Issue #137 Non-Western Avant-Gardes: A Misappropriation

Non-Western Avant-Gardes: A Misappropriation

Otavio Leonidio

A digital photo of one of the first plans for Brasília by Lúcio Costa, on permanent public display at the Espaço Lúcio Costa in Brasília. License: Public Domain.

Issue #137
June 2023

Although a history of performance art in Brazil has yet to be written, one of its highlights, I suspect, will be Cage e os Velocípedes (Cage and the Velocipedes), performed in October 1985 by Marcia X and Alex Hamburger.

Hamburger and X’s action at Sala Cecília Meireles, a prominent concert hall in Rio de Janeiro, was performed in the middle of another performance there: John Cage’s legendary 4’33” piece (enacted during his celebrated visit to Rio). At some point during those four minutes and thirty-tree seconds, to the surprise of the event promoters and the audience, who erupted in unrestrained laughter, Hamburger and X took to the stage pedaling tiny, ludicrous velocipedes.

Several aspects of Cage e os Velocípedes encapsulate what I call acts of “misappropriation” (a neologism I will employ throughout this text in an idiosyncratic and critical manner). Hamburger and X’s action was not merely an artistic appropriation, but in fact the appropriation of an appropriation—not just of Cage’s staged performance, but also of its main object: silence. Contrary to Cage’s performance, Hamburger and X’s action is conspicuously opportunistic and, as it were, parasitic: the artists not only grab hold of a situation that could hardly be repeated but also interfere in the work of a fellow artist.

Marcia X and Alex Hamburger, Cage e os Velocípedes, Rio de Janeiro, 1985.

More importantly, I don’t think Hamburger and X’s motivation was limited to acting upon or against 4’33”, but instead acting with 4’33”—not merely with the performance itself (i.e., with its form or outcome), but also with its intentions, both the manifest and acknowledged ones (namely to turn noise into music and to leave to chance, and not to intentional action, its final form) and the spectral ones (I will clarify this aspect in a moment). Not coincidentally, Hamburger and X’s performance has strong affinities with the actions of another prominent group of contemporary artists—the so-called Pictures Generation.

The association is justified. The works of Sarah Charlesworth, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine, among others, are also made of interferences and appropriations—chiefly in this case of the constellation of images that compose the mass-media landscape of the 1970s and ’80s, including selected items (I prefer to call them “monuments”) from the archives of modern and contemporary art.

And yet one should not go too far with these associations. After all, unlike their US peers, Hamburger and X do not in any way belong to the establishment of contemporary art—quite the opposite. As a result, the conditions and terms of their appropriation of 4’33” are extremely unbalanced: on one side, we have a renowned and highly influential metropolitan artist, one of the stars of “The Contemporary” (a category this essay will call into question); on the other, two artists who live and work and wrestle on the fringes of capitalism. Accordingly, neither Hamburger nor X would expect their actions to have the same bearing upon Cage’s work (and beyond that, on the status quo of contemporary art) as the appropriations of Pictures artists did. The reach and influence of their acts would most likely be confined to the marginal space of Third World art, South American art, peripheral art, or the specific site accredited to “Non-Western Avant-Gardes.”1

Sherrie Levine, Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991.

This might explain Hamburger and X’s derogative attitude vis-à-vis 4’33”. Aware of the limits that their subaltern condition imposed upon their actions (the active participation of Brazilian contemporary art in the international art scene would only begin with the globalization of the 1990s), and unwilling to reproduce the compliant, reverent attitude of the public in attendance (which, in their words, “remained in a sepulchral silence throughout the whole composition”),2 they seemed compelled not only to break the silence but to openly confront and ridicule Cage’s iconic piece—in particular its ceremonial nature.3

Still, I don’t think the conflictual aspect of Hamburger and X’s appropriation of 4’33” should be overemphasized. Not because I don’t think they didn’t mean to disrupt the seriousness of Cage’s performance (they certainly did!), but because a framing that pits “the conflictual” against “the compliant” (and beyond that, countless other antinomies of current political discourse that amount to “the active political subject” vs. “the inactive apolitical nonsubject”) does not particularly fit such actions.

Instead I think we should pay attention to the way they misappropriate not just Cage’s piece but also their own subaltern condition: how they act with it, and not properly against or in spite of it; how they misappropriate not merely the object of their action but, beyond that, the specific site in which they had been involuntarily placed and kept (and which by and large predefines the meaning and political purchase of their acts), turning it into another site: the space wherein not only “West/Western” but also “Contemporary,” “Avant-Gardist,” “Historical,” and other (epistemological and political) colonizing devices fail to adhere.


Am I overinterpreting Cage e os Velocípedes? I don’t think so. This is what I infer in any case from a letter to the editor that Hamburger and X wrote a few days after their performance, in which they criticize a newspaper review that “diminished our ‘intervention’ in Cage’s concert … labeling it a ‘little out-of-fashion avant-gardism,’” while clarifying that “in commemoration of Cage’s visit to Rio de Janeiro, we have elaborated an ’interference’ specially to that occasion.”4 Their emphasis on the notion of “interference” in detriment of “intervention” (note that they use both words in quotation marks) suggests in fact a specific kind of appropriation—one that operates simultaneously with and against the object of their action.

Most fundamentally, Cage e os Velocípedes is entirely in line with a lineage of misappropriations performed by Brazilian artists all through the 1960s and ’70s—during the roughest years of the brutal military regime established in Brazil after the 1964 coup. Misappropriations were a chief aesthetic and political device of so-called Nova Figuração (New Figurative Art), a movement that employed, among other things, headlines and newspaper covers to create what the critic Paulo Sérgio Duarte called “second-degree figures.”5

Cildo Meireles, Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos: 1. Projeto Coca-Cola, 1970.

Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos: 1. Projeto Coca-Cola (Insertions in Ideological Circuits: 1. Coca-Cola Project, from 1970) by Cildo Meireles is another of the most iconic exemplars in this long list of misappropriations. The work, as Cildo describes it, consists of “engraving critical information and opinions on returned soda bottles and put[ting] them back in circulation.”6 Since the white vitrified paint used in the process was not visible when the bottles were empty, only when they had been refilled and put back in circulation did the messages actually reach the general public.

In Cildo’s words, the disruptive aspect of the work was “the acknowledgement of the existence of the circuit(s), and the verbal insertion [that] constitutes an interference in this circulation flux.”7 This concept of the circuit, he added, “determined the dialectical charge of the work, to the extent that it parasitizes each and every effort inherent in the very essence of the process.”8 Here, to “parasitize” means to not properly or openly confront the “process,” but to surreptitiously divert and tamper with its functioning.


A lot has happened since Cildo Meireles first unleashed his Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos. Brazil went through so-called redemocratização (re-democratization), the military regime in 1985 officially came to an end, and, especially during the 2000s and 2010s, the country appeared to reach a less peripheral position in the world order. Unsurprisingly, with such changes came the integration of numerous contemporary Brazilian artists, Cildo Meireles among them, into the space of a “Global Contemporary Art.” Both Brazil itself and Brazilian contemporary art seemed to be taking off.

Cover of The Economist, November 2009.

This purported upgrade did not, however, imply the demise of the lineage I’ve just mentioned. What for a moment appeared to be—and was insistently branded as—a sign of (economic and cultural) improvement turned out to be a fallacy. The year 2016, in particular, was a traumatic one in Brazil’s political history: Dilma Rousseff, the first woman to be elected president of the country, was the victim of a pernicious “parliamentary coup”— a process that, among other things, included the illegal incarceration of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and resulted in the illegitimate election of the ultraconservative politician Jair Bolsonaro.

It is not surprising, in the turn of these events, that numerous artists in Brazil have resorted again to acts of misappropriation—not just of the sites in which the political and cultural battles of the day are taking place (starting with streets, squares, and public buildings), but also of some of Brazil’s most precious and cherished modern “monuments”—that is, all the physical, institutional, and discursive sites in which Brasil Moderno (“Modern Brazil,” a category that synthesizes the idea and especially the craving throughout the twentieth century for a utopian modern Brazil) was and continues to be reiterated, reestablished, reinstituted. Interestingly, amongst the extensive and diversified list of items that constitute this monumental archive, one trope stands out: appropriation.

Modernity as Appropriation

It would be difficult to summarize the ways by which appropriation would become one of the central elements—if not the central element—of Brasilidade Modernista (literally “Modernist Brazilness,” a notion that encapsulates the ingrained ethos of Brazil’s at once universalizing and localist modernist movement). Two of the most prominent figures of what is still largely considered to be the founding event of Brazil’s modernist movement, so-called Semana de Arte Moderna de 1922 (the pivotal and extremely influential “Modern Art Week,” held in São Paulo in February 1922), the poets Mario de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade, devoted their entire lives to the task of answering one and the same question: How to appropriate the themes, precepts, and programs of European avant-gardes and turn them into something properly Brazilian—instead of spurious imports?

The most acclaimed and influential art and architecture produced in Brazil during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s under the rubric “modern” was not just a response to that question (How to appropriate?) but in one way or another a reiteration of the answers that Oswald and Mario de Andrade had given to it in the 1920s.

In the midst of that ongoing environment, the midcentury construction of Brazil’s new capital, Brasília—arguably Brazil’s most cherished and sacred modernist monument—also revolved around the issue of appropriation.


For those unfamiliar with the history of Brasília, the construction of the new capital was to become, in the mid-1950s, not just one among other goals in President Juscelino Kubitschek’s modernizing and highly ambitious Plano de Metas (Targets Plan) but actually its Meta-Síntese (Synthesis-Target). In practice, the new capital, to be located in the geographic nucleus of Brazil’s continental territory, should act—both physically and symbolically—as a hub from which the rest of the land, still largely isolated and as such unreachable by Kubitschek’s modernizing policies, was to be occupied and, in multiple senses, appropriated.

It seemed perfectly logical, in that context, that right in the first paragraphs of his Descriptive Memorial of the Master Plan for Brasília, Lucio Costa—a prominent designer and the chief ideologue of modern architecture in Brazil—bluntly states that the solution presented in his master plan “was born” out of “the primary gesture of someone who marks a place or takes possession of it: two axes that intercross perpendicularly, that is the proper sign of the cross.”9 To be sure, one can read Costa’s statement in terms of the physical act of taking possession of a territory—an aspect that only reiterates Brazil’s secular history of expropriations, starting of course with the Portuguese expropriation of the lands of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

But there is a more subtle, and in a sense meaningful, aspect of Costa’s statement that is not only intrinsic to Costa’s master plan for Brasília but also to the overall ideology underlying Brazil’s modernizing endeavor: the idea that one such act of appropriation implied the exclusion of everything that might be considered aesthetically and culturally improper to Modern Brazil.

As I have argued elsewhere,10 the unmatched effectiveness of Lucio Costa’s writings and overall public interventions during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s toward an emerging “Brazilian Modern Architecture”—without which Brasília as we know it would never have existed—was due, beyond any other aspect, to his ability to demonstrate how exactly the works of Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, and other epigones of modern architecture in Brazil had managed to become properly Brazilian, that is to say legitimate reappropriations of modern European architecture.

Of course, the exclusions central to Brazil’s modernist movement (and beyond that, the overall ideology underlying it) were not limited to aesthetic and cultural interdictions, but comprised an enormous amount of social and spatial marginalization. And once again, this became explicit in the chronicle of Brasília. Even before the official inauguration of the new capital, in April 1960, it became clear that one of the basic requirements for the city’s success was the exclusion of the legions of workers who took to Brasília—literally from all corners of Brazil—as soon as word of the construction begun to spread and, as they were about to find out, who were expected to leave once the works had been completed.

Marcel Gautherot, Brasília, 1958.

And since it became evident that the federal government could not make this enormous contingent of people simply disappear, officials came up with a solution that, to their modernizing/appropriating minds, appeared to be fairly reasonable: workers—along with their spouses, newborns, parents, cousins, in-laws, friends, and acquaintances—were to move to so-called cidades-satélite (satellite cities), the series of improvised settlements assigned to them in the orbit of the new capital.

The notion of “orbit” is crucial here. These settlements were not simply located on the outskirts of the new city, but actually separated from Brasília by a wide, and entirely vacant, buffer zone—a sort of spatial passe-partout that secluded these settlements from so-called Brasília Própria (“Brasília Proper,” a notion I will henceforth employ in a parodist/critical vein). The nature of this undertaking would be epitomized in 1971 by the name the federal government gave to one of these satellite cities: CEI-lândia (CEI-land), in which “CEI” stands for Centro de Erradicação de Invasões (Center for the Eradication of Invasions).

Specters and Satellites

In the sixty-three years since the inauguration of Brasília, both the new capital and the satellite cities have grown immensely. Initially designed to accommodate no more than one-and-a-half million residents, Brasília presently houses more than three million people. And the satellite cities, which in theory were not even supposed to exist, have altogether around 1.7 million residents today. As numerous socioeconomic indicators lay bare, the disparities between Brasília and the satellite cities remain immense.

While Brasília Proper, as a monument of Modern Brazil, has always struggled to isolate and protect itself against the improper presence of the satellite cities (a effort that includes the official preservation not merely of the city at large but also of its encircling void), the satellite cities have oftentimes entertained a more complex and ambivalent attitude vis-à-vis Brasília. Contrary to that of its involuntary progenitor, this attitude was not based, exclusively or primarily, on isolation, hostility, denial, and rejection, but on acts of misappropriation.

One of the first expressions of this disposition is the way residents of the satellite cities refer to Brasília Proper—namely by its paper denomination: Plano Piloto (Master Plan). That is the name the future capital had in its blue-print, preexisting existence. Among other things, this misappropriation of Plano Piloto—of both the urbanistic category “master plan,” turned into the actual city, and of the actual city, turned into an urbanist category—performs a sort of ontological collapse. For if “master plan,” the urbanist category, refers to a designed, projected city, its current misuse supplements the actual city with a sort of spectral layer. This muddle becomes even more acute when we have in mind that, to a large extent, Brasília has always been a specter—a utopia whose proper existence can only be sustained at the cost of the exclusion of all the aspects deemed unfit to what was originally established in Costa’s master plan. By addressing the actual city as “Plano Piloto,” residents reiteratedly convert the city into the specter of a specter.

The experience of this epistemological disaster (I have in mind my own personal experience of seeing all those buses with destination displays that read “Plano Piloto”) always makes me think of Marcia X, Alex Hamburger, Cildo Meireles, and the long list of misappropriations that supplement and contaminate, misrepresent and hack, interfere with and spectralize the archives of Modern Brazil—all the monuments that constitute and sustain not just the utopian new capital, but beyond that what Stefan Zweig famously dubbed “Brazil, Land of the Future.”


Facing a long history of hostility, rejection, exclusion, and actual violence on the part of Brasília Proper, residents of the satellite cities have also responded with artistic misappropriations—sometimes in extremely disconcerting ways. This is the case with the film Branco Sai, Preto Fica (Whites Out, Blacks Stay), produced and directed by Adirley Queirós, a resident of Ceilândia and a member of CEICINE ­– Coletivo de Cinema na Ceilândia (Cinema Collective at Ceilândia).

In a sense, Branco Sai, Preto Fica is the upshot of Queirós’s previous inroads into the history and social memory of Ceilândia—namely into the treatment the city and its residents have always received from Modern Brazil and Brasília Proper. In A Cidade É Uma Só (The City Is Only One, from 2012), for instance, Queirós addressed not just the eviction and transfer of hundreds of families from Plano Piloto to Ceilândia, but also the way in which numerous children of the evicted families were subsequently used in official propaganda films, made and broadcast to advertise the purported excellence of Ceilândia’s public school system.

Branco Sai, Preto Fica is also an incursion (in this case, a fictional incursion) into the history and social memory of Ceilândia—in particular, into one of its most traumatic and violent events: the 1986 invasion by mounted police forces of a highly popular baile black (black ball) held in the mid-eighties at Quarentão, a multi-purpose gym. The film’s title reproduces the phrase police officers shouted during the raid: “Branco sai, preto fica!” (“Whites out, Blacks stay!”). Those who were forced to remain bore the brunt of the violence.

Adirley Queirós, Branco Sai, Preto Fica, 2014, film still. Courtesy of the artist.

Two of the film’s protagonists are Marquinho, who lost a leg that night, and Shokito, who became quadriplegic during the assault. Marquinho and Shokito are “real” victims of the 1986 police raid, but to a certain extent the film is a highly fictitious one. While providing first-hand testimonials of the events that took place on that fateful evening at Quarentão, both Marquinho and Shokito become involved in an interplanetary plot to annihilate Brasília Proper. Alongside these fictional/nonfictional characters, the film’s narrative introduces a proper sci-fi character, Dimas Cravalanças, who is sent back from the future to document the crimes committed by the Brazilian state against its peripheral populations. However, to say that Branco Sai, Preto Fica is simply a fictional account of factual events is inaccurate. Not because the film does not intersperse fictionalized elements into the history and social memory of one of the most brutal and traumatic events in Brasília and Ceilândia. Far beyond that, Branco Sai, Preto Fica is a misappropriation of both history and this particular event. In an interview from 2015, Queirós made explicit what was at stake for him and his colleagues when they made the film:

My quest was that these guys could have their space as a creative space. Marquinho reclaimed this from me: “I don’t want to tell you this story. You’ve already told it. Back at the start you already made the rap [the documentary Rap, the Song of Ceilândia], it’s plenty. I wanted to walk in the movie. I wanted to get out of my chair and walk. Don’t you guys make movies?” This is a way of radically intervening in what others want from you, and I think this type of intervention brings much more possibilities than that traditional documentary thing, which has to be open to situations. Mind you, we don’t have an industry, we don’t have dough … If we propose fantasies, it’s even more open! … So it is an adventure also in this sense: it can always be a fatal disaster.11

Like other fictional documentaries, Branco Sai, Preto Fica not only meddles with the conventional genres of cinema (and beyond that, the onto-epistemological structure underlying the antinomy fictional vs. nonfictional/factual). The film also reclaims another site—one that is (historically, geographically, culturally, and politically) improper and unspecific. And it does so not only by misrepresenting Brasília Proper but also, as Queirós stresses, by “radically intervening in what others want from you.” That is, the film does not simply misappropriate the specific sites that constitute real Brasília and real Ceilândia (the sites of “History,” “Oral Memory,” “Urban Chronicle,” “Documentary Film,” “Sociological Survey,” and so forth). It also misappropriates the roles Queirós and his collaborators are expected to reiterate, as residents of a satellite city (and beyond that, as satellites of Modernity and The Contemporary): all the acts they are expected to perform as peripheral residents, marginal filmmakers, subaltern subjects, non-Western artists. By misappropriating the stereotypes they are prone to reproduce (that is, by being simultaneously factual and fictional, historical and mythical, verisimilar and absurd, compliant and conflictual, “Non-Western” and Counter-Western), Queirós, Marquinho, Chokito, and Cravalanças reaffirm one of the most critical aspects of acts of misappropriation: they hack, parasitize, and misuse the very apparatus that constitutes, and insidiously reinstitutes, their subjection. In a word, they destitute that which destitutes them.

While discussing his latest feature, Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Grass on Flames, from 2023), codirected by Joana Pimenta, Queirós elaborated on the specific form of misappropriation his films put in practice: “We create archetypes and then make a documentary film about the archetypes we’ve created. The film is about the real universe activated by fiction. What I do,” he summed up, “is an ethnography of fiction.”12 Ultimately, therefore, the opposition between fiction and nonfiction is replaced here by an alternative dialectics, one in which reality and counter-reality are not intrinsically opposed but mutually implicated. Queirós’s claim that “the film is what’s left of the film” is to be understood accordingly: the film itself is but one strata of a counter-reality that encompasses and conflates both reality and legend.

In the case of Mato Seco em Chamas, for instance, the plot is based on the current urban legend of so called gasolineiras (gasoliners), a group of women who, as the story goes, clandestinely produced and commercialized gasoline in a satellite city. The operation is essentially political: it puts forward a political economy in which “reality” and “fiction” are not ontologically opposed, but mutually implicated; to quote Judith Butler, it reclaims “the power and necessity of counter-realism” as an epistemological-political operator.13

The outcome of these misappropriations are anti-monuments that, as is the case with Branco Sai, Preto Fica, hardly fit into the archives of either Modern or Contemporary Brazil—and for a good reason. If fictional cinema is oftentimes a site of redemption (as is the case with one of Brazil’s most celebrated and internationally acclaimed contemporary feature films, Central Station, from 1998, in which, by the way, Brazilian modernist architecture plays a critical role) and documentary film a site of denunciation (which is the case of Brasília: Contradictions of a New City), Branco Sai, Preto Fica seems committed to an entirely different politics: to paraphrase Erika Fischer-Lichte, it wagers on the transformative power of misappropriations.14

To be sure, this transformative power has enormous limitations. In particular, it is incapable of confronting the long-lasting history of violence and injustice perpetrated by Brasília Proper (and beyond that, by Modern Brazil) against the residents of the satellite cities. But then again, to confront is not, I suspect, the motivation, or at least not the sole or the main motivation, underlying Branco Sai, Preto Fica. Not as much as it is to interfere with, contaminate, misappropriate multiple forms of violence and injustice.

And it is precisely in that sense that Branco Sai, Preto Fica constitutes a supplement to the struggle against the challenges and constraints that realities and events like those (mis)represented by the film present to their real/counter-real characters. How is one to act in the face of hostility, exclusion, precarization, segregation, peripheralization, and other forms of—physical and discursive—violence? The response the film seems to give to this question is this: perhaps not just with open confrontation, but also with another type of antagonism.

In Frames of War, Judith Butler reflects on the types of antagonism that may prove effective against the iterative violence at work in processes of subjectification. Among the alternatives she envisions, one directly concerns us—namely, acts of resistance that work concomitantly with and against iterative violence:

When one is formed in violence … and that formative action continues throughout one’s life, an ethical quandary arises about how to live the violence of one’s formative history, how to effect shifts and reversals in its iteration. Precisely because iterability evades every determinism, we are left with questions such as: How do I live the violence of my formation? How does it live on in me? How does it carry me, in spite of me, even as I carry it? And in the name of what new value can I reverse and contest it? In what sense can such violence be redirected, if it can? Precisely because iterability evades every voluntarism, I am not free to dispense with the history of my formation. I can only live on in the wake of this unwilled region of history, or, indeed, as its wake. Can one work with such formative violence against certain violent outcomes and thus undergo a shift in the iteration of violence?15

Isn’t this precisely the kind of antagonism put into practice by acts of misappropriation? A type of antagonism that works with and against (and as a result proves apt to reverse and redirect) multiple forms of iterative violence. One that goes beyond the antinomies of current political discourse and, in many different and unexpected ways, may result, as Queirós argues, in a “fatal disaster.”

As far as I’m concerned, this disaster has taken place in Branco Sai, Preto Fica. The film performs one of the most unexpected transformations in Brasília’s urban and social history: by conflating factual and fictional, history and legend, representational and transformative, ethnography and fabulation, utopia and a-topia, reality and counter-reality, it has transformed Plano Piloto’s monumental “proper sign of the cross” (the shape of the city from above) into a disastrous crossroads: the unspecific, improper site where incalculable and potentially disastrous counter-realities are reclaimed.

Cruxes, Crosses, and Crossroads

This disaster has been going on ever since Brasília’s inauguration, and in that very same spot where Plano Piloto’s two main structuring axes intersect. This is where architect Lucio Costa chose to locate what is in fact the most crucial of all public facilities of Brasília—Plataforma Rodoviária, the “Bus Platform” where the residents of the satellite cities converge and gather in their daily commute to and from Plano Piloto.

Perhaps surprisingly, Lucio Costa himself was the first to acknowledge that, contrary to what had occurred with the rest of the planned city and its pristine modernist buildings, here reality went far beyond the dream. Costa said as much in 1984 (that is, just two years prior to the Quarentão assault, and one year after the official end of the military regime) when, several years after he’d last set foot in Brasília, he witnessed in situ what had become of Plataforma Rodoviária. In his words,

I fell into reality, and one of the realities that surprised me was the Rodoviária at dusk. I always repeated that this Bus Platform was the link between the metropolis, the capital, and the improvised satellite cities on the periphery. It is a forced point, where all this population that lives far away comes into contact with the city. So I felt this movement, this intense life of the true Brasilienses, this mass that lives in the surroundings and converges to the Rodoviária. That’s their home, it’s the place where they feel at ease. They even procrastinate on their way back and stand there, sipping. I was surprised seeing the good mood of those healthy faces … This is all very different from what I had imagined for this urban center, which I saw as something refined, a little cosmopolitan. But it is not. Those who took care of it were these real Brazilians who built the city and are there legitimately … They are right, I was wrong. They took care of what was not meant for them … In fact, the dream was smaller than reality.16

Of all the things Costa states in this interview, one is particularly meaningful: contrary to the “primary gesture” which, as he stresses in his Descriptive Memorial, amounts to Brasília’s first constituent act, the mass of “true Brazilians” that converges daily at the Plataforma Rodoviária did not take possession of that site. Instead, as Costa noticed, they “took care of it.”

What Costa was unable to perceive, on the other hand, was this: this act of taking care does not simply convert a “cosmopolitan” facility into a casual, “at ease” venue; it transforms a proper and specific site (Brasília’s “urban center”) into an unspecific, improper, and destituent crossroads—one that somehow suspends the void that isolates Plano Piloto from its satellites, turning all those scattered, isolated cities into the improbable center of gravity around which, twice a day, Brasília Proper disastrously orbits.

It wasn’t reality proper, as Costa thought, but instead an improper counter-reality that had surpassed the colonizing, appropriating dreams of modernity.

One of the most inspiring products of Brazil’s architectural and urban imagination of the last decades, Brasília, Cidade Cerrado, by Carlos M. Teixeira, from 2020, also opens space for real Brasília and an entirely unreal one to coexist and clash.17

It is not easy to describe Brasília, Cidade Cerrado. The work was originally published in an academic journal and conflates disparate discursive genres such as ecological survey, critical essay, intervention proposal, architectural fable, and artistic manifesto—all punctuated by a collection of phantasmagoric images of Brasília. The scenery is disturbing: not only is Plano Piloto entirely taken up by the vegetation that covered the site before the implementation of the new city (a South American variation of the African savanna, known as cerrado), but Oscar Niemeyer’s pristine buildings are also phagocytized by an amorphous, spectral an-architecture. The juxtaposition of the (at-points-extremely technical, meticulous, and as it were reasonable) argumentation of the written text and the phantasmagoric imagery that accompanies (but in any way “illustrates”) it leads the reader constantly astray, as if abandoned in the unspecific site where reality and counter-reality meet and clash.

The outcome is disastrous. It opens a space in which the conventional devices of architectural discourse never properly fit. Most importantly, it allows for the emergence of an entirely unusual site: not a dystopian setting portraying the ruins of modernity, but an unspecific, real/counter-real landscape that reminds us that “it is necessary to speak of Brasília with innocence, waiting for the awakening of a trick that is still embryonic. A maneuver that calls for the coexistence of order and disorder, permanence and becoming, future and past, background-figure and figure-ground.”18

Instead of redemption (a trope, by the way, particularly fit to the antinomies of modern political discourse), Brasília, Cidade Cerrado is portrayed as form of revenge—and a very peculiar one at that: “the revenge of the grass.” Indeed, as the work prophesizes,

The artificial domination of the potato grasses on the Esplanade of Ministries has its days numbered. For contrary to what Lucio [Costa] wanted, there are no English lawns in Brasília: there are seeds of tick grass in hibernation, on the lookout for an opportunity to avenge their expulsion.19

I recognize a similar “trick” or “maneuver” in the actions of countless non-Western avant-garde artists who have been repeatedly confronted with the challenges and predicaments imposed upon them by the appropriating devices of The Contemporary, in particular the modes of integration that have been successively “offered” to them and which, as the critic Rodrigo Naves has claimed, constitute a “historical misfortune.”20 The philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva has recently pointed out the same phenomenon. In her words, by addressing postcolonial practices from the perspective of “cultural difference,” Western critics and curators have in practice reduced anti-colonial and anti-racist expressions to mere “ethnographic specimens,” thus neutralizing their concomitant aesthetic and political purchase.21

Daiara Tukano, A Redenção (The Redemption), 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

In the face of these predicaments, it seems that countless non-Western avant-garde artists have been confronted with a sort of Hobson’s Choice: either reject the specific sites and roles that have been assigned to them by Western critics, curators, and institutions, or else renounce them and be integrated into The Contemporary.

But when confronted with various sorts of colonizing and neo-colonizing devices (amalgamated in the notion of “integration”), non-Western artists have not responded solely with either compliant or conflictual acts. They have also performed a different type of antagonism: not acts of reappropriation (the kind of reappropriation purported to redeem Western avant-gardes—old and “neo-”—making them doubly proper: properly historical and properly contemporary), but acts of misappropriation.

And why should they do otherwise? They are not looking for redemption. They are not committed to reappropriating and redeeming “History,” “Historicity,” “Critique,” “The Avant-Garde,” “Modernity,” “The Contemporary,” “The West,” “The Real,” and all the appropriating devices that only serve to specify, mark, contextualize, and in one way or another take possession of them in the first place. Instead, they misappropriate the sites in which they have involuntarily been placed, and in doing so they define the meaning and political purchase of their actions.

Another West

One of the most iconic and revered monuments of The Contemporary—the exhibition “Information”—took place in New York City in the summer of 1970. In the words of its curator, Kynaston McShine, the purpose of the show was “to introduce [to the American public], among others, some very important artists from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Yugoslavia.”22 Cildo Meireles was among the “non-Western” artists featured in the show. He didn’t address the West per se though. Instead, he referred to another West, as well as the transformative power of its peoples: “And whenever listening to the History of this West, people will be listening to fantastic legends and fables and allegories. For a people who can transform its History into fantastic legends and fables and allegories, that people has a real existence.”23


Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (Thames & Hudson, 2005), 377–78.


Marcia X and Alex Hamburger in Márcia X, ed. Beatriz Lemos (Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, 2013), 226. All translations throughout this essay are mine.


To say that chance defined the form of 4’33” is inaccurate. Except perhaps in its first presentation, viewers did not actually behave naturally during 4’33”. Instead, they socially performed what they would be “naturally” doing in the course of an ordinary concert, namely—to quote Hamburger and X—remaining in a “sepulchral silence.” That is, instead of behaving naturally, viewers, consciously or not, performed natural behavior during 4’33”. In that sense Cage and the Velocipedes was ultimately a misappropriation of the performativity tacitly—and in a sense coercively—imposed upon the public by 4’33”.


X and Hamburger, Márcia X, 225.


Paulo Sérgio Duarte, Anos 60: Transformações da arte no Brasil (Campos Gerais, 1998), 69.


Cildo Meireles, “Inserções em circuitos ideológicos: 1. Projeto Coca-Cola (1970),” in Cildo Meireles (FUNARTE, 2009), 25.


Meireles, “Inserções em circuitos ideológicos,” 26. My emphasis.


Meireles, “Inserções em circuitos ideológicos,” 24.


Lucio Costa, “Memórial Descritivo do Plano Piloto,” in Registro de uma vivência (Empresa das Artes, 1995), 284. My emphasis.


Otavio Leonidio, Carradas de Razões: Lucio Costa e a arquitetura moderna brasileira (Loyola, 2008).


Adirley Queirós, “Entrevista,” Cinética, August 12, 2015 .


Queirós stated this in a panel held on March 4, 2023 at Instituto Moreira Salles, Rio de Janeiro.


Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Politcal Bind (Verso, 2020), 15.


Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics (Routledge, 2008).


Judith Butler, Frames of War, When Life is Grievable (Verso, 2009), 170.


Quoted in Apud Anna Paula Canez and Hugo Segawa, “Brasília: utopia que Lucio Costa inventou,” Arquitextos 11, no. 125 (October 2010) .


Carlos M. Teixeira, “Brasília, Cidade Cerrado,” Arquitextos 21, no. 24 (July 2020) .


Teixeira, “Brasília, Cidade Cerrado.”


Teixeira, “Brasília, Cidade Cerrado.”


Rodrigo Naves, O vento e o moinho: Ensaios sobre arte moderna e contemporânea (Companhia das Letras, 2007), 214–15.


Denise Ferreira da Silva, “After It’s All Said …,” in Paulo Nazareth: Melee (Miami Institute of Contemporary Art, 2020), 39.


Kynaston McShine, “Acknowledgments,” in Information (Museum of Modern Art, 1970), 6. Exhibition catalog.


Cildo Meireles, “Cildo Campos MEIRELLES,” in Information, 85. My emphasis.

Latin America, Contemporary Art
Socially Engaged Art
Return to Issue #137
I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.