Preface to Performance Constellations: Networks of Protest and Activism in Latin America (U Michigan Press, 2019)
[This text was not included in the book. It was part of my 2017 manuscript. I share it here on the day of Carlos Menem’s death]
The book you hold in your hands is the outcome of more than a decade of research on protest performances that fascinate me. When I travelled to the U.S. from my native Argentina to start my academic career in performance studies—before I even knew what the field was about—I was drawn to performance art as a visceral response to the rapid virtualization of social life brought about by the Internet. In the early 2000s, performance was for me the last refuge of the unmediated, a cultural production where artists and audiences met face-to-face to celebrate being “offline.” I guess I was what is called a “technophobe.” As a theatre person, I deeply feared that technology was going to destroy social life, the joys of meeting with others in actual space to witness and elaborate stories together. Performance art seemed to celebrate that, intensifying theatre’s liveness in an even more charged “now”.
This attitude towards technology, more precisely digital communication, quickly changed as I learned about the work of artists such as the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), the Surveillance Camera Players, and La Pocha Nostra who devised performances to critique and engage with uses of technology as a tool for social control. Performances such as EDT’s “virtual sit-ins” which we will explore here, or La Pocha Nostra’s NAFTAzteca (a parodic Chicano Virtual Reality game that transports players to the U.S.-Mexico border) opened for me the possibility of deepening my appreciation for live art while also embracing its other: technological mediation. In these performances, digital media and technology were not performance’s opposite; they were valid performance “interlocutors” in the making of counter-hegemonic or dissident acts.
At that time, I was exposed to performance as an artistic practice centered on bodily actions. I was captivated by artists who bled, rolled out a text from their vaginas, slapped each other, crawled in the street, and composed crosses over street traffic markings. However, works such as EDT’s seemed to defy, or rather, tear downthe disciplinary limits drawn by artists, scholars, and critics on performance as an art defined by unmediated live action. The works that I became drawn to, challenged the clear-cut distinction between performance as a time-based event and video or photographic recording as a documentation of the live event. They redefined co-presence, liveness, and site-specificity, while putting in dialogue embodied and technologically mediated action as crucial components of social transformations.
So, this is how this book started…But there is also another beginning. I like to think of my radio show “Waiting for Cyberspace” as the foundation of this project. This might be because when you reach a certain age you see your past as part of a perfect dramaturgy that leads into your present. It was the beginning of the 1990s in Buenos Aires. No word of the Internet yet. Because I grew up during the dictatorship that ended in 1983, I was excited to enjoy the social and cultural effervescence of the newly reconquered democracy. I was studying drama and experimenting with radio, specifically Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall. I was also drawn to sci-fi and had regular meetings with my friend “el Tano,” a physicist with whom I was working on a theatre adaptation of Phillip Dick’s Eye in the Sky. It was probably el Tano who lent me a popular science magazine that included an article on Virtual Reality (VR). The article featured the image of a man wearing a mounted display and a data glove as interfaces with computer-generated environments. As a theatre person, I was both excited about and troubled by the possibilities opened by VR, which the article introduced as a machine for making fantasies real. VR, a technology announced in June of 1989 by the company Autodesk, was presented as a paradigm shift in computer use that drew from sci-fi, hacker culture, the military, and the NASA. The notion of cyberspace that informed both VR and the Internet had been developed by William Gibson in his cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, where cyberspace (recall The Matrix) is defined as “a consensual hallucination.” [i]
While I was immersed in these sci-fi explorations, I received an invitation from the indie station Radio La Tribu (at the time, one of the most popular unofficial stations in Buenos Aires, run by communication students from Universidad de Buenos Aires) to create a show. I immediately thought that my friends and I could use radio to create a simulation of the experience of cyberspace through sound and words in the style of radio drama. I decided to call our show “Waiting for Cyberspace” and to make it an hour of fictional characters, ads for non-existent products related to the needs of cyber-surfers, and stories addressing the utopian and dystopian possibilities opened by virtual environments on issues such as love, politics, tourism, youth cultures, aging, and the like. I enlisted some of my theatre classmates and asked them to develop their own sections and characters, representing their views on what cyberspace would bring if it landed in that faraway country called “Argentina”.
(Advertisement)(phone ringing and background music)
Broadcaster: Cybercom’s CEO is about to answer your call. Cybercom, the company that brings you your most unrealizable fantasies in the form of a floppy disk. Cybercom designs your fantasies and it gives them a name: Cyberspace or the end of all utopias.
Call Cybercom today and you will see!!!
The political context in which we launched “Waiting for Cyberspace” deeply informed our choice for engaging with virtual reality. It was the beginning of Carlos Menem’s administration, the second democratic presidency after the 1983 restoration of democracy. Menem succeeded Raúl Alfonsín, who resigned from his post prematurely due to skyrocketing inflation and multiple labor strikes. Menem won the election on his promise of a “production revolution,” but he actually ended up implementing a neoliberal program of privatization of state-owned companies, market deregulation, and structural adjustment that deeply affected the working class. Despite these policies that further diminished labor rights in a post-dictatorship context, Menem assured Argentinians that the country was on the right path to attaining long-term stability and progress.
While I was reading about cyberspace and virtual reality for our radio show I remember being struck by the media overuse of the word “virtual.” This word was mainly used to celebrate Argentina’s impending entrance in the First World, allegedly guaranteed by Menem’s embrace of neoliberalism. The main idea under which all other uses of “virtual” aligned was that Argentina was “virtually” part of the First World. Everyday many other events were also “virtually” happening: a soccer player was “virtually” transferred to Boca Juniors, an actor would “virtually” be signing a contract, and, in the same page, for example, somebody could be said to have been “virtually” insulted. Mainstream media uses of the word “virtual” referred to a promise, something about to happen, or in a nascent state. Thus, “virtual” occupied the space of the “almost factual”.
Menem’s defense of his neoliberal policies as a direct path to “First Worldness,” and the media’s insistent use of the word “virtual” evoked Gibson’s idea of a “consensual hallucination,” of a simulated reality that is experienced imaginarily by those who inhabit it. Neither VR nor the allegedly border-less and utopian Internet had arrived to Argentina yet, but the virtual condition was definitely there to stay. On December 2001, after the collapse of the banking system due to the fixed parity between the U.S. dollar and the peso that had sustained the “consensual hallucination” for ten years, people finally gained a clearer idea of Argentina’s world positioning. As big investors transferred their money to First World coffers, Argentina’s consensual hallucinations quickly vanished.
Door banging sounds.
Young woman: I love it, I love it because I think it brings us hope.
Young man: I think it is like…a postmodern stupidity.
Girl: …to keep you company….
Young woman: Hummm…I have had a falling out with cyberspace.
Young man: I think that it could be a Messiah…
Old man: I really do not know what it might bring…
Broadcaster: “Waiting for Cyberspace”, Sundays 10 pm, FM La Tribu.
“Waiting for Cyberspace,” a seductive wait.
Heavy door shuts.
[i] Gibson introduces cyberspace through Neuromancer’s protagonist, Case: “[Case] operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 2000), 5. Gibson’s 1984 novel introduced the concept of cyberspace eleven years before the first graphics- based web browser Mosaic was released by the National Center of Supercomputing Applications (NCSA.). See Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 41.