Social Security

A recurring conversation concerns how spaces focused on communities and the commons may continue to exist in times of austerity and precariousness.

Over the past week I’ve had the opportunity to visit Ocupação 9 de Julho, a large multistory complex in downtown São Paulo. The building has been occupied several times since the 1990s with the current occupants entering in 2016. Organised by Movimento Sem-Teto do Centro (MSTC), it currently houses around 450 people who are representative of Brazil’s working poor, migrants and refugees.

Cozinha Ocupação 9 de Julho

Cozinha Ocupação 9 de Julho hosts a monthly social kitchen, inviting different collectives and chefs to cook. I’m told the Ocupação was able to install something akin to a commercial kitchen using funds raised by another occupation by artists in 2014 at of Ouvidor 63, a building owned by the Ministry of Culture.

I went with a group of friends to lunch there last Sunday (25 November). Comida Congolesa were in the cozinha and they must have catered for several hundred, if not more, guests. Besides lunch visitors could attend an assembly to discuss the occupation’s future developments and dance to samba (of course) and jongo performances. The Ocupação has a shop selling used clothes and on Sunday there were also stallholders selling drinks, a table from n-1 ediçoes and one of the residents selling hand-made Yoruba-Ifa religious figurines. I stayed much longer then expected, exploring the site and was surprised to run into friends from other points on the globe. As I left in the evening, photographs from the Ocupação and other related movements were being projected large on the outside of the building.

One of the Ocupação’s recent developments is an art gallery, Reocupa, in the building’s original main entrance and organised in collaboration with the collective Aparelhamento. For its inaugural exhibition Reocupa is hosting a site specific installation by the renown artist Nelson Felix. Esquizofrenia da Forma e do Êxtase (Shape and Ecstasy of Schizophrenia) is a series of six mixed media works and residues of actions. It forms part of Nelson’s contribution to the 33rd São Paulo Bienal which links together three sites in the Americas: Anchorage, Alaska and Ushuaia, Argentina alongside São Paulo.

‘Esquizofrenia da Forma e do Êxtase’ (2018), installation detail, Nelson Felix.

The cozinha, markets and events that open the Ocupação to the public serve as a kind of outreach to develop community support and public empathy with the movement. In my notebook I’ve labelled such efforts to develop forms of sociability and solidarity ‘social security.’ The artist Maíra Das Neves explained to me that the initiation of the gallery in the Ocupação was strategic. Indeed, it facilitates outreach and cultural exchange, and also Nelson’s incursion into the building inserts significant art capital into the Ocupação and offers it a degree of protection. She noted that Nelson’s work is effectively property—it has value on the art market and visibility in the international art world. In São Paulo, as in many other places, the police may not necessarily serve the poor but they will protect private property.

‘Nelson Felix, Esquizofrenia da forma e do êxtase (do projeto)’ (2017–2018). Photo: Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São PauloPaulo.

Below is wall text at the Ocupação from the Architecture of Appropriation research project and exhibition series being undertaken by the Het Nieuwe Institut, Rotterdam. Ocupação 9 de Julho was also a site for the recent 11th São Paulo Architecture Bienal, contributing to its public status and international profile. Documentation of the activities of the Dutch firms Office CCXD, Studio Knol, ZUS & GOAA for the Bienal are here.

‘Pixação’ (2014). Image from Office CCXD.

To conclude this post it is worth noting journalist Vincent Bevins’ comments in the LA Times writing about the proliferation of squats in São Paulo during the previous art Bienal in 2014:

Some who have long been acquainted with Brazil’s history of working-class occupations have been perplexed by the arrival of middle-class artists who occupy public space only to turn around and charge hipsters steep party entrance fees and promote their careers as artists.

But Manuel Moruzzi, coordinator at the traditional families- and-workers Marconi occupation that was visited by the Bienal, says there are benefits when the cool kids arrive on the scene.
‘They help in the struggle for urban reform and to create a discussion about public space and abandoned buildings. For the middle class, it’s easier for them to accept groups of artists than poor people into their houses,’ Moruzzi said. ‘The majority have no idea about this project, they don’t see it or don’t want. The arrests help.’

The late Claire Rigby also offers significant observations and criticisms about this moment.

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