lanchonete_small-300x81For the third piece in my new blog series on Residency Unlimited, Montreal-based curator, art critic and theorist, Bernard Schütze and I had an informal chat about, after which he posed a few questions. He starts “the will and desire to set up an artistically-oriented infra-space (in my view, an apt characterization of the architecture of a typical São Paulo lanchonete) involve a considerable straddling between various milieus and practices—artistic residencies, community organizations and activism, alternative economies, administrative hurdles, global/local cultural intermeshing, to name a few,” and asks “How has this straddling in and around the infra played itself out in the incipient stages of the project, and how do you see this being a factor in the post-launch phase?”

Thanks for the question, Bernard. In my last blog on status quo, I promised to pick back up on the topic of ‘failure’ this month. Let me start by saying that the project aspires to straddle the areas you mention … it aspires to be a part of the art world for a brief period of time while sticking around the Center of São Paulo for as long as it’s useful. To confuse or reverse that sequence would be failure in my mind. Thusly, one way to look at it is that the straddling you refer to may diminish in 2018 when the lanchonete becomes the responsibility of the local membership body that will own it, Associação Espaço Cultural Lanchonete.

When you say ‘infra’ and ‘straddling’, I also hear ‘liminal’ and ‘refereeing’. As an outsider – and in response to the common question Why São Paulo? – I often characterize the lanchonete (or lunch counter) as ubiquitous, unassuming, architecturally porous, a site of cross-class consumption, or – simply – a place to sit in the city. I like the visual of having a place to sit in a big urban space that is tiring by its very nature à la traffic jams, congestion, bus fare increases, stadia construction. Having a place to sit makes me think of something Richard Sennett said at a recent conference at Columbia University, Mobilities in Cities: From Visible to Invisible, about hospital lobbies in New York City and how, left unregulated, these type spaces can accommodate a range of human interaction. In her Participating Artists Press Agency (PAPA) project, artist Lino Hellings frames an after dinner nap for all classes at SESC Pompéia as “a good sleep [in] robust and at the same time soft couches.” I’m very interested in how such multi-functionalism (of a space) augurs a civic commons … even if only intermittently.  This is why I bring up ‘refereeing’ … We have planned everything we can plan at this point about the restaurant, and since we cannot predict how denizens of the Center will react to it nor how they’ll interact with our guest artists (and vice versa), we are getting ready to play an active, daily role of referee. You could swap out referee for arts administrator, but I think that we’re planning for something larger than an art project, something that starts as one but evolves into a community-guided, public space.

I should also credit some of the influences on the project locally such as philosopher Nelson Brissac Peixoto’ residual project,arte/cidade, and artist-architect, Thiago Gonçalves who uses both sides of his practice to advocate for uncovering parts of São Paulo’s Tietê River that have been concreted over. I’d say these endeavors have the ‘will and desire’ to ‘straddle between various milieus and practices’ as well. In fact, the current iteration of arte/cidade, ZL Vórtice is focused on the East Zone of the city (and periphery), which has the highest unemployment rates and where we’ll be buying our produce for the restaurant through Cities without Hunger, a local urban gardening initiative.

[As a part of its activities during the recent Architecture Biennial, the project started to examine some linkages between the East Zone and the Center.]

Yesterday, I was Skyping with our graphic designer, Adham Bakry (a revolutionary street artist in his own right) in Egypt and he asked about São Paulo’s ban on outdoor advertising. In fact, this comes up pretty often when discussing the city with street artists, planners, urbanists, and anyone privy to the 2006 Clean City Law by populist mayor, Gilberto Kassab, which outlaws the use of all outdoor advertisements, including on billboards, transit, and in front of stores.

At the same time, I’ve had a few discussions late with Paulistanos in which they bemoan the surging consumerism in Brazilian society evidenced by complex marketing campaigns that encourage people to spend beyond their means and stoking a ‘credit card’ culture that I’m told did not formerly exist. So while the Clean City Law is a symbolic marker for the city and regularly studied (and adopted) by other cities around the world, business has found other ways to advertise, and, of course, to circumvent the law itself. A local artist shared with me that advertising is creeping into the bus stops (as well as a unique response he’s planning), a development that brings one global signage conglomerate to mind …

While notions of public space in São Paulo are different from those in, say, New York City, I’m often left thinking it amounts to ‘control’ … that spaces – generally – are controlled differently. The discussion around privately-owned public space (POPS)also comes to mind. While it was one of the factors that fueled the tug o’ war over Zucotti Park between Occupy Wall Street protestors and authorities in NYC, I don’t think its nuance is so recognizable in a city like São Paulo where the de jure (urban planning) and de facto (popular usage) demarcations of public space are nonconforming. I surmise that the usage of space in São Paulo is a negotiation between people and business with the municipal government often playing catch-up. This dichotomy is underscored by the project proposal of our first resident, Jakub Szczęsny, which I summarized in my first blog onpacing.

Consider the urban policy change that restricted traffic on the Minhocão viaduct (known as ‘the big worm’ locally) after 9pm each night and on Sundays. While it is easy to imagine that this was effectuated – in part – by middle class desires, agency and access to policy processes, it is arguable that without the intermediary or bridging function of community organizers, cultural producers and groups such as Baixo Centro, which plans non-commercial cultural events and actions on the viaduct and throughout the Center, the same space could be filled with more commercial content. Take, for example, Baixo Centro’s recent swimming pool – temporary, usable, free – juxtaposed with the high-cost, semi-permanent, for looks only vertical garden by Absolut Vodka.

One instance that reflects the showdown between people and business – and its systemic nature – is the injunction against engineer and community activist, Ricardo Fraga Oliveira (founder of the Movement for the Other Side of the Wall) and his campaign against a property development that included deleting all references to the development company from his Facebook page.

Another image from Hellings PAPA project by Sylvia Sanchez shows São Paulo’s unplanned urbanization near the Barra Funda Bus Terminal … “Streets which look like sidewalks. Or maybe it’s the sidewalks which look like streets? As there is no easy answer, pedestrians and vehicles take possession of the space the way they are able to.” Her depiction and the actions of Baixo Centro both evoke gambiarra, a Brazilian modus operandi – or esprit de vivre – where everyday problems are solved by improvisation with available materials … and that about sums it up.

I hope that answers your question, Bernard, and please feel free to ask more questions as you have them. In the next edition, I’d like to share our ideas on how a lunch counter (and related programming) can reimagine the urban policy process.

Bernard Schütze was hosted by Residency Unlimited in NYC this past month. His residency was supported by the Conseil des arts de Montréal (CAM) and Centre Clark.