Monday, November 28, 2011

The Toynbee Tiles: Viral exhibitry from the pre-Internet world

The Toynbee Tiler's main style, in Philadelphia's Center City.
At its heart an exhibition is a display of objects, grouped together by a shared theme, style or message, and designed for public consumption. In the award-winning 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, four men from Philadelphia search for the creator of an idiosyncratic series of public art pieces that, in its consistency and repetition, can be seen as an exhibition.

While the film plays out as History Detectives for hipsters, the story is compelling. The tiles have a central, cryptic message that invoke historian Arnold Toynbee and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick:

“Toynbee idea
In Movie 2001
Resurrect Dead
On Planet Jupiter"

The Toynbee Tiler has been prolific, installing his pieces since the 1980s in the asphalt of urban streets from his home base in Philadelphia, across the Rust Belt, to South America. The tiles defy explanation, though they have the stylistic consistency of a single artist. While the basic message doesn’t vary, he adds, at times, addenda and marginalia that range from mentioning the USSR to critiquing the media.

While the film is fascinating on a variety of levels, one of its most poignant aspects is the way the filmmakers create a portrait of the unknown Tiler. Through interviews and by tracing clues scattered in the tiles, newspapers, and minutes of an esoteric organization, they suggest that the tiles were primarily a means of communicating a public message in a pre-Internet world. Today, the Toynbee Tiler would have an easier time writing a blog, but the film shows his attempts to use other methods to find an outlet and audience for his message, from ham radio transmissions to calling in to talk radio shows. These strategies were small and inconsequential, and he found himself blocked by corporate media control of the airwaves.

City street as faulty archive: remnants of a decaying tile.
His response? An exhibition of public street art, curated against asphalt grids, through the creation and placement of a series of tiles carved out of linoleum and adhered to the street with tarpaper.  (To try this tiling technique yourself, check out the tutorial from Make magazine.) The ultimate ephemerality of the pieces as they erode under years of traffic renders them less archive than temporary exhibition. While the message of his tiles is unsettling--including one known as “The Manifesto” that disturbingly veers into anti-Semitism--the audacity of it as exhibition practice is intriguing.

Of course, in the age of the Internet, interest in the tiles has only grown as scattered individuals who had seen a tile in their city became aware of their spread. Interestingly, contemporary art groups have incorporated the tiles into their own street art. House of Hades, one of the more prolific of these collectives, creates their own tiles that critique the media, adopting one of the Toynbee Tiler’s favorite themes while purging it of its more unsavory aspects. Such approaches preserve the formal qualities of the tiles while effacing much of the haunted affect inhering in the obsessive repetition and syntactical unhingement of the originals. Connected today with a street art culture derived from graffiti and expressed in ways that strategically repurpose public space (for example, in the images of artists like Banksy), the contemporary tilers’ method is necessarily different in meaning from the Toynbee Tiler.

Other artists adopt the tile technique for less ambiguous messages.
While it seemed that he utilized his unique exhibition method for lack of other options, today’s street artists reclaim public spaces as an explicit means of countering corporate dominance and its ubiquitous expression through advertising. Like the tiles, today’s street art injects mystery into the public sphere, making familiar territory unfamiliar and altering perspective but its purpose is much more knowable. It aims to challenge power while also sending a message--a DIY ethos shared by the contemporary craft movement and quite different from the solitary statements of the Toynbee Tiles.

Not only are the messages themselves quite different, they are now received by more jaded eyes. For instance, many people leaving a screening of Resurrect Dead in Philadelphia admitted that they first assumed the tiles were either a student art project or a viral marketing campaign. Changes in technology, meaning, and modes of dissemination since the 1980s have gutted the semiotic landscape in which the Toynbee Tiles first appeared, leaving us more knowing about these kinds of visual languages but also perhaps nostalgic for the more truly mysterious affect of the Tiler’s exhibits. While contemporary modes of cultural signification build off his techniques, they also make impossible this kind of unknowable world created by a singular vision.

~ Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

Easily missed at 9th and Walnut, this small tile's ambiguous message can be read as step one of an instructional series or a plaintive expression of solitude.

(All photos are by Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Reality of Fiction in Post-Pinochet Chile: Los Archivos del Cardenal

I have been traveling to and from Chile for various reasons at various times since 2005, acquiring a deep appreciation for the country and its cultural subtleties and social mores—to say nothing of a Spanish accent steeped in Chilean slang.  But if I have learned anything since my initial days, it is that one must exercise sensitivity when approaching the dictatorial past.  On my most recent flight here, for example, I found myself especially mum when engaged by a well-dressed, middle-aged Chilean woman about my upcoming adventures.  Instead of revealing my true intentions—a year’s worth of historical research related to human rights and memory—I reverted to the tourist line: surfing, senderismo (trekking), and sun.  And we continued our conversation concerning Chile’s naturally beautiful landscape, not its unattractive past, maintaining the unspoken but readily recognizable veneer aimed at keeping the dictatorial past contained to the quiet corners of private, personal conversations rather than something to be discussed openly with strangers on airplanes, public transport, or other places where class and political lines may cross.  
That is why I was particularly pleased with the recent release of a new mini-series—Los Archivos del Cardenal—on Chile’s national broadcast channel, Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN).  The series, consisting of 12 "chapters," takes cases collected by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad under Cardinal Raul Silva Henríquez during the dictatorship and reproduces them for public consumption.  For those not in the know, the Vicaría, an organization of religious and lay Catholics, as well as non-believers, was arguably Latin America’s most active, if not high-profile, human rights organization during the 1970s and 80s.  It worked to protect Chileans suffering from Augusto Pinochet’s persecution by offering legal, medical, moral, and financial help, as well as establishing numerous national and international networks of support.  It is no secret, then, that the Vicaría is intimately linked to human rights activism and, moreover, that it has created an archive that documents crimes against humanity. 

Neither is it a secret that Los Archivos is a fictitious account of the past, however based in and inspired by the actual Vicaría.  Nicolás Acuña, director of the show, has taken the sensitive subject of dictatorship and exposed it through the commonplace medium of public television—to the chagrin of some and championing of others.  In a conversation with Acuña, I learned that among those who supported the creation of the show—a group that includes former Vicaría social workers and Chile’s first transitional president, Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994)—are historians and other academics who helped with the series’ stories.  Acuña, born in Chile in 1972 and raised in exile in Sweden after the coup, wanted to create an “historical document that pays tribute to Vicaría workers,” something that he feels fell through the cracks during the center-left Concertación governments between 1990 and 2010.  

The careful avoidance of Chile's tumultuous past has made itself felt in both opposition to the show and the creators' caution in approaching stories of resistance.  Senator Carlos Larraín voiced the conservative response when he said, “The series takes events that occurred exactly 40 years ago, but with an obvious political connotation: the left as victim, and this is what gives fans the fire to act politically with a certain amount of superiority” (author's translation).  Moreover, Acuña told me that to attract more viewers (or put fewer off), the team “couldn’t play too much with the theme of human rights.”  This, then, is why the series is also laced with racy scenes of love and has, well, a fictitious feel of a “police-investigative series.”  
But in an interview on Chile’s popular 24hrs, Acuña and actor Francisco Melos also spoke of the responsibility to show, despite the hardships of dictatorship, that people still lived, loved, drank whiskey, and laughed.  Thus, the debate that is circulating in op-eds, public discourse, the political circus, and my circle of friends, revolves not only around the usefulness of fiction versus history, but the reality of present and past politics, to say nothing of the demands of TV as a dramatic form.  Meanwhile, for the first time on public television, open references that damn the dictator(ship) are flashing across millions of Chilean screens.  

However, even if the (political) line between the Vicaría’s history and the fiction of Los Archivos is unclear, what is clear are the paralyzing scenes of torture, daylight disappearances, and the discovery of human remains in hidden graves.  Too, the series is not short on uncovering moral motives and struggles.  In one particularly moving scene, Chileans are invited to muse on the moral compass of a torturer of the country’s infamous National Center of Intelligence (CNI) as he returns home from work to stroke the cheek of his sleeping son.  As a viewer, I find that these images send shivers down my spine, a response that combines the emotive, the moral and the political. Moreover, and especially important, I think, is that for the interested and/or skeptical, follow-ups and fact-checking of each “chapter” can be cross-referenced to the “real” or “archived” case vis-à-vis a project directed by the Universidad Diego Portales.  There is also the option of visiting the Vicaría’s successor organization, La Fundación de Documentación y Archivo de la Vicaría de la Solidaridad (pictured above), to continue the historical inquiry.  

Approaching the past in post-dictatorship Chile is no easy task. From fictional crash-course lessons on public television to more established forms of memory-making through museums and memorials, any entranceway into Chile’s painful past is significant—and controversial, given the national and international public attention and debate that Los Archivos has generated in interviews, articles, and reviews.  As historian Steve Stern recently suggested while speaking at the “Memories in Construction” seminar at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Los Archivos is another step in the "materialization of memory in the physical-cultural landscape of a new generation of Chileans too young to have a direct remembrance of the dictatorship."
Los Archivos, like other films and television based on history, raises the question: when (or) is it useful to fictionalize the past?  Or can fictionalized history serve a special purpose when approaching sensitive issues such as crimes against humanity?  Whatever your answer, in Chile, for better or worse, the “materialization of memory” of such crimes for today’s generation is taking root in the form of Acuña’s “historic document”—a collaborative but careful effort that is more loyal to the past than it is faithful.  Yet, despite this reality of fiction, I look forward to what I hope is a not-too-distant future when my airplane conversations can focus on Chile’s physical-cultural landscape, not just its natural beauty. 

~ Zachary McKiernan

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

History, history everywhere

 On my walk from the commuter rail station to Tufts University the other day, I was struck by a kind of instant stage set or living history environment or nostalgic theme park created by an organic food delivery truck trailer parked behind the Porter Square Shopping Center in Cambridge.  The owner of the company and his mom were both featured on the side of the trailer, not an uncommon strategy for organic and family/local food producers as ways to differentiate themselves from more anonymous or purely commodified supermarket food.

What made this really interesting, though, was the fact that the back of the shopping center is itself painted with heritage-oriented murals depicting various periods of the neighborhood's existence.  Images of the mansion, cottages, and gardens that pre-dated (and were torn down to build) the plaza decorate the architecturally undistinguished back view, along with portraits of neighbors and some generic "olde-tyme" street views.

And more interesting yet, for the purposes of thinking about how historical materials, narratives, and knowledge are encoded in contemporary landscapes, is the plaque historicizing the murals themselves.  

This blog is devoted to reviewing historical exhibitry in an age of "ubiquitous display," and this kind of landscape of instant/casual/under-the-radar documentation and memorialization is exactly what we mean by "ubiquitous display."  If someone had happened to ride past on a vintage one-speed bicycle while I was standing there taking pictures, my day would have been complete!

~ Cathy Stanton