James Trainor

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City Report: São Paulo

City Report: São Paulo

With more than 20 million inhabitants, São Paulo has recently become one of the world’s first ‘hypercities’. In a constant state of transformation, the city has fostered an attitude of improvisation, resourcefulness and cultural cannibalism amongst its artists.

frieze, Issue 108, Jun/Jul/Aug 2007

Thirty-six hours into my first visit to Brazil I sit down in my São Paulo hotel room and thumb through my notebook, puzzling over a stream of non sequiturs, observations and lists. I begin to realize I may be the latest in a long line of gringos who, having ventured south of ‘the line’, unsuspectingly freighted with received ideas about the exotic tropics, have been overwhelmed by a far richer reality: a land dogged by its own messily beautiful and disturbing paradoxes. Later, at São Paulo’s oldest museum, the Pinacoteca do Estado, I would see an exhibition about how foreign mariner-artists and naturalist-explorers had variously interpreted the ‘marvellous possessions’ of this alien land and would recall the truism that you can catalogue all the flora and fauna in the world and still have no idea about what it is you are looking at.

Megacites, as defined by the National Geographic Society, are population centres with more than 10 million inhabitants; the hitherto hypothetical entities known as hypercities (more than 20 million) are no longer the stuff of futurist speculation. São Paulo, an urban behemoth lurching into the 21st century, is thought to have recently crossed that threshold, although accurate census data are scarce.

Piranesian in its entangled turmoil, São Paulo is defined by movement, sulphurous congestion and a brutal and denatured topography. Private helicopters dart and buzz like dragonflies, alighting on cantilevered helipads perched precariously on skyscrapers, while down below bulletproof sedans ferry the city’s anxious élite from place to place. Even 80 years ago Le Corbusier, flying over the city during his famous visit in 1929, ‘discovered the chaos of its streets – crossing above and below each other – and the quite unbelievable diameter of the city […] It rises […] and is built on top of itself due to the irresistible pressures of business.’ Seemingly dumbfounded, he declared: ‘You have a real traffic crisis here!’1 One wonders what Le Corbusier would make of the city’s sprawling favelas, its slums and shantytowns: vast quadrants of the city that are bureaucratically and politically invisible. According to Forbes magazine, São Paulo, the financial and industrial juggernaut of Brazil and the largest middle-class consumer market in Latin America, accounts for 40 percent of the county’s GDP – in a city where 20 percent of the metropolis is composed of favelas.

In a taxi on the main route from the airport I passed one such example of mass ‘auto-construction’ spilling down a hillside like a huge lava flow of dispossessed tenaciousness. Taking advantage of São Paulo’s apocalyptic traffic jams, local men gingerly made their way through the cars, selling everything and anything: children’s kites, batteries, plastic pinwheels, brightly coloured sweets, mesh baskets and mobile phone chargers. It was the first of many examples I would come across of the peculiarly Brazilian concept of gambiarra, a Portuguese term for ‘making do’ with on-the-fly grace and resourcefulness.

One paulista I spoke to likened this dexterity in living to a certain limberness in the hips, a resilience as vital in samba as in life. In a society long accustomed to minimal assistance from the state, operating outside officialdom has become a characteristic not only of the poor but of art and popular culture at large. It was visible in Brazilian avant-garde practices from the start – most obviously in the work of 1960s’ and ’70s’ artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, and in successive generations of artists influenced by the Neo-Concretists and Tropicálists, including Marepe, Jarbas Lopes and Paulo Nenflídio. Inspired by the ability of the country’s disenfranchised to fashion useful contraptions from what others throw away, Nenflídio, for example, has cobbled devices together from wood and metal scraps to make things – usually musical – that shouldn’t work but do: a hand-cranked Heavy Metal barrel organ, a wooden shortwave radio, a piano-like contraption that not only runs on wind power generated by weathervanes but which also translates the random gusts powering it into electric signals that become musical notes.

In the favelas that surround São Paulo ingenuity is also a political act. Homesteading with scavenged cinderblocks and corrugated tin in the vacuum opened up by government inaction is one thing. Illegally tapping into the local power grid and water supply is another: it is an act of defiance and of self-empowerment. When artist Rubens Mano was invited to create a number of installations for the Oficina Cultural Oswald de Andrade, the centrepiece of the series was Calçada (Pavement, 1999), in which he ran a live electrical line from inside the 19th-century building to outlets on the pavement. No explanation was given, and none was needed – Mano was offering the cultural institution’s electrical power to the people for free. Unsurprisingly, the work was an immediate hit. A new provisional economy sprang up, with one enterprising record salesman using the conduit to power his portable record-player so that customers could better enjoy his Pop, Tropicália and Samba discs. More than merely a neat conceptual exchange, Mano was facilitating ‘autophagia’ (self-devouring): a way for the city to feed itself by feeding on itself, consuming and producing at the same time.

Mano’s interventions are part of a discernible thread running through the contemporary history of Sampa (as São Paulo is nick-named), where what is public and what is private are always a matter of contention. For many artists the street is where much that is unresolved and contradictory in Brazilian society plays itself out. In Sampa the streetscape is a mutable material. This was true for the artist-activists known as Grupo 3NÓS3, who, in defiance of the US-backed military regime that seized power in 1964, infamously ‘bagged’ the heads of nearly all the city’s public statues on the morning of 27 April 1979. To the junta’s embarrassment the overnight transformation was covered in the morning press as a news item. ‘Seja marginal; seja herói’ (‘Be an outlaw; be a hero’), Oiticica had declared, and many artists seemed to agree.

Echoes of this legacy of dissatisfaction are perceptible in the acti-vities of younger artists such as Renata Lucas and Marcelo Cidade, whose work unfolds as a series of experiments with the characteristics of a city unsure of its spatial and social boundaries. For one intervention, In/Out (2001), Cidade (whose last name translates as ‘city’) carefully excavated the mosaic tiles from sidewalks in the city. Reinstalled in a gallery, they seemed to revel in the quaint absurdity of reducing something as unintelligible as the surrounding urban labyrinth to a simple geometric glyph, a decorative symbolic map reproduced ad infinitum mile after mile along the city’s main arteries.

A more socially empowering form of artistic engagement shows itself in the projects of Mônica Nador, who helped form the Jardim Míriam Arte Clube (JAMAC), a non-profit associations that works with community groups in the city’s impoverished peripheries to foster new public art forms (some using a repertoire of traditional motifs borrowed from the rural regions from which many of the poor migrate) on the walls of slum dwellings. Last year JAMAC was invited to extend the reach of the 27th São Paulo Biennial to the edges of the city, but rather than ‘decorate’ the houses Nador encouraged residents to claim art as one instrument among many available for mobilization and communal self-invention.

In a city where public space is so neglected,the underground metro system is a puzzling aberration, infinitely better cared for than the bedlam under which it burrows. One sign of the complex contradictions of Sampa culture is that the vending machines on the train platforms that are used in the US to dispense sweets and drinks also sell serious literature – I spied books by Che Guevara, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), a copy of the Brazilian Civil Code and, appropriately, a neatly bound edition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762).

Few people outside Brazil realize that São Paulo served as an incubator for the more progressive instincts of the country’s Modernist artists, writers, architects, urbanists and city planners. In the pros-perous years before and after World War II, a Utopian vision of a tropical Modernist city rising out of a confused colonial past seemed a realizable goal, one advanced by architects such as Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi, Lucio Costa and João Vilanova Artigas, and landscape designers such as Roberto Burle Marx, whose lush geometric gardens were studies in the balance between control and chaos. Sampa was a testing ground for various strains of free-thinking Modernism, reconstituted to suit a distinctly Brazilian sense of space and way of living rather than merely being transplanted: free-form and organic, often embracing nature and natural principles rather than the machine as a model. Far from importing European Modernism, Brazilian avant-gardists adopted the strategy of ‘cannibalization’, consuming the influence of the colonizer before the colonizer consumed the colonized.

The idea is traceable to the radical declarations of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, whose Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil (Manifesto of Brazilwood Poetry, 1924) proposed a ‘poetry for export’, a strategy for artistic decolonization upending the hierarchies of the powerful and powerless. In his Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto, 1928) Andrade suggested that Brazil could avoid cultural bondage by ingesting external cultures as a way of gaining their power without diluting its own. (Latin-American Modernists were fascinated by tales of tribal cannibalism, both real and fantastic.) The idea of constructive cannibalization was one that persisted in leftist cultural strategies during the military repression of the 1960s and ’70s: in fact, the musician-activist Caetano Veloso, speaking for a generation of pop renegades that included Os Mutantes and Gilberto Gil, wrote that ‘the idea of cultural cannibalism fitted us, the Tropicálists, like a glove. We were “eating” The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.’2

But while the city of enlightened tropical urbanism – housing blocks with masses suspended over open breezeways, free-form plantings, walls of vertical wood blinds, beautiful decorative ceramic brises-soleil and elaborate mosaics – is occasionally visible, it was overtaken by incremental failures to live up to the promise. The sunny future imagined in the 1950s succumbed to the repression of the 1960s and ’70s and the economic disasters and neo-liberalism that followed. Today the disparity between inconceivably rich and unimaginably poor is creating a new cityscape. A simmering low-grade siege mentality has become an everyday fact of life, and as a result the city is gradually obscuring its confidence behind multiple layers of improvised urban fortification and strategies of avoidance. Sampa is increasingly segmented, festooned with surveillance cameras and a boggling variety of gates, barriers, photoelectric tripwires and enclosures defended by an army of private security guards. If left unchecked, warns Brazilian anthropologist Teresa P.R. Caldeira, this metastasizing de facto topography of exclusion and suspicion will lead inevitably to the implosion of modern public life and the values of civil society.3

This evolving mess, which nobody planned and no one wants, is the crux of Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain’s Utopia font. Trained as graphic designers and practising as artists, the duo have created a pictographic alphabet (which can be downloaded from their website4) in which the upper case is represented by silhouetted glyphs of Niemeyer or Niemeyeresque architectural icons and the lower case by some of the more grimly prosaic elements of contemporary Sampa. Using the font, typing even the most harmless text can become an exercise in creating unintended disorder and blight. In the end, the reality of the street scrimmage between public and private trumps the best intentions of any planner.

All this has exacerbated what Ivo Mesquita, the former director of the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) and now curator of contemporary projects at the revitalized Pinocateca do Estado, refers to as a persistent lack of usable public space in urban Brazil. When I met Mesquita in the museum’s lush outdoor patio, he said that ‘the idea of a “common” is alien to Brazil’, admitting that the closest thing that Sampa has is the Parque do Ibirapuera, the gardens designed by Burle Marx in 1954 for Niemeyer’s complex of cultural pavilions which is home to the world’s second-oldest international art biennial, and one of the few places where people from across the social spectrum can mingle, stroll, lie on the grass and gather as citizens. The deficit in flexible space (and its democratizing effect) is mirrored by a general lack of obligation among the country’s wealthiest to support the arts or foster a home-grown tradition of private cultural initiatives. Instead of creating foundations or invigorating the city’s most important art institutions, one frustrated critic tells me, the élite prefer to jockey for slots on the trustee boards of internationally prestigious North American or European institutions. While the vitality of Brazilian art has been long recognized internationally, the affluent seem less interested in giving anything back to the public at home. It’s part, laments this same critic, of ‘the same old New World inferiority complex’. Recently it was announced that the Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Art, regarded as one of the country’s most im-portant private collections of Brazilian Geometric Abstraction, had been sold to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Nearly all the artists, curators, dealers and writers I spoke to be-moaned the dearth of funding, whether in the form of state support, corporate sponsorship or private endowments. The gradual disappointment with the reform-minded Lula government and its lack of cultural reorganization is reflected in the appointment of musician Gilberto Gil – who was gaoled and exiled by the military in the 1970s – as minister of culture, seen by some as a fitting symbolic move and by others as an empty gesture: under Gil’s well-intentioned guidance the government has funded sectors of the culture industry that hardly need any help (such as the healthy Brazilian Pop-music sector) to the exclusion of the visual arts. While big commercial entities such as Banco do Brasil have created their own corporate spaces for art exhibitions around the city, their programmes are as uneven as their leadership. Meanwhile, financial support for non-profit and alternative spaces is harder to come by. Instead, commercial galleries such as Galeria Vermelho, housed in a complex of small buildings around a courtyard in Higienópolis (a verdant high-rise district, whose name translates as ‘city of hygiene’), are acting as unconventional art spaces, hosting performances, lectures, screenings and serious curated shows, creating convivial meeting grounds for artists and the general public.

Paradoxically, though, the problems that bedevil the art world in Brazil also foster its attributes, such as the sense of adaptive improvisation in the face of uncertainty; perhaps the jaded professionalism of New York or London can blunt creativity as well as nurture it. Aware of what is happening around the globe, the citizens of Sampa are still happy to cannibalize and hybridize, continually to redefine their own experience of Brazilian-ness without being consumed by the outside world and its expectations. Paulistanos will continue to ‘botanize the asphalt’ in ways Walter Benjamin never would have dreamt. One night, before returning to New York, I stood on a São Paulo roof-top, beneath a hazy vault of unfamiliar stars, and gazed with bewilderment at this fathomless urban universe. ‘This is the city of the future,’ I blurted with a stoner’s awe. ‘No,’ I was politely corrected by one native Paulista, ‘this is the city of now.’

1 Paul Andreas (ed.) Oscar Niemeyer: A Legend of Modernism, Birkhäuser, Basel, 2003, p. 38

2 Caetano Veloso, Verdade tropical, Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 1997; Tropical Truth, trans. Isabel de Sena, Knopf, New York, 2002, pp. 241–62

3 Teresa P.R. Caldeira, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation and Citizenship in São Paulo, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, p. 305

4 http://www.detanicolain.com

5 Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain, text excerpted from their Delta font. (2001)