Saturday, 16 January 2010


Tropical Intelligence: Capacete Entretenimientos, Rio de Janeiro
By Pablo Leon de la Barra

“Tropical countries, as it seemed to me, must be the exact opposite of our own…”
Claude Levi Strauss, ‘Tristes Tropiques’, Criterion Books, New York; first American Edition 1961, French Edition 1955.

It’s 36 degree’s in Rio de Janeiro, it’s hot, very hot, and I’m sweating to the point of feeling I will melt and disappear. The sweat and the temperature make me aware of the presence of my body, and abolishes the distinction between inside and outside, making me be in contact with what Gaston Bachelard called the “intimate immensity”[1]. My mind has stopped thinking. I’ve been walking through the centre, finding shade every 10 minutes or entering air-conditioned spaces to drink a beer and refresh. It’s Saturday and the centre is quite empty. I can’t stand the idea of the half hour walk up the steep hill to Santa Teresa, where I’m staying. Thankfully an informal motorcycle service has been implemented that takes you up hill for 2 reales. This is Tropical Intelligence! The drivers wait outside the Gloria Metro station, where you approach the controller and he assigns you a driver. The driver puts his helmet on, but doesn’t offer you one. You get on the motorbike, and try to decide if you should hold him from the waist or from his shoulders. He drives fast uphill, while smoking a cigarette and speaking on his mobile through a mike and earphones. He glides the curves while the motorcycle inclines and our knees almost touch the stoned pavement. I clutch to the drivers waist holding him hard with my knees. It’s all a very erotic experience. My driver leaves me in Largo de Guimaraes, in the centre of Santa Teresa neighbourhood. I enter the Portuguese shop, covered with blue tiles, and ask the old Portuguese couple that runs the shop for a very cold coconut. The coconut also costs 2 reales (it seems the best things in Rio cost 2 reales!). Cold coconuts are also a ‘Tropical Intelligence’ strategy, a way of surviving the heat! The husband opens the coconut with a round knife that looks more like a prisoner’s invention. Meanwhile the wife shouts aggressively to some French tourists who are attempting to take some photos of the shop. She then tells me, ‘You wouldn’t like them taking photos in the interior of your house, would you?’

Santa Teresa is an old neighbourhood in the hills above Rio’s centre. It looks like a European village from the end of the XIX century, many of the houses are semi-run down, but most of them have survived total destruction. A bit of a hippie hang out, more recently it has become the neighbourhood favoured by Rio’s artists and intellectuals, as well as foreigners who have slowly been buying and refurbishing the houses. There’s even now a small design-boutique hotel in the neighbourhood. The old tram, called bonde, comes up from the centre, crossing over the Lapa Aqueduct and charges 65 cents for the ride. The tram usually has mechanical failures during the ride and sometimes doesn’t complete the journey (the local inhabitants have protested against a plan for the privatisation of the bonde, which would improve the service but also the price of the ride). Everyone gets off the tram when it stops working, and the tourists, both Brazilian and international use this as a photo opportunity. Maybe, as Levi Strauss said “The tropics are not so much exotic as out of date. It’s not the vegetation which confirms that you are ‘really there’, but certain trifling architectural details and the hint of a way of life which would suggest that you had gone backwards in time rather than forwards across a great part of the earth surface”[2]. But if this could be true, Rio de Janeiro’s reality quickly plays fast forward to insert you into the city’s present. Like in most of Rio, the houses in Santa Teresa coexist with the favelas which are located within the neighbourhood. Every time I’ve visited there seems to be in Santa Teresa a crime or death related to drug violence. This time there was no difference, immediately somebody told me a dancer had just been murdered. I asked if it had been because of drug violence, ironically I soon found out that he had been killed by his brother and the brother’s boyfriend with a sledgehammer. Brazilian Soap Opera.

Santa Teresa is also the headquarter of Capacete Entretenimientos, the art project run by Helmut Batista in Rio de Janeiro. The name is full of humour, capacete in Portuguese means helmet, a joke on the name of Helmut, the captain of Microstate Capacete Village[3]. It’s also interesting to note that the project has the surname Entreteniminetos: not gallery, not projects, but entertainments. “Capacete’s activities is part of a long term interdisciplinary presence in Rio de Janeiro, which aims to research and document aesthetic, social and political processes in Brazil. The historic, urban, topographic, environmental and social context of Rio de Janeiro is an important laboratory that (re)actualises Brazilian complexities. Rio de Janeiro is a strategic tool to identify, articulate and give visibility to these processes, reaching very heterogeneous audiences.”[4] My first contact with Capacete was in 2001. At the time Capacete shared an exhibition space with Agora (run by Ricardo Bausbaum and other artists) in a building in Cinelandia which had artists studios above. Since then, Capacete has continuously reinvented itself and adapted to the times while contributing to Rio’s cultural life and being a mediator between foreign art people arriving to Rio and the city. As such Capacete has had different incarnations. For example ‘Cinema Capacete’ existed in the Darcy Ribeiro Cinema School and organized artists’ film programmes from 2001 to 2006; or the journal ‘Capacete Planet’ which existed from 2001 to 2004 (before the www made information so accessible for all) where artists were invited to conceptualise the idea of a budget printed publication, while providing information for and from the local art scene. Capacete has also participated in different editions of the Sao Paulo Bienal, where it has presented artists’ projects that expand Capacete’s work to the public of the biennale. Other projects have taken Capacete out of the borders of its microstate, while exploring Latin American contexts: ‘Road’ which has been happening on and off during the last 5 years, takes the form of a road trip, which began in 2004 as a trip from Rio to Santiago de Chile with artist Ducha, continued to Valparaiso, Chile with Carla Zaccagnini’s ‘Museo das Vistas’, drove up to La Paz, Bolivia with Olivier Poujade, continued to Lima, Peru with Joao Mode, from there to Quito, Ecuador where Gabriel Lester performed a pantomime where he pulled a rabbit out of a hat against the background of the Andes Cordillera, then on to Medellin, Colombia with Julia Rometti and Victor Costales where the artists exchanged landscape posters during the trip. The next trip will be from Medellin to Caracas, Venezuela with Sebastian Ramirez and Jose Tomas Giraldo and still has to take place. On it’s 10th anniversary Capacete also published ‘Livro para Ler’ with contributions by 11 artists or curators that have been involved with Capacete. The book follows a methodology developed by artist Carla Zaccagnini, where she has published mini catalogues (the first one was produced in 2003 by Capacete in Portuguese) in which she invites artists or writers to write not about her work, but about ideas which are present or relate to the works presented[5]. Capacete also hosts an international artists and curators residence. Some of the artist in the residence are sponsored by cultural institutions in their European countries of origin, as part of agreements with Capacete. Others arrive out of free will in their desire to experience tropicalization. There’s always a resident from Brasil and one from Latin America, important components of Capacete’s conception. Some of the residents stay at ‘Casa da Denise’, others at the bungalows located between the two houses, while others stay in the apartment located downhill in Gloria, where Capacete’s documentation centre and offices are located. Recently Capacete has expanded to Sao Paulo, where it has given continuity to a labour first initiated by Ligia Nobre and Cecile Zoonens with Exo Sao Paulo by providing a place to stay within Edificio Copan the curvy modernist building designed by Niemeyer in the centre of the city. Guest artists are invited to give a talk to the local art community, and these talks are always given in an open dialogue together with a local artist who also presents his/her work.

Helmut also takes panoramic photos of Rio de Janeiro, which are printed in postcards and on coffee table books, the sale of books and postcards contributing to Capacete’s expenses. Denise, Helmut’s amazing partner and mother of their son Otto, is an ex soap opera actress. She also runs ‘Casa da Denise’ a bed and breakfast in Santa Teresa which also supports Capacete’s work. Denise and Helmut live in the house next door to ‘Casa da Denise’, a house they share with friend, artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Gonzalez-Foerster calls the place ‘SET- Sitio de Experimentacion Tropical’. The house has a black and white floor stone mosaic floor inspired on Burle Marx’s pattern for Copacabana. A pink balustrade meets the green grass, echoing the colours of the Mangueira school of samba. The view looks to Guanabara bay, the Pao de Azucar, the city below, favelas and vegetation. In Dominique’s words, “a place to observe, enjoy and describe the effects of ‘tropicalization’... the panorama in front of the terrace is a permanent unwritten novel about urban tropical life and sugarloaf, birds, airplanes…”[6] Residents and artists commute between the residence in Gloria, ‘Casa da Denise’ and ‘Sitio de Eperimentacion Tropical’: working in the office, having breakfast at ‘Casa da Denise’, having intellectual conversations and drinking caipirinhas at the swimming pool at SET. In the same way that in the streets and beaches in Rio, the borders between the public and the private dissolve, to make space for Capacete’s changing community.

In his trip to Brazil in 1982, invited by psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik, philosopher Felix Guattari identified and advocated for self organized - bottom up, hands on strategies as a way in which Brazilian society, then under a military dictatorship (1964-1985), was strengthening itself: “just as I think it is illusory to aim at a step-by-step transformation of society, so I think that microscopic attempts, of the community… play an absolutely crucial role.”[7] This is what during the late 1990s curator Carlos Basualdo and art critic Reinaldo Ladaga have called within art practices ‘experimental communities’: “temporary but durable associations composed of artists and non-artists united in their mutual endeavor… The concern is to facilitate the creation of exchange networks between groups of people in order to produce new representational forms and community identities. In turn, these circuits come to intervene in traditional art spaces, thereby effecting a ‘globalization from below.’[8]

Capacete’s formation of a mobile international community is very close to artist Helio Oiticica’s idea of the Suprasensorial commune “I feel that the idea grows into a necessity of a new community, based on creative affinities, despite cultural or intellectual differences, or social and individual ones. Not a community to ‘make works of art’, but something as the experience in real life – all sorts of experiences that could grow out in a new sense of life and society – kind of constructing an environment for life itself based on the premise that creative energy inherent in everyone… where this group of mine would come to do things, to talk, to meet people – of course many disagreeable things would have to be controlled, for the destructive opinions and people not interested in it would come - but this always happens in everything one wants to do – in its whole this idea would be that of a kind of open space, environment, for experience, for creative experience of every imaginable sort...”[9]

Capacete’s way of operating, the possibility of producing or not, and with this resisting art market economy, also approximates Oiticica’s concept of ‘creleisure’ a word made up by Oiticica by the union of the words create and leisure: “Not to occupy a specific place, in space and in time, as well as to live pleasure or not to know the time of laziness, is and can be the activity to which a ‘creator’ may dedicate himself.” In this, ‘creleisure’ is close to the idea of ‘Tropical Intelligence’ that guides Capacete’s work. I borrowed the term that titles this text, ‘Tropical Intelligence’ from a conversation held between Helmut Batista and Paulo Vivacqua regarding their experience in the Puerto Rico 04 Art Community Experience Marathon in which they participated, and where they decided not to produce anything, and of which Paulo Vivacqua expressed: “I think that we were super sincere in not doing anything. We assumed the situation with the skill in which it was presented. Not doing anything is many times, doing a lot. We found a balance in the whole thing, if not I would have turned schizophrenic. "Tropical Intelligence.”[10] This at the end is ‘Tropical Intelligence’, adaptation and resistance, resisting the urge to do things just because of doing and doing only what is needed, while reacting to a context, and being flexible enough as to produce what is demanded while creating new possibilities of action, but also to disconnect from the machines of production, and becoming conscious again of one’s body and of the body of the other, and allowing oneself to be within the ‘intimate immensity’ without the pressures of the ‘normal’ world…

[1] Bachelard in ‘Poetica del Espacio’, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1965 pp 245. Although Bachelard refers to experiences in the desert and to underwater explorations, the same could be applied to the phenomena of tropicalization: "To descend in water or to wander in the desert is to change of space. And through changing location in space, abandoning the space of the usual sensibilities, one enters in contact with a space that is psychically innovative… One doesn’t only change of place, one also changes ones own nature” .
[2] Claude Levi Strauss, ‘Tristes Tropiques’, Criterion Books, New York; first American Edition 1961, French Edition 1955.
[3] ‘Microstate Capacete Village’ is the title of the text that appears in the pamphlet produced for Capacete’s exhibition in Friedrich Petzel Gallery, February 9th to March 8th, 2008. The text also appears in Capacete’s ‘Livro para Ler’.
[4] From Capacete’s website
[5] Following editions of Zaccagnini’s ‘Catalogo Traducido’ have appeared in English, Spanish and French, each edition with new contributors of the native tongue in which it’s printed.
[6] Dominique Gonzalez Foerster. ‘Sitio de Experimentacion Tropical’, in ‘Case Study Houses’ a special edition of Pablo Internacional Magazine, 2008.
[7] Guattari, Felix (1984). Molecular Revolution, Penguin, London quoted in Bourriaud, Nicolas (1998). Relational Aesthetics. Les Presses De Réel, Paris.
[8] Basualdo, Carlos and Laddaga, Reinaldo (2004). ‘Rules of Engagement: From Toilets in Caracas to New Media in New Delhi’, in ArtForum, New York, March 2004.
[9] Helio Oiticica, ‘Letter to Guy Brett, April 2, 1968’, in Brett, Guy; David, Catherine and Dercon, Chris (Curators) (1992), Hélio Oiticica, Centro De Arte Hélio Oiticica/Witte De With, Rio De Janeiro/Rotterdam.
[10] Capacete Journal no.12, July-September 2004


  1. hola pablo, tienes solo versión en ingles y aleman? por acaso tienes en español?

  2. Pablo, can I just say how wonderful this blog is! As an expat Carioca your writing and your posts have added a LOT to an intelligent, refreshing conversation re: Brazilian and Latin American art vis-`a-vis the world. Thank you for keeping it up!

  3. Fabulous article!

  4. julieta gonzalez19 January 2010 at 00:56

    Pablo, fantastic article, I loved the introduction to the neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. Write more !!!!!