The 20th century is marked by the introduction of technologies related to the recording and reproduction of visual and sound works into everyday life. Specifically, the postwar era marks the inauguration of a time period during which the musical formats and gear were consolidated as mass phenomenon. Since then, the way music is stored, distributed and reproduced has changed enormously. From vinyl records, 8-track, cassettes and CD’s, we have come to digital files that are kept in hard drives and in “the Cloud”; music on the Internet that we access through apps and digital tools. Each one of these technologies has determined the logics of consumption and circulation that have radically modified the way we socialize through the phenomenon of sound.
Until a few years ago, in order to acquire a cassette or record that was not part of the mainstream music, one would have to ask a neighbor that was traveling outside our country or a friend who could afford an original production or to save for weeks in order to be able to buy one from a store that took risks by choosing different contents from those that circulated within the profitable and banal commercial circuits. Precisely, this exhibition takes its name from -Imagen Pública-, a music store where Israel Martínez, artist from Guadalajara, found a harmonious sound stream from which to drink. The store, located in Alcalde Avenue of that city, offered a vast catalog of cassette copies at affordable prices for the average alternative musicophile. In order to dress the cassettes, “El Indio” (as some people knew José Luis Avilés, the owner) would place in their cases a yellow or pink paper containing the album’s information. This was the brand of -Imagen Pública-, its insignia. -Imagen Pública- was not only a place where music could be exchanged but also where ideas, conversations, references, books, invitations to “toquines” (small concerts) could be interchanged. Another place was -El Quinto Poder- where Martínez was drawn to the visual content that accompanies sounds, through hundreds of posters from different bands that covered first the walls of the store form ceiling to floor and little by little the bedrooms of the adolescents from Guadalajara that, in the early nineties, felt closer to the screams of John Lyndon than to the infomercials ran by the government of the then president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his social program “Solidaridad” (with the distinguished participation of Daniela Romo, Mijares, Vicente Fernández and Lucha Villa, amongst others).
The store that took its name from the enfant terrible of English punk’s band after the Sex Pistols split, is a store that combines symbolically the issues addressed by Israel Martínez in this exhibition; the bond between music and object, social change through technology, content distribution, the history of the counterculture in music as well as sound and the lack of listening as key issues in contemporary culture.
The iPod and the MP3 players brought forth the phenomenon of the “dematerialization” of music. Unlike LPs, cassettes and (even) CDs, music that is managed and stored from the computer is not tangible. In other words, although the information is deposited in hard drives, the users will never hold in their hands the booklet or case or cover of an album. With the arrival of Spotify and YouTube, this phenomenon has become even more radical: the information is no longer in our computers but on the Internet or “on the cloud”. But to speak of “dematerialization”, in reality, is a fallacy: all these contents, as our emails and Google Book’s digital libraries, are deposited physically within installations filled with servers, located in places of the world that we know nothing of. These contents do not actually “float in air”, they are kept in spaces to which we don’t have any access, located in private properties, far from public scrutiny. Also, a certain subscription grants access to these platforms (a commercial-free access) but the files never reach our hands or our hard drives.
The Internet era, on the other hand, is the era of the information overload: if back then it was almost impossible to acquire certain book or CD, now the phenomenon has reversed: there are so many that we cannot listen to all of them; but we continue to overload our hard drives with music that we will never listen to and with PDFs we will never read. The immensity of Spotify’s software generates a feeling of being lost, not knowing which song to listen to…Internet is so big that it is like having everything and nothing at the same time. Against these corporate policies and contrary to the idea of a non-navigable file, Israel Martínez began to materialize the music contents that he listened to on the Internet. “Imagen Pública (autorretrato)/Imagen Pública (self portrait)” is an installation composed of 666 cassettes that enclose diverse albums downloaded from Spotify, YouTube, Vimeo and other digital platforms like blogs and websites from which users can download music. In order to identify the content of each cassette, Martínez generated an index patiently typescript on yellow and pink bond paper sheets, imitating the covers of the cassettes that “El Indio” sold at Imagen Pública.
At first, Martínez began to recuperate punk, hardcore and alternative music albums that he once owned and had lost throughout the years but he soon decided to record other kind of music gender, specifically music from different regions of the world. So, next to Eskimo songs from Alaska, Eskorbuto, Pakistani songs, the Lebanese renaissance and the Turk vanguard, in this inventory we can find experimental music, jazz, rockabilly, surf, bel canto, classical music, Baroque, corridos, rancheras, boleros, reggae, Flamenco music, glam, post-punk, fado…except one hit-song by Madonna, we won’t be able to find those big commercial names of the Pop industry. The display of the cassettes in the exhibition space, piled one on top of each other, remind us of a body of buildings. This is the result of, on one hand, Martinez’ ongoing research and documentation of housing models brought forth by communist governments in Eastern Europe (“Comunies”, a work in progress by the artist) and, on the other, of the artist’s desire to point to the fact that sound is the main substance in the relationships that are interlaced in a building or within a city.
Unlike CDs or digital files, magnetic tapes are not “burnt” or “copy-pasted”: in order to record these cassettes, the artist had to listen to each one, from the beginning until the end, in a sort of private and discontinuous performance that lasted 666 hours. This necessarily implies a patient exercise of listening, something that our society lacks nowadays.
The problem with content circulation is an issue that has driven not only Martinez’ work as an artist but also his career as a music producer and founder of independent labels. Abolipop and Suplex, created alongside his brother, Diego Martínez, are two platforms of distribution and production tan have enriched the independent music scene in Mexico. Their albums and compilations are characterized by betting on content far from commercial circuits. The number “666” of this piece seems, therefore, like a wink to countercultural and resistance movements. Finally, as any other music library, the installation works as a mirror: the piled cassettes and the sheets of paper with the typed index become some sort of self-portrait of the artist.
By placing the installation’s headphones on our ears, we hear the unmistakable voice of Felipe Calderón “…que restablecer la seguridad no será fácil, ni rápido, que tomará tiempo, que costará mucho dinero, e incluso, y por desgracia, vidas humanas. Pero ténganlo por seguro, esta es una batalla en la que yo estaré al frente, es una batalla que tenemos que librar, y que unidos, los mexicanos, vamos a ganar a la delincuencia” (“…that to restore security will not be easy or fast, that it will take time, that it will cost a lot of money and even, unfortunately, human lives. But be certain that it is a battle that I will lead, it is a battle that we must fight and that, together, us Mexicans, will beat delinquency.”)
Next, the sound becomes inaudible, not because it can´t be heard but because it is impossible to listen to it willingly. After the presidential address, the voice of a woman crying is reproduced saying “déjame pasar, es mi hijo, es mi casa” (“let me in, it is my son, it is my house”. Someone else, with a thick accent from Chihuaha narrates how a car stopped in front of the house and from the car, someone killed two boys with a shotgun. The person in car has fourteen or fifteen years old and left a note: “Faltan 11. Vamos a venir por ellos” (“Eleven to go. We will come for them”).
The array of horrors continue: stories by members from the army, deserters, policemen, cartel members, and anonymous voices intertwine with sounds of gunshots, executions, duels and parties. Its a collage with various recordings taken from the internet that document life of a country where war has been declared against drug-trafficking. There is a point where a cartel member narrates how him and his partners cross to the US to buy guns.
This work was originally commissioned for the exhibition PCFS - Post Colonial Flagship Store, in 2014 at the freiraum quartier21 of the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna. In the show several artists used the flagship store model that beyond selling look to position the brand through key products and exclusive experiences to create critique about neocolonialism in a contemporary world.
South of Heaven touches on the asymmetric relationship between the US and Mexico using the analogy between music, guns and drug distribution and economy. Martinez shows how the US is the principal distributer of content in the internet as well as the largest consumer of drugs that get made or travel through Mexico and also the largest supplier of guns for the cartels as they promote a war against drugs. The sound played through the speakers of a person sniffing coke grows as does our discomfort with the various elements of the work. Our northern neighbors don’t know the phrase that in Mexico is part of a collective imaginery, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the USA!”
The distorted voice of the artist narrates his experiences, direct and indirect, with violence and drug traffic. Street shocks, friends and acquaintances involved with the distribution of narcotics drugs, table talk with the family, news that daily talk about drug traffickers, neighbors in the business who die on any Sunday, friends who consume start selling...Who does not know stories like these? Who has not lived them in their own flesh? The friend, the cousin, the neighbor, the girlfirend, the acquaintance, the friend of the firend... The drugs, the violence and the drug traffic not as news of the press, but rooted in the deepest, in every crumpled sheet of everyday life.
Next to the turntable is the typed transcript of the ntire recording, as if it had been obtained in a police interrogation. "now I see", he says at last, "how drug trafficking have always been around me: inside me."
Gelatine to style the hair in crests, “Resistol 5000” carpenter’s glue to sniff before a concert: the aesthetic, the every-day life, the identity. Martínez has created numerous pieces regarding the punk movement (of which he was part during the nineties in Guadalajara) and its history and has also participated in round tables concerning this subject and published diverse texts and interviews.
He recently edited “Nada volverá a ser igual”, a recount of the hardcore-punk scene in Guadalajara that includes two CDs and a book filled with testimonials and critiques. Against “retromania” and the prevailing nostalgia of our days that glorify everything, Martínez has kept a critical point of view regarding these movements.
One of the photos of “Secretos del movimiento punk” shows an original Nike cap covered with a –also original- patch of “Conflict”, an iconic band of the “anarcopunk” music and movement. By placing one patch over the other, Martínez questions the business behind revolutions and allows us to see how shifts such as these are as superficial as artificial. The piece also points to the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect movement without contradictions or flirtations with the market. No one is entirely consistent and no one, no matter the symbols that dresses him or her, has a moral superiority, a reason why it would be important that everyone could be open to dialogue and open to listening to one another. Evidently, this piece has a clear ironic comment: to hide the clothes underneath a symbol of rebellion would be like trying to block out the sun with one finger.
A mythical moment of sound art: John Cage in an anechoic chamber looking for absolute sound. Surprise: the body constantly produces two sounds: that of breathing and those of the electric impulses of the nervous system. Silence: the sound does not exist: there is no such thing as silence. Israel Martínez distances himself from the canon and correlates Rulfo’s and Cage’s figures, the bathroom and the anechoic chamber, the digestive tract and the nervous system.
On the screen an animation of a stroll can be seen, the background integrated by diverse landscapes that have been important to Martínez and many other people part of the alternative culture or underground in Guadalajara. Contrasting to the current status and glamour of the Dr. Martens brand, outside the screen a REY boots can be seen, like the ones punks (and laborers) from Guadalahara used during the eighties and nineties. There is a phrase that reads “morir con las botas puestas” (“to die with the boots on”). To walk barefoot, to take the costume off? To leave all clichés behind? Nostalgia? Criticism? Utopia?
The first photograph was taken in Poland, the second in the Czech Republic, two countries that lived the rise and fall of socialism. On the first the utopia is recorded: the unattainable symbol, the hope of the future. On the second, an ossuary is seen: the only thing that is certain, death. This juxtaposition could be read as the end of utopia. Nevertheless, the photographs point to the tension that rules the core of human life: a constant movement between the ideal and the fateful.
“Now we must learn to judge a society more by its sounds, by its art, and by its festivals, than by its statistics. By listening to noise, we can better understand where the folly of men and their calculations is leading us, and what hopes it is still possible to have.” (Jacques Attali). Israel Martínez has focused on exploring sound from a perspective that incorporates the society he lives in.
Since 2012, he began recording street musicians from diverse regions in Mexico and in Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia and Spain. The digital prints and the video that integrate this work are the result of this effort that is between the documentary and the poetic.
In this piece we see children, young adults and old people dedicated to traditional, popular or experimental music, in an effort to survive in a world where culture and music are not a priority, unless these are part of the show industry and are clearly profitable. If there is no clear archetype of the street musician, the condition of those portrayed is generally by their economic precariousness. Many of them, furthermore, are migrants which let us see a society characterized by economic inequality, forced displacement and poverty. Next to the cars, the birds, the conversations, the steps of those passing by, car horns, planes and the mass transport system, the sound of street musicians make up the sound landscape of contemporary cities. As Jacques Attali states, the endeavor of these people constitute a fundamental part of our society and help us to understand and reflect upon the world we live in.
Israel Martinez’ works remain far from the artist’s gestures or from any personal trademarks since they generally resort to mechanic o digital techniques for their production and reproduction. Paradoxically, all of his work is affected by personal experiences: his life, his interests, his travels. The idea that brings together all the works from the exhibition Imagen Pública has nothing to do with formal aspects but with an inherent concern: to reflect upon our surroundings and the social dynamics that come from sound, music and countercultural movements. Years ago, while saying goodbye at the U-Bahn station, Martínez pointed to me a series of black garments hanging in the streets. He explained to me that in many countries, it is a symbol used as a manifest of inconformity to the social status quo. The bitter smile he had while pointing them to me remind me of the Outopía photographs included in this exhibition: they both make me think of the encouraging uneasiness and of that critical attitude that echoes throughout his work.
Text by Esteban King Álvarez