UPon Talk #1 with OPAVIVARÁ! (Brazil)

Pleasure as an activating force of public spaces. (EN)

talk date: 18.11.2022

OPAVIVARÁ! is an art collective from Rio de Janeiro, which develops actions in public spaces of the city, galleries and cultural institutions, proposing inversions in the use of urban space through the creation of relational devices that provide collective experiences. Since its creation in 2005, the group has been actively participating in the Brazilian contemporary art scene.

UPon: Your collective has been working for more than 15 years now. How would you say that the public space, its use and understanding, and also the public, have changed over the years that you’ve been working on and in it? And how did your projects adapt to those changes?

OPAVIVARÁ!: We think that the public space is not really public. There are a lot of forces that control it. Not only government forces but also private forces and enterprises. The public space is changing all the time, different forces come, different ways of thinking, different governments…in Brazil, we experienced a lot of hope in 2010, especially in Rio, but we also knew it was a strange time because the world cup and the Olympics were coming. There was a lot of money in the city and a lot of transformation in the city too, but those transformations did not embrace the poor or the homeless people, or those who occupied buildings in the city centre, in the harbour area – all those places were renewed like projects that happened all around the world, here it was called Porto Maravilha: “The Marvellous Harbour”, because it’s a marvellous city and everything was made to look very beautiful. For this appearance, a lot of Samba schools in that area had to close, people were kicked out and buildings were torn down and new towers with commercial purposes were built. We saw a lot of this happening and we created some work about it, like DESVENDA_SE, which means both “to unsell” and “unveil the eyes”: you unsell the thing and see it again with new eyes. We put big billboards in the harbour area, trying to raise some questions about the changes in the city and for whom the changes were being made. I like to think that some of our works can make a difference. Especially the square in the city centre that we worked in a lot over the years. It had fences all around it, and after we put ladders around it so that people could climb over them, there was a renovation of the square and the fences were taken away. (PULACERCA) Now, people could cross the square, but it was like a desert: hot, lacking trees and shade – so we created the kitchen providing water and food. It’s an idea to think about how public spaces and art in public spaces could be something other than monuments and statues and those solid rock things. On the other hand, we’re still far away from the discussion with the government. Some years ago, the government created a community to talk about art in public spaces. We, or others who think similarly, were not there, so once again, it was all about monuments and statues. Now, we have a lot of statues of important personalities on the streets.

UPon: Many of your projects are the assembly of several elements that are conceived for individual use, for example, the assembly of chairs: the chair is for the individual but you assemble them, or the assembly of hammocks and bicycles…you’re merging the individual and the collective. How do you see the relationship between the individual and the collective in the urban space?

OPAVIVARÁ!: This assembly and the collage is the technique that we use most often, putting individual objects together and creating a collective use. E.g. TRANSNÔMADES is a ladder, a sink and a bottle put together, creating a system that can be a sink and a shower. This collage brings a sense of collectivism and community to that joint object. Another thing that we think is very important is for them to be used. Thinking about public space in urban areas, this is an issue and a problem. Sometimes, especially here in Rio, the public space is not meant for people to stay in. You just pass by. The beach is a little bit different – that’s a place where people stay but because there are other pleasures connected to it. The squares are made for monuments. You put the monument in the middle of the square and it’s okay, you don’t need to create an environment that can call this collectiveness to enliven this area of the city. That’s what we try to do – to enliven public spaces. Actually we like to say that there is no such thing as public space, there are public moments that can be created by being together in the public space. But to be together in a public space is a struggle because there are a lot of things that interrupt those gatherings. With our works we’re trying to create this collage and idea of collectivism to bring people together, to invite them to be part of this larger collective. And pleasure is always a very important thing in our work. Sometimes the city is a very rough place to live. The city is ugly, it’s dirty, it doesn’t welcome you, so we’re trying to create situations that welcome people, that invite people to live in the city collectively, with pleasure.

UPon: We have seen that your work relates a lot to subverting the rules, the norms of the public space, contesting those rules, finding new rules or habits in the public space. You have mostly been working in the public urban space in Brazil and you have also done some projects in Europe. Maybe you can compare your experiences of bringing some of your projects to European spaces. What did you observe? What were the differences? Which practices are easier to translate or to bring to other contexts that we don’t know, for example?

OPAVIVARÁ!:: I think there are some projects that are very easy to bring to Europe or other contexts when they are talking about a public and collective relation, and not about a very specific context – Like in the work: the REDE SOCIAL which means “social network”. We created this work by putting a lot of hammocks together; people can use it together, share the space and discuss how they want to use it, e.g. if they swing it or not. When we took this work to England, it was very easy for the people to activate it. The object is a bit strange but one can rapidly understand how to use it. When the issues are about collectivism, it’s easy to adapt to any circumstance.This is a human struggle, not a specific struggle from a specific space: we are all living in society, we’re all living together, having to arrange how we’re going to share and divide boundaries or borders. That’s what this project was about and why it was easy to understand for everybody.

Some others are more complex, like this work that we call TRANSNÔMADES; one time we did it in Frankfurt. We created a collage out of objects which looks like some kind of kitchen, but it’s mobile. We had a sink, a baby stroller, drinks and this supermarket cart with a barbecue and tables, we could camp anywhere in the city where we wanted. This work was created thinking very much about the nomadic lifestyle of refugees. How can we create the possibility of camping and driving through the city with food, shelter and water? It was a way of trying to translate this situation from Brazil to Europe. It was inside an institution and sometimes we could connect with refugees. In Brazil, people would look at it and very rapidly understand that it’s a structure for use. Those kinds of collages are common here. In Europe it was very exotic, people were afraid of interacting with the structure, or they would instantly recognize it as art, which is something that you must not touch. It’s easier here [in Brazil] to put people in contact with the work.

UPon: In your projects, you offer a lot of unusual situations in public spaces and create encounters between people who probably wouldn’t normally spend time together but interact just by being at the same place at the same time. What is your role in these interventions? Are you visible, are you moderating them or do you invite people to participate and then see what happens, letting the collective moments just develop as they come?

OPAVIVARÁ!: We think our works work well when we’re not intervening – when we can step back and watch the scene, and see that people naturally do the action when they understand how it works. Pleasure takes a lot of work (laughs). We work hard to create pleasurable objects. We have received criticism from art critics who say we are lazy, and that we like things that are pleasurable, that we are playing and not doing serious art. It was in Vienna once, when the sun was very strong and it was hot, so we put all the work in a little space in the public area where there was shade.. Because we don’t stay in the sun when we’re not on the beach, it’s tropical behaviour to protect yourself from the sun. And now we’re here in the shade in Vienna and we received an email afterwards saying that we didn’t work hard, that we were lazy and lying in the shade. It was very curious, and it was the same thing that the Portuguese said to the indigenous people when they arrived – that the indigenous people were lazy, that they were lying down in hammocks, not working very much.

Talking again about pleasure and how it leads the situation, one of the moments that is very iconic for us, was an action during the Carnival (CARRO CAMA CARNAVAL): we transformed a Volkswagen van that had been burnt into a bed, and added a sound system to it. People had to push it as it didn’t have an engine, but it had a steering wheel so you could drive it. We were driving it through the Carnival, there were parties everywhere, lots of people on the streets. Total craziness. And at some point, we said, okay, we’ve arrived at a place where we can’t go any further and we were talking about taking the car back to the garage. But then the public took the car from us and crossed the street with it, into a garden between the streets. The car went up and down and, (shows photo), look here, it was crazy. I’m here trying to create a path through the middle of the people and no one knows who is pushing it anymore. We don’t know all those people, it just happened. And the car kept going for hours and hours and we were not in control of it. So it was a very interesting moment of not leading our own path of the work.

UPon: Does your practice include some kind of code to protect vulnerable participants? Have you had any situation where not moderating, or just letting things happen wasn’t a good decision? How does that work in your projects? Because, as you said, the public space is a rough place, a clash of interests. And when a lot of people come together, a clash could also happen.

OPAVIVARÁ!: Yeah, well, I don’t think we have anything like a code. Most of the situations and works are very improvised in the moment. Working together for so long and in public spaces, you start to understand situations and how to deal with them. But we don’t have a code or something written on how to protect ourselves or the public. We believe that people will reach a consensus not to destroy the work or harm themselves, even when we work with hazardous things such as fire, or a car that does not have brakes – difficult, strange situations where security is not what we are aiming for. Luckily we’ve never had any accidents or situations in which we needed to intervene. We think that the pleasurable environments that we create protect us, and bring people together who feel invited. There has been a lot of thinking about participatory art since Nicolas Bourriaud’s aesthetics and the book “Relational Aesthetics”. There are a lot of critics of this kind of art, but many works of participatory art do not invite people but oblige people to participate in a certain way. Like there is a very strict thing that you must do and sometimes it’s violent, or you are obliged to do that thing in some situations. And I think what’s different with our work is that no one is obliged to be there. Do you understand the difference? The people are invited to be there. It’s like when you are going to watch a theatre play and an actor takes you onto the stage and now you are part of it – people get scared. We never do this. This is not a code but something that goes smoothly, depending on the situation.

When you’re doing things in public spaces with people you don’t know, without codes or expectations about what will happen, you’re putting your body at risk. But I think this risk is very valuable. It’s this risk that makes those connections possible. So we should not be afraid. The pandemic made us very afraid of risking many things that were common, like going out, meeting people, being together in an enclosed place, gathering. It was traumatising. How can we get past this and take risks again? Because it’s only when we take risks that things really change.

UPon: Your latest works are from pre-pandemic times. We were wondering if you could tell us a bit about the effects of the pandemic on your work.

OPAVIVARÁ!: Well, the pandemic was, and still is, a very, very hard time for everybody. Talking about Opavivará and our work, the pictures and videos that we showed: all the hygiene protocols were not there…when the pandemic hit, we had to stop doing everything that we did because all of our work is about bringing a lot of people together. And so in that first moment, it was impossible to understand how we could manage to do things without putting people together. And then everything went online and we decided that, besides talks like this one, we wouldn’t do anything online. Like there was no way for Opavivará’s to deal with art in the online world. We do everything low-tech and offline. It was our decision to wait and see what we could do. We needed a break, let’s do it. Because the moment asks for it. In 2021, we did one work called BEM COMUM, which is about common goods, about water. It was in the context of an exhibition curated by Amanda Abi Khalil: a trolley with 200 litres of water that we moved through the city centre and people could take water for free. During the pandemic there was a lack of water in many neighbourhoods, and especially for people who live on the streets, water is very important to wash their hands or drink. So how could they maintain social distancing? How could they wash their hands if there was no water in their house and public fountains weren’t hygienic? So we did this work, providing water for everybody. It was the only thing that we managed to do during those pandemic years. And it was very, very rough. Now that things are starting to get back to normal, we are working, but mostly with our archives and works that have already been done. We are not doing new work. I don’t know how long for, but for now we are participating in exhibitions and talks.

UPon: On the website of Quartier des Spectacles à Montréal you are described as an “Urban Mini Utopia Instigator”. Can you tell us a bit about it? What’s the role of Utopia in your work?

OPAVIVARÁ!: Yeah, we could say that we have a lot of utopian ideas and think of pleasure as a revolutionary tool. Maybe it’s a bit utopic, isn’t it? A lot of political activism uses the same words that are used in the military, like, you know, the avant-garde, the struggle, the fight, that vocabulary of war and confrontation. Because of course, sometimes this is maybe the only way. We try to bring pleasure to that struggle by adding some other vocabulary and practices that can change a space, and a political situation, in a pleasurable way. You know, like it’s not more or less powerful, it’s just another way to reach the same goal, by entering through the in-between spaces where we can get in and infiltrate, and then, boom, create another possibility of being. And sometimes, yes, it’s very utopic, but maybe it’s better to think about utopia than dystopia, isn’t it? There is this indigenous activist and thinker, Ailton Krenak, who was also a member of parliament in the 80’s. Just before the pandemic, he published the book “Ideas to Postpone the End of the World.” He discussed a lot of things that our works are connected to. And at some point, he says that humanity as a whole will never stop falling and that we must learn how to fall. He says that we should create some very colourful parachutes, so at least it would be a beautiful fall for everyone, very colourful and smooth. And then we did a piece right at the same time that the book was being published. Krenak saw the work and was very happy and said, “Oh, you did this work because of what I wrote.” And we couldn’t say no. We said, “Of course, of course, those are the parachutes for everyone to fall. With colour and beauty.” It is called SOLAROCA. „Oca“ is the tupi-indigenous word for “house” followed by “solar”. It was a huge geodesic structure that we covered with big parasols. It was exhibited at the Dubai art fair. You can imagine how crazy it was because everything is the same sandy colour there, especially on the site of the venue, and then this very colourful object was in the middle of the art fair. It’s a place where you can be inside and do whatever you want. That was the only place at the art fair that the Sheikh didn’t visit when he visited the art fair, maybe because of the colours. First, we wanted the object to be striped with the colours of the LGBT+ flag. But then we had a lot of arguments with production and the curators and okay, we used the colours, but scattered and not in lines. It’s very clear that those colours represent diversity.

Audience: (referring to CHUVAVERÃO) For us it is often a question of how to work together with the authorities. Referring to the project with the showers, I was wondering if you have connections with city authorities? Do you prefer to realise works like this with private owners, or do you just do stuff without any formal papers or legislation?

OPAVIVARÁ!: We had some hard times when we started doing things outside of Latin America. Everything is so chaotic here and we take some advantage of that. We prefer not to ask for authorization to do something on the street. We just do it. And many times there is no authority that notices something is happening. You know, some chaotic thing is happening and there’s chaos everywhere. You talked about the code and I don’t know if you can say it’s a code, but one of our ideas is that a work of art, in the public space, is good when it’s also a camouflage. You know, the SOLAROCA is not a camouflage – you can see it from very far away, it’s a huge building of umbrellas. But all the other works are at the level of the street. We had a lot of situations with that in Europe, because it’s harder there, the rules are stricter and everything is controlled. Maybe you would know better how to deal with the situation there and create these environments and pleasurable moments that try to break or transform those spaces.

UPon: You have spoken a lot about the past and the present. Now we’d like to connect to the future. Coming back to utopia: what is your private or collective utopia for the public space?

OPAVIVARÁ!: Well, now, that’s a great question. We think that we should relate ourselves to the public space with some other new idea, different from how cities are dealing with it today. Most of the urbanistic and architectural ways of creating a way through the city divides people. And I think this says a lot not only about the public space, but also how we deal with life itself; with the amount of work, with the working day – there is no right to be lazy in our world. Laziness could be a utopian goal for us: to work less and earn more, to maintain our lives. And I think it’s reflected in these public spaces that are all made for efficiency, you know. You must cross the space rapidly, everything must be about efficiency and not about pleasure, exchange, or cultural diversity. We think everything is made to make things more lucrative and we forget about the abundance that the city and public space could embrace. Maybe the work of Opavivará! aims to or dreams of doing this in a certain way.

UPon: We could finalise this talk with the idea of reclaiming the right to be lazy and reclaiming the right to have a place for this in the public space. I will also open this up to everyone, if someone has a question or would like to share some thoughts.

Audience: I’m thinking about the difference between working in a big city, like you do, where there’s a certain way that the public reacts to certain things or respects them, and then about working in a smaller context. I wonder if you’ve already worked in a smaller-town context in Brazil?

OPAVIVARÁ!: We did a piece for the São Paulo Biennial in 2016. That was very much like the TRANSNÔMADES that we showed you. After the biennial, the work circulated through smaller cities and we went to the South of Brazil and to small towns in São Paulo, we went to Campinas and at some point it was different. How people interacted with the work, especially in Campinas, was very difficult because it is a very conservative city. It’s close to the capital, but it’s known as the last place in the world where the abolition of slavery took place. And I think this conservative mindset of small cities sometimes makes it difficult for us to interact with people. Nevertheless, our works are very organic and it’s very easy to understand what to do with a karaoke set, or a bed to sleep in, or a barbecue set. We also found people that could relate to it and understand what we are trying to say about public space. But it’s an effort that we as artists should make, because we know the difficulties of small towns. How do we address issues that are important to the people living there? How can the public there relate to our work and understand it? This is how bridges can be built. Because sometimes we, as artists, arrive like a person on a parachute in the middle of the city: “Okay, I’ll do my work here.”. And then you do something that’s completely exotic and alien to the life of that place, to the day-to-day of that place. So I think it’s something that we must worry about. 

UPon: Thank you. Yes, maybe it’s about connecting and also repeating. And that maybe it’s also the key for these practices not to be one pop-up and -out, and not happening continuously, but trying to make a habit of encounters between different actors in the public space. And, yeah, it’s about creating new habits of moving, staying, resting or doing things in public spaces, so that we also have the time to encounter other people and creative encounters.

Talk with OPAVIVARÁ!, Lorène Blanche Goesele, Valeria Schwarz and the popUP-week audience

Transcript editing: Lorène Blanche Goesele, Valeria Schwarz

Proof reading EN: Emily Hawkins

Translation EN to PT: OPAVIVARÁ! (Brazil)

Graphic design: Stephanie Becker

Public Relations: Lorène Blanche Goesele, Tomma Suki Hinrichsen

This series of talks is supported by the Senate Department for Urban Development, Building and Housing as part of the expansion of the Netzwerkstelle Urbane Praxis, carried out by Urbane Praxis e.V.