The Past is not a Foreign Country




10 minutes reading

In the late 1960s, all over the world, workers and students demanded a radical change of ideas. Now, exactly fifty years on, the Argentinian artist and activist Marcelo Brodsky presents a compelling selection of archival images, taken from various sources, all related to the social movements of those years. First he collected photographs, depictions of 1968 protests, and then annotated them, thereby creating a fresh perspective on what are generally considered to be ‘historical events’.

It happened everywhere in 1968. In Chicago and in London, in Santiago de Chile and in Amsterdam, in Dhaka and in Rome. More freedom! Economic justice for all! Ban the bomb! Basta de violencia! La rue est à nous!

These and other ‘memes’ – many of which were also aimed against the war in Vietnam – were the articulation of a widely shared dissatisfaction, as citizens around the globe united on the streets and squares of their cities to demand a cultural makeover. More often than not, mass demonstrations that started peacefully were disrupted by violence. Protests were suppressed by local military and police forces, most often backed by the authorities of the state – who feared an end to the status quo.

The workers and students who actively opposed the established political system protested against pretty much anything that could jeopardise hope for a brighter future: militarism, nuclear weapons, social repression. Sometimes with anger, sometimes with irony, the social movements of ’68 suggested alternative perspectives; not only for the protesters, but for the planet at large. Indeed, the matters at stake did not always relate directly to personal circumstances. The degree of solidarity with people who lived elsewhere, in far worse conditions – who lacked freedom of speech and suffered violation of their civil rights – was high.

Within a growing awareness of mass media mechanisms, protesters were often smart enough to understand how the camera could magnify their actions. The Provos of Amsterdam, for example, clearly showed a certain intelligence when it came to the channelling of their ideals – like a ripple effect that occurs when you throw a stone in a pond. In fact, the Provos even directed photographers and television crews to designated areas from where a protest march would start, in return for a fee. Moreover, while taking pride in provoking the local authorities with their bold and belligerent tactics, the Provos also managed to attract the attention of the international press with their often playful ways of expressing dissidence.

Although diffuse and at times even self-contradictory in purpose, these kinds of activism were unified by a common enemy: the Establishment. Undermining illegitimate powers, while honouring humanity in its diversity, the next generation thus worked itself towards a new political agenda with growing confidence. However, what actually happened is not automatically how it is remembered. The ‘Sixties’ are stored in our collective memory, albeit mainly according to the ways in which this era has been represented in the media in the decades that followed. That is, as a radical political rupture, as a string of extreme events, or as an overly romanticised ‘momentum’ of absolute innocence. Either way, it leaves a false impression of reality.

In hindsight, the ‘Sixties’ are warped by dubious tales and exaggerated interpretations. Soon enough, populists found ways to mythologise traditional verities that allegedly flourished before what they see as ‘the era of riots, assassinations, and plain unrest’ – by overly romanticising the more orderly 1950s. However, even though the seismic shift of 1968 was followed by a conservative backlash, one significant wisdom has prevailed: those ideals could only stand a chance with the support of inventive disrupters, social artists who trigger others to take action too. Brodsky’s work, in that sense, is a refreshing antidote to contemporary cynicism.

Although slightly too young to have actively taken part (Marcelo was born in 1954), his personal footnotes to photographs of ’68 protests release new understandings of an eclectic mass of draft resisters, hippies, conscientious objectors, black and white, rich and poor, all united in their objection to the authorities. But also, significantly, of the meaning of memory. What is added with this ‘graffiti’ is a rupture of frozen times, a burst into the quintessential ‘Sixties’. It’s iconoclastic, but only to revive a certain faith in the potential power of visual art when it comes to the making of history. For what to make of a mediated past?

“When we are prevented from seeing [the past], we are being deprived of the history which belongs to us.” (John Berger, 1977). This notion – fear of the present leads to a mystification of the past – is very much in line with the intentions of Marcelo Brodsky, as his work is motivated by more than mere nostalgia. Instead of a complete appropriation, his subtle interventions are designed to ‘update’ the viewer’s perspective on certain key events that happened around 1968. Significantly, Brodsky not only dispatches the ‘decisive movements’ of a generation, he also reactivates the bygone to raise awareness about contemporary moral positions.

Fear of the present leads to a mystification of the past, but it also works the other way around. One of the first archival images of 1968 that Brodsky intervened with is of a peaceful demonstration in Mexico City. The original black and white photograph depicts an organised crowd walking to the main square. However, the handwritten comments (added with orange and red markers) give a darker context. Translated from Spanish, one reads: “Two months after this march, on October 2, the army and the police would carry out the massacre of Tlatelolco, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.” As is now common knowledge, ‘Tlatelolco’ happened less than two weeks before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. At least 200 citizens were killed by government forces, thus turning a non-violent protest into a public slaughter.

This tragic ‘event’ is still carved into the collective memory of the Mexicans; it’s a wound that opened again in 2014, when 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared after having been taken into custody in Iguala (in Guerrero district). Presumably they were killed after the police handed them over to a local crime syndicate. The exact circumstances of this ‘Night of Terror’ remain a mystery and facts are few, but what is without doubt is that these students commandeered buses heading to Mexico City in order to commemorate the anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968.

“If the killing of Tlateleco had been judged and those responsible had paid for the murders of the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Ayotzinapa would not have been possible” reads one of Brodsky’s comments. His added notes to the ‘Mexico ’68’ images – three are included in the book (p.2, pp.26-27 and the aforementioned on p.47) – should therefore clearly be understood as a reminder that the official culture of impunity and corruption still undercuts justice and accountability, which continues to stir the blood of so many people today, and not just elsewhere…

Many of the methods of symbolic protest as applied in 1968 actually revealed the degree to which the sources of power were corrupting their own discourse, albeit with mixed results. For one, the need to stay alert and to demonstrate a widely felt discordance with institutionalised structures has remained as urgent as ever. The 2016 US elections, to name just one prominent source of concern, have put student protests back into the spotlight, and the political climate in Europe demands a similar kind of response.

“Perhaps there are countries where things don’t work that way […] but such a half Asiatic rag-tag people as we are can unite only if there is force,” the right-wing prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, stated a few years ago. Instead of making excuses for this blatant self-hatred, Orbán then continued by declaring war against the ‘multicultural consumerist liberal’ society. In Poland, meanwhile, 60,000 nationalists marched through Warsaw on independence day in 2017, carrying far-right symbols and shouting xenophobic phrases. According to TVP, the Polish state television network broadcasting the conservative government’s line, it was a “great march of patriots”.

The list goes on. Extremist content, whether expressed by state officials in public or by anonymous fanatics connected to online hate groups, are widely shared and omnipresent. It is about time to wake up, in order to realise that our real enemies are not in some distant land and not people whose names we don’t know. In too many places in the world today, the alt-right is redoubling its efforts at youth recruitment, intensifying its rhetoric and calling for radical, individual action. Isn’t that ironic?

Eventually, the ’68 movements had an unprecedented impact on society, but the two main impulses that the counterculture of the ‘Sixties’ tried to combine into one – the libertarian and the spiritual – have split apart over the past decades, and the halves have hardened. Democracies are fragile, but they should also remain fluid. How to support that notion without having the public sphere function merely as a ventilation system, as some kind of anger management?

The mainstream media – albeit unintentionally – are currently fuelling a dark, perverse and deeply immoral fascination with extreme forms of ‘populism’. That is, the pictures of right-wing demonstrations as captured by photojournalists and camera crews somehow normalise the situation, or at least make us overly familiar with enhanced intimidations by reactionary movements. Could this not lead to the dreadful mistake of a society presupposing that these phenomena are inevitable and part of the democratic process?

Be it ‘New Left’ or ‘Alt-Right’, “all times of upheaval begin as surprises and end as clichés. Wondering where we stand in history, or even whether there exists a comprehensible history in which to stand, we grapple for ready-made coordinates. And so, as time passes, oversimplifications become steadily less resistible. All the big pictures tend to turn monochromatic.” These words by Todd Gitlin (author of ‘The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage’) serve as a warning but perhaps, I suggest here, they can also support creative reports on the process of democracy. For indeed, societies are not marked in stone, they are ongoing movements of making and breaking the rules.

For the same reason, photography shouldn’t be a ‘safe’ haven within the arts. Marcelo Brodsky seems to be aware of that and – by adding contextual footnotes to historical recordings – he has introduced a very engaging way of dealing with the danger of ‘fixation’. His obvious intermediations are essentially impressionistic, intuitive and perhaps even anti-journalistic, but this gives way to new interpretations of what has happened: a report on ideological forces that refuse to come to the surface by means of a more ‘traditional’ form of visual conduct.

The idea of pure objectivity has crumbled – we owe that much to the ‘Sixties’ – but what good has it done if it only leaves us frustrated with the impossibility of taking a stand on firm ground? Even though any kind of assumed unbiased and disinterested report should be denounced, subjective ‘world views’ also run the risk of ending up in absolute relativism. We, the people, need to validate our position, and the visual artists, among the people, can help coordinate this. ‘1968: The Fire of Ideas’ is doing just that, by bringing the potential force of global activism to light; by adding a reminder that reality is always many things at once, but also by addressing a clear angle when it comes to rear-viewing past events.

Brodsky’s subjective comments on the ideals as proclaimed in 1968 are not just a salute to the protesters of that time. They also serve as a reminder that the call for justice and emancipation is as urgent as ever, and in constant need of activation. Most importantly, the project is a proof of excellence in regards to ‘creative storytelling’ – an experimental yet essential form of reportage, as the mass media struggle to arrive at a truthful understanding of the past.