Views from the top of the Exit 9 footbridge at Avenida Brazil. Photo: Gabriela Gusmão, 2010.

Contagious Empathy – Freedom is Painting the Wall of Life

Gabriela Gusmão

The challenge of an education and art project: to spread radiant energy.

How do you produce a magnetic field capable of attracting the attention of a group of adolescents for a conversation about art on a sweltering afternoon?

The way: make your field an antenna, a radiant body.

The name proposed by the Experimental Nucleus of Education and Art of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro suggests a dynamic of transmission interactions: Irradiations.1

From August 2010 to February 2011, I participated in this process of collective action, reflection and sharing of experiences. In weekly meetings we discussed the mediations and encounters between society and art. Our conversations on the relation between potential pathways in the museum and the city were in particular synergy with my art practice. The ideas generated in the group of experimental studies were reflected in my actions with the non-profit community group Luta Pela Paz (Fight for Peace), located in New Holland community in the Maré favela complex and Terreirão Arts Center in Recreio dos Bandeirantes.2

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Source: Google Maps

Both institutions were located on opposite sides of the city. I started my action in Maré.

Exit 9 at Avenida Brazil, arrival at the Complexo da Maré, Irradiations Project, Experimental Nucleus of Education and Art of MAM Rio. Photo: Gabriela Gusmão, 2010.

I soon learned that in order to work in that complex with an irradiant group of young people a triple dose of electromagnetism would be required.

Receptive, I arrived and demonstrated my curiosity about what was constant and what was new in the place. We introduced ourselves and started asking questions about what each person had seen on the way there, on the streets. I tried to imagine the paths that these young authors had walked prior to our encounter. I retraced from memory my own journey through a street full of makeshift structures, shelters, hacked-up things, inventions and pieces of all kinds. In that vast [chaotic world], I saw the extraordinary in precarious objects and my goal was to irradiate this aptitude as a poetics of insignificance, a practice I had learned from the poet Manoel de Barros.

Powerful for me is not the one who discovers gold.
For me powerful is the one who discovers the
Insignificances (our own and of the world).”3

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Bodybuilding billboard in the Complexo da Maré. Photo: Gabriela Gusmão, 2010.

My experience recognizing grace in what seems banal is vast. To elaborate, in the project Rua dos Inventos (Street Inventions), I devoted nearly a decade to systematic wandering, armed with a 35mm camera, a tape recorder, notebook, pencil, an alert body, and distracted mind, yet enough to keep an attentive gaze. I started this immersive process in Rio de Janeiro in 1998, where and when there was already in public space a sense of an open clearing to freely ambulatoriar. (to be ambulatory/walk randomly.)


The idea of “walking to and fro without linearity” and the possibility to “poetize the urban” were already present in Delirium Ambulatorium proposed by Hélio Oiticica for the performance event Mitos Vadios organized by Ivald Granato in 1978.

From 1998 to 2006, my pleasure in the delirium of the streets uncovered objects without names in the dictionary, so I built an inventory of inventions. I had to flee bullets; I met many great people and learned on the street corners what no formal education teaches. All my life, an umbrella covering a wobbly stool hits me like a poem.

Vacant land where paths and reflections were made during the Irradiations Project, Experimental Nucleus of Education and Art, MAM Rio. Photo: Gabriela Gusmão, 2010.

Returning to Maré, 2010, I stare at a wire on the door of a house, and then quickly remember I shouldn’t stare at any doors there. You never know who’s at home. I had just overheard a conversation at the bakery. I paid close attention to what the cashier was telling a woman:

– The guy pointed a gun at me. He asked “Did you lose something?”
And the woman:
– He pointed a gun at you? And what did you do?

After this I walked off thinking. I didn’t look at another door or stare at anyone for a long time after that. It’s a question of respect.

But I was curious to hear from the group of young people what they had seen along the way. Which is why I insisted on the question. A few of their answers:

– A bunch of chickens in the middle of the street.
– I saw a footbridge, a little hut, a market stall, a DVD on the footbridge, lots of things.
– I saw the ground, a square, the church, the battalion, chickens.

Another one asked:
– Didn’t you see any houses?
– No, I didn’t look.
– Did you see any signs?
– Yeah, for jet-clean.
– Didn’t you see any trash?
– No, I don’t notice those things.

As the conversation went on, I asked them to bring ideas of sentences about everyday life in the community and what they would like to be different. At first, shyness and silence. Then came the words:

– We should have more freedom.
– Freedom to come and go without anyone becoming suspicious, because there’s the sewer over there, and there’s a rival gang.
– We used to be able to walk around there but today we’re scared to.

The lack of freedom, the presence of the sewer that limits space, the desire to circulate without fear were all referred to directly as they talked about their pathways. I wrote down the phrases I heard to record the process and to get to know people. As they spoke, I wrote: peace, ability, force of will, hope, leadership, respect, honesty, sincerity, strength, equality, love, dream, God, fellowship, unity, affection, freedom, justice, wisdom, compassion.

There was only one verb there: to dream. I thought the near absence of action words significant. Many of the words represented somehow an ideal without the movement that leads to its conquest. Asked what they liked to do, several said they could not think of anything that they really liked to do.

My curiosity increased as I learned about the internal journeys of each one, and then the process was already on the course of collective therapy. I smiled at a moment when everyone was talking at once and stopped taking notes. The mix of voices led me to a parallel inner dialogue: reflections on the project, the community, the place of education within the museum, the fear of being shot, the role of the artwork, role of the alleyways, art in the alleyways, Avenida Brazil, the young people’s expectations, and mine.

Amidst the hubbub, I started a delirious and silent prose. Thoughts flew. I imagined receiving a call from Lady Art History. Speaking in silence with this ruling entity, I saw that my footsteps there in Maré played in the astral footsteps of concepts and actions of some of the extemporaneous that I most admire: Estamira, Stela do Patrocíno, Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Michel de Certeau, João Paixão, Jean Michel Basquiat, Hélio Oiticica, Manoel de Barros, Guy Debord, Dona Pequena, João do Rio, Profeta Gentileza, and Chacrinha.

I hold dear the words of the old warrior TV presenter Abelardo Barbosa and think quietly for only Lady Art History to hear. I haven’t come to explain and I follow as a wanderer in search of extemporaneity5 that I offer here as the dimension in which beings of different ages can encounter one another and get in tune with irradiating ideas that touch us on an interpersonal level, convey feelings, share wonderment, spread poetry, expand concepts, and contagiously empathize.

This line of association stayed with me throughout the Irradiations project and I rigorously followed this free method of producing collective experiences: Contagious Empathy.

With a breath, the internal dialogue was switched off, and I turned my attention to the voices that spoke of their pathways. What was said, the forgotten steps, the winds of recollection and their invention, the time passing and the experience of listening brought clarity to the process.

Contagious empathy is the path toward a collective creative act with a group of young people on a sweltering afternoon.

Faced with a moment of general chaos, I took out my book of Rua dos inventos and started talking about the seemingly lame structures that [for me rather] make me recognize that territory as an irradiating system. What attracts me in that busy street is not a visual illusion of enchantment for the exotic. What intrigues me is the high coefficient of transformation that is spread there. Something transforms in me when two objects that might be in the trash become a third thing. Something transforms in me when I get out of my comfort zone and walk down an alleyway where I recognize a degree of energy deposited in the making of each object with no monetary value.

At that moment, my challenge was to bring about a transformation in those young eyes through contagious empathy. We went outside to the street observing space with new and curious eyes. Many wanted to talk about what they saw, to propose a path and take a photo. The camera was in the hands of Sandro, who made discrete and accurate records because we knew how delicate photographing is in the area.


There was a general desire expressed to shoot more freely, and the day of the fair, Sunday, was pointed out as the most tranquil for that, especially if there was a pre-warning that it was a project involving a group of community youth.

The awaited encounter took place on a rainy Sunday morning that first forced us to seek shelter in a covered space where we spent an hour in a free wordplay of sentences based on the universal vocabulary of Maré.

– Garbage is a path for the study of the world.
– To dream is to create a world without proportion, without faction, where the only goal is to be happy.
– Of my strength I make my freedom, respect, wisdom to share, of my trash, my museum.
– To share makes the ground smile.
– Freedom is painting the wall of life, creating a path to discover.
– I make of life a wall of opportunities.
– Ice cream makes people happy.
– Share ice cream and popsicle sticks, the opportunity to create, dream and discover a new world.
– The things of the world walk on the footbridge.

Ad hoc cooking fire using coconuts. Record at the fair on Sunday, Complexo da Maré. Irradiations Project, Experimental Nucleus of Education and Art, MAM Rio. Photo: Jaqueline Paz, 2010.

Detail of a tent with guavas. Record at the fair on Sunday, Complexo da Maré. Irradiations Project, Experimental Nucleus of Education and Art, MAM Rio. Photo: Jaqueline Paz, 2010.

With the assembled group we went out into the fair with the freedom to (discreetly) shoot photographs. We spent two hours observing and recording. The feeling was that just 10 minutes had passed (a clock without hands).

When we left the fair, we went to the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro.

Complexo da Maré seen from the bus window on the Red Line on the way to the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro. Irradiations Project, Experimental Nucleus of Education and Art, MAM Rio. Photo: Gabriela Gusmão, 2010.

Bringing with us the chaos of the fair, the attention to the collective was renewed at MAM, discovered like the sound of rain mixed with birdsong. The group guided themselves through the visit to the collection. They were comfortable and didn’t want to leave. What excited me most in this contact was that we managed to positively walk through the fair with the attention of someone who walks in an art space, attentively observing the elements present in the environment, talking about color, analyzing the structures of the tents, valuing the space, criticizing or praising the forms of objects. Later, we walked through the museum with the naturalness of one who walks at the fair where works of art are shown and reveal themselves unceremoniously, allowing spontaneous speech and a keen perception of the relationship between concepts and images. It was a spontaneous dialectical exercise.

We finished up the day with a picnic under MAM’s pilotis [architectural pillars], where we made a plan that it was important to define a particular action for the last encounter.

That same week, when we met again in Maré, we assessed the previous encounters, reread our wordplay phrases and chose one as the synthesis of the experience. So we asked ourselves: what do we do with the idea elected by the majority? How do we print the phrase in the world? Where? On a wall? Of course, all that remained was to find the wall. Each person gave a suggestion until the idea was presented to take advantage of the wall of the soccer field that sits behind Luta Pela Paz. Being an open place with many passer-bys – it was soon accepted by all. Once agreed, they left in search of paint, buckets, brushes, and brooms. The process culminated in a collective action on the football field, where today it reads: FREEDOM IS PAINTING THE WALL OF LIFE.


Rio de Janeiro, November 2010 / April 2015.

1 [Portuguese only]

2 and [Portuguese only]

3 Manoel de Barros. Poesia completa: Tratado geral das grandezas do ínfimo. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Leya, 2010, p. 403

4 Hélio Oiticica, Museu é o mundo. Organização César Oiticica Filho. Rio de Janeiro: editora Azougue, 2011, p. 178