CARLOS MOTTA, 2005-2007    

Carlos Motta’s Hemispheric Counter-Pedagogy
by Yates McKee

Catalog text for show at Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT, 2006
Click here to download PDF (956KB)

Carlos Motta’s SOA: Black and White Tales is concerned above all with the subject of teaching, both in the sense of a thematic topic to be historically investigated and as a formal, aesthetic problem regarding the construction of subjectivity itself in relation to language, vision, and memory. Motta’s project addresses the School of the Americas (SOA) an institution established under the rubric of the U.S. Army in 1946 to train military officers from throughout the Americas in counterinsurgency techniques during and after the Cold War.

Echoing what Hal Foster has recently identified as an “archival impulse” (1) in contemporary art, Motta displaces an array of materials pertaining to the SOA and the struggles surrounding it into an art gallery, reconfiguring a space of aesthetic display as a pedagogical environment. The central feature of this environment is a 40’x 30” band of blackboard paint that runs continuously along the length of the gallery wall in a mural-like fashion. Art-historically, the figure of the blackboard resonates with the lecture-performances of Joseph Beuys; yet whereas the latter used it as a repository for the charismatic gestural marks of a “visionary” teacher, Motta deploys the blackboard for both its institutional and metaphorical resonances; as a pedagogical device it evokes the disciplinary spaces of teaching and learning, training and inculcation, repetition and internalization pertaining to an educational institutions such as the SOA. But as a material form, the blackboard is a surface of inscription structured by a series of metaphorical couples—memory and oblivion, appearance and disappearance, preservation and destruction—that bear more than a coincidental relationship to both the practices promoted by the SOA and the historical effacement of these practices in public consciousness.

Indeed, the institution was responsible for training the leaders and operatives of some of the most notorious authoritarian regimes of Latin America, which detained, tortured, assasinated, or otherwise “disappeared” tens of thousands of their own citizens. Such governments operated under permanent states of emergency in which the suspension of civil liberties and the mobilization of exceptional forms of violence were legitimized by the imperative to preserve state security against the mortal threat of an absolute communist enemy.The task for groups such as SAO Watch has been to demonstrate a systematic link between the training programs of the SAO and the violation of human rights, often in the face of official claims that such abuses represent isolated incidents carried out by individuals rather than structured policies either prescribed by or tolerated by the United States. Needless to say, this is a task that resonates beyond the specific geographical and historical context of Latin America, especially in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and other revelations of torture carried out under the rubric of the War on Terror, activities that the Bush administration has consistently attempted to frame as the work of a “few bad apples.”

For Naomi Klein, the SOA is a fundamental point of reference in criticizing what she calls “our amnesiac torture debate,”(2) in which many prominent critics of the Bush administration, while locating the practices undertaken at Abu Ghraib within a larger chain of command ultimately legitimized by the State Department, have nonetheless treated them as an historical aberration in the longer trajectory of United States policy. If, as Klein writes, the historical imperative often sounded in countries emerging from periods of state violence is “never again!” the response of conservatives and liberals alike to evidence of such violence on the part of their own government has been to declare “never before!” Such claims to original innocence disavow the extent to which many of the justifications, concepts, operations and techniques that became visible at Abu Ghraib have been part of U.S. counterinsurgency discourse for decades, especially as it was codified and transmitted in the training materials of the SOA such as those declassified in 1996 (3). This historical amnesia, Klein contends, enacts a double effacement with implications for both the past and the future: “In US collective memory, the disappeared are being disappeared all over again.”

Motta’s project grapples with how to make “disappearance” appear as such; rather than simply restore visibility to an otherwise obscure body of facts, Motta stages a kind of archival haunting in the precarious medium of chalk: along the blackboard the artist has dutifully copied down various graphic and textual elements from the SOA’s own promotional materials including its’ statement of principles, hemispheric maps, and various figures pertaining to the institution’s personnel and budget. But these official public utterances, marked in white, are traversed by another set of marks, these ones in yellow, that trace a counter-history of the SOA and the claims for rights and justice that have accompanied it. A programmatic statement on “Promoting Democracy,” for instance, is surrounded by the abstracted outlines of an assembly of demonstrators, one of whom displays reading “STOP THE KILLING.” This figure is minimally identified by a sacerdotal collar, a detail that alludes not only to the religious imperative of “bearing witness” that informs the ongoing movement to have the SOA shut down, but also to the fact that numerous victims of SOA trainees were themselves clergy and lay people affiliated with liberation theology, which reads the universalizing claims of Christianity in terms of social justice for the poor. These chalk outlines conjure the generations of anonymous ghosts for whom pro-testers are called to publicly testify every year in Fort Benning, Georgia.

A similar kind of ghostliness is operative in a series of three uncaptioned, washed-out archival photographs that have been blown up in black and white on a separate wall of the gallery; two of these have been reduced to near obscurity, with only the rough contours of bodies, some standing and others prone, showing up as enigmatic evidentiary traces of violence; a third image features rows of assembled soldier-students standing at attention while taking a testamentary oath, apparently being addressed by—and responding to--an authoritative institutional voice.

Motta displaces just such a voice into the gallery by installing a speaker inside an informational display-table that speaks to the audience as an assembly of students; while perusing historical documents pertaing to the history of U.S. interventions in Latin America, we are addressed by several official speeches reciting the values and accomplishments of the SOA, including a text delivered at what was billed as the “closing ceremony” of the institution in 2000. However, these words are reenacted in such a way as to estrange the basis of the official speech-acts they perform. This is accomplished through a) an deliberate confusion of first and third person pronouns that unsettles the identity of speaker and addressee and b) a hyperbolic manipulation of the temporality and pitch of the speaking voice, variously stretching and concentrating it into a kind of abstract ambient noise that envelopes the gallery space as a whole.

Writing in the New York Times, Benjamin Genocchio complains that the Motta’s black-and-white “didacticism” violates the liberal ideal of a “fair and balanced” presentation of information concerning U.S. policy toward Latin America (4). Yet Genocchio’s liberalism is blind to the systematic violations of human rights tolerated by the U.S. in the form of Plan Colombia, for instance, an endeavor in which SOA graduates feature prominently, and which directly impacts Motta’s native country (not to mention the disastrous consequences of Washington’s free-market economic prescriptions for the majority of Latin America’s citizens). The point is to identify “the enemy” not as the embodiment of an abstract evil, but as a set of governmental practices deemed intolerable from the perspective of historical memory, human rights and social justice (5).


(1) “An Archival Impulse” October 110 (Fall 2004), pp 1-17.

(2) ‘Never Before!’ Our Amnesiac Torture Debate” www.thenation.com/doc/20051226/klein

(3) Digitized facsimiles of these materials were made publicly available by George Washington University’s National Security Archive in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib. See “Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past” www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB122

(4) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html

(5) On U.S. policy toward Colombia, and the implication of SOA graduates in a number of massacres there over the past decade, see www.globalexchange.org/countries/americas/colombia/

--Yates McKee is an alumnus of the Whitney Independent Study Program and a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.

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