Walking is rarely an end in itself. It is a way to get from one place to another. In a city like New York, it is a way to get from one meeting to another, or from one espresso to the next. To walk in New York City is, above all, to walk in a hurry. The Belgian-Mexican artist Francis Alÿs once said the following regarding his “artistic walks” throughout Mexico City’s downtown. “Walking, in particular drifting, or strolling, is already –with the speed culture of our time– a kind of resistance.”
Mexican artist and activist Amanda Gutiérrez left Mexico in 2002 to pursue an MFA program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she began investigating the public space–mainly, specific neighborhoods–through walking. Over the past two years, she has continued her artistic practice in the streets of New York City, where she currently resides. Her exhibition, Walking in Lightness at Baxter St – a series of collages, photographic prints and a video– announces, even from its title, that walking is a central element, if not the central element, of the show. The works in the exhibition are all explorations of one of the most eclectic neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Sunset Park, where the predominant presence of Mexican immigrants makes her feel at home. The pumpkin flowers, fruit stands, mariachi clothes, huitlacoches and aguas frescas, which are sold along the barrio’s main street add to this sense of familiarity. In the video that has the same title as the exhibition, we see the hands of the artist manipulating a series of prints in the dark room while we listen to her narration:
I’m walking on a street that seems
familiar to me even when I have
never been here.
That is where other people with
cultural similarities concentrate,
Eat and share things that are mute,
invisible to others.
Amanda Gutiérrez could be understood as subversive, strolling through the city at her own pace and opposing the convulsive rhythm of capitalism that sustains a metropolis like New York. But to begin to analyze the work of Gutiérrez, one should not only think of the walk as a criticism of the vertiginous rhythm of modernity à la Alÿs, but also, and above all, as an exercise of a human right.
The history of walking should ideally be, as Rebecca Solnit points out in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), “a history of freedom and of the definition of pleasure.” However, the possibility of walking like this, freely and pleasantly, is determined by aspects of gender, race and class. It is the social and political conditions of the different regions around the world that determine who can enjoy the pleasure of walking and who cannot. Let’s think, for example, of Mrs. Dalloway-–the protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s famous book of the same title– who starts her day, one morning in June, by going out of her house to get some flowers. 1 While women (we must add, white upper-class women) could dare to wander and feel the bursting atmosphere of London in the twenties, today (almost a century later) a woman in Mexico, Honduras or El Salvador would put herself in position of vulnerability by doing so. Put in, say, Ciudad Juárez, Clarissa Dalloway would go get the flowers with fear. After sunset and in certain areas, she would perhaps not leave the house by herself at all.
Let’s pause to reflect on the following: in Mexico, more than seven women are killed each day. Moreover, in the last ten years more than 23,800 women have been killed: one of the highest femicide rates in the world2. In Mexico City, where Amanda Gutiérrez was born, walking alone through the city, like a flâneur 3 –or rather, a flâneuse– would not be free of risk. In her video piece, we hear Gutiérrez talk about the violence that women have suffered in Mexico during the past decades, violence which has moved her to live abroad and exercise certain rights more freely, such as that of walking alone:
“Why did I come here?
The safeness that I can’t find in
my own space.
The opportunities to keep walking
over my own shoulders.
I cannot describe the feeling of
seeing women with less luck
That’s why we are moving here
At least that is why I moved here.
Where there is some noise on the
It often happens that neighborhoods populated mostly by immigrants are constantly constructed by adapting original rituals and iconic symbols from the cultures left behind. Be it Sunset Park, Harlem, or Chinatown, they all become a representation of a “paradise lost.” In the diptych Paradise Memories 1,2, (2017), Gutiérrez explores this idea by photographing the oldest Latin-American grocery store in Harlem, which has a mural of a rural dream-like scenario: fertile corn fields and harvests of tropical fruits. In an interview, Gutiérrez mentions that what attracts her to this mural is how these romanticized depictions function as a “placemaking” of neighborhoods, capitalizing on the sense of identity for the community.
Within that same line is the colorful series of photographs Calibrando Exotificación (2018), composed by nineteen C-prints of one single image in which we see four pineapples and a bunch of bananas hanging. This image could well be a photograph of any fruit stand in any Mexican market and is reminiscent of those spontaneous sculptures that Gabriel Orozco photographed in the 1990s –- images with infinite metaphorical possibilities. Here the pineapples and the bananas are barely leaning one against the other, almost affectively and somewhat vulnerably, like relatives who suddenly looked up to pose for a family portrait.
The nineteen C-prints that integrate this series are Gutiérrez’s experiments in the color darkroom: different time exposures deliver prints that are so dark, or so luminous, that the image is barely perceived; different contrasts and color intensities produce prints that are so excessively cold or warm that the image gets lost behind the prominence of color. However, rather than reducing this series to a mere formal investigation of light, color and contrast, one ought to ask: what is the calibration of color and lighting needed to reach the “right” degree of exoticism? What is the proper combination of exoticism and universality that international artistic products require to be validated by American institutions? How “Mexican” does the art produced by Mexican artists needs to be? What does it mean to be a female Mexican artist today in the global art world?
If Sunset Park provides Gutiérrez a spectacle of pineapples, bananas and papayas — a choreography of aesthetic codes that every Latin-American immigrant understands and extols — she seeks to find some tension in it. Her work hopes to dismantle any sort of national cliché. Although her work in Sunset Park starts with an appetite similar to that of an ethnographic researcher, one who tries to shed light on the codifications of the color, fauna and flora of the neighborhood, it does not acquire that flat nature of purely documentary photography. In her work, Gutiérrez does not present Sunset Park through a lens of nostalgia, but rather highlights how porous and malleable the different cultural identities are when they exist in and adapt to new geographies. In her explorations along Sunset Park’s 5th Ave, the combination of more than one nationality unfolds and suggests a plural temporality. Gutiérrez says, “Where today live Mexicans, Syrians, Lebanese and Asians, before that were Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and, tomorrow, who knows.” It is part of Brooklyn’s essence that diverse cultural practices intersect and impact one another. One of Gutiérrez’s challenges is to document this coexistence (which is not always harmonious) with just one disposable camera and without portraying a single person. In her work she has decided to never portray people, much less immigrants, “because of the state of vulnerability in which these people live already.” The result of this restriction is that the images become a bit more difficult to codify, demanding that the viewer renounce a passive stance and become an active participant in the understanding of the work.
In her series of collages, contrasting cultural and aesthetic symbols overlap and cohabitate the same frame. In Paradise Memories 3 (2017), a photograph that depicts four glass barrels filled with tropical aguas frescas juxtaposes another photograph of plants growing wildly in, the artist tells me, a vacant lot located just in front. In Similacrum 1 (2017), Gutiérrez shows us the outside of a laundromat maily frequented by women from the Middle East (we do not see the women in the image, of course). A notice with the slogan “If you suspect terrorism, call the NYPD” is attached to the laundry’s glass window. Below this black and white image is a fragment of a color photograph showing a piece of the yellow roof of the building located directly in front of the laundry (the building is a McDonalds, but we don’t see that either). This single frame contains the harassment experienced by Middle Eastern immigrants along with its counterpart: the popular bright-yellow symbol of the “American dream”. In both of these collages as well as virtually all of the pieces that compose Walking in Lightness, what may at first glance seem to be mere aesthetic explorations of transcultural dynamics, at second glance are, ultimately, pieces loaded with political meaning.
I will conclude by going back to the very beginning of the show and talk about the series of black-and-white photographs the viewer sees when entering Baxter St. The titles of these series are key. The first of them, Asimilación cultural o de cómo aprendí a ser ligeramente blanca 1, translates to Cultural assimilation or how I learned to be slightly white, and consists of four monochromatic prints of the same image, each one of them printed with different gradations of light. The image shows a trio of girl-sized mannequins wearing first communion dresses behind a store’s glass window. In the first print, the image is totally “burned” or underexposed, that is, it is almost a black print, and the mannequins are not even visible. In the second print, the image appears, but with just enough light to barely see some girl-like figures. In the third image, these “girls” become a little clearer, and by the fourth print these “girls” are completely whitened.
For a Mexican viewer like myself, these series of images ranging from black to white immediately refer to the terrible racist structure experienced within Mexican society. Racism in Mexico is perpetrated daily and, for many, sometimes invisibly. The logic of white supremacy that arose with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century and the consequent marginalization of indigenous people, has dragged through to the present in a very profound way. This is in part due to the overwhelming publicity of whiteness as the representation of success and power in the culture of global consumption. 4 As explained here by sociologist Mónica Moreno Figueroa, the idea that ultimately all Mexicans are children of both indigenous people and Spaniards, that is, the myth of mestizaje, is what serves to hide our deep racism. Our reality is that there is a hierarchy of skin color, and consequent practices of oppression against the dark skinned (morenos), the indigenous, and the Afro-Mexican are practiced every day in many ways. Racist practices are even perpetrated in intimate family dynamics.5 Federico Navarrete in his Alfabeto del racismo mexicano (Malpaso, 2017), sums it up in this way:
“In our social life we Mexicans place ourselves continuously, and are placed by others, on a chromatic scale that associates whiteness, natural or artificial, with beauty and privilege, power and wealth, and its “opposite”, that is, dark skin, with ugliness, marginality and poverty. This pyramid of phenotypes (…) allows us to determine, almost automatically, who deserves our admiration and envy and who our contempt and our pity.” (Navarrete).
The racial discrimination against the Mexican brown population only increases when crossing the United States border. In Asimilación cultural o de cómo aprendí a ser visible (2018), which translates to Cultural assimilation or how I learned to become visible, a triptych that follows the same formal exercise of applying different light gradations to one same image (the image of two boy-sized mannequins wearing the typical formal Mexican “charro” gowns), Gutiérrez reminds us how when brown Mexicans migrate to the United States, they are drained of any cultural heritage just to be rendered “illegals”. Their migratory status and the constant threat of getting deported relegate them to labors that accentuate their social invisibility, such as cleaning dishes behind kitchens. The discourse of white supremacy and xenophobia that has resurfaced so strongly in the United States during the last years has become an inescapable subject-matter for Gutiérrez. One of the many great achievements of these last series of photographs, and perhaps of Gutiérrez’ entire show, is that with the use of very simple imagery, she manages to bring light to an array of resistances. The imagery obtained from her repeated walks in just one neighborhood in Brooklyn highlights the many daily encounters which are invisible to most city-walkers, who rarely, if ever, notice the politics of their immediate surroundings.
1. The book opens with this phrase: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” A few paragraphs later, Woolf beautifully addresses the atmospheric experience of Mrs. Dalloway walking in London: “In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”
3. Walter Benjamin described the flâneur as the essential (obviously male) figure of modernity, a sort of urban spectator/detective of the city in the XIX century.
4. Navarrete, Federico, Alfabeto del racismo mexicano (México: Malpaso, 2017), 19.
5. Moreno reminds us of the well-known dynamic that, when only a few minutes after the birth of a baby, family members ask if the baby came out dark or white (“güerito”).
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.