Latin American Center Inaugurates Digital Culture Center, Paulo Freire Institute, in Buenos Aires

Latin American Center Inaugurates Digital Culture Center, Paulo Freire Institute, in Buenos Aires

Minister of Education and Mayor of Buenos Aires attend opening ceremonies as Carlos Torres and Fabián Wagmister launch two ambitious projects in working-class district.

An old factory of some 15,000 cold, empty square feet. In a working-class neighborhood of wintertime Buenos Aires. On the far side of Patricios Park. The taxi driver, when he heard my destination, said, "But why would you want to go there? That's no-man's land!"

But that is precisely an important part of why the UCLA Latin American Center was there on July 25, for the inauguration of the Center for Hypermedia Experimentation in Latin America (Centro Hipermediático Experimental Latinoamericano, cheLA). For its creator, Fabián Wagmister, professor of Film and Television and chair of the Latin American Center's Program on Digital Cultures in Latin America, it was the coming to life of a dream long cherished. For years inspired and impelled by a social and ideological concern that technology, particularly digital technology, be made democratically accessible to young artists in Latin America, Wagmister chose--from among more than 150 properties--this former asbestos factory as the future home of his center. Its location, in Parque Patricios, in the far southern sector of Buenos Aires, is a working-class neighborhood where the silent gray walls facing the streets tell a tired story of unemployment and struggle. But Fabián, with a fervent commitment to popular art and culture and a determination to provide access to its expression, made the very intentional choice of this location--rather than the city center or the known artists' community--and is rehabilitating the old factory. When it is completely finished in approximately three years, there will be several spaces, some larger and some smaller, for exhibition, experimentation, and performance; space for artists from elsewhere in Latin America and abroad to spend a period of time using cheLA's facilities in exchange for offering courses; apartments for those who earn fellowships to develop their projects; and visibility as a springboard for group projects seeking funding from elsewhere--all in an informal atmosphere of cooperative exchange.

Wagmister's goal for cheLA is that it be a laboratory for research and experimentation in all of the arts, graphic and performance, in association with technology--a flexible, socially horizontal, public sphere where the interior spaces can be literally moved and changed to adapt to different artistic expressions. An association with the surrounding neighborhood also will be very much a part of the center's identity and purpose: vitality and sustenance in the arts is derived from a popular base, Fabián believes, a conviction he has put into practice in the requirement that the two projects awarded annual fellowships at cheLA incorporate quality innovation of some sort for the neighborhood.

Wagmister talked about his thoughts on the digital arts. The computer, a major mechanism for globalization, he says, is to be separated from its original industrial purpose and used in the arts for breaking the mold, for using the machine for us; the digital arts are a participatory, interactive process of creation. The challenge is to understand, and especially to help young artists to understand, the ever-increasing complexity of the digital field, to demystify the computer and put it to use in what he calls "performatics," the interaction between the digital and art. One of the young artists present at the opening of the center spoke ardently about how extraordinary and crucial it is, especially for artists in Argentina and Latin America today, that there be such a place, that provides the freedom and even the invitation to test their limits and venture a process of discovery of their artistic identity.

At the inauguration of this experimental center on July 25, in a celebratory ceremony where large flags of Argentina and of the City of Buenos Aires wafted in the chilly evening breeze and the energetic, sequined presence of the neighborhood street performers swirled through the patio, there was ample evidence of support for the new venture by important entities in both Argentina and the U.S. Offering comments of congratulations and encouragement were Argentina's minister of education; the mayor of Buenos Aires; a representative of the Corporación Buenos Aires Sur, an organization promoting the redevelopment of southern Buenos Aires, and other city dignitaries; the Director of UCLA's Latin American Center, Carlos Alberto Torres, and other Center representatives. Also present in spirit was Argentina's Secretary of Culture, Torcuato Di Tella, whose gracious message of congratulations was read at the inauguration. Other sources of support are the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (CLACSO), and, very importantly, an aging American couple who made possible the purchase of the property.

And the innovations did not stop there. Also brought to life on this same occasion by Professor Torres was the Paulo Freire Institute, Buenos Aires, whose first moment was particularly honored by the presence and the enthusiastic words of Dr. Daniel Filmus, Argentina's Minister of Education, Science, and Technology.

A perfect ideological counterpart to cheLA, the Paulo Freire Institute is guided by the ideas of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, which are also egalitarian, grounded in dignifying popular culture and the common person. This Institute thus becomes the youngest of several established by a group of educators dedicated to spreading the philosophy and praxis of Freire; the first was created in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1992, another in Portugal in 2001, then Spain, and last year in Los Angeles at UCLA, with more expected in Cairo, Milan, and Seoul. The work of the Institute will be to disseminate the ideas of Paulo Freire and the worldwide social movement linked with popular education; to constitute a base of operations for research, teaching, and political activism; and to create the conditions for encouraging new models of democratic education.

The Institute initiated its activities, in conjunction with cheLA, with a two-day conference, "Cultural Resistance: Popular Education, Art and Technology Confronting Globalization." In eight roundtable sessions, presentations were made by a wide variety of Argentine and Brazilian scholars and practitioners on popular education, popular art and literature, art and technology, education and culture in the new Brazilian government, and social and democratic movements in Latin America. All spoke to the recent history and struggles and the possibilities for the future of education in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, following the economic and social debacle brought on in the recent past by the imposition of the neoliberal model.

To sum up, the old/new factory at 451 Iguazú Street, Parque Patricios, is now home to more than enough hope, energy, determination, and creativity to transform it from a no man's land into a vital community for everyman.

Published: Friday, August 29, 2003