Antanas Mockus's Despair / Brave New Worlds
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Antanas Mockus's Despair / Brave New Worlds



“While I was the mayor of Bogotá, I received occasional death threats. Therefore, I had to use a bullet-proof vest. I made a hole right where my heart is. The hole was in the shape of a heart. I believe this kind of gesture, gave me indeed more protection.” —Antanas Mockus


Antanas Mockus, the extraordinary mathematician/philosopher/educator and former mayor of Bogotá, is back in the spotlight as a candidate in Colombia’s presidential elections, taking place today. So it seemed like it would be a good moment to finally put up a post about the book we designed for a group show called Brave New Worlds that took place at the Walker back in 2007. Mockus was something of a patron saint for this exhibition, curated by Yasmil Raymond and Doryun Chong, which considered “the present state of political consciousness, expressed through the questions of how to live, experience, and dream.” The show featured 24 artists from around the world who explored these questions with a mixture of hope and criticality. The exhibition catalogue also featured international curators and art critics writing as “correspondents” from their various locations, combining an art-centric perspective with a journalistic approach on topics as wide ranging as Norway’s economy, loss and melancholia in Chile, and European toilets.

But back to Mockus—he is a fascinating figure, especially to people who are interested in alternative communication strategies, symbolic actions, and social design. For our catalogue, José Roca contributed an essay about the artistic implications of Mockus’ particular mix of education, governing, and performance. As the mayor of Bogotá, Mockus turned the city into one huge social experiment, utilizing symbolic and often humorous interventions in the city’s daily life to affect social change. Before becoming mayor, he had already gained notoriety as head dean of the National University of Colombia for mooning a crowded auditorium when they wouldn’t come to order. (He subsequently resigned.) Mockus considered this provocative act simply another of “the resources which an artist can use.”  He used his new found celebrity and a simplistic campaign gimmick to quickly get elected as mayor of Bogotá. The gimmick: handing out free toy tops called pirinolas commonly used in a game of chance, on which the words “everyone gives” and “everyone takes” were etched. This formed the basis for his “Culture of Citizenship” program—if everyone does their part as a citizen, everyone will reap the rewards of citizenship.


Here are a few examples of his symbolic interventions as mayor:*

✕  To fight the appalling number of pedestrian deaths in Bogotá, he hired street mimes to mimic people who continued to break traffic and jaywalking rules, asserting that Colombians were more afraid of being humiliated than fined. The mimes followed the unlucky offenders, taunting them and flashing signs that said “INCORRECTO” (see above) when they broke the rules. During Mockus’ terms, traffic deaths dropped by more than 50% due to this and other interventions. Later Mockus said, “It was a pacifist counterweight. With neither words nor weapons, the mimes were doubly unarmed. My goal was to show the importance of cultural regulations.”

✕  The city painted yellow outlined stars on the exact locations where 1500 pedestrians were killed by cars. Some busy intersections were covered with the stars, forming constellations on the asphalt.

✕  He cut a heart shaped hole in his bullet proof vest, despite multiple death threats. (See above.)

✕  He created a character called Supercitizen, and walked through the city wearing a spandex costume. (See above.)

✕  He organized a day for people to trade in their guns for food stamps. Citizens could submit the weapons in the safety of a confessional booth, with the priests’ cooperation. The collected weapons were then melted down and used to make spoons for babies. (Less than 1% of the total arms in Bogotá were confiscated, but homicides fell by 26% during his terms.)

✕  When women complained that they didn’t feel safe after dark, he organized several women-only nights. Men were encouraged to stay home and take care of the children while the women could attend free concerts around town.

✕  He asked the citizens of Bogotá to voluntarily pay 10% more taxes. 63,000 people actually did.

*These details were culled from here, here, here, here, and Roca’s essay, which I will excerpt here:

“The actions of Mockus might not be essentially different in the formal definition from works in public spaces done by artists (although it could be argued that the latter usually have a more developed visual sophistication), but it’s the instrumentalism of the artistic gesture that seems to set them apart. While all of the works created by artists clearly express their intention of establishing a field for an open discussion, art-as-policy knows that it fulfills a precise role within a plan to govern the city: it is clearly a political tool. The way this strategy works, though, is not clear—at least in classical political terms. And this, paradoxically, might posit Mockus’ actions back in the realm of artistic practice proper. Mockus has said that one of the effects of art is to defamiliarize the normative practices and refresh perception in a way that allows people to revisit their own ideas. In this sense, he is aware of the potential of art to destabilize rational discourse.

One of the quintessential graffiti slogans during the revolution of May 1968 was “Imagination au pouvoir!” (All power to imagination!). But many political leaders formed on the tenets of the Left, once they got into power, discarded the transformational possibilities of creative thought. In a critical assessment of Mockus’ theoretical framework, it has been remarked [by Javier Castro] that ‘the paradoxical thing about May 1968 is that the agents of the upheavals did not think that someday, when they grew up, they would need a theory of imagination from power. Mockus is one of the few young people from ’68 who, upon achieving power, has maintained coherence between his world view and his actions. Because his role as a governor is not simply to question status quo but to generate one; it is not to put an end to institutions, but to reinforce them. And it is precisely there that Mockus is left without a theory. Sociologists do not have an answer for what he does. . . . [As] to the question of how Habermas/Mockus integrates art into his scheme of communicative action, Habermockus has no answer. What is curious about this . . . is that Mockus himself (not Mockus the Theoretician, but the practical Antanas Mockus, former major of Bogota) uses art in his governing practice. His practice surpasses theory. His theory of the public sphere [does not explain] how his “magic” (precisely) works. Because it is not simply a discursive and communicative action, nor totally rational; it is artistic, performative.'”

Mockus has recently revealed that he is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and has publicly stated that this would not affect his mental health for at least 12 more years, or his viability as potential president of Colombia. He has many fierce critics of course, and his terms as mayor, while successful in many ways, still fell short when dealing with issues like widespread poverty and unemployment—and its not hard to imagine how his antics might not inspire confidence in a presidential election. But his model of governing has been studied in academia and policy centers around the world, and offers a glimpse of how government can not only provide for their people, but inspire them to be better citizens. It also poses interesting questions of effectiveness for artists, especially those who rely on obscurity and ambiguity to create a “field for open discussion,” and “destabilize rational discourse.” And his work also gives hope to message-makers everywhere . . . that metaphors and symbolism are still powerful tools.

From a recent interview:

Q: You’ve used symbols throughout your career to get your message across and change behavior. Why?

A: It’s perhaps a pedagogical drive. When I use symbols, it’s because of despair in communicating ideas, in the despair [of trying] to change behavior.

Q: Your most famous antic, which was symbolic, was mooning a roomful of rowdy students. Why did you do that, and what did you feel?

A: A very strong emotion, a very complex emotion generated a drive — what I did, what is called in English, mooning. When I was mooning the students I felt two extreme feelings, one that I was giving myself to them. I was allowing them to pressure me, but on the other side it was the extreme refusal.

(Check out this mesmerizing video of the incident. Everything about it feels crucial.)

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Roca’s essay about Mockus is just one of many stories the curators brought together in this book. Reprints of texts by Arundhati Roy, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Janine di Giovanni (amazing lecture) provide perspective on issues like empire, globalization, and journalism ethics. Mihnea Mircan writes an essay from the future, where monuments have taken over the city of Bucharest. Both curators ruminate on their personal connections with art and politics. And of course each of the 24 artists have intriguing stories to tell. Curator Yasmil Raymond says, “As its title suggests Brave New Worlds is not a swift stroll through one world but a journey through a constellation of worlds, viewpoints, and moving images that range from the open sea to a public park, from a narrow corridor to a deserted road, and from a floating satellite to mesmerizing skies.”

We tried to design a publication that reflected the attitudes of these international artists; specifically the fact that many of them consider globalization, capitalism, and the mass media as starting points, instead of forces to immediately oppose. Their work emphasizes the larger context that it exists within, so we chose to use the most context-laden format possible: a magazine, the disposable messenger of the mass media. This format allowed for a frenetic union of different content and styles, and sharp, jarring juxtapositions. To emphasize the context the artists operate within, the commissioned texts and reprints were given equal priority with the artwork plates. This is especially apparent in the 18-page TOC which introduces each artist and each text as unique characters, giving the reader a sense of the multiplicity of viewpoints/realities they can expect to find.

The cover is a collision of magazine aesthetics—academic journal meets pop culture tabloid. (See the Foreign Affairs/Details mashup at top.) We chose the Cao Fei image for the cover because of its utopian leaning as well as its artificial quality which, in my mind, helps to deflate the intimidating momentousness of the title of the book. The cover flap became the dominant visual motif and was carried out in the half-page interior layouts. The text, set in Optima and Tom’s Roman, was rewritten to evoke an editorial feel. The book ends with a 30 page insert by Lia Perjovschi in which she presents her own Subjective Art History.

Whew. Anywho . . . seeing Mockus again in the news brought back the joy of working on this particular publication, and the general feeling that had cast a shadow over the entire project: optimism. Sounds familiar . . .

✕  proposed buttons for the exhibition


✕  the bumper sticker that you love to hate—but really you love it, just admit it—as seen on bumpers everywhere and mentioned in the Brave New Worlds artist panel discussion

✕  alternate title page for Roca’s essay

✕  brochure for exhibition related events

—Emmet Byrne

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