by João Henrique Motta (photographer, trained journalist and artist-in-the-making via AAI Brazil)
On the night of Thursday, March 12, 2020, American artist Santiago X exhibited a video of his piece, "ATICINTOLOCA: Man and The Black Snake” to a full auditorium at the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center in Belo Horizonte (CCBB BH). The performance of the indigenous-futurist artist, born to the Kossati and Chamoru nations, recreated the experience of the formation of mountains from a projection of contour lines in mixed reality: the digital and the physical. We immediately identified with the topography as inhabitants of a country full of mountains.
Santiago X, or Santi, was the mentor who guided about 20 Brazilian artists, gathered in Belo Horizonte, to participate in the international digital arts exchange program, American Arts Incubator - Brazil (AAI). It was Santi's first time in Brazil, and the residency experience was divided into two parts by an unexpected historical moment of our century: the dawn of the new coronavirus pandemic.
The work that Santiago presented to us during that meeting was a reference to the myth of the creation of the mountains in the territory of his people. As he used his hands to move mounds of sand inside a box, a projection drew new landscapes, adding peaks, depressions, plains and mountains. The green, blue, red and yellow, colors characteristic of this type of map, colored the image throughout the time that he stirred his work. It was possible to perceive, then, the importance of the element "earth" within the artist's work. A westernized conception could certainly be limited to the geological characteristics of the soil. But in the eyes of those who have a deeper relationship with the nature of a place and the land itself, it was impressive to witness the materialization of a worldview being activated by means of technological devices.
At the time, I remember asking Santiago about when or how he incorporated the term “indigenous futurism” into his work, and he said something along the lines of: “My relationship with futurism is to rescue the connection with my land (earth) and with the knowledge of my ancestors, to tell our stories from art. I continue to tell stories about the life and memory of my people, also in augmented reality.”
In his production, the artist uses multiple platforms to bring ideas to life and to establish connections with other people. It was not by chance, that same night, that the presence of a group of students from the UFMG Landscaping course contributed to a very genuine approach to the occasion: to know and hear Santiago's words. I also needed to hear it and get to know it. It was beautiful, and there I felt that the residence would be a fertile experience to question almost everything.
After the opening of AAI, some people went to a bar near the cultural center to celebrate the opening. Sandro (Santiago X’s assistant), some production professionals and a group of participants, among them the architects Roberta Silvestre, Kyvia Salles and myself. We didn't know it yet, but we would later form a working group together - Group 4.
Together, we toasted, drank and ate.
THE FIRST PART
The first meeting with all the workshop participants took place the following weekend. First, we introduced ourselves and shared the objects we wanted to create in a world of immersive reality. It was intense.
We then took the first steps with the tools we would use to create group installations for an exhibition in one of the rooms at CCBB BH. A discussion on the concept of “reality” introduced the points of focus that we should consider in our future work: economic inequality and protection of the environment.
In the last five years alone, the territory of Minas Gerais has suffered two of the most serious environmental crimes in the world: the rupture of the Samarco and Vale dams, which destroyed many lives in Bento Rodrigues and Brumadinho, generating consecutive tragedies and successive violations of life for families and entire cities.
However, the Friday after the first weekend of workshops, Belo Horizonte joined the long list of cities in the world in which city officials decreed the closure of commerce and instructed people to stay at home, following health recommendations from experts.
At first, the conversation was about washing your hands. With the interruption of the activities of the CCBB, American Arts Incubator was postponed.
THE WORLD IN QUARANTINE
In Italy, there were 700 deaths a day. Almost a thousand people per day, dying in a country where all the civilizing myths of the political, economic and health systems seemed to have stuck to reason. But not everything is as it seems. Then, the British prime minister, who had been a denialist regarding the global transmission of the disease, contracted COVID-19.
Closing borders, closing establishments, closing houses. The world was emptying, and the European continent was the new epicenter of the disease. The material world had been contaminated. And the pandemic, following its natural course, started plaguing our continent: South America.
I called my friends. For a long time, I will remember that day. And also those solitary numbers. 15 dead. It was Saturday. After a few days, the scenario of the pandemic would be like that of a horror movie: cemeteries full of people wearing plastic paraphernalia to contain the transmission of the virus.
Those who could, stayed at home. Some still left. Others insisted on promoting gatherings. Most still needed to buy food, and for that, they needed to be out. Not everyone could protect themselves from this violent wave.
Are we still in shock? Or did we get used to the shock? Did it already pass? What is happening? Deaths increased and continue to increase.
How did we possibly get here? Did we make mistakes? We must have. How do we fix them? Here below the Equator, imagining any possibility of the future is flirting with the surreal.
"Where did we come from? Where are we going? Do these questions matter now?”
This is the initial message of "HABITAR (DWELL)," a collective work that results from a collaboration between the architects Roberta Silvestre and Kyvia Salles, and me, João Henrique Motta, a journalist. The provocations of the work seek to offer questions about reality - and also about the possibility of creating futures.
The collective experience we shared was guided by a very particular process of matching ideas between the group. We listened, stopped, talked and decided together on what to create. From analyzing how our skills complemented each other, we reached a consensus and finally began utilizing visual and digital tools, as well as developing concepts and narratives.
When JA.CA communicated by e-mail about the possibility of restarting the residency, now in a virtual way, respecting sanitary rules and preventing crowding, that was reason enough to cheer us up in a quarantine full of uncertainties, and also infinite possibilities to stimulate artistic thinking.
Focusing on the themes that would be part of this experience, economic inequality and environmentalism, allowed us to consolidate aspects that united the propositional and narrative interests of our large group. Valuing the protection of nature and telling the stories of its guardians was one of the fires that brought us together to tell stories, ask questions and imagine futures.
Mining is undoubtedly a scar that for years has made this land bleed, year after year, in an exploitative regime that depletes mountains, forests and rivers, terrorizes cities and interferes with the way of life of so many people. And impunity makes our reality even more cruel. This exploitation would be at the center of our criticism. Brumadinho and Bento Rodrigues can never be forgotten.
Other environmental crimes that have successively occurred in recent months have also added to our chorus of warnings: criminal fires from north to south, tons of oil off the coast of the Northeast, invasion of indigenous lands by illegal mining, floods and landslides in the cities. In addition, we have a state authority that arms itself and declares an explicit war on alternative lifestyles to hegemonic capitalism, as I will discuss later.
Defending the environment is defending the constellations of ways of life and the stories that make up our trajectory: the indigenous peoples of Brazil, the black population, the poor population, the traditional communities — everyone who lives on the margins of “humanity.” Respecting these stories is fundamental to the message we seek to learn and convey.
In early May, we met again on the Zoom platform. Santiago in Chicago, and us in Belo Horizonte. Later, we met with panelist João Souza, creator of the NGO Favela, to comment on the exhibition resulting from the residency, aiming to continue the group activities. That was one of the most vital points of this process: an opportunity to dialogue with someone who encouraged us to further sharpen the critical dimension of our projects and helped us look directly into the eyes of the inequalities that make up Brazil's economic and political structures.
Finally, Santiago X decided that the virtual exhibition of the AAI would be called "PORTAL."
“Natural resources for what? Sustainable development for whom?” asks Ailton Krenak, in the book, Ideas to postpone the end of the world (Companhia das Letras, 2019).
Save what, if the land gives us everything? How can there be a lack, if the forest is the symbol of abundance and diversity? For the indigenous peoples of Brazil, ancestral territory is sacred. Nature is the greatest wealth, and it cannot be violated for the advantage of the violent.
"HABITAR (DWELL)" is based on a poetic reading of the books of the writer, activist, indigenous leader and one of the founders of the Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI), Ailton Krenak, and also of the poem "Triste Horizonte" (1976) by Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987). This work was created with architectural tools, digital modeling, music, soundscapes, poetry, literature, photography, 360º videos and other virtual reality technologies.
Freely interpreted, Krenak's words echo in our work, allowing us to imagine realities, mix cosmos and materialize our dreams in the virtual world. The author emerged as a common reference to all participants in the AAI residency program, both because of the revolutionary power of his ideas towards the decolonization of the gaze as well as the combativeness inherent in his words.
Our concern, then, starts to be deconstructed to the same extent that we approach art from the advice of Santiago and Krenak. Santiago pointed out two fundamental points for thinking about our worlds: "abstracting" and "healing." It was these terms that drove us and allowed us to have such honest exchanges about expectations around our work.
The forest is a gift from our ancestors, who planted it as a garden. It is not, therefore, a random cosmic phenomenon, dependent on something like the alignment of the stars and the expansion of matter, but rather on the historical action of human groups in tune with the entities that live there. These and other indigenous wisdoms have expanded our imagination for this work.
Working with a digital platform of scenic architecture and scene description, while still having the possibility of conducting experiences of other natures, filled us with a feeling inherent in artistic enjoyment: inventing. And we invented everything: first, paper; then, the cards, the photos, the collages and the slides.
A continent plagued by environmental problems, an empty city, but still noisy. A world in the process of reforestation and a community in celebration. Everything perfectly transfigured for the virtual atmosphere, for the internet.
It all happened by combining the skills and reflections of three young artists from Minas Gerais who borrowed the words and ideas of others, among them classical and contemporary thinkers.
When we imagined the experience, placing the work in a virtual reality universe like Mozilla Hubs (which at the time we knew little about), we believed anything would be possible. We imagined worlds that would have videos as a ceiling, 360º footage as satellites, poetry echoing in space, and nature continuing to provide life in the environments. A biological and spiritual experience of reforestation. And this is what "HABITAR" became.
That would be our contemplation for a world that seeks healing. This was the genesis envisioned by three artists from Belo Horizonte: a world that interconnects different pasts, presents and futures.
KNENAK MEANS “HEAD OF THE EARTH”
Mr. Ailton is a political and revolutionary leader, who at different times in his life, actively participated in the consolidation of the political and subjective rights of indigenous nations in Brazil. In his most recent books, he talked about his land, near the Rio Doce ("Watu") and about dreams.
Along with “his generation,” he was one of the founders of the Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI) in 1979. Created from the union of several activists, the organization has been responsible for the unification of the struggles of indigenous peoples who have been fighting colonization since 1500. He also participated in the Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest, in 1987, alongside Chico Mendes, activist, rubber tapper and protector of the Amazon Forest. Both Mendes and Krenak are Brazilians who inspire the work of other activists around the world.
The extractive period idealized in the years leading up to the debates on the rights and guarantees of the peoples of the forests would be a solution against the landowning capital that destroyed and destroys the Amazon. Hundreds of families of rubber tappers gave up hectares, “plots” of land in the Amazon biome in order to take care of the tropical forest, joining the struggle of indigenous peoples for the protection of their sacred territories.
For the world of CPFs (Natural Persons Register) and CNPJs (National Registry of Legal Entities), what was at stake was the autonomy of the constitutional law on land. After all, if a certain right is in the Constitution, it needs to be guaranteed. But there is no word in Portuguese or Federal Law that translates an individual's relationship with his birthplace, with the meaning it has for an indigenous person or for a rubber tapper like Chico Mendes. The self-protection of forests by the communities that resist there, creating opportunities where humans respect all other beings, living in balance, is also an experience that we try to express in our work. Chico Mendes was murdered in his backyard within a year in which the new constitutional laws of “redemocratization” were starting to be debated. The legacy of his struggle lives in the daily life of exploited communities and among his companions.
What has happened, in practice, is that the Brazilian State has committed itself to giving total individual and collective protection to the indigenous territories, as well as promising the demarcations soon after. They also promised the same nations things that no other westernized nation can guarantee to the other: peace. Something white folks promise. Indigenous peoples were considered Brazilian and their rights and guarantees would be protected by law - for the first time since the invasion of their territories. As usual, these achievements and milestones remain on the alert, resisting the destructive power of capital. More than ever, the state is declaring a war against nature. The difference is that today, in the head of the (anti) Minister of the Environment, this is the final battle. "A land where nothing can be sold":
These ways of life, propositions of universes and alliances, are political experiences of resistance in our territory that also helped us to imagine the expressions proposed in "HABITAR." According to the photographer and ethnographer Edgar Kanaykó, from the Xacriabá nation, it would be necessary to “indigenize the screens,” “indigenize the knowledge production processes.” In his view, this would be a process that comes from the inside out, from increasingly powerful subjectivities, forming a more powerful collective. As we respect the complexities of these constellations of subjectivities, sharing respect and cultivating care becomes easier.
The racial issues unresolved by Brazil and the USA are the reasons for our problems, deficiencies and inequalities. For centuries, the proclamation of whiteness has been a cancer for humans. The assertion of a fictitious superior quality based on skin color is a declaration of war against non-whites. The proclamation of a superiority that decimates entire universes, based on the cruel imposition of a single way of life based on accumulation, competition and the standardization of existence.
Decolonizing is necessary at all borders: in health, education, security and also in the arts. Only then would it be possible to conceive the preservation of diversity as the real meaning of our existences, individual and collective.
We speak of an enemy that has no form, but exercises the power to kill, invade and destroy. Colonialism can be presented in several ways, but perhaps the best way to say it here is to point to structural racism and the distractions that this system creates with the intention of alienating us from the earth, dissociating us as organisms integrated into this planet, to separate us from this possibility of joint existence: on the one hand, humans, on the other, nature. But "everything is nature.”
In Brazil, they are killed with unique impunity. And the non-white population of this "piece" of land for more than 500 years, called America, is killed with unique impunity. In this sense, another reflection that we extract from Krenak is the idea that, if some are treated as second-class citizens, we do not, in fact, form a humanity. Blacks, indigenous people, ciganos, the poor and caiçaras do not enjoy the same “guarantees” as a white person - that is a fact.
Communities that offer us life practices and conceptions of different worlds from the hegemonic system have always been in the crosshairs of colonization. Centuries later, continuing to learn the forms of resistance of these traditional communities should be a political gesture of respect and reverence. Especially in a country where all material relations are the product of enslavement. “Our world” was built on top of indigenous cemeteries and built with the sweat and blood of African peoples, abducted from their ancestral territories.
The experience that our group created corresponds with a universe arranged on a virtual reality platform, in which each participant can visit four different planets and choose, at the end, the one he would like to inhabit. It is an invitation to rethink the past, reflect on the present and imagine the future. Kyvia and Roberta are brilliant architects. They created the old cities of a real world and our inventions.
At this point, we had an idea: the great human mission should be to preserve the knowledge that connects us with life on this planet. But how can we do this if we are not a humanity? If all inequalities point to an unequal humanity? There can be no peace if some are treated as targets.
BELO HORIZONTE AND THE MOUNTAIN
The poem “Triste Horizonte” (“Sorrowful Horizon”) by Carlos Drummond de Andrade is the basis of another narrative configured in the past-future-present. During the coronavirus pandemic period, it is impossible not to approach everything that art offers us in the context of distance, lockdown, isolation, quarantine and such.
The poet's verses were written in 1976, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where he lived until his death in 1987. According to a report by the artist, the poem was inspired by a news story about security forces that barred climbing and hiking in the Serra do Curral. The sad farewell to Belo Horizonte moves us from the melancholic look at the destruction of the same mountain range by MBR, a mining company that was exploiting the mountain at that time. It is a process that has exhausted the same mountains for decades and, thus, also destroyed a living part of the mining people. From time to time, after all, ore price crises disturb the fullness of our mountains.
Mining has left cruel marks in the country for centuries, and in the last five years, two environmental crimes in Minas Gerais, involving one of the largest companies in the world, have revealed an even more cruel face of successive violations of rights in this type of crime. Environmental crime.
Looking at Belo Horizonte as still provincial, but a “stage of the new arts,” is another interesting point of the same poem. This point connects us to the current moment of cultural profusion in the city, as well as to a generation that seeks the real infusion of diversity in the cultural melting pot of the urban environment. Excerpts from the writer Paulo Eduardo Correa, a key figure in hip hop from Minas Gerais, and a song by the rapper Djonga contribute, finally, to critically fill the work, helping us to propose dialogues with different social realities.
Belo Horizonte is a Brazilian city with many social and environmental problems. A city that grew during the blossoming of contradictions inherent to the formation of our country. Belo Horizonte is a promise, like all other capitals. It's a mystery. "Provincial,” "an egg," “has that hill": Belo Horizonte, that darling, a city that only the natives themselves can complain about.
Among its social and environmental problems, we seek to address mainly two: 1) the destruction of nature and the landscape of this place by mining companies, associated with the interests of capital that devastate our mountains and rivers throughout the state; and 2) the social and racial inequality that, although stark, is totally invisible on the streets of urban centers, where we have the greatest concentration of economic disparities and the State perpetuates a continuous genocide against the black and poor population.
From the beginning, the program’s proposal invited us to leave our own comfort zones, reflecting on the different realities that we experience daily. For a while, I, who was able to stay at home during the quarantine, thought: “everything must be different outside.” But no: nothing has changed - and nothing is normal. There is no normal, and there can be no normal in a reality in which the relationships of life are based mainly on experiences of accumulation, consumption, segregation and continued violence.
This unrest took our group to the streets of Belo Horizonte in the middle of a pandemic. Due care was taken to avoid contamination and transmission of the virus during all our excursions through the streets - not empty - of the hypercenter of the capital of Minas Gerais.
The city was functioning as if there were no measures of restriction and distance. To understand this situation, it is necessary to review all centuries of Brazilian history, but the point to which we would return is the same: privileges of some and lack of access to basic conditions for many. Amidst this scenario, rhetoric about meritocracy still flourishes. There is definitely, in addition to many others, an interpretive crisis in this country.
When we received our tech kits through the program, we went to record the streets to create our current world. Bring the images of our territory, our city, this falling land, to our virtual world. A look at the present to make our future possible.
Imagine moving through a mystical universe, being able to view, run and fly through different spaces. You cannot touch anything, you cannot carry anything and you cannot take anything. You can run, fly, walk, listen, see, take pictures and stay still.
The importance of the experience was being able to tell stories around a “cold fire.” I heard this expression in a conversation between Edgar Xakriabá, photographer and indigenous activist, and Ailton Krenak on Instagram. They spoke of the present moment, filming a sunset in the landscape of their villages during a “live” session.
We now have the ability to meet with "friends" around a "cold fire.” A technology that our ancestors invented to feed us and to help us communicate better, share stories and create emotional bonds.
We have been affected by many stories during this period of the pandemic. I think we all tried to invent universes and possibilities for creation, through art and technology, that proposed reflections beyond reality. They are reflections on the future and on the conditions of inequality pulsating in our society, which cannot be normalized into a pacified “human condition.”
“How can the representation of possible worlds be made by the multiple subjectivities that compose it? How can we integrate the responsibility of co-creators into these narratives? In the perfect condition, we propose a game. We are offering a determining choice: to choose the planet you want to inhabit. What would you do?"
“PORTAL” is Santiago's proposal for four heterogeneous groups of artists, who until March were concentrated in Belo Horizonte and surrounding regions, then had to retreat to their homes during the pandemic. Within its limitations and possibilities, four of the most beautiful works of art I have ever seen were born. Retomada (Resumption), Aguapé and Zona de Segurança (Safety Zone) are worth special contemplation.
In any case, this work made us build portals between our worlds, our homes and our subjectivities, in the midst of a period of social isolation. It was a call to reflect on this collective existence in the midst of all the uncertainties and perpetuated violence, further accentuated by the mourning of the fallen. In collective mourning, we found a way to express ourselves.
The collective imagination of social and environmental tragedies is part of our history and allows us to be courageous and inventive. All the members of this program made their work a message about the dignity that we want to see for all "others" - and not just for "us."
All projects used cutting-edge technologies for the creation of the works. This, in itself, already offered us a “new” experience. But “PORTAL still depends on primordial knowledge: the integration of the individual with nature as disruptive ways to think about life.
Stop and look at the past, let’s learn all over again from those who were always teaching us. How will we create the future? Will we do it together?
All AAI Brazil projects can be experienced at www.aaibrazil.com
The entirety of this experience, from beginning to end, is something I will cherish and continue to be inspired by as I go forward in my art practice. From the relationships forged on the ground to my amazement of the vision and voices of the participants, and for our entire team’s resilience and creative pivoting in response to the pandemic, I am forever grateful.
When I arrived in Belo Horizonte, there was a charge in the air. It was something that was hard to pin down in the moment; it felt like a fire inside. After talking with people, learning their stories and their struggles, as well as their similarities to people I knew back home, the urgency to amplify the humanity in our shared experience burnt in me like a beacon. Whatever was to be created in this short time we had together had to transcend convention, and inject a much-needed narrative into the often cold landscape of art and technology — breathing life into it.
There were a lot of meaningful exchanges and experiences along this journey, but the ones that really stood out to me were the events that inspired us to create portals for healing — and to witness the participants embrace and overcome the challenges of creating team-based virtual experiences while in physical isolation.
Upon my arrival in Belo Horizonte, Francisca of our host partner JA.CA, took me to the opening of a new exhibition entitled "VAIVÉM," which showcased the work of Indigenous Brazilian artists and the narrative of the hammock.
There, I met an Indigenous artist and healer named, Iba, who sang traditional healing songs and linked those songs to the murals he had painted on the walls. I talked with him in my native language and he talked in his; we were laughing at the similarities in our creation stories and symbologies, and he told me his work was entirely about building gateways for healing, or portals. We laughed again, because that is exactly what my practice was/is and what I wanted to create during the incubator.
Needless to say, the participants took every tool and every opportunity that was presented to them to tell their stories, and they delivered. Watching their rapid progression from learning 3D scanning, projection mapping, augmented reality, and finally virtual reality, was simply incredible.
The teams' abilities to seamlessly incorporate these tools into a very human experience on a completely unfamiliar platform was beyond anything I could have expected. When it was all said and done, we augmented a new, uncharted digital landscape with reality and humanity. Life was breathed into each project — life that will outlive our own.
I’m writing this blog post in the midst of final preparations for my journey, as I leave wintry Chicago en route for summertime in Belo Horizonte, Brazil! This will be my very first trip to Brazil, and my first ever visit to South America. I’m excited to meet the partners on the ground, get settled in, and make some waves with the 25 participants we selected for this Incubator. We’ve chosen an extremely talented and diverse cohort of artists, technologists, and architects from within Belo Horizonte to participate.
For this implementation of AAI, we’ll be addressing the social challenge of economic inequity through a workshop series I’ve developed for this entitled — “Augment Earth: Embedded Futures,” where we’ll be creating extended reality portals around the city as a generative seed of discourse for equity and collective futurity.
As an artist and architect based here on my ancestral lands, my practice revolves around notions of Indigenous Futurism and its tangible manifestations. I recently contributed to the Chicago Architecture Biennial, where I was invited as their first Native American architect. I created a projected augmented reality installation of a burning hut entitled, “Hayo Tikba (The Fire Inside)” dedicated to Indigenous mound building civilizations and their living descendants that were forcibly displaced in the creation of virtually all U.S. cities east of the Mississippi River.
I’ve also been conducting recent explorations in holographic reanimations of ancestral craft, like in my installation “Transmissions,” populating galleries and institutions in different applications referencing the different forms of Indigenous craft respective to geographic location.
For this series of workshops in BH, I’m really looking forward to activating portals throughout the city: portals of thought, experiential interactivity, knowledge, and hope through the many narratives and talents of our group.
Our incubator will culminate in an open house and panel discussion where we will activate portals in and around our host site, the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center of Belo Horizonte, alongside our host partners JA.CA and U.S. Embassy Branch Office Belo Horizonte.