TROPICÁLIA, TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURAL CANNIBALISM
Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian CultureThis review discusses aspects of Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture, exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, USA from 22 October 2005 to 8 January 2006. The exhibition is currently at the Barbican in London, where it will be open to the public from 6 February until 6 March 2006. Curated by Carlos Basualdo (see also Basualdo, 2005), the exhibition examined the Tropicália movement as it flourished during one of the most politically repressive eras of Brazil’s history, extending the movement’s trajectory into the 21 st century. The original Tropicália movement represented an attempt to recognize a Brazilian national art as a sensorial as well as a conceptual experience. It aimed to overcome the “universalistic myth of Brazilian culture” derived from European and North American references. Instead it absorbed and reinterpreted those very references in a “cannibalistic way” (Oiticica, 1968), an attitude we further discuss below.
The current exhibition fuses the works of Tropicália artists from the mid 1960’s to the early 1970’s (Artner, 2005) with those of more current artists influenced by the movement and working in a wide range of artistic expressions, including new media. Some of the newer works were commissioned specifically for the show (MCA, 2005). Works from several of the visionaries of the movement were also represented, such as Lygia Clarke’s participatory tactile pieces and contributions by Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes, all originators of the Tropicália movement.
The exhibition also aimed to showcase the impact of the Tropicália movement in areas beyond the fine arts and music. TV, fashion, advertising, and theater sets were some of the other media impacted by Tropicália’s socio-politically-charged, bold, yet unassuming aesthetic. It is just this network of apparent oppositions that dominates the viewer’s experience of what Tropicália artists embraced as “cultural cannibalism.” Oiticica (1968) used this notion to define an aspect of Brazilian artistic characterization, the “national art.” Under the rubric of “cultural cannibalism,” Tropicália artists deliberately consumed international cultural manifestations, at the same time transfiguring them so as to address the artists’ own political and cultural agendas.
Computer-mediated art was represented by two collaborative projects. As visitors entered the lobby area, they encountered the striking collaborative mural by Assume Vivid Astro Focus (Figure 4) that, in a sense, prepared the viewer for the dynamic nature of the exhibition. The work’s attitude relied upon a highly saturated multi-hued color palette, creating areas of intense visual vibration through the elaborated use of hue and chroma contrasts as well as complimentary color schemes. It is worth pointing out that this digital collage of pop and “non-pop references” (Lafreniere, 2004, p. 247, as quoted in Rimanelli, 2004) integrated disparate aspects of Brazilian culture. Furthermore, it drew upon an aesthetic that has been revitalized by the pervasive use of computer-generated imagery by digital artists throughout the past decade.
Joy, Go On was a participatory visual and auditory art piece by the music collective +2 that reflected, at its best, an aesthetic of computer-mediated social interaction (Figure 1, at right). This work at the same time juxtaposed aspects of Tropicália with digital technology by also referencing natural materials and audience participation. Visitors’ interactions were interfaced by eight handmade wooden boxes, each wired to a multi-track sound system and containing a small Liquid Crystal Display monitor. The monitors displayed what seemed to be ordinary, unstaged video and still pictures of people and places in Brazil. Different sounds were triggered by opening each door and were silenced by closing them. It was this opening and closing mechanism that allowed a multitude of sound combinations to occur.
A particularly significant aspect of this piece was its ability to create an opportunity for social interaction. By that we mean that Joy, Go On often worked as a figure-ground stage on which the participants’ actions impacted each other. This transaction could be rewarding, disappointing at times, amusing, or even revealing. The multiplicity of sound combinations created a sound-scape that could be textured with dissonances and with rhythms. At the core of the work was a wide range of improvisational, but not necessarily all random, sequences cued by the participants themselves. Sound combinations could thus be refined by the participants or even re-enacted. This aspect of Joy, Go On made it function as a rudimentary techno-based multi-participant musical instrument. It was the constant negotiation and re-negotiation of shared meaning that made the work a (battle)ground for individual and collective experimentation, resulting in an experience that was, in the most tangible sense of the word, ludic!
Especially through the works of Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, and +2, Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture offered visitors an opportunity to examine the role of interaction in building personal and shared meanings in several contexts. This sort of engagement, although not always computer mediated, is particularly relevant to our understanding of interactive art, including new media. What one gets from the exhibition is the opportunity to engage in a multitude of sensory experiences, most often quite revealing ones. “Cultural cannibalism” emerges as a positive construct pointing us to more active way of consuming culture (Oiticica, 1968). Tropicália artists, charged by their political views, refused to conform but at the same time allowed themselves to redefine the notion of cultural boundaries as a way of bringing their own identities into relief.
Artner, A. (2005, 27 October). Exhibit cedes power to audience. Chicago Tribune, p. 3
Barbican. (2006). Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture. Retrieved January, 2006 from http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/series.asp?id=261.
Basualdo, C. (2005). Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture. São Paulo: CosacNaify [accompaniment book to exhibition]
Lafreniere, S. ( 2004). Assume vivid astro focus. ArtForum International 43 (2), 247.
Museum of Contemporary Art. (2005). Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture. Exhibition Guide. Chicago, IL: Author.
Oiticica, H. (1968). Tropicália. Retrieved January, 2006 from http://www2.uol.com.br/tropicalia.
Rimanelli, D. (2004). Pop life: Los super elegantes. ArtForum International, 43 (2), 245-247, 298, 303-305.
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