Video Trans Americas


Juan Downey

Curated by Carla Macchiavello


Based on a series of journeys around the American continent by Chilean artist Juan Downey, the Video Trans Américas installation (1976) invites you to experience a moving electronic map of the Americas. The video installation is based on drawing the outlines of the American continent that stretches across the floor and walls of the room. Around the room are fourteen television monitors organized in pairs and set out on pedestals in the place according to where they were filmed. The Border, Uros 1&2, Nazca 1&2, Inca 1&2, Cuzco 1&2, Lima/Macchu-Picchu, Yucatán/Guatemala, New York/Texas 1&2 connect both places and regions, cities and valleys, jungles and deserts, as trajectories between and within them, giving shape to diverse landscapes on the continent that are natural and built, human and animal, political and ecological. Through the simultaneity of the images that show diverse aspects of one or more places, the manipulation of the recordings and the spatial position of the monitors, Video Trans Américas presents a plural, complex continent, unravelling in space and time, changing through the trajectories of the spectators themselves.

The installation is characterized by constant movement and the impossibility of fixing a single identity for the Americas. This movement of coming and going is articulated both through the technology and through the opposites that coexist in the montage. On the one hand, setting out the videos in pairs physically imitates the bipolarity of our way of seeing, the distance between our eyes and how these organs capture different aspects of the same object. While that uneven information is then made into a relatively “unique” image by our cognitive system, stabilizing its object, in the installation Downey highlights the difference and similarity between what each channel shows. Instead of producing a synthesis of images, the bi-channel organization of the videos forces us to exercise a gaze that is double, unstable, suspended between different spaces. The physical symmetries of the installation tend to decentre the gaze as the sequences of the videos coincide and, in turn, highlight the differences between places and a single site. The positioning of the monitors also helps to disperse the gaze to other points in the installation through peripheral vision, broadening the possible routes taken by the spectators and establishing at the same time connections between distant places. Dispersion and coming together, co-existence of different times, technologies and knowledges: Downey’s electronic map emphasizes the impossibility of capturing a single vision of the Americas, its inhabitants and histories.

Furthermore, movement also operates in the installation by means of polarity and interstices, embodying the notion of “trans”. The images of the videos vary among the documentary registers that border on ethnography, the postcard-like idyllic images of landscapes, the gaze interested or absorbed whether in the majesty of some ruins or the movement of ants, and abstraction. The videos bring together and contrast the fixed and the mobile, the organic and the fabricated, civilization and nature, past and present. But they do so fluidly, opening interstitial spaces through the ruin, through the mountain transformed into a terrace for crops, through inter-ethnicity, and even through video as the transitory medium that has captured, in a technology on the verge of extinction, a past that is faraway but still resonant with out present.

Downey conceived the Video Trans Américas project as a practical and at the same time exploratory way of creating connections and greater communication across the continent. During a series of journeys he would make recordings on video that would then be shown along the way to remote communities. The feedback could be implemented socially, putting remote people and places visually in contact with each other and “glimpsing a culture in its own context and in the context of other cultures, and finally, putting all the interactions of space, time and context into a work of art.” Although at the end of his first journeys Downey criticized his own intention of objectively recording others and the capacity of video to bring about social change, he also found in this format a ductile medium for exploring both perception and interconnections among cultures and identity as something constructed, hybrid and unstable. Forty years on from the first version, the installation Video Trans Américas continues to invite us to try a different perspective, in movement, and experience the Américas from the point of view of change.

Carla Macchiavello

Many of America’s cultures exist today in total isolation, unaware of their overall variety and of commonly shared myths. This automobile trip was designed to develop a holistic perspective among the various populations inhabiting the American continents, thus generating cultural interaction. A video-taped account from New York to the southern tip of Latin America. A form of enfolding in space while evolving in time. Playing back a culture in the context of another, the culture itself in its own context and, finally, editing all the interactions of time, space and context into one work of art.

Cultural information would be exchanged mainly by means of videotape shot along the way and played back in the different villages, for the people to see others and themselves. The role of the artist is here conceived as a cultural communicant, as an activating aesthetic anthropologist with visual means of expression: video.

New York, 1973 springtime (before the expeditions).
Juan Downey

Onandagas, Cherokees, Navajos, Apaches, Hopis, Aztecs, Olmecs, Mayas, Incas, Mapuches, Alacalufes share in common one nature, one death and one time. Indigenous people in the Americas were accustomed to contemplating themselves reacting to their own culture, to enhancing spiritual processes through a dialogue with the unknown. This myth becomes contemporary in the piggyback ride that closed-circuit television entails: to observe oneself observing increases the mind’s concentration.

Arriving at the Mexican border, 20 July 1973.
Juan Downey

I, the agent of change, manipulating the video to decode my own roots, had been deciphered for all time, and I had become a true descendant of my land, less international and more poetic.

An unexpected level had been reached on those strange paths of the heart!

New York, May 1975.
Juan Downey

Juan Downey, “Relatos descriptivos de Video Trans Américas”, compilado en Nuria Enguita y Juan Guardiola (eds.), With Energy Beyond These Walls (Con energía más allá de estos muros), Valencia, IVAM, 1998, p. 96.

Juan Downey created this exhibition as summary and encounter of various cultural and social levels of the Americas. The presentation of the result shows the most masterly use of video we have ever seen. The exhibition includes seven groups of tapes, presented on video and two parallel monitors, synchronized in image and sound, to create a total, profound experience of the specific place that is being seen. It will be ordered geographically on a computer-designed map of the Americas, in proportion to the room where it is shown. Each location will appear in its relative situation, and the altitudes will also be shown by the height of the pedestal of each monitor.

Juan Downey was born in Santiago de Chile. He studied Architecture at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. In 1965 he moved to the United States to exhibit at the Organization of the American States (OAS), Washington DC. In 1969 he moved permanently to New York City, where he successfully accomplished his artistic career and produced the largest part of his body of artwork (having one-man exhibitions at Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA, and the Jewish Museum, among others). He received several grants: two from the Guggenheim Foundation, and others from the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, Cambridge, MA; the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He taught Art at Hunter College and Architecture at Pratt Institute. He lived among many Indian tribes, among them, the Yanomami, in the Amazon Rain Forest (for eight months, in 1976, with his wife and youngest daughter, Elizabeth), where he filmed many videotapes and produced his Meditation drawings. In 1993 Juan Downey died at the age of 53 in his home/studio in New York.

Carla Macchiavello is an art historian who has published on contemporary Chilean and Latin American art with an emphasis in video, performance, and artistic practices aimed at social change. She is assistant professor in Art History at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, New York, and received her PhD from Stony Brook University. She has curated exhibitions on recent Latin American art and is co-editor of Más allá del fin / Beyond the End, a publication of the art and science program Ensayos in Patagonia.

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