Wounds Yet to Scar: Collective Memory in Contemporary Chilean Video Art
Memory and trauma in Remembering What Is at Lunds Konsthall
Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie (1975) opens on the eve of the March 1973 Chilean congressional election. At this point, Socialist president Salvador Allende has been in power for just over two years. Allende has tried to move the country towards socialism by democratic means, but his Popular Unity coalition rests on one third of the popular vote.
In the film, Guzmán and his crew interview members of the increasingly split electorate. They attend rallies, ride buses, and show up in modern high-rise apartments, asking the people they meet the same two questions: “Who will win the election?” and “How do you see the future?”
This film plays a major role in the exhibition Remembering What Is: Chile’s Recent History in Film and Art (January 26 to March 24, 2019) at Lunds Konsthall, a museum in a pretty university town in the south of Sweden. In his catalogue essay, curator Hans Carlsson says Remembering What Is aims to “imagine plausible but never actualized past futures and futures past.” Unlike the people interviewed in Insurrection, Carlsson knows what happened next in next in Chile. Soon after the events shown in the film, Allende was deposed by a military junta headed by general Augusto Pinochet, who set up a brutal seventeen-year dictatorship. In hoping to recall the forgotten potential of the Allende government, Carlsson aims to highlight not only the “plausible but never actualized” nationalization of banks and copper mines, but wealth redistribution and healthcare, nutrition, and education reforms for the poor. To criticize the new wave of global authoritarianism and rethink socialist strategy, Carlsson has curated an exhibition centered around intergenerational dialogue. This intergenerationality is generally — though not absolutely — reflected in the organization of the museum’s two-level space.
Downstairs mostly consists of videos, installations, and fanzines by Chilean artists born in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties, whose work looks back on a past they do not remember. Those featured include audio-visual installation artists Constanza Alarcón Tennen,Sebastián Calfuqueo,Cristóbal Cea, and Ivo Vidal.
The upstairs gallery displays films from the group of experimental filmmakers known as the Nuevo Cine Chileno (New Chilean Cinema) movement of the nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Like Guzmán (probably the best-known of these directors), most of these filmmakers were forced into exile after the coup. Together, they had clear political aims. They wanted to bring about “class consciousness” in the masses.
For Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, class consciousness is not a psychological state or the dream of freedom stirring in the hearts and minds of individuals. It is, rather, the collective achievement of the proletariat. Class consciousness is reached when the masses gain “subject-object identity.” This is when they see how capitalism has made them what they are and, at the same time, that the world is the product of their labor. For the Nuevo Cine Chileno directors, this could only be done by creating a distinctively Chilean anti-colonialist culture in the wider context of South American struggles.
The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie , which is the first part of Guzmán’s 1975 — 1979 trilogy The Battle of Chile, achieves this aim under extreme pressure. In her 1978 review of the film for the New Yorker, legendary film critic Pauline Kael asked how it was possible that a team of five, some with no previous filmmaking experience, achieved so much, capturing the excitement of election fever and the coming tragedy with just one camera, one sound recorder, two vehicles, and a package of black-and-white film stock (sent by French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker). “The answer has to be partly, at least: through Marxist discipline,” she concluded.
When they seized power, the Chilean military claimed to be restoring law and order in the name of “national security”. On the night of the coup, however, one member of the junta said their mission was to eradicate Marxism from Chilean politics. This could only mean cleansing the people of class consciousness.
There was, as a result, no room for Patricio Guzmán or his comrades in Pinochet’s Chile. State repression began right away, so, when Guzmán’s film was complete, the twenty hours of footage the team had collected had to be smuggled out of the country. In the following years, the military and secret police would “disappear” over three thousand people and jail, torture, or exile tens of thousands more.
The ideology behind the regime cannot be reduced to one political concept. Though similar to the “bureaucratic authoritarian” regimes in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, Pinochet’s Chile was a toxic new brew of neoliberal economic “shock therapy,” technocratic governance, and a “cult of personality”. This fused the powers of the military commander-in-chief with the executive branch of government. His rule has left wounds still yet to scar.
Carlsson’s main achievement in Remembering What Is is to find films that expose this wound. These films represent a crisis of collective memory in Chilean society amounting to what French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called the “abuse of memory.” By this, Ricoeur means that our collective memories, the way we share a common story with others, rely on gaps between an event and the way we tell ourselves stories or write historical accounts of it.
According to Ricoeur, memories are “blocked” when their public use alters the way we think they happened. This is because, just like individuals under psychoanalysis, whole cultures “work through” traumatic events together. Thus, what Freud called “resistances” get in the way of bringing up clear memories, and “repetition-compulsions” make people act out the trauma indirectly, just like “transference” during analysis.
Ricoeur explains that memories can also be “manipulated” when the trauma/memory gap is exploited by those in power. The powerful demand that we reorganize our collective identities around new images. These images are extremely selective versions of the original event, chosen and reimagined to suit specific political ends. Sometimes, like in the immediate aftermath of the Pinochet regime, they even demand we forget the events happened at all.
Finally, Ricoeur presents “obligated” memories. These memories are moral imperatives. Collectively remembering the trauma is, at this level, said to be the only way to make justice felt and seen, so the world can be made whole again.
Viewers can see all three of Ricoeur’s categories of memory abuse at play in public and personal life in Chile reflected in this exhibition, in films that in one way or another omit the direct brutality of the Pinochet regime. They show us what happened only indirectly, or only as a memory.
(Trailer for The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie by Patricio Guzmán.)
The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie , for example, certainly shows us what came before the coup. We see excited crowds convinced their chosen party will win so their interests will be represented. Later, we see post-election disappointment, strikes, student demonstrations, and rallies by uniformed fascist group Homeland and Freedom to chants of “Forward Chile!” Raúl Ruiz’s Exile Dialogues (1974), meanwhile, shows us what happens during the early stages of the regime, but from a distance, centering on the struggles of a group of Chilean exiles in Paris. Guzmán’s other film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), meanwhile, contains interviews with family members of those who were held in Pinochet’s concentration camps looking for their dead in the Atacama desert, the driest desert on earth.
The younger generation joins Guzmán in dealing with these memories. Cristóbal Cea’s chaotic GLORIAS (2017) shows us how the regime’s militarization of civilian life — that hallmark of fascist regimes — lives on in the way Chileans memorialize the battle with Peru. With the installation series “Waking State” (2017), meanwhile, Voluspa Jarpa makes wall displays and eerie minimalist sculptures from CIA documents first made public in the nineties. These documents confirm what many had long suspected — that the U.S. intelligence services were directly involved in Chilean domestic policy up to the 1973 election.
At with twenty hours of film footage, however, the exhibition, taken in its entirety, stretches the viewer’s attention too thin. Carlsson’s ambition gets in the way of its own execution, and he makes few compromises for the sake of the viewer. Remembering What Is suffers from a paradox familiar to the contemporary art crowd: to watch one film feels like too much, but catching snippets of many is never enough.
Focussing on the relationship between Guzmán’s The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie and Paris-based filmmaker Enrique Ramírez’s film Brises helped me make sense of the exhibition as a whole. The first shots of The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie show the making of a symbolic wound, while the army shells the presidential palace at La Moneda. The same building is also the final shot of Brises. In Guzmán’s film, the army pulverizes the palace. Flames lick the neoclassical façade, and spirals of dust and smoke rise into the September sky. In Brises, we see a restored building open to the public, and it serves a very different narrative role.
Brises follows a young man in a suit, soaked in water. He walks the empty Santiago streets towards the palace, whose guards wear white ceremonial uniforms. His interior monologue combines memories of his mother with those of political repression. “I remember the white tablecloth at my mother’s house,” he confesses, almost whispering, “the rice with eggs, the planes, the bombs, the screams, the tenderness of hands protecting me, the hits, your eyes, and the hot milk.”
How the man became wet in the first place is never explained. At the end, however, we see him standing in a courtyard in La Moneda as two men brandishing hoses from tank lorries — the sort used for street-cleaning or agricultural purposes — spray water in two intersecting arches in the air. This soaks him further as he asks questions about collective memory. “How can we grab the invisible?” he asks,
What was there? What was going on a second ago? The things that we don’t see, the things we cannot apprehend. Is it possible to look back at the past? How can we understand what we were? What do the things that happened before mean? How did it all begin? How did it end? The memory does not forget.
(Excerpt from Brises by Enrique Ramírez.)
The Insurrection of the Bourgeoise begins with the assault on La Moneda and ends with the personal cost of the same event. Though we watch the shelling of the palace at the start of the film, we do not see the tanks as they fire. We do not bear witness to the violence from one moment to the next, only its consequences. In the final shot of the film, however, Argentinian cameraman Leonardo Henrichsen films the moment of his own death.
Though they would have to wait another eight weeks for success, at 9 am on June 29, 1973, the Second Armored Regiment attacked La Moneda with six tanks and several transport vehicles. In the film, we see civilians scatter through the streets. They even appear to be grinning with fear and excitement as troops fire live rounds from the side of a flatbed truck.
We see an officer get out of the vehicle brandishing a handgun. He shouts at his men and at a civilian on the floor before taking aim at Guzmán’s camera crew. “A little later,” says the narrator, Henrichsen “doesn’t just record his own death. He also records, two months before the final coup, the true face of a sector of the Chilean army.” “Watch out! Over there!” someone shouts, as the officer aims straight at the camera, and Henrichsen careens backwards to the sound of rattling gunfire.
The final shot of The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie crystallizes what Carlsson is trying to achieve with this exhibition. The Pinochet regime not only tried to silence dissent and eradicate their opponents, they “disappeared” them. To “disappear” someone or some group is to erase any memory of the original crime. This is the ultimate form of manipulated memory, in Ricoeur’s sense of the phrase. It is to pretend that what happened didn’t take place at all and that the victims never lived. Or, even if the regime and its supporters make basic concessions to reality and admit that these things did happen and those people once existed, we are told they shouldn’t have lived or thought as they did, and that their death was necessary to restore social order.
What the final moments of The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, and this exhibition as a whole, demonstrate is that these were not just the sufferings of some distant people “over there.” It is not just about the effort to produce a stable memory of what happened in Chile, or for Chileans to say “this happened to us.” Rather, we have to ask what it means if an armed officer can shoot a civilian with confidence that the person they shoot doesn’t matter or deserves what they get or that there will be no repercussion. If they can do that, then we, the viewers collectively committed to democracy and social change, the viewers who see that shot take place — whoever we are and wherever we watch the film — are also the target.
Max L. Feldman is a writer, art critic, and educator based in Vienna, Austria. He writes for many art magazines, a column for the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, and has taught at Heythrop College (University of London) and the University of Roehampton, London. He is a Contributing Editor for Public Seminar.