The NYU Institute of Fine Arts, The Americas Society, and The Institute for Studies on Latin American Art recently hosted a panel discussion and book signing featuring renowned Argentinian conceptual and performance artist, Marta Minujín. The event focused on Minujín’s 1968 work, MINUCODE. The MINUCODE project comprised a publicly answered questionnaire followed by four cocktail parties with a sociological twist, and performance ephemera of various media including video, light and sound.
While MINUCODE may seem like a work of performance art, it is a part of a genre of artwork that has usually been connected with Minujín since the mid-1960s, called “happenings.” Minujín described happenings as similar to performance art, but was exigent about distinguishing the two. She noted at the panel:
No one else really did happenings. A happening is like a work that the people appropriate and decide: the work belongs to the people. Then, that word in the art world changed to “performance,” but I don’t believe in performance. With a happening, you never do it twice. For example, you can only do it for five minutes and never more. Conversely, with performance, you can do it 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 times. It’s a very different work, a happening versus a performance. Happenings are much more interesting than performance because you can use bits of time and space that are very short. You can live much more intense things in five to ten minutes than you can in eight days–you can be jumping out of a helicopter in Uruguay throwing chickens: in only eight minutes!
I had first gone to see Minujín’s work exhibited at MALBA in 2010 in Buenos Aires, and then met her face to face in 2012 at a gala at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. So, I thought it would be amazing to see this incredible artist again, in person, and in my home town!
When I initially inquired about Minujín in 2012, she was explained to me as the “Andy Warhol of Argentina.” I am not sure how she feels about this comparison, but I do know that the two were friends, and used to collaborate. For example, the below is a 1985 performance project that Marta invited Andy to collaborate on, which symbolized the paying off of Argentina’s external debt using corn, or “the gold of Latin America.” Per the Henrique Faria Gallery:
Surrounded by 1,000 ears of corn, spray painted gold, Warhol and Minujín acted out the negotiation of the debt, symbolizing not only the interchange of merchandise, but also of artistic and cultural experiences…this piece has become a symbol of the cultural relations between the United States and Latin America, undertaken by the greatest Pop Art exponents of each country.
With this background information about Minujín’s reputation as an artist in mind, I’d like to turn your attention back toward MINUCODE, where Marta set up four cocktail parties in 1968 NYC for a social experiment that was considered itself the work of art.
To introduce MINUCODE at the panel, scholar Alexander Alberro contextualized the work as follows:
The normality of traditional artistic media came to be seen as a myth in the 1960s. For those pursuing innovation in the arts, the task at hand became not so much one of changing the contents and the formats of artworks, but one of taking a more radical approach to media as such. Many began to argue in favor of considering mass communications media as a valid aesthetic form: the media itself could be aesthetic form. Mediated images of objects and events could be transmitted simultaneously to widely dispersed audiences, and had the benefit of at once collapsing the hierarchy between popular culture and deep culture, and eliminating the need for original objects and performances around which the public had previously gathered to experience art. This is the context in which Minujin’s non-matrixed social environment, MINUCODE, was exhibited at New York’s Center for Inter-American Relations in the late spring of 1968.
To execute MINUCODE, Minujín created a questionnaire for the public to fill out, and said, “if you want to come to a cocktail party, fill out this questionnaire and return it to this art galley.” While the questionnaire was more complex than this, the boiled-down explanation is that responses to the questionnaire divided people into four categories/social groups (decided upon by Minujín), based mostly upon occupation: Business, Art, Fashion or Politics. Each individual’s questionnaire results determined which of the four cocktail parties they would attend.
Minujín received over 1,000 responses to the questionnaire, which she divided with a machine into the four designated social groups: Business, Art, Fashion or Politics.
Each participant then went to his or her respective party happening. This first part of MINUCODE (a social-scientific environment) was essentially a sociological study on the identities of each cocktail party, and how the guests represented themselves, acting out their roles in real life through dress and behavior.
The second part involved different ways of recording the four experiences and working with various intellectual and artistic concepts of media and viewer vs. viewed. For example, the first 10 minutes of each party were filmed by Minujín’s 6-member camera crew, and the footage was edited together into one reel. Over the course of the project, Minujín continued to document the parties with different styles of video, sound and light representations. She also showed the video footage and other media interpretations of the party to the party guests themselves as well as to the public, adding an additional layer to the work.
There is so much to this project: the light shows were created in collaboration with Tony Martin, an artist and lighting expert from The Electric Circus, there were side performances, constructed electronic environments, there was the act of showing the videos of the parties to both the attendees of the parties and the public (reversing/questioning roles of viewer and viewed), strong ties to Marshall McLuhan‘s media theory (specifically about media and technology’s effects on the social environment) and more — so many facets and layers that I could go on endlessly!
In any case, one of the most special things about attending the talk was not necessarily learning the academic explanation of MINUCODE (while that is fascinating), but seeing and hearing such a legend present her own work while sitting three feet away from her. Therefore, I’d like to close the post with some highlights from the post-discussion Q&A.
Audience: You were so young; how did you know you could pull that off?
Minujín: Everybody was young then! Like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. We were representing our generation. We were very very young and had such a powerful belief, we were like a revolution, and we were all young. When you were 30, you were out! 22, 23 okay but 30 years old is the end! I was living my dream. I did not have a real life.
Audience: We are aware, that constantly and unfortunately, in Argentina, there were dictatorships, changing governments, etc. – issues! Given that, how was your art received? By the government, etc? Did you have any problems with that? Were you free enough to expose your artwork?
Minujín: They were not intelligent enough to know what I was doing! It’s true! Like when I did the project at the Obelisk calling it “the military’s erection,” they passed by and didn’t understand at all that the work was talking about them, to the military. So you see, I was too far out for them.
Audience: So basically, you were free to do your own thing?
Minujín: Yes, I could do it because they would never understand what I was doing! But, what we were doing was political, and our concentration was powerful.
Audience: How did you connect with the scene of Howard Wise, and the people who were involved in experimenting with art and technology?
Minujín: The art world was very small. I arrived in New York and got to a gallery with Al Hansen. I was greeted at the gallery, and showed there. Lichtenstein’s wife was the secretary at the gallery and invited Warhol, and others. That’s how I met Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Umberto Eco…and we would go to Kansas City. We would meet, and discuss–everything was together: music, literature, art– it was my time. Every day something happened. We were all together, doing happenings every day.
Audience: What do you think of the return of a great interest in your work 45 years later?
Minujín: I believe that maybe I am like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I’m more like a rock star than a visual artist. I am not modest!
To conclude, beyond MINUCODE and other stimulating happenings, Minujín is known internationally as a pioneer in art movements including “el arte de los medios,” (media as art), pop art, conceptual art, visual art, psychedelia, video art, “the art of action” and more. She is also famous for being the person responsible for “importing” hippie culture to Argentina with her 1968 work, “Importación/Exportación.”
Her artistic practice is influenced by thinkers like Marshall McLuhan, Roland Barthes, Ferdinand de Sausseure, Federico Fellini and more.