Tactical Media in Brazil - Submidialogia conference report

The four-day conference on the campus of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) brought together many key persons from the tactical media movement of Brazil and some of their counterparts in the Brasilian government.
The movement is converging from roots in free radio, free software, hardware hacking, art and social movements. It is currently focussed around a large-scale project master-minded by Claudio Prado and supported by the Ministry of Culture: ?Pontos de Cultura? (Culture Spots) which is aiming to empower up to 600 cultural projects with free software-based multimedia production and publication facilities.

One of the main purposes of the meeting, aside from taking stock of where the movement stands, was to discuss a proposal by the Sarai / Waag Exchange to set up a media center in Brazil as a new node in their exchange network.

Mídia Tática started after a call in June 2002 from Next 5 Minutes to hold a tactical media lab in Latin America. Three Paulistas (Giseli Vasconcelos, Tatiana Wells and Ricardo Rosas) replied. A network formed bringing together various branches of of media research and practice, including media art, alternative journalism, a strong computer recycling movement and a free radio movement. Radio Muda located in the central tower of Unicamp having started in 1990, is the oldest and arguably the most influential of them, getting generations of students involved in media theory and practice, spreading the experience after their graduation to all parts of Brazil. Submidia / Radio Muda, namely activist Paulo Lara, was hosting the Submidialogia conference.

The call from the Netherlands resulted in a group of more than 300 people, mostly from São Paulo, working together to organise the first Tactical Media Lab (TML) in Latin America. It took place on a shoe-string budget in the alternative cultural space Casa das Rosas, on Paulista Avenue in São Paulo in March 2003. Under the theme of ?Digital Inclusion and Networked Communities? it drew 6,000 participants and a strong echo in the press.

The TML was followed by three Autolab workshops in the suburbs of São Paulo. From January to July 2004 partly funded by Unesco, about 300 young people from the favelas were taught computers, web technologies, sound and video editing, all based on free software and recycled hardware. The Autolabs were concluded by two festivals: findEtático in November 2004 for discussing the experiences in the labs and in autonomous media production, and Digitofagia in October 2004, the largest festival on media, arts and technology so far that took place in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (at the Museum of Image and Sound), Recife, Salvador and Belo Horizonte.

In early 2003, the media movement really entered a new phase. One focal point bringing together diverse groups and communities was the TML, another one was Claudio Prado. The close friend of Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil, and his self-styled Coordinator of Digital Policy realised that something was going on with a strong free software movement and the arts and activism going digital. With the blessing of Gil he went around and approached many of the groups about a third generation digital inclusion project to be proposed to the Ministry of Culture under the name ?Pontos de Cultura.?

What most of the world knows as ?digital divide?, in Brazil is reformulated as ?digital inclusion.? The first generation digital inclusion projects were about getting computers to the people. The second were about access to the Internet. A success story here are the Telecentros, free public Internet access centers running on GNU/Linux platforms, that were initiated by Sergio Amadeu, then working at the Governo Eletronico of São Paulo. The third generation according to Prado is now about empowering people to produce their own digital cultural expressions and share them with the world. Because the PMDB-run Ministry of Communications is trying to get any digital inclusion project under its wings, the Pontos de Cultura are not actually labeled as ?digital inclusion? but as a ?cultural diffusion? project. This is not the only reason why the term ?digital inclusion? is disliked by everyone in the Mídia Tática movement. Another line of argument is: Felipe Fonseca, O fantasma da inclusão digital, Nov 20th, 2004

Based on the experience of the Autolabs, together with people like Alexandre Freire, then with the free software development group Arca, and visual communications people like Tatiana Wells and Ricardo Ruiz, Prado developed the project. There was an open call to cultural institutions and NGOs that could apply to become one of the Culture Spots. Schools, community centers, libraries, cities, samba schools, video groups etc. are all eligible to apply. When selected by a large advisory board under the auspicies of the Ministry of Culture, each of them receives a multimedia kit that includes a computer for editing, a server, photo and video cameras, microphones, a mixer, scanner and printer worth about 25,000 R$ (~9,000 ?). Along with it they receive a suite of free software programs for editing, serving and streaming. The core team is developing a series of workshops to teach the people at the Points how to recycle computers, how to operate the software environment, how to create websites, music and video in order to produce their own media content and distribute it. In addition, each Culture Point gets a budget of 5,000 R$ (~1,800 ?) per month over a period of two years.

The project team under the coordination of Freiere developed an online structure with five different platforms: Conversé, a Drupal-base open forum in wich the Points are exchanging their experiences, Estúdio Livre, a collection of links and context for free multimedia software, Xemelê, a repository for photographs, an internal server for mapping all the Points, and Cigar, a BitTorrent network for distributing the content that the Points produce that is currently being developed.

Claudio Prado reported at the conference that there are currently 85 people working for the project. Many of the ca. 50 participants at the conference are involved in it. Some like Thiago Novaes are employed directly at the Ministry. Others like Felipe Fonseca from MetaReciclagem work for the Information Technology Research Institute (IPTI), the formal interface between the Ministry and the grassroots movement. 270 Points were awarded in the first call. The plan was recently upped to make it look better in the election campaign next year, to 600 Points all together, incl. Points abroad (three in US, one in France, one in Tunis, more in Italy, one in Germany). Prado complained about much bureaucratic red tape that leads to a situation where it is always organisations with professionals who win public tenders. Therefore the board at the Ministry of Culture is disregarding formalities, looking at what the applicants are actually doing, and if selected, help them with the bureaucratic requirements.

Some of those selected to become a Culture Point were present at the Submidialogia conference, like Casa de Cultura Tainã where workshops on drum-making, drumming and other music are being taught to kids from the local community. There was also a small delegation from the Grupo de Trabalho Amazônico, Amazon Indians, living in remote villages, extracting rubber. They are collecting stories about every-day life, history, dreams, primarily to convey them to their children. Today they publish them as books. Once they have become a Culture Spot, they will also be able to make them available on the Internet.

The third generation of digital inclusion continues to be based on the previous two. The prime grassroots example for the first generation of getting computers to the people is the MetaReciclagem movement. Its founder Dalton Martins talked at the conference about his ideas on the three levels of approaching technology: from appropriating it as is via adapting it to tasks in a given reality to re-inventing it.

MetaReciclagem started in 2002. The groups get donations from banks and others companies that are renewing their PC pool. They refurbish these machines for use in social projects like Telecentros, and, more important, teach people how to do this themselves.

It turned out that it is easiest to get donations in the South-East of Brazil. Dalton is therefore planning to establish an exchange network for parts so initiatives in other locations can ask for network cards, harddiks, keyboards etc. and have them send from groups that have them. He sees selling refurbished computers as a possible business model for the Pontos de Cultura. Dalton does not see it as a problem if companies take up the recycling concept in order to make money with it. It only strengthens the network.

A top-down approach to the access-to-computers issue that recently made waves is the $100 laptop project by MIT MediaLab. Brazil committed itself to buying two million of those, but the project was not discussed at the conference.

The Telecentros are a successful approach to the second generation digital inclusion, the issue of access to the Internet. Today there are 120 Telecentros in São Paulo and some in other parts of Brazil, typically located in favelas in big cities. In order to reach people in the poor rural areas especially in the North and North-East of Brazil and in remote places e.g. in Amazonia, the Ministry of Communications initiated the program GESAC (Governo Eletrônico - Serviço de Atendimento ao Cidadão - Electronic Government - Service of Attendance to the Citizen). Its goal it to provide up to 5,000 points of satellite access.

At the conference, Antônio Albuquerque reported on the project. He had been with the Ministry of Communications since November 2002, and was Director of Services of Digital Inclusion of the Secretariat of Telecommunications and head of GESAC since January 2005. He was the last official from PT inside the ministry before he was fired in August 2005.

The ministry sees it as a connectivity service which should include tele-education and be rooted in the local community. On GESAC it is working together with the ministries for education, strategic planning and defense.

In October 2002, the contract for implementing the first phase was awared to Gilat, a company that provides telecommunications solutions based on Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellites. Albuquerque said that in 2003 there was a five-months struggle inside the ministry until June when the project finally got started. Gilat established 3,200 sites, 2,200 of which are in schools. Others connect institutions ranging from NGOs via public buildings to military bases in the Amazon. Currently the public tender for the second phase has been issued. Albuquerque feared that if the Minister of Communications changes again, GESAC might get trashed.

While GESAC and Pontos de Cultra are projects from competing ministries, there are links between them. Some of the people in the Mídia Tática movement are working for GESAC, like Tatiana Wells who helped establish stattlite-connected telecentros is the Northern states of Piauí and Natal. Some of the Culture Points might get access through the GESAC network.

Another project of the Ministry of Communications is the digitisation of TV and radio. It seems that everything digital in Brazil, indcluding these undertakings, is supposed to interconnect with all the other digital inclusion projects.

At Submidialogia, Takashi Tomei from CPqD Telecom & IT Solutions, the company that manages the Digital TV project for the Ministry of Communications was presenting the current state of discussion. So was Claudio Prado who is on the project team, doing his best to have the whole digital TV infrastructure implemented in free software.

The current Minister of Communcations, Hélio Costa, the third in two years, affiliated with the media empire Globo, used to be a newscaster during the dictatorship, then lived in N.Y., is driving the digitisation of televitsion and radio, but without any public debate, and favoring the US American standard. The US vision is HDTV for big screens in home theaters. But, asked Tomei, is that really appropriate for the Brasilian reality? He would rather see the digitisation of the electromagnetic spectrum used in order to increase the number of channels.

In the digital radio project, again the US American format was approved. Standardization of DAB technology is promoted by the World DAB Forum, which represents more than 30 countries excluding the United States which has opted for its own system. It uses a bandwidth of 400 kHz for both analog and digital channels. But, criticised Tomei, when the analog service is switched off in a few years, the channels will still be 400 kHz wide rather than the 200 kHz of the alternative standard, which will be limitting the number of stations.

Copyright was another issue at the conference, raised by lawyers who advise the media activists and by artists who are trying alternative licensing like Creative Commons or take a rather playful stance towards intellectual property.

Caio Mariano from the law firm KFC Advogados in São Paulo has developed an open content license for Re:combo, a collective of musicians, software developers, DJs, teachers, journalists and artists set up in 2001. They use sampling and peertopeer software as a means of expression through software, installations and live events. The group has about 40 members, spread throughout Brazil but also abroad, with a high concentration in Recife. The work of Re:combo is guided by the three principles of a) encouragement of ?intellectual generosity? b) the redefinition of the role of the artist within industry, and c) a dialogue with the audience as the creative agent for the work. The need for a licence in the copyleft spirit of the GNU GPL and suitable for the use in audiovisual production was felt from the beginning. After a series of studies, the collective and lawyer Mariano together developed the ?Licença de Uso Completo Re:combo? or LUCR (Re:combo Complete Use Licence) published in August 2003. It expresses Re:combo?s idea of intellectual generosity, rather than intellectual property. It is more radical than Creative Commons in that it does not give authors the option to exclude commercial use.

Mariano works closely together with Ronaldo Lemos who is director of the Center for Technology & Society at the Law School of the private university Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro and project lead Creative Commons Brazil. Lemos was not able to attend the conference.

OrganismoBR is another diverse collective similar to Re:combo. Glerm Soares presented their work at Submidialogia. Activities include video, web-art, photography, music (among others by the band Matema and the Printer?s Orchestra) and publications, many of which are issued under the names Vitoriamario and Apodrece. Vitoriamario, a collective personality composed of several hundred persons, kind of a Luther Blisset, was active during 13 years before he announced his suicide in 1999. In his decomposing state, Vitoriamario, now also called Apodrece, became free for appropriation by the next generation of communications guerilla, issuing manifestos, proposing a new global currency and denouncing all property.

The anti-copyright plagiarist publishing collective Sabotagem was presented by Dr. Gorilla from Recife. The group was founded in 2002, has about ten members, and puts books and texts by authors like Foucault and Chomsky online, which are essential reading for a critical media discours.

The fourth day of the conference was dedicated to the state of media art in Brazil. Especially the system of art funding by foundations of the oil, telecommunications and banking industry, and funding through tax incentives was questioned.

Ricardo Rosas, the founder of lamented the crisis of media art that he characterized as apathy and paralysis, not getting involved with social issues. He reported that the panel on the crisis of media art at the Digitofagia event drew the largest crowd, concluding that there is strong interest in the question.

Giseli Vasconcelos, who after co-founding Mídia Tática moved back to here native town of Belem in the North, complained that the art world is strongly centered in São Paulo, and that art from the North can only be sold through the galeries in São Paulo.

Artist Lucas Bambozzi belongs to C.O.B.A.I.A., a group formed during a squat with 3,000 people in São Paulo in November 2003 where artists joined hands with people from the landless people?s movement MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). The purpose of C.O.B.A.I.A., according to Bambozzi, is to interfer with reality. He presented a number of projects, including CUBE, a large interactive multimedia installation that seven groups errected on a square on Av. Paulista in São Paulo. The translucent walls of the cube were projected onto from the inside. Various DJs and VJs were participating in the event. People with wireless microphones involved passers-by. The cube created a disturbance in public space. At first there was irritation, but soon people played along, and it turned into a big happening.

Fabianne Borges, is from the group Catadores de Histórias (history collectors), collecting stories from people in the streets, an idea that now has been taken up by the Ministry of Health. Borges also had been involved in the huge São Paulo squat. She told the conference that coordination among that many people was not a problem. The economics worked out well. There was a free university inside the squat. But at the end everybody was fighting and the group split. They met again this year and formed the ?group without property.?

Volker Grassmuck
December 29th, 2005