«Kema todo; esto es arte»

In a series of letters between New York and Santiago, artists Jessica Briceño Cisneros and Ignacio Gatica highlight how the streets of Santiago turned into a semiotic battlefield where the Chilean contemporary art is disrupted in relation to its neo-liberal context.

January 6, 2020

Autos, jets, aviones, barcos
Se está yendo todo el mundo
¿Ves cómo la Cruz del Sur Está cambiando de rumbo?
Por el Ecuador y el trópico
El Sol saluda a nuevos vagabundos
Porque en tierra nadie queda,
La verdad es que se está yendo todo el mundo

—Charly García, 1978

Dear Ignacio,
I’m writing to you looking at the facade of the MAC [Contemporary Art Museum]. Its walls are covered with graffiti—slogans, flags, and demands challenging readers who walk by with questions and comments about the revolution students started in October of last year. As you know, there are so many inequalities that graffitied complaints cannot suffice; they are diverse, except for the repeated phrases against the usual enemies.
Something, however, has been different from the usual domestic complaints. In the past months, Santiago has been burning outwards, a result of the unrest that grew out of credit cards, the manufactured drought, [1] and the pavement.
Some texts expressing skepticism about art slowly began to appear. They questioned everything about art: its institutions, its workers, its limits. One of the most important graffiti calling for art’s participation in the street protests appeared on the facade of the Museo de Bellas Artes: EL ARTE NO LUCHA [ART DOESN’T FIGHT]. Each word painted beneath the acronym A.C.A.B. [2] [ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS, or in Spanish, TODOS LOS POLICIAS SON UNOS BASTARDOS] occupied, letter by letter, the entirety of the facade’s four columns. Elsewhere, near the entrance of the museum, other texts appeared: CONTRA EL ARTE NEUTRALIZADOR NICHO DEL ARTE CAPITALISTA [AGAINST NEUTRAL ART, SPECIALTY OF CAPITALIST ART], KOMO EL ARTE SE HACE CARGO DE NUESTROS MUERTOS? [WUT WILL ART DO FOR OUR DEAD?]. More commentary directed toward the system of art appeared on the side of the Anfiteatro Bellas Artes: VIVA EL ARTE PERIFÉRICO [LONG LIVE ART AT THE MARGINS], ARTE PARA EL PUEBLO [ART FOR THE PEOPLE], EL ARTE SERÁ MILITANTE O NO SERÁ [ART WILL BE MILITANT, OR THERE WILL BE NO ART], concluding with MUERTE AL ARTE KAPITAL Y BURGUÉS [DEATH TO KAPITALIST AND BOURGEOIS ART].
These direct interrogations of the abstract entity ART lead me to the question that which brings us together in this exchange with you: how do the liberating and frightening events of recent months alter the structure and superstructure of art in Chile and Latin America? I mention Latin America because we cannot think of one without the other. Both are fundamental parts of a global system in which movement has always been key for the growth of an artist and their work, for their eventual positioning in international circuits and markets. I read a tweet in the past few days that said: “Migrating within Latin America is like switching cabins on the Titanic.” I thought it was shockingly cruel, but not totally absurd, thinking about how the wave of social upheaval began in Ecuador and Haiti and then infected the rest of the region with the energy of a Molotov cocktail.
If artists once questioned reality, now it is reality that is questioning us. If we artists invoked the crisis of representation, now we are caught up in the representation of a crisis. Critical expression is happening in the street and everyone is involved. Whoever asks about the role of art at a time when bodies are called to action in the streets, is asking from the comfortable realm of theory, from that alien and abstract question of who believes and who doesn’t create and who demands. This makes me very upset.
What this revolution, which has cost us so many lives, so much mutilation, and trauma, has given us is the imperative to collaborate, to communicate, and to believe in the people and the power of working together: cooking, dancing, making poetry, and resisting together. These are things that could not have happened in today’s Chile in any other way and under any other circumstances.
I would share more writing and photos with you, but I should be brief. I would like to know what you think about this incomplete account of what’s happening in Santiago.
A hug,

January 9, 2020

A mí no me tapan la boca (Nah)
Me llevan la yerba, pa’ meterse coca
Los paco’, los rati’, también el congreso
Han robao’ más que mis compadre’ preso’
Cuicos culiao’, repártanse el queso
Tu hijito en falopa se gasta tus peso’
Por eso al Taitita yo siempre le rezo
Pa’ que la flaca no me dé su beso (Muack)
Solo le pido a Dios que lo injusto no me sea indiferente
Porque el gobierno la maquilla
Pero mata, roba y miente
Esto es ojo por ojo
Y también diente por diente

—Pablo Chill-E, Facts, 2018

Dear Jessica,
Thank you for writing. I kept thinking about the photo of the facade that you sent me. Of all the graffiti that you described, the one of “A.C.A.B” written across the museum’s columns most caught my attention. The first time I heard that slogan in Chile was through the Chilean graffiti artist NAST, and then a few years later in the song “Facts” by Pablo Chill-E. I’ve seen in photos that the acronym is now being used as a tag in many parts of the country. It’s the globalized version of “PAKO CULIAO,” a phrase that usually appears in holding cells at police stations, but not on the fronts of institutions. But now, that prison graffiti—that drive so long restrained beneath the structures of oppression—is finally expressing itself energetically (as well as in the many other acts you mentioned) out beyond the pre-established common order.
I like seeing how graffiti is returning to take action in the Chilean insurrection. The same people who used to tag their names are now also tagging LUCHA [FIGHT], NO AL PSU [NO TO THE PSU], [3] NO MÁS AFP [NO MORE AFP], [4] NO NOS CALLARÁN [THEY WILL NOT SILENCE US], HASTA LA VICTORIA [UNTIL VICTORY].
I agree with what you said about how comfortable it is to question art’s role in these situations. It reminds me of a fragment of a text Diego sent me, which referred to the figure of the bourgeois intellectual in contemporary society. It says: “In the most recent upheaval the intellectual discovered that the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves.” [5]Graffiti that questions the institution of art is a clear sign that art is an accomplice and a tool of neoliberal elites throughout the region.
I have been thinking about ways of protesting that involve text, poetry, and action. Above all, text in contrast to information technologies in so far as they concern societies of control, of which Chile is a clear example. The cartoon of the big data report [6] is surely hiding some of this.
The relationship between the present semiotic value of text and structures of power is not something minor, especially if you think about examples like Cambridge Analytica’s interference in the political process of a country and the communal life of its people. In a way, the “PAKO CULIAO” graffiti has been able to radiate out through the hashtag #PAKOCULIAO because of its sheer presence and popularity: out of the information and speed of the new technological prosthetics of silent control, text in cyberspace has transformed into a direct window onto quotidian oppression. Perhaps something different can be constructed out of the poetic abundance of the word-action contained in the graffiti that you have shown me—something apart from the stupefying and alienating modernity reflected in technological prosthetics, which are also a reflection of the restorative oppression of the financial ideology that until recent months has worked silently in the country.
Could you possibly send me some more photos that you find interesting? I’m sending you one that I like.
A hug,

January 12, 2020

Dear Ignacio,
It took me a few days to get back to you. Last Friday, when I wanted to go protest in the Plaza de la Dignidad (the former Plaza Italia), [7] I received news that I would not be invited back to work at the university this coming year. After that, what I really wanted to do was jump and scream about the precarity of working in education in the cultural field. The university system that has supported me for so many years, and in which I worked reproducing the professionalization of the artist, kicked me out without a second thought. There’s no contract, there’s no defense to be made.
It is difficult to think about things from the outside when you are very much inside of them. I feel critical of the institutionalization of creativity in Chilean art, but then I have also been a part of it since my own training. My career was practically paid for by the salary I received from the same university that I went to, and I gave back all the knowledge that I gained there. What I am telling you now is strangely cyclical, and may even sound incestuous. It seems like yelling to take up all those self-directed movements that work so well in economies so different from ours, but so near, like Argentina’s, and which have gained territory in Chile in recent years. Today, we can recognize them on a large scale as spaces of resistance, mutual care, and shared healing. What a relief that is to me.
The Professionalization of Art Is Breaking My Heart!
“How to take art to the street?” or “How can you take art out of the academy?” are probably the two most commonly- asked questions in art schools in this city. They aren’t asked in Valparaíso or in other places whose community logics are communal and authentic. Today, in Santiago, public space is overflowing with images, rage, and political forces.

Unfortunately for the museum, what’s happening on the outside, and now literally on its outer walls, is once again more interesting than what’s happening inside of it.

I want to tell you about how sculpture has played a fundamental role in this revolution of individuals. Volume has been made visible through its destruction, its (re)construction, interventions made into it, and simply because it is now merely a base for images. Artistic volumes are being seen again in a public space built of architectural volumes. The reclaiming of the monument to Baquedano[8] is a deadly game of cat and mouse that is played daily. The demands of feminists, gender-based groups, indigenous people, for the inclusion of marginalized people, and all the “NO+,” who we never imagined we would see together, surround the sculpture even though law enforcement and its followers empty it out every day.
Love Is a Battlefield
Protest selfies in front of the striped horse monument with a pot on its head are ubiquitous. Maybe someone who uploads photos of their fight-selfies would be a good candidate for an analysis by CA Ltd Analysis or of the Chilean government’s big data otaku-hater. [9] At the same time, those phones are the way we communicate, they bring us together in the unofficial information spaces that we need.
I’ll also tell you how Chile turned out to be more Latin American than we thought. Not only are local chapters and meeting spaces working, but artists are opening their workshops and creating spaces for meetings, conversations, organizing, and various development projects to resist the criminalization of social protest. From picnics to screen-printing with friends to shield-building for protestors. We are also witnessing the formation of hundreds of art collectives that are taking action in the current situation.
I’m sharing some images of the graffitied sculptures with you.
A hug,

Sergio Castillo, Génesis, 1995. Escultura frente al Hospital del Trabajador ACHS en Av. Providencia, Santiago, Chile. Fotografía por y cortesía de Jessica Briceño

Rebeca Matte, Unidos en la gloria y en la muerte, 1930. Escultura de Ícaro y Dédalo frente al Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago. Fotografía por y cortesía de Jessica Briceño Cisneros

January 13, 2020

Dear Jessica,
Thank you for your words, they provoke in me many thoughts and memories. Wow! The news of the university is very much in line with recent events. Precarious work is precisely one of the constituent elements of neoliberal financial ideology. I’m glad you found shelter in the community spaces that you mention; no doubt they offer richer feedback than the institutions, which for the most part only feed the market system. From what I’ve read to date, more than 30 private universities have been opened in Chile, most of which offer degrees in visual arts. All of those institutions also respond to and represent institutional requirements, which translate into control tactics and self-regulation. In this sense, I wonder about the role of self- governance and how social movements differentiate it from the neoliberal figure of the entrepreneur. The fundamental difference is, perhaps, the notion of a social body that has recently been created again in Chile, in contrast to the individualistic figure of the entrepreneur.

What should be done in all of those universities that teach art as a means of creating an educational structure committed to a community of learning and knowledge production based in complicity?

And what about museum directors? Hahaha. I remember I always liked a Joe Villablanca video called QUIERO SER EL DIRECTOR MÁS JOVEN DE LA HISTORIA DEL MUSEO NACIONAL DE BELLAS ARTES [I WANT TO BE THE YOUNGEST DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL FINE ARTS MUSEUM IN HISTORY] for its schizophrenic proposal. The dude sang a song repeating that phrase outside of the museum while he watered flowers with milk. Something like that. I don’t remember well, but something also happened with the angel sculpture that is in front of the Museo de Bellas Artes, the one which you showed me in the photo.
I like that photo you sent me of the sculpture because, despite being in the foreground, it fades into the background and creates a bridge between the graffiti that says “Justice and Dignity” and the institutional statements on the posters hanging in front of the museum “From Here to Modernity,” a cheesy, futuristic slogan, almost like a phrase out of Buzz Lightyear’s mouth.
In contrast, the idea of sculpture as a visual base reminds me of the normalization of modernity through monuments. European or gringo minimalist in style, suspended in homogenized cement, appearing in a Mega [10] melodrama series, the monuments are untouchable vigilant sculptures, almost as much so as the directors that symbolize the institutions. I imagine how the people connected to the regime feel about the insurgent spectacle—how horrified they must be when they get tagged.
I think of the yellow vests [11] polishing the boots of one of those sculptures in order to leave them clean and “normal,” like they might have been before October 2019. The graffiti reveals the lack of a disruptive symbolic subjectivity in these monuments. The private and state powers in Chile try to normalize the iconoclastic power of graffiti, silencing and oppressing it with violence in order to restore not the new or neo, but the classical figures of power. This is what fascism establishes and restores with violence.
A big hug, Jessica.
Some Open Questions as a Postscript
What does it mean to think together when we have been educated under individuality? How can we think outside of the art market if we grow up trying to form a name and a unique, personal, and precise identity for it? Is art a critical trench that allows mutual care and support? What will living together in violence imply from now on when art brings us together in its spaces? Will we reform our society’s intrinsically mercantile methods through a turn to self-governance? How much agency do we believe we actually have? Do dreams and metaphors still fit into art?


  1. Water scarcity in Chile is a result of the management of water in the country, based on a water market that favors speculation and the hoarding of water and its use in production with little land-use or reservoir planning. These are further exacerbated by climate change and its global impact. In Chile, the constitution dictates that water be a public good managed by private companies. On January 7, 2020, the Senate rejected an amendment to the Water Code that would decree it a public good controlled by the public, with 12 votes against and 24 in favor. Due to the utilitarian ties of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, a two-thirds majority is required to modify an Organic Constitutional Law.

  2. A.C.A.B. is the acronym of the English phrase “All cops are bastards” (in Spanish: “Todos los policías son unos bastardos”). This motto is popular among European soccer fanatics.

  3. PSU: Prueba de Selección Universitaria [University Selection Test]

  4. AFP: Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones [Pension Fund Administrators]

  5. Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, ed. & trans. Donald F. Bouchard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 207.

  6. A report reviewing an analysis of big data undertaken by “experts” profiling protestors who were also fans of K-Pop was published. Their goal was to criminalize the protests through an attack on the symbols it mobilizes. To read more about the report see: “Es sospechosamente idiota: Llueven las críticas al gobierno por informe que apunta a influencias del K-Pop en las manifestaciones” in elDES- CONCIERTO, December 22, 2019.

  7. Plaza Italia is the name erroneously given to Plaza Baquedano, a roundabout with a monument of General Baquedano riding his horse, located in a central part of Santiago. For years it has been the site of manifestations and celebrations in the city. Since October 18, after protestors adopted the slogan “fight until dignity becomes custom”, the name “Plaza de la Dignidad” [Dignity Square] has become more and more popular since the plaza became a meeting place occupied by protestors more than 80 days ago.

  8. The monument to the soldier Baquedano on his horse has been contentious since the beginning of the conflicts in Santiago. It is located at the center of Plaza de la Dignidad [Dignity Square] and the protestors’ continual goal is to climb to the top, mount the horse next to the bronze military figure, and distort the monument with flags, banners, and paint until the police arrive and force people off with their characteristic violence.

  9. Refers to the dig data report mentioned previously.

  10. A Chilean television channel.

  11. In Chile, the movement of the yellow vests that took place in France was imitated in defense of public property.

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