Small town, incredible hell : visual arts, advertising, and mass media in the early democratic transition in Chile (1988-1994)




Vidal Valenzuela, Sebastian Andre

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Images and strategies from the world of advertising and the mass media had been deployed to critique the country’s socio-economic situation in the art of the 1960s and during the dictatorship (1973-1990). During the transition, however, those images and strategies began to acquire more complex and hybrid forms, and their respective boundaries became increasingly blurred. The cross-pollination between the artistic and mass media realms partly originated in the political and economic transformation from a socialist model to the neoliberal one consolidated by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. In this scenario, a significant number of artists, particularly those linked to neo-avant-garde practices, found in the alliance between art and advertising a central motif to criticize the dictatorial regime’s economic policies (privatization, reduction of trade barriers, deregulation, etc.). I argue that, when democracy returned, that group of artists continued performing art actions that connected these areas, but they now did so in order to criticize the continuation and solidification of neoliberal policies in the transition. “Small Town, Incredible Hell” sets out to make visible the mechanisms through which commercial systems and languages are revisited, re-imagined and critically appropriated by the visual arts in the democratic transition. With this objective, I analyze three paradigmatic cases that enable me to reflect on the complex dynamics between art, advertising and the mass media at this crucial moment in the cultural history of Chile: "La Franja del NO / The NO TV Campaign" (1988), the Chilean Pavilion at the Universal Exposition in Seville in 1992, and “La Escuela de Santiago / The School of Santiago.” I propose that these three cases point towards a chronology of events that suggests three initial stages of the early transition, each of which operates on the basis of the proliferation of commercial images in society. The first moment (La Franja de NO) focused its visual and publicity strategies on the affective notions of "enthusiasm" and "happiness," giving way to a period in which technological experiments of video art were harmoniously combined with the political desires of democratic and cultural restoration. The second moment (Chile Expo 92) centered on the notions of "appearance" and "spectacle" of the newly democratic country’s international image. In this period, the political ambition to insert Chile into the global market was paramount. Finally, I identify a third moment of the early transition (La Escuela de Santiago) that can be defined through the concepts of "revelation" and "denunciation." At that time, the conservatism and authoritarianism prevalent during the transition were questioned by a mail art project that revealed the fractures and incoherencies of political and cultural institutions still subordinated to the dictatorship’s legacy.



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