Bellico

Solo Show

Espacio Fundación Telefónica, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2011

Martín Bonadeo. Bellico, is a major project that was a result of a joint effort between the artist, the curator and the Espacio Fundación Telefónica team for the production of original pieces which have intervened the exhibition space, within it as much as outside it. The exhibition reflects the artist’s interest in relating the history of telecommunications to the war-making industry, and the notion of beauty using different interventions and artistic objects.

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I need telephones and mobiles which aren’t being used

por Alma Ruiz*

Putting out a request for telephones and mobiles “which aren’t being used,” Martín Bonadeo asked friends, family, and acquaintances to send him the telephones we all have at home—stuffed away in some desk drawer and taking up space—that we have no idea what to do with. The response was immediate: a donation of more than two hundred telephones that Martín used to create one of the many works making up the exhibition on view at the Espacio Fundación Telefónica. There is a recycling aspect to this initiative as well because by examining the telephone, its uses, and our experiences using it as his central subject, he has utilized apparatuses from several different eras.

Martín Bonadeo. Bellico brings together eleven works created especially for this exhibition. The subtitle conflates the surname of Alexander Graham Bell, the official inventor of the telephone, and the word bélico (bellicose), relating to war. This exhibition is a concentrated incursion into the world of the telephone, an apparatus that has come to occupy a crucial role in our daily lives—a role that would have been entirely unimaginable only a short time ago. Today it is clear that it is with the telephone that technology has taken some of the largest strides. For example, we now have “smart phones,” thus attributing qualities to a machine which until only recently were reserved for human beings: it used to be that a person was “intelligent,” whereas a machine’s actions were determined by man. With our telephones, we can now do pretty much anything—from banking to airline reservations—without needing to talk to any other person. In less developed countries where a landline or a computer still remain out of reach for much of the population, the mobile phone has become the leading tool for social interaction. This is because it requires no investment in infrastructure and offers sectors of the population that were largely excluded from society the opportunity to communicate quickly, efficiently, and at an accessible cost.

Martín Bonadeo. Bellico also examines certain elements of contemporary artistic creation that are largely unknown to someone who is not involved with the art world. The first is the conception of works created specifically for exhibition on a given subject; the second is the process of manufacturing the works; and the third is about the patronage or sponsorship that makes the first two possible. The creation of eleven new works has been a massive undertaking for Martín, one that consumed six months filled with intense and arduous work, including research, coordination, testing, dialogue, and the ongoing revaluation of the project; the artist also was persistently aware of his duties as an academic and a family man. The pressure on an artist can be unbearable: the fruits of his/her labors might be a resounding failure or a triumph that cannot be anticipated until the moment when the works are placed in the exhibition space—and in this case, due to the participative aspects of some pieces, put into action—and presented to the public for judgment and critique. Martín’s situation is by no means unique, but rather one typical of the creative process of many contemporary artists. The premise of the exhibition is based on a group of works whose conception and manufacture are entirely new. They could not have been created without the patronage of the institution which, in addition to financing the manufacture of the individual works, also sponsored all other aspects of the exhibition as well as the publication of the catalogue. Through this system, Fundación Telefónica stimulates artistic creativity in the country, giving young artists the opportunity to create new works that, at the end of the exhibition, return to their hands. Interestingly, this system of artist and patron follows a long-standing tradition that stretches far into the past and in fact was recorded by the Renaissance artist and writer Giorgio Vasari. He described the situation of the artistic creators of the time in his famous account Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori, published in 1550. The dynamics of power, underscored by the unequal relationship between artist and patron, are significant. Obviously the relationship is one of giver and taker, but over the centuries this imperfect system has enabled the creation of countless extraordinary works of art.

In Martín Bonadeo. Bellico the works are not directly about war, as the title would have us believe, but rather about the fact that many technological advances have been driven by the war industry. The walkie-talkie, GPS, and the Internet are just a few recent examples of technology, initially intended to be used for defense purposes. Over time, new and practical uses were developed for them, and they evolved into easy-to-use forms that passed into the public domain. More specifically, Martín’s works refer to the struggle between usefulness and intrusion which the telephone represents in our everyday lives: we find ourselves often caught between its use and abuse, examined and presented here by Martín within an artistic context. The artist thrusts into our awareness the inescapable sway that the telephone holds over our lives as we seemingly daily depend on it more and more. Most of us have a complex love-hate relationship with this oh-so-attractive hand-held device that, by becoming completely indispensable in our lives, has on some level enslaved us.

Like a writer of costumbrismos, Martín sketches vignettes of everyday life based on the traditions and customs of his hometown of Buenos Aires. He makes acute observations about his own telephone habits as well as those of his fellow citizens; he weaves together brief stories, which in this case, are presented as works of art. The order in which these tales are presented is of particular importance for Martín. Hanging in the main arch at the entrance to the Espacio Fundación Telefónica is Largaoídos (2011), a metal trumpet some 3.2 meters in length which imitates an acoustic radar like those used in the early 1900s to detect approaching planes. The bell of the trumpet faces the square across the road, as if it were a radar device scanning the territory that spreads out towards the different points of the city. The other end of the trumpet is linked to a hose ending in a pair of headphones that visitors can put on and thus hear the amplified noise of the square. Largaoídos draws our attention to many sounds that we hear but pay no notice to—once amplified, the sounds stand out and become something seemingly altogether new and different. The trumpet is an analogue amplifier that we imitate whenever we cup our hands around our mouths to shout or whisper. In war, the bugle or trumpet was used to sound the alarm or herald a charge, while in Largaoídos its purpose is to bring visitors into auditory contact with their surroundings, whether natural (the chirruping of birds, falling rain, the wind passing through tree branches) or urban (passing cars and voices in conversation). According to Martín, perception is something complete, and this kind of technology breaks with the concept of sensory symmetry by extending our hearing abilities. Like binoculars that endow the human eye with the opportunity to see beyond its own physical limitations, Largaoídos metaphorically stretches the ear and gives it the chance to listen to a new world.

Installed nearLargaoídos is Telemonólogos (2011), which consists of a thicket of receivers hanging on helical cables from a support structure. As one listens, a series of messages, orchestrated by the artist, can be heard at short intervals. Taken as a whole, the messages represent the difficulties we encounter when trying to connect with each other, problems arising from such situations as wrong or changed numbers or line saturation. The only option is to hang up and try again later, triggering the familiar array of excuses: “I tried calling you but it was busy all the time,” “I called many times but no-one answered,” “It said it was out of order,” “You changed your number and didn’t tell me.” In Telemonólogos there is no exchange of information, as would be the case with a functional telephone, for here the conversations are missing—one only hears prerecorded messages. In moments of distress, catastrophe, or family drama, when we can’t get through on the phone, we ask ourselves the same questions: “What was it like before telephones existed?” and “How did we ever manage without them?” Well, as Martín reminds us, we did all manage. The voice communicating the messages in Telemonólogos such as “The number you have dialed has changed,” “Telefónica de Argentina reminds you that...,” “This number is busy,” “Please dial 4 before the number you wish to call,” etc., may be familiar to many porteños, for these messages were recorded by the same person who worked for ENTel, the old state telephone company, for more than forty years. In form,Telemonólogos refers to the penetrables by the Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto (1923–2005). The structure that hangs from the ceiling and acts as a support for the helical telephone cables and receivers is similar to the metal structure of the penetrables: in these works, an interactive sculpture of thousands of thin plastic tubes stretches all the way down to the floor; in hues of yellow and blue, they form a thick jungle of color into which visitors can pass through and experience the work from within as they move around inside it. In Telemonólogos the visitor also enters the work in order to listen to the sounds coming from an assortment of different receivers.

At the end of the ground floor, in a different gallery, is Resonador (2011), made up of a wooden dome, an old telephone exchange, and a varying number of analogue telephones with pushbuttons and dialing disks. The circular layout of the stands upon which the telephones are placed, as round as a clock, resembles the old dialing disk on phones from the first half of the 20th century. Resonador contains a sensor that activates the bells of the telephones when someone enters the room. The devices start ringing one by one, creating an ascending spiral of sound, until those in the room are completely surrounded by noise. The ringing telephones prompt an instinctive desire to answer and find out who is calling, but Resonador is a work of art and thus may not be touched. One wonders, “Should I answer? And if I do, which one? The red one? Who might be calling? What could they want?” The torrential flow of questions creates anxiety, which is intensified by the physical impossibility of answering by picking up a receiver. The age-old museum mantra repeats in one’s head: “Please do not touch.” The urge to transgress may make itself felt, and it is in fact not unusual for someone to try to answer one of the calls. The idea of an ever-increasing energy that progressively envelops everything is translated here into a wall of sound that may be uncomfortable for the visitor, who might perceive himself or herself to be under attack. However, for many, Resonador may also be a source of nostalgia, bringing to mind personal memories of past situations involving traditional telephones that connected our homes to the outside world.

As visitors tour the exhibition, people begin to see that they must participate if they are to appreciate and understand some of Martín’s works. The participatory aspect of this artwork is part of a Latin American tradition that goes back to the early 1960s. The way in which the public approaches the artwork as the space traditionally existing between the two is eliminated was successfully explored by artists such as the Brazilians Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980) and Lygia Clark (1920–1988), the Venezuelans Carlos Cruz-Diez (1923–) and Soto and the Argentine Julio Le Parc (1928–), in works as diverse as their creators. In Latin America, the drive to integrate the public into and with the artwork has its origins in ideas about equality, and social and political participation: it also stems from the desire to strip the public of the apathy or resistance it might have to participate in key aspects of daily life. Given the history of European colonialism (and more recently, that of the United States), artists saw the demystification of art as the means to create a liberating experience in which the public, unfamiliar with art, susceptible to feelings of inferiority, or intimidated in the presence of a so-called artwork—a thing usually considered unique, priceless, unreachable—is able to stand on equal footing with the artwork and the artist. The public becomes a third party integrally involved in the creative process: the trinity of artist-artwork-public is critical to the completion of the work and the fulfillment of its role as a transcendental experience. In the case of Martín Bonadeo. Bellico, the public’s involvement is fundamental to many of the pieces encountered throughout the exhibition.

As visitors climb the stairs to the first floor, they come across OLALO (2011), or rather, they hear “¿hola?, ¿aló? ” uttered as a greeting. Playful and easy to understand, OLALO acts as a kind of human larynx as it calls out a friendly greeting which—much like the outmoded telephones in Resonador—is also on its way to extinction: with cellular phones and caller ID, we often no longer greet someone with “hello?” but instead speak the name of the person appearing on the small screen before us; sometimes we just don’t answer if we don’t recognize the number. Immediate identification allows us to accept or reject calls, which is very practical if we cannot take the call at that moment, but at the same time it robs us of the mystery of not knowing who is on the other end. A wooden box, three metal trumpets (antique in style in order to create a sense of nostalgia) and three sound production devices made of blown glass which imitate the human voice box make up OLALO. It has two sensors, one on each end, so that when visitors climb the stairs and pass in front of it they hear aló, and when they pass back down again they hear hola. As visitors interact with the work, they may remember the 1988 film Big, in which a boy trapped in an adult’s body enjoys himself by jumping on the keys of a gigantic piano in FAO Schwarz, the famous New York toy store. OLALO has a direct relationship with Largaoídos, which also seeks to stimulate our ability to listen to a voice: this was in fact Bell’s great discovery, made when he decided to stop trying to find a way to reproduce the human voice and concentrate instead on stimulating the ear to more closely listen to the human voice.

Paisaje telefónico (2011) is the largest work in the exhibition, one of the few developed for a specific place within the exhibition space. Taking advantage of the architectural features of the building, which was constructed in the 1920s, Martín chose to work with a row of iron columns that divide the space in two: the position and height of these were the inspiration for Paisaje telefónico, an interior reinterpretation of the Argentine pampas, a mythical and seductive landscape that symbolizes wide-open spaces and freedom. In the pampas, sky and land join together in the distance on the low horizon where the proportion of green seems to be a third of the blue sky: these are also the proportions used in Dutch landscape painting where the sky dominates the sea. Re-creating this landscape with blue and green luminescent wires stretched across the space, in this work Martín references the many hundreds of kilometers of telephone poles and cables put up when communications networks were first installed and which today look forlorn and lonely, like orphans abandoned by their mothers. Today, these obsolete and weather-beaten poles are part of the pampas landscape: some have fallen and lie on the ground in pieces, and between their cross-arms are the remnants of the mud nests of the ovenbird, which found the posts to be ideal nesting places. With Paisaje telefónico, Martín brings the Argentine pampas into the exhibition, giving it pride of place in his country’s history.

Two works examine and compare similarities between the 17th century, a time of great debate about the astronomical discoveries of Ptolemy (ca. 90 AD – ca. 168 AD), Copernicus (1473–1543) and Galileo (1564–1642), and the modern era with its fast-paced technological developments. These disparate time periods actually share many similarities, as both were eras marked by great scientific change. Martín has taken an engraving by F. Curtus from the 1651 publication Almagestum Novum by Giovanni Battista Riccioli and another by Athanasius Kircher from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (published in 1646), to create Estados vibracionales I and II (both 2011). These works feature a copy of both engravings blown up to a grand scale; they are mounted on wooden platforms on which two loudspeakers, emitting a range of different sounds, move up and down. This movement resembles the movement of traditional scales, which are held in Riccioli’s engraving by a female figure simultaneously representing Urania (the astronomer’s muse) and Astraea (the goddess of justice). The scales show the planetary systems that were the cause of dissent at the time—one geocentric, with the planets orbiting Earth, and the other heliocentric, with the planets orbiting the Sun. Riccioli’s engraving illustrated the 17th-century dispute about the supremacy of the Earth as the center of the universe. In Martín’s works, the circular form of the loudspeakers imitates eclipses as they pass over and obscure certain images symbolizing the dualities of light and shadow, night and day, science and religion, and earth and sky described therein. Estados vibracionales I and II are highly complex works that only reveal themselves in stages: it is not possible to understand at first sight the tangential relationships the artist has created with the contents of the engravings. For example, the eclipses created by the loudspeakers remind us that it was Ptolemy, the Greco-Egyptian astronomer, who was the first to establish the criteria for predicting eclipses. For Martín, Estados vibracionales I and II represent the value of knowledge and the power this generates.

Martín has an acknowledged interest in the waste created by our technological voracity, and Muertos vivos (2011) examines the subject of recycling. The piece consists of a circular model whose surface resembles a grass field studded with tombstone-like cellular phones; the composition is based on an area in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where war heroes are buried. These phones were obtained, as explained at the beginning of this essay, by the artist’s general call to friends and family to donate devices they no longer use. As one watches Muertos vivos, some of the phones’ screens light up, bearing the traces left by their former owners. Martín compares this with an attack of catalepsy (a sort of suspended animation): although the cellular phones have been disconnected, they can be just as easily brought back to life. Many display logos of companies that no longer exist, either because they went out of business or were absorbed by other companies with newer logos masking a telephone company monopoly; others have logos that are still in use. Muertos vivos highlights the sheer amount of technological waste we generate, and it illustrates our tendency to trade in our cellular phones for a fancier model—we discard them even though they still work. Discarded either because they don’t have enough functions, or are simply not fashionable, in Muertos vivos these cellular phones are given a new creative context.

Marketing de guerra (2011) is a work that, like Telemonólogos, has a sound component, and like Paisaje telefónico, it was created specifically to complement the architecture of the Espacio Fundación Telefónica. In this piece, wires swarm all over one of the gallery’s iron columns, covering it entirely from top to bottom. In the tangle nestle small speakers that emit messages recorded on Martín’s studio answering machine over the period of six months. There are hundreds of messages from friends, colleagues, and family members as well as advertising agencies, commercial companies, and political campaigns: “Hi Martín, how’re you doing? It’s Alma, maybe I’m calling the wrong...,” “Hi, Martín, I just wanted to...,” “All the working class families have recovered their dignity with Cristina and now it’s time for the City of Buenos Aires to join the national project...,” “Hi, Honey. How are you? It’s me,” “Hello? Hello, hello, hello!,” “Good morning, my name is Cristian, and I’m calling from Cablevision with a message especially for you...,” “Martín, it’s Hugo...,” “Hi, Daddy.” Marketing de guerra reflects the artist’s own sentiments about feeling invaded, like so many others, by the constant badgering of calls that interrupt his activities at all times of day or night with no respect for other people’s privacy or timetables.

As I was writing this essay I read in the Los Angeles Times of August 3, 2011, that Colonel Arthur “Kit” Murray, a test pilot, had just died at the age of ninety-two in the state of Texas. The relevance of this news was that Colonel Murray flew the Bell X-1A, a supersonic plane that was the first to break the sound barrier at 90,000 feet. Murray was decorated for this feat, achieved only after he had stabilized the plane, which was rapidly losing altitude. The pilot described his experience, saying that “the sky had turned deep purple and I could see from Northern California to the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.” The moment in which a plane passes through the sound barrier is envisioned in Martín’s work Barrera audiovisual (2011): the precise moment when the human eye captures the transformation of sound into image is represented as a white cone-shaped cloud from which emerges the plane. With Colonel Murray’s death, Barrera audiovisual takes on greater significance, becoming a kind of monument to this historic event.

As Martín reviewed and refined his ideas in the process of creating his works, it was of course to be expected that a few would undergo major changes. One such work is Fuga de memoria (2011): originally conceived as a large-scale cone, it instead became a two-dimensional form hanging off the wall. Revealing column upon column of names and telephone numbers—pages taken from a Buenos Aires telephone book—the piece shows us the way in which households and their telephone numbers are still listed, even though such publication is on the way to becoming extinct. (I get a new one every September, and more out of guilt than anything else, I keep it for several months until one day I finally relegate it to the recycling pile. I ask myself just how much people really use phone books in this age of the Internet?) In addition, Fuga de memoria refers to people’s habit of storing lots of numbers on their cell phones and memorizing only a few important ones, leaving gaps in one’s own memory. (Fuga de memoria is the term used to define pauses or breaks found in a computer program thus rendering it dysfunctional even when it is whole.) This work clearly illustrates how one system displaces another—in this case, the book format is being displaced by the digital one. Furthermore, the reduction and eventual disappearance of the traditional telephone book in a way contributes to the preservation of forests: as the consumption of paper drops, so does logging activity. With Fuga de memoria, Martín has begun the recycling process by transforming the simple pages of the Buenos Aires telephone book into a work of art in which the names, addresses, and telephone numbers that appear in it are forever frozen in time.

While eleven works on view in Martín Bonadeo. Bellico convey in almost palpable form Martín’s own personal experiences with the telephone and the role that it plays in his life as an artist, professor, family man, son, friend, and citizen, each work also represents a specific situation with which we can all identify. It could be said that this exhibition is a response to a singular moment in the life of the artist, who expresses publicly and in an artistic fashion his personal feelings about the society-changing technological advances we are living through at the moment; in the process, he echoes what many of us think and feel as we try to adapt to these changes as gracefully as possible. Martín, with his artistic talent and keen gift for observation, brings these universal issues into the spotlight choosing a very specific apparatus—the telephone—as the inspiration for this thought-provoking exhibition.

* Alma Ruiz was born in Guatemala and has been living in Los Angeles, California (United States) since 1972. She is the Senior Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) of Los Angeles. She has organized numerous exhibitions of contemporary art with an emphasis on the post-war period in Latin America. She has served on the jury panel for the Paul & Daisy Soros Foundation for New Americans, assessed candidates for grants from the United States Trust for Arts and Culture in the US-Mexico, as well as biennials, including the V Biennial in Panamá and the XII Biennial Rufino Tamayo, in Mexico.


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