When time happens again

In this chronicle about the performing tour and work in progress of the four episodes, artists and curators throw the first stones into the waters of memories that breathe future.

ESMA 5 Performing tour by the ESMA Memory Site Museum. | © Gustavo Correa/Goethe-Institut Buenos Aires “A groove in the eye:
for a sign to be
kept, taken through the darkness,
animated by the sand (or the ice?) of a time
forever strange, and even stranger,
tuned as a mute
consonant that vibrates.” 

Paul Celan.

The clouds are like an open wound in this Saturday afternoon sky that is all too icy. “The Future of Memory,” a regional project driven by the Goethe-Institut, is about to begin at the ESMA Memory Site Museum. The first explorations of this artistic research are deployed in each of the “Episodes,” the performing tour, and the work in progress. Artists and curators Gabriela Golder, Marcelo Brodsky, Mariano Speratti, and the Etcetera collective, comprising Loreto Garín Guzmán and Federico Zukerfeld, are working in this project. Alejandra Naftal, the director of this museum, which was inaugurated in May 2015, welcomes the public in one of the rooms where the Officers Casino used to operate at the Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics. Naftal—paraphrasing Walter Benjamin—warns that “the light of the past [should be used] to illuminate the present in a new way.” Uwe Mohr, director of the Goethe-Institut, mentions that he grew up in a country where “terrible acts” were committed against humanity. “The question is always how to live with the past,” Mohr adds. “The most important thing is not to forget.”

“It’s not easy for me to make a presentation in this somewhat gloomy joint, not only because of the external environment, but because of what happened here,” photographer Marcelo Brodsky admits with anger hiding in his tongue. The gray desolation of the cement ceiling seems to collapse on our heads and threatens to crush us. The photographer and visual artist is sitting a few inches from one of the concrete columns “The Basement” has. “The Basement,” the nickname given by the oppressors to Sector 4, was the first and last place the 5,000 people who were detained-disappeared went through while at ESMA. The 17-hectare plot was ceded by the City Council of Buenos Aires to the Ministry of Navy to be used as a military training facility. Since the coup that took place on March 24, 1976, a clandestine center for detention, torture, and extermination operated in parallel in this educational headquarters. It was one of the most emblematic facilities in a network comprising more than 500 centers that operated throughout the country. This “joint” used to house the infirmary, where those who were “transferred”—a euphemism for those who would be thrown from airplanes into the waters of the La Plata river—were injected with Sodium Penthotal before the “death flights.” Fernando, Brodsky’s brother, arrived at this basement on August 14, 1979.

As if present and past were amalgamated into a single level in this “Live Archive” proposed by the artist, the face of Fernando or “Nando”—the second from the left on the picture—shows traces of torture in a muted gesture of pain. Behind these black and white photos, there’s a story. Victor Basterra, a graphic artist and militant in the Peronismo de Base group, was kidnapped along with his wife and their newborn daughter, in August 1979. In 1983, while still detained-disappeared at ESMA, he found a picture of his own face that had been taken by the oppressor-disappearer system, against the same wall where all detainees were photographed. He put his hand in that pile of images and pulled out what he could at random. “I kept all the negatives that I could grab, I hid them between my belly and my trousers, put them right there, near my balls.” Marcelo reads a text written especially for his book Memory Under Construction. The debate on ESMA (2005). Fernando’s photo was among the eleven pictures saved from the fire.

Marcelo recalls the act of resistance involving the recording of photographic images of a Nazi detention and extermination camp. It was four photographs taken by members of the Sonderkommando—a special group of prisoners who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria of the Nazi concentration camps—of Crematorium V at Auschwitz, with the goal of bearing witness to what had happened. For every photo of his brother, he reads a text he wrote. There is a series of images titled “Playing Death.” “We’re in Yeiporá, Billy’s farm. I’m wearing a red sweater and Fernando is wearing a dark one. We play pretend, we pretend that we kill each other with a bow and arrow. The arrows hit the target precisely. We fall down heavily, and we die almost together, me first; however, it looked like he was going to die before. We can’t fathom that it would only be ten years for one of us to really die. “Twenty-two is not an age to die,” Marcelo stresses. When we were twelve we played pretend, we pretended that we did it, we thought we were immortal...

“Black, black, black, black, black, black, and black...” Marcelo says while flipping through the seven black pages that open one of his books. Black is the color that this place brings to my mind.”

The image of Fernando taken here, thirty-eight years ago, has no end. Marcelo says that together with Basterra they went to Court Number 12, where ESMA cases are processed, to see the file. His brother’s picture appeared, now complete. “From the shoulders down, it continued towards the waist. And his shirt was visible. A torn garment, irregular, basic. A minimal shirt, wrinkled, wrapping a pubescent body after a torture session.” Marcelo reads “The T-shirt,” included in his book Good Memory (1997). The end of this story is a testimony thrown into the future: “The nine men said one thing to Basterra. One day they managed to meet with him with the complicity of a ‘good’ guard, their heads sticking out through the hole in those rooms. They asked him, ‘what will become of us.’ Silence. Victor didn’t know, he couldn’t even imagine what could become of them. He had succeeded in changing careers: now he was a photographer: they needed him to do something else, something more than just working. ‘Don’t let them take her from upstairs, Victor.’ That’s what the nine men said to him, in the dark. Don’t let them take her from upstairs.”
Goethe-Institut Buenos Aires
Air. Breathing some air is necessary. It’s necessary to get out of this lockdown, out of the grayness of this basement that disintegrates the spirit. Actor Mariano Speratti, in “Reverberations of the Future,” represents a Proustian voyager in search of lost time. He’s wearing an olive green jacket, a bag of the same color, and glasses. He roams outdoors, in the area where the “Letter to the Board Installation” is located. Suddenly he stops and pulls a shovel out of the bag. He digs and removes the soil. What is buried at the bottom of that well? What is it that must be dug up again and again, like a ritual that questions us as a society? The great hand of the actor finds a black case protected from humidity and the decay of time by a transparent sealed container. Mariano is the son of Horacio Speratti, a militant journalist from Montoneros and car enthusiast who was abducted from his repair shop in Florida, in the northern area of Greater Buenos Aires, on June 6, 1976, and was taken to ESMA. Since then, he remains missing.

Speratti opens the case. A fidget spinner, an anti-stress spinning toy that is popular among children, appears. Some of us laugh: we are Homo ludens and cannot survive without games. But there’s something else in the black case: a small electronic device with loop recordings. He pulls a small antenna out of the bag. Using it, he will attempt to amplify the sounds of something broken, something that comes back in frayed fragments, barely audible snippets of an infinite whisper. We’re in 2076—a child’s voice will tell us—, in the year of the 100th anniversary of the coup. “Ford Falcon, the Argentine classic,” an advertising slogan from 1978, brings goosebumps to more than one. This car was considered to be very reliable, and it soon became the dictatorship’s vehicle of choice to kidnap people. It was in those cars that bound, hooded, or blindfolded bodies of thousands of detained-disappeared people were loaded into the trunks or between the seats. “In Argentina there weren’t 30,000 missing; that was a lie built on a table to obtain benefits,” said Dario Lopérfido, then Minister of Culture of the City.

The noise of a plane interrupts the recording. We all get closer, slightly bending toward Mariano’s bag to recover the interrupted sounds. Vestiges of an excerpt from Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún, Buchenwald survivor, come to mind: “The real problem does not revolve around counting, regardless of the difficulties. The real problem is listening... Will they be willing to listen to our stories, even if we tell them correctly?“
“Disappeared people are a mystery,” says genocide Jorge Rafael Videla in 1979. They have no entity, they aren’t dead or alive, they are gone.”

The language of death can’t mumble the last word. Testimony on behalf of someone else is updated when reading letters written by political prisoners and exiles, from the collection “Letters of the Dictatorship” of the National Library. The wind stirs the branches of the trees and plucks the leaves as a random prelude for “There They Were, Dignified, invisible,” Gabriela Golder’s performance, which takes its title from a few verses by American poet T.S. Eliot. Patricia Borensztejn reads one of the letters she wrote to her parents from the Villa Devoto prison, where she was detained for six years. It does not sound like a letter written by a person deprived of their freedom. “We are going to perform a work by Alejandro Casona. I will play a character.” Her voice is infused with the enthusiasm of a teenager who discovers that playing other lives is like lightning in the midst of darkness. “The bad luck of my detention, at the end of ‘74, was actually good luck because we were legal prisoners, both myself and my husband,” Patricia explains after reading. “And on top of it, we were extremely lucky because the two of us left together, expelled to Barcelona, where we lived for many years, we had our babies, we made our life, and then we came back here.”

“The Memory of the Future, of Plunder and Exploitation,” is announced, megaphone in hand, by Federico Zukerfeld of the Etcetera collective, accompanied by the second group member, Loreto Garín Guzmán. “What will memory be when there is nothing left to extract? What will memory be when we have every last bit of mineral extracted from us, when the air is full of pesticides and the water is polluted with glyphosate? Who are the missing people that are emerging now, the victims of this tragedy?” Federico wonders, trying to piece together the links of a narrative chain where questions open silences and complicity.

The Etcetera collective, which ties past-present-future in “Drift through Extractive Memory,” invites people to march from the Human Rights square of the plot to the auditorium of the House of the Plaza de Mayo Grandmothers, with slogans that link crimes against humanity with extractivist despoilment. One of the banners demands the “safe return” of Santiago Maldonado, the young man who went missing on August 1st, after an operation conducted by the Gendarmerie inside the Lof Resistencia Cushamen Mapuche territory in the province of Chubut [his body was recently found, on October 17]. Loreto hands out banners with the names of the companies that got rich during the civil-military dictatorship: Loma Negra, Siderca, Sygenta, Swift, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Ingenio Ledesma, Las Marias, Grafa, and Grafanor, among others.

“The Museum of Neo-Extractivism is a museum that doesn’t exist, but does. What are the fetishes of the memory, what will remain, what will be remembered? Will anyone remember this in the future of the memory? How will we explain the fact that we had to feed ourselves with GMOs to the future generations?” The questions thrown by Federico have a political-artistic response. But there are definite limits. “It’s hard when one is denouncing corporations we buy from every day, intentionally or unintentionally,” the artist admits. Corporate responsibility is fashionable, so why couldn’t corporate complicity be fashionable? Why can’t we discuss who were the ones funding Operation Condor? Those remain in silence, we see them every day in advertisement, at the end of each TV show. Those are present now and forever. What will we do with the future of memory? Let’s seize this moment and seek justice for all the victims of the past and those of the present, and also for the victims of the future, for the people who are born with a malformation or with serious health problems, like cancer. This new genocide, which is happening now, does not discriminate, it doesn’t need to conduct an interrogation because we’re giving them all the information.”

Night falls at ESMA. The artists have thrown the first stones into the waters of memories that breathe future.