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his essay explores the "Esdi Aberta" movement, in which students, alumni, professors, and employees of Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro [Superior School of Industrial Design, State University of Rio de Janeiro] (Esdi/Uerj) were engaged to respond to the profound administrative and financial crisis that drastically affected not only Esdi and Uerj, but all public education in Brazil. In the midst of this crisis, Esdi’s community practiced forms of resilience and openness that came together with the cultivation of caring and community. Following the experiments developed at Esdi, the essay seeks to contribute to the debate about the crisis that affects universities, suggesting that it can be reformulated as an opportunity for the resurgence and collective production of environments to cohabitate in difference.
Created by the government of the State of Rio de Janeiro in 1962 to form designers able to act in the industrial sector that was being implemented in the Southeast region of the country, Esdi is the first design school in Brazil. Installed in an improvised campus situated at Rio de Janeiro's historical city center, Esdi was conceived according to pioneering German design schools, such as Hfg-Ulm and, before it, the Bauhaus. In 1975, the design school was incorporated to Uerj, a public university also linked to the State of Rio de Janeiro, but remains in its initial facilities, apart from the main campus of the university.
In March of 2016, I became Esdi's director. In Uerj, rectors and directors of schools and institutes are directly elected in a process involving students, professors, and employees. During the election period, at the end of 2015, no one presented as a candidate for the direction of the school. In response, the director at the time wrote a letter to the professors, summoning them to a meeting, when he asked them to consider the possibility of forming a joint ticket to run for the positions.
A few years ago, the director had set up a working group whose purpose was to elaborate a review of Esdi's curriculum for the undergraduate course. This group was composed by some new professors who arrived at Esdi through public tenders whose purpose was to fill the vacancies created after the retirement of some older professors of the school. In 2011, after defending my doctoral thesis in Anthropology, I applied for one of these posts and was approved as an associate professor. As soon as I started to teach, along with some other new professors, I was invited to be part of the group that would be responsible for the elaboration of the new curriculum.
Concerned with the completion of this process, Professor Marcos Martins (also recently hired) and I decided to present a slate for the direction of the school. However, this decision could only be made after a proposal made by me at that meeting: I called on the professors to voluntarily donate hours of work to the school administration, in addition to their regular teaching and research hours. At that moment, it seemed to me that no one intended to run the school because it promised to be both burdensome and lonely.
I imagined, then, that if there was a distribution of work and responsibility, a possible application might emerge. I appealed to the fellow professors present at the meeting. However, no one applied. At the end of the meeting, it seemed to Marcos and me that if we did not submit an application, all the effort for the elaboration and implementation of a new curriculum would be threatened. So, we decided to apply.
Once elected, in partnership with Prof. Martins, vice-director, we began a series of attempts to decentralize administration. Among them, we set up a student cabinet, which started to collaborate with us, dealing with issues on two different fronts: 1) redesign of the school's communication: visual identity, its applications, wayfinding, and website; and 2) occupation of spaces: mapping of resources and activities allocated in each of the parts of the school, proposition, and implementation of changes in that organization.
Initially formed by eight undergraduate students, this cabinet contributed in a vital way to the installation of a new environment within the school, since its components began to speak and act with and by the directors, amplifying, horizontalizing, and decentralizing the care not only with the ordinary administration, but, above all, gathering proposals, rehearsing and putting into practice new and old ideas and projects. By doing this, we realized that, if multiplied, this wave of care could create a kind of force field capable of reactivating the sense of community in the school in other and unsuspected ways, which became even more important in the face of the enormous political, financial, and institutional crisis that affected us, not only in this university, nor in the State of Rio de Janeiro, but, in a broader sense, the whole country.
After a moment of euphoria, due to the announcement of the discovery of oil reserves in the pre-salt layer of the ocean floor in the Rio de Janeiro region, the State plunged into a deep financial-administrative crisis. Uerj, a public university linked to the State administration, which Esdi is a part of, was affected in an intense and unprecedented way. Responsible for the transfer of funds for maintenance and funding of academic activities at this university, the State government subtracted salary and scholarship payments, and all funding for the maintenance of the academic activities. Delays and suspension of payments became recurrent and cumulative since the beginning of 2016. However, even in 2015, the government neglected to uphold contracts with companies that provide outsourced services for security, food, cleaning, maintenance, and garbage collection.
This resulted in a series of strikes mobilized by teachers, students, and staff, as well as temporary suspensions of activities by decisions of the university's central administration, due to lack of water, power, maintenance, and services. In the midst of this situation, several illnesses, stress, depression, and other physical-emotional complications also erupted. The debt and the dismissal and retirement requests of teachers and employees grew. The number of applications for student transfers to other universities increased and the search for undergraduate and graduate courses declined.
At Esdi, the immediate effect of the crisis was the reaction of students, alumni, teachers, and volunteers who mobilized to defend the school's survival. Among several communitary meetings that brought the scholar community together, we debated intensely what would be the best way to resist to the precariousness that prevailed over the school, which, as a part of the university, had been drastically affected by the subsequent cuts on the fundings for the maintenance of the activities in the university.
In the midst of many and intense debates and conversations, we have come to understand that to keep existing would be the best way to resist, keeping the school open and operative, as far as possible. To do so, we held a series of cultural events and academic activities, improvising ways to keep functioning as a public design school, even if in a very precarious and improvised way. As a scholarly community enrolled in that specific situation, we understood that the experience of openness, even if complex, ambiguous and uncertain, implied a possibility of resistance (Sennett, 2018).
This movement was named "Esdi Aberta" (Open Esdi), an expression launched in an great celebration event organized in February 2017 by students and alumni to mark the inauguration of new means of access and communication for the school, initiatives made possible by partnerships established between the school and some public and private institutions.
To resist the institutional and financial precariousness and keep the school open, we experimented with shared management among professors, students, and employees, in which several survival rehearsals were put into practice, in improvised ways. In addition to the efforts for decentralization, distribution, and horizontalization in the leadership and administration of the school, several other experiments (Lenskjold, Olander, Halse, 2015) emerged around alternative ways of opening and maintaining academic activities.
On March 14, a group of about forty students decided to occupy the school and to live in its quarters. This occupation, they called "OcUPA Esdi", also involved those students who made up the group that had been working with the directors. In a statement published on social media and affixed in the classrooms, they declared:
we, a group of Esdi students, decided to start an occupation movement today, 03/14/2017. Due to the systematic delays and non-payment of employees, students' scholarships, and maintenance budgets for Uerj's infrastructure, we agree with the position of the board of directors, which has declared that it is impossible to resume normal operations in the university. At the same time, the emptying of the university puts at risk the very existence of these spaces. With the community fragmenting, seeking individual solutions, the sense of a greater good is lost. In view of this scenario, we understand that an occupation is an alternative that can foster creative activities and the transmission of knowledge applied to this reality. This being the essence of the university, it is our true tool to reintegrate the community in the defense of public and popular education. (...) Occupying Esdi at this time means endorsing the directors and giving it strength for it to defend this path in the board of directors. It is the path we are building to make it possible to resume classes in this situation of dismantling the university. It is also a means of ensuring that various proposals/demands for activities that we see emerging come to life, maintaining the production and exchange of knowledge in design. This way we also create better conditions for access to this production for all students. Today we are going to sleep in the Esdi as a way of making a statement and creating a space for mobilization by taking an active stance as students in building an alternative route in the face of total scrapping and emptying, fragmentation of the university's community, to organize classes, workshops, courses, working with professors and alumni, solving infrastructure issues, and integrating with other movements of Uerj and the defense of public and popular education (OcUPA Esdi, 03/14/2017).
Thus, they started to spend the nights in one of the classrooms, and claimed the assignment of a space to cook. We asked the university to authorize the installation of a stove in our facilities and we communicated to the central administration the deep confidence that the directors had in that group. However, the occupation significantly changed the relationship between the directors and that group of students.
Without abandoning their posts, these students began to organize their own agenda and priorities with the other occupants, and no longer as a group that only supported the directors. Thus, at the same time they declared support for the positioning of the directors and the board of directors, they assumed their autonomy in the face of the conventional structure of school administration. By creating a new instance of action and dwelling in that place, they contributed immensely to the sedimentation of another sense of community in the school, which was autonomously guided by the students.
With the occupation, the students were proclaiming a double affirmation: their belonging to that place and their right to remain there, beyond what is imposed on them by those who think they have the right to regulate what can happen there. These students allowed themselves to remember (Stengers, 2012) and thus remind others that they were also part of that place. In doing so, they did not point to future possibilities of overcoming the crisis, or to some kind of restoration of an ideal previous stage; but, staying with the trouble (Haraway, 2016), they simply affirmed their commitment "to the more modest possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together" (Haraway, 2016: 10). After all, nothing would be solved or guaranteed with their occupation. Betting on risky comakings (Haraway, 2016: 14), they only hinted that in the midst of precariousness and uncertainty, it was possible to revolt, responding creatively to contingencies, in resurgence.
With this attitude, which reconfigured the distribution of information and control over the school, they made the impossibility of delimiting the power to manage that institution-and the situation it was enrolled in at that specific moment-explicit. After all, if nobody told us to close the university, there was also no one who could guarantee its operation. So, everything was happening as if there was not even the possibility of deliberating on what to do. Moreover, if alternative means of securing openness could not be envisaged, much less could one plan for the future.
We were relearning how to conjugate worlds with partial connections (Strathern, 1991), so we could become capable to invent ways to stay alive and open to what affect us, and thus able to correspond (Ingold, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) to problems novel to all of us (Haraway, 2016: 18). Cultivating these "arts for living on a damaged planet" (Haraway, 2016: 67), we could learn how to live in ruins, and to open space for living together with difference, in resurgence.
In this essay, I re-elaborate some arguments developed in partnership with Professor Marcos Martins, vice-director of Esdi/Uerj, due to an invitation from Eye Magazine to publish a paper on the ways in which, at Esdi, we rehearsed responding to the crisis that affects Uerj. Then, by invitation of Tim Ingold, I had the opportunity to expand that discussion writing the chapter "Big Foot and the Termites remaking community and care at an old design school", which is part of the collection "Living Together: Anthropological symbioses with human and other beings”, organized by Ingold and Julien Dugnoille. In this essay, I explore some other dimensions of Esdi Aberta Movement that were not developed in those two texts. I thank all of the above for creating opportunities for me to embark on this endeavor. In addition to them, I would like to thank Frederico Duarte, who put us in touch with Eye Magazine. I also thank Marcos, for the companionship; André Aranha, Carolina Correa dos Santos and Letícia Carvalho, for reading and commenting; Mariana Chianca, for the support during the writing process; my undergraduate and graduate students, who at different times read and commented on all these essays; and those who participated in the seminars where I presented some preliminary versions of these works: 1) “Entremeios em tempos de turbulência”, organized by Barbara Szaniecki and me in November 2017; 2) “SMARTIE”, organized by Els Lagrou, Marco Antonio Gonçalves, Tatiana Bacal and Wagner Chaves at the Post-Graduation Program of Sociology and Anthropology, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in April 2018; 3) “A Confluence of ways: Design, Anthropology and Artistic Practices”, organized by Caroline Gatt and Valeria Lembo in May 2018, as part of “Knowing from the inside”, a research project coordinated by Tim Ingold in the Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen.