in Features | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

Live and Learn

For over 40 years Argentinian artist Roberto Jacoby has argued that art should be social, rather than object-orientated

in Features | 01 NOV 07

In 2006 two artists in Buenos Aires – one older and established, the other up-and-coming – agreed to live and work together for a year and to engage only in non-physical forms of affection with each other. Every now and then they communicated with the outside world via a video installation fictionalizing the creative cohabitation (La castidad, Chastity, 2007)1; an interview with the younger artist about celibacy, published in a porn magazine;2 an academic text on the project presented at a philosophy conference;3 and a website that included a chat room where the public could discuss issues raised by the work.4

The public announcement of the agreement between Roberto Jacoby – the established artist – and Syd Krochmalny generated suspicion and even hostility in the Argentinian press. As Krochmalny recounts: ‘We were accused of being freaks, sick people, hypocrites, reactionary supporters of the Catholic church […] The amount of verbal violence suggests that the sexualization of all human relationships, needs and desires seems to have reached a point where people are better disposed to homosexual relationships than they are to a non-sexual relationship in which affection is expressed in other ways.’5

To offer an experiment based on sexual abstinence as an alternative to the impoverishment of sexuality is obviously to polarize the issue. It has the same attention-grabbing effectiveness as advertising, something that Jacoby – a sociologist and experienced media-manipulator since the 1960s – knows how to handle well. The project adopts subjective relationships as subject matter rather than as an art object. The work consists of the process as a whole, not just its sporadic material manifestations and ensuing publicity. After each communication from the artists to the public, a new phase in the process begins. This to-ing and fro-ing between object and process, between affective experience and exchange with the public sphere, could be called a ‘loop’ or ‘meta-work’. But one can also say that the whole project is a biographical loop.

In 1966 Jacoby undertook his first relational experiment, Vivir aquí (Living Here), in which he transformed his home into a gallery and carried out his daily routines in the gaze of the public for the duration of the event. During this period he argued that art was social rather than object-oriented. Over the years this premise has manifested itself in various forms. His principal contributions to the effervescent artistic avant-garde of 1960s Argentina were through his writings – produced in collaboration with Oscar Masotta, theoretician of the dematerialization of art – and the interventions of the group Arte de los Medios (Art of the Media), of which Jacoby is a member, together with Eduardo Costa and Raúl Escari.

The Happening para un jabalí difunto (Happening for a Dead Wild Boar, 1966), one of the group’s seminal works, consisted of an announcement in the local press about a happening that in fact never took place (other than as a fiction disseminated by the media system it hijacked). The artists presented the existence of the work in terms of information, thereby revealing the various ways in which the mass media creates reality. (In 1970, with his Inserções em circuitos ideológicos: Projeto Coca-Cola – Insertions in Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project – Cildo Meireles created a similar work, although in his case within the parameters of mass consumption.)

Nineteen sixty-six was also the year in which the last period of dictatorship in Argentina began; this lasted until the end of 1983, with the exception of a brief and exciting period of democracy between 1973 and 1976. At that time the partnership between an increasingly politicized artistic vanguard and the ideas and militancy of the New Left was beginning to bear fruit. In November 1968, influenced by the student uprisings in France and the deepening resistance to the dictatorship within Argentina and to the US imperialism that mobilized many other Latin American countries at the same time, the artistic avant-garde escalated the idealistic fusion of art and life to a critical point by generating an alternative outlet for the dissemination of information known as Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Burning). Jacoby was one of the leading players in this action, organized by the Grupo de Artistas de Vanguardia (Avant-garde Artists’ Group), and Arte de los Medios was a forerunner of the larger group’s radicalized activities. After carrying out field research into the harsh working conditions endured by sugar-cane workers in the province of Tucumán in northern Argentina, a group of 30 sociologists and artists – including Jacoby, León Ferrari, Pablo Suárez, Graciela Carnevale, Juan Pablo Renzi and Margarita Paksa – organized an exhibition of photographs and texts denouncing the situation and the government’s anti-worker propaganda. The exhibition was shown at the offices of the opposition CGT labour union, and at venues in Rosario and Buenos Aires, before being closed by the police.

The previous month in Rosario, Carnevale had literally shut in – and briefly taken hostage – some people gathered for the supposed opening of a gallery show by the artist, as part of a series called ‘Experimental Art Cycle’. Ultimately the visitors had to smash the plate-glass windows to escape. These strategies, among many others, underline the particularly anti-institutional nature of Conceptual art in Argentina during the 1960s and ’70s, a fact that added urgency to the revolutionary project of transforming social reality. This highlights one of the fundamental differences between Argentinian Conceptualism and, say, Joseph Kosuth’s tautological brand of Conceptual practice. As curator Mari Carmen Ramírez maintains: ‘From its earliest manifestations, Conceptualism in [South America] extended the self-referential principle of North American Conceptual art to a reinterpretation of the social and political structures in which it was inscribed.’6

The ideal of the politicized avant-garde – based on the ideas of collective and non-hierarchical creation, self-organization and critique through linguistic/ideological tasks rather than retinal image production – resulted in a rejection of ‘the aesthetic’. The counter-institutional struggle left artists, in other words, without a medium and, at the same time, without their own space for action and involvement.

Hence from 1968 Jacoby and many other artists abandoned their artistic professions for several years. Only in 1979, after having dedicated himself to pure sociological research for over a decade, did Jacoby begin gradually to return to art, and finally, in 1988, he had his first solo show for 20 years. By now he had abandoned his critique of the systems of domination. From 1998 he turned instead to creating social networks linking artists of all disciplines, their organizational and conceptual structures inspired by the new socio-technological media, such as the Internet. These social networks, which Jacoby described as ‘experimental micro-societies’, consisted in experiments with different forms of collective cohabitation, but they soon began to reveal a tendency towards ghettoization: the so-called ‘micro-societies’ became more akin to spaces for the mutual protection of their members than movements for the production of critical thought or action. This was the case, for example, with Proyecto Venus (Venus Project) – later Project V – (2001–6) – which encouraged the internal exchange of goods (everything from books and musical instruments to art works) and services (therapy, classes and legal advice), using its own notional currency.

Now, in 2007, La castidad proposes a new relationship between art and life. It pursues not a revolutionary ideal but a micro-political experiment on a personal level. Like Carnevale’s project, it finds within the art world a public to question, but without singling out any specific institution to fight against (almost everything in the Argentinian avant-garde was anti-institutional in nature). Also it does not limit its explorations to the art world, as so many contemporary examples of ‘relational aesthetics’ do. If Vivir aquí was aimed at radically redefining the idea of art, much of what occurs in the art world today is a self-referential gesture. So what new ideas and feelings does La castidad provoke? Quite simply, it confronts us with the choices involved in making ethical judgements and in the value of the questions it poses.

1 Presented in ‘Negatec’, curated by Luis Camnitzer, Espacio Fundación Telefónica, Buenos Aires, 21 March – 27 May 2007.
2 Gabriel Rugiero, ‘Del amor y sus diferencias’, Imperio, Buenos Aires, July 2007, pp. 26–8.
3 Syd Krochmalny, ‘Arte y política de la amistad’, unpublished, 2007.
5 Syd Krochmalny, op. cit.
6 Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss (eds.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, exh. cat., Queens Museum, New York, 1999.