Documents of Dissent

 „Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden”
“Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for dissenters.”

― Rosa Luxemburg

Minerva Cuevas at Videobrasil Photo: Contemporary Art Daily

The artistic practice of Minerva Cuevas invests on the motif of dissent against the powers that be. She has collected material on public resistance in Mexico City for over a decade. From the recordings of marches, gatherings, and folkloristic actions, she has cut Dissidencia, the centerpiece of her current exhibition at the Mishkin Gallery to an almost one hour film. The work began in 2007 with 25 minutes of footage and evolved to become an ongoing archive (consisting of over 30 hours of original footage) and lends the title of her exhibition. It is set to loop along two musical compositions by the Mexican composer Pablo Salazar. Over the course of the project’s twelve years, we become aware of the passage of time and the spaces that alternate between emptiness and activity. The presentation is accompanied by five other video installations and two slide projections. All of them inhabit the borderlands of art and activism and tackle ecological and contemporary social issues. Cuevas tightens her focus on the confluence of art and political action in the same manner she has taken the language of advertisement for many of her works to engage with pop culture icons and confront social relationships and exploitation of natural resources. Dissidencia roams Mexico City looking for deviances in public spaces, from an informal settlement of tents along the sidewalk or graffiti painted on a tenement wall. For Cuevas, “these are subtle, often invisible modes of opposition that need to be emphasized”. By documenting demonstrations and less evident signs of autonomous cultural life, a cartography of resistance in Mexico City is generated. It offers a clear perspective of a global situation where something needs to change institutionally. 

Dissidencia queries the format of the demonstration as a mode of artistic and political intervention. It clarifies that demonstrations remain the most important tool of social action; but it also paints a picture of malaise and powerlessness in the face of the unchecked privileges of corporations and drug lords since the triumph of neoliberalism in the 1990s. However, Cuevas’ installations chronicle the indefatigable spirit, not imagined, but simply evident, in festive dancing, marching and costumed theatre that characterize political demonstrations in Mexico City. 

The images of protest make the video installation a counterpoint to the exhibition’s overwhelming portrayal of injustice. The curator of the exhibition has compared to  one of cinema’s earliest political films, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera from 1929. The concept of a kino-eye, a cinema that was candid and shot with non-actors in order to represent actual working class conditions, resonates in her work. The curator adds, Cuevas  “simultaneously documents her observed reality while constructing a new one from these captured slices of rebellion”. Like Vertov, her camera moves horizontally and marches alongside farmers, gazing past colonial architecture towards banners demanding better labor conditions alongside graffiti decrying anti–police brutality. 


Exceptions to the political norm

Dissidencia demands reflection on the exceptionality of political demonstrations. While it is a form of expression that is constitutionally guaranteed and integral to the fundamental rights of almost all democratic states, its relevance to the democratic processes remains uncertain and the rules and results are not clear or proportional. Thus, the public demonstration represents an exception to the political norm, and indeed, it almost always occurs when traditional political institutions no longer meet the demands of citizens.  

Similarly, art embodies the freedom of expression that is constitutionally guaranteed in most democratic states. It has an exceptional status in relation to the social world. On one hand, it is a reflected reference to society and is therefore, part of what it represents. On the other hand, it always stands outside really existing communities. This is the point of view from which artists must operate. Art that does not surrender to the “mass culture” controlled by late-industrial regimes or giant corporations is just as much a political exception as the demonstration, which does not stop at the real political level. Thus, demonstration and art structurally exhibit this same duality. They are anchored in society and at the same time stand apart from it. Jacques Rancière emphasizes that “images of art … help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought,” but they do so only “on condition that their meaning or effect is not anticipated.”

Double-edge

In focusing on how demonstrations can create an alternative space for political action, Dissidencia clarifies how they can have the potential to unleash the suppressed states of consciousness of the marginalized. However, this comes as a double-edged sword since not only a supposedly rational discourse has a right to speak, but also the unreflective and undisciplined expressions of hate groups. We can see this in right-wing movements that are gaining more and more influence as evidenced in the recent electoral successes of right-wing populist parties throughout Europe that Colin Crouch describes in his book.

The video installation, Sous les pavés, la plage! (Under the pavement, the beach!) offers a possible way out of this conundrum. The installation draws from the powerful slogan for the May 1968 student demonstrations, when Paris residents ripped the stones up from the streets in order to use them as weapons against state repression. In this work, which was first shown at the Lisbon International Architecture Triennale in 2007, a group of students reorganize paving stones from the streets of Portugal to inscribe A praia (the beach) into the landscape. Cuevas, emphasizes the physical and sensational aspects of demonstrations. The documentation of the protest action lends a reflexive quality to the images and makes the audience question not just how demonstrations appeal to the emotions but also the substance of what they say. 

Organizing as a form art

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari analyze in their book Anti-Oedipus two different forms of organizing masses: one is characterized by the formation of “large molar units” as “static formations” that “turn the masses into machines”; second, is characterized by the collective organization of “singularities whose interactions are based on distance or differently ordered connections”. The difference between the two forms is that in the latter case there are “infinitesimal alignments instead of perspectives of large units.” Cuevas documents the latter kind of protest, which are mostly organic, sometimes leaderless, and bound by personal relationships or longstanding coalitions. Her artistic framing of these documentations of political action serves as an antidote to the former kind of organizing which can be seen in the post-democratic movements of right wing populist parties.

But instead of pseudo-objective distance, Cuevas relies on an objective commitment that sees through political ideology. Her work in Donald McRonald, for example, documents a staged performance in France in which a character very similar to McDonald’s iconic clown stands in front of the hamburger restaurant and reveals the company’s fraught relations with its employees and customers. After a few minutes, the character enters the store, ironically approaching consumers to discuss the nutritional quality, labor conditions, and modus operandi of one of the largest corporations in the international fast food industry. The performance is a form of micro-organizing from the bottom up.

State of Emergency

Walter Benjamin writes, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of exception in which we live is the rule. We have to come to a concept of history that suits it. Then our task will be to bring about the real state of emergency.” In her installation, A Draught of Blue, Cuevas reclaims the Benjaminian ideal of art that enacts a state of emergency as a riposte to government inaction, in this instance, its failure to address the reality of environmental destruction. The installation depicts footage she recorded on the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, specifically, in the waters of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.  Planned as an underwater demonstration, divers stretch out banners for the camera. One reads “omnia stint communla” (everything is common), pointing out our collective responsibility to protect our oceans. Cuevas removes the colors of the marine world highlighting instead the whitening of corals, a symptom of its death due to warming oceans.

Such works try to focus on the perpetual states of emergency that characterize the current neo-liberal climate. It draws a precise picture of a Gesamtkunstwerk by working with a community of diverse and even disparate people who use their bodies as well as their ability to reflect, in order to engage in protest. At the same time, it is demonstrating a form of mass organization that is not based on authoritarian structures. 


Participation

An invitation to participate in the demonstration is an aspect of Cuevas’ artistic work. The avant-garde of the last century championed art that stepped out of conceptual art’s relative isolation in order to embark on actually existing political struggle. Cuevas rehabilitates this ideal and its negation of the autonomy of art. She provides tools for civic engagement, which grants a more active role to the art consumer. Implicit here is the parallel drawn between the art audience and the citizens who are both passive in a democracy undermined by their parliamentary form and the associated acquiescence of the vast majority.

In Not Impressed by Civilization, Cuevas points to a reintegration of contemporary society back to the values of indigenous communities. Made during Cuevas’s visit to Banff, Canada, the video documents an action based around an interpretation of a quote from a speech by Tatanka lyotanka the Sioux Indian chief. The artist abandons the urban environment to spend one night in the forest inhabited by wild animals. Packing very basic equipment—a sleeping bag, a flashlight, and a camera, Cuevas meets a deer while looking for a place to sleep. Instead of relying on agitating statements as in traditional street protests, the focus of her demonstration was on a comparatively enigmatic message. This ambiguity is of a piece with Cuevas’ insistence that her art practice stands in a reflexive distance from her political activism. 

Separating Art and Activism


It bears pointing out that Cuevas runs an non-profit group called the Mejor Vida Company through which she distributes subway tickets to spare people from queuing at the counter, or tear gas, so residents can better protect themselves from raids. Cuevas describes the organization she founded as blurring the line between social service and art, and as “probably [her] most important work.” The project began with “symbolic actions” in which she altered the barcodes on products in the grocery store to change the price of food, or on a student ID card. These interventions gave rise to organized protests and art actions, which she documents. Her work comprises what she calls “mini-sabotages.” “It created this sense of freedom,” she says. “It’s finding the gap in the bureaucratic process.”  

Despite her stated intent to blur the lines of art and social service, she still distinguishes between her political activism and her artistic projects: “Coming from a context in which I am very familiar with political activism, I understand my artistic practice as something quite different from activism. I regard my art as conceptual art.” No matter how she defines where art practice ends and where her activism begins, “dissenting” is a motif that runs through both. The curator of the exhibition writes that in Cuevas’ work, dissent can be “a crack in the sidewalk, an intentional misspelling, or a mass protest.” The act of reflexive documentation and its presentation in the space of the gallery, for the purpose of social critique and reflection, becomes a springboard for political action. It is an instance of the artistic sphere creating a new space to engage in politics, and this hinges on the conceptual nature of her installations, which, to follow Ranciere’s ideas, expands our understanding of “what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought.”

We see this in two slide projections. La venganza del elefante appropriates nineteenth-century magic lantern slides in order to create a revisionist fable that subverts the hierarchical perspective of this type of cultural narrative. Certain elements of imperialist cultural production are reconfigured to stress the symbolic use of animals to reinforce racist segregation and human desire to control and capitalize on other living beings. In El pobre, el rico y el mosquito a young boy reads from a text taken from Tomas Meabe (1879-1915), who was a writer and member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. In the story, a wealthy man boasts of having nothing in common with a neighboring poor man, who was on the verge of death from an indiscriminate disease. Suddenly, the rich man is stung by a mosquito, which transmits the very illness that afflicted the poor man. In the end both die simultaneously, still believing they had nothing in common.

These two slide projections rely on Cuevas’ research on colonialism and her years of participation in the struggles of marginalized communities in Mexico; this archive and political network shape the aesthetic language of the works, which is given form in the gallery. As her work is shown in various  locations beyond their original sites of exhibition, they gain new contexts of understanding that in turn expand and complicate the works and their political interventions. If we abide by Susie Linfeld’s comments on Benjamin, that “documents of suffering are documents of protest, since they show us what happens when we destroy the world”, we can conclude that Dissidencia is successful in reconciling art and activism. The two spheres need not be separate, despite Cuevas’ own insistence of it. It is possible to see how the two exist in synergy: the political sphere informs her art practice, while her conceptual art creates new spaces of political action and community building.  Disidencia reasserts the street and the gallery as entwined sites of research, reflection and intervention. They create for artists working from the broad Global South a space to organize against the deterioration of creative and political horizons, in favor of dissent and freedom.

Endnotes

  1. The quote appears in Die Russische Revolution. Eine kritische Würdigung (1920) p. 109.Variant: Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.
  2. Mishkin Gallery is part of Baruch College and the City University of New York. Dissidencia was initially curated by Gabriel Bogossian and Solange Farkas for Videobrasil in fall 2018. Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico helped organize the transfer of the exhibition to New York.
  3. Feldman, Alaina Claire. Introduction to Dissidencia, p.3
  4. Ibid, p. 3
  5. Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum,1993). Originally published as Dialektik der Aufklarung, 1944.
  6. The Emancipated Spectator, p.103.
  7. Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy.
  8. p. 360.
  9. Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History in Illuminations, p. 254. Taking up this idea, Giorgio Agamben writes that an increasing practice of nation states is to be governed in a state of emergency in which free-democratic rights are increasingly restricted. See: “The state of emergency.”
  10. Ranciere argues that the artistic procedures of the avant-gardes did not produce politicized and revolutionary ideologies and practices but were sustained by them. Ibid, p.80
  11. See Slavoj Zizek, p. 34.
  12. More commonly known as Sitting Bull.
  13. Translated as Better Living Corporation.
  14. “Bridging Borders”
  15. Quotes lifted from her presentation at the Stadt Mönchengladbach Kulturbüro, “Aesthetics of resistance”.
  16. The Cruel Radiance, p. 17-18.

Works mentioned

  1. Not Impressed by Civilization, 2005 Acrylic paint on wall and video 13’20”
  2. El pobre, el rico y el mosquito (The Poor Man, the Rich Man and the Mosquito), 2007 Video 4’14”
  3. Donald McRonald (France), 2003 Two-channel projection and costume 16’27”
  4. A Draught of the Blue 2013 Video 9’48”
  5. A praia (The Beach). 2007 Intervention documentation I 30 digital slide series. looped
  6. La venganza del elefante (The Revenge of the Elephant), 2007 Installation with a series of 12 slides. looped.
  7. Disidencia 2007-ongoing Video 25’43”

End Notes

  1. Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1993).
  2. Agamben, Giorgio.”The State of Emergency,” Accessed: October 15, 2019. http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpagambenschmitt.htm
  3. Art: 21, “Minerva Cuevas: Bridging Borders,” Accessed October 15, 2019. https://art21.org/artist/minerva-cuevas/
  4. Benjamin, Walter. 1892-1940. Illuminations., (New York: Schocken Books). 1969.
  5. Crouch, Colin. Post-Democracy: A Sociological Introduction (Boston: Polity Press, 2004)
  6. Cuevas, Minerva. “Presentation for the Stadt Mönchengladbach. Kulturbüro: Aesthetics of resistance,” Accessed October 15, 2019. http://www.co-mg.de/minerva-cuevas-aesthetics-of-resistance-26-7-1930-im-koentges/
  7. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press ), 360.
  8. Feldman, Alaina Claire. Introduction to Dissidencia (New York: Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, CUNY, 2019), 3.
  9. Linfield, Susie. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 17-18.
  10. Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 103.
  11. Žižek, Slavoj. Auf verlorenem Posten (Frankfurt am Main: Edition Suhrkamp). 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.