Posted by Ximena Málaga Sabogal, PhD student in Anthropology at NYU
I am used to being asked what anthropology is and what, as an anthropologist, do I “actually” do. I usually have a different set of answers depending on my interlocutors. But something that I always have to deal with is the “classical” definition of anthropology, the one that implies studying “a traditional way of life”. Although that definition can be a good starting point for a conversation, I try to bring it to and interest in social changes as soon as I can. If not, how to explain that analyzing the ways in which radio affects – or comes from – everyday life is also anthropology? When studying media as social and cultural repertories, anthropologists have a lot of competition in the field. I am constantly mistaken for a journalist working on a piece, which changes the interactions with my interlocutors.
What has this interest on radio to do with my search for Aymara and Quechua identity definitions and its connections with the international indigenous movement? In Puno the answer is: a lot. Radio has been present in Altiplano’s peasants’ life for a long time. In part due to the low electrification of the region, radio has been – and in some districts of Puno still is – the most popular communication device. The first radio to begin operations in Puno was Onda Azul, back in the 1950s. This is not only the first radio, it is also a very special one. It comes from an early initiative of Puno’s Catholic Church and answers to the developmental model of educación popular. In a time when Puno had one of the highest levels of illiteracy, Onda Azul worked hand in hand with the Peruvian government to develop a program of escuelas radiofónicas. Radios were given in different communities in the Aymara and Quechua sectors of Puno and every day the people would come together to listen to classes and solve exercises with the help of a facilitator. At the end of the school year, the Ministry of Education would organize exams for the people involved in the radio classes, and hand out official diplomas to the ones who passed everything.
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