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'Inverted utopias'

By Jim Regan / November 8, 2004



Between 1920 and 1970, a Latin American avant-garde movement promoted the belief that artistic works could present possibilities for a form of utopia, and function as a pattern for an improved society. During those 50 years, the manner for expressing these opinions changed from an assimilation of influences from European and North American Modernism, to an expression of independence from events in Europe and the US.

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This is already more than most of us ever knew about the Latin American avant-garde, but the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH) set out to change that situation this past summer by mounting an exhibition showcasing more than 200 works from more than 60 artists. While the museum exhibit closed in September, a small but instructive sample of that collection remains on the Web at Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. And the site itself has been getting as much notice as its content.

Faced with representing an extensive physical exhibition with a much smaller online selection, Utopias' content concentrates on the formative and the twilight years of the avant-garde. Divided into two very different Flash-based exhibits (and available in English and Spanish), the site first looks at the latter end of the avant-garde chronology with El Techo de la Ballena - a Venezuelan movement of the 1960s that strove to turn deliberate provocation into an "instrument for human research." After an introduction places the movement's self-declared mission to "change life and transform society" into a cultural and political context, Ballena then offers a selection of books, posters and postcards created by the movement, biographies of the Ballena's artists, and a collection of recently translated manifestos and writings.

But for most visitors, who will arrive knowing nothing about Latin American avant-garde, the feature that will keep them long enough to learn is the exquisite way that the information is presented. In fact, the presentation is so attractive, that one can't help wondering if the artists would have appreciated this particular approach. (Still, given the dark nature of so much of the material, a more thematically appropriate interface could well have driven visitors to Disney.com just to try to regain their emotional equilibrium.)

The exhibit's four sections are all situated on a single sheet of virtual paper, largely decorated with line art illustrations by Ballena member, Josep Maria Berenguer (in varying degrees of saturation so as not to interfere with the main content). Chose a subject, and the page shifts to bring the corresponding section of paper into the browser frame. Once settled on a particular quadrant of the sheet, the next level of interaction includes such features as a menu that displays book covers when the user selects a title, and then loads the book itself (with user-turnable pages and occasional curatorial guidance) when that title is clicked. The biographies place each artist's background and a sample of their work on to flippable post cards, and the 'Manifestos' - the most basic of the sections - open each sample of writing in a new window within the existing frame, accompanied by a paragraph or two of introduction.

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