Imagen de Caracas: Counter-Didactics to the Integration of the Arts

November 7, 2016

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2016 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Show & Tell. Read the editorial text to learn more about the other commissioned articles that are or will be published.


By 1966, the municipal authorities of Caracas had begun planning the festivities for the city’s 400th anniversary, which would be celebrated the following year. In contrast to other Latin American cities like Mexico City or Lima, which had erected monumental colonial buildings over pre-Hispanic remains and had over time experienced tremendous growth, Caracas was still a small city and approached its milestone as a seemingly provincial capital. Venezuela’s capital had developed slowly, and its infrastructure had been deeply damaged by a massive earthquake in 1812 and by the civil wars of the nineteenth century. And while in the 1930s the city had experienced a rapid expansion, largely funded by wealth from oil exploitation, another devastating earthquake in 1967 slowed its development once again. No less challenging was the period of political violence and social unrest that permeated Venezuelan society throughout the 1960s. The 400th anniversary celebration of Caracas’s foundation, branded as Caracas Cuatricentenario, thus arrived as a historical hiatus, one devised by government officials to create a conciliatory civic path tailored by the Betancourt Doctrine.

This doctrine was a larger political agenda set by the center-left politician and writer Rómulo Betancourt, who was elected president in 1959, following the 1958 ousting of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Betancourt, who lived in exile in Colombia, Costa Rica, and the United States during the Pérez Jiménez decade-long dictatorship, was a founder and one of the masterminds of the country’s social democratic party, Acción Democrática (AD). Defining a liberal chapter for the Venezuelan State during the 1960s, Betancourt’s vision and public policy aimed to remedy authoritarian tendencies embedded in the country’s weak institutions. After taking office, he led the executive branch of the government with an iron hand until 1964, planting the seeds for his strategic doctrine. This consisted more or less of a bipartisan alternation of power with a liberal approach to economics, as well as a strong social agenda invested in public housing, health, and education.

Betancourt led the country during a troubled decade. To begin with, in 1960 a bomb attack against him was orchestrated by the Dominican Republic's dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. In 1962, Betancourt’s administration also confronted two Left-wing military revolts known as the Carupanazo and the Porteñazo. This prompted him to implement aggressive counter-intelligence operations against urban and Guevarista guerrilla movements sparked by the Cuban revolution. Moreover, his newly appointed legislators moved to briefly suppress constitutional rights, as well as to declare the communist party illegal. Betancourt also repelled two ideological divisions within his own party, thus shattering the structure of AD. The resulting defections reflected the new alignments and radical ambitions of the younger constituents of the Venezuelan Left, who shifted their support to favor Fidel Castro’s revolution. The political impact of Castro’s visit to Caracas in 1959 cannot be underestimated. He campaigned among students at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and met congressmen while lobbying for cheap oil and loans, which he ultimately did not receive. However, Castro’s message succeeded with the young Trotskyite ADECOS, who became his loyal allies.

This confrontational era foregrounds Imagen de Caracas (1968), a visual arts project organized for the Caracas Cuatricentenario. Imagen de Caracas was a multi-media environment first sketched out in 1966 by the philanthropist, music critic, and real-estate entrepreneur Inocente Palacios. It was then developed by a team assembled by the celebrated painter Jacobo Borges. The group, which worked for over two years to realize the project, included Borges’ then-wife Josefina Jordan, writer Adriano González León, and architect Juan Pedro Posani, as well as younger Left-wing members. Their project would be the centerpiece for the Caracas Cuatricentenario festivities. The team was granted intellectual and artistic freedom to represent the history of Venezuela’s capital through creating a technologically ambitious environment. The project’s ideological underpinnings notwithstanding, Imagen de Caracas was supported by the government. It was considered an opportunity to tap into the society’s impulse and desire for collective reconstruction through modernization. And despite its ephemeral nature, the surrounding public controversy, and its poor archival afterlife, Imagen de Caracas marks a pivotal moment in the arts in Venezuela. It was a meeting point between a new generation of artists, filmmakers, writers, and thinkers, and the Venezuelan philanthropic oil stakeholders.

Art in the Era of Guerrilla Warfare

Between 1959 and 1961, the artistic community that collaborated on Sardio, a magazine dedicated to promoting modernist art, literature, and film, imploded and was re-articulated as El Techo de la Ballena. Paradoxically, shortly before the downfall of the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship, Sardio was part of a cohesive circle of friends and colleagues gathered against the dictatorial regime. But by 1959 the editorial team for the last issue of this three-year-old journal was occupied by a faction of partisans who covered different aspects of the Cuban revolution, to either the dismay or the rage of other writers who were more interested in expanding the idiom of modernism and endorsing democracy. The writer Elisa Lerner, a founding member of Sardio, defined its final issue as an inescapable gap between liberals and revolutionary leftists, a sentiment that would also come to characterize the decade.[1] If ideology is the distance between words and things, the radical faction of Sardio broke from old comrades, taking a different route better suited to pursuing an insurrectional opposition against what it identified as the bourgeois rear-guard order.

El Techo de la Ballena’s first manifesto—called “Rayado” and published in the local newspaper La esfera—was followed with more programmatic texts, which were distributed in self-published pamphlets, as well as in the landmark publication Ediciones el Techo de la Ballena, all with a distinct style and innovative typographic treatments. The group promoted confrontational attitudes as “an instrument for human research,” targeting the country’s Catholic-influenced morality and Betancourt’s centrist government in attacks aptly identified by Angel Rama as “terrorism in the arts.” Such “terrorist” tactics were undertaken on two different fronts: literary and plastic, as conveyed in the poem “Are you Sleeping Mr. President?” by Caupolicán Ovalle and in Homenaje a la Necrofilia (Homage to Necrophilia), a solo exhibition by Carlos Contramaestre. Ovalle’s vitriolic poem against the president and his sexualized body, his political sycophants, and the local oligarchy, together with the shocking exhibition of paintings made with animal remains and blood conceived by Contramaestre long remained in the memories of those who witnessed them, including some intellectuals directly involved in the guerrilla warfare, such as those affiliated with the communist periodical Tabla Redonda. A number of these radical writers and artists were arrested and jailed for their political positions and violent tactics.

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Ediciones el Techo de la Ballena (November 2, 1962) featuring "Homenaje a la necrofilia," Carlos Contramaestre's solo exhibition

In spite of its presentation outside of the museum circuit, Homage to Necrofilia situated El Techo de la Ballena as a major experimental art group within the post-dictatorial era because of its vigorous formulation of painting as well as for the symbolic potency of its manifestos and actions. The group’s poetics self-consciously merged the legacies of Dada and Surrealism with Sardio’s existentialism; recovered the avant-garde tradition of Latin American writers such as the martinfierrista Oliverio Girondo; translated experimental texts by the California beatnik poets; and exhibited paintings and drawings by Roberto Matta. Curiously, Rama underestimated the stamina and aesthetic influence of Homage to Necrophilia, considering it only in anachronistic terms as merely an avant-garde attempt to shock in an effort to fight the provincial morality of a South American nation. But Contramaestre’s pivotal exhibition presented painting as a bourgeois corpse that deserved to occupy the morgue rather than the museum.

Literary, artistic, and academic circles, which were part of the communist party machinery, disregarded the aesthetic contributions of El Techo de la Ballena. They viewed its publications and artistic events championing the guerrilla as an artistic tactic rather than a political conduit for revolution. Nonetheless, younger artists such as Jacobo Borges and Gabriel Morera were attracted to the experimental platform offered by El Techo de la Ballena for its disengagement from the so-called paradigms of social fiction and pictorial realism. Notably, by 1964, Borges confronted a series of questions about realism and artistic modernism that he would later stage collectively at Imagen de Caracas, remarking, “I cannot come up with an abstraction based on my own life, or the lives of my friends, or their deaths, because I suspect that if we are to make any contribution to painting, it needs to come out of all of this, out of our history.”

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A clipping with a photograph of Jacobo Borges in his studio

“Imagen de Caracas” and the Marxist Critique of Mass Culture

Imagen de Caracas was a spectacle previewed by the press and important visitors on May 29, 1968. The effort took two years of intense work to complete, in large part because the production faced several obstacles, including a dispirited mindset among the caraqueños that ensued from the catastrophic earthquake that destroyed the northern fringe of Caracas in 1967. According to the brochure printed by the Commission of the Caracas Cuatricentenario, the spectacle was a team endeavor by Jacobo Borges, Inocente Palacios, Josefina Jordan, Juan Pedro Posani, and a myriad of collaborators from different disciplines.[2] Borges, a painter raised in the Caracas shanties of Catia and El Cementerio, worked with a mode of gestural realism that provided him entrée to El Techo de la Ballena’s coterie and earned him the respect of international critics, including Marta Traba. He publicly adhered to the principle that the “defiance of society includes the defiance of its language.” It was then not a surprise when, in 1965, the irreverent Borges announced he would quit painting to pursue the experimental project Imagen de Caracas.

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Promotional material for "Imagen de Caracas"

The core of the spectacle comprised a cluster of film projections, combining black-and-white and color footage. Borges and his collaborators divided the film’s narrative plot in two parts: one, the history of the American conquest up until 1800; the other, colonial pre-Republican life up until 1967. The script itself was written by Adriano González León and narrated by Salvador Garmendia, both well-known experimental writers and members of El Techo de la Ballena. The Chilean José Vicente Asuar, who had finished his training in Germany and later founded a pioneering electroacoustic music lab in Santiago de Chile, composed the musical score. The films cast both professional actors and participants with no previous experience.[3] It was shot in different locations, and bore the strong stylistic influence of Italian neo-realism and Brazilian cinema novo. The final result combined original images with clips from ethnographic films, where the use of black-and-white or color film stock corresponded to the dramatic content of each episode.[4] The historical argument for the text poetically composed by González León emerged from a critical interpretation of the processes of conquest and colonization, whose approach departed from the struggles that arose from class and race conflicts and ideological divisions between the protagonists. During the screenings, some of the extras and supporting performers made live appearances at the site, approximating the projected action. For instance, a young man would speed by on a motorcycle, both on the screen and in the public space where the audience watched the scene.

The project soon captured the attention of the Venezuelan intelligentsia. It prompted theoretical debates on realism, which continued through the beginning of 1970s. The process of rethinking a gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) to reflect the history of Caracas started in 1964, when Borges articulated the idea of art as a model of social action and political contestation, one without the oppositional logic of El Techo de la Ballena and instead based on the revision of realism through theater and cinema. For Traba, Borges embodied the ethical political commitment of a neo-figurative painter who offered “an alternative to the prevalent neutrality of man.” The critic suggested that Borges’s shift in practice from painting to technology and communications, and his aim to intervene in the means of production, were critiques of the Kinetic art explored at the time.

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The manifesto "Hacia un nuevo espacio [Towards a New Space]" signed by the thirteen artists involved in "Imagen de Caracas"

Before developing Imagen de Caracas, Borges and Josefina Jordan had been involved in theatrical experiments influenced by the ideas of German theorist and dramatist Bertolt Brecht. More importantly, they were also engaged in philosophical debates about realism and modernism that had divided Marxist aesthetic theoreticians since Lenin. This process of questioning the mechanical application of historical materialism to art practices in the periphery resulted from Borges’s discussions with Dario Lancini, an expert on the work of Georg Lukács, who was also immersed in Brecht’s work. By the time he was selected to create the visual arts component for Caracas Cuatricentenario, Borges had been already investigating possibilities to integrate film, theater, and even Op art. He wanted to craft a narrative structure organized in terms of national historical episodes from the perspective of the present and epitomized by the city of Caracas. For this, he had assembled an intergenerational and interdisciplinary team of collaborators for Imagen de Caracas. The team members were teaching or studying architecture, philosophy and literature; some of them were also enrolled in schools of social sciences at the Universidad Central of Venezuela.

Nurtured by Roland Barthes’s idea of the death of the author, Imagen de Caracas pushed the limits of the idea of authorship in tandem with the rejection of the genius as a singular entity. The team formulated a critique of the conception of the author as a bourgeois construct through a collective structure opposed to the notion of the individual author. Moreover, its collaborative fabric aimed to communicate a message to public audiences without mediation, revealing the production relations between work and time through a complex technical device, thereby positing a horizontal pact between artists and audience.[5] According to the authors, Imagen de Caracas was not an event located on the margins of film, theater, or happenings. Rather, they proposed a revision of the conventions of those disciplines and media, challenging their unidirectional relationship with the audience:

The Italian stage with its pits, proscenium, raked floor, false perspectives, single sight-line, space for the audience, aisles, boxes, is now a dead concept. All the subsidies in the world cannot stop its downfall. The public, sensitive to great spectacles—like department stores, airports, factories, demonstrations, and cinema—does not understand, nor it is interested in, individual dramas and their theatres…. We wanted a show that would be critical of the man-city-object relationship. That is why we did not go to the stage to look for the answer. It was on the street, at the market places.[6]

Designed to attract popular audiences to the spectacle, the site chosen by the Municipal Commission to house the anniversary festivities was an area called El Conde (where Parque Central Complex currently stands), which was by then already surrounded by hills colonized by shantytowns. The empty lot therein, where the Imagen de Caracas pavilion was installed, was also part of the circulatory path of the bureucratic axis of public offices.[7] The pavillion’s architecture responded to the limitations of the provided enclave by creating a compelling structure made with materials produced by Venezuelan industries at that time.[8] Juan Pedro Posani designed the Imagen de Caracas pavillion as a Piranesian citadelle or a labyrinth machine into which the audience would enter through a side door.

Imagen de Caracas’s architecture was popularized by audiences and the tabloids as “Jaula de King Kong” (King Kong’s Cage.) At its center was a geometrical structure resembling a futurist landscape, where spectators could walk through scaffolding supported by tubes, columns, ramps, reflectors, eight giant modular screens, and cubes suspended from the ceiling at variable heights. Single, simultaneous, and multiple screenings of films took place in this space, with the action narrated in a non-linear form and an electroacoustic soundtrack composed specially for the event. This experiment of “quasi-cinema” or expanded cinema[9] entailed a complex set-up: eight 35mm-film projectors were placed in pairs within an axis determined by four columns located in the central part of the building. Additionally, forty-five 35mm-slide projectors were placed along the perimeter of the space. This structure’s complex technological dispositif was controlled by a computerized machine specially created for the event.[10]

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Installation views of "Imagen de Caracas"

Despite its monumental size and colossal budget, Imagen de Caracas was a collective and poetic counter-proposal to the integration of the modernist model championed at the time by the Venezuelan architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva. Two decades earlier, the influential architect had designed the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. The campus was an unprecedented modernist effort in the country and recognized worldwide, integrating national and international avant-garde art with architecture. Well into the 1960s, Villanueva continued working closely with artists in on-site commissions; and, just before Imagen de Caracas, he had designed the Venezuelan Pavillion at Expo 67 in Montreal, featuring artist Jesús Rafael Soto. Much like his vision for UCV, the pavillion evoked the old Wagnerian dream of the total artwork. It is also worth mentioning that Posani, designer of the Imagen de Caracas pavillion, worked at Villanueva’s firm and was a close aid to the architect.

The spectacle that was Imagen de Caracas was only on view for two months, closing before its run was originally scheduled to end. Critics such as Alfredo Chacón and the sociologist Osvaldo Capriles have also suggested that Imagen de Caracas was shut down by the municipal authorities due to its polemical interpretation of Venezuelan history, which negated officially sanctioned facts in favor of unconventional truths. The unexpected closing prompted public protests and the publication of an open letter in mainstream press outlets addressed to President Raúl Leoni and signed by prestigious figures of the day. Nevertheless, the Municipal Council of Caracas, who sponsored the project, argued that the abrupt termination was due to the high costs of operation for a spectacle that never captured the interests of the general audience. Indeed, a million dollars in public funds were spent on the project. And yet, to date, the film footage of Imagen de Caracas has not been projected or re-assembled again.

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News clipping documenting the premature closing of "Imagen de Caracas"

After its presentation in 1968, Imagen de Caracas soon became a myth that outlived an experiment too sophisticated for its context of production and, perhaps, also one too complicated and ambitious given the experience of its producers. Many years later, the spectacle was summarized by the art critic Lourdes Blanco as “a failed cinematographic-environmental project,” whose “shimmering memory” remained in the minds of those who witnessed it. Capriles stated that it was a “manifestation that broke with traditional schemes and with importing culture, a practice of the official culture in Venezuela.” For other critics, it was an outstanding avant-garde effort that combined Marxist critique of mystification and alienation in a panoply of theatrical devices unprecededented in Latin America.


*This essay by Gabriela Rangel results from her extensive research project underway on Imagen de Caracas, about which she has lectured since 2011. The author wishes to thank Camilo Daniel González and Jacobo Borges for their invaluable help in the process. Parts of this essay appear in articles by the author published in the exhibition catalogue Arte no es Vida (2005) by Museo del Barrio and in the journal Parkett (2005).


 

[1] In an interview with the author in 1994.

[2] The collaborating artists were: Jacobo Borges, Mario Robles, Juan Pedro Posani, Josefina Jordán, Manuel Espinoza, Jorge Chirinos, Ramon Unda, Edmundo Vargas, Ana Brumlik, Maricarmen Pérez Alvaro Boscán, Luis Luksic, and Francisco Hung. For more on this project, see Marisol Sanz, Imagen de Caracas: historia, imagen y multimedia. Objeto Visual, cuaderno de investigación de la Cinemateca Nacional no. 3 (Caracas, 1996).

[3] The actors included ordinary people, members of the film crew, and celebrities from the art and intellectual milieu, such as Miguel Arroyo and Inocente Palacios, who played historical characters.

[4] For instance, the relationship between Simón Bolívar and Simón Rodríguez was narrated as part of a stroll through a beautiful and colorful garden, whereas the execution of Manuel Gual was told in black and white.

[5]Imagen de Caracas was based on the Brechtian notion of the interruption of action and participation, in which theatrical elements and film images become fragmented in space while their content is completed by the spectator, who also needs to move around in order to follow the action projected onto various screens. The in situ presence of actors was a key element of this strategy.

[6] This manifesto was later published in English in “Imagen de Caracas, A Unique Place,” an article signed by Inocente Palacios and printed in The Drama Review: TDR 14, no. 2, Latin American Theatre (Winter 1970): 130–37.

[7] The axis was developed after the failure of the Plan Rotival, the only attempt at planned urbanism undertaken in Caracas proposed by the French architect Maurice Rotival in 1936.

[8] Posani, who began his career as a draftsman in the 1950s in the office of the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, collaborated with Villanueva in the design of the School of Economic and Social Sciences at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (1967–79).

[9] The idea of “quasi cinema” was developed by Hélio Oiticica in installations where the cinematic experience was liberated from the passive consumption of images and alienating fictions. This type of experience was influenced by Oiticica’s readings of Herbert Marcuse, Augusto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed,” and the reception of Brecht’s ideas by Jean-Luc Godard.

[10] This and other points were kindly clarified by Borges in an interview with the author of this essay in January 2008 in New York.