As urban sociologist Robert Park wrote, the city is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire.” However, how aware are we of our right to reinvent the city, and not just access what is presented to us? How much more creative and human-centered could we be when rethinking the processes of urbanization? And lastly, how often and in what ways, if any, do cultural institutions provide us with a platform or the means to realize our responsibility to transform the city and our lived experience in it. With these questions in mind, I traveled to Brazil to explore the ways in which art is in dialogue with the urban conditions and rapid changes in two contrasting but equally vibrant cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
In Rio de Janeiro the sense of development is apparent, with a great deal of investment in museums as part of a city “under construction” in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. Rio Museum of Art opened in 2013, in the city’s historic port area; the Museum of Image and Sound is planned for Copacabana beach; and the controversial Museum of Tomorrow is also near the port. Rio Museum of Art is a new museum initiative, in which the city of Rio itself is the thread connecting all curatorial and educational activities. With education at its core, it aims to fill a gap, approaching arts education as a process of mediating and facilitating interpretation and reflection. The museum’s exhibitions, which juggle different mediums and historical periods, are curated as departure points for discussions that raise questions fundamentally attached to Rio’s history and contemporary reality. At the same time, it is a priority for the museum to recognize gentrification as a reality for the region, and to respond by being as much a connector of people as a catalyst for the arts. With its Neighbors of MAR program the museum opens its doors and operates as a hub that brings local people, businesses, and projects together to collaborate—or just meet each other and share ideas.
In contrast to the construction of these “mega-museums,” the city is, interestingly, being overtaken by a movement of smaller community museums. These grassroots museum initiatives bring communities together in collecting, documenting, and sharing objects and stories and create spaces of memory, public discourse, and creative production. Making connections to the lived experience of the community is an integral part of these programs, as is making the participants authors of creative solutions—seen in projects like map-making to respond to the lack of maps of the favelas, or using storytelling to attach names and signs to unnamed streets. Geo Gritto, of the Theatre of the Oppressed, who has been working directly with communities in the favelas for years, points out that in this work it is as much about reaching out to the community and supporting their voice as it is about providing a “safe space” for the participants to go deeper into ideas and reflect on reality from outside out.São Paulo, a city that is also undergoing accelerated urbanism, led me to a research itinerary that focused on spaces and projects operating in the city center. These are reflecting on how the abandonment of the city center as an active public space caused the decay of the city’s public sphere and the rise of a highly vertical culture of artistic production and dissemination. Spaces like Casa do Povo (which was created in the city center in 1953 by a community of recent Israeli immigrants) acted as places of resistance during both the military dictatorship years (1964–85) and the subsequent decline of the city center. Today, after 62 years, Casa do Povo is still asking the same question: how can we be in dialogue in the street? To respond, they invite artists to make use of the space to create their own work, but also to work directly with the surrounding communities in workshops and learning opportunities, or informing their research through direct encounters with the people of the neighborhood—now mostly Korean and Bolivian communities. Looking at the city from a different standpoint, Urbania, a research and editorial project inspired by the Bienal de São Paulo, explores democratic education practices in relation to the lived experience, and addresses the people’s ownership of the public space.
Is the creativity of the Brazilian people strong enough to change their cities? Are “we” to create the cities of the future? We’re probably not quite there yet, but it is more timely than ever to ask ourselves these questions.