Roberto Jacoby – From Virus to Venus

No. 13 (Anniversary Number) – Buenos Aires, April 2005

We wanted to interview him since the first issue, and he promised to call us when he was ready to talk. He finally showed up, and talked for six hours with Laura Batkis. Here goes only part of it (obviously).  

Roberto Jacoby is one of the most interesting artists in Argentina. But, because of the “immaterial” property of his works, it is difficult to see his exhibitions. He was a key figure of the Di Tella Institute in the sixties, he made incursions into media art, he was a lyricist for Virus, he organized events at Eros y Palladium, he won the Guggenheim scholarship for his project Venus, he invented Ramona, the only art magazine without images in Argentina, and it was not until 2001 that he had his first solo show. He never sold a single work of art and has been having coffee with people interested in his new project for two years. 

Laura Batkis: It would be difficult to make a retrospective analysis of you, because your work is immaterial, only records of the actions remain. 

Roberto Jacoby: That’s a good thing, and at the same time it’s a problem. I am not going to show something that existed forty years ago, and that made sense in a certain political and social context, city or street. I try to always work on the present.

LB: In recent years, your work has been shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Queens, and at the Reina Sofía in Madrid. You are presented as a pioneer in the world’s most important books on conceptual art, you are mentioned countless times in the book on Argentine art from the sixties published by the MOMA, but it is always a documentation of something that you’ve done in the past and not what you do today. 

RJ: The problem with attitudes like that, a bit avant-garde, like mine, is that you never receive attention for what you are currently doing. 

LB: Does that happen to you usually?

RJ: A little bit, yes. I was either a frivolous bourgeois or an insane communist. It happened to me with Virus, with visual art, with social research.

LB: And now in 2005

RJ: (laughs). 

LB: What is art today?

RJ: Be aware, I’m going to say something very serious… I think that art today has to do with the construction of free individuals.  It was probably always like that. A work of any period of time is great when it establishes a wider view, because it decentralizes or expands human consciousness. 

LB: What’s the difference between your actions in the sixties and what you do today?

RJ: At that time, there was a notion of convincing people that there was one thing that was right, and that some knew what was right and other people didn’t. That you had to enlighten the audience with an artistic, political and social truth.

LB: Did you feel enlightened at that time?

RJ: Yes, a little.

LB: Was that a somewhat arrogant attitude?

RJ: No, it was naive. To think that you know and others don’t, it’s naive. 

LB: This is a rock magazine, so tell me about your time at Virus. 

RJ: I wrote almost half of the songs they produced while Federico was alive.  I wrote them alone or in collaboration with someone from the group. It started very much linked to my activity as a visual artist. I met Federico at the beginning of the seventies, when he still didn’t have a band and was interested in fashion. He was a fan of the Di Tella.

LB: So Federico approached the group because of fashion?

RJ: Exactly, because of fashion… Later, I didn’t see him in often, and at the end of the seventies, during the military government, another great artist returned to Buenos Aires, Daniel Melgarejo, a great cartoonist. Daniel came from Spain, where he was living and working. He was drawing in El Víbora at the same time as Almodóvar, and he was also a friend of Federico’s. By that time I had started writing poetry, and one day Daniel met Federico, who told him, “Hey, I need someone to write the lyrics for our album”. They were doing Wadu Wadu and he was not convinced by the lyrics. So Daniel told him why don’t you call Roberto who is writing poetry. 

There he called me, came to my house, read what I had and took several poems with him, just as they were, which were neither for rock music, nor were they songs 

LB: And those poems were the first lyrics of Virus? 

RJ: Some of them were. Rock is my way of life, it was poetry totally in jest, because I wrote very ironically, with word games. He took them with him, and what was a mockery of a certain way of writing rock ended up being a kind of rock anthem.

LB: And that happened with other poems? That people took them as anthems

RJ: The lyrics were very ironic and some people took them seriously.

LB: And after those first poems…

RJ: When he saw that he liked them, Federico brought me a cassette with the songs that already had music and lyrics, and I worked on the songs that I thought could be improved. Because they had the record, they had everything ready, but he wasn’t convinced by the lyrics. Federico was a great perfectionist. He wanted everything to be perfect: the music, the lyrics, the clothes, the costumes, the scenery, the stage direction, the lights. He considered rock as a whole product.

LB: Let’s continue. So Federico brought you the cassette…

RJ: He brought me a lot of songs and for some of them I said: “No, I can’t improve the lyrics on this one”.  I wasn’t going to come and improve something that was unbeatable, for example Wadu Wadu or Densa Realidad, what was I going to do? That was it, they were hits, and the only thing I could do was to ruin them.  So I didn’t even touch them. But other songs, yes, I thought they were not good enough and that I could improve them. What I was trying to do was to interpret what they were working on, and give it a richer form like Caliente Café, Soy Moderno no fumo or Loco Coco

LB: And then?

RJ: In Wadu Wadu there was already the idea of verbal games, of jokes, of something… how can I tell you? It was a horrendous moment, it was the worst moment in Argentine history, just think that Federico’s brother. Jorge, had been kidnapped, all of them had been kidnapped and the brother disappeared, the sister-in-law disappeared and then reappeared, the niece… a whole horrendous catastrophe, and yet they were making very happy music. They did not make any tragedy out of all this, but what they were trying to do was the opposite, to look for something cheerful, like generating a different state from the depression of that moment.  I think there was a very good chemistry because the same thing was happening to me, and I was surrounded by people with big problems, with terrible things. 

LB: So there was a chemistry that brought you all together. 

RJ: For me, to be able to produce and generate something in such a difficult moment was a complete joy. Imagine going, in the middle of the military dictatorship, to a concert in a basement, where there was a group that dressed up, and everyone was dressed in incredible clothes, singing and dancing. It was pure enjoyment that lasted for two hours and was an oasis, an island of well-being… And to feel that they were singing things that were written by me was already crazy, it was completely fabulous. 

LB: Tell me about Recrudece

RJ: It was a very well thought out record, completely elaborated from the start, a more political record, because it was made in the middle of the Malvinas War. The lyrics have a lot to do with the reality of rock music, of censorship, of soldiers sent to fight and die for nothing. 

LB: And how was the reception from the press? 

RJ: For example, there was a magazine that was supposedly anti-military but suffered from the same repressive environment, Humor. There was a journalist who criticized the group because they were wearing makeup and they implied that they were putos (faggots)… They would invent things like that in the stalls a boy would take out a lipstick and paint himself. It was stupid.

LB: Did they criticize what they considered as “gay”? 

RJ: Of course, that gays were entering the rock scene. Nowadays, if someone writes something like that, they are intervened by the Secretary against Discrimination, but imagine the time. Then, on another page, there was a big title like “They strip on stage”. All the articles were about the scandal, on the right and left, because some said that they were stripping, others said that they were painting themselves, and another one said that it was superficial, that “Virus is very superficial”.

LB: And they weren’t what you would call committed. 

RJ: Of course, Victor Heredia was committed.

LB: Let’s continue with the second album. 

RJ: I was making politics with all that, very critical towards power, but also towards rock. There was a song that was written entirely with the letter A, Bandas chantas arañan la nada, something that León Gieco did with Los Orozco and nobody found frivolous. A song that became famous. If you take the whole record, each lyric works on a specific topic. Then there were some that were directly political, such as El banquete, which depicted the political situation as a great feast: “Se han sacrificado jóvenes terneros para celebrar una cena oficial. Los cocineros son muy conocidos, sus nuevas recetas nos van a ofrecer… es un momento amable bastante particular, sobre temas generales nos llaman a conversar” (“Young calves have been slaughtered to celebrate an official dinner. The cooks are very well known, they are going to offer us their new recipes… it’s a very special and kind moment, they call us to talk about general subjects”), that’s what was being set up at that time, the war was already going badly and the generals were setting up a scheme with the politicians to fix history. The military realized that they were lost and tried to deceive everyone. They, who had fought against rock music all their lives, decreed that national rock music was now obligatory. There was no other music that could be transmitted appart form the national one. So all the radio stations played rock music, and the intelligence services organized rock concerts: Grinbank and an army intelligence officer organized a concert at Obras, a well-known venue.  There were only two groups that did not participate, Virus and Violadores. 

LB: I imagine it must have been terrible… that moment

RJ: Recrudece denounced that situation a little. There was a song that said, “Now rock sold the stock, our song went out to the balcony,” as if it went out to the balcony of the Casa Rosada, right?  “National rock, on the TV channel, on the radio, in the stadiums… how long will this enchantment last?”. It was like they were giving you a rock ‘n’ roll enema, wasn’t it?  All the songs there were very intentional, and it’s also the first album where the idea of the physical is strongly transmitted, of rock not as something to listen to in an ecclesiastical attitude, but of moving, of freeing the body, of not admitting spaces with seats that are already disciplined, but of trying to generate a different situation. Something that the Redonditos (Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota) had begun to do several years earlier, and that I had seen in the Teatro de la Cortada.

LB: Virus was an amazing experience in your life.

RJ: Yes, it was the only time I did something that had a great popular impact. I never did, before or after, something that had such massive effects.

LB: What happened after Virus?

RJ: At the end of 1989, with Sergio Avello, we did the parties at the Eros Club. The idea was to take over the neighborhood clubs and generate music and dance movements with mixed people.

LB: You were going out into a very different environment…

RJ: Of course, we were trying to get out of the nightclub scene, which was a foul environment. Foul in every way, because it had no air, because it was locked in one place, because you were controlled by the guy at the door, because it was expensive, because everything was arranged.  On the other hand, in the neighborhood club the entrance was very cheap, there was no limit to the number of people who could enter, anyone could come, the people from the neighborhood, families came, people who stopped in cars came, as well as the most popular people in Buenos Aires. The artists went and dressed up in clothes of the opposite sex, Batato performed, Noy, Kuropatwa, Avello, Charly, Gustavo, Fito, everyone. Going to Eros’ parties was way better than any club. From there a whole movement of nomadic parties appeared, which now continues with the Rudamacho parties for example.

LB: It wasn’t until 2001 that you held your first solo show, why not before? 

RJ: Because I never had anything to show. I wasn’t very interested in the art gallery environment either. Now I don’t know.  It depends on what idea I have. There are projects that have to do with the gallery space, and there are others that don’t. In 2001 Fernanda Laguna invited me to exhibit in Belleza y Felicidad, and I had a project to do there, which was called No soy un clown (I am not a clown).

LB: In an art gallery…

RJ: It’s a very special gallery, Belleza y Felicidad for me is the best gallery in Buenos Aires, but at the same time it’s not a gallery. I mean, it’s the best because it’s not a commercial gallery, it’s an artist’s space run by an artist, it’s a place where you feel comfortable. It’s not a gallery like, say, Benzacar. I have nothing against Benzacar, on the contrary, Ruth invited me to make a great multimedia workshop space, but she died just when we were about to do it… 

LB: How did you come up with No soy un clown?

RJ: I thought that going to an art gallery is worthwhile when you can enjoy an experience that you otherwise wouldn’t have. 

LB: You wanted to create an action that involved the viewer, who had to be there, involved.

RJ: Something that if someone tells you about, you realize it’ s not the same because you need to be there and experience it for yourself. And outside of that it’s not describable. I wanted to do something that would take you totally out of the world you came from, that would immediately immerse you in a dreamy atmosphere, the opposite of daytime life. I thought of a completely dark space, an absence of light. As you enter, you have the feeling that there is no image, that the room seems to be empty. And then you heard music, and immediately you began to see that there were some little points of light in some places. They were images the size of a postcard with small portraits, and from that portrait only the face was illuminated.

LB: Were they portraits of you? 

RJ: It was me in my clown work. I did several clown jobs during the nineties. Among them, one with Omar Chabán. We would show up for free every Tuesday at Cemento, sometimes with two people from the audience, and I would take pictures of myself before I performed, with the makeup, the clothes, the wig, everything I had prepared for that act. 

LB: So in 2001 you used those photos?

RJ: Sure, I made a selection of those photos and put them in that dark setting, illuminated with a very focalized lighting. It created a sense of magic that was what I wanted, a sense of total strangeness, of not knowing how it was done, of not understanding what it is… And the music was a record by Zarah Leander, who was Hitler’s favorite singer. 

LB: The following year you also did the Dark Room in Belleza y Felicidad

RJ: I wanted to continue working with darkness. I was thinking of doing a performance based on showing fragments of people with small illuminated body parts. But that was materially impossible, because when you illuminate a piece of skin, the light is reflected and you see the rest and the fragmentary essence disappears. Suddenly I remembered that in the Chacra… Do you remember that I told you about the Chacra, an experiment that I did with a lot of artists who went to live for several months with video cameras, computers, photo cameras, sound equipment, etc.? Well, in the Chacra they had lent us a video camera that had a night shot. And several times we went down to the basement in total darkness, seeing nothing more than what we could see through that camera, which has an infrared beam that hits you in one place and the rest doesn’t light up. That’s how the performance was completed.  Afterwards, I thought it was very banal to see the actors’ faces. It lost all the mystery. Then I thought “It has to be with a mask that cancels individuality”, so that it really generates the sensation that you are somewhere else, that you are another species. 

LB: That’s where those characters with the mask came from.

RJ: We made the masks with Sebastian Gordin, he designed them and made them so that they would be neutral, like his characters.

LB: Not female, not male, not anything. Just things.

RJ: Yes, things. 

LB: There were about twelve actors or performers who were in that dark room and only one person from the audience could get in, right?

RJ: Exactly, only one person entered with that camera that allowed him/her to see the life of those mutant beings in a cave. They would go in for only five minutes because they couldn’t take it anymore. But they would come out of there, and they really had been somewhere else. It wasn’t like “Oh, I saw an exhibition, oh yeah, that’s nice, let’s change the subject”. Something happened to you. 

LB: We’re back to the point of art where it broadens the spectator’s consciousness. 

RJ: The person who came out didn’t tell the others that were waiting what he had seen. Like in the Blair Witch Project, where people came out of the cinema and didn’t want to say what was going on, as if they had to protect a secret.

LB: And every person filmed…

RJ: That’s another aspect of the work, where the spectator is the one who films, the only one who sees and records the work.  There are no witnesses, because the actors didn’t see anything either. All that remains is what each spectator filmed. 

LB: And in that show. what was sold? How was it financed?

RJ: Everything I did in art was always paid by me and I practically never sold anything. Finally it’s what I wanted: to work outside the market and I really achieved it (laughs). I managed it perfectly, because I never saw a penny. Art outside the market. I really took it to the limit. But it’s good now. I made it and that’s it. Now I’d like to be paid for what others are being paid for…

LB: And what they use.

RJ: One is part of the myth of the sixties, of the legend of Tucumán Arde, of conceptual art, of dematerialized art, and there are curators who do shows with that, they get scholarships to write about me (laughs); it’s more what they have earned by writing about me than what I earned in my whole life. Anyway, I prefer them to talk and not to keep quiet (laughs).

LB: I’m interested in what you’re thinking right now. Do you have any projects to share with me? 

RJ: Several, at least ten, although everything I want to do now requires the same effort as when I was twenty. So I don’t know what is going to come out and what isn’t. That must be what keeps me feeling young: it’s that I never achieve a recognition that makes things easier for me; the same thing: I end up doing whatever I want but with blood traction, always starting from zero, trying to convince someone to do something that in ten or twenty years will appear in a book for them to study. 

Jacoby x Jacoby

“At the age of twenty-two I proposed the total dematerialization of the artwork, through operations with social matter, through mass media and diverse communication structures: message circuits that are articulated through posters, telephones and answering machines, systematic transformations of the urban environment, media conferences, anti-happenings, multimedia shows, etc. that I carried out in various places through collective or individual projects. 

In May 1968, in Mensaje en el Di Tella, I spoke of the “dissolution of art in social life”, a notion outlined by Octavio Paz in comments on the experiments we were doing with Eduardo Costa. I was part of the group of researchers, philosophers, architects, analysts, semioticians and artists who were largely grouped around Oscar Masotta, such as Eliseo Verón, Oscar Steimberg, Alicia Paéz, Nicolás Peyceré, Diana Agrest, Gandelsonas, Juan C. Indart and many others. Like several Argentine artists, I abandoned the activity around 1969, after mixing media hypotheses with political-artistic actions (Tucumán Arde, the magazine Sobre).

From 1969 I worked on social research and political epistemology. In the early eighties, I wrote more than forty songs for the pop rock group Virus, which led the youth music movement. I organized several multimedia shows, performance-parties and an anti-disco movement called Club Social, Deportivo y Cultural Eros (Recrudece at the Olympia, Body Art at the Palladium, Decadance at the Opera, a remake of Andy Warhol’s Los 13 chicos más lindos at the Teatro Colón Experimentation Center). In 1988 I returned to do individual “works” with an installation at the ICI, keeping the 20 years that had passed since 1968 in mind. With Kiwi Sainz I developed Fabulous Nobodies, a brand without products that publishes its ads in magazines.  I launched a media campaign against discrimination by releasing T-shirts with the phrase “I have AIDS”. 

Since 1998 I have been working on the development of multimedia networks of artists and technologists through the Snowball project, Chacra99, Ramona magazine and the Venus Project for which I received the Guggenheim grant.  In 2001 I started to experiment with dark spaces: I did the installation No soy un clown i mentioned before, in Belleza y Felicidad.  In 2002: Darkroom, Performance para rayos infrarrojos y un solo espectador (Darkroom, performance for infrared rays and a single spectator) also in Belleza y Felicidad.”