Rosângela Rennó, Río-Montevideo (2011)
Brazilian artist and photographer Rosângela Rennó (b. Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1962) explores in a systematic way historical objects with the aim of contextualizing them in its time and place, working obsessively since the 1980s with visual archives as her “raw material.” In 2011, she was invited to do a residency at the Centro de Fotografía (CdF) of Montevideo, Uruguay, from which resulted the show Río-Montevideo.
Captivated with optical obsoleted objects, this exhibit consisted in 14 slide projectors that show images taken by photographer Aurelio González between 1957 and 1973. The fascinating story of this archive goes like this: In 1973, with the arrival of the military dictatorship in Uruguay that lasted until 1985, González (during that time Director of Photography of the newspaper El Popular) gathered more than 60.000 photographic negatives he had made for the newspaper and hid them between the floors of a building in Montevideo. Soon after, the military dictatorship shot down the newspaper and this material remained hidden and then lost for more than 33 years, until it was found and finally recovered by the same photographer in 2006. Since then the negatives have been processed, restored and digitalized by CdF. When invited to do a residency, Rennó worked with this archive for almost two months.
According to the curator Verónica Cordero, “this work is addressing new ways to look at history; utilizing optical apparatus that are also on their way to be discarded and forgotten, Rennó’s work explores matters related to memory, oblivion, identity and its mechanism of obfuscation.”
Rennó in her own words:
“The story was fascinating from the beginning. The possibility to work from an archive that was hidden and latent for more than 30 years was something that I, that I’m obsessive, wanted to put my hands in and becoming part of this story. It is an archive that is loaded with history, on the most part images of the dictatorship times that feel like ghosts to me, as I lived the Brazilian dictatorship during my childhood.”
Teresa Margolles, PM (2010)
Polemical artist Teresa Margolles (b. Culiacán, Mexico, 1974) strategically turned to the local tabloid PM in Mexico to collect its front pages, which portray Mexico’s drug war dead without any sort of censorship. Margolles, who began her career as an artist with the collective SEMEFO (from the Spanish acronym for Forensic Medical Service), has taken the subject of death as her principal subject since the beginning of her artistic practice in the 1980s, which combines visual arts and performance. After 2006, when violence intensified in Mexico, she shifted her focus to the violence-ridden streets of Mexico.
Margolles’ PM (2010) is a result of collecting during one year, 2010 –which was the most violent one of Mexico’s drug war until then, ending with 25, 757 murders– the afternoon local tabloid PM, which circulates from Monday to Saturday in one of Mexico’s most violent cities, Ciudad Juárez. Each of the 313 covers were digitalized, framed and installed stacked, creating a grid pattern that fills the white walls of the exhibition spaces. In each of the covers there is a photograph of a murder depicted next to erotic advertisements. PM newspaper does not have a digital platform and the surplus of copies is destroyed every three months. That is why one of the most relevant aspects of this work comes precisely from compiling the daily repetition of the images of these violent deaths that would otherwise be forgotten.
Margolles in her own words:
“[PM newspaper] is what you wake up to, what you hang out with, what you are reading while eating breakfast in Juárez. When you’re sleeping that is what’s happening somewhere else. It’s very popular, it works to wrap the meat you take home; you use it to make piñatas for children’s parties. Even if you don’t want to touch it, you see it. It’s impossible to avoid what’s happening in society. It’s a sensationalist newspaper but the number of dead bodies is real.”
Milagros de la Torre, The Lost Steps (1996)
Milagros de la Torre (b. Lima, Peru, 1965), a Peruvian artist based in New York, has dealt with issues of censorship and violence for almost twenty years, focusing on the interpretation of visual language through photography. She got a B.A. in photography at the London College of Printing in 1991, and soon after (in 1993) had her first solo show titled Sous le soleil noir (Under the Black Sun) at the Centre Nationale de la Photographie in Paris, being only twenty-eight years old. Ever since she has work on what she calls “interpretative conceptual photography.” Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps) is a series of fifteen images of objects that were used as criminal evidence and are now stored at the Palace of Justice in Lima. Each image contains a small inscription that describes where the object photographed comes from, the story that each object is hiding.
De la Torre in her own words:
“The Lost Steps are photographs of apparently innocent every day objects that were submitted as evidence in trials for terrorists acts, crimes of passion and other felonies. The work references a 19th century photographic technical limitation, when the development of the lens did not entirely covered the format of the photographic negative, hence creating a dark aura around the object, conferring on it a halo of mystery or emotional charge that eludes to the dark side of human nature embedded in these objects. This halo visually directs our eyes to the objects themselves. Objects are charged with human experience, and they are seen as depositories of meaning. When I was working on The Lost Steps series I carried and place these testimonial materials in front of the camera. There was an indiscernible density to them, a certain weight; they have been witnesses of some extreme event, they contain hidden crucial details. There’s a feeling that they are not just a peace of paper or a police mask but something else hidden behind. Only when one read’s a small police-like description placed under each image, is when one begins to understand when the object comes from.”
 Taken from an interview by Javier Díaz Guardiola. The English translation is mine. http://javierdiazguardiola.blogspot.com/2014/03/entrevista-teresa-margolles.html
According to Mexico’s Senate, between three or four children disappear every hour in the country due to the following causes: 67%, illegal abduction of parents in conflict with each other; 9.3%, voluntary absence (victims leave home because of domestic violence or sexual abuse from parents or other members of the family); 9.3%, theft; 2.3%, minor gets lost because of parents neglect; 1.2%, kidnap. The remaining 10.9% stands for children that went missing due to an “undetermined cause,” which means that one day they simply “disappear.” 
Lost Child (2005-2009) by Mexican artist Ilán Lieberman (b. Mexico City, 1969), is a series composed of one hundred small-scale portraits of missing children in Mexico. These portraits, measuring approximately 1 x 0.82 inch each, are meticulous hand-made reproductions of photographs originally found in the section “Far Away From Home” of Metro, a Mexico City local newspaper. Each of the photographs is published with basic information of the child –age, height, distinguishing characteristics, and the place and date of his or her disappearance– that could potentially help to recognize him or her; information that Lieberman includes as labels of each work. For example, one of the labels of the one hundred children in Lost Child reads:
Nuria Alejandra Albarrán García
Age: 13 years
Height: 4′ 11″
Distinguishing characteristics: Scar on right forearm.
Place and date of disappearance: Unidad Bellavista Neighborhood, Borough of Iztapalapa, Mexico City, June 13 2005
Each one of Lieberman’s one hundred drawings of missing children is a hand-made replica of a low-resolution photograph found in a newspaper. Instead of just doing a photocopy of a newspaper, Lieberman selects a manual format, using a microscope to capture every detail. It is noteworthy that each of these drawings took him between seven to fourteen days to complete. When Lieberman exhibits the series Lost Child he places magnifier glasses, so the viewer can get closer to the process he undertook in carefully drawing each face. With the magnifier glass one gets a chance to examine these drawings closely and see the hand-made dots that compose each work. Lieberman’s drawings focus on the particularity of each child’s facial features. This work has a strategy: individualizing each disappeared child, deifying the vagueness of statistics in a desensitized society. Lieberman says that “we pass every day by stoplights and see children begging or homeless, and they already become part of the landscape. That’s something you have to get used to when you live in Mexico.”
By choosing to do these portraits hand-made, Lieberman is relying in the permanence of the artwork, a recurrent concept that has been used by some scholars to discuss his work. According to Mexican art critic María Minera, permanence is the most important factor of the series; she argues that “That in the careful strokes goes the possibility for these photographs not to vanish in less time that one changes a page [of the newspaper]” In the same vein, critic and curator Michel Blancsubé has expressed: “The remarkable thing about this artist’s approach is the way the transition from offset to pencil on paper, from printed page to work of art, brings permanence to something initially utterly lacking in it.” What these critics are suggesting is not that a newspaper, as a medium, is impermanent (a newspaper, if taken good care of, could last for a very long time) but that, given its periodicity, it is usually inspected in a hurry, sometimes without really being read, and thrown away day after day.
One can find a reaction towards transience or ephemerality in Lost Child, since it criticizes the way in which the issue of the missing children is perceived in a mechanically reproduced medium, where this particular issue is consumed like any other subject-matter, without the proper attention it deserves.
For more on Lost Child visit this link:
 “Pasamos todos los días por los semáforos y vemos niños o indigentes que piden limosna, y ya se nos hace parte del paisaje. Eso es algo a lo que uno tiene que acostumbrarse al vivir en México”, says Lieberman. Sergio R. Blanco, “Los niños perdidos de Lieberman,” Reforma, May 24, 2009.
 “Que en sus trazos minuciosos va la posibilidad de que esas fotografías no se desvanezcan en menos de lo que se cambia la página [del periódico].” María Minera, “Fotografías hechas a mano,” Letras Libres 123 (March 2009): 74.
 Michel Blancsubé, “Confusion Will Be My Epitaph,” in Esquiador en el fondo de un pozo, ed. Michel Blancsubé (Ecatepec de Morelos, Estado de México: Colección Jumex 2006), 269.
In The Language of the Dead (2012), Mexican conceptual artist Carlos Amorales (Mexico City, 1970) turns shocking photographs of Mexico’s drug-war dead found online into characters of a photo novel. This photographic novel is composed by fifteen black and white pages in which photographs of dead people, bodiless heads among them, speak to one another. The dead are given the possibility to speak through speech bubbles, but only to speak an indecipherable, inaccessible language to us –all of us who remain alive and dare to look.
The Language of the Dead could remind us of a cemetery, of that “other city” according to Foucault. But the cemeteries, those macabre spaces located outside city borders, are generally considered to be “resting places.” Contrarily, in this work the dead seem to be coming back to life. More than anything, the photo novel is a sort of scrap yard, says Amorales, a place “in which we only see mutilated or wounded corpses,” living in a state of “limbo,” in a place that does not belong to the living.
In the following interview, Amorales explains his work process, his motivations, and the emotional aftermath of dealing which such violent content:
How did the project of the photo novel The Language of the Dead start? What led you to start compiling these brutal images from Mexico’s media?
While fragmenting my decade-long visual archive (titled Archivo Líquido) into a series of abstract images I got the idea to arrange them into a typographic system. The typographic system allowed me to build abstract texts that can be decoded (they’re cryptograms), but to the naked eye they are indecipherable, they seem made with a font based on the images of the Rorschach cards. Given the incomprehensible aspect of the signs, it occurred to me to do a photo novel about something that I also didn’t quite understand: the violence that erupted after the arrival of President Calderón to power in Mexico in 2006. My feeling was, and still is, that the more I read and get informed about the violence of recent years, the less I understand. This inability to understand made me associate the typographic signs with the photographs of violence, and fantasize that this language could be that of the dead.
There is a photograph by Jeff Wall in which one sees a squad of Russian soldiers rising after they had just been killed in combat in Afghanistan. There is something comical and disturbing about that image –maybe the feeling that awakens is the idea of a kind of meaningless life after a violent death, and that is what inspired me to make such a grotesque piece. In The Language of the Dead there only appear bodies that were shot or mutilated, we don’t see anyone alive. The narrative takes place in a world that is not of the alive; it takes place in another world. Since the bodies, or fragments of them, are lying on the floor, the only action which they can embark is to speak. In this narrative/temporal sense, the events are only potential because the subjects may or may not be waking up, may or may not get up and walk. It’s the beginning of something, but what is about to happen is not yet clear.
Can you talk about the process of selecting the images? What sort of criteria did you employed?
I collected as many images I was able to find on the Internet about the violence of recent years in Mexico. Of all the images, I chose those in which only dead people appeared. I also selected certain images that function more as signs: the gunned cars, the broken glasses, etc. Then I printed the images and photocopy them to 1) take away their color, and 2) mitigate the harshness of the images by making the photographs lose their realistic quality.
Did you use pictures from particular media?
From several media, from Proceso magazine to El blog del Narco, or even more obscure blogs that I encountered along the way. The pornography of violence is similar to sexual pornography; it’s everywhere and is very accessible.
Given the unstoppable cascade of deaths in Mexico (about 120,000), did you feel the need to make a political work that criticizes the bellicose policies of Calderón’s administration? Did you have the intention that your work could contribute to the effort of providing “justice” to the victims?
I don’t think my work does any justice to the victims. That is something that the government and the criminal groups have to do, and it’s not the artist’s responsibility. To think otherwise seems stupid and even dangerous. I did felt the need to criticize but from the point of view of an ordinary citizen who was (and still is) being bombed with this mediated information that has generated a culture of terror that affects us all. Calderón was the one that irresponsibly triggered this huge slaughter and its unfolding in the media, but the problem is old and is ongoing. I just made my comment based on my experience as being subject to the information that the media published. That’s why I worked with these images and sequenced them in a medium that is a hybrid of a photo novel and a newspaper.
Did you have any ethical problem with exposing these images, that are so brutal?
Yes, of course. They are horrible and one cannot help but be aware of that. The macabre aspect of these images awakens a sense of shame similar to the one that is awakened by hard-core pornography. I can illustrate this by saying that I had to process these images and form the pages of the photo novel always at night, to prevent my young children from seeing them. Also, after spending several hours a day processing these images in order to abstract its harshness, I felt a very particular taste and smell, like blood impregnated in my mouth and throat. The images also affected my dreams, as I woke up with a feeling similar to that of a hangover, a strange and depressive hangover. The effect was very disturbing. That’s why it gave me so much happiness to finally sent everything to print, closed the file, and put an end to this work.
For more images of The Language of the Dead visit this link:
1. Shimon Attie’s The Writing on the Wall, 1991-1992
Walking in the streets of the city that summer, I felt myself asking over and over again, Where are all the missing people? What has become of the Jewish culture and community which had once been at home here? I felt the presence of this lost community very strongly, even though so few visible traces of it remained.
— Shimon Attie
In Berlin in 1991, after weeks of research, Shimon Attie projected images from the 1920s and 1930s that belong to a lost Jewish past. These slides were projected onto the same or nearby spaces where the photographs have been taken sixty years earlier. He wanted to confront a city haunted by the absence of its murdered and deported Jews. The Writing on the Wall project was realized in one of Berlin’s former Jewish quarters, the Scheunenviertel, located in the Eastern part of the city, close to the Alexanderplatz. Each installation ran for one or two evenings for the local audience and passersby to see. Attie also photographed the installations themselves in time exposures lasting from three to four minutes. This project is part photography, part installation, and part performance.
2. Marcelo Brodsky’s Buena Memoria (Good Memory), 1997
In Argentina over 30,000 people were tortured and killed during the Dirty War that started after the military junta, led by Army Commander in Chief Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, dissolved in 1976 the Argentine Congress. During that period, some 10,000 people “disappeared,” or more precisely, were disappeared, considered a political or ideological threat to the military junta. When Marcelo Brodsky came back to Argentina from exile in 1994, after having lived more than a decade abroad, he tried to locate his old classmates. Taking as his starting point the graduation photograph of the class of 1967 at the Colegio Nacional in Buenos Aires, he found out that 105 of them had disappeared. His installation Good Memory exhibits photographs and video of the intensive research he undertook. It includes a blown-up photograph of his eighth-grade class taken in 1967, in which he has circled 13 out of the 32 figures to indicate friends who, as adults, went into political exile or disappeared. Good Memory also shows the last picture of the artist’s brother, Fernando, before he was taken to a military prison, where he was jailed and murdered, as well as a video that shows a memorial organized by the artist that included a public reading of names of his disappeared schoolmates.
3. Susan Meiselas’ Reframing History, 2004
In July 2004, for the 25th anniversary of the overthrow of Somoza, Meiselas returned to Nicaragua with nineteen mural-sized images of her photographs from 1978-1979, collaborating with local communities to create sites for collective memory. The project, Reframing History, placed murals on public walls and in open spaces in the towns, at the sites where the photographs were originally made. (Source: Susan Meisela’s website.)
It was not only its escalation and its geographical expansion that set apart the violence experienced throughout the so-called “war against drug trafficking” in Mexico. It was also the brutality of the executions; its expressive level of cruelty, which is impossible to forget. The violence exercised by the narco-gangs or the narco-machine as Rossanna Reguillo calls it, is determined to dissolve the singularity of human beings by turning them into suffering bodies, sometimes fragmented –heads, torsos, legs, arms. These bodies, exposing their own vulnerability, are a mirror of Mexico’s inoperative political and judiciary system, one that allows a contagious spread of criminality and leaves thousands of crimes, related and unrelated to drug trafficking, unresolved. For Felipe Calderón’s office –which declared war against the drug cartels in 2006 with an over-confident discourse that assured that “we are not going to war if we are not sure that we are going to win” –the dead became a negative image. And because we are not talking about one or two, but more than 120,000 violent murders in a six-year term, the constant representation of the dead became evidence of an explosive national crisis.
Contrary to President Calderon’s wishes –who urged the media to “give violence its proper dimension,” and criticized the press for “amplifying” the problem of Mexico’s violence– Mexican artist Carlos Aguirre (Acapulco, 1948) started collecting violent imagery from local “sensationalist” tabloids of the state of Morelos. Aguirre belongs to a tradition of artistic activism similar to that of its Latin American counterparts who criticized the military dictatorships and dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s. As part of a generation that responded to the political and social unrest that emerged in Mexico in 1968, he has positioned himself as an artist who emphasizes the tensions between economic, social and political realities.
His work Paisaje mexicano (Mexican Landscape), which is exhibited permanently at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, is a large-scale mural (3 x 12 meters) that consists of the recompilation of approximately 1,400 nicknames of drug dealers and hundreds of newspaper clippings of photographs of violent deaths. These nicknames, arranged chaotically, one on top of the other in different opacities of black, create, from a distance, an indecipherable mural. When one gets closer, the words become clear: one can recognize famous capos, such as “El Chapo” and “El Barbas,” printed in large bold letters, as well as lesser-known nicknames, such as “El Harry” or “El Koreano,” in smaller fonts.
Aguirre’s overwhelming universe of drug-dealers can be seen as a powerful interpretation of the narco’s strategic multiplication throughout Mexico’s geography. According to Reguillo, the narco-machine’s power relies on its unfathomable presence, on the fact that it is always strategically de-localizing itself. Aguirre’s Mexican Landscape deliberately follows a traditional composition of a landscape, in which a horizontal line is used to enhance an open view of the scenery, giving a sensation of vastness and continuity. This horizon is constructed by pasting hundreds of color photographs of violent deaths, following one editorial criteria: selecting “the most violent images” found, since, according to the artist, “these images respond to the cruelty that has escalated.”
Aguirre’s usage of sensationalist photographs is his own way of depicting his contemporary abject version of a Mexican landscape, opposing the celebratory and colorful landscapes of the Mexican valley by famous Mexican landscape painters, like José María Velasco (1840 –1912) and Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl) (1875 –1964), with the latter turning Mexican geography into a positive symbol of post-revolutionary national identity, through the use of lively blue skies, rich foliage and mighty volcanoes.
Conversely and quite unexpectedly, Mexican Landscape also reminds me of Rothko’s No.5/No 22 (1949). More precisely, what it recalls is Anna Chave’s symbolic interpretation of the canvas. Her controversial take suggests that the horizontal framing derives from earlier depictions of dead figures lying horizontally. If Chave was right and Rothko’s pictorial segments have symbolic references to entombments, in the case of Aguirre the reference is more than just symbolic: it is obvious. Moreover, in Aguirre’s horizontal placement of the images of the dead a far more wretched image is implicit: that of a massive grave.
What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.
In last week’s entry, I inaugurated my participation in this blog with a quote by Jay Prosser, from his book Picturing Atrocity (2012):“Atrocity is going on all around us —he said— the least we can do is acknowledge it.” In the third chapter of her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag explains how we have acknowledged suffering since the Christian depictions of hell or representations of famous biblical decapitations (like that of John the Baptist). But when did we start to use the iconography of horror to express our disagreement? Sontag recalls Jacques Callot’s (1592–1635) eighteen etchings titled Les Misères et les Malheurs de la Guerre (The Miseries and Misfortunes of War) from 1633, which depicted many atrocities committed against civilians by French troops during the invasion of his native Lorraine in the early 1630s.
In his etching No. 5, “Plundering of a Farm,” Callot uses both image and text to describe a scene in which soldiers murder, kidnap, steal and rape.
Here are the fine exploits of these inhuman hearts
They ravage all over, nothing escapes their hands
One invents forms of torture to get some gold,
The other, having committed 1,000 crimes, encourages his accomplices
And all in accord, they maliciously commit
Theft, kidnapping, murder, and rape.
Between 1810 and 1820 Goya created Los desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), a series of works that could be seen as a “visual protest” against violence, specifically the atrocities perpetrated during the occupation of Madrid by French troops during the Peninsular War (1807–1814). He used various sketches to narrate violent scenes, such as the depiction of a disfigured body found mounted on a tree, and also included a brief caption which, rather than serving as a description of the event, functions as an expression of dissent by the artist: “This is worse” wrote Goya below one of these pieces.
Is Goya’s “protest” implicit in the image, or is the caption the element that “protests”?
At first it’s easy to agree with Susan Sontag that, when it comes to photographs, the image cannot offer itself an interpretation; that protest requires a caption in addition to an image to have any sort of political meaning. But we can also take another second and contest this view. Judith Butler, in her book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2010), explains that framing already presupposes decisions and practices that leave substantial losses outside the frame. Inclusion and exclusion already affect the political meaning of an image. Despite the fact that Butler agrees with Sontag that we need captions and analysis, the frame, she argues, is never neutral. The image has already determined what will count, whose life will be grieved, what is perceivable and what isn’t.
Atrocity is going on all around us. The least we can do is acknowledge it.
Jay Prosser, Picturing Atrocity
When I moved to New York in 2011 I left my hometown, Acapulco, in flames. That year, according to the Citizen Council for Security, Justice and Peace, Acapulco became the second most violent city in the world, with an alarming murder rate of 143 persons for every 100,000. Acapulco, a seaside resort once described as paradise on Earth, turned into a living hell in which disfigured bodies were found daily and military jeeps had taken over the streets. This was just not the case of Acapulco but of various cities throughout the country which were caught in the middle of what we now refer as “Mexico’s drug war.”
With Mexico living a humanitarian crisis with a death toll equal to that of the Balkans and Iraq wars –an escalating violence that has not been seen in the country since the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917)– I became less concerned with art production within a tradition of modernist aesthetic self-reflection, and more and more captivated by artistic initiatives that examine the social and political climate of their times. More specifically, I am interested in the intersections between art and violence.
For the next couple of months I wish to pursue this interest further in the CCNY blog by focusing on photography. I plan to curate my entries not by surveying the theme of “Violence and Photography” through the past decades, but by addressing different themes and problematics that photographing violence, suffering or atrocity entail.
One first image: a necessary but impossible-to-look-at photography by American photographer Susan Meiselas (b. Baltimore, Maryland, 1948).
What lays outside the frame of this image, of what we can see in this image, is not less brutal than the image itself. In fact, one of Meiselas’ main concerns is the inadequacy of framing. One can see in her work, as well as in many photographs of violent murders, how relevant is the effort of “trying to fill” by narrating what happens “outside the frame.” She says:
“This was a known site of execution. I had often heard about such places. That body was left to terrorize everyone passing. It was at the top of a steep hill, so you can imagine the buses dragging themselves up, about a mile or so outside the capital of Managua. For a long time I’ve lived with the inadequacy of that frame to tell everything I knew, and I think a lot about what is outside the frame, what is beyond this body: parts of other bodies down the hill, right behind it, below in the trees, still caught in branches. Men and women were dismembered and never identified. I also think a lot about what else is outside of the frame, such as the families, and how they watched people being pulled out of their homes, sometimes never able to find their remains. That’s not in this photograph. I think of the man, not just a body on the hillside, being executed by someone who really thought they knew what he thought, not in fact killing him for what he had done. And that is also outside of the frame. How do you register all of these thoughts in that image?” (Susan Meiselas “Body on a Hillside” in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, London: Reaktion Books, 2012)
(To know more about the images that Meiselas took of Nicaragua under the last years of the Somoza Regime, visit Susan Meiselas website.)
 San Pedro Sula in Honduras was ranked the first.
 The last major conflict in Mexico before the current drug war was The Cristero War (1923-1929), which claimed the lives of ninety thousand people in three years.