British Association for American Studies


Juan Downey’s Dialectical Cybernetics

This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Landscapes in American Studies

In October 2021, President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of exception in the southern regions of Biobio and La Araucania in Chile to legitimise the military repression of a Mapuche protest demanding the repatriation of the Indigenous people’s native lands which have been widely colonised by industrial farmers and logging companies. During the clash, one Mapuche woman died, at least seventeen native people were injured, and ten were arrested.[i] This demonstration was just one of many recent reverberations of the mass protests which rose across Chile in 2019 in response to issues including widespread low wages, job insecurity, and extreme inequality.

The turmoil which grips Chile today could be traced to the political context of the 1970s. In September 1973, during a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet and backed by the CIA, the Marxist president Salvador Allende was assassinated. This coup d’état signaled the forceful end of socialist rule in Chile and the start of an era defined by escalating injustices against Indigenous people, worsening mistreatment of the natural world, and the violent suppression of left-wing progressives. These conditions were partly facilitated by the establishment of Chile’s constitution in 1980, which the current President, Gabriel Boric, is striving to replace with a policy that prioritises environmental concerns, gender equality, and Indigenous sovereignty.

Provoked by Allende’s assassination, Juan Downey’s Video Trans Americas (1973–76) (Fig. 1) is widely regarded as the Chilean (part Mapuche, part European) artist’s most aesthetically and politically ambitious project. The work involved a series of expeditions across North and South America during which the artist produced and shared videotapes that documented the various cultures he encountered. Challenging ethnographic convention, Downey actively involved his subjects in the production and circulation of the work, both by including them in the filmmaking process and by showing them footage taken of different cultures. Subsequently, the videos have been exhibited together in a variety of installation formats at museums including Tate Modern, London; The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; and the Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Figure 1 Juan Downey, Video Trans Americas, 1973-76. Fourteen-channel video (black and white; sound) and vinyl map. Channels, dimensions, and duration variable. Installation at Tate Modern in 2010. Photo: © Tate, London 2022.

Existing scholarship on Video Trans Americas tends to emphasise the significance of the project to the development of anthropology, especially the experimental turn in ethnographic video.[ii] My intention is not to undermine this interpretation, which is clearly justified given the artist’s well-documented engagement with anthropological discourse. Nonetheless, I contend that these analyses are misguided to imply that the work’s critical importance is centred on its contribution to ethnographic discourse.[iii] Instead, I argue that Downey was above all driven to create the project because he believed it could help to reform modern subjectivity which the artist observed as increasingly destructive both to social equity and environmental sustainability, especially in the context of Pinochet-era Chile.

More specifically, I would like to suggest that the critical mechanics of the work can be understood in terms of what we might call dialectical cybernetics—a term which brings together the artist’s investments in the ethical potentials of Marxism and relational approaches to technology. Downey described his aspiration for Video Trans Americas as being ‘to develop a holistic perspective among the various populations inhabiting the American continents.’[iv] In other words, by bringing diverse cultures into relation with each other through video, the artist sought to inspire a shift from hegemonic to dialogic exchanges between modern and Indigenous civilisations. While clearly having radical implications for ethnography, this intervention was symbolic of Downey’s larger ambition to transform the reliance of modern subjectivity on social and environmental domination in favour of a conception of selfhood as existing in mutually constituent bonds with human and non-human others.

This aim is highlighted in Downey’s essay “Technology and Beyond,” which discusses the misuse of technology under capitalist industrialisation and instead calls for the development of cybernetic applications of electronics to reintegrate society and the environment.[v] As the artist declares:

Wars against humanity and nature (i.e. the violent extraction of the earth’s fruits) have been technology’s raison d’être and the incentive for its urgent development. Misapplied technology generates apparent wealth, but in the process disharmonizes the interaction between humanity and nature. […] Cybernetic technology operating in synchrony with our nervous systems is the alternative life for a disoriented humanity.[vi]

The notion of realigning ‘disoriented humanity’ resonates closely with the Marxist concept of metabolic rift—the process by which capitalist production leads to the alienation of humans from their mutually constitutive or ecological relationship with the environment which is vital to maintaining life.[vii] While it is unclear whether Downey closely read Marx’s writings, he will have been familiar with their application under Allende’s government. In particular, although I have not found any records of the artist explicitly mentioning the initiative, Downey is likely to have been influenced by Project Cybersyn—a project which aimed to construct a technological system that would optimise the socialist management of the national economy, but was ultimately abandoned after Pinochet’s takeover.[viii]

Equally, this motivation can be revealed by directly analysing Video Trans Americas. All the videos in the series contain analogous content, but Downey’s discursive approach to ethnographic filmmaking is especially clear in two-channel films such as Incas I & II (Fig. 2). The two videos which form this work incorporate footage shot in and around the towns of Ollantaytambo and Pisac in Peru. Clips represent scenes such as irrigated fields in the countryside, flowers and grasses rustling in the wind, Incan ruins being surveyed by the camera, an Indigenous girl spinning yarn, and local people performing a traditional dance. Each of these moments are fleeting, lasting generally around twenty seconds, and the bi-focal format is echoed by a two-tonal soundtrack made by rubbing the edges of two different sized glasses. Enhanced by the use of panning and abrupt scene shifts, the dialogic functioning of the videos encourages the dynamic integration of the diverse subjects that are captured: the artist himself, indexed by a shadow on the pavement; other humans and architecture; as well as the natural world. Downey ambitiously expanded upon these dialectical mechanics by combining the videos in installations and performances. For example, for the display of the work at Tate Modern in 2010 (Fig. 1)—in which fourteen videos were shown in two-channel arrangements on a vinyl map of the Americas—visitors were encouraged to consider the diverse cultures and environments in relation to each other as they traversed the gallery.

Figure 2 Juan Downey, Inca I & II [selected stills], 1976. Two-channel video (black and white; sound), 20:00

Set against today’s technological landscape—in which resource extraction has more than tripled since 1970; Big Tech accounts for more than half of global internet traffic; and companies such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink threaten the imminent corporeal extension of corporate surveillance—Downey’s vision that humanity might be socially and environmentally integrated through technology may strike many readers as naïve.[ix] This is perhaps especially the case in Latin America where technology is being widely deployed as a tool for state-based violence against Indigenous communities. Under Jair Bolsonaro’s recent regime in Brazil, for example, illegal mining in native-owned territories hit record levels, leading to mass deforestation and the pollution of waterways.[x] What is more, the former President claimed that these injustices were in fact charitable on the pretence that they forced Indigenous communities to modernise, retorting that ‘[civil rights activists] want the indigenous people to carry on like prehistoric men with no access to technology, science, information, and the wonders of modernity.’[xi]

Nonetheless, there is a wave of artist-activists who are utilising electronics to support Indigenous struggles in Latin America. For instance, Xapono—Núcleo Audiovisual Yanomami is a media centre operated by a community of Yanomami people which was formed as a way of reporting illegal mining, hunting, and pollution. Comparably, Ignacio Acosta’s documentary projects including Inverting the Monolith (2022) and Copper Geographies (2018) challenge mining incursions in Chile. Likewise, the artistic collective Unknown Fields’s video We Power Our Future With the Breastmilk of Volcanoes (2019) draws attention to the disregard of Indigenous concerns arising from the exploitation of lithium salt flats in Bolivia to serve the West’s growing demand for batteries. All these projects resonate with Video Trans Americas’s core ambition to forge an approach to technology premised on democracy and sustainability. Allied with acts of resistance such as these, and in the face of the myriad crises of our times, Downey’s proposal is more relevant and urgent than ever.


[i] Nathaniel Janowitz, “Chile Is Sending Troops to Crack Down on an Indigenous Tribe and Create ‘Peace’,” Vice, October 15, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/88nwja/chile-president-state-of-emergency-over-mapuche-conflict.

[ii] See, for example: Morad Montazami, “Juan Downey: Troubles de l’Ethnographie,” Journal des anthropologues (December 2012): 79-99; and Benjamin Murphy, “Juan Downey’s Ethnographic Present,” Art Margins 6, no. 3 (October 2017): 28-49.

[iii] See, for example: Juan Downey, “The Other Within: Transcription of paper delivered by Downey during Rockefeller Foundation Conference, Bellagio, Italy, 1989,” in Juan Downey: 1940-1993, ed. Julieta González and Javier Rivero Ramos (Bogotá: Ediciones MP, 2019), 25.

[iv] Juan Downey, Video Trans Americas, ed. Marilys Belt de Downey (Santiago: Galería Gabriela Mistral del Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, 2008), 3.

[v] Although it denotes a complex and expansive field of study, cybernetics is conventionally defined as ‘the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine’ in line with Norman Weiner’s seminal introduction to the subject. See: Norman Weiner, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine [1948] (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985).

[vi] Juan Downey, “Technology and Beyond,” Radical Software 2, no. 5 (Winter 1973): 2-3.

[vii] John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

[viii] For a more detailed analysis of the influence of Allende’s government on Downey’s practice see: Nicholas Guagnini, “Feedback in the Amazon,” October 125 (Summer 2008): 91-116.

[ix] “We’re gobbling up the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate,” UN Environment Programme, accessed September 1, 2022, https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/were-gobbling-earths-resources-unsustainable-rate; Afiq Fitri, “Big Tech now accounts for more than half of global internet traffic,” Tech Monitor, February 16, 2022, https://techmonitor.ai/technology/networks/big-tech-accounts-for-over-half-of-global-internet-traffic; Ashlee Vance, “Musk’s Neuralink Hopes to Implant Computer in Human Brain in Six Months,” Bloomberg UK, 1 December, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-12-01/musk-s-neuralink-hopes-for-human-trials-approval-within-six-months?leadSource=uverify%20wall.

[x] Jeff Tollefson, “Illegal Mining Hits Record High Amid Indigenous Protests,” Nature, September 30, 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02644-x.

[xi] Tom Phillips, “‘He wants to destroy us’: Bolsonaro poses gravest threat in decades, Amazon tribes say,” The Guardian, July 26, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/26/bolsonaro-amazon-tribes-indigenous-brazil-dictatorship.




About the Author

Edward Christie is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art Department at UCL.