Aesthetics of Repetition: A Case for Oscar Masotta

Juli Carson

From the theater’s booth we explained the idea of the [re-enacted] Happening over a microphone. We gave information about the authors and the actions of each of the original Happenings and we said–which was the truth–that it was not our intention to repeat Happenings but to produce for the audience a situation similar to that experienced by archeologists and psychologists. Starting from some remains that had been conserved to the present, they had to reconstruct a past, the original situation.1

-Oscar Masotta, 1967

In Seminar XI, Lacan sustains that repetition is one of the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. But if, as Heraclitus says, “you can’t step in the same river twice,” repetition seems to be something of a misnomer, consisting in the return, not of the same, but of the different–the return of something else, something other. Thus in fact it would seem there is no return… For no two “things” are ever identical or exactly the same.2

-Bruce Fink, 1995

In 1966 Allan Kaprow christened Buenos Aires a “city of Happenists.” It was the year Kaprow collaborated with Marta Minujin and Wolf Vostell on Three Countries Happening, a simultaneous event in three cities: New York, Buenos Aires, and Berlin. Meanwhile, the Argentine trio Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, and Raul Escari were devising their Total Participation Happening, in which press releases and photographs of a Happening that never took place were given to various Buenos Aires newspapers. El Mundo (circulation 300,000) bought the story and ran it. There were also the “deconstructed” Happenings by Oscar Masotta, an Argentine artist and critic who deftly combined avant-garde aesthetics with Lacan’s theory of the subject and Sartre’s political imperative for committed art. What connected these experiments was a relentless focus on an event’s repetition, a rogue take on Kaprow’s Happening given his famous axiom that Happenings should be performed once only.3 But for a generation of Argentine artists–one associated with a flurry of neo-avant-garde strategies imported from the Northern Hemisphere and staged at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (ITDT) in the mid-1960s–what mattered was the way a Happening’s secondary documentation in the media was, in and of itself, a singular event. As Jacoby put it, “[A] mass audience does not see an exhibition, attend a Happening or go to a soccer game, but it does see footage of the event on the news…. In the final analysis, it is of no interest to information consumers if an exhibition took place or not; all that matters is the image of the artistic event constructed by the media.”4 Whether or not we experience the original event, its reproduction ushers in another one. Perhaps, following Lacan, it’s because repetition involves the return of the different, not the same.

What follows is a case study for a practice of repetition, one conceived in Buenos Aires by Oscar Masotta amidst an onslaught of military coups that would eventually lead to the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s. On this Argentine field we encounter Masotta’s Lacanian interpretation of the Happening, a model that lays the foundation for a psychoanalytic branch of Conceptualism highly relevant today for a group of international, contemporary artists interested in critical aesthetics–that tripartite investigation of art, politics, and theory. In Masotta’s times, critical aesthetics entailed simultaneously negotiating the strategies of the neo-avant-garde, a wave of military coups, and the introduction of Lacan’s theorization of the subject. This combination of disciplines, historical events, and intellectual ruminations now repeats among a select group of contemporary practitioners.5 But this repetition is no mere duplication. Rather, these events–aesthetic, political and theoretical–are happening (again) for the first time in the discursive field of contemporary art and politics. For some the events are quite literally new, as they have no memory (primary or secondary) of the historical or neo-avant-garde vis-a-vis contemporary art. For others it’s figuratively new. But it is the latter–that subject who knowingly repeats, always as if for the first time–who functions as a courier of historical memory and is thus an interrogator of cultural practice–that concerns me. And this contemporary practice of repetition is happening at a moment when the discovery of Oscar Masotta (led in large part by the Museum of Modern Art’s 2004 publication Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde) has piqued an international interest in this kind of critical aesthetics.

First, a brief history of the Argentine campo.6

Oscar Masotta, c. 1966. Photo courtesy Susana Lijtmaer. reproduced in <em>Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde</em> (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004).

Oscar Masotta, c. 1966. Photo courtesy Susana Lijtmaer. reproduced in Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004). Used with permission of the estate of Oscar Masotta. © Susana Lijtmaer.

Buenos Aires: 1960s

Located in Buenos Aires, the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (ITDT) was Argentina’s most dynamic and modernizing cultural organization. It was founded in the mid-1960s in honor of the industrialist and collector Torcuato Di Tella. Run by Guido Di Tella, the institute not only displayed the Di Tella’s collection, it also sponsored national and international awards. Lucy Lippard, Clement Greenberg, Pierre Restany, and Allan Kaprow all acted as jurors for the ITDT. In 1967, when Masotta delivered his lecture “After Pop We Dematerialize” there,7 he began by citing the Russian Constructivist artist El Lissitzky; “The idea that moves the masses today is materialism: however, it is dematerialization that characterizes the times.” Masotta argued, via Lissitzky, that as “correspondence grows, so the number of letters, the quantity of writing paper, the mass of material of supply grow until they are relieved by the radio. Matter diminishes, we dematerialize, sluggish masses of matter are replaced by liberated energy.”8 In this spirit, Masotta urged, “[I]f there is talk now of not concerning oneself with content, it does not mean that avant-garde art is moving toward a new purism or worse formalism. What is occurring today in the best pieces is that the contents are being fused to the media used to convey them.”9 And if the medium was now the message, as Marshall McLuhan said, it was up to the artist to chip away at the imaginary nature of this message in the context of mass media. For Masotta, this entailed, as we will see, a Lacanian consideration of the looking subject in the context of neo-avant-garde strategies that migrated between disciplines and regions.10

A year later, the American critic Lucy Lippard published “The Dematerialization of Art,” in Art International. For her, “dematerialism” evoked an “art as idea,” whereby “matter is denied, as sensation has been converted into concept.” Ostensibly this was a dialectical turn away from Greenberg’s Modernist painting–known as “art for art’s sake”–on the road first to what Lippard termed a “rational-esthetic” and then a “post-esthetic.” That said, she offered a caveat: “Dematerialized art is post-esthetic only in its increasingly non-visual emphases. The esthetic of principle is still esthetic, as implied by frequent statements by mathematicians and scientists about the beauty of an equation, formula or solution.”11 And yet the heart of Greenbergism–essence, beauty, harmony, and order–was still beating. Like Greenberg’s Modernism, Lippard’s dematerialism had less to do with the signifier–the material of an artwork–than it did with the signified–the artwork’s non-visual aesthetic fact. Even though Lippard tossed aside Greenberg’s notion of “medium specificity” in favor of a logical positivist Conceptualism, the essence game of transcendentalism that defined high Modernism remained in its place. Moreover, it may have been enough for Lippard to reject the visual, but in so doing, the subject who looks at a Conceptual artwork wasn’t taken into consideration.

While Lippard was devising her Conceptualist formulations in New York, Masotta was devising a model of dematerialist art production around this issue of the looking subject, a redirected investigation he made while discovering the structuralist psychoanalytic writings of Lacan a full decade before artists in the Northern Hemisphere would do so. Moreover, while those in Europe and America would later encounter Lacan through the institutionalization of his writing in academia throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Masotta’s discovery was made contingently as a “lucky find” in the early 1960s. This entails another story.

Following the death of his father in 1960, Masotta fell into a deep depression, to the point of contemplating suicide. As historian Mariano Ben Plotkin recounts, this was the moment that Masotta discovered psychoanalysis: “Suddenly I had to forget Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, ideas and politics, ‘commitment,’ and the ideas I had invented about myself. I had to look for an analyst.”12 Meanwhile, the Argentine sociologist Enrique Pichon Riviere had taken the bereaved Masotta into his home, where Masotta gained access to the structuralist writings of Lacan and Levi-Strauss. His studies with Riviere, which began as a means of distraction from melancholia, would lead to Masotta’s seminal paper introducing Lacanian theory, a text he wrote in 1964 and published in 1965 in Pasado y Presente.13 A key periodical of the New Left, this choice of venue attests to Masotta’s continued interest in politics–or at least a psychoanalytic turn within the political field. Even more significant, Masotta’s essay–in which he sought to reconcile Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and Marx’s materialist theories through Lacan’s structuralist phenomenological lens–was the first discussion of Lacan in Argentina and most likely the first one in the Spanish Language.14

Oscar Masotta, <em>Para inducer al espíritu de la imagen (To Induce the Spirit of the Image),</em> Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1966. Reproduced in <em>Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde.</em> (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004).

Oscar Masotta, Para inducer al espíritu de la imagen (To Induce the Spirit of the Image), Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1966. Photo courtesy Susana Lijtmaer. Reproduced in Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004). Used with permission of the Estate of Oscar Masotta.

And the results? Having read Lacan’s Seminar II on “The Purloined Letter,” a seminar Masotta would later explicate to artists in a lecture series delivered at the ITDT,15 his focus shifted to the subject’s relation to the symbolic register–that linguistic field of signifiers through which the subject is determined. Following Lacan, Masotta was concerned with the efficacy of the symbolic world (conscious thought) in contrast to the complete inertia of the Symbolic register (unconscious thought) that is anomalous to the subject. Against Lippard’s formulation of dematerialism, this was an anti-positivist approach because it took up more than what the subject knows to be true. In tandem, it took up what is unconscious in the subject–those inert “thoughts” that paradoxically determine the subject’s consciousness relationship to the Symbolic signifying system. This followed Lacan’s axiom that the unconscious is structured like a language and is therefore knowable in the field of the Other, even though the subject’s own consciousness is “incapable of accounting for the eternal and indestructible nature of unconscious contexts.”16 Like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, the subject’s unconscious thoughts are always hiding in plain view of the Other. It is thus to the field of the Other that the subject turns to find the “truth” of his or her shifting desire. Notably, because Masotta delivered his Lacanian lectures to artists at the ITDT, the Symbolic register to which he referred delineated more than the socio-political field, which was the primary concern of the Argentine Lacanian Left. Masotta purposely extended his investigation to consider the aesthetic field as well.

In the mid-1960s, it was a radical and even precocious move to wage a tripartite investigation into the limits of representation within the visual field (dematerialist art), the subject who looks within the discursive field (Lacanian theory), and the social function of aesthetic critique vis-a-vis the political field (New Left).17 But it wasn’t without political application or ramification. This burst of hybrid intellectual activity by Masotta and his cohorts at the ITDT was concurrent with the military coup d’etat of June 1966, led by General Juan Carlos Ongania. Whereas previous military coups in Argentina established temporary juntas, the Revolucion Argentina, headed by Ongania, established a new political and social order, one opposed to both liberal democracy and communism. Unapologetically fascist, Ongania immediately waged La Noche de los Bastones Largos (The Night of the Long Sticks), when police stormed the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, beating and arresting students and professors. This attests to the bravery–or frivolousness, depending on your ideological bias–of the combined revival of psychoanalysis and the avant-garde amidst the advancement of a totalitarian dictatorship that would eventually enact genocide upon the Argentine Left from 1976-83.

A Happening Redux

The 1966 coup set the political mise-en-scene for Masotta’s essay “I committed a Happening,” written to counter the condemnation–made by one Professor Klimovsky in the newspaper La Razon–that “perpetrators” of Happenings would better serve the Left by investing their creative “imagination in lessening this tremendous plague (of ‘hunger’).”18 For Masotta, this choice–either Happenings or Left politics–was a false dialectic. His rebuttal evoked Walter Benjamin’s address to the Institute for the Study of Fascism, made in 1934, when he denounced the false choice the Left was forcing artists to make between political correctness and aesthetic engagement.19 For Benjamin, the Left needed to interrogate aesthetic tendencies, not merely reject them. Similarly, Masotta argued that Happenings reclassified the materialist basis of Art with a capital “A” (its most noble form being bronze or marble) and site (traditionally confined to the museum). As such, Happenings had the potential of interrogating and demystifying the hegemonic value system of art production/consumption by formally imbuing (critical) aesthetics with a social function. This entailed reorienting the subject’s imaginary and symbolic relationship to a conventional artwork or art event, returning from the repressed the evocation of a form’s different connotative value that’s over-determined by standing aesthetic convention. The Happening’s critical potential, then, was not ontological. In its most conventional application, a Happening could just as easily reestablish cultural hegemonies, as was the case of a Happening performed by La Monte Young in New York City, in 1966, which Masotta had attended.20

In “I committed a Happening,” Masotta described his experience of Young’s event:

After climbing the last staircase [into a downtown New York City loft], one was assaulted by and enveloped in a continuous deafening noise, composed of a colorful mix of electronic sounds…. Something, I don’t know what, something Oriental, was burning somewhere…. The lights were turned out; only the front wall was illuminated by a blue or reddish light…. Beneath the light, and almost against the wall, facing the room and facing the audience…were five people…sitting on the ground, one of them a woman, in yoga position, dressed in what was certainly Oriental clothing, and each of them holding a microphone. One of them played a violin, while…the four others remained as though paralyzed, with the microphones almost glued to their open mouths…. [T]he four, stopping only to breath, were adding a continuous guttural sound to the sum of the electronic sounds…. There was in this timeless spectacle a deliberate mix–a bit banal for my taste–of Orientalism and electronics.21

Upon returning to Buenos Aires in April 1966, Masotta decided to repeat Young’s Happening. Though it might be more appropriate to say–employing Guy Debord’s term–that Masotta detourned it.22 Entitled To Induce the Spirit of the Image, Masotta’s Happening waged a dual critique of Western Zen-fetish, a social phenomenon that disgusted Masotta in the context of American capitalism, and class stratification, something one saw everywhere in Argentina.

Performed at ITDT, Masotta retained Young’s idea of “putting on” a continuous electronic sound at a high volume for an hour, as he would the arrangement of the audience and performers–face to face, with the performers being lit. However, instead of five performers seated in yoga positions, Masotta hired twenty elderly actors, dressed as “motley-colored downtrodden-looking” individuals, to stand on an illuminated platform. When Masotta discharged a fire extinguisher the event began:

I told [the audience] what was happening when they entered the room…that I had paid the old people to let themselves be seen, and that the audience, the others, those who were facing the old folks, more than two hundred people, had each paid two hundred pesos to look at them. That in all this there was a circle…through which the money moved, and that I was the mediator. Then I discharged the fire extinguisher, and afterward the sound appeared, rapidly attaining the chosen volume. When the spotlight that illuminated me went out, I myself went up to the spotlights that were to illuminate the old people and I turned them on. Against the white wall, their spirit shamed and flattened out by the white light, next to each other in a line, the old people were rigid, ready to let themselves be looked at for an hour. The electronic sound lent greater immobility to the scene. I looked toward the audience: they too, in stillness looked at the old people.23

In the context of Young’s original Happening–a past someone may or may not know independently–it’s helpful to read Masotta’s experimental Happening through the logic of a double-blind study. Based upon a technique in clinical research where neither the researcher nor the patient knows whether the treatment administered is considered inactive (placebo) or active (medicinal), in a double-blind study no one knows who is in the inactive control group and who is in the active experimental group. Analogously, in Happenings one finds an attempt to deny the distinction between audience (passive group) and performer (active group), following the neo-avant-garde axiom that audiences should be eliminated entirely. “All the elements–people, space, the particular materials and character of the environment, time–can in this way be integrated,” Kaprow concluded in 1959.24 The two groups constituting a Happening–audience and performers–would thus mirror each other, the reality of one being bound up in the other. Of course this symbiosis would have occurred in Young’s Happening. However, given the absence of any ostensible critique, this imbrication of positions–which by 1966 had become quite conventional–was left unexamined, which meant the chiasmic relation between self and other wasn’t really seen. Rather, the participants passively reenacted these positions, with Young seated in the privileged location of conductor.

Brochure for <em>Acerca de: Happenings (About: Happenings)</em>, a series of lectures and happenings organized by Oscar Masotta at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1966. Reproduced in <em>Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde.</em> (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004).

Brochure for Acerca de: Happenings (About: Happenings), a series of lectures and happenings organized by Oscar Masotta at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1966. Reproduced in Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004). Used with permission of the Estate of Oscar Masotta.

In Masotta’s Happening, by contrast, the rules of the game were explicitly established as a critique, such that the artist (investigator) would also be blind in the sense that what would happen between the two groups, vis-a-vis the investigator’s action (in situ), was unknown by all. The only thing known in advance was that all the players–the two groups and the artist–would be positioned in a triangulation of inter-subjective gazes. “The old people were rigid, ready to let themselves be looked at for an hour. The electronic sound lent greater immobility to the scene. I looked toward the audience: they too, in stillness looked at the old people.” We might ask what they all were looking at? Or rather, who was given to be seen, and by whom? Within this galaxy of signifiers–the elderly, their weathered clothes, the Argentine flags, the spectator-audience, the artist- conductor, the Instituto Di Tella–an Imaginary field of multiple, fractured identifications were played out via each person’s relation to the Other. This recalled Sartre’s observation that in the look “I am possessed by the Other; the Other’s look fashions my body in its nakedness, causes it to be born, sculptures it, produces it as it is, sees it as I shall never see it. The Other holds a secret–the secret of who I am.”25 Like a double-blind study, a secret thus structured the Happening, embedded, as it were, in the various discursive fields mentioned above.

Meanwhile, the Happenist who wrote the score–“You will stand here for an hour and be looked at”–initiated the scene with an implicit “declaration”–I am a sadist. In this way, Masotta self-reflexively radicalized the Sartrean theory of the look, because the subject–as Lacan would have put it–was hiding in plain view. Which brings us back to the unconscious, a concept Sartre soundly rejected. From a Lacanian point of view, we might conjecture that the entire point of Masotta “committing a Happening” was to call attention to the subject’s unconscious relationship to the Symbolic register, in which the participants were embedded, and through which they were determined. Moreover, given the particular signs he mobilized–the people, the clothes, the weapon-ness of the fire extinguisher, the exchange of capital, and the look–this point was explicitly political (to the chagrin of Klimovsky, who implicitly conflated the Happenist with the criminal). Masotta’s point was, however, made performatively, not didactically, which confused many on the Left. As Masotta explained: “When my friends on the Left…asked me, troubled, about the meaning of the Happening, I answered them using a phrase which I repeated using exactly the same order of words each time I was asked the same question: My Happening, I now repeat, was nothing other than ‘an act of social sadism made explicit.'”26

Basically, Masotta transformed Young’s Happening into a Sartrean “situation.” But what confused those on the Left was not that Masotta had done this–the Left was squarely behind Sartre–but that he did it in order to interrogate those on the Left and the Right, artist and politician, a move that made a critical demand upon all the participants. According to Sartre, a situation is the position from which a person engages with the world–where one is presented with a set of conditions that he or she can passively accept or actively interrogate. The active position entails recognizing that the quotidian choices we make–between this or that action–is an affirmation of a given “image” of humanity as a whole. As Sartre put it, in making a choice, “I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be.In fashioning myself I fashion man.”27 As a means of interrogation, the committed artist might repeat these situations. In so doing, the artist would visualize the conventional choices subjects make in life, ones that could be made differently through art as a critique of life. Accordingly, when scoring his Happening, Masotta made several choices that implicated his fellow practitioners of art, some of which have already been mentioned. For instance, he did not accept the pseudo-scientific notion of dematerialism as defined by Lippard. Nor did he choose, in his Happening, to maintain the Orientalist components of Young’s original event. Rather, Masotta chose to visualize what was hiding in plain view: the truth of the subject within the double fields of Argentine politics and the International avant-garde, which is to say, to visualize a certain strain of social sadism among artists and politicians alike.28

For most, this collapsed dialectic was understandably counterintuitive. Certainly the psychedelic yogi scene staged by La Monte Young and his collaborators defined the “zeitgeist” of many artists, which, like the Left, protested an American right-wing administration that would back Argentina’s Dirty War. But in reality, when it came to each group’s ethnocentrism–an attitude that often entailed a sadistic relationship to the Other–there was little difference between the two groups, even though this connection remained in the register of unconscious thoughts. The issue of this unconscious reality, no doubt, formed the basis for Masotta’s disgust with the American social phenomenon of Zen as he encountered it within Young’s Happening.29 Another of Masotta’s descriptions illuminates the Happening’s underlying sadism in physiological terms, and we should note how readily Masotta discounts the conscious intentions of the participants’ Orientalism:

[I]n this sum of deafening sounds, in this exasperating electronic endlessness, in this mix of high-pitched noise and sound that penetrated one’s bones and pummeled one’s temples, there was something that had very little to do with Zen…. I felt isolated, as though nailed to the floor, the auditory reality now “inside” my body…. How long would this last? I was not resolved to pursue the experience to the end: I didn’t believe in it. After no more than twenty minutes I left.30

By leaving the Happening, Masotta made a choice. Not only did he refuse to participate in Young’s so-called Zen mise-en-scene, he further resolved to commit another Happening at the conceptual margins of Young’s event as a means of critique, a situation about a situation. However, Masotta’s situation disregarded Sartre’s imperative for a committed art opposed to the avant-garde,31 in that the Happening wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the avant-garde. Instead, in a move that foretold the aesthetic theories put forth by Jacques Ranciere–and read by so many artists today–Masotta used the Happening to demonstrate (in real time) the extent to which aesthetics and politics were bound up in a reciprocal relationship–neither being pure in and of itself. He thus gave us another axiom: There’s a politics to aesthetics and an aesthetics to politics. Further anticipating Ranciere, and departing from Sartre, Masotta knew that underscoring the role of the unconscious was central in demonstrating this reciprocity. Here, again, Lacan enters the picture.

Oscar Masotta’s <em>Ensayos Lacanianos</em> (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1976).

Oscar Masotta’s Ensayos Lacanianos (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1976).

The Purloined Avant-Garde

In his 1955 seminar on “The Purloined Letter,” Lacan declared, “a letter always arrives at its destination.”32 In saying this, he wasn’t claiming that a letter always arrives at the address typed on its envelope. Rather, the implication is that the letter’s rightful addressee is by definition the person who receives it. This idea relates to Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation, whereby a subject (of gender, nation, class, etc.) becomes defined ideologically the moment s/he answers a “hail” or call from the Other (be it a parent, politician, or artist). This call and response happens every time we (unconsciously) recognize a hail and know that it is I who has been hailed. If a hail always reaches its rightful destination, it’s because someone is always there–as if by chance–to receive it. Likewise in the case of the purloined letter, the receiver is merely the holder of the letter, not the “rightful” possessor of it in any prescriptive way. We can think of a purloined letter as an anonymous message placed in a bottle and cast out to sea. When it lands and a subject recognizes it and picks it up, s/he has answered its call. The artist is one such subject, as was Masotta.

In 1966, Masotta answered a Lacanian hail, initiated by his mentor, after which he considered the role that unconscious thought played in the Symbolic field and paid it forward to his colleagues at the ITDT. In the context of Sartrean situations, this was an ethical act. For if Masotta intended to expose a secret that was hiding in plain view within the aesthetic and political fields–social sadism–then making this secret explicit entailed confronting participants with a repressed reality and a series of concomitant choices. Moreover, by simultaneously inducing a Sartrean situation, the Happening’s overall “event” was extended to include the sites of prior production and subsequent discursive representation, including this one. And in each site–production, exhibition, and distribution–the question remained: Who would receive what hail?

Returning to Masotta’s description of the event in “I Committed a Happening,” the production entailed hiring twenty actors to “work” for four hundred pesos. He explains that he wanted them to evoke those people whose normal job was to be “hawkers of cheap jewelry, leather goods and variety material” that were sold in “those shops that are always on the verge of closing along Corrientes Street.” He speculated that at their usual work they must earn less than what he was going to pay them. The event thus began with a negotiation between the artist and his “workers”:

I gathered them together and explained what they were to do. I told them that instead of four hundred I would pay them six hundred pesos: from that point on they gave me their full attention. I felt a bit cynical: but neither did I wish to have too many illusions. I wasn’t going to demonize myself for this social act of manipulation, which in real society happens everyday. I then explained…that they had nothing to do other than to remain still for an hour…I also told them that…during this hour there would be a very high-pitched sound, at very high volume, and very deafening. And they had to put up with it, there was no alternative. And I asked whether they accepted and they were in agreement…. As I began to feel vaguely guilty, I considered offering them cotton plugs for their ears. I did so and they accepted.33

In this situation, the performers received the hail of “worker” once they negotiated with Masotta, who, in doing so, received the hail of “management.” The repressed fact that returns here–afforded by the exchange of money that Masotta later reveals to the audience as part of the performance–is what Brecht claimed to be the (masked) reality of theatre: the non-distinction between actor and worker, and, by extension, the stage and the world. It’s not a matter of “all the world’s a stage,” but rather that the stage is the real world, with all the social acts of manipulation that accord it. One doesn’t leave the world for the theatre, which “represents” reality. Rather, in theatre–and in art–one enters another situation where real choices have to be made.

In Masotta’s case, a public situation was established once he announced the agreed upon exchange of money at the beginning of the performance. But this utterance didn’t begin or end with the Marxist intent to expose the circulation of capital in art. Rather, the exchange of money–establishing the purchase of a scene–set the stage for the transparent exchange of looks, something that producers of conventional theatre and performance take great efforts to mask. As Brecht noted in The Messingkauf Dialogues, in theatre “the audience sees quite intimate episodes without itself being seen,” or so they believe. “It’s just like somebody looking through a keyhole and seeing a scene involving people who’ve no idea they are not alone.” But in reality, this is an imaginary arrangement that theatre simultaneously sets up and conceals.34 In Masotta’s Happening, however, there was an attempt to establish a situation whereby participants were not just seeing the performers. To the contrary, they were looking at the circuit of gazes in which they, themselves, were self-consciously caught.

Herein lay the potentiality of critique. In Masotta’s mise-en-scene, the participants were hailed to acknowledge the ethics of the look, which they had either sold or purchased, within the circuit of the gaze. The question of who looks at whom, and for what purpose, could not be ignored. Absolutely central to this scene–to the critical act of looking–was the stark difference it conjured up in the art viewer in respect to the normative circuit of exhibitionism/voyeurism that characterized events such as Young’s, events that laid a claim for a cutting edge aesthetic. Certainly, this consciousness would have indeed been the case among those attending art events at the ITDT–recall Kaprow’s announcement that Buenos Aires was a “city of Happenists,” a claim the mass media ran with. In this way, Masotta’s commitment to avant-garde practice as a strategy of social critique relied upon his tactic of repetition being recognized by the viewer. However, even without consciousness of the first event, there was critical potential in Masotta’s iteration. For what was grounded here was the unabashed, naked act of evaluative looking–an act in which we regularly and problematically engage in our quotidian affairs and one, moreover, that is masked by conventional realist art and theatre.

Which brings us back to why the work of Oscar Masotta matters today. For this tactic of repetition is to be found everywhere in the best instances of contemporary critical aesthetics. Witness Andrea Geyer’s Comrades of Time (2011) project, in which the artist videotapes young women repeating the speeches and writings of historical avant-garde thinkers and collectives–Rosa Luxemburg, the November Group Manifesto, Heinrich Mann, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Margarete Susman–as a means of critiquing the amnesic nature of contemporary art and politics. Or Constanze Ruhm’s Crash Site: My_Never_Ending_Burial_ Plot (2010), in which the artist-as-filmmaker revives and re-scripts the identities of iconic female film characters–in this case, Hari of Andrej Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Nana of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962), and Giuliana of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso (1964)–as a means of putting the legacies of neo-avant-garde “auteur” filmmaking and Postmodernist feminism in dialogue with each other and contemporary filmmaking. There’s also Kerry Tribe’s 2010 re-performance of Hollis Frampton’s 1971 film Critical Mass, in which a couple improvises a break-up that Frampton edited into a series of stutters and repetitions. In Tribe’s redux, her actors re-perform Frampton’s script–both in its improvisation and final edit–whereupon the actors, given to be seen, are objects of the audience’s simultaneous identification and disidentification with a spectacle that’s both real and reconstructed–a performative metaphor for gender identification in the public sphere.

These are but three examples in which a purloined avant-garde tactic gives rise to critical art production, to the chagrin of such contemporary thinkers as Peter Burger, who continues to argue, as he did in 1974, that repetition of these tactics “institutionalizes the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste intentions.”35 Many excellent critiques have been made of Burger’s claims,36 but suffice it to say that Burger squarely adheres to the belief that one can be in step with one’s times. That, indeed, we can step in the same river twice–the first time being real, the second being false. This myth of authentic origin versus fraudulent repetition is a notion that tenaciously plagues a conservative facet of contemporary art production. It is against this myth of origin that I revive–no, repeat–Masotta’s call for a dematerialist practice that utilizes the detourned signifier–be it the word, the image, or the look–to interrogate the limits of representation in which we are both caught and split. And, in repeating Masotta’s own repetition of an event, it is my hope that Masotta’s legacy will continue, after the fact, to bear fruit in the work of those artists today committed to the politics and aesthetics of repetition.

Juli Carson is Associate Professor in the Studio Art Department of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at the University of California, Irvine, where she directs the Critical and Curatorial MFA Program and the University Art Galleries. She is author of Exile of the Imaginary: Politics, Aesthetics, Love (Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2007) and The Limits of Representation: Psychoanalysis and Critical Aesthetics (Buenos Aires: Letra Viva Press, 2011). Her forthcoming book, entitled The Conceptual Unconscious: A Poetics of Critique, will be published by PoLYpeN.


  1. Eduardo Costa and Oscar Masotta, “On Happenings, Happening: Reflections and Accounts,” Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde, Ines Katzenstein, ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004), 204.
  2. Bruce Fink, “The Real Cause of Repetition,” in Reading Seminar XI, Feldstein et al, eds. (New York: SUNY Press, 1995), 223.
  3. Allan Kaprow, “Assemblages, Environments and Happenings,” in Art in Theory: 1900-1990, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. (Cambridge: Blackwell Press, 1995).
  4. Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa, and Raul Escari, “An Art of Communications Media” (manifesto), in Listen Here Now!, 223.
  5. Most notably this context characterizes a group of artists working within an international network of cultural institutions that have a critical program–the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, El Centro de Investigaciones Artisticas in Buenos Aires, the Generali Foundation in Vienna, and the Museu d’Art Contemporani in Barcelona are key among them–as well as with various biennials, most notably those held in Sao Paolo, Berlin, Gwangju, Havana, Istanbul, and Saint Petersburg. For a contemporary case study of aesthetic intervention as political action, one that was an impetus for a public debate about cultural memory, see Simon Sheikh’s review of Roberto Jacoby’s contribution to the 29th edition of the Sao Paulo biennale: “The Politics of Art and the Process of Biennialization,” in Text Zur Kunst (December 2010): 112-17.
  6. In Spanish, campo literally means “field.” But this notion of a field, in English and Spanish alike, denotes more than a literal place in the natural world. It also designates the site of language, the domain of discourse into which the subject is born. Hence the term “discursive field” is what campo denotes in this context.
  7. In 1966, after acting as a juror, Lawrence Alloway declared, “Buenos Aires is now one of the most vigorous Pop centers in the world.” As Director, Romero Brest shaped the program with his vision for Modern art that combined abstraction with the integration of art and architecture. Roberto Jacoby, Marta Minujin and David Lamelas are three of the most renowned artists to spring forth from this moment. For a comprehensive account of the activities associated with ITDT and its artists, see Ana Longoni’s chapter “III: Oscar Masotta and the Art of Media,” in Listen Here Now!, 155-258.
  8. El Lissitzky, cited by Masotta’s “After Pop We Dematerialize,” in Listen Here Now!, 208. Lissitzky’s comments on dematerialism were originally published as “The Future of the Book,” New Left Review (February 1967), 40.
  9. Oscar Masotta, “After Pop We Dematerialize,” in Listen Here Now!, 208.
  10. My consideration of 1960s dematerialist Conceptualism in Argentina and the United States originated in my research for Roberto Jacoby’s exhibition 1968: el culo te abrocho, which I curated at the University Art Gallery at the University of California, Irvine, in fall 2009. The accompanying brochure essay has been republished in its entirety in my book The Limits of Representation: Psychoanalysis and Critical Aesthetics (Buenos Aires: Letra Viva Press, 2011).
  11. Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,” Art International (February 1968), 31.
  12. Mariano Ben Plotkin, Freud in the Pampas: The Emergence and Development of a Psychoanalytic Culture in Argentina (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 187.
  13. Oscar Masotta, “Jacques Lacan, o El inconsciente en los fundamentos de la filosofia,” Pasado y Presente 3.9 (April-September 1965).
  14. Ten years later, after Masotta had accrued upwards of four hundred students of Lacanian theory, he would found the Escuela Freudieana de Buenos Aires, which still exists today. That same year, 1974, Masotta fled the dictator- ship to Barcelona, where he founded five more Lacanian libraries and institutions before committing suicide, in 1979, as a response to his advancing throat cancer.
  15. Masotta’s lectures on Lacan were given at ITDT on July 16, 23, and 30, and August 13 and 20, 1969. The text has recently been published as “Psicoanalisis y estructuralism,” in Oscar Masotta, Introduccion a la lectura de Jacques Lacan, introduction by German García (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2008).
  16. Bruce Fink, “The Nature of Unconscious Thought,” in Reading Seminars I and II (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 183. The italic emphases are Fink’s.
  17. Masotta’s combined interest in aesthetics, psychoanalysis, and politics recalls the early Bolshevik support of a revolutionary psychoanalytic component of Communism, lead primarily by Lev Trotsky. In the 1930s, with the rise of Stalin–and Trotsky’s subsequent exile–the Soviet Left (and International Communist Party) banned psychoanalytic practice. In 1960s Argentina, the traditional Left still viewed psychoanalysis as elitist bourgeois folly, as they did the Avant-Garde art showcased by the Di Tella Institute.
  18. Oscar Masotta, “I Committed a Happening” (1967), in Listen Here Now!, 191.
  19. Walter Benjamin published his address as “The Author as Producer,” collected in Reflections (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 221.
  20. The work was 7, from The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, by La Monte Young. Performed by The Theatre of Eternal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, voices; Marian Zazeela, voice, light projection design; Tony Conrad, violin; Marvin Carpenter, David Hayes, Jim Kirker, projectionists; February 24, 25, 26, and 27, 1966, at Larry Poons’s The Four Heavens, 295 Church Street, New York, NY. According to Young, “this was not a ‘happening’ but a series of music and light concert performances” (email correspondence with the editors, November 7, 2011).
  21. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 194.
  22. Guy Debord, writing for the Situationist International, defined “detournement” this way: “Detournement [is] the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble….The two fundamental laws of detournement are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element…and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.” From “Detournement As Negation and Prelude,” Internationale Situationniste 3 (December 1959).
  23. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 200. Emphasis is Masotta’s.
  24. Kaprow, 708.
  25. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 364.
  26. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 200.
  27. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism and Humanism,” in Art in Theory: 1900-1990, ed. Charles Harrison (New York: Blackwell Press, 1995), 589.
  28. Masotta’s work is very different from the sadistic “actions” of Santiago Sierra, who provides an “antagonistic” branch of relational aesthetics today. See: Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (autumn 2004). A notable comparison would be Sierra’s action for the 2001 Venice Biennale, Persons Paid to Have Their Hair Dyed Blond, where Sierra invited illegal street vendors to have their hair dyed in return for 120,000 lire ($60). In this work, Sierra enacts an unconscious repetition of Masotta’s Happening, a repetition that echoes the La Monte Young paradigm. In Sierra’s case, as in Young’s, neither the viewer’s nor the artist’s subject position is interrogated within the (ethical) circuit of the gaze staged for the audience. Moreover, Sierra’s lack of specific political context–beyond the art world as stand-in for neo-liberal capitalism–and his complete lack of theoretical intentionality should be noted. For Masotta, the dual context of the 1966 coup and his discovery of Lacan were essential to his model of critical aesthetics, which maintained an aesthetic, political and theoretical mandate in the production of art. Santiago’s relational aesthetics, on the other hand, maintains a political aesthetics of relational situations alone. In this sense relational aesthetics is a continuation of the Lippard’s model of dematerialism, a Conceptualism stripped of any explicit psychoanalytical consideration of the subject (artist, performer, and viewer).
  29. Edward Said’s well-known critique of Orientalism is pitch perfect here, though we should note that his text, published in 1978, had yet to be codified within Latin American critical theory. That said, of particular relevance is Said’s observation that “[T]he Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either…. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony….” For Said, this hegemony held true in politics as in art. See: Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 4-5.
  30. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 195.
  31. Sartre asserted: “Poetry is the loser winning. And the genuine poet chooses to lose, even if he has to die, in order to win. I repeat that I am talking of contemporary poetry…. Thus if anyone insists on speaking of the commitment of the poet, let it be said that he is the man who commits himself to losing.” Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature, in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, ed. Robert Denoon Cumming (New York: Vantage Books, 1965), 370.
  32. Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,'” in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, eds. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988), 28-53.
  33. Masotta, “I Committed a Happening,” 199-200.
  34. Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues (London: Methuen Drama, 1978), 44.
  35. Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 58.
  36. One critique that has shown remarkable staying power is Hal Foster’s “Who’s Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde,” in Return of the Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
Further Reading