CEC Journal: Issue 4

Historical memory and self-organization in Argentina

Between April and August 2017, two workshops called “Historical Memory Today: towards permanent collective self-organization” at INCLUIR - Instituto para la Inclusión Social y el Desarrollo Humano (Institute for Social Inclusion and Human Development) took place in the city of  Buenos Aires. A multi-disciplinary team made up of people with different backgrounds in training and experience gathered to reflect on issues around self-organization in the recent past, present and future [1].

To this end, we designed a model of work that used images at its core, using a practice that extends the visual field outside of the frame of the image, and includes gestures, space, context and verbal expressions in its multiple varieties.  We analyzed the montage and collage that were produced at the two meetings, as well as the photographs and videos that registered both workshops, understanding that visual creations and collective actions produce a complex weave of interactions through images that could not be deduced from the analysis of each one of these by themselves. In this piece of writing we will seek to see how a methodology based on an encounter between bodies, images and words goes further than others that use lines of reasoning as the only type of exchange. To this end, we will first present the results from both workshops; later discuss the links between memory and action; and finish by presenting methodological considerations applied to these themes.

First Workshop – Working with images provided by participants
We asked participants to bring an image, text, object or audiovisual material related to experiences of self-organization in the recent past in Argentina or Latin America, in order to create a collective visual and narrative montage. At the beginning of this first meeting, one of the participants stated that it was important that images and accounts didn’t dominate one over the other. 

This tension between images and words is not new. Schwab (2008) proposes that artistic research could be seen as coming out of nowhere if we understand science as the “classic” form of developing knowledge. Fernández Polanco advocates encouraging an “exercise of freedom” where writing “is not made with (o facing) these works, but that begins with them, a space where there is no antagonism between the visual and the linguistic, but their accord to jointly generate thinking, thinking with or through images, not only as ‘pictures’” (2013:112) [2]. Going further, we dare think that no discourse is possible without the visual, taking it in its wider sense, and that perhaps the lively link between images and words is what makes it so attractive.

The day was divided into three: the first one being the workshop where we worked with images and then two other moments where members of the team presented other works on the same theme. The following sequence is taken from a recording made during the workshop and on which we have based our analysis. It shows a process where clear but broad instructions were given on how to work with the materials: participants were asked to place the image or object that they had brought with them on a canvas, and add a brief label explaining its context. Facing the void of the canvas, one of us put the first image and slowly the cloth was filled; connections between images were reinforced as participants spoke about them, as we see below:

When it was time to move on to the second instance, involving a presentation prepared beforehand by members of the team, the proposed agenda was broken by the desire of those participants who had not had a chance to speak, to share their image or object.  The time scheme was dismantled, ceding its place unequivocally to the potency of those voices that demanded to be heard. There was finally less time for the two presentations that followed. This dispute between scheduled time and the desire to speak manifest the need to put right upfront the body and emotion when one works with methodologies that promotes collective thinking. These actions mark time methodologically: the flow of speech allowed a circuit of connections to be completed between images, histories and people that would not have been displayed if the stories had been interrupted to move on to the other planned activities.

Each story was feeding the next, making evident how each example of resistance (represented by the images chosen by the participants) responded to a logic of community self-organization, that was portrayed as counter-hegemonic by participants. The material itself allowed intuitive connections between images-objects and actions-bodies-gestures- discourses.

...photographs can jolt subjects into a new awareness of their social existence. As someone considers this new framing of taken-for-granted experiences they are able to deconstruct their own phenomenological assumptions […] photographs may lead an individual to a new view of their social existence. It is also possible to use images as bridges between worlds that are more culturally distinct. (Harper, 2002: 21)

Different sequences were identified later using video and photographic material generated that day:
  • The material shared by each participant, in a spatial order on a plane, that is, a table;
  • The order images and objects were placed on the canvas;
  • The order in which participants spoke about these images and objects;
  • The chronological sequence of events to which each image or object was related;
  • The way in which the stories generated links between materials according to the affective, emotional and memory references that each participant was able to make.
 This methodology makes evident the multiplicity of possibilities offered by connections between images, memories, oral exchanges and collective compositions. It also allows for different analyses of the interactions that happen in this type of work. Reading each sequence on its own, one would get a partial vision of the exchanges – which can be interesting on its own merit.  However, there is an entity to the actions that provide a richness that cannot be drawn from a single sequential analysis. For example, the teamwork’s parity cannot be inferred from the observation of one of these lists separately, but one could say that there was effectively parity in the work carried out by looking at several of these sequences at the same time [3].

Second Workshop - Collage and bodies in action
During the second workshop, we started from an archive of 100 images: those brought for the first workshop; some enlargements or cropping of these images; and print-screens of video recordings, where participants were seen assembling the montage on the canvas in the first workshop and then talking about it. We distributed these images randomly, mixing and overlapping them on a table. The first exercise was to ask participants to look silently at the visual arrangement for a few minutes, trying to make a note of the sensations produced by that accumulation. They were then invited to write a few lines about that perception.

(…) The images of other images of Cutral-Có. Fragments of faces, eyes, mouths that make me shudder thinking where is Santiago Maldonado (Where are they now all those who appear in these old images?) Too much chaos to distill reason.  A hundred reasons to decompose the Chaos.

This piece of writing brought to the present the images of the past and old and current conflicts became intimately related. Thanks to this connection, questions essential to the day’s objectives were put on the table. For example, the images of the 1997 uprising in Cutral-Có, in the province of Neuquén, are closely linked to the forced disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, activist in favour of the Mapuche indigenous cause, in Neuquén, three weeks before the second workshop [4].

In the quotation above, “too much chaos” refers to how the massive accumulation, disarray and overlapping of images made it difficult to analyze each one individually, being unable to rationalize what was being shown. Instead, a sensation won over, an emotional content that came through the images, creating the text almost without describing them. Participants remarked that the way the images were assembled forced the eye to go through them quickly. It was difficult to focus on the details of any one image. It was almost impossible to separate or isolate any one in order to analyze them. However, as those present said in this and other writings, there were images that seemed to emerge from the totality, to light up – and they were not the same ones for everyone. These images, in turn, connected with others creating bridges across non-juxtaposed spaces, “twisting” the temporal continuity that seemed to be determined by their spatial order. At the end of this exercise, reflections centered around expressing out loud why the gaze stayed around certain territories and inhabited them, and what calm – or otherwise, inquisitiveness – those images provided, especially as a refuge to the frantic rhythm of the bloc. What illuminated each image for each participant is related to how a link was established between them: it is the encounter with that which encourages us to continue our research.

A second exercise proposed carrying the images from the first to a second table following some predetermined rules.  Silent exercise. A maximum of three people could stand up at once and choose one or several images at will. Then they had to place them on the second table and none could be completely hidden or totally visible. As in a drama exercise, everyone sat on chairs at a certain distance from the material. This forced participants to see themselves as an audience that observed - and that would also be defied to break the frame and take action from a strong exercise of the will, an encounter with their desire that could also be imposed on other participants’ space: pure group dynamics.

The premise of this work put in evidence roles, tensions and sites of power that go beyond the remit of this writing. As coordinators we decided to take note of these dynamics but to not intervene in the actions that took place, even when some of these broke the proposed rules, because we believed that these breaches were manifestations that could be capitalized at a later analysis of the situation.At the end of the second exercise, participants said that composing a new order for the materials generated a different way of relating to the images: there was a clear intention, whether conscious or not, analytically arrived at or not, but where participants felt more involved. Individuals could speak about and give meaning to their choice of photographs from the pile of 100 images and also had to actively manage their link with them and with the composition that was gradually being generated.

A third exercise proposed creating a sequential narrative with all the images: they had to form a timeline on the floor with a beginning and an end, but the shape was free. The sequence could be lineal, fragmented, chronological, dispersed, reasoned or none of these. Again, the team used their previous knowledge and experience of working with visual multimedia materials, in some cases, or their previous historical knowledge, in others.  Different roles and modes of participation developed.

The narrative that emerged through the consensus of the team was a fictional recreation or construction – but based on reality – where one could find street children, a guerrilla hero, teachers demanding their rights as well as researchers. Other elements, especially those of a  more abstract nature, were allowed to play other roles: a photo cut in thin stripes and woven became the way media distort facts; another photograph cut by hand in many pieces, a crisis. As a result of the contributions of many voices, there developed a story of self-organization, of cycles filled with crises and the expansion and retreat of social protests.  A spiral tale that returns to the beginning at a different plane of the history of self-organization in general and of this story in particular.

The available materials were completely used up in the narrative. There was a moment, however, when one of the participants separated all the photographs in which members of the team could be seen during the first workshop. This was not noticed by the group practically until the end of the exercise.  They then said:
- We are missing
- How do we fit ourselves into this story?
We take this as a clue to analyze how the team of researchers (that is how they define themselves) are involved in the narrative. It is pertinent to ask about the effect of taking their own photographed bodies out of the plane of production and if there were difficulties to integrate these images again. As researcher-participants in these workshops, this sequence “lit up” for us and we understand then that the link researcher-object is attractive for us to continue our inquiries.  In this sense, our artistic practices may seem to facilitate these journeys: they integrate multiple planes of thought and link spaces, forms and bodies.

Remember, commemorate, testify.  Resist.
The purpose of the two workshops was to reflect on some of the characteristics of self-organization as a socio-historical process. However, working from the materiality of the images and other media that participants shared allowed an exercise of collective memory that also became, in a way, a commemoration and an act of testifying.
I believe photo elicitation mines deeper shafts into a different part of human consciousness than do words-alone interviews. It is partly due to how remembering is enlarged by photographs and partly due to the particular quality of the photograph itself. Photographs appear to capture the impossible: a person gone; an event past. That extraordinary sense of seeming to retrieve something that has disappeared belongs alone to the photograph, and it leads to deep and interesting talk (Harper, 2002:22-23).
Alena Alexandrova (2014) critically examines Henri Lefebvre´s “The Missing Pieces”, a list containing poems, buildings, symphonies, works of art that are no longer in the world (and for which only remains the record that they once existed).  She describes it as an anarchic list without territorial or temporal context, but revealing what is not in it – the “saturated absences”. The work our group undertook during the first workshop can be described also as a list, where paths and narratives emerge allowing elements to be recovered and revealing those missing pieces still to be found. The empty space between images becomes a metaphor for those other invisible stories. 

During the second workshop, those spaces became saturated with images echoing the first one. Images of the group working during the first session (taken out of the video as still frames and printed on paper) were included and allowed increased connections between several of these: when we see those images we find ourselves in them; we think about ourselves and rethink our history and our present.

The construction of collective memory doesn’t amble down an easy path. As Walker (2017) claims in her work on the events of 11 September 2001 in the USA, personal memories are built over a collective memory already established of the events and in contrast with a great display in literature, the arts and theory produced in response to that which occurred. Although it’s not possible to create a total memory without falling into an eternal present where the horizon of culture is to just revive the past (Alexandrova, 2014), the exercise of memory must constitute a collective, conscious and reiterated action to stop history making it disappear. For Young (1999), the process of commemoration must remain incomplete to guarantee the life of memory: commemoration becomes a process and not an answer, a place where there is time for commemorative, contemplative reflection and learning. Similarly, these commemorative processes lay in direct dialogue with the possibility of building/re-building memory and, in case of traumatic events, re-signifying historical memory found in official or popular discourses.  A process of conscience-raising – of conscientious action - is necessary, however, to turn those new learning events into a materiality that can be apprehended and then shared. It is in this sharing and communicating to others that memory and commemoration may play a role to enact change. These acts where a person becomes a witness, where they testify, defy regimes of representation and create multiple spatial imaginaries (Cambre, 2014) where that given or accepted-as-truth until that very moment, can be questioned. This “embodied seeing” (embodied gaze) - becoming aware of something and acting upon it - transforms the onlooker into a witness. The witness becomes proof themselves of the evidence: what is outside becomes part of them – one becomes a witness by carrying the weight of the testimony - that is by bearing witness (Cambre, 2015).

The methodology used during the two sessions encouraged the opening of physical and temporal spaces for the contemplation of what was exhibited, written, and spoken (that is, embodied). Memory took place in the encounter between the participant, the canvas and the mind/heart/conscience of the observers, and by multiplying those interactions in unanticipated and unexpected ways. During the workshops there was room for commemoration and remembrance and participants also became witnesses and embodied their seeing to give new meaning to the images that they worked with. The space of creation became then a space for resisting the way things are or the truth as it is framed. It was in the interaction that participants constructed alternative narratives and were able to articulate emerging discursive (and distinct) possibilities.  These artistic processes are in themselves counter-hegemonic and subversive because they question the notion of a single discourse, way of seeing, historical narrative or memory.
Some methodological considerations
In closing we identify three aspects that we consider key if this methodology were to be recreated somewhere else. The first one relates to context and research; the second one, to the way in which voice and action needs to be distributed equally amongst participants; the third and final one is about the way in which audiovisual records may support an analytical perspective afterwards.

When facing work of this nature, the team, whether teachers or researchers, must keep in mind the local historical context and the type of representations about these stories/histories that are regularly reproduced in the media and institutions, as well as the existence of alternative narratives.

The challenge is to disentangle those narratives through connecting and juxtaposing images in a process of collective creation.  Given that no image is better than any other one, each may open an interaction with participants that can not be foreseen.  This fact allows for a “leveling” process that puts the images and the team in parity with each other: participants are positioned in parity in regards to their perspective on any image, creating an even field of exchange as a starting point. Each opinion counts. No one´s response is better than anyone else's and questions can be posed equally in regards to any piece.

However, in order to be able to identify how these processes take place, and be able to trace the exchange that emerges amongst participants, the images and other media, we need a record. Making an audiovisual record provided a document through which participants could revisit their work together. Coordinators were also able to look at what happened in order to later analyze key points.

During our second workshop, a third person – that is, someone who was not a coordinator or participant – was in charge of recording with two hand-held cameras. There was also a zenithal camera to record the making of the collective collage.  These elements were essential at the time of analyzing gestures, narratives and discussions taking place during the day.

Final reflections
At the beginning of our writing, we posed an implicit question about the relationship between bodies, images and words, and we hypothesized that this encounter goes further than others that use lines of reasoning as the only type of exchange.

Even though there have been recent experiences of work with images in Argentina [5], the methodology used during these workshops could represent a novelty in two ways: on the one hand, working with a set of multiple images and interviewees at the same time, and on the other, obtaining a set of information that arises from the process of collective construction that we consider interesting to analyze. The sequence of distinct voices and discourses, their relation and mutual affectation, finish by creating a collective narrative that is more than the sum of its parts.  At the same time, encouraging the interviewees to “play” with the images and to link them spatially allows more active and deeper channels of association, as well as engaging the group with the material perceived as a totality.

In this multiple process the researchers also create, observe, observe themselves and interact among themselves and with the materials. They thus become witnesses-actors in their own production, allowing the heuristic to emerge from the material itself because it generates (at the same time as the work) a live and involved space of analysis.

The actions that make up this process of creation-research can be analyzed, as well, from the point of view of the performance, given that those present have the possibility of making a conscious record of their own actions in a space that can be perceived as a mis-en-scène.  The methodology we used allows bodies, actions, spaces and speaking to disentangle meanings that could be exhausted or end up as a dead-end street if we only had engaged with reasoning.  It is from playing-action with the images that other discourses can be embodied and promote new ways of researching.

It is in this sense that we define research as a process of learning with the explicit intention of remarking that exchange, or more precisely collective action, not only predisposes but also forces inter-disciplinary teams to put on the table the most basic ways in which they approach their disciplines.  Learning is, in this sense, renouncing the power that a specific knowledge of each field may provide.  Our place in a micro-world that exercises a mandate on the use of the word collapses when faced with the perspective of a healthier horizon: deepening our disciplines means opening them up to a field of relations from which to re-define them (Cosachov & Scolnik, 2008).

Breaking down frontiers between disciplines is for us, as a team, a challenge to the way we see our own practice. In this sense, the canvas, the glued papers, the room, the time each action takes, the intervals contained in words and gestures, they all make up a complex map in which the form-time and form-space open up and connect in all directions. There is no order or border with enough permanence to frame discourses, nor central or predominant perspective when faced with a multiplicity of gazes and voices that meet, and where both are given equal value and the possibility of being heard.

Equally, bodies as frames or borders are transformed like discourses into witnesses of other bodies and words that preceded them – these witnesses are able to think and act over the motivations that gave way to acts of resistance during the recent past. These bodies, together as a collective organism in motion, took the challenge to think about self-organization through recent history and about themselves as body-resistant to the actions of the State in cases of human rights violations and the politics of oppression.  During the workshops, the production of a group working in parity lit up the recovery of memory as a collective, active, creative process, in constant growth.

In this sense we recognize Art – and its processes – as a subversive tool, which in essence defies the given order and makes evident that which is not allowed or is outside the norm.
  • Alexandrova, A. 2016. Book Review on “The Missing Pieces” by Henri Lefebvre. Open! Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain. Available: http://alenaalexandrova.com/works/the-missing-pieces [15 Sept 2017].
  • Cambre, M.C. 2014. Becoming Anonymous: A Politics of Masking. Educational, Psychological, and Behavioral Considerations in Niche Online Communities. Chapter 18. V. Venkatesh, J. Wallin, J.C. Castro & J.E. Lewis, Eds., IGI Global.297-321.
  • Cambre, M.C. 2015. The Visual Media Workshop @ KPU presents Dr. Maria-Carolina Cambre on the Body of Anonymous. Online class for KPU student. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUnbCnr0nN0 [15 Sept 2017].
  • Cosachov, M. & Scolnik, A. 2008. El Arte de Aprender. Buenos Aires: self- published.
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  • Walker, A. 2017. In and out of memory: exploring the tension when remembering a traumatic event. Journal of Artistic Research. Available: http://www.jar-online.net/in-and-out-of-memory-exploring-the-tension-when-remembering-a-traumatic-event/ [15 Sept 2017].
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[1] This includes academic researchers working on self-organization, homelessness, education and rural schools; others with experience of teaching and delivering capacity-building to cooperatives and collectives; artists; one person with experience of homelessness and another one working with families at risk.
[2] Authors` translation.
[3] For an example of what we mean by parity see later in the article.
[4] Santiago Maldonado’s body was found in the Chubut river, in Patagonia, over two months after its forced disappearance.  At the time of writing, the investigation into the causes and circumstances surrounding his death continued.
[5] For example, the work about photo-elicitation carried out by Gustavo Fischman or that being done by the Instituto de Investigación Gino Germani of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (see Meo & Dabenign o, 2011).

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