The Perfect Enemy | Turning Art into a Political Weapon
September 27, 2022

Turning Art into a Political Weapon

Turning Art into a Political Weapon  publicseminar.org

Read Time:16 Minute

Image credit: erlucho / Shutterstock


In their book, The Walls of Santiago (Berghahn Books, 2022), Terri Gordon-Zolov and Eric Zolov document and narrate the protests that took place between two key moments in Chilean history: the state of emergency declared in October 2019 due to a night of violence following a student protest against an increase in the metro fare, and the state of catastrophe declared in March 2020 in response to COVID-19, which followed months of protests and social unrest. This movement, known as the estallido social (social explosion), was also an artistic explosion (estallido artístico), and a wide range of artistic practices emerged alongside the protests. In their book, the authors document these practices and the different symbols and demands that appeared during the estallido, while carefully analyzing their relation to different aspects of Chilean and Latin American politics. In light of the recent election of Gabriel Boric and debates over the recently rejected new constitution, Public Seminar’s Jordi Mariné talked with the authors to learn more about this period of unprecedented unrest and social transformation. 


Jordi Mariné [JM]: The book relies on many sources: interviews, newspaper articles, and, of course, photographs of a wide range of artistic practices. How did this book come to be? 

Terri Gordon-Zolov [TG]: It started out with a collection of photographs. We were living in Santiago in 2019 when the social uprising broke out. We started taking pictures of the graffiti because it was so gripping—first there were mostly tags of evade (meaning “evade” the subway fare), but within a week the walls were covered with stencils, posters and “paste-ups.” We ended up with an archive of photographs. Then, we started meeting with artists and collectives to understand the larger histories and strategies behind the political graphics.

Eric Zolov [EZ]: Some interviews were serendipitous. Others came through contacts—people guided us to different talleres [workshops]. The Chileans were super helpful and very supportive of what we were doing. 

JM: The book really feels like a walk around the streets of Santiago during the five months of the estallido. Could the book be understood as a testimony that could help to preserve the memory of this period?

EZ: Initially, we experienced the estadillo as the Chileans experienced it: with amazement and some consternation. As we began to document things, we realized the ephemerality of the art, especially when they tried to clean up the walls. And then we began to document more systematically. When COVID hit, and the government just whitewashed everything, we recognized the deeper testimonial and archival significance of the project.

TG: The word testimony was used by a number of artists like Lolo Góngora, who called the social protest graphics a “testimony of social discontent.” There has been a major attempt to preserve this important moment of Chilean history. Now there is even a museum of the estallido social. It means a lot to us to be able to contribute to this larger archival endeavor.

EZ: The estallido produced iconic images by figures such as Caiozzama and Paloma Rodríguez. But there were also a lot of anonymous works made by lesser-known artists, amateur artists—or simply graffiti.

TG: A lot of work that was done by collectives was deliberately anonymous. The purpose was social change, not recognition. 

EZ: We also created a digital map to locate in space the places where we originally took the photos, something that directly serves an important future archival purpose.

TG: We worked with a cartographer, Evan Picard, who created maps for each chapter. But we were interested in topography and mapping in general. We discovered a series of maps on the walls that rewrote the subway system with all of the terms of the social revolution, and some street signs were renamed or covered over. The social revolution was really rewriting not only the city but also the nation-state. 

JM: You directly relate what you were seeing on the walls to the Pinochet regime. Did this emerging political aesthetic represent a new way of remembering the dictatorship?

EZ: Iconographic imagery, reimagined by these artists, created a bridge to this earlier period. These reimaginings showed the utility of memory for mobilizing people to envision alternative futures. One prominent example is Víctor Jara’s song, “The Right to Live in Peace,” which became an anthem of the movement. The original lyrics are about Vietnam, but they were rewritten to reflect the demands of the social movement. 

TG: After an initial night of structural violence on October 18, President Piñera sent the military into the street, which was the trigger that brought the whole country out. So, part of the discourse had to do directly with memories of the dictatorship. You saw graffiti saying, for example, “No more impunity” and “Chile is not for sale”—a reference to neo-liberalism but also to the “memory market,” the ways in which memorial sites are subject to market forces.

But then, in the course of the estallido, the carabineros [riot police] were extremely violent, shooting people directly in the head with buckshot. There were over 400 eye injuries, and that caused a new form of artistic expression: eyes. In a lot of the graffiti, the eyes were x-ed out or marked up with tears or blood.

And you also heard a lot of mottos like “we are not afraid” (no tenemos miedo) coming from the younger generation, meaning “we are not going to allow you to repeat the past.” 

JM: What do you think the estallido teaches us about art, and the democratization of art, as a public conversation? 

EZ: The public realm literally exploded with art: it was called an estallido artístico, an explosion of artistic innovations. This played a key role in our way of understanding the political mobilization, as well as the social and political demands. Art was in the vanguard of these demands, articulating them, or at least giving shape and a sensibility to what they were.

TG: This is something that was happening globally in 2019. Think about Hong Kong and other cosmopolitan centers where street art and the dissemination of information via creative means was so widespread. What we found to be revolutionary in the case of the estallido social was how the city itself became a kind of museum and how the citizens reclaimed public space.

The curators of the Museo de la Dignidad [Dignity Museum], which was born out of the estallido, put gold frames around street art that signified dignity in a peaceful manner. The idea was to enable the works to remain in public view in perpetuity, but the government didn’t respect that sentiment.

JM: How do you think that this democratic art related to the already existing museums in Chile?

TG: That’s a very interesting question. I think the relationship between museum art and public art is changing. GAM (Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral), for example, was the epicenter of creative expression. The walls were covered in graffiti, posters, and paste-ups. In February 2020, in the middle of the night, the government painted the walls of the GAM red, and that made national news. GAM wrote a protest statement arguing that the street art reflected the demands of the moment and that it was an act of violence to erase it. 

So, a museum spoke up in favor of public expression. My sense is that the public institution of the museum is shifting in Chile—and elsewhere—because there are now so many interactive elements in museums. 

JM: You situate the estallido artístico within a long Latin American tradition of public art. What did the estallido artístico add to this tradition?

EZ: For sure, the estallido was probably very inspirational, intellectually and creatively, for other parts of Latin America. The way in which this all came together in Chile in such a very concentrated period of time, from multiple currents of artistic expression—muralism, posters, stencils—each with their own long traditions, was truly unique. Many previous art movements—muralism in Mexico or poster art in Cuba, for instance—were linked to the government or political parties. They were sponsored by governments and promoted a governmental agenda. But this phenomenon [the estallido artístico] was part of a social revolution.

TG: Also, what’s important is the impact: the estallido brought Gabriel Boric to power. He was 36 years old when he took office. It also produced a phenomenally progressive constitution that identified Chile as a “plurinational” state that recognized indigenous rights to autonomy and a return of indigenous lands. It also guaranteed public education and healthcare as well as rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community. But the draft constitution was too maximalist to gain consensus. It failed by a large margin (62 percent) in the plebiscite that just took place on September 4.

EZ: Right, the result was not just a change in power, but the creation of a new national charter. And even though the draft constitution didn’t pass, there was a transformation in consciousness, discourse, and priorities that cannot be undone.

And now Boric is part of a broader political trend in Colombia, and potentially in Brazil—if Lula comes back to power. There’s a new left-wing movement across Latin America that’s rejecting neoliberalism, but not—so far—in a populist authoritarian mode.

JM: You note that what we are seeing in Chile is the emergence of a new “popular nationalism.” How does this differ from what you call populist-nationalism?

EZ: Popular nationalism is the reappropriation of symbols and contestation from below to reimagine nationhood. It invokes different symbols of the nation to critique existing ones and to reclaim that nation from the state. Populist nationalism tends to mobilize those official symbols in the name of an authoritarian power dynamic. 

Narratives of nationhood that come from below contest power through acts of reappropriation, wrecking, and rewriting. Look at Mexico as a counterpoint: there you’ve got populist authoritarianism, with the current president [López Obrador] invoking policies of the 1930s and celebrating Mexico’s oil industry as if it is our future. That’s anti-democratic populist nationalism. 

JM: You also focus on the commodification of art, which is usually seen as something negative. 

TG: Yes, almost immediately, the streets in the center of the city were covered with commodities—mugs, magnets, and t-shirts—and a lot of it was artisanal. The normal way to read this would be: “Oh, the art has been commodified again, it’s moving into the center, it’s going to lose its revolutionary force.” 

But something more complex was going on, and we talked to some artists about it. On the one hand, there was an economic necessity. Parts of the city were closed down and shops were shuttering early, so people’s livelihoods were at stake. A sort of informal economy sprung up, and individuals stepped in to use their skills in new ways. But there was a revolutionary aspect to this informal economy as well. Paloma Rodríguez felt that the merchandise supported the demonstrations themselves. She told us in an interview that they were “a gift to the street,” a gift to the artists so that they could continue to devote their time to political graphics.

Wearing protest iconography was also a way to support the movement. And it was potentially risky. You could wear a handkerchief to cover your eyes from tear gas or to make yourself more anonymous or you could wear a green scarf to support reproductive rights. 

EZ: Central characters of the protest movement, like Pikachu, were also taken from global circuits. And no one was saying, “Oh, that’s, you know, cultural imperialism” or whatever, which they might have done 40 years ago. Instead, it was understood that these highly commodified reference points were up for grabs and could be made part of the movement.

TG: A number of artists drew on popular cultural icons, from Pikachu to superheroes such as Superman and the Joker to 1940s-styled pin-ups. This embrace of Pop Art and the sexy, creative, young, new elements of the protests helped to make the movement an appealing one. 

And these global pathways also allowed for a transnational exchange of protest iconography and strategies, most of which circulated through digital media. I interviewed Mireya Leyton, one of the organizers of Las Tesis Senior, a performance of the flash mob dance, “A Rapist in your Path” [Un violador en tu camino] by activists over 40. There were eight organizers, and they each set up WhatsApp groups. Within five days they had over 10,000 people in front of the National Stadium.

JM: After the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, Chilean demands for legal abortion are especially relevant. Do you think that the fight for reproductive rights in the United States could be inspired by the Chilean estallido?

EZ: I think there’s already evidence of that: the green kerchief is being embraced here in parts of the United States. 

TG: And Latin America is now at the forefront of reproductive rights. 

EZ: As we were writing the book and going over the proofs, Mexico had just decriminalized abortion. 

TG: The feminist revolution is fundamental to what’s happening in Chile. There was gender parity in the constitutional convention, which was unprecedented, and the draft constitution called for gender parity in political and governmental institutions. 

JM: You also claim that there is a “global” aspect to the Chilean revolution and that there were tropes that reflected the “Global Sixties.” What connects all these protests and social movements? 

EZ: Prior to COVID, it felt like there really was a sense of an emerging global protest movement. If you think about Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, and all that as the first wave, this felt like a second wave, one that was very much about democracy. What was happening in Hong Kong and in Lebanon was anti-authoritarian, a critique of political corruption and state violence. The protests in Chile reflected pent-up political frustrations accumulated since the return to democracy in 1990, but even more so they targeted the radical social inequalities created by neoliberalism that are a legacy of the dictatorship.

And then COVID shut everything down. We still don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know the structural aftereffects of COVID. 

TG: These different global movements shared some features: they were leaderless, and they were grassroots movements that depended heavily on digital media. They were creative, new kinds of popular insurgencies. 

EZ: But it struck us that the distinctiveness of Chile in this global movement was the role of the walls, the materiality of the walls, and the key role that graphics played in the social protest movement. Although images were being shared on social media, the walls retained a kind of power, invoking protests from the 1960s through the 1980s. The walls of Santiago, in short, have their own historical legacy in Chile.

That also gets at this question of the popular nationalism/populist nationalism split. Popular nationalism makes the claim: “These are our walls; this is our space. We’re claiming this from below.” But it also claims walls as an alternative media.

TG: We heard from various street artists: “You can’t trust the newspapers; they just show violence. Real journalism is taking place in the streets.”

EZ: I recall seeing older people having their photos taken in front of iconic graffiti. There were people looking at it and reading it. I don’t know if that was happening in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Lebanon, and elsewhere, but I suspect social media played a more prominent role in those places. 

JM: Is there any specific symbol or motif that, for you, best represents the spirit of these protests?

EZ: I think the eyes trigger memory and state violence, but the Negro Matapacos symbolizes the idea of unity. There is a spectrum of representation from saintly depictions of the Matapacos to the more anarchist, fire-wielding Matapacos. Literally and figuratively, it united the broad spectrum of protest elements. 

The Negro Matapacos was a black street dog, and the name comes from black (negro), to kill (mata), and pacos, Chilean slang for a cop. There was a big movement, in 2011, protesting the privatization of higher education, and this street dog became a mascot for the protests. He shows up in a lot of pictures; he barked at the police and was loyal to the protestors. The real-life Matapacos later died.

But symbolically, he returned in 2019 and showed up on the walls. This representation became more than a symbol of memory and came to stand for an acknowledgment of Chile as a mixed-race nation. Chile has a long, very fraught, cultural politics of whiteness. And so, the Negro Matapacos came to symbolize the idea of mestizaje, too. It also represented protectiveness: the Matapacos as a protective saint. 

TG: It was almost like a counter-memory, a way of rewriting the nation-state. It’s a way of invoking a different history, a different past and keeping that past alive.

JM: What’s the significance of the estallido today? Since the period that you analyze in the book, a lot of things have happened in Chile: mainly, the election of Gabriel Boric, Chile’s nationwide convention to replace Pinochet’s constitution, and the failure of the referendum on that Constitution. 

What do you think the estallido of 2019 contributed to these transformations?

TG: It was really the motor force behind them. Early on, President Piñera made some concessions, like retracting the proposed subway hike and reshuffling his cabinet. People weren’t impressed by these initial moves. On November 14, however, he made a major compromise: to hold a plebiscite for a constitutional convention. That night, protesters draped the Plaza Dignidad—the renamed Plaza Italia, Ground Zero of the protests—in white with the word “PAZ” (peace). That did not hold, but it was a crucial development that came directly out of the uprising. 

The new constitution reflected a lot of the values of the estallido, such as the idea of “dignity.” Of course, these values also reflect decades-long struggles. Eric mentioned the 2011 student movement. There also was a major feminist movement in 2018. 

EZ: An important question for me is: What does the estallido mean now that this constitution has not passed? Boric is still in power and he is, I think, a very smart leftist and a good leader. And I think he will navigate Chile’s political present and future with skill. Boric has pledged to replace the current [1980] constitution. The estallido shifted the political calculus in Chile and the nation’s political consciousness, and there’s no going back. 

I mean, that’s what a social revolution does, right?


Click here to read an excerpt from The Walls of Santiago, courtesy of Berghahn Books.


Terri Gordon-Zolov is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at The New School. She researches the intersections of memory studies, gender studies, and cultural production and is currently working on a book on the literature of memory in post-dictatorship Chile. 

Eric Zolov is Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He teaches and researches the interplay between culture, politics, and international relations in twentieth-century Latin-America. He is the author of The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties (Duke University Press, 2020) and Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture (University of California Press, 1999).

Jordi Mariné Jubany is a graduate student of philosophy at The New School.