Image-Makers in Residence: Museo Libre

This month, our Digital Theme is ‘Class’. Our Image-Makers in Residence are Museo Libre, an arts festival based in Colombia. Their aim is to resist processes of development through creative refusal from local communities and to reimagine their shared spaces as a museum for all. You can see Museo Libre’s images over on our Instagram throughout the month. Find us at thesociologicalreview.

As is common in many Latin American cities, social stratification in Bogotá is marked in the visual landscape. There is a North-South division that, to a certain extent, describes the social segregation along the lines of wealth to the north and poverty to the south, with the centre of the city fragmented at the micro-level between middle-class and lower income, or poverty-stricken, areas. The material differences in these neighbourhoods, for example the self-built housing and poor provision of infrastructure and public services in the south compared to the gated communities in the north, sit alongside urban imaginaries of difference, where the more vulnerable neighbourhoods are avoided by wealthier communities through the fear of violence, crime and poverty. Ciudad Bolívar is a large locality to the south of the city, with a population of around 700,000 people dispersed in 360 neighbourhoods, or barrios. Some of the barrios are well-established, others are still being built up, largely by migrants coming to the city from rural or other urban areas in the country. Within these communities, the lack of state support has led to a range of grassroots social movements and community organisations, and events like Museo Libre are increasingly common. Seeking to revise the stigmatising imaginaries of the neighbourhoods, they focus on the positives of their local areas, while at the same time confronting the absence of the state through localised demands for better services and attention.

Both the grassroots impulse to forge something new and the challenges that people face in doing so can be seen in the descriptions of Museo Libre and its trajectory over the years. The festival was organised by SURVAMOS collective, but along the way some members have broken off to forge other collectives, reflecting the range of creative organisations in such areas and the agency of young people who create such initiatives on their own terms. As such, below is an interview both with the artists from SURVAMOS and the more recently formed Endémico Andino, as they reflect on the potential of art and culture in socially marginalised urban neighbourhoods, as well as the challenges that they continue to face. For both collectives, there is a need to understand the structural inequalities in urban society and how they relate to overlapping social, economic and ecological dynamics. Their artistic practices are fundamentally related to this process of learning and sharing knowledge, and Endémico Andino in particular seek to deconstruct the dominant ontologies based on binary thought, that are legitimised through capitalist, patriarchal and colonial relations of power. Instead of leaving these discussions to the elite world of academia, they seek to encourage dialogue and discussion at grassroots level and by using a variety of creative forms.

How does class affect everyday life in Ciudad Bolívar?

SURVAMOS: The visibility of class division is very marked, and indeed notorious, in the city as a whole. One of the most tangible differences is the amount of free time the average person from the neighbourhood has to enjoy life, which is little to nothing given that the majority of their time has to be spent travelling two hours from home to work, followed by an eight-hour shift and a further two hours spent on public transport to return home. On top of this, many neighbourhoods have been built up without any planning, which means that there aren’t any recreational spaces or green areas.

ENDÉMICO ANDINO: On the surface, the reality of social class can be seen in the general labour dynamics of the neighbourhood and local area, where the majority of inhabitants have to go to the north of the city for their work. That is to say, there is a concentration in the south of the city of the working classes, but the north and centre of the city are where the centres of production are (strategically?) located. It has been said that making the poor wait is part of their mental conditioning to ensure their predisposition to subordination; well, surely four hours stuck on an appalling public transport system while crossing the city is sufficient for that. As well as the movement of people, social divisions can be seen in the urban planning and management practices of the city government. Activities that are clearly not compatible with human settlements are nevertheless imposed on our mountains: open-pit mining, rubbish dumps and planning absurdities that would never be possible in other social areas within the perimeter of the city. Finally, unequal access to knowledge and learning is perhaps one of the least-mentioned consequences but also one of the most profound in terms of class division in Bogotá (and in Colombia). The generalised lack of knowledge and understanding allows for the perpetuation of social relations based on exploitation and inequality, which keep some in power and allow them to live in luxury, while denying others the right to a dignified quality of life.

What is your creative process?

SURVAMOS: Our creative process always starts with the space where we are intervening. Based on our previous knowledge of, or our findings from researching, the area, we work on generating our designs for the project. In the case of Museo Libre, every time we finish a festival we start to plan the next one, taking into account where we made good and bad decisions, what went well or not so well. As with our other events and artistic projects, we always try to set ourselves a target, namely to try to find the meaning and reason behind doing it, asking ourselves what will it bring to the neighbourhood and to us as a collective.

ENDÉMICO ANDINO: The creative process always has to go hand in hand with a research process. First, it’s about questioning, being curious and trying to understand a problem in more depth to resolve it. In that sense, preparation takes the form of observing and reading about it to be able to explain it. Then, you need to interpret it and find a sensorial way to express it in order to communicate to, and move, the audience, that is what art is for.

Museo Libre is a proposal to fundamentally transform the territory and at the same time it is a proposal to construct a deep-rooted identity, given that both place and identity are constructed mutually in both directions. Through Museo Libre it is possible to question the non-pluralistic ontology and propose alternatives from more equitable and horizontal forms of art and knowledge in order to generate a better way of life in our neighbourhoods and local area.

What role does art and creativity have in the city and in the neighbourhood?

SURVAMOS: Art plays a very important role because it represents an escape from reality and provides a gateway for expanding the mind and reducing the sense of alienation that comes from living in the city. It is a way to confront the institutions of power in a way that is more palatable and appealing to the majority of people. It is perhaps for this reason that the state is, at the moment, attempting to institutionalise street art as a means of controlling the content and making sure it doesn’t affect them. But in the barrio, art has become a powerful tool of the people, as creative schools and educational workshops are being generated at grassroots level, which increase the confidence of many children and young people, who discover a world that is totally new and full of hope.

In addition, creativity has another very important role given that this is a country where we are known for our resourcefulness. Our creativity was necessary to solve the challenges that life threw at us, be it trying to find financial stability or finding a way to live, even in unconventional ways, in areas that are so geographically complicated and challenging.

ENDÉMICO ANDINO: We are firmly convinced that art is a tool for transformation and that creativity is a tool for critical reflection. In a country historically governed by political movements on the right, the possibility of having a divergent conversation has broadened or narrowed in size depending on the specific timeframe, however it has never been an easy exercise. The mainstream media, networks, entertainment industry and state machinery mean that the official narrative is the only one possible, but popular resistance has stemmed from art and culture, finding ways to make itself heard in infinite, creative ways. The role of art and creativity is to light the flame of rebellion and burn away the blindfold from our eyes.

Why is public space such a powerful place?

SURVAMOS: Because in its nature any person can have access to public space, it is a space that doesn’t discriminate or segregate.

ENDÉMICO ANDINO: The mainstream media has been captured entirely by those in power, and they use it to legitimise and impose their discourses, manipulating the opinions of the masses. Through this manipulation of the media, it is possible for them to maintain the social structure. Public space – historically patriarchal – has been reserved for the supposedly masculine sphere such as economics and politics, while the personal and that which is related to care has been confined to the feminised private space of the home. This binary approach to space has formed the basis for the construction of cities, multiplying and maintaining its inequalities. Questioning these categories and disputing such spaces has a symbolic power that threatens the established order. The appropriation of spaces by marginalised groups to communicate, express and construct identity is a step towards creating territories that are free and dignified.

What impact has the pandemic had on the city and in your neighbourhood?

SURVAMOS: We see it as the biggest hit to the community and to the growing mobilisation of the people against the corrupt government, which had been mounting until now. It has filled us with fear and made individual survival the priority, rendering invisible and diminishing the progress that had been made and that had given us hope for a different country, city and neighbourhood.

ENDÉMICO ANDINO: In the first days of the pandemic (one year ago exactly), the first effect was visible in the huge number of red trays in many houses in the community, which means one thing: Hunger. Precarious employment practices are the principal reason for the wave of hunger that ravaged a number of marginalised communities, given that the majority sustain themselves day to day through informal work, which means they are unable to build up savings or economic stability when the work stops. Other effects of the pandemic included a palpable absence of the state and lack of support in certain areas of the city. This led to the possibility to strengthen community processes related to self-management of the territory and food sovereignty. Various initiatives related to such causes have gained strength and are collaborating with cultural and artistic initiatives, complementing the importance of symbolic recognition with direct action related to the use and management of the earth. The will for self-determination in various peri-urban spaces could be the start of the construction of a form of territorial organisation that would be more just and close the gap between classes.

Museo Libre, Colombia.

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