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12 January 2013

A way to remember in a time of free market forgetting

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. This elected alternative to free market economics was met with state violence supported by the most powerful nation in the world. The 17-year dictatorship that followed traces the systematic end to the idea that democracy would be permitted to deliver equality and justice. In 1989 the Cold War symbolically ended with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, this point signified the apparent victory of capital over labor through both a global financial system connected in a real time global communication network and the military industrial complex that is coordinated by and underpins it.

In 1990 the period of transition to a new kind of democracy commenced in Chile with the return of a democratically elected government followed by sustained economic growth in the first decade of 21st century. The term ‘transition to democracy’ was used to describe this period. It is a term now widely used to describe dictatorships formerly supported by the US - from the middle east and north Africa to Asia and the Pacific region - as they embrace or are strangled by free market economics.

The 20 years of “transition to democracy” in Chile places the current generation at a distance from the promise and peril of its past democracy. Today, most people in Chile under 30 will not have experienced a world without the excess of information, entertainment and standardized choice of the Internet. Neither will they directly know the power and violent opposition of capital to popular movements. Part of this is experienced vicariously in the near absence of organized labor (and is across the world) that further atomizes and fragments people into individual units of production and groupings of families as the norm.

The victims and families of state violence - the disappeared, the executed, the tortured and the imprisoned – are similarly atomized and fragmented into units of consequence in the absence of acknowledgement of the ideology that persecuted them for their thoughts. The victims and families of the abuses of human rights under the dictatorship is marked and remembered in many ways in Chile, most publicly in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights that opened in 2010. This museum is underscored by the idea that human rights are abused when the institution that is meant to protect them does not. In this sense, the significance of the state sponsored Museum of Memory and Human Rights cannot be underestimated in its impact on the 1000s of school children that visit the archive, performances, exhibitions and tours. It brings this audience together with the victims and families of the abused who have and continue to contribute to the museum as a living archive. In part, this institution links the human impact of the dictatorship with the broader Chilean society. However, the undisputed crimes of the state under the dictatorship are contained within this universal idea of Human Rights, not a critique of the political ideology of neither neoliberalism nor the organized opposition to this notion. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is a building and public space that serves as a living archive that is networked with a number of sites of memory across the city – the National Stadium, Villa Grimaldi Peace Park (a former prison of torture) and others that must be sought out by those interested in the crimes of the dictatorship and the strength of opposition that brought about it demise. These sites are destinations for those interested to commemorate, understand and be acknowledged but are not necessarily part of the daily life of the city.

BiciPaseos Patrimoniales, frente al Museo de Bellas Artes, Santiago
A large number of memorials have been created across Chile to the victims and families of the crimes committed by the dictatorship. I find it difficult to write about this because the memorials trace the continuing struggle for recognition of the violence of the state against its own people. The Faculty of Latin American Social Sciences (Facultad Latinamericana de Ciences Sociales) FLASCO report entitled Memoriales de Derechos Humanos, Chile (2007) makes the distinction between sites of memory – prisons, places of execution and torture – and memorials. This is important because it identifies who is remembering whom and how this is brought about. The report identifies 106 memorials created between 1973 and 2006, 6 of which were created during the 17 years of the dictatorship, 53 were created between 1990 and 2000 and 47 were create in the years 2000 – 2006. This near two-fold increase in number of memorial signifies a shift in the decisive power relations between the former dictatorship and the governments of the “transition to democracy” subjected to increased community pressure. The memorials created during this time are different in their location in public space and/or the support by the state through the commissioning of works. Commemorating the disappeared (more than 1000 of the over 3000 executed during the dictatorship) highlights the importance of the site in relation to the memorial through the absence of the body as both material evidence of the crime committed and the subject and act of mourning and remembering in place. The Women’s Memorial (2006) is of particular interest because it is a memorial to the disappeared as well as the executed, imprisoned and tortured.
Museo de Solidaridad Salvador Allende, con una pintura de Miro
It is also distinguished because it is specifically about violence against women, which is a broader and ongoing issue of human rights violation – a violation most systematically employed by the dictatorship and continuing in contemporary societies. The work was commissioned in a competition that brings into this discussion the value of the artist in interpreting collective memory. The selected design is in a public space, yet does not name the victims, though they are known, and is situated in a prominent location in the city. In these aspects the memorial is based on a human rights principle of solidarity and is open in its defense of these ideas while creating a place of ritual. It is, unfortunately, in a terrible state of repair that says more about the maintenance of the city than the work.
Memorial a las Mujeres víctimas de la represión en Alameda, Santiago
The idea of memorials and cities has dominated much of the discussion of public space in a broader discourse about whose history is and can be told, the use of public space, the image of the city and how collective memory is constructed through cultural production and representation within the post modern paradox of identity and difference. The counter-monument movement in Germany is an example of a critical engagement with traditional forms of memorials and monuments as permanent and fixed versions of history. In parallel and sometime in unison with this discussion is a resurgence in the ideas of the Situationist International in the appropriation of space through temporary intervention and urban tactics as an assertion of the right to the city and a counter to the society of the spectacle (neoliberalism). Much of this has manifest in the appropriation and détournement of the dominant visual culture of advertising and other privatized public times and spaces, in other ways through public mourning and spontaneous monuments that challenge the fixed notion of the monument and in others it takes the form of street art following the tradition of the mural’s narrative and with this, protest, parades and occupations as festive disruptions that make the city a living work. The Situationist tactics and aesthetics emphasize the temporal aspect of space through appropriation to highlight the potential of everyday change by the social. Public Memorials, on the other hand, depend on the spatial association with place in relation to the city and the collective social memory to insist on this physical and symbolic reconciliation of the past with the present and future. Ritual, through the spatial practice of the city, either as individual or collective acknowledgement depends on the permanence that underpins place in order to never forget.
Museo de Memoria y Derechos Humanos, Santiago.
A bridge between these ideas of memory and intervention, permanence and transition and the historical and psychological gap between the events of September 11 in Chile and today’s “youth” was made in a simple and informative way recently in Santiago. A group called Bicipaseo Patrimoniales http://www.facebook.com/bicipaseospatrimoniales– loosely translated as bicycles wandering through our heritage – is a voluntary collective of young people who organize free bicycle tours of metropolitan Santiago. This particular tour fell under the umbrella of an urban intervention festival in Santiago entitled Hecho en Casa (Homemade). Bicipaseo is a purposeful critical mass that not only asserts the citizens right to the city above the car but also connects the people of poorer suburbs with richer ones in an attempt to change spatial and social perceptions and realities. Bicipaseo is a web based organization who embeds the physical actions that slow traffic and disrupt the city with an urban political agenda. This particular night ride through Santiago visited four museums that were open until midnight and was attended by about 150 riders – riders of all ages, some with kids, some with trailers, all followed by the obligatory street dogs that joined the pack in the city at night. The tour visited both the aforementioned Museum of Memory and Human Rights and the Museum of Solidarity with Salvador Allende. (MSSA). The MSSA is a magnificent building which houses a collection of the original 500 artworks gifted by national and international artists in support of the social project of Salvador Allende at the time of his presidency. The works were taken abroad during the dictatorship and toured in Europe as a form of protest and returned to Chile in 1991 with the inauguration of the museum as part of the “transition to democracy”. Amongst the works are Picasso, Miro, Calder and Matta. The collection now stands at over 2600 works and is the most important collections of modern art in Latin America.

Memorials, demonstrations, cultural facilities, exhibitions, literature, film, theatre, collective archives, visual art collections and actions are all ways of remembering. Theses accumulative and growing creative actions of political intent and reconciliation taking place in the capital city make it difficult for the broader public and future generations to forget.

Anthony McInneny
Architects for Peace, December 2012



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