The Walls of Santiago: Social Revolution and Political Aesthetics in Contemporary Chile
(Berghahn Books, 2022)
I met up with Eric in a quiet cafe in Santiago roughly two months before Chilean social and political worlds were turned on their head. Eric, Terri, and their family had recently arrived in Santiago. I was in town briefly, speaking at local universities on my first book, and conducting research on my second book project, a history of public writing and dictatorship. We spoke of neighborhoods and schools and the prevalence of graffiti or rayado that was a mutual interest of ours. A couple of months later, I had returned to the United States to teach. Eric and Terri immersed themselves in a project to document the “walls of Santiago”—turning their expertise as interdisciplinary scholars of culture, politics, gender, literature, and history onto a political revolution playing out before them on the streets and walls of the city they were making home.
Camilo Trumper (RAIL): You speak of this as an “unplanned” book. How did this project begin? How did it develop? How did this shape your analysis?
Terri Gordon-Zolov: The book began as a collection of photographs. Eric and I were living in Santiago with our children when the social uprising erupted. Eric had a Fulbright to teach at a Chilean university, and I was doing research on contested sites of memory. The kids were enrolled in a bilingual school. Halfway through our stay, the city exploded—literally and figuratively. There were two triggers for what has become known as the Estallido Social or social explosion. The first was a minor one—a proposed metro rate hike which led students to “evade” the fare by hopping subway turnstiles. The second was a major one—the presence of the military in the street following a night of violence on October 18, 2019.
Eric Zolov: And the initial violence was itself explosive. Subway stations, public buses, and the supermarket chain Lider (owned by Walmart) were set on fire and vandalized. Who carried out these initial acts of violence still remains one of the unresolved questions of the Estallido. The subway system was decimated for months.
Gordon-Zolov: The president held an emergency press conference and said the country was “at war” with an unknown enemy. He called in the military and established a curfew. The schools were shut down, and many businesses were shuttered. The entrance to our local subway station was guarded by heavily armed soldiers. What was remarkable to us was that the entire country seemed to rise up in protest. There were massive demonstrations—peaceful demonstrations—and whole families in the streets. It was as if the people were saying, “Not again!” Slogans quickly appeared on the walls, mostly variations of “evade” and “No tenemos miedo” (“We are not afraid”). At the evening curfew, all you could hear across the city were the sounds of the cacerolazo (banging on pots and pans): -ta -ta, -ta -ta -ta.
Zolov: We stayed close to the apartment for the first few days, mostly waiting on lines for food. Everything felt unsettled. But then I ventured toward the heart of the city and was amazed by what I found on the walls. There was graffiti everywhere, iterations of evade but also other, really creative graphic responses in a whole range of mediums—posters, stencils, silk-screen prints. I remember coming back to the apartment and showing Terri the images. After that, we started taking turns taking photos: one of us would watch the kids while the other roamed the streets. We also began to take a more systematic approach, retracing our routes to document the changes in the graphics we had captured. We wrote an article for The Nation in November, really one of the first in English on what was happening. And as we accumulated all of these images, we started to decipher patterns emerging—thematic concerns but also different aesthetic strategies and techniques. The walls became our primary source documents. I was also buying newspapers every day and brought home this giant periodical collection that was super useful as we put the book together. The Chileans that we encountered were incredibly gracious and generous. Through chance, local contacts, and sheer good will, we were able to interview various artists and members of print collectives. I was expecting a certain level of anti-American hostility, given our country's nefarious role in overturning democracy in 1973, but we didn’t experience that at all.
Gordon-Zolov: One day we wandered into the GAM, the cultural center named after Chilean poet laureate Gabriela Mistral, and happened upon an “emergency” workshop—the Taller de Gráfica Inmediata organized by Pablo Castro, the founder of the book fair Impresionante. We were surprised to find a print workshop in the heart of an official building in the middle of a revolution. But GAM had given them permission and supported the Estallido throughout the duration of the protests. Pablo introduced us to other artists and later invited us to take part in a panel called “To Print is to Resist: Urgent Graphic Resistance.”
Rail: In your prologue, you reference the ever-present paradox of the walls of the GAM—their transformation into an open-air museum, a support for the rich, changing practice and display of public art. You also reference the threat and reality of erasure, and how protesters responded to the whitewashing of walls immediately and often. You cite the GAM’s own condemnation of acts of erasure: “Chile is living through a historic moment that is being revealed on its walls. Our façade is being rewritten daily, reflecting the unfolding history of the social movement” (emphasis added). You juxtapose this statement to multiple images of walls, of posters, rayados, ribbons and flags, school uniforms on hangers, and paintings and shrines (xxii). Do these pieces “reveal” or “reflect” history? My own reading of public art is that it generates and transforms, and not only reveals, historical change. In turn, your semiotic approach suggests that public art and wall graphics create “new avant-garde modes and modalities” (2). Can you speak to these modes and modalities? To the historical significance of the “visual vocabulary of the walls” (2) and to how this vocabulary helped a range of Chileans write cogent critiques of the state and violence and/or imagine new visions of the present and future social and political movements?
Zolov: As you know, Latin America has a long history of public art, ranging from the state-sponsored muralists following the Mexican revolution and the political posters generated by the Cubans beginning in the late 1960s to various autonomous or semi-autonomous print, graffiti, stencil, and other artistic collectives found across the region. So, on the one hand what transpired in Chile was not entirely “new” in that it absolutely built upon this rich, heterogeneous set of aesthetic traditions and practices. And as you write about so beautifully in your own work, Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile, Chile has its own distinctive set of practices tied to the political mobilizations and counter-mobilizations around the presidency of Salvador Allende (1970–73) and the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973–90). Yet still, in the long history of political street art—both state-sponsored and grassroots—the explosion of artistic expression that we witnessed during the Estallido of 2019–20 in Chile strikes us as something truly unique. Partly this was because of the sheer volume and rapidity of material that was produced—it was an onslaught, a blitzkrieg of political graphics that continued for months on end in an ever-changing, self-referential conversation among the protesters. But it was also because we witnessed a leaderless movement in which art was so clearly in the vanguard.
Gordon-Zolov: To elaborate a bit on the notion of self-referentiality, a conversation developed across the graffiti, and much of it read like an inside joke. So, for example, when an off-the-cuff remark by First Lady Cecilia Morel that the protests were “like an alien invasion” was leaked to the press, the streets became filled with images of aliens and spaceships descending upon the capital. A dancing protester dressed in a yellow Pikachu costume added some much-needed joy to the protests, and the figure of Pikachu soon became integrated into the graphics. A bare-chested male protester who used a Stop sign as a shield became “PareMan,” a comic strip superhero. On a more somber plane, the excessive and disproportionate use of violence by the state—which caused over 400 serious eye injuries, amongst other harms—led to a flood of graphics with bloody eyes or missing eyes. The graffiti was like a living testament to the mood of the moment. It captured the political imaginary and the complex emotional registers of the population.
Zolov: The graphics were political but not simply in the narrow sense of the word—that is, in a didactic sense of “we demand this.” Certain images, such as the Negro Matapacos (the “Black Cop-Killer” dog who was invoked as a spiritual patron saint of the movement), established common points of reference across an otherwise quite heterogeneous social movement. New political subjectivities were created in a very compressed period of time. This was the enactment of politics by other means. This is why we believe this was a truly revolutionary movement.
Gordon-Zolov: The idea of “art as a weapon” was a leitmotif of the protest graphics. Because the principal arms of struggle were artistic ones, we argue in the book that the Chilean social revolution acted as a new avant-garde. Some of the political graphics contained aesthetic features of what is known as the “historical avant-garde,” such as typographical experimentation, collage/montage, surreal iconography, and grotesque imagery. There was also a really important pop influence, as well as an abundance of contemporary icons, from superheroes to anime figures. The new “modes and modalities” that we locate in the book have to do with public space. There was a kind of democratization of art. Known visual artists took to the streets. The walls of the city were turned into open-air museums with works that were often anonymous and created by collectives. The curators of the newly created Museo de la Dignidad, for example, placed gold frames around protest graphics in the street that promoted the idea of dignity in a non-violent manner. The idea was to preserve these pieces of public art in perpetuity. Sadly, the state had no respect for this gesture when they wiped the walls clean. But GAM did save a paste-up of Gabriela Mistral by removing the work along with the piece of wall it had been made on.
Rail: I very much enjoyed your treatment of wall art “in situ”—and your efforts to bring together graffiti, serigrafía, paste ups, and other modes of visual art in conversation with performances, protest, and other embodied forms of protest. I was particularly struck by your discussion of feminism, body art, and dance. These are performance acts which, one member of Baila Capucha Baila argues, are excuses to “do feminism” (114; my emphasis). Can you speak to your approach to street art and what it tells us about politics—how politics is “done,” performed, enacted?
Gordon-Zolov: Feminism was one of the strongest currents of the social revolution. The revolutionary motto: “The Revolution Will be Feminist or Will Not Be,” suggested that the feminist platform stood at the heart of the uprising itself. The motto was so widespread that some graffiti simply read, “Or Will Not Be.” What was striking about the feminist campaign was the ways in which activists mobilized the body—through body writing, body art, nudity, hoods and masks, and performance pieces. One graphic message written in a bomb on a woman’s back, for example, read: “If you violate [rape] women, we will violate your laws!!” The most powerful body movement was without a doubt “Un violador en tu camino” (“A Rapist in Your Path”), the flash mob dance by Las Tesis that became a global phenomenon. In December, it was performed by over 10,000 activists in front of the National Stadium in Santiago. I attended a performance at a demonstration at La Venda Sexy (“The Sexy Blindfold”), which was a clandestine detention center under the Pinochet regime that was known for sexual abuse. The dance-chant emanates a kind of solidarity and strength that is difficult to convey. It gives you chills.
Zolov: One of the more powerful street performances that I witnessed—and there were certainly many that escaped our knowledge—was of a man and woman silently standing before a burned-out church. They were scantily clad and made their bodies available for passers-by to write messages on. We have a photo of this and talk about it in the book.
Gordon-Zolov: So, all of this mobilization was a kind of collective effort to reclaim the body—the individual and political body. Remember, the abuse under the dictatorship was bodily—torture, rape, forced disappearance. During the Estallido, the state police committed all kinds of human rights violations against women and “sexual dissidents”—from forcing women to squat naked for body checks to sexual degradation and assault—which some saw as a kind of continuity of the violence under Pinochet or a result of the impunity for dictatorship-era crimes of “political sexual violence.” And the central feminist issues of the uprising—gender-based violence, LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights—are all centered in the body. Activists are literally taking back the body, reclaiming ownership of the body. This is not unique to Chile. It’s a common strategy in feminist mobilizations from Mexico to Argentina and draws a line of solidarity with activists across Latin America. In our work on street art, we saw the body as a kind of canvas, a kind of mobile protest site. This complex constellation of performative acts represents an embodied politics.
Zolov: In answer to your question about “doing politics,” one thing that was so striking was how the protest graphics forged new transversal communities that cut across ethnic, class, gender, and generational lines. Oftentimes graffiti is just a tag—“I was here.” Or it can be whimsical but still speak to a delimited notion of “public.” During the Estallido, the evolution of the graffiti and political graphics was dialogic. There was an internal dialogue, an aesthetic one, within the graphic sphere itself, but there was also a continuous dialogue with the marchers. The graphics, even in their wide-ranging diversity, became the basis for a collective “We.” Ideas articulated on the walls shaped public discourse, which in turn shaped the response by the political establishment. There were no leaders of this movement; the walls articulated the demands of a society in open revolt.
Gordon-Zolov: To pick up on Eric’s point here—and this is a key point—the graphics created a kind of political body through a diffuse deployment of historical and contemporary images. On the one level, there were straightforward political demands: the end of neoliberalism and the resulting inequities in health, education, and the pension system; a recognition of feminist, indigenous, and immigrant rights; and an end to impunity for Pinochet-era crimes. On a deeper level, the graffiti acted as a conduit to the past. It channeled the spirit of martyred figures, such as Salvador Allende and Víctor Jara, but also more recent figures, such as the Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca, the Haitian immigrant Joane Florvil, the lesbian Nicole Saavedra, and the “mime” Daniela Carrasco. Added to this were posters of the disappeared, both in the past and the present. The effect of this is profound. It says, “This is our people. These are our heroes.” One of the arguments that we make in the book is that the Chilean revolution represents a new popular nationalism (as opposed to a “populist” nationalism) that recuperates the nation-state while rejecting its foundational violence and myths. And the smart pop humor, the inside jokes, the integration of contemporary cultural references, from Tinder to Pikachu, also served as a binding force. It suggests a young, hip force of the future, and it holds a seductive appeal. Of course, the Estallido was made up of heterogeneous components, and certain more elite sectors of the population did not support it, but, as a whole, it conveyed a unified ethos. And it is this real (or perceived) solidarity that provided the power of the social moment.
Rail: I am fascinated by your treatment of the variety or range of “political imaginaries”—references to the Unidad Popular [Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende] alongside Pikachu, Star Wars references, or new comic book superheroes like “PareMan.” Symbols of a global popular culture seem to be re-made in this new, ever-changing social and artistic movement to contain or bring together new arguments about resistance or equality or solidarity. This is, as you point out, in the tradition of a historical avant-garde, but also a type of “democratization of art” that seems very much of its time and place. As scholars of popular culture and art, would you conclude that the fluidity or flexibility of this public conversation, of inside jokes and self-reflexive references, opens up spaces for the kind of intersectional critique that marked or defined the Estallido?
Zolov: This is a great question. When we look back on the poster art say of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we see an overriding didacticism aimed at forging a politics of intersectionality. Think of the OSPAAAL poster art coming out of Cuba, for instance. The purpose of those posters was to generate solidarities across racial, cultural, and gender lines that transcended allegiance to a particular nation-state. “Anti-imperialism” was the unifying message. Many of the poster images produced by the Cubans indeed borrowed from Pop Art and psychedelic aesthetics to enhance their appeal to diverse groups, especially youth. But the politics of intersectionality was defined largely from above, as a call to arms along party lines, rather than spontaneously from below. In the Estallido, there were multiple points of identification and struggle, a commonality captured in the overarching notion of “dignity.” One poster proclaimed, for example, “We all have Mapuche blood.” The Negro Matapacos, too, transmitted the awareness of a shared mestizo body politic and a political commitment to Indigenous struggle. There was plenty of graphic rage but there was also a spirit of irreverence and iconographic absurdity. The latter, especially, invited in different groups and individuals, not only to recognize themselves in these graphic representations but to recognize common struggles with others.
Rail: José Ragas has recently made an eloquent and compelling case for archival scholars’ “urgent” responsibility to document the “tsunami” of material generated in the Estallido, and to heed protesters’ own critical approach to the past and present to rethink historical methods in the face of state violence and social and political uprising: “The Estallido Social,” he writes in “Archiving the Chilean Revolution,” “forced us to reconfigure our own methodologies to learn from other fields and to develop new tactics to apprehend the complexity of this particular social movement.…” (169). The Walls of Santiago strikes me as a complex archive of material, as well as a historically situated analysis of street art—combining your own photographic records, interviews, a mapping project, etc. Do you envision this project as an archival one? If so, how do you envision the archive in relation to (or as a site of) social and political protest and change?
Zolov: I’m not sure we were fully aware of the urgency of this as an archival project while the Estallido was happening, but certainly once we returned to the United States and saw how the government had directly targeted the walls—which were threatening to the state—we understood how important this project in fact was. In Chile, there are now a host of books, websites, and other vehicles for recording the political graphics of the Estallido. One of the most important is the Museo del Estallido Social, a physical museum as well as a digital archival site, and José Ragas discusses others in his article. In other words, the Chileans themselves have been very conscious of the historical significance of the uprising and the importance of the political graphics to the movement. We see our work as contributing to this larger archival consciousness. But perhaps more importantly, we see this project—which includes not just the book, but the print exhibition we mounted at Stony Brook University and the digital map that is freely available—as a vital work of translation. We hope we are reaching audiences beyond Latin America so that they, too, can understand and bear witness to the extraordinary nature of this creative political eruption.
Gordon-Zolov: Regarding the notion of “bearing witness,” a number of Chilean artists used the word “testimony” in relation to the political graphics. For instance, painter Paloma Rodríguez curated an exhibition of politics graphics of the Estallido which was subtitled “Creative Testimonies of the Social Unrest,” and visual artist Lolo Góngora characterized the street art in an interview with us as a “testimony of social discontent.” The testimonial value of the graphics only underscores the urgent necessity for historical preservation. In terms of the archival aspect of the project, we wanted to document not just the political graphics, but also the other public art forms that made fleeting appearances in the streets—arpilleras (woven tapestries), mosaics, interventions, site-specific performance pieces. And we sought to retain both the thematic and spatial dimensions of the unrest. We talk a lot in the book about the importance of the physical space of the walls in the Chilean context and of the importance of physical space in general in street art. Graffiti is fundamentally situated. It takes on meaning depending on its location in space. It is a based on a private intervention in public space. So when, for example, the door of the Bataclan theater in Paris with the veiled girl by Banksy was stolen, the owners lamented the loss of the work that only had meaning in that particular public space. We wanted our book to reflect the importance of space, of physical space. The interactive map that accompanies the book situates the graphics in their original locations on the walls. It is meant to preserve the works in their original, urban context, to capture the topography of the uprising itself.
Rail: I would like to build on the question of archives and methods. The book is part of a larger, inter- or cross-disciplinary and multi-modal project that includes the monograph, an exhibit, an interactive map, and website. How does this multimodal approach speak to your view of scholarship, of historically informed writing, and/or of the relationship between scholarship and activism?
Gordon-Zolov: The multimodal approach is meant to enable a kind of situated history or living history of the social uprising. We consider the book a work of scholarship-activism or publicly engaged scholarship. Eric and I were fundamentally concerned with the connections between aesthetics and politics. We grappled a lot with some hard issues, like the ethics of violence (both real violence and rhetorically inflammatory graffiti) and the politics of public space. Fortunately, our intellectual backgrounds are complimentary. Eric is a Latin American historian who has worked a lot on countercultural influences and Cold War internationalism, particularly in the Mexican context. My field is Comparative Literature, and I work on memory, gender, and performance art. Our approach is semiotic in that we sought to interpret the political graphics through close readings and to situate them in their larger, intertextual sign systems. We also trace the issues back to their historical roots, seeking to produce what historian Ángel Soto generously called in a talk we gave through Fulbright “a history of the present.”
Zolov: We saw our exhibition, “¡Chile Despertó!: Political Graphics of the 2019–20 Social Uprising,” which was on display this past year at Stony Brook University, as central to a commitment to teach about the broader context that gave rise to what’s happening in Chile these days, with the election of Gabriel Boric and the writing of a new constitution. Many students, faculty, and others passed through the exhibition, and we're hoping to bring it to new publics as well.
Rail: You place the Estallido Social in the context of the Global Sixties on one hand, and in conversation with the Black Lives Matter movement on the other. Can you speak to the significance that the “estallido social” and “estallido artístico” have for social and political movements in Chile and beyond in the present and future?
Zolov: It was fascinating to see the various ways in which certain tropes from a Global Sixties imaginary circulated in the Chilean context. There were clear, if not necessarily conscious, political and aesthetic references to the 1968 student movement in France, Black Power in the United States, and poster art from Cuba and Chile under Allende. Most if not all of those creating these images were obviously too young to have experienced the 1960s directly, so it’s evident that there’s an afterlives of Global Sixties’ protest iconography. And what is so interesting are the ways in which particular images, sounds, and to some extent political discourse from an earlier era—one brutally defeated, in the case of Chile—remain relevant to new generational contexts. One of the first nights of the Estallido, we heard the song, “El Derecho de Vivir En Paz” (“The Right to Live in Peace”) by Víctor Jara projected from a neighboring balcony by our apartment. It sent a chill up my spine. Jara, as many people know, was slain by the military when the military took over in 1973. A new version of Jara's song—which was originally a pro-Vietnam ballad—quickly emerged as one of the anthems of the Estallido. The figure of Allende, creatively brought back to life on the walls by the artist Fab Ciraolo as an urban hipster, is another prominent example. When the Black Lives Matter movement took over in the summer of 2020, it was really interesting to note, for instance, the invocation of the raised power fist, a key trope of 1960s global protest.
Gordon-Zolov: The changes that the social movement have brought about are radical. The Chileans voted overwhelmingly in October 2020 to jettison the 1980 Pinochet-era constitution and to create a new one. And Gabriel Boric—who was one of the student leaders in the 2011–13 education protests—was elected president by a large margin in December 2021. A constitutional body that has been called “the most representative body in Chile’s history” is in the process of drafting a new national charter. So far, a number of revolutionary articles have been passed, including the redefinition of Chile as a “plurinational and intercultural state” that recognizes the rights and territories of indigenous peoples. The idea would be to return indigenous lands through mechanisms of restitution. These are major restorative justice measures. The final draft will be voted upon in September. This is hopeful not just for Chile but for the world. In a moment when authoritarian practices are on the rise, Chile serves as a countermodel. If the book has a larger purpose, it is to demonstrate the enduring and political power of art, even if that art is of an ephemeral and public nature. While this social revolution may have been triggered by violence and counter-violence, it was carried out through massive, peaceful protests and an interconnected web of creative works and interventions. It is a testament to what “people power” can do.