“Uncertainty is over,” declared Brazilian president Michael Temer after Dilma Roussef’s impeachment, a week before the opening of Incerteza Viva, the 32nd São Paulo Bienal. Temer’s presidency, however, only further fueled political unrest, as protests and occupations continue to roil Brazil. I went to the Bienal in late October with my Princeton art history class, replacing American election-related tensions with Brazilian angst. At the time, anti-government protests were escalating in Venezuela and South Korea, the Colombian FARC peace deal had failed, and Trump was dangerously close to the American presidency. In my world, it seemed, uncertainty was far from over.
Conversations about political polarization pervaded Brazil. During my first morning in Brazil, I sat sketching in the open-roofed solarium of Okupe Jardins hostel and began talking to Paulo, a young hostel employee with close-cropped hair. We spoke about our unexpectedly similar lives as young people on the brink of political uncertainty.
Our conversation was tinged with undertones of urgency and desperation. Paulo’s frustration at the increase of religiously-grounded inhumanity rang clear as he told me of a case where a young rape victim had died after being imprisoned for attempting to get an abortion. We discussed the loss of measured, fact-based debate and the explosion of money and special-interest lobbying in politics. When it was time to leave the hostel, I swallowed my frustration and moved forward to immerse myself in Paulistan life and art.
As a response to layers of political and social uncertainty, the concept of mutirão, or collective work, threaded through Incerteza Viva and São Paulo itself. In the Bienal’s affecting video triptych Work Songs, Leon Hirszman documented rural workers during the apex of Brazil’s military dictatorship singing collectively as they performed the tasks of constructing clay houses and harvesting cocoa and cane sugar. Your shout is beautiful, they affirmed, step on the jua pit! The songs and narration from each video bled into the others, creating an improvisational atmosphere punctuated by the rhythm of the workers’ repeated actions. Born as a salve for slaves’ brutal labor and likely sung by their descendants, these works songs embodied the benefits of communal identity and warned of its imminent disappearance.
Outside the Bienal, I saw São Paulo’s own activist network affirm the positive power of mutirão in real time. During the opening of the Bienal, artists marched through the building in t-shirts reading Fora Temer (Get out, Temer), creating improvised chants against the new president. On our second day in the city, we visited a housing occupation, where activists had united the night before to reclaim abandoned urban spaces for people who are homeless or displaced from their homes in the gentrifying city. Paulistano politics were rife with different factions who struggled to reorganize the city’s urban space for their own ends.
Emblematic of this tension was the Minhocão or “big worm,” an elevated flyover that cut through the heart of São Paulo and a symbol of widespread housing displacement. Constructed during the military dictatorship, the Minhocão remains a site of political tension, painted with signs like Temer Jamais (Never Temer) as politicians debate whether to turn it into a Brazilian High Line, guaranteeing the gentrification of neighboring low-income communities. At the Bienal, Rossa Barba’s film Disseminate and Hold revolved around the Minhocão, focusing on the history of human intervention in the process of urbanization. My own walk through the Minhocão at dusk was uncanny–buildings crumbled on each side of the flyover, while runners and skateboarders zipped by on their evening jogs and hangouts.
What seemed like detached study of a nation in political turmoil soon manifested all too clearly in my own life. A day after I returned from Brazil, Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States. Late at night, staining the pages of my journal with hot tears, I wrote “I feel blank. I don’t know what America is…how the problems I read about in the UK and Brazil are real here.” Incerteza Viva seems all too present right now, with pain in unexpected moments and places. As the recent women’s march shows, though, perhaps mutirão can help us tackle these issues in real-time.