Critical reflections from Colombia
4 January 2003
|versión en español|
Muntadas: On Translation
(OT: The Applause)
By José Ignacio Roca
For artists who see us from outside, coming face to face with the 'reality of Colombia' has always meant a conscious operation of resistance to what constitutes the stereotype of the country (drugs, violence), which -like all stereotypes- is an out of context exaggeration of real, unquestionable facts. Muntadas is not exactly a visiting artist, or at least he is one of a different kind. Since travelling is a constant, inseparable practice in his work, a reading of new contexts is inevitably part of it, and so it would be correct to say that his sensibility has been exercised in a sharp, deep reading of contexts which he is encountering for the first time. In other words, his work is based precisely on that constant operation of moving from one place to another which, as Eugeni Bonet recalls in his essay on Muntadas' work , is one of the meanings of the word 'translation'.
On his first visit, with the selective vision supplied by his experience, Muntadas identified two contradictory aspects of our reality. First, that the situation in the main cities such as Bogotá and Medellín is 'less serious' than was supposed, that life there goes on without the feeling of war or imminent danger that is assumed to exist from outside. Second, paradoxically, that the situation is also more serious than is thought outside, in other words, what is known about Colombia outside does not manage to express the tragedy of the country on its full scale; over thirty thousand people (mostly men between the ages of 15 and 30) have died in violent circumstances, where insurgence pervades the whole territory and where the capital cities -as in the Middle Ages- are sheltering behind their barricades of soldiers defending the status quo. The rest of the country is at war, but that only reaches the capitals through the media. 
That has meant that the experience of the conflict people in a city like Bogotá have is not essentially different from what people outside might have, in the sense that there is no real, firsthand experience of the massacres, the attacks on the infrastructure and the sieges of towns; those events are not lived as local ones, but are perceived almost exclusively through the media, in particular television.
But even through the media there are obviously great differences between perceiving the Colombian war from outside and from inside, above and beyond the absence of context. One of the essential differences between perception of the Colombian conflict through the international and local media is the intensity with which violent images are presented in the local news broadcasts: a constant bombardment of images associated with the internal war which has generated, through overload, a gradual numbing of the Colombian public to the images of the conflict. Muntadas understood that paradox from the outset: a tragedy which is lived even locally through the media and at the same time a saturation of violent images which plays the role of neutralising their content and capacity to stir feelings.
After a long period searching for local iconography, Muntadas found the solution of "On Translation: The Applause", in which cinematic and still images are mixed in a disturbing counterpoint. "On Translation: The Applause" is a biting response to the everyday distancing we Colombians feel from our daily dose of violent images; it shows up the treatment of violent events by the local media and the passive and cynical attitude they have generated in the audience. 
Colombian news broadcasts are all structured in the same way: sensational headlines, images of violence; sport; social gossip and lightweight subjects.  That structure is invariable and manages to easily combine the assassination of a presidential candidate with the results of a local football championship, a massacre of peasants with a beauty contest in Cartagena. What is truly scandalous is that the structure is so integrated into the visual code that it is perceived as the natural order of things: there is no awareness of the political implications of that neutralisation, its role in generating pessimism and a tolerance that helps to underpin the establishment indefinitely. Which contrasts with other neighbouring countries like Argentina, Ecuador or Venezuela, where popular reaction and pressure have managed to destabilise the power structures, where 'the masses' still have limited tolerance of the manipulations of the establishment and are capable of bringing pressure to bear for the dismissal of a president. 
It is clear that the handling of information in Colombia is particularly perverse; nothing is 'censored' (in the sense that extreme images of death and violence are shown constantly), but by making their presentation format the same as the rest of the news, their real implication has been neutralised. The result of that is that we Colombians accept the situation as something not only normal but inevitable, which generates extreme tolerance and an atmosphere of pessimism and indolence that takes the shape of an indefinite prolongation of the conflict. As Stuart Hall has established in his essay on the function of the media , hegemonies operate by making events look like the natural order of things. Colombians' adjustment to violent events through the manipulation of information makes us ask the obvious question: who benefits from the maintenance of the status quo? Who are the owners of the media? A few years ago, at the time of the television coverage of a particularly violent act, the directors of the media met in contrition to look at their collective responsibility in the handling of information, and came to an agreement: henceforward images of death would be presented only in black and white, in an attempt to recover the lost visual impact. That measure was effective for a few weeks -in which the audience obviously 'saw' for the first time in a long time the acts of violence that were being presented to them, thanks to the feeling of strangeness and the 'archive' feel of the black and white images- until that code too was integrated into visual awareness and its effect was neutralised. Needless to say a short time later the news broadcasts returned to their usual use of colour images.
"On Translation: The Applause" is a particularly critical reading of the Colombian context, but also, in a broader sense, of the role of the media. It consists of three projections that generate a precinct where the spectator is partially immersed. The three images show an auditorium applauding, alternating general shots and fragments focusing on the hands. The central image is interrupted at regular intervals by black and white images of violent events taken from the local press. Those inserts of still image last less than a second (barely the time for the image to be fixed on the retina, and not enough for the mind to think consciously about what it is seeing), after which the image of applause returns -rubbing out for a few moments that effort to fix on awareness of the violent image- until a new one appears and the cycle starts over again. The feeling is of a wish never fulfilled, whose satisfaction is constantly postponed. The most obvious reading (violence as entertainment) or the most superficial one (the passivity of the audience, who sit comfortably watching a war which is being shown to them on television) is made more complex by the structure of the images themselves: the people who are applauding do not show any enthusiasm or any relation to the image they are supposedly 'seeing'. After a moment it becomes clear that it is a rehearsed applause, not a spontaneously motivated one, not a response to a visual stimulus but an action that is thinking about itself (the act of applauding). That radical schism between the two images is essential for the effect of the work, where any affirmation of enthusiasm for the image would be immediately read as an easy criticism of the role of the audience.
In fact, that 'detachment' is more effective. The official discourse about the state of the Colombian economy (repeated recently because of the events in Argentina) was that despite everything the economy of the country was stable and there was no cause for concern. And that is true in a way. That relation between a stable economy, booming cities full of cultural life and a country bleeding to death in a conflict in which no young middle class person is in the army fighting insurgence (or in the 'rebellious' ranks of the guerrilla) shows that the state of affairs suits many people very well. Muntadas identifies that cynicism in one of the works he produced for the presentation of his exhibition in Bogotá, an engraving which shows a country road and landscape through the panoramic windscreen of a car: 'Colombia is doing well'.
1. Eugeni Bonet. "On Translation: primera aproximación", Intersecciones. Bogotá: Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, 2001, p. 51.
2. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it is real; although there are urban guerrillas, so far there has been no direct guerrilla attack on the main cities, which nevertheless live besieged by the violence associated with crime and the spectre of kidnapping. Or, as the poet William Ospina says, in Colombia the popular classes do not eat, the middle classes do not buy, and the upper classes do not sleep.
3. This is a local reading of this work, which undoubtedly operates differently in contexts other than the Colombian one.
4. Every day there is a noteworthy event which lasts a few seconds and is presented before the beginning of the news bulletin, like 'the latest' news flash. After the news flash comes a segment of advertisements, after which the news proper begins. The news flash is presented immediately after the end of the previous programme, without the news broadcast credits, so as to give the impression that the programme has been interrupted to report on an event of supreme urgency. That code is now everyday, and so its effectiveness has been reduced.
5. In Colombia there has been no popular uprising since the 'Bogotazo' in 1948, when the assassination of the political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán sparked a violent reaction throughout the country, although in the last decade at least four presidential candidates, from both right and left, have been assassinated. Now (March 2002) one presidential candidate has been kidnapped by the guerrilla. And it is certain that that will in no way prevent the holding of presidential elections in less than three months.
6. Stuart Hall. "The rediscovery of 'ideology' and the return of the repressed in media studies", Culture, Society and the Media. London: Methuen, 1983
Links to works by Muntadas, presented in Internet: