S.2 Ep.

Popular Art as a Political Tool


Jamie Lee Andreson, PhD (JA) Welcome to the podcast, Brazil Culture Connections. We are here with Ruy Braga and Jonatas Campelo. I am Jamie Lee Andreson, the podcast creator, and we are recording in person at The Pennsylvania State University. It’s a pleasure to have Ruy Braga on our 4th episode of season 2, Art and Culture on  the Peripheries. Welcome! Ruy Braga is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of São Paulo (Universidade de São Paulo, USP) and the former director of the Center for the Study of Citizenship Rights (Centro de Estudos dos Direitos da Cidadania, CENEDIC). He also published the following books: A Rebeldia do Precariado; Trabalho e Neoliberalismo no Sul Global and The Politics of the Precariat: From Populism to Lulista Hegemony [A Política do Precariado, do Populismo à Hegemonia Lulista].

It is a joy to have you and Jonatas Borges Campelo here. I’ll give some space for Jonatas to introduce himself as a team member of the Brazil Culture Connections podcast. 

Jonatas Campelo (JC) Hello everyone! My name is Jonatas. Like Jamie said, I’ve been a member of the podcast since the beginning, maintaining and organizing the podcast image and website. I’m also a circus artist, but I began my career in the arts doing street art in Brazil. I’ve been producing street art for 12 years in Brazil and South America. I’m currently here in Pennsylvania helping Jamie with the podcast. So, hello!

JA On the topic of season 2, I want to begin with each of your reflections about the city centers and peripheries of Brazil from your distinct social settings and experiences. In Ruy’s case, the context is current São Paulo and the University of São Paulo (USP), and in Jonatas’s case, the context is Bahia and your experiences with street art. Let’s start with the Ruy, please.

Dr. Ruy Braga, Professor of Sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP), Visiting Professor Pennsylvania State University 
Jonatas Campelo, Bahian circus artist and founder of Capvara the Clown

Ruy Braga, PhD (RB) Great! Before I get started, I wanted to thank Jonatas for the opportunity to be here and participate in this podcast. Well, this first question is both very fascinating, in my opinion, and very convenient for different reasons. I think it’s fascinating because it is the one that I’m least hesitant to answer. And this has a lot to do with the fact that this separation, this dichotomy between the city center and the periphery is surprisingly recent in the history of Brazilian cities, and it has a lot to do with the socialization and the colonization that accompany Brazilian industrialization, which took place from the 1930s’ through the 1960’s, because when you look at the historiographic literature, the idea of the periphery is very rare and almost nonexistent. For example, in the 1920’s through the 1940’s, in the city of São Paulo, I mean, if you look at the newspapers, you will never find this topic, this idea that they are areas defined by an absence, meaning areas that are not the city center. So, up until the 1930’s, you could refer to the city center and the neighborhoods, but never the periphery. Another very common way of referring to whatever wasn’t in the city center or neighborhoods was the “rural area” or the “rural neighborhood.” And I say it’s fascinating because this idea of “periphery” is essentially a construction—a product—of the Brazilian working class. The periphery, the peripheries… Peripheralization is a product of industrialization in Brazil. Why? Because the industries that make up the second wave of industrialization tend to focus on non-urban areas. And this creates a kind of new configuration of the city’s territory. 

So the idea of the “rural idea” was abandoned, but not completely, by the way. Because if you were to go to São Paulo today—and if you’ve been to São Paulo before then you know what I mean—if you were to go down to Engenheiro Marsilac, which is a region in the extreme south of city, you’ll notice that the rural configuration is still very much there: rural neighborhoods, waterfalls, forests, etc. It’s not totally abandoned, it would be unfair to say so, but there is a new configuration that has taken control of the city, for lack of better words. And why do I say it’s a product of the periphery, a product of the working class? Because it’s closely related to the occupation and self-construction that took place in the 1940’s through the 1960’s. Here’s an example that I know more closely had the chance to study: the case of São Miguel Paulista. In short, today, it is a neighborhood that is truly a city within a city, located in the east zone that still has many stabilized areas. Nevertheless, it’s a city like any other, meaning there is a commercial industry, and it was developed all in electrochemistry right after the Second World War in Brazil. So, a factory was built that brought crowds of immigrants from the Northeast, from small cities in Minas, and it created a very precarious urban structure based on the processes of occupation and self-construction. This then generated a series of conflicts and tensions, and through popular mobilization, the families and communities that settled around this factory began a long journey of humanization. 

So, all that there is today in  São Miguel, for example, is a product of this popular struggle. In short, through the regulation of land, through the expansion of transportation, through the extension of [public] services, through the installation of schools, health clinics, day cares, and hospitals, etc. All the urban infrastructure you see today was essentially a product of the popular struggle and a product of the mobilization of these workers who were settling in the area then. So, when you say “periphery,” the first thing that comes to mind nowadays has to do with these areas of occupation and self-construction—which molded the face of the city in the years following the war, i.e. the 1950’s through the 1970’s—and which were areas considered problematic by the city center. Why? Because they were considered violent, lacking infrastructure, and degrading for the families to live in them. These areas were inadequate, shall we say, for them to live, when really what was happening was a process of intense struggle in these communities, precisely to access the minimum conditions of equality that existed in the city center, which is the city of the rich, whereas the workers [compose] the city of the poor. So, it’s a struggle for equality. 

But there is another aspect to consider, which leads me to the topic of our discussion, and I think it’s worth mentioning. It’s that the periphery—especially but not only São Paulo’s periphery as it’s a model of urbanization and interaction with these communities and the culture produced in these places, areas, and territories that is reflected throughout the country—the periphery today is a reconfiguration of the periphery in terms of prestige in Brazil, in terms of creative potential, in terms of cultural production. It is rooted in the struggle of the 1980’s and ‘90’s. By recognizing that those communities weren’t deficient or degrading, those communities, in effect, fought for equality and have a strong cultural potential. Perhaps the example of São Paulo is certainly the most typical example of this change of key from a space that was once considered a space marked only by its shortages, inequalities, decay, and violence to a space that has won the hearts and minds of the youth, of second-class families and everyone, of the country and the world.

There was the case of Racionais MC’s. In their journey throughout the decades they managed to capture and produce a new kind of creative wave. And they instigated, stimulated, produced, and created a new cultural configuration, because they made the city center recognize the artistic and creative potential of the periphery. So, it was a kind of shift from the case of Rio, which has more to do with samba and more recently with other peripheral cultural manifestations, such as with rap and hip hop and things like that, but not just that, also music from the hood as well, etc. In my opinion, this is related to the example of Racionais MC's, which I personally like a lot because it was the first time—of course, we always see this, it’s always very controversial, but anyway—it was the first time that a young peripheral Black man became an agent partaking in a mass cultural movement, meaning it wasn’t a parochial or localized or just a neighborhood thing. It was a mass movement, a movement that summons the entire country, that takes over, that conquers, that solidifies. That’s how we portray it in the media. So, I think that has everything to do with it. The idea of the periphery in São Paulo, mainly, but not exclusively, has to do with it. It has to do with, on the one hand, work, that is, the working class that shaped, constituted, and built these communities that outside of the city center and, on the other hand, this thriving culture that placed, replaced, and portrays the periphery in the media in a different way, [in a more positive light]. We see it in newspapers and culture in general.

JA And Jonatas. You two come from such different places. [Ruy], São Paulo, which is so large and has a specific context that is very different from Bahia. And Jonatas, you come from a smaller city, but you do more in Salvador. So, how do you see this question of city center and periphery in terms of your art production?  

JC When thinking of Salvador, [I think of] the perfect division that Salvador is when we talk about the periphery and the city center, which is Cidade Alta (High City) and Cidade Baixa (Low City). We have a large periphery in Cidade Baixa that brings together several neighborhoods in Salvador. I say it’s one of the greatest cultural hubs, and like you said, it’s the working class, it’s what makes the Bahian capital have this weight to move and act, to give Salvador its energy. But something that called my attention while you were speaking was this very cool comparison between Racionais and rap. I was part of the hip hop movement in Brazil and we would map out which states had the strongest hip hop movements, and so São Paulo has always been a national rap hub with big rappers associated with it, like RZO, Sabotagem, and Racionais and nowadays it has new rappers.

RB And there was the label, Zimbabwe Records. 

JC Yes, yes. And now there are new names. Now we have Emicida, who isn’t just a rapper but also a Black and peripheral intellectual figure. He comes from the periphery of São Paulo. One of the things that I didn’t really understand in the context of your answer was that the periphery in São Paulo exists and we call it the favela, like the hood. We live in the hood or in the periphery. The word “periphery” to me is also new. Because I grew up living in the “hood” or living in the “favela” or living in the “neighborhood.” So, I really grew up thinking “periphery” was really pejorative. To say “I’m from the periphery” or “I’m from the favela” was pejorative, but it’s also something to be proud of. Like, I come from the favela, through my work. 

JA It depends on who is speaking. 

JC Exactly. It also depends on…

JA The place you are speaking from. 

JC The place you are speaking from. And the city center for me was always a place that felt like work. I never saw the city center as… I always went to the city center and I felt like a fish out of water. If I went to the mall, I would feel like, “What’s going on here?” If I went somewhere in the city center, I would never feel… We lived in the city center of Salvador for a while, and during that time I was living in the city center, I wasn’t okay. And then we moved to the heart of downtown, but it was a more peripheral city center, which is the division of Cidade Alta and Cidade Baixa, which is the neighborhood of Dois de Julho. It’s a neighborhood that has a very powerful cultural weight that comes from Bohemia. It was a Bohemian neighborhood, which became a peripheral neighborhood that over time people left and went to Barra or places closer to the coast because the scene was more favorable there. And then I also have this thought about the city center and the periphery. It’s very similar. We are the ones who live in the periphery. The workers are the ones who build the whole process. And those who live in the city center are the folk who really make the space accessible for us from the periphery to be able to act. Nowadays, I see this even living here in the United States. I will always be peripheral, I will always be ghetto, I will always have my peripheral way of speaking, which is more ghetto than people from the city center. As much as I have this personal formation process, I make my living from doing art in the city center. So, communication is with the city center, but the life experience, the lessons learned, the discipline—all of this is what the periphery gives us, it’s what the hood gives us. I think this is the big boom, you know? And honestly, the discipline the periphery gives us is so much that it leaves us kind of timid. It makes you timid in relationships, timid to put yourself out there, and this hesitancy expands until you believe it’s not possible. [The periphery] is different from this, from the reality of the city center. For those living there, they already have this idea that anything is possible, because I saw it: whatever is possible, is possible [for them]. On the other hand, the periphery has the idea that what is there [in the city center is possible], and what is there is work. So, I go to the city center to work, because that’s what is there, and then I go home. That’s my view. That’s why I always say I will always be peripheral, no matter where in the world I am, because it is the essence of knowing how to take care of yourself, as the periphery bestows discipline so that you can take care of yourself anywhere you may be. 

Jonatas Campelo performing in his hometown  of Camaçari with his first theater group Trupe Treco, 2013.

JA Perfect. So it’s your identity then, right? 

JC Exactly. 

JA Even when you’re traveling around the world or circling the city, right? You always have this reference. And something that we agree on is that art is produced in the peripheries, but they don’t always have access to the city centers, which are the places of government. 

JC Exactly. But then that makes me wonder: In Rio de Janeiro, which is a very different thing for me, and not just Rio de Janeiro, but also Bahia and São Paulo—when it comes to Carnival, where the entire periphery takes the city center, they are doing it as a cultural occupation because it sees Sapucaí. The samba schools are in the peripheries. And so, the city center and the elite of the city center go to Sapucaí to see the periphery’s parade. And so there is this aspect as well. Look, I really think the periphery is the Brazilian culture hub, you know?

RB I completely agree. Rather, the periphery is the center of Brazilian artistic and cultural production. It always has been, in a sense, and samba and Carnival demonstrate this, now more than ever. And I think that in this sense, there is something you mentioned that I really agree with, which is this idea of the peripheral identity; the production of a peripheral subject that has challenged this border with the city center, and not just by going there each day to work. Unfortunately, people are obligated to commute several hours, but there is an element that we must consider, which is precisely this element [of a peripheral identity] constructed through culture, not work. Although, when you consider the evolution or the development of the most peripheral neighborhoods, you realize that there is, to a certain point, a decentralization of job opportunities due to the economy. So, it’s not so true. It still is true, but not as much as in the past, that the best opportunities are always in the city center. Because you have already developed, as I said, a service economy in the neighborhoods there, you have commerce, you have maintenance, you have more or less specialized professional services there. And these information technologies allow people to work and produce, even artistically, at home. So, you already have decentralization. But this exodus continues frequently, perhaps not so much because of traditional formal work, like day-to-day and salaried work, which is certainly more concentrated in the city center, but because of culture, through cultural production. 

And in this sense, the periphery became the city center, or at least the center of production and, consequently, the center of attention for the Brazilian art and cultural scene. I mean, nowadays, it’s very odd to talk about high culture or popular culture in a country where you have so much miscegenation, so many syntheses, so much overlap of the art production that comes from the peripheries and the art production that circulated in the mainstream a little while ago. The rapper Emicida is related to this moment of miscegenation and mixing of influences from the city center and the periphery. As you are correct, these identities are fluid—that is—they tend to follow the circulation of these subjects’ affect. I mean, people are in the periphery, they are living there, they are reproducing, they are constituting and constructing their lives and their communities, their families, they want to transform to be the center of their own lives, at least, which is this sense of self-determination that you can see in the [popular] communities. And this involves, among other things, culture, leisure, work and so on.

The workers, the people who live in the periphery of São Paulo like to debate, they like culture, they like theory, they like books, they like theater, they like cinema, and so on. So they might feel in some way segregated by the fact that there isn’t an investment in cultural infrastructure in the periphery. There aren't big theaters being built, there aren't big cinemas being built, aside from a mall. They are ultimately feeling like they are lacking this human right, which is the [investment in] culture. So, I think that more and more we need to understand that this periphery, honestly the center of the periphery itself, is increasingly becoming the ultimate center, meaning there really isn’t a very sharp border between one thing and another. And this border is becoming increasingly porous.

JC So it’s just a question of stating that this is really happening, right? Because I’m from a city called Camaçari. Camaçari is a city that grew because of the petrochemical plant and created several neighborhoods. Firstly created were the UBS complexes, like the Minha Casa, Minha Vida program, and then I remember that Gleba E, the neighborhood where I grew up, was the most remote neighborhood from the city center. It was the kind of neighborhood that no one wanted to live in, but it is nice outside Gleba E. There were several peripheries that were built. They are the invasions that began the invasions, and then there was the Parque Verde and the Phoc. And within the Phoc several [smaller] Phocs were created. 

RB That’s the process of urbanization. 

JC Right. You touched on this topic and I realized I remember that shift. And Gleba E became the city center. My neighborhood, which was the most peripheral neighborhood in the city, became like a second city center as well as all the other nearby peripheries. People began to go there. So, there is this side to it as well. Nowadays, the peripheries are growing and adapting. Now you don’t really need to go to the city center as much to make money and earn an income or even get access to information, things like that. 

JA What stood out to me now in this conversation is that people from the periphery have to transit to the city center and back, right? People from the city center will rarely go to the periphery if they don’t have a personal connection there. 

R Or an interest [that would bring them there].

JA  Or an interest, i.e. exploitation. It’s the main theme when thinking about cultural production in the peripheries, access to resources and the relationship with government officials. So, I wanted to ask Ruy about how you’ve studied some of the culture workers’ political mobilizations in São Paulo, such as Art Against Barbarism [Arte Contra a Barbárie] and the Culture Workers’ Movement [Movimento dos Trabalhadores da Cultura, MTC].

RB It’s a spectacular observation and honestly, when you study it, it’s very interesting, because a few years ago, a former grad student I advised, a colleague named Joana Marques, and I did some comparative research between São Paulo and Lisboa Porto in Portugal because of this relationship between politics and culture, but thinking from the perspective of those who produce [culture], either from the POV of the cultural workers or from those who promote culture in the cities. We had the opportunity to review some interesting things that really showed and explained to us the dilemmas of cultural production and the conditions in which this cultural production takes place and how it has to do with the precariousness of the living and working conditions of the professionals who produce art in the peripheries. 

In Portugal’s case, it’s different, because it’s more focused on the urban city center. But anyway, one of those movements that we had the opportunity to follow and study more closely was Art Against Barbarism, which was an art movement of resistance, the way in which public resources were distributed for the promotion of cultural products, the way in which the Rouanet Law was managed by the the government under Fernando Henrique, the criteria that was used—which was normally very commodified and very limited to just the few best equipped culture and art—including accountability to the government, the resources received, and things like that. And we noticed how Art against Barbarism added and gathered an enormous amount of theater groups, art producers, professionals in the cultural field, musicians, actually not as many musicians, but anyway. There was an organization, perhaps for the first time in the history of São Paulo. There was a movement that unified a massive amount of art groups around a common theme, which was the transparency and republican criteria in the distribution of public resources for the promotion of culture in general, especially in the State of São Paulo. And it was really interesting because this mobilization was victorious. In 2002, they passed a municipal law that through grants made the distribution of public resources linked to culture transparent, especially those financed by the Rouanet Law and things like that. 

This changed the art scene in the city of São Paulo, meaning those groups were able to become professionals, they were able to program themselves and succeed. They took the world by storm presenting projects, they conquered, they took grants, and they were able to structure themselves for longer periods, 2, 3, or even 4 years.  They were able to function better with more planning, and this had a huge effect. This is part of the movement to value culture in São Paulo’s periphery, to value the multiplication of artists, the multiplication of musicians, the multiplication of cultural initiatives in the peripheries, the multiplication of a series of things that we had in the city of São Paulo throughout the last 20-25 years—and with the interesting feature of them identifying themselves as “cultural workers.”

JA Does it have to do with the Workers’ Party? 

RB Without a doubt. Yes. It certainly has to do with this legacy that comes from the 1980’s, including professionals identifying as “workers.” For example, I consider myself an education worker, despite being a middle class college professor, but I consider myself an education worker. It has a little to do with self-identification, but on the other hand, what they were really doing was guaranteeing the minimum material conditions to continue on as entrepreneurs. So, they were cultural workers, but what they did was a kind of cultural entrepreneurialism. Why? Because none of them wanted to work for the city hall as public servants, who are responsible for clocking in and producing culture. No one, I mean no one was talking about that. Everyone wanted to keep their autonomy and their identity, and everyone wanted the freedom to produce art on their own terms and desires. 

JA And Jonatas, I’d like to hear your perspective as a creative entrepreneur, which I think the article explains very well. I also followed the struggles that this creative entrepreneur is responsible for throughout the production process and circulation of his work until reaching the final customer. What is this experience like?

JC Challenging yourself every day is a very complicated thing, right? It’s reinventing yourself every day, it’s the process of reinvention. Say something didn’t work out today, then you say, “Let’s do this so that it works out tomorrow.” My context of Bahia as an entrepreneur is to be an artist, because we together, Jamie and I, had a space in Salvador called the House of Sustainable Arts [Casa de Artes Sustentáveis]. It was a space for art production, and as you said, it was that business that we were producing, we were the ones working on the process and we were the entrepreneurs, right? And it’s difficult to keep up a process such as this in Brazil, especially in the Northeast, where there is a huge lack of resources. And it’s something that happens with artistic migration [to Southern Brazil, like São Paulo]. 

I have many circus friends who have left Bahia and gone to São Paulo. I have a friend named Anderson, and he was able to make a name for himself as a juggler and he went to São Paulo, after he moved to São Paulo, he went to…I think he lived in a small room in the periphery, in the east side of São Paulo. He stayed in the east side and got a small circus group to perform. That small circus group provided him an audience, it was for Ratinho’s program. And then he traveled around. We have another friend, Rogério, who is also a circus juggler, who also came from the northeast to São Paulo’s periphery.

JA  After Europe, right? 

JC And now he is all over the world: Africa, Europe... So, yeah. And music, too. It’s like this with all art forms. In São Paulo, there is this financial weight that facilitates the development of the artistic process. Maybe it’s because of the cultural manifestations that take place differently in Bahia. When I think about Bahia, Carnival, the musicality, the land of axé… when you think about Bahia in terms of art, you think about the trio elétrico, percussion, tambour, dances, Afro dance. But you don’t think about the diversity that Bahia has in terms of art and culture, and the lack of resources. The artists that are in Carnival still have resources from the government that are reserved for them and only they know how to manage their little [financial] package.

However great the difficulty of the performing arts, such as theater, circus, and visual arts, they still persist with a very large presence in the Northeast. You go to the South and you see there is a theater crowd, you see shows, artists doing street shows and you see crowded squares. You go to the Northeast and find that people aren’t in the habit of going to the theater or sitting at a public square to watch a performance. So this already changes a lot due to the question itself, I believe that this has influence from the government. There are so many challenges with grants in Bahia, and I would like to understand even the Workers’ Party’s (PT) government when they suggest applying for a grant and then make it difficult for the proponent, the artist, the entrepreneur, to execute their project. I know this from experience, from these last administrations of government. I was the guy who applied for grants the most that year, because I couldn't get approval for the amount requested, and the only one I received, I lost, because the government wanted me to prove that I had 1 R$ left in my bank account to show that I could really…

Capvara the Clown performing at the Fairfax Festival in California, 2019. 

RB It’s bureaucracy that impedes you. 

JC Exactly, it impedes…

JA The implementation…

RB The Brazilian State assumes that every citizen is a scammer wanting to take money from the government.

JC Exactly

JA Yes. 

RB So you must defend yourself to the max against all coup attempts. So, every time you apply for a grant, there are many requirements, and after that you have to give an expense report, and it’s so crazy that you just give up. 

JA Yes.

RB It’s very…

JA We give up.

JC We give up, and that’s what it was like for me. It was a huge loss, because it was years of producing activities, reuniting artists from all over the world in Salvador. And when the time comes for us to receive recognition—and it’s not a lot of recognition—it’s a smaller recognition than we already had before. 

JA It’s not recognition, it’s reimbursement. 

JC It’s a reimbursement of what we had already produced with our own funds. 

RB It’s just a way for you to stay active because…

JA Right.

JC Exactly. 

RB Because you are already doing it, you’re already investing in it, you are already putting it in motion, you are already spending your own money. 

JC Yes. And I already had involved a community, right? I had a community involved, we had social work in schools from the neighborhood, where we did shows for the schools. We practically did it for free, and we didn’t receive support from anyone. Nothing. The only support we received was from what we did; we rented the space for events and accommodation and we created artistic residencies, and brought people from the United States to this space, to produce inside this space, so that we could take activities to the community.

So, it’s a crazy double-edged sword, and if you don’t know how to work it right, you end up cutting yourself, and then there is the first cut, you see the blood and you say, “No, I don’t want this for myself anymore.” And then we were basically screwed. We had already taken a big blow, but we took a big blow for now and then we stopped to look and we said, “No, let’s settle down and think about the future and produce again later.” I’m the kind of guy who is an entrepreneur and I like to create things and invest in things. If it doesn’t work out, I create it again and I’ll see where it goes. So, my dream is to start a circus school, so it’s crazy to be able to buy a circus big top, put together a team to build it, but it’s a need. Before I thought I wanted to do this in Salvador, but Salvador has three schools, two circus schools, one in UFBA with a space… Then I thought, why didn’t I think about my city? which currently doesn’t have anything there. We do have the second largest theater in Bahia in Camaçari, we have Cidade do Saber, which the Workers’ Party brought to Camaçari with Luiz Carlos Caetanos’ management. It’s a copy of Cidade do Saber, which is in France as well. He brought it to Camaçari. So, this has also changed the cultural character of the city, but not as much. Let me put it this way: I started a business in Camaçari with Capvara the Clown. Capvara has always been a business. Capvara has always been a business and has never been an artist, because to be an [individual state registered] artist, it was so bureaucratic get the DRT [registration] that I said, “No, why do I need the DRT to prove I’m an artist?” It’s better to be CNPJ [a small business] to prove I’m an artist and be my own businessman. And I do it, because if it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t have any direction. And it's still difficult, it hasn't reached the pinnacle of art or the payback/reward, but it's uplifting to me. Whenever I think about producing, I [feel proud that I] made this happen, you know? I was with that person, I [helped make] that person who they are today. I have two Colombian friends. Their first performance was an incredible hair hanging performance. They put on their first public performance in our space [House of Sustainable Arts] and recently they tagged me on Facebook saying they had won a very big prize in Dubai, and for me that was like…

JA They are reaching the world with that act now. 

JC Yes, with that act, with that show! So for me, it was gratifying. Well, I did it! I helped in their process of becoming big, but my process still isn’t big yet, you know? 

JA But I think that’s what makes you an artist, because you have this impulse to create, you know? 

RB Of course.

JC Yes.

JA Despite the conditions, this is what becomes an artist with minimal resources. And really it is the autonomy, even without resources, that I think defines the artistic process, because when…

RB It’s freedom. 

JA Yes. Because when you get mixed in with the bureaucracy, you don’t have…

RB …the freedom to create…

JA …or to express yourself. 

RB Exactly, yes… I believe that people learn from their own mistakes and that the government will somehow reflect upon these aspects. We now have a golden opportunity, because you have people who are interested in culture within the federal government. And there is a whole discussion now about the development model of cities and the country, which is deeply linked to the creative economy. So there is even a financial interest behind it. But the government needs to limit the bureaucracy, it needs to simplify it. And at the same time, these policies need to be controlled more and more by peers who produce. Because those who produce [culture and art] are the ones who really know and understand what does or does not make sense for you to issue an invoice, not the bureaucrats from Brasilía [capital of Brazil].  The people who produce are the ones who know what happens here or there. So you have to de-bureaucratize. You have to make the digital process of accounting/invoicing and reimbursements much better. You have to put people who practically understand production to evaluate the accounting process and establish protocols and parameters so that all of this is approved by the Court of Auditors and the Judiciary.

JA Jonatas, you touched on a topic that I wanted to hear more about. You said you the Northeast doesn’t have the habit of occupying public squares and watching a show. But I have seen you perform many times in public squares. So, I wanted to talk about this occupation of public spaces by artists who I know more in the Bahian context, but I’d like to hear more examples from São Paulo too. 

JC I don’t know if this was the case in São Paulo as well, but in Bahia, I believe that for a long time the government suppressed street artists from being able to work and have their activities in public squares. There is this difficulty, yes, and particularly in Bahia. Most of the times that I performed or did an activity—we call street performances “rodas”—it was communicated with the government. Never once did I do an intervention or an occupation. I scheduled it every time. I requested the space for my performance or event. And the two times I went… all my stuff was detained, so…

JA You were beaten once, too. 

JC I was beaten by the police, also due to being and performing in a [public] space. But what I find interesting about this is the majority of the times I was performing in the street, there was no audience. Maybe that’s what Jamie is trying to get at…

JA You create your audience!

JC And then you need a [specific] joke that the American clown, Avner the Eccentric, says, which is getting a “yes.” Everyone [in the crowd] is always so quick to say “no,” because they know you [the clown] will put them in an embarrassing situation, such as stopping them in a public square and staring at them. People [in the square] will say, “No, I’m leaving.” So, what you’re looking for is a “yes.” And that “yes” will be direct, you will be direct, you’ll say to them: “I want you here.” You will say “yes” and boom, there’s no “no,” because their “no” has been nullified, and you are here. So, I started to create a “yes” routine [when performing my clown act]. And what does this “yes” routine entail? Watching people and seeing the exchange of glances they give me. So, once they have exchanged glances with me and I have understood that exchange of glances, I have already made a joke here, and like a novel, I am creating a story until that person is stuck and stays for what will come later, which is the show. And then it’s a matter of hunting, one by one. Once you have 10, it’s a big play. Make those 10 make the noise of 1,000. Applaud, shout. Then people passing by across the street will join in and think, “I want to know why they are making noise.” And that’s how you form a demonstration, it’s using a little, just a little, to create a loud voice, and this loud voice will grow into a big crowd. It’s a strategy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes a dog appears—

JA —or a drunk—

JC Or a drunk, and saves it. I have a very Christian idea about my show. Wherever there is one, two or three will gather to see Capvara the Clown. 

RB You are there. 

JC I will be present. 

JA And Ruy, do you have any experiences watching or studying a group or occupying streets? How are they received? 

RB So, undoubtedly when you work, for example, with a political mobilization movement in the culture area, there is confrontation with the government, because normally what you do is, for example, what the Cultural Workers’ Movement [Movimento de Trabalhadores da Cultura] did for a long time was occupy public buildings, like the famous occupation of the Funarte de São Paulo building. Meaning, you have to force a situation of negotiation or present an agenda that is not being recognized because… what Jonatas is saying is that the rule in Brazilian society is to say what the rule is. It’s a government that suppresses whatever it considers to not be in compliance with the law. So, it’s not like you have the conditions for people to do it within the boundaries of the law. You are already dealing with a negation. You don’t have those conditions, but still you suppress anyone who is willing to enter into law or wants to present one, for example. Why do you want to put on a show in a public square? You want to enter into law? Did you inform us of what you will be doing? Did you ask for permission? And so on and so forth. And still the government’s hand will reprimand you. It’s because this is the government’s first instinct, to establish a very clear border between formal and informal, legal and illegal, between what you can do and what you can’t do, and it only knows the language of political violence, of police suppression. So, this is the rule. So, what you normally do when you think about a political movement for a cultural worker or cultural producer is to try to expand this limit and make this border more permeable. How do you make this border more permeable? By passing public policies. That is, you have to make the government recognize that it doesn’t provide you with the conditions needed to produce. However, the government will refrain from suppressing whatever is feasible as much as possible. It will invest in the production, training, space, it will invest in urban infrastructure, in building a public square, a theater, etc. That is, you have to force the government to react, to respond not with their first instinct, which is suppression and political violence, but with negotiated public policies, despite how hard it is, despite the costs of occupation and building vacancies and things like that. Because it’s about that too, but nowadays there is an accumulation, in my opinion, in São Paulo city, for example. Although it’s different now than when I did field research in this area, which is a solidarity economy behind those artistic and cultural production projects. So, for example, there are already artists cooperatives today, theater companies, music groups, slam poets. You now have artistic producers who create associations. At the same time, if they associate, when they form these cooperatives or associations, it becomes easier for the government to recognize them. It’s easier for them to gain this recognition, because there is already a law in place, there is already a legal form that incorporates and takes into account these artists’ existence. There is a division of labor, of professionalization. So, the companies already have people who are accountable or who make contacts or who have a contact within the Secretary of State for Culture of São Paulo. There is a transit there and that guarantees that the government will not suppress artists and, eventually, it may even invest in projects and things like that.

JA It seems to me like it’s a process of democratization, right, and it needs government representatives to change the policies that are happening right now to people from the periphery who are occupying spaces in the municipal, state, and federal governments. This is what could change politics to serve the people, right? I have one more question: what is the social function of art? We talked a lot about money and resources, but what about the social function?

JC I think art is a huge political tool and I think if an artist manages to get visibility with their work, then they have a huge role in society. And art has a role to play. For example, a musician’s role is to put lyrics to a melody. We talked earlier about rap and the importance it has today in São Paulo’s music scene. It’s the same thing with samba in Rio de Janeiro and the idea of maintaining culture, right? The peripheral culture that we know samba comes from, it comes from the periphery, and it’s one of the things that connects people. 

The funny thing is, rap and samba are in the same vein. Rap comes from samba. Samba has the bem bolado, which is the faster rhymes which comes from the [tradition of using] boxes of matches and the guys do an exchange of rhymes. And that was made for the peripheral community, it was a singular space, a single moment of distraction, of absorption, of hearing a new word. So, that’s how I see art, when speaking about music. Music has this potential to put lyrics [to a melody]. The circus, in my case, already has a certain artist who will talk directly to an audience and will make a greater political commentary—the clown. The clown has also had an important political history since the beginning of the early centuries, right? For the jester, the king was someone he could ridicule. So, clowns have placed an important role in talking to society and showing that royalty could be ridiculed. 

So, that’s how I see art. It plays a huge political role, and this role involves sharing information, and I also think art is calming, it makes people calmer, it’s like a deep exhale, a medicine that we need to treat this human exhaustion. You need to either make art or observe and absorb it; so that everyone in society is benefited. 

JA Ruy, do you have any reflections?

RB No, I agree. Jonatas emphasized two dimensions that I think are very present in any definition of art, which are the matter of power… art that challenges power and the matter of reflection. Art makes you think and reflect. At the root of it, the drive that art expresses is the drive of negation. For example, an artist can say, “Look, this isn’t a drinking glass,” despite an object having the shape of a glass and having been made and used like a glass. An artist will say, “I’m going to show you it isn’t a glass.” And so an artist can take it apart and put it back together and say, “No, this is a sculpture, this is a doll, this is something else and isn’t what you think it is.” I mean, the role of art functions to reframe by deconstruction. And upon deconstructing something, it questions established hierarchies and limitations. It questions structures of power, economic structures, structures that were historically built by conflicts and social conflicts and can be rebuilt in another way. So, art is this negative drive that points toward the future, meaning it exploits those limits and transforms those limits anew, and in this sense, it’s essentially utopian. That is, art speaks to something that is present in that moment but not completely developed. So this drinking glass, which is a potential sculpture, which is a doll, which is a kid’s toy, is not fully developed and the artist develops its potential. And to me, this is the most fascinating thing in the artistic world. This constant quest to transcend, to go beyond, to negate that which exists. There is a limit, and [the artist] ensures this limit is surpassed and thought about in other ways and re-envisioned. In short, I agree that it is a little like nature, the essence of art. 

JA Beautiful. 

JC I also get this idea of “giving the kid the drinking glass,” and it made me reflect on the following: art is very much a child’s process. So, I think that all artists have to have an infantile side, a childish side, in order to develop their process and their artistic side. I see that both in music and in the visual arts. I often see this “child,” even in my own performances. It’s a child, Capvara the Clown is a child, it’s that playfulness. And you play with your own infancy and transform it into an artistic process. So, that’s how I see it. All artists have a child-like essence when they begin to think about and create their artwork. That's the imagination of a child when a child takes a lifeless toy and makes it a car with a motor or when a child takes a drinking glass and gives it little arms and makes it a doll. So, this is a process of regression and becoming a child again. 

JA I have the pleasure and ability to imagine. Art imitates life, but it also projects other possible lives. Wonderful! Friends, we have arrived at the end of our conversation. Would you like to share anything else?

JC I’m so glad Ruy could join  us. This was my first time on the podcast as well. I think we had a great conversation. It was great to have this dialogue from both sides of society. 

JA From two sides of Brazil. 

JC And from two sides of Brazil: the Southeast and the Northeast. It has been very gratifying for me to hear your experiences and your point of view. So thank you so much for today. Thank you Jamie as well for giving me the space. 

JA Finally!

RB I also wanted to say thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you both. It has been a great pleasure, my dear friends. 

Palhaço Capvara performing at the Municipal Theater Alberto Martins in his hometown of Camaçari, Bahia, Brazil, 2014