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Wednesday 10/16

Museum=World

by Guilherme Wisnik, Curator of the Tenth São Paulo Architecture Biennial, Translated by Gillian Sneed
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Demonstrators protest in Congress against spending on the World Cup, poor public services, police violence, and government corruption, June 17, 2013. Photo: Valter Campanato/Agencia Brasil

IDEAS CITY explores the future of cities around the globe with the belief that arts and culture are essential to the vitality of urban centers, making them better places to live, work, and create. IDEAS CITY: São Paulo is organized by the New Museum in partnership with SESC Pompeia, and takes place simultaneously with the Tenth São Paulo Architecture Biennial, October 25–27, 2013. Guilherme Wisnik, Chief Curator of the Biennial and architectural historian, will be moderating the Conference’s first panel on Saturday October 26: “Whose Downtown is it?: Colonizing, Conceptualizing, Capitalizing.” In line with the Architecture Biennial’s theme—“City: Ways of making, ways of using,” which aims to “to raise awareness regarding the city and its numerous dimensions and scales, considering how its construction and design are produced, as well as the various ways its inhabitants use and appropriate it”—Wisnik explores the relationship between exhibitionary forms and urban dynamics in the following essay.

In his 1966 text “Programa Ambiental [Environmental Program],” Hélio Oiticica conceptualized his art—or anti-art—as something that does not rely on representation and contemplation, but only exists through the active engagement of the viewer, who then becomes a participant in the work. Oiticica not only collected everyday objects and declared them works of art, but also extended this “practice of appropriation” to fixed elements, such as “vacant lots, fields, [and] the ambient world,” in a process that would essentially depend on public participation.1 What would it mean to deliver what Oiticica described as a “fatal blow to the concept of the museum, art gallery…and to the very concept of exhibition”?2 Following this train of thought, he uttered the now famous phrase: “The museum is the world: daily experience.”3

Oiticica’s “fatal blow” materialized as Bólide Lata-fogo [Can Fire Fireball] (1966)—a piece in which he anonymously placed blazing kerosene canisters, usually used to signal road work, in vacant city lots at night. According to Oiticica, this represented a truly public work within the context of Brazil, a country where, historically, neither squares nor parks have effectively supported a public sphere.

Demonstrators take over one side of the Rodovia Presidente Dutra, one of the country’s main highways, during a protest in São José dos Campos, June 20, 2013. Photo: Semilla Luz

Today, four and a half decades after Bólide Lata-fogo, it is fair to say that the boundaries between art and life continue to dissolve, now more rapidly than ever. Art, no longer restricted to specific consecrated spaces such as museums and galleries, can be situated anywhere. It seems to me that though the assertion “The museum is the world” is still valid and current, the corresponding inverse is even more important: now, the world is also a museum. That is to say, in an increasingly globalized world dominated by the service economy—in which tourism and cultural activities play a key role—we are witnessing the museumification of cities. In my view, the non-places and the predominance of the spectacle in the generic contemporary city have a leveling effect and induce a kind of aphasia—the antithesis of the vacant lot pointed to by Oiticica. In contrast to the generic city, the wild terrain vague [wasteland] of the vacant lot, although barren by nature, is endowed with a latent power of transformation.

One could say that the desacralization of art—the fatal blow to the museum, set in motion by modernity—reached its radical climax in the 1960s, when art turned to everyday experiences that seemed entirely governed by aesthetic principles. However, the sacrilegious, transgressive equalization between museum and world—between representation and action—seems to have ended, at least for the time being, with a fatal blow to the concept of the world. Though obviously different from the artistic appropriation of empty city spaces imagined by Oiticica, today, the world has been appropriated, arrogated entirely by consumerism and spectacle.

How, then, are these reflections manifested in the Tenth São Paulo Architecture Biennial? Conscious of these questions, we opted to create exhibitions that deal with urban dynamics rather than isolated buildings, addressing the open relationship between design and use. Hence the title: “City: ways of making, ways of using,” which evokes the increasingly urgent and contemporary need for new “ways to take action.” The recent mass protests in Brazil’s streets—demanding both reduced public transportation fares and increased ethics in politics—demonstrates that the development of a true public sphere depends upon mobility of the people, a refusal of the museumification of cities, and a challenge to society’s preference for exchange value over use value. Today, clear signs indicate that Brazilians are fed up with receiving the so-called “benefits” of the “spectacle of growth”—to quote former President Lula—which is only achieved through consumerism, with policies that increase mortgages and provide unlimited incentives for car production. We went to the streets to demand our rights as citizens—the right to a quality public transport system and the right to experience the city in other, new ways. Those who crossed the Marginal Pinheiros Highway and the Estaiada Bridge on foot, or who saw images of the beautiful, unusual procession through these inhospitable places, might think of these social experiences—social protests—as new appropriations of public space. It is actions like these that begin to trigger the de-museumification of urban space.

When we decided to bring the Bólide Lata-fogo to the Architecture Biennial and juxtapose it with transgressive works by Oiticica’s contemporaries—artist Cildo Meireles and architects Lina Bo Bardi, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, and Vilanova Artigas—we did so with the hope that stirring up an architectural debate and reintroducing art from this influential period of dissent would reinvigorate contemporary practices. Against this background, we are willing to bet that Bólide Lata-fogo will find the current winds favorable and burn again.

Originally published in Portuguese under the title “Mundo=museu” in Bamboo n. 27, August 2013.


1 Hélio Oiticica, “Position and Program,” in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson eds., Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999), 9.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

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