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“When the danger of dying of hunger doesn’t exist, what does ‘living’ mean?”
– Cornelius Castoriadis
This question not only refers to the basic human need to eat, it refers to the fulfilment of all basic human needs. Have you ever asked yourself, aside from having a roof with no leaks, a deliciously comfortable bed, a fridge full of food, a place where you have learnt to write and count, a safe and clean place to do your business, a family of friends and relatives; what else makes me feel alive? What else makes me smile, think, excited, sad, angry? That’s what Castoriadis is asking us in his discussion on social transformation and cultural creation.
Who will be the Botero of the future Colombia?
The answer to Castoriadis’ question, or at least how I interpret it, is culture. The series of principles on which we as individuals lean on to give significance to our lives. Beyond what we need to function as living organisms, there are many things in life that you do, not because you need to, to survive, but because they have a symbolic or other significance to you. These things are what you might call culture.
Throughout time, by doing these symbolic things, individuals have emerged that are today considered the geniuses of history. Costoradis presents the examples of Kafka, Picasso, Michelangelo, Mozart and questions who are going to be the Kafkas and Mozarts of the future? And how are you incentivising the creation of spaces that form these geniuses amongst the generations of today?
In the case of Colombia, I ask, who will be the Botero and Garcia Marquez of the future? And how are we going to ensure that all the potential of genius that the country has, will have the opportunity to reveal itself in what will become the modern history of Colombia? Who will the art, music or literature museums of the future talk about?
Returning to the initial theme of part I (see here); How are we ensuring that not only those who have the money to do so, are developing their skills and genius as citizens that express, create and revolutionise Colombian culture?
Learning to value, create and think…
Beyond learning to count, read and value certain principles, as human beings we search teachings on how to think and create. A great school and an encouraging family environment can do so, but the city (both the built environment and the society that dwells within it) can teach us the most valuable lessons of all and provide us with the necessary tools to develop as citizens.
For example, public space where people live and make politics is a space of learning. And I’m not just talking about politics in the terms of voting for different political parties, I am also talking about the practices and values that we, as citizens, exercise in our daily routines.
When you share a bench with a stranger, when you give way for an elderly lady to enter a shop, when you avoid a beggar on the street, when you approach a vendor to ask for directions, all these are political acts. Why? Because they are acts of coexistence that recognise that space must be shared, that form relationships of power between one individual and the other and that result in moments of exchange. One cannot walk through a city and act as if they were the only person living in it, although some do mistakenly believe so. So, having said this, within the city we learn to value the other and to observe how we function with the other inside this dense and rich space; we learn to understand the city and in many cases create a better city through our individual actions.
The city of Bogotá is a great school. It has taught me about inequality, about social movements, about participating in space, about innovation, about how those who have the least give the most, and many other things that I had heard about in school but only really lived when I arrived in Bogotá. Nevertheless, it is a city that has a lot more to learn.
If you read the first part of this series, you’ll realise my position toward the role of the private sector in building the city. It is a fairly critical position, but as you’ll have seen there are some examples of places that have shown a potential in intervening in public life in an inclusive and collective way.
Following this I would like to tell you about a house, in the city of Bogotá that really made me smile because I instantly felt an important connection to what Castoriadis is asking us and to my own reflection; on the possibility for those who have very little to develop their potential as the future Boteros, Mozarts and Kafkas of Colombia.
CasaB, Belén, Bogotá, Colombia
In 2012, two Colombians, Chucho and Dario returned to Bogotá from Germany and dedicated themselves to a search, for a place where they could build and alternative space that would promote community action.
The centre of Bogotá, la Candelaria, as many of you know, is being gentrified. For whom? For tourists, for hotels, for museums and universities that are gradually buying out most of the area. Diego, another Colombian who gradually joined the project of CasaB, clearly states that in the Candelaria, there is no more local community. And I completley agree. When you walk through those streets on a weekday, in the evening, they are dead because no one lives there anymore!
For those who have never been: walking along the 5th (a carrera) from the Jimenez (a calle) toward the 1st (another calle), passing in front of Doña Ceci (a corner shop that has gradually turned in to an icon for the culture of dancing and drinking pola on friday nights); Guache’s graffiti “Nuestro Norte es el Sur”; the Luis Ángel Arango library and many hotels, cafés and boutiques, the lack of residents is obvious. One can’t deny there is a drastic change when one crosses from one side of the 1st to the other in what one sees around them. On the other side, there are no more hotels, cafés with english names or students walking around with fancy tags.
Instead, there are several open garages selling second hand, ancient yet beautiful furniture; men with huge beer bellies and their wives giving them orders; children running on the street from one side to the other chasing a street dog or the ball that is gaining speed as it rolls down the hill; or adolescents that are staring you down, watching as you enter their territory. And in the distance you can hear the ‘mecha’ (hit) of a tejo tournament, a sound of a television that loses its signal or the patacón and the meat that are being fried in someone’s kitchen. This is neighbourhood life. This is Belén.
There is no doubt that the best place for an alternative space for community action is Belén.
Initially, this intervention focused on working with adults in the community. Gradually the space was formed through a collection of ideas that were brought by community members to the leaders of the house. However, CasaB is in continuous transformation as Diego puts it, it has gone through a metamorphosis.
Bit by bit it became more and more obvious that those who were using and appropriating themselves of the space where the children of the neighbourhood, in search of a safe place to rest and play after school.
These same children have set the foundation for the ideas and energy that has built this alternative pedagogical space, in which children are able to develop skills and knowledge in dance, art, martial arts, health and nutrition and urban agriculture. An important part of this is their development of an understanding of the importance of common goals and collective action.
3 years later, these same children continue to participate in CasaB activities every day. Some have become tutors and leaders in the centre.
This year a young boy from the Muay Thai activity is applying for an opportunity to travel to Peru and become a professional Muay Thai instructor.
So: “When the danger of dying of hunger doesn’t exist, what does ‘living’ mean?” or should we even ask “When the danger of dying of hunger does exist, can we still ‘live’?”
I know, this is a pretty extreme way of putting this question. But, yes there is a But, what I mean to ask is if we can ensure that those young girls and boys that suffer from inequality might also have the opportunity to ‘live’ as Castoriadis puts it? Could it be that a private intervention, like CasaB is allowing this to happen?