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PROTEST, RESISTANCE AND MEMORY: STENCIL ART IN BUENOS AIRES

PROTEST, RESISTANCE AND MEMORY: STENCIL ART IN BUENOS AIRES (43 photos) Send this reportage Send this reportage
The stencil art takes the streets of the argentinian capital. Urban artists bomb in silence the city with messages that combine political and social content, imagination and irony.
© E. Scagnetti./TheReportage.com
Categories: Art, History, Human & Ethnology, Politics, Travel, Men Interest, Special Cultural event, Culture, Social
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It can be found imprinted on a dilapidated wall in the old neighbourhood of San Telmo, or on a concrete pillar supporting one of the motorways leaving Buenos Aires. Likewise, it can be found in the plaza de Mayo, the political heart of the city, or on Corrientes, the avenue that never sleeps and is famous for its theatres, cinemas and cafés. It portrays Bush emerging from a lavatory bowl, military personnel from the last Argentine dictatorship who still have not received punishment for their crimes, or simply an image which provokes laughter or incites reflection. The phenomenon being referred to is stencil art; an industrial variant of graffiti which involves cut out cardboard or x-rays and aerosol. Urban artists use it to silently bombard the city with messages that combine socio-political subject matter, imagination and irony.

According to historians, stencil art's origins are prehistoric, stretching back to the Paleolithic caves. It has also been linked to hieroglyphics found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. Nevertheless, it was the Italian Fascists of the 1940s and the participants of France's May '68 who plastered it onto the streets, transforming it into an instrument of political propaganda. Since then, stencil art has been present in the majority of the world's major cities, although in some, such as Buenos Aires, this kind of urban art has experienced a veritable explosion in recent years. In the Argentine case, it was the economic meltdown at the end of 2001 that marked this rise. Following the country's decent into mayhem (attenuated in recent times by a certain economic revival), groups such as Burzaco Stencil, Run Don't Walk and BsAs Stencil launched themselves in pursuit of public spaces in order to diffuse their ideas. Such ideas have ranged from fighting against imperialism or consumerism, to the defence of human rights, supporting tolerance and civil liberties.

"The boom in stencil art occurred in 2001, as a result of political and social non-conformism which drove people to protest in any which way possible," affirm Feder and Valen in an interview; both members of Burzaco Stencil, which owes its name to a district of greater Buenos Aires where they reside. "Buenos Aires is one of the areas where stencil art is most prominent as a medium for conveying different ideas, for which it is quite frankly highly effective due to its direct contact with passers by," add these youths. In reference to this phenomenon, BsAs Stencil points out: "The street itself provided the impetus, driven by a perceived increase in the number of public spaces taken over; stencil art representing a prominent medium of appropriation." In any case, the growth in this type of art has been fomented "principally by the participation of the media, which recognised something novel and pure in it," as Feder and Valen explain.

Undoubtedly, with or without the impulse of the media, stencil art has rapidly developed into one of the key instruments used by youths to manifest their resistance, accusations and social memory. Such grievances confront a society in complete economic crisis and still unable to heal the wounds of the 1976-83 military dictatorship, which left some 30,000 disappeared and was responsible for a traumatic defeat in the war over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands. An example of this role was evident during the recent 30 year commemoration of the 24th March 1976 coup d'état, which was marked by a plethora of marches, commemorative acts and tributes to victims. As part of this wave of events, the city of Buenos Aires found itself inundated with stencils denouncing the impunity still enjoyed by the majority of military personnel who committed crimes against humanity during those sinister years.

In a country with an astounding ability to leave behind the tragic events of its past, stencil art takes on other questions in addition to the fight against oblivion and seeks to awaken a spirit of criticism in the common citizen. Although there may not exist a clear political line ("el stencil possesses that special quality that bases itself on being free from any ideology," state Feder and Valen), certain ideas are recurrent, such as the crusade against George W. Bush. Target of a stencil campaign during his visit to Argentina last year, the U.S. President is the central character of perhaps the most famous work of the genre: a stencil that portrays his face sporting Mickey Mouse ears, under the heading “Disney War“. The impact made by this stencil marked the beginning of an era, as Burzaco Stencil recalls: "We began in late 2002, early 2003. It turns out that Valentina was working in the city centre when she saw the famous stencil of Bush on the ground. She then persuaded Federico to get involved in this new strain of vandalism."

The times and the subject matter may change, yet Bush continues to be a favourite target. This summer, the slogan “Bush de bottom“ bedecked the city's walls, portraying the U.S. President emerging from a lavatory bowl. Other stencils accused him of "genocide" or being a "telltale". The book, Hasta la victoria, Stencil!, published in 2004 by La Marca Editora, offers a good compilation of art of this type produced over the past few years. In this book, Kalil Llamazares contends that el stencil "has the power of a marginal and subversive tool, more often that not political, transforming it into a graphic vehicle of acuity and intelligence typical of Buenos Aires' middle class." Open to all trends, stencil art generally serves as an instrument for youths linked to universal cultures of rock, punk music and pop art. "We see ourselves influenced by the things that make our lives more pleasant, such as films, music groups, 1950s aesthetics and serial art. The ideology can be whatever you want it to," affirm Burzaco Stencil.

Legality and Anonymity

Urban or street art for some, vandalism for others (in particular the police and the government), stencil art requires, above all, anonymity. It is because of this that when appearing in public, both Argentine artists and their international counterparts choose to go by pseudonyms like “NN”, “Roux”, “Feder” and “Valen”. This is true even of their most advanced and comprehensive websites (www.bsastencil.tripod.com, www.burzacostencil.com.ar).

The extent of the struggle between authorities and such groups, in some countries, was clearly illustrated in January of this year when Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a strict campaign to erase graffiti and stencil art from the walls of Great Britain. His decision caused outcry in many sectors and the controversial British urban artist, Bansky, published a column in the daily newspaper, the Evening Standard, assuring that this objective was not only “impossible” to reach, but also “a cultural disaster”. “Even if you could make graffiti more difficult to execute you'd be left in the situation now faced in New York. Tougher policing has simply meant graffiti has to be done quicker,” asserts Bansky, worldly renowned for images such as Queen Elizabeth II in stockings and suspender belt, in the midst of a lesbian encounter. On his website (www.bansky.co.uk), he even provides advice for those who wish to hit the streets with aerosol in hand.

Nevertheless, anonymity is not solely a legal concern. There also exists an ideological reasoning behind it, explains Bansky: “The time of getting fame for your name on its own is over. Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is a by-product of making something that means something.” So, how does one ensure that the stencils achieve notoriety? “By sticking lots of small ones together,” he replies. "Our contribution is worth nothing if the rest of the work done is not taken into account. To our understanding, it is the sheer number of people expressing themselves that constitutes the real phenomenon and our strength," agree BsAs Stencil on their part.

Despite this supposed tension between legality and marginality, however, the majority of stencil artists work, or have worked, with the authorities on exhibitions, meetings and conferences. Many of them even commercialise their work, through the sale of t-shirts bearing a print logo of their most successful stencils. For the artists, this does not, however, signify "acceptance" on the part of the "System". As Feder and Valen say, "stencil art continues to be seen, even though it may be in an art gallery, as an act of vandalism. If at some point such and such museum or cultural centre offers the stencil artists a wall within their domain, it is simply because of its prevalence. You see it all the time and it is art. It is avant-garde.” Furthermore, Buenos Aires, philosophically situated between Europe and America, or rather Paris and New York, is a city which has always been proud to consider itself at the core of avant-garde trends.