Porto Alegre Postcard

Porto Alegre Postcard

This year’s World Social Forum gave culture its due–and reaped the rewards.


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.

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.)

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.

Interventions like the samba parade and the Farra de Teatro not only added to the giddy assertion of public space. They offered a model for the doing of politics: groups of strangers coming together with common purpose and, with a little improvising, discussion, adjustment and trust, making something wonderful happen.

The more contemplative art presented at the WSF–the best of it, anyway–evoked experiences with an affective clarity and force. In a large exhibit by photographers from all over the world, for instance, Rula Halawani’s series of small pictures taken at the Qalandia checkpoint in the West Bank show close-ups of the hands of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, and of the documents passing between them. The sense of repetition, the suppressed intimacy between the parties, the power relations expressed in the attitude of a finger, the ritual quality of the exchange–these metonymic images convey the feeling of occupation better than political discourse on any panel could.

Few in number compared with the other thematic terrains, the discussion sessions in Arts and Creation were mostly local. Brazilians and sometimes other Latin Americans traded stories of how they set up an arts project in, say, a school or a favela. In one of the most obvious overlaps with other issues on the WSF agenda, some participants considered ways to protect cultural production from the ravages of WTO’s free-trade rules, which, they say, would let Hollywood crush film and television studios in developing countries and endanger cultural diversity. (India and Japan are siding with the United States in its effort to remove trade barriers, figuring that Bollywood and Anime would clean up in expanded markets.)

Gilberto Gil himself would hardly want to restrict foreign artworks from entering Brazil–the tropicalismo he embraced as a musician in the 1960s was all about ingesting every happening sound, whether electric rock and roll or Argentine tango, into the old bossa nova. The point, though, is that the bossa nova was still there to tinker with–it hadn’t been decimated by a steamrolling commercial machine–and that Gil was not replacing it but reinventing it.

Gil seems to find the best analogy for this principle of protecting the local while being open to the global in the open-source software movement he has taken up so enthusiastically, and on which Brazil has been leading the way. Having access to everything–rather than seeing choices restricted by what survives best in the loaded marketplace–is the key, he argued on a panel with digital honchos Lawrence Lessig and John Barlow. Open-source software, he said, allows him to accomplish his primary task as cultural minister: “to expand the space for invention and creation.” It’s what W.E.B. Du Bois called “cultural democracy.”

The WSF will be held every other year from now on, organizers decided after the close of this edition. It will take place in Africa in 2007, and in the meantime regional meetings will convene next year. (The Americas are likely to hold theirs in Venezuela.) It’s impossible to predict whether each regional forum, or even the WSF two years from now, will sustain and build upon the advances made in Porto Alegre in incorporating art in a deep and textured way. But one thing is sure: No other world is possible without it.

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