Mexico 1968—Beginning of the Age of Discrepancies: An Interview with Cuauhtémoc Medina

This interview was conducted as part of the author’s research for a doctoral dissertation entitled “Challenging the Legacies of the Olympics: Cultural Afterlives of Mexico 1968 and the USSR 1980.” One of its reference sources was the exhibition The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997, co-curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina, Olivier Debroise, Pilar García de Germenos, and Álvaro Vázquez Mantecón, and presented at the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte (MUCA) in Mexico City in 2008. Age of Discrepancies was one of the first shows to present a panorama of all the art movements and tendencies that existed in Mexico between the late 1960s and the 1990s, exploring the changing face of a country that during these years experienced three devaluations of the peso (the most significant in 1982) and entered into a trade agreement with the United States in 1994.

Collage with a female silhouette in the middle and two windows on either side. Faces at bottom. Arrow at top and one on left and one on the right.

Felipe Ehrenberg, Arte conceptual, 1968. Image courtesy Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City.

In the interview, co-curator Medina focuses on one important facet of the exhibition: the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and their impact on Mexico’s politics and the arts. He also addresses the political crisis brought about by the year 1968 in Mexico and the radical changes in the artistic scene during the 1970s and ‘80s that ensued. The 1968 Olympic Games made an innovative proposal in terms of urban design, but the success of its international presentation was undermined by the long summer of student protests, culminating in the Tlatelolco massacre of students on October 2, 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympics. Politics in Mexico also changed in the decades following the Olympics. While the aftermath of 1968 forced artists like Felipe Ehrenberg to emigrate, the cultural situation in the 1970s shifted toward experimental countercultural practices pursued by a number of artistic collectives that received the general name of Los Grupos.

Svitlana Biedarieva: The exhibition The Age of Discrepancies gathered rare documents that showed the controversial relationship between the events of 1968 in Mexico, on the one hand, and the development of independent artistic practices, on the other.(Olivier Debroise, ed., Age of Discrepancies. Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968-1997 /La era de la discrepancia. Arte y cultura visual en México 1968-1997, exh. cat. (Mexico City: UNAM; Turner, 2008).) How would you characterize the relations between artists and the government during the preparations for the 1968 Olympic Games?

Cuauhtémoc Medina: Working with The Age of Discrepancies curatorial group, what I felt was particularly new in our treatment of this whole problem was the emphasis on the Salón Independiente ’68 as a turning point in the relations between artistic circles and the government in Mexico during the student crisis.(The Salón Independiente was an independent art exhibition organized by prominent Mexican artists as an alternative to the governmental initiative of the Solar Exhibition that was held as part of the Cultural Olympiad. The Salón Independiente was presented annually, starting in October 1968, with the third Salón Independiente held in December 1970.) This turning point affected the whole system of artistic production. Our claim was that in the 1960s there was a relative tolerance of novelty, cosmopolitanism, and experimentation amongst artists, writers, filmmakers, art producers, and the Mexican petite bourgeoisie. They were allowed, in principle, to do a lot of things, even if it contradicted the culture of the Mexican nationalist state, and even if it produced conflict with the views of moral majorities such as the church. The radical tolerance that was given by the regime to the middle class in an unwritten contract was broken during the 1968 crisis. And that, in turn, provoked the development of both a depoliticized art world and a radicalized experimental field that from 1968 onwards had an uncomfortable relationship with the institutions. After 1968, certain activities were not performed any longer, such as collecting by state museums with the purpose of creating a national narrative. This change in the relationship between artists and the state did not imply the censorship of all practices, but it implied distrust. Although there was a lot of activity, very little was kept. There was apparent freedom, but there was also political distrust. And within that, there were groups with depoliticized projects.

SB: What was the motivation for this initiative of depoliticized projects by independent artists in the “decade of radicalism” and, particularly, in relation to the events of 1968?

CM: The stereotype of the 1960s as a decade of radicalism in Mexico is wrong; the radical decade was the 1970s. The bloodiest episode during the 1968 worldwide crisis occurred in Mexico; even more people were killed there than during the invasion of Prague.(The Tlatelolco massacre or the so-called “night of Tlatelolco” was a government-sanctioned killing of students in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the residential area of Nonoalco-Tlatelolco in Mexico City that occurred on October 2, 1968. The aim was to suppress the student protests before the Olympic opening ceremony.) However, both the Americans and the Soviets accepted that the Mexican government suppressed its student movement. And no one protested, except for some representatives of the international press. Even the invasion of Prague by the Warsaw Pact provoked some members of the Communist Party (including, for example, the Mexican Communist Party) to break with the party line, whereas the killings in Mexico were something no one cared about. The radicalism of the early 1960s was tolerated by the state in all its experimental appearance and, paradoxically, it was not conflictive. That arrangement came to an end in 1968. The Salón Independiente marks a rupture, acting as a secession.

SB: What role did the Cultural Olympics as an official initiative play in this rupture?(The Cultural Olympiad was an ambitious initiative by the Organizing Committee of the XIX Olympiad in Mexico. The Cultural Olympiad took place from January to December 1968 and involved the participation of ninety-seven countries with hundreds of concerts, theater productions, exhibitions, festivals, book presentations, and film screenings.)

CM: The artist Mathias Goeritz brought some brilliant artists who were feeding hopes of an international orientation in the Mexican intellectual class. Think John Cage or Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who in 1968 was very much out of favor in the USSR and the only person, together with Ilya Ehrenburg, to survive Khrushchev’s Thaw. The invitation of artists working with light and kinetic artists to the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte was also subversive. The cultural program of the Cultural Olympics was an attempt to legitimize experimental practices locally. Bringing people who had been recognized abroad to Mexico meant that conservative Mexican intellectuals couldn’t make a claim regarding bad influences from abroad. Having these international names in Mexico could also help make local experimental artists more prestigious and give them more space to act.

The Olympic’s cultural program subverted the local cultural situation, a situation that failed miserably. Instead of having this prestigious event open its doors to show that Mexico was a part of the cosmopolitan modern project, it ended up that all those who were critical of the “evils of imperialism and Mexican capitalism” became revolutionary communists, while the rest became anti-communists. In this regard, the situation became very conflictive.

SB: Despite the political controversies related to the 1968 Olympic Games, the organizers of the Games had some innovative approaches to graphic design and the development of urban space. What were the legacies of those efforts?

Mexico 68 written center, with the shapes of those letters and numbers radiating outward in alternating black and white lines.

Lance Wyman and Eduardo Terrazas. Mexico ’68 Logo, 1968. Image courtesy of Lance Wyman.

CM: One of the features of 1968 was the design of a graphic identity for the city. After the Games, the city government invited a young American designer, Lance Wyman, to create a semiotic identity for the subway system. Wyman created a design based on a system of graphic symbols, rather than text. This had to do with the fact that there was a lot of illiteracy among speakers of Indian languages in Mexico City. In effect, since the whole urban network of mass public transport came to be based on Wyman’s iconological system, this system redefined the operation of the whole city. I would claim that his mapping of Mexico City was one of the most important cultural operations any city has ever known.

There are certain projects linked to the Olympic Games that have had significant long-term effects. The building of two Olympic Villages — one at the intersection of Avenida Insurgentes and the Periférico, and the other at Villa Coapa — provoked an urban expansion over the next ten years. Although the Periférico (Ring Road) was finished before, this project was also undertaken because of the Olympics, as was the subway system. Furthermore, the placement of some of sport facilities, such as the Cuemanco rowing canal, the Palace of Sports, and the Olympic Swimming Pool clearly delineated those territories where the city expanded further. At this basic infrastructural level, I cannot deny the importance of the Olympics. And then Mathias Goeritz’s sculpture Ruta de Amistad (The Route of Friendship) produced a model of urban sculpture that still works today.

SB: In your opinion, why did the Olympics provoke such aggression from the side of the students? An aggression that was visualized in the famous Gráfica del 68…

CM: You are asking one of the most important questions of Mexican contemporary history. By the summer of 1968, the Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz was convinced that his beautiful achievement, obtaining the Olympics for Mexico, was under threat by its enemies. Why he thought this is a matter of some debate. Díaz Ordaz was an authoritarian, paranoid character, very narrow-minded, and distrustful of his own team of ministers. The only person he really trusted and loved was the architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, in my mind the most important official Mexican artist of the twentieth century whom Díaz Ordaz entrusted with organizing the Olympics. He was the one who designed the parliament, the Guadalupe Basilica, the Aztec Stadium, the Anthropology Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Insurgentes subway station.

Díaz Ordaz had already dealt with the medical students’ movement in 1965, and with the conflict at the University of Michoacán a year later. In those cases, he failed to negotiate, violating what was a more or less general rule of the Mexican regime. That regime was a perfect machine that did not resort to shooting people or putting them in prison, preferring instead other ways of subduing protestors by either corrupting or coopting them. The idea of the Mexican post-revolutionary state was to accommodate all the contradictory interests within a single logic of power whereby the PRI was in charge of everything, yet allowed everything to happen. In this sense, it was completely different from the Soviet regime.

In July 1968, the army raided the offices of the Communist Party for no apparent reason. On July 26, there had been a demonstration to commemorate the anniversary of the Cuban revolution, and there was a lot of tension around it. There was a stupid street fight between kids from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) high school and others from a private high school. The anti-riot police intervened, and they behaved as if they were dealing with an armed group. That provoked the students and then spawned a protest from the vice-chancellor of the UNAM, Javier Barros Sierra. At that point, the president of the Republic became infuriated. So instead of negotiating, the government decided to crack down. As a result, the student movement grew bigger and they organized a National Strike Committee.

The students’ demands laid down in the so-called pliego petitorio, the book of complaints, were of a strictly democratic kind. Yet, it is not true that the students were mere passive recipients of the aggression. The fact that the army’s takeover of Zacatenco School took six hours suggests that the students were able to offer some resistance. The situation reached a crisis point by August 31. The next day, the president was to make a speech to the nation as part of the most important ceremony of the presidential year. The night before, the army occupied Zócalo square at the center of the capital, and the government organized a demonstration in support of the president. That was a turning point. The following week, the army occupied the National Autonomous University and the Polytechnic Institute, and the student movement went underground.

SB: How did the students in Mexico and the intellectuals supporting them reflect on the events of May 1968 in France and other events of the year worldwide?

CM: It is important to note that there were significant local chronicles of what happened in France available in Mexico. Carlos Fuentes wrote a widely read essay on May 1968, published by Ediciones Era.(Carlos Fuentes, París: La revolución de Mayo (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1968).) There was also an anthology of slogans and graffiti published in 1970 by the publishing house Extemporáneos, and there were a couple of posters created by the Mexican student movement that were related to posters in Paris.(Sorbona Odeón Nanterre, et al, Los muros tienen la palabra: periódico mural Mayo 68 (Mexico City: Extemporáneos, 1970).) This appropriation was an issue that was not discussed or addressed by the students. There was no pressure among them to be original, and it was okay to claim any genealogy or tradition for which you felt an affinity.

There is one iconic image of what happened in 1968 that I’d like to mention. I think it was Carlos Monsiváis who in his book Días de Guardar pointed out that the government accused the students of carrying exotic ideas, a reference to their affinity for Che Guevara who was becoming a very important figure for the Mexican students at the time of his death.(Carlos Monsiváis, Días de guardar (Mexico City: Editorial Era, 1970).
Carlos Monsiváis was an important Mexican writer, political activist, and journalist.) One of the magazines that had an important connection to the student groups was El corno emplumado, for which Ehrenberg was a collaborator. In 1967, El corno emplumado carried a special issue on the death of Che Guevara with a number of images and a now-famous essay by John Berger comparing the dead Che Guevara in the laundromat in Bolivia to Mantegna’s painting of Christ.(John Berger, “On Tuesday, October 10th, 1967,” El corno emplumado, no. 26 (April 1968), pp. 88-92.)

SB: How did artists reflect on the political events abroad after 1968? What can be said about the exchanges between Mexican and European artists, as well as other Latin American artists?

CM: Until fifteen years ago, the flow of information regarding what was happening in the Western art world was relatively poor. The more or less radical or eccentric practices were not known in Mexico. During the 1960s, the artist Mathias Goeritz and his wife Ida Rodríguez Prampolini were connected with different circles, including an experimental poetry circle and the Op-Constructivist groups; so one might say that by the mid-1970s the connection between some artists and art groups in Mexico was significant. Goeritz also influenced the development of monumental sculpture as an international project in Mexico, creating a link with artists from the other side of the Iron Curtain. (Ruta de Amistad (The Route of Friendship) was an international sculptural project organized by Mathias Goeritz as an “Olympiad of sculptors.” It resulted in nineteen concrete sculptures being erected along the roads that connected the freshly built Olympic Village with the new University Olympic Stadium.)

It doesn’t seem likely to me that during the 1970s all these small groups, most of them students or young artists who were very poor and had practically no experience abroad (except Felipe Ehrenberg of Proceso Pentágono), knew of anything that had not come their way through the Mexican media. It’s true, to give an example, that the members of the Marco group were informed of recent trends in French linguistics because some of them studied linguistics at the university. So they probably read Roland Barthes, but this is something you can say generally about Mexican intellectuals in the 1970s because the key works by French post-1968 intellectuals were translated more or less immediately. The works of Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, and Grammatology by Derrida were published in Mexico faster than in the United States or the United Kingdom. But then it is hard to claim that these groups had any international reference point, unlike the official practices of the muralists; these are a different story. By the end of the 1970s, No-Grupo had specific contacts with political, cultural and guerilla groups in Colombia and Nicaragua, and certainly there was a Cuban connection. There were also contacts with M19 in Colombia, a very creative guerilla group. All these diverse connections undoubtedly had an impact on the development of art practices in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mexico City, January 2017