Gustavo Romano

Time Notes

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Time is money... is it? [read text above]
Text by Johan Hartle for the catalogue of Taking Time, MARCO of Vigo, Spain, 2007.

Time notes [read text above]
Text by Belén Gache for the catalogue of the I Singapore Biennale

The living environment and politics in videos by Gustavo Romano, Esteban Alvarez and Gregor Passens [read text above]
Text by Johan Hartle for the catalogue of the Videonale 11


The meaning of money in art theory is ambivalent. Certainly, maybe more than art itself, money is a symbolic system that combines desire and material facts. In this sense, money has its own aesthetics. At the same time, money is a basic taboo, the hidden centre of the art world. Commercial art fairs are centred on profit and business, but art itself should be something completely different. It has to continuously differentiate itself from commercial culture.

Besides the commercial economy of money and commodities there is a second economy, a so-called “symbolic economy”, and is relatively separate from the first. In this economy, symbolic capital (the wealth of refined living, higher education, etc.), as Pierre Bourdieu has put it, is the highest goal.

With his “time notes”,Gustavo Romano has developed a new currency system that expresses another symbolic economy. It is not measured in Dollars, Euros, Pesos, or Yen but in Minutes, Hours and Years. Its exchange value is uncertain. Except for some art dealers, no commercial business partners would accept this currency. In Romano’s economy pure life time is the only measure.

On the one hand, this direct translation of money into time seems to be rooted in classical economic theory. In economic theory as in everyday culture (time is money, as we all know), time has always been the measure for profit. Classical economic theorists — such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo (and their critic Karl Marx) ‒ believed in the labour theory of value. Economic values were, in their minds, determined by the amount of labour time necessary for their production. (Marx’s stroke of a genius was to demonstrate that there exists a kind of commodity worth more than the time necessary for its production – or, to be more correct, its reproduction – namely the commodity of labour.) So far so good, we could say, time is money and has always been.

On the other hand, Romano's currency proposes a different relationship between money and time. Maybe time can be translated into money. But money can only very rudimentarily be re-translated to time. The deathbed, unfortunately, is no department store. With his public intervention Lost time refund office, he promises the opposite. Lost time, wasted time, can almost be reclaimed. But as so often happens, the aesthetic promesse du bonheur is only an illusion.

But if time is no pure quantity, it has to be filled qualitatively. In other words: because of its austerity lived time has an explicitly existential dimension of improvised savoir-vivre. According to the German filmmaker and novelist Alexander Kluge, human beings have two different forms of property at their disposal: their own, subjective volition and their lifetime. Neither can be purchased as a commodity. In a sense, Romano's currency is a symbolic system of the aesthetics of existence, the currency of time as an existential gift. When viewed from the perspective of aesthetic production, it raises the question of the “sweet life” to enjoy and to be aware of.

This certainly bears a specific relation to his Argentinean background. In 2001 the Argentinean currency system collapsed as a result of the monetarist va-banque-politics of the neoliberal government. Very obviously Romano's work articulates a criticism of the prevailing monetary system with its quasi-religious belief in arbitrary signs — the merely conventional value of money and currency. At the same time, those Argentines who had invested their life time in conventional signs, in accumulating money, were confronted with the fact that life time, once lost, is lost forever. In his Singapore video, Losing Time, Romano becomes an allegory of this process when he explicitly loses his money — money that symbolizes life time. The allusion to slapstick accentuates the tragedy.

All these things seem to deal specifically with questions of money, politics and the aesthetics of existence. But Romano's work refers to several basic questions of art theory. By his reductive and existentialist gesture, his seemingly naïve translation of money to life time, Romano enters the classical field of avant-garde art. His work confronts us with elementary questions of everyday life. Art turns into discourse and transcends the isolated institutional realm of the art world. The fact that his works are performances (and there documentations) underlines this aspect.

But this avant-gardist and political claim of his work raises a question. How can art maintain its autonomy, its ‘being-art’, if it turns into discourse and politics? Gustavo Romano gives a simple but very convincing answer. The banknotes of his currency system are adorned with quotes about the theory of money that describe the world of finance as a semiotic system and shed critical light on its nature as a sign as well as its capacity for accumulation. This also encompasses the awareness of the fact that the artistic or symbolic realm cannot be unambiguously distinguished from the political and economic realm. Romano emphasizes that, even when addressing the currency crisis, art still maintains its own parameters, keeping to a symbolic level concerned with the autonomous activity of signs and the continuous loop of interpretation.

In all of his performances — Lost time refund office, Time Notes, Time Bills — Romano confronts the passer-by with the existential emptiness of this semiotic system. If you like, they deal with the old motif of vanitas — of idleness and transience. The semiotic system of money is brought to its very frontier, the dimension of ticking life time. So, if time is running out and you cannot buy new time, what are you going to do with it?

Johan Frederik Hartle
Köln, November 2007.



Time notes
by Belén Gache

Gustavo Romano employs actions, videos and Internet projects in order to subvert and dismantle a naturalized perception of everyday occurrences.  As opposed to the modern pretension that the time and space we inhabit is unique and homogeneous, Romano forays into multiple, fragmented instances of time-space.  His works record  
displacements achieved by way of optical devices (telescopes, satellite views, microscopes, x-rays or night vision), distortions of duration (by manipulating video or electronic recordings) and diverse forms of dislocating genres.  In his works, the natural habit of seeing things in a single way in broken.  Such is the case in pieces such as Lighting Piece, an ephemeral match that burns endlessly with an eternal flame, or in Pequeños mundos privados (Small Private Worlds), a specular proposal that—just as in La Reproduction Interdit by Magritte—,deconstructs space—Chinese boxes—as well as time—and in this circular proposition, where is the beginning and where is the end?  Where is the limit between the reflection and what is being reflected?  In his Internet works (Cyberzoo, Hyperbody, IP Poetry, etc.), a wide spectrum of genres are disrupted, ranging from genetics to literature.

As George Simmel pointed out in the early 20th Century, all economic exchange should be understood as a form of social interaction.  Others would coincide as well, from Bronisław Malinowski (with his theory of exchange), to Marcel Mauss (in his Essai sur le don), and Claude Lévi Strauss, for whom the actions of give and take and their reciprocal nature are present in the collective unconscious of all human society.  Time bills emerges from a terrain that is nourished as much by this Sociology of Exchange or Economic Anthropology as it is by a tradition of artists’ interventions involving bills (from Pop to Fluxus, in particular).  The work—which functions within a public space that here, is simultaneously an art space and a political space—, consists of soliciting a “commercial” exchange from passersby: What would they give in return for a bill by an artist?  What are these bills worth?  Their exchange value?  Their use value?  Their accumulation value?  Are they art transformed into merchandise?  Money, the bastion of modern society, symbolizes a spirit of rationality, calculability and measurability.  Nevertheless, history has registered very different mechanisms for exchange.  The potlatch, in North America, used to take place in the form of a ceremonial celebration, New Guinea’s Kula Ring used to include magic rituals, and Hell Bank Notes are considered a monetary currency for the next life, offered up as a way of venerating ancestors, etc., etc.  Furthermore, in Time bills, the nomenclature of the bills does not refer to an abstract value but to units of time; is time money?  Is it a Faustian pact to buy time—eternal life?—in exchange for something—the soul?  In the face of money’s ostensible impersonal value and abstract homogenization, Romano reveals a manner in which idiosyncrasies, desire and belief can persevere behind every bill.             



The living environment and politics in videos by Gustavo Romano, Esteban Alvarez and Gregor Passens
By Johan Hartle

To talk about art from Argentina automatically entails reflecting upon the political and economic passages of crisis that have shaped this country over the last few years. Hence, any study of Argentinian video art is bound to be a model case for the general question of the manner and degree of correspondence between art and politics. This issue becomes all the more interesting when the political character of art stretches out beyond politically explicit forms of expression into numerous other realms of practice, which one might define as the “politics of form”. These correspondences are explored here on the basis of three distinct examples of Argentinian video art: Gustavo Romano, Esteban Alvarez and Gregor Passens.

First, the context. The breaking point in the cultural consciousness of Argentinian artists came with the currency crash in 2001, the first instance of state bankruptcy in the 21st century, which plunged countless Argentinians into poverty and shook the system of representative democracy to the core.
The reasons for Argentina’s political and economic crisis are manifold. There is no question, however, that the two key forms of political sovereignty that Argentina was subject to over the last few decades – the military dictatorship up till 1983 and the neoliberal regime run by the World Bank, the Monetary Fund and the WTO in cooperation, above all, with the Menem government – impeded a sustainable development of the country’s industrial resources, while at the same time drastically increasing the national debt and so strengthening the political influence of international creditors.

As a matter of course, this economic collapse made deep marks on the country’s political culture. The loss of legitimacy by parliamentary institutions went hand in hand with the rapid growth of spontaneous mass movements. Such extemporaneous forms of self-organization were especially spectacular when their redefinition of the political arena also affected economic structures. In the wake of the crisis in Argentina grass-root movements have variously succeeded in raising the issue of power in factories and exploring all manner of self-organization.

In an indirect and subtle way, an awareness of change and crisis can also be witnessed in contemporary positions in video art. Neo-avantgarde moments, the eruption of aesthetic strategies into the social sphere and the redefinition of boundaries between art and life have all gained ground.
This political, economic and socio-cultural turning point can be better understood if compared with the social upheavals that shook central Europe in the late 1960s. By redrawing the political landscape, this decade also in a similar vein altered the entire notion of what constitutes art.

It is to be expected that every shift in the order of differentiated subsystems also finds expression in the conception of each individual subsystem. From our European perspective, the neo-avantgarde tendency in Argentinian video art, which is manifested in the thematic focus on a transition from art into the living environment and in the pronouncedly heroic building of the social arena, feels particularly contemporary. In central Europe too, numerous influential strategies within contemporary art have retrospectively drawn from the counter-institutional impulses of the neo-avantgarde. As such, the general tendency of criticizing the abstract art system is also currently gaining ground in the European context. Presumably, art always seems especially interesting when it to some extent becomes something other than art, in other words when it signals implicit claims of having social impact.

The video Losing Time (2006) by Gustavo Romano is a very striking demonstration of the neo-avantgarde momentum and the shift from art into discourse, above all in relation to the specific nature of the Argentinian situation. This work articulates explicit criticism of the prevailing monetary system and makes direct thematic reference to social inequality and the disastrous effect of monetarism.
The video documents an action in Singapore in 2006, when the artist scattered banknotes in a pedestrian precinct. For this Gustavo Romano invented a new currency of his own based entirely on units of time: minutes, hours, years, instead of Dollars, Euros or Yen. The relationship between money and lived time harbours an explicitly existential dimension of improvised “savoir-vivre”. According to Alexander Kluge, the human subject has two different forms of property at his disposal: his own, subjective wilfulness and his lifetime. In the sense of an aesthetics of existence to be measured against the value of money, when viewed from the perspective of aesthetic production the former raises the question of the “sweet life”.

Banknotes are adorned with quotes about the theory of money that describe the world of finance as a semiotic system and shed critical light on its nature as a sign as well as its capacity for accumulation. This also encompasses the classically avantgarde awareness of the fact that the artistic or symbolic realm cannot be unambiguously distinguished from the political and economic realm. In Losing Time Romano emphasizes that, even when addressing the currency crisis, art still maintains its own parameters, keeping to a symbolic level concerned with the autonomous activity of signs and the continuous loop of interpretation. At the same time, this avantgarde momentum has also been broken, at least in its heroic dimension. For in this respect the role of the artist is also being examined: he can be seen scattering fragments of thought in our daily environment.

A similar form of discursive dispersion can be witnessed in a piece by Esteban Alvarez. Here the artist also plays with the pretensions of authorship and the diffusion of aesthetic creativity into the spheres of the lived environment and the public domain. In his video Final Judgement, which was made in 2002 at the Biennale in Fortaleza in Brazil, on the day after Lula da Silva became president, explicit reference is made to the dimension of the heroic. As described at the outset, the work uses radical exaggeration to parody the pretence of an aesthetic improvement of the world. It is dedicated to all those “who believe in the great deeds that are accomplished by a single person”. Beyond this, Alvarez is expressly preoccupied with the inscription of aesthetic forms in our everyday surroundings.
This video too documents an action in which Alvarez affects to be a pavement artist covering an entire city district with his street drawing. This video also provokes art-historical debate. As such, it shows the artist examining his own role as an artist and the nature of his social influence. What first strikes one is that Alvarez resorts to monumentally sized symbolism and proportions. With an ironic undertone, yet not without a certain degree of aesthetic and political yearning, a promise of justice is delivered claiming that the world will be beautiful and blessed, as otherwise only high Catholic art does: the motif Alvarez paints on the pavement is the Final Judgement.
Although he treats the question of the artist’s social impact with heavy irony, he nonetheless stimulates debate. If art has not the strength to change the world, it at least seeks to unleash processes that are more than just art.

A yearning for the heroic deed can again be witnessed in the Argentinian videos of the German artist Gregor Passens. His works simulate the way heroic moments just fizzle out when couched in monumentalist political metaphors. In Wake Up Passens stages the eruption of the extinct volcano Antofagasta in northern Argentina as a firework display.
Popular politics in Latin America have an altogether tellurian character, beset with allusions to the mythology of the respective country and its land, in which the volcano metaphor plays a special role. Indeed, major political events such as revolutions are frequently described in terms of this metaphor. In his crucial study of political theory, The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cornelius Castoriadis uses the volcano metaphor to describe the aspects of democracy that undermine representation. Castoriadis differentiates between the capacity of political masses for spontaneous articulation, which he calls “instituting society”, and their political representation, called “instituted society”. In accordance with the myths of primal forms of energy, he also thinks of the radical democratic politics of the unrepresented masses in terms of “magma”. The volcano metaphor is fused with the notion of undepictable major political events. The reason this is a major avantgarde event is because the revolution, the authenticity and expressivity of such raw political energy has been developed along the lines of aesthetic criteria. The pattern of the aesthetic event spreads into politics.

Gregor Passens, however, holds a sceptical view of this kind of aesthetic and political avantgardism. He is merely simulating the event – his video only seems to show the volcano erupting; in fact, it is just fireworks after all.
With this, Wake Up is also treating the grass-root upsurge of self-organization or the South American show of unity to a certain degree of European scepticism. Even the cult of directness and authenticity in democratic politics is suspected of being stage-set. But above all, it is denounced for being utterly ineffective; it fizzles out at daybreak.

As such, the political sustainability and authenticity of spontaneous expressions of solidarity and self-organization might be contested, but not their aesthetic value. Revolution and the awakening of “true popular sovereignty” might have failed; but for a brief moment its presence was a fiesta.

So what do these three artistic positions have in common? In my view all three share a disrupted relationship to any form of aesthetic and political heroism. All three propose a subjectively wilful aesthetic, but one which is thereby only relatively autonomous, even though it can nonetheless be described as relatively autonomous. In the work of Gustavo Romano, Esteban Alvarez and Gregor Passens art is indirectly political. The politicized formal awareness of these artists cannot obscure the fact that their video art is ultimately just art and unable to seriously initiate or substitute political practice. Yet in all these three works this link to politics is expressly thematized; their art is neither political nor apolitical.


Translated from the German by Matthew Partridge

For a critical survey of this, see Boris, Dieter; Tittor, Anne: Der Fall Argentinien, Krise, soziale Bewegung und Alternativen, Hamburg: VSA, 2005, pp. 39–47.

Cf. Creischer, Alice; Siekmann, Andreas (eds.): Ex Argentina. Schritte zur Flucht von der Arbeit zum Tun, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2004; Boris; Tittor, 2005, op. cit.

On the concept of the avantgarde, see Bürger, Peter: Theorie der Avantgarde, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.

On the distinction between … Ist diese Fußnote insbesondere nicht redundant, wenn hier die Sprache eine andere ist?

Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, which represents a kind of poetic founding myth for the Latin-American continent, contains the following verse: “I am going out now /
On this day of volcanoes / Towards the multitude. Towards life. /… etc. Hier wird eine englische Ausgabe von Canto General erforderlich… Das Zitat kann ich sonst nicht weiter ausführen, aber vielleicht ist dieser Schnipsel auch ausreichend?

Castoriadis, Cornelius; The Imaginary Institution of Society, Harvard: MIT, 1987.