Rosa Barba examines the everyday chaos of Sao Paulo’s ‘giant earthworm’ highway

Shes explored cities around the world, and now the Italian artist has cast her eye on the Minhoco, a controversial badge of a splendidly untidy megalopolis

In the center of the largest city in Latin America, amid a forest of closely packed towers, snakes an elevated road of more than three kilometers, slicing from east to west. During the week the traffic rumbles past apartment blocks, and autoes swing by the upper floors so closely that residents can virtually touch them as they whip past or, more frequently, as they idle in So Paulos notorious traffic. In the evenings and on Sundays, when its closed to vehicles, paulistanos descend on the elevated highway for cycling, walking, or partying. What was once a liability for the citys developing has now been reclaimed; what was once a scar is now almost beautiful.

This is the Minhoco, or giant earthworm: an ungainly, controversial, but sometimes treasured insignium of this splendidly untidy megalopolis of 11 million. And the highway growls in the shadows of this years So Paulo Biennial, the regions most important contemporary art exhibition, which opened last week amid political protests. The short movie Disseminate and Hold, by the artist Rosa Barba, introduces into Oscar Niemeyers serene white pavilion the everyday disorder of the elevated road, backed by a charging, drum-heavy rating by the German-Brazilian group Black Manual. Its one of the finest was working in the exhibition, and it subtly connects Brazils ambitious architectural past to its troubled political present.

Im always attracted by these non-pretty, functional places, the Italian artist tells me when we meet for a beverage at a rooftop hotel bar whose privileged position of the sprawling city offers an apt backdrop. And Brazil was always a rich place of history for me. The encounter with Brazil came through readings, through Vilm Flussers history here, but also through the architecture. When I came here last year for research, I walked over the Minhoco after visiting the Copan house a worn, serpentine tower designed by Niemeyer in 1966, closely hemmed in by the freeway and the surround builds. I was so impressed how, in one second, when the traffic wasnt allowed to enter anymore, the people instantly took it over.

The Minhoco was completed in 1969, at the height of Brazils military dictatorship.( This past June, it was officially renamed the Elevado Presidente Joo Goulart, in tribute to the Brazilian chairperson who was ousted by a military junta in 1964.) If your visions of Brazil tend more to the beaches of Rio or the moonscapes of Braslia, Barbas film will introduce you to a rougher, more delirious urbanism. Shooting on foot or from the back of a auto, Barba pans across Brutalist towers, filthy ribbon windows, demotic apartments festooned with graffiti. And yet its messy, unpredictable character is what makes So Paulo so intoxicating: this is a city where spaces fold into one another and lives collide.

Barba pans across Brutalist towers, filthy ribbon windows, demotic apartments festooned with graffiti. Photo: Courtesy of Rosa Barba

Overlaying these shots of So Paulo in Disseminate and Hold is a text by the artist Cildo Meireles, a Brazilian conceptualist and a key figure of cultural opposition to the tyranny. As Barba pans up from the Minhoco to Niemeyers tower, a narrator reads Meireless terms: I remember that in 68, 69, 70, as we were on a tangent away from that which mattered by that which mattered , he means republic already we no longer worked with metaphors We were working with the situation itself, the real.

The narration helps to draw an imperfect but fascinating analogy between the public interventions of the Brazilian avant garde during the course of its tyranny and the contemporary reuse of the Minhoco: a top-down imposition now rethought from the bottom up. Somehow I thought that this voice of Cildo, the text excerpts, could be a strong voice from the street itself, Barba explains. Its truly part of his thinking of the public body. My favorite excerpt is when Cildo says that art can only exist if other people perform it. I was find myself performing his voice, and bringing it back to the public.

The So Paulo biennial has always had a strong political focus, and Meireles was one of numerous Brazilian artists to boycott the exhibition of 1969 the year of the Minhocos completion. The artists, some of whom had already gone into exile, bided away in protest of the military governments infamous Institutional Act No 5, which suspended habeas corpus, permitted censorship, and soon opened the way to torment. Barbas film looks at this history too. We insure Meireless file from the biennial repositories, as well as a telegram from Lygia Clark, exiled in Paris, and a postcard from Hlio Oiticica, whod are going to be London. All of them refuse to participate. Suddenly, against the roll of a snare drum, Barba cuts back to the Minhoco: were looking at traffic from an overpass, on which someone has spray painted TEMER JAMAIS( Never Temer ), a rebuke to the new Brazilian president whose ascent has been described by many artists here as a coup.

The current upheaval in Brazil had consequences for Barbas production, but Disseminate and Hold wears its political convictions gently. I tried to get material from the Cinemateca, and that week people were fired, Barba says. It was quite impossible to pay people: for rental equipment, say. Money was transferred would get stuck, frozen for months, and then youd have to negotiate what the exchange rate should be Things were changing every week, and even people in the biennial didnt know how to handle it.

The freeway is known locally as the giant earthworm. Photo: Courtesy of Rosa Barba

I was thinking: oh, should I connect it much more to what is happening now? But except for that one shot of TEMER JAMAIS, I actually felt it would be so much stronger if I didnt close the circle. You are in it anyway. I felt that if I would go there I would close the bottle somehow.

Barba was born in Sicily in 1972. She analyzed both film-making and fine arts, and you can see that double training in the attention given to her movies display: rattling projectors sit in the gallery, and movie strips are treated as both records and physical objects. She now lives in Berlin, and uses the increasingly obsolete medium of celluloid to examine how technological change, political events, or economic transformations are manifest in cities and sceneries. Bending to Earth, which was insured at the last Venice Biennale, orbits around desert sites for radioactive waste storage that, seen from above, appear as serene, monochrome squares. Her omnibus cinema Subconscious Society passes from Manchesters abandoned Albert Hall to the Thames estuary, which Barba filmed from the air as an uncanny collection of outdated industrial sites and abandoned funfairs. She shot it on the very last shipment ever made of Fuji 35 mm film.

Subconscious Society netted Barba a major award from the Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco, which also money this new Brazilian work. But in comparison to the languorous, often sublime films of the last few years, Disseminate and Hold is a more human-scaled work of art. Inhabitants of the apartments bordering the Minhoco speak of the highways place in their own lives; they sit and kibitz on a highway divider, and by the cinemas end they are dancing in the different regions of the giant earthworm. Geography bears the scars of politics, but people can make an impact too.

Barba, at one point, struts down the Minhoco on a Sunday morning, camera in hand. The sunshine shines down, and the tangle of roads and houses seems virtually pastoral: with no cars, the road has become an unexpected place of relaxation in a very jittery city. It becomes this public body, the street, Barba attests. Its a performative manifestation all the time. You can expand the publics voice maybe in a much more powerful way if you take over architecture in the city.

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