“ProtestART”

 
Written by Straulino Mainou

Translated by: María Ritter
Luisa Straulino

Luisa Straulino Mainou has a degree in restoration of movable cultural heritage from the National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museography "Manuel del Castillo Negrete" (ENCRyM) and a master’s degree in Mesoamerican Studies from National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Her two theses have won honorable mentions in the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) 2011 and 2016 awards respectively, one in restoration and the other in archaeology. 

Since 2010 she has worked at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) as a restorer, first at the Quintana Roo INAH Center and since 2016 at the National Coordination for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage (CNCPC). 

Her interests include working with archaeological and paleontological materials, as well as the use of analytical techniques for their diagnosis and elaboration of informed and argued decision making. She has participated in a large number of projects such as the archaeological project of Río Bec, the Urban Archaeology Program as restorer in charge of the restoration of the Calmecac in the Spain Cultural Center (CCE), in the Tlatelolco Archaeological Project in the restoration and analysis of Caja de Agua, in the archaeological zone of Dzibanché and Kohunlich and recently she has participated in the restoration of the collection of paleontological material of the Regional Museum of Guadalajara (MRG), in the conditioning of the permanent packaging of the collection of paleontological zoological remains of Hoyo Negro and has collaborated with the Paleontological Project of Tocuila in the assessment and determination of taphonomic processes in the fossil remains of mammoths, etc. 

In addition, she has been part of research projects such as "Indigenous painters and ceramists in the construction of Novo-Hispanic liturgical art" of the Institute of Aesthetic Research of the UNAM, she has also participated in the organization of academic events such as the Latin American Symposium of Physics and Chemistry in Archaeology Art and Conservation of Cultural Heritage 2019, in the International Seminar on Conservation of Paleontological Material and recently organized in conjunction with the CNCPC; the Regional Museum of Guadalajara and ECRO, the first Seminar on Conservation of Paleontological Material for restoration students in the country.

1

Illustration 1. Demolition of the statue of Diego de Mazariegos in Chiapas, 1992. Author: Roger Mazariegos. Via: Wikimedia Commons.

To begin to talk about art and its link with acts of protest we must first try to define what art is, but...... I will start by accepting that I still cannot define it myself. As a restorer, I’ve always had problems defining it because what is art for some, is not for others, and what is art in one era, is no longer art in another; it depends on whether the person who made the piece had the intention of making art, it depends on how it is positioned in the market, and so on. Consider, for example, the Coatlicue or the Piedra del Sol that are now exhibited as pre-Hispanic art in the National Museum of Anthropology. For the Spaniards, these stones were horrifying symbols of the devil and paganism that had to be eradicated, and not once since their arrival and during the entire viceregal era, they were seen as art, overlooking, among other things, the enormous quality of their workmanship. And well, for the Mexica...the truth is that I don't know if they shared the concept of western art, although obviously for them they were pieces full of meaning.

So, I have asked Diana Soria Hernandez[1], artist, what is art in her opinion, and afterwards we will come back to this for more reflections on art and protest:

"For me art is that which makes you see, feel, think about something in a different way, it has the ability to surprise and open perspectives. Art asks questions and makes connections between concepts that move at different levels of perception: it plays and provokes."

Defining what art is has had academics, philosophers, artists, among others, in a constant debate; so, we could think of defining cultural heritage, since art is only a part of culture.

This concept might seem a little more enlightening (the UNESCO definition of cultural heritage can be found by clicking here); for example, in Mexican legislation, cultural heritage is divided into paleontological, archeological, historical and artistic according to more or less arbitrary periods, the first being the least defined, archeological until the establishment of the Hispanic culture, historical from this date until the Mexican Revolution and the last dates from the end of the Revolution until today, as long as they have been declared artistic monuments. The only ones that are exempt from the declaration are the best-known muralists such as Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. Depending on the type of heritage, it has a certain degree of Federal protection, being the archeological the most protected and the artistic the least protected (to read the law, click here).

So cultural heritage could also be understood as everything that humanity does with a relevant value, but who decides that value? what is taken into account? what is relevant for decision makers is relevant for different social groups?

In this regard, Laurajane Smith (2011) makes an excellent theoretical dissertation on what is the authoritative heritage discourse. This was developed in the 19th century and defines heritage as material objects, places, sites, or landscapes that are not renewable. This discourse, prevalent today, sees heritage simply as a "thing" that can be measured, catalogued, and defined and therefore its meanings can be easily controlled and confined. The authoritative heritage discourse does not allow heritage to be seen as a cultural process, but rather, because it is a "thing" and something to be "found," its innate value, its essence, will speak to future and present generations ensuring its understanding and place in the world. Thus, experts who are dedicated to safeguarding these objects or places (and not cultural processes) work as custodians of the past by taking on administrative roles for heritage assets and heritage events backed by a sense of duty, where they must not only protect the "thing" but communicate to the nation its values that come from the past. 

Hence, Álvaro Santillán's proposal (2021), to understand heritage as a factish, is very useful to understand what Laurajane Smith mentions and to study the cultural processes that surround it, such as protests. The term factish was coined by the philosopher Bruno Latour and is a hybrid between facto and fetish, which share the root facer to do); with this, the dialectic between the documentary and magical function of the sign/heritage is recognized, as well as the conscious and unconscious that it unleashes in us.

"The term factish encompasses the magic of the fetish, the knowledge of the facto, the image of the facia and the utility of the artifact, and it is this conjunction that distinguishes a vile object from a cultural object. They are not only things, but they are also ideas, signs, processes, actants, relations and even beings, since they are personified" (Santillán, 2021).

According to Santillán (2021) it is not useful to see heritage as a normal artifact, since it comes out of use, nor is it useful to see it only as a document, since it has functions that elude reason, but if we see it as a factish we notice coincidences with the meanings that we attribute to it and with the social relations and attitudes that it provokes. The risk of losing these magical objects and the mortal punishment it would unleash are, from a fetishist vision, the reason why we separate them from use, keep them in safe places and restore them to "purify" them.

On the other hand, people who deal with the belief of others in fetishes are the ones who become compelled by rage to destroy these objects. However, it is the fact that they can be destroyed that generates that factishes, or heritage in this case, contain an inherent force (Latour, 2010).

2

Illustration 2. Anonymous stencil found in the plaza in front of the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo at UNAM, Mexico City. Photo: Luisa Straulino Mainou, August 2021.

This (seeing heritage as a thing and as a factish within the authorized heritage discourse), entails three consequences, according to Laurajane Smith (2021), which have to do with what will be exposed ahead when "art" or "monuments" are subjects of protests.

1. This heritage discourse excludes understandings of heritage that lie outside of it or are oppositional. Non-elite forms of heritage are ignored or dismissed as special pleadings of minority interests because they are sub-national or non-Western.

2. Continually validating forms of knowledge and values that contribute to the authoritative heritage discourse; as it needs to have a privileged position in public debates and in forums of interpretation and meaning of the past, privileges are granted to those who continually reinforce the discourse. These privileges can be access to heritage resources, access to information, to means of dissemination and popularization, to education, etc. Since the authorized heritage discourse recognizes and validates only certain types of knowledge. 

3. It obscures cultural production and the processes that occur during its management, conservation and what happens around it; above all, the authorized heritage discourse delegitimizes the debate and controversies about the interpretation of the past and the present. It tends to obscure what heritage should really be about, which should refer to "the processes of meaning-making and representation that occur when heritage places or events are identified, defined, managed, exhibited and visited”.

3

Illustration 3. Black Lives Matter in Toronto was credited with creating artwork on the monuments of former Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, the King Edward VII equestrian monument, and the Egerton Ryerson monument. Photo: Jason Hardgrove, July 19, 2020. Via: Wikimedia Commons.

In recent years we have seen how various monuments in different cities around the world have been used to demonstrate social discontent either by painting them, taking them down or frankly destroying them, in feminist movements, in indigenous movements, in movements such as Black Lives Matter and recently in Canada, when 200 bodies of indigenous children were found in a mass grave in a religious school that was to "adapt them to the new regime". We have also seen how there are large sectors of people in social networks that strongly condemn these acts as vandalism.

4

Illustration 4. Protests in Santiago de Chile in 2019 at Plaza Baquedano. Photo: Carlos Figueroa.: Wikimedia Commons.

As Gamboni (2007) says, in the context of a purely aesthetic conception of art, the aggression to artworks, is shown as something "irrational, meaningless, irrelevant and certainly threatening" and goes on to explain that, for example, the attacks on Catholic images made by Byzantines and Protestants can be understood by religion and the destruction by the French and Russian revolutions finds justification in politics. However, with the spread of the modern concept of the work of art that has an end in itself (art is freed from any purpose or objective), as well as the idea of heritage exposed by the authoritative discourse, aggression can only be understood as an expression of ignorance and misunderstanding, as a return to savagery, barbarism, and lack of civilization. 

Thus, ignorance has been key to stigmatize the destruction of art and those who destroy, iconoclasts, are presented as unable to see the value of what they destroy, they are also taken as blind to the actions they perform. 

But nothing could be further from the truth: when the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they destroyed everything related to "paganism", destroying buildings, sculptures, statues, ways of life and even codex -in other words, the written memory of the Mesoamerican peoples-; the French during the Revolution also destroyed many objects and monuments that recalled the old monarchical regime, as well as in the Russian Revolution (they even killed people who represented those old regimes); the Protestants also destroyed religious images, among many other examples. These people knew perfectly well what they were doing and knew the value of what they were destroying; the cultural memory of groups alien to the new power, new regime, new way of thinking, new authorized discourse is destroyed. 

In the history of art, iconoclasm (the destruction of religious icons or monuments and other symbols because of what they represent) has been little studied and art historians prefer to turn a blind eye to the subject, seeing it as taboo or a "non-issue" since to address it would be to go against the idea of the absolute autonomy of art, thus narrowing the possibilities of giving art other purposes than those of being for its own sake (Gamboni, 2007). This lack of recognition of an entirely normal fact of cultural life has resulted, among other things, in people who destroy being judged in a classist way. 

In the 19th century it was emphasized, by several scholars who lamented the destruction of works during the French Revolution, that the militant radicals and destroyers had coarse and primitive traits, and their poverty coupled with an "underdeveloped nature" was also highlighted, which is still the case today when the aforementioned factishes are destroyed. Since the people who perpetrate these acts are "ignorant, poor, without knowledge, etc.", they have been described since the 19th century as vandals (Gamboni, 2007).

5

Illustration 5. FB screenshot taken from the social network by Luisa Straulino on September 1, 2021. Feminists who have taken the surface of various heritage monuments in Mexico City as a canvas for their demands are called vandals. It is noted that in addition to qualifying them as vandals, the term is coupled with "pendejas" in reference to their supposed ignorance and diminished mental capacities.

Vandalism is related to gratuitous acts and to qualify someone as a vandal is always a stigmatizing and classist act since it necessarily implies ignorance, stupidity, baseness, and lack of taste. The vandal is excluded from the civilized human community, and in addition, their exclusion threatens future vandals (Gamboni, 2007). 

Thus, when someone is qualified as a vandal, they’re always looked down upon, from our supposed class privilege without knowing/understanding that art, heritage or factish, have diverse spheres of social significance and that they do not have this supposed freedom to exist just because and for the sake of it. Those who qualify these acts as vandalism (speaking of the examples mentioned above) do not realize that they are, in fact, acts of iconoclasm.

The few modern studies of iconoclasm are social histories of art, and they give this violent treatment that is bestowed on factish as a special type of reception of art or heritage; likewise, it is given an indicator of functions, meanings, and effects. Furthermore, Gamboni (2007), points out that "it goes without saying that the origin and connotations of the term vandalism make it particularly unsuitable for use in a scientific context or one that aspires to have an interpretation".

Latour (2010) proposes five things to observe about this phenomenon: the objectives of the destroyers of factishes, the roles they give to those already destroyed, the effects this destruction has on those who appreciate the destroyed factishes, how this reaction is interpreted by those who have destroyed and or damaged the factishes, and what effects this destruction has on the feelings of the destroyer. In fact, with these proposals, Latour is giving rise to discourses opposed or different from the authorized patrimonial discourse.

Considering all this dissertation and what Smith, Gamboni and Latour propose, we can begin to see the phenomenon of the destruction of art for what it is and stop making judgments based on what academic art historians of the nineteenth century said; we can stop being classist and blind to a very interesting phenomenon for cultures. 

On the other hand, there are certain artistic pieces that are made from the beginning as a means of protest. For this, we return to Diana Soria Hernández, whom I interviewed since she made a series of performances referring to Ayotzinapa, in Finland, the place where she lived at the time of these events and where she still resides.

Diana, what is your opinion on the use of art as a social protest?         

  

Artists talk about what interests us and, within that, about what makes us angry and outrages us. Social protest is a collective act of citizens in which artists can participate bringing art tools as accompaniment, for example, to give visibility to the cause as with a mural or a performance, however, this is different from being art. For the social protest to be effective, the visibility it reaches is essential and in this sense the artist can contribute a lot.

However, it is different to make art with a social protest theme. In this case the artist manifests "alone" or in a group with other artists; however, in general it will not have the power to generate a change as a collective social protest does. There are very specific cases in which an artist has managed to transcend a social protest and permeate the collective memory as a symbol of it, of the claim, of resistance. 

However, the intention in both cases is different.  Art as a tool in a social protest shares the objective of the protest and probably seeks a structural change (such as changing a law, for example). In contrast, art with a social protest theme, executed by the artist in another context, will have a potential for change on a much more personal scale, since what art does is to generate an individual experience.

Activists, on the other hand, work to generate structural changes and that is why in many places being an activist is extremely dangerous. Activists use the tools of art and art uses the tools of activism, but, although there is a common interest, they are not the same in objectives and method.

I remember that you have a series dedicated to Ayotzinapa, with 11 performative events developed over the course of a year. Can you tell us a little about this artistic project?

Well, to begin with, that series emerged in Finland, based on a very great need I had to participate as an artist in the social protests in Mexico. The rage, sadness and indignation burned me while I was far away and, in a context, where violence, impunity and corruption cannot be understood. I felt the impotence and isolation three times as much. 

At the beginning I tried to make performances to break the silence, to resist the historical truth that in Europe was understood as the indisputable truth. It was a very tiring effort of resistance. I discovered that it was uncomfortable, that not only for the Mexican State the historical truth was convenient. People at my university were tired and bored with my foolishness. They did not understand why I was still working on the issue if the case had "already been solved". 

The truth is that I was not looking to "make art". I am an artist and from there I tried to contribute; to understand what tools belong to art that could be useful in making the impunity of Ayotzinapa visible, to pressure. As I was doing a master's degree, little by little everything I did began to be part of my schoolwork because I couldn't think of anything else. I especially followed the case of Julio César Mondragón, the student who was skinned alive. I asked myself questions like who took the photo and why? were they the same people who uploaded it to social networks? why? why didn't Facebook censor that photo? Really, it was a very lonely and very sad process. Of course, I missed Mexico and I wanted to go out and scream in the streets too, but thanks to that process I met other Mexicans here, who are my family today. This is important on a personal level but also beyond that because I think the social protests of Ayotzinapa united the population for a moment.

6

Illustration 6. Undergraduate performance by Diana Soria Hernández. ASHES (2016). Photo: Anti Ahonen.

The need to represent this painful event for all Mexicans in a European context, where did it come from? 

I think the question of what is wanted with the social protest piece (an art piece that exists outside of social protest) is very important. In my case, being in Finland, my goals changed over time. I did many performances in many places: in art spaces, protests in public space (they were few and small for obvious reasons), in festivals, in workshops and in video. At the beginning I just felt the urge to break the silence, the need to show my support, that from Finland we would not remain silent, that the historical truth was unacceptable. That was it, that was what it was for. But my audience knew little and could not contextualize the event. I then wanted to move them to demand justice from their privileged positions as Europeans, to their own governments.... but that was my naivety. In the end what I wanted was to make a piece that made my audience feel uncomfortable, that something had happened in Iguala, Guerrero, that it was unacceptable but that it was up to them whether they wanted to know or not.

7

Illustration 7. Diana Soria Hernández in: Action in the framework of activities of the Eurocaravan 43 Ayotzinapa in Helsinki, Finland (2014). Photo: Jakob Johannsen

The last question asked to Diana, serves as a closing for this article that has already taken many more pages than originally thought. It serves to make clear that art, patrimony, or cultural heritages are not universal, nor do they have a single way of meaning and apprehension. It serves to point out that the context (time, space, and the culture in which one lives) are determinant to understand them, so that talking about cultural processes is much more enriching than talking about heritage from the hegemonic discourse.

How do you think social protests reflected through art influences both the individuality of the artist as well as the viewers?

From art I learned a lot about Finnish society and the artistic work of denunciation in translocation. I learned, above all, that when the piece focuses on causing shock or representing a violent scene literally, it will cause rejection and will generate the opposite, it will be forgotten. At the end of my process, I concluded that I had to rethink my questions and my method. Finnish society being so different and distant, we do not share the symbolic references and that is a bit like running out of words in common. For example, in Mexico (and other Latin American countries) if you put empty chairs, whether people know about art or not, they understand the reference to the missing. In Finland, people only see chairs and that's it, because the concept of the missing is not common to begin with. And so, with impunity, corruption, the level of violence, indignation, and anger. These are feelings that they do not have as a society, so it is very difficult to connect. They can feel pity or sorrow, but I understood that that was not what I wanted to cause. I had to rethink everything.

8

Illustration 8. Diana Soria in the performance "Still Carnation" as part of the SuperMarket Art Fair, Stockholm, Sweden (2016) Photo: Kalo, Cal Harben and Tobias Axner.

[1] Diana Soria Hernández is a visual artist focused on counteracting hegemonic structures through work on a human scale, mainly with performance, installations, and drawing. She studied a BA in visual arts at ENPEG La Esmeralda in Mexico City, an MA in Graphics and an MA in Live Art and Performance Studies, both at the University of the Arts Helsinki. Her work has been shown internationally in exhibitions and festivals. Her practice includes self-organized events as an effort to contextualize and expand visions of Latin America in Finland. She has received different working grants from the Kone Foundation (2019-2020, 2017) and the Finnish Cultural Foundation (2018); an international residency at La Chambre Blanch by CALQ and FONCA (2020).

Resources:

  • UNESCO. (No date). Indicadores UNESCO de Cultura para el Desarrollo. Recovered July 29, 2021 from UNESCO in: https://es.unesco.org/creativity/sites/creativity/files/digital-library/cdis/Patrimonio.pdf

  • Cámara de diputados del H. Congreso de la Unión. (1972). Ley Federal sobre Monumentos y zonas Arqueológicos, Artísticos e Históricos. Current text. (last reform el 6 de febrero de 2018) in:http://www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/pdf/131_160218.pdf

  • Gamboni, D. (2007). La destrucción del arte. Ediciones Cátedra.

  • Latour, B. (2010). On Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Duke University Press.

  • Santillán Bueyes, A. (2021). “ Echando a perder se aprende. Disertación sobre el deterioro.” Escuela Nacional de Conservación Restauración y Museografía.

  • Smith, L. (2011). El “espejo patrimonial”. ¿Ilusión narcisista o reflexiones múltiples? Antípoda. Revista de Antropología y Arqueología, 12, 39–63. https://doi.org/10.7440/antipoda12.2011.04