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By Andréa Picard
“We dreamed of utopia and we woke up screaming.”—Roberto Bolaño, First Infrarealist Manifesto
Last year, Vogue Paris published an issue devoted to the “avant-garde,” seemingly another instance of mainstream popular culture co-opting the language and ethos of radical art and politics. At a certain juncture, this would not have seemed so incongruous. The Vogue magazine chain once boasted venerable art, film, and fashion critics whose articles may not have been as theory-laden as October’s, but were often rigorous, informative, and refreshingly readable, not to mention pointedly opinionated and ostensibly untethered to the commercial goals of its owners. Today’s climate is markedly different, and the term “avant-garde” has taken a beating—rather, a nearly metronomic thrashing. Of course, its death knell has been sounded repeatedly by each successive generation following high expressions in the ’20s and’60s, its tenets later debunked (deemed “historical” or “based on myths”) by hardcore critics like Peter Bürger and Rosalind Krauss, and many agreeing its ultimate demise inevitably coincided with the arrival of postmodernism. Today, it’s a term that is often misused or disabused, and one that often elicits deep sighs and persistent eye rolls. As a film curator who readily engages the term and attempts to find meaningful, diverse, and urgent film and video works to counter the hegemonic mainstream, my programming decisions have naturally been met, on more than one occasion, with derision. How could beautifully edited images of leaves and dew drops shot on 16mm be considered avant-garde, no matter how supernal?
To quote that March 2013 issue of Vogue Paris: “A radical is one who dares, who dismantles the barricades, who takes risks and assumes them. Without compromise.” The issue included venerable museum directors and successful artists attempting to define what and who is avant-garde. The shock factor seemed to rate rather high, while artwork deemed too decorative was downgraded to, well, décor. (It probably goes without saying that everyone and everything was French!) But now that corporate and commercial branding has laid claims on the avant-garde, with the latter’s great works institutionally enshrined in museums the world over, many historians have pronounced that the avant-garde has reached the endpoint of its teleological trajectory. In other words, its state today is symptomatic of its having achieved its goals of fusing art and life in an effort to revolutionize both, and in so doing contributing to a neoliberal situation with an art market out of whack and a largely invisible cultural workforce (where social reproduction and relational aesthetics have become the de facto dominant modes). Capitalism did a fine job indeed of recuperating successive avant-gardes—from Dada’s anarchic life-praxis en’tractes, to Surrealism’s rejection of rationalism and its automatist gestures, through Pop Art’s standardization and Situationism’s détournements—but what about the blistering manifestos and the urgent political rallying calls? Has the revolutionary verve of the avant-garde always been such a paradoxical one? Perhaps Godard, tersely and not without characteristic humour, answered this question best with Un film commes les autres (1968). Trop tôt ou trop tard to call for defeat?
The ruptures with the norm engendered by most avant-garde movements have spawned aesthetic and political ideas and forms, but, more often than not, the aesthetics have been recuperated while their politics have been drained. The context in which this occurs—a future present, one could argue—is vastly different. And yet, much of the discourse and dialogue dealing with the modern avant-gardes has solely focused on Western expressions, with Futurism’s categorical and dubious ties to fascism often relegated to a lesser-sized font. Thus, by and large, the term avant-garde has rather obviously been associated with the Left. Given today’s complex and confused globalized context, it may be worth looking back to the so-called “avant-garde from the periphery” (a term coined by George Yúdice identifying the non-Western revolutionary art and political movements, such as those in Latin America and Africa) as a barometer for where revolutionary art and thought stand today. Avant-gardist techniques and ideology have been intrinsically linked to modernization, and have thus harboured a complicated relationship with notions like nationalism. (Futurism is a case in point.) And what about uprisings tied to decolonization, the decentring of power, and the emancipation of indigenous voices against colonial hegemonic forces? An examination of a strictly Western avant-garde has led to ideological misinterpretations, which fail to take into account conjectural conditions.
Prolific, multi-disciplinary Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, known for his groundbreaking performance art and impressive large-scale installations, dove headfirst into researching the fascinating and complex history of Chilean avant-garde poetry, where right-wing and left-wing factions emerged at the time of the 1974 military coup. Commissioned by this year’s Berlin Biennale to make a film, Amorales took inspiration from Roberto Bolaño’s lesser-known 1996 novella, Distant Star, in which a fascist, avant-garde poet sat in the same literary workshop as his left-wing confrères before the coup. Intrigued by Bolaño’s knotty (and somewhat naughty) take on avant-gardist ideology, Amorales embarked on an impressive quest to excavate real stories from this turbulent time in Chile’s recent history.
Characteristic of Amorales’ energy and exhaustive tendencies, the artist transformed his Mexican studio—the bustling headquarters for his Liquid Archive—into a quasi-news agency, in which the true-life source(s) of Bolaño’s fascist poet, Carlos Wieder, were investigated and traced. Placing interventions into a local newspaper with evidence of Wieder’s existence, Amorales set off to Chile to interview some of the poets who lived through the transition, becoming either victims or perpetrators. Amorales’ startling and disquieting findings have been compiled and published in a book titled NEVER SAY IN PRIVATE WHAT YOU (WON’T) SAY IN PUBLIC, available from onestar press: be prepared to rethink seminal, avant-garde dance choreography and its repetitive, near militaristic gestures recalling inquisitions. An engrossing read and a clever artist publication, the book, in fact, exists as background for Amorales’ 40-minute film, The Man Who Did All Things Forbidden.
Both a continuation and evolution of Amorales’ artistic practice, The Man Who Did All Things Forbidden requires similar decrypting to Bolaño’s mysterious and multivalent Carlos Wieder. Shot in stunning black and white, with complicated choreographed tracking shots recalling some of the virtuosic camerawork in Jancsó’s work, the film has a dark, absurdist tone set off by lyricism, which has garnered it comparisons to Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013), though I’d argue the film has more in common with Polanski’s early short Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). Abstract and highly allegorical, the film relies on extemporized movement and music; an intricate mix of diegetic and non-diegetic sound provides the rhythmic structure, which dominates the film’s style. A small, disparate troupe led by acclaimed theatre actor Philippe Eustachon (a previous Amorales collaborator), the film’s bande à part falls prey to a dystopian, Lord of the Flies-like scenario as the sublime seaside setting reinforces dark, dominating elemental forces. The film is an experimental exploration of a fractured, egocentric will; its mythic allure a distant cousin to Bergman’s existential passion plays, in which a hellish huis-clos is imposed upon nature.
Cinema Scope: Your projects often encompass the research of official histories, documents, or representations (musical scores, civil codes, poetry movements, etc.). How does history inform your work as an artist?
Carlos Amorales: I come from a family of artists. I have the same name as my father, so in order to have a place of my own in the art world I decided to change my surname to Amorales by combining his surname’s initial with my mother’s surname. This sort of succession from one generation to another has been one of my major subjects, and has made me aware of history. Before becoming an artist, I studied history, but then I realized that the philosophy of history was not what I enjoyed; I liked something more narrative. I left Mexico at 19 and ended up studying in Amsterdam, living there for many years, only to return when I was 34. These existential changes made me aware of how my personal history is influenced by a larger social history. For instance, I am French by nationality because of a law written in the Napoleonic Code. I am interested in how these rules, route maps, scores, or even film scripts are defining our lives. I am amazed by the power of text and signs in our lives. In my work, I take the structures that I find meaningful and try to play with them to understand how they function and how they can be altered to change things socially, if only our understanding of them.
Scope: What is the genesis of the Liquid Archive, and do you consider parallels with Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, which has found renewed currency in today’s contemporary art world?
Amorales: The Liquid Archive resulted from my artistic move from performance to animation. I thought, “What if I make animations of situations that are impossible to perform?” I was inspired by Gothic literature so I began to introduce personal images, processed as silhouettes, which related to the genre imaginary of horror. I introduced a sense of narrative into my work. As I was doing digital animations, I stored each drawing in archives, classified by type of form. These images slowly formed a library of archives, which I used exclusively for about ten years. I called the archive “Liquid” because of its potential of mutating form: I made animations from these digital files, but also record covers and artworks. Soon I realized that the digital archive had a potential of being shared with others, so I explored it as an open source. I became more interested in the process of public distribution than in the meaning of the images themselves. Then I became increasingly aware of the abstract qualities of the files. What I was doing was composing images as typographers used to do before computers. This led me to research the modern avant-gardes. I’m more interested in a parallel between my work and Hans Arp than with a figure like Warburg, although I acknowledge the closeness that his atlas has with my digital archive.
Scope: What is it like being a Mexican artist today, both within and outside of Mexico?
Amorales: Mexico has changed enormously in the last two decades into a globalized society. Still, despite these changes, it has remained a profoundly idiosyncratic society, carrying the problematics that came with colonization, retaining its dysfunctional relationship to modernization and the latter’s ensuing changes in the past century. As an artist it is a very interesting place because it still gives you the feeling of operating in an uncharted territory, without feeling isolated from an international discourse. One senses that there are still many things to do that are meaningful, that one can still relate as an artist to society in general.
Scope: Are there any parallels and/or overlaps between the film and art world in Mexico City, where you are based?
Amorales: Very few! In fact, almost none. There are very few investigations by artists on film, so there is hardly any structure for production, criticism, or reception. We have a few historical references like Adolfo Best Mugard’s pioneering films, and of course we have the surrealist cinema of Buñuel and Jodorowsky. More contemporary, I think of a handful of colleagues who are working with cinema, like Miguel Calderon, Artemio, and Paulina del Paso. In the Mexican film world, except for the FICUNAM film festival, which is trying to introduce contemporary art in its discourse, there is a prejudice against art.
Scope: What about a figure like Carlos Reygadas, whose films definitely partake in the international festival circuit like Cannes, for instance, but reside far outside of the mainstream? Has the art world paid him any attention?
Amorales: Recently he was invited to have a public discussion with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and writer Katie Kitamura by Kurimanzutto gallery. What was a very promising discussion became a bore because of Reygadas’ childish tantrums against the art world and his enormous filmmaker’s ego. I really like most of his films and respect his position as an auteur, but I think that because he is a lonely figure in Mexico, who has received so much international attention, he has lost the sense of self-criticism and his films are beginning to feel dated. It seems sometimes that in the level of discourse the film world is slower than the art world. Reygadas is doing in film what was done in art in the ’90s by Yoshua Okhon, Miguel Calderon, and others.
Scope: From where does your focus on asemic languages stem?
Amorales: It comes from abstracting the figurative visual language that I worked with in the Liquid Archive. It was necessary to metamorphose it, so to be able to continue renewing my discourse. It was an important step; by abstracting the signs I became aware of their typographical qualities. I changed my approach to making art from a pictorial way to a typographic one, and it opened my road to writing and making films.
Scope: How has performance informed your work in different media?
Amorales: I have a funny relationship with performance, as it’s a practice that made me a name in the art world but which I stopped, at least in a direct way. What bound me to performance was not a love for the medium but a personal need to distance myself from the work of my parents. Since, in wrestling, people invent their own fictional characters to perform them in reality, I created a situation with a masked character (a portrait of myself made by a mask maker) in which I deposited my surrogate persona and gave it to others to perform. It was a process of distancing myself from my own artistic problems, of being able to concretely render the “I” and the “doing.” At the time, I was studying at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, where I had the fortune to have Joan Jonas as my advisor. She became a major influence on my work, as she pushed me to think in ways previously unknown to me.
Scope: Do you consider active research as having a performative function?
Amorales: It is the other side of performing, the part that is not public and that lays under the surface. It is one of the most important problems that one faces when doing this kind of work: how to make the research perceptible without being didactic or explicit. I think this sort of performative research is what actually gives life and substance to the work, otherwise it is only a prefabricated output. The performative research function is actually the historical part of the project, in an active way, not just by reading and writing, but by going, meeting, doing, and archiving.
Scope: When did you decide that shooting live action was the next step in your production? You’ve gone from using objects and the animation of graphic images from the Liquid Archive to employing people in your recent films. Does this lead you back to your earlier videos in which you perform? There seems to be a conscious shift from performer to director.
Amorales: I think that I began to direct from the moment that I decided not to perform my own fictional character but to give it away to others. When performing in this relation I stayed outside, either directing or filming. The same has happened by making animations and running my studio in Mexico City. To start directing films, after all these years, has been a way to put all my interests together into one form that allows the interaction of them all. I am interested in filming as a parenthesis in time, where one can set the conditions to perform the articulation of thoughts and actions. I think the process of filming is a short historical process that allows living closer to utopia. In the end, it is of course an illusion, but the different parts of the filming process allow for plenty of experimentation, composing, and learning, and that is most interesting when it’s shared with others.
Scope: Why the interest in Chilean avant-garde poetry? Was Bolaño, most specifically Distant Star, the starting point? You’ve made a work based on Bolaño before.
Amorales: As I became interested in the use of words I discovered that in Chile there is an enormous tradition of poetry. Distant Star interested me in that the main character is a fascist poet, since from the education that I received as a child, poets, artists, and intellectuals where always left-wing. So there he was in the book: Carlos Wieder, the favourite artist and poet of the fascist regime. A military tormentor and a murderer of young, would-be left-wing poets who he picked from the most important literary workshop from the years of the coup. Then I found that it wasn’t that simple because, as the example of Wieder’s poetry—a poem written in the sky with the smoke of an airplane—Bolaño uses a poem from Raul Zurita, one of Chile’s major poets. Zurita is not a fascist; on the contrary, he was one of their victims. So what was Bolaño criticizing in such a cryptic way? To find out who was behind the character of Wieder, I turned my studio into a sort of news agency where we began writing semi-fictional notes about the history of Chile and its poetry. Then we clandestinely introduced these notes in a national newspaper. Once we published seven notes and had gathered enough information, I went to Chile to find out who he was.
Scope: How receptive to this research, or line of investigation, were your interview subjects in Chile?
Amorales: I had different kinds of reactions, from Zurita’s generosity to others closing in on themselves. Someone heard of my research and secretly came to me to reveal Wieder’s identity. Meeting him was a big event because soon I realized that he is someone who deeply believes in the avant-garde and that, displeased with the Allende regime’s communist ideology for art, he considered the coup as the historical conjuncture to start a new way for thinking and making art. This person was the first to publish Zurita as a young poet. I believe that what Bolaño criticizes in Distant Star is the amorality of the avant-gardist. How can someone start an avant-garde when others are persecuted and killed for their ideas? But this man is a believer in art, and that one has to respect, I realized.
Scope: You’ve made some startling discoveries. At which point did you know what would be distilled into abstraction in the film—or rather, what of this new-found information would figure in the book, or be transformed symbolically in the film?
Amorales: Although I filmed many interviews, I wanted to make a fictional film. As an artist, I was interested in filming what the story left me to grapple with. It was difficult to turn that information into a symbolical level, to find metaphors for the metaphor. During my reading I found an Inuit myth: The Man Who Did All Things Forbidden. It is the story of a man who breaks with traditions by not obeying them, so he gets punished by the demons. It is a myth that can relate to the avant-garde spirit: breaking with the rules of the past and inventing the new. With the myth I had the structure for a story; we filmed it by the Chilean seaside. Later I put all the research and notes into a book. All that information is better for reading than for watching and hearing.
Scope: The process of making this film was unusual: from copious investigative research, through a collaborative script-building, to an improvised, movement-based accrual of movement and choreography. Can you talk about your methodology and how much experimenting was involved?
Amorales: After the research, I returned to Chile and organized a literary workshop for 20 days with the actors involved and people from my studio. There I asked them to read a sort of poetry that I made for them called Ideological Cubism (a juxtaposition of verses by Chilean poets from different political fields), and discussed its manifesto, a political text about anarchism. I loaded everyone with these abstract ideas until it became confusing. Then, through that process, I found the Inuit myth and read it to them. It was sort of mind-twisting for all of us, as suddenly we had to think completely differently about what we where doing. Actors are used to working in certain ways. I refused to give them psychological motivation and just went to the landscape to begin representing the Inuit story in the most simple way, for ten shooting days, without characters’ names, just the man, the woman, the cliff, the estuary, the woods. As I am not very good at narrating—it seems the opposite of visual art thinking—and I communicate in a very indirect way, I began to direct the actors by playing music, to ask them to dance and play instruments in front of the camera. Each actor became a musical instrument. At a point I began to film as if I was composing a musical piece. That allowed me to find narrative sense in the process of filming and to discover its meaning. On account of having a good team of collaborators, all the rest could be experimentation. In my films, I experiment with the situation itself and with the people involved.
Scope: Is the much-debated term “avant-garde” still relevant today?
Amorales: I do think so, at least in the sense that we are still living the aftermath of the 20th-century vanguards. I think much of what is done today, in its essentials, is still related to those movements. I see a lot of surrealism in fashion, a lot of Bauhaus thinking that is expressed in the relation between art and technology and so forth. It’s like those movements happened long enough ago to forget their significance. On the other hand, we live in a mannerist period, with a retro impulse of remaking, referring, and quoting. We can see that in art and in film, but also in culture in general. It is as if globalization forced each culture, with its own particular idiosyncrasy, to resource from a negotiation in a global market where it could be defined as particular, but nonetheless generally appealing to the other. This cultural negotiation has stagnated creativity, as in the sense of rupture with traditions—an essential aspect of the avant-garde, which seems to happen as the outcome of self-sure cultures that have become too established.
To me, as an artist living in Mexico, I am tired of the cultural identity issue. I don’t want work to prove a series of nationalistic clichés, no matter how refined and postmodern a discourse they can be at this point. I believe in Ideological Cubism—this is the manifesto:
Ideological cubism is strictly a mental construction. It establishes that future art cannot be manufactured—it must only be a product of the mind, made of words.
In the politics of the umpteenth world, agents are indistinctly interchangeable from one party to the other, which demonstrates the validity of ideological cubism. Things do not have a possible intrinsic value and their poetic equivalence flourishes only in an internal sector, more exciting and definitive than a dismantled reality. The material conditions of things are not determined by a political position, but rather, they reflect all existing positions. Historical materialism is only one side of the polyhedron. Discursive classification from the right, the center or the left does not work. And therefore:
Good and evil are conditions of vital intensity; never dogmatic morals.
Humans are not a level and systematic clockwork mechanism.
Sincere emotion is a form of supreme arbitrariness and specific disorder.
Duality is an analytical resource, but not one that has built the world.
Humanity has always spoken of multiplicity without unity, albeit in an encrypted manner.
Ideas often derail—they are never continuous nor successive but simultaneous and intermittent. The only possible frontiers between art and society are the same insurmountable boundaries of our own marginalist emotions. As the State has demonstrated its insufficiency, and democracy has shown its emptiness, individuals have a right to self-legislate: individuals need their own laws to be free. We are far from the spirit of the beast. We are free from its heaviness; we have shaken its prejudices. Now our laughter is The Great Laughter.