Our Precarity 15.02.2018

By Becky Beasley

Ricardo Alcaide is an artist whose practice has consistently explored surface as the sensitive skin between architecture and economic precarity. Initially the skin was human, more recently it is architectural. Always poetic, always implicitly political, his recent paintings, sculptures, large-scale installations and collages reveal that which is concealed or overlooked within urban situations. His practice explores Latin-American Modernism and its aftermaths within cities. At heart his work is about care, tenderly offering the viewer our most marginalized places –and thus demographics– through our various built environments and discarded objects. To understand his work fully, one must understand that, for Alcaide, to pick up a piece of trash from the street is an act of intimacy: skin on skin. His practice too is about touch, putting things and surfaces in contact with each other, creating skins with paint, paper or bronze and constructing objects through cutting and layering everyday materials.

Geographically specific, but always universal, Alcaide’s practice is about construction but it is also deeply philosophical in the sense that it is about the ethics of the precariat. It’s about looking at the overlooked. It is concerned with how things get covered over or glossed over, but also about joy and the flow of life in all places.

Detritus, both literally and metaphorically, is an ever-present, if at times invisible, element within Alcaide’s practice. He takes the still life –an historically low genre– a stage further and deals in the truly discarded. Many of his works start from his everyday encounters with abandoned or destroyed materials found in abundance around the rougher areas of São Paulo. This is where, materially, almost everything eventually washes up. For Alcaide, these scenes –or ‘small happenings’– of chaos and destitution are full of potential; ready-mades ‘laying right in the middle of the sidewalk, implying the most extraordinary dialogues between objects, materials and its surroundings.’ Through this context, they become portrayals. As representations they are radically direct, immediate, real. Importantly, these found assemblages are, for Alcaide, also essentially abstract. He describes living in the centre of São Paulo as like living in the ‘abstraction of the unpredictable’. However, the connections to representation do not end here, but are built into the body of the objects and materials he elects.

The Floor –as the quintessential place where architecture meets the full weight of the body– has taken an increasingly visible position within Alcaide’s exhibition in the last years. Transposing the street to the gallery, the first work is entirely floor-based, a hard, uneven, modular work consisting of 700 this red bricks painted gloss black on the top side –reflecting back rather than absorbing light– across which visitors must pass in order to access the rest of the exhibition. The bricks are from Spain and ordinarily manufactured for building very thin walls. Alcaide has reoriented these thin walling bricks to the floor and so structure become surface, ground as exposure, a dwelling without a home.

Shelving played a monumental role in Alcaide’s previous exhibition, Settlements, in the form of a 20 metre long free-standing industrial shelving unit work which was divisive spatially, yet open and permeable visually. Here, the same frame structure is used to more modest ends in the form of small bolted modules which contain, and seem to entrap, what could be described as offcuts of the rest of exhibition; broken pieces of the Spanish bricks, and cast concrete slabs, offcuts of MDF and plywood, grey plastic packing material. The humility at the origins of still life as a genre is palpable here. The minor tone of these sculptures is reflected in the soft palette of the materials entrapped within the shelving frameworks. Although brutal, they are nevertheless tenderly ‘housed’. Sculpturally, they are in many ways ‘reliefs’; wall hung, full frontal, but they have sides too, and through these one finds occasional empty spaces where the contents do not quite reach the back of the shelf, reminiscent of how one arranges ones own shelves. In reference, Alcaide recalls his father’s office in Caracas in the late 1970’s where he saw the shelving units as ‘empty’ architectural structures for one to populate with objects. Functioning metaphorically –representing social and societal relationships– found objects are transformed by this placement, and again by being juxtaposed with others that he has made himself. For him it is about playing with their status. His description of contemporary Central São Paulo resonates in these arrangements, like a layer cake of society or, to quote the artist, ‘a portrait of many different things at the same time’. Alcaide’s own studio is in an office building, above a legal office. There is a glimmer of possibility for coexistence –the faint hum of Modernism’s utopian dreams– but there is also the artist's calm realism.

Concealment and exposure are central to the ongoing series of panel paintings in the exhibition. They are fictional re-constructions of dismantled structures. These panels are very much like ones Alcaide often sees around the city, from waste construction materials to furniture that has been dismantled. The artist mimics this by a process of 'construction-painting-deconstruction', methodologically incorporating the memory of these real structures, but now as fictions. He understands them as drawings, a constant thinking exercise of how to compose within set limitations. They are very physical to make. The artist masks certain areas of the plywood grounds with wood and then uses fast drying polyurethane paint with a catalyser for a hard super gloss finish. All the wooden masking structures then have to be removed with a hammer; they stick fast due to the many layers of tough paint. It can take great force to remove these, resulting in a fracturing of the paintwork. These broken details are an important part of his method and an important clue to the logic of his process, which is at once productive and destructive.

Colour, another Latin-American cliché so often imported without specificity into engaged contemporary art is also part of Alcaide's realism. When he was in Miami in 2015 he saw a vast graffiti in a downtown carpark which read: ‘We Live in The Rainbow Of Chaos’. He was fascinated by what he calls ‘this almost-cliché’ and its connection with the most colourful Latin-American popular classes. From his life and travels he has observed that the lower the classes, the more colourful their surroundings become. The colours that have repeatedly appeared in his works over the last five years are generally taken directly from his street encounters in the poorest areas of São Paulo.

Even his black painted works are not true black. They contain blue. Evolved initially as a response to barricades in the city and to a black sheet material used to quickly erect these walls, the black works are high gloss, reflecting back moistly, all surface. Photography and cast sculpture meet analogically in a negative space created by surfaces touching-light on sensitized film, casting medium on mould surface. And in liquidity, in wet chemistry and wet concrete. The trajectory Alcaide has taken from remote intimacy of the surface of the photograph to this depiction of realism we call life is a great story from the perspective of someone who has been following –and writing about– his practice for over ten years. The essential, quiet minimalism of this new body of work should not be underestimated. As Felix Gonzalez-Torres understood, the most powerful place for an artist to be –in order to speak profoundly about the precarity of the margins– is deep inside.

The Miami graffiti it is a quote from Paul Cezanne.

© Becky Beasley 2017


SITU #3 | Ricardo Alcaide

Informal Order, 2016

A structure occupies the entire courtyard and partially obstructs the gallery’s entrance. Another smaller structure leads to the provisional entrance of the building, using the original access of the previous gallery, which was demolished in 2011. Both installations are constructed with coated plywood, a material used in civil construction for casting in situ concrete.

functional illegality and the institutionalisation of precarity

In the gaps of the city shifting forms of spatial occupation proliferate. These evade the pragmatism of urban planning and new visions for the metropolis. Generating informal and illegal urban universes through a provisional appropriation of (semi)public or private spaces and the creation of makeshift structures that are cumulatively coupled to the ‘official’ city.

These spontaneous manifestations are commonly understood as the result of opportunistic positions over the breaches of urban legislation. But they are survival/resistance strategies that a part of the population uses in order to deal with a city that is shaped by the imperative of capital and by a discriminatory logic of defining and applying the law.(1)

Contrary to what one might expect, it is not due to a lack of planning or urban legislation that Brazilian cities are subjected to this duality between predatory and parasitic forces. Despite a vast legal apparatus that strictly regulates the management and construction of urban space, this set of laws usually disregards the clandestine nature in which a major portion of the population lives, especially in relation to housing and land occupation.(2)

This ‘strategic lapse’ has major political consequences, since instituting ‘outlawed’ territories is a way of excluding its inhabitants from the bureaucratic responsibilities of the official city, and therefore ‘assigning’ them a limited state of citizenship.(3)

The implementation of law according to this discriminatory logic produces territorial boundaries through physical, economic and ideological obstacles that have been fundamental tools for a strategic exercise of power performed by a minority.

In opposition to these barriers are those shifting forms of spatial occupation, which obstruct and fragment the legislated environment. These not only resist to the regulation of the city but also create other possibilities for its use and functionality, through the occupation of empty buildings or the domestication of public spaces by those excluded from housing policies; the provisional appropriation of sidewalks or the informal stalls erected by those unable to legalize their business; among many other examples of those who are not granted the right to have working and living conditions apart from the perspective of strictly surviving.

Given the impossibility of containing, expelling or hiding these forms of appropriation and use of the legalized space, some flexible rules have begun to be established, based on negotiations and agreements between the official city and the ‘others’ who reinterpret and subvert it. Through these combinations, mitigatory territorial pacts are instituted, which are parallel to the very official legal-normative order but never cease to be in dialogue with it.

This tolerated illegality results in an institutionalization of provisionality and precarity, and rather than being an egalitarian response to the needs of the population, consequently leads to a normalization and banalization of these factors, in a veiled attempt to erase their subversive nature.

Thus, the state of consented illegality is paradoxically a functional situation for the maintenance of the status quo founded by archaic political relations that support the interests of the ruling classes, of the narrow and speculative real estate and other businesses.

Therefore, what at a first glance could be understood as a structuring of urban space based on predatory and parasitic dynamics, in fact resembles a different kind of relationship where both parties mutually benefit from their association but in which one could live independently from the other. This type of relationship, scientifically known as ‘facultative mutualism’, may also resemble a mutual parasitism. In such a system, one of the parties harms the other in order to benefit itself, a similar condition to the contemporary socio-spatial dynamics.

© Bruno de Almeida 2016

(1)MARICATO, Ermínia. O impasse da política urbana no Brasil. Petrópolis, RJ: Editora Vozes, 2011. (ISBN 9788532641472)

(2)MARICATO, Ermínia. As idéias fora do lugar e o lugar fora das idéias. In: Otília Arantes, Carlos Vainer, Ermínia Maricato. A cidade do pensamento único: desmanchando consensos. Petrópolis, RJ: Editora Vozes, 2000. (ISBN 9788532623843)

(3)ROLNIK, Raquel. Para além da lei: legislação urbanística e cidadania (São Paulo 1886-1936). In: Maria Adélia A Souza; Sonia C. Lins; Maria do Pilar C. Santos; Murilo da Costa Santos. (Org.). Metrópole e Globalização-Conhecendo a cidade de São Paulo. São Paulo: Editora CEDESP, 1999. (ISBN 9788587237019)



1/ Two stories: from goodness infiltration to the imposition of the harmonic plan

In 1889 Jane Addams founded Hull-House, a pioneering center to help the working class in an outcast neighborhood of Chicago, a 'settlement' that works as an effort to help solve the social and industrial problems caused by modern living conditions in big cities. The settlement emphasizes that these problems are not restricted to one specific part of the City(1). With the intent of infiltrating the urban and social fabric such shelter spread across the United States.

Within this context, Ellen Gates Starr –Adam's life partner– had her social study Hull House Maps and Papers (1985) published. In this study, art is presented as food for the soul, understood as the capability and the need to see and create beauty, both as being intrinsic to human nature and common to different periods. The aesthetic contemplation presented as an element of virtue, of the desirable state of happiness in modern living, egalitarian and hygienic.

After First World War the myth of universal eternal goodness seems pointless. 1920. Time flies, it is a new moment and there is no past at which to look. It's the time of Le Corbusier's L'Esprit Nouveau, a new plan of a rationalized society according to universal math`s harmonious relations, of the geometric purity. Beauty as harmony. And order as progress, conceived in a typified form for all social classes would be the revolution, architecture would be the revolution(2)

2/ Quotes for intermediate steps in thought

It is first the abuse of Bauhaus and early Purist ideals that I take issue with. Then I must clarify how monolithic idealist problem-solving has not only failed to solve the problems but created a dehumanized condition at both a domestic and institutional level. So what I am reacting to is the deformation of values (ethics) in the disguise of modernity, renewal, urban planning, call it what you will. / Gordon Matta Clark(3)

[...] Also, I intend to expand the sense of "appropriation" to the worldly things I stumble upon on the streets, vacant lots, fields, the environment, in sum –things that would not be movable, but for which I`d call upon the audience`s participation – this would be a fatal blow to the concept of a museum, art gallery, etc., and to the very concept of "exhibition"– we either change it or we remain the same. [The] Museum is the world, it is the everyday experience [...] / Hélio Oiticica(4)

[With oodles of Warhol miscellanea to decipher(5), it seems more than just an idiosyncratic coincidence that the year before Warhol began compiling them], William Rathje, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology, established his theory of ‘garbology’, reasoning that contemporary garbage could tell us as much about contemporary civilization as the objects we preserve in museums. / Ronald Jones(6)

The issue of archiving is not a matter of the past [...] of a concept related to the past that may or may not be at our disposal, an “archivable” concept of archive. It is a matter of future, a matter of the future in itself, of a response, of a promise, of responsibility for tomorrow. Archive: if we want to know what it means, we’ll only know in future times. Maybe. / Jaques Derrida(7)

3/ Attempts of order to a dystopic beauty

Settlements (in English, agreements, settlements, negotiations)

Twenty linear meters of shelves, three meters high, half full or half empty, while we move forward among hundreds of objects scattered across the floor. They are remnants of furniture, fabrics and debris scooped up from the streets by Ricardo Alcaide, combined with new monochromatic paintings, modernist intervened architecture photographs and bronze sculptures of crushed cardboard boxes. All of it converted into a catalog of possible beauty and formal harmony constructions.

Here and now could very well be a Ballardian game, the remains of a novel about the end of a utopia made of pieces of lyricism and narrative beauty. But also, a collection of souvenirs of the criticism to the modern project, to the residues of Uncle Jaques Tati`s house, pieces of Gordon Matta-Clark installation walls, or even worldly things I stumble upon on the streets which Oiticica would choose for Tropicália PN2 (purity is a myth).

Nevertheless, they are all frozen, cataloged, unused. Ready to be stored in a warehouse, watched over for an uncertain future. The act of collecting supposes a rational exercise to understand the unknown, but also to tame it and homogenize it according to a predetermined kind of knowledge. A modern man tendency to systematization which, however, does not cease to be an attempt of impossible rationalization: Such a ficition is a result of an uncritical belief in the notion that ordering and classifying, that it to say, the spatial yuxtaposition of fragments, can produce a representational understanding of the world(8).

And moving a little further, here the formal beauty criteria elects the chosen to be presented, and once more shows itself in a constructive idealized game of ruins and works of artistic production, which refers to the modernist formal relations. If you save beauty, whether it`s trash or not, why is it representative of goodness, order and progress? The aestheticization as a salvation place?

Harmony can captivate the sight, calm the spirit, but it may also be a wicked deception.
The facade that hides multiple attempts of an impossibility.

Marta Ramos-Yzquierdo

(1) Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1912 (c.1910).
(2) According to Le Corbusier: The primordial instinct of every human being is to assure himself of a shelter. The various classes of workers in society today no longer have dwellings adapted to their needs; neither the artisan nor the intellectual. It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today: architecture or revolution. Le Corbusier, Towards a new architecture (1923). Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007.
(3) Donald Wall, “Gordon Matta-Clark’s Building Dissections,” An Interview by Donald Wall, Arts Magazine, May 1976, pp. 74-79.
(4) Helio Oiticica, Notas, Proyecto Helio Oiticica, Itaú Cultural (http://www.itaucultural.org.br/aplicExternas/enciclopedia/ho/home/index.cfm)
(5) The term ‘Warhol miscellanea’ in the text refers to the Time Capsules, archives which Andy Warhol began to produce in 1974.
(6) Ronald Jones, “Living in a Box”, Frieze 82, abril 2004, p.46.
(7) Jaques Derrida, Mal d´archive: une impression freudienne, París, Galilée, 1995.
(8) Eugenio Donato “The museum´s furnace: notes toward a contextual Reading of Bouvard and Pécuchet” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Hararu, Cornell University Press, 1979.