the olympics go avant-garde. merc cunningham and john cage in mexico, 1968, with david tudor, gordon mumma, toshi ichiyanagi, la monte young, peirre schaeffer, peirre henri, bo nilsson, and many more

Fifty years on, 1968 appears as a clear axis point in history. Across the globe, the left caught fire and raged into the streets. Yet, even within a political context like our own – polarized to extremes, a battle ground, it’s hard to imagine the true character of what was. The failures of the historic left to achieve true radical change, have remodeled and obscured our vision of how real and close true revolution was.

1968 was a year of violence, mirrored and doubled on both sides. Vietnam had the Tet offensive. Back in United States and Europe, the students of Chicago and Paris went to riot. The police battered heads. Politicians got scared. Today, despite the stakes being arguably as high as they were half a century ago, with very little having changed, it’s hard to imagine many young men and women doing the same. Gender, sexual, economic, and educational inequity, institutional racism, attacks on civil rights, and Capitalist driven war are as real as they were then, yet now, perhaps because of the failures of our predecessors, with the inability to clearly see what they were on the verge of accomplishing, we all seem to doubt our ability to effect real change, preferring, all too often, to buy in, rather than pull up the streets and set the world of fire – to risk it all and say, in the hands of the right-wing, that the future looks bleak and we’ve had enough.

When regarding the events of 1968, there are a number of important considerations to regain. The narratives of history have largely cast what occurred as having transpired in the hands of disaffected, stoned and privileged youth – white, middle class college kids, who, only few years later, in the era of Regan and Thatcher, would become a new conservative consumer class. That often quoted aphorism – if you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head, seems with hindsight, for an entire generation of radicals, to have been manifest destiny – telling us that rebellion is futile and it’s better to learn and play by the rules. In truth, the events of 1968 displayed far more potential and breadth. They crossed class, generation, race, gender, and educational background. They spanned the globe. Once again, the privileged are the ones who’ve had their stories told. This was the year in which Martin Luther King was assassinated, igniting African American communities into widespread, unprecedented rioting and civil disobedience. It was the year in which the Black Panther’s escalated their political action and found themselves under increasing attack by police and the federal government. It was the year Robert Kennedy, the left’s last true presidential hope for progressive change, and arguably the left’s last true hope withing the entirety of the United States’ system of institutional politics, was assassinated – the loss of whom sent many in search new radical, grassroots and self-led means. This was the year in which substantial student and / or worker rebellions occurred in Brazil, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the United States, and across the African Continent, in most cases backed by prominent figures from the intellectual world. This wasn’t simply a small band of rabble-rousers. This was a global movement, planting the seeds for more extreme action which would emerge during the coming years in the hands of groups like the Angry Brigade, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground, and numerous left-wing African Liberation and Independence movements, among others. For a moment, it seemed possible that the left might topple the global architectures of power, building a more just and humane society, laying to rest the conservative impulses of oppression, profit, and war. The right responded with an iron fist. At times, so did the left.

Among the most neglected historical narratives of 1968 occurred, while protests and riots raged in the United States, just south in Mexico. Nearly everyone in the world has heard of Kent State, a protest in which four students where killed by the U.S. National Guard in 1970. Few have heard of Tlatelolco, a gathering of students in Mexico City, during which the military, police, and snipers open fire, killing around 300-400, with eye witnesses placing the number much higher (the bodies where taken away in the cover of night, with no official acknowledgement or number of deaths ever given). For a great many Mexicans, it is a wound which has never healed – a marker in time which connects leapfrogging nodes of oppression and lost hope, dating from the Aztecs to the Spanish, from the Spanish to the failures of the Revolution, and from the Revolution and the PRI to the present day. It is a wound from which so much of Mexico’s history and sociopolitical reality can be gleaned. But there is one more complicating fact. The massacre of Tlatelolco came just ten days before the opening of the 1968 Olympic Games in the same city in which in occurred, marking the beginning of the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War), which stretched across the 1970s – a period during which the Mexican government waged a war against students and leftist groups fighting for democratic reform and a better quality of life, which, among countless other acts, saw them ban all left-wing political activities and parties until 1978, as well as all potentially left / counter-cultural leaning music from access to the radio and record labels. Tlatelolco, occurring just days before Mexico opened its doors, is the beginning of a shadow which culturally separated the country from the rest of the world.

Just under a week ago, I traveled across Mexico City to the Museo Jumex, an arts space which I hold in incredibly high regard, considering it to be among the best non-collecting museums in the world. It’s program is stunningly ambitious, often highlighting conceptual, politically charged, and / or neglected artistic output. For those who haven’t been there, the closest parallel might be Raven Row in London, exploded to a more ambitious scale. Jumex currently has three exhibitions on view that I was dying to see – Franz Erhard Walther’s Objects, to Use, Instruments for Processes; Memories of Underdevelopment, Art and the Decolonial Turn in Latin America, 1960-1985, and a small exhibition displaying documents from John Cage’s visits to Mexico in 1968 and 1976. All three were overwhelmingly good – among the best shows I’ve seen in years, but it was the small Cage exhibition which sparked this piece of writing, offering a rare opportunity to view the world and history through a different lens.

Anyone who knows me, or reads my writing with regularity, knows I have a small axe to grind with the legacy of John Cage. While the composer, within the history of avant-garde and experimental music, was and remains among the most important and influential, his legacy and ideas have as many destructive components as good. Importantly, most of my concerns do not entirely rest with Cage himself, but how his ideas and practices are historically framed, with what they have often perpetrated since entering the world. There are a lot of dimensions to this, the most notable being the fact that Cage’s current status in the narratives of experimental music often perpetuates an inaccurate vision of its history and practice, obscuring the efforts and accomplishments of many other worthy artists, very regularly being deployed to frame these sounds as being made by and for white, Western, well educated men, or, at the very least, a music which owes its entire existence to them. In addition to this, Cage’s ideas, beginning with his own use of them, have often become tools to impose hierarchy, control, ownership, exclusion, and entitlement – the very things which, in its origins, experimental music was intended to destroy. That said, for a moment, I’ll leave my axe grinding to the side. This isn’t really a piece about Cage. It is about the world and Mexico in a particular moment, one where experimental music and dance were invited to take part in the unlikeliest place – the 1968 Olympic Games.

Mexico has always been, dating far into the pre-Columbian period, a place of mystery, myth, and misunderstanding – of profound unknowns, felt within as much as without. Even the culture which lays beneath many of its roots, the  people who built the marvels of Teotihuacan, disappeared roughly a thousand years before the Aztecs arrived, leaving a shadowy image and ghosts, but few absolute truths. Mexico is a place, if you can even call it one single place – defined by so many distinct cultures and realities, where power has always been polarized and felt. The Aztecs were few. They took from and oppressed many. The Spanish were few. They took from and oppressed many. Those who inherited the power following the country’s independence from Spain, as well as those who rebuilt the country following the Revolution, more or less did the same. For a great many Mexicans, little has changed in more than half a millennia – one oppressor to the next. But, particularly if you spend time Mexico City, you can also catch a glimpse of a far more democratic reality  – a more hopeful moment in time – a seed planted in the decades following the Revolution, which sadly never bore lasting fruit.

In today’s world, playing on the mysteries, misunderstandings, and myths forever at its heart, Mexico is shrouded – lost under a blanket of media driven fear of cartel violence, extreme corruption, crime, poverty, and desperate men and women running for the northern border. These things are all real, effecting a great many lives, but most represent the tiniest sliver in the reality of the rich and inspiring marvels Mexican history, culture, and everyday life. The global media industry emphasizes the bad in the pursuit of sensationalism and ratings, stoking fear, and neglecting all of the good. It’s full of shit. Mexico is a country of profound beauty, cultural identity, and pride. It is host to an incredibly inspiring culture of artists and intellectuals. Nearly all of its people hold a deep love and connection to the country itself – far more than I’ve witnessed anywhere else. Very few actually want to leave. Very few are corrupt. Very few engage in crime. On these counts, it’s just like anywhere else. But it also a place where history – all its good and bad, occupies a palpable place in the present. Very often more than anywhere else I’ve known. It is a landscape of hope and scars – the present and past bound as one.

When walking the landscape of Mexico City, there are only a small number architectural styles – bubbles of history, bursting in the present. There are buildings from the colonial period, some from the 19th century which could have been pulled from Haussmann’s Paris, a scattering a Art Nouveau, and then huge number, stretching between the 1920’s to the 60s, which fall into the idioms of Art Deco, Art Moderne, and High Modernism, coupled with a substantial number of public works – parks, open air theaters, etc, and urban design, falling in line with the later three. Among the last great gestures of Mexico’s Modernist movement and era – one of economic growth, optimism, and the symbolic democracy embraced during the years following the Revolution, are the Mexico City subway system (Metro), built and completed for the Olympic Games of 1968, and Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of Three Cultures – the three architectural idioms represented on the site being Aztec, Colonial, and Modern), finished in 1966, and the site of the massacre of Tlatelolco. Viewed from afar, the landscape of Mexico City is made of scars – the lines of the Metro, leading to the wound of Tlatelolco, an event which killed the optimism displayed by the Modernist ideology which sculpted how so much of it was built. Hope and scars. The present and past bound as one.

Historically, the external understanding of Mexico’s movement of Modernism is viewed as having been fairly specific and landlocked, generally associated with painters like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo – artist cast as making more sense in Mexico than elsewhere. This image is convenient and revisionist. Mexico, for much of the 20th century hosted a remarkable and diverse creative vanguard – Modernist photographers like Agustin Jimenez, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and Tina Modotti, poets and writers like Manuel Maples Arce, Efraín Huerta, and Octavio Paz, as well as radical designers and architects like Luis Barragán, Michael van Beuren, and Clara Porset, and composers like Julián Carrillo, Manuel Ponce, Carlos Chávez, Silvestre Revueltas, Mario Lavista, Julio Estrada, and Manuel Enriquez, among many others, each discipline in close dialog with, and highly regarded by, the international creative community. History has been revised and altered to suit the hegemony of the Eurocentric point of view. Mexico was, for the better part of century, very much in discourse with the rest of the world, one contributor in a global constellation of groundbreaking creative efforts. It is a conversation written across its landscape, for all to see. While Modernism and its optimistic spirit were certainly entering their twilight hours by 1968, in Mexico, the Olympics and the massacre of Tlatelolco also mark the country’s progressive diminishment on the global intellectual stage.

The Olympics has never been just a gathering of sport. It has always been symbolic, embedded with deep investment of national pride, and, across the most of the 20th century – a period of growth and change, for those who hosted, it was a rare chance to open the window to world onto the marvels of what they had become. This is exactly what it was for Mexico in 1968 – a proof of all which it was and had accomplished, and that it was player intellectual stage. It wasn’t really about sport. It was about public works, development, architecture, culture, ideas, and pride. It was proof of the country’s relevance, being, and becoming. A tragic vision of what could have been, placed now against what was and is.

And this is why, when viewed from a historical perspective, the journey of Merc Cunningham with his dancers, John Cage, Gordon Mumma, and David Tudor, to the 1968 Olympic Games, under invitation to take part in its cultural program, is such potent vision and reminder of how the world once saw itself, and, within that vision, of the former place and power of the avant-garde. This movement of four men south, actively engaging with many of Mexico’s brightest creative minds after they arrived, set against a world stage, is a doubled lens for the rapid loss of innocence, hope, and optimism – of the once great power of art. It is the last gasp of a dream.

In the simplest sense, this piece began as the result of a small shock. The thought of anyone like Cunningham, Cage, Mumma, or Tudor performing in association within today’s vision of the Olympic Games is unthinkable, and thus I simply wanted to share the photos I took in the exhibition of the program of events in which they were involved, Cunningham and his dancers accompanied at times by Cage, Mumma, and Tudor, and performing with music by Toshi Ichiyanagi, La Monte Young, Peirre Schaeffer and Peirre Henri, and Bo Nilsson – to say, look.. this happened.. incredible!  I had, more or less, intended on leaving it at that. It must have been a marvelous thing, especially considering Jasper Johns oversaw the set designs, and the performances featured sets and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella. But, believing as I do in the power of art and the importance of history – of the presence and relevance of both in the present day, it was hard not to see this series of events as being of profound, symbolic importance. Both in Mexico and in the rest of the world, it marks the end of an era, and the beginning of another. It is a lens onto so much more. Within, there are lessons to be learned and hopes to be regained. It made me ask, who are all the radicals today, and why isn’t Mexico’s voice part of the conversation? In 1968, artists like Cunningham, Cage, Mumma, and Tudor took to the stage and tore it up, while millions, spread to every corner of the globe, took the streets and did the same. They said enough is enough. They set the world on fire. The connection, while perhaps slow and evolving over the decade or so before, is hard to miss. It is almost always art which shows social and political change the way. It is always art which the right-wing attacks first.

And so.. fifty years on, 1968 caught in our eye, with so many of that year’s problems and horrors still our own, its worth asking if the art of 2018 is doing enough – if it’s radical enough to spark true change. Is it at its whit’s end? Has it had enough? Or is it buying in? The stage and gallery walls must burn before the streets do the same. With that I leave you with a few images of the program of what transpired in Mexico in 1968. May they be a match in your hands.

-Bradford Bailey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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