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[ Jointing ]

3. From Invisible to Visible I

La Familia Obrera-The Working-class Family, Oscar Bony, 1968

In her book, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012), Claire Bishop tries to challenge the mechanisms, as highlighted by Foucault, of habitual and natural power structures through suggesting that art should provoke audiences to respond to these often invisible social and political systems. In the aforementioned book, Bishop provides the case study of Oscar Bony’s La Familia Obrera-The Working-Class Family (1968), as it is an artistic practice that aims to amplify the ambivalence which power structures can create. Bony renders visible the class structure within Argentinian society and constructs a provocative encounter between performers and audience from different classes. The Working-Class Family was first exhibited in the group show, Experiencias ‘68 at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, Argentina.[1] After, the work was recreated in 2004 which exhibit at the Houston Museum of Modern Art, America. Bishop is interested in the way that systems can be ambivalent towards their users and thus produce a series of simultaneous conflicting reactions. This, in turn, is similar to feeling both more secure and fearful when in a gated community. Bony stages this ambivalence in part through the work’s structure and his decision to use the exhibition budget to pay a working-class family to sit on a set of plinths in the gallery for eight hours a day; an act that both reveres the family and constructs them as a specimen of curious observation. This staging of ambivalence, through producing positive and negative connotations or readings of the work, recalls Edward Said’s theory mentioned previously in my chapter, Naming. Said stated that in order to highlight a stronger identity for Western cultures, orientalism is constructed by colonial discourse and analysis in order to represent the colonized cultures as radically other and lesser than the colonizer(s). The plinths heightened the performers away from the audience, to separate their identity from that of the viewers and to offer the working-class family up for speculation. This inversion of the class hierarchy aimed to render transparent and test the ambivalence that is inherent in class structures. Bony recorded sounds of the family’s home life and played this throughout the gallery space, which further constructed an intimate encounter that could not ignore the personal lives behind the class system.

Bony’s ambitious hiring of an actual working-class family, to whom he delegated the performance for which they were instructed to go about their ordinary daily lives within the gallery, showed that he wanted to highlight the geographically imbalanced class system in Argentina. Bony chose to highlight the unequal distribution of wealth between different classes by staging a working-class family in what was assumed to be a gallery frequented by the middle to upper classes.

However, through bringing the everyday into the artificial gallery environment, Bony constructed an artificially real performance. As a result, the performer, gallery space and audience are all surrounded by an almost authentic but doubtable circumstance. This feeling of doubtfulness is due to the blurred edges between the performer, who is representing their realistic ordinary daily lives, and the artificial staging, as the gallery space separates the performers off from the everyday world outside its walls. When everyday elements are pulled out of their environment and placed in a gallery context, they are both available for observation and altered by this move. In a sense, Bony’s work goes to the edge of what is considered realistic, and this means that the audience could refuse to believe what they have seen. 

The instruction that the artist gave to the performers, which was to live their daily lives in the gallery, could be interpreted as uncanny, awkward, and unrealistic. Freud claims that the uncanny is a class of frightening things through which the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred; ‘An uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now thought imaginary.’[2] Therefore, the uncanny is counter-intuitively connected to what is known and familiar; it needs to closely resemble something that exists for it to seem uncanny or out of place. Bony’s decision could be seen as having an uncanny effect, as an object (performer, artwork etc.) will not keep its entity intact (identity, meaning etc.) when removed from one context to the next. In this instance, the move from a private living room to a public gallery renders the effect, of ‘ordinary’ life, uncanny. As a result, the working-class family’s everyday lives remain unrepresentable to a certain extent and are only available to be acted out in the realm of the everyday.

…Bony tried to shock the public into an awareness of the great disconnection that existed between high elite art and social reality. To do this, he brought a representative of the neglected, oppressed, and repressed (it was a time of military dictatorship) into an arena where this individual would be seen, noticed, and registered by those in power. By bringing a family from the outside world into the gallery system to serve as the subject for aesthetic enjoyment to those who were “in,” he hoped to shock the art power elite into a reexamination of the purpose of art and the circuits of distribution.[3]

Instead of taking the art (object) to a working-class audience (subject), Bony chose to bring members of the working-class into the gallery as both subject and object. This further increases the spectacular staging of the working-class and it can be considered as a bilateral move because it affects both working and upper classes, by asking them to reexamine their own positions in conjunction with other identities. Therefore, there is an assumption made here by Bony that the viewers to the gallery would be of a middle-class or upper-class status and would be shocked by the encounter with the working-class family from Argentina, which may counteract stereotypes. As a result of constructing the working-class family as both subject and object, Bony turns the middle to upper class audience into a quasi-object too as their reactions are placed onstage in relation to the artwork.

The purpose of Bony’s provocation, produced through the encounter between the classes, is referred to by Bishop in her account of Guy Debord’s theory and practice, ‘For many artists and curators on the left, Debord’s critique strikes to the heart of why participation is important as a project: it rehumanizes a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalist production.’[4] Bishop’s provocation is realized by Bony through the juxtaposition of the different classes, which produces a confrontation, or in Bishop’s words ‘antagonism’, through participation. As Bishop claims, ‘Artists and works of art can operate in a space of antagonism or negation vis-à-vis society, a tension that the ideological discourse of creativity reduces to a unified context and instrumentalises for more efficacious profiteering.’[5] Bishop’s ‘antagonism’ is active and changes according to the context. In most instances, it also requires an alternative subject position or backdrop that it is pushing against another. Therefore, these two (or more) different positions bring to the surface differing views on ruling social, political, economic and cultural realities or ideologies. This both stages these alternative views and enables their differences to be encountered through their staging. However, these counter-positions may wish to also diminish themselves and their responsibility in relation to the performance, as they may not want to reflect on being complicit with this system that is perpetuated by the construction of the nuclear family (private sphere, class and gender politics etc.).

[1] Exhibition ‘Experiencias 68’ - At the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Removal and destruction of all the exhibition by their own artists after the closure by the police of the art piece called 'Bathroom' by Roberto Plate, to protest against censorship and the wave of political repression in Argentina.

[2]Sigmund Fred, The Uncanny (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 150.

[3] Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 177. Quoted in Daniel Quiles “Between Organism and Sky: Oscar Bony, 1965-1976”, Caiana, 2020. 1-14. <>

[4] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, (London: Verso Books, 2012), 11.

[5] Ibid.,16.


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