Porto Alegre Postcard | The Nation


Porto Alegre Postcard

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Some of the WSF's most high-profile participants tried to shift the forum toward action in a more literal way. In a controversial move, nineteen WSF founders and members of its international committee, all but one of them men, issued a manifesto calling, among other things, for cancellation of developing countries' debt, taxing speculative capital transactions and protecting women and minorities from discrimination. "Now no one can say we don't have a program," signatory Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde diplomatique, explained to the press. Some international committee members who did not sign the document charged its drafters with violating the WSF's principle of horizontal organization and suggested that rather than being released in a press conference, the manifesto should have been posted on the "proposals wall" where WSF participants were invited to tack up their ideas. (Among more than 350 scrawled-upon pages hung suggestions for a project on human rights in China, a global scholars association and a prostitution cooperative.)

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Alisa Solomon
Alisa Solomon, director of the arts and culture concentration at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of...

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Either way, the twelve-point manifesto--though signed by such literary luminaries as Frei Betto, Eduardo Galeano and José Saramago--made no mention of any right to creative expression. Perhaps such a notion seemed romantic or, worse, irrelevant to the forum's main project: to bring together people fighting neoliberal globalization through such efforts as alternative media (a one-day confab on the subject preceded the official opening of the WSF); local resistance to water privatization (in one workshop, a representative from Uruguay described how that country recently amended its constitution to declare water a human right); participatory democracy projects (like Porto Alegre's own famous Participatory Budget, now threatened after sixteen years by a new municipal government, elected in October); and fallow-land seizure and sustainable farming (such as practiced by Brazil's Landless Workers Movement, which has its own extensive arts and culture sector). In previous editions of the WSF, explained Ben Berardi, one of the two co-chairs of the arts committee, performers were welcome to offer the relief of entertainment to forum participants weary from a grueling day debating ideology and tactics. But it took four years to persuade organizers that culture has more to offer--and that artists should benefit from the same sort of international networking and strategy-sharing that draw so many activists to the WSF.

After three forums with incremental improvements, the arts proponents' position got a big boost at the 2004 WSF in Mumbai, India, where cultural manifestations erupted regularly and exuberantly in the streets. "Mumbai convinced everyone," said Marcos Barreto, the other arts co-chair and a theater director. In the cultural department of Porto Alegre's government under the Workers Party, Barreto advanced the idea that "art is necessary for citizenship." This year he and his colleagues tried to promote the same energy of open exchange by, for instance, installing musicians on open-air stages scattered throughout the forum's three-mile territory along the Guaiba River. To walk the sweltering trek from one section of meeting tents to another was to pass from the electric screech of a punk guitar to the mesmerizing repetition of indigenous chants to the melodic beat of two South African men rapping about HIV prevention. Perhaps that's why so many reports on this year's WSF--in both mainstream and alternative media--evoked Woodstock, usually with scorn, as if the presence, and pleasures, of all those bands somehow diminished the serious business of resisting imperialism. On the contrary: What would the anti-Vietnam War movement have amounted to without Hendrix and Joplin and Santana and the Dead, and the wider counterculture for which they provided the soundtrack?

Comedy intruded productively, too. "Not the kind that dilutes and cheapens an idea," says Leo Bassi, the Italian performance artist who has been calling himself a "clown-terrorist" for at least fifteen years. "But the capacity to laugh at yourself, keeping an open space of doubt in your beliefs."

Bassi staged a deliberately disturbing stunt at the end of an overflowing session on organizing a worldwide boycott of Coca-Cola. With eight Coke cans strapped over his business suit, suicide-bomber style, he listened to delegates from India, Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Canada charge the company with dumping pollutants, intimidating workers, lowering water tables and endangering people's health. Then Bassi made a speech about the company's ubiquity as a sponsor on the music scene and manically stabbed at his cans, fizzing the reviled beverage over the crowd. "The first rows fled in panic," he says, performing "in an instant what the organizers have been trying to do for years: get people to avoid Coca-Cola."

One evening, a local samba school involved more than 300 forumistas, some of whom had attended its workshops, in a raucus street show. Grouped according to the colors of their bright crepe vests--yellow ones bore slogans related to housing, reds to health, blues to shameless profiteering--the company bounced along to booming music, singing a jubilant protest song, its Portuguese lyrics conveniently printed on cardboard fans handed out to everyone in sight. The mass inched rhythmically down the street in that butt-twitching shuffle of a national dance, joined by all the standard elements of a samba team: dozens of young men pounding on drums, dervishing grandmothers in ruffled prom dresses, shimmying women in enormous heels, feather headdresses and sequined bikinis. This was high-spirited agitprop without a trace of sanctimony.

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