Radio Conversa (photo by Observatorio de Poéticas Sociales, courtesy the Goethe Institute)

BUENOS AIRES — Dictatorships and armed conflicts have been all too familiar in South America’s recent histories. To take stock of these experiences, in 2016 the Goethe Institut initiated a regional project in which artists were invited to reflect upon memory and its loss, generating a variety of projects in seven cities across the continent. Artists have tackled essential questions such as: What do we remember, as individuals and a society? And, what have we forgotten? How will we remember in the future? Is memory something fixed or continuously changing, shaped by the present? Thanks to the project, Montevideo, Santiago de Chile, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Bogotá, Lima, and Buenos Aires have become sites to rethink these histories and how they will be remembered in the future.

The project ‘The Future of Memory: Poetics of Memory and Forgetfulness in South America’ originated in Bogotá, just after the peace agreement was signed between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces a year and a half ago. The people of Colombia had suffered violence for several decades, leaving generations more divided than united, said Oscar Moreno Escarraga, one of the artists in the project, in an interview with the Deutsche Welle. The only way to counteract this is by talking to and knowing the other, Escarraga suggests with his project Radio Conversa. He assembled a simple house — based upon the dwellings that displaced people build — into a temporary radio station and travelled around the country with it, talking with local people about their memories, revealing Colombia’s social and cultural makeup.

In Lima, Peru, the Goethe facilitated a political theater class at the Universidad del Pacifico where the stage was used for 20 performances that channeled and grappled with recent social injustices. And in Montevideo the collective Hornero Migratorio collaborated with a school’s students and their families to reconstruct children’s games that no longer exist; they then displayed those into a jointly made song, so that these memories could be passed along to another generation.

Hornero Migratorio in Montevideo (image © Hornero Migratorio)

For nine months, a team of curators, artists, and human rights activists researched the memories of Vila Autodromo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, which was stripped of its population between 2014 and 2016 because of the Olympics and World Cup. By the end of this project, the former residents came up with the idea of a Museum of the Displaced, placing flags and sharing stories in their former place of dwelling.

Rio de Janeiro (image © Igor Vidor)

Twenty years ago, the public park Parque de la Memoria was created in Buenos Aires as a monument to victims of state terror. To celebrate this milestone, a more conventional exhibition, also titled The Future of Memory, opened last Saturday as part of the Goethe project. It features four very different artistic projects by local artists Marcelo Brodsky, Gabriela Golder, the Etcetera Group, and Mariano Sperrati. 

Extraction machine of Grupo Etcetera Federico Lo Bianco (image courtesy Parque de la Memoria)

At the exhibition’s opening, the local director of the Goethe Institute, Uwe Mohr, explained the reason behind the German involvement in stimulating these remembrances: “It is very important, also nowadays, to look at the past and learn from it. I grew up in Germany and when you are confronted with the terrible things that have happened in the name of your country, you have to deal and learn to come to terms with it. It remains an important subject, because it is a process. Its urgency comes with waves: currently right-wing movements are on the rise again in Germany and Europe, and we have to continuously look at the past to learn from it for the future and future generations.”

Mohr added that he was particularly enchanted by Gabriela Golder’s decision to incorporate children into her video installation “Letters.” Golder went through the archives of the National Library and selected letters written by imprisoned or exiled mothers to their children during Argentina’s dictatorship. They are read aloud by youngsters of the same age as the addressees. One of the readers was present and met the author of the letter she had read. “That encounter was the highlight of the project,” Golder shared.

Gabriela Golder, “Letters” (photo by Federico Lo Bianco, courtesy Parque de la Memoria)

Other artists in the exhibition similarly rescued archival material. Mariano Speratti used audio recordings, such as propaganda and publicity aired during the dictatorship, while Marcelo Brodsky researched the archive of CELS, an organization that has been collecting information on people who have disappeared since the 1970s. Brodsky excitedly explained that it’s the first time these documents have left the institute and are visible for a larger audience. “They are part of our cultural heritage. What we see here is all original — look: this is from September 1976!” he said, while pointing at a newspaper clipping noting the disappearance and killing of people in the streets of Buenos Aires.

A letter written by Marcelo’s Brodsky’s mother, when in exile, in dialogue with Golders work Federico Lo Bianco, (image courtesy Parque de la Memoria)

Overview of CELS Archive by Marcelo Brodsky (photo by Federido lo Bianco, courtesy Parque de la Memoria)

Tomorrow, the 24th of March, marks the day of Argentina’s military dictatorship, which began in 1976 and ended in 1983. Tomorrow also marks the march of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, most of whom are still looking for their disappeared children. Circling around the obelisk of the Plaza de Mayo square, the women wear white scarves with the names of their disappeared children embroidered on them and demand to know what happened.

(photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

(photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

However, this year, without much public input, the city government decided to renovate the square, which has served as an important living monument for the people of Buenos Aires. Instead of the spray painted scarves, which suggest temporality, the symbols of the Mothers will be set in black granite pavement. The new design sets the past in stone, monumentalizing it, as if hope for the Mothers has become futile.

(photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the mothers, still hoping to at least find her 41-year-old grandchild, could not find words: “I just can’t believe it … they are ruining the square.” With the plaza currently under construction, the path of the march has been partially obstructed.

In an email to Hyperallergic, the City Government said: “Since we started the constructions, we have been in touch with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and we decided that for the 24th of March, the Day of Memory, the passage from the obelisk to the governmental palace will remain open, so that the commemorative act can take place.” However, the City Government only spoke with a certain segment of the Mothers. Most were uninformed and expressed their unhappiness about the circumstances in the local media.

Plans for Plaza de Mayo (image courtesy the City Government of Buenos Aires)

Public squares are charged with historical memories. In Santiago, the Parque San Borja became the site of action. In 1973 censored books were burnt here, in 2012 a gay activist was killed at the same spot, and today young kids use the park to practice their Korean pop dance moves. What will be the future of this site? How to intervene? Last July, artists involved in the Goethe project gathered in the square and brought sound bites of other memory projects with them, such as the Uruguayan play song and the demolition sounds of Vila Autodomo, so that they became a part of the South American park.

Across these projects it becomes painfully clear how we’re still struggling to make the past visible and audible. But what is equally clear is that memory is definitely alive in South America.

General Osorio square in São Paulo (image © Pavio)

Read more about the Goethe Institut’s Future of Memory here

Silvia Rottenberg is a political scientist and art historian writing freelance from Buenos Aires, Argentina. She loves combining both fields in her projects and pieces. Having worked for years as the Buenos...