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Oscar masotta

After Pop, We Dematerialize (Excerpts)

Publication

Written and delivered as a lecture in 1967. Originally published as “Después del Pop: nosotros desmaterializamos,” in Oscar Masotta, Conciencia y estructura (Buenos Aires: Editorial Jorge Álvarez, 1969).

Language

Spanish

_“He devoured her with his eyes.” This sentence and so many other similar ones illustrate quite well the enthusiasm common to realism and idealism according to which knowing is eating." _ Jean-Paul Sartre

“The idea moving the masses today is called materialism, but dematerialization is the defining characteristic of the epoch. For example: correspondence grows, so the number of letters, the quantity of writing paper, the mass of material consumed expand, until relieved by the telephone. Again, the network and material of supply grow until they are relieved by the radio. Matter diminishes, we dematerialize, sluggish masses of matter are replaced by liberated energy.” El Lissitzky

1. The Word “Happening” in the Mass Media We are not a country of Happening-makers, despite the fact that one of the genre’s founders, Allan Kaprow, referred to Argentines as such a year ago (I don’t remember exactly where: Art News, Artforum?). At that time relatively few Happenings had been made in Argentina. Nor were many made afterward: 1966, quantitatively speaking, was not all that fruitful. To be exact, only two Happenings took place among us last year. We should add to that number just two more “works” of uncertain classification whose authors refuse to call Happenings, plus a work whose classification is less uncertain and that was conceived as a literary work and that could undoubtedly be called a Happening. Add to this the work of an American, Bob Whitman—a film that Marta Minujín brought to Buenos Aires, Prune Flat. The film was part of a “work” in which the bodies of three women live on stage served as a screen onto which the film of the bodies of the women was projected.1

Nevertheless, though the Happenings actually made numbered very few, the word “Happening” spread through the dailies and magazines of Buenos Aires over the course of 1966, from magazines of a certain level of “style” and/or “seriousness” such as Primera Plana and Confirmado to pretty lowbrow (sensationalist and with little written information) publications like Así. Spanning dailies like La Nación and La Prensa to La Razón and El Mundo, political articles to humor columns, the word invaded the comic strip and finally reached the billboard. This is a strange phenomenon given that if it does not correspond to the facts (that is, to the Happenings effectively carried out), it appears to spring from nothing. Nor does it make sense to try to understand it by thinking of the dates, since around the time that a few Happenings actually were taking place at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella the quantitative growth phenomenon of the word was already quite advanced.

How to explain the phenomenon? There is a sort of explanation that has not appeared in print but is heard around and is, to my mind, rather abominable for two reasons. Firstly, because it is complicit with what the word means within the mass media boom (something irrational and spontaneous, trivial and festive, slightly scandalous). Secondly, because of the ideological charge of an explanation that consists in affirming that Argentine “reality” (I also loathe this sort of use of the word “reality”) is really not very serious, that the explosion of the word in the press is in some way a positive phenomenon because it somehow represents a becoming aware of our lack of seriousness. Just imagine: the vicissitudes of political power, the circular succession of economic teams. And what of the ridiculous seizing of the Falkland Islands (known in the Spanish-speaking world as Islas Malvinas) by an ex-actress and a few young extremists? I would say the answer is nothing. Especially if the point is to make comparisons: the domestic and foreign politics of Argentina are no less serious and more scandalous, nor more serious and less scandalous (perhaps less scandalous) than those of any other Western nation. On the other hand, it would be difficult for Argentines to give ourselves the politics we want. The steel limits of an internal and external economic and social structure determine and decide for us and without us the “reality” that is only ours because it is foreign.

In any case, I believe that the explosion of the word can perhaps be explained, or at least understood via a certain hypothesis, incomplete no doubt with regard to the facts it deals with, but at least, sensible. Firstly, in no case do I remember having read the word without it referring in some way to the real facts, that the “Happenings” are products of a certain type of avant-garde artistic activity. This reference to artistic activity, however vague, indicates a certain relationship: the presence of a certain significant distance. And it condemns this distance or void that exists between the products of mass information and avant-garde artistic activity.

On one hand the void signifies the unresolved situation in contemporary culture between the elite and the masses; but the slightest consideration reveals a real shortcoming in Argentina: above all, the lack of competent criticism to accompany avant-garde production, especially in the visual arts. I refer, concretely, to the lack of written material. The only ones in Buenos Aires who have the information to talk about the most contemporary production ([Jorge] Romero Brest, [Aldo] Pellegrini, Germain [Germaine Derbeq], [Hugo] Parpagnoli, Samuel Paz) rarely write for publications other than catalogues, and when they do write for specialized magazines, they are magazines that are not published in Spanish. In one of last year’s issues of Art and Artists, the English magazine edited by Mario Amaya, I remember reading an editorial that discussed the difficulty of distinguishing these days between a journalist and an art critic. The high level of everyday criticism makes the distinction difficult. In this regard, alas, Argentina is not England, or the United States, or France. On the contrary, in addition to the lack of specialized criticism in Argentina, the everyday criticism is ill-informed and adverse. Primera Plana and Confirmado are no exceptions. The critic here rarely commits himself. He is more interested in displaying information he does not have or has obtained hurriedly than in simply using the information he does have to aid in the comprehension of the work.

But these reflections do not explain the explosion of the word, which surely would not have occurred without a certain anxiety—let’s call it that—or a certain predisposition on the part of the mass audience. Interesting phenomenon, to my mind, and positive in that it points to the fact that whatever the distance between an aesthetic production intended for an elite audience and a broad audience, that distance is never absolute and there are always some points of contact or some sort of breaking up of the distance. Now, it is important to understand also that the spread of the word (and all the mistakes regarding its meaning) is not due to the “ignorance” of the mass audience, for it is not the receptors of mass messages who compose the messages, but rather the journalists. That is to say, a certain kind of intellectual worker who not only bears the pressure of tensions like those borne by those for whom he writes, but also the theoretical tensions of the intellectual world and the surrounding environment of artistic production.

One would, then, have to think about this situation in particular. I would say that in Buenos Aires one of the coordinates falls on the activity of the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella for the yearning this activity could not help but provoke in groups that are originally or naturally removed from it. Whatever the value or the judgments made on the works promoted by the Visual Arts and Audio Visual departments at the Institute, there is no doubt that they contrast with a certain milieu the bulk of whose artistic production was created inside the traditional canon. There is no “underground” in Buenos Aires, and in a world in which the artistic production is not very big, the “institutionalized underground” of the Institute could not but exert pressure on that milieu.

But what is happening in the rest of the “field,” in the majority of the cases? Let us reflect briefly on what is happening in Argentine film. The best films produced among us (works by [David José] Kohon, [Fernando] Birri, and Lautaro Murúa) did not go technically beyond certain more or less Neorealist aesthetic strategies. And beyond the searches of [Manuel] Antín with regard to time and the thematic searches of [Rodolfo] Kuhn, there was no progress among us toward a nouvel vague cinema, for example, or any major avant-garde propositions. Once the city had been explored as a theme, and once a certain testimonial description had been achieved (Alias Gardelito and Tres veces Ana constitute the best examples), young directors generally filmed rather little. The situation can be explained in large part by the economic difficulties linked to production and the uncertain loan policy enforced by the Instituto Cinematográfico Argentino. But looked at the other way, it would be difficult to say that young directors do not film much solely because of money and financial difficulties. I believe that the current impasse in Argentine cinema expresses, at this level, an aesthetic impasse. To give the matter yet another twist, it is not that young people have nothing to say but that perhaps they are beginning to have a sharp consciousness that tells them that the issue is not what is said, or even perhaps the way in which it is said, but in the characteristics of the “medium” at hand to say it with.

To put it another way, at this moment in the process of contemporary art, at a time when not only are new “genres” of expression appearing, like the Happening, but when the very idea of “genre” as a limit seems precarious or perishable (theater mixes its techniques with those of film, dance blends with painting, film shows the strong influence of the comic strip), it becomes increasingly impossible to remain indifferent to this small proposition of all avant-garde work or exhibitions (and at the same time, to not take seriously the very idea of avant-garde). The problems of contemporary art reside less in the search for new content than in research of the “media” for the transmission of that content. “Media” here means generally what it means in advertising jargon: the information media (television, film, magazines, and newspapers). And if there is talk now of not concerning oneself with content, it does not mean that avant-garde art is moving toward a new purism or a worse formalism. What is occurring today in the best pieces is that the contents are being fused to the media used to convey them. This concern, then—demonstrated explicitly for the first time by the Pop artists—is inseparable from a true sociological concern, that of a new way of returning to “content.” No filmmaker today could permit himself, even if he tried—faithful still to the Neorealist spirit—to comment on or “show” the social “reality” of a city. He would be too late, because it has already been remarked on and remarked on again by the dailies, newspapers, radio-phonic “works,” television, photo-novels, and advertising. The contemporary artist cannot help but become aware of the appearance of these mass phenomena that in some way throw his own work off kilter. And we already know the tactics with which he is responding.

On one hand, this is being done by proposing images that, like Lichtenstein’s, are not “from reality” but rather images of images. And on the other hand, through a radical reflection on the material characteristics of the aesthetic “medium” that is being worked with. Today the proposals of an outdated criticism that did not tire of making pronouncements like “this is painting, this is not,” “this is theater and not film,” “this is culture and that is not,” are contrasted with the idea of making works with materials and techniques taken from different genres, the idea of an area of aesthetic activity where it is possible to mix the strategies and the “media.” In short, the idea of the work of art as “hybrid.”

In summary, the explosion of the word “Happening” in the mass media information of Buenos Aires may perhaps be due to reasons that still have to do with issues like aesthetics and the history of the works. They are the result of a certain degree of complication among these types of factors: 1. The lack of serious criticism on an everyday level 2.
The lack of a specialized criticism in specialized publications that could have an influence on everyday criticism 3.
A certain positive restlessness on behalf of mass audiences that is only satisfied by an indifferent criticism 4.
The need—without a doubt whatsoever—for the groups producing art to find new aesthetic formulas and problems 5.
The way in which these needs, combined with the existence of an avant-garde production on the level of the visual arts, are projected on individual journalists, that is, those responsible for the explosion of the word

It is not surprising that the direct, personified, concrete emitters of mass messages effectively constitute the terminal point in a series of chain reactions whose mechanism operates similarly to what psychologists describe as ambivalence: the negative and positive evaluation of the same object. This might be the reason behind that atmosphere tinged with a slightly spicy air associated with the idea of sex and parties that has often accompanied the word Happening when, beginning last year, it has appeared in print in the dailies and magazines of Buenos Aires.

2. The Avant-Garde and Works of Mass Information A cycle of lectures and Happenings I executed at the Di Tella Institute in October and November of 19662 links my name to the word Happening. Despite the spread of the word in the mass media, I should add that I am not a Happening-maker. I mean, in the same way that I am not a musician, or a painter, or a sculptor, or an actor, or a theater director. I have not committed even the bulk of my activity or my future to any of those activities. I wish to add, furthermore, that I do not believe in Happenings. Now, I think I should explain what I am saying when I say I do not believe in Happenings, but it is difficult. Sometimes it is simply not the time or place for explaining everything. I will say in any case that I do not believe in Happenings just as I do not believe in painting and theater. And I can discern in the reader a slightly sarcastic and amused fury that will cause him to exclaim: we have here “an avant-gardiste”! Very well, I will not contradict that. In art, I believe, today one can only be of the avant-garde.

The problem arises when one tries to define the avant-garde. Although it is not difficult, I will not attempt that definition here. More than offering definitions, my intention now is to give some account of events and complete the account with a few indications and some reflections. I will say that an avant-garde work must have at least these four properties:

a. That there be recognizable in it a certain susceptibility and completed information about what is happening on an art-historical level, that is to say, about what is happening in art in reference to what has been done before and to what is perceived should happen afterward. In this way, the avant-garde consists in a postulation that states that the work of art exists within a historical sequence of works, and that that sequence is governed by an internal necessity. A quote from Henry Geldzahler expresses this property succinctly: “This is instant art history made so aware of itself that it leaps to get ahead of art.”3

b. That it not only open up a new range of aesthetic possibilities (that is—how does one say—that it be an “open work”) but that it simultaneously, and in a radical way, negate something. For instance, the Happening with regard to painting,4 or the Happening with respect to traditional theater.5

c. That this relationship of negation (with regard to what the work negates of that which has preceded it) not be whimsical, but that it reveal something fundamental about the very core of what is negated. In this way, the passage through or overcoming of theater or painting by the Happening would be a “logical consequence”6 of something already latent in theater or painting demanding to be manifested.

d. (This point is perhaps harder to understand and accept immediately; let us say it is more controversial.) That the work question, with its own radical negativity, the limits themselves of the great traditional artistic genres (painting, sculpture, music, etc.). For instance, the Happening with regard to those traditional media themselves. According to this property—as I understand it—Picasso never would have belonged to the avant-garde since the “plastic arts” of the twentieth century would have had only one outburst (the only one that would effectively stretch the boundaries of the genre): the Dadaism of the second decade of the century (and its “revival” during the mid-1950s with Pop art and French Neorealism, which is when Happenings appeared historically). In this view the avant-garde of the century is made up of just a few names: Satie and Cage, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Duchamp and Schwitters, Yves Klein, Allan Kaprow. And one would have to add the name of one Surrealist, René Magritte.

On the basis of these considerations one might reach a hurried conclusion: that today only the Happening, this hybrid of genres, is avant-garde. Very well, that is not what I believe. On the contrary, from my position I can affirm that there was something within the Happening that allowed us to glimpse the possibility of its own negation, and for that reason the avant-garde is built today upon a new type—a new genre—of works. These works might be termed “anti-Happenings,” but there is a problem inherent in that designation: it makes a completely new aesthetic manifestation depend upon a genre, like the Happening, that is no longer new. To get to the point, this new genre of artistic activity that appeared in Buenos Aires in 1966 already has a name: “Art of Mass Communications Media.”6 I can attest that it fulfills the basic requirements for describing a field of artistic activity; that is, it effectively constitutes an artistic genre. This is confirmed, on one hand, by its capacity to produce “objects” for aesthetic contemplation and, on the other hand, by the fact that it concretely delimits the “material” with which it is possible to construct a particular and precise kind of work. Just as the “material” of music is a certain sonorous material or the continuum of auditory stimuli and bronze, wood, marble, glass, and the new synthetic materials constitute the “material” with which and upon which it is possible to make sculptures, the “works of communication” also define their own area of “materiality.” _The “material” (“immaterial,” “invisible”) with which informational works of this type are made is none other than the processes, the results, the facts, and/or the phenomena of information set off by the mass information media. (Ex. of “media”: radio, television, dailies, newspapers, magazines, posters “panels,” the comic strip, etc.).7

3. A New Cycle It was in this spirit and with these ideas in my head that I developed a new cycle, also to be carried out at the Instituto Di Tella and which would comprise (did comprise) a Happening, the title of which was El helicóptero (The Helicopter), a communicational work (or “anti-Happening”), the title of which was El mensaje fantasma (The Ghost Message), and an explanatory lecture that I called “Nosotros desmaterializamos” [“We Dematerialize”]. The purpose is easy to discern: to compare a communicational work and a Happening to allow for the comprehension of the distinctive characteristics of the operations and “materials” that constitute them. The cycle proposed at the same time an “anti-optical,” anti-visual aesthetic: the idea of constituting “objects” but with the goal of speaking not to the eyes, but to the mind. The title of the communicational piece commented on the tension of the search for immaterial materials, for anti-things, if you will. As for the title of the lecture—in which I tried to explain in a less orderly manner what I am trying to explain now—I took it from a brief article by El Lissitzky, the Russian Constructivist, shrewdly exhumed8 in a recent issue of the New Left Review, the journal of the independent English Left. Of all El Lissitzky’s nervous and lucid paragraphs, one in particular fascinated me. It can be read in the epigraph to this essay. . . .

( . . . )

6. The Ghost Message My intention was not only to make a Happening, but to point out the difference between two genres of works, to exemplify the difference between the Happening and “media art.” I wanted to point out at the same time that the idea of making works of the latter type was already indicated in Happenings and that the passage emerged as a “logical consequence.”

El helicóptero showed the communication vocation of Happenings, given that its design (watches, spaces) led to a final situation that required an oral account. One could say that El helicóptero was a communicational work, but the communication there was oral and not of the masses. The field of the Happening, requiring the concrete presence of the people in the audience, coincides with the field of perception, that is to say, with the field of stimuli open to the senses. Whatever the function assigned to the audience,9 the presence or immediate belonging to the place where the events take place is required. In this way, Happenings have emerged as prolongations of “environment-setting works,” of “environment-settings,” in which the aim is to envelop the subjects in the audience in direct media and sensory stimuli (smells, colors, etc.).[^11] And if there is a difference between an environment-setting and a Happening, since at least in the latter the audience can be moved from one place to another, both types of works require the quantitative determination of the audience. One could not conceive of a Happening, for instance, in which no audience was called to “participate”; that is, ultimately, one could not imagine a Happening without “spectators.” But one can conceive of and carry out another type of work with that condition. The proof is that they can “begin,” contrary to Happenings and theater works, without the need to gather an audience.

El mensaje fantasma (The Ghost Message) was a good example. The 16th and 17th of July I had posters put up in a central area of Buenos Aires (from 25 de Mayo to Carlos Pellegrini and from Charcas to Lavalle) bearing the following message: “This Poster Will Be Broadcast on Channel 11 Television on July 20.” Now, for July 20 I had purchased on Channel 11 (through an advertising agency) two spaces of 10 seconds each during which the channel’s announcer said: “This medium announces the appearance of a poster the text of which we are now projecting.” A sign appeared simultaneously on the screen on which one could read, in another typeface, the very words printed on the poster: “This Poster Will Be Broadcast on Channel 11 Television on July 20.” I should not like here to act as a critic of my own work. Nevertheless, these characteristics may be highlighted:

a. That the media with which the work was carried out (and this was clearly in line with Pop propositions) was the same as that used in advertising.

b. That the audience for the work was clearly undefined. Within a mass audience the actual audience could be anywhere between a few or many subjects.10

c. That with its similarity to certain advertising “works,” with the beginning of an unknown campaign, and its difference from advertising, given that there were no later steps, the work revealed its “finality without an end.”

d. That its specific purpose was to invert the usual relationship between the communications media and the content communicated. Here, and in a reciprocal and circular way, each medium revealed the presence of the other and its own presence was revealed by the other.

Oscar masotta
Oscar Masotta, c. 1966. Courtesy Susana Lijtmaer
1.

Detailed information about Happenings and works carried out in 1966 can be found in Oscar Masotta et al., Happenings (Buenos Aires: Editorial Jorge Álvarez, 1967). [See also pp. 180–85and 191–206 of the present anthology. Ed.]

2.

The cycle comprised two lectures and two Happenings. One of the lectures was given by Alicia Páez, and I performed one of the Happenings. The other was planned and coordinated by a team made up of Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, Oscar Bony, Miguel Ángel Telechea, Pablo Suárez, and Leopoldo Maler.

3.

Quoted from Henry Geldzahler, participant in the “Symposium on Pop Art” organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Published in Arts (April 1963): 37.

4.

See Allan Kaprow, “Experimental Art,” Art News (March 1966): 62.

5.

See Michael Kirby, “The New Theatre” Tulane Drama Review (New York) 10, no. 2 (winter 1965): 15.

6.

The creator of the genre is, without a doubt, Roberto Jacoby (see Oscar Masotta et al., Happenings), and that is in its purest form. This genre of works, to my mind, contains within it nothing less than everything one can expect from that which is greatest, most profound, and most revelatory in the art of the coming years and of the present. As for Marta Minujín’s work with sixty televisions that she carried out at the Di Tella Institute last year, it still remains hybridized with the idea of “environment-making,” even though it went beyond it.

7.

I distinguish thus between the “aesthetic object,” the “media” in which the work is made, and its “material.” In order to define precisely the field of works of mass communication, one must not confuse the “media” with the “material” of the work. This distinction brings with it a certain obscurity, but its meaning can be clarified quite a bit if one thinks of advertising. The “material” with which any campaign works is constituted by the consciousnesses of the subjects at whom it is directed: the “material” is then, for example, the so-called “phenomena of persuasion” or rather the “effect.” So the “media” is the instrument for reaching them: the posters, television, the stills. Now, between a work of advertising and a work of mass communication there are, nevertheless, differences with regard to the “aesthetic object.” A commercial can be “beautiful” and those with modern tastes and sensibilities will easily recognize it. But the “object” of the mass work also has a lot to do with that beauty. What is perceived has more to do with certain effects of intelligibility that are achieved through certain “transformations” of the usual structures of mass communication. The example of El mensaje fantasma [The Ghost Message], to which we shall refer shortly, may serve to clarify these difficulties.

8.

I say this with perspicacity since the ten pages by El Lissitzky are more than thirty years ahead of Marshall McLuhan’s “thesis.”

9.

With respect to the function of audiences in Happenings, see Alicia Páez, “El happening y las teorías” [“Happenings and Theories”], in Masotta et al., Happenings._ [This was footnote 28 in the original. Ed.]_

10.

“The term ‘environment-setting’ refers to an art form that completely fills a room (or an interior space), that envelops the visitor and that uses any type of materials, including lights, sounds and colors.” Words, op. cit. [This was footnote 29 in the original. Ed.]

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