Graciela Carnevale (1942, Argentina) was part of the Grupo de Arte de Vanguardia (GAV), an artists’ collective from Rosario active between 1966 and 1969. Prompted by the poignant social reality and the political oppression that characterized Argentina in that period, the group underwent a profound change. The artists abandoned their formal minimalistic idiom and developed a more conceptual and ephemeral language to finally take a radical political-activist path outside of the conventional art circuit, culminating in the project Tucumán arde (Tucumán is burning), in which artists from Buenos Aires participated too.
Within the context of the opening of Matthijs de Bruijne: Compromiso Político, Carnevale was invited by BAK to give talk. The work of both De Bruijne and Carnevale centres on the possibilities of socially and politically engaged art and explores ways to become really immersed in (precarious) social realities in order to generate change. In realizing Tucumán arde the GAV worked in close collaboration with the Confederación General de Trabajo de los Argentinos (CGTA), the General Confederation of Labour of the Argentines. De Bruijne adopts a similar approach in association with the Migrant Domestic Workers FNV.
A few days after the opening of De Bruijne’s exhibition in BAK I interviewed Carnevale about the formation of GAV, its development and her perspective on Tucumán arde.
Graciela, can you sketch the situation of Grupo de Arte de Vanguardia (GAV) in the beginning and the art scene in Rosario?
Initially we were working in a loose manner. We had projects that related, but there was no real consolidation yet. With respect to the art scene in Rosario, there was no possibility to show our work. So in the beginning our main concern was to find a platform for our work.
Could anyone join or were there certain requirements artists had to meet?
No, we didn’t have conditions. Artists entered the group based on similar affinities.
Where and how often did you see each other?
From 1967 onwards the group consolidated. In that time we came together in a bar in Rosario where we discussed the role of art and our responsibilities as artists in a dictatorial regime. By the end of 1967 our topics became more political and for safety reasons we relocated our meeting place to a studio that some of us rented. We met every afternoon after work, as no one of us could live of making art works.
Can you explain the change that GAV underwent?
The group underwent a process of politicization and radicalization by the end of 1967. We realised that the art we were making did not cover the issues we were concerned about. There was a growing gap between what we thought and what we did, which caused a strong feeling of inconvenience. The language that we were using simply did not serve that particular moment. Juan Carlos Onganía had come to power in 1966 and political and social oppression intensified. We asked questions about what could be politically engaged art in those circumstances. We talked about social art, revolutionary art etc. We were not only thinking of our direct environment, but also of the international politics; the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara, The Vietnam War and somewhat later the student revolts in Paris etc.
Besides the process towards a more conceptual language and the focus on the social reality of daily life, outside the regular art institutions, we can also discern an evolvement from the individual to the collective in the group…
Yes I think that this is an important aspect. Tucumán arde was a collective and interdisciplinary project arising out of the process from a deep awareness of a romantic concept of art and artists to a conception of an artistic practice as a disruptive and transformative action.
Until what extent did the Uruguayan guerrilla group Tupamaros influence you? As they adopted a reverse but similar approach (they approximated the arts from a political realm).
We did not know them then. They started coming together in the early sixties but were not known yet, at least not to us. We actually had no contact with anyone from other countries in Latin America.
What did the intensifying political situation mean for the arts?
Works became more radicalized, more disruptive, and in 1968 we experienced censorship. There was a work by Roberto Platé’s, Baño Público that consisted of toilet doors. Soon people were writing all kinds of critical phrases about the government on the artwork, as you would on real public toilet. Soon after, the work was censored. But also the Premio Braque (a yearly recurring prize awarded by the French embassy, MvS) was problematic. In 1968 the organisation suddenly reserved the right to change the work of the participants. We decided not to participate. We boycotted the event with stink bombs etc. and ten artists were put in jail for a month.
Later that year you went to Tucumán, in the north west of Argentina.
Yes, at that stage we had written a manifesto “There is always time not to be accomplices” that stated that we would not work inside art institutions anymore. We were determined to create work that would have a political impact. We decided to get involved in the CGTA because we wanted to insert ourselves in the real struggles of the working class. One of their focus points was the precarious situation of the workers and the dramatic social situation caused by the closure of the sugar mills by the government. Around that time there was this movie playing in our cinemas, Is Paris Burning?, and this is how we chose the name of our project.
Did you experience any limitations in your working process because of that collaboration?
No. They helped us, facilitated our practices completely. Without them we couldn’t have done what we’ve done. They offered us what we needed; an insertion in that context. I think that this was one of the most innovative aspects of what we did. To work side by side with the CGTA and to be really immersed in the situation. At this point the experience we had with this alliance comes close to the one that Matthijs has with the Migrant Domestic Workers FNV.
And how did that work in a practical sense?
We worked on two levels at the same time. Some of us talked to the local authorities and press, pretending we were researching the art production in Tucumán, while the rest was talking with the workers of Tucumán, gathering counter information for our presentation. Our way of doing that was to just walk around the closed sugar mills and connect with the local people and surroundings, seeing with our own eyes what happened. After a week we had gathered enough material to reveal the real condition of that province.
To make an exhibition
Yes, we made all the material registered in Tucumán visible in an art exhibition in the CGTA, conceived as a ‘denounce and counter informational action’. A publicity campaign in the streets also was part of the action. It wasn’t a typical place to show art at all. We had large photo walls, texts, films, interviews and statistical information. Furthermore there was an intervention with lights that were turned off once in a while, referring to the death of children because of malnutrition in Tucumán, we served coffee without sugar as a statement and we supported a food and good collection action. The exhibition endured for a week and attracted 1000 visitors. It was not a museum public at all. We sought to escape the art world. And that is why we had to de-territorialize our practice, change our language and our way of working and exhibiting.
And then there was a second presentation in Buenos Aires…
Yes, but there the situation was slightly different. The police came to oblige us to close the show that same day.
What happened after?
Well, within the group we started to think differently, for the first time. We could not find alternative answers. We had reached a limit and decided to abandon the arts, which most of us did, at least for the first following years. And the group dissolved.
One of the members stated: “Tucumán arde was the ultimate extreme of the notion of conceptualism, after which one couldn’t produce any conceptual work or any other (kind of art)… “
I think we had reached a limit and couldn’t find alternatives at that moment to this new conception of art practice as an intervention in real life.
What can you say about the outcome of Tucumán arde?
Some have said that nothing changed. But for me it is a bit more complex. It may be true that nothing happened immediately after, but in the early eighties, after the dictatorship of Videla, people started asking about Tucumán arde. And then in 2001, when we experienced a severe crisis, there was a new interest again. I think that the project has proofed its value by acknowledging the possibility to connect with a labour union or social organization. To show that it is possible to work in such a way, to create art out of the hegemonic canon and try new concepts and ways of doing. It is not a model that you can transplant to other situations, but it certainly is an important reference. I think that is the importance of it now.
I think it is fascinating, and bitter at the same time, that this severe context enabled you to create this radical and advanced work.
Yes that is true. It were these circumstances that cause frictions and force you to find a new language. In our case the existing language became obsolete, because the system had appropriated it. It lost significance. In times of normality there is no urgency and therefore it is more difficult to decide which way to go.
It is at these crossing points where arts and politics can really mean something for each other…
Yes, when art doesn’t submit to politics but intends new ways of living.
What advice can you give (young) artists that want to insert themselves in the social and political reality?
Not advices, just some concepts that proved useful for my development. Work with people from outside the art world, know that art cannot be isolated and keep a critical perspective always. It is important to walk through a territory and insert yourself, to stay in movement and let yourself contaminate with what it happening outside. It is as the Zapatistas said, ‘Caminando Preguntamos’ (as we walk, we ask questions), which comes very close to our methodology of strolling as knowing. We called it ‘think with the feet’.
The Grupo de Arte de Vanguardia consisted of approximately fifteen artists. In 1968 these were Osvaldo Mateo Boglione, Aldo Bortolotti, Graciela Carnevale, Rodolfo Elizalde, Noemi Escandell, Eduardo Favario, Fernandez Bonina, Carlos Gatti, Emilio Ghilioni, Martha Greiner, Lia Maissonnave, Ruben Naranjo, Norberto Puzzolo, Juan Pablo Renzi and Jaime Rippa. For Tucumán arde some of the artists abandoned the group and many others became part of it apart, together with some artists from Buenos Aires. Also university students collaborated with the collective.
A shortened and translated version of this interview appeared in Metropolis M, April 2018