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Art & Social Space
PerCursos Urbanos: A conversation with MESA collective
by Clarissa Diniz

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Mountain-city, virus and massage on circuits: Interview with the Mediación de Saberes colective.

Brazil is often featured on the international news due to its jarring social imbalances, which are evidenced in the country’s income distribution, education and violence indexes. Conversely, it is also portrayed –and not occasionally— as a culture of hybridization, in some cases understood as a culture bursting with social harmony. Side by side with all its differences, it is common to see Brazil’s image touted as a land of congregation and harmony. This complexity of perspectives provides fertile ground for creating nation-specific art, whose experiments and thoughts have created forces as fundamental asthe idea of anthropophagy, the social and political implications of which continue to reverberate intensely. The Brazilian socio-cultural context –after being the crux of various events and artworks, among them Helio Oiticica’s invitation to witness the Mangueira Samba School at the opening of the Opinión 65 exhibition at Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM) – thus remains an “issue” for art.

At the outset of the twenty-first century, however, one can see significant changes in the strategies devised by different projects and work focusing on social issues that continue to be of concern and to inspire action. Although in the past a kind of “countercultural confrontation” was perpetrated by many Brazilian artists –such as Flavio de Carvalho’s walking counter to the flow of a Catholic procession (Experiencia n.2, 1931), the “encounter between the favela and the MAM” orchestrated by Oiticica (1965), or the burning of live hens promoted by Cildo Meireles (Tiradentes: tótem-monumento al preso político, 1970) –today we can see a certain “popularization” of methods that are eminently more collaborative and can strategically form links between the various agencies of society, their members and the public authorities. Throughout Brazil artists and collectives are thus committing themselves to the arena of social struggles and tensions by exploring unorthodox strategies that are far removed from the guerilla methodologies used during the period of repression. Similarly, they seek to invent other forms of political action, mindful of the complexity and socio-cultural ambiguity of culture –and art— at this stage of capitalism and globalization.

The Mediación de Saberes* (MESA – Mediation on Forms of Knowing) group deserves special mention in that field. Formed in 2003 in the city of Fortaleza (Ceará), it views its work as “an approach to cultural design”: “MESA’s most recurrent strategy has been to draw up proposals for tackling socio-cultural problems and finance them through government agencies. Apartheid and the confinement that pervade the city have prompted the group to focus on micro-political approaches that take shape through non-demagogic situations for social interaction”. Working in multiple spheres of the social environment, MESA approaches the field of art as a promising space for transversal proposals, such as the Narrativas alrededor del fuego (Narratives around fire) –“involving a listening approach over an extended period, in which a person talks to people gathered around a fire for as long as he/she wants, without interruptions, telling stories they lived through or witnessed.” Recorridos Urbanos (Urban Tours): are trips conducted every week for the past nine years, on a bus that could be mistaken for any other city bus. On each occasion, a different topic, itinerary and mediator add different layers of meaning and memories”. It is on the basis of those two projects and by discussing important aspects of MESA’s work – such as the notions of collectivity, knowing, mediation, communication, public space, institution, aesthetic experience, provision of services, etc. – that the following topics are broached.

The following is an interview with Julio Lira and Thais Montero, members of MESA.

Clarissa Diniz: Let’s start with the name Mediación de Saberes: it contains MESA’s two fundamental lines of work, the concepts of Mediation and Knowing. I’d like you to talk a little about those two basic ideas, and about how you think they relate to a creation. Given that both of you (Julio Lira and Thais Monteiro(1)) have a background in the social sciences –in which relations concerning knowledge and its networks of exchanges perhaps involve other underlying aspects– how do you think the art field can contribute to a mediation on forms of knowing?

MESA: The path of art provides the possibility of a detour, thus resizing the maneuvering space with which we can engage in relations with institutions and the public. It offers an excuse with which we can follow a trail to territories we don’t know and that we barely imagine are there. Although they too are quite strict, the rules governing the world of art seem more flexible than those of the academic world or that of education. The kind of discipline we’re looking for doesn’t stem from a standardized methodology that certifies the quality of the work: our projects turn into a living being with its own demands. They form part of an ecology that requires intersections and negotiations between different fields but paradoxically remains whole, without amputations. In other words, a scientific project is controlled by a community –academia. An art project that we can conceive belongs to several communities, and we, as the caretakers, the maintainers of such organisms, must ensure that that convergence of dialogues provides a richness that is open to the unknown, to risk, and not to a programming determined by one of the networks participating in the project.

CD: Continuing with the idea of knowing: what sort of forms of knowledge are we talking about? Given your interest in the field of cognition, and aware of the role of “knowledge” (and its consequent “transmission”) in the work of MESA –which is already contained in its name, but is also clearly one of the guiding threads of the Recorridos Urbanos project– can you fill us in more on the nuances behind the concept of “knowing”, on the way you view the relationship between knowledge, thought, perception, sensitivity…?

MESA: By taking the words “Mediation” and “Forms of Knowing” to make the abbreviation MESA, we’re providing clues to what we currently understand by this knowing. A table (“mesa” also means table in Portuguese), a piece of furniture used for gatherings, celebrations and work, speaks of horizontal relations in which the depth of one speaker invites that of another, where places can keep growing, always making room for others. And in this process of opening up we’ve gone much further than bookish knowledge. We’ve listened closely to gardeners, carpenters, cowboys, prostitutes, transvestites, musicians, farmers, all of whom are passionate about hundreds of different subjects and willing to sit with us to share –perhaps more than contents—their moods. They also share an enthusiasm that makes them almost distance themselves from the rest of the world to devote themselves like monks to occupations that few other people ever understand. We often enter homes, studios or workplaces like someone entering an isolated castle, removed from the rest of society. Listening to a seventy-year-old woman singing the anthem that hundreds of people sang in the sixties during a land occupation in the city of Fortaleza brings us closer together. A book or a recording can never retransmit that shared look of recognition, that sensation of pins and needles on the skin, that caring attitude that a memory commonly inspires. Reflection and memory -just like a virus, we let them spread.

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