Porto Alegre Postcard
A young man draped in the colors of the Brazilian flag, an earnest uptilt to his head, strode across the floor waving a star-shaped sign proclaiming Luta (Struggle). Behind him came a gleaming-eyed girl sporting Venezuelan red, blue and yellow and holding up a five-pointed placard for Socialismo. Others hoisted Democracia, Partiçipão and Unidade into the firmament of the Gigantinho sports stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil, as part of the spectacle introducing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's Yanqui-defying speech at the World Social Forum in January. Around and around they glided in their kitschy routine; a man strummed folk tunes on a guitar and a radiant woman sang along.
Earlier that afternoon, across a sun-scorched field in the middle of the WSF grounds, some 200 men and women dressed in white dashed about in the sweltering heat, executing a range of choreographic patterns as live and recorded music blared in accompaniment: Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass, Brazilian pop tunes, shmaltzy ballads. Sometimes the performers advanced en masse toward the audience, which had assembled spontaneously around them. Sometimes they ran around the perimeter of the playing space, the sturdier among them offering a hand of support to those wilting in the sun. In one sequence, they drank water ceremonially from small plastic cups and shared sips with the crowd; in another, they dropped one by one to the ground, then resurrected. The piece lasted about four hours, with the choreographed scenes interrupted from time to time by colorful interventions: a raucous drum corps, a circle of capoeira sparring, a folkloric procession by an intergenerational group from southeastern Brazil, bells jingling on their ankles.
This spectacle, "Farra de Teatro" (Theater Spree), had been created collectively by participants in the WSF attending workshops with Brazilian theater artists over the preceding three days of the forum. With its open, antidoctrinal form, it could not have contrasted more vividly with the pre-Chávez pageantry. Along with the Soviet-style flag frolic, Chávez's vigorous, voluble address may have hit the slogans that animated many of the forum's 155,000 participants--"Imperialism is not invincible," he promised. "Capitalism must be transcended." But it was the Farra de Teatro that captured the WSF's spirit: exploratory, capacious and more than a little chaotic.
This was no accident. The fifth edition of the WSF, the annual people's alternative to the World Economic Forum in Davos, was the first to include Arts and Creation as one of its "thematic terrains"--the eleven groupings under which the event's more than 2,500 panels, discussions and presentations are organized (others included Defending Diversity; Assuring and Defending Earth; Communication; Sovereign Economies for and of the People--against Neoliberal Capitalism; and the largest, Human Rights). As a result, the arts took on a heightened role throughout the six-day event. Offering some 150 concerts, 130 film screenings, 90 art installations, 45 dance or theater performances, 60 panels and workshops, countless spontaneous sing-alongs and street plays, and an almost perpetually open mike in the hip-hop section of the youth camp of 35,000 residents, the WSF this year vastly expanded its aesthetic range and level of sophistication, elevating itself far beyond revolutionary cliché and the culture of Che.
On a panel called "Challenges to Political Art Practices," Brazil's cultural minister, Gilberto Gil, summed up the need for such a development. "When politics appropriates art, it is transformed into an object that is emptied of its meaning," he said. "What had been just one of the artwork's aspects becomes the only one, and art in its plenitude is brought to heel."
It's not enough to assert, as the WSF's rallying cry puts it, that "Another world is possible," organizers of the arts programming argued. People need to make that other world. Artists, who are in the business of inventing alternative realities, are indispensable to that political enterprise: They keep us exercising the muscle of the imagination.