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Exhibition on Political Activism and Artistic Creativity Opens Today at Barcelona's MACBA
Joseph Huber, Never Ask Why. Berlin: Karte'll, 1980. Postal, 10,4 x 14,8 cm. Centre de Documentació MACBA.

BARCELONA.- “Arroje aquí todo lo que corrompe” (“Throw away everything that corrupts here”); that was the slogan that the Argentinian collective Grupo Escombros printed in 1993 on a rubbish bag to accompany the magazine-box Biopsia 2. Striking slogans and plays on words, combined with powerful images, have often been used by many artists, groups and movements over the course of the last century. Under the title On the Margins of Art. Creation and Political Engagement and curated by Guy Schraenen, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) brings together some 230 artist’s books, magazines, flyers, posters, postcards and other printed materials dating to the period from 1933 to 2008 and in which creative ability has been placed at the service of political protest, as in, for example, Samaral’s dollars, riddled with bullet holes, and the Guerrilla Girls’ denouncements of gender discrimination. The selection of works, which can be seen in the exhibition room at the MACBA Documentation and Study Centre, builds up a landscape that clearly lies on the border between the territories of art and ideology, diagonally crossing through the spheres of thought, political activism and artistic creativity. The sound landscape chosen for the exhibition also explores the same theme: Campaign (1973), by the German artist Ferdinand Kriwet, is a 15-minute sound collage juxtaposing fragments from speeches by the candidates at the 1972 American presidential elections, Richard Nixon and John McGovern. The 150 artists represented in the show include André Breton, Diego Rivera, René Crevel, Paul Eluard, Adrian Piper, Christian Boltanski, Edgardo Antonio Vigo, Félix González Torres, Hans Haacke, Horacio Zabala, Joseph Beuys, KP Brehmer, Vito Acconci, Miralda, Rabascall, Muntadas, Pedro G. Romero and Alfredo Jaar.

Through a selection of printed materials—magazines, artist’s books, posters and flyers—that weave together three strands (art, political cause and print dissemination), the exhibition On the Margins of Art. Creation and Political Engagement illustrates the different ways in which art and political engagement came together during the second half of the 20th century. Most of the pieces date to the period from 1960 to 1980, when artistic forms underwent a particularly profound transformation. In order to embrace certain historic precedents, however, the exhibition begins chronologically with two surrealist tracts (loose sheets of text put out to broadcast declarations of principles) dating to 1933 and 1936 respectively, before jumping to the 1960s, a decade which saw the publication of numerous periodicals devoted to informing about developments in art, politics and culture.

These include Konkret, a radical left-wing publication which first began to circulate around German university circles in 1961. The editor-in-chief of Konkret, which described itself as an “independent cultural and political magazine”, was Ulrike Mainhoff, who left in 1969 to join the armed group Rote Armee Fraktion. A few years later, Provo, a Dutch movement that embodied an amalgam of Dada, anarchism and irony, launched the magazine of the same name (1965-1967). The first issue of Provo, subtitled “Revo”, was immediately confiscated and destroyed by the police. For their part, the magazines Internationale Situationniste (1957-1969) and The Situationist Times (1962-1967) stand out amongst the many publications circulated by the Situationist International to report on the intense theoretical activity generated by the movement, which was in stark contrast with uses being made of the visual arts. The appropriation by fine artists of resources from popular culture with the aim of simplifying their messages and reaching broader audiences is a constant throughout the history of engaged art, as is clearly illustrated in the pamphlet Ten Days that Shook the University, jointly published by the Situationists and Strasbourg University students in 1967, during the preliminaries to the May’68 revolts.

Many fine artists were also members of the countless groups that rose up in protest in spring 1968, some designing the posters printed and distributed from the ateliers of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under the direction of Gérard Fromanger to spread protest messages. Most went unsigned, however, for the individual artists eschewed any protagonism in order to place all the emphasis on the content. These posters are characterised by their powerful visual impact and simple slogans, at times subtle, indirect—“Il faut du noir pour sortir du rouge”—on a poster by Degottex—at others clear, forceful: “Voter contre [le] capital ne suffit pas”.

Similar ideas to those defended in May’68 began to circulate again the following year, at the festival held in Charlottenburg, Denmark, to commemorate the second centenary of the city’s Royal Academy of Art. For the occasion, the historian Troels Andersen, who supported non-violent anarchist ideas, created the 200 Festival Bulletin, which was published daily from 8 to 18 June 1969 and featured contributions from many artists, including Herman de Vries, Marc Adrian and Tom Kugiers, who used such techniques as collage, image manipulation and combinations of typed and handwritten texts for their interventions in this publication exploring to the full the dual levels of readings—semantic and visual—to which the printed page lends itself.

Radically creative use of language is amongst the most important resources employed by visual artists seeking to transmit striking messages aimed at “awakening consciences”. There is little doubt, moreover, that the powerful influence of visual and concrete poetry is noted in such works. Although such art forms have nearly always remained the domain of the few, the habitually low print runs condemning them to limited circulation, visual poetry’s capacity to exploit and transcend linguistic conventions, combined with its innovative combination of word and image on the two-dimensional support of the page, exercised a powerful influence over politically-engaged movements and art groups throughout the 20th century. The exhibition includes several publications that occupy a position on the border between visual poetry and engaged art, including the series of materials by the Textruction group published by the École Spéciale d’Architecture of Paris in 1972, and Ovum, a Uruguayan magazine published by Clemente Padín at around the same time.

Many Latin-American artists built on these uses of language throughout the second half of the 20th century, particularly during the dictatorial periods in the 1960s and 70s, when they frequently fell victim to aggressive policies of state repression. In such cases, however, the motivation behind this creative use of language was not only aesthetic, but was also born, to a large extent, of the need to get around the censor and evade government control in order to put social protest messages into circulation. The slogan “¡Basta de corturas!”, coined by Clemente Padín (s.d.), is an illustrative example of such ploys, and more can be found in much of Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s vast output over the course of his life, as well as the post-art works that Vigo himself did so much to promote. For this exhibition, we have selected two magazine-boxes edited by Vigo: Biopsia 2 (1993), by Grupo Escombros, a protest against corruption headed by the slogan “Arroje aquí todo lo que corrompe” on a rubbish bag; and Biopsia 4 (1997), by Juan Carlos Romero, entitled “Memoria de la material”, paying homage to the disappeared and other victims of repression during the Argentinian dictatorship.

Two particular cases in point are the Black Panthers, a black civil rights group active above all in the 1960s and early-70s, and the Guerrilla Girls, who rose to fame in the 1980s, their members remaining anonymous in order to ensure that the focus of attention remained firmly set on their messages decrying gender inequality. However, protests about discrimination are not exclusive to groups that consider themselves minorities, but often have a sadly general nature, responding to situations in which institutional or any other power becomes an instrument of domination. The image that Klaus Staeck chose to frame symbolically in his 1975 poster, accompanied by the slogan “L’art d’aujourd’hui n’a pas lieu au musée”, shows a policeman beating a demonstrator; in his artist’s book T.V. Folk-Dance: Tango of Violencia (1977), Jürgen Harten replicates a similar situation in which the characters featured in the struggle—one in uniform—are simplified, reduced to silhouettes; Jenny Holzer takes this reductive process even further, embodying her protest in the single phrase that occupies the entire cover of a book published in 1983: Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise.

Many artists turn to subverting the symbolic systems on which power rests as a way of denouncing social injustices and inequalities. This often involves not only manipulating the iconography of maps, as in Julio Plaza’s book Poé/lítica (1977), but also the creative alteration of official documents and symbols: Alfredo Jaar’s passport and maps (1992); the dollar notes perforated by gunshots in Samaral’s Bang, bang, bang: 3 billetes; Cildo Meireles and his counterfeit Brazilian cruzeiros; and the redesign of the German flag proposed by K. P. Bremer in the poster Korrektur der Nationalfarben (1973) all provide examples of such graphic reinterpretation and critical appropriation. However, political power and its representatives are not the only object of such protests: as the media became more and more powerful socially, artists reacted against this new hegemony with such works as Rabascall’s poster for the exhibition Villeparisis (1974) and Richard Serra’s message “You are consumed. You are the product of television” (1973). Moreover, a similar stance is often taken against the art system itself: amongst other materials, Les Levine’s poster No New Artists (1992) and the message that provides the title to Jean Toche’s book I Piss on the Arts (2001), illustrate such attitudes to perfection.

From the 1980s on, other social and political found their reflection in art: the ecology, questions relating to ethnic and national identity, the fight against Aids, gay and lesbian visibility and the exclusion of immigrants are amongst the other issues highlighted in the materials selected for this exhibition, which reach our times with violent protests against the Iraq War and the Guantanamo detention centre, amongst other causes.

Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona | Christian Boltanski | Edgardo Antonio Vigo | Félix González Torres | Hans Haacke | Horacio Zabala | Joseph Beuys | KP Brehmer | Vito Acconci | Miralda | Rabascall |

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