“He who controls the present, controls the past.
He who controls the past, controls the future.” George Orwell [i]
Geschichte versus Historie
Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it (…) History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. (…) there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence it claims to universal authority.
Piere Nora [ii]
In “Society must be Defended”, Michel Foucault conjectured that the winners of a social struggle use their political authority to suppress a defeated adversary’s version of historical events in favour of their own propaganda, which may go so far as historical revisionism. Nations embracing such a tactic would likely use a “universal” theory of history to support their goals. [iii] Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has written of the use of this approach by totalitarian and Nazi regimes, with such regimes “exercising a virtual violence upon the diverging tendencies of history”[iv].
It is curious to note that what we usually call History, is, in German language, split into two clearly separate concepts. On one side, there is the term Geschichte, that refers to the lived history, which survives through the body’s own knowledge and through diverse and highly personal narratives. On the other hand, there is the term Historie, which refers to the validated facts by and in accordance with history’s standards as an academic subject. In other words, Historie is the product of an intellectual operation that converts Geschichte into an intelligible concept. [v]
The friction between these two states of memory is the guiding thread of the collective exhibition Unerasable Memories, curated by Agustín Pérez Rubio, from the collection of the Cultural Association Videobrasil. In the show, are gathered a series of collected memories that challenge the notion and validity of a ‘collective memory’.
From Questioning Official History to Faking it
Modern memory is, above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image. (…) The less memory is experienced from the inside the more it exists only through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs.
Piere Nora [vi]
Departing from the initial idea of “conquest”, as an action in which man imposes itself with violence, to subdue, govern and enslave others, the exhibition Unerasable Memories spreads out through pressing issues of the globalized world of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Addressing themes such as, the erasure of indigenous cultures, slavery, racism and forced emigrations. Using video (mostly single channel) as a primary means, some works touch on specific events such as the military coup in Chile, the September 11, in the USA, and the massacre in Tiananmen Square, in China.
But this is not an exhibition that deals with reality on a purely documentary basis. Instead it subtly underlines the inexistence of a real story. Stories are not lived, they are told. To paraphrase American historian Hayden White, a real story is an oxymoron. Likewise, history is a problem, not a puzzle whose pieces only need proper grouping. As Roland Barthes famously said; “History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we look at it”, which is not to say historical events never happened or are devoid of reality, but rather that the very notion of history is a distinctive discursive practice, a particular modality of representation, predicated on narrative.[vii]
Remembering French philosopher Jacques Rancière who suggested that the real must be fictionalized in order to be thought. It is interesting to note that, Pérez Rubio deliberately chose to place very near each other the most fictional works (such as Projeto Pacífico, by Jonathas de Andrade, and Vera Cruz, by Rosângela Renno), to those which are more documentary (as Contestado, a Guerra Desconhecida, by Enio Staub and Arca dos Z’oe, by Vincent Carelli and Dominique Gallois). In all of these works one can feel constant overlaps between reality and fiction. Be it in an attempt to revise history from an unofficial discourse, counting with the personal testimony of those who participated in the events. Or by a fictionalization of the real, not to deny it, but to fake it, thus opening new ways for understanding the past and dealing with the present.
It is interesting to observe that even the works using the most fictional narrative processes, have a close connection to reality and to specific historical events. Both Projeto Pacífico, by Jonathas de Andrade and Rosângela Rennó’s Vera Cruz, are undeniably fictions. The former shows Chile as a stone-raft drifting across the Pacific Ocean after an earthquake separates it from the rest of the continent. And the latter is an “impossible documentary of the discovery of Brazil,” which shows a dialogue between the Portuguese and the Indigenous communities at the moment of their first encounter. Although imaginary, both works have a deep connection to reality; Rennó’s video is based on the famous letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha, and in Andrade’s work, reality surpassed fiction when a large earthquake actually occurred in Chile, in 2010, while the artist was developing the project. If Rennó recharged an historical document giving it a new reality, Andrade took advantage of the present to write a frighteningly real Homeric past. The artist took benefit of the real earthquake to get some testimonies, via telephone, of first-person experiences of the post-disaster. These authentic testaments were superimposed over the fictional animation, which shows Chile’s detachment from South America. Creating a work that is not only interesting because it plays with its own ambiguous nature, mixing reality and fiction, but also because it deals with an ancient grudge between Chile and Bolivia and their historic dispute for the sea, which resulted in a perpetual historical and geographical resentment.
Another work that successfully plays with the potentiality that arises from this imprecision between reality and fiction is the video The Loudest Muttering is Over: Documents From The Atlas Group Archive, where the artist Walid Raad uses fictional resources to narrate the political crisis in his country. The video records a lecture where Raad shows several found and created documents, which the artist attributes to historical and fictional characters. Thus, in a very poetic and open-ended way, Raad discusses on political, social, psychological and aesthetic dimensions of the war in Lebanon.
In all these cases, the avoidance of facts and of a strict historical accuracy never results in an escape to reality; instead it is an eternal return, revived with the power of imagination and projective memory. As Aristotle alleged in Poetics, poetry is superior to history because poetry speaks of what must or should be true rather than merely what is true. [viii]
From an Intimate to a Transpersonal Memory
(…) we should be aware of the difference between true memory, which has taken refuge in gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body’s inherent self knowledge, in unstudied reflexes and ingrained memories, and memory transformed by its passage through history, which is nearly the opposite: voluntary and deliberate, experienced as a duty, no longer spontaneous; psychological, individual, and subjective; but never social, collective, or all encompassing.
Piere Nora [ix]
All works in the exhibition have, to varying degrees, a personal imprint given by the artists. But the issue of intimate memory is more clearly addressed in a group of works in which the artist himself and his biographical memoir appear as central figures. Whether through his corporeal presence or through his ubiquity as a narrator.
The Flesh, also remembers.
In Samba do Crioulo Doido (Mad Creole’s Samba), Luiz de Abreu works upon a number of clichés and preconceptions on the black skin. Using sexuality, humour and the exotic as catalysts for a reflection on how we understand the body and the memory that it carries. In the performance, Abreu dances Samba completely naked, using only some props to densify the narrative. Such as a cut Brazilian flag, a plastic mouth, which further thickens his lips, and also some high-heeled boots. The shoe, for example, is the symbol of liberation for the slaves, but here the boots give the performance a tone of debauchery that re-enslaves the artist within the place of “exoticism”.
On the other hand, the video, My Possesion, from the duo Mwangi Hutter, stresses the nullification of eroticism and exoticism, in a visceral deconstruction of stereotypes. The black body of the artist Ingrid Mwangi, wearing jeans and a simple shirt, is the central figure of the action. While Abreu leads us directly to the position of black citizens in Brazil, Mwangi Hutter (born respectively in Kenya and Germany) uses the body as a field of a supra-geographical battle, in a collision between colonizer and colonized, resulting in a cathartic performance.
Following this “autobiographical” strand, which goes from the intimate to the transpersonal, we also find the works of Carlos Motta and Liu Wei. In these examples, the artist appears as a narrator, who, departing from his personal experiences, allows and encourages the creation of an open space for collective reflection.
In Unforgettable Memory, Liu Wei reminiscences the year of 1989, his sophomore year, and the year that he almost got killed in the massacre of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The artist approaches people on the street and uses one of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century (a man who remains motionless in front of a row of tanks from the Chinese troops) as a catalyst to access their personal memories blocked by fear and censorship. From the evasive answers that the artist receives, it becomes evident the emasculating power, that taboo and the censorship exercised by the state, have on individual memory, erasing any trace of sympathy, grief or civil unrest.
In Letter to My Father (Standing by the Fence), Carlos Motta [x] talks about the social and emotional impact that Ground Zero exerts on its visitors. Simultaneously reflecting on the dangers of historicizing the present, on the meaning of a memorial in a place of great economic projections, on the anachronism of a tourism spectacle and on the ideas of nationalism against a “foreign” identity. Motta speaks to his father, but simultaneously refers to America as patriarchal system and to his own status as an immigrant trying to deal with a pain that does not belong to his birth-nation. Motta’s personal narrative is intersected by testimonies from individuals that the he addresses in the vicinity of Ground Zero, asking them to talk about “what they saw”. Similarly to Liu Wei’s work, the inclusion of testimonials from others, serves, on the one hand, to make a bridge between an intimate memory towards a collective one, and on the other hand, refers indirectly to the patriarchal figure of the State that castrates and shapes memories as it pleases.
What is truly in discussion in the group of videos mentioned above are the barriers, concepts and paradigms that underlie our identities. At the same time suggesting that these ideas and personal constructions, can be completely overcome from the inside out, from body to representation, from the intimate to the collective.
At the opposite end to the exhibition’s entrance there are two videos that can summarize another possible core within the curatorial proposal. These refer less to an intimate memory and focus more on a shared memory. Both get closer to an abstraction that emphasizes the similarities between behaviors and events rather than the specificity of the facts.
Lucharemos Hasta Anular La Ley, from Sebastian Diaz Morales, tackles the battle of prostitutes, transvestites and street vendors against the Argentine Congress in 2004, which voted for a law aimed at preventing them from working in certain parts of the city. Diaz Morales uses fragments of video from spontaneous recordings and reworks the images in an almost abstract aesthetic that are reminiscent of animations in black and white.
On its turn, Dan Halter’s, Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave) interposes images of bustling crowds, whether in demonstrations in Africa or in raves in the UK, juxtaposing the images with a soundtrack of the hit Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good), by the Zimbabwean singer Rozalla.
In both works the viewer is never informed of who are the subjects or what is the historical event that is being addressed, one can only distinguish a group of anonymous characters in the crowds. Because the works don’t feel the need to explicitly contextualize what they are portraying, and thus get closer to abstraction, to a fictionalization of the real, perhaps, they end up using the same means and resources adopted by the “official history” in order to continue to prioritize a history written by the winners: dehumanization and decontextualization. However, even generic, the images evoke memories of forms of political protest and collective organization. They emphasize what we, as humans, have in common, the power of the crowd, working together in a constant yearning for a different reality.
History is written by the winners
Despite the focus on hard issues, the pleasure that comes from living this exhibition is painfully enjoyable. Inhabiting the exhibition in its entirety requires perseverance from the viewer, a prolonged stay, and above all an ability to think for oneself, without referring to an outside authority. This is not a monothematic or historicist exhibition. Nor a pedagogical one (that would be too close to the political and social structures that the curatorial concept itself is questioning). It is perhaps an attempt to rescue history through art. From an understanding of official story as a construction of the winners upon the losers and the review of its mechanisms and reconstruction. Which stress a vital need to reconsider the role of memory and the ways to create it as a tool against this “victorious narrator”, and how to fight against the passivity inculcated by him.
The curator also highlights art’s importance for this purpose, acting as a tool for information, which creates a kind of history-from-below, capable of engendering an alternative to the official one. A history that is not based on a discourse of sovereignty, nor depends on the major media who, for economic, political or institutional interests, inevitably become biased towards the version of the “winners”.
On the other hand, exhibitions like this, in a popular institution like SESC, serves to reaffirm the importance of addressing cultural production, not as a way of promoting institutions, curators or specific artists, but as a space of proactive questioning of the present, taking advantage of the intrinsic capacity of art to push people away from a tendency of obedience and accommodation to mass opinions, without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their own actions. Exhibitions like this try to indicate ways to resist all tendencies toward a steady, enduring, definitive state. Escaping anything that increases the level of dependence, apathy and passivity linked to habits, to the conventional criteria, myths and other mental schemes that are born from a complicity with the established power structures. Systems of life that, even political regimes change, will be kept if they are not questioned. [xi]
Unerasable Memories – a historic look at the videobrasil collection
Curated by: Agustín Pérez Rubio
31.08.2014 – 30.11.2014
Sesc Pompeia, São Paulo, Brazil
[i] ORWELL, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Secker and Warburg, London, UK, 1949.
[ii] NORA, Pierre. “Between Memory and History, Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26. California, The Regents of the University of California, Spring 1989: 7-24. (Translated by Marc Roudebush.), p.8-9.
[iii] Philosophy of history. History as propaganda: Is history always written by the winners? in Wikipedia (Source:
[iv] RICOEUR, Paul. History and Truth, Northwestern University Press, Illinois, USA, 2007, p.183.
[v] BARTH, Karl. John D. Godsey (ed.). Karl Barth’s Table Talk, Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011, p.45.
[vi] NORA, Pierre. “Between Memory and History, Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26. California, The Regents of the University of California, Spring 1989: 7-24. (Translated by Marc Roudebush.), p.13.
[vii] PINTO, Ana Teixeira. Excerpt from the curatorial text from the exhibition: The Reluctant Narrator. Narrative Practices Across Media. Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon, Portugal. 15/10/2014 – 11/01/2015 (Source: http://en.museuberardo.pt/exhibitions/reluctant-narrator) Página acessada em 18/10/2014 – 14:55
[viii] “the difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse … The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more scientific (philosophôteron, more philosophical) and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truth while history gives particular facts.” Aristotle, Poetics, trans. W.H. Fyfe, Heinemann, London, 1932, 1451 a-b.
[ix] NORA, Pierre. “Between Memory and History, Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26. California, The Regents of the University of California, Spring 1989: 7-24. (Translated by Marc Roudebush.), p.13.
[x] The title of the work refers to Franz Kafka’s text, Letter to Father, about a teenager who tries to talk to his father about his difficulty in relating to him as a figure of authority.
[xi] LE PARC, Julio. Guerrila culturelle?, originally published in Robho 3 (Spring 1968) and re-edited in Art d’Amerique Latine. 1911-1968 (Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne/ Centre Pompidou, 1993).