– Autumn/Winter 2019

Yanomami, Let’s Talk

Helena Vilalta, Manuela Carneiro da Cunha

The videotapes Juan Downey made during the time he and his family spent with the Yanomami in the late 1970s are marked by contradictions. The project is animated by a utopian belief in technology as a tool for social change, although the complex realities of Indigenous life are at times eclipsed by the artist’s longing for authenticity. Downey recounts mythical Yanomami tales with the authority of an insider yet ends up being the butt of the joke, as villagers laugh at his blunders. Alternately dramatising and under-mining primitivist desire, then, his work remains entangled with the ethnographic paradigm that it seeks to critique – a burden that contemporary approaches to Indigenous self-representation have decisively shrugged off. Four decades later, while noting the limitations of this model of collaboration, we might recognise the prescience of the question at the heart of Downey’s work: how can video technology serve as an interface to articulate relational identities in an interconnected world? — HV

Juan Downey, World Map, 1979, oil on canvas, 183 × 208cm

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 United States, where

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

  2. Invisible Energy Dictates a Dance Concert was performed by Carmen Beuchat, Kitty Duane, Ana Maria Fuensalida, Victoria Larraín and Titi Lamadrid as part of the Smithsonian Associates programme, Washington DC, 11 August 1969. It was recreated 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, 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’, 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.video
    nasaldeias.org.br/2009/index.php (last accessed on 4 June 2019).

  12. J. Downey, ‘Architecture, Video, Telepathy’, op. cit., p.347.