The professor teaching the students’ Argentina class opened with an interesting quote that I didn’t quite get copied down. I believe wikiquote has helped but, it’s wikiquote so forgive me if it isn’t bang on. It does catch the spirit:
The explorer seeks the undiscovered, the traveler that which has been discovered by the mind working in history, the tourist that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and prepared for him by the arts of mass publicity. … If the explorer moves toward the risks of the formless and the unknown, the tourist moves toward the security of pure cliché. It is between these two poles that the traveler mediates. – Paul Fussell
In this program we’re clearly not explorers. Very few people are actual explorers of new land today. Exploration has transitioned to several different fields with science being high among them. A scientist is an explorer who receives much less glory but is, happily, a lot less likely to starve to death. But exploration can include art and social structure, etc. There is still so much we don’t know. But exploring can be dangerous and while we very much want the students to push their current limits and find new ways to see the world, we also very much want to return them to the United States unharmed. True exploration of the unknown provides no such guarantees.
What we do hope, very much, is that they won’t simply be tourists. They clearly will be at the start. But the idea is to move them into the middle part where they may make their own way and their own connections in our temporary homes. As in any class, how effectively that is done will vary by student with some really embracing the goal and some doing just enough to get by without fully immersing themselves in the subject.
How best to get them to push out from the comfort zone of the tourist and intellectually engage the new (to them) society is a pedagogical art. The folks organizing our program at UTDT (Universidad Torcuato Di Tella) have put together a very busy month here in Argentina, packed with activities. I had worried that these would amount to little more than a series of tourist tours but I should’ve trusted the UTDT staff (we’re organized by two women, Alex and Tania, who clearly have their stuff (keeping it PG) together). The tours include lectures on the subject. The tours can be considered labs for the lecture on Argentine society and history and they’re very well coordinated. Together, they provide a means for any students who choose to really dig deep into Argentina. The course, and the tours, have focused on comparing and contrasting Argentina with the US and is setting the groundwork for comparison to Chile.
Yesterday, we had a graffiti tour. I had reservations but it was wonderful. Street art, to differentiate from simple “tagging” is well tolerated here. And it is, therefore, everywhere. Our guide gave a great introduction to why this is and, like most things sociological or political, it’s very complex. But it boils down to three things:
- Argentinians feel very strongly that a person’s property is theirs to do with as they please. That is, if you own a building and want to paint it neon green with pink polka dots, that is your right. To earn that right, you have to let your neighbor do what he/she likes with their property. (As an aside, this make great sense to me and I’ve always wondered why in “the land of the free” we have anything like HOAs or civil codes on how tall grass can be).
- Public space does not belong to the state but to the public. That’s a subtle difference but what it means is one need not get a permit from the state to hold a rally or to paint a building. In the streets of Argentina, the facades are often right up on the street and the unspoken agreement is that you can paint anything you can reach.
- Street art in Buenos Aires was not born out of turf marking or gang life or disobedience but emerged after the return of democracy following the fall of the military junta that fell in 1983. Thus, it is more celebratory and unifying than in many other places. It got a second boost as it provided much commentary following the collapse of the economy in 2001.
There are some exceptions: You can’t paint private property without permission of the owner. However, that permission is usually granted and a lot of businesses actively seek out talented artists to make their facades distinctive in the crowded urban setting. Also, the street ethic is that you can’t paint over something that is better than yours. If a building is tagged (spray painted signatures), a better artist can paint a mural over the tags. The reverse can’t happen; if a building has a beautiful mural, it can’t be tagged. And this generally holds up. There are 15 year old murals that no one has touched while any open space without a mural is heavily tagged.
Buenos Aires has become something of a draw to street artists from around the world. Below are some examples.
The next two are from a festival in 2011 where street artists from around the world were invited to paint the facades around a park. The bullfighters were inspired by Jaz’s trip to Barcelona. He painted this by hand, not being able to use the lifting equipment provided due to the lamp post. He used stage-setting techniques, tying brushes to the end of a 4m pole, to paint this tall bulls.
There is a lot to unpack below. It’s by a British artist and is an homage to both the Argentinian gaucho and says much, in it’s mimcry of David’s Napoleon crossing the Alps, about street art in Argentina. This one and Jaz’s bullfighters are adjacent to one another.
Neither of the above artists utilized the space that could be reached by hand exactly because they worried others would work that space over. I like this guy.
This is still in the park where the festival was held and the white figures represent the head scarves of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. I’ll probably write about them at some point but if you don’t know them, google it up. Also, U2 has a song I love inspired by them. Bring tissue and your righteous anger when you read about them.
The large man’s face was done using only a two layer stencil. Incredible.
This piece is by an Australian artist named Magee. It’s in Palermo Hollywood which gentrified quickly after the economic collapse in 2001. I forget the name for this but the entry, on the right, leads to 5 or 6 homes in the interior of the block, an arrangement quite common here. I can look down from my 5th floor apartment and see several and Tania, one of our program coordinators (lower right), lives in one. Anyway, the folks who lived here couldn’t pay the rent and were forced out in 2002 or 2003. The entry way was cemented shut. Magee painted an image of forced migration. It’s impossible to see in this image but the tree on the facade matches exactly the tree on the right (a real tree). This was, in my opinion, easily the most beautiful piece we saw. I’ve made enquiries on the property but haven’t yet learned how much it costs. Tania doesn’t think I can afford it (it’s a very upscale neighborhood and the only reason it still stands abandoned is the original owner died and there is an inheritance fight ongoing. When it’s settled, this piece is likely toast).
We finished in a bar painted entirely by street artists in exchange for some space for a gallery in the bar. Of course, it’s a paid tour so they drop you on the roof of the bar at the end of a three hour walk. Not a bad plan. We stayed for a long while taking in the mural and playing with the very, very, very tame bar-cat.