CARLOS MOTTA, 2005-2007    

Carlos Motta: Consistently Aware
by Sofía Hernández Chong-Cuy

Article for Arte al Dia Internacional, June 2007
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A young but prolific artist, Colombian but New York-based Carlos Motta has explored difficult subjects through a variety of mediums, time and again raising important questions about the relationships between past and present, and about the politics of knowing and not knowing. While in this text I will only touch upon a handful of his works, it is worth noting that his expansive artistic practice, which includes writing, publishing, organizing, and teaching, also share a political awareness and commitment to engage the public through his work.

In one of his earlier works, Pesca Milagrosa (2002-2004), Motta culled images from the Internet to make a collective if fragmented portrait of people who have “disappeared.” A politicized euphemism in Latin America, the disappeared refers to the thousands of victims of suppressive regional governments in the late 1960s and through the 1980s. These victims were abducted, tortured and murdered, and their bodies were seldom or never recovered; in most cases, victims were not even recorded as deceased. In Pesca Milagrosa, which depicts more than two hundred of these victims, the grounds for disappearance varies from state to state, representing thus an extensive although impartial view of the Americas as thousands were in fact made to disappear (1). In the field of visual arts, visuality does not always help convey a subject matter upfront. Motta’s Pesca Milagrosa offers less figurative representation and more telling and engulfing. Arranged in a grid from floor to ceiling, each individual image that makes this large, mural-size work is digitally altered by the artist. Saturated in color and abstracted from facial details, what used to be typical identification photographs are now ghostly representations or merely color blots. The work’s haunting presence makes an absence visible.

Pesca Milagrosa is one of several artistic endeavors by Latin American artists addressing politically motivated disappearances. A number of other works come to mind immediately: Aliento (1996-2002) by the Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz, which is an installation of pocket-size round steel mirrors each with a hidden photograph of someone who disappeared; these mirrors each have an image that becomes visible only after closely exhaling onto the mirror’s surface, and that vanishes after that breath has evaporated into thin air. Although referencing a different time period than the “disappeared” figured in the work of Motta or Muñoz, the Guatemaltecan artist Regina Jose Galindo has also created a number of powerful works about the publicly tamed violence in her native country, such as the performance Quién puede borrar las huellas? (2003) and the installation Corona (2006). And there is also Lote Bravo (2005-ongoing) by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, which consists of a minimal installation of adobe bricks made with the soil of Ciudad Juarez, a border town in Chihuahua, Mexico, where, since the early 1990s, dozens of women have disappeared and hundreds have been killed. Each brick in Lote Bravo is made with a handful of earth taken from the place where a woman’s corpse was found.

All these different works in some way manipulate the original source materials to make visible, either temporarily or allegorically, what has been purposefully deprived from the public’s eye. In Motta’s work in particular, making visible is also distorting, acknowledging the dent of subjectivity in the writing of history. With a more recent body of work, SOA: Black and White Tales (2005-2006), the artist delves into other instrumental forces of violence in Colombia and Latin America in general. In this endeavor, he continues using source images from this investigation and bringing them into his work. But this research also takes him to one of the sources itself of violence—to the School of the Americas (SOA) in Georgia, USA. Since its inception in 1946, the highly controversial SOA has focused on training Latin American militaries in warfare tactics and strategies (2) .

Motta has done three installations as part of the SOA: Black and White Tales series. One of these is in the form of a limited-edition artist’s book with twelve different prints showing SOA alumni in the field, each drawn from historic photographs of war, torture, or the military exercising power. The original images are manipulated and printed using letterpress, formally touching on the longer history of popular images of protest. Titled SOA: Black & White Pain-tings # 1, this artist’s book also includes an audio piece that the artist composed using sound footage from the closing speech of the SOA in 2001. A second work is the newsprint, Brief History of US Interventions in Latin America Since 1946. With a large print run, this tabloid-sized publication provides raw information on exactly what its title suggests. Everything about this piece is clear and straightforward. Even though it is essentially much simpler than the artist’s book, this publication was pivotal for the latest and most complex installations of the SOA project. The rawness in the content and form of this newsprint became the main characteristic that Motta’s future installation challenged.

Exhibited recently, SOA: Black and White Text consists of text and illustrations about the SOA, which the artist drew over a long and wide, chalkboard-like strip painted directly on the wall (3). A quintessential pedagogical space, the image of the blackboard brings together the imperative of education and political demonstration. Basic SOA program definitions and objectives, as well as lists and numbers, are overlaid with yellow chalk lines that make up a line or two suggesting a point of view skeptical or critical of the SOA’s program. Drawings outlining protestors find their way inside, too, interweaving this and other viewpoints and operations into the larger history of the SOA. Information is no longer raw. It is interpreted, de-contextualized from source and re-classified only through layering. In any case, none of this is clearly defined. The public, however, may easily identify the voice of the institution and that of its dissenters. Once outside the handbooks and manuals, once handwritten here and blurry, once in chalk and overlaid with images, the information renders its history groundless if not incomplete.

Motta’s more recent body of work––which continues referencing in some fashion Cold War politics––has taken him to various countries in the last two years. One recurring journey has been to Russia, and from these travels he has already completed a number of works. Among these are videos, a series of photo diptychs titled Leningrad, Petrograd, Petersburg (2006), and, with the same name, a digital slide piece accompanied by a voice over (4). The project is inspired, in part, by an elegant image plate book of Leningrad published in 1954, which serves as a map for this project. For the photo diptych series, the artist re-photographs the sites and monuments figured in the book. Sometimes the differences are simple and show natural evolutions, like more foliage and taller trees or more or less phone cables contaminating the sky view. At other times, the differences are more shocking, with absences of monuments or new constructions clearly composing another landscape. These works are also inspired by how political history is embedded in architecture and monuments, and they way these become mnemonic devices referred to in everyday speech, serving as both historical markers and as literal signs when describing travel routes through the city.

For an upcoming project, The Good Life, Motta has been traveling throughout Latin America. His journey is motivated by a series of questions concerning notions of democracy, leadership, international cooperation and political interventions, inquiries that will most likely receive paradoxical responses. Motta has been visiting over a dozen countries conducting interviews and shooting a video that will hopefully render an unconventional if ruptured political landscape of the region. While not an artistic re-enactment, this mapping project evokes Nelson Rockefeller’s famed 1969 field research Report on the Americas, commissioned by the then recently elected US President Richard M. Nixon. After a span of two years, Motta’s footage includes over 300 interviews shot at different places, among them Guatemala, San Salvador, Panama, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, and Mexico City. Seeing his commitment to this and other projects, I suspect this new work by Motta will offer fresh insights into old times, and aged dreams for our times, creating new impressions of the past and present.


(1) The artwork’s title is more geographically specific. It is borrowed from the colloquial term given to one of the favored kidnapping methods of the Colombian guerillas. Translated to the English as “miraculous catch,” the method consists of selecting hostages after doing on-the-spot database searches. And by on the spot I mean to say that this research happens all the while the potential hostages are being detained at the guerilla’s makeshift street blockades. If the guerillas are able to determine the hostage’s financial viability, they complete the kidnap by assigning a ransom based on the value of their capital. Aside from naming this method “pesca milagrosa” or “miraculous catch” in English, the miraculous catch is also considered by the guerillas as the so-called revolutionary tax. For the artist, the title refers also to the methods used to make this work—image searches, appropriations and manipulations—and how such process linguistically resembles what he calls the roulette game of the guerillas.

(2) After some months of closing due to public outcry of human rights accusations, the SOA was renamed in 2001 as the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation—a name that is so diplomatic and all-comprehensive, as John F. Kennedy’s Organization of American States, and the late-nineteenth century Monroe Doctrine beforehand, that it could be easily mistaken as a Cold War operation. “Training manuals used at the SOA and elsewhere from the early 1980s through 1991 promoted techniques that violated human rights and democratic standards,” and the renamed SOA claims that today, “the curriculum includes human rights as a component of every class.” (From the Center for International Policy accessed online on April 2, 2007: http://www.ciponline.org/facts/soa.htm.) The institution remains active whilst controversial. In 2006, approximately forty percent of the students at the SOA are from Colombia—more than any single country in Latin America, and ten times more than most countries.

(3) This installation was part of the artist’s solo exhibition at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut in 2006. In the exhibition’s brochure, a short but insightful text by writer Yates McKee already notes the main artistic references that can be drawn to this work—the archival fever in contemporary art, as suggested by Hal Foster through Jacques Derrida and others; the use of the chalkboard as support material as in Joseph Beuys, but distinguishing his pursuit of traces as gesture as work versus the conflation of discourses that Motta attempts with this work.

(4) The digital image and sound piece is titled, Leningrad, Petrograd, Petersburg. Part 1 (2006).

--Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy is the curator and programs manager at Art in General, New York.

Memory of a Protest
SOA:Black and White Tales
SOA:Black and White Pain-tings # 2
SOA:Black and White Pain-tings # 1
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