In the catalogue of the show “Déjalo beat” at the Museo del Libro y La Lengua in 2017, Tamara Kamenszain writes, “To decline the verb ‘to beat’ is enough.” She is referring not only to the poetics of Alan Ginsberg, but also to a panoramic expression of the path of his generation that still howls. “To travel is to beat,” says the author of Libros chiquitos, “it’s to repeat, it’s to insist on the adolescent symptom, it’s to trust in the effects of the refrain, that stop that’s always picking back up the road already traveled in order to give prose its poetic effect.”
That sound, impact, or evocation lives on in the spirit of Latin American researchers Federico Barea (Buenos Aires, 1982) and Laura Rubio León (Bogotá, 1987), who have tracked the way the Beat spirit expressed itself during the 1970s in Latin America. Barea, who has salvaged the work of Néstor Sánchez and the lost essays of Carlos Correa, and along with María Negroni has translated Charles Simic, is the editor of Argentina Beat 1963-1969, an anthology of the main literary references of the journals Opium and Sunda, among whom stand out Sergio Mulet, Marcelo Fox, and Leandro Katz. For her part, Rubio has immersed herself in the trail of the nadaístas (“Nothingists”), that poetic and performative movement whose resonance, as we shall see, still expresses itself today in Colombian politics. Nadaísmo: una propuesta de vanguardia is a detailed, meticulous work about this disoriented movement outside the canon, with its manifestos, scandals, and urban ethics.
The conversation that follows connects both their energies, which transcend the aforementioned publications, communities stimulated in associations, and new meanings.
Mariano Vespa: What motivated your research?
Laura Rubio León: It emerged when I was working at the National Museum of Colombia. There were two objects in the same twentieth-century gallery, which involved both historical and cultural curation: a portrait of General Rojas Pinilla (who, after a coup d’état, held power from 1953 to 1957) and a journal, Nadaísmo 70. My boss asked me, how could a dictator and that journal be in the same place? What links them? Thereafter, I came across Gonzalo Arango, the leader of nadaísmo, recognized as an anarchic, countercultural movement. He appeared in the nation’s history as a representative of the political party that Rojas Pinilla created in order to remain in power. That link seemed quite strange to me and was the initial discovery of what became my book.
Federico Barea: It goes to the point of how the canon is constructed. It’s something very complex, actually. When you get into minor authors you wonder what happens to the tone, as occurs with consecrated authors. You have to do a purer reading. For my book I must have read two hundred “minor” authors, if I take into account all the journals and individual poems. I understood that there was a kind of legacy, contact, counterculture, historical context.
LRL: I agree with what Federico is saying: I studied literature and never had a class on the nadaístas. They had no visibility in the field of literature, nor culturally. Now they’re being taken a bit more into account because there are two people linked to the movement who are part of the new government. For the first time in the history of Colombia, the left is in power and the Minister of Culture, Patricia Arza, and Humberto de la Calle, someone who collaborated in the peace process, are nadaístas. So it’s interesting how these characters (who don’t appear in the official history, who were a bit outside the mainstream of decision-making) are now taking on an important role and present themselves as nadaístas.
MV: How is nonconformity expressed in those groups?
FB: Scandal was more or less the way of existence for the Beats, as it was for Situationism, Nothingism, Futurism in all its forms. I’m thinking of Burroughs, the judgment in Naked Lunch about the question of the body, of obscenity. Besides poetry readings, which always existed, these groups needed scandal in order to publicize themselves, as well as for the possibility of creating journals. Like Laura, I came across the group Opium through a journal. In Argentina, there was the Instituto Di Tella, which experimented also with music and theater, and they created spectacles of every sort which had no comparison later on. There was nothing like it: a place that let young people experiment, that gave them means. It was a marvelous context. I can’t imagine what the nadaístas would have done, but certainly they were incredible and very entertaining things, bizarre and brave.
LRL: The strategy was to create scandals, like going to the Medellín Cathedral, getting in line to take communion, and putting the host in a book or their pocket. And so, while the believers there were leaving, the nadaístas left getting booed. Some ended up in jail as a consequence of their lack of respect for the faith. In 1964, Gonzalo Arango, in announcing the exhibition of the book Inútil, stated, “Please, send us all those books which you consider have harmed the cultural history of this country.” And then they enumerated and mentioned canonical classics from the history of Colombian literature, which were burned in the public square. There was a strong criticism of the culture of a class to which they didn’t belong, which had excluded them and didn’t let them create out of the experience they were living through. We didn’t have an infrastructure as consolidated as that of Di Tella. The meeting places of these young people were the cafés, where they spent hours and hours talking while just drinking a glass of wine. And the other place where they met was the National Bookstore, which was a space that functioned a bit like a library. At that time, public libraries didn’t exist in cities. So they began constructing the National Bookstore. Another entertaining action: one time they were thrown out of a café for not consuming anything. So they left the place, called a funeral home on the phone, and then began to send the café funeral wreath after funeral wreath. And well, in the end, the owner had to pay the bill.
MV: In both instances, there is a context of military regimes or unstable democracies. What influence did those realities have?
LRL: I think that in both countries, and throughout all of Latin America, we took shelter in the politics of the Alliance for Progress, which is an interesting and complex strategy to research, because for Colombia it involved an infusion of money. They understood very well that poverty, the conditions of inequality, were a factor that made possible the emergence of communist movements like the Cuban Revolution. So there was money to promote institutions like ProFamilia, which sought to promote sex education, at that time an absolute taboo in Colombia. It also provided money to put on exhibits. Colombian artists from the fifties were granted access to the exhibition hall of the Pan-American Union, which was the entity that ran all the cultural projects in the region. It promoted publications as well. And, in face of this, there was a great suspicion on the part of movements like the nadaístas. While there was a strengthening of institutions, they continued to speak on behalf of the same type of culture from which the nadaístas felt excluded.
FB: In Argentina, the national culture was governed culturally by the tango, our emblem from the 1920s, until the end of the first Peronist period. As a tanguero friend of mine used to say, “Everything died when Coca-Cola and blue jeans came in.” It was the entry of another aesthetic, of the use of English words. A countercultural movement went against the hegemonic culture. But at the same time it went against the hegemonic culture without being from the left. So there appeared the “third position” (which is the same thing the American Beats did): to find within the same right, or within capitalism, in a resented “American way of life,” a certain aspect and say, “Thanks, but no.” We aren’t communists, we don’t want revolution, we don’t want to kill a ton of people, nor do we want to live in such an unequal world. It’s a very problematic historical context, with the Cold War and the Cuban Revolution making an effort on the other side. It was all quite effervescent.
MV: It’s very interesting because the nadaístas and Beats are usually assumed to be hippies.
LBL: In reality they’re antecedents. They’re promoting the idea of nonviolence, and not as some kind of trend, aesthetic, or pose, but effectively as a resistance to meddling in that worldwide polarization. The nadaístas’ resistance is quite interesting because they suggest they’re exhausted with wanting to be like the others, with wanting to be like the Spanish. Thus, from that exhaustion, their expression emerges: “we want to write starting from the experience of who we are. There are indigenous communities, there are peasants, but we’re young people who listen to that music coming from abroad, but we want to tell our stories to ourselves.” The aesthetics they propose are to speak of the ugly, with crude words and colloquial language, of the dirty, the rotting, which doesn’t appear in the Colombian literature of the time.
FB: The Argentine context coincides with the Onganía dictatorship, with a banned Peronism. The same in relation to colloquial language, humor, confessional literature that, moreover, in such a situation is the same thing that occurred with the Beats: in the mid fifties, the right rejected them as communists, as anti-capitalists, and the left rejected them as crabby, dissatisfied bourgeois. I see it the same way; I researched all of Latin America, the literature of the Onda in Mexico, the Techo de la Ballena in Venezuela, the Hora Zero movement in Peru, Tzantzismo in Ecuador. They were all more or less making efforts not to take either of the two sides and, at the same time, the two sides also rejected them. They generated an identity and an aesthetic of their own in each country. I think that’s what prevailed.
MV: One could read it as a kind of Latin American scene…
LRL: Notice that all the movements that Federico just mentioned were connected by correspondence and journals. They became aware of each other through journals. It’s interesting that we behave as a region without necessarily finding ourselves in that regional identity. You could say the phenomenon was occurring almost in the same way, and they established the link. I sincerely don’t see the link between these alternative manifestations today. I feel that doesn’t exist at this moment, at least at the cultural and other levels.
FB: First, I think that from the perspective of this epoch that’s seen as something very naïve. So it’s very important to emphasize what happened between today and that period in Argentina (we had a bloody, violent military dictatorship). It’s like a physical, material cut. There were many dead and disappeared. And that cut also works at a cultural level. So it’s like what’s on the other side of the river and what’s on this side. Of course, when I say that something of a metaphysical form prevails, the truth is there is no connection between the things that occur now in Colombia and Chile, nor are there any more groups like the Techo de la Ballena that proclaim themselves and create manifestos. I think that stayed on the other side of the cut and that was in our history the military dictatorship. I suppose something similar happened in Colombia. Beyond that, due to their lifestyle and in order to create this confessional literature, and from being people who experimented with life, those guys really died young or had problems with drugs and alcohol, or with the police, or just with life.
MV: What were the reactions of the protagonists or witnesses of your research?
LRL: I was working with the archives when Jotomario Arbeláez, who has remained active as a writer from the seventies to the present day, was still writing a column in one of the country’s most important newspapers. We were working hand in hand with the archive, fundamentally on this project. So he liked the result. Mine is the second book that has dealt seriously with nadaísmo. For them it has been a great honor, because in some way they appear in the halls of History. Someone from another generation takes interest today in what they did, with a book or publication, because, as I said at the start, there was a broad perspective that hadn’t been given much credit as far as what it meant for Colombian society.
FB: Due to my personality, I became friends with many of them and have a lasting relationship with Hugo Tabachnik, with Ruy Rodríguez. And I traveled as well with Jotomario and other survivors. When I went to Peru I didn’t know anybody, but I went to the bars where they used to get together. To know their rounds is also part of the mapping process.