the city and its spaces: multiple mediations
2014

originally published in 31st Bienal de São Paulo's website



More than a concept, the city is a field of practices. Marcel Roncayolo

They become mediators, that is, agents endowed with the capacity to translate that which they transport, to redefine it, extrapolate upon it, and also to betray it. The serfs become free citizens. Bruno Latour, in We Have Never Been Modern

Imaginations, mediations, conflicts, urban and biographical trajectories, diagrams of social, economic and political forces, all of these draw, and are drawn up by, the spaces and artefacts of the city. In the course of our daily lives we inhabit heterogeneous spaces, moving between different codes and diverse frontiers, with circuits, connections and barriers that (trans/in)form our modes of life. The 31st Bienal’s City and its Spaces encounter, held at SESC-Pompeia in São Paulo on Saturday March 22, sought to discuss ‘issues related to the sundry forms of city activation, the use of the city as raw material, and as a venue for play, for tension and for the ongoing redefinition of its own uses.’ With roughly forty assembled guests – among artists, art educators, social movement leaders, urbanists, academics and journalists –, and with the Curators Charles Esche, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Galit Eilat, Pablo Lafuente and Benjamin Seroussi arranged organically into a ring, the result was a mix of voices and practices from different circles of the city’s cultural structure.

A dissonant and somewhat erratic conversation revealed a multiplicity of mediations and mediators who, working as a network, provoke and empower uses of the city at the same time as they are modified by them. As the Sociologist Bruno Latour points out, ‘action is not what people do, but is instead the fait-faire, the making-do, accomplished along with others in an event, with the specific opportunities provided by the circumstances. The bundle of meditations that predominated at this meeting about the city and its spaces referred to the educational actions of art and culture, especially in shantytowns, outlying slums, settlements and building sites. Artists, art-educators and the leaders of social movements presented their experiences in specific situations.

Among the various interfaces between art and education that surfaced at the event was that described by Marília, manager of a community cultural center in Heliópolis, who spoke about the importance of urbanizing through art, of community leadership and of the city as an educator, about how the processes of art and education need to be better integrated with the city, and about the contradictions inherent to political processes and fields of negotiation. On the other hand, Robson, a leader of the MSTS (the Sacomã Homeless Movement), who was born and raised in the Heliópolis shantytown, defended the creation of low-cost housing in downtown São Paulo, arguing that ‘the fight is for housing, but also for education, culture and information’ and that ‘art can supply knowledge and educate people.’ The MSTS, alongside other housing and landless movements, fights for the right to social housing with access to public infrastructure for the poor by occupying empty or unused buildings in the city center, operating among processes of real-estate speculation (the price put on the exchange of property and land), political wrangling and a sharp social divide. Robson spoke of numerous cases of cultural activities developed with local and even foreign artists during the group’s occupation of the Marrocos cinema, which, though physically contiguous with the Municipal Theater and the semi-inaugurated Praça das Artes (Arts Square), is still miles away in terms of symbolic/social access. In fact, it resembles one of the recent cultural occupations, in resonance with other collaborative initiatives between art collectives and social movements.These are examples of mediations that look to broaden the range of poetic-emotional tools at the disposal of artists and movement-members and, at the same time, rally public opinion against the criminalization of landless/housing movements and in defense of their rights.

There are many examples of mediations between art and education (with tools, modus operandi and diverse interests) that have grown and expanded over the last twenty years or so, during a time of social change at home and abroad, and of conceptual transformations in artistic practices. In the midst of slumland NGOs and community centers – each with its own mission and values, set against a State that is either absent or in the process of changing its roles – and cultural institutions and museums that pursue a social responsibility remit in interactions with the public, these mediations have become increasingly robust. Located inside Ibirapuera Park, one of the city’s few green areas, inaugurated sixty years ago, on the crest of a ‘developmentist’ wave, the Bienal Pavilion, designed by the Architect Oscar Niemeyer – a huge glass box encased in pilotis, with uninterrupted windows, organic floor designs and contortionist/illusionist ramps—is only used for major events, such as exhibitions, trade shows and editions of the Bienal de são Paulo. Serviced by limited public transport, some earlier editions of the Bienal looked to establish outstations, but what has truly brought it into the city in recent years is the ongoing educational program, which taps into the urban fabric and maintains dialogue with some seventy NGOs and other associations.

Historically, São Paulo has always been segregated, asymmetrical and unequal, with different areas enjoying or enduring radically distinct standards of living and access to services, infrastructure and resources. The cityscape is in the throes of accelerated mutation, and, as the Sociologist Vera Telles points out, these social and spatial divides have become ‘jumbled.’ ‘Contrary to the received figurations – constructed by so-called social inclusion policies – of pockets of poverty isolated in “communities” characterized by lack’, what Telles sees is an off-grid multiplication of social programs ‘in a social world that reaches beyond the managerial units and is pervaded by expansive “informalisms” [new and old] woven into urban practices and social networks.’ For Telles, ‘moving in heterogeneous social circles, carving out opportunities, building sociability networks and spheres of action are survival strategies to be employed not just by the rich, but by the poor. [...] It is not a case of parallel universes, much less of any opposition between the formal and the informal, legal and illegal. In fact, it is in the folds of these networks that power games are played out and the bounds of dispute are drawn, redesigning urban worlds.’ Questions concerning the city’s art (and education) mediations are complex and have been widely debated in the build-up to this 31si Bienal, not only by the educational program, but by other educators, thinkers and artists... What strikes me as interesting here is that it throws up clues and other possible prisms through which to view the multiple mediations and mediators that empower and/or hamper activations of the city’s spaces and current dynamics.

We listened to the curators’ observations and questions: their perception of a lack of publicness in São Paulo; a lack of connectedness between central and peripheral regions, whose populations don’t frequent Ibirapuera Park; a lack of connectedness between São Paulo and other cities and towns; about the relationships between popular initiatives and institutions – if there are none, then why? Could things be different? Are these social programs trying to fulfil a role that should really belong to City Hall? Different participants underscored the facts that ‘the authorities can’t handle it, so it’s up to us, the citizens’; that ‘the exchange goes on with other resources, and that we have to rethink our priorities’; that there is lots of graffiti and a lot to be learned from it, raising the question ‘how are we to consider processes of emancipation from other perspectives, bringing new voices to the table, new subjects?’ All of these issues point toward an overarching exhaustion of the existing political mechanisms and institutional channels and question the relations between, and roles of, the social agents, platforms and institutions. Echoing the street demonstrations that occurred in June 2013 and sporadically thereafter (a political and social knee-jerk reaction on the part of an ‘insurgent citizenry’) are the emerging collaborative initiatives of architects, artists and activists engaged in reoccupying and (re)signifying city spaces through new uses, as well as other actions that signal the urgent need to establish new parameters, mediations and means of brokering public, collective imagination in the pursuit of new presents and futures.

The 31st Bienal faces many challenges as a platform at this time of intense transformation, with the potential to trigger multiple mediations in the city and its social dynamics. So we repeat the question raised by the curators at the end of the encounter: ‘What can art do in relation to the city? How can the Bienal serve as a mechanism for the city over the course of two or three months? The Bienal understood as a device that enables transformation and creates possibilities, in which imagining the world in other forms is what art can and must do.’