29 01 07

The Errorist International: Washed Up on a Beach in Australia

Brian Holmes

[Written for fun and newsprint publication on the occasion of the visit of Etcétera (a.k.a. the Errorist International) to faraway and downunder Australia, for the event “If you see something, say something,” which opened on Friday Jan. 26 and in which a ton of great lefto-anarchist artists are involved: .]


It is not the world as a thing in itself, but the world as imagination (as error) that is so rich in meaning, deep, wonderful, pregnant with happiness and unhappiness.”

 Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human


It was December 20, 2003 in Buenos Aires, the “heroic phase” of the Glorious Argentine Revolution was already over, and the politicians who were all supposed to go without even one remaining had all come back home to roost – including the neoliberal thief, former president Carlos Menem. A movement of young artists had begun making life-sized black-and-white photocopies of the colorful revolutionaries whose effigies, captured on film by innumerable photographers, now formed the folklore of an inexorable return to normal. Mounted on hinged wooden backings with snap-out sticks to prop them up in public, these were the Gente Armada, or “Army People.” But the Spanish title doubles the sense of “armed and dangerous” with the idea of a mechanical trick, so it could just as well be “Phony People.” Set up on the Plaza de Mayo like a fairground attraction, a group of them featured cut-out or missing heads, so that the passing admirer could pose behind them and become “part of the movement.” The artists, who had participated for years in the illegal, carnivalesque demonstrations against accomplices of the former dictatorship, had a slogan to accompany their satirical creation. In English it goes something like this: “We put our bodies on the line, you put your face in the picture.”

The bodies on the line were Etcétera, who think of themselves less as a group of artists and more as a movement of the surrealistic imagination. During the heyday of the anti-militarist escraches, from 1998 to 2001, they would stage delirious theatrical events in front of the houses of former murderers and torturers, as part of a larger project of denunciation carried out by the sons and daughters of those who disappeared in Argentina’s “dirty war” (H.I.J.O.S.: Children for Identity and Justice, against Oblivion and Silence). Politics has always been at the heart of their concerns, but protest tactics of the usual sort would never be enough for Etcétera, whose story is filled with unlikely inventions, improbable encounters. While seeking to squat an empty building for their activities, the collective happened upon the abandoned premises of the former Argonauta publishing house founded by the surrealist Juan Andralis, filled with dusty books, photographs, images, paintings, sculptures, costumes and old mannequins from the 1930s-40s. It was a turning point, a moment of "objective chance," just as Marcel Duchamp had described it. They built up a library, a darkroom, a studio and a small theater with seats recovered from an old cinema, and they used the materials around them as the accessories of a unique aesthetic, somewhere between the guerrillas of the 1970s and the “gay science” of a Nietzschean future. Their relation to the public became clear when they created the Niño Globalizado (Globalized Boy), with a hand-pump that the art audience could use to bloat the child’s belly into a distended globe of hunger. But that was only one station on a longer journey. The point was to develop an art as poetically unpredictable as a dream, and then hurl it like a football into an unbelievable reality.

One of their early protest pieces was the satirical soccer match, "Argentina vs. Argentina," held before the home of the former dictator, General Galtieri, in June of 1998 during the World Cup pitting Argentina against England. It recalled the waste of life in the Malvinas war under the direct command of Galtieri, but also the shame of the 1978 World Cup, held in Argentina beneath the spotlights of the media even while torture and assassination continued off camera. The mock soccer match reached its conclusion when a member of H.I.J.O.S. kicked a penalty ball full of red paint into the former dictator's house, triggering the climax of the public denunciation. Video recordings show the paint spattering onto the hats of police lined up in rows around the building. At other escraches, like the one against Dr. Raúl Sánchez Ruiz, the Etcétera performance served as a lure, a decoy, distracting the attention of the police at a critical moment. It's impressive to realize that interventions like this unfolded in Argentina at the exact time when groups such as Reclaim the Streets were inventing the carnivalesque demonstrations of the antiglobalization movement. In this case, the political carnival would culminate in a national insurrection.

After the revolt of December 20 and 21, 2001, the streets of Buenos Aires and all of Argentina became an open theater of action, even as the escrache generalized into the major form of political demonstration. Etcétera fulfilled some of their wildest dreams at this time, including Otra realidad es posible (Another Reality Is Possible), in which they dressed up as a kind of medieval troupe of knives and forks with tin-pot helmets and silvery shields, comically attacking transnational corporations like McDonalds, YPF and Shell with the oversized tableware they had made in an occupied aluminum factory. The riot-performance recalled the hunger stalking the provinces; but it also represented a fusion between the pot-banging middle-classes and the militant piqueteros armed with wooden sticks and shields. Their most outlandish event was the Mierdazo, in February 2002, when they invited people to hurl bags of shit and rotting vegetables at the Congress building and to "crap on the system" during the vote of the 2002 national budget. The action had been approved by due process in the inter-barrio assembly and was destined to a huge popular success, leading to a similar assault on transnational banks like HSBC. Television news clips – often the only trace of Etcétera performances, since the group was more concerned with acting than recording – portray the protest scenario on the congressional steps beneath the caption, "Algo Huele Mal" (something really stinks). “Is this your form of protest?” asked the man with the TV camera. “Yes, because they treat us like shit,” replied an anonymous woman who spoke the blatant truth for everyone.

Those days of the truth are gone, however, “cleaned up” by the return of the politicians and the police; and now we have all become “phony people,” wandering around the world circus, connected by wires and whispers, watching, wondering, waiting for the next lucky chance. Maybe Etcétera realized this around the time when they photocopied me into the Gente Armada, shrunken down to the size of a dwarf, with a copy of the journal Multitudes in my hands and an even more diminutive Karl Marx as a sidekick. But the return of the police and the politicians has not stopped people from protesting, nor Etcétera from stumbling into more improbable encounters. Such was the case on another day of celebration, November 5, 2005, when the President of the World Mr. G.W. Bush came flying to the city of Mar del Plata in Argentina for the failed Fourth Summit of the Free Trade Area of the Americas – one of the biggest mistakes of an administration that has made them its specialty. U.S. Marines were directing traffic and people in a supposedly sovereign country, while on the other side of the fence, Chavez and Maradona worked up their worshipers to an anti-imperial frenzy, tossing around the name of G.W. Bush like a political football. Out under the sun on a peaceful beach, far from the madding crowds of demonstrators, a strange commando appeared as if by magic from the sea, waving photocopied bazookas and machine guns with bright red pennants that said BANG! at the end of the barrel. Just as they reached the beach, took up their combat positions, and unfurled the banner that revealed their name and their creed – ERRORISTAS – who else but G.W. came flying through the skies, on his way to meet the refusal of his policies by Latin America? And what greater mistake could the Errorists make, if not to raise the photocopied guns in a pointed salute?

Sure enough, in a matter of minutes a whole platoon of policemen were there, dogmatic and unblinking, to find the Errorists laughing and lounging on the beach. “What’s the matter, can’t you see our weapons are made of cardboard?” they asked the officers. And so they were, manifestly. “It doesn’t matter, we have orders, this is serious,” the head cop replied, trying to hang on to some authority. “We were filming a scene in a movie, a parody of the media’s exaggerations of terrorism,” the Errorists explained in return. “But then you need a permit,” the policeman countered, sweating in the sun, with the locals incredulous all around, and the Errorists filming everything. Out came the permit, specially forged for the occasion. G.W. hadn’t even yet faced off against Chavez and Maradona, but the tide was already turning. And the best, amidst the banter and the jokes and the liberation of the locals “by mistake,” was when one of the Errorists asked the chief cop, “Is this what you always wanted when you were young, what you always dreamed of, to be a policeman?” He looked back at them, at the costumes and the props and the beach and the cameras, and he said, “Are you kidding? Me, I always wanted to be an actor!”

Play your parts, backwards or forwards, right-side up or up-side down, or leave them behind if you choose. And just imagine what might happen, if the Errorist International washed up by mistake on a beach in Australia.

Brian Holmes