From September 2011through January 2012 an encampment was created and stood in the center of downtown Sao Paolo, on the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo plaza. The encampment hosted hundreds of small events and dozens of workshops. It served as a temporary connective tissue for many community groups working in Sao Paolo, from Cooperglicero, a cooperative of waste recyclers, to Movimiento Sem Teto, Sao Paolo’s housing occupation movement, and “Cities Without Hunger” an independent urban agricultural program. As well as bringing in activist and culture groups from around the city, Ersilia played host to the daily life activities of the many people that live outdoors and call the MASP plaza their home.
Ersilia was created by Swoon, Paula Seigal and Choque Cultural working alongside many, many volunteers and collaborators.
In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city's life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.
From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia's refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.
They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings, which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.
Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spider webs of intricate relationships seeking a form. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
What were your objectives as both an artist and an organizer with becoming involved in an outdoor socially engaged initiative in downtown Sao Paolo? Cornell West once said, "Justice is what love looks like in public." I was hoping that our installation could make a public space that both highlighted and amplified that kind of love.
The thought process was very organic and constantly evolving, right up through the
end of the encampment, can you speak to the way large dynamic ideas evolve in a
process like this?
One of my inspirations in my work is the situationist focus on the interventions that play between the concrete and the ephemeral -- "beneath the paving stones, the beach..." Just before we went to Sao Paulo to start work on the encampment in earnest, I watched a film about the rivers beneath the major avenues of the city, rivers that had been paved over to transform Sao Paulo into a system of highways. The avenue directly below MASP, the 9 de Julho, is a river; you still hear the water running below in certain drains. If you eat away the concrete, you reach the water... In some ways, the point of the whole project was to test how close we could really come, as outsiders brought in by an established institution, to the throbbing river of life flowing above and below Sao Paulo's city streets - to the pure love that binds people together, families and strangers.
What do you see as the importance of creating a space for overlap and connectivity in a place like the MASP plaza? It is amazing to me, almost a year later, to see that the groups who met over our aspirational project are still collaborating now....
The idea was to build shelters in the plaza under the museum where people could join experiences to think about the city and propose new ways to care about the space we live.
We had a extensive program of workshops, talks, and many sort of activities during almost 4 months, and by the numbers we got from the Museum attendance we had 250,000 visitors, and at Ersilia (which happened in the public space) I would guess we received more that 1 million people.
We recruited fellow artists and activists to join the project, we had a great response by many volunteers that came to build and run it. We had also people that keep the maintenance daily kind of living in the place and organizing the activities.
There were probably 5 to 10 people living at Ersilia, there was a family using the shelter to sleep and cook and taking care of the plaza and also helping people to interact with the space. We had people taking care of the garden and cleaning the common area, also some of people that were living there worked as volunteers, telling the idea of the artist on doing that, also making guided tours and inviting people to get in the museum.
A massive number of people visited Ersilia, and a great number of people really interacted with it. From the ones that lived in the place during the period, to the ones that conducted activities, and the ones who participated the activities, so we manage to involve people in many different ways. Ersilia was like an oasis of knowledge and opportunity to think how we live together.
I would say that the best thing I learnt from this experience was that the biggest difference we can make in thinking our city life is by thinking together, to share life experiences and work together.
The main tensions that I experienced was trying to make it happen with all the paperwork with the public administration and all the authorizations by the museum and the city heritage. Apart from that, most of “negative” effects were reported by the museum administration - homeless people living, having drink and drugs, making sex and using the Encampment as a place to cook or use it as toilet. I don’t agree with the museum administration because those things are the same things that people often do at that plaza, so its not a negative effect created by Ersilia, but the day by day life of that place. Somehow Ersilia enlighted those "problems" that this public space has.
When we first started we thought someone would set fire to it but never happened. So, in
truth, I can’t see any real negative effects, except that it was kind of melancholic to take the
Encampment down. People get used to it, in the end there were quite many life going on around
it. Most of the people that lived there before Ersilia are still there. They just miss the beautiful
installation of Ersilia and they miss a roof. But they stay there. I think Ersilia made the space
more comfortable to them and, most important, made them think more about that space and
I think the one of my favorite days was the day we did a silk screen workshop and a mini rock concert in the space, we got probably more than 300 people there, standing for at least three hours together and using that formerly empty space as its was made to. Ersilia contributed to reconnect the space to its primary vocation. It was a really enjoyable afternoon with many friends and people we don’t know who were spending a good time together and having fun in our city.
I’m still in touch with many collaborators, I went couple of times at Cooperglicerio after Ersilia, collaborating in parties, pasting posters etc, also we gave silkscreen workshop to some kids from the Ocupação São João, they did many sticker to help their fight, it was a great time together.
Since you and Paula went out, all the stuff that were booked at Ersilia went on very well, I
agree some experiences hasn't succeed as we wanted (paper collect for example) but the
whole experience was great, most of the things worked very well, run by the people that
proposed, and many results are taken ahead until now.
And one nice thing is that Gaucho, one of the guys living there, was invited to do a TV program, he was part of a choir and everybody saw him singing on TV, on Xmas TV program, kind of nice! He was very proud and thankful.
And last week, just 2012 march we were able to install the 2 yemanjas at their right place, we put it at Coopamare, at Choque Cultural's street, inside of the cooperative place, the workers were very proud and now the pieces have their definitive place. I’m happy with that cause everybody can see it from the street and they came back from the place that they were made.
All the best for you Callie, keep the rock on!
Sometimes I remember Ersilia like a dream. I lived in the encampment as some kind of a cultural janitor of the space for two months and a half. During this period of time, apart from all the activities which took place there, I was able to know people from many places and was received by, and got in touch with lots of people who live in the street. It was the most intense work/life experience I ever had and I am currently writing a book about it. It almost got me mad, but it didn’t, and I was able to learn so many things that it is hard for me to be more specific that than this: there is no such thing as trash, everything can turn out to be something useful or at least beautiful, people who live in the street are really adaptable and strong willed, in spite of questionable choices and chaotic mental conditions, and that are three variables which usually guide the way people interact. they are: apparent class status, gender/sexual preference, and age. And you can interact much more and learn much more if you just don’t pay attention to those details.
I am really sorry for being hard to get in touch with during the encampment. It was a crazy moment, and I am not the most easy person in some aspects...
Translation: Hello dear Paula!
I apologize for the delay responding to this email I was in a hurry and I forgot. Ersilia was a very special moment last year was very important to know you, James and Callie. I approached the occupations of the city center. The work I've been doing since the camp has a lot to do with it, weighing in waste management, occupation in cities, mobility and movement to improve life in cities.
For me it's dificult to say something..
What I did in ERSILIA it's not much different that what I do every day, builting things with "trash"!!! But for the first time I did it "for the people", in a public space, actually in a very public space.
During the process for the first time I saw something that I was trying to do, that is make "design" with this material... actually, when I started to work with "trash" I needed to change my point of view about what is beatifull, or if this is really important... or how to introduce the "ugly" into what I understand about design...
But when I saw all finished, I started to see that is possible to do all the way back, making this rests of the city, the trash, became design again!!!