by Rachel Lears
by Rachel Lears
In Punk Ethnography: Artists and Scholars Listen to Sublime Frequencies, edited by Michael Veal and E. Tammy Kim. (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)
In the 1960s and ‘70s, while young people in the United States and Europe proclaimed a revolution of values and style to the soundtrack of rock and roll, Latin American youth embraced the sounds of electric guitar as social and political unrest rocked the region. Sublime Frequencies’ Latinamericarpet: Exploring the Vinyl Warp of Latin American Psychedelia unites a determinedly apolitical array of audio oddities from this era into a collage of surf-tinged party songs, children’s music, tropical lounge, and spoken excerpts from language training and self-help records. By exhibiting this broad range of musical and nonmusical recordings from five countries, Latinamericarpet differs from most other Sublime Frequencies compilations, which tend to focus on one style within a narrower geographic and cultural context. The recordings suggest a wide range of probable intended audiences—from middle class children to urban migrant workers to aspiring bureaucrats—but the compilation subsumes these original social uses into one exotic magic carpet ride for North American and European record collectors.
This essay explores the sounds of Latinamericarpet in light of the particular political and cultural histories of Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Chile (the countries represented on the album) as well as the history of the collection of cultural artifacts in the contexts of colonialism and ethnographic knowledge production. Despite the lack of overt or even coded references on Latinamericarpet to the military coups, guerrilla movements, and student massacres that shaped so much popular music in Latin America during this era, political unrest becomes a kind of haunting presence that permeates the record’s resignified textures. From a continent where cultural hybridity avant la lettre was forged with violence, this postmodern pastiche of playful sounds suggests a complex array of multiple meanings structured by the disparate social contexts of production and compilation and the history of colonial and neocolonial encounters between Latin America, Europe and the United States.
A doctoral dissertation in Cultural Anthropology at New York University (2012)
This project focuses ethnographically upon the first generation of young Uruguayan artists to come of age alongside digital media, tracing the role of music in the “post-liberal”1 terrain of Latin American politics today; the social practices through which cultural producers in the Global South position themselves within broad transnational fields; and the effects of digital multimedia upon epistemologies of musical knowledge. Investigating how these artists negotiate political subjectivity, cultural memory, and collective identification, I explore relationships between popular music and visual culture, and among creative activity, cultural policy, and political economy. My work presents popular music as a uniquely rich site for the critical analysis of the changing relationships between aesthetics and politics in the contemporary world, in light of the particular social, political and economic stakes in Uruguay¬— a context that dramatizes the fragmentation of identity through exile and migration, the changing character of citizenship in the wake of military dictatorship, and the legacies of history in the imagination of cultural futures.
Following economic crises in Brazil (1999), Argentina (2001) and Uruguay (2002), a massive regional shift in South America has signaled the left as a new political center, the abandonment of the neoliberal frameworks of the Washington Consensus as hegemonic ideology, and an uneasy rapprochement between social democratic movements and business interests. In Uruguay, the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party gained control of the national government for the first time in the country’s history in 2005, and has since poured unprecedented levels of investment into the arts, effected the first official reckoning with the country’s history of state violence, and presided over an economic recovery that withstood the global crash of 2008-9. In this dynamic context, young Uruguayan musicians today are reconstituting collective identification and the local spaces of social life under new conditions marked by instantaneous global communication, ideological instability and an ascendant corporate world.
The title phrase of my thesis, “between two monsters,” often arises in public discourse to describe Uruguay’s geopolitical position: born of a history of territorial struggle between the Spanish and Portuguese empires, the nation now sits in the overlapping cultural and economic peripheries of regional powers Brazil and Argentina. I employ the phrase also as a metaphor for the position of artists working between the state and the market as gatekeepers and infrastructures for cultural production.
The musicians, designers, visual artists and audiovisual practitioners upon which I focus are tied closely through direct labor and social networks to the government agencies of emergent cultural policy initiatives. Yet they set themselves apart from the most widely consumed forms of Uruguayan popular music—tango, rural folk genres, carnival music, or popular song, as well as rock nacional and musica tropical (primarily cumbia and reggaeton)—by the connoisseurship of independent rock and electronic music from the US and Europe, as well as the elaborate visual production of videos, photography, costumes, stage design, posters, stickers, graffiti and websites. As these young, middle class artists (born roughly during the dictatorship in the 1970s and ‘80s) create new work in dialogue with the work of other artists “here” and “now” as well as elsewhere and in other historical moments, they attempt both to position themselves as citizens of the world and to constitute a new local soundscape that transcends the musical and political boundaries of their parents’ generation. Tracing cosmopolitan aspirations through aural, visual and textual registers, I show how these artists construct themselves simultaneously as locally elite and globally marginal, and explore the relationships between their creative practices and the major political and economic shifts that have shaped the experience of their generation in Uruguay and Latin America since 2000.
My research is based upon 28 months of fieldwork in Montevideo, Uruguay between 2002 and 2010, including participant observation activities and over 50 in-depth interviews. It also draws strength from my extensive personal and collaborative experience as a musician and filmmaker both in Montevideo and New York City, which has greatly facilitated access and enabled me to build relationships of mutual respect and reciprocity with both musicians and visual professionals. Grounded in the anthropology of media, cultural production, aesthetics, globalization, space and place, my dissertation incorporates the perspectives of cultural and social history as well as ethnomusicology, popular music studies, visual culture studies, cultural studies, Latin American studies, communications and media studies, performance studies, political science, and cultural policy studies.
Chapter 1, “Musical Cartographies of the National, the Popular and the Countercultural,” serves as a historical introduction, providing a broad overview of Uruguayan social and musical history, and the social relationships among musical genres in Uruguay today. Drawing upon secondary sources and original research on the most recent wave of Uruguayan rock, I use the histories of carnival, youth culture and rock nacional to show how relationships among the national, the popular and the oppositional have shifted in recent years. This discussion lays the groundwork for my focus upon a group of young Uruguayan cultural producers who articulate a complex relationship to symbolic notions of the national and the popular, while cultivating progressive political subjectivities and actions.
The following three chapters explore the creative practices of this loosely defined group in detail. Chapter 2, “Pirate Collections/ Virtual Crafts: Visual Mediations of Musical Knowledge in the ‘Circuito Cool Montevideano’,” chronicles the emergence of a sense of generational community, in the wake of the crisis of 2002, among young artists seeking to articulate an alternative cultural sphere in Montevideo by drawing upon the aesthetic sensibilities of Anglo-American “indie” music and culture. I interpret these developments in light of: 1) local practices of record collecting and the negotiation of cultural capital, in the context of histories of collecting art and culture; 2) recent changes in digital technology that accelerate the circulation of recorded music and the expansion of technical skills of media production; and 3) shifts toward post-Fordist economic systems based on information and services. Ultimately, I argue that digital media are transforming the ways that visual culture mediates musical knowledge—understood as both episteme (taxonomy) and techne (practical skills)—with new forms of connoisseurship and labor shaped by local contexts.
Chapter 3, “How to Dress a Song: Performance and the Politics of Visibility,” explores the performance practices of several artists and groups in detail in light of ideological tensions, which emerge from local and international histories, between notions of authenticity and spectacle. The visual dimensions of musical performance, I argue, become a terrain for the negotiation of shifting ideas of the popular through the relationships between performers and their audiences. The broader social anxieties that emerge in this process suggest that the visual culture of music performance indexes complex relationships among class, sexuality and commerce.
In Chapter 4, “‘I wanna be there’: Audiovisual Economy and Spatiotemporal Coordinates of Belonging,” I use music videos as a point of departure for exploring cosmopolitan subjectivities and aspirations among cultural producers. Tracing the historical relationships among audiovisual media, popular music and notions of “modern” subjectivity in Uruguay, I show how the dictatorship created a rupture in the processes by which Uruguayans identified with European and US-based trends through media consumption and production. Grounding the analysis of music video texts in ethnographic observations, I argue that digital technologies have enabled young Uruguayan cultural producers to negotiate their temporal and spatial relationships to “the contemporary world” in new ways as the country has recovered from economic crisis during a period of political transformation.
Chapter 5 and 6 locate the creative practices of cultural producers within the contexts of the Uruguayan cultural industries and cultural policy. Chapter 5, “For Export: Music and Media From Uruguay to the World,” explores the notion of export as a trope within the audiovisual and music industries. I argue that discrepant images of the nation emerge as musical and audiovisual products and services are marked as Uruguayan within the “identity economy.”2In Chapter 6, “The Entrepreneurial Subject and the Branded Citizen,” I explore congruencies between the discourses and practices of cultural production and those of the Frente Amplio’s cultural policy, as well as internal complexities within each of these. As both artists and policymakers strive to envision and implement a future of economic growth and social justice for Uruguay, their actions refigure the relationship between creative and political activity in the everyday lives of citizens and the political economy of the nation.
1 See Arditi, B. (2008). "Arguments About the Left Turns in Latin America: A Post-Liberal Politics?" Latin American Research Review 43(3): 59-81.
2 See Comaroff, J. L. and J. Comaroff (2009). Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Photography projects by Rachel Lears
Photography projects by Rachel Lears
Articles by Rachel Lears
Articles by Rachel Lears