Retrograde Modernity: The Deliberate Anachronism Of El Techo De La Ballena
This dissertation interrogates how the Caracas-based collective El Techo de la Ballena (active 1961−69) vacillated between the sociopolitical concerns that provided the basis for its proposals and the wide array of mainstream tendencies that informed its anti-aesthetic stances. El Techo dialogued with a variety of global currents in a multifaceted practice that encroached upon the realms of the aesthetic, the political, and the literary. In spite of evident convergences with au courant tendencies in these spheres, a fundamental retrograde stance anchored the proposals of these radicalized writers, artists, poets, and art critics. As I argue, their compulsion to return to the past reflected an aversion towards a critical Cold War moment marred in Venezuela by several key factors: a far from peaceful transition to democracy during the government of Rómulo Betancourt, a rapid physical transformation fueled by increasing oil revenue, persistent underdevelopment, and a less than equitable distribution of wealth. In Part I, I establish the socioeconomic and cultural conditions upon which El Techo based its multidisciplinary interventions. Two chapters investigate the critical issue of the Venezuelan petro-state at midcentury: the unbalance between a rapid officially-sanctioned socioeconomic development and the slower agricultural temporalities that continued to determine the rhythms of vast sectors of the population. I contend that the collective responded to the problems unleashed by a national economy built on petroleum and the parallel development of a fad aesthetic, Informalism, which emerged from the cultural excesses of that unstable developmentalist model. I organize Part II around three case studies that closely examine El Techo’s deliberate inversion of an internationally aligned modernity that hinged on the need for constant evolution and progress in the visual arts. I maintain that the collective’s overarching interest in the retrograde was the chief value that held its work together during the critical 1961 to 1964 period when it questioned the weight of Informalism and in later years when it turned to an alternate political lineage in its proposals.