Opening of an exhibition of street art at Museu de Arte de São Paolo
In the course of my research on engaged art practices, which often operate outside of the traditional institutional frameworks and commercial circuits of contemporary art, I have become increasingly interested in how artists and art groups sustain their work over time, i.e. how they find ways (or don’t) to sustain their production economically, if they move towards increased institutionalization or professionalization; if they develop long-term plans or if they work on a project-by-project basis; and what material, organizational and interpersonal conditions motivate them to continue working and working together. In my interviews with artists in São Paulo I found that members of collectives that had worked together for upwards of a decade also had given a great deal of thought to these questions. Many discussed the public grants made available under Lula’s administration and the leadership of Gilberto Gil in the Ministry of Culture, as well as the evident and probable changes taking place under the new Ministry of Culture, as led by Ana de Holanda. Most of the artists acknowledged that this public funding had been a major source of support for their work, as evidenced in the books (published for free distribution), DVDs, documentary videos, original research, and large-scale community-based projects they had produced with funding from state agencies (and Petrobras). However, some also pointed to the negative effects the cycle of grant competitions and the specified interests of funding agencies had on artists’ abilities to develop and maintain long-term initiatives and a unified line of investigation, the fact that members of collectives often internalize costs of their work when the public money falls short (as it often does), and the possibility that the critical potential of some work is compromised by its reliance on state funding. Continue reading
I have been interviewing artists in São Paulo who approach their art making as a form of action research, others whose art tends at times towards social communication and/or activism, and others whose work combines methodologies drawn from radical pedagogy with methodologies and strategies more familiar to visual and performance art.
BijaRi studio in São Paulo with one of their 'green' interventions parked in front. Photo by Jennifer Flores Sternad
Some of my most interesting conversations with these artists have been related to their experience with the Prestes Maia occupation in downtown São Paulo between the years of 2003 and 2007. At the time, the Prestes Maia building housed the largest vertical favela in Latin America. It was one of the occupations in the historic city center of São Paulo organized by the Movimento Sem Teto do Centro (MSTC). Speaking with the artists who worked with the residents in the building has helped me to understand the complexity of this collaboration — from the difficulties of building cross-class alliances and that competing demands and desires related to the artists’ labor to the encounter of a highly organized social movement with a spirit of social and artistic experimentation. Added to this are the complexities of social movement, their relationship to NGOs and state institutions.
One of the most interesting recent projects I’ve learned about is a park that was recently built in a favela in one of São Paulo’s outlying neighborhoods through the efforts of an art collective (with federal arts funding), the local art center, local organizers and other neighborhood residents. Spending a day at the park and speaking to the persons involved in creating and maintaining impressed upon me how great an undertaking it really was — and how deeply it depended on the social tissue in that community and an ongoing collective investment in the space and the in activities that keep it viable. One of the things I saw with this project is its wholly status as fine art. This is something I’ve noted in several of my interviews — as in artists who would just as soon describe some of their projects as ‘communication’ or otherwise. What I’ve found most interesting is that this definitional flexibility is at work when it comes to institutional relations and funding of these projects, such that an art collective’s project that starts out with federal arts funding is then continued with funding from a federal housing authority, for example. Or in another case: a green energy generator made from re-purposed garbage that started out as a ‘functional sculpture’ in an art exhibition (an exhibition-cum-squat in an abandoned mansion), then became an important part of a collective initiative undertaken in an urban quilombo, undertaken by artists and local communities, and finally (or most recently) the artist who developed this technology was tapped by the federal office for indigenous peoples to coordinate the implementation of similar technologies in government posts that border isolated indigenous communities in the Amazon.
Posted by Jennifer Flores Sternad — PhD candidate in American Studies at NYU