24 August 2016

Cidade do Selfie

 Rio`s new iconographic landscapes
The City of Rio de Janeiro is undoubtedly situated in one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world, with one of the most pleasant climates, and is surrounded by oceans and mountains that provide escapes from the summer heat. The iconic physical landscapes are complimented by iconic architectural and urban designs: Cristo, Parque do Flamengo, Calçadão de Copacabana, Sambódromo, Arcos da Lapa, Maracanã. Now, the city government has added the VLT, BRT, and the Museu da Amanhã to the pictography of the city.

As I was watching the closing ceremony of the Olympics, one of the commentators on SporTv said: “This has been the selfie Olympics.” And then it struck me: this was the selfie Olympics in the Cidade do Selfie.

Central do Brasil w old selfies on the wall
When tourists, commuters, workers, vagabundos, and geographers walk into the main hall of the Central do Brasil train station they are faced with murals that depict the city around them. On front of the Rio Sul Shopping is always a gigantic mural of some scene in the Zona Sul. In restaurants and bars, the pictures on the wall are always of Rio. It’s not uncommon to see Cariocas preening in front of their cameras and then flipping through their selfie collection while stuck in traffic.  There is a Brazilian fascination with the selfie that I will leave to the anthropologists to dissect, but I would guess that Rio is the epicenter of this phenomenon that may come from a historically situated condition of perpetual self-reflection on the natural beauty of the city.

A brilliant place for a selfie
Of course, Brazil and Rio are not alone in this, as the selfie as a mode of personal expression has gown around the world to merit more serious attention. The selfie phenomenon may indicate a general switch in human consciousness or simply a different way of experiencing the world, or it may be just another way of fetishizing lived experience as an act of consumption. With the explosion of cell phones and digital cameras, photography has become such an integral part of our daily lives that we forget that as recently as 15 years ago, we still printed our pictures, increasing the time and space between the moment of the picture and its remembrance.

In the cidade do selfie, I take a picture (with a me-phone) and immediately look at it, admiring my own beauty and marveling at my good fortune or privileged leisure before the moment or experience has actually passed. The collapsing of personal experience into a constant echo chamber of selfie reflection may eventually force us to evolve longer arms and more delicate index fingers, but it does not permit much space for reflection about the world in which the selfies happens. It is as if we are afraid that we will not remember where we were ten minutes ago without encapsulating the moment in a photo.

The selfie is a perfect expression of reality within the Olympic Bubble. As with the USAmerican rower who was so adamant that she would “row through shit for you”, the Olympism is a self-referential moral system that projects the desires of the individual onto Others as a means of justifying that pursuit. The gringa was never rowing through shit for anyone but herself and completely ignored the rather obvious fact that she can choose to do this while the people who live here are rather mired in it.

It is within this selfie bubble that Thomas Bach can say “There was no public money involved in Rio 2016” or that the IOC “is not responsible” for the risk that whistleblowers run when denouncing state sponsored doping programs. The Olympic City is always a city constructed to be photographed, within which Olympic tourists descend to take selfies, consuming the landscape and experience before heading home to show their friends and family their pictures of themselves in front of iconographic scenarios specifically constructed for their selfies.  Thus, Olympic urbanism meets Samsung and begets 916 million instagram photos in 16 days. 

The selfie is part of a larger trend towards the instant historicization of the present and recent past. Within an hour of the closing ceremonies, there were already retrospective montages of the Games that encapsulated the best moments for us, before we could think about it ourselves. The government is rushing to say that the Games were a success without allowing the dust to settle. Play-acting president Temer launched a press release yesterday saying that “The World has rediscovered Brazil” – a tidy articulation with the IOC’s “A New World” slogan. How did the world rediscover Brazil? What world? What Brazil? What (re)discovery? This way of promoting and interpreting Rio’s mega-event cycle is fraught, eliding problems and challenges that can only be adequately digested and addressed with the passage of time.

Prolonged consideration, public engagement, and collective action are actions that the Olympic Cidade do Selfie does not encourage. It is the Cidade de Nós Todos that needs to be constructed in its stead.

22 August 2016

Seven years a slave

It’s over, save for the lawsuits and corruption scandals. And the Paralympics, impeachment, debt servicing, white elephants, new weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the police, an impending collapse of public security and health care, the return of the mosquitoes, municipal elections, and peering into the void of (un)accountability.

There have been a number of very good reflections on this most recent global spectacle, but within these there are always some points that need to be though through more thoroughly. Here’s one from S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated:

“Rio? It came nearly as advertised: Exhausted, ragged, a city and its nation in crisis. What else should we have expected? Brazil is not the world’s sole victim of financial crisis or political paralysis, just one of the worst. That it still managed to revitalize its decrepit port and build a $3 billion, 10-mile subway extension, the first line of an urban light-rail system, and an efficient rapid bus network used on Aug. 12 by a record 855,000 passengers, not to mention host the world amid its suffering, verges on the heroic.”

The word “revitalization” is a euphemism used the world over as a substitute for gentrification, expulsion of the working class, and financialization of urban territories. We know that Rio’s port region lacked investment for decades, but this is partly because the region was zoned against new residential construction, has few supermarkets or schools, and turns into a no-person’s land after 6pm. The solution? Privatize through decree, handing over five million square meters of land with more than 6,000 empty buildings to Brazil’s biggest construction and real-estate firms.

Within this area, the city government decided to cover itself with urban bling, building a cripplingly expensive light rail system that is itself designed to valorize the territories within the port zone. This is a perverse investment that will rust into disuse as soon as it stops being a tourist attraction (The English only need to see it once). The center of Rio is prone to flooding and large pools of water will necessitate a systemic shut down of the because of the center rail could electrify pedestrians. In this case, the VLT cars are equipped with batteries to take passengers to the next station, where they will disembark and the VLT will stop running until the water recedes. Genius.

An efficient bus system? I don’t think that Price ever tried to get a bus that was not linked to the Games. If he had, he would have found that Rio’s bus stops lack a map or even an indication of which buses will pass, when, or where they go to. I pointed this out on Twitter a month back and the mayor posted a picture of the Olympic transport map. Fine. From the height of a parachute, it looks like a functional and efficient system, but in a city that has the third worst traffic in the world, to talk of efficiency is to miss the point entirely. There is no public transportation in Rio, there is no map of the bus system, and city planning agendas are dictated by a cabal of special interests.

And finally, the metro. This is the last project that Rio needed and the city and state have wasted a historic opportunity of record cash flow to construct a metropolitan transport network that would serve the needs of the population and not the tourists going from Copacabana and Ipanema to Barra. There are innumerable testimonies about the folly of the metro and while they did manage to get it done on time for the Games (at many billions over budget), are we to celebrate this as a heroic and pyrrhic victory, or simply as another example of the Games capturing the long term planning agendas of a metropolis of 12+ million? Please. Just because a lot of things were built in a short period of time, it doesn’t mean that they were the right things to build in the right places with a modicum of transparency. These transportation projects were responsible for the majority of the 20,000 homes destroyed in the largest cycle of forced removals in the city’s history.

Despite this perspective, which likely comes from an ignorance of the context of Rio’s urban contortions, I agree with Price’s assessment that for Rio 20sicksteen: “The underlying message: Take an eye off the sports for even a moment, and you risked disillusion or dismay. You call that an Olympics?”

Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times parachuted into Rio to cover the Games and like his colleague Roger Cohen, whose unfortunate whinge I debunked in the last post, has showed just how easy it is for a seasoned professional to lose their critical faculties when confronted with covering the global spectacle. Jacobs tries mightily to listen to critics, but he won’t allow himself to be distracted from the debased narrative that the Games are really good for all of us, even the poor. To wit:

“But the criticism aside [my incredulous italics], the Olympic Games in Rio have profoundly altered this city of six million, yielding a revitalized port; a new subway line; and a flush of municipal projects, big and small, that had long been on the wish list of city planners.”

This is, as I described in the last post, technically bullshit. The Transcarioca BRT line was on the wish list of city planners – in the 1960s. This line, identified as the T-5 in the Rio 2016 bid book, was originally called the Linha Azul in the Doxiadis urban plan of 1965. The Linha Amarela, also part of this plan, smashed through the dense neighborhood fabric of the Zona Norte  in 1995 to connect Barra da Tijuca with the Linha Amarela (a project facilitated by João Havelange’s intervention with the military dictatorship). The Transcarioca has added another perverse layer to the automobile fantasies of Rio’s elites. This is not urban planning, it’s a residual ideological perspective that continues to shape urban governance and planning in Brazil. 

Jacobs doesn’t interview urban planners to test his theory, but turns to an analyst at Moody’s who says: “It’s undeniable that the infrastructure that has been built for the Games will benefit the population once the Olympics are over.” Where is the evidence for this claim? There is none, just a blind belief that any infrastructure is good infrastructure, with no consideration of the opportunity costs, or that the lines are privatized and already provide intermittent, crowded, sub-standard service for the urban poor while opening ever more space for cars.

But Jacobs isn’t done yet, turning his myopic pen to the Port. Here I consolidate his comments on the port region into one:

Then there is Meu Porto Maravilha, or My Wonderful Port, the historic waterfront that for decades was cut off from downtown Rio by a hulking elevated highway, its 19th-century warehouses left to molder. Plans to rehabilitate the port, first put forth in the 1980s, had long been stymied by a lack of money and insufficient political will…The $2.5 billion rehabilitation, much of it financed through the sale of air rights from adjacent properties and tax incentives to developers, included demolishing the viaduct and funneling traffic through a new three-mile tunnel…Over the next decade, the developers plan to build 500 apartments that they say will be affordable to residents of a nearby favela. Many of these residents are descendants of the half-million African slaves who first arrived in Brazil at Valongo Wharf. The wharf’s recently unearthed foundations are scheduled to become part of a museum that will also include a forgotten slave cemetery.”

Again, the port region was privatized through decree and there are 6,000 vacant buildings in the Port and Centro regions of the city. There is a housing deficit of some 220,000 homes in Rio, yet developers say they are going to build 500 apartments that will be available to residents of favelas (probably Providência, where dozens of houses were removed for the authoritarian imposition of a cablecar). 500 apartments? This somehow will erase the historical debt of the odd half-million slaves dumped on Brazil’s shores? The money has been spent on the expensive to maintain, yet environmentally “sustainable” Museu da Amanhã – a place dedicated to forgtting about the past.

The “air rights” that Jacobs talks about are called CEPACS and were the principal financing mechanism for the PPP of Porto Maravilha. CEPACS are rights bought to build above the current zoning restrictions, which have had the effect of increasing real-estate speculation and fostering gentrification in other Brazilian cities. Usually, these are sold on the open market, but as the private sector did not come forward to buy enough of them to make viable the privatization, CAIXA, a Brazilian state bank, bought all of them for R$8 billion. 100% public risk + major transfer of public lands to the private sector + spectacular urbanism predicated on global consumption = a place that Jacobs can really get into, despite the obvious problems inherent in pulling off this kind of project in corrupt and opaque Rio:

“It’s hard to get excited about the Olympics when our hospitals are so overcrowded and people can’t find jobs,” she said. But sitting in the shadow of a new science museum by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, Ms. Lima said she had changed her mind. “I’m sure there was a lot of corruption and waste that went into this, but the end result is gorgeous and really cool,” she said. “This is definitely a place I’m going to come back to again and again.”
The Olympic Boulevard is an improvement on what was there before, no doubt, but what it was turned into during the Olympics was a pathway for global brands to stuff our faces with sugary drinks, watery pilsner, smart phones, imported cars, and innumerable opportunities for selfies. While having a new public space for Cariocas is welcome, there spatial tropes that appeal to the international tourist class make it yet another scenario to be consumed, another place to be “done” (to use the gringo traveler lingo). Jacobs, as the Brazilian saying goes, pisou feia na bola, making the least of an opportunity for balanced coverage.

The best commentaries I have read have, not surprisingly come from Brazilians. Two of the many excellent commentaries coming out today build upon what Vanessa Barbara wrote in the New York Times on Saturday: 

Brazilians boo every athlete who’s not Brazilian, we boo the foreign journalists and we boo ourselves, just for the noise. Yet, many of us are interested only in making a good impression on the same foreigners we seem to despise; we want the country to look pretty on camera, despite the cost for those who live here. Every positive article about the Olympics in the international press is like a gold medal. For me, this is a more serious complex: the one where you will do anything just to impress the visitors and try to disguise problems, instead of fixing them.”
Two other notable commentaries came from Luis Eduardo Soares, a Brazilian luminary that is able to see the whole and the parts. In today’s Guardian he wrote:

Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has done everything to try to stop a parliamentary inquiry commission being opened in the municipal chamber to investigate spending on the Olympics. Of the original promises made by Paes for the Games’ legacy, mainly involving investment in urban mobility and the reduction of pollution, barely half have been met on time. The Games’ proposed budget of $13bn was exceeded a long time ago – but a lack of transparency over the real costs has fuelled suspicions of corruption.”

And as Soares is perhaps the expert on public security in Brazil, it is worth reminding everyone that the during the Games no fewer than 8 people were killed in Rio’s northern suburbs (not counting the continuing massacre of political candidates in the Baixada Fluminense):

“Between 2003 and 2015, 11,343 people were killed by police in the state of Rio, mainly by military police. The overwhelming majority of victims are young, black and poor. Investigations, when they do take place, are generally inconclusive. In other words, extrajudicial executions are indirectly authorised by governments, institutions and the population itself, with people widely believing that the killings will reduce crime. Yet in the first seven months of 2016, 60 police officers were also killed.” This is in stark contrast to the rapid response of Brazilian police to every claim made by gringos, even the vapid eterno-bros from El Norte.

Add to these observations the continued transfer of public assets to private hands in Barra da Tijuca, the news that the rabidly machista CBF is considering a total elimination of the women’s national team, Neymar’s hypocritical 100% Jesus (0% bom senso) headband which cut off the slow trickle of blood to his head, Paes equally tight malandro chapeu during the closing ceremonies, the constant sight of the Brazilian military raising flags and marching off in lockstep when the same forces do the same thing with the Brazilian flag in “pacified” favelas, the non-transparency of the Rio 2016 organizing committee that spent more than R$200 million renting and repairing Ilha Pura but won’t fund a centavo of the Paralympics, Nuzman declaring that yellow is the new red, and Bach saying so long thanks for all the billions, see you in Tokyo…among all this there is the programmed decline of Oligarchic infrastructure, expertly identified by Mariana Calvacante:

“Summer Olympics, like other mega-events and massive redevelopment schemes necessarily entail the production of ruins. Two types of ruin are usually related to Olympic games or large urban development projects: the first refers to the ruins of the city before the Olympics, and they take the shape of demolitions, that in turn usually entail evictions. These are the ruins of “creative destruction” that draw attention to the sudden erasure of recent pasts, and they lend themselves both to nostalgic and critical discourses. These ruins come before the Games, and their remains are to be erased by the Games, in exchange for the promise of “legacies” that vary from city to city.

The very prematurity of these ruins renders legible the predicaments of the project of Rio as an Olympic city. Their particular temporal structure bespeaks of a process of decline before reaching its own projected or imagined peak. Instead of a future that becomes outmoded over time, the material decay and constitutive unfinishedness of Rio’s Olympic structures reveal the monumental and in the end unachievable scales of Olympic planning in Rio de Janeiro.”

More to come as there are ever more bits of the Olympic puzzle to be put back into the box, shaken up, and reconfigured as a more just and livable city.

15 August 2016

Piles of Olympic bullshit

This morning, Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote “These Olympics are good for Brazil and good for humanity, a needed tonic. Watch Usain Bolt or Simone Biles and feel uplifted.” This may be true for him, but for anyone with a minimally critical perspective on what has happened in Rio over the last decade of mega-event hosting, this is unadulterated bullshit.

When I say bullshit, I mean bullshit as a rhetorical category as defined by Henry Frankfurt in his seminal essay “On Bullshit”.*  Bullshit, according to Frankfurt, is a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts that falls just short of lying. And while it may be true that watching athletes perform on the global stage can give the sofa-bound Cohen an uplift in difficult times (especially for USAmericans watching their “democracy” unravel), Rio 2016 is so full of institutionalized violence, violations of human rights, transfer of public lands and finances to private companies, bullet filled black bodies, and corruption scandals of Herculean proportions that Cohen’s “uplift” stinks from 5,000 km away.

Cohen’s saccharine apology for transferring billions of public funds into private hands to give him a happiness bump is one of the well-established methods of dropping a load of bullshit on the growing Olympic pile. To Cohen’s deliberate misrepresentations of reality I would add the following gems from Tania Braga, the head of sustainability of Rio 2016, who dropped a load at a recent conference called Mega-Sustainability:

“Rio 2016 is contributing to global sustainability by undertaking a carbon mitigation program that invests in the reforestation of cattle farms in Mato Grosso, offsetting spectator emissions, participating in a stray dog and cat program and promoting tourism in favelas.” While she might not have been lying, the idea that carbon offsets in Mato Grosso can in any way compensate for the internal combustion of Rio 2016 is risible.  

Another rounded stone within Braga’s remarks was revelation that Golf Digest magazine awarded the Rio 2016 Golf course with a sustainability medal of some kind. How is it possible, in any sober consideration of the word, that a golf course in a wetland that removed an environmentally protected area and will host 20+ residential buildings where every apartment will have 2-3 cars could possibly be environmentally sustainable? Ditto with the LEED classification for the massively expensive Museu da Amanhã, the same classification given to the Mané Garrincha Elefante Branco in Brasília. Obviously, it’s bullshit.

The examples of Olympic bullshit are legion, creating a rich loam with which future events will be fertilized. Here’s an example of bullshit from LA 2024:

Yet within the lava-like flows of bullshit are some shiny truth gems, bits of undigested roughage that we can shine up and hang around our necks as b.s. bling. For instance, in response to the empty arenas of Rio 2016, the organizing committee said that they had met their financial goals and would “teach underprivileged children Olympic Values” by giving tickets away. That is to say, Rio’s children will learn that a multi-billion dollar international corporation will only give away tickets to an event from which they have been structurally excluded (and that their parents have financed through taxes), after the organizing committee’s self-imposed financial targets have been met and they need to recuperate some of the symbolic capital of the Games by having young black and brown faces in the stands. This isn’t bullshit, it’s truthiness.

And when the diving pool at the Maria Lenk swimming center turned green, the Rio 2016 response was that “Chemistry is not an exact science.” Indeed. The robbery of USAmerican swimmers gets more media attention than the death of kids and cops in Rio’s favelas, Guanabara Bay is more, not less, polluted every day, and just because there hasn’t been a full scale disaster we can wait for the Lords of the Pile to declare Rio 2016 a commercial, social, political, and environmental success. And among all this flying bullshit, the IOC won’t step in to finance the Paralympic Games as their members each pull down $900 a day, enough to fly all the Paralympians to Rio.

And more bullshit is yet to come, with retrospective films, sports business conferences, disappearing legacy promises, and a looming spectre of urban and social unraveling after the bullshit gets flushed, untreated into the South Atlantic.

* Thaddeus Blanchette and Ana Paula da Silva employed the concept of bullshit to very good effect by in an article entitled “On bullshit and the trafficking of women: moral entrepreneurs and the invention of trafficking of persons in Brazil.” Dialectical Anthropology 2012 36(1): 107-125.

11 August 2016

Mais que ridiculo

One of the more refreshing elements of living outside of Brazil is avoiding much of the crushing sexism that pervades public and private discourse. The Olympic examples of sexism (classism and racism) are too numerous to count, but it should come as no surprise to anyone that the president of FIVB, the International Volleyball Federation, is a Brazilian. FIVB sets the dress code for beach volleyball players: men in shorts and shirts, women in bikinis. True to the tastes and practices of a Brazilian sports honcho, lingering corruption charges against Ary (des) Graça won’t surprise either.
Sadly, in their attempt to convince Brazilians to think of female athletes as something other than eye-candy in HD, Rio 2016 marketers have reinforced all of the stereotypes that they probably tried to overcome but were hamstrung by their lack of exposure to non-sexist paradigms.

The campaign, called #maisquemusas shows Brazilian female athletes in non-sexualized poses in the midst of competition. The text explains the athletic accomplishments of the women, presenting some of them to the Brazilian public for the first time. However, the problem lies in the hashtag.

#maisquemusas means “more than a beauty” or “more than some hot woman that inspires you”, musa being the Brazilian term for muse. This hashtag does not pretend to eliminate or reduce the sexualization of Brazil’s female athletes, but suggests that they are “musas” but also world-class athletes. The reality of this particularly limited and entrenched vision is that women in the public sphere are not just people, sports women, Brazilians, or citizens – they also stimulate male desire by being musas. This term musa is applied in quite sickening ways in Brazil’s hyper-machista football culture and I doubt there is a campaign waiting that will label Giselle Bundchen as #somusa.

This was one creative reaction to the failed attempt of Rio 2016 to address the engorged veins of rampant sexism that run through the Olympic Movement. Let's hope that this one gains some traction in the Brazilian subconscious. 


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