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DAVID LAMELAS: THE LIMITS OF DOCUMENTARY

Stuart Comer essay from Afterall 2005

'Extra-vagrancy' is neither nomadism nor errancy. It is a luminous and open skyline. It


plays on multiplicity and casual encounters. Extravagant, vagrant, the 'extra-vagrant'
plays upon the continuous breach of habit and invents new ways of being. Evidently,
extra-vagrancy is the kernel of an imagination that always finishes by revisiting its point
of departure. —Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti #1#

Prominent Argentine theorist Jorge Romero Brest claimed that the birth of the avant -
garde in Argentina—which coincided with a schizophrenic climate of authoritarian military
interventions, flimsy democratic governments and increasingly radical social dissent—
kicked off in earnest with La Menesunda, a Happening-like 'experience' staged in the late
spring of 1965. Installed in Buenos Aires at the dynamic Instituto Tircuato Di Tella where
Brest served as director, La Menesunda was initiated by artists Marta Minujín and Rubén
Santantonín in collaboration with Brest, David Lamelas, Pablo Suárez, Rodolfo Prayon,
Floreal Amor, and Leopoldo Maler. Visitors were transformed into active participants in a
series of sixteen vignettes that displayed 'a couple in bed, ushered them into a gigantic
head, locked them in a room from which they could exit only by dialling a telephone
number, then presented images of them on a television screen that had been taken as
they were walking through the exhibition, and finally guided them through a room where
several fans created whirlwinds of confetti'. #2# The environment provoked a local media
frenzy and evidenced the young artists' decisive turn from a modernist, Concrete agenda
to one consisting of 'Informalist' experiences emphasising action over objects. Over one
and a half million people visited La Menesunda, and the agenda for Instituto Di Tella was
irreversibly changed.

From an early 21st century perspective, La Menesundacan be seen to have anticipated the
continued critical predilection for analysing performance, collaboration, participation and
entertainment within current institutional and cultural practices. The project set the co-
ordinates more specifically for strategies that one of its participants—David Lamelas—has
adopted and refined to dramatically diverse effect throughout his career. In particular, the
implications of telecommunications and interdisciplinary collaboration—and their role in
the performative dimension of the event—have frequently foregrounded his subsequent
work and its powerful alliance between fiction and surveillance.

Lamelas has enacted a restless and productive migration through various sites and modes
of discourse and displacement since his participation in Argentina's nascent avant-garde
during the early 1960s. Generally associated with Conceptualism, he is best known for the
structuralist films and media installations that he produced when living in Belgium,
London and Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s, after he left Argentina to participate in the
1968 Venice Biennale. These iconic projects question the limits of art's temporality and its
capacity as both a means of communication and a medium for creating self-awareness. In
fact, the work from this period falls into a lifelong trajectory of strategic shifts in his
practice that continue to unfold in more recent sculpture and film projects. To locate a
logical narrative within his nomadic tendencies—or in his varied work—is impossible.
However, a closer examination of his origins in Argentina, his predilection for collaborative
and interdisciplinary projects, his fascination with fiction, role play and the impossibility of
information, and his filmic explorations of space, time and location reveal his work to be
remarkably prophetic. Anticipating our contemporary state of singularity and suspended
surveillance, Lamelas's work confounds any attempt to maintain a distinction between
real and fictional temporalities, or between 'actualities' and theatre.

Lamelas has drawn substantial attention for his habitual itinerancy between Europe, the
United States and South America. Benjamin Buchloch draws important parallels between
Lamelas's roving status and conceptual art's efforts to remove itself from the framework
of cultural specificity and national identity. Lamelas inscribed his own path against the
traditional flows between the hegemonic cultural centres of North America and Europe
and the 'periphery' of Latin America at 'precisely the moment when the disintegrating
ideology of the nation state could no longer present itself as the matrix of cultural identity'
#3# . One could read Lamelas's disjunctive relationship to place as an early example of
Jean Luc Nancy's notion of 'singularity' over 'specificity': 'Singularity is being that is not
inscribed with identity, that is not legibly related to other beings but nevertheless
performs some form of collectivity or mutuality.' #4# Even so, it is precisely the local
specificity of the 1960s Argentine avant-garde and its emphasis on both the collective and
on emerging technology that provided Lamelas with the tools to understand the emerging
condition of the 'non-site' and the 'non-subject' of singularity.

Instituto Torcuato Di Tella was established to honour one of Argentina's most prominent
industrialists and collectors. Di Tella was a major electronics enterprise that produced
automobiles and televisions amongst other modern goods. The Institute, initiated by
Guido Di Tella, aspired to streamline the collection begun by his father in order to make it
publicly available. Within this umbrella organisation—which comprised centres for
advanced research in music, economics, medicine, sociology, theatre and graphic
design—the exhibition programme at the Centro de Artes Visuales promoted a lively
international and interdisciplinary dialogue. Following the cultural isolation of the Péron
era, it had become clear that advanced artistic production in Argentina matched the level
of ambition and achievement in international art centres like New York or Paris. Major
local figures like Brest were keen to provide proof that the very notion of a cultural centre
or hierarchy had become obsolete, just at the moment that the Cuban Revolution, the
Cold War, and the arrival of new information technologies had direct consequences for
such an anti-centrist platform. Instituto Di Tella was the arena in which Brest's
enthusiasms were tested and promoted, while political turmoil and the artists' determined
agendas continually forced Brest to reconsider his convictions.

Within the context of Latin American art at the time, developments in Argentina echoed
the turn towards the social matrix and the collective forms of working witnessed in the
work of other South American artists such as the Brazilians Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark.
But Buenos Aires was especially noteworthy for the allure that new communication
technologies held over local artists and critics. Marta Minujín, instigator of La
Menesunda and an international pioneer of happenings, had worked with Christo, Lourdes
Castro, Allan Kaprow, Wolf Vostell and others. She organised closed-circuit, multi-media
installations at the Di Tella—such as Simultaneidad en Simultaneidad(Simultaneity in
Simultaneity)—as early as 1966. Her work facilitated live experience through constructed
environments, not unlike Oiticica's. Minujín's events, however, were distinguished not by
the space of the favela, but by the heavy presence of televisual and telecommunication
devices that opened relationships between the environment, the participants and the
camera far beyond traditional photographic documentation. She found a kindred spirit in
David Lamelas: 'Lamelas was my best friend and we had a certain feeling in common. He
also had a feeling for installations'.#5#

In 1965, at the time of La Menesunda, Lamelas was producing sculptures with a heavy
nod to British minimalists like Philip King and Anthony Caro. Buchloch argues that British
minimalism appealed to Lamelas, because it indicated the erosion of autonomous social
space by media and consumer culture, heralding a possible fusion of the technological
with the cultural object. After winning a scholarship to St. Martin's College of Art in
London, a few years later Lamelas studied with Caro, King and Barry Flanagan. Ironically,
Caro scolded him for making films, which he did not considered art at the time despite the
recent presence of former students Victor Burgin and Gilbert & George. Caro suggested
that if Lamelas were to obtain his master's degree, he would need to do 'a metal piece'
#6#.

Lamelas responded by re-staging two site specific works he had produced during 1966 in
Argentina: Situación de cuatro placas de aluminio (Four Changeable Plaques)
and Señalamiento de tres objetos(Signalling of Three Objects, which he re-situated in
Hyde Park in 1968 and in Slovakia in 1969). Robert Smithson claimed that 'Caro never
thought about the ground his work stands on,' but Lamelas could not be held to the same
charge #7#. The layout of each piece, consisting of reductive metal panels, could be
adjusted to the given spatial context which lent 'the elements an independence through
which the material itself becomes active and responds to its environment' #8# . The
panels in Señalamiento de tres objetos were placed at regular intervals around three
objects, which included a deck chair, a tree, and a lantern. Everything within the
demarcated area became an object on display, thus simultaneously delimiting and
amplifying the performative role of anyone who happened to sit in the chair. Singular
form became a framing and mediating device in Lamelas' work, shifting the object into
spatial and social play and highlighting quotidian detail. There is an interesting link to be
made between Señalamiento de tres objetos and the urban actuality films and duration
studies Lamelas produced a few years later.

Lamelas's critical challenge to the presumed neutrality of minimalist practice developed


into a series of architectural and spatial experiments in which he developed his own brand
of institutional critique and explored the use value of institutional space. 1967 witnessed
the conjunction of these explorations with the local fetish for technology in Situación de
tiempo(Situation of Time). Lamelas remarked, 'My interest in the object-environment
relation led me to consider the importance of the technological object, its capacity to
modify this environment, its influence; in a space its presence becomes dominant.' #9#

Situación de tiempo was Lamelas's contribution to Experiencias Visuales, a landmark Di


Tella exhibition. Seventeen identical television sets—provided by Di Tella Electronics—
were aligned along three walls of a darkened gallery and were tuned to a non-existent
channel with no image. The darkness was punctuated by the series of glowing screens
plus the static and white noise provided by a media non-space in which the images of
television's repertoire could not coalesce. Serial minimalism was re-staged as a
polyphonic community of transmissions and energies. Highlighting the mediality of the
work through an icon of the communication media, the installation clearly indicated that
dematerialisation was itself technologically determined and a process subject to
fragmentation. Situación de tiempo was not merely a McLuhan-ist one-liner. As Buchloch
explains, 'Lamelas ingenuously collapsed the corporate sponsor's technological
contribution into a critical reflection of the structural changes occurring within the cultural
institutions of the public sphere…[and] anticipated…the era of corporate culture,
sponsorship, and control.' #10#

Lamelas was invited the following year to represent Argentina in the Venice Biennale. If
his work to date had interrogated the neutrality of minimalism, after Situación de
tiempo he was inclined similarly to question conceptual art's deployment of mass media
as a neutral conduit of pure information. His contribution to Venice, Office of Information
about the Vietnam War at Three Levels: the Visual Image, Text and Audio, consisted of a
press office superimposed on the gallery space. ANSA, the largest Italian news agency,
supplied the latest news briefs about the war, which were read aloud to the public in six
languages. These broadcasts were recorded and made available via headphones,
presenting the archiving of history as exhibition, installation and performance
simultaneously. Any sense of closure was thwarted by the perpetual state of production,
which was not that of Lamelas alone but belonged to a relationship of dependence
between the participants and the components of the exhibition. The installation itself
became a documentary medium, but—as with any documentary—the true horror of the
situation lay well outside the frame. Office of Information shattered the nationalism
inherent to the Argentine pavilion and replaced it with the uncertainty of mediated
information, just as Lamelas was about to embark on his career as a professional
migrateur.

During his tenure in Venice, Lamelas befriended Marcel Broodthaers, who introduced him
to Antwerp-based gallerists Anny De Decker and Bernd Lohaus. Lamelas became a fixture
at their gallery, Wide White Space, and communed there with Carl Andre, Daniel Buren,
Lawrence Weiner and other art world luminaries, providing him another European base in
addition to London. During the following year, Lamelas extended his examination of
institutional space and real time into a series of cinematic and photographic urban studies
that made more explicit his relationship to documentary and surveillance strategies within
the institutional framework. These observational projects meld temporality with the direct
experience of place. Time As Activity, a 16mm film shot in Düsseldorf during 1969,
presented three static takes of four minutes each, documenting three central locations in
the city. The gallery context was critical for Lamelas: 'In those days you usually went to a
museum auditorium to see a film. My idea was to show both the film and the projector. It
worked like a time projector, projecting another time than the real time. The projector
becomes the object that projects the image, the distance between the projector and the
surface, and the light between both. So it was not just a film, it was a whole
environment.' #11# Real time is projected back into the gallery in a state of temporal
suspension and infinite displacement. Our knowledge of the projected situation is
inevitably fractured, our understanding incomplete. Appropriately, after shooting a similar
project, in which Daniel Buren, Argentine critic Raúl Escari, and French filmmaker Pierre
Grinberg each determined the beginning and end of a three-minute shot of Paris, Lamelas
proposed A Three Minute Film Taken in a Certain Place in the Following Cities (1970). In
theory applying the formula to twenty-five cities throughout the world, these films were
only intended to exist in conceptual form. Cunningly anticipating our current era of infinite
web-cam surveillance, Lamelas understood that the confluence of time and space is
accessed in a fragmentary fashion and is not merely part and parcel of the visible,
physical world.

As Lamelas continued to scrutinise the relationship between space, time and location, he
began to introduce his network of friends and colleagues into the equation. Antwerp-
Brussels (People and Time) (1969) is a series of still photographs that depict dealers,
collectors, curators and artists contextualised on Belgian city streets. A few years later in
1973, Lamelas hired a professional fashion photographer to turn his camera on a group of
his friends in London. Aping gestures from fashion's vocabulary of exaggerated poses, the
participants transformed a social documentary exercise into a fictional game of role-play
and feigned glamour appropriate to the decadent pop climate of the time. After making
drawings of his Los Angeles friends in 1976 and documenting the drawings as a slide
installation, Lamelas further experimented with the representation of social networks and
location in Reading Letters from Friends, which was exhibited at his solo exhibition at
Centro de Artes Visuales in 1978. He asked acquaintances to send letters to Argentina
during the most troubling years of the dictatorship and had them read aloud before a
camera. Collective language and action destabilised 'pure' information. Although video
documentation of the readings is now presumed lost, they provided a haunting and
explicit political context for a meditation on memory and migration.

At the time Lamelas produced Reading Letters from Friends, he was living in Los Angeles
where he had already made one of his best-known works, a professionally produced,
feature length film called Desert People (1974). He had also embarked on a series of
videos produced into the mid-1990s that further reflected his interest in American
television and pop culture and the consequences of US foreign policy. Lamelas has made
clear that he aspired to be a 'ghost in the machine,' relocating to Hollywood to situate his
practice in critical relation to the mass media's production of myth and misinformation.

Desert People is a decisive departure from the remits of conceptualism and elaborates
Lamelas's well-established desire to address critically fiction, displacement, language and
the appropriation of mass culture's vernacular forms. Five characters, representing a
cross-section of American society, reflect on their visit to a Papago Indian reservation
through a series of interviews. What seems initially like a documentary that scrambles the
rules of straight ethnographic study, is further complicated by scenes of the group riding
together through the landscape in a car. The documentary and road movie genres play
against one another, producing a counter-narrative. After the final interview—in which
Manny, a Papago Indian, discusses the cultural extinction of his people— the two
narrative strands collide and terminate violently when the car unexpectedly careens off a
cliff. Lamelas indicated that even the most advanced mode of image production at the
time was unable to contain the impossibility of information or cross-cultural translation.
Time and cultural analysis are turned against themselves in Desert People, measuring not
progress, but exploitation.

Desert People represents Lamelas's return to the New World and a departure from the
gallery space. Unlike most of his previous films, which engaged the institutional
architecture that framed them in much the same fashion as his earlier sculptural
installations, his film and video work after Desert People was produced with the cinema
and television in mind. The film could be read as the space of exhibition itself, which links
back to an earlier project made in 1969 during Lamelas's residency in England. A Study of
the Relationships between Inner and Outer Space was produced for the
exhibition Environments Reversal at Camden Arts Centre in London, radically using the
exhibition budget for a film production that documented the exhibition context as well as
participating in it. After a series of shots analysing the rudimentary architectural
components of the gallery space, the camera trains itself on a series of interviews with
gallery staff, including a curator, a Jamaican guard, and a female clerk. The seemingly
innocent monologues quickly betray the subtext of daily institutional life: submission,
surveillance and authority. The course of the film eventually circles out of the gallery and
into the urban framework of London, providing statistical information that takes the
measure of city life and its infrastructure at the time. A Study of the Relationships
between Inner and Outer Spaceculminates in a cluster of man-on-the-street interviews
about pedestrians' reactions to the arrival of the first man on the moon. The reference to
interplanetary travel does not merely indicate the infinite dimensions of 'outer space,' but
its construction as a media event witnessed by millions across the globe simultaneously.
As the film spirals outwards into infinity, its attempt to position the viewer within a matrix
of spatial and social facts proves futile.

In 1998, roughly thirty years after the Camden film was made, Lamelas filmed a second
version of Time as Activity in Berlin whilst on a DAAD residency there. Shot from a
helicopter, it provides an aerial view of a city still on the brink of regeneration. Suspended
above a luminous, almost virtual cityscape, the camera spirals across East and West,
privileging the airborne perspective of the contemporary global wanderer. No friends or
faces confront the camera, no interviews are conducted, but the twinkling fabric of an
urban network reconnecting is laid bare. Technology has taken us into space, and now it
directs its gaze back like a satellite, documenting not the bodies who previously
performed for Lamelas's camera, but the urban stage that they have constructed.
Lamelas surveys the multitude, but it is invisible and anonymous, a collectivity of illegible
relations in the mode of Nancy's 'singularity'
FOOTNOTES

#1# Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti, Alighiero e Boetti: Shaman-Showman, Cologne: Verlag


der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2003, p. 189.

#2# Andrea Giunta, 'Rewriting Modernism: Jorge Romero Brest and the Legitimation of
Argentine Art' in Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-
Garde, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 84

#3# Benjamin Buchloch, 'Structure, Sign and Reference in the Work of David Lamelas'
in David Lamelas: A New Refutation of Time, Münich, Rotterdam, Düsseldorf: Kunstverein
München, Witte de With, and Richter Verlag Düsseldorf, 1997, p. 122

#4# Irit Rogoff, 'The Where of Now' in Time Zones, London: Tate Publishing, 2004, p. 90

#5# Marta Minujín interviewed in Vivências, Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2000, p. 235.

#6# David Lamelas interviewed in David Lamelas: A New Refutation of Time, Münich,
Rotterdam, Düsseldorf: Kunstverein München, Witte de With, and Richter Verlag
Düsseldorf, 1997, p. 51

#7# Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1996, p. 248

#8# Heike Ander, David Lamelas: A New Refutation of Time, Münich, Rotterdam,
Düsseldorf: Kunstverein München, Witte de With, and Richter Verlag Düsseldorf, 1997,
pp. 36-37

#9# D. Lamelas, op. cit., pp. 117-18

#10# B. Buchloch, op. cit., pp. 131-132

#11# D. Lamelas, op. cit., p. 61.

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