On Transformation


The crime of Barruecos, Arturo Michelena, 1895

by Jessica Sequeira

The days are at last softening into summer, and your mind does not allow you to read anything heavy. You flip through a book of photographs called Private diary of a nation, which shows page after page of objects and places from the past, possible clues to the country’s development in the future. You look at the “popularísimo” Chevalier hat, the “indispensable” anise-flavored liquor of the brand 8 Brothers, the special brand of fly spray all the rage with housewives in the city one year. You run your finger along the outlines of figures in photos of the restaurant El Imparcial lit in neon, the cabaret Ocean Dancing on the avenue Leandro Alem, the nightclub Boîte Afrika where the author informs you that around 1974 “informal clothes for night became fashionable”. At the time “automatic bars” and “internal fairs” also became popular (you’re not sure you know what those things are) and the use of hair gel was suddenly ubiquitous.

In 1915 a parade of models took place at the department store Harrod’s, one of the “large shops that not only defined style for the middle class but with its system of credit made it accessible for the entire country.” An amusing newspaper article was published with the headline “A refined pianist, unwitting passenger of Pibe Cabeza”. The names of bars (so small they are almost just counters facing the street) roll off the tongue: La peoresnada, Por si la pego, El 43, La flor del pago. You look at Luna Park stadium before it had a roof, and at a long-haired young man, identified as “Owe Monk, singer of the group Cons Combu, an authentic hippie”. You consider the Hindu Cinema (Lavalle 842), which only screened films featuring Brigitte Bardot. How did that country turn into this one? Or are all the apparent trends and changes only superficial illusions, in reality something else — a grand infinity into which one can at all times dip in and out, a succession of shifting presents in constant interaction with something larger?

But perhaps a certain structure can be discerned. At times you sense the presence of certain connections, for instance while wandering the grid of streets in the north of the city, which all feature the names of aristocrats or military men. Here is Guillermo Rawson, the doctor-politician who established hygienic standards following the city’s yellow fever epidemic and worried over the loneliness of the sick; there is Roque Sáenz Peña, the lawyer responsible for a vote both universal and secret. Figures like these, which appear in every book of national history, prompt you to draw parallels between Germany and Argentina, and between current policies and post-Versailles debt default and hyperinflation, so bad that in the interval between joining a line and reaching its front, a price might have doubled or tripled.

Comparisons like these are impossible to counteract save with pathetic rebuttals — that ultimately it is context that matters, that those times were different from these. Or that far more often, change is so gradual as to be hardly perceptible. If some small alteration were made to a newsstand, something insignificant like the ordering of publications, the color of the kioskero’s thermos, or the lattice design of the metal rack holding magazines, it would likely go unnoticed. With the accumulation of time, however, the change would begin to assume significance, the newsstand converting into something else. A minor build-up of events or series of small adjustments in perspective can effect a fundamental alteration, constituting a change of state just like the conversion of water into ice or light fog, or the ship that had every plank replaced until it became a different ship altogether.

What is necessary is the fluctuation of an internal instability, a transformation effected after a long period of loosening. Alchemists understood that a corruption of material was necessary for change. Any object, or “fossil”, could serve as prime material. The “accidental” was reduced to the “essential”, and these universal components could go on to become something else. An initial simplification was required to assume a different form. While alchemists wanted to produce solid items, the move now seems to be toward the ethereal. You remember how one day you wandered through a museum of household appliances, where all the old stoves and iron bed frames seemed so tired and bulky, and wondered: Can progress be defined as the transition from heaviness to lightness? Is progress the transition from density to existence as rapid and invisible digital units?

But such considerations have begun to seem large. You note once again that the day is beautiful, that the sun is beginning to mellow and that soon it will be night. These reflections are rather exhausting, and you tell yourself it would not be inappropriate to break for a glass of wine. One of the neighborhoods where one might do this, Palermo Hollywood, is a traditional stronghold of industry in the city, home to television studios, graphic design companies, and other bastions of middle-class self-dubbed “creatives”. Over the last decade the neighborhood has begun to change, losing its freshness. Brunch spots sell overpriced muffins in plazas that vend folkloric scarves to tourists; the few genuine surviving parrillas serve cocktails rather than cheap Malbec.

The neighborhood is a place free of history, neither nacional & popular nor old aristocracy but, in the way of all industry, nouveau riche. Remaining there too long it would be easy to grow cynical, to have your perceptions colored until you begin to think: this city is too expensive for its cultural offerings, not worth the cost of living; it’s a good time to read but not to go out; there is nothing new to see, or else the “new” is only more of the same. In this part of the city, inertia appears to reign. And yet all the same, you know that something tangible, real and lasting is indeed taking place, and that deep change is occurring in this uneventful way, not as revolution in the street. In this place so devoid of personality, economic potential is unfolding, unfurling.

Is this the murder of a city or its rejuvenation? To consider these things at a distance, from another angle, you could do worse than look a few hundred kilometers north, since the problems of potential and transformation go beyond the borders of city, nation or even language. In one of the salons of the Casa de la Libertad hangs a painting, The crime of Berruecos, showing the death of Antonio Jose de Sucre, then president of Bolivia and hero of the independence movement. Sucre was assassinated by enemies who wanted to split off part of Gran Colombia to form Ecuador, in order to oversee the new country as political leaders. In the picture Sucre’s body lies in the middle of the forest; his horse flees in panic, his assassin stands with weapon drawn to the right.

Looking at the picture, initially it puzzles you, before you realize what it is you find so disturbing. At first glance there appear to be two assassins, but might these instead be distinct moments in the life of the same hired gun? There he is at two different stages: one version planning the crime, the other executing it. Yet Sucre is shown at only one moment, dead. Why didn’t the painter give him the opportunity to exist prior to the event the same way the assassin was? You consider making an amateur copy of the image, identical in all ways save for the addition of a figure of that of Sucre prior to his own murder.

The appended figure would walk slowly through the forest, near his own inert body but unaware of it; he would admire the flowers in the forest and the birds and stones around him while remaining oblivious to his approaching death. The thought comforts you: Although his future self approaches unceasingly, Sucre simultaneously exists as infinite potential. He will never really die but only change states, all moments of time somehow existing simultaneously. Sucre potential, Sucre present — is there also a Sucre future? Can the presence of a historical figure like him also ghost the present reality outside the picture? The painting remains mute, but from the museum you can see to the plaza outside, where the Palacio del Gobierno functions in near anonymity, and men and women dance and eat chorizos with black beer.

About the Author:

Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.