Resistant materials

Publication Date
October 10, 2021

Brazil is a country where many historical timelines coexist. Itamar Vieira Junior, the author of Torto Arado — perhaps the most acclaimed and debated Brazilian fiction novel of recent years — is repeatedly seen, when interviewed, having to explain to local and international audiences that his book about bonded labor in Northeastern rural areas is historically set in the 1980s and not the 1880s, as many seem to assume.

In the face of persistent inequalities that underlay life in the country, many fields of knowledge establish, in their local formulations, broad resistance against the abstractions and dematerializations that perpetuate the logic of naive consciousness. Images and expressions such as clouds, black boxes and artificial intelligence are often created in contexts that perpetuate a logic of technology in the service of technology itself. Therefore, it should be part of the Global South’s theoretical efforts to reconnect ideas about technological advancements to the history of human labor implicit in any endeavor.

This is a debate with immediate implications to the field of architecture. Although coming from a very different historical context, Sylvia Lavin explores in Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernization Effects the need to reassess prevailing definitions of the discipline that were crystallized under the aegis of postmodernism and for many reasons failed to include the political, economic, and technological conditions that shaped professional practice after World War II in the United States.

Lavin constructs a dynamic between postmodernism and postmodernization that was influenced by epistemological shifts in the Humanities. More specifically, she describes attempts to de-hierarchize visual phenomena, which in turn eventually led to formulations such as the field of Visual Culture. Lavin describes the consequence of eradicating hierarchies as a flattening – a disengagement from the origins, materials, politics, and economics of image production: “Images, like architecture, were predominantly conceived of as immaterial things in themselves, as the study of what was eventually called visual culture was itself postmodernized”1 .

In Brazil, just as the dematerialization of art in the seventies had its own political consequences, ephemerality served as an escape from the persecution of military dictatorship police. In the decades that followed, the field of Visual Culture was developed from a different perspective, one uniquely anchored in reflections on materiality. One of the main reasons for this –if an approach of intellectual history can be applied to the issue– is the proximity of its early local formulations to the fields of archaeology and museology; This can be largely attributed to the work of Ulpiano Bezerra de Meneses.

In a conclusive article published in 20032 , after a thorough retrospective of previous contributions to the study of visual phenomena from various disciplinary fields, Meneses established an important synthesis to his own understanding of the historiographical approaches to images. A set of three lenses had to work together as main fields of action, escaping theoretical hypertrophy and ensuring that it was about understanding the alterity through which the image worked in social contexts3 : the visual would encompass all systems of visual communication and institutions, the production, circulation, and consumption of products; the visible referred to the sphere of power, the dictatorship of the eye, and social and cultural prescriptions; finally, the vision referred to instruments and techniques of observation, the roles of the observer, and the models and modalities of looking.

Although these formulations served, for a few years, mostly Brazilian studies related to the History of Photography, recent research and educational efforts by Eduardo Augusto Costa4 — a professor at the Faculty of Architecture at University of São Paulo — now begins to establish the possibilities that this course of local intellectual history sets for a new understanding of the country’s architectural culture. Costas’s attention to the archives, exhibitions, and publications of Brazilian architecture5 not only meets epistemological shifts that overcome author-driven accounts of architectural production, but also unfolds an approach to the expansion of the disciplinary field beyond construction or tectonics. His work was deeply rooted in the materiality of artifacts constituent of this culture that holds visuality as a central matter. Porque também se come com os olhos6 .

  1. Sylvia Lavin, Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernization Effects, (CCA/Spector Books, 2020), 41.
  2. Ulpiano B. de Meneses, “Fontes visuais, cultura visual, História visual. Balanço provisório, propostas cautelares”, Revista Brasileira de História, v. 23, n. 45, (2003): 11-36.
  3. Francisco das Chagas F. Santiago Júnior, “A virada e a imagem: história teórica do pictorial/iconic/visual turn e suas implicações para as humanidades”, Anais do Museu Paulista, v. 27 (2019): 1-51.
  4. The author of this article is part of Costa’s research group, based at University of São Paulo, dedicated to Brazilian architectural visual culture.
  5. See Eduardo Augusto Costa, Arquivo, poder, memória: Herman Hugo Graeser e o Arquivo Fotográfico do IPHAN (São Paulo: Alameda, 2018).
  6. Because you can also eat with your eyes (translation from Portuguese).
Publication Date
October 10, 2021
Graphic Designers
Helena Ramos
1108 words