– Autumn/Winter 2011

TROPICAMP: Some Notes on Hélio Oiticica’s 1971 Text

Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz

In his programmatic text ‘Blockexperiments in Cosmococa — program in progress’ (1973), Hélio Oiticica, probably Brazil’s most famous twentieth-century artist, describes the work of US film-maker and performance artist Jack Smith as the ‘precursor’ of his cocaine slide-show environments, the ‘Cosmococas’.1 Highlighting the importance of Smith and Mario Montez, an actor and icon of the queer film and theatre scene, for New York’s underground in the 1960s and beginning of the 70s, Oiticica developed the term ‘tropicamp’ in 1971 to characterise a resistant element in the gradual commercialisation of queer aesthetics at the time. His text ‘MARIO MONTEZ, TROPICAMP’ from that year is an exemplary description of an attitude that is traceable in Oiticica’s own work from the early 1960s onwards, and which would become overt in his later work. One might consider the notion of ‘tropicamp’ as a well-put critique of how consumerism was expanding into the field of avant-garde art that he encountered in New York.2 Indeed, in the last twenty years, the politicised art-historical reception of 1960s and 70s avant-gardes has used Oiticica’s political opposition to culturally imperialistic tendencies as a crucial paradigm. Yet the last period of his artistic activity, before he died in 1980, continues to be held in low critical esteem. For example in his recent Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (2007), the Uruguayan artist and author Luis Camnitzer concludes his otherwise laudatory writing on Oiticica with an unexpectedly negative remark: ‘After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, Oiticica moved to New York (1970—78), where he continued working on his Parangolé series and other projects. Inspired by the disco and drug scene,

  1. See Hélio Oiticica, ‘Blockexperiments in Cosmococa — programa in progress’. The text has been printed in at least three different publications: Projeto Hélio Oiticica et al. (ed.), Hélio Oiticica (exh. cat.),
    Paris and Rotterdam: Jeu de Paume and Witte de With, 1992; Carlos Basualdo (ed.), Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-Cinemas (exh. cat.), Columbus and Cologne: Wexner Center and Kölnischer Kunstverein, 2001;

    H. Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, COSMOCOCA PROGRAMA IN PROGRESS, Buenos Aires and Belo Horizonte: Fundación E. Constantini and Fundacion de Arte Comtemporaneo Inhotim, 2007. The English version as translated by Oiticica is held in the digital archive of the Projeto Hélio Oiticica Rio de Janeiro (henceforth PHO) as Doc #0301.74-a-p1 -0301.74-a-p14. 

  2. See PHO Doc #0271.71, ‘anotaçoes para serem traduzidas para ingles: para uma próxima publicaçao’,
    1 September 1971. This text has been translated into English in H. Oiticica, ‘Notes to Be Translated to English: For a Future Publication’ (trans. Ben Kohn), in Paula Braga (ed.), Fios Soltos. A Arte de Hélio Oiticica, São Paolo: Perspectiva, 2008. ee PHO Doc #0271.71, ‘anotaçoes para serem traduzidas para ingles: para uma próxima publicaçao’,
    1 September 1971. This text has been translated into English in H. Oiticica, ‘Notes to Be Translated to English: For a Future Publication’ (trans. Ben Kohn), in Paula Braga (ed.), Fios Soltos. A Arte de Hélio Oiticica, São Paolo: Perspectiva, 2008. 
  3. See Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, p.230. 
  4. See Mari Carmen Ramírez (ed.), Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color (exh. cat.), London: Tate Publishing, 2007, p.18. Ramírez’s approach to Oiticica’s oeuvre was considered so incongruous by the Projeto Hélio Oiticica, the family and estate management, that the originally planned second part of the retrospective never took place. The controversy, which also led several art historians and artists to take sides in

    the dispute, is outlined in a video recording of a panel held in 2007 at Tate Modern. The panel can be watched in full at http://channel.tate.org.uk/#media:/media/37108805001/24910068001&list:/ media/37108805001&context:/channel/talks-and-symposia?p=5&sort=popularity&year=2007
    (last accessed on 30 May 2011). 

  5. See C. Basualdo, ‘Waiting for the Internal Sun: Notes on Hélio Oiticica’s Quasi-Cinemas’, in C. Basualdo (ed.), Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-Cinemas, op. cit., pp.39—40. 
  6. See Ferreira Gullar 'Theory of the Non-Object', translated by Michael Asbury and followed by his essay "Neoconcretism and Minimalism: Cosmopolitanism at a Local Level and a Canonical Provincialism', in 'Cosmopolitan Modernisms', ed. Kobena Mercer, London: Iniva, 2005, pp.168-89. 

  7. See Caetano Veloso, Verade Tropical, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997, p.188. Oiticica’s Tropicália was presented for the first time in 1967, during the opening of the exhibition ‘Nuova Objetividade Brasiliera’ at the Museo de Arte Moderna (MAM) in Rio de Janeiro, which also featured works by Lygia Pape and Lygia Clark. Oiticica’s use of a TV continuously showing programmes in the installation should be considered against the backdrop of the importance of TV-streamed music festivals for social movements at that time. 

  8. Eu organizo o movimento / Eu oriento o carnaval / Eu inauguro o monumento no planalto central / Do país / Viva a Bossa-sa-sa!’ C. Veloso, ‘Tropicália’, 1968. All translations from the Portuguese the author’s. 
  9. An insightful collection of texts on Oiticica’s time in London, including a facsimile version of the exhibition catalogue of his Whitechapel Art Gallery solo show curated by Guy Brett, was published in 2007: Guy Brett and Luciano Figueiredo (ed.), Oiticica in London, London: Tate Publishing. 
  10. See H. Oiticica, ‘Brasil diarreia’, 1970, Doc #0328.70. Published in Cesar Oiticica Filho, Sergio Cohn and Ingrid Vieira (ed.), Encontros: Hélio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro: Azougue, 2009. 
  11. For a comprehensive description of Mario Montez’s performance in Screen Test #2, see Douglas Crimp’s seminal essay ‘Mario Montez, For Shame’, in Stephen M. Barber and David L. Clark (ed.), Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory, New York and London: Routledge, 2002. 
  12. Commissioned by the estate Projeto Hélio Oiticica in Rio de Janeiro, Cesar Oiticica Filho has presented fragments of Hélio Oiticica’s Super 8 footage on special occasions and is currently working — together with Vinicius Nascimento — on the compilation of an extensive archival film, which will also include ‘Héliotape’ recordings (dialogues with Augusto de Campos, Mario Montez and others and music) as an audio-track. The author would like to thank Cesar Oiticica Filho and Vinicius Nascimento for allowing him access to the material and their work. 
  13. On Oiticica’s writings during the New York period see the comprehensive book by Brazilian cultural critic and publicist Frederico Coelho, Livro ou Livro-Me. Os escritos babilônicos de Hélio Oiticica (1971— 1978), Rio de Janeiro: Editora da UERJ, 2010. 
  14. See letter to Luis Fernando Guimaraes, 11 April 1971, PHO Doc #1107.71-p.1 (original in Portuguese).    

  15. Letter to Lygia Clark, 2 August 1970 (original in Portuguese). Published in L. Figueiredo (ed.), Lygia

    Clark, Hélio Oiticica: Cartas 1964—1974, Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFRJ, 1996, pp.159—66. 

  16. Letter to L. Clark, 24 January 1972 (original in Portuguese). Published in L. Figueiredo (ed.), Lygia

    Clark, Hélio Oiticica, op. cit., pp.215—20. 

  17. For comprehensive descriptions and reflections on Oiticica’s ‘Babylonests’, see Victor Manuel

    Rodriguez’s outstanding work on the subject, ‘Cold War Legacies Otherwise: Latin American Art and Art History in Colonial Times’, unpublished doctoral thesis, Rochester, NY: School of Art and Sciences, University of Rochester, 2009. An excerpt has been published as ‘Eroiticica o Los muchachos de Oro de Babylonests’, ramona — revista de artes visuales, no.99, April 2010, pp.59—63. 

  18. The author would like to thank Sabeth Buchmann for her insightful analysis of Oiticica’s work towards implications of technology and the production of subjectivity. See S. Buchmann, Denken gegen das Denken. Produktion — Technologie — Subjektivität bei Sol LeWitt, Hélio Oiticica und Yvonne Rainer,

    Berlin: b_books, 2007, and ‘Leisure 73’ in Tanya Leighton (ed.), Art and the Moving Image, London: Tate Publishing in association with Afterall, 2008. 

  19. See Ariane Figueiredo, ‘Hélio Oiticica: Cronologia (1937—1980)’, in P. Braga (ed.), Fios Soltos. A Arte de

    Hélio Oiticica, op. cit., pp.291—303. 

  20. The abovementioned ‘Héliotapes’ consisted of a series of interviews and conversations Hélio Oiticica

    started in 1971. The hour-and-a-half-long conversation with Mario Montez, recorded on 1 September 1971 in Montez’s home in Brooklyn, can be considered part of the series. The author would like
    to thank Cesar Oiticica Filho and the Projeto Hélio Oiticica for supplying the recording. A full transcription of the interview will be introduced by the author and published in a forthcoming special issue of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, edited by Marc Siegel: ‘Jack Smith Today’. 

  21. See ‘Camp’, Charles Ludlam’s critical reply to Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’. Ludlam criticises Sontag’s unidirectional de-politicisation of the term, which includes defining camp in an essentialist manner and thus ascribing an idealistic value to specific objects. Ludlam remarks on Sontag’s reification of queer aesthetics, stating: ‘Susan Sontag really did a number on Camp by saying is was specific things [...] if you use the rule of Camp and Theater of the Ridiculous in the stock market,
    you could make a fortune. You buy when it’s low and nobody wants it, and then it goes up. If you buy when it’s high, you know it’s only going to go down.’ In Steven Samuels (ed.), Ridiculous Theater: Scourge of Human Folly: The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992, pp.225—27. The author would like to thank Marc Siegel for facilitating the original Ludlam text. 
  22. Several anecdotes about encounters between Oiticica and Smith can be found in Oiticica’s letters of 1971, for example to G. Brett, L. Clark and Waly Salomão. See, in particular, his letter to his long-time close friend Luis Fernando Guimaraes, 11 April 1971, PHO Doc #1107.71. 
  23. Letter to G. Brett, 16 March 1971, PHO Doc #1102.71 (original in English).    

  24. Letter to L.F. Guimaraes, 11 April 1971, PHO Doc #1107.71 (original in Portuguese).    

  25. Oiticica, however, remarks that Woodlawn never showed up, which led him to the conclusion that

    she might have found a ‘profitable’ place to stay for the night. Ibid. Another description of Woodlawn’s precarious living conditions is offered by D. Crimp in an interview: ‘Holly Woodlawn lived with me briefly during the time she was making Trash (1970), so I knew the experience from the other side, the side of a drag queen who was being exploited by the Factory.’ See Mathias Danbolt, ‘Front Room

    — Back Room: Interview with Douglas Crimp’, available at http://trikster.net/2/crimp/1.html

    (last accessed on 31 May 2011). 

  26. See ‘Héliotape’ (conversation with Mario Montez), 1 September 1971 (original in English).    

  27. Letter to Ivan Cardoso, 23 February 1971, PHO Doc #1096.71 (original in Portuguese).    

  28. Letter to G. Brett, 16 March 1971, op. cit.    

  29. Ibid.

  30. 'Live Film! Jack Smith! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World’ was presented from 28 October to

    1 November 2009 at Arsenal — Institute for Film and Video Art and HAU/Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. The programme was curated by Susanne Sachsse, Marc Siegel and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus.
    J.A. Suárez’s research presented on this occasion will be published in ‘Jack Smith Today’, Criticism, op. cit. For more on Mario Montez, see J.A. Suárez, ‘The Puerto Rican Lower East Side and the

    Queer Underground’, Grey Room, no.32, Summer 2008, pp.6—37. 

  31. H. Oiticica, ‘MARIO MONTEZ, TROPICAMP’ (1971), PHO Doc #0275.71, originally published

    in Portuguese in Presença, no.2, Rio de Janeiro 1971 (as cited in: Frederico Coelho, ‘Eu, brasileiro, confesso minha culpa e o meu pecado: cultura marginal no Brasil das décadas de 1960 e 1970’, Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2010, p.311). See also this issue, pp.16—21. 

  32. See M. Danbolt, ‘Front Room — Back Room', op. cit., http://www.trikster.net/2/crimp/5.html (last accessed on 1 August 2011).