Watered down modernity. Iconoclastic fluids in Alexander Apóstol’s archival mediations

– by Lisa Blackmore


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In Venezuela during the 1940s and 50s, a potent apparatus was set in motion to construct a new image of the nation under the banner of order and progress. Global discourses of aesthetic modernism in architecture and art were fused with State-sponsored planning to create road networks, mass housing and infrastructure in health and education. To underscore that this dream of a “New Venezuela” was actually coming true, the transformed nationscape was meticulously recorded through films, photographs and texts that filled institutional archives and fuelled a state propaganda machine that measured the nation’s progress by its public works projects. This thrust toward development followed the end of Juan Vicente Gómez’s dictatorship (1908-35) and was endorsed by military and civilian governments from Venezuela’s precariously incipient democracy, yet it gathered speed during the decade-long military dictatorship that began in November 1948. Alongside the quest for modernization fuelled by burgeoning oil revenues managed by what Fernando Coronil aptly designated the “magical state”, the military rulers instituted the customary hallmarks of authoritarianism: press censorship, proscription of political parties, persecution, torture and the co-opting of national culture at the service of the dictatorship. (1) In short, the postcard-views of the modern Nueva Venezuela came at political costs that clandestine groups sought to make visible, not least through the covert circulation of the Libro negro de la dictadura (1952): the “black book” that detailed the abuses the dictatorship inflicted on dissidents. (2)

Yet despite this turbulent political history, recent exhibitions, books and documentaries have tended to celebrate the 1940s and 50s as a golden era inscribed historiographically as “Venezuelan modernity”. To shore up architectural prodigy, the same institutional archives that the military state used to found its celebratory narrative of progress have been mined to unearth visual indexes of pristine vistas of modernity that have again been “set apart”, following Michel de Certeau, to write an exemplary account of tropical modernism that largely brackets out its stormy political undercurrents. (3) Thus, given that images from the archives originally created to generate political legitimacy for the dictatorship (figs. 1 & 2) often left traces of human presence hors-scène, they are convenient for productions of architectural heritage that draw on blueprint vistas of modernity to circumvent the fissures inherent in actual encounters and mis-encounters with modern spaces.

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View from El Silencio towards the Centro Simón Bolívar, Caracas. These two spaces have often been interpreted respectively as emblems of early signs of modernity in Venezuela and a later, fuller realization of architectural and urban modernity. Image courtesy Archivo Histórico de Miraflores, undated.

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Detail of façade of building. Image courtesy Archivo Histórico de Miraflores, undated.

In contrast to commemorations that mute the interface of architecture and politics, much recent Venezuelan art reassesses more critically the legacy of aesthetic modernity and urban modernization. Sixty years on, Caracas’ urban fabric is a complex patchwork of iconographies and contingencies that are constantly torn and sutured. To draw on Michel de Certeau’s taxonomy of spatial dynamics, in contrast to the impeccable archival images that reflect the official “strategies” that promised immediate modernization through construction, legacies of the modern today attest to the provisional “tactics” that residents devise to inhabit the city. (4) This recognition of lived space impacts on physical sites and how they are thought. For instance, El Helicoide, a spiral colossus carved out of the Roca Tarpeya, was conceived as a shopping mall and exhibition centre but it now houses military intelligence police, a shift in use that inspired a project organised by Celeste Olalquiaga to review the significance of this modern icon (fig. 3). Similarly, Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s Ciudad Universitaria is a host to constantly fluctuating tensions: in February 2014 it was the site of violent protests then in June was the nexus for the Architecture Faculty’s Trienal de Investigación that featured artist-led projects and residencies to re-engage with Villanueva’s modernist icon, the superbloque.

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Archive photographs of El Helicoide, June 1989. The image forms part of a research archive being created by Proyecto Helicoide. Image courtesy Archivo Bornhorst/Proyecto Helicoide.

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Plan for Superbloque, installation and workshop led by filmmaker Mariana Rondón, organised by BACKROOMCaracas in collaboration with adjkm architecture collective at the Facultad de Arquitectura y Urbanismo, Universidad Central de Venezuela, June 2014. Image courtesy http://adjkm.com.

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Superbloque, installation view. Image courtesy Florencia Alvarado/©BACKROOMCaracas.

Understood as sites of contention, modern spaces resist the reductive dichotomy of utopia vs. dystopia and its potential for inducing nostalgic responses to the past or limiting appraisals of the present to disillusionment. In this context, the work of Alexander Apóstol exemplifies the potential for productive confrontations with the ideological underpinnings of the will to modernise and the legacy of this project today. Among the central aspects of Apóstol’s practice is the mediation of archival documents whose truth-telling pretensions are redeployed to critical ends. In Residente Pulido (2001) he digitally seals photographs of modern buildings turning them into inaccessible monoliths; in Fontainebleau (2003) he superimposes spurting geysers onto archive images of fountains, conflating the imagery of oil extraction and modern monuments, and in Documental (2005) he re-stages a screening of 1950s newsreel in the liminal scenario of a present-day Caracas shanty. (5)

Crucially, in Apóstol’s dialogue with the modern, water appears as a leitmotif, acting anarchivally as an iconoclastic and cannibalistic force whose monumental fluidity signals a “watering down” of the scenographies of modernization promoted by the military state in mid-twentieth century Venezuela. Of course, relationships between water and city have long existed. In H20 and the Waters of Forgetfulness (1986), Ivan Illich traces William Harvey’s 1628 discovery of blood’s circulation in the human organism through to the later paradigm of urban sanitization that advocated water as a force to remove the detritus of human life. Illich invests water management with biopolitical resonance, arguing that fluid purification set the stage for a new homo economicus in tune with Enlightenment rationalism: a productive subject who would inhabit a deodorized city cleansed of filth and odours. Following precursory urban overhauls like Antonio Guzmán Blanco’s Hausmann-inspired renovations in the nineteenth century, this hygienic conception of space was manifested in sanitation projects in 1940s Venezuela when governments invested in urbanization as a route to crafting healthy, rational political subjects who would naturally pursue superación —that is, moral, economic, and social improvement.

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Photograph of concrete-lined stream, circa 1950s. Image courtesy Archivo Histórico de Miraflores.

In this context, the fact that sealing riverbeds to create concrete canals, sewerage, river dredging, aqueducts, and hydropower were flagship government projects hardly seems coincidental for Venezuela’s modernity was built on fluid foundations. After the nation’s semi-liquid oil was extracted from the subsoil, its revenues funded subterranean infrastructure and modern constructions at ground level; then, as emblematic water features were incorporated into works, they served as monumental focal points that would obliquely reference the “magical sate” that made such progress possible. It is these connections between water, state and modernization that can be tracked through Fontainebleau and Caracas Suite, two series by Apóstol where iconographic liquids rise to the surface.

Dialogue with Alexander Apóstol

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Alexander Apóstol, Las Toninas I, a partir de Alfredo Boulton, from the series Fontainebleau (2003). Image courtesy the artist.

Lisa Blackmore (L B) I’ve been thinking about your altered fountains in Fontainebleau that depicts, among other spaces, the El Silencio area (1945). This is the space that is usually cited to illustrate Caracas’ “early modernity” in architecture, but it is significant that it was also the site where Medina Angarita’s government re-envisaged Caracas as a hygienic space and sought to reverse El Silencio’s reputation as an insalubrious den of prostitution, “one of the most dangerous sources of infection and venereal contagion in the capital and a grave menace to public health”. (6) Villanueva’s residential buildings were therefore a remedy whose premise recalls Ivich’s description of the city “as a place that must be constantly washed” and where “dwelling by people is transformed into housing for people.” (7)

In Fontainebleau you redeploy archival photographs by Alfredo Boulton and alter their status as indexes that, as Barthes has it, authenticate a given reality. Your heightened jets suggest a mnemonic function: the fountain as a spectacle to remind the viewers of the monumental redefinition of urban space and the state’s harnessing of natural forces. Your parodic exaltation of the fountain reminds me of something you said in an interview in 2004 when you stated that Caracas’ modernist appearance was “nothing but a mirage, that today is a broken mirror. Oil turned into water for us.” (8) In Fontainebleau, you seem to give the fountain and water a spectral function like the heterotopic mirror Foucault describes as “a placeless place. (…) an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface.” (9) Do you see a relationship between territory, oil, city and water?

Alexander Apóstol (A A) It’s interesting that there is a close relationship between territory, oil, city and water. Alongside the different political plans that Venezuela has undergone since oil was first extracted, these phenomena have not only shaped the city of Caracas, they have moulded the national mindset.

When Pérez Jiménez came to power he heeded recommendations made by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, which claimed a country would develop once its infrastructure was in place. In other words, the habit does make the monk. That is why, thanks to oil revenues, the country was endowed with such impressive infrastructure for its time. However, key aspects related to human development were overlooked and today we are paying dearly for that.

The famous expression “sow the oil” (sembrar el petróleo) that Venezuelan intellectual and politician Arturo Uslar Pietri coined in 1936 advocated that oil income should be invested in other economic and social areas in the nation. Yet the expression itself contains an idea of territoriality, which situates it in a space and sets up a parallel with land. That territoriality has been defined purely through oil earnings, bypassing Uslar Pietri’s recommendations and any other parameters that might have been applied to it. Those are the origins of Venezuela’s direct relationship with money and not with production, manifested in the ongoing quest to constitute different territorial spaces which represent that money.

For Juan Vicente Gómez, who started oil exploitation, that space was the city of Maracay. For Pérez Jiménez, it was Caracas. Then the democratic regimes after the dictatorship made unsuccessful attempts at decentralization. Finally, Chávez designated the shanties located in Caracas’ geographical limits as his site of power. For all these rulers, defining a space has been vital, both in terms of their political discourses and their plans of action. However, those spaces were not necessarily defined by a mindset or by means of production. Instead, what ultimately defines them is either the abundance or lack of money. This recalls the successful presidential campaign by Luis Herrera Campins in 1978 that singled out the hitherto unknown low-income area of Caucagüita with the obvious slogan ¿Dónde están los reales? – “Where’s the dosh?”

That is how abstract oil – which people have no way of measuring or attaining, that nobody sees or touches, and that only demonstrates to its citizens its overwhelming economic force – ends up defining not just territory, its cities or our idea of nationhood, but first and foremost the mindset of all Venezuelans, leaders and subjects alike. We all believe we are the direct heirs to a fantasy that has turned into water, that is, the idea that the State is a wellspring whose function is to dole out money.Today we don’t have a plan nor any food, and our general plan by default is to keep on being heirs.

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Alexander Apóstol, El Helicoide, from the series Caracas Suite, video still, (2003). Image courtesy the artist.

(L B) In El Helicoide (Caracas Suite, 2003) water is a destructive force that erases an archival remnant of a building that epitomised the quest for model modernity. The video enforces a dually unstable contingency: the squirting water erodes the contemporary image of the building while inferring that the conceptual foundations of modernity have also been washed away. Nothing remains. What is more, the fact that you’re not working with an historic archive but a digital archivo (file) seems to negate any representation of modern space. This attack on memory is compelling. In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates presents knowledge as a block of wax that stores mnemonic images (archival documents, if you will) that enable us to recall a concept. By contrast, if “the impression is rubbed out or imperfectly made, [it] is forgotten, and not known.” (10) If archival inscriptions are the condition for recollection, perhaps the iconoclastic “watering down” of El Helicoide infers collective lacunae, which begs the question of what has been forgotten or what this erasure suppresses. Does the fragility and mutability of the digital file (archivo) of El Helicoide undercut the city as a vehicle for grand narratives? Could we read the work as the somatization of collective amnesia and/or the incapacity to write a collective history based on the foundational remnants of modernity?

(A A) Memories of the city and the country are intensely bound up with archives and images of Caracas’ modernity where everything seemed to work and the Venezuelan dream was apparently here to stay. In reality, however, it never arrived. That development never happened and since then constant social, economic or political deficiencies have been successively dressed up in populist stopgaps paid for with oil, which end up creating a mindset driven by immediacy that in turn cultivates political models entrenched in clientelism and corruption.

In El Helicoide we are faced with an unfinished building for which a series of incomplete or sinister projects have been proposed and a fountain of water that drenches its digital printed image, erasing its ink, symbolically annulling its memory and confronting us with this building’s sole function: to be an enduring reminder of the inefficiency of our system and our immense capacity to imagine and to desire.

There are many ways of preserving memories but that doesn’t mean they are effective. The architect of Nazism, Albert Speer, went far enough to realise that an imposing ruin was the best expression of an equally imposing civilization or system. That is the premise that governs El Helicoide: the city ends up encircling it like Angkor Wat’s daring, improvised trees in Cambodia.

Today the building is home to possibly the best example of the State we have: an unfinished modern and futuristic construction surrounded by shanties, which houses the political police’s offices and cells. This is evidently a compelling demonstration of a State that is just as improvised but that is also under military and police control; a State that is buttressed by a society in debt, that is bound to the deficiencies suffered by its increasing marginal sectors.

Inside that building, histories are erased and manipulated; outside it, people fantasise about what it is or should be, but those stories or desires are just as manipulated.

Those are the traps that memory lays for us. Just as the figure of [Venezuelan liberator] Simón Bolívar dances to the tune of whoever plays the mambo, Venezuelan modernity is a complex space that —despite being remembered nostalgically— speaks to us of the nation and territory in absolutely military terms. This is the base upon which any form of ideological framework rests or converges, from the right-wing military dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez to the left-wing civic-military autocracy of Hugo Chávez.

The immediacy of digital files (archivos) and the immediacy with which they can be manipulated or erased is a clear metaphor for our relation to memory, to the construction of our narratives and the way that some are substituted by others with the same speed and the same epic tone. Ultimately in the digital era, ideologies and politics are a continual retweet and memory and desires are ever-changing dead letters (papel mojado).

Alexander Apóstol

Alexander Apóstol (Barquisimeto, Venezuela, 1969) lives and works between Madrid and Caracas. Selected exhibitions in Guggenheim Museum, NY; Tate Modern, London; Bronx Museum, NY; Museo Tamayo, MEX; Witte de With, Rotterdam; ICP, NY; Fundación Jumex, México; PAMM, Miami; The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Connecticut; NGBK, Berlin; Museo Reina Sofia MNCARS, Madrid; MUAC, MEX; BAC, Geneve. Solo shows in MUSAC, León; SAPS, Mex; DRCLAS, Harvard University, Cambridge; Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition; CIFO, Miami; Mor.Charpentier, Paris; Galería Distrito Cu4tro, Madrid; Arratia+Beer Gallery, Berlín. Also in Manifesta 9 (2012); Venice Biennial (2011), San Juan Triennial, PR (2009); Praga Biennial (2005); Istanbul Biennial (2003); Sao Paulo Biennial (2002); Havana Biennial (1997); etc. He has publish the monographic book "Modernidad Tropical", Musac/Actar/Birkhauser, Barcelona (2010); and the artist book "The Savage Revolutionary. A Telenovela" (2010) Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña/Fundación para la Cultura Urbana, San Juan/Caracas; among others collective books, etc.

Lisa Blackmore

Lisa Blackmore obtained her PhD from Birkbeck College in 2011. Her thesis examined the construction of an official discourse of modernity during the military dictatorship in Venezuela (1948-58) through an analysis of visual culture, monumental spaces, government exhibitions, parades and public art. She is currently Post-Doctoral Researcher at Universität Zürich, where she is working on mid-twentieth century manifestations and sites of aesthetic modernity during periods of political unrest and their critical mediations. She was Teaching Fellow in Latin American Studies at the University of Leeds (2013-14) and from 2005-13 she lived in Caracas, where she taught at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and the Universidad Simón Bolívar and worked as a curator and translator. Her most recent articles have been published in Estudios: Revista de Investigaciones Literarias y Culturales and Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies.

( 1 )

See: Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

( 2 )

The Libro negro de la dictadura. Venezuela bajo el signo del terror 1948-1952 was compiled by political dissidents José Agustín Catalá, Simón Alberto Consalvi, Ramón J. Velásquez, and Leonardo Ruiz Pineda for the Comité Ejecutivo Nacional Del Partido Acción Democrática.

( 3 )

See: Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Colombia University Press, 1988). An exception, however, can be found in the recent documentary written and directed by Carlos Oteyza, Tiempos de dictadura. Tiempos de Marcos Pérez Jiménez (Cinesa, 2012).

( 4 )

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (London: University of California Press, 1988), 34-42.

( 5 )

The artist’s website presents his photographic series and fragments of his videos. See:http://s107238961.onlinehome.us/index.php

( 6 )

Memoria del Ministerio de Sanidad y Asistencia Social, iv-v cited in Juan José Martín Frechilla,Planes, planos y projectos para Venezuela: 1908-1958 (Caracas: Fondo Editorial Acta Crítica, 1994), 365-6.

( 7 )

Ivan Illich, H20 and the Waters of Forgetfulness (1986) in Malcolm Miles & Tim Hall (eds), The City Cultures Reader (London: Routledge, 2004), 358.

( 8 )

Edgar Alfonzo-Sierra, “‘Caracas se ha hecho una suite de su propia modernidad en ruinas,”’ El Nacional, 26 July 2004.

( 9 )

Michel Foucault & Jay Miskowiev, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16-1 (Spring, 1986): 24.

( 10 )

Plato, Theaetetus, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892), Gutenberg.org Posted 17 November 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1726/1726.txt