Carlos Basualdo interviews Cambalache
CARLOS BASUALDO: WHAT is Cartucho, why did you choose to work there?
Cambalache: El Cartucho is a contradictory area of downtown Bogota. This neighbourhood, which since the 40s has been sustained by an informal economy, warehouses, and people coming from different parts of the country, is like a city within the city.
It is a very rundown sector, the product of the inequality, unemployment, and poverty afflicting Colombian society since who knows when. All kinds of people live and sleep here. If you walk down 9th Street you will see hawkers, recyclers, beggars, and drug sellers making their income from all kinds of legal and illegal activities, this is the "rebusque" or "search" for everyday subsistence. Among the ñeros or "companions," as the street inhabitants call each other, there are blacks, gringos, Japanese, ex-millionaires. There are mutilated, cross-eyed, and ugly people, everything. The ñeros are free because they do whatever they want. Nobody really cares. Among those making their living from the street, recyclers form an extensive collective. They are informal self employed workers that have made the recycling of garbage a permanent source of income. Most of the recycling warehouses are located in El Cartucho. This area where an informal economy has for some years coexisted with drug trafficking has, since the 80s, been affected by the arrival of crack that has established a sinister monopoly of the cartels. The City Goverment is trying to regain control of this zone with an extensive plan for the Park of the Third Millennium, and the Cartucho has started to be demolished to give space to parks, new constructions, cinemas, and a museum of the city, but not without having to confront the insurrection of the neighbours.
The Cartucho is a zone of difference in the city and at the same time a rootless alternative to cultural resistance. It is a vital space of enormous presence that instead of being erased from the urban imagination could be reconstructed, healed, and revived by the people that live here. El Cartucho is a social space that al- lows for the development of people rejected by formal society and it is a place in which are constructed alternatives and life projects that are not consolidated in other social spaces.
Recyclers constitute the typical non-structural sector that survives economically by means of the collection of trash in the street or from trashcans. The daily activities of these men and women offer the resistance that fractures all pretense to control. In working with minorities, it is possible to bring into play logics that are in relation with the city and with the territory, rather than to simply give a static recognition of their identity or their picturesqueness (as with the commercial exploitation of graffiti in certain countries).
The recyclers ' cars that roll throughout Bogotá oftentimes constitute working tools and homes at the same time. These nomadic recyclers are not in the future plans of the city, thus an out- rage is committed against their status. In Colombia, nomadism is not an acceptable way of life, but there exist in other cultures very diverse ways of exercising space. For example, mobility is a religious guideline that fosters nomadism, and that probably is one of the motives of the extraordinary traveling vocation of the Japanese in general.
CB: How did you come to formulate your activity at El Cartucho in terms of el museo de la calle? What is it exactly?
C: Our interest in El Cartucho began out of sheer personal curiosity for this cultural entity in Bogota. Our decision to work there was made soon after we met at the Universidad de los Andes for a collaborative project that would take us out of the classroom and to places we would not normally go. A proect celebrating exchange among people and the street as a space for the circulation of knowledge.
This project confronted the shocking reality of the streets of Bogota: the first visit to the Cartucho streets was a kind of mind swap for all of us. We came out with the feeling that our activity should be about giving or constructing something; not charity but exchange; giving some kind of service to the community was the way to know more about this place and finally about ourselves. That's how we started with a toda mecha (quick cut), a free hairdressing ser- vice at the UASI hospital. There we had the chance to meet tons of people who shared their ideas, feelings, and perceptions with us for a while. Carolina's concept of the beauty salon as a productive psychological space is a very interesting situation to initiate a personal ex - change with anybody.
While working in the beauty salon for a few months we became interested in the economy of this sector: swapping, recycling, and "rebusque" are important economic and cultural activities that are often not recognized as such. This is when Luisa and Adriana suggested we organize a big barter and giveaway, bringing out all kinds of things and artefacts we don't use anymore but might be useful to others. We collected from our families and friends and a lot of things were brought in. Clothing, toys, and home appliances were given away for any- thing useful or useless that people wanted to give in exchange. We had an idea of putting together this material and doing some kind of "museum" that travelled Bogota in one of the recyclers ' cars, which are very interesting vehicles everybody in the city knows. We are talking about an open museum with neither categories nor walls to recycle, and to give new use to all kinds of objects obtained through barter. This paradoxical collection is intended to be a testimony to the streets, to ourselves, and the kind of social relations we establish through objects and material culture. Not as a static representation but as wealth that is constantly redistributed. There is an attempt to level the exchange value and the use value of these artefacts by circulating them in the reciprocal act of bartering. In the Cartucho, swap- ping and informal economy is already happen- ing as an everyday practice.
CB: What happens when the museum is shown in a specialized art context? Have you done this before?
C: We have exhibited the museum in two art shows: the III Bienal de Venecia, organized by Franklin Aguirre in the popular neighborhood of Venecia in Bogota South, and "Worthless: Invaluable" at the Modema Galerija of Ljubl- jana, Slovenia. This street museum works in such remote contexts as the street or the muse- um because it doesn't kill the objects by intro- ducing them in a museological-anthropologi- cal space, showing them as still elements, part of a static or permanent collection. This muse- um gives the objects new life by introducing them in a continual flow of unlimited trade. They are injected with new life when some- body decides to take them. It is very special for me when I see the street museum mutating; there is always something new to discover among the objects. The objects that we collect - ed in the Cartucho street are now in the hands of Slovenian people, the objects of these Europeans will be in the hands of Colombian people' this overseas exchange makes me feel as if we have planted little seeds of Cartucho (don't forget that Cartucho is also a flower in Spanish) in Slovenia. As long as someone has a Car- tucho object it means that true evidence of this singular street will remain, and will grow somehow. While bringing Slovenian objects back to Bogota also involves a kind of cultural sowing.
CB: What will be the final destination of the work? Will the museum simply vanish at the end of all these different presentations?
C: We imagine the museum as an activity as well as an artefact or a collection. But we are not thinking in terms of creating a collection to preserve it forever but of a continuous circulation of wealth as knowledge among people. The museum may vanish as such, who knows, but the different objects will carry the word from one person to another.
Future plans include an exhibition in Bogota at the museum of the Universidad Nacional in October. For this occasion we are planning to raffle the car with its contents in a free lottery among all recyclers and everybody who wants to participate in Bogota. It would be nice that what once was a recycler's car turned into a street museum would continue recycling. Like the Argos, Jason's ship that was repaired and reconstructed in every piece throughout its journey, the street museum would again be performing its task of recycling in the streets of our city.