This piece is the first in a series considering aesthetic infrastructures. It follows on from a presentation and discussion of 9 photographs taken in São Paulo, at the When We Build Again Assembly III // Merely!, hosted at the Wick Common Shop on 21 June 2015.
Infrastructure is often described as a set of support systems, as physical or social networks of ‘invisible’ structures that allow for everyday life to proceed apace. These structures are invisible because when they work well we don’t often notice the work they do. It is when infrastructure fails that it ratchets into focus. Transportation networks are the most oft cited, but we could think of water, sewage, electricity and gas networks; of broadband internet and server storage; of waste management; of social systems or even, perhaps, of certain aspects of the welfare state. What is important is that these form some sort of a common, in that multiple actors and agents benefit from them, even if that benefit is unequally distributed, or skewed in favour of certain forms of activity over others (the private car dominates the infrastructural landscape more than public transit, for example, even though both may use the road network).
But there are other more tenuous accounts of infrastructure. Could housing or culture be considered infrastructural? Or further yet, could we describe something like a ‘visual infrastructure’ of a city? Something visual, aesthetic, receptive that would support the coherent conception of an abstract concept? Does that visible visual become an ‘invisible’ infrastructural aesthetic when it’s working? What is an aesthetic infrastructure? What happens when it breaks?
The minhocão in São Paulo (2015)*
In 2006, then conservative mayor of São Paulo Gilberto Kassab passed the ‘Lei Cidade Limpia’, or Clean City Law effectively banning advertising billboards, hoardings, posters, and electronic media from the city, its streets and public spaces, its busses and, importantly, from its architecture.
As Kassab explained, “The Clean City Law came from a necessity to combat pollution … pollution of water, sound, air, and the visual. We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution.” 1
One of the biggest financial losers in the city, the media company Clear Channel, launched a counter campaign arguing that ‘Outdoor media is culture’. 2
Before and after image of São Paulo’s Clean City Law
The law came into effect in 2007, and the city’s built form was ‘cleaned’. The idea being that the ‘real’ city underneath, was being masked or hidden from view. This certainly chimed with architectural critics who were overwhelmingly positive of the move. Others, like Vinicius Galvao a journalist at Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest daily, interviewed in 2007 by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, suggested the effects of the ‘Clean City Law’ revealed more than just architecture.
“And now it’s amazing,” Galvao began. “They uncovered a lot of problems the city had that we never realized. For example, there are some favelas, which are the shantytowns. I wrote a big story in my newspaper today that in a lot of parts of the city we never realized there was a big shantytown. People were shocked because they never saw that before, just because there were a lot of billboards covering the area.” 3
Here Galvao suggests that there were entire parts of the city made invisible because there was advertising plastered on billboards. In fact, he claims many people never knew there were favelas in certain parts of São Paulo simply because they were ‘covered’ up, masked, by ads. Once removed, the infrastructure of the advertising failed; what was made visible was not the absence of the ads, however, but the presence of the favelas.
It seems terrifying to admit to the possibility that this be the case, that entire segments of the city were literally made ‘invisible’ to some. Certainly the residents of the favelas must have known they were there; it is a particular ‘We’ who just now realises their presence because some billboards were taken down – when that particular aesthetic infrastructure broke down.
Still, that other visual infrastructure of the city – the map – has left off the favelas for decades; literally making them invisible. As recently as 2009, Google removed favelas from its maps of Rio de Janeiro after lobbying by that city’s tourism board.4 Often called ‘blind’ spots in the city, favelas remain ‘no-go’ zones for those who do not live there, invisible, if not in the visible landscape of São Paulo, then certainly in the psycho-geographies of most of its wealthier inhabitants.
In 2014, citing the untapped market of advertising revenues, Google and Microsoft began efforts to ‘map’ the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, using volunteer labour and non-profit groups who had already been doing this work for other ends. Making the ‘invisible’ visible, of mapping the favelas, their streets and businesses, is akin to a profit-making strategy of creating ‘new’ markets for these very large corporations. They did so through the infrastructure invisible labour of non-profits (perhaps ‘visible’ only as an additional line of profit as the net opportunity gain of avoiding the traditional labour market) and making these physical spaces visible through the often misconceived ‘invisible’ footprint of that most elusive of elusives, the digital.
Before and after Google Maps image of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro
The advertising may have been removed from the walls of São Paulo, but it’s about to blast through the mobile phones of those inhabitants forgotten by the city long ago, and the realtors hungry for those newly legal tenures (now with addresses mapped and stored in servers world-wide) in city centre locations.
Thirty-eight years before the ‘Clean City Law’, in a São Paulo led by Mayor Paulo Maluf, the first Mayor appointed (rather than elected) by the ruling Military Dictatorship of President Artur da Costa e Silva, another infrastructure came into view. Maluf, trained as an engineer at the University of São Paulo, announced the construction of a 3.5 km, East-West elevated highway system to be built in the downtown core. Over fourteen months, from the 1 November 1969 to the 30 December 1970, working 24 hours per day, and 7 days per week, Maluf would oversee what was then to be the largest infrastructural project in Latin America.
Officially called the Elevado Presidente Costa e Silva, its nickname is the Minhocão, a mythical large earthworm-serpent creature that lives in the forests of Central and South America. According to Wikipedia, many still fear the creature that grows to some 20-50 metres in length with sightings as recently as 2013, and pictorial depictions dating back to the Mayans. Naming a piece of infrastructure after a human-eating worm, might be fitting for this elevated concrete structure whose route snakes through the existing dense buildings as close as 4.6 metres from some windows. So fierce was the hourly rush of 80,000 cars that residents and office workers protested to have the concrete beast shut down as soon as it opened. In 1976, city officials gave in to protests, and decided to close the Minhocão to automobile traffic on Sundays, and in the 1990s, they closed it every night from 21.30 – 06.30.
Protests in 1975 against the noise of the Minhocão
Every night, and on Sundays, then, this assemblage of dictatorial engineering, reinforced concrete and asphalt turns into a linear public parkway for sitting, walking, running, dancing, smoking up, skateboarding, drinking, biking, fucking, eating and more. From the near invisibility when driving over it, this infrastructure erupts into view when its normal function ceases. Of course, for those residents nearby, the Minhocão is never not visible, but as far as infrastructure goes, this elevated roadway undergoes an alchemy each and every night, disappearing as the first morning commuters blaze past the weary apartment blocks as the sun casts angled early shadows. The invisible, made visible, made invisible again.
Gerhard Richter’s art works at the tension point of what is made visible, between painting and photography. Or perhaps in another vein, to situate his labour within the perpetual contradistinction of representational accuracy and non-representational method. Historically, reality privileged photography, and abstraction, the painter. We know this does not hold, and Richter’s work is a demonstration. Many of Richter’s pieces interweave photography and painting such that it is not just painting from photography, or photography of painting, but also painting on photography. In Hans Ulrich Obrist’s words:
“In the repainted photos, levels of photographic reality are conjoined to levels of painted reality, whereby the concepts “realistic” (with respect to the photographic level of depiction) and “abstract” (with respect to the nonrepresentational repainting) turn out to be redundant due to the dissolution of categories immanent to painting.” 5
The history of photography can also be likened to the history of making the ‘invisible’ visible. Time-lapse photography of the night sky, aerial photography of cities, and rapid-fire photography of labourers made landscape, territory, and biopolitics visible in ways heretofore unseen. Its history is also that of deception, of visual trickery, of editing, and post-editing, and the politics of the frame – the decision of what to put in the frame, and what to keep out, and indeed who has a camera in the first place.
In 1977, during a semester teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada, Richter created his series ‘128 Fotos von einem Bild, Halifax (1978)’. The project involved taking photographic details of one of his own paintings, Abstract Painting (former title Halifax) (1978). Using black and white film, Richter’s photographic dissection transforms colour into grayscale, denies the visual acuity of totality, and through the arrangement of the images in a grid, betrays the specificity of the ‘close-up’. Instead, his work continues to blur the distinction of medium (painting and photography), and the distinction between landscape and urban, between territory and narrative.
Twenty years later, Richter would further blur the distinction by revisiting this ‘128 Photos’ and painting over them in grey paint. His thick, straight paint lines effectively ‘block’ half of the image each time. These painterly cuts through the already abstracted photograph of an abstract painting cannot be read as a mask on the photograph, but instead make visible the paint as just as real, and just as representative as the photograph. The paint is not covering up the photograph (though it is), is not meant to frustrate the viewer (though it might), or be an act of creating a negative absence through its presence (though perhaps it does), but rather to portray the gestured line as an addition. As Ingo Rentschler wrote,
“the combination of visual information with different ranges of frequency leads to more interesting results than when only one range of frequency is used, as it makes one pay closer attention.” 6
Instead of the language of the visible or invisible, of the real or the representational, we end with a language of attending to.
On a Sunday in May 2015, I ran along the Minhocão in São Paulo, noticing as much the elevated roadway devoid of cars, as the cityscape around me devoid of advertising. Large, flat, windowless walls of apartment and office buildings flanked the worm-like winding road cutting and dividing the cityscape as my bodily perspective shifted. Having been stripped of their large advertising posters and boards, these walls became canvasses. The tone on tone grey and beige of the modern and post-modern city beyond seemed cut by these large walls, many of which were sharpened in technicolour paint, like Richter’s grey paint line on a photo of abstraction. What evolved was a series of moments both of foreground and background, of real and representation, and of the duality of just what was making what visible or invisible.
Was the topography of the city bringing into sharp focus the turquoise blue of the flank wall? Were the flat-lined towers cutting through what might be a tourist-perfect cityscape, a titillating urban roughness of concrete towers and glittering sun? Was the embodied levitation on concrete pillars and asphalt rivers manufacturing slow-motion vistas once meant to be viewed at 80 kilometres per hour? As I ran I found I could not not take photographs, seeing a cut-through perspective and doubling back to capture it in digital memory. What seemed to emerge was a distinction perhaps as historically blurred as photography and painting. Here, the ‘different ranges of frequency’ in Rentschler’s words, were scalar in medium, the difference between architecture and the urban, line and ‘scape.’ An infrastructural aesthetic, a perspective of cuts.
1, São Paulo (2015)
2, São Paulo (2015)
3, São Paulo (2015)
4, São Paulo (2015)
5, São Paulo (2015)
6, São Paulo (2015)
7, São Paulo (2015)
8, São Paulo (2015)
9, São Paulo (2015)
* All São Paulo (2015) photos by Adam Kaasa.
I would like to thank the When We Build Again collective for comments on an earlier version of this project at their ‘Assembly III: Mereness!’ in June 2015. Thanks to Daniela Tanner-Hernandez for pointing me towards Gerhard Richter’s work, and for editorial comments from Christien Garcia.
1 David Evan Harris (2007), ‘São Paulo: A City Without Ads’, Adjusters #73 tips://www.adbusters.org/magazine/73/Sao_Paulo_A_City_Without_Ads.html
4 Aarian Marshall (2014), ‘Google and Microsoft Are Putting Rio’s Favelas on the Map: Both see potential advertising revenue in the Brazilian slums’, Atlantic: City Lab http://www.citylab.com/tech/2014/09/google-and-microsoft-putting-rios-favelas-on-the-map/380826/
5 Hans Ulrich Obrist (2011), ‘Gerhard Richter: Coincidentia oppositorum’, Flash Art #280 http://www.flashartonline.com/article/gerhard-richter/