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Fan-Girling over Subtle Rebellion: Cildo Meireles' 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits' (1970)

Cildo Meireles 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project' (1970)

In this talk, we will be taking a closer look at Cildo Meireles’ Insertions in Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project from 1970. The reason I have selected this piece to discuss out of all the works on display in the TATE Liverpool collection is because I am an absolute fan girl for it. Back when I was studying for my bachelor’s degree at the University for the Creative Arts, my first-year tutor held an intensive art history crash-course-esque lecture on the litany of ‘isms’ of the 20th century. Most of this went in one ear and out of the other, making me fairly lost by the 1940s. However, the one thing that regained my attention was the Coca-Cola Project. I thought the subtle anarchy of the work was complete genius. Hopefully, by the end of this short talk, you will understand my love for it and maybe even join me as fellow fan girls. I have some coke bottle templates, which I have drawn and printed, for you to scribble on during the talk. You can do whatever you wish to them, write your own political statements, draw pretty pictures on them or even turn them into cola bottle creatures. But the main aim is to be creatively rebellious with your graffiti to subvert the image of the commodity.

I’ll start with a little information about the artist. Meireles was born in 1948 in Rio, which is also where he currently lives and works. Shortly after he started studying art in the 1960s, he came across a group of artists which he thought were pretty cool; people like Hélio Oiticica, who was a front-runner of the Neo-Concrete Movement. You can find a piece by Oiticica in the gallery space upstairs – a red wooden structure suspended from the ceiling.

Helio Oiticica's 'Spatial Relief (red) REL 036' (1959)

To understand what Neo-Concrete art is, we first need to look at its predecessor – gold star to anyone who can guess what that movement was called… The (unsurprisingly named) Concrete Movement was interested in blurring the boundaries between art and life. Like much modern art, it did away with traditional depictions of the world around us. Instead of creating art that imitated or represented reality, it looked to art as a universal visual language and formed imagery through scientific and mathematical theories and formulas. Although a little nerdy, this desire for a global understanding is a post-1945 reaction, a counterculture to two violent World Wars, the Holocaust and several nuclear bombings, all of which were driven by bordered geopolitics and divided ideologies. Concrete art was pretty anti-anthropocentric, it aimed for a more logical and humane understanding of reality and disagreed with the importance placed on fabricated political systems. The Neo-Concrete Movement – the fancy New Concrete Movement – was the splinter group for young artists who wanted to create concrete artwork with a more poetic feeling and colour. Meireles cited the director and narrator Orson Welles as creating the best artwork of the 20th century: the shocking 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Meireles had a fan girl moment of his own over the era-defining reading saying it “seamlessly dissolved the border between art and life, fiction and reality”. He aimed to recreate this concept of total audience investment, which can be seen throughout his work. The audience becomes a participant and the art is experienced as reality, activated by the participation.

Newspaper report on Orson Welles' radio broadcast (1938)

When kicking off his career, Brazil was under an oppressive military dictatorship. Its government would censor visual media (including art) and so Meireles wanted to create something that could perfectly balance the subversive and the subtle. It needed to be subversive enough that it would make a bold statement but subtle enough that it would slip through the tight grasp of militant control and out to the wider public. It had to work as an alternative to state-run media, which was both governed and governing.

So we come to the conception of Insertions into Ideological Circuits. He created two projects under this umbrella term: Coca-Cola Project and Banknote Project, both followed an almost identical format. During this time, and pre the era of single-use plastics, Brazil had a circuit of exchange for coke bottles, where one would buy the cola, drink the liquid and return the bottle so it may be refilled and placed back on the shelves. Coincidently, due to 21st century calls for more environmentally sustainable commercial practices, the Coca-Cola Company have returned to its recycling practices in a very limited number of countries, the first of which was Brazil in 2018. Meirelles would take cola bottles and banknotes out of circulation, ‘deface’ them with stickers and printed slogans and return them into the system. As the bottle emptied the dark background would disappear, making the white labels harder to read. The graffiti would become invisible and so would be refilled without being noticed. Finding this cool yet? My favourite of the statements and diagrams is the instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail – what a dangerously cheeky, fantastically rebellious, nifty design, both utilising the bottle as a vessel for the message and a tool for the riotous practice. The Coca-Cola Project uses the system against itself, like spy infiltration or a parasite piggybacking off a larger animal’s lifeforce. The coke bottle is a globally recognised symbol of US imperialism and capitalist consumerism, in this case paradoxically stamped with statements like “yankees go home”. By exploring circulation and the exchange of goods, money and information as systems within political frameworks, the work equally defies two polarised ideological systems at once: that of dictatorship and that of the “free” market.

Cildo Meireles' 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Banknotes Project'

It was critical to Meirelles that his statements be presented in both Portuguese and English, bringing us back to the idea of the universal language of concrete art. The art needs to be understood by all, for all, to break down divisive language barriers and broaden the audience. He said the project “arose out of the need to create a system for the circulation and exchange of information that did not depend on any kind of centralised control”. The work, like media, only really exists to the extent people participate in it and so people need to understand it to activate it. It becomes a political resistance of the people, by the people (globally) through Meirelles’ guerilla tactics of political resistance. This is why the artwork has never been sold, the idea must not become restricted intellectual property or a commodity in the same way its materials are, because the artist wants the audience to be able to write their own statements into the system of exchange.

This brings us to the idea of ownership. In a logical world, ownership itself is a construct, and fits both the above ideologies completely. A dictatorship being the ownership of state, land and people and in a capitalist system the ownership of one’s own wealth and home (and ‘fate’). In the neo-concrete world, perhaps ownership feels like a damaging absurdity. But the idea of ownership is further subverted by being within the gallery walls at TATE. Does the artwork artifact belong to the Coca-Cola Company because it’s their manufacturing and branding? Does it belong to the consumer who last purchased the bottle? Does it belong to the gallery because it sits under its roof? Or to the country or militant government in which it lived? Or to the artist who made it art? Or to the audience that continues to activate it by viewing it? I feel that Cildo would say it would belong to (or rather is for) the public, to everyone and no one, but above all no organisation or government body. There is plenty of reasoning for and against each site of ownership, but all of these would only go to support a system of exchange that the work aims to subvert. The reason I call this particular display an artifact rather than the artwork itself is because it simply is not the original artwork, the materials are the same, the objects are the same, it is literally the same glass and print, but the artwork is no longer in circulation and so, although not deactivated, the piece has evolved into something else, which only opens up more questions.

My drawn coke bottle template alongside Meireles' 'Coca-Cola Project'

So hopefully now you can see why I think this is such a cool piece of art. But what do you think? Does the work belong to anyone? Does the work have relevance in a different era, different society, different geographical location? Would anyone like to share their Coca-Cola bottle graffiti?

Thank you for coming to the talk!


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