By Catherine Spencer
In 1967, Oscar Masotta – writer, critic, future adherent of psychoanalysis, and sometime creator of artistic performances that have come to be known as anti-Happenings – presented a lecture at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, entitled “After Pop, We Dematerialize.” As shown by scholars and curators including Karen Benezra, Daniel Quiles, Ana Longoni, Elize Mazadiego, Niko Vicario, and Jaime Vindel in their important analyses of this period, Masotta’s titular thesis encapsulates the course he plotted for the Argentine avant-garde away from both the international discourses of Pop art and Happenings, and towards a dematerialized art which utilized mass media technologies for its realization. Happenings, avant-garde performances created internationally during the 1960s by artists keen to dispense with the physical apparatuses of painting and sculpture, were characterized by immediacy, ephemerality, and no small dose of chaos. The Arte de los medios group, for which Masotta acted as an interlocutor, contested these premises: their Happening para un jabalí difunto (Happening for a Dead Boar) of 1966 consisted entirely of fabricated reportage of an ‘event’ which had not actually occurred – hence its status as an anti-Happening.
Between 1968 and 1969, the art critic and businessman Jorge Glusberg initiated what would ultimately become the Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAYC) in Buenos Aires. In many respects, CAYC exemplified Masotta’s insights about the shift towards dematerialized art – that is, art without a permanent physical outcome, and which prioritizes concepts over objects – facilitated by mass media communications. In particular, CAYC’s activities demonstrate how the condition of dematerialized art in Argentina became rapidly imbricated with the international and often inherently transnational discourses of cybernetics and system theory, and as a result with pressing questions of information exchange, feedback, technological developments (notably, militaristic ones) and the exercise of control.
I have previously examined the challenges that CAYC faced as it navigated the legacies of internationalism in the Argentine art world as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, and attempted to address growing calls to confront political and cultural imperialism in Argentina and Latin America. This think-piece provides a chance to reflect on the connections between dematerialization, cybernetics, and system theory during CAYC’s early years, and to consider the possibilities and problems this set of referents posed. During a volatile period in Argentina which saw a series of almost continuous dictatorships, triggered by a military coup in 1966 that ushered in a period which would culminate in the darkest years of the military junta which ruled between 1976 and 1983, the specters of regulation, systemic maintenance, and structural contestation raised by these discourses apply not just at the level of artwork content and exhibition theme: they offer an illuminating framework for examining CAYC’s institutional operation.
Initially at least, CAYC seemed poised to fill the institutional vacuum created by the closure in 1970 of the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella’s Centro de Artes Visuales (CAV, Centre for Visual Arts) in Buenos Aires, which had been a key site for Masotta’s elaboration of his theories. Directed by Jorge Romero Brest, CAV set the internationalizing terms of the Argentine avant-garde during the 1960s, as charted by Andrea Giunta in her path-breaking scholarship. As Ana Longoni and Mariano Mestman have shown in their foundational account of Argentine avant-garde’s radicalization due to the impact of the repression that followed the 1966 coup and the dictatorship of General Onganía, the CAV closed amidst censure from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. When CAYC opened its own galleries in the same year that the CAV closed, it did so within an increasingly polarized environment, and at a time when many artists were seriously questioning whether they should continue with their practices or abandon them in favor of direct political action.
Yet the dematerialized art practices that Masotta and other figures associated with the Di Tella embraced did continue to shape CAYC’s programming. In 1970, for example, Glusberg invited the American critic and curator Lucy Lippard to stage one of her ‘Numbers Shows’ in Buenos Aires (the exhibitions were titled after the population of the host city). 2.972.453 featured a group of Conceptual artists selected by Lippard, who sent easily-transportable work – photographs, diagrams, and scores – to Buenos Aires. Lippard in turn listed several CAYC exhibitions in her important 1973 publication Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Moreover, within the activities pursued by the CAYC, dematerialization was closely associated with communications technologies and the mediatized circulation of information, informed by the precepts of cybernetics and systems thinking.
During the early 1970s, CAYC attempted to bridge a range of intellectual and political positions by emphasizing its status as an interdisciplinary site for knowledge formation, combined with structural analysis. The earlier Institute created by the Di Tella family, which had generated its fortune through cars and domestic appliances, cast a wide disciplinary net as John King has shown, incorporating centers for electronic music and social science. But for all their interdisciplinary potential, and even though Masotta participated in activities at both the social science and arts centers, these remained relatively siloed. One key factor distinguishing CAYC from the Di Tella was that it operated as one integrated unit, which self-consciously sought to connect different disciplines. From the outset, Glusberg and a core group of ar tists associated with CAYC called the Grupo de los trece (The Group of Thirteen), conceived of the institution as a center for idea exchange, as much as the display of artworks. The roster of speakers at a dizzying array of events and conferences encompassed figures as diverse as the Polish theatre direct Jerzy Growtowski, the French information scientist Abraham Moles, the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, and the British psychiatrist David Cooper, among many others.
CAYC’s format corresponded with other research-led artistic initiatives of the 1960s and early 1970s, notably Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) established by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver in New York in 1966. There are also parallels with the Artist Placement Group (AGP) developed by Barbara Steveni and John Latham in Britain during the 1970s, with whom Glusberg corresponded, and which attempted to make links between artists and industry in Britain. In the mid-late 1970s, CAYC also forged links with the Collectif d’Art Sociologique in France, a group of artists who attempted to fuse art and sociology to create a new form of hybrid social praxis. The Czech-born French-British art historian Frank Popper, writing of Glusberg’s initiatives in 1975 from an international perspective, argued that ‘despite the fact that a large part of his displays is taken up by the exploits and experiments of artists from North America, he yet manages to achieve a kind of synthesis between foreign and local talent.’ Other comparable models include György Kepes’s Centre for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, as John R. Blakinger and Pamela M. Lee have expounded, such initiatives were characterized by a laboratorial approach that illuminates the imbrications of art and internationalism, imperialism, and military endeavors in an especially stark light. Within the Argentine context, as Giunta has shown, definitions of internationalism constantly mutated during the 1960s, shifting from an association with outward-looking policies and connections that transcended national borders, to accusations of cultural homogenization dominated by US interests.
The scholarship of Lee and Blakinger on institutional complicity in the decades after the Second World War is particularly instructive, in that CAYC comparably encountered pushback from artists due to its proximity with state-run organizations such as biennials, and for failing to distance itself from the regimes which benefitted from the cultural capital generated through international artistic exchange. In the Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini’s estimation, CAYC’s institutional complicity with repressive politics is exemplified by an infamous telegram of congratulation sent to CAYC in 1978 by General Videla, the leader of the 1976–81 military junta, when the Grupo de los trece was awarded the Grand Prize at the 1978 Bienal de São Paulo. Videla oversaw a brutal period of disappearances and murders of an estimated 30,000 citizens, many of them young people involved in student activism and trade union organizing. But artists and critics had long been suspicious of CAYC’s and in particular Glusberg’s motivations, calling out his attempt to exhibit at the same biennial in 1971. The Bienal de São Paulo had been the target of a prominent international boycott since 1969, after the Brazilian dictatorship passed an act that instituted torture of political prisoners. In response to Glusberg’s machinations, the New-York based artist Gordon Matta-Clark led on the collaborative publication Contrabienal, which explicitly questioned the way in which CAYC’s networking fell into imperialist schemes.
As such, the CAYC’s fusion of dematerialized art practices with cybernetics and system theory needs to be understood not simply as a question of content, but as one of operation. Cybernetics was pioneered by mathematicians and computer scientists working in America during the Second World War, notably Norbert Wiener, to improve the accuracy of missiles: Peter Galison has stressed the importance of this original context for the implications of cybernetic thinking, and it is equally salutary to bear in mind when considering the ways in which cybernetic thinking informed art practice. Andrew Pickering, Steve Heims and N. Katherine Hayles have also traced how cybernetics was rapidly taken up by other disciplines including psychology and anti-psychiatry (a movement which challenged traditional psychiatry by arguing that society was unwell, rather than individuals), and embraced by the counterculture as offering alternative models of networked communication, often linked to an ecological consciousness that emphasized environmental interdependency.
System theory, meanwhile, is predominantly associated with the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and emphasized the holistic integration of biological and organic entities. Although CAYC staged early exhibitions that directly referenced cybernetics in their titles and catalogs, the practices supported by CAYC were increasingly presented under the term ‘systems art’ (‘arte de sistemas’), with Glusberg organizing interlinked exhibitions under this heading that travelled across Latin America and Europe during the 1970s, including Arte de Sistemas I (1971), Arte de Sistemas II (1972), From Figuration to Systems Art in Latin America (1971) and Art Systems in Latin America (1974). As Elena Shtromberg has shown, systems thinking was a significant element of artistic production in 1970s Brazil, and CAYC’s exhibitions and catalogs participate in this diffusion of artistic interest in systems – biological and social – across the Americas and Europe.
In the Art Systems in Latin America catalog, Glusberg linked systems with structures, indicating that at this point he saw systems-based works as explicitly concerned with the critique of societal inequalities and exclusions. ‘Arte de sistemas’, ostensibly at least, offered both a means of conducting structural critique against repression in Argentina, but also of cultural imperialism in the art world. If dematerialization had enabled new artistic relationships with the media, and a movement away from the static art object, then systems thinking emphasized lateral connections across networks, countering the hierarchies and borders of geographic division. For Katarzyna Cytlak, ‘arte de sistemas’ allowed Glusberg and CAYC increasingly to bypass art world ‘centers’ and prioritize links with other Latin American countries including Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile, as well as connections with artists, critics, and museum professionals in Japan and Eastern Europe. As Glusberg’s controversial 1971 attempt to organize an ‘Arte de sistemas’ show at the Bienal de São Paulo underscores, however, the networks that CAYC participated in sometimes shored up as much as they contested centers of power.
CAYC’s engagement with cybernetics is therefore instructive in that the latter’s systems were predominantly conservative in their operation, tending toward homeostasis – the maintenance of existing states, a key cybernetic precept – through the regulatory effects of self-correcting feedback. The critic Marta Traba cast a skeptical contemporaneous eye on the CAYC’s ambitions in her 1973 book Dos décadas vulnerables en las artes plásticas Latinoamericanas, 1950–1970, condemning their engagement with computers and cybernetics as in thrall to imperialist notions of artistic innovation. This line of thought was expanded on by García Canclini in his scholarship, and more recently by Luis Camnitzer, who has argued of CAYC that what could have been a ground-breaking program of exhibitions and events ultimately reproduced center-periphery constructs, and was complicit with imperialism and repression. While it is crucial not to conflate the practices of the artists who participated in CAYC with its overarching aims and operation – and scholars including Julia Detchon and Vindel have vitally shown how they continued to make important socio-political interventions with their works, including at the 1978 Bienal de São Paulo – when approached cybernetically as a networked organizational entity, CAYC inevitably risked becoming homeostatically reproductive of existing systems. The organization’s activities serve as an important case study within the wider drive to account for the seismic impact of cybernetics and system theory on art practice during and after the Second World War, testifying not only to the extent with which artists and organizations engaged with these ideas, but were constitutive of the ambitious and compromises they manifested.
Catherine Spencer is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews. Her essays have appeared in Art History, Art Journal, ARTMargins, Tate Papers, and Oxford Art Journal. Her book Beyond the Happening: Performance Art and the Politics of Communication was published by Manchester University Press in their Rethinking Art’s Histories series in 2020. She tweets @cespencer_
Featured Image: Photograph of the exterior of the exhibition Arte y Cibernética, Galería Bonino, Buenos Aires, 1969. Photographer and date unknown. Gentileza Centro de Estudios Espigas – Fundación Espigas.