20 August 2010

Whitener on the Escrache

Cross: I wonder if we can start with the escrache? Could you walk us through a particular performance so we might better visualize the different elements at play here? Do any particular performances come to mind as uniquely well-executed?

Whitener: Well, to try and answer your question, I´d start by saying that I´ve never actually been to an escrache or participated in one (in Argentina, although the form or something similar has now spread to other Latin American countries, but without the same effect). I followed the escraches through indymedia and later through the circulation of video from the artistic groups who worked on the escraches, such as Etcetera, Grupo Atre Callejero, and Taller Popular de Seriagrafia. However, for all intents and purposes I am very much like the reader of Genocide in the Neighborhood: trying to imagine what this could have been like and what it could mean. Which I feel somehow is the right position or rather the position that the book wants us to be in, because it is foremost a book about imagining, inventing, finding ways to contest and resist on two very difficult terrains: first, the terrain of historical and cultural memory (the trauma of the dictatorship) and second that of law and apparatuses of institutional legal power.

Looking at the book now (which occasionally is an absurd experience, since we started this translation project in 2005, so the book is now like a ghost to me in some ways), what strikes me is that this placing of the reader into a position of trying to imagine, grasp, find the right level or pitch to relate to the book is a result (in part) of it´s status as translation. There´s something very powerful in translation, how it opens a space for a series of reflections (on let´s say the “home” culture: what is law here, who has been killed here, etc) and then attempts at invention or grasping (what is this, how did it work, why did it exist, etc). So, the fact of the original book´s aims coupled with the English-version as a translation, I think provides the context that makes the deeper levels of significance of your questions possible (what IS this thing? what is the right pitch for relating to it?).

Having said that, the book discusses how the escrache went through two phases. The first was a mediatic phase, where the escrache was more focused on bringing media visibility to the fact that genocidists were still living free in Argentina (the video you posted of the defacing of the house, is an example of this kind of escrache I think). For these escraches, as they describe in the book, they would plan the escrache that morning, call the newspapers and TV, protest at 4 and make the 5 oclock news. However, HIJOS and the other groups involved realized that this was a really limited form of resistance and wasn´t actually confronting the cultural and historical legacy of the dictatorship. So, they developed a different model. The moved away from the center of the city into middle and working class neighborhoods on the periphery of Buenos Aires and they stopped inviting the media. And from this they developed a new approach: they would spend months and months (3, 4, 5 months) going door-to-door in the neighborhood and talking to neighborhood residents about the conditions of impunity (that all military personnel responsible for the killings under the dictatorship had been pardoned), about the idea of social condemnation (if there is or will be no institutional justice, a different kind of justice must be invented, a community or popular justice that turns the neighborhood where the genocidist lives into a kind of prison), and about the need to confront this part of the past, to reconstruct the social fabric destroyed by the dictatorship, and to begin to retake public space. Then after months of work, they would schedule the escrache for a certain day. Frequently, thousands of people would turn out. These escraches were like marches with performative aspects (popular music traditions, performance groups, etc) that would then culminate in an action in front of the genocidist´s house and a marking of the house (usually with paint).

In the introduction to the book, I provide some youtube links that illustrate specific aspects of the escraches (police presence, performance elements, etc) but I also say that we should be careful not to rely too much on these visual depictions. Because what the speakers in the book argue (at least on my reading) is that the most important outcomes of the escrache were: a new form of “organizing” via an activation of cultural memory that required months of laborious door-to-door work in specific communities; the idea of social condemnation, or of re-thinking institutional justice, by turning the neighborhood into the “prison”; and finally that the escrache became a machine of subjectivation, that people came to the escraches with one identity (worker, student, etc) and left with another. This transformative aspect of the escrache, both into terms of subjectivity and daily life within a given neighborhood (and the reconstruction of the social fabric destroyed by the dictatorship), is something that obviously a video would have difficulty capturing or that would escape a merely visual depiction of the escraches.

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