CHow has Casa do Povo survived amid the crisis? “We are already experts in crisis”, replies, in a joking tone, Benjamin Seroussi, director of the São Paulo institution. In fact, when the cultural center resumed its activities, from 2012 and 2013, Brazil was starting a long process of economic and political crisis – from which it never left. More than that, before the resumption, the space founded in 1946 by progressive Jews in the Bom Retiro neighborhood suffered about 30 years of deep crisis, which implied the closure of almost all its activities and the abandonment of a good part of its space – a modernist building designed by Ernest Mange.
In these less than 10 years of recovery, which began with the rapprochement of former students of the school that operated there until 1981, with the arrival of Seroussi – a curator and manager coming from experiences at the Centro da Cultura Judaica and at the Bienal de São Paulo – and, gradually, from other collectives and cultural and social agents, the House has established itself as an outstanding and unique cultural space in the country. Unique for its experimental and collective action, based on a notion of culture that goes beyond artistic practices - including activism, food, housing, mental health and sport -, which has now resulted in a movement that is also peculiar in the face of the greatest of all crises, that of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“And this movement of cultural centers to close their doors and go online seemed to me a kind of total abandonment of what we do. It was as if we could close ourselves in our privilege, thinking that it was enough to go to the networks to communicate only with people who can access this content and that it doesn't matter if the world ended between one 'bunker' and another”, says Seroussi. After the quarantine and the need for social isolation were decreed, in March last year, the People's house closed its doors to the public, but, in dialogue with the population and the collectives that use the space, it outlined new lines of action, including the production and distribution of soap and masks and the collection and donation of food baskets and meals.
Also, despite the redirection of funds at the institution, projects such as the restoration of the TAIB (Teatro de Arte Israelita Brasileiro, known for having been an important center of contestation to the military dictatorship), located in the basement of the House, and the reactivation of the library, reopened in 2019 after 40 years of closure and which brings together 8 books (half of them in Yiddish) and a documentary collection.
In interview with arte!brasileiros, Seroussi comments on these matters and also talks about the difficulties of financial collection in the context of the pandemic and of a Brazil with a federal government averse to culture. “So I think we were already experiencing a kind of censorship built into the neoliberal understanding of what culture is, which was economic censorship. Now we see a kind of ghost of the past, which is a possible political censorship”, he says. “But we need to fight this, with the tools we have, because culture is a basic right. There is no excuse”, he concludes. Read the full conversation below.
ARTE!✱ – We have just completed one year of the Covid-19 pandemic and Casa do Povo was one of the cultural institutions that played an almost “front line” role in the fight against the tragic impacts of this pandemic. It was not restricted to doing online programming, for example, but began to distribute food, produce soap, masks, etc. I would like you to tell us a little bit about this process.
Benjamin Seroussi – I think that “front line” is a rather complex vocabulary, because we have also tried to question this idea of a war. I think sometimes a very warlike vocabulary is used. It's a war against whom, right? Against a virus? It's like that campaign that claims that “a mosquito is not stronger than an entire country”. But it's not quite like that… Because there was the mosquito, there was the virus, but the problem is us.
ARTE!✱ – Because in war, the blame is placed on an external enemy...
Exactly. And I think we need less of the idea of “let's go to war” and more of the idea of “let's weave solidarities”. So we have this performance that also came about in an almost obvious way. Because we are there in a neighborhood that was one of the most affected in São Paulo, because it is dense, has many tenements, squatters, a favela. An article from the G1 even showed that, proportionally, Bom Retiro was more affected than Brasilândia, for example. So we had a reality in front of us. And this movement of cultural centers to close their doors and go online seemed to me a kind of total abandonment of what we do. It was as if we could close ourselves in our privilege, think that it was enough to go to the networks to communicate with the public and that everything would be fine. As if it were enough to communicate only with those people who can access these contents and who doesn't care if the world ended between one bunker and another. And I find this view questionable, both from an ethical point of view and because our work already understands culture as something that goes far beyond the presentation of artistic practices. We think of culture and art as tools for social transformation. Culture has to do with care, with taking care of the other, with rehearsing other possible worlds. This discourse that has become a cliché, which all cultural spaces speak, was suddenly put in check. And we didn't want to be in this pool, even at the risk of not doing what was expected of us, or getting lost in something we didn't know how to do.
We also did an exercise in looking at our history, so as not to do something totally disconnected from it. But, as always, it is less history authorizing us and more the past seen as a lever, with a look from the present, a look not from historians, but from curators, managers... And in this case, when we saw photos of those people who founded the Casa do Povo in 1946, and that a few years before were gathering supplies, sewing and sending clothes to the front – then indeed to the Second World War – we understand in fact that what we do is not something foreign to our history. Anyway, so now in the pandemic we started to do these things that we didn't know how to do so well, but using the tools that are ours. In other words, seeing what we could do ourselves and what we could welcome (the Casa always works like that). We think it is important to work with the seamstresses in the region, we started to raise funds for the neighborhood and at the same time, inspired by the snack bar project <> snack bar, in Rio, we started to make these open baskets, where people choose the food they want, instead to receive a closed box. And we also started to listen to the people of the territory, listen to suggestions, and even offer the space of the House for the city hall to use.
ARTE!✱ – And did it work?
The City Hall responded by sending a form, we filled it out and had no further response. But that's okay, we know they were in the middle of the madness. And in the dialogues with the groups that inhabit the House, things emerged. Adriana Sumi, from the Collective of Dialogue and Diversity of Tactics, said that she could teach soap making; a neighborhood NGO needed space to leave the baskets it received; a social worker in the region needed a space to store blankets to donate to homeless people. We also opened a call for volunteers and overnight we had 120 people signed up. And, as always, the things we do and the things we welcome were coming together, becoming more blurred, as well as the separation between those who help and those who are helped. And this is very interesting, sometimes the person who goes to get the food later is also on the other side of the counter distributing food; whoever picks up the soap later helps to find seamstresses in the region and so on. So, answering your question in one sentence: it was a very organic reaction, which started from an ethical need, which was articulated with our own history and developed from the tools that we usually use, listening to the territory and proposing actions .
ARTE!✱ – This reminds me of a phrase of yours from the interview we did two years ago: “Culture is not limited to the arts. Housing is culture, cuisine is culture, sport is culture. So here there is creation, activism, people in situations of social vulnerability, but we never stop understanding this as a place of art”. Did this make even more sense in the pandemic?
Because suddenly we become more useful. Casa do Povo is a place that puts itself at risk. Marília Loureiro [House curator] always says that, that words come after gestures. So we do it, based on clear premises, but without knowing where we are going. There is a rabbinical proverb in this sense, but the secular version is by Clarice Lispector, who said: “To get lost is also a path”. What I mean is that we don't ask ourselves: “Is this art?”. We'll find what we want along the way. And very strong things come up. For example, the production of soap with oil donated from neighborhood restaurants. And there is a restaurant that delivers your food and sends you a soap, saying that that soap was made with the oil that fried that food. This closes a circuit, and I think that these things are, in their own way, artistic interventions.
Of course, there is something very delicate there – thinking about who the artist is and understanding that the monopoly of artistic creation is not always in the hands of the artist. It's a bit taboo, because our job is to defend artists. But I even think that with the next Documenta, with ruangrupa [the collective selected to curate the event], suddenly we can start looking more into this. Think, for example, what a shared authorship means. And in this sense, many artists have also approached Casa, because I think they see a pulsating, living context, and they want to get closer. So it's interesting because it creates a context for the arts, which is not just the circulation of works, but an inspiring experience.
ARTE!✱ – There are some specific projects, which come from before the pandemic, that I would like to ask you at what point they are, if they had a sequel at this critical moment…
In general, we had to pause some things, because we made a contingency of funds. But luckily, in general we managed to capture it relatively well, and I think that was because we kept working. I say this without flirting with any negationist discourse – I think there are people who don't have to work and should be supported for that. But we managed to invent conditions to continue working and this allowed us to go after funds without getting caught. We had a fundraising campaign for the theater, we had fundraising via the Culture Incentive Law, we had the crowdfunding fundraiser to help the neighborhood and then a fundraiser looking for recurring supporters. So we stopped some things, but new alliances emerged, with residents, neighborhood institutions and donors. It was interesting in the sense of putting into practice this discourse that fundraising is not just about money, but about weaving alliances, creating tactical dependencies. And of the projects that were contingency, some are being resumed now, because before I had no physical conditions to do it, others we will wait a little longer, and others have not stopped at all.
ARTE!✱ – I could start then by talking about the reactivation of the House Library, which reopened in 2019 after being closed for over 30 years…
For the library, we won a public notice, the Proac, for the modernization of the collection, and we hired a new collection coordinator, Jean Camoleze - who has worked in the MST and Uneafro archives -, and who looks at the Casa's collections. as the collection of an institution, but of a social movement, proposing other methodologies. We also work with artist Mariana Lanari and designer Remco van Bladel. And with this team we are rethinking cataloging, organization, etc. There is a very interesting project to bring the library to the internet of things, that is, we will put chips in each book and create a tracking system, through RFID (radiofrequency identification), so that we can record the way people use the library. And then when you pick up the book you will not only have the technical sheet, but you will know how it was used, next to which other books it was placed. And this generates clouds of knowledge, which come from the user, and which those who research can have access to. For this we will have the public, study groups, a Yiddish group, people linked to the black and indigenous movements and so on – to, so to speak, poke at this collection and give it greater agency. The idea is that the library and the collections can speak for themselves and that people can read not only the books, but also the library.
ARTE!✱ – And there is the TAIB restoration and reactivation project, originally designed by Jorge Wilheim and now with a project by André Vainer, Ilan Szklo and Silvio Oksman. How is this job?
TAIB completed 60 years last year, it couldn't stop, but we had to focus on raising funds for other more urgent areas. In any case, this capture for restoration should resume this year. But we already have the basic projects ready, we are getting to the executive projects. It is an intervention that respects very much what the building is historically. And beyond that, we were building layers of meaning. First, the fundraising campaign had the participation of Fernanda Montenegro, talking about her relationship with the House, with the TAIB, with the Jewish community. Now, at this moment when people still can't visit the theater, we decided to launch a chatbot, which is a robot that welcomes you online and answers your questions, tells stories of Casa. This robot has personality, he's a grumpy old stagehand from the Jewish theater. So we want to take advantage of the virtual possibilities to create experiences other than just viewing rooms e lives. Trying not just to reproduce an analog experience in the digital space, but to do something different. This is something that Ana Druwe, from our communication team, has been talking about a lot. And also in this sense, we will have a play, directed by Martha Kiss Perrone – a revival of A Dream of Goldfadn, a 1940s Jakub Rotbaum storyline – which is being filmed there at the theater. And it's crazy, putting together a play in Yiddish in the middle of a pandemic! This will become a kind of audiovisual installation projected on the second floor [date to be defined], an immersive experience. It's something to shake the ghosts, because we're there with our hands in the dough, talking about the various generations that passed through there.
ARTE!✱ – You have already mentioned the subject, but I think it is important to delve a little deeper into the financial and administrative issue of the House, considering that if it was already difficult to raise funds before, the situation seems even more complex now...
Overall, 2021 is looking like one of those shows where the second season is made for less money, you know? So we're worried. For 2020 we had more funds raised, and now in 2021 the crisis is hitting even more radically. Sure, we have the vaccine, but when are we going to be vaccinated? So it's going to be a difficult year. And even thinking about the mechanisms of incentive to Culture. The Proac ICMS was cut overnight in São Paulo, by a government that even has a dialogue with the artistic class. It was not the federal government, which has no dialogue. So right now my way of being optimistic is to prepare for the worst.
At the same time, last year we had spikes in philanthropy, in donations, and I think that may continue this year. If we continue to be useful, maybe we can raise funds. And things are also coming up. There is a project called South South, and we were one of three non-profit institutions in the world chosen – alongside Raw material (Dakar, Senegal) and the Green Papaya Project (Manilla, Philippines) – to receive a percentage of the sales of works from an art auction. And it's really cool, because we always tell people in the art world that we are an art space, but they tend to see us as something more peripheral. And suddenly people are noticing that in fact we are also part of this universe. In fact, we will also increasingly need to rely on international associations. We have recently received support from the British Council, the Relief Fund (from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the Foundation for Art Initiatives (FFAI).
But anyway, we have limited resources and we have guaranteed the schedule for this year, with funds raised through the Culture Incentive Law, partnerships, associates and the friends program. So my biggest concern is really 2022. Because what if we don't get funding at the end of this year, how are we going to do it? Will we have edits? At the same time, Casa do Povo started working again when the economic crisis was starting, around 2012 and 2013. So we are experts in crisis.
ARTE!✱ – Not to mention the crisis that the House had been facing for 30 years, right, almost closed…
Yes… And in the midst of it all, we're now making some bold bets. We hired new people, increased some salaries to consolidate the team. So, even in the midst of the crisis, we are betting on this consolidation. Because we think that's what will save the institution. Casa do Povo works with little, the budget this year is estimated at R$ 1,9 million. It looks like a lot, but it's not. So we still have room to grow, there's no fat, and we're flexible enough to adapt.
ARTE!✱ – Finally, I would like to ask one more question related to the political context. We have, even before the pandemic, a federal government that has promoted strong attacks on the cultural sector, both with the cut of resources and with attitudes that even border on censorship. What is it like to work as a cultural center in this context?
Yes, this is very worrying. What has now happened to the Vladimir Herzog Institute [which had its annual plan vetoed for funding via the Incentive Law] is at least curious. At the same time that when we had a better functioning democracy, it is also impossible to say that the cultural area had ceased to be precarious – even with the cultural points and other incredible policies. Because there is always this motto of “get your resources, go after private financing”. And we never ask a physicist to be popular, why do we have to ask a museum to be popular? Since the museum also creates knowledge, memory, it is not just a space for spectacle. So I think we were already experiencing a kind of censorship built into the neoliberal understanding of what culture is, which was economic censorship. Now we see a kind of ghost of the past, which is a possible political censorship. But, like everything else in Brazil, this happens in a kind of legality, through commissions that delay, refuse, etc. So it is difficult to define exactly the censorship, but that there is a general climate of distrust, this is clear; which has economic and legal insecurity, has.
Still, going back to the more economical question, I think we are also “savo”. Unlike what I see in France, where a cultural center depends almost entirely on an agreement with the State, here we are much more used to surviving in an adverse environment. And to create structures, however fragile and precarious they may be. So of course we want and need improvements and solid programs, but I want to say that the situation is not entirely binary. Anyway, the context is hazy and we are worried, but not desperate. There is usually so little public support that when we fall it is not from very high. But we need to fight it, with the tools we have, because culture is a basic right. It doesn't have a sling.