Retroactive Vampirism: On The Age of Discrepancies

Cuauhtémoc Medina

In memoriam Olivier Debroise, 1952–2008

1. Institutionalized amnesia

From the moment we conceived of it far back in the mid-1990s, those of us involved in The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968–19971 understood the project to be a curatorial intervention into the texture of cultural memory, and not as a mere exhibition. Discrepancies was part of the set of critical and intellectual operations to which we had been committed since we worked in the Curare group, in the sense that it demanded that we operationalize in practice as well as in discourse a different institutional, intellectual and affective inscription for contemporary art in Mexico as a crucial component of public life. For all those reasons, we understood the exhibition to be a political intervention, directed at several planes simultaneously.

Exhibition catalogue page
Exhibition catalogue page of The Age of Discrepancies. Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997, 2007

2. Institutional critique

Discrepancies was conceived as a sort of Museum of Contemporary Art project; as the practical refutation of objections that could have been raised against the presence of permanent representations of recent art in Mexico city museums. We were reacting to a near-total absence of public and private collections, historical research and archives dedicated to the artistic period after 1968. We imagined this project as a gesture that demanded to be inserted within society and its cultural institutions. Indeed, we wanted to advance a kind of institutionalization. To this end, our intervention had to be vigorous and ambitious: it was necessary to create a fetish, which would imply, in addition to an epistemological project, a circulation of values.

Exhibition catalogue page
Exhibition catalogue page of The Age of Discrepancies. Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997, 2007

3. Temporary museum

The Age of Discrepancies sought to be a sort of temporary museum; an exhibition about exhibitions. The show was linked to two other initiatives that the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) was undertaking at the time: the creation of the collections, the physical building and the 2008 museological project of the MUAC (Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo)2, and the reconstruction of Mathias Goeritz's Museo del Eco.3 The project was inscribed in a strategy of reorganizing the fabric of local artistic politics whereby the university comes, as in many other places, to amend the catastrophic failures of the state structure, snatching away the monopoly of institutional artistic control from the federal government and its agencies.

4. Critical hypothesis

Instead of subscribing to a history of art conceived as an unfolding of personalities and styles, we adopted a reading that, in a certain way, shares much with the anthropological definition of certain visual subcultures or “tribes”. The groupings into which the show was divided operated as differentiations: not according to their contributions to culture or art in general, as gestures that claim a particular field of practice. We wanted to convey the notion that there is no single shared cultural trajectory, but rather different adventures whose concurrence owes to their wanting to combat each other mutually without managing to become complementary. We aimed to convey the idea that to intervene artistically and culturally is to produce a differentiation, a split, a bias. In this sense, we sought to mine the prestige of general constructions: painting, national culture, the hollow notion of “the cultural” itself.

5. Politics of temporality

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of The Age of Discrepancies. Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997 at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano, Buenos Aires, 2008

Choosing to begin the exhibition in 1968—with the origin of the Salón Independiente (1968-1971), the result of artists's refusals to participate in the official events of the Olympics in Mexico, which coincided with the repression of the student movement—was no countercultural whimsy, as many of our critics have suggested, and much less a desire to subsume artistic genealogies within a political narrative. It supposes, rather, assumes the task of addressing the fact that after 1968 the framework of the conditions of art and culture underwent a fundamental alteration, whereby an important subset of those social projects that could not be brought to the state's field of constitution reverberated within the field of “the cultural”. On one hand, one of the decisive hypotheses of our exhibition was to discern in the genealogy that leads from the Salón Independiente to the movement of the urban strategies of Los Grupos in the 1970s—by way of the experimental circuits of the artists' books inspired by Ulises Carrión—a continuous re-elaboration of collective and self-generated utopias that had begun gestating in 1968. In retrospect it would be more convenient to have said that a portion of the energy of experimentation of the Left's subjectivities was translated into art, and that even this failure made evident the complexity of pinpointing the formation of a new historical subject beyond the party / proletarian, avant-garde / guerrilla model. In the same way it seemed crucial that we suggest a series of moments of a virtual “visual Left” that, throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, would seek to reorient the radical imaginary toward new referents: from Central American guerrillas to suburban subalterns, passing through the fracture of the notions of national identity to formulate a micropolitics of identity. The way in which diverse forms of artistic production confronted both the programmatic artistic vacuum and the programmatic political vacuum does not seem at all foreign to the era's trajectory. This preference for a particular affective political intensity also explains our clear indifference to those forms of artistic practice that did not have a radical subjective or intellectual project. Visitors to the exhibition could not have failed to recognize that, on some level, the chronicle that we were proposing had to do with understanding the end of the twentieth century as illuminated by Godard's phrase in masculin/feminin: "The children of Marx and Coca Cola". Likewise, our decision to conclude the exhibit with the economic and political crises of 1994 and 1995 would have had to suggest the assumption that, with the end of the regime of single party rule in Mexico, a new political stage had begun, wherein the politically intense contents of the twentieth century had become a crucial part of artistic production—visibly, commercially, in the mass media, and institutionally. The collusion of market and politicization did not bring us to despair, in part because it was hard for us to imagine how radical culture could operate under late, revitalized capitalism without making use of the commodity form as a mode of dissemination. To study the dynamic between culture and society in the present would require another theoretical apparatus. We imagined that the recuperation of history depended on performing a kind of retroactive vampirism: to re-read the prestige of contemporary art back onto its obliterated past.

6. Currents of dissemination

Cultural contagion is anything but academic and territorial. All those present here can testify to the effect of the bottle lost at sea that decided our involvement in a given cultural field. It is indeed because of sporadic contamination or indirect transmission that we gain access to the crucial references in our lives: the photocopy of a counter-relief by Tatlin seen at just the right moment, the fragment of a film by Jodorowsky that gives us the key to question our progressivism, the good fortune of having been taken by a friend to an homage to Sergey Kuryokhin, the unexpected discovery of a work at a museum that, despite the museographic narrative in which it is inscribed, stands out as a unique and unrepeatable moment, designed ex professo for each of us. Every purist argument against the incorporation of art and radical culture to the museum or to historiography that hopes to salvage its anti-systemic character is an expression of a strange religiosity that effectively collaborates with repression through the control of supposedly orthodox information. In Discrepancies, by contrast, we wanted to activate the greatest space of dissemination that had been possible for us, above all through a type of catalog-book that attempted to excite a continuous uncovering of references, cases and examples, rather than to provide a closed and systematic recounting of a period.4 The very decision to conceive the book of the exhibition as a sort of scrap-book had a very specific purpose: to create a publication that we ourselves would have consumed when we were twenty-three years old, to the degree that it would offer an account of culture as a field of adventures and promises, and not as a body of ominously finished works. Cultural memory should be preserved not out of a sense of fidelity to the past, but with the ambition of facilitating future explosions. To think otherwise is to desire that radicalism be transformed into esotericism, with all of the advantages that come with controlling a field of secrets.

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of The Age of Discrepancies. Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997 with reconstruction of  SUMA group,  El Desempleado, 1978 at the Pinacoteca do Stado, São Paulo, Brasil, 2008

7. The motives behind a title

That a project such as The Age of Discrepancies could have come to fruition had a lot to do with the good fortune that the exhibition was adopted by the cultural project of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 2003. Insofar as museums in general exercise a productivist criterion that focuses curatorial efforts on producing, in the most spectacular way possible, the traditional art exhibition's Aristotelian unity of time, narrative and place, operating within the UNAM made it easy to convey the idea that this was a project centered on research, and that the anthological show was just one of its instantiations. For four years we enjoyed (and maliciously abused) all the advantages that are supposed to obtain in a truly extraordinary academic institution, which allowed us to mobilize the resources of the country's premiere film archive, various libraries and the only center of research on artistic materiality and technique in Mexico, the Laboratorio de Obras de Arte at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, which oversaw the reconstruction of works using a scientific degree of investigation. Finally, we had the enormous advantage of using the space of instruction itself as a field on which to test out our arguments, tastes and elaborations. For two years, in tandem with the weekly curatorial meetings that arbitrated the team's coordination, we colonized graduate seminars in Art History at the Department of Philosophy and Letters, covering our own reading lists by way of holding discussions with the graduate students there.

From this perspective, the title of the show came about naturally. The Age of Discrepancies recalls and memorializes one of the most notable gestures in Mexican political history: a declaration by the University dean, Javier Barros Sierra, who proclaimed in 1969—just over a year after the massacre at Tlatelolco—“Long live discrepancy!” after pointing out that the university had been attacked for fulfilling its function of being discrepant. After challenging the president of the Republic by defending the right of democratic assembly during the battles of the movement of 1968, dean Barros Sierra proposed a vision of a new republic, based on a novel relationship between authority and society that, instead of fearing disagreement, would place it at the center of the functions of its educational apparatus and its academic class. In opposition to all hegemonic visions of culture, Barros Sierra's phrase seemed to us more than appropriate to describe an age when, despite the establishment's disdain, cultural producers opted for a creative dissensus with an intensity that would be hard to compare to other sectors of culture.

Nevertheless, here it is worthwhile to specify, dictionary in hand, that “discrepancy” is not synonymous with “opposition” or “subversion”. One of the elements that attracted us to the concept of discrepancy was the way the term is used in the scientific field to refer not so much to contrariness, but rather to the idea that two or more pieces of data differ from each other, and thus suggest an inconsistency. Being discrepant meant curating a show based on clashes, frictions, and disagreements, but also on indifferences, lateral displacements, and the cultural space for dreams, irresponsibility and reticence.

8. The mechanisms of the local are already the framework for the global.

Of all the arguments that have arisen around the exhibition of The Age of Discrepancies, there is one that particularly surprised us: the complaint made by certain reviewers that our point of departure should have been an analysis defined out of “our own ideas” and stories, and the taking up of an endogenous self-consciousness.5 We curators of The Age of Discrepancies understood ourselves to be part of a context that, in the last two decades, has occurred in the North as well as the South, whereby the art, counterculture and visual production of the last third of the twentieth century have demanded their insertion into the museum's discourse because the notion of “contemporary art” has changed social valence. This is also why we expected our program of sending the show abroad to mobilize exchanges and vibrations within the global South. Although we did fail to send the exhibition to the United States and Europe—where central institutions choose not to accommodate shows defined geographically unless they resonate with their own interests in producing national stereotypes—the show's itinerary was aimed more energetically at South America. By presenting it at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires and the Pinacoteca Do Estado in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2008, we wanted to occasion a contagion of tactics.

Today, perhaps for the first time, there is a contemporary art in two senses: the work of art interacts with its social moment in a direct, unmediated way, without modern art's biases, delays, advances or its cult of untimeliness. With this, the hostility between production and reception has largely disappeared. However distressing it may seem to those who feel nostalgia for the avant-garde's critical function of tension, contemporary art has an increasingly fluid relationship with its host society: collections, capitals, museums, publics, educational apparatus and textual attention spill over into the production of contemporaneity with a disposition that would have been unthinkable for the modernists. In this sense, art is contemporaneous with its society in an immediate, vigorous way that has not been possible since 1793.

But the assumption that geography implies delays and advances has also disappeared: no longer does anyone openly maintain that the periphery follows, imitates or re-elaborates the center's innovations according to a diffusionist schematic. Rather, different latitudes occupy the same temporal horizon, even as asymmetries of power and visibility persist. Resistance to this multi-polarity survives, nevertheless, in the shared account of the history of art that is still the narrative of modern art that centers on the region of the old NATO.

It is in these terms that we must acknowledge that many of the curatorial operations with the recent past around the globe have involved the common—and not entirely conscious—task of constructing a multi-focal account irreducible to the narrative of the metropolis, one that seeks to reveal a geographical framework of cultural genealogies that no longer bears any relation to the mainstream notion of modernism. Indeed, there is no “principal current”: only routes that crisscross each other, in an uneven weave of operations of power that makes the historical account increasingly complicated. But it is no longer possible to trace in this dimension of complexity a local or national history of art that would establish its developmental logic and its own temporality “internally”, inasmuch as artistic genealogies, too, undergo an almost instantaneous process of globalization.

Indeed, as we proposed in the introduction to the catalog, The Age of Discrepancies originated in a feeling of unease that several Mexican curators and art historians had experienced as a result of the superficial rewriting of local accounts that accompanied the visibility that the country’s contemporary art acquired in the mid-1990s.6 We were alarmed at the possibility that the production of various generations of artists between muralism and the global emergence of artists like Gabriel Orozco or Francis Alÿs would end up completely erased.7 It seemed clear to us that the insertion of an artistic scene within the global territory would involve a renegotiation of peripheral genealogies. It is at the level of these interactions that the disputes over insertion are produced, which also operate because of retroactive transfusions of prestige and contemporaneity.

In any case, there was an affective motive that obliged us to think this show outside of any “national culture” scheme. We wanted to imagine an exhibition that would do justice to a range of works and gestures that had occurred amidst disinterest or disdain from local institutions and audiences. The Age of Discrepancies wished to be a catalog of passions and productions that occurred despite Mexico.

 

  • 1. La Era de la Discrepancia: Arte y Cultura Visual en México, 1968-1997, curated by Olivier Debroise, Álvaro Vázquez, Pilar García de Germenos and Cuauhtémoc Medina, was organized for the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, from 18 March to 30 September 2007. Afterward it traveled to the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, Argentina (MALBA) and the Pinacoteca do Estado in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The website compiles texts, reviews and images of the exhibition: http//servidor.esteticas.unam.mx:16080/~discrepancia/
  • 2. http://www.muac.unam.mx/webpage/index.php
  • 3. http://www.eleco.unam.mx/sitio
  • 4. Olivier Debroise, ed., The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968-1997, Mexico City, UNAM / Turner, 2006, 426p. ISBN 978-970-32-38293. Preview available online at http://books.google.com.mx/books?id=So-i03PG1xQC
  • 5. Mónica Mayer, “Artes Visuales”, El Universal, Mexico City, 8 June 2007. Available online at http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/columnas/65618.html
  • 6. Olivier Debroise and Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Genealogy of an exhibition”, The Age of Discrepancies, pp.25-31.
  • 7. In particular, Olivier Debroise and I were reacting to the argument in the press releases for Gabriel Orozco's project for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1993, which suggested that the work of Orozco had derived from rejecting the tradition of Mexican muralism. On top of the falsehood of this assertion, the argument assumed the total eradication of six decades of local anti-muralist reactions, polemics and rejections, which were invisible to the MoMA precisely as a result of their own politics of exclusion. Cf. Olivier Debroise, “Mexican Art on Display”, in The Effects of the Nation: Mexican Art in the Age of Globalization, Carl Good and John V. Waldron, eds., Temple University Press, 2001, p.35 n.11 and Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Delays and Arrivals”, Curare 27 (July–December 2006), pp.113-117. See also The Age of Discrepancies, p.26.