Archive for April, 2011

A week has gone by since I’ve been in Bogota, and I can’t use another word than chaos. Everything is chaos, the house I lived in the past few days, the weather, the streets and above all, the traffic! I forgot again how zebras never work in South America and that cyclists never get priority over honking cars. On top of that, Bogota built the Transmilenio which was supposed to be a new, better and improved network of buses, but what in reality turns out too be yet another disaster. And then, suddenly, there was silence.

On Carrera 7, one of the bigger streets that runs through the city, where you normally can’t even see the other side of the street due to cars and smog, you could suddenly hear the birds whistling (those who didn’t die from co2). A student organization was the reason of the silence and ‘reclaim the streets’ was the first thing that went through my head.

I couldn’t help it, but if you’re 24/7 behind your laptop, there’s little other to think of than: ‘thesis, thesis, thesis’. The students were protesting against the privatization of the universities, which would make education even less affordable and the gap between poor and rich even bigger. To me, it seemed interesting that they were allowed to protest on such an important way through the city while the demonstration was relatively small. Although the main idea of the students was maybe not to oppose capitalism and the car as its main mode of transportation, it indirectly added to this debate. After reading both Soja and Sassen I started thinking of how to frame this manifestation spatially, where the students would ”take the control over the production of our lived spaces.” Even though they might not reach the effect to stop the privatization of the university, the effects of this couple hours intervention of the street, at least to me and I bet to many drivers with me, was tangible.

I am starting to get the concept of the Antena Mutante more and more, in a city of control as big as Bogota, it is the little things that matter. And maybe all the localities can eventually indeed form a more global multiplicity. Viva la Resistencia!

Sources:

Saskia Sassen. “Local Actors in Global Politics.” Current Sociology, July 2004, Vol. 52(4): 649–670 SAGE Publications London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi

Edward Soja. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places. (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

On April 26th BBC News reports on Google’s agreement to amend its maps of Rio de Janeiro after complaints by media conglomerate Globo.

“Favelas, sprawling shanty towns which are home to tens of thousands of people, are a defining feature of Rio. But the Globo newspaper said their labelling on the map and the absence of wealthier districts and tourist sites gave a bad impression of the city.”

First, this is a very typical complaint made by Globo. In Brazil, the media – and particularly Globo – play a determining role in the dissemination of an exclusionary discourse framing favela life as inferior, dangerous, criminal, and in this case, irrelevant even to be on the map.

Illustrative is the comment of a resident of the neighbourhood Humaitá (South Zone of the city) quoted: “The maps turn Rio into a favela. […] Anyone who doesn’t know the city would be frightened.” When I showed the article to a friend, a resident of Complexo do Alemão, he was shocked by the prejudging content. If favela life wouldn’t be framed in the way it has been – a frightening place – over the past decades, the problem wouldn’t be the prominence of those communities on the map. Moreover, the argument is a little overdone, as the favelas that have been mapped are very incomplete. What has been mapped are the main streets of the community, but the majority of the alleys and stairs in which the majority of the houses are located remain unmapped. Concluding, there’s still a lot to be mapped, particularly when looking at the favelas.

At the same time, the article shows the concern of the people with tourism and the image of the city, fueled by events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games that will take place in Rio in the next couple of years, attracting plenty of tourists. In the preparation of the city for those events, the favelas are a complex issue to deal with. The large scale pacification projects by the state and federal government are implemented in a number of favelas that are located in the most touristy areas of the city in order to improve security in these areas. The pacification of these favelas leads to a love-hate relationship with these communities, as they become centre-stage and a true tourist hotspot, attracting many tourists and artists that want to take a look inside these communities.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about this phenomenon, which I called favela fever; emerging now that those “barbaric, violent and dangerous” areas are being “pacified”. Foreign as well as Brazilian tourists are curious to take a look inside these communities, which they only know from the news (Globo) and movies such as Cidade de Deus and Tropa de Elite. Whereas they used to be framed as inaccessible for the middle and upper classes – and tourists! The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs seriously discourages tourists to enter favelas – today a new image is emerging. The situation in the pacified favelas is tranquilo. The myriad of opportunities these areas offer, in terms of new markets and for social projects, are recognized by companies, NGOs and artists settling in these neighbourhoods.

The main question, now, is who is going to benefit from this favela fever. The residents of Complexo do Alemão, where I am currently conducting my research, are wary of these interests. At the one hand they could benefit their community, as tourists come and visit, spend money in their shops and restaurants and hire local guides to show them around. Also, it could lead to some interesting cultural exchanges, through which local residents and people from outside of the community can exchange experiences and learn from each other. Their main fear, however, are competing actors from outside, which basically ignore the community’s potential to establish local tourism and instead will exploit the area for their own benefit. Unfortunately, the latter often already have a better infrastructure, a lot of contacts, links with the media, and thus are much more likely in succeeding than the local initiatives. As such, new potentials such as tourism fail to break with the logic of the exclusionary discourse, maintaining the sharp boundaries dividing favela life and “civilized life”, and to a certain extent, “incapable people” and “capable people” to set up such projects. For instance, there’s one NGO that is currently organizing trips for (Brazilian) tourists, showing the cable car, recently constructed squares, banks, etc. I joined a conversation in which a lady of the NGO consulted my friend who lives in Complexo do Alemão, about how to get permission from the army, and about how to organize this event in the community. When my friend asked her how this would benefit the community, she responded that the NGO could eventually, when they would have generated some money from the tours, they could be training community residents as guides. What the lady didn’t (want to) realize is that among the many residents of the community there surely are plenty of people that would be better guides than any professional, not needing any training at all. People who know best how the community can benefit from tourism, people who know the most beautiful, awful and interesting stories about their community, people who know about the local reality.

Rio is a divided city, but physical boundaries are dissolving as the state, the market and the third sector increasingly enter these areas. Mapping the city reflects this complexity, and the fight over those divided territories. But what about the ideological boundaries? Discrimination, prejudices? When mapping the favela what will be mapped? And who will decide that? What would Globo say to Google when the favelas become actual tourist attractions, creating a positive image of the city? Google streetview, for instance, could easily show the world the projects such as the immense cable car and its prominent stations, the plenty of neat squares, the ATMs, banks, and the outdoor gym, and the cinema that are built in Complexo do Alemão.

Cinema in Complexo do Alemão

Cable car station Complexo do AlemaoOne of the 5 cable car stations in Complexo do Alemão (Bruno Itan)

For now, however, Globo rather than Google is taking account for the promotion of these projects. I don’t know what is right, because in any case – Google maps/streetview, Globo or tourism – there’s a very complex society hidden behind these construction works. In a very simplified version, that complexity is mirrored by the idea that favelas don’t deserve too much space on the map.

In my second week in Medellín I spent some time on my project with Hiperbarrio. The organization tries to reach social inclusion through means of digital media in several depressed neighbourhoods in Medellín. By giving workshops in photography, blogging, podcasting and the use of free software, they try to keep the youngsters off the streets. Their methods are based on the idea of sharing knowledge, where anyone that can add something should give a workshop to the others to share that knowledge. Free culture therefore plays a very important role in keeping the organization sustainable.

This Tuesday I went to La Loma, an area even behind la Comuna 13, about which I blogged in an earlier post. The problem with this area is that it has been home to about all the violence and corruption that you can think of. As the area is located in a gray area of what is considered La Comuna 13 and San Cristobal, order and state presence have been largely absent. This led to the forming of gangs, paramilitaries, left wing insurgents such as FARC that have long used the area for their drugs-related businesses at the expense of the inhabitants. When I arrived everything seemed calm, but Henry, the coordinator of the program knew to tell me that this could change any day. In the library of La Loma I speak with Andrés, an ex gang member that has now dedicated his life to his work at Hiperbarrio. I’m guessing he is around my age, 23, 24 maybe. Hiperbarrio, in which he enrolled 2,5 years ago, saved his life he says. Before that he was mainly involved in the gang life trying to ‘protect’ the ‘invisible borders’ that mark the region of La Loma. In Hiperbarrio he entered another reality where it was about collaboration, learning and being critical to the society they live in. He is now one of the coordinators that implements this program in another area in Medellín, using one of the public libraries as their weekly meeting points.

Another project that I was particularly interested in was related to Cartographies. Gabriel Vanegas, the sub-director of Hiperbarrio told me that they are now trying to map the area of La Loma, with all its streets and institutions to establish themselves on the map (photo): “If you search for La Loma now, you often get an area that seems to be just woods, but it’s more than that, and it is important for the people here that they do not become forgotten”. And who better to tell you where to go than the people that actually live in the area? The project therefore makes special use of the locals to draw up the map: “with cameras and pencils, we send the kids out on the street to create their vision on the neighbourhood. And although a slow and tedious process, it is advancing.”

Talking about cartographies also reminds me of the final results of LabSurLab. I know I already went a little too excessive over this, but I can’t help sharing one more video. Most of the participants were already involved in similar projects across the world such as AntenaMutante, Platohedro, No2Somos, Cartografías Sonoras and Hacktitectura to name some.

This is the video that used the song of Yhiel, the young rapper I commented on earlier. The cemetery where many of the victims of Operación Orion Rest In Piece stands central because in the end, it doesn’t matter to which class or group you belong to, we all end up the same…

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYKyswQC%5D

On the Meipi Map you can find the complete result of all the videos shot during LabSurLab presented as cartographies.

These are 2 of the videos that were made during the 5 day workshop ‘Cartographies’ @ LabSurLab, Medellín. Within these days, several groups went into la Comuna 13 to interview people, and record memorable places. Artists, activists, academics, hacktivists, rappers, video producers; all worked together to make it happen in just 5 days. Nice fact is that most of the music in the video is produced by local rappers of Comuna 13. In one of the other videos, a song was used by Yhiel, the young rapper that got killed by the ‘sicarios’, or hitmen, only about a few weeks ago. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s worth watching:

The remaining days of LabSurLab were mainly dedicated to processing the videos and making them into cartographies. At 10:00 AM, the different teams gathered in the library of San Javier (Comuna 13) to discuss their work and outline the rest of the day. Recurring themes that needed to be represented in the videos were resistance, art, citizenship, militarization and displacement.

During my time waiting for the project to advance, I had a talk with Jaime Mahmud lópez and Patricia Velez Fernandez, two of the creative minds behind FRACTALAB. Latter is focused on a multidisciplinary idea to create open space for the youth in the coffee region of Colombia (Eje Cafetero). In this interview (in Spanish) Patricia explains why they have chosen to work as they do. Through art projects and the use of public spaces, they try to generate a view that is different from the mainstream. One of the projects Patricia talks about is for example 5 pieles (5 skins), referring to the different layers that define our existence. The first one being our own skin, the ‘I’, second are cloth, shoes and things you use to carry yourself, the house you live in and the architecture that surrounds you is the third skin, the fourth one is the social environment you live in and the last one is the universe. This idea was based on the idea of the Austrian artist and architect Hundertwasser, who exposed his vision on the world with this theory and our relation to the external world. FRACTALAB accordingly pursues that idea by creating space to exchange ideas and concepts, to support innovation and serve the community better. Digital media in that respect serves as a great tool as it has the ability to connect people, is very much from this time, it’s affordable and has the ability to connect universally and immediately.The inclusion of the citizen seemed to be an important stance of their organization which was also one of the themes of the cartographies, as well as during the event of LabSurLab as a whole.

In the evening we all went to one of the local bars in La Comuna 13 to watch the videos as kind of a ‘preview’ to the big presentation on the 12th. The evening was closed with performances of several Hiphop artists (i.e. Lucía Vargas) that treated many of the themes that I discussed earlier in their songs. There was an incredible energy to it which caused the whole croud to go crazy. It was exactly what needed to happen on a larger scale…

Day one in Colombia promised to be a busy day with the event of ‘LabSurLab’ in perspective. LabSurLab is a gathering of different worldwide Labs taking place in Medellín first time this year. From the 6th of April to the 12th of April different projects will present their work and exchange ideas on subjects such as community improvement, hardware recycling and open source applications amongst others. As the round tables, workshops and seminars were taking place in different cultural venues and squares in the city, and the information booklet did not present exact locations and time, I wasn’t sure where to start looking for my contacts of AntenaMutante. Following the LabSurLab guide, our best shot was at the cultural center Morávia, which was located about 45 minutes away from Ellen and my apartment.

Unfortunately Antena Mutante was not attending the round table of that day, but was doing a cartography workshop somewhere in a very sensitive area of Medellín, called Comuna 13. This neighborhood was marked by Operación Orion (2002) under Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s former president in order to drive out leftist insurgents FARC, ELN and CAP. It held that the area from that point on was under military control in order to restore peace and tranquility. But even though the amount of violence has reduced since than, one sentence I heard that day stayed in my head: “as long as there are weapons, one does not feel safe”. When working with the cartographers, the latter became quite clear as the militias reacted quite aggressively when they noticed they were being filmed. And the fact that they were wearing rifles and guns did not make it any better.

The idea of the workshop was to map out different viewpoints, different ideas in order to offer resistance to the oppression and bring to light themes such as poverty, displacement and economy. It was about showing memories, giving a different view of the problematic and maybe most importantly, present a viewpoint of the people’s perspective instead of that of the mass media.

At 6 o’clock, the 4 different groups that went into the neighborhood to collect footage came together to discuss their findings and come to some common conclusions. What I found especially interesting is the way this meeting was organized; even though there were three leading figures in the group, all opinions and suggestion were carefully taken into account. The final idea of how to continue the work resulted out of a long discussion and referendum where many pros and cons passed the table. The ‘leading figures’ could well be seen as discussion leaders, rather than the ones with final authority. Even when things were said that were not always relevant or useful, it most of the time led other people to come up with an appropriated idea. It was chaotic, slightly unstructured, but effective. This, I think was also characteristic for the whole organization of LabSurLab, where the organization seemed to be fluid, with no rigid planing, but still a clear organization that often went from mouth to mouth rather than a set schedule.

All in all, this was a very instructive first day with already loads of information to process and I can’t wait what more will come!