Soft Power and Imperialist Pedagogy: Clara Ianni at Amant, New York

Clara Ianni’s exhibition “Education by Night” at Amant in Brooklyn explored how the United States—specifically through figures such as Nelson Rockefeller, Walt Disney, and Elon Musk—has wielded pedagogy and modern art, tools of soft power, for neo-imperialist ends in Latin America. Ianni, who lives in São Paulo, is a multimedia artist who draws on disciplines such as radical theater, education, and geography to scrutinize relationships between everyday Brazilians and the state.

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The artist’s first solo exhibition in the US, the show assembled reading material, primary documents, a slide projector, and three recent videos. Openings (2022) is a montage of title sequences from films for schoolchildren commissioned by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA), headed by Nelson Rockefeller in its first few years during the 1940s, and meant in part to combat Nazi Germany’s influence in South America. Phrases such as “Schools to the South” and “The Amazon Awakens,” backed by bombastic scores, suggest how the OCIAA pursued strategic Pan-Americanist policies. Another video, From Figurativism to Abstractionism (2017), pairs fragmented images from the eponymous 1949 exhibition at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art with excerpts from Rockefeller’s letters to the museum director. Rockefeller expounds on the potential for modernist abstraction to be a “universal” cultural language uniting the Americas. Together, these works provided a primer for approaching Night Geography (2022), the most intricate of the videos on view. 

Projected in a large adjacent hall, the 16-minute work unfolds through a series of still black-and-white slides that a finger swipes through on a touchscreen. Each slide contains only a few words (in Brazilian Portuguese with English subtitles), fragments of a text that begins as if mid-sentence, reading, “crossing waters and pulverizing mountains / the body dispersed / through underground cables and orbiting satellites.” Ianni does not speak; we hear only the ambient hum of a city street. Gradually, a story emerges about multinational corporations’ extraction and transportation of oil and metals from South to North. We see only a few images between the text slides, some seemingly from an OCIAA film about the process of mining Brazilian quartz. Rather than using concrete references, the text pushes historical events into abstraction. One slide just lists nouns: rivers, jeeps, mines, walls, stones. A recurring address—“Você viu?” (“Did you see?”)—playfully provokes the viewer. Compared to the clear citational structure of Ianni’s other videos, and despite the didactic phrases, the narrative in Night Geography is opaque, omitting proper nouns and dates; we are never quite sure what we are looking at or who is addressing us. 

A room with cement floors and white walls with a green-topped desk in the foreground covered with books, papers and an overhead projector. On the left is a vitrine, on the back wall is a graphic with upside-down text, and on the right wall is a flat screen TV.
View of Clara Ianni’s exhibition “Education by Night” at Amant, 2022.

Earlier this year, Elon Musk signed a deal with Jair Bolsonaro to install a satellite network over the Amazon, just months after part of a SpaceX rocket crashed into a garden in the state of Paraná. These recent events lent an unsettling subtext to Night Geography. After several images of a night sky marked by the broken trail characteristic of satellites, we are told, “it looked like a little train / strange.” The video then refers ambiguously to a piece of space junk’s return to earth, “showing” it only through a mysterious photograph of a falling object, to point to a glimmer of closure in the process of neocolonial extraction: In Ianni’s telling, people realize that the alien object contains locally mined metals; having returned home, it is then reclaimed as a planter.

In her use of the digital screen, Ianni mimics the format of analog slide projectors, once a common tool in classroom education. For decades, artists such as Nan Goldin, Dan Graham, and Hilary Lloyd have used 35mm slide carousels in installations, but Ianni’s inclusion of an overhead projector—a format developed by the United States military in the 1940s—evokes the medium’s use by American research-based artist Ellie Ga. Ianni and Ga share a discursive and layered understanding of history but diverge in approach. Ga tends to sift through accumulated archival material and narrate her research process, while Ianni creates an odd tension between controlled swiping gestures and fragmentation of narrative. Night Geography loosens the artist from the role of researcher that she occupied elsewhere in the show—an unexpected move given the exhibition’s use of vitrines and reading material. In dissembling and reorganizing her material, she becomes instead a speculative storyteller.


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