Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Disturbing Exhibit Combines Technology, Human Rights, Art

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 28 2006 (IPS) - The screens of more than 100 old television sets flicker with poems on torture and death that are generated by a sophisticated computer programme.

This is “Máquina Cóndor” (The Condor Machine), a disturbing exhibit by a young Chilean artist designed to evoke the system of oppression that reigned in much of South America under Operation Condor.

The operation was a coordinated strategy among the military governments that ruled Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed at tracking down, capturing, torturing and eliminating dissidents. It was proposed in 1975 by the intelligence services of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), with U.S. support.

A grating and at times deafening noise greets visitors to the Gabriela Mistral art gallery in Santiago, part of the Chilean government’s Arts and Culture Council, where this work by Demian Schopf, 31, is on exhibit until the end of the month.

The noise comes from 108 small and large televisions mounted in two sets of iron scaffolding. Strange four-verse stanzas fill the screens; all are pulled from the same small pool of words, but each line is unique. The verses are fleeting, as they disappear forever after three minutes and 26 seconds, to be replaced by new ones.

The installation’s technological framework, created by Schopf and an electrical engineer, comprises a computer, a set of processors, a printer and three alphanumeric panels, on which the rhymes also appear.

All of the stanzas are based on a verse from the sonnet “De la Ambición Humana” (On Human Ambition) by Spanish poet Luis de Góngora, which describes a character who refuses to die, and uses the metaphor of a butterfly.

It reads: “Mariposa no solo no cobarde/ más temeraria, fatalmente ciega/ lo que la llama al Fénix aún le niega/ quiere obstinada que a sus alas guarde” (loosely translated, “The butterfly, untouched by fear/ reckless even, in its fatal blindness/ of that which the flame still denies the Phoenix / stubbornly refuses to relinquish its wings”).

This stanza is then randomly reworked through an intricate network of databases and statistics.

Specifically, the new poems are generated by a computer programme that is constantly searching through news reports on war and the economy published in the world’s leading newspapers, such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and Britain’s The Guardian, working with a database of 369 English words selected by the author.

Each Internet search word, such as price, rights, war, market, attack, death and killed is then matched to a term from the spheres of medicine, anatomy, surgery, forensic medicine and mortuary science.

“When the system hits a search word (referring to war or the economy) it places it in the statistics, which triggers the writing mechanism to randomly assign a term (from medicine and anatomy) for the stanza, using the structure of Góngora’s poem,” Schopf explained to IPS.

Thus, the computer generates nonsensical texts such as “Mucosa no solo no rectal/ más infestada supuración necrotizante/ lo que la ramificación al calmante aún le niega/ quiere eclipsada que a sus sacramentales les guarde.” (Mucous, not only non-rectal/ infested, even, in its necrotising supperation / of that which the tranquilising ramification still denies it/eclipsed refuses to relinquish its sacramentals”).

More than 700 people have viewed the exhibit. One anonymous comment in the guest book describes it as “Disturbing ideological poetry with cables, circuits and noise.”

For a few days, “Máquina Cóndor” verses were displayed on a gigantic billboard in downtown Santiago at the intersection of Ahumada and Nueva York streets. But the advertising company soon pulled the plug, calling the language shocking.

The verses churned out by the system can now be seen in real time at www.maquinacondor.com, a page that will stay up after the exhibit closes. “Máquina Cóndor writes ad infinitum,” explained Schopf, as the computer will remain connected in his house; anyone can access the work 24 hours a day.

According to Schopf, “the key to the title of the work lies in the system-generated stanzas,” which describe scenes of surgery, autopsies and death.

The judicial systems of Argentina, Chile and, in recent months, Uruguay have made progress in their Operation Condor investigations. Several key accused have been indicted, and some have been tried and imprisoned.

“I see the installation as addressing the extreme ‘mechanistic’ nature of Operation Condor – meaning torture or, rather, the connection between medical science and the technology of torture, which sadly have gone hand in hand throughout history, becoming ever more ‘clinical’ with each advancement in science and technology,” said the artist.

“What we have here is a sad script that applies equally to (the Nazi concentration camp) Auschwitz, the U.S. School of the Americas, Operation Condor and, most likely, the interrogation techniques used today at places like the Guantánamo naval base or (the Iraqi prison) Abu Ghraib (both run by Washington), whose torture methods were exposed by the charges of prisoner-of-war abuse,” in 2004, he added.

Schopf remembers being in Germany when the news of the abuse broke.

“It didn’t take me long to realise that, despite (U.S. Defence Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld’s lame excuses, the practices they used had many formal and procedural roots in the torture methods I had learned about when reading the accounts of Chilean political prisoners,” he said.

That’s why he believes “that Operation Condor lives on under other names in countries like Iraq and Lebanon.”

Schopf was born in the southwestern German city of Frankfurt, where his parents fled following the 1973 coup that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship.

Holding dual citizenship, the artist returned to Chile with his family when he was nine, although he left for Germany in 2002 to pursue graduate studies at an art school in the western city of Cologne.

“If you ask me where I feel most at home, at this point I’d say Chile. But, like many people who were born in exile, I think my identity is split and, to some extent, bipolar,” he told IPS.

“I think I belong to what U.S. sociologist Steve Stern calls second generation memory. I did not experience the coup and its effects, but I was among those who grew up in a climate of fear and insecurity. Our childhood was always overshadowed by the spectre of the coup,” he said.

Sergio Rojas, professor of aesthetics at the University of Chile, told IPS that Schopf’s works “relate more to concepts such as sovereignty, order, system, strategy and something sinister, secret, inhuman, etc,” than to Operation Condor and the Chilean military dictatorship in a literal sense.

“Máquina Cóndor is an original work here, not only because of the ideas it develops, but also because of the complexity of the technological resources it relies on,” said Rojas.

He added that young Chilean artists are increasingly staying away from the dictatorship as an explicit theme in their works. “Their explorations of power issues tend to be framed more in current paradoxes of modernisation processes,” said Rojas, who says Schopf’s work displays a high level of thoughtful irony.

“The thing is, the dictatorship in Chile has two sides. One, the face of terror, directly linked to the systematic disappearances, kidnapping, torture, imprisonment and exile. And the other, the ‘modernisation’ process, reflected in the increasing influence market issues bring to bear on how the country’s key social and political decisions are made,” he explained.

In October, a digital projection of “Máquina Cóndor”, with material drawn from the web site, will be shown in Madrid.

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