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eturning to Rio de Janeiro when the COVID-19 outbreak erupted in March reconfigured my experience of my native neighborhood. With the limited mobility posed by the pandemic, I often found myself face-to-face with Parque do Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro's main waterfront park. The park feels as if it naturally follows the contours of the curves of the Guanabara Bay and offers a juxtaposition of water, mountains, sand and greenscape including more than 200 native species of trees and 50 species of palm. The Sugar Loaf mountain is the reference point from which I would situate myself in my walks along the designed pathways offered by this undulating landscape which comprises a beachstrip, a park area, and parkways.
Having grown up in the neighborhood, I had formerly experienced the park's landscape as an outdoor museum. Roberto Burle Marx, the park’s landscape designer, composed a flora of native species and tree families collected in the trips he made around the multiple ecosystems in the country and other foreign tropical climates —uprooting the notion that this is an artificial landscape on artificial land. In my optical experience of the park, I would usually move through space guided by the aesthetic orchestration of specimens of trees—as opposed to specimens of paintings—that are distributed throughout the undulating paths of the designed space. Those occasional strolls were about the eye enjoying nature as something "other," as if I were examining the carefully choreographed colors and sinuous shapes of Roberto Burle Marx's gouaches and landscape sketches.
In this required slowing down of COVID, however, I attended to a bodily (vs. optical) experience of Parque do Flamengo as it became part of my own everyday physical and emotional "maintenance" while I remained isolated at home. Brazil has been severely hit by the pandemic and is the country with the second highest record of COVID-19 deaths, surpassing a toll of 500,000 by June 2021. Federal Government guidelines downplay social-distancing protocols and adopt an anti-science approach, which includes stimulating a higher number of Brazilians to reject the vaccine. Brazil accounts for 10% of the world's COVID-19 deaths, despite comprising only 2.7% of the world's population. In this context, the park stands as a meaningful destination for weekend visitors from other parts of the city who are able to enjoy a safe, spacious, and pleasurable open space. As for me, a resident of the neighborhood who had not paid enough attention to its essential service before, it provided for my own "maintenance" —beyond a visually designed spectacle.
Walking there habitually also restored the—at times delightful, at times disturbing—sensations of a shared sociability in public space. As we resort to individualized responses to the pandemic, I have become habituated to the lack of a shared understanding of what a safe conviviality in public space means at this time ‑- I would increasingly normalize and not even notice who wears a mask and who does not. I would also be astonished to encounter, for example, an energetic group of elderly, unmasked, showcasing their unabashed allures in swimsuits and coming to the park regularly to play peteca matches.
The park is also an attraction on weekends, when people from other parts of the city plan a day in the park for birthday celebrations, barbecues and graduation photoshoots with the views of the Sugar Loaf mountain. After a rainy day, I would notice both the on-and-off smell of sewage, deviate from my path to circumvent the manholes in disrepair, and would yet again encounter something new, like the taste of the jambo fruit that people pulled from the trees. I would follow desire lines that would buffer the noise coming from parkways and foreground the singing of the maritacas. All these experiences combined kept me entertained and more grounded to my neighborhood and immediate surroundings; at a time in which we also think more about what it means "to take care" of our bodies and of each other.
GARBAGE COLLECTORS: FROM MAINTENANCE TO CARE
In her "Manifesto for Maintenance Art" (1969), artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles wove together the three spheres of personal, general and earth "care" as the subject of her own artistic practice. Ukeles suggests that the maintenance of everyday things that she does as a wife and a mother share the lack of visibility of general caretakers, including those who maintain and clean spaces that are public. She documented herself cleaning public spaces, such as public stairs and sidewalks, where she performed the maintenance activities she did as a wife and mother at home: "Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art '' (Ukeles, 1969).
As I frequent the park more regularly, I have taken note of Ukeles’ invitation and been more observant of the systems of "maintenance" of my own surroundings in the park, noticing the presence of the most visible actors who are in charge of maintaining this place: the garbage collectors.
In fact, these workers are deemed "essential," and their work has not decelerated during the pandemic, since city residents have resorted even more to the use of open spaces like Parque do Flamengo. Despite their flashy orange uniforms, their presence had previously gone unnoticed in my walks in the park.
By following their paths through the park, I slowly became attuned to the nature and rhythm of their tasks. While some of those workers are in charge of pruning trees and cutting the grass, their main priority relies on collecting the human-made trash left behind in the sand and lawn areas. Collecting this trash does not consist only of emptying trash bins, but also gathering and sweeping together what has been discarded on the ground.
Each worker is assigned to a specific section of the park, which is maintained everyday in 8-hour shifts starting 6:30 AM in the morning. Raquel, who has worked at Comlurb (Rio de Janeiro’s Sanitation Department) since 2014, said "I have been covering an additional section of the park since March, because my colleague, who is over 60 years old, has been excused from service since the virus outbreak. I don't know how long I will continue to cover for him, but I am glad he is safer at home." She speaks proudly of her work, claims she earns a good living, and because she has been burdened with additional work in the last months she underscores: "I need to make choices. My priority is removing the human-made trash left in the bicycle paths, which are used more intensely." Her colleagues who clean the beach strip also prioritize the human-made trash created by the constant flow of people.
Disposing of all this trash is no small matter. Specialized workers carry mechanized equipment for pruning trees, blowing fallen leaves, and cutting the grass regularly. Raquel walks along the park with her waste container: she sweeps the grass that has been cut, collects the groups of blown leaves, empties the trash bins and the human-made trash left behind by the park users and coconut water selling stands. Garbage compactor trucks circulate in the bicycle paths to collect larger volumes of pruned branches. All the trash is compiled in the "moloque" stations, round-shaped bins that are partially buried on the ground and can hold up to 2 tons of trash. Finally, crane trucks complete the daily operation, circulating in the pedestrian beach strip to remove the trash from the "moloque" stations.
As I interacted with the maintenance workers I began to observe the ways in which they understand their work and interact with regular visitors: this space started to open up for me as a space of caregiving and caretaking. While my relationality with other people is more limited, I am also thinking more deeply about what it means to be a living body, noticing trees as living beings and also receptive to the extra-ordinary functions that garbage collectors do to maintain the park. I noticed that this perceptual shift —understanding garbage collectors as caretakers— was not only happening because I was suddenly going there every day, but also because at this moment we are experiencing a heightened awareness of what it means "to take care" of our bodies and of each other.
These encounters with the park caretakers became the window through which I began to observe the background noise of life residing in Parque do Flamengo. In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, George Perec calls us to identify the "infra-ordinary," the colorlessness of our everyday routines.
“What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Behind the event there is a scandal, a fissure, a danger, as if life reveals itself only by way of the spectacular, as if what speaks, what is significant, is always abnormal. [But] how should we take account of, question, describe what happens everyday and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?" (George Perec, 1974, 205).
By following sanitation workers' steps, I discovered other "infra-ordinary" things in the park that were not as readily visible as these caretakers' orange uniforms; I came to meet their acquaintances, such as residents and artists like Margareth and Gaucho. Margareth repurposed a space to feed the abandoned cats in the park, while Gaucho makes sculptures and baskets by folding palm tree leaves. Their intimate exchange with these non-human species of the park shapes the way in which they care for and re-design Parque do Flamengo constructed features.
Margareth runs a network of volunteers who take care of the cats that are abandoned in the park. She has repurposed the theater space of the park’s original designs, Teatro das Marionetes – which hasn't hosted a spectacle in years– as the meeting point for feeding the abandoned cats at fixed times, twice a day, 7 days/week. The cats are named, vaccinated, and her work increases their chances for adoption. She calls them: "Boris! Matilde! Where are you!" and the cats start to gradually appear and gather around the theater space for water and food. She tells me, while scrubbing the theater seats with a sponge she brought herself: "Comlurb workers are understaffed and they don't have the time to water this space as regularly as needed. The grass at the edges has gone dry too many times. I take matters into my own hands: I clean and sweep it myself!" She also complained that in the last few years there has been an increasing neglect from the municipal organizations in charge of managing green spaces including the park's flora and the preservation of its original modernist designs.
Gaucho is a local artist who crafts objects from palm leaves in the park. He employs an indigenous method from which he crafts decorative baskets, purses and small sculptures by folding together the leaves, using only his hands and teeth. As he demonstrated the folding techniques that transformed the palm leaf, a grasshopper sculpture started forming out of his hand. When he handed me the grasshopper he said: "I also make purses, you see? They are just like Louis Vuitton." He did not understand himself to be an artist, although the complexity of his craft revealed to me a material sensibility distinct from the one I would associate with Louis Vuitton's crafting expertise. A luxury bag focuses on its end as a product for consumption, surrounded by the structural support of a store and a marketing apparatus. Gaucho's grasshopper, on the other hand, diverted my attention back to the details featured by the original palm trees standing in the park, his objects acted more as intermediaries for nature and to the ecological space of the park's landscape.
PARTICIPATORY ART PRACTICES AT PARQUE DO FLAMENGO: DISSOLVING THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN LIFE AND ART
Nonetheless, this impression of being immersed in a natural landscape in Parque do Flamengo produces a manufactured feeling. The lavish variety of tree species in the park is not designed by nature. Lota de Macedo Soares, a self-taught planner, embraced the mission of making a public park project for the city residents, enhancing this landfilled area that was primarily engineered to support the expressways, arteries that connect the city center to the South Zone of the city. She led a group of architects, engineers, botanists, urban planners and landscape designers -including Roberto Burle Marx and Affonso Eduardo Reidy- and the constructed landscape and parkways were inaugurated in 1965. The park’s designed curves resonated with the modernist aesthetics of the time, but also served to place Rio in competition with the landmarked city of Brasilia which in 1959 had usurped Rio as the capital of Brazil.
Gaucho does not sit far from the Museum of Modern Art (MAM), which is located in the downtown tip of the park. In 1959 the Museum —which remains an active hub for artists and contemporary thinking—hosted the "First Exhibition of the Neo-Concrete Movement," the birth of one of the largest avant-garde Brazilian Art Movements of the XXth century. The Neo- Concrete Manifesto called for relational art forms that would dissolve the boundaries separating the artwork and the viewer. Rather than contemplating a static art object, neo-concrete artists such as Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica invite the viewer-participant to manipulate the art piece; the artwork is therefore incomplete without this exchange. Often presented in geometric shapes, these artists' sensorial objects serve as potential mediators for the strengthening of other bonds and sensibilities; with ourselves, with others, and with the space around us. As an example, Oiticica's Parangolés are colored capes made to be worn by groups of participants who perform movement and dance beyond the confines of the museum environment. The first group to embody the Parangolés in a 1965 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Parque do Flamengo were residents of the Mangueira favela - who were socially and geographically isolated from the art sphere. Gaucho in fact, does not sit inside the museum either, and he too evokes a form of embodiment with the space that surrounds him, through the visceral gesture of his teeth, and the biting of the leaves.
THE “INFRA-ORDINARY”, COVID, CARETAKING
As the virus has profoundly de-centered my own ways of living and socializing, I have become more receptive to Gaucho and Margareth's imprint in the park, and to the ways in which they mold it into a space of interspecies caretaking. Margareth pivoted the designated function of the theater space, where cats have taken the stage and become the main attraction — de- centering people as the central performers. Along with the garbage collectors who are in charge of maintaining the space, they are curators that remind me that the park is not a static outdoor museum, but dependent on the everyday repetition of "infraordinary" acts of sweeping, scrubbing, folding, feeding, and taking out the garbage. Mierle Laderman Ukeles elevates these tasks as artistic gestures, and her statement becomes especially resonant at a time in which the repetition of the everyday home maintenance tasks require our increased attention. By following the caretakers, I flee my private environment to be part of a physical commons in the park, where I now feed cats, and where I have gotten to know people who are part of the neighborhood and whom I might not have noticed before. This perceptual shift fostered exchanges with caretakers like Margareth and Raquel who sustain Lota Macedo Soares's original vision of turning this artificial land and expressway into a public park for the city residents— and why not, to more species.
Landscape architect Burle Marx envisioned Parque do Flamengo as a didactic environment of arts and nature, where the multispecies flora would nurture a sense of ecological stewardship in its citizens: 'to preserve plant species through the composition of a garden is a way of protecting future generations from an extreme solitude' (Nordenson, 2018, 173). In the solitude of my walks of the last few months I noticed that his intention has not been entirely fulfilled. On the one hand, the park provides an inclusive and inviting environment, standing as an attraction for residents from all over the city. On the other hand, the park does not attract as many stewards engaged in its preservation. While the negationist attitude from the Federal Government amplifies our division, pushing us to individual responses to the sanitary emergency that rages on, I wonder what sense of collective responsibility could emerge if we shifted back our attention to our local shared surroundings. As we individually define what it means to take care of ourselves and of others in public space, I would hope that participating in the physical everyday tasks that the maintenance of our community and surroundings entail, might lead us to revitalize our shared sense of collective unity that we are currently struggling so much to find.