I have been fortunate to be in a continuous conversation with fellow fellows at the Cullman Center this year. One topic of late has been about political revolution, inspired by a historian’s work on the transformation of electoral politics in the U.S. in the 1850s that sparked the rise of the Republican Party and the drive to civil war. Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution has become a talking point in this conversation because another fellow’s novel includes Arendt as a character. And I have been working on a chapter on graffiti in New York in the 1970s-80s in my own book-in-progress. The Walls of Santiago brings together these disparate strands of that conversation because it describes a revolution infused and moved by aesthetics, popular uprising, and a radical reimagining of formal politics.
Mostly when I was reading this book I was thinking of Arendt, a perhaps too-pat reference in our locale which I have resisted over my many years at TNS. Madeliene Thien, a scholar of Arendt as much as a novelist, made the point in our fellows’ conversation that Arendt believed that the political was social, or that the political had to be social to be effective. What Terri and Eric have revealed in their book is how graffiti in 2019-20 in Santiago served as much as a social movement as a political one—with the arts, the act of making and expressing—as the channel through which the social and political were fused. The movement built upon traditions of collective art-making in Chile such as workshops, printmaking, and silk-screening as well as transnational aesthetic movements of the avant-garde, Pop Art, and global graffiti. There were also ongoing political causes such as student protest against privatization of education, feminist demands over bodily autonomy, and indigenous rights. Chileans were ready.
And yet the kindling needs a spark.
Turns out that restricting local transportation—whether by hiking up fares or overpolicing misdemeanors—can be a match. It hits so clearly on the question of physical movement of the most. Personal freedom is movement, the ability to traverse, wander, go.
What struck me about the collective outcry this provoked was how graffiti changed from being about individual naming—tagging—to anonymity or, more accurately, the mass. Here, then, the artistic mark joins the social and political. It wasn’t that individuals faded in this movement. Martyrs were constantly invoked. It seemed to me that every specific cause or symbol that Terri and Eric discussed—whether the ubiquity of damaged eyes or women’s or indigenous rights—drew upon representations of a lost warrior. What shifted to make this movement build into an undeniable force was the layering of outrage made visible. Posters, images, tags did not erase one another; they appeared side by side as demands that could not be ignored. The visual layering of outrage became an argument for radical change.
Graffiti is writing on the wall literally as well as metaphorically. It is “reading what is already there,” as one scholar put it; or as Terri and Eric say, it revealed the lurking tensions. It makes visible and public not only the unexpressed but the felt. Which then quickly became not just an expression but a record. What seems to me so distinct about this moment that Terri and Eric lived and have now analyzed is that the voices were not calls into the wilderness. Graffiti is temporal and exactly what becomes political and how has been different in different places. The performance of making graffiti can be a political action and, more often, I would say, street art has been protest that has not solidified as politics. (This is what happened in 1970s-80s New York, where I think the graffiti movement succeeded more in the arts than in politics.) Graffiti may be global but the revolution—so far—has not been.
To move beyond politics as action-in-the-moment, the images need to be captured and distributed. A key step in that is the act of photography, which I think is even more important to the movement than video. The image stays, lingers, pounces, even more than moving action. Eric and Terri’s photographs are a part of extending the impact of the graffiti, making it last despite the government’s immediate erasure when the Covid lockdown began. The plethora and potency of the images, the immediate and ongoing sharing of them, the collective action from both individuals and institutions such as the cultural center: all this made the writing on the wall a promise of revolution rather than protest. Santiago’s markings, posters, performances, marches, have transformed the politics of Chile at its most fundamental level: a new constitution is being written. Restructuring the structure: let’s take Chile as inspiration and not only march but make.