Learning from Sources: Performance and Climate Crisis in Four Brazilian Works
“Suspended State” by Néle Azevedo
Néle Azevedo’s ephemeral “Suspended State” debuted in São Paulo, Brazil in June 2019. Hanging ice silhouettes were displayed on the street in front of the São Paulo Municipal Theatre. Each one was suspended in its own space-time. They were together, but it looked as though each one was suffering its own meltdown, alone and in silence.
“Suspended State” functions as a poetic attempt to provoke a reaction and sensitize the individual—or the collective—to their fragility. I wish to speak about performance in times of climate and humanitarian crisis, so I am interested in this work as a performance. What is being “performed in “Suspended State?” Slow death, powerlessness, or passivity? Or the impact of global warming that freezes hearts while it destroys the planet? It carries both these meanings and more.
As it often happens, the field of art was anticipating and synthesizing situations that humanity was at the brink of facing. In June 2019, we had no clue of the human tragedy to be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, like these icy figures, we would become distanced, suspended, waiting in uncertainty. That year, many in Brazil watched the multiple burnings in the Pantanal and in the Amazon as logging there accelerated. The art of São Paulo native Néle Azevedo drew attention to this fact: it is not only the planet that is heating up. Lives are also melting in an icy silence, suspended as if in a nightmare in which it seems that movement freezes.
To fight for the preservation of the environment in Brazil quite often involves facing the unbridled violence of those who profit from the destruction of our common home—agrobusiness, real estate interests, mining companies, financial speculators, and their state or para-state representatives. COVID has only created a greater urgency for the need of more collective actions to stop the disasters: the disaster of logging, the disaster of inequality, the disaster of genocide of Indigenous people and of Black people. Brazil’s experience of these disasters is not unique. This scenario has been seen in many Latin American countries, as reflected in the fire reports, logging, and mercury contamination in the Pan-Amazon region.
I have begun this reflection on performance and climate crisis with Suspended State because it poses the question of finality. If the prevailing culture glorifies youth and denies death, fragility, and interdependency, it becomes difficult to live up to the challenges humanity faces. People cannot remain without empathy in a suspended state, waiting for a response from the same players, institutions, and ideologies that—by their omission or fueled by their own interests—created the climate crisis and, worse yet, have often benefited from it. An icy heart cannot hold the hope that collective action requires. Brazil is at the epicenter of the environmental question due to its geographical biodiversity, so I have selected four strong and inspiring Brazilian works of art that each point toward a horizon of possible changes, like stars that guide the ship. I want to shine a light on these artists, but I don’t and can’t speak for them.
“Pajé-Onça Hackeando a 33ª Bienal de Artes de Sāo Paulo” by Denilson Baniwa
The next work is “Pajé-Onça Hackeando a 33ª Bienal de São Paulo” (“Chief-Jaguar Hacking the 33rd São Paulo Biennial”), a 2018 performance by Denilson Baniwa. In Baniwa cosmogeny, the povo-onça (jaguar people) are the guardians of ancestral wisdom. Pagé-onça (Chief jaguar) is a personality created by Danielson, an Indigenous Amazonian artist who resides in Rio de Janeiro. In this performance, Pagé-onça went through the exhibit with flowers, paying homage to his Indigenous brothers from other times who were photographed and exposed by white men. Wearing his jaguar mask and an animal print cape, he moved through the rooms and hallways, silently looking to identify himself with some of the works and searched for representations of contemporary Indigenous culture artistic production.
Finally, at the museum’s bookstore, he bought the book A Brief History of Art. Standing before the photos in the exhibit that he had already paid homage to, he studied the book and realized that this history was so brief that Indigenous art did not fit. Enraged, he tore the book apart while giving a speech: “A Brief History of Art. Theft, theft, theft, theft, theft, theft, theft. White art. Theft, theft. Indigenous people do not belong only in the past. They do not have to be imprisoned inside the images that white people created for the natives. We're free, free, free. Despite the theft, the violence, and the history of art. No more whites taking our art and transforming it into imitations!” His speech forced the viewer to question Western historical narratives about art, which continue to exert violence against the Indigenous cultures of the Americas even five hundred years after colonization began.
To fight for the preservation of the environment in Brazil quite often involves facing the unbridled violence of those who profit from the destruction of our common home.
I believe that one of the teachings of “Pagé-Onça Hackeando a 33ª Bienal de São Paulo” is that our most urgent task in the Americas is to decolonize our cultures and the institutions that do not recognize Indigenous people’s present value; that subordinate their discourse; that make their fight and the violence they face invisible; that question their contemporary identity; and that intend to reduce their cultural production to something exotic or romanticized. Without this profound change, nature will be only a carbon repository ready to provide oxygen to the neoliberal machine of the countries of centralized power in exchange for dividends for the local elite. It is the obligation of the culturally white (myself included) to denounce and deconstruct this pedestal that colonization and racism has put under our feet. We all must hack systems like Pagé-onça because the colonization machine never stopped.
“Umuarama” by Sallisa Rosa
The third work I'd like to introduce is that of Sallisa Rosa, an Indigenous artist from the state of Goiás. Rosa was awarded the Pampulha scholarship and created the performance project “Umuarama” in 2019 around the Pampulha Museum of Art in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. As the artist explains, in Tupi, “Umuarama” means “sunny place where friends meet; a place to relax.” Her participatory work involved the planting of a collective manioc field on the museum’s land and the harvest of its fruits. During and between the planting and harvesting there were other shared parallel actions and activities.
In keeping with a decolonial perspective, I would like to highlight the way this work created a social space of sharing, which established a warm community. On the site of the project, the artist includes the following statement:
“In the globalized world we live in and with the burnout of our senses, it becomes necessary to build new values that guide us toward the revalorization of our ancestral culture. What may have looked archaic is now futuristic… I understand manioc as an ancestral path, as a possibility for rooting the Indigenous culture in the city. Manioc is an indigenous technology, and it is also an enchanted being that will be cultivated collectively. [People] come together for planting and harvesting, invoking the world of manioc, which is to think of the tradition of food, the decolonization of food, the culture of manioc flour, of planting, of belonging, of us in manioc’s land—then it will be possible to interact in different ways with this universe.”
The group planted and then harvested for long hours. There were ritualistic moments that involved an exchange of experiences, eating together, resting—a series of actions that did away with individualism and the rushed timelines of capitalist productivity. The performance did not abandon routine or intend to create an extraordinary event. It was not only for homogeneous group, and it did not intend to shock or create an uncomfortable experience. The performance simply established a new daily routine, profound and simple, communal and diverse, engaged and affectionate. A welcoming spirit permeated the whole experience.
Yes, but welcoming of what? “Umuarama” suggested that spaces such as cities could welcome greater biological diversity and complexity. They could create routines that break the violence and logic of western mercantilism and individualism and that reestablish a connection with other possibilities of being.
“Umuarama,” in my opinion, is a work that opens possibilities for experimenting with creating a new routine in the hearts of the machine-like urban labyrinths of our consumerist and extractive societies. Each alternative routine spreads hope and hacks the system.
It is the obligation of the culturally white (myself included) to denounce and deconstruct this pedestal that colonization and racism has put under our feet.
This experimentation resonates with the concept of porosity—an idea originated by Walter Benjamin and revisited by Ernst Bloch, Mássimo Cacciari, and urban planner Bernardo Secchi, among others. Porosity disrupts the homogenizing of cities by embracing the multiplicity of lives within them: the lives of those elements that support them, the soil that feeds them, and all of their interactions with their environments. Porosity in cities allows for exchanges between subjects of different classes or species, seeking to respect mutual rights. It is the opposite of establishing barriers, walls, or sieges. In Eduardo Sombini’s recent interview with Italian architect and urbanist Paola Viganò, the architect states, “Each city, large or small, can participate and be part of this experiment… It is possible to imagine a capillarity with regard to relationships with non-human components, in which the key is to look at the whole territory as a being and inhabited by other beings. We must see them [non-humans] as beings. When you do that your point of view has already shifted.”
This means a new paradigm for Europe. From non-European perspectives, the paradigm is nothing new, though those operating in this way were the object of colonization in Africa, in Asia, and in the Americas. In the words of Ailton Krenak, a Brazilian environmentalist, philosopher, poet, and writer from the Crenaque Tribe, “when we depersonalized the river, the mountain, when we take their meaning from them, their sense, thinking that such things are uniquely human, we release these places so they become residues of industrial and extractive activity. Our divorce from integrations and interactions with our Mother Earth results in us becoming orphans, not only those of us who, at different levels, are called indigenous peoples, but all of us.”
This divorce manifests in the way big cities are built, in the way things are produced and consumed, in the predatory use of technologies and of knowledge, and in the violent deletion of everything that exists outside the neoliberal logic of competition, of individualism, and of the haste associated with consumerism and productivity. Nothing can be free, slow, useless, everlasting, simply beautiful, or spiritual. Everything becomes a commodity. One of the largest Chinese commercial companies launched a facial recognition app called Smile To Pay, which allows people to make purchases with a smile. The face, the most sacred manifestation of our human singularity, becomes a credit card. The smile, the most generous and subtle of expressions and of our infinite emotions, becomes a password to authorize payments. The logic of capitalism continues to commercialize every relationship with the world and beings both human and non-human.
“Memories of a Former River” by Gabriela Holanda
"Porosity is related to the ability of liquids to infiltrate rocks, depending on their type. Hence, we speak of social porosity, imagining cities where the relationship between different groups can be fluid. What we increasingly see in cities is a reduction in porosity and very difficult flows and exchanges between parts of the population. It is possible to imagine porosity in terms of relations with the non-human component, in which the fundamental thing is to look at the entire territory as a subject and inhabited by subjects. You need to see them [non-humans] as subjects. When you do that, your point of view has already changed. I consider water a subject, for example. The rationality of water in the city has to be understood, not only as a functional element that you can redefine as you wish, but as a subject that is bringing its own way of thinking and its own behavior." Say Paola Viganò in the aforementioned interview. In few words: Porosity implies allowing exchanges between subjects of different classes or species, seeking to respect mutual rights and respect. it is the opposite of establishing barriers, walls, sieges.
The last work that I would like to share here is called “Memories of a Former River,” a 2020 performance by baiana-pernambucana artist Gabriela Holanda. In this work, a group of four performers, Gabi Holanda, Iara Sales, José Cirilo Neto, and Marcela Aragão follow the course of the Fragoso River from its origins until it meets with the ocean, showing the different forms in which this river relates to its surroundings, the aggressions it is subjected to, its resilience, its most feared enemies (among them the backhoes of urbanistic mega-developments that threaten it), and the river’s allies in its daily survival. One of the products of this work is an audiovisual production that can be accessed in the artist's portfolio. Gabriela Holanda has described the development of this project:
“When developing the project Memoirs of a Former River, we amplified our listening, making visible the memories of the marginalized populations in the process of urbanization of the city of Olinda. Soon, we will develop a performative app for social mobilization, not only because of the questions ensued through the art, but for the local community to be able to learn its history and to recognize itself in the creation. This way, we aim to make an issue of the relationship between the river, the community, and the city in order to weave a sustainable future with less social-environmental inequalities in Pernambuco. In this creation, we worked hard identifying contrasts in this river: water, concrete, desert, vegetation, performers’ skins, place’s skins. The objective was to review the affective and conflictive relationships between the river, the community, and the government (or city), keeping in mind these various rivers that live within a single river. I worked with the creation of parallels between people’s veins and arteries and the image of the river, and the river as the blood of the city.”
Gabriela Holanda’s work is interdisciplinary and holistic. it involved historical research, a listening process within the river communities, interviews with specialists in environmental fields, intervention in the collective actions by residents, questions to the government, and performative interventions that create awareness of the river’s human-like qualities and its surroundings. These included mating dances, curing dances, staying together dances, and fighting dances along the river.
Not being in right relationship to the river any longer does not give us the right to bury it, to put it in a concrete tomb.
Using interpretive license, I look at this “former” in the work’s title not only as an indicator of a past river that is dying and that, therefore, will stop being a river. I want to see this “former” also as “an ex,” as a past love. The river continues to be a river. Before, the river was our partner. We dated the river; the river was a source of life. But then there was the divorce that Krenak described. The Fragoso River's name (which translates as “fragrant”) speaks to the challenges of its relationship with human beings. It's not easy. There are boulders and difficult to navigate areas.
Does that give us the right to bury it under tons of concrete? By doing so, it is as if the government said, “Look I need to tell you something, our relationship up to here was good, but now it is over. I have been so bad to you. I threw so much trash and sewage inside into your body. I've contaminated your water so much that the best thing is to kill you completely so I can more easily forget what I've done.” Not being in right relationship to the river any longer does not give us the right to bury it, to put it in a concrete tomb. Following this path, we can interpret Gabriela Holanda’s work as a process for recovering feelings, histories, memories, and dreams that have fed and continue to feed the community’s daily relationship with the river. It's a loving relationship that unfolds attitudes of empathy, solidarity, and generosity with this river, a being that is part of our nature.
Neither performance nor art in general will manage to change the paradigm that, passing through genocides, lead us to ecocide. Many battles will be required, and it will be necessary to unite forces within them. However performance art can contribute to shaping experiences of a new poetic, political, and civic culture to support these changes. The four works here are only a few examples among thousands.
To defend the Amazon is to defend the fight of the forest guardians. But it is also necessary to rethink our cities with the understanding that we do not need to start from scratch or turn the world upside down. As these performances teach us, the roots of the Americas are laden with futures. A river runs through these four works. They invite us to a crossing of sources, to find again a navigable course to a common future—historical, cultural, geographical, biological, spiritual, and linguistic outflows. There will be no real change if we do not learn from the sources.