The War of Metaphors
Francisco Reyes Palma
For the purpose of this encounter, designed to constitute co-operation
networks among Latin American artists, curators and cultural activists,
I was requested to participate so as to contribute my reflections
on the difficulties of 'translation' in contexts that
claim to bear similarities with each other. The mere thought of
translating ourselves made wonder whether we all belong in a unified
linguistic network, inserted in a community of more or less homogeneous
contexts. No doubt, the proposal engineered a play between similarities
and differences, a Latin American 'we' composed of
many others, and a set of relations between text and context.
Apart from the fact that there is a correspondence between every
cultural fact and an act of translation, I regard translation
as a connecting task between realms of signification that would
otherwise remain isolated. Translation is a state of between-languages;
an initiative seeking to find proximity among senses as well as
people, making language to communicate by itself.
Starting from this attempt at translation, I shall linger a while
on some of the terminology used in the document on which this
encounter was based and which provided the identifying features
of the intervening independent management groups. 'Context',
included in the said terminology, is a decisive word in terms
of the group network, since it tends to be associated to the notion
of a surrounding reality, whose existence ineluctably imposes
itself on us. Nobody would normally doubt that the context is
present. However, it is available to us only as a construction
of the mind or as act of creation, though it is as important as
the text. The only existing context arouses from an intense effort
of selection and forgetfulness. When we offer a definition for
'group', we tend to supplement it with something that
appears familiar to us: Latin America as a reassuring context;
a geography where we can gather and feel welcomed in a linguistic
sense. Hence, we are faced with a problematic notion when it comes
to translating Latin America with its various geopolitical and
cultural characteristics, its language varieties, different historical
experiences and multiple cultural projections.
Ultimately, the setting of Latin America into a union of differences
is not really fruitful on the field of negotiation when it come
to international exhibition circuits. And this is because we are
subordinating a number of nations to a common naming, then to
grant the same amount of space to whichever European country,
even to the tiniest one, which disposed of its name in an independent
manner. In practical, daily terms, it is supposed that this narrow
scope may be set right by extending its reach to the notion of
Iberian-American, i.e., by incorporating the Spanish element.
Even so, these terms are to be resignified from a pragmatic perspective.
Bearing in mind one question (How do our most prominent researchers
represent Latin America?), I reviewed some texts that constitute
a part of cultural studies and cultural sociology in an attempt
to extricate weighty, solid concepts that might aid translation.
That initial moment became a language experience. To my surprise,
after a tracking glance, strategic terminologies taken from diverse
places came together in a meaningful bloc.
What I mean to say is that I found a level of metaphorical enunciation
with a strong corporal accent, a terminology that is being commonly
used, and one that, in some way, defines a living organism, characterised
by discontinuity, subordination, asymmetry, hybridisation, and
heterogeneity. This organism was, at the same time, marginal,
distorted, disproportionate, emerging, peripheral, informal, or
dependent. I am aware of the fact the persistent recurrence of
these expressions has stemmed from the pressing need to explain
to ourselves the features of our modernity. Still, seen as a whole,
they referred me to the existence of the Latin American bloc as
a unit in a hatching, incomplete state, when it is still blurred,
unbalanced, broken, odd; even monstrous and inferior. An attempt
at explaining these marks ends up by colonising us anew, drawing
us back to the ancient imaginary of the Conquest with its savages,
barbarians, and aberrations of Nature.
This part of my analysis was restricted to a crosswise reading
for the sake of separating terms regardless of author, original
source, or degree of academic recognition. Seen thus, it did not
make any difference whether the words named collective subjects
or social processes inside the immense geopolitics called Latin
America. In the end, the experiment resulted in a sample of conceptual
teratology brandished by our collective intellectual, whose phantom
portrayal offers a clear example of the way in which we are spoken
by language, and of how discourse, even if it deals with liberation,
recolonises us through our own writing.
Now watchful for words, I would have liked to review dozens of
texts, including my own, to interrogate them again. However, I
had to return to the original purpose of this particular text
and account for the notion of translating ourselves in our different
realities starting from a set of projects about cultural management.
I find that wondering about the logic of aggregation, about the
search for cohesive elements, might provide good grounds to search
for shared meanings; that is to say, such common elements as enable
us to translate ourselves. Frederic Jameson outlines some explanatory
principles on the matter:
[...] In no way does the concept of a national allegory stand
for a nostalgic repetition of the old yearning for an organic
community. In fact, the issue at stake is that of a community
or group, but such a group may come into existence because it
shares a given situation, a set of contradictions, a long-term
social crisis or a situation involving aggression or oppression.
It is only on the basis of shared danger that a group can be constructed.(1)
If nations are communities bound together by shared fears, when
they constitute regional blocs, as is the case with Latin America,
they become enlarged communities of fear. Nowadays, regardless
of language, territory, inhabitants, and the legal enforcement
aimed to keep cohesion and order, the nation viewed as a factor
of identification arouses profound distrust amid a fundamental
portion of cultural formations. This standpoint is complemented
by anti-state control thesis of globalisation, where it is imperative
that planetary space be reformulated. Along these lines, each
territory is defined as a boundless void deprived of autonomy,
sovereignty, or national identities that might hinder the free
flow of the market.(2)
This use of spatiality as one of the fictions of power tends to
facilitate new forms of generalised spoliation, but the paradox
here lies in the fact that the United States of America, the world
power that most emphatically insists on its efforts to eradicate
all discourse rooted in nationality, behaves like a huge chauvinist
enterprise. In this capacity, it closes its frontiers to migration,
deploys a set of protectionist barriers that favour its economy
alone, and swamps its people with national symbols on the grounds
of the threat imposed by external terrorism.
There does not seem to be much dialogue between cultural groups
and nation in our days. Artists and curators dispense with national
representation in international forums; they are content with
being a part of the world's art group. And when they do
represent their country at international events, they do so outside
the national rooting that was a distinctive feature in the past.
There are artists who take advantage of their double nationality,
or who participate in these events as members of national groups
that are not theirs, under a foreign flag. Rejection of nationality
becomes manifest in the works themselves. Both curators and artists
have come under the flag of denationalisation. We should then
wonder what aspects of threat and fear intervene in the formation
of groups and group networks. While it is true the scale of these
phenomena is much smaller than that operating on nations, this
does not mean that they lack cohesive elements or aggregation
Mexico's recent history seems to provide us with the counterexample
for the rejection of nation, understood in the allegorical terms
maintained by Jameson. A neighbour to the American aggressive
power, Mexico lost over half of its territory in the 19th Century,
with the resulting exacerbation of national sentiment. Later on,
with 'the first revolution in the 20th Century 'the
civil upheaval known as 'the Mexican revolution'-
the theme of unity returned to the limelight. Moreover, it took
on marked cultural hues that still influences our history: suffice
it to think of the heritage of collectives by muralists and engravers.
As was to be expected, reaction to a twofold source of threats
(external attacks and the multiplication of internal factions)
resulted in artists and intellectuals being absorbed by the State
apparatus, though not in a unilinear fashion. Thus, Mexican art
and culture became privileged instruments for the restoration
of the social tissue, avoiding domestic disintegration and putting
a stop to external threats. I am raising the issue because one
of the key facts to understand today's Mexican culture is
still to be found in the problem of cohesion and cultural grouping
as historical memory. One cannot but feel surprised at finding
that the country enjoys unshakeable peace amid a chain of crises,
above all, the aboriginal movement uprising that has not subsided
for the last decade even though it has suffered the genocidal
brutality of low-intensity warfare.
Nevertheless, Mexican rejection of the national is ever stronger,
almost irrationally so. No differences are established between
the strategic nature of the cohesive force necessary for survival
in an environment of external and domestic commercial looting
and old patriotic-holiday manipulative behaviours. There is no
differentiation between cultural homogenisation mechanisms engineered
by the State and the fight for autonomy carried out by national
minorities. There is no effective official opposition to the violence
exercised on the borders, but there is a complaisant attitude
on the face of mediatic mythologies like the cult of Frida Kahlo.
Unlike nations under open military siege, the rest of the countries
undergoing experimental globalisation should become aware that
they are, in fact, besieged nations, at least in an economic sense.
As from there, they should recognise a scenario of invisible wars
as a condition that, with equal intensity, affects the survival
of cultural networks. But the system possesses the quality of
promoting substitute spheres; the one related to international
art is a unit characterised by a frivolity stemming from its connection
with typographic and interior design, fashion parades, and architectural
works signed by renowned professionals.
If the only thing that remains intact, in almost everybody's
view, is the feeling that the State as an agency is on the verge
of extinction, then perhaps the only threat suggested by the documents
in which the groups briefly described their work is to be found
in the institutions of art. I do not mean the fear of being engulfed
by the large apparatus of bureaucratic inertia, but merely a slight
suspicion to contract the institutional as if it were some kind
of infection. Likewise, there are some misgivings about structures
offering private sponsorship.
Margin and institution occupy the relevant level, the level of
opposites. Both artists and promoters of culture are recognised
as independent, liminal, civilian associations. They forswear
the institution's systemic and coercive structure except
when it plays its project-funding role. The obvious question is
whether the institution itself is a mode of management that keeps
rejecting change, incapable of interstitial transformation. Still,
are there any worrying issues other than assessing whether the
establishment of group networks actually stands for a renovated
Rather than go into this quandary, I would prefer to move into
another dimension. Michel Foucault's visionary perspicacity
noticed that, during the Cold War era, there was a change of course
from disciplinary society towards control society, a characterisation
that was taken up later on by Gilles Deleuze. I will not pause
too long at control society except to highlight the straggling
nature of its domination, its control over marketing, its machine-based
surveillance, the end of institutions, the dominance of informatics,
the disappearance of frontiers and the reckoning of humans as
a recording and determination factor to access.(3)
However, recent historical events like September 11 lead us to
take notice of the emergence of unprecedented factors that foreshadow
a new aspect of control society. By this I mean the manipulation
of terror, a stage of the social field dominated by oversized
arbitrariness, with markets operating under illegality or usury,
migrations moving forced by a state of emergency, and wars that
go against international Law.
Likewise, administration of production lies one step away from
administration of death, through new experimental wars whose target
is the civilian population. Their chosen weapon is terror, and
their aim is to wear away both the unity of the family and the
consistence of groups and inhabitants alike. Perhaps the future
nature of management networks should be envisaged within this
changing framework. Will communities of resistance be able to
gloss over demands for defensive action when confronted with networks
involving dread, or even terror?
Our efforts at translation will have to reshape the term 'cohesion'
together with its multiple connotations. The cultural network,
just like the notion of Latin America, keeps its motherly, friendly
quality, but it is clear that we are faced with such harsh situations
that no alibi will open a route of escape or defence.
From tribes to networks,
and on to corporate tribes
Following population growth and prestige bestowed upon artists
as professionals, there has ensued a population explosion of professional
ranks that contend for the pieces of what is usually known as
the field of art. They first seek for local recognition and then
for international acknowledgement or, conversely, they struggle
for recognition abroad in order to ensure a special status in
their countries of origin.
Artists, curators, and critics alike cannot set themselves free
from the expectation to stand out within this excessively rarefied
environment. Still, the decision to define future careers and
prestige lies more within the curators' scope, associated
to the possibility of accessing visibility in exhibitions, biennials
and fairs. Along these lines, the bare truth is that the skills
involved in the game whose prize is to become a part of the prevailing
trend may well burn out more energy than does the time devoted
to the work itself. However, all in all, real assembly machinery
can be deployed to achieve the effect of an actual work of art.
Networks are apt to participate in the dispute for spaces through
new forms of grouping together, with a sort of marketing approach
gathering the largest possible number of specialists, disciplines
and sponsorships under very flexible structures (rather similar
spread across control areas.(4)
does not differ much from what is happening to certain groups
which, libertarian as their discourse may be, are bent on monopolising
support, commissions, and recognition.
The electronic network model, originated from a Cold War experiment
intending to maintain communication at work in case of a nuclear
attack, unleashed a world-wide informatics revolution as soon
as it was introduced into the civil society, bringing along its
own virtual space 'cyberspace- and its surveillance technologies.
Hence, speaking about the network implies assuming a relational
system, a system of unstable power at play. And it is a long time
since formal economies have been operating as a network, not to
mention informal economies such as drug trafficking, sex tourism,
or child prostitution, to cite just a few examples. It goes without
saying that, in more modest ways, the industry of great art is
also inserted within the same reticular system.
Having reached this point, it might be useful to appeal to some
sort of clarity regarding terminology. It was not by chance that
Foucault adopted a dual version of power, with its positive aspect,
as a productive deployment of strategies, tactics and technologies:
a lasting exercise of the act of resistance; a state of friction
among individuals and among forces in a permanent state of rearrangement.
Power exists only in relational terms; when resistance ceases,
power is no more. Conversely, seen in its negative aspect, power
was reduced to the sheer presence of the State, or to the imposition
of legal codes, to an aggregation of control and repression. Power
as negativity then took on the characteristics of an emanation.
Our vocabulary is deeply rooted in substantialism, which transforms
the said power into something liable to being snatched, attacked,
hoarded, and even bequeathed.
The old-fangled term 'curator', which initially referred
to the function of taking care of works of art, enjoys a special
receptivity for new meanings. We can now speak of an aggregation
of instrumental power that enables the curator to reshape the
realm of creation, and even to propose views of possible and impossible
In the essay that I submitted to the Conference held under the
name Del malestar de la curaduría, I concluded that, since
the global art system was actually in charge of control, there
was nothing but struggle so that 'the curator does not become
yet another piece of waste in the global society, and [that we
should] consider his projection as a cultural activist, an heir
to two significant traditions: the freedom to propose initiatives
grounded on creative autonomy and knowledge, and the connectivity
of networks, both turning him into a liaison agent among initiatives
undertaken by artists' communities and audiences; among
institutions, enterprises, and new technologies. The curator should
build rhizome-like rather than horizontal spaces, thus aiding
to revert the patterns of a culture that is being threatened by
global standardisation, war, and spoliation.(5)
I find something in common between this posit and Duplus'
assertions about how 'curatorial practice may be carried
out away from art environments, as an operation that creates conditions
of possibility for social creativity (6)'
Almost a year after I wrote my paper, the considerations aroused
by this meeting prompt me to be more precise in my remarks. Curatorship
is a symptom of profound changes in the field of professional
specialisation; it also points to ongoing events in the museum
institution, one of the most representative mediators in the cultural
field. In addition, the curator has been a mobile, connecting
agent, because of his readiness to slip between networks made
of various devices: the museum or the art gallery and the mass
media; entertainment and the Academy; critique and fashion; the
artist and audiences; knowledge and technologies; the art market
and the cultural industry. To a certain extent, it is demanded
that the curator be a builder of more horizontal relational spaces.
However, the linearity is the same, only that it is thought of
as recumbent. Perhaps the rhizome notion is more productive, as
it evokes destructurisation and absence of control.
From the very beginning, the curator has been a split figure,
used to connecting dissimilar spheres. He originated from the
dematerialization of artistic practice and from a conceptual proposal
that validates him as a new kind of creator. On the other hand,
he profits from the reshaping of the museum institution in accordance
with the demands posed by the arts' avant-garde without
losing the mediating power that enables him to act as an instrument
of knowledge. In this capacity, he will classify, separate, arrange,
divide, and distribute over time and space. For hundreds of years,
these tasks have provided artists' works with scale, value,
and visibility, while the museum, for the same purpose, counted
on the support of other institutions pertaining to the world of
art, history, and critique.
Nevertheless, we shall have to distinguish among discourse, space,
and discursiveness of spaces. In this sense, the curator has transformed
the ground where cultural action occurs, and has become a crossing-point,
a novel area of indistinctness directed at symbolic production.
In fact, I had already noticed the 'no place' characteristic
in the most recent modes of the museum as a franchise. I now extend
it to the curator, together with biennials and art fairs as offshoots
of the museum at the point where it comes together with world
fairs, thematic parks, and the market. We then reach a globalised
version: the metacurator, whose arrogance is as inflated as his
Before equating the curator with the action of self-management
networks, we shall have to consider the above characterisation.
We shall also have to think whether management, autonomous though
it may be conceived of, does not end up by moving as a more flexible
institutional variable, but still in association with formats
redolent of administration and control.
Ubiquity of power
To assume that concentration of power occurs only in institutions
is as narrow-minded as to locate it only in one isolated historical
event. According to Foucault, we are dealing with a uniform, extensive
element. In part, the translation work will consist in establishing
bonds between time and space as dynamic expressions of the exercise
That some countries are eternally condemned to be the past strengthens
the 'metropolitan' idea of their novelty and modernity
(metaphors about time applied to the social). Thus, newness becomes
incompatible with the notion of tradition. It is a proven fact
that we in Latin America can creatively interchange modernity
and tradition, even though American hegemonic discourse, out of
deficiency rather than of precision, only asserts the tradition
of what is new. Countries like Mexico, with its strong indigenous
tradition, tend to claim ownership of an exotic utopia: an eternal
'transtime', so to speak, and this is what they exploit
as a novelty at the moment of gigantic exhibitions.
Just like the museum, modernity determined its own forms of order
and temporality; in some way or other, we should take it upon
us to break them down. How to deal with such avant-garde elements
that adhere to Saturn's principle of devouring his own offspring
(in other words, to massacre trends? And just not to overlook
the other avatar of Saturn the Titan by the name of Cronus, how
are we to connect with the avant-garde's fondness for progress,
evolutionary echoes included?
The choice lies in rejecting eternal return as well as the linearity
of avant-garde progress. The possibility of taking the lead, of
being an avant-garde 'a derivation of warfare terminology-
is denied to Latin America. It would seem as if we were naturally
destined to backwardness, to retreat. The avant-garde is a conservation
area pertaining to the modernistic model, and therefore requires
a rear-guard. And this is located in the Third World, since the
Second World was vacated during the Cold War, when the socialist
bloc decided to leave it out of its ideological habitat, in the
words used at the time.
Perhaps we feel more comfortable accessing other temporal cycles
implying return and repetition, the cycles of fashion adopted
by the world of art, for in these the option of 'being alternative'
'i.e., of becoming invested with otherness- is viewed as
a valuable feature in the market of the season's novelties.
When it is not time that drags us towards difference, then space
will. This is why I would prefer to include, in this set of terminologies,
particles like the prefix 'sub' 'I do not mean
commander Marcos, by the way- preceding words like underdevelopment*
or subaltern. We even tend to talk about ourselves as inhabitants
of the subcontinent, even in Mexico, which, according to cartography,
is a part of North America.
According to cartography as a spatialised form of domination,
the notion of South appears to be debased. Do you remember the
map of the world upside down? A simple little thing like a turn
of the co-ordinates, and our assumptions about the size and pre-eminence
of countries also takes a turn. Even the scale measurements change.
The language of images is also a language pervaded by domination.
Global and glocal are metaphors about space that have already
been adopted into the language of networks and groups. As for
me, it is not long since I became aware of the word 'glocal',
the impossibility of being global, of fully and truly belonging
in the imaginary of language that permeates the whole of contemporary
life. Again, 'glocal' is hybrid born from the crossing
of species, as one of its components is related to 'local'
while the other refers to 'global'; when all is said
and done, it is a half-caste word. When you do not have what is
necessary to be one, so you are two, then you are another aspect
of the barred Other, a contrasting figure with the roundness of
globality, which keeps to itself the total equilibrium of shape:
the perfect sphere.
We find yet another invention of power in the establishment of
centrality as a reserved right. At the time of distribution, we
were given the 'periphery' and, suddenly, a new phenomenon
occurs. Culture is driven off the centre; perhaps this decision
is only a tactical measure meant to conceal control mechanisms
and, perhaps, it drags along the peripheral tails. However, the
idea of de-centring has turned out to be so attractive that it
has inspired the geometric growth of biennials and art fairs,
amid receptive communities comparable to those that travel in
search of a snatch of sun and sun in the holiday season.
For time out of mind, the tropes of language have slipped into
our modes of thought, and metaphorization has been the way in
which patterns of dominance have become natural. This time exceeds
by far the one that our thinkers and artists have invested in
order to adapt to power-imposed patterns, always resulting in
more widespread exclusion.
The network as heterotopy?
Overwhelmed as we feel by the construction and maintenance of
our own organisations, it is not often that we are able to situate
micropolitical action in long-term prospects. However, I think
that resorting to heterotopy as a matrix for reflection might
help us to think of the role of metaphors about space and time
(always side by side in their relation to power) so as to approach
their operational quality.
Originally, heterotopy was the word that anatomists used to name
displaced organs. When Foucault availed himself of this notion
to deal with space in a broad sense, he discarded the reference
to the initial anomaly and turned the concept into the place where
the whole set of cultural environments are represented, discussed,
or inverted. This fictitious spatiality enjoys full existence
At times, the French thinker seems to be dealing with an issue
that originated in surrealist paradoxes, and whose purpose was
to foster the encounter of heterogeneous spaces; the juxtaposition
of the incompatible at one and only place, like Borges did, with
that peculiar atmosphere of alienation and familiarity all at
The very looseness of the term facilitates the connection among
places that were seemingly opposed: the garden and the Turkish
baths; the cinema, the brothel, but also prison as an area where
control can be perfected. Our attention is drawn by a special
variety of spaces 'hetrochronies. This feature is shared
by the typical 19th Century museum and the pantheon; the former
gathers different time planes, whereas the latter establishes
total detention of duration.
'Heterotopy' derives from an ancient word of Latin
origin, which could be expressed as 'alternate place'.
The network itself acts as a threshold, the place where all places
meet and dialogue about collaborative practices and cultural resistance.
The alternate place offers the possibility of keeping up endless
processes of movement, of enthusiastic resistance where the important
thing is the fact of moving rather than the performance of each
group or individual. However, there is some likelihood that the
wandering silhouette of the nomadic artist will meet the new spatial
device that Foucault relates to a ship. This is the point of 'heterotopy
par excellence', the 'place no-place', and a
space that is constantly floating and constantly adrift, yet fraught
with the capacity to encourage the imaginary.(8)
His conception of national allegory in the work of art refers us,
'instinctively or unconsciously', to a collective situation
and to its political consequences, such as art of compromise. Frederic
Jameson, 'Transformaciones de la imagen en la posmodernidad',
in Revista de crítica cultural # 6, Santiago de Chile, March
1993, p. 24.
is no more than a slogan, a metaphor. Still, like every other fictional
term, it creates effects of reality that affect concrete lives.
Its inconsistency will only become perceivable through the collapse
of the symbolic web on which it is supported.
Deleuze, 'Posdata sobre la sociedad de control', in
El lenguaje literario, Christian Ferrer (comp.), Montevideo, Nordan,
[In English in the original]
There is an amazing number of new interconnections. We would have
to resort to a network census to realise the low profile of the
ones dedicated to culture or to so-called art.
Francisco Reyes Palma, 'Estrategias curatoriales', paper
submitted to the Del malestar de la curadoría Conference,
Curare Journal, space for the critique of art, #22, Mexico City,
Encuentro latinoamericano de proyectos de gestión independiente
en arte contemporáneo (Working paper). Buenos Aires, Argentina.
An initiative of Trama-Duplus, October 2003.
[Whereas the English language provides a number of prefixes and
even the word 'deputy' to indicate this idea, Spanish
uses only the prefix 'sub', so the author's pun
and its humorous connotation is lost in English]
Michel Foucault, 'Des espaces autres', in Dits et écrits,
1954-1988 (lecture, 1967; first published in 1984). Paris, Gallimard,
1994, vol. IV.
cit., vol. IV, p. 762