Things Think of Us

Translation, festa, social movements, violence and art

Luiz Eduardo Soares

I. Translation and the de-naturing of language

The rural workers whose story I researched during the 1970’s in the Amazonian territory region of the State of Maranhão, were not aware that there were several languages in the world. When they found out, they were perplexed (Soares, 1981). They were even more astonished when I explained that our language is also incomprehensible to others. That we are ignorant about the riches of the world, was fine – we accept our place in the world, we can stand our own fragility. But when someone does not understand our speech, that is too much; it goes beyond all limits. It is an unacceptable absurdity, beyond comprehension.

They think that the meaning of what they say is transparent. The proof is in the speaking itself. After all, everyone understands their own speech, and other members of the community demonstrate that they also understand, because they respond and act in accordance with the meaning that is being communicated. The result is that if someone cannot understand what we say, it’s because the transparency only works for us, for our community – whatever that means. It was if they were discovering the multiplicity of worlds. Of course, there are worlds that we do not see, because they are invisible to us. That’s obvious and doesn’t worry them. It is just that these other worlds, whose existence of course they accept, are frequented by spirits, not by human beings of flesh and bone. The amazing, unbelievable, fabulous thing, is to discover that there are other worlds populated by humans, who we could meet at any time like the spirits, but in these extraordinary circumstances: we can see them, they can see us, but neither of us can understand the other.

This may seem trivial, but it is not.

And then there is the story of the water. There is an example that was presented by a member of the group that I have always thought significant. He asked me: “do you mean to say that if a Christian passed my door and asked for a glass of water, I wouldn’t give it to him because I couldn’t understand?”

If the universal dialogue is compromised, the relations between people will suffer, even to the point where the most basic gesture of compassion and hospitality is lost. ‘Christian’, for them, was a universal term for humans.

Pay attention here to the use of ‘Christian’ as a synonym for humanity. Perhaps this is the assumption that is so profoundly disturbed by the existence of this multiplicity of languages, with the end of transparency between all. Unity ceases to exist: the great unity of the world and of humans themselves, this image that seems so fundamentally to be part of the world itself. Unity disappears. The foundations that maintain the integrity of the universe are threatened.

To exorcise this threat, the people of Bom Jesus resorted to a very interesting ploy – ritualized investment in a form of activity that was non-discursive. It was as if by its secret and unconscious desire,  this activity would annihilate any risk of destabilizing the pillars of the community’s social and political identity: the Festival of the Mast, which secures both the unity of the group and of the world. It does so leaving words to one side. These treacherous pitfalls that take us one step closer to the de-naturalisation of what we are, what we see and what we believe.

II. The mast: a rural festa in the Amazon and political resistance.

In 1978, Bom Jesus was a farming community of approximately five thousand Black Brazilians, the descendants of slaves, who remained united in a successful resistance to the process of political and economic subordination of rural workers. The community was, therefore, an atypical case in a region marked by the expropriation of territories through violent means, by those who invaded the land and those who owned it. The culture, the positive ethnic affirmation and the development of a very specific political identity (albeit one that referred to the struggle for the collective ownership of land and for self-determination as workers) were key elements in an understanding of the group’s historical singularity. The highlights of their cultural life were the festas. One of the most eagerly anticipated ‘festivities’ in the community of Bom Jesus is the ‘quest for the mast’, which takes place on December 15th – from this point I am going to change my verbs into the present tense. Every year, through a process which combines both individual willingness and collective consensus, an elderly member of the group assumes the respectable and coveted role of the ‘Master of the Mast’.

The mast signals the start of a cycle of festivities, whose highlight is Christmas and whose end is marked by the festival of Epiphany on January 6th. It is the signpost and the symbol; and its erection in the centre of the village sets in train the preparations which are already coming to life in the a series of small celebrations.

In the weeks before the much-anticipated December 15th, the ‘master’ searches in the local Bom Jesus forests for a ‘pole’ i.e., a tree trunk that is in an appropriate state. In essence it should be tall, reasonably straight growing, not too heavy, and as smooth as possible, in other words with slender branches and not too many of them because they will be irritating and laborious obstacles to the mast’s preparation. Therein lies the wisdom of the ‘master’. Once the mast is chosen, it will keep secret the ingenuity of the master’s art or the success of his mission to search for the perfect tree trunk.

The day of the 15th dawns with fireworks announcing the start of the run-up towards Christmas with the start of the community’s festivities: ‘the quest for the mast’i. After finishing their daily work at about 16:30h, everyone interested in taking part in the expedition meets at the home of the ‘master’. They drink cachaça, sing, tell funny stories, jokes, tell rude jokes, and tease each other. Equipped with their work tools and a communal bottle of cachaça they head off in the direction indicated by the ‘master’. As they leave the village, a woman joins the team, hitherto exclusively male. She carries a banner bearing the image of St. Benedict and, silently and seemingly indifferently, accompanies the men. Many people come out of their homes to watch the procession, fireworks being let off as latecomers are still arriving home from their work on the land.

The entire route is marked by good-humoured assertions of happiness, mutual irreverence, swigs from the bottle under the direction of the ‘master’, songs, slapstick, mock fights and banter fuelled by cachaça and the spirit of celebration. It is an intense atmosphere of playful exaltation, full of joyful excitement.

From the point at which they leave the village of Bom Jesus – the ‘master of the mast’ is always from Bom Jesus – until the end of the party in the very centre of the village, the researcher felt that his presence had been neutralized. For the first time since he had begun living with this community, he experienced his identity dissolve.

A few kilometres away, deep in the forest, the ‘master’ ends the suspense and proudly presents his find. To cheers of approval, and in a state of playful intoxication that is both aggressive and affectionate (in the opinion of the researcher), work begins on cutting and polishing the ‘mast’, fuelled by collective enthusiasm and dedication. In about thirty or forty minutes the task is completed, and a so-called ‘indian line’ forms as the men arrange themselves one after the other so that they can all share the responsibility of carrying the trunk. It sits on the shoulders of about fifteen men, replaced periodically by about ten others. On leaving the forest they once again meet the woman with the banner, who did not penetrate the dark web of the trees.

The return is a repeat of the journey there, the only difference being the degree of boldness in the banter, and the intensity of the emotions at play. The drink, the quickening rhythm of the singing and of the humorous invective, are proportionate to the various stages of the mission. There is a synchronization between the levels of intensity with which people experience the event and the continuous, successive  moments of the ritual.

The position of the woman was only differentiated from that of the researcher because she was carrying an element that was key to the proceedings, and therefore had a codified function. Moreover, the distant and undisturbed way in which she conducted herself –  responding in kind to the indifference with which she was treated – was reflected in the total freedom of vocabulary and deeds, not customary in the presence of women. This was the same as their reaction to the researcher, in that he seemed to have been forgotten, and as such did not feel as though he could participate as a member of the group.

When the expedition approaches the village, they hear the fireworks and the excited noise of the  the carnival that awaits the ‘mast’. Crowds of families wait for the group preceded by the pennant banner of St. Benedict. They welcome it in, and surround it as it goes around the village, stopping at each of the houses one by one, starting at the local shop. They all stop at the front door of every house, singing and fooling around, trying to score points off the ‘mast’. The ‘master’ of the mast takes it through the entrance, aided by the bearers, and rests its pointed upper part on a wooden bench, placed in the room by the ‘master of the house’ to welcome the distinguished visiting object. The ‘master of the mast’, joined by the free chorus of happy voices, then asks the momentary host for a contribution worth five cruzeiros – the cost in December 1978 (about 25 cents or a quarter of a US dollar) – to pay for a bottle of cachaça, which will first be partially drunk and then tied to the top of the trunk. The donor-host invariably displays a mixture of shame and embarrassment, employing a farcical tone that corresponds to the general atmosphere in which the ‘master of the house’ – the temporary protagonist in the drama – gives the impression that he is honoured and exploited, and haggles (between laughs) over his contribution, which, when it comes, provokes noisy celebrations. The hosts take part in all the visits, changing role when the procession reaches their home: no longer carrying the ‘mast’ but receiving it, taking their turn as the ceremonial interlocutor of the ‘master of the mast’ and of its community of bearers.

Once they have finished walking round to visit each house, they collectively transform themselves almost imperceptibly, into a procession, and the first religiously-inspired songs begin. Candles borne on the heads of the women – signifying payment of promises – appear in parallel with an increasing circumspection on the part of the participants, and the walking takes a straighter and more regular route. The procession goes around the outside of the circle of houses that form the village boundary, marking a kind of return around the periphery towards the point of arrival: the place where the ‘mast’ will be erected in front of the door of the little chapel, the obligatory epicentre of all the processions organized in the area around this village.

At this stage there are no more visits, not even to the houses close to the route. The ‘master of the mast’ carries on regardless, accompanied by the religious leader who is responsible for the care of the chapel and for leading the songs and collective prayers. They are at the front of the group, ahead of the ‘mast’. Whilst the process of carrying the mast around had not appeared particularly religious during the phase of the house visits and the collecting of contributions, he had posted himself at each of the thresholds crossed by the trunk, and reeled off a series of songs alternated by choruses and improvisations.

The procession again turns into a lively, cheerful and relaxed crowd when it reaches the nominated spot which has been prepared in advance. The hole that serves for the setting up of the ‘mast’ each year has already been dug and the mast does not penetrate the chapel. Back to plenty of drinking and starting to make the crown of the ‘mast’, consisting of a sheaf of grass, a bottle of cachaça, a bunch of bananas and the St. Benedict pennant banner. The trunk is erected amid fireworks and noisy celebrations. Only at this stage does the political leader of the community help the ‘master of the mast’ in directing the tasks, and participate more directly in the celebrations and collective drinking, although never getting involved in the banter, refusing to forgo the dignity of his position.

With the ‘mast’ planted, it is already night, and the community goes its own way to eat and get ready for the evening. They will meet again later for the ‘tambor da crioula’[1] and for collective prayers organized at one of the houses in the village.

The first part of the ritual, that is, the phase that involves the visit and return from the forest, and the cutting and trimming of the trunk, represents the problematic nature of labour.

The theme of the next phase of the ‘quest for the mast’ is the relationship between the individual and the collective, the private and the public, stemming from the attitudes that surround the ‘mast’ visits. The individual participates in the collective action as an outside participant during the series of visits, becoming the centre of the action when it enters his own home as he receives the tip of the ‘mast’, offering it a stool and contributing to the cost of the collective drink. At that moment the individual comes into being, effectively, through the recognition of the group; that is, individuality is legitimized by integration into the community and established through collective authority. To be an individual in this context means to belong, and thus to take a place, to be at one with your social identity, fully to become a Black man or Black woman from Bom Jesus.

The visit re-iterates a single model: only the tip of the ‘mast’ enters the house, guided by its ‘master’, who positions himself precisely on the threshold, mediating between those outside, the community, and those within, the family and especially the ‘master of the house’ (the religious leader stays near the door, but without coming as close as the ‘master of the mast).  The interlocutor with the group – which is represented by its intermediary the ‘master of the mast –  who represents the group because the ‘mast’, as we will see, symbolically stands for unity through its unifying and synthesizing characteristics – is preferably the individual head of the house and the household. Thus the state of individuality is subject to a process of insertion, not only into the group, but also into a household, each being mediated by the other.  Individuality-domestic unity-the group are expressed as an indissoluble trinomial. Each term is dependent on this triangular system.  They become unimaginable and cannot be experienced socially if they become disconnected from their triad, which, of course, does not reduce the essential level of autonomy of each one of the three.  

When I watched the round of house visits, what impressed me was the erotic energy in the collective efforts to push the ‘mast’ through the doorway and into the house. The penetration by the ‘mast’ was visible and experienced by the actors in the ritual as a highly erotic moment. A collective penis really did copulate with the agents of a family unit.

The act totally confirms the suggested analysis. The verb ‘copulate’ was not used arbitrarily. After all, beyond the sexual act, it designates the establishment of a relationship between two elements, indicating a conjunction. Copulation, in this case, organically connects public and private, the individual/domestic and the communitarian, establishing a reciprocity of intentions fundamental to the establishment of solidarity and of the shared recognition of social-identity – autonomous preserves of the combined units which are defined by being combined.

When the ‘mast’ is replanted in the middle of the central ground of the village around which the houses lie, the question is posed about the boundary between nature and society,  notwithstanding that other primordial oppositions underlying previous stages are still in some manner present. The tree is now rebuilt, reconstructed with the symbols of society, namely, the bunch of bananas – a fundamental economic product; the banner of Saint Benedict (a Black saint) – ethnic and religious identity; the cachaça – representing, par excellence, the domain of leisure; and the grass, taking the place of nature in this condensed ecosystem. At this moment, the tree that has been removed from the forest acquires a new appearance and a new meaning.

The indissoluble and irreducible entity of the ‘mast’ brings together through its process of social production and its erection – culminating in the design of its crown –  representatives of four essential spheres in the group’s life that are inextricably linked to the flow of everyday life: economy (labour and wealth); religion (the code which governs social relations and the relations between society and nature: death, life, sickness, health); leisure (play, entertainment, courtship, games, the development of social relationships and of networks); and nature (interlocutor par excellence of society in its power of affirmation and survival).

This unification of domains transforms the ‘mast’ into a supradiscursive cultural category, into a phenomenal ritual category, a thing suffused with cultural meaning, an object-category, reifying the device and its supreme instruments, not to fix them, but to allow the full flourishing of its social consequences, which begins with its objective, democratic institution. The ‘mast’ ceases to be a mere symbol, in order to begin acting as mediator (the mediator conjugates. The one who conjugates imposes syntaxes not foreseen by the immanence of a lexicon. The mediator produces combinations and syntactic articulations create meanings. They make sense). The ‘mast’ is a symbol generator.  Such a unification does not eliminate specificities and autonomies, it just expresses them within a basic framework of unity. It is a logic of unity that is evoked, sustained and managed in this case, by the elaboration and reproduction of group identity, which somehow homogenises the various realms of social experience and makes them transitive.

Without pretending to take into account all of the semantic richness of the ethnographic material, we may conclude by highlighting the unifying and synthesizing character of this community enterprise which performs an important role of cognitive and affective elaboration of the practices and beliefs that are fundamental to this society. It makes possible and strengthens the experience of group unity which is key to the resistance against the predatory claims of ‘barons’ and their allies. The small society of Bom Jesus sums up in a few hours the drama of its own reproduction, both as a group and as individuals.

Edésio (their political leader) demonstrates the clarity of perception about the place and function of festivities such as the ‘quest for the mast’.  He laments the possibility of a resolution to the ‘land question’ through an individualistic route (the individualized distribution of property titles) because, amongst other reasons, the “people” would definitively be deprived of shared existence, community solidarity and festivities, which are essentially communitarian moments. This does not mean that tension or even violent conflicts do not occur, but these are subordinated to the logic of the reproduction of the identity of the group. If these admissions reveal a connection between festivities, such as those held in Bom Jesus, and community life, they betray, on the other hand, a fundamental reality: festas are political manifestations, true exercises in the formulation and dissemination of a particular version of what the people of Bom Jesus should be. Offering plausible structures, creating conditions which accept certain constructions of identity and definitions of reality (Berger and Luckmann, 1973), the ritual dramas of the festivities turn themselves into people-focused devices of internal hegemony, a substantial tool in expanding the social bases of the communitarian project. They are also anti-hegemonic devices, opening up an ideological front of resistance, responsible for a kind of war of positions, in Gramsci’s terms. It is here, stealthily and inescapably infiltrated within the rural workers’ social experience, but also ever present in the sphere of festivals, of leisure and of play which within their mediations stage the fight for the land and the struggle against class oppression.

III. The post: flashmobs, lynching and the subversion of the geopolitical order
On January 31st, 2014, about 30 men on 15 motorcycles surrounded four teenagers on Avenida Rui Barbosa, in Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo neighbourhood, apparently on the pretext that they seemed suspicious. Two of the boys managed to escape. The other two saw one of the bikers with a 9mm pistol and didn’t run. They were beaten up. One of them escaped. His unfortunate partner, a Black teenager, was tied by the neck to a post (another mast, here fulfilling reverse symbolic function, as we shall see); where they left him naked and bleeding like a slaughtered prey. The vigilantes left. Soon there was more news about the same motorcycle gang. Other young, poor people were beaten and left naked under threat of lynching. Whilst beating their victims, the bikers accused them of committing robberies and other crimes. The signs seem clear, even if they were not conscious decisions. Why tie them by the neck to a post? Why leave the victim naked? There were messages in these choices. And they could only be understood in the context marked by rolezinhos –  flashmobs –  and the spread of hate.

The quasi-lynchings were not isolated cases. Every year there are lynchings in Brazil. What made this a news item was the intersection between space and time in which these episodes occurred: in an affluent southern neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, at the height of the flashmob fever.

Groups of young people from the outskirts of São Paulo meeting at petrol stations, in the early hours of the morning, at weekends, or in the car park of a supermarket, had already been going on for some time. They were “cries for leisure activities,” as the participants said, eager to find entertainment that was scarce in arid areas that were devoid of accessible and attractive programmes. But on December 8th the group began to innovate: about six thousand young people gathered at the Metro Itaquera shopping centre. According to active members of the group, they arranged a flashmob in a site of middle-class leisure and consumer consumption. There was uproar, the shopping centre closed an hour and a half early, customers and shopkeepers feared violence, some reported thefts, but the administration denied that there had been crimes, let alone the alleged manhunt. Family outings and the routine of the establishment were disrupted by fear but nothing relevant was reported to the police authorities. The situation was bizarre because, strictly speaking, there was nothing wrong and therefore nothing to be done to prevent young people from poor communities occupying city spaces that also belonged to them, even if they weren’t accustomed to going there. In a sense, with no explicit rule that vetoed their presence, this new experience brought out imaginary barriers. The unexpected visit created discomfort.

Both sides realized the subtlety of what was happening. Yes, the events were grandiose, made a lot of noise, but the gesture that changed the pieces on the chess board was subtle and touched a nerve in national insecurities. The young people understood that occupations were becoming political acts: it was as if they were reasserting their rights over public spaces, from which poor people and Blacks have always been excluded in Brazil. That was how the flashmobs became a very serious game and touched the nerve of one of the greatest Brazilian taboos: racism, repressed under an ideology of racial democracy. Tolerance exists when one group stays on one side and the other on the other, separated geographically, in shopping centres, in environments that are usually frequented by one or the other. Social and economic inequalities ensured this distance, isolating, channelling or sublimating tensions. The avalanche of substantive changes that had occurred in the previous two decades caused the majority of people to feel valued and strengthened, causing them to adopt the language of rights, either as consumers or as citizens. Racist crimes began to be reported and taken seriously. For the first time in the history of the country, numerous contingents of young Black people went to university and they were no longer willing to be insulted by anyone.  References to the white elite, before an exotic caricature, came to mark the conversations of politically mobilized segments of society.

The first flashmob was a media success and ensured the success of the call to the next, which brought together twenty-five hundred people in Guarulhos International Shopping Centre, in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, on 14 December 2013. The sequence of actions can be seen as the performative disruption of symbolic walls that separated poor and rich, promoting changes in conventional, elitist and racist geopolitics. Encouraged by the enthusiasm with which the calls for action on social networks were followed up, as well as the intensity of the reactions that the invasions raised, young people did not retreat. The flashmobs were peaceful and playful, but frightening. Continued flashmobs invoked harsh statements by retail associations, and the state government was urged to crack down harshly on these actions. They were disturbing the customers, scaring them away from the shopping centres, and traders were losing a lot of money. On 11 January, the military police did not hesitate to resort to rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a throng of young people in the Metro Itaquera shopping centre, which had been the scene of the first episode of this series. One young man was arrested. Two robberies and two thefts were recorded. That day there had been other flashmobs in other Paulista shopping centres. Establishments applied for judicial orders, demanding the banning of these events. It was difficult to define the rules of the game. Was filtering permissible? By age? It would be unconstitutional to bar on the basis of colour or clothing, but what about by number? That would only work if the thousands arrived all at once. How to distinguish between consumers and the visitors who had chosen to participate in the performance (which in effect only amounted to being amongst large numbers in a predetermined space, possibly singing the most popular songs)? Interestingly, the participants in the flashmobs were also consumers. There was no vandalism, crime, violence. Why, and based on what criteria, could entry be prohibited?

The first flashmob of Rio de Janeiro was not convened until 19 February 2014. Even so, Rio knew all about the flashmobs and there was lots of talk about it, as newspapers, magazines, radios and TVs covered in detail what happened in São Paulo. Other states began to see similar events. The Paulista example was contagious. The conditions were right for the experience to spread. Therefore, when a Black teenager was beaten and left naked, tied by the neck to a post – the mast of martyrdom – the flashmobs were already present in the daily repertoire of the media and the social conscience. There were very strong images of young Black people moving as wandering populations in migratory waves into the temples of middle-class consumption, – shopping centres – crossing boundaries that once might have been considered insurmountable. Not that previously poor, Black young people were forbidden to enter and walk around shopping centres. As prices and the environment were not, shall we say, familiar to them, their presence was not significant. Entering in large numbers, they held up a magnifying glass to their own presence, making it a notorious public fact. The geopolitics of the national, silent apartheid was being destabilized. Walls had been pulled down by the recent reductions in inequalities and by the new role that was being assumed by young people from the peripheries. This mobility haunted many people.

When the thirty bikers attacked the teenagers in Rio de Janeiro, this was the background picture even though none of it was verbalized. Carioca[2] vigilantes tied the boy to the post to dramatize the marking of their territory, creating a counterpoint to the migratory waves, to the nomadism that knows no borders of class or colour, to mobility that ignores the social geography established by the traditional distribution of power. They hung him by his neck to deprive him of a voice, and we know that the voice is the most important means to affirm human nature. Voice articulates language and language constitutes the subject, denotes it with subjectivity, dignity and rights. Nudity corresponds to the deprivation of the most basic sign of belonging to human society: clothes. The young Black man was reduced to a body without a voice, devoid of movement and language – subjectivity, dignity, rights and social inclusion. The assault on the teenager was a brutal response to the flashmobs, paradoxically demonstrating their deep historical meaning. Societies change just like animals change their skin. In Brazil, the old layer of skin would not yield without resistance.

If the mast in Bom Jesus operated as a supra-discursive category, an object-category, providing the experience of group unity and multi-dimensional cosmic integration, articulating – under the auspices of unity – harmony, work-leisure-religion-nature-politics-individual-society, the savage lynching drama puts at the centre of its meaning a post: the mast here operating as the territorial allocation, as the embodiment of inequalities, of the social apartheid and structural racism of Brazilian society. Another indicator of this lamentable role is the fact that the post is where it was put and where it will remain. It is a fixed component of the ritual scene. On the other hand, the mast of Bom Jesus migrates from the forest to the village centre through the power of collective effort. It is mobile; the shift occurs whilst the ritual is in motion, as a strategic function during the ritual itself.

Material of Deconstruction: the frozen explosion and shattered phallocentrism

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 Cornelia Parker born 1956 Presented by the Patrons of New Art (Special Purchase Fund) through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1995

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 Cornelia Parker born 1956 Presented by the Patrons of New Art (Special Purchase Fund) through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1995

Cold Dark Matter: an exploded view was created by Cornelia Parker in 1991, and is part of the Tate Gallery collection in London. The work combines wood, paper, plastic, metal, ceramic, fabric and wire. It is a magnificent, magnetic installation which overlaps the stupor of catastrophe with the enchantment of sublime beauty. Light, suspended, almost like a mobile. Combining fragmentation with unity and fast centripetal displacement within an integrated corporeality, the work alludes to a centrifugal order.  Like an attractive image of rest and comfort, like a harmonious household light which warms and fills the environment, it also appears to be a confusion of junk, trash and demolition pieces. There is humour which is highlighted by the author when she refers to her own original inspiration for the work: the language of cartoons when they depict explosions and violence. I would dare suggest that there is also, whether consciously or unconsciously, a reference to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970): consumer objects exploding in slow motion. The circular format refers to autonomy, perfection, self-sufficiency, but the shadows cast across the room by multidirectional lights allude to the cacophony of excesses, remains, emptiness, asymmetries, subordinating the mood to frightening disorder, or beauty to ruin. The counterpoint imposes itself immediately: the alchemy of the work transforms the apocalypse in the explosive origin of the universe, death at birth. The circuit is constant: the work transfers the movement and uncertainty to the beholder, stealing him before any effort to apprehend him.

In Cold Dark Matter, wood protrudes, sticks out, jabs at the air, pointing to all sides. The work of disintegration is frozen; the process of breakdown is withheld.  The movement is trapped in the spherical shape of the frame.

Let us put the mast and the post in conversation with the explosive vision of Cornelia Parker. Before the Amazonian mast of the rural workers, the British installation utters a condemnation: unity is no longer possible, neither social or cosmic. Heaven and earth no longer fit in one single object, seamless and pacifying. The top and bottom are not linked by one long trunk, planted and raised in the village centre. The articulation between different spheres of everyday life can no longer be represented by an object-category that challenges fragmentation, submitted to its own order, evoking identity under the aegis of a phallocentric installation. Any possible anchoring lies in the interaction between the pieces (the metonymy of the sticks), not the fitting of the pieces to complete the shape, not in the mimetic game between the hole dug in the ground and the grandiose erectness of the mast. In the installation of 1991, each piece brings what the other is missing. In Cold Dark Matter, the pieces carry absence and are excessive. They do not complement each other, they are intransitive, they do not build a message together: they make circular smithereens of contradictory meanings. However, even though synthesis and unity are no longer possible, the work brings into representation a sceptical time that is marked by contradictions and characterized by asserting itself rebelliously in its representation. It represents the unrepresentable, and this paradox is the strategic aspect of our time. The contrast with the mast and the post and the explosion into pieces of what allegedly was once one thing, shows the resistance to phallocentrism and, as such, makes manifest the female. The explosion as the origin of life also refers to the female. To some extent, the impossibility of representation is in effect the failure of phallocentrism, which has traditionally been confused with the very matrix of representation. The game of correspondence is asymmetric and refers to man  – confused with the human species – God,  power, the Father. The unity refers to power, an amalgamation of  the separate parts. And power, in the European world that we inherited, was predominantly male. The man was the guarantor of meaning and knowledge, the measure of all things. Cold Dark Matter offers the beauty of all things in permanent revolution, without any trivial ideological insinuation of meaning.

The post operates to reassure the order put at risk by the flashmobbers – or, by analogy, by migration in Europe and other parts of the world (the imagery is globalized). The lynch mob resorted to the post to secure their victim and send a clear signal: no displacement. Brazilian internal geopolitics, racist and unequal, cannot not be subverted. The level of violence corresponds to the magnitude of the uncertainty of the executioners. It seems clear that the order to be defended with such criminal violence is not only socio-economic and political, but also one that identifies gender and sexuality by contrasting classifications that are one-dimensional. In other words, the post also serves as support to phallocentrism that is under threat.

Cold Dark Matter shatters the post, sends it into space in tiny pieces. And in its spherical silhouette –  in its porous, hollow, incomplete and failed form – it annuls the chance of becoming an anchor point, a safe and constant reference. It refuses in addition, a point of view sub specie aeternitatis (of reason), beyond history and culture, from which it is possible to identify with absolute precision the beautiful, the just and the true. A language that refracts phallocentrism does not put the female in the centre: it has no centre. The female as a pair with the male is just a phallocentric projection.

A mast moves (is moved) to connect people, weaving an integrative network, celebrating conviviality, pleasure and life: Bom Jesus, 1978. A fixed mast, a post, serves to separate people and block mobility, which reinvents Brazilian geopolitics, by colour and class: Rio de Janeiro, 2014.

There is an unspoken dialogue between objects through time, if we open up space to welcome such dialogue interpretatively, bringing together different cultural settings and different historical moments, construed and tested in various languages. A Category-object attracts meanings like a magnet and operates to make things produce effects like performative acts of speech. A Category-Object inscribed into a specific drama, works more than just as a backdrop and support. Things, by their form and their role in rituals, think, wonder, and propose an aesthetic-political vocabulary that redefines the problem of translation.

To the extent that we subtract the anthropomorphic and anthropocentric substrates of the components of a drama, and let the things move, they can as they act, tell their own story, adapting our own and opening us up to new perspectives. The opacity of an object is impenetrable, as much as its “speech” is inatural.  Humans are out of the communication loop. Things, however, are eloquent and the contemporary urban world – unrepresentable but open to creative interventions in community-based festas and art – is not Christian.


Soares, Luiz Eduardo – Peasantry: ideology and politics. RJ: Zahar, 1981.

i The description of the festivities is a modified version of a part of the chapter “Counterpoint ritual external representations” in Peasantry: ideology and politics (Soares, 1981).

[1] Literally “Creole drum”, this Afro-Brazilian cultural tradition, particularly associated with St. Benedict, involves drumming with a polyrhythmic and syncopated beat. There is singing and a dance by women in which each takes a turn to dance in the centre of the circle.  The intensity of the dance builds towards the climactic punga or umbigada, when the woman in the centre chooses the next dancer to take the central place, in a characteristic gesture of leave-taking and welcome.  (translator’s note)

[2] Carioca denotes people, attitudes, objects from Rio de Janeiro