– Autumn/Winter 2014

Yanomami, Let’s Talk

Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, Helena Vilalta

Yanomami relaxing in ceremonial attire, 1976—77. Photograph: Juan Downey

Juan Downey was an upper-middle-class Chilean intellectual who, like most South American intellectuals at the time, felt strong links with Europe and had sympathies for Cuba. Not surprisingly, upon graduating as an architect in 1961, he left Santiago for Madrid, Barcelona and later Paris, and only somewhat reluctantly did he accept, in 1965, an invitation to go to the US, where he might have been surprised to be considered Latin American. Upon his arrival in Washington DC, he experimented with all kinds of technologies — from robots to radio waves and photo-electric cells — to create interactive installations and performances, which attempted to visualise the systems of energy that, although invisible to the naked eye, define our physical, emotional and ideological environments. Developed for the US iteration of the landmark exhibition ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’, With Energy Beyond These Walls: A System of Two Sculptures (1969), for example, stages a dialogue between two sculptures and the urban environment outside the gallery: a roughly anthropomorphic, boxy, white sculpture equipped with sensors translates different sources of energy such as heat or radio waves into musical tones, which are, in turn, broadcast by an amplifier.1 As Downey began to experiment with time-based media such as dance and video, a technology which was just becoming available to artists at the time, personal interaction with these systems

  1. ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1 August—20 October 1968 and Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 16 July—31 August 1969, curated by Jasia Reichardt.

  2. Invisible Energy Dictates a Dance Concert was performed by Carmen Beuchat, Kitty Duane, Ana Maria Fuensalida, Victoria Larraín and Titi Lamadrid at Smithsonian Associates, Washington DC, 11 August 1969. It was re-created at the Cinematheque in New York in 1970, where Graciela Figueroa responded to the movements of another six dancers, who in turn responded to the environment within the building. Energy Fields was performed by Beuchat, Trisha Brown, Caroline Gooden, Suzanne Harris, Rachel Lew, Barbara Lloyd, Gordon Matta-Clark, Penelope Newcomb, Judith Padow, Gerald Schieber and Downey at artist-run space 112 Greene Street, New York, on 21 February 1972.

  3. Plato, The Republic (c.380 BCE, trans. Benjamin Jowett), New York: Cosimo Books, 2008, p.179.

  4. Juan Downey, ‘Architecture, Video, Telepathy: A Communications Utopia’ (1977), in Nuria Enguita Mayo and Juan Guardiola (ed.), Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls (exh. cat.), Valencia: Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 1998, p.34.

  5. James Harithas and David Ross, ‘“Offspring of My Soul”: Juan Downey’s Art of the 1960s and 70s’, in ibid., p.329.

  6. J. Downey, ‘Travelogues of Video Trans Americas, 1973—75’, quoted in ibid., p.330.

  7. These videos were later incorporated into several performances and installations, which explored the tension between the spatial continuity and the dislocation articulated in the tapes. In the performance Video Trans Americas De-Briefing Pyramid (1974), Downey suspended a dozen monitors from the ceiling to form a square, and placed another two monitors in its centre, one near to the ceiling and the other one on the floor, to create an octahedron based on the proportions of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Placed at the centre of the space, Beuchat performed a slow dance that resonated with the images of South American pyramids that Downey had recorded during his expeditions, which were broadcast to the monitors. But perhaps the most iconic and widely reproduced presentation of the series was the installation that Downey created for his exhibition ‘Video Trans Americas’ at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (4 June—4 July 1976). There Downey drew a blown-up map of South America on the gallery floor, upon which he placed two-channel versions of the footage he recorded, distributed geographically and signalling the height of each region via the height of the monitor plinths. An additional projection showed Moving (1974), a video that compiled footage from all the expeditions.

  8. J. Downey, ‘Travelogues of Video Trans Americas, 1973—75’, in N. Enguita Mayo and J. Guardiola (ed.), Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, op. cit., p.335. Another version of this text appears in his written travelogues from May 1975.

  9. Ibid., p.333.

  10. See Marshall Sahlins, ‘La Première société d’abondance’, Les Temps modernes, vol.268, 1968, pp.641—80.

  11. Excerpts from the videos produced by Video nas Aldeias can be viewed online at http://www.videonasaldeias.org.br/2009/index.php (last accessed on 13 August 2014).

  12. J. Downey, ‘Architecture, Video, Telepathy: A Communications Utopia’, op. cit., p.347.