Tag Archives: Argentina

Naked: Institutional fear and bodies in public spaces

The Naked Soul (1)Argentinian artist Syd Krochmalny’s recent project ‘The Naked Soul’ explores different ideas of ‘nakedness’, public space and justice drawing on the case of the Naked Rambler here in Scotland. Dr Sarah Wilson of the University of Stirling writes in this article about some of the surprising responses to Krochmalny’s project and some of the issues it raises in terms of access to ‘public’ space and the fear and self-censure provoked by risk management practices in the workplace.

A recent art performance involving the projection of a video in a public place in Edinburgh raises key questions regarding freedom of expression, ‘public’ space and how it is controlled in contemporary Scotland. The video (‘The Naked Soul’) was made by Argentinian artist, Syd Krochmalny. Syd was invited to Scotland to give two seminars (one at the University of Stirling and one in the University of Edinburgh), an exhibition and to create this art work. After months of discussion, the resultant video draws on Biblical and philosophical texts, poetry and Scottish history to reflect on the case of Stephen Gough, the ‘Naked Rambler’, who spent over 6 years in Scottish prisons. It highlights different ideas of ‘nakedness’, attitudes to the body, imprisonment as a response to bodies seen as out of place, and ultimately of the kind of society Scotland is and could be. Do we want a society in which debate and ideas are valued as, we are often told, during the Scottish Enlightenment? Or one in which notions of ‘freedom of expression’, the ‘public’ and of dialogue are decaying in the wake of an all-encompassing institutional fear of controversy and the bureaucratisation (and potential criminalisation) not only of protest, but of any public gathering?

In the beginning was the word. And the fears provoked by the word. The ‘Naked Soul’ refers to the Greek myth of the origins of justice recounted by Plato. But the inclusion of the word ‘naked’ on our application for permission to project in public was ‘alarming’ to Council officials though I assured them no naked genitalia would be shown. Indeed, much less of the body than in many television programmes and advertisements, than on the covers of lads’ mags freely displayed in most supermarkets, than in the flesh during stag or hen party antics. In conjunction with the word ‘naked’ however, even arms and legs can become dangerous. A visceral fear of ‘offence’, of something ‘inappropriate’ seemed to pervade. It seemed an excuse to veil the fear of nakedness itself.

Don’t Push the Boundaries

Yes ‘freedom of expression is important’ but we don’t want anything that ‘pushes the boundaries’ said one official awkwardly, anything ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’. Our first idea was to project the video onto the statue of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in the centre of Edinburgh in front of the High Court of Justiciary.  This attracted an aggressive response from the sculptor (backed up by implied threats from Edinburgh artistic and legal Establishment ‘heavies’  based on interpretations of Copyright Law that ignored established Scottish customs of hanging traffic cones on public statues and of rubbing Hume’s toe.) The sculptor’s representative suggested that if we didn’t believe in the aura of a work of art such as this sculpture, we should consider projecting onto a poster with the words ‘David Hume’ on it. In spite of having accepted a commission from an organisation with a definite political purpose (the Saltire Society), the sculptor himself employed Kant’s argument of the ‘Kingdom of ends’ and ‘art for art’s sake’ against the idea of temporarily projecting anything not only onto ‘his’ work but also onto the space around it.

Political Debate

The idea of political debate in a public place, or even of public space itself, seemed to be disturbing for artists, public bodies and others. It was suggested that ‘as a matter of courtesy’ we should ask the permission of the courts if the projection were to hit ‘their’ walls. Naïvely, we suggested that the walls of public buildings might be seen as ‘public’ property and not ‘theirs’. ‘That sounds like sedition’ was one response. Commercial suppliers were also frightened of causing ‘offence’. A company of equipment suppliers suggested we do something less ‘political’, concerned that they might lose contracts if they were seen to be ‘involved’. A Council official then suggested that one way to appease local artists and the ultimate local commandment of ‘Thou shall not interfere with the traffic even minutely… except during the commercially successful Festival’ was to transfer the projection to a local cemetery in which no one had been buried for over a century. Of course, this would also be a transfer to a less visible public place. This official in a public institution happily engaged in discussion around the project, but was afraid of censure from superiors concerned to ‘manage’ risk rather than encourage freedom of expression or dialogue. ‘I don’t want to get a call from the local newspaper about this’. No one was unhelpful. Most were interested in the project and wanted to chat. But as employees they knew well the contemporary concern of institutions to avoid anything ‘controversial’. They were scared and preferred to pass the decision onto someone else.

Monument to Thomas Muir, democratic martyr in New Calton Cemetery
Monument to Thomas Muir, democratic martyr in New Calton Cemetery

But the cemetery which contains David Hume’s tomb was, we realised, a good location for a project related to myths around death and judgment. A liminal place, for souls banished from too public places: Jews originally, transported activists such as Thomas Muir, prostitutes, Naked Ramblers perhaps, and artists wishing to explore certain issues (while still not offending against another British commandment ‘Thou shalt not show willies in public places ..at least not outside of a commercial context’). Sorted we thought, with the blessing of two Council departments. But unbeknownst to us, the cemetery took us outside of the invisible boundary lines of these two departments and inside those of another, according to whom, even though Old Calton Cemetery functions more now as a tourist attraction than as a ‘live’ cemetery; ‘The families of the dead might be offended’. The idea of offence takes multiple forms and multiple spaces then.  We’d seen no sign of mourners in amongst the detritus of local drinkers, which we offered to clear. How many people might be the descendants (or the potentially offended) of these people buried over century ago?  What kind of offence related to never known ancestors might this be? How far might such offence travel over time? The project was coming to resemble its subject: the banishment of the (nearly) naked body to the margins, the fear of sexuality and death. But still there was no official response, yes or no. The official processes left us hanging despite several phone calls; with the blessing of some departments, but passed to others who did not respond. Was this silence the result of miscommunications….or a type of silence intended to silence, to lead us to self-censure? …..better to not engage in anything ‘controversial’, right? An effective silence too. It was beginning to get to me. I realised that I, too, was scared.

Managing Risk

Our final no came through an unexpected but revealing source. The afternoon before the projection, a university press official phoned the Council media department which suggested the Council did not know of our previous negotiations, or that we had been directed to the Cemetery by Council officials, and stated that the cemeteries’ department’s response was a definite ‘no’ (not that anyone had told us this). Rather than questioning this process or broader theories of freedom of expression or notions of public space, the increasingly cautious and commercialised university, too, preferred to avoid anything ‘controversial’, anything that might tarnish its monolithic, clean ‘brand’.  A university officer suggested that the video would be better shown in a more ‘private’ space, such as, in his view, the university itself. The Council media department’s gratitude to the university press office was obvious in an email ‘thanks for the heads up’; two institutions managing the risk posed by employees and their pesky, creative ideas.

Furious, and animated by an Argentinian who could not quite believe that this was happening in the country of Hume and Smith, we went ahead. After the cemetery we projected in the AugustineCentralChurch. In contrast to other institutions, this church honoured its tradition as a place of public dialogue and welcomed us with open arms. Here, at last Syd was shocked and impressed by an Edinburgh institution!

Is Another Scotland Possible?

We are left though with many broad questions at this crossroads in Scottish history. Is another Scotland possible? One in which the body provokes less official fear and revulsion, and in which children are not taught that the naked body is exclusively sexual or something perverted? One in which the many intelligent, creative workers within institutions –whether in the public or private sector- are allowed space to engage with ideas and spaces around them without fear of censure? One in which dialogue is welcomed, rather than ended by risk management practices in institutions relating to (potential) ‘offence’ to a few and the reaction of powerful media outlets? More broadly, can a society administered, explicitly or otherwise, through such a state of fear and self-censure, in which words such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘controversial’ are used to close down rather than to open debate, be truly democratic? If democracy is constructed through dissensus, then does the aversion to such debate within some Scottish institutions reveal a latent timidity, and from an Argentinian perspective, proto-fascist, spirit at their heart? The spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment may still haunt CaltonCemetery, but it seems to be well buried in today’s institutions and (increasingly privatised) public spaces.

Argentina: political outlook at the start of 2013

La Juventud del MST marchando en Buenos Aires

The year 2001 saw an uprising in Argentina as citizens rejected all of the old parties and took to the streets. Hyperinflation, unemployment and the near collapse of the Argentinian banking system led to mass demonstrations and ‘piqueteros’ blockading roads around the country. New social movements sprang up with neighbourhood assemblies and many workplaces were occupied and turned into workers co-operatives.

As this movement ebbed, the old parties re-established themselves. The current government of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner comes from the Peronist tradition and represents a particular strand of this tradition. This tendency is nationalist but left of centre. This government has nationalised important energy resources but has run into problems around their attempts to control currency exchanges and in the last few months demonstrators have returned to the streets both from the right and from the workers movement as the economic situation has deteriorated.

In this article Alejandro Bodart and Mariano Rosa, two leading members of the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores – MST (Socialist Workers Movement) outline the current position in Argentina, the battles that are coming and the prospects for building a political alternative. The MST currently works within a broader coalition called Proyecto Sur (Project South) and has a number of members elected to state assemblies in Argentina.

Setting, conflict and elections

A first definition of the situation in Argentina serves to put things in place: the international crisis did not stop, nor the effects it has on our economy.

Industrial activity fell, led by carmakers and metalworking. The building sector had already reached a low in 2009, but that trend is now more pronounced. Inflation remains high and price controls are a fiction that cannot cover a nonexistent policy of industrialization accompanied by the complete lack of controls over large price makers. The parallel dollar soars, and the fall in the stock of that currency at the Central Bank, shows that large companies doubt the force of government to take care of business.

As for state finances, the situation is similar. Desperate for their emergency-election – this year there are parliamentary elections – and for economic reasons, the national government continues to cut funds to the regions, causing further strain on already beset provincial finances. There are several districts with financial difficulties, including the Province of Buenos Aires. Governors seek carbon taxes, while refusing to eliminate tax breaks on big banks, corporations and landowners. State and teachers’ salaries, pensions and social assistance programs are already feeling the effect of these decisions.

With things as they are, what comes next is the fight over who gets to pay for the crisis in our country. At the top, governments are scrambling to see who is responsible for most of the adjustment to be applied. Underneath, workers and the people gather fury over wages that are never enough, struggle against cuts in salaries, or loss of family allowances. There exists social conflict, and a teachers’ nationwide strike is on the cards. The truck drivers’ union marches – this is quite an important union. And trade unions opposing the government are calling for a CTA-CGT mobilisation, for March 14.

Government Setback

Last year ended with the confirmation of two key political points. The national government suffered severe setbacks, receding in popularity with many of their voters. This is important enough by itself and will have multiple consequences. But there are other factors that go along with this. That is that the governments declining popularity was seconded by the people’s rejection of the main policies of the bourgeois opposition. None is seen as an alternative to solve a situation that is worsening for most. That’s because, in addition to not offering solutions to the structural problems that we live with every day, they also govern against the people.

The combination of these factors provides an overview of great political debate, where millions are seeking a change, not convinced by the options provided by the current system. This can be seen in any conversation on the street, at work, in the schools and colleges.

 Electoral battle, and the alternative

Whilst we cannot discount sudden changes in the situation (given that since 2001 we live with a permanent social tension), the more likely outcome is that of an electoral battle which expresses the changes which erupted last year. This does not minimize the social conflict and the importance of mobilizing that the workers and the people are developing and will surely continue throughout the year. But it provides a tremendous opportunity to those who want to bring about change in the country. The worn out state of the old, presents a huge opportunity for an alternative political force to become strong and move forward as an alternative to the government and the right-wing opposition.

This may be the case with the candidacy of Senator Pino Solanas at the Capital, for the Movement South Project (Movimiento Proyecto Sur) which we, as the MST, are part of as its anti-capitalist wing. An achievement in the city could lead to a positive phenomenon with social influence. So, with our main leaders all around the country, we are committed to develop Proyecto Sur thoroughly, and fight any attempt to transform it into a new centre-left force. It would be really positive if – in this course of events – other anti-imperialist forces would also come together, that is, social movements and those left currents who – abandoning sectarianism – join us to fight for a fundamental change, in unity.

Three tasks for the coming months

A very important one is to support and participate actively in the struggles of workers and the people, contributing to the emergence of new leaders who replace the old ones within trade and students’ unions, or social organizations. It is a vital and present task, to guarantee that the thousands who come to fight come to recognize the usual traitors.

At the same time you have to accompany it with anti-systemic transformation proposals to end the sufferings of the underdogs, defeating the double discourse of ruling capitalists and old recipes that have already sunk us before.

Finally, we must be able to build an alternative to fight for these causes. And the election battle is a major challenge in this field. Here, as in the struggles, currents and their leaders are tested. And the results influence the daily fight.

The political landscape makes us very optimistic about the potential for progress in each of these areas. The international context does as well, with the peoples of Europe in the streets facing their capitalist governments.

To carry out all these tasks, across the country, it is essential to strengthen MST within Proyecto Sur. That is why we invite workers, young people, neighbours, social activists, artists, intellectuals, retired citizens, to join us and together build a party that is seriously determined about these objectives. It is our future that is at stake. No time to lose.

Alejandro Bodart, General Secretary – Currently Deputy – MST.

Mariano Rosa, National Secretary of the Socialist Youth – MST