Acts of power, Agamben (2010) says, work in separating human beings from both their potentialities (their capacity to do) and their impotentialities (their faculty not to do). Exercising one’s faculty not to do means being able to refuse to follow particular norms the Society and its structures impose. This post discusses briefly the possibility to reclaim this faculty of not doing – to be negligent against those norms themselves – referring to the work of Laboratorio Arti Civiche in Salvador de Bahia (recently presented at the DPU) in the framework of the event Corpocidade 3.
Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme are two informal settlements in Engenho Velho de Brotas, a rather central and very populated bairro of Salvador. They lie respectively at the top and at the bottom of a triangular valley bordered by an urban highway, by a more local but not less important car axis, target of development pressures since it leads to the very close new stadium for the 2014 World Cup, and by a social housing estate built in the 60s, on the South side, somehow protected by a concrete wall topped by a barbed-wire.
The car traffic on the two roads flows not noticing the settlement – one of the many pockets of informality mushroomed inside rather formal tissues in Salvador – while the pedestrians walking on the local one seem to know what is down the valley and to avoid it on purpose. The settlements are actually in a strategic position for the pedestrian connection of the two roads, otherwise separated by a 10 meters difference in altitude: asking around though, nobody suggests to pass inside there – “You’ll have to follow this road until getting out down there, beyond those houses”, basically a 4 kilometres walk instead of a couple of hundred meters shortcut through Vila São Cosme. The tenants of the Social Housing Estate, similarly, say they do know the settlement, and that – why not – they would take part to the activities of our workshop, eventually not showing up. One of them is happy to come with us inside the settlement, curious, and confesses it is the first time in 40 years: “It is a forbidden place, and honestly the more this settlement grows and its houses climb upon the hill, the more serious is the danger for our buildings to fall down on it”. Finally, Lazaro, the leader of the inhabitants’ association of Vila Paraíso, tells us how many of his pupils (he teaches drums and percussions in a community centre nearby) are not allowed by their parents to enter his neighbourhood: he has never had the chance to bring his daily work inside there.
Many visible and invisible borders then, to be profaned (Agamben, 2007) through symbolic actions. The act of profanation according to Agamben is a particular form of negligence that is achieved through playing: the powerfulness of the act of play lies in the fact that it does not undermine the sacredness of the object of play itself, since it works alternatively on only one of the two spheres of the sacred – either on the myth or on the rite. Playing with an informal context such as the one of Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme – with its suspended reality, detached and different from the one of the surroundings – and with its borders, is about creating new shared visions that would allow to open up their environment without losing its (sacred) otherness. The creative act of play is carried on along with the community and translate into a twofold operation , which at the same time re-constructs the myth and enacts it through the rite.
In a collective wordplay (iocus), a mythology of the place is rescued from oblivion, searching, archaeologically (Agamben, 2008), for traces which would testify the evolution of the community and the built environment it created: talking with the inhabitants the monuments of the settlement are found and understood, the story of their construction and evolution is told, and in so doing collective efforts, shared endeavours, historical alliances and rivalries become clear. “Vila São Cosme was born around a source of water and then named after one of the twins Saints Cosmas and Damian… These figures are important in both Christian and Candomblé cults… Their iconography can be found in several spots around the settlement… Around the source of water at some point the family of the most beautiful girl of Salvador had built its house with the swimming pool in which she dived… Several years later the ruins of the pool’s wall became the separation wall between Vila São Cosme and the newborn Vila Paraíso… A hole in the wall was made to reach the water and the two communities started mingling… A fountain was built burying two statues of the Saints in there”. Such fountain was the first monument we met and we asked about, starting from the two oldest ladies from both communities.
Our first rite (physical play, ludus), a baptism into Vila São Cosme and Vila Paraíso, took place there, marking our participation to the daily rite of showering besides the fountain – probably the most important collective space in the settlement, scenario for a key moment of the communities’ everyday life.
The second rite was about sharing food: when we proposed to the communities to do something collectively – searching for an activity that stimulated an interaction between Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme, the inhabitants of the surroundings, and us – their first suggestion was a feijoada (a typical Brazilian dish with beans and meat, often the main course of collective meals, sometimes organised for celebrating the last day of construction of a house, when everybody is helping). The rite of cooking and organising the meal altogether sparked off a great moment of collectiveness: some people told us it had not happened in a while, and that the participation of the whole community, especially of the newcomers, had been hard to achieve lately.
The final rite was about Walking – the most ancient means of symbolic transformation of the territory (Careri, 2002), very usual in the actions of the Laboratorio. A movement from the inside toward the outside, following a child carrying a red thread to lead us out of the labyrinth, tracing an ideal connection between the settlement and the community centre on the top of the hill. And a movement backward, a procession in the form of a drums parade led by the children themselves, until the fountain where everything was born.
These actions certainly could not manage, especially in their very short timeframe, to profane the whole thickness of the borders of Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme: the process of opening up an environment is certainly a long one, and can only start profaning those borders that are inside that context itself. Cooking, talking and walking are rites that should aim to involve everyone: enacting rites is indeed about rediscovering a collective dimension that we know to be latent in many informal contexts, often because of the lack of a shared political commitment, disabled by years of cooptation by political and economic powers.
To play collectively though, there is the need to enter the context and to meet its communities, to get to know them for real: in other words, there is the need to take time for cooking, for walking and for talking a lot in the meantime. To be ready to enjoy wasting some time.
Further than a good chef and a wayfarer though, this post questions the need for the practitioner to become an archaeologist too, to build a mythology of what is usually defined as informal and at the same time, often as a consequence, deemed to be peripheral and marginal. Considering such Peripheries as archives, mapping their monuments and digging into their layers to write their stories, can help in understanding how the space was actually produced, by which actors, and in which relations of power they actually were. This is not simply an effort in understanding the past to forecast possible futures, but at the same time a statement of Centrality (Lefebvre, 1972, 1995; Kipfer et al., forthcoming) for these areas and their daily realities, a statement of their right to be other while at the same time partaking the destiny of the urban whole. Therefore, in approaching environments as Vila Paraíso and Vila São Cosme the first form of negligence must be undertaken against the rhetoric of the forgotten, of the abandoned, of the neglected: we believe that looking at the informal settlements as Monumental, at their genesis as Mythological, at their position as Central, is a necessary and potentially very powerful shift for the current urban studies scholarship and practice.
[the linked videos are by Maria Rocco – Laboratorio Arti Civiche]
Agamben, G. (2007) Profanations. New York, Zone Books.
Agamben, G. (2008) Signatura Rerum. Sul Metodo. Torino, Bollati Boringhieri.
Agamben, G. (2010) On What We Can Not Do. In: Agamben, G., Nudities. California, Stanford University Press.
Careri, F. (2002) Walkscapes: Walking as an aesthetic practice. Barcelona, Gustavo Gili.
Kipfer, S., Saberi, P., Wieditz, T. (forthcoming) Henri Lefebvre: Debates and controversies. Progress in Human Geography, first published onlne May 29, 2012
Lefebvre (1972) La Pensée Marxiste et la Ville. Paris: Casterman.
Lefebvre (1995) The Right to the City. In: Kofman, E., Lebas, E. (eds) Writings on Cities. Oxford: Blackwell.