Essay Rodrigo Alonso, 09/2006

Andrés Denegri, from distance to closeness

Generally speaking, Andrés Denegri's audiovisual realm is built on the meeting of two opposite elements: on the one hand, we have distant, strange, fleeting images, and on the other, we sense an intimate, personal closeness with those images. 

In each of Denegri's works, the tension that arises out of such opposition is resolved in a different way. At times, distance becomes voyeurism, and intimacy turns into confession. At other times, the strangeness leads to a sort of hermetic character, such as when the work approaches everyday life situations or autobiographical data. His taste for clippings and details-which escape the wholeness of the visual field-usually finds its counterpart in the personal nature of the audiovisual material, and in the author's translation of his own private life.

This method of composition has manifested itself ever since his early works. Yo estoy aquí, colgado de la ventana (1997), for instance, features images of a girl watched from afar without knowing-probably through a window, as the title suggests-, combined with a simple animated love poem. The images of the girl take up small parts of the screen, but the framing clearly shows a remarkable distance between the girl and the camera that records her. These images seem to be the result of espionage, an authentic act of voyeurism, with the spectator as an accomplice. On the other hand, the poem conveys a high degree of intimacy, not only due to its content, but especially because it is handwritten, and in the first person. Distance and closeness merge in this first work, and that is the key to Denegri's entire work. 

Once again, III Momentos (1998) is a voyeuristic exercise in patience. The video combines three recordings of anonymous persons, captured through the open windows of their homes. Here, the distance of the people being watched manifests itself in the enlargement of the electronic plot which all but dissolves the figures. The overuse of zoom turns image surfaces into flickering, bright reticules. The absence of sound concentrates attention, inducing a contemplative, meditative, and intense perception. The scarcity of data on what takes place draws interest, multiplying the possible situations. The interest is also attracted by the strangeness in trite everyday actions, which slowly reveal themselves, creating a suspense that is absent from reality. The framing pulls out a narrative that isn't there, creating a narrator/camera eye that is active and present, and which definitely prompts reflection on the act of looking. 

One of the great strengths of Andrés Denegri's work is his ability to create a story using minimal elements. Cuando vuelvas vamos a ir a comer a Cantón (2001) is perhaps the best example of this feature. The video revolves around a small set of pictures, obsessively reframed and revised but never fully shown. Thus, the static support becomes dynamic, and its laconic mimicry injects life into the narration. Sound is fundamental to this work: the author's voice whispers words to someone who is presumably in the pictures, even though one can't tell exactly where that person is. The oral account is deeply intimate and emotional; it's a love confession, it's about meetings and farewells. Even though it is never anchored in the images, the need to provide a meaning to the work generates a connection between sound and vision. The cinematic convention that holds image and sound together is the sole warranty of a possible relationship between the two. When said convention is denied, the work breaks down into irreconcilable fragments.

Denegri enjoys pushing the boundaries of the relationship between image and sound, especially when a narrative association between the two seems evident. By watching his videos closely, we will notice that they usually originate from a split, often undisguised, between sound and image. In most cases, the off-screen voices are located in the foreground, very close, contrasting with often distant, disguised, or out-of-focus images. Thus, a sort of Kuleshov effect is established between sound and image: the closeness produces a meaning that seemed absent from the isolated parts. Consequently, image and sound maintain a certain autonomy that allows them to have an unequivocal relationship.

The same procedure is found in Uyuni (2005). Here, the images show deserted streets in a small, unidentified town, supposedly the Bolivian city that lends its name to the video. The takes are distant, blurry, the camera trembles almost all the time, adding up to an equally continuous dephasing effect. As the images pass by, a nearby couple talks off-screen. They are travelers staying over at Uyuni, discussing their different perceptions of the place: he seems comfortable there; she seems bored. The couple's argument builds a story along with edited images (originally recorded in Super-8 format), albeit from a plastic vantage point. The established conventions immediately link the words of the travelers to the place they are in, but they speak of a hotel, of restaurants, and of military offices, all of which remain unseen. Although the connection between words and images does function from the narrative point of view, it is not strictly secured in the syntactic construction of the work.

Between the lines, this attitude hints at the video's presumed index-like nature. According to Rosalind Krauss, the video has a feature common to photography, the fact that it is an index; this means it depends on the reality to which it alludes, by proximity. Denegri questions this manifest dependence by postulating, in opposition, an uncertainty principle that obscures the connection between the electronic recording and the reality on which it operates.

This procedure repeats itself in a set of works of documentary character. Even when resorting to direct recordings, the artist manages to disarticulate the immediate relationship between what we see and the documented fact, usually by means of forced or unusual points of view. The Luján video (2004) is paradigmatic in that sense. Unusual framings and excessively long takes draw the attention away from the recorded event-a religious procession-, and into the video's occurrence in itself. A considerable share of important action takes place out of the reach of the camera; as viewers, all we see are clues that force us to complete that which the image cannot convey in its entirety. 

Another key element in the formal language of Andrés Denegri's videos manifests itself here: his constant return to metonymy, i.e., a predilection for building an audiovisual account using fragments that refer to an absent entirety, with gaps left to be filled in by the viewer. 

Denegri demands a lot from his audience. Not only does he ask them to fulfill the intentional gaps left in his work but sometimes he also pushes the level of information to the limit, requiring audience participation in order to organize the discourse. The key procedures here are accumulation and superimposition. By exploring the various information channels of video to the fullest (image, sound, text, visual composition, graphic intervention, editing effects, etc.), the author offers the viewer a complex audiovisual structure, one that is rich in multiple readings, and which just won't boil down to a single storyline. 

That is the approach Denegri took to his documentary film about artist Oscar Bony (Acerca de Bony, 2005), a key figure in 1960s Argentinian art, with whom Denegri had contact a few years before his death. In the style of Godard, in La Chinoise or in Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Denegri superimposed different recordings of images, sound, and text, promoting shock, redundance, and contradiction. The result is a palimpsest of sorts, combining biographical and autographical accounts, aesthetic and philosophical reflections, opinions and concepts, all transmitted in a collage of everyday life, urban, family, and work situations. The compositional complexity echoes the complexity of the life of Bony, who was a controversial artist, sometimes marginalized, but surely seminal.

In recent years, Andrés Denegri has set out to produce some fully autobiographical works. Using photographs and home videos, the artist took up the task of rebuilding his own life, marked by an ambiguous relationship with his father, and by growing up under the last military dictatorship in Argentina. The two works that he produced up to now (the El ahogo video and the Un martes installation, both from 2006) are a bit hermetic, but both manage to produce a disturbing effect. As in all of his work, the ultimate meaning is up to the viewer. Here, as ever, Denegri resorts to his own imagination, but also to his ability to provide a structure to data which at first may seem disconnected, or even irrelevant. 

Despite his young age, Andrés Denegri is one of the most relevant and original artists in Argentinian video art. His work easily switches between fiction and documentary, biographical account and experimentation. He shows deep knowledge of the audiovisual media, full command over his aesthetic abilities, and meaning-construction techniques. But most of all, Denegri found in video a means to approach people and the world, a bridge to inner life and affection that can turn the distancing of media into emotional closeness.

Interview Eduardo de Jesus, 09/2006

The issue of space is a key aspect in the construction of artwork such as Cuando vuelvas vamos a ir a comer a Cantón, III Momentos, and Yo estoy aquí, colgado de la ventana. Is your work designed to reflect on issues typical of contemporary space?

The primary goal of those videos was not reflecting on the problematic of contemporary space, that was never my approach to making videos. Having said that, though, the issue does interest me in a particular way, therefore it is only natural that the subject comes up in most of my works. First and foremost, I think my videos tackle the issue of the city, which is perhaps more of a modern problem than a contemporary one. The city is an important concept in Uyuni, and it's the foundation for Duchamp; Buenos Aires no existe, in which a timeless city is built in the creative gaze of Marcel Duchamp, proposing a direct link between the Frenchman's artistic output in the months he lived in Buenos Aires, and the city's urban features.

Big cities seem like very aesthetically rich places to me, especially at night. In the catalogue text for the Sortilegio exhibition I explained that, as a child, I would sit in the dark and look for hours on end at an aquarium, which was later replaced by a TV set, and then a window, through which I saw Buenos Aires: “...I have dozens of windows in front of me. The bright rectangle stands out against a neutral background. They laugh, although I can't hear them. I feel the same way I did as a child. They know I am in darkness. They notice me in each and every window in front of them. I can even see myself in the neighboring shades. I see Buenos Aires as a big video installation, its monitors filled with fish. Window-television. Window-aquarium. Whatever.”* This text accompanied Ventanas, a version of III Momentos, a video installation designed precisely to be projected onto the side walls of buildings, usually destined to advertising, thus creating a link between daily images, including some quite intimate ones, and the public space.

III Momentos might be about brief scenes from other people's lives, upon which we can build a world. In the cities, we can find ourselves surrounded by fictions under permanent construction. All we see is one scene, the rest is “deframing” (Bonitzer) and, viewed from that perspective, it can turn us from observers to creators. Here, the work tackles a fundamental issue in urban space: we are always close to the others, we can see them. Cuando vuelvas vamos a ir a comer a Cantón is a love letter. The space it deals with is distance. She is far away, he misses her. An approximation is attempted through memory, by using the four pictures that comprise the video. The space is fragmented, as is the body: it is a recollection that brings sensations back. The concrete spatial reference in the video is Cantón, a typical Buenos Aires Chinese restaurant. 

Yo estoy aquí, colgado de la ventana was my first video, and I must confess the fragmentation and the baroqueness in it might have a lot to do with the fascination surrounding the advent of Adobe Première in the 1990s. Add to that a strong and not quite filtered-down influence of great videomakers such as Larcher, Toti, or Greenaway. I was ecstatic with their videos, and to me it had to do with overmanipulating the images. Anyway, Yo estoy aquí...manages to build a type of fiction that deals with the issue of distance between bodies in the urban space. He is consumed with desire for her, she is so close that he can see her undressing herself when she comes home, and he even witnesses her having sex with another man. She lives in a window in front of his own, and yet she's unattainable. 

How did you come about the perception of space as presented in Uyuni? Did the piece start out as a video or as an installation?

I had been traveling through northern Argentina and all over Bolivia, and throughout the whole trip, the only time I handled my camera was in order to store it in the middle of other stuff in my backpack, going from town to town. I arrived in the city of Uyuni already planning the trip back, I would just spend the night and take the train to Villazón. But the train never left; some protesting miners blocked the railway. Each morning I'd walk up to the station, and they would either tell me the train would leave that afternoon, or else the next day. But the train never did leave, so after a few days I left Uyuni in a pickup truck, loaded with people and stuff, and despite the fact that there was no road whatsoever, they promised to get me to another town from where I could continue my trip.
During the five or six days I spent in that town, I walked. I couldn't understand the logic of the place: disproportionately large streets with no traffic at all. I was only able to overcome my own judgment regarding the functionality of space there by framing those avenues, converting them into landscapes. After being transformed into images, the incoherence of space in Uyuni proved aesthetically valuable. I dedicated a few afternoons to recording the Uyuni street corners, and after the end of my trip, I put those images away for years, until I wrote a fictional text about a dialogue between a man and a woman passing through Uyuni. Each of them builds up a completely different city. The formats of the moving images correspond to two points of view: he and she, video and Super 8. I tried to get the same framings in filmic and electronic images, but that's impossible. Incompatibilities in frame proportion, duration speed, and focal depth generate different representations of the same space. Those two images coexist throughout the entire video, with various degrees of opaqueness. In some moments, cinema prevails, in others, video does, and there are cases in which it's hard to tell, in an image, what came from which support. That's how you approach space from a multifaceted point of view, one and many at the same time.

Uyuni started out as a video, but soon the possibility of positioning it in space potentialized the approach of multiple readings upon which the place is based. The technique of working with both filmic and electronic image to produce a single image is duplicated on two screens. That which might have been interpreted earlier as his or her sight, is now telling us that each sight is unique unto itself. The proposition here is that space, such as a text, is not unique, even for a single observer. 

In the catalogue for the exhibition you had with Gabriela Golder and Silvia Rivas in Buenos Aires, you mentioned space as ideology. Is this concept more apparent in Uyuni, the installation, or in the video version? Or is this a feature inherent in the way you record images?

To understand ideology as a space in which men live and based on which they think, rather than something that is thought up by men, is a model proposed by Paul Ricoeur, an author I stumbled upon through a text by Graciela Fernandes Toledo. It is interesting to couple that idea with the writings of Frederic Jameson, as follows: “Space-postmodern hyperspace-has finally managed to transcend the capabilities of individual human bodies in order to position itself, to put its immediate surroundings into perspective, and to determine its position cognitively in an external model that can be mapped.” The impossibility of knowing where I stand hampers me from being aware of my own ideology; I don't know where I am thinking from. In that sense, it's easy to understand capitalism as the nature of human beings, since it is the root of the turbulence that hinders the creation of spatial references, thus establishing itself as the only possible space. 

The place from which I speak or think is also the place from which I see and create an image. Being a filmmaker, that is essential to me, because of the things I say and do to the images of the others. I have studied cinema, I was taught how to make a movie, and confronting that model was a painful process. First off, I understood that what existed was not a cinema language, but rather a production model. Then, I understood that the model wasn't about how to do, but rather where to do it from: the industrial model of film production is an ideological stance. I prefer to stay away from it.

In Uyuni, the issue of space is featured as subject matter; the place from which space presents itself to each of the characters, which precedes image, is ideology. Seeing things from different places entails seeing different things, and that's what happens to the characters in Uyuni; what their sights generate is not their ideology, but rather the result of their ideology. 

In your most recent work, El ahogo, as well as in pieces such as Cuando vuelvas vamos a ir a comer a Cantón, photography is the starting point for the construction of image in motion. How do you see this intersection between different image-capturing media in your work?

I use photography in order to reflect on the past. It relates to memory in a very different way than video does, it's much more poignant and deep. This cultural aspect seems part of its nature. “Photography is full evidence, charged, as if it caricatured not the figure it represents (it's precisely the opposite), but rather its very existence. Image, according to phenomenology, is the absence of objects. Now, in photography, what I establish is not just the absence of the object; it is, through the same motion, the same equality with absence, that the object has existed and been where I now see it.”** 

In El ahogo, I worked with photographs and Super 8, the latter represents memories, more specifically memories of the 1970s. That is essential to the issue under discussion, because, since the subject matter is related to the photos, they become historical documents, more than simple memories. My videos have a strong narrative component, and every information provided by the support is a constituent part of a possible account. In Cuando vuelvas...something similar takes place; as I said before, images, photographs are updated memories. 
I believe that's the value I find in using different supports, cultural elements inherent in each technology, which are not the only possible combination of different media, but provide me with points of view upon which I can build a fully atomized account. 

Poems, plotted texts, speech dictating the rhythm of the edit. What is the importance of textual elements in your work?

Text is central to some of my work, but it's always closely tied to image; I try to ensure that the finished work is fully audiovisual, with no prevalence of textual elements. Text often plays the role of music. In my entirely free-structured proposals, music, as well as text, often resolves the big challenge of going ahead, of advancing. Maybe that's why I never use music in my videos; music is too strong an artistic expression, and in many cases it subjugates the image, converting itself into an invisible skeleton that holds the entire piece together, and becoming the only element that leads it further. I try to make that problematic very present when I work on my videos. In Cuando vuelvas...image follows the rhythm of voice, but I believe they merge into a single experience. He who speaks remembers, and image approaches tactile sensations related to those memories, those haptic images (Deleuze), building value along with the text, on the same level, demanding an audiovision (Chion). This takes place in Uyuni as well: images say as much as words do, or more; the image speaks of the ones we listen to as they speak, and it does so on a reflective level. Text never precedes image. All my works start from image, it is the first step; I might find it in some space (Uyuni), in some bodies (III Momentos), a recollection (Cuando vuelvas...), a creative gesture (Instante Bony), a physical sensation related to a personal story (El ahogo) that is turned into image; in some cases, text emerges out of those images, but it's always afterwards.

Filmmakers such as Ivan Marino, Mariela Yeregui, Gabriela Golder, Silvia Rivas, Jorge La Ferla, Gustavo Galuppo, Marcello Mercado, and many others form a powerful electronic art scene in Argentina. As curator and director of an art promotion center, how do you regard that production? What are its lines of force and specific features?

I believe the Argentinian video output is extremely heterogeneous. This diversity, which I see as very positive, prevents us from making generalized judgements. We should be able to tackle the issue case-by-case, and that would require much more space than provided by these lines. I'd like to use this space to make clear that, despite the existence of some filmmakers with very interesting approaches, there is no solid, consistent production. There are many videos, but few are the result of a reflexive, consistent creative process. The young scene seems to be the most deficient one. They're unable to process the whole MTV thing, and the 'flash' aesthetics throws them off. By the time they get to college, most students are utterly defenseless in the face of image, completely vulnerable to the corporate media discourse, and unable to engage in critical confrontation with it in any level whatsoever. After some time in college, the situation doesn't change much. Ten years of "menenism" have left their mark [Denegri refers to Argentinean president Carlos Menem's double mandate]. And it shows in their work. I believe that, in Argentina, we must pay much attention to this alarming situation, and work on turning students into free creators, rather than just useful employees.

* Denegri, Andrés, in Rizzo, Patrícia (curator), Sortilegio (Buenos Aires: Fondo Nacional de las Artes, 2001).
** Barthes, Roland, La Câmara Lúcida [The Lucid Camera] (Buenos Aires: Paidos, 2003).

Comment biography Eduardo de Jesus, 09/2006

Andrés Denegri (Buenos Aires, 1975) is part of the powerful Argentinian electronic art scene, alongside artists such as Marcello Mercado, Mariela Yeregui, Gabriela Golder, Ivan Marino, Gustavo Romano, and Gustavo Gallupo, among many others. The prominence of electronic art in Argentina is not only due to the quality of the artwork but also to the tireless action of curators, professors, and theoreticians such as Jorge La Ferla, Graciela Taquini, and Rodrigo Alonso, who have been mapping out the local production through exhibitions and publications. 

Like other Argentinian artists, Denegri travels through the many possibilities of the audiovisual realm. The holder of a degree in film direction from Universidad del Cine, he splits his time between an intense artistic output (of videos, installations, documentary films, and experimental TV shows; Denegri does VJ work, as well, for the Tekhne electronic group), plus academic and curatorial activities. He also works on fostering independent video and new media productions in Latin America. Together with Gabriela Golder, he runs Continente - Investigation Center for the Development of Audiovisual Creation, a branch of Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero. 

Denegri started experimenting with audiovisual production development early on in his career, between 1997 and 2002, a period during which he managed the cinema, video, and multimedia department at Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas. He began producing even before he earned his degree. Ever since his early works, such as Yo estoy aquí, colgado de la ventana (1997) or Cuando vuelvas vamos a ir a comer a Cantón (2001), Denegri stood out for his unique use of editing tools. Often oriented towards formal research, either based on photographs, or almost still images similar to those of surveillance cameras, Denegri's videos restore movement to photographs through editing, thus providing them with new meanings.

The photographs shown in the Cuando vuelvas...hide a face, while a whispering voice reads a love letter, widening the meaning of the image, creating tension between the intimate and the public. This confrontation would later reappear in other works, in many different ways, juxtaposing near and far, public and private, reality and fantasy. Acerca de Bony (2004), about artist Oscar Bony, a central figure in 1960s Argentinian artistic production, once again uses almost still images, associated with noise (shots and projection sounds) and a series of contradictions and paradoxes, building up a complex situation that is very much in keeping with the world of Bony. 

The work is also exemplary of Denegri's strong ties with documentary film production, and of the way in which he operates transitions between various genres. His documentary films and TV shows (Duchamp; Buenos Aires no existe, 2005) incorporate formal aspects typical of his more experimental, video art-oriented works. Juego de Manos (1999), done in partnership with artist and Professor Matilde Marín, and winner of the best audiovisual work award presented by the Argentinian Art Critics Association, Viridiana (2001), and the feature film Luján (2004), about the annual pilgrimage of followers from Buenos Aires to the Basilica of Our Lady of Luján, patron saint of Argentina, are increasingly mature, but no less experimental forays into documentary work. 

The experimental fiction Uyuni (2005), the subject of this edition, resumes the tension between different places and spheres, which Denegri reinforces by associating each of the two main characters with a different image quality (video, film). Photography reappears in El ahogo (2006) with another purpose, more linked to the exploration of memory. In this delicate video, Denegri works with domestic, family images, restoring their motion through sophisticated editing, which seems to retrieve the dispersive motion of memory itself. By overlapping images of Argentina's political memories, once again he seems to use formal and conceptual procedures in order to borrow elements from distant realms and create tension, in this case, between collective and family memories. 

Personal and collective memories-of a same nature-are the theme to one of Denegri's most important curatorships ever, done in partnership with Gabriela Golder: the recent Ejercicios de Memoria - Reflexiones sobre el horror a 30 años del golpe (1976-2006), which featured the work of eighteen artists regarding their personal memories of the military dictatorship in Argentina, and was carried out at the Museo de la Universidad de Tres de Febrero, Buenos Aires.

Bibliographical references

Website of the nonprofit organization run by Andrés Denegri and Gabriela Golder, devoted to fostering independent production using new media in Argentina and other Latin American countries. Linked to Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero, the organization emphasizes experimental artwork and views that set themselves apart from “audiovisual language stereotypes.” Their main activity is the organization of thematic exhibitions.

Artist contact and bio, plus the presentations of Uyuni in the 15th Videobrasil (2005) and in the Special Selection of Videobrasil on Tour 2006-2007.