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Nicolás Villegas Hernández

Comments on society: Muntadas' Interventions


Spanish born Antoni Muntadas offers us an example of an
artist that has focussed his activities on the way viewers, as rather
passive spectators, behave and react to diverse environments.
Muntadas deals primarily with the role institutions play in society
and the relationship they have with people. A particular
characteristic in his work has been the presence of re-occurring
themes or interests that depend on this role institutions have. He
keeps coming back to his own work, revising it and producing
alterations of it, natural evolutions of it. He has explored different
media, centring in newer technologies as they arrive. This has been
one of the reasons for him to work with those same institutions he
lays a critical eye upon. Because these are the places where the
evolution of technology seems more evident and reachable.
The presence of television is another important aspect of
his work. After all, this has come to be a media culture, where what
we believe in, what we decide on is directed and affected by what
media says. It was because of television that media had an
incredible boom in North America in the 1950s, entering the family
sphere. Muntadas’ use of media is engaged in confronting the
passivity of western culture and questions the information and
issues with relationship to media (art, communication, the public-
private dichotomy, etc.)
Muntadas samples images from television screenings of
the messages and systems that are used to reach and inform the
public (e.g. politicians’ addresses, T.V. news, etc.). Television
broadcasts, through their repetition, formulaic formats and apparent
simplicity of message creates a safe-zone for viewers. Mass media
can be thanked and blamed for the creation of this comfortable
space in which we can wander peacefully. Television connects
individuals with the outside world.

We have observed how different artists, most evidently


since the turn of the century, have commented on social structures
and norms, political propaganda, etc., using a banal, yet complex
system of codes. This means using everyday symbols and actions
to reveal layers existing underneath. The Dadaists, Surrealists or
those “descending” from Duchamp are some of the first movements
that show this tendency. Another important example is Fluxus,
which by bringing art into the everyday, by considering all life-
activities as art, have made our culture aware of the necessary and
indissoluble link between art and life. This is achieved by
emphasising this connection through happenings and the production
of art-life experiences that would leave a residue of the event,
rather than a collectible object which could be easily marketed. One
of the goals of the art/life practitioners is educative and seeks to
demystify the art object. Rather as we see in Muntadas work,
spectators would have a role as active participants in the art-
experience they were living (as in his instalations).
He tries to expose the way in which mass media, as a
tool, and an institution in its own right, manipulates and delivers
information to the public. He does so by recreating those spaces in
which the institutions centre their power. Most of this recreation
depends on a high level of manipulation of, not only the physicality
of the space, but the attributes that give it significance in society.
This means stripping the space of its mystery. It gives the viewer a
more direct environment in which he can question the “process of
control”.
Like the arte-povera artists in Italy, Muntadas takes
those elements from the everyday life, reconsiders their status in
society, and puts them forward, slightly edited in order to create
some sort of awareness in the viewer. He isn't creating the
exclusive, unique art object that shows the mastering of a craft,
instead, he assembles a series of banal elements to reveal their
content as he dissects them.
Due to the simplicity of video as a medium, and the
cultural implications it carries, it has become a fundamental part of
Muntadas work since the seventies. It is an economic medium and
one that presents itself as harmless to most viewers, one that is
easily recognisable, familiar. The use of video, or more precisely, the
television image comes from a:
“[C]ritical analysis of the media and its effects
of a relationship between the public and private
spaces of contemporary Western Society.”

His use of the medium comes out of a need to work with


controlling forces in the communication world. And it happens that
video is one of the most effective modes of communication media
has. We become more aware of his use of Media as a medium. With
the internet and CD-ROM work there is a significant shift towards
the medium itself, because we are shown the full potentials these
have as tools.
I should add that It is television, rather than video (as in
video-art) that should be the centre of attention when looking at
Muntadas’ work. We should also be careful not to lose our
perspective on the medium itself, because even though Muntadas
diverts attention from it, he is making very conscious decisions in
the way he uses it and displays it. These are what can be called
artistic decisions. It is not that there is a problem with the aesthetic
aspect of his practice, but there seems to be a tendency on his part
to set it aside as unimportant, even though an incredible amount of
work and thought has been placed into the creating of the object
(i.e. the installation or the video tape).
When speaking about his work, “intervention” is a better
term to describe it than video or print, regardless of the fact he
relies on these media to produce a piece. We can see him as making
a video piece, not for the video itself, but for the action of inserting
it between television programs. This works, by altering the
properties of the television programs that surround the piece. The
average viewer wouldn’t notice or at least question, the devices
used by regular shows. With the inserted piece, a degree of chaos is
created in the viewer’s mind as he begins to question the event that
just took place (the broadcasting of an unexpected and unordinary
program). He is then forced to reconsider those programs
surrounding the intervention.
Examples of this work can be seen in installations such
as Quarto do fundo (Backroom, 1987), Exposición (Exhibition,
1985/87), Between the Frames: The Forum (started in 1983), or the
On Translation series (started in 1998). Backroom and Exhibition
are early works that expose the system of the commercial gallery.
They are not didactic in their instructing the public about how the
art world works in a “behind the scenes” look. Instead, different
elements of this system are isolated in order to allow the spectator
a clearer reading of what the:
“’[H]idden ‘ mechanisms at play in the
presentation of artwork, such as economic and
marketing interests inextricably linked to the
enterprise of art and culture.”

A process of (re) evaluation on behalf of the viewer is


possible, and triggered by the fact that the images he has seen in
its reshaped context come from the context itself. They are not the
product of the artist. What is the product of the artist, is the re-
combination and re-contextualizing of such images.
But the fact that a lot of Muntadas work seems so
calculated and un-poetic is perhaps more our fault than his. So, if
there was a need to talk about an artistic relevance in Muntadas
work, I would consider his process, rather than the results of this.
As previously mentioned, elements such as time, the “re-awakening”
of the spectators ability to observe, or the need for a critical eye
towards the information that life gives us, are necessary hallmarks
in Muntadas work.
Because his work shows a critical and direct stance from
and artist proposing a self-criticism of his milieu, we overlook the
insignificance in terms of power this might actually have on the
majority of viewers. I find it rather ineffective , as a tool, but I do not
think this is his intention. It is perhaps more important the ability to
make us reconsider our role as artists, and as communicators and
receivers of information. This doesn't mean we have to produce
critical work, but we should consider the way in which this is
inevitably going to tell something to an audience, and how we have
processed the information we are conveying.

Bibliography

Alberro, Alexander and Blake Stimson ed. Conceptual Art: a critical


anthology. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999.

Amar, Sylvie. Interview with Antoni Muntadas in Art Press. No. 177,
1993.

Ellis, Scott. “AntonioMuntadas” in Parachute. Pg. 48, no. 58, spring


1990.

Montagut, Albert. “Pan y circo” in El Pais, pg. 6, Artes, September


29, 1990.

Wallace, Keith, ed. Whispered Art History/ Twenty years at the


Western Front. Arsenal Pulp press, Vancouver, 1993.