After the first meeting of 'The Autonomy Project' at the Van Abbe Museu in Eindhoven (www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en), I caught up with Van Abbe Director, Manchester City supporter (and all round good egg) Charels Eshe and asked him for some thoughts on Big JR. Being from Manchester (or a 'Manc' as we call those of the Manchester persuasion here in the UK - Alistair Hudson is one too) Charles' first memories of Ruskin were associated with his influence on 'News from Nowhere' and other 19th Century radical free press. It is also interesting that Charles also saw some parallels between Ruskin's struggle with the aesthetics/ethics question and the difficulties of making a meaningful socially engaged practice in today's neo-liberal economy. Charels also has some very interesting things to say on the show he would work on with Ruskin - should the big man himself come back to work with us today.
Today's blog entry is a video diary as I sit in an Eindhoven Hotel waiting for a meeting at the Van Abbe Museum (www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en) about the coming launch of 'The Autonomy Project' which I've been working on for nearly two years with Charles Esche, Annie Fletcher, Steven Ten Thije and Clare Butcher.
I've been thinking a lot about what Alistair has been saying in this Sao Paulo blog entries about the difficulty of meaningfully engaging as an artists without collapsing innovative work back into the pre-requisite formulae of international Biennial Land (or Airport Art as I call it). It's a tough one and no doubt!
But it also strikes me that any questions over the possibility of autonomy today are no longer circumscribed by bankrupt Modernist debates about 'self-referentiality', or 'art for art's sake. Nor can they be sustained in the aftermath of an equally bankrupt postmodernism without some radical re-negotiation. What does remain is the question of how to be an artist, thinker, writer, curator, teacher or whatever meaningfully? How to develop a practice within the existing globalized neo-liberal economy that can still function in an oppositional sense? How to negotiate new perspectives on better ways of living? All of these seem questions that were (and still are) rooted in the problematic of John Ruskin's complex relationship between art, aesthetics and ethics?
I recently caught up with Alistair Hudson in Manchester after we'd given a presentation on 'Creative Partnerships' at Manchester Museum. In a state of some despair, brought on mainly by experiencing an update on the turf wars in UK Arts and Education Funding (which seem to be increasingly blighting the possibility of cultural experiment) Alistair took us to his family's favourite Chinese Restaurant. After eating the hottest food I have ever had in my life - a really funky Szechwan Black Pudding and various forms of Offal Soup - debate turned, as always to Big JR. Alistair went on to elucidate on the complex relationship between Grizedale and Ruskin, between Grizedale and the world and the possibility of Ruskin Returning as a Cultural Hoody stalking the self-satisfied debates over art, ethics and social engagement (Oh, and the X Factor too).
Grizedale regular Wapke Feenstra (www.wapke.nl) reads out her favorite Ruskin quotation from 'The Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art'. According to Wapke, Ruskin reads the paintings he is talking about from a peculiarly British viewpoint and, in doing so, completely misses their point (form a Dutch perspective of course). Was this just another case of a Victorian Englander attempting to apply his world view to everything? - no change there then I hear you say!
However, whilst I was listening to Wapke read her quote (and it is her favorite Big John quote) there does seem to be a sweeping confidence in Ruskin's assertions - kinda hard not side with him on some levels. He talks of the Landscape containing a human element that can't be denied - and that would weaken art by its absence. I can't help beginning to thinking of him as some kind of Victorian moralist crossed with Simon Cowell, an ethical critic running his informed but detached eye over the runners and riders in the new business of art. In view of Alistair's recent adventures in Sao Paulo, there seems a crucial importance here. How could one even begin to conceive of a contemporary global landscape without the immediate necessity to confront the ethical as well as the aesthetic? Despite all this, It's hard not to agree with Wapke's conclusions though....
In the evening we go to see the boxer Jesus Carlos. Jesus Carlos runs a gym, boxing school and library under a flyover. He too has a mission. In Sao Paulo the spaces under the numerous concrete flyovers are a honey pot of vice, drugs and violence. Jesus Carlos has taken on the task himself of changing the society that surrounds him by establishing open air gymnasia where once there was pile of trash - in every sense.
He wants to get the wasted souls off the streets and through physical exercise and education, turn the drug addicts and gang members into citizens of healthy mind and body. Jesus prides himself on the fact that he has done this himself, without aid from the government, just with good will and determination. He calls his mission Human Recycling.
He has now established two gyms and we go to see the latest first. Sandwiched between two roads, it is transparent and open to the elements on all sides, save for a fence and the roof above provided by the freeway. There is a boxing ring, homemade exercise equipment and punch bags made from gas canisters and fridges and of course the library. This started when the kids started to bring their homework along and grew into a library to expand the minds of all its members.
Opposite the gym is a small park where the drug dealers and prostitutes make their trade. He wants to turn this area into a communal allotment, but this may take some time. Recently one of the dealers came over to kill Carlos for taking away his clients, but he didn't succeed of course; Carlos, with the looks of a Tarrantino star, is hard as nails and doesn't give up.
Whilst we talk to him there is a commotion going on over at the park; flashing lights, police, a child in handcuffs. This is the first meeting I've had in the middle of a drugs bust.
Afterwards we go to the first Gym, which is much bigger, under a bigger fly-over. It is now dark and cinematic in the sodium glow of the lighting. At the entrance, a a gap in the chain link fence, there is a reception desk made from junk furniture. The whole thing is like ghetto Edward Acland, nothing wasted and piles of spare, saved materials stacked up in neat piles. Here there are two boxing rings, extensive gym (with gas bottles and rocks for weights) a skate park, another library with lounge area and even a few tents for the eager. Now, evening the place is busy, maybe 50 or more people working out, reading, watching TV or doing spectacular stunts on BMX on the skate ramps. It looks like it's doing it's job.
Calos wants to go on. He wants a gym and library under every flyover in Brazil. He wants it to become a free university for the underclass. That's a long way off, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happened.
The parallels with the Mechanics Institute (both here and at UNAS) are direct and startling, inspirational. But the real question is how we work with all this stuff. What do we make for the Bienal that doesn't just fall into the trap of Bienality and just pointing at all this stuff, like the first colonists drawing and measuring every plant and animal and native they clapped their eyes on.
Jesus Carlos is already well known - even the AA are coming to see him for a summer school fro crying out loud.
If you are reasonably comfortable in Brazil you go to private school, if not you go to the state schools, which by all accounts are a lost cause - or you will be if you go to one.
Around town you can spot the private school kids - all white in freshly pressed coloured t-shirt and shorts, in an orderly line in a park, museum or cultural centre. The rest are hanging out, playing football in the street or at least not so visible.
The school in Heliopolis is the culmination of the self helping, self organising spirit that pervades the shanty town. The head is relaxed and casual but a man on a mission. In 1999 a 16 year old girl pupil was murdered on her way home, shot five times. He tells how, on his way out of the morgue, he decided that things had to change, that the school should take responsibility and take a leadership role in the community. In effect that that the moral reconstruction of the favella should start with the children and they in turn would lead Heliopolis in a new direction.
The first statement back then was to hold a Peace March through the streets, to lay down their intent. This now happens every year, but it is in the day to teaching that the work is really done.
We are taken on a tour of the school which now has an attached cultural and science centre - a communal place for the development of the mechanical arts - science, art, theatre and so on. In the main classroom there are over 100 children, a giant of a class. But they are seated in clusters of six each around a table and serviced by about 4 or so teachers. The tables break off into smaller rooms to work on a project and then come back to the main class to feed back and teach the others what they have learned. In this Q & A the children are sharp and witty, but also quiet and all well behaved. It is impressive to see a school working well, not just as a place of education, but also as a social model.
Another facet of the UNAS project is a kind of school house for children out of school that prioritises kids from difficult backgrounds, abusive or violent homes or learning difficulties. This schoolhouse/poorhouse works to equip the children of Heliopolis with the skills to operate in society and instill an ethical framework in the community.
One example we are shown is a project for the children to create and design machines that make for better living in the favella, such as litter collecting machines. This project is heavily sponsored by Lego. If you were of a cynical bent you would think this is part of an extensive global marketing strategy, but I'd like to believe that there is an interesting reworking of Victorian industrial altruism at play here.
In a Q and A session with the children it is clear what the real value of Britsh Culture is, when the first question is "Do you know Beckham".
Next stop to the fevella's own community radio station, run by volunteers and broadcasting 6.00 am to midnight every day. The station is run on a shoestring budget, often earning an income through advertising or exchange. They recently aquired a sofa for the studio in exchange for 3 months of free advertising for the sofa shop.
The most popular music is of course a hybrid of tradtional and R&B and everything else. Sao Paulo is basically a city created by immigration, feeding its voracious growth. Music, along with football, is their greatest mode of expression.
Jeremy and I are interviewed on air and we are inreasingly feeling like Prince Charles on tour.
First stop in Heliopolis is to vist the UNAS library, this was the beginning of the project. The library is run for the community with all the books donated by the public. The books are lent on a trust basis, with no membership scheme. The library also hosts book clubs, poetry and rap nights.
The most popular books are from the philosophy section.
Tuesday, day two, and in at the deep end. Jeremy and I are taken to Heliopolis, Sao Paulo's largest and poorest favella; a jerry built shanty town of 125,000 people with a badass reputation to match. We are warned not to take photographs in the street as the whole district is run by the drug barons who might object to any pictures that might reveal the mechanics of their trade. And we don't want to look like stupid tourists.
We are here to meet the people who run UNAS a social project to educate and improve the outlook of the citizens of Heliopolis.
Interestingly the favella is doesn't come across as the murderous midden heap one is lead to believe but an amazing example of a self organising society. Throughout it's rambling, crumbling streets are all the shops, restaurants and services you would hope to have in a town, albeit self governed by the druglords.
UNAS is exactly what we needed to see, a contemporary version of a Victorian Mechanics Institute, spread throughout a number of ramshackle buildings across the town - library, sports hall, radio station, schoolhouse and so on. UNAS emerged from the vision of one man and has spread to become the ethical backbone of the community.
In what is perhaps the equivalent of the poorhouse the children work on projects (with Lego Technical) to provide electronic/robotic solutions to communal problems, like litter collection or hygiene. John Ruskin would be most enthused.
Monday afternoon after a good lunch in the park we meet the education team. Carlo shows us a map of the city and explains that education is the make or break of the 2010 Bienal. In 2008 it got a bad name for being closed off and disconnected from the city folk. Not helped by the fact that as a concept a whole floor of the Bienal was left empty, which was subsequently raided by graffiti aritsts.
To answer this they have set a target for 2010 to have 400,000 to take part in the education programme (the overall headcount for each Bienal is 1 million. For this they are recruiting somewhere in the region of 300 education staff.
School children from across the ciy will be bussed in and out, class rooms built and the army of art teachers put to work to shape the Paulinos of the future.
In the evening we go for a quick drink in a residency programme set up by Helmut from Rio in another Niemeyer apartment block, meeting other artists and checking out the cool blue bathroom.
Then onto a Japanese restaurant to do some top drawer sushi. Sao Paulo has the oldest and largest Japanese community (ever) with over 2 million resident.
The task of making a meaningful statement in a city you don't know is bad enough. Making a meaningful statement in a city you don't know and has a population of around 16 million is a bit worse. And seeing as it has an exhibition venue to match adds a little icing on the top of that problem too.
We are shown around the empty Bienal exhibition building which is like three Turbine Halls together. And that's just one floor of three. All beautifully done by Mr Niemeyer of course.
This is the first of a number of dispatches from Sao
I'm here with Jeremy Deller to develop a project with him for the Sao Paulo Bienal this coming September. It came out the project we were working on for the Whitworth Ruskin show, a film by Jeremy on the wrestler Adrian Street, which has a lot to say on the Ruskinian themes of education, social development, craft, labour, industry, ethics, aesthetics and self improvement.
Adrian was born into a coal mining family in south wales, but escaped this life through bodybuilding, costume making and wrestling, transforming himself in to The Queen Bitch of Pro Wrestling. He now lives (aged 68 and still wrestlng) in LA, running a cottage industry in wrestling costume production.
The plan is to combine this with a rethinking and reworking of the victorian Mechanics Institute and make it work in the context of the Bienal and Sao Paulo.
website design & build by theusefularts.org.