- How to see Violence:Artistic Activism and the Radicalization of Human Rights
Social movements participate in battles over the collective forging of the perceptual horizons through which people experience reality. Aesthetic practices, including art practices, are capable of participating in this labor because they offer the possibility of reconfiguring the sensory order—in short, of changing how people perceive the world—thereby supporting the constitution of counterhegemonic political imaginaries. Given this capacity, artistic practices can function as a potentially radicalizing force within social and political struggles.
This essay examines interventionist visual art and performance that embodies and foments radical tendencies within the human rights movement in Argentina. This movement has been the principal force for building a social condemnation of state terrorism committed under the country's last dictatorship (1976–1983) and bringing its perpetrators to justice. Grupo de Arte Callejero (GAC) [Street Art Group] and Etcétera…, two collectives that have been at the forefront of artistic activism in Buenos Aires since the late 1990s, have fused their art production with forms of direct action that serve as crucial tactics of struggle for the human rights movement. Their work exemplifies ways that artists can take up and transform aesthetic forms, discourses, and [End Page 353] tactics produced by social movements and contribute to these movements' aesthetic repertoires and archives. GAC's and Etcétera…'s art expresses more radical tendencies within an internally heterogeneous movement, and the political vision manifest in their work ultimately contravenes hegemonic deployments of human rights discourse.
Together with the social movement of which they are part, GAC and Etcétera… are engaged in ongoing battles over the forging of political narratives about state violence and history—and specifically, about a recent history of right-wing state-led violence against workers and movements of the Left. At stake in these battles is the very possibility for people to perceive violence, identify its causes and agents, and understand the logics of its uses and its lasting effects. Dominant historical narratives work to manage perceptions of violence; even their underlying narrative structures and the borders they erect between past and present serve this end. The interventionist art of GAC and Etcétera… participates in the fashioning of counternarratives that enable a more comprehensive accounting of ongoing state violence, as well as the apprehension of its relation to other forms of violence—such as labor exploitation and environmental destruction.
The politics of GAC's and Etcétera…'s work has been formatively shaped by the artists' participation in the Argentine human rights movement and the global movement against capitalism (or alter-globalization movement), especially the latter's local manifestations in Buenos Aires. The artists in both groups were born in Argentina and Chile in the late 1970s while these countries were undergoing economic neoliberalization at the hands of terrorist military dictatorships. They came of age in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, at a time when deepened neoliberalization by a nominally democratic state created evermore punishing conditions for workers and the poor and concentrated wealth and power in the hands of elites. Beginning in the latter part of that decade and extending into the early 2000s, Argentina was home to an upsurge of autonomous urban social movements organized in resistance to the neoliberal social order. GAC's and Etcétera…'s oppositional art and activism are part of this tide of resistance, and their work gives visibility to the ways in which popular militancy against neoliberal capitalism has produced a more radical vision for human rights politics.
GAC and Etcétera… both developed their activist art practices through their early and formative militancy in the human rights movement in Buenos Aires, [End Page 354] beginning in the late 1990s. In this essay, I examine interventionist works both groups produced that formed part of exposure protests organized by the movement. Known by various names and practiced throughout Latin America, exposure protests consist in the public denunciation of individuals and exposure of their wrongdoings. In Argentina, these are known as escraches, which means "to drag into the light" in the Italianate urban argot Lunfardo. A tactic developed by human rights activists, escraches consist in the...