Thiago Rocha Pitta. Heritage. Video still, 2007

Think Piece: Communities, Pedagogies and Transgressions

Fred Coelho

In some of the conversations that I have been privileged to strike up with Carlos Vergara, a question has stayed spinning in the air: how to live together? Said by the artist, its weight was dubious because, while even though floating on the winged hopes of the possible, the question also had the lead weight of the days when it was a quasi impossibility. Of Barthesian origins (I refer to the French critic Roland Barthes’ book of the same title) the question is central to Vergara’s work and simultaneously is the synthesis of our contemporary impasses. More than that, and this is the precise tone of the artist’s speech, it is a challenge that art cannot but face. Living together not as a passive adaptation to tragedy, but as the re-foundation of existences full of experimentation. Art, increasingly, points to possible forms of inventing this political state of community.

What happens when aesthetic experience expands beyond our gaze and infiltrates, like an underground river, people’s lives? How can art move past its priced and stratified space to get to the core of practical meanings in the everyday life of someone, regardless of age, class, ethnicity, gender, or delirium? The work and situations narrated in this issue of MESA show us that it is through spreading experience and community sharing that art assumes its potency and consequently, strategically empties its power. Art, when it belongs to everyone, becomes a “planted rhizome” like the junco (reeds) of the Argentine collective Ala Plástica: center-less roots that at once give us the strength of conquered territory and the freedom of moving our bodies through space.

Never has the natural metaphor of the world-as-organism been so urgent. The idea, however, must flee from medical derivatives (disease, infection, diagnosis) and take on its vital vein of function: sharing. Everyone is part of the same organism that creates and destroys neighbors in infinite cycles of systole and diastole. Again, it is art that will oxygenate the energy flow whenever it targets connecting fissures, the revelation of the silenced discourses and the invention of possible worlds. Here, art installs in each zone of tension (environmental, social, aesthetic, historical) foundational micro-utopias of other futures, ones constructed collectively.

Living together is also enacted through pedagogy as a form of art, like the practice of René Francisco. The Cuban artist/teacher proposes practices that aim to horizontalize forms of knowing, that dive into the collective body made up of students, utilize the “empty spaces” of knowing filling them with exchanges between teacher and student, interfere with the daily life of the population and reinvent the relationship between art, space and market. All these actions, the fruit of his pedagogical pragmatics, confirm what has been known for some time: to make a political art is, above all, to promote renewable forms of existence. Or re-existence, since often it is art that reshapes experiences and re-creates sensitive ties with life for people in extreme situations. In the Colombian jungle or in the Maré favela, violence in its multiple forms becomes the engine of these re-existences, whose roots-rhizomes expand their cartography without ever erasing the home territory. The “quebradas” (broken favela alleyways) of Rio create forms of knowledge and launch manifestos, just as the former guerrillas of drug traffic wars express the complexity of these struggles through their paintings. Political art is the art that makes the earth revolve, re-creates the estuary, replants the grass, gives voice to infinity, brings together fragments, and conjugates the verb to love without fear of bitterness.1

Political art, however, doesn’t always adequately align with the common understanding of the pairing of Art and Politics. This pairing, when acted upon, at least in recent history, can result in paternalistic didacticism in the form of the instrumentalization of one by the other. Art – reproducing images and institutional polemics as if the representation of the tragedy needed metaphors to emphasize their realities. Politics – emptying out images of subversive data and bodies, transforming them into mouthpieces of an ideological truth via traditional formats. It’s worth remembering that this kind of Art and Politics was used in Brazil, for example, at the time of the Popular Culture Centers of the National Union of Students (CPC). A more political than artistic art, whose pedagogy, far from René Francisco’s pragmatics, started from so-called ‘enlightened’ points (artists, intellectuals, students) to ‘illuminate’ the dark corners (workers, favela dwellers, peasants). The “conscientization of the masses” towards the expected (and defeated) revolution was the ballast of this pedagogy, proposing a precarious compromise between classes via a mediation that refused to negotiate the common necessities of day-to-day life in favor of an abstract collective need. In this context, there was no “University of Quebradas”, just hierarchical forms of knowledge. The activist or militant student of 1960s “popular culture” did not alter the existential bases of poverty, nor did he or she engage with the daily life of communities, only in that which became central to the staging of his or her political play. In this situation, the artist’s discourse (dramaturgical, musical, literary, poetic) becomes that of an “engaged” translator of misery. They are mediators of social fracture yet only present its precarious surface. “Popular culture” takes on its normative categorizing character and hence limits its producers and participants the multiple openings that life in extreme situations presents.

As a counterpoint from the same time period, we have the example of Hélio Oiticica, whose experience in Mangueira and other Rio favelas from the years 1964 to 1968 inaugurated another form of artist and of art dealing with political ideas such as “community” or “participation.” His integration into everyday territory on the margins of the official city, his relationship with local marginality and his full participation in the life of samba gave Oiticica a notion of totality that was stronger than any political party and more virtuous (perhaps more romantic) than the revolutionary utopia of socialist leaning intellectuals linked to the CPC. He did not seek in these Mangueira experiences a salvationist essence, on the contrary. Oiticica rather aimed at the ending of borders and abstract demarcations between people of different social classes. And that, to him, was only possible through the political experience that art provides us as a nexus, as a bond between worlds, as a strategic means of inventing exits so that we don’t paralyze ourselves.

When Oiticica began his exile in London, just after the Mangueira experience (1969), he wrote texts and made works pervaded by the word/statement of (dis)order: SUBTERRÂNIA. In his attempt to find a Latin American connection to the tropics because of his foreign status in Europe, Oiticica creates the “subterrânia”, our underground, our geographical condition in the world: below the equator, the west’s subterranean ground in its most basic division. This line, even today, positions us as Latin American neighbors, a continent whose dramas are just as moving as the transience of its conquests. As shown by Juan Manuel Echavarría’s critical work of collective paintings, photos and accounts of the Colombian drug war, the connection with the daily wars of Rio de Janeiro, as well as to those of any other city or country embattled by urban or rural violence, is immediate. Again, Echavarría’s work shows that art becomes politics in its capacity to expand worlds and break boundaries. It does not assume a salvationist character, nor has it any desire to convert. In paintings made through shared artistic practices, the Colombian artist proposes another situation of existence for his partners to dislocate the pain of their memories via aesthetic making. The encounter with art in these situations is not a guarantee of peace, but is at the very least the opening of micro-utopias.

This is why the question of the Manifesto written by the quebradeiros (artists, educators, and cultural producers from Rio’s peripheries and favelas attending the University of Quebradas) is as important as the question that opens their text: what can an encounter make possible? If the basis for a life in a community (living together) is to accept the other, an encounter can be the first and decisive step towards the weaving of wider connections of experiences. In Rio de Janeiro, the city with which the manifesto is in dialogue and tension, the claim to a stable place of existence is a daily conquest, depending on one’s social class or geography. What is crystal clear in a text such as the quebradeiros’ is that the encounter, this engine of life and art, is curtailed violently. To circulate around the city, expand its maps, is key; the price of which can be a life trammeled by the city’s security forces. This is why a work like “Bottles to the Sea” is biting in its simplicity and critique. Young people, seeking to constitute a personal cartography within their own city, launch messages out of it, simulating a body adrift in search of the infinite boundaries of the world.

It is in this spiral between art, politics, collective, lives, deaths, environment and cities that new necessities of speech are born – and silences. In these speeches, emerges the proposition of a new political vocabulary that accounts for what moves us, but which is still precarious. It makes itself present in the realization that, as mentioned above with respect to the 1960s, the categories of the past are no longer entitled to these new bodies in motion, nor to these new utopias of transformation of everyday life. In silence, in the possibility to relearn the writing of the world, we hear the subtle warping that occurs between nature and culture, between mystery and history. Cristina Ribas and Guilherme Vaz, both with partners, point to the two extremes of the encounters and mis-encounters of our time: the need to speak the same language of dissent or to quiet silence itself at the top of our lungs.

How to live together? By living together I mean: understanding that “community makings” are fundamental to a self-questioning of our limits and to the breaking up of power bases and the normative knowledge of existence; I mean reconnecting to the collective becoming of the world-as-organism and transcending the world-as-abyss, presented to us daily. Living together because only together will the solutions be FOR ALL OF US. We need to be open to the encounter with difference, because only the encounter with the other ensures that the infinite chain of possibilities and forms of sharing are left open. Without the other, without the encounter, there is nothing to be shared. Art does not exist to have a function, much less a utility. It exists so that all functions and all utilities are at arm’s length to its multitude of makings and forms of knowledge.

I close this text with a quotation taken from the work of Ala Plástica: “our practice’s challenge is focused on articulating collective forces to catalyze the regenerative possibilities of community-building; here, art is a form of knowledge that enables us to examine urban change and ecosystems and to question what humankind is capable of building or destroying and why we do what we do.” Why do we do things? To live. Together.

1 T.N. In Portuguese the verb “to love” (amar) and the word “bitter” (amargo) share their first four letters. The author plays with the notion that certain conjugations of the verb to love might end up in bitterness.