With Uneasiness as the Starting Point

Roberto Jacoby, Ana Longoni

From February to July 2011, in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS) in Madrid, the multifarious and elusive work of Argentine artist and sociologist Roberto Jacoby was exhibited for the first time, under the title Desire Rises from Collapse. In the face of a praxis that overlaps the most diverse fields―experiments with mass media and technologies, social research, festive celebrations, lyrics, experimental communities, networks, literary, essayistic and theoretical writing―what was shown there, rather than a body of work, was an ever-insufficient series of montage and narration experiments, archiving modalities and exhibition strategies. Here follows a dialogue, between an artist who seldom defines himself as an artist and an “emergency curator”, in which they offer a review of what happened there.

Roberto Jacoby: I might be said to belong to a tradition of practices that try to dissolve into social life, practices of an inapprehensible, ephemeral, discontinuous, immaterial and context-specific character: experiments with mass media and technologies now outdated, social research, festive celebrations, lyrics, political interventions, subjectification operations, experimental communities. Consequently, a museographic review of my work presents, from the start, contradictions and difficulties. I believe both you and I have an ethical attitude towards these dilemmas. Neither of us have felt that the proposal of this exhibition was a moment like any other.

Ana Longoni: I’d dare say we suffer from exacerbated ethics!

RJ: The same dilemma could arise with Dadaism and other historical avant-gardes. But we are used to going to a museum and seeing a Tatlin, and we don’t say, “Tatlin in a museum! That’s preposterous!” That no longer shocks us.

AL: I think that that’s an effect of time. Enough time has elapsed for us to be able to codify those irruptions in a museum and even have at our disposal encyclopaedias that help us understand them as art. I have the feeling that the same thing is beginning to happen with what took place in the 1960s. We already have codes to read those radical experiments as an art that can be seen in a museum. I think that that’s the difference. What they have in common, I agree, is their “revulsive” condition.

RJ: Those avant-gardes were constitutionally against museums. They wanted to burn them down, because art was somewhere else… if such a thing we call “art” existed.

AL: They felt a calling to dissolve art into its autonomous statute, to go out into the streets and abandon institutional spaces. That’s something Dadaism shares with the Argentinian avant-garde of the 1960s.

RJ: Exactly. That’s why the invitation to exhibit my work in a museum such as the Reina Sofía became an ethical dilemma, as well as a logical one. The attempt to show something that from the moment it is shown it is betrayed can be a sort of denaturalization.

AL: Once faced with the dilemma of this exhibition, we turned this uneasiness into our starting point.

RJ: An uneasiness that is ethical, intimate, personal, and not just rational or historiographic. 

AL: We were running the risk of going against the inherent potency of those manifestations, those ideas, that past. 

RJ: Sure. We weren’t talking about the concerns of an alert and savvy curator, of a self-demanding curator. Our discomfort didn’t originate in the intrinsic dilemmas of curatorship.

AL: Rather, in the interrogation about what it meant that your experiences were finally being displayed in a museum…

RJ: I’m not speaking only about myself, but about certain “practices” in general. And about your work too, both as a historian and a researcher, since you, who don’t define yourself as a curator, but who have acted as an “emergency curator”, also share this feeling that your relationship with those modes of doing and understanding art has a political meaning that you don’t want to renegade.

AL: We didn’t want to naturalize the appearance of your works in the museum, as if that had always been the place expected and most likely to receive your practices, but rather as a place to put in evidence our uneasiness and make it visible. That was the experiment.

RJ: Something like starting from angst and turning it into a reparative act.

AL: When faced with the MNCARS invitation to make this exhibition, our answer could have been a simple “no”, or we could have attempted a reconstruction; a conventional display of documents without turning the operation into a problem. Our intention, on the contrary, was to make the difficulty that the restitution of those practices entailed all the more apparent. Your works are too far away from the standards of visibility suitable for a museum, and they run the risk of a total deactivation once they are exhibited there, and of becoming mere…

RJ: … Exhibition devices. There’s a very delicate, critical point between an exhibition device and its fidelity to the experiences it intends to reconstruct. I think that herein lies the artistic as well as the erotic aspect of a curatorship of this kind. In the gap between a theoretical strategy and its effective realization, an idea can go down. A good approach doesn’t automatically imply a good outcome. True experiments must be able to fail.

AL: A curatorial experiment such as this also has to disturb other people’s expectations. Our aim of making the exhibition not just a memory of the past but a powerful actual experience was a political wager: to generate in the public the kind of experience that might also be shocking in the present.

RJ: By definition, past cannot be restored. What matters is having a critical relationship with the past, being aware of the procedures used to represent it. In my case, this also means going beyond hermetism, making sure the work doesn’t yield an erudite result, but one accessible and “friendly” to the public. 

AL: One of the signals of that “friendly communication” was the relationship we established with the guardians of the exhibition rooms, who are unemployed people on transit toward better jobs. These guardians, who spend a lot of time in the museum, have no training as guides but simply look after the rooms. They established a very strong complicity with the exhibition, giving their opinions and getting involved. As we came back, months later, they would say, “People stand here”, “This and that happens”, “Have this fixed”… very involved, indeed. Manuel Borja-Villel, the MNCARS director, says that that kind of affinity is a thermometer that indicates an exhibition may work. It was something remarkable in a museum with those characteristics.

RJ: Yes. So gigantic and complex.

AL: Touristic and massive.

RJ: We couldn’t have made it without the spirit that prevails in the MNCARS. They haven’t got the kind of bureaucratized staff you find in other institutions. They were so patient with us.

AL: Really, having to suffer a curator and an artist who change their minds all the time is something unusual for them.

RJ: … And putting up with a gang of Argentines! It’s normal for us to improvise, to reinvent, to falter, to decide what to do as we go along, to take advantage of difficulties. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have survived in a country like ours.

AL: In this exhibition, as in all your projects, the team work―the blurring of hierarchies and the enhancement of collective intelligence―was crucial. Your way of working activates a sort of multiple brain; each one with his/her abilities, his/her sensibility, his/her power in the encounter with the others. It isn’t a mere aggregate or assembling of parts; rather, it produces an unexpected and nutritious concoction.

RJ: I like polyphony as well as playing different chords. I think energy is generated only when there are differences. The rooms weren’t similar to each other either.

AL: There were some common resonances, however. Each space implied a different experiment, but it was precisely in their contrast that the almost- invisible threads uniting those parts appeared.

RJ: Definitely: we escaped the horror of the white cube and homogeneity. Each room in itself was an installation. 

AL: I think that’s also due to the fact that we worked with the specificity of MNCARS spaces: Space One, then the Vault Room and finally the Protocol Room. That’s why it is impossible to reproduce the exhibition, as it took place in Madrid. With the exception, perhaps, of 1968, el culo te abrocho, your 2008 installation that can be read independently of its context, because, to a certain extent, it is self-contained.

RJ: It’s true; there is something in that work that makes it accessible to audiences who have no information about the 1968 in Argentina.  

AL: I think that the overprinting of poetic and theoretical texts of different moments of your career over documents of your own mythology in the Argentine 1968 can be understood anywhere as an irreverent, ironic gesture. For instance, the documents of the mythical Tucumán Arde in 1968, as a backdrop for an erotic song of the 1980s, set off by themselves a buzz of temporalities and meanings.

RJ: In fact, it was anger that moved me to make that installation.

AL: Anger? 

RJ: Yes, anger―not in the result but in the motivation. The celebrations for the fortieth anniversary of French May that included the President of France, the most reactionary newspapers and the most despicable journalists, were a trivialization of that rebellious feat. It was impossible to know whether they were celebrating May 1968 or its demise. 

AL: Yet, besides debating with those trivial readings of the French May, you were also responding to the myths of the Argentine May. In the last decade and a half, events such as Tucumán Arde have suffered a remarkable distortion.

RJ: That’s why I decided to start from my own experience, without lecturing about or historicizing the events. I endeavoured to study the history refraction on myself. There is a procedure of contemporary DJs, the “mash-up”, that consists in blending two or more songs together. An operation different from collage, from the cut-and-paste. With 1968, el culo te abrocho, I tried to proceed as a DJ, using history as a background over which to overlay another text. 

AL: It was the first time we relied on archive materials, since you’ve always had a very detached relationship with the documents of your own past. As a matter of fact, I remember that when you did 1968…, you didn’t even have the documents with you. You had to borrow material from other archives.

RJ: Yes, my archive has a very weak memory.

AL: Another archive experiment took place in the exhibition area we called the Cabinet of Curiosities, in the Protocol Room. The same documents that appeared modified in 1968, el culo te abrocho, were exhibited here in showcases but in their original versions. Thus, what had been seen in the other room reverberated here, but at the same time that residue was treated in a radically different way, and that difference produced a shock. The exacerbated fetish-like treatment of the document in one showcase, highlighted by a spot, in a catacomb atmosphere, restored its aura. A mausoleum in shadows, in which the documents appeared as if they were floating in mid-air. 

That aural exhibition of documents also contrasted with what we called the Archive in Use. This archive was available for public manipulation through two computers. People could dive into the lyrics you wrote for the pop/rock group Virus in a sort of karaoke or search what productions you had made in a certain year or together with such and such person or based on a series of key concepts. This generated a playful contact with the documents that contrasted with what happened in the other room, where the almost sacral solemnity prevented all use. As a matter of fact, we employed three clearly distinct archive treatments.

1968, El Culo te Abrocho
Roberto Jacoby, 1968, El Culo te Abrocho, series, 2008
1968, El Culo te Abrocho
Roberto Jacoby, 1968, El Culo te Abrocho, series, 2008

RJ: The Cabinet of Curiosities was distantly inspired by a seventeenth century artefact collection. There we treated the archives as a distant presence, deliberately rendering them inaccessible. The objects or documents were before everybody’s eyes but at the same time appeared to be distanced. There were recordings nobody could hear, films nobody could see, miniature slides, texts that were impossible to read. We weren’t after the legibility of the material; what we wanted was to display it as a series of cult objects.

AL: Yes, the Cabinet of Curiosities worked with the elusiveness of experience, while the Archive in Use established an opposed logic. In it, documents were socialized through digital images available to the exhibition public and also for consultation in different points of Latin America and Spain. For the cabinet, we functionalized a gigantic wardrobe from the time when the building housed a hospital, in the sixteenth century. That huge wooden piece of furniture, extending from the floor to the ceiling, was used to keep the hospital linen. Today it is called the Protocol Room and is usually employed for sound installations, since the wardrobe presence is too imposing for visual works. When they offered us that space, we chose to take advantage of its materiality, instead of trying to mask it. It was like a ready-made cabinet of curiosities.

RJ: Those who saw the space for the first time thought the wardrobe was a structure created by us.

AL: That would have sapped the museum’s annual budget!

RJ: Besides, it had a sort of mortuary connotation. When the building served as a hospital, it was there that the sheets were kept that may have been used to cover the dead…

AL: Or sick people, or the war wounded.

RJ: There is something macabre to those shelves.

AL: Like a crypt. But with the material exhibited there, we allowed ourselves some humour or equivocation. The first showcase displayed an apocryphal manifesto, written by you in 2004, in the fashion of the 1960s proclamations, but with a mocking caustic tone. That means to say that we started with a false clue; a fake. Then followed the showcases containing the few remaining documents of the so-called Arte de los Medios group, the first oral literature experiences, Tucumán Arde, and the research work on the 1969 social conflict. Each object, each document, was accompanied by a typewritten label such as those used in ethnographic museums.

In the next room, we operated with the same logic of showcases in shadows, but the fetish objects exhibited there were from the 1980s to 2010, to the Brigada por Dilma in the São Paulo Biennial, or to the party you held, also in 2010, as a materialization of the 1966 Anti-happening exhibited in the cabinet room. Once again, the resonance of a historical work overlaid a contemporary one.

The phantasmic rest of the 1960s had the same weight as the works you made a few months before the MNCARS exhibition. It is as if what is incorporated today in the museums collections and the art market, once transformed into “historical pieces”, corresponded to a procedure that could be extended even to last week’s experiences.

RJ: We brought into play the key questions implicit in the notion of archive: authenticity and falsification, copy and original, the arbitrary and interested nature of the selection, the flattening of time, legibility and legality, sacralisation and profanation.

AL: At this point, I’d like to mention the use of the wall texts. These showed texts written by you, operated as a counterpoint for that phantasmic atmosphere. I’d like to quote them literally. The first one is an excerpt from a manifesto written in 1968: 

“Aesthetic contemplation has ended, because aesthetics is dissolving into social life. The work of art has also ended, because life and the planet itself are becoming art. The future of art is linked not to the creation of works but to the definition of new life concepts, and the artist becomes the propagator of these concepts. ‘Art’ has no importance. It’s life that counts.”

That is: your call to transform art into the invention of new ways of life appeared strikingly negated or contradicted in the middle of that mournful atmosphere. Also in the second room, a recent passage, in which you express your perplexities in the face of the contemporary demand to turn your life traces into museum pieces: 

“What remains to be shown of practices now over forty years old, which took place in a distant context and that escape the art world? Certainly, those yellowed papers full of writing, those photographs and artefacts are not, and can never be, ‘The Works’. Are they, consequently, fetishes of a historical recuperation? Memorabilia of fleeting moments? Researches of recent archaeology? The opening of inaccessible archives? How to infuse life into these maimed and defective records? The ‘authentic’ documents are exhibited as inaccessible, aural and even illegible fetishes, as archaeological remains of a too-distant past that interpolates us from the shadows, forcing us to relativize our supposed absolute dominion over history.”

Your text, set over an abyss, juxtaposed to the material spoils of your actions, stresses the impossibility of coping with the uneasiness of communicating that which cannot be communicated. 

RJ: It was like archaeologically counterbalancing the caducity of the immediate past and, what’s more, of the present. The very idea of “contemporary art” is paradoxical, since what we usually call “contemporary” is nothing but a past, a not-so-recent past that is at least fifty years old. Artefacts like typewriters, slide projectors, cassettes, or even computer diskettes establish a distance almost as remote as Guttenberg’s press. Where are we? Where am I?

AL: You are talking about the acceleration in the obsolescence of representation techniques that contemporary art faces today, and that was also staged in the exhibition of those archive materials. Many of those records are nowadays inaccessible because they have become technically outdated, although we used them only ten years ago. 

RJ: Conservators, who are used to restoring paintings or papers, have the same nightmare. Today, to get a telex, a tape recorder or an electric typewriter running is a technological challenge!

AL: The vertigo and strangeness produced by technologies also points to the world’s brutal changes over these last fifty years. The discourses of the 1960s can also sound truly obsolete. 

We still have to speak about the rest of the spaces. Living Here was one of the spaces we discussed the most. Its constructive principle was one used by you in most of your projects: working in collaboration with other people, usually artists, to build a space that simulated your living room - the place where you and your friends meet daily to conceive projects. The starting point was our certitude that it was impossible and pointless to accurately reconstruct an experience of the mid 1960s: the action you called Living Here and that consisted in moving your studio and home to a gallery for twenty four hours.

RJ: Living Here was certainly the space I had the greatest number of doubts about, because it was the only space that aspired to exist in the actual temporality of the present; to be a living space, a pleasant meeting place, vibrant at the same time with art.

AL: I think that while we were in Madrid, at least, the exhibition space was a place people inhabited; a very vital one as well. Even on the opening day, there were music recitals and hundreds of people wearing t-shirts with the phrase “I have AIDS”. Obviously, the museum regimen is to be taken into account, and as long as this isn’t activated, it becomes a mere backdrop. However, people felt inclined to linger there. 

RJ: Yes. Longer than in any museum room. That, in spite of the fact that we couldn’t serve coffee and cookies! It’s true: people sat in the armchairs, stopped to look at the books and listen to songs, rested.

AL: However, I’ve been told that the most visited spaces were those of the Vault Room, a damp subterranean vault as huge as a pharaonic tomb. It is said that lunatics used to be confined there, when the building served as a hospital. Our original project had been to reproduce the Darkroom performance, in which twelve blinded performers played in utter darkness for a sole viewer. In the end, though, we had the good sense of showing the video records on small monitors. In that dark atmosphere, the characters appeared as presences, more disturbing than they would normally have been if we had reconstructed the play.

RJ: That proves that sometimes a record can be more faithful than the original. 

AL: Finally, people could leave the exhibition, taking with them a poster that was really an anti-poster: Che Guevara’s typical image saying “A guerrilla fighter doesn’t die so he can be hung on the wall”, a work you made in 1969. So they left, taking home this uneasiness: what to do with a poster that asks not to be used as such? Dozens of thousands of samples of that uneasiness that haunted us were thus scattered around the world. 

RJ: A paradox.

AL: An object that rebels against its own being; that revolts against itself.

Exhibition view
Exhibition view of Roberto Jacoby. Desire Rises from Collapse at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, 2011
Exhibition view
Exhibition view of Roberto Jacoby. Desire Rises from Collapse at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, 2011
Exhibition view
Exhibition view of Roberto Jacoby. Desire Rises from Collapse at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, 2011
Exhibition view
Exhibition view of Roberto Jacoby. Desire Rises from Collapse at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, 2011
Exhibition view
Exhibition view of Roberto Jacoby. Desire Rises from Collapse at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, 2011
Exhibition view
Exhibition view of Roberto Jacoby. Desire Rises from Collapse at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, 2011