Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 10, 2018
Bill Kelley Jr. and Grant H. Kester, eds. Collective Situations: Readings in Contemporary Latin American Art, 1995–2010 Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. 456 pp.; 49 ills. Paperback $29.95 (9780822369417)

In Collective Situations: Readings in Contemporary Latin American Art, 1995–2010, editors Bill Kelley Jr. and Grant H. Kester bring together twenty-two texts that show artists carving out spaces for social action where others playing more conventional roles have failed. Art’s imaginative capacity, more than anything else, enables them to do this. But, as the documents in their enormously compelling and useful anthology demonstrate, art’s successes in affecting social and political change are often incomplete and almost always difficult to measure. Even so, the documents they gather attest to the power of art to create freedom and possibility within the chaotic, unregulated, and frequently cruel spaces of everyday life. That these art projects are both collective and Latin American are—as Kelley and Kester are suggesting—fundamental to their integrity and merit.

The truth that art can affect change is expressed in both the book’s content and form. Divided into sections titled “(Un)Civil Disobedience,” “Urbanism,” “Memory,” “Indigeneity,” “Migrations,” and “Institutional Critique,” the anthology features texts whose structures vary widely. First- and secondhand accounts, manifestos, and critical assessments penned by artists, sociologists, curators, and critics describe projects made by people whose contexts and relationships to visual art differ greatly. In the border city of Tijuana, remote Andean villages, and the dense urban neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, they seek solutions to psychic, material, and social problems. Kelley and Kester were wise to include only minimal illustrations and to reproduce them exclusively in black and white. Denied images, we are encouraged to conjure visual narratives of our own, to participate, so to speak, in the imaginative enterprises of the collective efforts described therein. Downplaying illustrations also supports a point made by writers throughout the book: that they seek to do something other than create visual representations with their projects.  

Although Kelley and Kester deliberately sidestep the contemporary art world, their book will be of great interest to it. Critics and art historians in the United States worry that social practice is losing its bite because it is increasingly vulnerable to the ever-expanding behemoth of the art world. This fear is well known and frequently stated: art seeking social change is too easily converted to entertainment—its politics neutralized when it is displayed or collected by a museum or individual. The concern of many is that the critical potential of art is incapacitated in a contemporary landscape of museums and biennials that celebrate street-level projects, social actions, and performance. Claire Bishop’s still relevant critique in the journal October (2004) of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) and a practice like Tania Bruguera’s “Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art),” or art that, as she explains, “challenges the audience to become active citizens” respond to such anxieties,

Critics and art historians working in the United States and Europe have increasingly turned their attention to Latin American artists because they perceive them as capable of counteracting such tendencies. But it is equally important to take notice of Latin American writers who come from disciplines outside of art and art history—including anthropologist Néstor García Canclini and literary critic Doris Sommer, both of whom published books in 2014 in which they argue that the prime role of art today is to create spaces for taking civic action, imagining citizenship, and engaging in public debate. Canclini and Sommer argue that contemporary art has become the arena for examining such key issues in a globalized era in which opportunities to engage in these activities are becoming increasingly rare.

Kelley and Kester’s anthology offers a response to this critical work by presenting a group of projects outside the circuits of contemporary art that bring much-needed particularity to these debates. And it will no doubt follow that their volume will force adjustments to such assessments and theories. The scope of their anthology is so far reaching that proper artists or artworks can be hard to find. Instead of a checklist of landmark works or events, Kelley and Kester offer an unruly chorus of voices and mission statements that describe a variety of objects, built and natural environments, and scenarios and events. At times the voices that fill their volume take the expected form of an art writer conveying a narrative or assessing a project’s significance. Prominent figures in this mold include the Lima-based critic and curator Gustavo Buntinx who wrote on Lava la bandera (wash the flag), a protest performance initiated in Peru by the group Colectivo Sociedad Civil (Collective Civil Society) in 1999 during the Fujimori regime; the Argentine art historian Ana Longoni who describes a series of actions since the 1980s called “escraches” (meaning “to point out” in Spanish) staged at the homes of criminals of the Dirty War who have been pardoned by the government; and the Brazilian artist-activist Gavin Adams who assesses the work of the art collectives who participated in the occupation of a large apartment building, the Prestes Maia, in downtown São Paulo from 2004 to 2006.

More often, however, the texts selected by Kelley and Kester bring together multiple voices, creating layered narratives that possess the multivalent points of view collective projects seek out. Newly commissioned and translated interviews are among the significant contributions made by this book. Its eight interviews with individuals and groups are frequently paired with “project description[s]” that provide useful context for each conversation. Individual artists like Chemi Rosado-Seijo of Puerto Rico are asked to reflect on their community-based work, and representatives of collectives like Mauricio Brandão of the São Paulobased group BijaRi are questioned about the histories of their interests and techniques. In these scenarios, the critic plays the familiar role of an interlocutor who prompts artists to recount past projects, producing spoken accounts that preserve works that are by their very nature ephemeral and fleeting.

Along with these traditional interviews are less cohesive conversations in which collectivities participate and individuals recede: many different members of the Argentine group Etcétera respond to questions under the same moniker “Etcétera,” as do the individuals that comprise the collective Ala Plástica (also working in Argentina). In the most satisfying instances, texts move even further from the interview format and stitch together many voices that bring to bear the complexity of the multiple agents involved in collective endeavors. In the most extreme case, a bilingual conversation between two collectives is transcribed in its original English and Spanish in “Of Co-investigations and Aesthetic Sustenance: A Conversation, Colectivo Situaciones and Electronic Disturbance Theater/b.a.n.g. lab.” In the most intimate case, projects are recounted by multiple first-person narratives. For instance, in “Lurawi, Doing: An Anarchist Experience—Ch’ixi,” the construction of a building in La Paz is described by its different builders, the texture of the sociability produced by the process comes alive. Vivid descriptions of the sounds of music, the sharing of meals, and the struggles and pleasures of work fill each text as different participants focus on the anecdotes that meant the most to them.

The bookends of 1995 and 2010 and the regional focus are important. By beginning in the 1990s, Kelley and Kester position their book as a counter-narrative to participatory, site-specific works by artists familiar to the international art circuit. Ending in 2010 allows them to align their anthology with the end of a wave of leftist governments. And, focusing on Latin America—or as they call it “Latin American” art—incorporates the projects in this book into the flow of a venerable and fascinating history of social practice in Latin America. But in the end, what is most of note is the extraordinary reflexivity and imagination of the creators whose projects are chronicled in Collective Situations. For those who long to grasp how art can intervene in spaces beyond the museum, this book has manifold and often surprising lessons to offer. Its texts show artists working in the streets, in community centers, and social agencies, using theater, psychotherapy, pedagogy, and digital media. They likewise show artists holding onto conventions of art because galleries can bring necessary visibility to subjects and their stories. In the end, Collective Situations reveals the inadequacy of art criticism and art history as they are now conceived and will, I hope, compel us to ask what role writers and scholars can play in assuring that fleeting images, oral accounts, and ephemeral acts be written into history.

Harper Montgomery
Hunter College, Department of Art and Art History