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[ Jointing ]

3. From Invisible to Visible III

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

The use of a real family as artwork makes the interpretation of the practice or performance more complicated. Bishop writes, ‘This double presentation of the family, on display both symbolically (as representatives of the working-class) and literally (as the singular Rodríguez family) was conceptually reinforced in the father’s double pay.’[1] In correlation with Bishop’s speculation, Bony provided a label to accompany the piece that explained the following economic transaction, ‘Luis Ricardo Rodríguez, a professional die-caster, is earning twice his usual wages for just staying on show with his wife and son.’[2] In using the term ‘just’, Bony is suggesting that the work the family is undertaking in the gallery is not as difficult as the father’s usual labour. Bony could also be announcing that this working-class family’s income is cheap to the public it assumes will be viewing and that the artwork makes the family more valuable. Bony’s ambivalence, therefore, could be read as suggesting that the family’s operation as an artwork, an educational tool to the middle-classes, is more worthwhile than the father working as a professional die-caster. Through the artwork, Bony acts as an imparter of value and this provokes questions about the working-class’s valuation in society via its labour and/or income. This presents the ambivalence of the class power structure, by staging the working-class family in many different and conflicting ways.

Through proposing that the value of working-class family as an artwork is worth double than the father’s usual work, suggests that the working-class family is worth more as a labour of art as opposed to the labour of the father’s industry or the mother’s domestic labour (the latter of which remains largely invisible within the framing of the artwork). Bony produces a provocation that the audience is asked to consider; is the labour of the working-class family valuable and in what form? It also highlights the inequality in the structure of the family and questions the valuation of income for a working-class family. Through this act of annunciating the father’s wage, Bony also draws attention to the unpaid labor of wives/mothers by only recognizing the salary of the father and doubling it. In both these instances, Bony’s decision is ambivalent because he could both be provoking a response to this inequality or repeating patriarchal operations by only doubling the father’s salary and subjecting it to the economy of the art world. For example, by raising the family up in value through the plinths, Rodríguez (the father and breadwinner in the family) could appear to be presented as the model patriarchal figure of a working-class family.

Bony’s artwork did achieve a political provocation, as it eventually attracted the attention from the authorities and the Argentinean government asked the gallery, Experiencias '68, to remove the artwork from the group exhibition. In response to the Argentinean government’s intervention, the other artists in the show began to withdraw or destroy their own artworks out in the streets.[3] This was in order to make visible the injustice and announce their declaration against the government’s censorship. In response to the overly repressive stratocracy in Argentina during the 1960s to 1970s, Bony aims to represent the government policy on the minimum wage to the middle-class and upper-class citizens that are also complicit in perpetuating the mechanisms of inequality. Through this Bony drew attention to how low the wage is for working-class families in Argentina and enraged the government. The subsequent controversy perhaps did more to render visible the invisible social and political issues within the class and geographical regions of Argentina than if the work’s meaning had remained within the walls of the gallery. Bony’s making visible of the inequality in the class system provoked a political response because the Argentinean government censored several of the artworks that criticized both the government and the President within the exhibition.

Bony created a predetermined premise and structure for La Familia Obrera-The Working-Class Family (1968) but what he could not control were the actions of the performers and visitors (or participants as Bishop would describe them). These were variables that would have been hard to predict because each person has their own subjective decision making when creating or reacting to the work. Furthermore, Bishop describes the posturing in the performance through an analysis of its documentary material, ‘In photographic documentation of the project, the Rodríguez family are shown self-absorbed, reading books to pass the time of day while visitors examine them.’[4] This description alerts the reader to the concept of the piece, which takes as its assumption that middle to upper class families are the ones to visit art galleries and it is their encounter with the working-class family (performer) that is to be provocative, as the classes are not pictured as mixing much prior to this contact in the gallery. As Bishop states, ‘The Worker’s Family clearly plays on the conventions of figurative art in a socialist realist tradition: elevating an everyday family to the dignity of exemplary representation or ideal.’[5] When looking at the image that Bishop is referring to (fig. 2), there are two families depicted and the heightened plinth separates the identities of performer and audience. The plinth is represented as a stage and it is this device that raises the figure up, so that whoever is on the plinth becomes the object of observation, an artwork. While the middle-class audience functions as the observer, who examines and analyses the working-class family. In a sense, when abiding to the logic of the plinths the working-class family are onstage and the middle-class family is separated off-stage. However, these onstage and offstage distinctions merge and blend within both Bishop’s and Quiles’ accounts of the work.

Traditionally, the viewer follows a model of observation (as opposed to participation) created by the space demarcated by the plinth or frame (inside and outside) and treats themselves as an outsider who observes the artwork, which in this instance is the performance. Therefore, the audience often sees themselves as separate from the object and able to judge the artwork. In this scenario, the lines between performer and audience are clear; the stage is a place that is clearly demarcated and asks the audience to remain separate from it in order to observe the material. In contrast, through the piece La Familia Obrera-The Working-Class Family (1968), Bony set up a stage-like plinth to raise the performers physically and metaphorically. Its function was to elevate the everyday and working-classes by separating off the two envisaged classes, performer (artwork) and audience (viewer). This idea of audience engagement was only possible if the audience felt alienated (distanced) from the performance and were able to think critically about what they were seeing. In this sense, Bony’s work is consistent with Bertolt Brecht’s breaking down of the fourth wall in theatre practice, in which the performer directly speaks to the viewer from the stage. In her book Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art (2003), Griselda Pollock states that Brecht complex,

… the use of different registers such as the comic, tragic as well as a confection of songs, images, sounds, film and so forth. Complex seeing and complex multilayered texts were the project. Distanciation is therefore the theoretical and practical result of this critique of realist representation and a device for achieving a different form of realist knowledge actively involving the spectator in its production and its translation into action.[6]

Pollock suggests that the Brechtian audience should have an active role that liberates them from passively absorbing the interpretation of the artwork. Therefore, in Brecht’s approach, the viewer is both active and responsible for their reactions to the contents of the performance but also must remain alienated and not drawn into the artifice. This is so that the audience can maintain a concept of reality, in order to go away and change their lived conditions.

The term ‘fourth wall’ comes from the theatre and is used to describe the conceptual barrier that separates the audience from the action but the barrier itself remains invisible. It is an imaginary wall that separates the narrative of the play from the real world, so the fourth wall could also be the cinema or computer screen. However, when actors in Brechtian plays interact with the audience by directly speaking to them through the fourth wall, they highlight the real world by nodding to the fictionality of the play. Pollock states that, ‘For Brecht the audience was always imagined as socially specific, a concrete social group in relation to whose position and needs pleasure and instruction would have to be calculated.’
[7] Therefore, Brecht includes a consideration of the audience within the very structure and content of the play. This also correlates with Bony’s address to the middle-classes in The Working-Class Family (1968) by picturing a concrete set of social groups. In this instance, Bony has also expanded on this concept by taking into consideration both the onstage (working-class) performers backgrounds, as well as the offstage (middle-class) audiences’ backgrounds. Brecht chose to keep the audience at a distance, as they were not performers, but, simultaneously, invited them to interact critically with the work. Therefore, they were brought into the story by way of decision making and this could make them feel provoked by the play, as the spectator becomes not just an observer but an accomplice to the plot. Brechtian plays broke down the fourth wall through directing the actors to speak to the audience and, in a sense, appear to go off the artificially scripted narrative. This gives the audience a space to think critically about the society that is being staged. Brecht encourages the audience to realize that the play is artificial, while asking the audience to be critical of the reality that the play is presenting and to take that into the politics of their everyday lives. In The Working-Class Family (1968), Bony artificially separates the performer and audience, with the aim of arousing the audiences’ curiosity especially in the elite and powerful classes who came to see the exhibition. This was so that they could recognise the family as a representation of all those who were oppressed and neglected during the military dictatorship of Argentina.

Brecht and Bony aim to hold up aspects of society and politics to the audience but also to speak to its members directly, so that they feel implicated in the situation and may want to do something about it.

In Bony’s work, it could be argued that the fourth wall is broken down even further as there is an ambiguity between who the performers are, where the artwork ends and begins, and how each relate to the structure that has been set up by the artist. At points in Bony’s work, neither performer nor audience (as it is not clear where one ends and the other begins) have the critical distance in the work to judge (accept or disagree) with what the artist aims to express in the artwork. Bony’s participants (performer and audience) who are standing within the white cube of the gallery, are inside an uncanny environment and due to this immersion may not be able to distinguish between fact and fiction. Due to the ambiguity of the space and the roles of the subjects within it, the consistency of a stable identity is hard to maintain. This doubtfulness towards one’s identity is connected with the white cube environment and the contents of the performance that has been allowed to morph and change, as Bony relinquished the performance decisions to the family. He also chose to place the participants in a space that functions for display, which already sets up a process of combining fact (authority and frame of the gallery) and fiction (displaying humans themselves as an artwork). When participators act as an artwork inside the gallery space, the boundaries between the art world and the ‘normal’ world begin to blur. By choosing to label the classes and categorize the two groups, Bony also encourages them to be introspective of their own identities and backgrounds. Perhaps Bony not only broke down the fourth wall that traditionally exists between performers and audience, but also broke down the walls that are assumed to separate us as autonomous individuals and instead presented the audience with the notion of their fragility and connectedness. As well as drawing attention to the way in which our minds are never fully our own, as they include subconscious and unconscious areas that nevertheless interact with our conscious faculties.

[1] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, (London: Verso Books, 2012), 114.

[2] Ibid., 113.

[3] Experiencias ’68 - a controversial exhibition held at Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (IDTD) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in May 1968, curated by Jorge Romero Brest. It included artwork by artists including Oscar Bony, Delia Cancela, Roberto Plate, and Roberto Jacoby. With this exhibition, the Institute was joining a growing movement among artists to make artwork that would challenge the government under Juan Carlos Onganía.

[4] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, (London: Verso Books, 2012), 114.

[5] Ibid., 114.

[6] Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art, (London: Routledge, 2003), 226.

[7] Ibid., 244.


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