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Conversing with Antoni Muntadas


08 February 2016
This month's topic: Fear, control, security

Conversing with Antoni Muntadas

Sitting face to face, with an ocean between us, in front of our respective webcams, a few days ago I had the opportunity to dialogue for an hour with Antoni Muntadas; about political actuality, changes in security matters, the way fear is administered, and how power at the moment exercises control over each and every one of us. In the process, almost inevitably some of his works were placed on the table for an analysis with the passing of time. In many cases, the freshness they still bring to key questions, with which to understand many of the situations that recur over and over again, is vertiginous.

In the majority of your works fear is always focussed on the “other”–On Translation: Fear/Miedo and On Translation: Fear/Jauf or Alphaville-. There is no common fear amongst them. This “other” is the cross-border inhabitant; the person alien to our home; or the fear of the individual who invigilates. Nevertheless this sensation of security beyond walls seems to have been affected by the capacity of the “other” to enter into the kitchen and in a question of seconds erase in one go this notion of a safe place. In relation to these situations, Hans Magnus Enzensberger talks in El perdedor radical of consequences that pass by way of the “increment of the power and influence of political police, of secret services, of the arms industries, and private security companies; that propitiate the setting in motion of increasingly repressive laws; that intoxicate the political climate and lead to the loss of rights and liberties gained throughout history”. What have we lost with all of this? What have they won, those who according to Enzensberger have seen the increment of their power?

There is a parallelism in the two projects I made for the frontiers of Tijuana-San Diego and Tarifa-Tangiers, because I believe it is here that my interest to investigate histories of fear begins. With the invitation of inSite in 2003 I didn’t want to confront the histories of the border, so much as I wanted to focus on fear as the sensation that arises before and after violence, one which moreover began to have, at that time, special visibility with the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001.

The proposal arrives in 2003 and at that point I began to feel fear is very present and that the frontier is a site where it is articulated in a very evident manner. At that time I developed a piece for television so that it would be shown in the public arena of local television channels and those of the capital, in Washington D.C. as much as Mexico DC, aside from on the frontiers.

The work begins with personal fear, where you are the fear you don’t need to have an “other” in the sense that they are fears of the dark, a fear produced in infancy and adolescence. The fear produced amplifies, in the case of the frontier, because of this “other”, the fear that arises in translation, the fear of the south held by those of the north and vice versa, which is very different. There resides the quid of On Translation.

In the north, the fear of the south ranges from a fear of repression to violence, to the physical question of the power exercised by the north. In the case of the north, it is the ignorance of the south, the lack of knowledge of its languages, culture, traditions, etc. So throughout the video it repeats and amplifies, from the micro fear of the individual to the macro, evolving with social fear, political fear, and in the end mediated fear, because in the end many of these situations are augmented by the media, that act as ventilators, amplifying this situation of latent paranoia. In this, the two works are very similar, the difference is that in the case of Tarifa and Tangiers religion is an additional element which makes it much more complex.

With this I want to say that evidently not all fears are equal, it depends on who exercises them and who is subjected, and apart from this personal fear, fear always identifies in the “other”, an “other” that changes, with the help of political and media exercises, which I grant great importance. Currently, the situation in Syria and its effects on the European diaspora have radicalised the positions of each one of the members of the European community, and not precisely in the form of solidarity.

I would say that in Alphaville the scenario is different, there the frontier is that of the “gated community”, a frontier not between countries, so much as between public and private. They are estates known in Brazil as “closed sets”. Spanish housing estates are about social and economic status, but those in Brazil are large fortifications created for protection against possible crime. Here, a question arises I believe is fairly common in all these cases of fear-security relations, as it is a vicious circle. Does the sensation of safety arise before fear or is it the other way round? The doubt exists as to whether it is security that promotes fear or whether fear requires security on occasion to seem justified. I think it has been seen clearly with the expansion of the large security companies in Brazil that have become a monster industry. These companies operate with super sophisticated technologies that are fortuitously in many cases in the hands of Israeli ex-soldiers and Columbian paramilitaries who work for these companies because evidently they are familiar with techniques of security and control as well as the territory. These businesses, in turn, create, before or afterwards, this sensation and paranoia of fear.

Regarding frontiers and this search for the external enemy, revising one of the texts included in the catalogue, The construction of fear and the loss of the public I came across a reflection on the way the testimonies included in your project On Translation: Fear/Jauf, have an effect on the spectator. It talks of the narrative of “translation, interpretation, what is not said and silence”. What does silence suppose amidst a climate of a surfeit of information? And what is not said?

Yes, just look at the case of the frontiers it is louder on one side than on the other. On the north side the complaint or denunciation is vociferous, based on the idea of penetration and occupation. In the south, the one who crosses is silent. Silent, in the sense they have to function in the dark. This is a fact I find quite significant.

In a situation where crossing were legal, the two would talk in the same tone, but here one side talks like an authority and the other is subdued. This is terrible, the Schengen Agreement, that supposedly ought to facilitate circulation, has nevertheless already made it increasingly more complicated, in contrast to the free circulation of merchandise. In this sense, we have barely any information about the “silent” part to clarify why they are crossing. I believe it is intuited and it is known due to the living conditions of the other side, but there is a silence that is almost obligatory…and obviously, the noise later appears once again, when find out about it through the media.

I’m particularly interested in the way certain tools of mass control are revised, not just to turn them against us, so much as to question their effect. I’m referring here specifically to your project TVE: primer intento. As with Basilio Martín Patino, the material arises from power, but it is the process of montage that works with the attack or a questioning. How do these two questions continue to affect a country where political stability continues to be sustained by something about which a large part of the population has serious doubts?

TVE: primer intento stems from an invitation from Híbridos, the exhibition I made in 1988 in MNCARS. TVE proposed I made a piece about my work for Metrópolis, but I proposed they make a different one. I was interested in making it about them. I’d watched television since I was little in Spain and it seemed interesting to be able to rummage through the documentation and its history, but the only possibility was if they commissioned me to do so. This commission lasted two years, during which time there arose changes of producers and this triggered a loss of control on their part. A loss of control, that meant I could work freely and amidst the situations that were produced I went to one of the TVE buildings in Arganda, to look for documentation. It was August and everything was closed, so ambling around the installations I came across a cemetery full of machines: discarded cameras, mobile kits, scraps of 35mm film and two inch tapes. These are the images that appear in the film, which show this archival sloth. It was really hard to make the cameras of TVE film it because they realised what it meant.

The work is called TVE: primer intento because I believed that it could continue and thought that afterwards there could be other attempts made by other people, who could confront the archive and the memory of Spanish television. They never explained why they didn’t broadcast it, it was never broadcast, there was no dissemination and clearly, living abroad I didn’t have any urge to cause controversy, nor did I did I have the means to do so. So I decided to wait and see if one day they dared to show it, something that never happened and then I made The File Room in Chicago, a piece about censorship where I situated that case at the beginning of the project, along with many others. It served as an exorcism regarding questions of censorship that are frequently invisible. One has to think that when this piece was made, TVE was the only television channel. There were still no other public or private channels and this was already fifteen years after the death of Franco.

Recently Informe General II by Pere Portabella was presented at MNCARS and in last few months a retrospective show of Harun Farocki opened at IVAM. They are two important museums dependent on the official organs of culture, but inside we find the work of two filmmakers that, like you, question the structure of this power, the way in which power is exercised. Do you think that there is really a control over what is housed in the museums or is it the museum itself that seeks to distract the political power with the aim of not seeing its capacity to make decisions reduced?

One would have to specify, given that these two cases you mention are at the moment directed by people with a social and political preoccupation, something that doesn’t occur in all museums. There are museums that aren’t aware of working with the audience, with the distribution of a discourse and access to knowledge that others don’t have. These institutions, the Reina, since Manuel Borja Villel has been there, and more recently IVAM, have made a huge effort to include in their programme works that question not just the situation and exercise of power beyond the museum, so much as within the museum itself. There are works that, as in the case of Farocki, question the institution, as do works of other people such as Hans Haacke, without drawing simply from the cinematographic point of view. Some work in ways that are more striking than others, but I want to say that one doesn’t have to generalise either regarding the work of artists or that of the institutions.

There are those who make efforts to be more inclusive than exclusive, endeavouring to establish a type of platform for works that make it possible to see them but also for them to be discussed. Currently, I am working on a project called Asian Protocols that I’ve been working on for around four years. The first part was Korea, the second part Japan, and the third will be China. This project deals with the similarities and differences between these countries and the conflicts. It is clear that I’m an outsider there, I don’t know the languages nor the traditions, but I do know contemporaneity and the way in which these countries disqualify each other, through their recent history, through their wars and the way they have been educated culturally and how they have portrayed each other.

Part of this exhibition in Japan will be three round tables about censorship, fear, and public space with Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, that supposes a very important part of the project one I hope it develops well. With this I want to say that this cultural institution is making a serious effort to advance something, taking a risk, and not all institutions would do this. In Spain in this aspect, there is a greater social and political awareness than there was before, but obviously, there are always limits. There are those prone to an ethics or a misunderstood aesthetics that can end up exercising a situation of limitation, power, or repression. But I believe they are possible platforms and often platforms that in the case of an installation or a film with debate, that are interested not just that the film be seen so much as there is a desire for feedback and debate, that these films be artefacts to be activated, something I propose a lot in my work. If the work doesn’t activate, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work.

Ángel Calvo Ulloa was born in a very small place full of vile characters. In the faculty where he studied nobody ever talked to him about criticism or curating, so now he dedicates his time to reading, writing and every now and again doing the odd exhibition. He loves travelling and feeling very small in a large city. He also loves going back home and once again hating this tiny place.

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