Camilo Trumper

On at the aesthetics of Popular Unity and the design ambitions of Chile's Institute of Technological Research (INTEC).


Camilo D. Trumper is historian and author, specializing in Chilean politics and society during the 1960s and 1970s. Our conversation, which took place on November 12, 2021, delves into the political design projects pursued by Chile's Institute of Technological Research and various bottom-up projects in support of Allende. 


Evgeny: Can you explain what was unique about the Chilean socialist project under Allende?

Camilo: Yes, the Chilean socialist project under Allende was primarily committed to a democratic road to socialism, which is unique in that it is a constitutional road to socialism. Allende was a democratically elected socialist president and the head of a complex coalition government that was elected with a very small margin.

Evgeny: What kind of conflicts and debates arose in this democratic road to socialism?

Camilo: Being committed to a democratic road to socialism opened up the government to both internal and external pressures, conflicts, and debates. The period was marked by an incredibly rich and diverse political conflict, both within the coalition and between the coalition and the increasingly strident opposition movements, as well as between the Chilean political system and external forces in the United States and elsewhere in the context of the Cold War.


Evgeny: Can you discuss the role of CORFO (CORFO) and INTEC  in the transformation of Chilean economics?

Camilo: INTEC, which was part of CORFO, was charged with producing consumer goods that were accessible to a much larger range of Chileans than ever before, as part of Allende's economic project to increase wages and the purchasing power of everyday Chilenos and Chilenas. Industrial production and industrial design were not politically neutral but part of a political and economic project that was at the heart of the Chilean road to socialism.

Evgeny: How did INTEC transform the systems of production and everyday practices in Chile?

Camilo: INTEC's projects were not just about producing for national consumption but also about transforming the very systems of production in significant ways and reshaping everyday practices as well. For example, INTEC participated in the Unidad Popular's attempt to popularize the consumption of national fish by redesigning containers to transport fish that were standardized, easily cleaned, and efficient. This was a rationalization of the distribution system and a "modernization" of it.

INTEC also redesigned china and housewares for social housing to be standardized, hygienic, and efficiently stored. These same principles of industrial production, standardization, and rationalization were also applied to the redesign of a household spoon to efficiently distribute powdered milk, which was an emblematic promise of the Allende political program.

Evgeny: Can you elaborate on the political and economic project behind INTEC's designs?

Camilo: INTEC's designs were tied to a broader political and economic project that sought to transform Chilean economics and reshape everyday ways in which citizens understood and interacted with their material worlds. The Unidad Popular's economic project was marked by the success of increasing wages in the first year, but it struggled with increased inflation and scarcities for the majority of its time. INTEC's projects were emblematic of the principles of industrial production, standardization, and rationalization, which were replicated throughout many of its projects.

Evgeny: Can you tell me about the significance of everyday objects and their design in political and economic programs?

Camilo: Everyday objects and their design are key to understanding and engaging with broader political languages and practices. For instance, the INTEC designers in Chile tried to redesign a machine that would dispense the precise amount of powdered milk needed for a half-liter of milk. The designers came up with a complex and creative machine to dispense powdered milk, but it didn't work. They faced the inefficiencies of boiling water and cooking. Therefore, they moved away from the objects through which we eat and engage with our everyday worlds to the foodstuffs themselves. They engineered a way of integrating the protein from legumes into the noodle itself as a way of fulfilling these key principles.

Evgeny: How does the design of everyday objects relate to broader political and economic projects?

Camilo: The design of everyday objects is a key part of understanding and engaging with these broader political languages and practices. For example, the Ops Room  in the UNCTAD building in Chile is a clear articulation of design as part of, and not separate from, these broader political and economic projects. The chairs in the Ops Room are part of a broader attempt and commitment to place workers in positions of decision-making authority, specifically male workers. The screens were designed to integrate purportedly real-time data, but they would be slides prepared by a female design team and projected on these screens.

Evgeny: Can you explain more about the design of the Ops Room and its significance?

Camilo: The Ops Room is part of a move away from female secretaries and towards putting male workers into positions of authority and decision making. The design of the chair with big buttons is meant to be fit for the calloused hands of workers. The screens were designed to project a very particular style and substance of Chilean, modern socialism, which would have workers at the forefront, continue gendered inequities, but would be created in these spaces rather than simply instantiated. The design is not separate from these political projects, and it is part of the process of debate about the shape and form of Chilean socialism.

Evgeny: How does the tension between efficiency and rationality and modernity in foodstuffs manifest in design?

Camilo: INTEC's redesign of noodles is emblematic of this tension. INTEC engineers found boiling water and cooking to be inefficient, so they engineered a way of integrating the protein from legumes into the noodle itself. This integration fulfills key principles and demonstrates the significance of everyday objects and their design in political and economic programs. By looking at everyday objects, we can understand what it means to be a socialist citizen and act in a certain way in everyday life.

Evgeny: Can you talk about the role of design in the Cybersyn  project and its broader significance in the political context of the time?

Camilo: The particular design of the Ops Room has captured the imagination of scholars and others because it represents an unfinished imaginary. The project was cut short by the 1973 coup that toppled Allende, and the value of the different parts of Cybersyn for a socialist economy was never fully realized. However, we can still learn from the ideas, projections, and imaginaries that are part of that design. Design was a crucial aspect of the Unidad Popular project, and it was also an obsession of the military regime that toppled Allende. The regime mobilized violence to return the aesthetics of the city to a past imaginary, erasing murals and posters, burning books, and cutting hair. Thus, design itself was, and continues to be, a catalyst for broader political processes.

Evgeny: How does the unfinished nature of the Cybersyn project affect our understanding of the Unidad Popular project as a whole?

Camilo: The unfinished nature of the project is one of the things that historians grapple with when studying this period. The project was cut short by the 1973 coup that toppled Allende and the Unidad Popular, but we can still learn from the ideas and imaginaries that were part of that design. Design is not separate from, or opposed to, thinking about political economy, but is rather part of the same process. By reading through design, we can get a richer sense of the structural transformations that were such a key part of the Unidad Popular project, even in its short life.


Evgeny: Can you describe the significance of the October Strike  for the Allende presidency?

Camilo: The October Strike is one of the key moments in the Allende presidency and a moment where these fissures and fractures are cemented. It began in the South of Chile with conflict over the movement of trucks and quickly escalated to become a nationally significant movement. The strike caused or exacerbated food shortages and led to the politicization of food and everyday concerns by both the opposition and Allende supporters.

Evgeny: Can you tell us about the impact of the truck owners' strike on Allende's government in Chile?

Camilo: The truck owners' strike was led by the middle class and funded externally, in part by the CIA. It quickly became a threat to equitable access to food for all, one of the promises of the Allende presidency. It paralyzed the movement of goods and people, creating long queues for food and causing people to walk hours to work.

Evgeny: How did Allende supporters respond to the strike?

Camilo: Members of the outer ring of nationalized industries organized themselves to continue production and keep the production of goods going. Workers occupied and managed the industries themselves, creating territorial organizations known as "cordones industriales" with shantytown organizations and other groups. These nodes of production and distribution of goods spurred the process of nationalization and shifted the geography of politics away from the city center.


Evgeny: Can you describe the role of grassroots movements in the Allende presidency?

Camilo: The period was marked not just by the creativity in the project of the state, but also by rich participation from grassroots movements. Grassroots movements lent vitality and dynamism to the process. In my first book, Ephemeral Histories, I look at a range of different ways in which urban politics became the center of politics, maybe the most emblematic example of which is public art – muralism, graffiti, rayados, and any number of other ways of engaging the streets and walls of the city.

Evgeny: Can you tell me more about muralism and how it transformed political engagement?

Camilo: Muralism was a key example of how the city walls became the public newspaper, a way of engaging political discourse and participating in that debate, transforming, shifting, and reimagining the languages of politics, both visually and textually. There was an ongoing struggle for the central city walls, but also city walls in shantytowns and other communities throughout the city. Those struggles for the streets and the walls of the city are crucial for understanding how politics was played out in the everyday.

Evgeny: How did opposition members engage in politics on the streets and walls of the city?

Camilo: Broadly speaking, the streets and walls were the purview of Allende supporters, but there was also an engagement in that politics from opposition members as well. The opposition to Allende took to the streets in really powerful ways, especially after the first year of Allende's presidency. Gender became a key way of defining access to the political debates, as did food and hunger – another politically charged set of problems and languages.

Evgeny: Can you elaborate on the significance of the muralist brigade, Ramona Parra , in the Allende campaign?

Camilo: The Ramona Parra brigades were a central aspect of the Allende presidential campaign, organizing against the opposition's control of mainstream media. They covered the walls with the Allende insignia, including the traditional icons of socialism and communist movements, such as doves, stars, and fists. They developed a signature style and method, allowing collective participation in the process of painting city walls and building a language of politics.

Evgeny: How did the brigades operate in dangerous situations?

Camilo: The brigades worked collectively, with a single "trazador" outlining the mural with thick black lines, and brigade members filling in the outlined image with primary colors. This technique allowed them to work quickly and collectively as a form of protection against physical clashes. They became adept enough to complete a mural in minutes, and then move on to the next. This method and style were replicated throughout Chile during the Allende period, with a commitment to collective work and the incorporation of the community into discussions and practices about politics.

Evgeny: Can you discuss the relationship between the state and the grassroots movements during the Unidad Popular project?

Camilo: I don't see as much of a divide between the street and the state as many of my colleagues do. The state's commitment to creating a system of nationalized industry was quite limited in Allende's early years, but it was spurred on by grassroots movements. The explosion of the nationalization of industries and the rural land reform movement was driven by people on the ground. It's not a critique or a challenge of the state, but an engagement with the promises of the state and an effort to either demand that the state fulfill its promises or an engagement with the very understanding of politics itself.

Evgeny: Can you provide an example of how the grassroots movements engaged with the state's promises?

Camilo: The mural Brigada Ramona Parra painted on one of the walls erected around the construction site of the UNCTAD  building is a simple but significant example. It appropriated or claimed the space around the UNCTAD building, which was already symbolically significant, and made the language of rationality, modernity, and efficiency its own by incorporating it into its iconographic world of symbols and ideas. We can see this process over and over again, demonstrating the constant engagement between different spheres.

Evgeny: Can you tell us more about the connection between brigade muralism, the Larrea brothers’posters, and Waldo González’s image ?

Camilo: There are shared elements and a conversation between these different forms of visual production. For example, Waldo González’s posters for the national lottery featured everyday people, drawn in ways that highlighted hands and other features associated with the working-class world. This iconography was a crucial part of the political language of the period, particularly in Allende’s promise of a half-liter of milk for every child.

Evgeny: What was Waldo González’s political stance during the period?

Camilo: González was a complicated figure because politically, he cut across a lot of the divisions of the period. Some of his production was for right-wing magazines and spaces, but the Polla posters  speak to the broader left-wing languages and political languages of the time. It's important to include his role because it shows how visual languages can be analyzed in ways that force us to rethink how we usually divide our political histories and political worlds.

The reason I bring up these different forms of visual production together is that they have a common thread in their approach to visual language. They all sought to communicate with everyday people through striking and accessible visual imagery. Brigade muralism, for example, used public walls to display images and messages of hope and resistance, often depicting ordinary workers and peasants. Meanwhile, the Larrea brothers’ posters used bright colors and bold lines to promote political messages in a way that was easy to understand.

González’s work similarly aimed to connect with working-class people through his posters for the national lottery, which depicted relatable and everyday scenes. He was interested in experimenting with new visual forms that could capture the spirit of the time and the political aspirations of the left.

In analyzing these different forms of visual language, we can see how political messages were conveyed and received by different groups of people. We can also understand how visual language has the power to shape our political worldviews and change the course of history.


Evgeny: Shifting gears a bit to Allende-era architecture, can you tell us a bit more about the UNCTAD building and its significance?

Camilo: The UNCTAD building is a prominent structure in the Chilean political and urban landscape. It was built in just 275 days in the heart of Santiago's downtown core to host the third meeting of the United Nations Congress on Trade and Development in 1972. The building is a two-part structure, a tower and a lower level, designed by both UN and local architects. The lower structure is integrated into the city and is located on the main thoroughfare, the Alameda, which divides and connects the city.

The tower structure of the building is integrated into and references the broader social housing projects of the Unidad Popular .

The lower structure, with a metro station, was designed to bring workers from the city peripheries into the downtown. The building symbolically inserted Santiago and Chile into the global conversation on dependency and development. Inside the building, there were technologically advanced nodes of translation and communication, making it a catalyst for conversations among people from all over the world.

Camilo Trumper discussed how struggles over food fueled the rise and fall of Chile's Popular Unity coalition.

Evgeny: How did the building impact the social fabric of Chilean society?

Camilo: The UNCTAD building became a bridge or connecting point between people of different classes and from different spaces. It was a catalyst for political debate and change under Allende. The casino, a lunch room within the building, was the first to not be segregated by class, allowing blue-collar and white-collar workers to eat together, as well as people from different communities who were connected by the building. It became a key node for protests, contests, and muralist brigades.

Evgeny: What happened to the building during and after the coup in 1973?

Camilo: During the coup, the building's significance as a political node continued as the military regime established its center in the building after destroying the presidential palace of La Moneda .

The once-fluid mobility in and out of the building was immediately cordoned off with fences and guards. The sculptures and artworks built into the structure were removed or destroyed. The building became a symbol of the regime's power and control over Chilean society.

While originally it was conceived as a social experiment that promoted integration, fluidity, mobility, debate, and dialogue, during the military regime, the building was painted over in military green, and its air ducts, which had been painted by an artist, were painted over in olive green, symbolically erasing its colorful past.

After the transition back to democracy in 2006, a fire partially destroyed the building, igniting a public debate about what to do with the legacies of the dictatorship. It was eventually reimagined and rebuilt as a cultural center, and it continues to be a center for political liberty and public art, including graffiti and political performances and protests.

The Chilean government's Production Development Corporation, founded in 1939 to promote economic growth and responsible for nationalizing and managing diverse sector enterprises during Salvador Allende’s presidency.More

Established in Chile in 1970, an institution promoting technological development and innovation, significantly contributing to industrialization programs under Salvador Allende.More

A central component of Cybersyn, it was a futuristic control room designed to enable real-time management of Chile's economy.More

A 1970s initiative to manage Chile's economy using real-time data, networked computing, and principles of cybernetics. It was dismantled after Pinochet's 1973 coup.More

A pivotal series of protests and strikes in Chile which targeted Salvador Allende's socialist government, significantly contributing to the political instability leading up to the 1973 coup. More

A Chilean communist activist. Parra's death in 1946 ignited a potent workers' rights movement in Chile, symbolized by the "Ramona Parra Brigades" that painted political murals.More

An intergovernmental body established in 1964, dealing with development issues, especially international trade. Associated with the New International Economic Order (NIEO).More

Renowned Chilean graphic designers, active during the transition between the 1960s and 1970s. Their work, characterized by closed shapes, high contrast, and the manual tracing of types, was deeply tied to the New Chilean Song movement and Latin American roots.More

An extensive campaign of biweekly posters, designed to target Chile's less fortunate populations, notable for their social focus and distributed nationally from 1971 to 1973.More

A Chilean left-wing coalition formed in 1969 led by Salvador Allende, known for implementing progressive reforms including industry nationalization and land redistribution, amid political tensions.More

The Chilean presidential palace. Originally a colonial mint, it became the presidential palace in 1846. Bombed during the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that installed Gen. Augusto Pinochet.More


Trumper, Camilo D. “The Politics of the Street: Street Art, Public Writing and the History of Political Contest in Chile.Radical Americas, vol. 6, no. 1, UCL Press, Jan. 2021.

Trumper, Camilo D. “Social Violence, Political Conflict, and Latin American Film: The Politics of Place in the ‘Cinema of Allende.’” Radical History Review, Duke UP, Dec. 2009.


Ephemeral Histories
Ephemeral Histories

(2016) Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile

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