the changes and violent continuities of Costa Rica's export-driven regime, the artist staged the process of coffee production—once the venerated heart of a supporsedly social-democratically oriented export economy—replacing the iconic coffee beans with thousands of loose computer keys to represent the recent rise of Intel and the microchip industry. Eleonora Fabiao, meanwhile, illustrates how performance might recode (or even “detoxify”) an urban sociality otherwise torn asunder by the corrosive excesses of a banditocratic neoliberalism.

In her essay, “An Art of Nooks,” Gabriela Rangel argues that the experimental practices of non-objectual art in Venezuela illuminate an alternate history of the nation, one that refuses totalizing ideologies or universal models of “the modern.” Instead, she claims, these experimental actions occupied gaps (“nooks”) both inside and outside the logic of the museum, and used such interstices to explore collective production, critical pedagogy, and alternate modes of aesthetic and national authority. Rangel offers us not only a history of Venezuelan performance art; she reflects on and models the kind of experimental historiography that performance art itself suggests and practices. It is in this broad spirit of thinking about the historiography of performance art that we also present a series of videos from the Arte ≠ Vida exhibition, many of which document landmark performances. These include Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s The Death of White Henny and Black Penny, as well as other “destruction” concerts from the 1960s; the audio recording of Felipe Ehrenberg’s 1971 Date with Fate and the Tate; Rolando Peña’s 1979 performance Seven Vanishing Points; the 1979 performance actions of the Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA) Para no morir de hambre en el arte and Inversión de escena1; Alfredo Jaar’s Opus 1981, Andante desesperato; a 1988 street action by the Cuban group Ritual Arte-De with Juan-Sí Gonzalez; video from Santiago Sierra’s 1999 465 Paid People; and a beautifully edited presentation of María Teresa Hincapié’s Una cosa es una cosa (2005).  As we share these videos, we are cognizant of the fascinating ways that such “documentation” stages the complex relation between performance and other media: in some cases, like Eherenberg’s, the recording apparatus was simply part of the original performance; in others, like Alfredo Jaar’s Opus 1981, the recorded performance was itself a rendition of another medium, a photograph of a Sandinista clarinetist taken by Susan Meiselas. We offer these less as steady or reliable documentation in the spirit of conservation, and more as provocations for charting different genealogies and geographies of performance. These materials also stand as provocations for future work in the line suggested by Rio de Janerio-based Tania Alice in her essay on re-enactment, which in part reflects on the recent interest sparked by the influential retrospective of Marina Abramović’s work that used reenactment as a central technique of museum re-collection. Alice argues against re-enactment as a mode of archival capture and conservation, and for re-enactment as a possible “(re)production of presence" which, in turn, will energize performance pedagogy.

We further take up the promise and provocation of the Arte ≠ Vida exhibition by meditating the powerful work of the sign “≠” in the exhibition’s title. While some publications have translated the sign “≠” into the words “is not” (as in, “Art [is not] Life”), such translation eclipses the complexity through which the graphic mark holds the two terms, art and life, in a taut relation that is, as it were, under erasure: art and life are balanced in an abstract equation that insists on their non-equality, their non-reducibility to each other. Deborah Cullen reports in her essay that some audiences and artists responded negatively to the exhibition’s title, citing the key genealogy in twentieth century visual art—particularly performance art—of refusing the boundary between art and life. While that refusal is most often recognized in Joseph Beuys’ desire to build a “social organism as a work of art” in 1967, it is also an indelible signature of the same Latin American performance art that the exhibit otherwise shares. In 1968, the “Tucumán Arde” artists from Rosario, Argentina demanded that revolutionary art “take the form of a partial reality that is integrated into total reality, destroying the idealist separation between the work and the world” (Gramuglio 2004: 319). Today, for one contemporary example, Tania Bruguera’s ongoing “arte de conducta,” crafts scenarios in which the “art” is barely recognizable. “Art should exist in the realm of reality,” says Bruguera, “otherwise it automatically becomes a representation again, one that exists only in the realm of possibility” (in Lambert-Beatty 2009: 43).

Yet these refusals to separate art from life are not, finally, contradicted by Cullen’s evocative equation, arte ≠ vida. For performance art, what is most often subtracted in the equation between art and “life” is not a line between performance and life, but rather the dimension of theatre:2 divested of the behavioral codes and visible markers of theatricality, performance aims to operate as life’s double, creating new spaces and modes of relation in the realm of the social itself. Thus performance art both is and is not life: it operates in the field of life, but redoubles and redirects its possibilities.

The line that crosses the equals sign in the mark “≠” reminds us of Lotty Rosenfeld’s signature gesture in her 1979 Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento (A mile of crosses on the asphalt), in which she created perpendicular lines to cross lane divider lines in a major traffic artery in Santiago, effectively creating a mile of crosses through the heart of the city. That signature line is not a negation of the original traffic sign, but a resignification. The act demonstrates how art literally and figuratively can add dimension and scale to “life,” at times even creating fissures within repressive regimes and their systems of power. The sign “≠” held between performance and life, or (as in our dossier in this issue) between art and politics, might be read not as a negation of their relation, but a refusal of any simple equivalence or collapse between them. The slash is an invitation to reflect on the alternate ways that art and life are conjoined. Under the sign performance ≠ vida, this issue of e-misférica engages these issues directly, and we are pleased to invite you to share in this reflection.


1 These, along with video documentation of many other CADA actions, are available in the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library (HIDVL):

2 See Lambert-Beatty (2009: 40) for a thought-provoking discussion of the subtraction of theatricality from the register of performance.

Works Cited

Camnitzer, Luis. 2007. Conceptualism in Latin American art: didactics of liberation. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gramuglio, Maria Teresa and Nicolás Rosa. 2004 [1968]. “Tucumán is Burning. Statement of the Exhibition in Rosario,” 319–323. In Inés Katzenstein. Listen, here, now!: Argentine art of the 1960s : writings of the avant-garde. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Margolles, Teresa, Cuauhtémoc Medina, and Taiyana Pimentel. 2009. Teresa Margolles: what else could we talk about? Barcelona, España: RM.

Carrie Lambert-Beatty. 2009. “Political People: Notes on Arte de Conducta.” In Helaine Posner, Tania Bruguera, Gerardo Mosquera, and Carrie Lambert-Beatty, 37–45. Tania Bruguera: on the political imaginary. Milan, [Italy]: Charta.