Archive for May, 2011

Video of the Feria Free Book Intervention

Posted: May 13, 2011 by Fei An in Culture, New Media

Below you find the video I edited of our intervention at the Bogota Book fair.

Hacking the Bogota Book Fair from Fei An Tjan on Vimeo.

With much thanks to Camilo from Cartografías Sonoras and Andres.

Hacking the Bogota Book Fair

Posted: May 12, 2011 by Fei An in Culture, New Media, South America
Tags: , , ,

Today I got a little sidetracked from my project in the sense that it wasn’t necessarily linked to my project at Antena Mutante. In no case was it useless though as I spent the day with my newly made friends Camilo Cantor, from Cartografías Sonoras and Andres Melendez at the “Feria del Libro” (Bookfair).

I knew that especially Camilo was up to something, though I wasn’t quite sure what it was yet; something with tiles and hacking the Bogota book fair, but the how or what remained in the dark. So driven by curiosity, I met both Camilo and Andres at 3 o’clock this afternoon in Andres’ living room. As soon as I arrived I was put to work and unexpectedly, I spend my whole afternoon Photoshopping a QR code (picture). Now for those who wonder what that is, the term only became clear to me as well while doing my ‘homework’. Apparently, for the less media savvy under us, there exists a technique to transform all text into a matrix bar code, called Quick Response code (QR) and which can be generated through the Kaywa Reader website amongst others. Once you take a picture of this code with your smart phone (or a special barcode reader), it will automatically convert the code into text, for example a PDF file. And that was exactly what it was, a PDF file of “Free Culture” by Lawrence Lessig, as well as “Free Software, Free Society” by Richard Stallman. Shortly said, both authors criticize the new way of making law which is often influenced by the large corporations that care more about their profits than about the free exchange of ideas.

Now why choose the bookfair as there are already so many books available? That was exactly it, all the books “available” were for sale and in that respect they were not really available to many people. That afternoon, Camilo told me many of the college kids were forced to visit the bookfair as a school trip, all nice, but probably none of them would have the money to actually buy a book. It was all about copyright and therefore the Book fair was the perfect place to do a small intervention such as this one. Camilo wanted to promote the idea of shared and free culture and as a real Dutch, I was thrilled by the idea of ‘free’.

From 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 7 o’clock in the evening we spent time designing, printing, cutting and sticking paper on tile, then tile on wall in order to complete our mission. Once we entered the fair, we’d have to make sure there were no cameras or security people watching us, as we would probably be kicked out of the fair immediately again. But all went smooth and we managed to stick four tiles on the walls of the toilet, near a waiting bench and on some random pass through walls until we were out of the glue of which we were dependent for our action.

But how effective is such an action really? I couldn’t find concrete numbers of Smartphone users in Bogota, but considering that in the whole month that I was here I saw only a handful of people actually using a Smartphone, I figured it couldn’t be that many.  The problem according to Camilo was rather that people that do have a Smartphone in Colombia often do not know how to use it. They still use it to call, text and surf the Internet, but do not know how to profit from it to the fullest. So the aim of the interaction was, apart from the fact that people could download the books for free, to maybe create some awareness as well about the possibilities of smartphones. And just in case, we added the link to download the book as well. Another thing that might be interesting is to automatically generate some sort of tagcloud from all the people that would actually use the QR code in order to retrieve the book, or create a platform where people can leave messages, so you can see the effect of your action. but I guess that will remain a challenge for the next intervention.

Amsterdam, interested?

The criminalization of Funk in the pacified favelas is a hot issue. Funk is criminalised for several reasons. Funk, and especially the proibidão (the “prohibited” one, often with lyrics about drugs gangs and trafficking) are seen as praising, or justifying drugs trafficking or criminality and gang leaders (“apologia ao crime”). Also, at the funk parties – known as baile funk – a lot of drugs is being consumed. Many people gather, which is difficult for the police to maintain order. Funk is often seen as very closely related to criminality. But also, as George Yúdice writes in a chapter on the Funkification of Rio in his book “The Expediency of Culture” is how Funk is also used to discriminate the favelado (resident of the favela). Those who listen to Funk lack any artistic sense. In an interview I had with MC Leonardo, a famous MC in Rio de Janeiro, he explained me how it is prohibited to exclude or discriminate people on the basis of their “race” or ethnicity,  but not on the basis of their taste of music. That is, there isn’t any legal consequence when referring to Funkeiros, while often this is just as discriminatory. What it comes down to, considering these examples, is an association of Funk with favela life, which is seen as dangerous, disorganised and an breeding ground for criminality.

The problem here is a devaluation of Funk by the middle and upper classes. Funk is neither recognised as a cultural expression, nor as a cultural movement. In many cases Funk goes far beyond sexist or criminal lyrics and ordinary parties. Moreover, it’s much more than music only. The criminalization of funk simplifies something as complex and as “funk” into the bailes, thus making an end to the main site at which this form of culture is practiced.

MC Leonardo, a rapper born in Rocinha (a favela not yet pacified) entered the funk scene in 1992. Defending the rights of the funkeiros, he founded APAFUNK (association of professionals and friends of Funk) and established a law that recognises Funk as a cultural movement. A couple of weeks ago he told me about the implications of the criminalization of funk.

“We defend Funk as a means of communication in the first place. I consider Funk, more than a form of cultural expression, as a powerful tool to communicate.” Whereas the media construct a particular discourse about favela life, Funk allows the people living in these communities to communicate about their local reality. “Secondly there’s the cultural side of Funk. The Right to Culture is included in the Human Rights Declaration, so neither Lula (the former president) nor Cabral (the governor of the State RJ) provides me access to this right, because it already exists. So ever since I founded APAFUNK, we fight for the preservation of Funk in order to defend, a.o., the right to communication, the right to culture and the right to work, which are several rights we have. This means that Funk goes far beyond the mere right to entertainment.”

Today, in the pacified favelas, this right to communication through Funk is impeded when the bailes become criminalised. MC Leonardo argues that the current situation in the pacified favelas could be compared with a dictatorship, a situation in which the (heavily armed) police hold power.

“The police has to function as police! Everyone wants a police patrol at the corner of the street. But the job of the police is to protect the citizens. To serve and to protect them, but not to control and to watch! Today the pacified favelas are living a modern dictatorship in which the police has the power to shut down Funk, which serves as a tool for communication. At 3:00 a.m. in the morning the police invades a party and says: ‘I don’t want baile funk in my area’, and the party has to be ended immediately.”

APAFUNK tends to defend the rights of the people that want the bailes in their community. The problem, however, is that people don’t want to express their discontent about the current situation. “They are afraid to express their opinion about the atrocities committed by the police. How am I going to defend someone who is afraid express his criticism?” Mobilization in Brazil, and particularly in Rio, is (still) very limited. When we continue talking about this particular topic – people being afraid to protest, to criticise – I realise that the problem is a little more complex. It’s not only a fear of this new authority, the lack of criticism and mobilization is also a result of a history of oppression, discrimination of the favela residents and a systematic lack of (access to) education.

“We are children of a false liberty. Boys are arrested and go to jail, they don’t have the opportunity to study, not even primary education.” In addition, MC Leonardo explains that there’s a lack of knowledge among the MCs to put the criticism in a constructive – and non-offensive – way. “The kids talk about the crime without any responsibility, which is picked up by the media and the elite as an apology to crime.” The fact that their texts are the result of the state’s neglect of cultural and educational matters are not recognised, or distorted by the discriminatory discourse. They lack the capacity to provide a critique without offending the authorities. Therefore, he explains me, it is important that MCs sing about the absurd way in which the state combats the use and trafficking of drugs. They should talk about the state’s lack of instruments to understand the complexity of the favela life. And about the fact that the state spends more on munition than on class rooms.

Today, the discrimination is reinforced through the criminalization of Funk in the pacified communities and a discourse associating Funk with criminality and drugs trafficking, particularly disseminated by the media. This resulted in the arrest of, a.o., MC Smith, a famous MC from Vila Cruzeiro, one of the favelas that are being occupied by the army since November 2010. His lyrics talk about the local reality of his community, and about the drugs gangs who used to control the area.

I tried to translate, but it’s full of slang and not easy!

“He went to the parties of fight

Took a ride and borrowed clothes

He was one of the most talked about, tough in the fights,

But no one can live of fame

He wanted money, he wanted power

He involved in Article 12 through the C.V.*

FB** is on alert, but look who’s talking

No one gave him nothing

He is very strong in the hierarchy

Messing around with women

He is the […] of the faction, on top of the R1

The thickness of his necklace causes a “zum zum zum” ***

But it’s several women, several rifle at his disposal

The battalion of the area is eating out of his hand

He has disposition for the bad and the good

The same face that makes you laugh makes you cry as well

Our life is bandit and our game is tough

Today we are party, tomorrow we are dead

A tank does’t scare me

We don’t escape from conflict

But we’re also armored by Jesus Christ’s blood”

*Comando Vermelho

** FB is one of the former traffickers the Complexo da Penha

*** A noise

He was arrested for association with trafficking and “praising/justifying” crime. “There’s nothing prohibited in this lyric! Telling the truth became a crime in Brazil”, argues MC Leonardo. In fact, another truth is constructed through the media. A reporter, Wagner Montes, says things like ‘Lock them up, punch them, make them talk, etc.’ about MCs, or rather, funkeiros. “Rather than someone like MC Smith talking about the local reality, which is in fact the result of the state abandoning those areas for decades, the reporter’s words are what incites violence!” While MCs are locked up, reporters can say what they want, even though they don’t know the local reality as they never enter the favelas. And those who report from inside the favela are being neglected. Our conversation about Funk reflects a more general critique on the pacification of the favelas expressed by some of the residents I have talked to in Complexo do Alemão. “Peace without a voice is fear”, is a famous phrase sung by O Rappa, a Brazilian band, that often returns.

APAFUNK continues to defend the rights of the funkeiros, not only through the recognition of Funk as a cultural movement, but also the artistic rights of the MCs. Where on the one hand Funk is criminalised by the elite, on the other hand MCs face difficulties as they are exploited by two major producers that claim the rights, copy and distribute the songs, leaving the MCs without any benefits. Strikingly, whereas Funk fulfils an important role in terms of communication and culture, those producers don’t have any ideological or cultural intention and see funk merely as business. The difficulty in mobilising the funkeiros and the favela residents to defend their own rights is that there isn’t a market for politically charged lyrics. A combination of a lack of education and consumer focused production of funk songs closes a vicious circle of the association of funk with crime and favela life.

Concluding, I just want to point at the fact that although Funk is very present in the favelas, it’s not at all the only form of entertainment and artistic expression. When discussing the topic with teenagers, many of them don’t like Funk, and prefer Rock or MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira). There also numerous artists composing, playing and producing kinds of music other than Funk. While they could construct an alternative image of the favela, few of them are recognised. This weekend the final of the “Favela Festival” – an Idols kind of contest promoting MPB from the favelas – will take place in Complexo do Alemão. My friend Eddugrau is one of the finalists!


After this weekend more blogging on this festival.

It became once more clear to me that protesting here is a lively business. This friday, there was another intervention on the streets of Bogota organized by the students of several universities to remember Nydia Erika Bautista. Latter was part of a student organization called M19 in he 80´s, which at that time was still known as guerilla insurgent movement. During that period, many people have disappeared without judicial orders, under which Nydia Erika Bautista who was tortured, raped and eventually murdered.

The 3rd, 4th, and 5th of may, students from several universities gathered to remember the cruel actions of the state and protest against more impunity. Antena Mutante was there as well to support the students technically and audiovisually. As well did I see many of the people that I met during other interventions, such as Diego, from Desarme and Esteban, whom I met through Antena Mutante and is involved in working with political prisoners in Bogota. More and more do I see how this small group of like minded people appeal to each other to make these interventions reality. Erik and Diego made provided for the speakers, Ali the laptop and cables for music and everyone else that was there helped carrying, connecting and transmitting untill every passant tuned his or her head.

In the next video, the students ´reclaim´ the streets with music and humor which drew a lot of attention from the bystanders. Police was present, but did not interfere and all the actions were allowed to the extent that it did not completely disturb the traffic. I doubt whether such action would be permitted in Holland, but time of mass protest and activism often just seems far away. People complain, but don´t do much about it and there remains a mentality of: ¨someone else will fix it¨. In that respect we can learn from whatever happens here, the creativity of the protests and the way people still believe in change.

Escratche Street Intervention from Fei An Tjan on Vimeo.

I’m about 5 weeks coming and going to “my favela” to talk with people, observe their behaviour, interview people and to try to understand the complexity of the Complex, the conjoint of the 14 communities that have been occupied by the army since November 2010.

I have learned a lot about the local reality and the changes that are occurring in the last couple of months. I have also found a couple of interesting and urgent issues relevant to my research. Issues that help me to focus, and issues I wasn’t aware of before going there. However, there’s a huge barrier, a boundary, physical and mental, that hampers my “immersion” in the community. I feel that I have to live their lives in order to make sense of their reality. That’s why I’ve decided to move there.

I am not really sure why I haven’t moved there in the first place. Not so much a question of not wanting to live there, but I didn’t realize at the time the necessity. And most of my friends who live in Lapa, Santa Teresa, Glória, lively and bohemian neighbourhoods, offered me plenty of rooms to rent. I am also partly working at the consulate, near to those neighbourhoods, which justified my choice to stay here, in this area. But over the weeks I am realizing that it doesn’t work as well as I had hoped. The physical boundary is the distance. It takes me about one hour to get to the community. Also, I depend on a handful op people that know about my research and see the benefit of it for their community (and therefore help me to talk to people, arrange interviews, etc.). People work very hard to make a living so usually they don’t have much time to talk to me. Simply going there and talk to people is much more complicated than I thought. Arranging visits is a very time consuming process, as my handful of people also work.

The mental boundary is what bothers me even more. When talking to people they soon ask me where I live. “In Glória”. “Ahh, Glória.. Nice..” Yeah, why would I want to live there? I’m a Gringa, why would I prefer their community over the bohemian Lapa? And that is precisely what hampers my research. When I discussed this with my Brazilian roommate, she told me that she and her friend have a theory about foreign researchers. They have this obsession with the favela (and I guess so do I), but only for research purposes. When it comes to living, they prefer samba instead of funk. This is a real loss, because especially night life learns you so much about the day to day life of the people. Over a beer you really get to know someone and his or her stories. And in the bakery you see how people interact with each other.

Suddenly this research project didn’t feel so good anymore. I felt not only the need, but also the obligation to move there. It doesn’t feel just to go their, acquire my data, and leave again. As you might have noticed in older posts, I write a lot about the divided city, the conception of the favelas as a different or separated society. Don’t I replicate this idea by living in “one part” and travelling to “the other part” of the city, thus indeed treating the communities as a different place? The idea that living there is “better” or “less exploitative” than not living there might be just a feeling rather than a well grounded scientific argument, as one might argue that I won’t be offering much in return. What will my research  mean for the community residents? What will it change? Nevertheless, the least I can do is immerse myself as much as I can in their lives in order to write something that makes sense.

I am very excited to move. The moment I told people I wanted to live in their community, most people react very enthusiastically. Everyone started to look for places to rent. They called all their friends and a couple offered me to stay in their house (their 12 year old son would temporarily sleep in their room). People are so warm, open and helpful. They wish you a good morning or a good afternoon. I can’t wait to buy bread in the nearby bakery. Especially at night and in the weekends the community awakes. Although life has become much more calm after the occupation (the army maintains order and prohibits parties and big gatherings of people), people gather on the streets, in bars, chat, play music and have fun. Kids play soccer and old men drink beer. And the view is amazing.

“Hey beautiful, this is the soldier you met yesterday. I saw you and even dreamt about you. I really want to get to know you, talk to you, but my phone’s battery died. I will be waiting for the day I will be face to face with you. A thousand kisses.”

This message I received yesterday from an unknown number. Lately I have been talking a couple of times with a girl working in a shop near a street corner that uses to be occupied by the army. She told me that she is dating one of the soldiers. She likes their uniforms, their arms, their status. When they’ve a day off they come back to the community to go out with the girls. She tells me that she really likes her soldier, but that he doesn’t love her. He’s married. She pushed me to go talk with the soldiers. “Go, talk with them!” When I got back, she asked: “And, what did you think of him?” I realized that she thought that I would be interested in one of those soldiers… Unfortunately for this soldier sending me a thousand kisses I have changed my mind about the romantic illusion of dating one long ago.

Gender is a serious issue. The armed forces have come to occupy the community, causing a lot of (positive as well as negative) changes in the daily life of the residents. On top of that, all soldiers are men. This causes a lot of problems for many women. I have heard reports on abuse and disrespect, and, as I mentioned above, soldiers dating women and girls in the community. While they have come to protect the residents, women in some cases feel very unsafe. Especially at night, and some prefer to stay at home. Other women are attracted by the soldier’s power and authority, which the latter use for their benefit. This creates some very confusing situations.I wonder whether the girls dating soldiers used to be interested in gang leaders. Do girls care about status, power and arms, or about legality?

In relation to this issue it’s very easy to blame the soldiers for their abusive behavior. However, when talking to those boys – they really are boys, most of them I must be around 18-22 years old – I realize that they find themselves in a very strange situation. They aren’t actually trained to serve the people. They don’t know how to interact with citizens. In fact, they aren’t allowed to interact with people. One day I offered one of the soldiers (it’s very well possible that it’s this guy who sent me this message) a pão de queijo (cheese bread) but he told me he wasn’t allowed to accept it. “Order”.

My roommate made a very interesting comment about the situation. Most of the soldiers themselves are born in favelas or periphery. The pacification now “opposes” those people that have a similar background and live in similar circumstances. Soldiers and the military police both receive very low salaries, just like most of the people living in the pacified communities. It’s striking how these people with a similar background misunderstand and disrespect each other, as the pacification process puts both of them in a difficult situation.

I haven’t replied yet the soldier’s message. I was shocked but the situation also got my interest. Not sure yet whether I will go into this. Obviously, for research purposes only 🙂 .

A common reaction when I talk about drugs trafficking and the involvement of teenagers in these criminal activities is something like “Unlike hardworking people they prefer easy money” or “They prefer earning 1000 Reais a week rather than 500 a month”. Especially when I tell about those youngsters that complain about the “pacifying forces” and wish that the bandidos would return. It’s dangerous to think that bandidos or people involved in trafficking are lazy, prefer fast and easy money. This reinforces the discriminatory discourse framing those kids as the causes of the criminality in the favelas, the parallel economies and the problem of drugs trafficking and consumption, while in fact it is the other way around. Aren’t they in fact the result of the state’s absence in these areas?

Please keep in mind that the following is the opinion of a particular group and not a representation of the entire community, although this doesn’t diminish the importance of this opinion.

Yesterday night I talked with a group of adolescents in one of the communities of Complexo do Alemão. They got a couple of chairs from the bar around the corner and put them in a circle on the recently paved square. In no time about 15 boys of about 15-20 years old had gathered to talk with this gringa. “Wow, haven’t there been any gringos here before??” “No, they never enter the favela this deep. They always stay near the asphalt… Ah, unless that group of Japanese that came here the other day to take photos.” At first they would only ask me about my country. Holanda is very liberal, right? Is it true that “everything” is liberated? But then we started to talk about their reality. And how it has changed after the occupation. They tell me that is hasn’t been any good.

They have lost their liberty in their community. “We feel locked in our own favela! Before the occupation we used to sit here, smoke weed, listen to music and chat. But now they (the soldiers) tell us to turn off the music and go home after one o’clock. They treat us badly, without respect.” One of them tries to explain: “Imagine that you would be taken out of the Netherlands and are thrown somewhere you don’t know the rules, you don’t understand the local reality, the language. That’s how I feel here today. I don’t belong to this society.”

I was shocked to hear these radical criticisms about the current situation. Those boys unanimously agreed that it was much better before the occupation, when the drugs gangs used to rule. I asked them if the occupation, and the entrance of the state and the market constructing squares, the cable car for public transport, a cinema and a heath centre, haven’t brought anything good in their community. Or if they would perhaps think more positively about the situation if the state would create opportunities for them to study or find a job? “Ellen, lets be honest here. We liked the trafico and we won’t prefer anything but the situation before the occupation.”

I realized that these words “praising” crime (praising crime or a criminal, or apologia ao crime ou criminoso, is considered a crime in Brazil) weren’t a matter of choice. Besides a serious distrust and wariness towards the state and its interests, as it has never done anything to benefit their community before, people don’t see the opportunities of this other reality in which they study and find a job. Even though education is seriously lacking, in theory they could create a way out of this life. However, in practice this turns out to be much more complicated. Crime has been their reality as long as they can remember, and seems like the only opportunity. It looks like those words praising crime camouflage this idea that those opportunities don’t exist for them.

The lack of confidence in themselves being able to change their reality might also be a consequence of a lack of freedom. While these boys talk about the liberty they experience in those past times, they had to follow certain rules and obey the leaders. Today they are dominated by another armed force. Both societies are repressive. Although they might not experience the former as repressive, isn’t there a link with their incapacity to fight for their own future and change their reality?

I am writing this after one (though very long) conversation with these boys. That’s why I would like to elaborate more on these topics with them. I also realize that group pressure might have played a role in the radicalness of their arguments. Therefore I think it’s important to talk with them individually as well, to have a better understanding of this complex situation. One thing that many people have assured me over the last weeks is that precisely this group of youngsters between 13-20 are having major problems of adaptation to the “pacification forces”. The ideological issue – seeing those leaders as examples, heros – is important, and not only for children actually involved in trafficking. Also, I imagine that they now lack a feeling of inclusion, recognition and respect by their leaders. Hopefully I will be discussing these issues with them in the next couple of weeks.

A question that keeps me thinking is why some people manage to create opportunities and others not. I think it’s an experience that chances one’s mind, that changes the thought that some opportunities are out of their reach. A cultural activity, getting to know this person that switches a button, something that increases one’s self-esteem. Because that’s something fundamental. As the boy said: “I don’t belong to this society”.  How can we tear down the imaginary walls dividing these two societies?