From Politics

Being optimistic in dark times

It is not that my book sees total progress in Brazil, but it is fairly optimistic when it comes to the progress and diversification of the country’s media environment in the last decades.

I interviewed two dozens of media producers, all based across that immense territory: from the Amazonian area to the very hot northeast; from the populous southeast to the Agro-industrial centre. I also analysed content produced from a myriad of small websites during three years. From the transition of the ill-fated Rousseff’s government to the disastrous impeachment and the ascension of Michel Temer to power.

My first goal (then a PhD research) was to capture the changing political position of the populations living in the country’s peripheries (favelas, suburbs, and the vast countryside) after nearly two decades of a perceived improvement in their quality of life: they now had access to credit, could buy homes and furniture, but to what extent could they also communicate as the rest of society?

My hypothesis was that such new socioeconomic conditions would be enough to bring forward a stream of political contention that was at best ignored by the commercial media, at worst ignored because the periphery never really mattered to the mainstream society.

What I found after four years into my research was that, in the periphery, media producers could voice in their outlets some kind of truth that many people have underestimated. Primarily blogs, social media, they started to come up in the media and as “the media”, opening a path to dialogue with mainstream actors, but also among themselves, between regions and communities. In other words, their pattern of communication has changed.

Not only that, they showed that they could recognise the democratic infrastructure of the country: its institutions, the media, and demonstrated confidence in freedom of expression to speak truth to power. I called this network of outlets and especially their maturity and responsibility toward democracy, the “peripheral media.”

All was well in this narrative until dramatic changes in the political scenario. Stormy clouds brought a successful case for Rousseff’s impeachment, serial accusations posed to the Vice-President in charge, and the worst corruption scandals in history were in the global media. The public opinion saw new facts conducting then reliable politicians straight into jail. The rising appeal of right-wing roadshow of justice did not necessarily unmake a panorama of media development that was good.

On the one hand, one cannot call “development” a string of fake news that went down as “news” in the last months. On the other, there is a big picture that informs us of the inclusion of interlocutors, tastes, and voices that has no parallel in the country’s history. What I am saying is that social change should, wishfully, come along with peace and social cohesion, but sometimes it doesn’t. .

I finished off my research before the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, whereas I worked in a country that was already divided. Back then, he was another failed politician with bizarre ideas broadcasted during the impeachment, but which one would never see implemented in normal conditions. Today, he is poised to conquer mainstream society and the periphery with controversial ideas, but largely conservatism in its return. It might not be the more progressive layer of the periphery I researched that voted for him, but there are surely representatives of the favelas, suburbs and the countryside that I researched, and which definitely supported him to some extent.

Even on top of such political choice, we should, still, face their ability of inclusion and decision as a positive outcome of recent Brazil.

An image, a favela, and my research

I won the City University’s Images of Research award with an image that represented my PhD research.

The photo shows one of the gigantic sculptures by Projeto Morrinho, an art project that started out from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. It consists of – literally – a mountain of bricks colourfully painted in a way to represent a favela community, with its tiny streets, and colourful dwellings up on the hill. It carries positive messages and small figurines, which give a realist but with a touch of fun and grace.

I had captured the image while on a visit to the Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro, in 2016, then recently refurbished.

I thought this image illustrated my research because it had everything I looked at in media producers from Brazil’s periphery: It showed improvisation, community-spirit, and the right of self-representation, which is a new possibility for Brazil’s disadvantaged populations.

The way that Projeto Morrinho has proudly assembled the installation, which showed one of the region’s which Brazilians had been most ashamed of, either because of its poverty or precariousness, explains how the perception of these communities has changed, within it and outside. They communicated not only hope but a will to confront reality with joy, strength and creativity.

Reading Stuart Hall in 2017

Two fresh publications feature the life and work of academic and postcolonial thinker Stuart Hall: Familiar Stranger (Allen Lane) and Selected Writings (Duke University Press). Both were reviewed by Tony Jefferson for a recent edition of Theory, Culture, and Society. On Familiar Stranger we find:

“Originally conceived more than 20 years ago as a short dialogue outlining Hall’s intellectual trajectory, it grew to a manuscript of ‘over 300,000 words’(xiv) at the time of Hall’s death in 2014. Schwarz was then faced with a massive editing job and then, after discussing with the publishers, recasting everything ‘as a first-person narrative’(xv). The fact that it reads so smoothly is a testimony to Schwarz’s labour and his ability to ventriloquize Hall: ‘Some parts are verbatim, while many others have been constructed from fragments’(xv).”

Indeed, after reading this first book, it is evident that Hall’s depth and originality feels much untouched, even though Schwarz, the editor, admits in the preface to have worked hard to glue what were actually multiple excerpts. In fact, some parts were actually collected by email or during conversations, as Stuart Hall’s health deteriorated, delaying the book’s launch. The editor’s strategy has made the whole thing make sense as the book reads according to the sequence of Hall’s life in the UK. On Selected Political Writings, it is said:

There are seven essays on ‘The New Left and after’, eleven on ‘Thatcherism’ and three on ‘NeoLiberalism’, which are book ended by a concise contextualising ‘Introduction’ by the editors and an unfussily succinct ‘Afterword’ overviewing ‘Stuart Hall as a political intellectual’ by Michael Rustin. 54 years separate the first and last essay; but you would hardly know it. The themes are those thrown up by the changing political scene: changes in political parties (like post-war changes in the Conservative party, the birth of Thatcherism, the crisis of Labourism, the formation of a new social democratic bloc, New Labour); broader shifts (e.g. in class relations, political commitment, the New Left, racism, the growth of authoritarianism, new times, neoliberalism); and dramatic events (like the Cuban crisis). But the continuity in approach is remarkable.

This remarkable political trajectory is another chapter of the complex genius of Hall’s. In the end of the books, the reader will have witnessed a kind, but profoundly aware individual on the limitations of life in the so-imagined metropolis. At the same time these limitations aren’t enough to stop what turned out to be a strong engagement and frenetic militancy, to the extent that it often overshadowed that of the native inhabitants of the ex-Empire. As Jefferson asserts on Hall’s multiple lives:

Add to this the ‘double consciousness’ of a diasporic intellectual and one can begin to see the origins of an expanded view of the political and impatience with reductive thought of any kind.

The full review can be accessed here. To complete Hall’s deserved revival in Brexit Britain of 2017, a podcast presented by Ben Carrington fleshes out the multiple impressions Hall has caused during his academic life. Here, there are debates on immigration, racism, colonialism, and conscious Marxism that emerge in the voice of his ex-work partners, colleagues, and admirers. It is really worth listening, delivered in a fine-cut radio show in accessible and didactic format for non-UK spectators.

 

Documenta 14 debates immigration and democracy

It sits on a medium-size, industrial city at the heart of Germany’s Hesse State. The city of Kassel receives once again the Documenta 14. Although the art show has had an earlier edition in Athens, Greece, it is here that we better acknowledge its spread, disarticulated, and site-specific project. Without wrapping itself in only one sign, as the Venice Biennale does to Venice, or the São Paulo Bienal dwells on a big modernist building, the Documenta is distributed in multiple sites; it is impersonal, and does not have a big crowd, though it still conserves a certain charm.

From the short visit I paid recently, I attempted to summarise the key trends, as curators seemed particularly anxious to talk colonialism, globalization, and democracy.

1. Parthenon of books, Marta Minujín

 

As one of Kassel’s big feats of this year, the Argentinian artist Marta Minujín has recreated that old Greek Parthenon by attaching books to large, real-sized structure. Appropriately, Minujín has chosen titles that were banned during the Argentinian dictatorship. As an archetype of democracy, and culture as social justice, the construction sounds like a cliché. However, it ends up complying with Documenta’s ambition to discuss it as an ideal. First, curators seemed much influenced by the Athens’ edition. Second, as found elsewhere in the Documenta, Minujín mimics in her construction not the whole democratic project in the shape of a building, but seems to agree that “democracy” has to be re-enacted as utopia, as no building is sustained only by books. In fact, by underlining her work with bloody, and, somehow, unresolved legacy of the Argentinian dictatorship, the artist rightly recovers some degree of originality by also highlighting the slow reconstruction of democracy in her home country, since the early 1980s. The monumentality of the work at Kassel’s main square eventually helps us to forget the common place in which the artist operates.

2. Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper – Guillermo Galindo

 

By appropriating remains or reliquiae left behind by those rushing to cross the US/Mexico border, Guillermo Galindo gives us a powerful image of an important issue of our time. If migration is rather abstract and ephemeron, the artist gives to it an image of a hanging boat wreckage. If the news media exploits the portrait of migrants arriving in Greece from the East; or lining up to crosses fences in Calais, swimming to escape drowning in the Mediterranean, Galindo reverses this repertoire by promoting absence and nostalgia. Emptied bottles, a weathered plastic comb, animal bones are other parts of his imagery, as if they were monuments in praise of those who are neither there, nor here; they are gone. Such enormous drama echoes O’Keeffe with her carcasses, which also runs in risk of commoditising hardship, and the run of those souls through the desert, and yet, what happens is the opposite: the artist sensitizing us about the questions that stem from these hanging remains. The calm that arises from the still life does not explain the whole story, nor it should.

3. Proud and Well – Ali Farka Touré

 

It is easy to say that de-colonial art is something about identity and that’s it. In fact, many contemporary artists have embarked into the train of the so-called ‘identity politics’. Different from that expectation, part of the first floor of the Documenta Halle building featured the interesting work of Ali Farka (1939-2006). We find his records, posters, clothes, guitars as his resumé, which are testimonials of the exuberant career of the Malian artist. We see that part of the effort of privileging non-mainstream starts cannot escape from the mission of documenting it. It is not only about discussing it, or making it controversial, but gently memorializing it as part of collecting the relevant and the admired far from the heyday, as it happens with Touré.

4. Democracy and its Greekness

Apart from the main sites, there is much more to be seen and critiqued at Documenta 14. I tried to group some of the main works that are highly representative of other smaller initiatives. For instance, Ibrahim Mahama’s great installation that covered a pair of old buildings in central Kassel with jute sacks to remind of colonialism. Oliver Tessler’s videos on democracy, featuring commentators from different countries giving their views; Moreover, one sees the Parliament of Bodies (picture above), an interactive installation where visitors are invited to sit on military-dressed cushions and debate, as in the old Greek agora.

These works dialogue with the crisis of democracy of our time. If on the one hand,  the guest artists are well positioned to draw a consensus on what are the authoritarian forces we should fear; on the other, we are still dwelling on one kind of democracy, the Western-centric myth that has in Greece its epicenter, which is a  rather restricted thesis about it.  The universality which Documenta has over the years called to itself, firstly by Arnold Bode in 1968, does not appear to subside new visions. It is all about contemporary Europe and viewing the world from here. As far as this view still invites key issues to other non-European societies, in next editions the show must dare to break with its Eurocentrism in benefit of other kinds of realities, elevating them to the status of documents, as it has done it, over the years, with the so-called Western heritage.