SOCIAL MEDIA: JUAN DOWNEY’S VIDEO TRANS AMERICAS

by Gillian Young*

In 1978, the Chilean-born artist Juan Downey edited the last of his videotape taken in the federal reserve of the Amazon while recovering from malaria back in New York City. The Laughing Alligator, Downey’s final video related to his Video Trans Americas series, consists of footage of daily life in and around shabonos—the communal dwelling places of the Yanomami people, with whom Downey lived for six months between 1976 and 1977—intermixed with material shot in New York. Downey’s increased exposure to television during his convalescence affected the style of the video, which merges the narrative structure of melodrama and rhythmic editing techniques of commercials with the didacticism of ethnographic films. In the most dramatic sequence of The Laughing Alligator, we observe Downey, video camera in hand, face off with two Yanomami hunters. The episode, rendered in grainy black and white, pits the implements of physical defense wielded by the Yanomami against the power of representation to which, since the colonization of the Americas, indigenous people have been subjected. The scene also serves as a rare document of the social process undergirding Downey’s larger Video Trans Americas project, in which the artist traveled through the Southern United States and Central and South America with his video equipment in tow. In this project, which stretched from Texas to the Amazon from 1973 to 1977, Downey hoped to reconfigure the role of the artist as “cultural communicant”: videotaping disparate cultures and, using the mechanism of instant feedback, “playing back a culture in the context of another, the culture itself in its own context.”[1] As the scene captured in The Laughing Alligator suggests, in contrast to photography or film, in which images are taken of and from their subjects, Downey’s video-based project enacted the endeavor of representation as a series of social encounters—which were not always congenial—unfolding in real time.

Juan Downey,  The Laughing Alligator  (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

In 1976, Downey traveled to the Southern Venezuelan region of the Amazon with his wife Marilys Belt de Downey and her daughter Titi Lamadrid. After living with the Guahibo people from August through September 1976, Downey and his family transported their video equipment to the Yanomami communities of Tayeri and Bishassi along the Upper Orinoco River, where they stayed for seven months between November 1976 and May 1977. “My intent in this video-program,” Downey wrote at the time, “is to stretch the limits of documentary format, to convey the intensely personal experience of which the primitive landscape is composed.”[2] Downey emphasized the subjective nature of his project by keeping diaristic notes and often including himself and his family in his videos of the Yanomami. This autobiographical position evokes Rosalind Krauss’s influential early theorization of video, with its mirror-like capability of instant feedback, as an inherently narcissistic medium. In her article, published several months before Downey left for the Amazon, Krauss emphasized the “psychological sense” of the term medium—as in telepathy or communication with the dead (or the spirit world, like the Yanomami shaman)—to argue that “video’s real medium is a psychological situation, the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object—an Other—and invest it in the self.”[3] In contrast to his contemporaries Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci, and Bruce Nauman, however, Downey did not focus his camera solely on himself; rather, he injected his subjectivity into the “primitive landscape,” thus casting his engagement with this historical category of alterity as “an intensely personal experience.”

In contrast to Krauss’s designation of video-as-narcissism “as a form of bracketing-out the world and its conditions,”[4] Downey defined “video-tape” as “the Art of Cultural Difference.”[5] In his Video Trans Americas series, begun in 1974, the artist traveled around visiting various cultures in Central and South America, video-recording as he went and “playing back a culture in the context of another” and “the culture itself in its own context.”[6] Downey utilized instantaneous feedback not only as a mirror onto himself and his culture, but as a social maneuver through which to document and facilitate communication between distinct societies. In this way, Downey opened the closed circuit of the autonomous artwork to the geopolitical terrain of the social world, while employing the narcissistic tendencies of video to critique ethnographic objectivity. As Catherine Russell observes in her recent history of experimental ethnography, “Video is a medium that extends far beyond the art world to a wide range of cultural practices…  It is better described as a ‘media practice’ than a ‘technical device’ because video is always part of culture, embedded in a network of social relations.”[7] In activating a medium recently adopted by artists as well as anthropologists—who began using sound recording in the nineteenth century and film in the twentieth as ethnographic tools—in the Amazon, Downey illuminated a link, or ambiguous middle ground, between aesthetic and scientific practices surrounding the “primitive.”

As a set of practices and ideas rooted in Enlightenment thought and developed in Western art history, “primitivism” may be defined as a mode of representation that relegates cultural difference to a temporal scale of progress set by the West. This representation hinges on an avenue of access posited by a temporal definition of the primitive as an originary state common to all cultures. Initially manifested through recourse to earlier states of Western civilization, primitivism is ultimately bound up in the restructuring of the globe by Western empire. Foreign cultures were temporally positioned in terms dictated by an idea of development ideologically and scientifically rooted in eighteenth-century Enlightenment and technologically and economically implemented through modernization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These cultures were labeled primitive: existing in close proximity to nature and outside of historical time; prior to sophisticated forms of government, economy, and philosophy and shielded from the march of progress. As a form of representation exercised by those able to recognize primitiveness as a state surpassed—and thus common to but evolutionarily distant from their own culture—primitivism has been both a justification for colonialism and a mode of resistance to Western power ultimately hampered by its affiliation with an imagined alternative. Primitivism was thus a powerful tool Downey could use to imagine the potential of new media and communication networks outside of the instrumental demands of progress typically affiliated with advanced technology, inspired by the popular media theory of Marshall McLuhan and the countercultural movement in America. However, because primitivism is ultimately a mode of representation belonging to a dominant culture based on progress, it proves, in Downey’s videos, an untenable platform upon which to perform a radical critique. Nevertheless, the ambiguous legacy of Downey’s Video Trans Americas series, in which the “primitive” remains a contested landscape of social encounter rather than a stable representation of otherness, demands a rethinking of media practices across aesthetic and ethnographic fields.

Increasingly threatened by logging, mining, and tourism interests in the border region separating Venezuela and Brazil, the Yanomami had become the subject of a number of ethnographic films and anthropological studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which sought to capture and study an endangered culture and disappearing way of life. The American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon began traveling to the Amazon basin to research the Yanomami in the 1960s, publishing his immensely popular Yanomamö: The Fierce People in 1968, and making a series of widely used didactic films with ethnographic filmmaker Timothy Asch. The French anthropologist Jacques Lizot had been living with the Yanomami community of Tayeri for nearly a decade by the time Downey met and interviewed him in his 1977 video The Abandoned Shabono. Downey’s project thus unfolded in the footsteps of anthropologists and along the contours of ethnographic media practice. However, as Constance Penley noted in 1978, if “it is difficult to place Downey in current video art categories… it is even more awkward to determine his work’s status as anthropology because of Downey’s personal interaction with the Yanomami and his obvious manipulations of the material.”[8] While Downey engaged with ethnographic practice in order to effect what Russell terms an “intercultural exploration of social representation,”[9] through his emphasis on video’s instantaneous feedback in real time as a narcissistic and performative undertaking, his video project worked to undermine anthropology’s preservationist ethos and the objective stance of documentary. Video Trans Americas is thus perhaps best categorized as experimental ethnography, which, as Russell defines it, “involves, above all, dismantling the universalist impulse of realist aesthetics into a clash of voices, cultures, bodies, and languages” and a reconsideration of “the human condition” as “one of ongoing cultural encounter.”[10] Rather than a stable offshoot of “the human condition,” in Downey’s nomadic media practice, the “primitive landscape” becomes the terrain of “ongoing cultural encounter.”

As a continuation of Video Trans Americas, Downey’s foray into the Amazon from 1976 to 1977 represented a personal quest for the “primitive” with ethnographic entanglements and revolutionary aspirations. “It seems necessary to expand into the areas where an encounter with the savage mind will most likely occur,” Downey remarked in his notes following his initial excursions into Texas, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala, before heading into the Amazon. “The knowledge of the aboriginal people is an unstopped cultural resource and in the process of disintegration. The aboriginal cultures, on the other hand, will be enriched by the awareness of other indigenous populations in the American continents.”[11] Downey imagined his project as a network of cultural exchange, in which the “unstopped cultural resource” preserved in locales where “the savage mind” had been protected from the incursions of modernization would be injected into a cross-cultural flow. This would revive, for instance, the “almost extinct interaction”[12] in the Andes and the Amazon Basin, which, following colonization, had been confined within national borders. In this way, Downey, acting as “a cultural communicant,” hoped to facilitate “a network of horizontal communication between the different cultures” as a counter-operation “opposed to television’s network of vertical communication.”[13] If this horizontal informational network revived ancient lines of trade and communication, it also invoked the utopian potentials of new media to reconfigure and renew authentic connection and decentralized existence in a rapidly globalizing world.

Curiously, despite his evocation of the “primitive” as a calling to make work about the Yanomami—described as “the most primitive large tribe of the American continent” in the opening sequence of The Laughing Alligator[14]—Downey had criticized the term in “Technology and Beyond,” an article published in Radical Software one year before he began Video Trans Americas. In this article, in which he decries the “wars against humanity and nature (i.e.—the violent extraction of the earth’s fruits)” which “have been technology’s raison d’être and the incentive for its urgent development,” Downey critiques the derogatory use of the term “primitive”—particularly as applied to artistic production outside of the Renaissance tradition—as a devalued category in Western discourse. Downey cites a “geo-political arrogance” underlying “the narrow-minded, imperialist conception of the primitive” and argues that beneath these “Western conceptions of the primitive and the superstitious are often sophisticated and complex interactions acting upon the environment.”[15] It is precisely in these so-called primitive modes of existence and expression that Downey locates the progressive potentials of technology—a cybernetic, synergistic, and interconnected communicative landscape between people and the environment that would ultimately obviate a “technological crutch”[16]—explicitly vectored against the progress demanded by dominant Western culture.

At the time Downey undertook Video Trans Americas, Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile, had recently been deposed. Allende, who had been working to nationalize Chile’s natural resources, was replaced (with the help of the CIA) by Augusto Pinochet, a leader more sympathetic to American mining interests. This geopolitical episode—involving Downey’s adopted home and his country of birth—was symptomatic of America’s aggressive stance against communism during the Cold War, an all-encompassing, military-industrial effort that directed technological development toward defense and capital gain. As Coco Fusco has written, following the Chilean coup in 1973, Downey’s “sense of his own identity as a displaced Latin American was heightened by his repudiation of the U.S.’s involvement in his country’s national affairs,” spurring his “journey southward to ‘recuperate his culture.’”[17] Nicolás Guagnini has observed that before traveling to the Amazon, Downey immersed himself in the economic anthropology of Lizot’s student Pierre Clastres, which highlighted the rejection of labor in Yanomami society.[18] Downey’s primitivist engagement with art and technology as refracted through his time spent with the Yanomami was thus influenced by Marxist critique, which, in turn, is also bound up with certain ideas about the “primitive.”

In the late nineteenth century, when Paul Gauguin left his job as a stockbroker and made his way toward the anarchist utopia he envisioned in Polynesia, [19] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels advocated “primitive communism” in their theories of political economy. As Engels first argued in The Origin of the Family (1884), before class society, characterized by private property and the inevitable social stratification that followed, societies were communistic. Collectivism is thus named the “primitive and natural”—and hence most authentic—form of society.[20] As Michael Taussig has noted, the ethos behind “primitive communism” was revived in the Marxist critiques of the 1970s, which were bolstered by burgeoning movements for indigenous rights.[21] Taussig cites Stanley Diamond’s popular 1974 book In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization,[22] for instance, which urged a Marxist critique of the definition of civilization in terms of progress. “Western man cannot afford to mystify his situation as being ‘progressive’… Perhaps the most alienated can, by confronting and acting on their own condition, free themselves,” Diamond wrote. “Only then can we speak of progress, which is always, in part, a primitive return; a reformulation of old impulses in new situations and social structures.”[23] Combining Marxist views of primitive society with techno-utopian visions, Downey saw the progressive potential of advanced technology—that revolutionary point where “Human/electronics interaction sets humanity on a global, interconnective level where technology becomes less and less necessary”[24]—reflected in the communistic culture of the Yanomami, and depicted their rituals, gestures, belief systems, and architecture as dovetailing with the medium of video and enhancing its aesthetic and communicative capabilities.

As was his custom in the Video Trans Americas project, Downey encouraged the Yanomami to try out his video equipment as part of an exchange that had the potential to intervene in the “recurring set of contingent social relations and social practices”[25] that, as the media historian Jonathan Sterne has put it, constitute a medium. In his 1977 video The Abandoned Shabono, a Yanomami man films Downey as the latter describes the Yanomami concept of “noreshi towai”—which, in his notes, Downey translated as “the taking of a person’s double.”[26] “The taking of pictures is considered by the Yanomami as another kind of spirit ambush,” Downey states:

The capture of Yanomami souls that the angry Hamahiti are accused of. Video-tape, with its capacity for instant feedback, can serve other functions. Closed-circuit loops can act as mirrors, bridging spaces and reflecting one’s own beautiful image. Frequently, shamans inhale hallucinogenic potions and patrol the universes that inevitably interact with the shabono, seeking out the evil spirits that threaten Yanomami life.[27]

Here, Downey links the technological premise of Video Trans Americas—“instant feedback”—with his interpretation of an integral element of the Yanomami belief system. He also draws connections between elements of Yanomami culture and cosmology—namely, shamanistic practice and the shabono (the collective dwelling place of a given Yanomami community)—and electronic media, which he elaborated in other works. An architect by training, Downey was enamored of the shabono, which, as an ephemeral, communal structure designed to be reabsorbed into the environment, he saw as a primordial—or prescient—form of communistic, cybernetic eco-architecture: “probably the clearest proof of the wisdom of these Indians: they do not pollute, they do not alter with man-made objects the primeval harmony of the Amazon rain forest.”[28] Downey often installed his video recordings of the Yanomami in a circular embankment of monitors that echoed the configuration of the shabono.

Juan Downey,  The Laughing Alligator  (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

The Yanomami shaman was also a central figure in Downey’s videos, linking the medium of video with a powerful spiritual medium, and, perhaps by association, authorizing Downey’s role as an artist-cum-“cultural communicant.” In The Laughing Alligator, Downey used a video synthesizer to manipulate the signal depicting shamans taking hallucinogenic drugs into a psychedelic array of inverted colors, gesturing toward shamanistic experience through electronic mediation. In this video, the narration of the networked process of making and distributing the hallucinogens among communities in the Amazon—which, in turn, offer connections to other worlds—evokes the decentralized structure and utopian aspirations of Downey’s video project: “The carefully wrapped seeds are exchanged from community to community: in this way it circulates deep into Yanomami territory… The Indians claim that in this drug-induced state, they are able to contact other worlds.”[29]

In its articulations of indigenous ways of life and advanced technology—at once utopian and critical—Downey’s nomadic media practice echoed both the back-to-land movement enacted by the American counterculture in the late 1960s and the early media networks that arose to support it. In addition to the stimulus of burgeoning video collectives such as Raindance—who published and distributed Radical Software, a journal detailing experimental media practices that featured his article—Downey’s vision of a network of horizontal communication in Video Trans Americas bears the influence of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Network. As Fred Turner has described in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, between 1967 and 1970 tens of thousands of young people set out to establish communes in the mountains and woods of the American hinterlands. For these “New Communalists,” Turner writes, “traditional political mechanisms for creating social change had come up bankrupt,” so they “turned away from political action and toward the technophilic and the transformation of consciousness.”[30] It was for this dispersed community of people that Brand first published the Whole Earth Catalog, a publication that placed articles on information theory beside those on “nomadics,” and offered technologies from axes and hoes to strobe lights and amplifiers for sale: “Equipped with a backpack and a book on cybernetics, the neotribal New Communalist can roam from commune to commune, imagining himself as simultaneously ancient and contemporary. He is an Indian; he is also an engineer.”[31] While eventually eclipsed by cyberspace, at the time video became a media practice, the “technological frontier”—at once “primitive” and “progressive”—was rooted in this “social vision” orchestrated by Brand, “in which small-scale informational technologies could be imagined to transform individual minds and, through them, the world.”[32]

As Mark Watson has observed in a recent exhibition on the 1960s countercultural movement in America, while “modern primitivists” such as Gauguin “sought escape from technological society in favor of an Arcadian ‘primitive’ social order at the core of humanity, the counterculture believed high technology and historical progress were the means to such a tribal social order.”[33] Countercultural ideas surrounding the return to a tribal social order were heavily influenced by the Canadian philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan, who influentially linked electronic media to a concept of “retribalization” in the early 1960s. As Turner writes, “Hippies from Manhattan to Haight-Ashbury” read McLuhan: his “notion of the globe as a single, interlinked pattern of information was deeply comforting,” and “many thought they could see the possibility of global harmony.”[34] This utopian notion rested on McLuhan’s argument that individualistic print culture would give way to the complex interdependence of an electronically unified world, giving rise to a new social organization McLuhan coined the “global village.”[35] Beginning with the telegraph and radio, McLuhan wrote, the world contracted spatially. Electronic media replaced the visual culture of mechanized, fragmented modernity with an aural/oral culture evoking a collective “tribal” existence: “We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums.”[36] In contrast to the linearity of literacy—“a one-thing-at-a-time awareness”—electronic media produce an “auditory space”: “that sphere of simultaneous relations created by the act of hearing.”[37]

McLuhan’s theory of media was based on the notion that communications media affect cognitive organization, which, in turn, impacts social organization. If the fragmentation and mechanization of typographical media gave rise to the modern individual, then electronic media extend our fibers of reception and cognition into an interconnected network. “Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience,”[38] McLuhan wrote, one that echoes a “unified field” of “primitive” existence:

When we put our central nervous system on the outside we returned to the primal nomadic state. We have become like the most primitive Paleolithic man, once more global wanderers, but information gatherers rather than food gatherers.[39]

Despite this rhapsodized vision of electronic communication as tribal cohesion, “primitive” cultures nevertheless exist behind those who possess advanced technology, waylaid by their “preliterate” existence. McLuhan wrote, “We are now engaged in a detribalization of all backward parts of the world by introducing there our own ancient print technology at the same time we are engaged in retribalizing ourselves by means of the new electronic technology.”[40] Ironically, the very cultures McLuhan holds up as lost models of auditory space and collective communication are defined here as “backward,” and excluded from immediate access to the collectivizing, utopian promise of electronic media.

In contrast to McLuhan’s primitivist notions of the “retribalizing” effects of auditory media, as Jonathan Sterne has shown, the introduction of sound recording technology in the nineteenth century was bound up with the annihilation of native cultures. Rather than collapsing geographic space through instantaneous communication, electronic technology was in fact integral to maintaining the temporal distance identified by Johannes Fabian as constituting difference in the modern anthropological worldview. In his recent history of sound reproduction, Sterne tempers McLuhan’s valorization of media: “if media do, indeed, extend our senses, they do so as crystallized versions and elaborations of people’s prior practices—or techniques—of using their senses.”[41] Social organization, in other words, is not an effect of media; rather, social practices and conventions are productive of the techniques and technologies integrated in any given cultural moment. In the nineteenth century, Sterne writes, “The phonograph did not introduce a jarring new temporality into the culture; on the contrary, this ‘bourgeois modern’ sensibility was a means by which phonography was introduced.”[42] While historically an ethos of preservation has been attributed to the phonograph, Sterne argues that the preserving function is not an inherent quality of the technology itself, but part and parcel of its original use in the cultural context of nineteenth century America—which, as it turns out, is quite the opposite of the retribalization advocated by McLuhan and embraced by the counterculture.

In contrast to McLuhan’s celebration of global connectivity facilitated by the acoustic space of electronic media, the history of nineteenth-century sound recording technology as an ethnographic tool tells a different story. As Sterne argues, in their drive to record disappearing indigenous cultures, American ethnographers used electronic media to maintain cultural difference as a temporal fact rather than to facilitate the instantaneity of the “global village.” Despite occupying the same geographic space, these ethnographers “cast Native Americans as existing in the collective past of white society… Since they existed in the same space, time was used as a measure of difference between native and white cultures”[43]—a “denial of coevalness” that Fabian argues is essential to anthropology’s conception of modernity.[44] This affirmation of temporal distance facilitated an understanding of modernity as a natural force that would destroy native cultures, thus necessitating the audio ethnographer’s role to capture disappearing customs and rituals. “Explicitly political and cultural programs designed to eradicate native cultures,” such as the 1887 Dawes Act, which encouraged Native American assimilation to white society by abandoning communal ownership and adopting the model of private property, “were recast as almost unspeakable forces of nature in much American anthropological writing from this period.”[45] In this way, rather than an external, neutral technology applied to a historical circumstance, the phonograph—with its early tropes of voices of the dead and messages to the future—is indelibly part of Native American history. As Sterne writes, “The ethos of preservation assumes, when applied to recordings of Native American music, the status of a bizarre self-fulfilling prophecy… The work of anthropological cultural stewardship coincided with the decimation that necessitated the stewardship in the first place.”[46] This original justification of preservation has been attributed to a function of the machine itself[47]—a technological-deterministic guise that a social project such as Downey’s serves to critique.

As Constance Penley observed, “the primary ambiguities of Downey’s work inhere not in his autobiographical or perceptual explorations,” but “embody the essential contradictions of the position of the observer and the fact that the observer is part of the culture which will eventually destroy the one it is investigating.”[48] Downey posed this dilemma in his notes written in Tayeri:

How to live in a primitive society when those with whom you came to share a lifestyle rooted in the jungle and its spirits approach you full of tenderness yet with continual demands, the satisfaction of which would originate the destruction of the very life you admire?… ‘Lend me a ball or the radio’… ‘As payment for recording a tape of my witchcraft, give me an axe, two machetes, a washbasin, or two bolivars.’[49]

Eagerness for technological tools and material goods contradicts Downey’s utopian visions for new media as delineated in “Technology and Beyond.” The desires of the Yanomami frustratingly aligned with Western valuation of progress and not Downey’s progressive ideals: “They want any taste of that other culture, the foreign one, the non-Yanomami, the one I hate.” However, Downey confronted this issue in his work by using video for social interaction rather than driving toward permanence: “The aspiration of permanence for videotapes is in itself the Kiss of Death: frozen information, fragmented flow.”[50] Nevertheless, his project is entangled in the historical relationship between ethnography and media and the representation of the primitive Other. Downey challenges the objectivity and authenticity of the ethnographic paradigm by foregrounding cultural encounter rooted in the fraught intertwined history of colonialism and ethnographic study rather than the seamless communication advocated by McLuhan. Technology becomes a social process, unfolding within preexisting infrastructures and bound to barbaric histories, just as the “primitive” is a product of “ongoing cultural encounter” rather than a stable category of “the human condition.”

Juan Downey,  The Laughing Alligator  (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey,  The Laughing Alligator  (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Ambiguities emerge when we rewind to the encounter in the jungle described at the outset of this paper. Downey, “armed” only with his video camera, faces off with two Yanomami hunters who have apparently turned their weapons on him—a rare document of the series of social interactions that comprised the Video Trans Americas project. As Coco Fusco has observed, this “key scene… links the violence of the colonial encounter with the violence of cinematic representation.”[51] Though this episode certainly foregrounds the violence of representation—“the camera is also a dangerous weapon,” Downey stresses[52]—it is embedded in uncertainty. Fusco interprets the scene quite literally, suggesting that it offers a kind of resolution: “Though we do not see what the men choose to do once they cease to threaten Downey, it is implied that they go on to complete their hunt, and also, that they acknowledge in laying down their arms the beginning of Downey’s transformation into a member of their community.”[53] There is another factor that intervenes in this power play, however, activated by the almost imperceptible, yet unmistakable, flickers of laughter that animate the faces of the Yanomami hunters as they train their weapons upon Downey. If this appearance of mirth beneath the veneer of “fierceness” (Chagnon’s preferred adjective for the Yanomami) diffuses the situation, it also undermines the authority of anthropological and artistic representation. Despite Downey’s insistence on the grave reality of the encounter—“He was threatening. At that instant, by luck, I was recording a tape”[54]—the barely contained smiles of the hunters suggest that this confrontation is either a joke or staged: the viewer cannot be sure. While the former case disrupts the attempted representation of the Yanomami men by denying access to their motivation, only the trace of which is visible, the latter fundamentally challenges the authenticity of this ostensibly primal encounter.

Laughter flickers and swells throughout The Laughing Alligator, mimicking the movement of the Orinoco River that often appears onscreen. This laughter exceeds the fact that the video is often funny for Western audiences, particularly in the way that it lampoons ethnographic films. Downey was recovering from malaria while editing this work, and, like his disease contracted in the Amazon, the laughter of the Yanomami in The Laughing Alligator is, as Gustavo Buntinx has observed, “contagious and pervades the entire video,”[55] infectiously inviting the viewer’s identification across cultural difference. However, this laughter is also always inscrutable, resisting the project of representation by making sonically palpable the layers of mediation between the foreign artist and audiences and the indigenous people who are the subject of the video. As Simon Critchley has written, while “most studies of humor, jokes and the comic begin by claiming that humor is universal,” and “apparently, there have never been cultures without laughter,” humor and laughter also serve as forms of “cultural insider-knowledge, and might, indeed, be said to function like a linguistic defense mechanism.”[56] In the cut immediately following Downey’s confrontation, the video’s only subtitle appears, couched in a chorus of laughter: “THE FOREIGNER WAS AFRAID.” As Downey’s sole attempt at translation in this video, the subtitle sends up Downey’s privileged viewpoint as a heroic documentarian, on the one hand, and as an accepted figure in the Yanomami community, on the other.

Juan Downey,  The Laughing Alligator  (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Throughout the video, the laughter of the Yanomami serves as an aqueous laugh track, which, like all laugh tracks, processes one of our most authentic, spontaneous, and involuntary modes of engagement into a signal of the inauthentic, the staged. Along with the clear elements of stagedness in The Laughing Alligator—from Downey’s range of outfits, variously a tie and jacket and Yanomami face paint and haircut, to the postcard image that stands in for the mythic figure of the alligator’s wife—the traces of laughter in such an ostensibly serious scene indicates the inauthenticity of many ethnographic recordings, which are often positioned as objective and transparent documents. Sterne highlights this problem of authenticity in his analysis of early audio ethnography. In one instance, the American anthropologist Jesse Fewkes endeavored to capture a Hopi Snake Dance with a phonograph. The resulting record, which was produced in a studio with a singer modulating his voice for the wax cylinder, undermines the notion of an authentic original: the performance was not merely captured by, but designed for the machine. “What has the phonograph preserved?” Sterne asks.[57] Despite the fantasy of transparency promised by electronic media technologies such as the phonograph, Sterne writes:

When one traces recordings back to their so-called sources, one finds the intersection of cultural forces that made initial and subsequent moments of reproducibility desirable and possible. There was no ‘unified whole’ or idealized performance from which the sound in the recording was then alienated… Recording is a form of exteriority: it does not preserve a preexisting sonic event as it happens so much as it creates and organizes sonic events for the possibility of preservation and repetition. Recording is, therefore, discontinuous with the ‘live’ events that it is sometimes said to represent.[58]

Juan Downey,  The Laughing Alligator  (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey,  The Laughing Alligator  (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey,  The Laughing Alligator  (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator (27 min. black and white and color, sound),1979. Video still. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

While the ostensible technological objectivity of the phonograph promised a transparency that surpassed anthropological notation and description, the sense of enhanced access to an original event is undermined by the fact that this original is already tailored for its copy. What early ethnographic recordings mediate, then, is not an authentic source of knowledge about a lost culture, but the orchestrations of the dominant culture as it contributed to this vanishing.

“The anthropologists had warned me about the ferocity of these Indians,” Downey recounts in his voiceover, evoking Chagnon’s popular anthropological study Yanomamö: The Fierce People as well as The Ax Fight, a 1971 ethnographic film Chagnon made in collaboration with Timothy Asch, which reiterated the portrayal the Yanomami as an essentially aggressive society. “I saw in my mind all the bloody episodes that the anthropologists had described to me,” Downey continues, aiming his camera at the hunters.[59] In The Ax Fight, the fierceness of the Yanomami is exemplified by a confrontation between two Yanomami communities. Interestingly, there is a near echo of the encounter in The Laughing Alligator in the outtakes of the documentation used to compile The Ax Fight: the sound technician is seen ducking away from a young Yanomami man, who swipes his machete in jest toward the terrified Westerner. As Michael Taussig has noted, the authenticity of the documentary was further compromised by the fact that Asch apparently hacked away at a watermelon in order to produce the desired sound of the Yanomami’s axes.[60] If depicted through inauthentic means in this film, the representation of the Yanomami as a fierce people promulgated by Chagnon had real consequences for the Yanomami people and their environment. As the journalist Patrick Tierney has endeavored to prove in his 2001 book Darkness in El Dorado, Chagnon’s work in the Amazon has had a devastating effect on the Yanomami population, from spreading disease to causing financial corruption—reiterating the legacy of European conquest. As Diana Taylor has written regarding the repeated “scenarios of discovery” common among colonialists and anthropologists working in the Americas, “The very scenario that numbs us with familiarity occludes the atrocious outcome. As a paradigmatic system of visibility, the scenario also assures invisibility.”[61]  Ethnographic documents do not provide access to an authentic original, but reflect back onto the “cultural forces” that desire and give rise to these representations. Downey not only promotes laughter to undermine baseless portrayals of fierceness, but, in foregrounding social interaction and his own role as video-maker, relocates the performance to be analyzed in the observers as much as the observed.

By the time Downey arrived in the Amazon, the “primitive landscape” he sought had already been well trammeled by anthropologists and other neocolonial forces such as tourism and land development, acting in the tradition of the conquistadores. This indicates a more fundamental problem of authenticity underlying primitivism. While a search for the primitive is in many ways a search for the authentic, as a critical platform imagined outside dominant Western culture, it is ultimately inauthentic. As we have seen, “critical primitivism” has been repeatedly evoked as a progressive practice, from Gauguin to Marx and Engels and McLuhan and the 1960s counterculture. However, primitivism can never provide a radical, authentic critique of modern, Western culture precisely because, to apply Simon Gikandi’s formulation, the primitive Other is the constitutive outside of this dominant culture.[62] As Hal Foster argued in his response to the 1984 exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art (which included a work by Downey in the accompanying video program, Video and Ritual), “recouped philosophically” by Enlightenment logic, “the primitive becomes part of the internal reformation of the West, a moment within its reason: and the West, culturally prepared, escapes the radical interrogation which it otherwise poses.”[63] This mechanism of “internal reformation”—which precludes the radicalism of artistic and cultural critiques based on primitivism—is integral to the notion of progress, which, as Rasheed Araeen has observed, is not only central to Western civilization as informed by Enlightenment thought and the global impacts of modernization, but also at the heart of “a universal history of art” that is “specifically Western.”[64] While Downey’s work is still being historicized, in his evocation of the primitive as a platform for a progressive reevaluation of new media, he was ultimately locked into a logic that feeds back into paradigms of cultural and artistic progress. However, as I hope to have shown, in engaging the primitive, Downey presented this timeworn representation of cultural difference as a social encounter occurring in real time. Rather than providing a window of access to Western audiences, his videos became a mirror, or feedback circuit, reflecting back onto the artist and the culture he could not escape, but believed he could change.

*Gillian Young is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at Columbia University, where she studies modern and contemporary art, performance, and media theory.


[1] Juan Downey, “Video Trans Americas.” Radical Software Vol. 2, No. 5 (1973), 4.

[2] Juan Downey, writings of the artist, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, ed. Nuria Enguita Mayo and Juan Guardiola Román, (Valencia: Institut Valencià d’Art Modern and Centre del Carme, 1997), 336.

[3] Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October, Vol. 1 (Spring 1976), 57.

[4] Krauss, 64.

[5] Juan Downey, “Tayeri, Thursday 10th of March, 1977,” in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 340.

[6] Juan Downey, “Noreshi Torwai,” in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 338.

[7] Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), xvi.

[8] Constance Penley, Juan Downey, MATRIX/BERKELEY 16 exhibition brochure, University Art Museum (University of California, Berkeley, November 1977–January, 1978), n.p.

[9] Russell, xvii.

[10] Russell, xvii.

[11] Juan Downey, writings of the artist, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 336.

[12] Juan Downey, writings of the artist, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 336.

[13] Mayo and Román, Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 330.

[14] Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator video transcript, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 343.

[15] Juan Downey, “Technology and Beyond,” Radical Software Vol. 2, No. 5 (1973), 2.

[16] Downey, 2.

[17] Fusco, 344.

[18] Nicolás Guagnini. “Feedback in the Amazon.” October 125 (Summer 2008), 110.

[19] See Stephen Eisenman, Gauguin’s Skirt (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997), 56. Eisenman argues that Gauguin’s move to Tahiti and the Marquesas, while perhaps sparked by exoticism, was ultimately motivated by the artist’s longing for “a primitive, anarchist utopia, a land where money was unnecessary, and where mutual aid was the basis for a free and independent life.”

[20] Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family: Private Property and the State, trans. Ernest Untermann, (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1902 [1884]), 79.

[21] See Michael Taussig, in Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect, 44.

[22] Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization (New Brunswick: Transaction, Inc., 1987 [1974]).

[23] Diamond, 49.

[24] Downey, 1.

[25] Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 182.

[26] Juan Downey, “Noreshi Towai,” in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 338.

[27] Juan Downey, The Abandoned Shabono video transcript, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 343.

[28] Downey, The Abandoned Shabono video transcript, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 343.

[29] Juan Downey, The Laughing Alligator video transcript, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 344.

[30] Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 4.

[31] Turner, 85.

[32] Turner, 101.

[33] Mark Watson, “The Countercultural ‘Indian’: Visualizing Retribalization at the Human Be-In,” in West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977, ed. Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 221.

[34] Turner, 4.

[35] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010 [1962]), 25.

[36] McLuhan, 36.

[37] McLuhan, “The Agenbite of Outwit,” “The Agenbite of Outwit” (1963). Media Research: Technology, Art, Communication, ed. Michel A. Moos (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1997), 123.

[38] McLuhan, 122.

[39] McLuhan, 124.

[40] McLuhan, 124.

[41] Sterne, 92.

[42] Sterne, 311.

[43] Sterne, 311-312.

[44] Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 31.

[45] Sterne, 313.

[46] Sterne, 331-332.

[47] Sterne, 315-321.

[48] Penley, n.p.

[49] Juan Downey, “Tayeri, Thursday 10th of March, 1977,” in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 339.

[50] Juan Downey, “Architecture, Video, Telepathy. A Communications Utopia.” International Review of Video and Mass Media, Journal for the Centre for Advanced TV Studies Vol. 5, No. 1 (1977): 2.

[51] Coco Fusco, “At the Crossroads between North and South: Video Works by Juan Downey,” in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 345.

[52] Juan Downey, video transcript, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 343.

[53] Fusco, 345.

[54] Downey, video transcript, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 343.

[55] Gustavo Buntinx, “Against Shadows,” in Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect, ed. Valerie Smith (Cambridge and New York: MIT List Visual Arts Center and Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2011), 85. Emphasis mine.

[56] Simon Critchley, “Laughing at Foreigners: A Peculiar Defense of Ethnic Humor,” in Laughing in a Foreign Language, ed. Mami Kataoka (London: Hayward Publishing, 2008). 17-18.

[57] Sterne, 320.

[58] Sterne, 332.

[59] Juan Downey, video transcript, in Juan Downey: With Energy Beyond These Walls, 343.

[60] Taussig, in Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect, 44.

[61] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 54.

[62] Simon Gikandi, “Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference” (2003), in Beautiful/Ugly, Sarah Nutall, ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 34.

[63] Hal Foster. “The ‘Primitive’ Unconscious of Modern Art” (1985), in Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art: A Documentary History, Jack Flam and Miriam Deutsch, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 385.

[64] Rasheed Araeen, “From Primitivism to Ethnic Arts,” Third Text 1 (Autumn 1987): 14.