PATRICIO LARRAMBEBERE   Works Exhibitions Texts Cv Contact ABTE
   
Statement (PL August 2010)











text of Valeria González for the book IN SEARCH THE LOST SENSE papers editores (2010)















Daniel Quiles on The Chosen instrument II in Beginning with a Bang! Americas Society New York (2007)



a letter to Emma Dexter about COGHLAN show at Juana de Arco (2006) by Patricio Larrrambebere.

























The ABTE temporary headquarters MAMBA 2002/03 (PL 2002)











The very substance of memory. by Beatriz Vignoli. Buenos Aires Herald, January 14th, 1994.

Rétournement: ABTE’s Railway Interventions Daniel R. Quiles

ABTE: Fifteen Years on the Rails Daniel R. Quiles

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Rétournement: ABTE’s Railway Interventions

Daniel R. Quiles

 

 

The Edmondson railway ticket was invented in 1836, and entered general use on the British railways in the 1840s. Thomas Edmondson, a cabinet-maker and inventor, patented a machine that could produce 1,000 serial-numbered tickets at a time, each 57 by 30.5 by .79 millimeters, from a larger sheet of cardboard. His system would be adopted by countries linked to British industry in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Argentina used them from the 1870s until 1995, at which time they were obsolesced by paper tickets.

As Sarah Lloyd has observed, the ticket both predates and anticipates modernity. “Crucial,” she writes, “was the ticket’s potential to flow, to encapsulate and then release information, access, possession, or chance.” In eighteenth-century Britain, the handmade paper, metal or bone ticket was ubiquitous in government services, church outreach, and entertainment; it was an object that “intensified and shaped social interactions.”[1] Owing to their three-dimensional material presence, for Lloyd, “[T]hey stood in for people and things; they materialized knowledge and experience; they pattered behavior and convention.”[2] Early modern tickets also had a close relationship to money, functioning as I.O.U.s since the “seaman’s ticket” that allowed the British military to defer wages during wartime. In the early nineteenth century, with the advent of trams and railways, Edmondson’s machine placed the human hand at one remove from the cutting of the ticket, standardizing an emblem of modernized, accelerated movement. Distinctively thick and durable, Edmondson tickets later became collectors’ items as countries retired them from service in the 1980s and 1990s.

Formed in 1998, Agrupación Boletos Tipo Edmondson, ABTE for short, is a self-described “society” dedicated to the acquisition and preservation of Edmondson tickets and the material culture of the Argentine railways more generally. In its initial period of activity between 1998 and 2005, ABTE united a network of Edmondson enthusiasts, exhibiting various ticket collections as installation art. The group was also able to rescue several antiquated ticket-printing machines from demolition.[3] These were refurbished and reconfigured to produce new tickets with ABTE’s own designs. The collective also carried out interventions in train stations, such as their Cortes pictóricos, or Pictorial Cuts, in 2002. The “cuts” consisted of the partial repainting and restoration of signs and walls in train stations in and along former commuter rails of Buenos Aires and more recently its provinces. Repainting only sections of these stations, with careful attention to the original paint colors employed, has a striking effect: it reveals the degree to which the rest of the station has not been maintained. These actions drew inspiration from the Situationist International’s strategy of détournement: the “rerouting” of found elements in the capitalist environment, including urban infrastructure, toward revolutionary ends; as the SI described it in 1958, “a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of the old cultural spheres.”[1] ABTE’s project, however, is better described as rétournement: the restoration, however partial, of places that have already worn out and lost importance. This provisional “return” of neglected equipment or sites to their previous condition does not insure their return to wider use, but it does restore and insist upon their visibility.[4]

The aging and obsolescence of Argentina’s railway patrimony in the 1990s was neither an inevitable nor a neutral process. It was the direct result of the privatization of the nationalized rail corporation Ferrocarriles Argentinos, or FA, initiated in 1991 by Carlos Saúl Menem, President between 1989 and 1999. Initiated in response to Menem’s drastic transformations of Argentina’s economy and transportation system, ABTE’s conservation of the disappearing material culture of the railways was, and continues to be, equal parts archival work and protest. Its use of outmoded printing and transportation technologies is not a symptom of scarcity in a Latin American country, but a way of remembering a well-managed, state-run transportation infrastructure, the loss of which was felt acutely after a series of fatal train accidents between 2011 and 2013. ABTE’s rétournement aims to activate the potential of railway patrimony for the present and the future, modeling confrontations with the past that intertwine historical research, social advocacy, and possibilities for amelioration.

The question of this panel is what it means for “contemporary artists” in Latin America to incorporate “old technologies” into their work. I wonder if this might occasion reflection not only on case studies such as ABTE, but on the larger question of just what constitutes “Latin American contemporary art,” and how this category might be altered by the logic of obsolescence. Perhaps, in the spirit of Richard Meyer’s history of “the contemporary” as a shifting museum category that emerged alongside modernism, we might consider the possibility of what “old,” or, more accurately, outmoded “contemporary art” might look like.[5] This might result from over-exposure or, as in ABTE’s case, too little attention from institutions, scholars, or the market when the work first appears. This is not to say that such examples are without value; it is an indication of a lack of interest at a present contemporary moment that might soon shift. Tracking the “outmoded contemporary” occasions reflection on the emerging field of contemporary art history, with its emphasis on the “global.” It also highlights the continued importance of context for the work’s legibility and staying power, both locally and in other sites of reception.

The exhibition Algunos Artistas / Mil Novecientos Noventa - HOY, which took place at Fundación Proa between April and July 2013, was indicative of ABTE’s marginal market presence.[6] Drawn from three of the country’s major contemporary art collections, this survey of 1990s practices in Argentina did not include a single work by ABTE, its founders, or its present members. In October of that same year, however, ABTE received its first retrospective, curated by Javier Villa at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires.[7] However much institutions and collectors have supported contemporary art in Argentina, ABTE has thus remained marginal to it until very recently. Unsurprisingly, the group has been relatively invisible internationally.  

Before privatization, FA boasted 30,000 kilometers of rail track. It was the largest railroad in Latin America, and the sixth largest worldwide, with assets totaling 8 billion dollars, making it one of the largest corporations in the country. It was “…vertically integrated, with in-house units for construction, maintenance, operations, marketing, and real estate, as well as horizontally integrated, offering freight transport, intercity passenger transport, and suburban passenger transport in BA (i.e. commuter rail service),” according to a 1997 World Development article.[8] It also had a powerful union that could, and periodically did, bring the country to a halt with strike actions.

Menem entered office in the midst of a hyperinflation crisis, and passed the Law to Reform the State Sector on August 17, 1989. This law paved the way for the privatization of myriad government-owned services over the course of the 1990s, including mail, telecommunications, oil, gas, electricity, water, airlines, and the railways. Argentina was the world’s first developing economy to privatize its train services. FA had been designated by economists as an SOE, or major “state-owned enterprise.”[9] According to Vicente Palermo, Menemismo’s shift to “policies one can classify as productivist rather than distributionary,” spelled “the end of Peronism as a populist movement,” something that may no longer be true in the Kirchner era.[10] By 1993, Ferrocarriles Argentinos was reduced to a decimated version of its former self, with 1% of its previous employees.[11] FA employees who lost their jobs received one month’s salary for each year of service, with no maximum. The average worker had spent 20 years in service, and cost the government approximately 10,000 dollars per worker—sums paid out, unprecedentedly, by the World Bank. Menem divided the vast railway network into sectors, to be managed separately by different companies, drastically reducing service outside major metropolitan centers.

1993 is also the year in which Patricio Larrambebere, one of ABTE’s founders and its longest consistent member, began collecting vintage Edmondson tickets. Larrambebere was at this time a representational painter whose images of working-class neighborhoods and rail yards in Buenos Aires Province featured portraits of friends in a manner drawn from comics and Post-Impressionism. Larrambebere’s distance from the dominant trends of early-1990s Buenos Aires art is clear when compared to the revitalization of abstraction then underway at Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas, one of the country’s major incubators for emerging artists.[12] Such work made reference to the history of 1940s and 1950s geometric abstraction, while dispensing with the former’s leftist rhetoric. For Larrambebere, it was precisely representation that would provide an outlet for political commentary in the 1990s.

In 1996, he began to abandon the figure in favor of the visual culture of the rail yards and stations themselves, their platforms and signage. His line became more precise, recalling the North American modernism of Charles Sheeler as well as the austere graphic novels of Chris Ware in the late 1980s and 1990s. In a series of paintings of signage from different rail stations, Larrambebere selected examples from all six of the different original train lines that Juan Domingo Perón had brought under the control of the state between 1946 and 1948.[13] Although these railroads originally began as an Argentine investment in 1855, from 1870 England, in a soft expansion of its empire, invested in and gradually acquired them, as was the case with many railways throughout South America. By 1914, Argentina’s rail system was the tenth-largest in the world. Perón’s reclamation of this massive network for the nation’s exclusive profit was one of his major achievements and a lasting symbol of Peronism’s alliance with the Argentine working class. In Larrambebere’s La Paternal (FCGSM), a line of multicolored, ambiguous protrusions peek over the wall, where FA’s logo is visible on a rail car. They suggest picket signs-- perhaps a protest hidden from view.

Larrambebere founded ABTE with Javier Martínez Jacques in 1998. Over the last fifteen years, additional artists have joined in 2003 and 2012. To a large extent, Larrambebere’s concerns as an artist have informed those of the group, and remain inextricable from it, although their strategies were by no means limited to painting. Stickers with “twenty-four thoughts on our contemporary railways,” using the graphic design of the private company Trenes de Buenos Aires, which acquired commuter rail for the city during the privatization, were put up in various sites in 1999. At one of the first of ABTE’s interventions in 2001, the decrepit Coghlan Station was refurbished in honor of its 110th anniversary. A performance complete with a sandwich man informed the public about the history of the station. The walls were repainted their original yellow, and new nameplates added to the station to replace those removed in 1998 amidst the transfer to private ownership; the artists called this a “typographical action.” For the Human Ambulant Ticketing Machines project, the artists distributed tickets in lucha libre masks to combat “unemployment and fare dodging” on June 22, 2001, which was designated “Booking Clerk’s Day” (the anniversary of Edmondson’s death). The interventions at stations were accompanied by gallery-based installations, as in the Temporary Headquarters at Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires in 2002, the walls of which were constructed out of the larger sheets used to cut tickets.

At MAMBA, ABTE allowed other artists, such as Eduardo Molinari, whose own Archivo caminante, or “walking archive,” project was underway at this moment, to curate tickets as they liked. ABTE’s work preceded and dovetailed with a larger set of artistic responses to the December 2001 economic collapse, itself very much the consequence of Menem’s policies, which crystallized with the devaluation of the peso. In response to the crisis, the government imposed the corralito, which froze all bank accounts with the exception of small weekly withdrawals; a broad section of the public took to the streets to protest and in some cases engaged in deadly clashes with the police. In a moment of national outrage, groups such as Taller Popular de Serigrafía and Internacional Errorista occupied public space and contributed visual materials to aid in protest or lampoon official culture. Art historian Andrea Giunta has designated this moment poscrisis (or post-crisis).

In their catalogue for the retrospective, the group summed up their aim as the restoration of visibility to that which had been lost in the privatization—not only a material culture, but specific modes of artisanal labor.

What was it that drew ABTE to the street, or, more precisely, the territory of the railways? It was a reaction to the shameless Tupac-Amaru-izing and subsequent concessioning of Ferrocarriles Argentinos in the mid-nineties... It began to appear in geography, facilities, in the state of the cars, in the stations: the absence of those who worked, and embodied, the railroad. … We were losing all that had been ours. And in this desire to cling to that experience, we began to internalize the labor of those who now lacked their previously essential roles for the railways: the artisans. …To restore the presence of the artisanal, taking up its tools and crafts, was a form of action amidst the degradation of our quotidian landscape.[14]

 

Particularly in their collective formations, post-crisis practices in Argentina have paralleled larger changes in social movements towards self-organization, and horizontalidad, or horizontality. Marina Sirtin defines horizontality as “a form of direct decision making that rejects hierarchy and works as an ongoing process.”[15]

Horizonality is a social relationship that implies, as its name suggests, a flat plane upon which to communicate, but it is not only this. Horizontalidad implies the use of direct democracy and striving for consensus: processes in which attempts are made so that everyone is heard and new relationships are created. Horizontalidad is a new way of relating based in affective politics and against all the implications of “isms.” It is a dynamic social relationship. It is not an ideology or set of principles that must be met so as to create a new society or new idea. It is a break with these sorts of vertical ways of organizing and relating, and a break that is an opening.[16]

 

Horizontalism and self-organization imply modes of production that no longer depend on the government for help—although some such groups have received funding from Nestor and Cristina Kirchner’s successive administrations.[17] ABTE shares two characteristics of horizontalist groups: its its leaderless organization and performance of extra-governmental services. The fact that these services vary between poetic and ironic is what of course firmly classifies ABTE as an art, rather than a community, organization.

ABTE’s rétournement of obsolete technologies has manifested itself on at least three levels. First, there is the group’s reclamation of actual examples of the country’s railway patrimony. The reconfigured Edmondson ticket-making machines produce art, restoring their use value as a producer of uncertain exchange value. Then there is the sense in which painting itself might be understood as something of an “old technology,” art-wise, in terms of the dialogue around the “death of painting” that attended the reception of someone like Gerhard Richter. Both Larrambebere and ABTE’s insist on maintaining a place for the medium within contemporary practice in Argentina, although it is noteworthy that for ABTE the practice of painting has shifted from the labor of art to art-as-labor. This identification would perhaps be romantic or problematic were it not for the fact that it is better described as a haunting, a mode of labor in the place of missing workers.[18] Lastly, in a more figurative sense, there is yet another “old technology,” that of collectivity, which aligns ABTE with avant-gardes throughout Argentine art history as well as convergences of art and politics in eras such as the 1960s. Here the group might fall into an ongoing, international discussion around so-called “social practice,” which has in the last fifteen years gone by multiple designations including “relational aesthetics,” “service aesthetics,” “social engagement,” and so on, and been celebrated as a global phenomenon in exhibitions such as Creative Time’s Living as Form. Here we would have to ask the question, given the local specificity of ABTE’s reference points and histories, whether it is even compatible with such a model of global contemporary art, or need be.

The most recent years of the Argentine railways present an uncertain future, with a series of deadly crashes leading to, in some cases, the re-nationalization of certain train lines under Cristina Kirchner. Since 2012, ABTE has been exploring increasingly remote, abandoned stations in the provinces of Buenos Aires, one of which, Vagues, has been converted into a “Center for Railway Interpretation” with works donated by the artists. The more poetic memory work underway here—fixing a station into something of a museum, for functional trains that will never arrive—is consistent with the humor and social activism of ABTE’s early work, but makes clear that this resurrection of the artisanal was not intended to have been a set of protest tactics in relationship to a single crisis period or problematic regime. Rather, this suggests a way of life—a sort of labor outside of late capital, lingering on in its destructive wake. While such a practice is unlikely to ever break into the global art market, it may succeed in its original goals of activating the past and insisting on the outmoded, maintaining their visibility and value. It brings to mind Eduardo Molinari’s reflection, in a recent interview about his own work: “what are the memories you’d be interested in preserving? What is valuable to remember in order to pass on to new generations? …Does the free circulation of these memories exist today?”[19]

 



[1] Guy Debord et al, “Definitions,” Situationist International 1 (1958).



[1] Sarah Lloyd, “Ticketing the British Eighteenth Century: ‘A thing… never heard of before,’” Journal of Social History, vol. 46, no. 4 (2013): 844.

[2] Lloyd argues that in the nineteenth century, it was precisely the use of tickets for “railways and trams” that “weighted down” their adept fluidity across culture and “social contexts.” Edmondson’s invention in particular, with its removal of the human hand from the process of ticket production, would seem to support Lloyd’s contention that in modernity, a “rage for system” began to win out over a certain informality and heterogeneous use. Ibid., 860.

[3] See Valeria González, En busca del sentido perdido: 10 proyectos de arte argentino. 1998-2008, exh. cat. (Buenos Aires: Papers Editores, 2010), pp. 20-33.

[4] Daniel R. Quiles, “Rétournement: Patricio Larrambebere, Esteban Álvarez, Tamara Stuby,” Arte al Día International (Miami), No. 125, (June 2008): 64-67.

[5] Here I am drawing on Richard Meyer’s recent investigation of shifting uses of the “contemporary” in twentieth-century art history, although in my case I am intrigued with what could also be termed an “outmoded contemporary” that results from the art market’s constant focus on the immediate present. While rapidly canonized contemporary Latin American artists, such as Alfredo Jaar or Doris Salcedo, might escape this effect, I would argue that a large majority are quickly forgotten, replaced in turn by younger or more fashionable names via the market’s accelerated logic. See Richard Meyer, What Was Contemporary Art? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

[6] For the Proa show, see http://proa.org/esp/exhibition-algunos-artistas-90-hoy.php. The catalogue for 15 Años is still being edited for publication in 2015.

[7] See Javier Villa and ABTE, eds., 57 x 30,5 mm.: Quince Años de Cultura Ferroviaria ABTE, exh. cat. (Buenos Aires: Museo de Arte Moderno, 2015) (forthcoming). 

[8] Ravi Ramamurti, “Testing the Limits of Privatization: Argentine Railroads,” World Development, Vol. 25, No. 12 (1997): 1976.

[9] Ibid, 1973.

[10] Vicente Palermo, “The Origins of Menemismo,” in Peronism and Argentina, ed. James P. Brennan (Wilmington, DE: SR Books,

[11] Because of the destructive effects on both railway workers and the railways themselves, Juan Carlos Cena describes the privatization process as “el ferrocidio,” a kind of assassination. Juan Carlos Cena, El ferrocidio (Buenos Aires: La Rosa Blindada, 2003).

[12] The discourse around this work—particularly the neo-geometric abstraction of Fabián Burgos, Graciela Hasper, and others—is remarkably close to that of so-called “zombie abstraction” in today’s art market. It involved a postmodern evacuation of the earlier Marxist or political associations of 1940s and 1950s geometric abstraction in Argentina’s constructivist movements. See Ursula Dávila-Villa, ed., Recovering Beauty: The 1990s in Buenos Aires, exh. cat. (Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, 2011).

[13] See Mario Justo López and Jorge Eduardo Waddell, Nueva historia del ferrocarril en la Argentina: 150 años de política ferroviaria (Buenos Aires: Lumiere, 2007), 157-176.

[14] ABTE, “Artes visuales, pintura y ferrocarril edmondsonianismo,” in 57 x 30,5 mm.: Quince Años de Cultura Ferroviaria ABTE, exh. cat. (Buenos Aires: MAMBA, 2015), forthcoming.

[15] Marina Sirtin, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (London: Zed Books, 2012), p. 3. See also Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (Oakland: AK Press, 2006).

[16] Ibid, p. 9.

[17] See Justin McGuirk, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture (London: Verso, 2014), 49-66.

[18] Here we might think of the commercial success, in the 1990s and early 2000s, of Argentine painters ranging from Kuitca to Fabián Marcaccio.

[19] “A Conversation Between Eduardo Molinari and Nuria Enguita Mayo,” trans. Tamara Stuby, Afterall 30 (Summer 2012): 70.

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