Thursday, February 7, 2008

Out of the white box and into the streets

They come out at night, each evening travelling all the long miles from the suburbs. After the sunset they start their work, in the shadows of the proud new highrise projects that stand against the night sky. The cartoneros. They go through the trash - your trash - piled on the street in big, black plastic bags. Looking for something worth selling. Cardboard, mostly. Sometimes you still see them in the light of the morning, pushing their huge carts full of cardboard. What they do to this trash, you don't really even think about.

And after a while you pay less attention to them than you would pay to rats. Rats - or cockroaches - at least give you that disgusted shiver every time. These people, dressed in grey rags, seem to melt into concrete walls behind them, like chameleons. And stepping over the homeless people sleeping on the streets becomes your second nature. As disgusting as it sounds, it's what this divided metropolis does to you. There's one Buenos Aires that is booming, and then there is one living in the shadow of it. One you would like to forget about, as you go on enjoying your lavish lifestyle.

This is what the economic crash of 2001 did to Buenos Aires, the city once proud of it's big middle class and relative economic equality. A new city was born around it. A shadow city, that still is there, despite the middle class slowly recovering from the crash. It's right there, out on the streets below - and also inside the grandiose apartments in glassy skyscrapers, it's there, in the cramped rooms of the maids most of the middle class families employ. You just need to start seeing it again. Or it will never go away.

The unconfortable process of opening your eyes

"You see plans for apartments of 300 square meters and the dependencia (maid's room) is two-by-two. Son of a bitch. With 300 square meters, don’t you think you could offer something a little better?" That was the photographer Sebastián Friedman (b. 1973, Argentina), commenting on his project Domésticas in an interview by Wicked BA (available on-line on pages of Whats Up Buenos Aires). Friedman has taken as his job to point out the existence of this conciously forgotten city, and judging from the waves he's been making, he's doing a pretty good job.

In Domésticas Friedman exhibited portraits of families together with their maid - creating a strangly uncomfortable images - in Biblioteca Nacional, and even built a fully furnished maid's room on location to illustrate cramped conditions the domestic servants live in.

And in second exhibition, Friedman took the photographs of the carteros out of gallery and exhibited them in their natural environment. Show was held in a partly ruined factory in rundown suburb of Lanús. This was the place the cartoneros actually used to sell their nightly lootings. Friedman wanted to show this space and the actual reality to the people willing to see the exhibition. They had to step out of the safety of a gallery, to a place full of trash, where the cartoneros would be working while spectators were looking at the photos. "To smell the odors that there were in the space, see the cartoneros, it creates a space that’s not so secure", explained the photographer his ideas.

Give it back to the people you took it from

Currently there is another, a bit less grim exhibition hitting the streets of Buenos Aires. Award-winning Project YECA, by photographer Luis Abadi (b.1975, Argentina), is exhibited outside Edificio de la Administración de Parques Nacionales (Av. Santa Fe 690, Retiro), open for all and free of charge.

On the project website, Abadi explains how he went out to streets to take pictures of people he came across and started feeling that he has to give them something back. "They lend me themselves for the picture without asking anything back. It's not fair, there has to be an exchange, I have to show them the photos." Abadi also wanted to make a comment on commercial billboards that are omnipresent in Buenos Aires by putting art into their place - art that is usually hidden from the every man in the galleries, far from the general public.

You can browse the pictures from Proyecto Yeca on the website. Some of them are quite hilarious and create a group portrait of the melting pot of people called Buenos Aires. The good, the bad and the ugly, the bold and the beautiful, the rich and the poor and everyone between. Work men, old ladies in matching furs, nuns and businessmen, protesters and police officers, transvestites and whores, they're all there. And of course the dogs. You must not forget the dogs in Buenos Aires.

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