Argentina 1976-1981: Theatre Against Dictatorship

This is the story of the Workshop of Theatrical Investigation (Taller de Investigaciones Teatrales, or TiT), a clandestine group that used theatrical performance to resist the brutal dictatorship of Jorge Videla in Argentina in 1976-1981, as told to a meeting in London in September 2018 by Marta Cocco, one of the group’s founders.

Marta is the author of The Workshop of Theatrical Investigation: political and artistic action under Argentina’s last military dictatorship (Taller de Investigaciones Teatrales: acion political y artistica durant la ultima dictadura militar argentina (Buenos Aires: Isla de la Luna, 2017)), a historical account of the group.

Recently, Marta formed a Theatrical Workshop for Political Investigation, La TIPA, based in Italy, which works in a similar tradition to the TiT. The TIPA is part of a Fair Trade Cooperative, L’Isola di Amantani.

La TIPA’s performances have included Antigone Furiosa, an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone about the struggle of women against the state; Break the Borders, worked on with refugees; and It Can’t Continue Like This Any More, against homophobia.

This is an edited record of the meeting, at the May Day Rooms in London, including a presentation and a question-and-answer session.



Marta. Thank you for arranging the meeting. I am going to talk about a story that for many years was almost completely unknown: the story of a clandestine group, the Workshop of Theatrical Investigation (Taller de Investigaciones Teatrales, or TiT) that organised itself under the dictatorship in 1976. It did many things,  rapidly, but also rapidly disappeared. That word, disappeared, for Argentinians is always linked to los Desaparecidos [the disappeared – more than 30,000 people murdered by the Videla dictatorship]. The TiT disappeared physically because it was a very very difficult time. Everybody had to organise themselves under conditions where the dictatorship worked as a big, powerful machine.

The dictatorship tried to control people by killing, by disappearing people, by torturing people, by military actions – but at the same time they needed to build a big culture fiction, a culture machine to control collective memory, to control social life, to control ideologies and thinking.

In 1976, the cultural space was one of the most important for the military to control. They needed not only repression, but also to control the cultural side of politics. In that space there was a resistance under the dictatorship, but it never realised its potential. The only thing that really realised its potential was the big fight over the disappeared by the human rights movement, with the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They were the vanguard, these women: the vanguard of resistance to dictatorship.

After many years, more or less around the turn of the century, this struggle started to become visible and acceptable. It became known that these women had been resisting and had helped to defeat the dictatorship. But many other things were not visible: clandestine unions, workers’ groups, students’ associations, theatrical associations, other manifestations of civil society.

This is what I was trying to study, in the research that ended up as my book. I was doing my PhD in culture studies at Kings College, London. I had the luck to have access to books and libraries – but there was always something missing: these grass roots movements, these bits of society that organised things and built the infrastructure of resistance.

Now we can see very clearly that this infrastructure of resistance was there, we can see the networks around groups. But at the time, it was very difficult to know these little networks. Most of them were clandestine. So in my research I tried to make is the story of the Workshop of Theatrical Investigation visible, because it was an example of this kind of movement – a grass roots movement, linked to left wing politics, to revolutionary politics,

A rehearsal by members of the Workshop of Theatrical Investigation, Argentina, late 1970s

to Trotskyist politics. It was a mix of mainly young people who tried to resist the dictatorship.

In the last few years, since I did my research, the existence of this sort of movement started to be recognised. Many institutions – theatre institutions in Argentina – have recognised this as something important, something that contributed to the resistance in Argentina.

Why was organisation clandestine, and how did it work? One of the main things that the dictatorship did was Operacion Claridad (Operation Clarity). This was a big operation: a project to purify society ideologically, to purify ideology. For them, this meant the burning of books, the killing of intellectuals, the disappearing of teachers, and the drawing-up of black lists (listas negras) of artists, writers and actors. There was a huge list of blacklisted people.

In this situation, the TiT could only organise itself in clandestinity or semi clandestinity. They would rent houses like this one [the May Day Rooms], without anyone knowing what was going on there.

It is very difficult to present the phenomenon of the TiT because there is always a question: what was it? Was it theatre, or politics? Was it politics, or theatre? It was a cultural phenomenon of resistance that emerged, in part because so many forms of organisation were broken up, violently: the trade unions, political parties, political associations … even the right wing ones were disbanded.

All the social space in which they operated was empty. So from the generation of people who wanted to fight against the dictatorship emerged this cultural phenomenon, which was taking the space of theatre to do politics; not to do theatre, but to do politics. At the same time, in order to do politics, we needed to do theatre. But we fell in love with theatre, and we became artists – so we were both things: artists and militants, what today is called “artivists”. What is difficult to understand is that, to some people, this crazy phenomenon was a new way to do politics – without anything, without any money, any structure. In critical theory some academics describe this as a new way to do politics.

This photo shows a semi-clandestine meeting – a rehearsal – and at this rehearsal you could discuss politics, and at the same time, do a play, do exercises and do theatre.

These next pictures were taken not in the time of the dictatorship, but before – in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The theatrical movement had its roots in the 1960s. Long before the coup, the artistic vanguard was politicised. There was research, plays and performance at that time. The link between art and politics was really close, and this was a generation before us, before the TiT.

You see that the theatre is not on the stage, it’s on the ground. People are pro-active, they participate.

These are pictures of performances led by Juan Uviedo in Mexico in the early 1970s.

Other rooms we used were public. Sometimes we would work in a public square. These pictures show different spaces where people were doing performances.

The next photos show performances and rehearsals. We used many different spaces, and used them very well: rooms, theatres, squares, trains, abandoned cultural centres and so on. The picture below, left, was taken in an abandoned cultural centre that was important for us.

Mauricio (left) and Mauro, performers with the TiT

TiT performers at the Manzana de las Luces cultural centre

This was a theatrical intervention in a bus in Brazil, in 1980.

Performance in a bus in Brazil. Marta Cocco is on the left

The group used the surrealist concept of vasos comunicantes (communication vessels) for artistic work, but also as a metaphor for their organisation, for their committees with different sections, different branches. There was a pyramidal structure, similar to any political party, but this was artistic, not political: there was a cinema workshop, a literature workshop, a music workshop, a finance committee, publicity groups, and so on. The left political movement was organised like this, the guerrilla groups organised like this, and the theatrical group also. We were artists; we wanted to do politics and art together,

These are some of the old cultural houses we had in Argentina. Under the dictatorship you couldn’t have a cultural centre, it was not allowed, so they were operated on a semi-clandestine basis.

Casona Avenida San Juan

Casona Avenida San Juan

Casona Avenida Córdoba

The TiT was a creative space for political organisation. You do your art, you do your theatre, and that way you make your political statement. The public are at the centre of the performance; the public should be pro-active. [A baby who was with an audience member suddenly cried loudly.] Yes, you see, like him – pro-active.

We could not accept that theatre was: I am acting very nicely, and you are applauding me, and everything’s nice and beautiful. It’s not like this. People have to get active. You have to provoke people. People have to stand up for something. You try to make people aware of something.

For most of us, theatre was an investigation of social wounds. You use theatre to do political campaigns. We used it to denounce things. We were saying to the dictatorship: we know that you are killing people; we are going to use the theatre to show that you are killing people.

We made theatre an assembly, democratic discussion between people, where everybody votes, everybody has a say and everybody participates. It is the practice of collective creation; everybody has to participate in producing something.

The TiT was a provocative, transgressive, political and subversive theatre; a theatre which, in order to survive, privileged alternative spaces, going beyond the traditional theatrical hall and the written script. All this was written in manifestos. There was a programme, an ideology, parameters, and guidelines about how things should be done. We used different spaces, such as an abandoned museum. Many spaces were closed; we were reclaiming the spaces. We would go there, do a performance in five minutes and then go, before the police came.

We had discussions about gender. Many of the women in the TiT were doing research on these issues. It was that time – the 60s and 70s. We wanted to know how to win independence for women in art and in intellectual work.

Marta Cocco (left foreground) and other women of the TiT

Lina Capdevilla, a performer with the TiT

Another initiative was the Zangandongo movement, an international alternative surrealistic movement set up in Buenos Aires in 1979. Its objective was to create international links with independent artists fighting against capitalism. “Zangandongo” was a provocative word that doesn’t mean anything – we used it so that the police wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand anything of our art and language.

A big issue was how to escape from the police and the military, and we used language to help us. They had all the forces you could want – secret service, police, more police, the military, all in the street. We had to work with all of them there. So our language changed. The city is militarised, and because it is militarised, the language changes. The dictatorship had its own language, and the resistance movement had its own language. What does Zangandongo mean? Nothing. Our struggle went on like this.

Members of the Zangandongo movement, 1979

This leaflet and this newspaper cutting are from the first Festival of Alternative Art, against dictatorship, against censorship, held in Buenos Aires in 1979. It lasted for a month, and was organised in a clandestine way. It brought together many people and productions. But it then receded into invisibility; hardly anyone knew about it until we did the research that put all these things together.

These are photos taken of performances during the Festival of Alternative Art.

The same with cinema. This pictures shows the first meeting against censorship, organised by the Argentine Movement for Independent Cinema (Movimiento Argentino por un cine Independiente) in Buenos Aires in 1980. All the people there were very well known in Argentinian cinema: Aida Bortnik and others, people who had been forced into the shadows by the dictatorship.

Members of the Workshop of Cinema Investigation

There were similar activities by musicians. A great deal of activity was done against the dictatorship that remained unknown, but gathered many people.

I will end by giving you an example of one of the TiT’s theatrical production. It was based on a play by Jean Genet, Funeral Rites (Pompas Fúnebres). We could not use themes from Argentinian literature; it was too dangerous. By referring to international books, we were using things about which no-one in the police understood anything. If a policeman caught you with a book about surrealism, then he would wonder what it is. But if he caught you with a book by an Argentinian writer – any writer, because so many of Argentina’s writers were censored! – then you could have problems.

The play was about a soldier who was mourning the death of his boyfriend, a communist activist, who had been murdered by a Nazi. The story by Jean Genet was adapted by the group; we used it as a metaphor for what was going on in Argentina.

An important line in the play is: “Here a young man has fallen” (“Aquí cayó un joven”). The character had been shot. We took this sentence and put it on stickers. The publicity for the play was, in the evening, to cover the whole city with these stickers: the buses, the underground, the walls, the bars. Wherever you went, you would find these stickers. Everywhere. And at this time, this was not allowed – no stickers, no leaflets, no nothing. It was a very very difficult task. Thirty or forty of us went out with the stickers.

This picture shows how these stickers were exhibited in an Exhibition, Losing the Human Form: a seismic image of the 1980s in Latin America (Perder la forma humana: una imagen sísmica de los años ochenta en América Latina), in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, in 2013. Later, in 2014, the same exhibition was put on in Buenos Aires in the National Immigration Museum.

The play was to be performed in 1981, when the dictatorship was already weakening, at the Teatro del Picadero, a well known theatre in the centre of Buenos Aires. When the day arrived and the play was to be performed, the tickets were all sold out. News had spread by word of mouth. Three hundred tickets had been sold. People were already gathering outside the theatre, waiting for the play.

The fascists called the theatre and said, if you do the play, we will bomb the theatre. So finish with your play, everyone go home. The owner and managers of the theatre came to the organisers and said, quick. The manager was the chairman of the commission against censorship. But he came to us and said, very clearly, please, you can not do this here; if you do it, they are going to bomb the theatre, so, please go. He didn’t allow us to continue.

So this event became a political rally. One of the main actors jumped on the roof of a car and began to make a statement against censorship, against dictatorship. Of the junta he asked: “When is this going to finish? It’s high time it finished.” People started to shout the famous slogan, “Se Va Acabar la Dictadura Militar” (“The Military Dictatorship is Going to Fall”).

All this happened because the play was ready. Our plan had been for the play to finish with people in the street singing this song, to make the dictatorship fall. We hadn’t been able to do the play. But the rally happened in any case.

We finished the rally. The police came. Everybody ran. Six months later, the theatre was bombed. It was one of the main independent theatres of Buenos Aires, you will find it referred to in different guide books. All in all it was bombed three times.

See: Funeral Rites for the Military Junta (more on this production)

The Teatro Picadero after the bombing

This map shows the centre of Buenos Aires. The Teatro Picadero, which was bombed, is there. Very close by is the Carlos Pellegrini school. Forty of its students and teachers were “disappeared” by the security forces. And on the right hand side of the map is the location of a detention centre. Now it is a huge shopping arcade. All these things happened at the same time: the bombing of the theatre, the persecution of the students and teachers, and the arrest and torture of the junta’s opponents. This is the context in which culture was working at that time. The dictatorship, in order to do its dirty jobs, needed to work underground. The resistance and struggle also had to be underground. This map is a representation of what was going on.


Question and answer session

Question. What was the relationship between the groups you were involved in under the dictatorship and earlier experiments with political theatre in Argentina?

Marta. There was a divide, a break, between what had gone before and what we did. The problem was that this last dictatorship was particularly violent. It was because of that. In the years before 1976, there had been many movements, a really politicised vanguard, in academia, in the theatre, in every aspect of culture. So the politicisation, the education was huge. It was very dynamic.

In the theatre, many people know the name of Di Tella. This was a renowned centre of arts and investigation. They did a great deal of research and beautiful performances. They were the vanguard of the performative arts, music and theatre in Buenos Aires. This was one of the links.

Then there were many differents experiences of very politicised theatre in the working class, in the shanty towns, in the schools. There was the tendency of Augusto Boal, a Brazilian, who was exiled in Argentina. The dictatorship liked to say that such people carried an “infection”, and it went both ways, from Argentina to Brazil and back. Boal inspired a huge political theatre movement.

Question. So that was in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

Marta. Yes. The 60s and 70s. And then the dictatorship came to “clean all that up”, because the movement was building up. So the people who started the movement in 1976 in Argentina began from nothing: they were cut off. We didn’t know much about Boal and about other such movements. There was a break there, nobody knew.

Everybody found themselves there doing art, doing politics, with alot of determination to resist the dictatorship, to defeat the dictatorship. Nobody knew clearly what had been there before. Only now are researchers bringing these things

Publicity for a TiT performance. The actors’ names are presented in the style of obituary notices

together. I wrote this book because I saw it was very important to put all these things together: the history, the practice, the experience. They intended to destroy all the living experience that we had – not only the intellectual experience, but the practice, the theatre, the political left.

Question. When you say, nobody knew, you mean that those who came together in 1976 didn’t know about those who had been doing that stuff before?

Marta. We didn’t have a clear understanding. There was some sort of “infection”, as the dictatorship would say, but not a clear continuity. There was the Teatro di Investigacione Teatrales that was built in Latin America by Juan Uviedo. He was a theatrical practioner, educated in different parts of the world, in America, in Cuba, and elsewhere. He brought alot of theory to Buenos Aires. This group of people met him and he was transmitting all the things that he had learned.

Question. This was in 1976, when the dictatorship was already in power, he arrived and managed to make contact with you guys?

Marta. Exactly. He arrived in Buenos Aires because he was exiled. So many people were exiled! And they carried information around, in the process of migration. He was an Argentinian, he came from Santa Fe. He was not a Trotskyist, he was supporting Peronism. He worked doing alternative theatre, transgressive theatre. He was doing a play in support of the homosexual movement, and so he was thrown out of Santa Fe by the authorities. This was before 1976. He was exiled many times. He moved to Buenos Aires, and there he found this group of people who wanted to do politics and theatre.

Chair. And where is he now?

Marta. He is dead now. He was also an anarchist; he was in exile everywhere.

Question. Was this activity just happening in Buenos Aires, or was it also happening in other cities, or other countries in the region? Because this was a time of many dictatorships – Chile, Paraguay, Argentina.

Marta. So there was also a movement in other provinces. There was a movement in Rosario, which is a city of high culture and strong intellectual traditions. So there was a link to a group in Rosario called Cucaño. They had a connection with the TiT in Buenos Aires. We were like cousins, we worked together. And there were hundreds of clandestine publications – reviews, fanzines and other magazines.

Question. There seems to have been a really big underground network. But, given the level of repression, how were you able to do such large scale projects? How did the groups survive without being crushed within a month? I am trying to compare it to the Soviet Union, which – not in the 1930s, but in the 60s and 70s – seemed to have been a kindergarten compared to what you are describing. But still, in the Soviet Union you could only do stuff that was completely detached from politics. The police would know, and they might decide to leave you alone – or they might not. How did you manage to survive? What were the clandestine techniques?

Marta. This is very important. It was assumed that the military junta had given cultural institutions, and cultural life generally – music, cinema and so on – alot of space and alot of freedom. That was assumed. But in truth it was not like this. The repression was very harsh.

Marta’s book on the history of the TiT

A large number of intellectuals were “disappeared”. But, nevertheless, there was a little space, where you could do political and cultural work in the street, and nothing would happen to you. But it was risky. It was up to you whether you did that or not. There was a risk that they would follow you, and decide whether or not you could “disappear” or not.

To give a very concrete example. There was a time when we were rehearsing late at night. The police were waiting for us, and would arrest people as they left. So they were pushing, pushing people all the time. Maybe you would not “disappear” as a result. But they would push and harass. They had many different strategies.

We had a culture centre with the TiT and we were rehearsing, in costume. It was dark, there were no lights. I was sitting in a chair, and I remember seeing a big gun, and boots, coming up the stairs. They burst in, shouting “come on, all of you, stand up”. There were about twenty of them, maybe more, and ten of us. In the street was a big bus, waiting to take us away. There was an armoured car.

They took all of us, with our costumes, with shawls, special bras, with legs out, with wigs. We were all put in a queue, against a wall, hands on top of our heads. Everybody to the police station! We got in the bus. We got to the police station, all the officers on duty were drunk. All of us – up against the wall. Them with their hands. “Open your legs.” Then one of them started to say: “Young people of our country! You are all corrupted! You are all infected. There is a virus killing our society: a terrorist virus. Terrorism is a cancer. Young people, you have to learn to sing this song. …” And he started to sing the national anthem. “Everybody, march! March!” The whole night.

A few times, some working girls, prostitutes who had been working in the street, were brought into the police station. They were laughing and joking. The police officers were taking them into rooms. We were still there.

One of the girls in our group managed to get out, because of their surname – with this name, they could not be touched.

Chair. So just to clarify, you mean she was a member of a privileged family?

Marta. Yes, there were some surnames, from upper-class families that couldn’t so easily be touched. So this girl got out, and was able to alert other people’s parents to what was going on. This didn’t mean so much in itself, because many of the parents were against what we were doing. Some of them would say, “good! now you’ve learned your lesson. Listen to what the police have to say.” Part of the civil society accepted this ideology. But anyway, some of the mothers were very clever, they knew how to act, even if they didn’t understand much of the broader issues.

Chair. So please finish the story! What happened? How did the night end?

Marta. We spent the whole night in the police station. They were shouting abuse, nothing more than this. This was also because it was already 1981, when the repression was already at a lower level. It was more relaxed. At that time they wouldn’t kill people or make them

From Marta’s archive

“disappear”. They had started a policy of democratic concessions. So somehow we were safe. Nobody disappeared. But this sort of thing could happen at any time. You come out of a theatre. They stop you. They were always in the street, keeping an eye on you. The city was militarised.

Question. So, thinking about Stalinism in the Soviet Union, it seems that the opposition was so weak. Looking at this comparison, I still think it’s impressive that the infrastructure of opposition in Argentina was able to withstand all this.

Marta. Yes.

Question. I am a theatre-maker too, and I have some practical questions about the company and how you structured it. Were you a director?

Marta. Yes.

Question. There’s the making, the art and the politics. How did you navigate the creative situations – what was your personal process? And how did you document it? I suppose there aren’t political manifestos, but what evidence exists now of the work you did? Were there scripts for the plays?

Marta. The productions were quite big. The worst years of the dictatorship were from 1976, when the coup took place, to 1978. That was the hardest period. And then, our output was very high. We did 30 or 40 performances, which was alot, in that space of time. I mean performances of any kind. There were three groups with different styles. Each group would decide which plays to do, which subjects to research. The idea was to research issues – gender issues, political issues, things like this.

The project was collective creation, but there was also a director, someone who said, we’re going to do this, this and that. The plays were chosen by the group, or by the director. We used what Boal called “forum theatre” [a key concept in Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed”]. Not so much in the public events, but in the groups. We had democratic discussion, political discussion, in these groups – and then, action.

Question. You talked about the manifestos and aesthetic principles, and you talked about production. How were those principles mirrored in the productions? For example you said that the main thing was to expose, to denounce, the crimes of the dictatorship. How did that work out in the productions?

Marta. I will give you an example, of our trip to Brazil. There was this idea of the “virus” and “infections”. That we were infecting society, and they, the dictatorship, were disinfecting. So our idea was to take the plague (la peste), as conceived by Antonin Artaud [in his manifesto, The Theatre and the Plague, which makes up the first chapter of his book, The Theatre and Its Double], and work with it. He was a theatre practioner, who developed the idea of the Theatre of Cruelty.

This was very political. We took the plague, and we transformed it into something with which we would go abroad, and show the world that there is a plague in Argentina. This plague was the massacre by the dictatorship of hundreds and thousands of young people.

So they, our enemies, were saying that there was a virus of terrorism. We were saying that in Argentina there was a plague, the dictatorship. It was very interesting to research this idea. So about forty of us, artists and actors, took a bus and went to Brazil. When we got there we went to the Praça da República [Republic Square], one of the major squares in São Paulo, and started to agitate. And we said, forty Argentinians had been infected by the plague.

It was Sunday morning in the square, everyone was out walking. And there were forty Argentinians, infected. They acted as though in pain, falling down on the ground. It created

The Sao Paulo performance as reported in the Brazilian press

a psychosis. People became terrified that these Argentinians were carrying an infection. There was a collective reaction, a psychosis produced by this theatrical performance. People started to vomit. It’s not the first time such a thing happened: people who do street theatre know this.

The police and ambulances arrived very quickly and approached the actors. We were saying, “in Argentina there is a plague!” People were crying. Brazilian people started drinking milk, and passing it to the Argentinians. The police deported all the participants back to Argentina. The authorities were not pleased, but there

From a TiT performance

was nothing they could do. It was already 1982, the dictatorship was coming to an end.

Question. Presumably there were different perspectives among the members of the theatre group – Trotskyists, Stalinists, anarchists. Was there discussion? Arguments? How did that work?

Marta. The main slogan was: we are surrealists, against realists! We were against socialist realism, and that meant, against Stalinism. We followed Leon Trotsky’s book, Literature and Revolution, and learned from [Anatoly] Lunacharsky and [Konstantin] Stanislavsky. But we rejected anything that had to do with the socialist realist aesthetic. We embraced surrealism as an opposite to that. We followed the Manifesto for an Independent Art, signed by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera, and written with input from Trotsky, in 1938. The principle research was based on Artaud, Jean Genet, Comte de Lautréamont, [Vsevolod] Meyerhold, and [Eugène] Ionesco.

It was clear that no-one in the group identified with Stalinism. But among the non-Stalinists, of course there were different tendencies: Trotskyists, Peronists, indepedent leftists. Within the group, everything was discussed. That was our tradition: to discuss, to reflect, to talk, to communicate, to listen to each other.

Chair. Some parts of the left have never been good at that stuff, but we are practising.

Question. Going back to the subject of security. Did you encounter people who were informers? Did you encounter hostile reactions?

Marta. You mean, in public? Or within the groups?

Question. In all cases. How did you deal with situations where such people appeared? To what extent were you in control?

Marta. We had a guideline. We thought that, if you want to change the world, you have to be able to handle situations where maybe you were criss-crossing a grey line [with danger on the other side]. For example, if we had a performance now, in this room, and we couldn’t control it, and it went out on to the street … we would have to be able to improvise a solution.

Much of Boal’s theatre is this: how do you find solutions? What are these situations about? There is a conflict. How do you work it out? Boal’s theatre is: we, the actors, put there, for example, a paedophile in the family – an uncle who is abusing a boy in the family. The family discusses this conflict. You, as the audience, how do you work this out? What do you do?

Question. You were facing a repressive, violent state and also fascists. Were there any times when you faced hostility from someone in the audience, for example?

Marta. Yes, it happened. And it was the same: we had to work it out. It happened a few times – more than a few times. So for example there was a time when someone stood up in the middle of a performance and said: “You are all subversives. If you don’t leave here in the next five minutes, I am going to call the security forces.” So people started to discuss with him. And in the end he had to run away. But once that happened, the gathering finished, because everyone was very scared [that he would call the security forces].

Your question is important. Because it could be very confused. You have a big group of people, engaged in clandestine activity. Of whom could we be suspicious? Who was infiltrating? These events were full of people who came to infiltrate. There were police agents everywhere.

So, for example, I am talking to you. You are my friend. But you could be in the secret police. So there were alot of conspiracies, alot of suspicion, alot of secrets. You don’t know my name; I don’t know your name; people don’t know

Paula Carballo in a scene from The Nuns, a film by the TiC

where you come from. Nobody knows exactly where your family is or where you live. Nobody knows your address. Nobody knows anything. We just meet, without knowing about each other, not each other’s names, nothing. We do a poetry reading, and we leave. And that’s it. But the second time, we meet again, and it turns out that one of us was an agent.

Question. Were there examples that you now know, much later on, of such-and-such a person who was an infiltrator?

Marta. Yes, of course. It happened a few times. There was one person in particular – very strange – of whom we were very suspicious. So then we would talk to him and threaten him, and say, look, better you go, before we do something to you. And this was a message to them [the security forces] to say, look, you can not easily infiltrate this group any more, because we know what you are doing. So that they would withdraw. It’s a fight, all the time. It’s not that they come every day and boom-boom-boom they are killing you. It’s a fight over every space: the spaces are taken over by them, and you push them back. It’s pushing and shoving; it’s all that.

Question. As a historian, you are trying to recount the story of a clandestine movement. Are there archival resources or documents you are using? To what extent has your research been oral history?

Marta. The sources are mainly oral history. But also – and this is a very valuable thing – people have their own personal archives. These things get kept, underground. Alot of people, even if they were risking their lives, were archiving things. When I started to collect information. I came across this huge resource. And it’s international, because so many people went in to exile. So I had to get in touch with people in Brazil, in the USA, who had these personal archives of letters or other material.

When you leave home, what does your mum do? In many cases, she burned the stuff. But in other cases, the mothers kept the stuff. So the research for my book was about putting together oral history, testimonies, and this sort of original material.

[To Steve Cushion, a historian of Cuba who was in the audience.] Steve, this is the same in Cuba, isn’t it, that there are official archives, but also people have their own stuff?

Steve Cushion. Yes there are people who won’t give their collections to official archives, it’s theirs. They are going to keep it, and they might let you come and have a look at it. But they are not letting National Archive have it. They don’t trust the National Archive. Those people saw it as their collection, as an important part of their life.

Question. Marta, is your book going to be translated?

Marta. It is translated into Italian, and we have a project to translate it into English.

Question. Given that it was clandestine, but clearly hugely influential in various ways, are you able to say that the activities and actions and discourse of groups such as yours influenced culture in Argentina and other Latin American countries subsequently? Did it influence film?

Marta. I don’t know about film. I can say that all that was done in theatre in 1976-81 influenced the theatre boom in Buenos Aires that came about after the end of the dictatorship. The theatre practitioners were doing things that followed the work of the TiT and other groups. They didn’t necessarily know about the TiT, but there was a transmission of cultural practices through social and political changes, as there always is.

And there are other influences. Political demonstrations in Argentina today are always full of theatrical performance. Recently Argentinian women achieved a big step towards legal

After the dictatorship: TiT members on a demonstration against UK military aggression in the Malvinas islands

abortion: it was agreed in Congress to debate legalisation and the provision of abortion in public clinics. If you search for information about the movement leading up to that, first you will see that there were millions of people in the streets, and, second, you will see that in the middle of every demonstration there were theatrical performances. It’s very impressive: hundreds of people doing performances, and dancing. This type of street language was also part of what we did then. in 1976-81.

Question. Today we live in a society that, in contrast to what you faced in 1976-81, experiences semi-repression. The difference is that the secret police are not skulking around now as they did in Argentina then. But also, people are not rehearsing all night in the way that you did, perhaps because they are working, or going to university to get a top degree, in order to have a career in an incredibly insecure environment. Only people whose parents are incredibly wealthy can have any confidence that they are going to be able to afford to live anywhere. So people are completely atomised and repressed. So, under the dictatorship, apart from the state repression, why were people so motivated to sacrifice so much of their lives to do what you were doing? Or was it just middle class people who had that comfort behind them? What was it in society that motivated people to do what you did?

Marta. I think we were in an extreme situation. Then, you don’t have so many choices. You fight or you are dead. It was a really extreme experience. I’ll tell you a story about myself. I hate talking about myself, but sometimes people push me. I was 18 years old. I wanted to go to university and study psychology, but the university was closed down. So I said, OK, I want to study philosophy. No, closed down. So I said, OK, journalism. All the humanities were closed down. So what are you supposed to do? There was no consumer society: not much money to consume, there was not much shopping to do. Poverty was really bad at that time in Argentina. So what do you do? You work intellectually, and you fight. Sometimes there is no choice. This is the heart of it.

Chair. It seems to me that part of the point of having experience, and thinking about it, is to transmit it to younger generations. You were telling me about some of the things you have been doing in Italy in the last three or four years. To finish up, could we talk about that?

Marta. OK. Well, this is a production I was involved with this year in Italy – Antigone Furiosa, written by the renowned Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro, an adaptation of Sophocles’s play, Antigone. In the photos you can see the silhouettes – these symbolised the Desaparecidos (the Disappeared) in Argentina and other Latin American countries.

Images of Antigona Furiosa in Italy, 2018, by La TIPA in collaboration with the Compagnia dei Guasconi theatrical Company

Chair. Could you explain how you started doing this work in Italy?

Marta. I was doing a presentation about theatre under the Argentinian dictatorship – similar to this one – in Italy, in a cooperative, L’Iisola di Amatani. The audience was full of young people, anti-capitalist and feminist activists. They liked the presentation, and they approached me and asked: why don’t you teach us all this? They proposed to organise a workshop, and put this into practice now. We did the workshop – and it lasted for four years! I thought it was going to be one evening! People really enjoyed it. We discussed politics and philosophy; we did rehearsals and performances. This experience made me think that forms of effective struggles and resistance that were used in the past have to be kept in the present, and passed on to new generations.

One production that is worth telling you about was about refugees. Italy is full of refugees and it is a big issue there. We did a half-hour performance in which both Italians and refugees participated: it was brilliant. I just gave the tools to these young people, and they did it themselves.

Performance of Break the Borders, staged with refugee actors, Italy 2017

Simone Mattina in a TIPA performance against war and homophobia

Luigia Cornacchia in the performance against war and homophobia

They couldn’t speak each others’ languages: it was a mix of French, English, African languages, Italian and regional dialects of Italian. On one level, they couldn’t understand each other! But we did two months of concentrated work. We did a beautiful performance

Continuing what we started: the TIPA theatre group in Italy is putting on a performance on the anniversary of the Argentine military coup of 1976

that showed how Italian immigrants, back in history, were received by people in other countries. We used the songs that Italians were singing in the ships when they were migrating to America, when they were not welcome there. We showed how badly they were treated there – and made a comparison with what is happening now, to African and Middle Eastern refugees coming to Europe.

We concentrated history into our performances. It was amazing how everyone understood this. The people from the immigration centre were very happy about this and congratulated us. The young people themselves said to me that this was the first time they had had a good time , since arriving in Italy. They had come by boat; they had very rough lives behind them.

The only basis on which we could work together was “break the borders”. That was the only thing we could say that made sense.

Thank you very much.

Chair: thank you!


How the Workshop of Theatrical Investigation has been recognised

In recent years, as the history of struggle against the dictatorship has been revived in Argentina, the Workshop of Theatrical Investigation (TiT) has been recognised with a Diploma of Honour from the Senate of the Argentine National General Administration of Culture: a Diploma of Honour (2014).

The TiT also received the Podesta Award from the Association of Argentine Actors, with a Special Mention for being a reference point of militancy and artistic resistance to the military dictatorship.

Some more links

Funeral Rites for the Military Junta (more on a key TiT production)  

Biblios Libreria in Buenos Aires, where you can buy The Workshop of Theatrical Investigation: political and artistic action under Argentina’s last military dictatorship (Taller de Investigaciones Teatrales: acion political y artistica durant la ultima dictadura militar argentina by Marta Cocco (Buenos Aires: Isla de la Luna, 2017)

The Project Disappeared on-line memorial

Forty years later, the mothers of the disappeared refuse to be silent (The Guardian, 2017)

Wikipedia on the “dirty war”


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