I was lucky enough to accompany Kate Stewart of We Make Places to Rio de Janeiro last week to assist her on a brilliant and humbling project ‘RioVisivel’. As a film and audio installation and developing online library of the same, RioVisivel invites the people of Rio to broadcast positive human stories from their communities. The RioVisivel stories are told from the platform of a DIY podia, a reference to the impending global event that is directing the world to see a ‘sanitised’ Rio, where many of the diverse individuals and communities that make the city great are hidden from view. You can look, but it will be hard to find positive portrayals of or representation in decision making by the Cariocas, the homeless, the youths of the Favelas, the transgender or the activist communities; for some reason there is a belief that this is not the real Rio. Kate and her creative colleagues who took part in Peoples’ Palace Projects’ CriativoLab believe otherwise; this is the Rio they love and are proud of.
As our flight landed in Rio, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff was concluding, whereby Brazil’s female president , advocate of the poor and lower middle classes, voted in by 56 million voters, now ousted by the rather more conservative and very male senate. Whilst Brazil slid further into deep recession, Dilma had fallen from favour with much of the electorate. Her current self imposed replacement Michel Temer, is himself under investigation for corruption, as are a number of members of the senate who have colluded in Dilma’s impeachment. This particular dark political time was feeling like a tough backdrop for seeking ‘optimism’ in Rio.
Kate’s project Rio Visivel Podio (podium), emerged from her residency within Lab Criativo in October 2015, a residency that brought together 20 academics and creatives from the UK and Rio. The residency was run by Peoples Palace Projects and funded by the Newton Fund. The 2-week residency demanded that all involved were immersed in the social political and cultural context of Rio, before combining expertise over the following 6 months to demonstrate creative approaches to encourage social change and transformation or comment on current circumstances, The project was developed and implemented with creative collabrators Kazz Morohashi in UK and Tiago Cosmo in Rio. The resulting film and audio recordings were showcased within public exhibition at Oi Futuro Museu Flamengo 16-18 May 2016 as part of a collaboration with Multiplicidade
I had the privilege to accompany Kate and the team as she talked with and filmed citizens of the Complex de Maré, along with the inspiring guys within Agĕncia de Redes Para Juventude, a dynamic youth agency who encourage creative thinking and social enterprise.
To give you some idea of the scale of Rio’s favelas (financially poor, unregulated, unrecognised neighbourhoods) Complexo da Maré, being the largest has a population of 800,000 people – that’s significantly larger than Liverpool (466,000) and even Manchester (517,000). A recent citizen-led campaign to assign street names has kick-started a drive to see the favelas recognised as legitimate neighbourhoods. Check out a Rio tourism map and you’ll see no evidence that favela communities exist. The bulk of the population of Rio beyond the favelas have never stepped across the boundaries into one. A significant amount of Brazil’s 60,000 annual homicides occur in favelas, in part related to a 30 year drugs war, but grossly accelerated by a brutal and very questionable military policing regime.
To gain a better understanding of the intervention that Kate and her colleagues created in response to the communities they met in Rio I ask Kate some questions:
ST: why in your opinion, was it so important that the narrative of the RioVisivel podio project conveyed positive messages and stories, particularly when we consider Rio and Brazil are in such social and political turmoil right now? Are we in danger of glossing over realities?
KS: There were 2 main reasons for this, the first being that I knew that other members of our group would be addressing issues of police brutality and hidden deaths and that they themselves had direct experience and understanding of this. So they were better placed to make art that commented on this than I am.
The social and political situation in Rio is incredibly tense at the moment and as an outsider it would be hard to be completely up to date with it or understand the full implications, particularly as it is changing so rapidly at the moment.
What I was struck by during my visit last year was the resilience of the communities and the amazing work that some young people are carrying out – setting up NGO’s and social enterprises to offer projects that support other members of their communities. Amongst the poverty and the fear there was also great richness of character, human spirit and dreams for the future. I wanted to give people a platform to celebrate this.
There was a wave of what we would call social cleansing carried out during the World Cup in neighbourhoods where sports tourists and the world’s press would pass through, and there is evidence this is happening again for the Olympics so I was frustrated that the colour and life that we all think of when we think of Rio is not embraced by the authorities as the real Rio. I originally wanted to create a book called ‘I am Rio’ which would have profiles of the people really making a difference, the people that you are never introduced to and that the press would never write anything positive about. Then I had the opportunity to propose a project with a combined Rio and UK team that could be commissioned by Multiplicidade, a creative festival in Rio and the idea for the film and listening booths came about.
It’s been fabulous to work with a transnational team of creatives with different skills and backgrounds to create this project.
ST: Kate, when you spoke at the exhibition launch of the Lab Criativo projects, you spoke passionately of the similarities between Rio and Liverpool, largely concerning histories of social justice – can you elaborate?
KS: Obviously the Hilsborough Justice Campaign has been at the forefront of our lives here recently and I felt it was important to explain a little about this fight to the people we were working with, mainly to demonstrate the strength of human spirit and that it is always worth continuing to fight for justice. People living in the Favela’s see so much violence at the hands of the police and we heard stories of parents fighting to clear the names of their children who were killed in police custody and then branded as criminals. We can’t understand their pain, but we can stand beside them as they fight for justice and for the longer-term change that Rio needs to see.
ST: Which particular stories that you filmed touched you the most?
KS: There were so many positive stories from young and old members of the communities that were full of joy and hope. Lots of the recording sessions ended in tears and hugs as people thanked us for giving them the space to share positive stories.
Whilst we were in Rio, we also heard a lot our friends talking about the political situation and how for the first time it is making them fearful and that leaving the country is something they have started to consider.
One of the young women we filmed talked about how on a daily basis going to university is a struggle as she knows she is so different from the others there – how far she travels, where she comes from, the colour of her skin, how little money she has. And then suddenly her body language changed from really sad to that of defiance as she declared that actually people needed to stay in Rio and make the changes happen and that leaving wasn’t the answer.
ST:What happens now with Rio Visivel?
KS: Well a number of the people I have been working with have said they would like to continue the project; Tiago, part of our original team who is an awesome musician and runs an orchestra for young people – Camerata Laranjeiras – has a Podium that he is going to take out with the orchestra when they perform. Anna, who is an actress who works for a youth agency marketing the projects of the young people is going to continue to record the stories of those young people, and Diego who is a student on the outskirts of Rio is going to record with his fellow students who are working on a project about the future of Rio.
We have also left one of the Podia in a cultural space in Maré and the listening booths were gifted to the main organisation in that favela which they intend to use for a project during and about the Olympics.
We shot almost 2 hours of film and had to condense it to a 6 minute video and 15 mins of audio, so I am going to continue to edit what we have and create more short movies to share. We will also add English subtitles.
I’ve started talking about using the model of the project to create something here in a local community venue in Liverpool and it would be great to collect stories from different cities and create a network to share. Kazz who was part of the project team is also creating a Museum of Human Kindness and there will definitely be stories emerging from the Podia project that are suitable for celebrating in her project.
So, I think it is far from over!
With my own experience as a first time visitor to Rio, a couple of thoughts really struck home. Above the architecture, beaches and landmarks, my favourite experiences were through the people I met. Regardless of affluence, the spirit, welcome and warmth of Rio’s people reminded me of the very qualities that made Liverpool my adopted home 26 years ago, contrasting with the negative stereotyping prevalent in the media. Secondly, can western media please put a stop to the use of the term ‘developing countries’? This ridiculous phrase peddles the imperialist falsehood that the more resources a nation consumes it somehow rises up in the pecking order of respectability. The old system is clearly broken and any learning and advancement for us all needs to be a two-way street.
The stories I heard from Luis, who was filming the exhibition, of happy proud people, living frugally in a place where they felt they could leave the door open came from a Rio favela, not Totnes. Scratch beneath the surface of any community on this planet and you will find good people, regardless of beliefs, affluence or conflict. No community should ever be dismissed as ‘the other less important people’. This is why the RioVisivel project is so vitally important.
Here is the video from the exhibition – in Portuguese but please watch it as you will feel the energy and positivity from these stories. (Subtitled version coming soon)
Kate Stewart is an artist, designer, jewellery maker, social entrepreneur and co-founder of We Make Places CIC. She is currently leading a programme of cultural activity for Liverpool’s Friends of the Flyover in 2016.
The author – Steve Threlfall is the co-founder of Different studio a Liverpool based design practice with community engagement at its core and Director at We Make Places CIC.