Goodbye to Hugo, and other matters


The death yesterday of Comandante Hugo Chavez marks it as a very sad day. Much will be written in the coming weeks, and the possible involvement of the CIA is certainly not to be discounted.

So, I find myself sitting back to write a few other things on art and culture but do so in the long shadow of Chavez’ death.

hugo c

Reminding onself of US foreign policy for the last sixty years….hell, last couple hundred years….the names of war criminals like Allen Dulles, Henry Kissinger, and William Colby, and Jim Woolsey…Richard Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton, and Bush, Dick Cheney, Dean Rusk, or Alexander Haig … the grotesque policies that left for dead, or sent into exile….Patrice Lumumba, Sukarno, and Mossadegh —the support for ghouls like Duvalier and Mobutu, The Shah, and Pinochet. The School of the Americas, and the devastation of Guatemala, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and most of Africa. Support for the war crimes of Israel, the support for dictators and royalists everywhere, the recent NATO aggression against the former Yugoslavia, and support for blood drenched monsters like Kagame and for the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and covert wars in a dozen other places. More names, designations…Operation MKUltra, Operation Condor, Operation Palace Dog, and then more names; the good such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, or the bad such as General Rene Barrientos Ortuno in Bolivia, or Roberto D’Aubuisson in El Salvador, or John Pondexter in Washington. So many places where people tried to improve their lives….Juan Bosch, Archbishop Oscar Romero, or the Sandanistas. In every case the US stamped it out, crushed it in the most violent and sickening manner.

Name after name….etched in a history of US violence.

Chavez was one of the good names. Why should we think his death wasn’t the work of the CIA? I don’t know, but I can already hear the slurs and attacks in U.S. media. The same media that pimps for war criminals such as Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Maddie Albright, Wes Clark, David Petraeus, and for the small nasty sadistic little men who occupy all the functionary positions within Empire. The pinched souls of a Jeanne Kirkpatrick or John Woo loom up as if out of some purgatorial sewer…Cap Weinberger or Eliot Richardson. The endless media propaganda; endless disinformation and lies.

Chavez was charismatic, and the U.S. hated him for that as much as anything. They hated that Venezuela sat on so much oil. Much easier to deal with the Saudi Royal Family. They hated that he was tutored by Fidel. They hated his influence most of all.


One cannot speak of Chavez’ importance without remembering Goulart in Brazil, or Oscar Romero or what happened at El Mozote. The election of Morales and Correa was because of Chavez. And because of Fidel. The fear of liberation theology — the fear that United Fruit or IT&T would lose holdings, drove U.S. policy for decades. The fear of communism….the domino theory….this is all part of the backdrop to Chavez’ story.

chaveaaa They hated him for the same reasons they have hated every leader in the last hundred years who has worked to raise their people up, who worked to make life better for the weakest and most vulnerable. I shudder knowing I will have to sit through and read and see the propaganda against Chavez in the coming days and weeks. His death casts its shadow across all we think and feel right now. The world misses him already.

RIP Hugo.


It is one of those curious moments of personal synchronistic inter-facing that Chavez was to die on a day in which I had been reflecting a lot on U.S. nostalgia and embrace of monarchist symbolism, and fascist symbology in general. The reflecting was kicked off by seeing an ad for the new Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic movie, and stage event, “The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic”.

moca abram diner

It is a large topic in a sense, because she has become something of a cultural phenomenon, and Wilson, ever the opportunist, smelled fresh meat and quickly got himself attached. Abramovic, for her part, no doubt sensed in Wilson the ultimate legitimator for her career and reputation.

What is distressing in the sudden popularity of Abramovic (cross-over popular) is the obviously reactionary meaning …..however thin any meaning is in her work….and how critics seem utterly incapable of reading this. When Abramovic was hired to stage an event for MOCA gala last November, it included having models sit with their heads coming through holes in the tables, while the guests dined. Yvonne Rainer wrote a pretty cogent letter to MOCA director Jeff Deitch (here… What is obvious (and again, having just written an entry speaking quite a bit about Pasolini, its just more synchronicity) is that Abramovic is marketing a brand — High Priestess of the Avant Garde. That is all she is doing, essentially, but she is doing it in particularly unpleasant ways. But it is the very de-contextualizing of performance that heightens the sense of the fascistic. Abramovic is promoting a sort of NGO world view; a neo-liberal vision that is mostly about her own career uptick. The destruction wrought by neo-liberal policies is absent in her generalized pap on the Balkans. It’s a kitsch history, an Orientalist expression of vague diluted symbolism.

Her career has been marked by a lack of seriousness in general. One has to only think back to Ukeles and Antin ( find performance work grounded in real social tensions, in labor alienation and in oppression. It was connected to instincts and reactions to how a society defines degradation and dignity. Work is real, it is material, and so are the effects. The misogynistic treatment of women workers in particular. But here we arrive at something I was just writing about last time…the ascension of the subjective. The universalizing of subjective de-contextualized adverts for self.

Or think Bob Flanagan. The issues were not parlor games, not amusements. Flannigan was addressing sexuality and death.

Abramovic also took the reactionary line on NATO aggression against the former Yugoslavia. (Think of, in contrast, the responses of Peter Handke or Pinter). No, Abramovich is interested in universalizing her kitsch subjectivities…. she loves free market capital.

as Louisa Agvita wrote:

“In her video presentation at the MOCA
event ( 2011), Abramović opposes the European system
of state subsidised arts and claims to favour the American framework of
business and bank sponsorship. These private funders, according to her,
have replaced kings, aristocrats and governments as the new art patrons.
In this historical moment of economic crisis Abramović’s ahistorical
Balkanness contributes to the naturalisation and depoliticisation of the
harsh neoliberal attack against the welfare state. The artist is universe,
as Abramović claims in her manifesto, only, this universe happens to
identify with violent capitalism.”

For Abramovic, Serbs are just rat catchers, or maybe just rats.

Such a simplistic sort of bromide ends (quickly) as deeply reactionary. But then Abramovic is nothing if not openly an elitist. What separates her work from a Vogue photo shoot is only the weight of the models.

marina_abramovic_060210 star shot

This is the increasingly rarified world of art managers — the art market — and its brokers, the curators and producers who circulate and regulate image as well as career. The artists are fungible. Robert Wilson enters stage right.

The trend in the U.S., and its just-add-water branded avant-garde, at least in theatre, is toward a kind of autism. Nobody better embodies this than Robert Wilson. It is not accident that Wilson and Abramovic are so popular. They sell *nothing*, they sell the (as Adorno put it) the *merely beautiful* (or the merely flashy, much like Vegas does)…but it is tricked out in a universalizing faux mysticism and pageantry (much as Nazi propagandists did). Creating striking images is the province of Chiat Day, the role of good illustrators and graphic designers….and that’s all Wilson does. Oh, throw in some *avant* music, too.

litter slaves


There is a strange anti-textualism here, an anti-aesthetic that sells itself, again, by creating a ‘picture of the avant-garde’- while in fact it engages nothing, it is utterly de-contextualized. Where is this? All that we have is the symbolism of a reclining goddess or nymph, and of slaves carrying the colonizers or royalty on litters. It is Marie Antoinette waving from the balcony. It is contempt for the masses. Yet, people pay to come and worship the high priestess; movie stars show up…Sharon Stone, James Franco, as well as art critics…and sit and stare at her, and she at them. Far out.

It is the presentation of avant-garde effects. Period. Full stop.

There is a strange puritanism that sneaks in here, too. I mean DONT TOUCH the fucking models, OK? If you do, you get 86’d. I mean we set them up, naked, attractive, and you can, you know, sort of brush by them…..and shit, you can eat off their head if you like, but DONT TOUCH.

I personally have never thought performance art rose to the level of art at all…but, some of it at least was serious in intent.

The idea that performance art somehow is less commodified is simply wrong. It is simply commodifying the performer. It is just mainlining the commodity directly. The reproduction of capital takes place in another register, but it takes place even more clearly because there is less mediation by narrative, less of the uncanny. The ideological dimension of the experience is always going to be capitalist, because that’s all there is.


Why is the uncanny missing in performance art? This is a big topic. It goes to the heart of why narrative intersects the ideological, and how it at least mediates and questions the reproduction of capital through an art market. The Bourdieu-ian notion of cultural capital would argue that capital becomes embedded through expertise, learning, etc. Consumed by understanding of the object (sort of), and finally institutionally validated (via credentials, degrees, grants, etc etc etc). The point is that cultural capital accrues value via various validating mechanisms. Abramovic is validated by Wilson (and vice versa) — the institutional validation is obvious, and the entire social network of rich donors, academics, fellow artists (sic) and curators….and audiences willing to pay high prices for tickets (which are kept scarce) all function within a machinery of reproducing value. Again, the artist is the least important part for the artworks are fungible. So, engagement with aura, with the mystique of the object, with reason and with the spiritual —- all this has been worn away until one is left with a Siegfried & Roy show…(and no disrespect to the big cats), a Vegas extraganza, but using the cultural vocabulary of the ‘sanctioned’ avant garde. Fake ordeals, fake cutting, fake everything. Fake eroticism. But real elitism. For that is also being sold; as Wilson well knows.


The narrative, when it appears on stage, in a “space”, both material and unconcsious (or pre conscious) is voicing something that embeds history, not erases it. Pasolini did Salo, and the history of European fascism was being laid out in the complexity of its specifics. Abramovic generalizes the “idea” of sado masochism (I guess) in the service of a revisionist history of (in her case) the former Yugoslavia. It is a sentimentalized volkish version of tourist cliche imagery.

Abramovic has said, “the deeper they (artists) look within themselves, the more universal they become”. Actually the deeper you look within, the more historical you become.

opacity hospital green int

saville red face

So goodbye Hugo….. Viva Bolivarian Revolution!

In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep. The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,
and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the
street corner
the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the
Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
In a graveyard far off there is a corpse
who has moaned for three years
because of a dry countryside on his knee;
and that boy they buried this morning cried so much
it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet.
Life is not a dream.

Lorca (Bly tr.)



  1. George Mc says:

    The head-through-the-table thing reminded me of that Caligula movie in which people were buried up to their necks to get their heads lopped off by a huge rotating blade for the “entertainment” of spectators. It seems appropriate. The Caligula “anecdote” doesn’t appear to have any factual grounding – which, I suspect, goes for much of his reported reign.

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