30 June 2014

At the 89th minute of a historic game on the evening of 30 July 1930, Hector Castro scored one last goal to give a convincing victory to his team, Uruguay, making the hosting country the first FIFA World Cup winner. The event was international from the very beginning, but taxing travel technologies had made South American nations a majority in the tournament. Uruguay was the de facto world champion, since their victory in the 1928 Olympics, but it also won the bid as its government offered to refund all the participants’ expenses. Moreover, the tournament was meant to time with the centenary of the publication of the country’s Constitution, enacted on 18 July 1930. From its inception, 84 years ago, the celebration of the World Cup has always been a window on all the facets of its context ― technique, economy, history, culture, politics. This is so, because the World Cup is truly a translocal event, despite the layered agendas of international organisations. As we close our first season of Inter-actions debates, Brazilian street-artist Speto walks the memory lane to redefine the street as the pulse of today’s Brazil, between football, creation and protest. In another life journey, writer Samuel Buchoul meditates upon the moody fervour of French supporters and imagines the new philosophical challenges of the ‘old west’.

Debate

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On the Streets

Speto

Ready to Kick-Off

Samuel Buchoul

Listen

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Colours. When I was a kid, my father was crazy about football… not me! But I remember those colours. Everyone using the same colours for the games: yellow and green. Everybody thinking of joy and celebration. The roots of my art stem back to those days of togetherness, and that culture of the game still plays a very important role in my work. I cherish the memories of people painting and drawing on the floor, on the streets… This image has stayed with me, year after year.

In 1970 in Mexico, the Selecao signed
its third victory in twelve years

I was born in 1971 in Sao Paulo. In the late 1980s, I left my studies and dedicated all my time to graffiti. With a small group of friends, we became the first generation of street artists in Brazil. My father told me: ‘You can stop, but then you have to spend as much time on your work as you did in school’. So, art became my profession. I would work on it 8 hours every day. I had a philosophy, a vision, but it was necessary to make compromises to succeed.

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Through the years, my style took shape. My work is deeply related to Brazil and its history. I am very inspired by the Cordel Literature, these folk stories you can find in inexpensive pamphlets on the streets of Northeast Brazil. And the style of my art is close to what we call Naïve Art. My drawings often portray the black Brazilians. Not everybody knows that Brazil is the country, outside of Africa, with the most blacks in the world. Brazilian culture has been highly influenced by the cultures and traditions the slaves brought along with them. In churches, you find elements of African symbolism. In music or food, their influence can be felt. And this is how I came to think of my work as an artist: things can mix; you can do commercial work and incorporate fine ideas and creations into it. And it allows you to communicate with more people.

Brazilian culture grew through the mixing of multiple influences,
among which African art and symbolism

In 2007, Brazil was elected to host the 2014 World Cup. When the news came up, I was having lunch with a friend, and I told him: “I need to do something for the World Cup!” The football culture of Brazil had influenced my artistic identity deeply, yet I had still not worked in that particular direction. Curiously, six months later, Coca Cola sent me an email, asking me to guide them through the scenes of Brazilian graffiti. And one year after that, they invited me to do their product campaign for the World Cup! It was exciting, but I asked them: “Are you sure you want to work with me?” I am an artist, not a brand designer. I could be very picky, refuse certain things, and make it difficult for them! But they replied saying it was a thrilling challenge for them too… So we started the collaboration. And it took us three years.

Today, the drawings I created can be found in 207 countries around the world, primarily on Coca Cola cans. That is incredibly huge! I had worked for other brands before, but never at this scale. Still, I could express my ideas, in my own style. Again, broadly in the form of Naïve Art: the togetherness, the happiness, the celebration… Simple things are sometimes difficult to represent. I like this challenge. In Naïve Art, the malice disappears. The idea is to show simply what is pure in beings. It invites people to not be ashamed of who they are. One can be oneself outside of a fashion, of a desire to be hip or famous… I believe everyone is really special, and this is what I tried to express in this piece for Coca Cola. It looks like an illustration for kids. There are no bad intentions – I like this purity.

Speto’s design for Coca Cola’s World Cup Campaign

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I believe we create art because we are full of emotions, ideas, philosophy. It is too much for the body to contain: it has to come out! I loved graffiti from the start because it gave me so much freedom to represent the world, to represent myself, to create. Street Art reaches everybody – the street is the most democratic medium to communicate with people. It does not matter who you are, where you come from, your colour or your religion. No media can reach that wide an audience. But this is possible only if the artist understands the medium. When you create a composition in the street, you use an environment. Graffiti is made to be seen in movement – when you walk, or from your car, or while in the metro. People do not usually stop at 90 degrees to look at the graffiti. It is not a canvas, because there is no frame in graffiti. The composition is the city, the environment. Many artists try working for galleries, but that is possible and successful only when they understand the difference of mediums. Each medium creates new possibilities for the art. And, doing a campaign for an international brand is trying to understand a new medium, and using its potential at the best. This campaign gave me the occasion to reach people around the globe. On Instagram, I looked for what people did with the package, the bottles, etc. I saw a really simple drawing of the logo. A teenager did that. That was amazing. I had reached my goal.

This did not come overnight. It was very hard for us, initially. The first ten, fifteen years were without money! One could not live off graffiti in the early nineties, in Brazil. Now, things have changed. Young artists may be talented, but they are impatient and they run after fame and money. Sure, with money, you can create good opportunities for yourself. But everything takes time. Nearby where I live, I talk to artists who are just starting. They say, “now is the moment, we must do it now!” But it never works like that. Patience. You must respect every moment of your life. The life of an artist is like a cycle – some periods will be very good, with great activity and enough money. But sometimes, you may have nothing. Even for myself: now, I am doing good work, but one never knows what the future will bring me.

Speto’s graffitis are influenced by Naïve Art

Patience is something lacking today, in the young generation of Brazil. As a nation, we look like a very problematic teenager. Certainly, the problems are real: there is a lot of corruption, and the government is not doing enough for the people. The taxes, here, are huge, while schools and hospitals are still quite bad. This generation realises that the government, the state, must work for the people, and we are the people, we have the power. But I believe we must go deeper in our culture to find inspiration and lightness to tackle those issues.

My grandfather was a sambista. My father was a singer. My uncle was a footballer. These are very important aspects of our culture. But I get my main inspiration from another artist: Mohamed Ali. Boxing, he said, is just an instrument to do other things. The same is true of football. Footballers are the people’s heroes. Like the very modest samba players, their art allows them to travel around the world. They represent people who have no education, no money, yet they manage to transcend their condition to do something amazing. In street art, you can just take a pen and start creating. You can do things even with very less means. And in all these, there is the sheer element of the beautiful. When you see Neymar play, it is magical! It does not make sense! It is part of the drama of football. Comedies are not funny everywhere – what is funny in India may not be funny in the US, and what is funny there may not be funny in many countries of the world… But the drama is universal, and football is the most dramatic of all sports. It is very hard to hit a goal – too many people are fighting for it! So it drives people crazy, this waiting for the goal. It creates tension, and it creates drama.

Will the protests of Brazil turn into a wave of changes on the field?

But this energy is also changing today, because sports, and football in particular, are getting dominated by big corporations. The populations may not be willing anymore to believe in its simplicity, in its lightness. This is also why there is this anger today, which leads people onto the streets. They want to do something – they do not want more heroes. So they return to the streets. Where football starts. Where graffiti grows. And where manifestations burst. We have the internet, today, but people go to the streets. It is the democratic medium, where people have power. And my hope is that, like graffiti, it will succeed in bringing lightness and inspiration to the people, and a better future for our country and the world at large.

guys grey

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Chesterton thought coincidences are spiritual puns. Any return home necessarily offers its powerful wave of new realisations, but the rediscovery often gets its own tint through the immediate context of the event. As I return home this time, a great deal of humanity has its sight captivated by the green fields. Oh, just like Speto, was I not a football enthusiast as a young boy! But that was until a certain 12 July 1998. Signing its first victory in the world cup, through a historical final against Brazil, the French team succeeded in reinvigorating the economy, the moods and the dreams of my country for a little while. In the ‘Black-Blanc-Beur’ France, the team symbolised the dream of a harmonious, multicoloured nation, unified behind a common vision.

1998: ‘Black-Blanc-Beur‘ France

But the dream stretched out for a bit too long, failing to concretise in creating another reality. Weakened by political disappointments and economic crises, the nation struggled to conserve its confidence in the future. And football soon became the locus of many expectations. If the following cups saw occasional spurts of brightness, I remain particularly reminded of the virulence of the reactions reserved for each coach failing to reproduce the triumph. Football had become, it seemed, the response to everything.

L’Equipe, the main sports newspaper of my country, recently started a petition asking the President to make 15 July a public holiday, since the 14th is already our National Day, and the final of the cup would fall on the 13th. As per their logic, this would not leave enough time for the French to celebrate… But, the team has only passed the first phase so far! “This desperate enthusiasm is not so surprising after all – winning the cup is the only thing that could make up for the free falling mood of the French,” a friend recently told me, reflecting on the aftermaths of the crisis and the appalling outcomes of the latest European elections. Since our undergraduate times, she had managed to become a national player in the business of TV ads slots. She revealed that, for the last game of France in the first phase, the country’s first channel was selling 30 seconds of ads for 185.000 Euros (Rs. 1.5 crore). Not in a year, not in a day – in 30 seconds! In the case of a final with the national team, she gauged the rate at a yearly high – 300.000 Euros. That would guarantee 9 millions of Euros (Rs. 72 crore) for the media group, in the mere half-time of the game… But even they play a highly risky game, since the FIFA charged an estimated 3.2 billion dollars for the broadcasting of the games around the world. Sixteen years down the line, the lightness of the game has shrunk before my eyes, drowned under the tempest of a people’s disproportionate expectations and below the waves of international tycoon’s big money.

If Chesterton was right, what were the puns I could read behind the coincidences of this visit home? How is the world cup highlighting cardinal traits of the destination where France is finding itself, today? Personally, this phase hints at the deeper roots that created a philosophical journey for myself, a journey that once led me to leave the ship of my homeland. I was not always a student of philosophy. It came to me on its own. Discovering the world through my world, I came to see in ideas and thoughts the faithful themes behind the passing of societies, political regimes and cultural trends. It was also certainly that France is a country where the ideas of philosophers are particularly impactful onto their society, from Descartes to Sartre. From the Enlightenment Century to the Revolution and May 68, major turns of French history were at least partially animated by the prefatory works of philosophers.

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Sartre, Foucault and many others have defined
the philosopher in France as a major actor of society

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My beginnings were slow and fragmentary. But I understood that, if certain ideas had played instrumental roles in transforming our world, one could also find in the history of thoughts the root causes of the narrow mindedness of an age. Turning to philosophy was itself an attempt at a deeper investigation: it could, I hoped, short-circuit the permanent critical noise of my society. Through the historical combination of complex cultural, economic and social parameters, the French identity grew as one of opinionated individuals, but where viewpoints are expressed by the hundreds, rarely contrasted with avowals of intellectual humility. In France, still too often, we are, therefore we think, and if we think, we feel that we must voice it out. This may sound great, but in a system charged with criticality, any nascent thought may not find enough air to bloom. Crushed in an electric climate, I discovered the departure as a solution to give my ideas new beginnings. Developing in enough space, barren abstractions could turn into relevant and subtle shortcuts on the real.

I moved to India, to discover and explore Buddhism. Indeed, to transcend the familiarity of western thinking, I considered that studying would not be enough – I should be surrounded by the original environment of this tradition. In the statistics, Buddhism has practically disappeared from India, but with a closer look, one still finds its marks there – feeble, quiet ones surely, but nonetheless the signs of a philosophical outlook still very central in the way people live and understand life over here.

Life – truly the ultimate playfield of philosophy, where its raison d’être takes full shape. Philosophy is not a dead letter, an abstract identity for some of the petrifying racks of the world’s pompous libraries. My philosophical trajectory had to turn into a life trajectory, where travels, encounters, studies, work and relations became as many checkers on the intuitions and suggestions of the most inspiring thinkers. And, where to conduct this life of experimentation better than abroad, where the mind and the body are never at rest, where nothing can be taken for granted, where philosophy’s playful curiosity, its true energy, is always, necessarily activated. Expatriation was and is a marking turn – the association of the curious mind with basically all that is alien to it; life in a permanent state of exploration, of unquenchable enquiries, of endless hypotheses. Living in the question.

When, two years later, I decided to undertake a degree of philosophy proper, I finally had a feel for what I was looking for in this field: thinkers that shared this belief in the organic combination of philosophy and life. The encounter came fast. Their personal approach would be diverse, their words modest and tentative, determined to avoid the spirit of hasty critical rejections that often characterises thinking in my home country. Common to them was the conviction that philosophy arrives through language, and takes shape as it is laid down, liberated from its author, that is, when it is written. More than a belief, it was a very concrete practice throughout the patient work of their œuvre. Then, philosophy would also become a philography, where the thinker is not a mechanic agent arranging predicates and logical propositions, but truly an artist, a creator of ideas whose talent formalises in the written craft.

The written: craft of the philosopher

That is where the philosopher may find itself today, offering to shift the intra and inter-dialogues of societies at the crossroad of a creative use of critical traditions. Philosophy does not have responses to all, and it is deeply dependent upon the other elements of truly pluralistic societies – the everyday functioning of a society may require the horizon of a philosophical vision, but the everyday is also the core ingredient that can make the vision of tomorrow. The thinker must return, patient but serene, to the slow carving of its linguistic craft. Like the street artist, it should be liberated from the preoccupation of its immediate popularity: one day glimpsed by a passing stray dog, his work may be echoed by young artists across two hundred countries on the next day. Throughout, the philosopher, like the artist, must stand and affirm the urgency of its craft, the pressing need this guiding line forms, far in the horizon but vital for any movement to have a direction, that is, to exist.

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I am reminded of the necessary dynamic harmony of movement and vision, as I come back to France, this ‘old country’, as my father often says. Age means many things – it is the time of wisdom, of the elderly finding their lightness intact, as they play with their grandchildren. But old things, and old countries in particular, may also be weighed down by their attachment to decayed ways of thinking and living. No organism has ever lived on earth without renewing its tissues, yet, the old political players of our world seem to think yesterday’s recipes will work for a new banquet. Returning to France after five years in India, my gut feeling is a bewilderment – we lack a vision, a true, positive and frontward horizon. The Thomas Sankara, the Aung San Suu Kyi have left us long ago, heading for sanctuaries of imagination where life appreciation is still an active dream. Incapable to vocalise its aspiration, the old continent may need to turn to the new energies of our world to define it – the vibrant streets of Brazil, maybe, or a society’s response to a new political landscape in India. Otherwise, like football today, ‘the west’ will remain buried deep down under old money and swinging moods.

In the meantime, on the field, England, Italy, Portugal and Spain have been eliminated, while the true vitality of young collectives have brought many unsuspected South American teams to the second round. And, French supporters keep cheering and hoping, as the team finally scores, freed from the big egos of its star players, and energised by its fresh blood. Unified towards their goal, they can finally kick-off. The play can start.

Speto is a major street artist from Sao Paulo, Brazil. In the 1980s, he belonged to the first generation who promoted graffiti art in the country. Internationally recognised for his urban images, he has also designed items for brands and events. In 2014, Coca Cola is using his artwork for its international campaign around the World Cup.
Samuel Buchoul is a Delhi-based writer and editor. Born and raised in France, he did parts of his education in the USA and India, where he focused on Philosophy and Buddhist Studies. After diverse experiences in journalism, publishing, editing and photography, he has been part of the LILA story since 2012. At LILA, Samuel is primarily editor, writer and webmaster.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.

LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.

The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images courtesy: Setsiri Silapasuwanchai | Fox Sports | The Telegraph | Circolare | Jonathan Levine Gallery | Euro Asia News | Ouest-France | A4rizm | The Borderlands Writing Project

Voices courtesy: Samuel Buchoul

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