Normalization Teresa Riccardi

Etymologically, the term normalization derives from the word norm. The norm is defined as the rule on the manner or established way in which a certain thing should be done. It is generally associated with the rational optimizing of technical and economic progress and the quality of life, while at the same time being understood as a counterweight to the processes of subjective individualization, creativity, and contradiction which belong to the sphere of human productivity.


According to the norms of the ISO (International Organization for Standardization), normalization is an activity whose purpose is to “establish, in the face of real or potential problems, mechanisms destined for common and repeated use, with the aim of obtaining an optimum level of organization in a given context—a context which can be technological, political, or economical.” In normalization offices, the process of common involvement in agreements on standardizing activities has the pragmatic dimension of a consensual nature. Experts have a share in this, setting out practical rules subsequently published in national1 and international public documents. Standardization basically follows three basic rules: simplification, that is to say, reducing the number of models in order to keep only the most necessary; unification, to allow exchangeability on an international level; and specification, which tries to avoid errors and to make the language clear and precise. In the mid-1990s the debate about quality linked to competitiveness showed significant growth in the implementation of ISO9000 in different sectors of industry and business, which favored a management model of ensuring excellence and made it popularly accepted in different sectors of production. In the context of neoliberalism—where different realities in national industries and politics could not be read as differences in the modalities of production but as mere providers of services which could be adapted to transnational or global economies—the standardized and simple practices (although they supported the industrial sector) guaranteed homogenization, not only with respect to what is understood as “quality,” but also creating a “culture of quality”—which for experts is homogenous, exclusive, elitist, expert—to favor agility in the dynamics of the flow of economic capital.

In 1972 in Argentina, Jorge Glusberg, director of the Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAYC) which had been founded a few years earlier, worked intensively to narrow the distance between Argentine artists and the emergence of a globalized contemporary art scene. Ridiculing the rules of normalization, Glusberg could avoid curatorial difficulties and problems of circulation of political art pieces in a country mainly controlled by military forces by subverting “standardization” in a very creative way. A businessman as well as a cultural operator, he experienced, like millions of Argentine citizens, the climate of political and social violence systematized by the military dictatorship in our country. This led later to systematized state terror and surveillance by the military forces; it rationalized death and the rupture of human and civil rights, and the “disappearance” of 30,000 people. This politics of horror in Argentina perpetrated by the Junta Military between 1976 and 1983 was understood by the leaders of the armed forces in a very “simplified” way. They would not accept ideological differences, and carried out the “unification” rule—which they called a “process of national reorganization”—very efficiently, so that they could achieve economic competitiveness with other nations. On the art scene, artists and some institutions like CAYC put up resistance during these dramatic years and made possible the circulation of Latin-American art exhibitions, thus avoiding isolation and invisibility of creative production. Interesting too is the mechanism used by the critics and curators to such an end. They employed a curatorial device using a “standard” format which was sent to artists asking them to follow the IRAM norms of rationalization of materials, and produce projects and works abiding by these rules. The letter sent explained that they should adhere to the size demanded by the IRAM norms nos. 4504 and 4508. In Hacia un perfil del arte latinoamericano (“Toward a Profile of Latin American Art”) artists denounced the violence and atrocities already being committed; in other words, pieces were produced that had a high level of political content, of environmental activism and even included instructions of a performative nature. The constraints imposed suggested the conditions under which the art was produced, as well as the tensions that artists experience in a different context where their ideas and beliefs are exposed. The rules of the norms were subverted to expose the paradoxes of “standard” behavior within the art field. With these ideological convictions, Glusberg and his friends translated all the conceptual and systems works included into a portable mechanism of 23 ½ x 33 ½ inch blueprint format, in an antihierarchical and subversive proposal embodied by the “Argentine Institute for the Rationalization of Materials.” Sent with the stamp and letterhead of the CAYC as a certificate or “guarantee” of authorship, the works were edited as multiples, and thanks to the subsequent circulation they were, with their artistic competence, classified as art in the postal service.


Other meanings, usages, and ideological approaches can be found in the process aspects of sociopolitical normalization—these meanings are frequently employed in the language of institutions. In “normal” schools, teaching does not resort to the emancipation of its own knowledge, which would also include differences, but is presented by a formulated and visible mechanism of disciplinary training practices which makes a hierarchy of homogenization to prepare the schoolchild for the social sphere. In this sense I would like to quote two important books (as well as Michel Foucault, who literally offers himself in this connection): one is an intellectual work by Carlos Skliar, neighbor, friend, phonologist, and pedagogue, who has spent his whole life writing about the ontological limitations of “otherness,” which point rather to “our”—disqualified, made invisible, real, and social ways to engage subjectively in an analytical framework of a pedagogy of difference; the other is Jacques Rancière’s Le Maître ignorant (French: “The Ignorant Schoolmaster”). This book activated part of my work with the Duplus collective (Argentina), when we carried out a project in Brazil linked both to experience and to the perception of “situated” identities of subjects as a territory of displacement. The project consisted of guiding local citizens round their own city as though they were strangers, to discover it through what they said about it themselves, be it through corrections, phonetic adjustments of pronunciation or of the “normalization” of language which they pointed out, or through explanations of their own feelings toward the city. Trying to disconnect themselves from the tourist way of looking and places understood as being typical—like the “common places” of speech—these “ignorant guides” performed tours whose activity involved speaking the other’s language, inhabiting a different subjectivity, and trying to understand the disharmony typical of the experience of strangers. This all took place through the “other” local citizen linked to recollection and cultural identity. The project, called Los Guías Ingnorantes (“The Ignorant Guides”), was carried out only a few times with a small group of participants in parts of Rio and in the Centro Cultural Castelinho de Flamengo in 2004.

The museum, as well as being an institution capable of providing visibility to biopolitical technologies of production and subjectivity, essentially has the form of an instrument. This complex exhibitionary device can, through the logic of display, perform a narrative that can be read as visual “normalization,” or serve to activate fragments of radical visual politics. In Argentina this modern institution has, despite the difficulties imposed by the deficient agenda of national politics, always tried to overcome obstacles to create room to maneuver and to decolonize ways of looking. Nevertheless, there is still a lot more to be done.

I think the best example of getting out of the local normalizing endogamy in favor of social transformation is represented by two exhibitions which took place in Cologne (Germany) and Buenos Aires (Argentina). The first, known as ExArgentina, was conceived between November 2001 and March 2002 and was presented in the Ludwig Museum between March and May 2004. The second, like the other half of a diptych, La Normalidad, was presented in Buenos Aires in the Palais de Glace between February and March 2006, activated by militant cooperatives and groups such as Gráficas Chilavert, the Hotel Bauen, FM La Tribu, and the Kasa de H.I.J.O.S, which also acted as a headquarters for the activities and debates. The axes of articulation of the proposal had to do with negativity, cartography, militant research, and political narration. This project, involving several years of collaborative work, which showed the collective experience of the popular uprising of December 19–20, 2001—unleashed by a set of factors linked to the crisis of political representation and the economic debacle—was activated around a micropolitical creativity in other forms of subjectivization without contractual pacts, and required binding social ties so it could manifest itself through subjects and images of creation/resistance. While these practices were resistant to “normalization” in terms of experience, they were not enough to resist a political apparatus which, together with a politics of international subsidies, faced high levels of unemployment whose cost involved a pseudo reeducation of its “citizens” and the channeling of representational politics which was far from the proposals and alliances that the unemployed workers’ movements were practicing. Even though a new military dictatorship did not solve the crisis, repression existed, and the democratic system which survived showed its “sovereign” forms of governing, once again deactivating the mechanisms of the state, protecting its interests before individual rights and guarantees. In the text “Diagrama argentino de la normalización: trama y reverse” by the militant researchers making up the Colectivo Situaciones, which exposed the new mechanisms of biopower and governability, we read:

“For a few years now, Argentina has been inscribed in a confused debate about the norm. After the crisis which reached a bursting point in 2001 and the emergence of unprecedented figures of collective subjectivity in a society denormalized by the exhaustion of the signifying capacity of the Nation-State, we are now witnessing an experiment which is just as peculiar as the crisis from which it originated: the construction of a new governability (that is to say a new dynamic which distinguishes governors from the governed), around which normalization is again being talked about.”2


1 / “In the field of national normalization, the Argentine Office for Normalization and Certification (IRAM) sets regulations in all fields, currently numbering more than 8,000 approved regulations and around 350 Offices for Setting Norms. These Offices are made up of specialists and representatives from all interested sectors and aim for the approved norms to be the outcome of agreement between all these sectors. Likewise, in the field of normalization, the IRAM acts as permanent assessor of all the Public State Authorities at different levels—national, provincial and municipal.” See Instituto Argentino de Normalización y Certificación,

2 / Colectivo Situaciones, “Diagrama argentino de la normalización: trama y reverso,” La Normalidad, exh. cat., Instituto Goethe Buenos Aires, Interzona, Buenos Aires 2006, p. 212–216.