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PerCursos Urbanos: A conversation with MESA collective
by Clarissa Diniz

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Clarissa Diniz: There are many examples of collectivity in MESA’s work. Aside from the basic fact that you’re a collective, the projects you carry out are all based on collectivity. In turn, the means of organization and specialization of the works also take shape around a collective body: rounds of talks, collective transport, urban space, collective mapmaking. One can tell that MESA views the idea of collectivity as a notion that extrapolates its customary limitation to the idea of “shared authorship”: it takes shape as a way of operating that you have “defined” using the metaphor of a mucilaginous mold. Could you elaborate on this?

MESA: We’ve never liked metaphors for collectivity. We’ve always been turned off by references to swarms or beehives. Nevertheless, we realized after reading an article on it that there’s an entity –mucilaginous mold- with a rather interesting form of life that seems to sum up the way we view our group relationship. Basically we could say that this organism is made up of single-cell beings that can act either individually or collectively. When they get together, the way they integrate is so sophisticated that they become a single being, with various subsets of individuals that turn into organs that have specific functions. They’re even capable of engaging in a reproductive process in that collective state. In adverse circumstances, such as low humidity, individuals break off their ties andscatter in order to survive independently, and can reunite subsequently. We figured this could serve as a metaphor. We didn’t want to be pressured into keeping people together formally even during contingencies and highly adverse circumstances. Accepting that fluidity means we can calmly face the fact, without feeling we’ve failed, that sometimes the nucleus is made up of more than ten people and other times just three or four. We thus continuously strengthen our bonds through affection, through common desires: we know we’re on the same wavelength, even at a distance, and we occasionally regroup when circumstances permit. Beyond that, since we undertake projects that constantly call for new approaches, we maintain a broader network of collaborators that come into action for specific Tours.

CD: Aside from the mucilaginous mold, another kind of “biologism” can be inferred from Urban Tours and has to do with the idea of the organic functioning of a city, with whose (dis)organizations your project identifies and on which it focuses. Coming as you do from the field of sociology and therefore mindful of the genealogies that you’ve so often sought to impregnate on social systems through norms stemming from biology, I’d like you to comment on the opposing side of that apparent biologism in the thought/work of MESA: how do you view the role of art in the denaturalization of ways of life in society? Do you think art, given its ability to invent, could act as a force for dissent (so often presented as disobedience) against predetermined or limiting ways of life in society? How do you envision -if indeed you agree- that force in MESA’s work?

MESA: There are two topics to reflect on here. A few years ago, while doing research we came across what was then called genetic criticism (now called process criticism). As one aspect of this theory, Philippe Willemart discussed the genesis of literary texts and pinpointed the deletions in manuscripts as the original moment par excellence in which artists, not satisfied with one aspect of the whole, crossed out what they were writing and returned to nothing, to the primordial “kaos”, in search of a sparkling nugget that could replace what they had written. Our interpretation led to a concept for action, which we carried out in conjunction with a poetry group: the Deletion. The city was the text we wanted to change. In Mediation on Forms of Knowing this became clearer, due to the phenomenal amount of readings we were getting throughout the city, since a city is an open hypertext, a living palimpsest that is created and recreated all the time, and each of our interactions served to help rewrite.

For its part, the expression “denaturalization” leads us to a reflection that we’ll try to summarize. In our work Mapas del Miedo (Maps of Fear), in which we tackled the issue of paranoia and public safety –walking around neighborhoods considered to be unsafe after midnight, talking about fear and self-preservation strategies, and creating maps based on legends, photographs and drawings– we realized that tension and the unfamiliar were leading us to a situation that anthropologists seemed to hunger for, of denaturalization, creating a strong aesthetic sensitivity that seemed to imbue streets with an artistic aura. After wandering around the same streets more than once, we started becoming familiar with them, getting used to them, walking with less suspicion, so their aesthetic splendor ceased to exist. The sense of the fantastic was a signal from another world. We realized that the success of our work lay precisely where that sense of the fantastic -that estrangement- ceased to exist, and we could own the city, walk around in it as if we weren’t strangers. Conversations –which we can’t go into here– with indigenous people and jungle dwellers took us to that same place: in such cultures, surprise, fright, is the non-acceptance of never-ending possibilities. Those cultures seem to understand that we should realize that reality can produce apparent absurdities, and accept them with familiarity, without viewing such situations as extraordinary or trying to put an aura around them.

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