A few weeks ago my friend and OSU colleague Erica Levin told me about Juan Downey’s 1973 video installation Plato Now, which was re-staged in 2012 during the inaugural program at the Tanks in the Tate Modern.
The Chilean artist had moved to New York in 1969 and first performed this work at Circuit: A Video Invitational at the Everson Museum of Art.
The performance consisted of nine participants who, like the figures carrying the objects that created the shadows on the cave in Plato’s analogy, meditated proceedings with their backs to the audience. A row of nine video monitors positioned between these meditators and the audience allowed spectators to view the faces of the performers on closed-circuit television while shadows of the public were projected on the wall behind. The meditators were provided with sensors to monitor the alpha waves generated by their brain activity so that when a certain level of neuronal energy was achieved, the sensors triggered the transmission of recordings of quotations from Plato’s Dialogues to headphones worn by each performer. As the description on the Tate website puts it, Downey’s work ‘reconsiders the allegory of Plato’s cave for the Cybernetic age’.
What immediately struck me as unique in Downey’s remaking of Plato’s analogy was how he incorporated the Platonic dialogues themselves into the re-imagined space of the cave. In Plato’s Republic, the analogy is set to describe the limits of traditional education (which relied so heavily on poets like Homer and their shadowy claims to knowledge). Given this, the idea to include Plato’s own texts within the cave is a troubling gesture that carries with it the implication that the dialogues too were as much part of the problem as the solution.
Beyond this subtle variation on the analogy of the cave in Downey’s Plato Now, what is curious about this work is its timing, especially considering its relationship with the work that the artist would go on to make later that year. Shown in Spring 1973, in the Summer of that year the elected socialist government was overthrown in Pinochet’s coup with the president Salvador Allende committing suicide. As has become clear in more recent years, the CIA and United States government was in several ways complicit in the coup and in the consolidation of power by the Pinochet regime. Given this situation, what could the impact of been for the Chilean artist Downey living in New York? One answer is to look at the works that he produced immediately following Plato Now.
One such work was Anaconda Map of Chile, a work that was banned from an exhibition in New York for referencing the role of the private Anaconda Copper Mining Company in the downfall of Allende’s socialist government and the US-supported installation of Pinochet. (The Rockefeller family had connections to both the arts and to the mining company). In this work, a live anaconda slides across a roughly coloured map of Chile is placed in a wooden case covered in glass.
Another work, Video Trans America, which was started in 1973 but complete in 1976 comprised a series of videos Downey made during an expansive trip across the American continent. He visited Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia as well as Chile. Downey describes the resulting video installation (which I was lucky enough to see recently at the Reina Sofia in Madrid) as follows (this description was written in 1973):
Many of the cultures in the Americas exist today in complete isolation, unaware of their variety as a whole and shared myths. This road trip was formulated to develop an all-embracing perspective of the diverse peoples that currently inhabit the American continents via a video-recorded account. From the cold forests of the north to the southern tip of the Americas; a form of evolution in space that shrouds time, viewing a culture in its own context and in the context of others, and, finally, setting all interactions of space, time and context in a work of art. The cultural information will be exchanged primarily in videos filmed on the road, and screened in towns so that people can see themselves and other people. Here the role of the artist is conceived as a cultural communicator, an activating anthropologist with a visual medium of expression: video.
When seen as a kind of sequel to Plato Now, Video Trans Americas gestures not only towards the oppressive political situation within the Chilean cave (as made explicit by Anaconda Map of Chile) but also to the figure of the released prisoner – the Platonic philosopher – whose role it is to re-enter the cave and try to persuade his fellow citizens of their delusions. Of course, these connections can be fleshed out further, but perhaps the most vital point for Minus Plato is to show how it is important to locate moments of engagement between contemporary art and the Classical within broader contexts of an artist’s work. Seen in isolation, Plato Now is just another entry in a long list of works that engage and expand on Plato’s famous analogy. But once Downey’s road trip after the cave is brought into a discussion of Plato Now we can gain a more responsible insight into the conditions for the production and reception of both the Chilean prisoners and the released artist-philosopher. Who is to say that the presence of the Platonic dialogues within the cave of Plato Now was not a hint at the desired road map to come?