Screening of several film clips in the exhibition »Reset Modernity!«


Reset Brasília: a tropical cartesian dream

Entering the exhibition, the beautiful film »after«, by Pauline Julier, sets the stage for the procedures about to be proposed to the visitor in the pursuit of the ambitious goal outlined by the title: »Reset Modernity!«.


Depicting postmodernity in the narrative of a wild teen party gone bad – no parents, no supervision – we are taken from the apotheotic view of exploding fireworks to the image of a house being burned down to ashes. The breaking apart from traditions – farewell to the parents – might have disturbing consequences, we are brought to think, as we – the moderns – are directly struck by the allegory, facing climate catastrophe, ourselves, as one of the many offsprings of our own little party.

Of course, I might be pushing it a bit by saying "we – the moderns" since, coming from Brazil, such assertion is a bit more complicated. That even applies if – as is my case – one is among the small fraction of the country more closely assimilated with this lineage: white, male, european immigrant descendant, middle to upper-middle class. However, it does not take much time in Europe to realise that I am, too, far from European.

Modernity is a western European project

One can acknowledge it for oneself, of course, but, if not, there are always the not so friendly reminders given by immigration officers and, when less lucky, by those taken over by the (once again!) rise of nationalist pride in the "old continent". Not as violent, of course, walking through the procedures proposed by Latour and his team in »Reset Modernity«, in their meticulous exam of modernity itself, also seems to come as a reminder of this difference: modernity is, in fact, a western European project. Even though I was able to relate to each of them – Brazil was colonized by Europe, after all – I could not help but feel that there are different modernities at stake. 

It is true that the modernist presumptions the exhibition tries to break apart from seem to be all too present in Brazilian context as well: the global aspiration, some level of detachment from nature, the supposition of a secular politics etc. And recent times have also been rubbing to our faces that nothing of this was ever as true as we might have thought. Nevertheless, and then quite differently from Europe, perhaps it could be said that in Brazil the modernizing project has never been taken as already present, but always as the promise of a future threshold – one that has mobilized politics for over a century and, more often than not, with dreadful consequences.

"Brasil, país do futuro" ("Brazil, country of the future") – the national motto echoing Stefan Zweig – is now a decaying sign of our near past. Never fully modern, never fully industrialized, it seems as if in Brazil the modern project (for better or worse) was implemented partially and unevenly across the territory, each time electing one particular front to be explored – the usual suspects: oil, asphalt, concrete, automobile industry, agrobusiness, neoliberalism and so forth.

Screening of several film clips in the exhibition »Reset Modernity!«
View of the exhibition »Reset Modernity!«, April 16 – August 21, 2016, ZKM | Karlsruhe
© ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Photo: Harald Völkl

Meanwhile, extramodern traditions and collectives, as Viveiros de Castro phrases it, "insist on existing" [1] across the South American continent. A resistance timidly acknowledged by part of the academia as remaining alternative modes of existence, systematically erased by colonization (past and contemporary) and 'modern' science. Yet, despite the all too forceful and alien modernization attempts, not even urban Brazil could not be easily said to be 'modern'. It seems Oleg Kharkhordin's [2] assertion about Russia could be paraphrased to our context as well: Brazil "has never been modern, but in another way than, say, France" – or Russia, we could add. While certainly 'infected' by modernity, Brazilian version of it cannot be taken as a simple transposition of its European "matrix". It is safe to say, however, that, despite the differences, and incompleteness, a reset would also be desirable.

Reset procedures

However incomplete Brazilian modernization might be – not-yet-modern, as Kharkhordin suggests for Russia –, perhaps it would not be easier to reset it, nevertheless, since, in those aspects in which modernity has struck, it has done so hard that it has created deep roots into Brazilians shared view of the country's desirable future. In fact, as a response to the political and environmental chaos the country has been facing in the last few years, a joke has circulated in which it is suggested that the only solution would be for all Brazilians to leave, giving the territory back to the indigenous collectives who were there before, with accompanying sincere apologies. It might be too late for such 'decolonization', of course, which is not as simple. And, just as a different modernity is in place, different reset procedures would also be required.

Seriously sketching such local procedures would be a daunting task. However I would risk, as a thought exercise, to propose an alternate epilogue, more specific to this context. Thus, replacing Pauline Julier's film, perhaps we could resort to »Ex It« (2010): a film by Brazilian filmmaker Cao Guimarães, freely inspired by the experimental prose book »Catatau« (1975), by Brazilian poet Paulo Leminski. Following Leminski's lead, it pursues one hypothetical premise: what if René Descartes had come to Brazil with Johann Moritz von Nassau-Siegen, the leader of the Dutch invasion of northeastern Brazil (then a Portuguese colony) in the 17th century.

We are thus presented to a situation in which, immersed in Brazilian landscape, the French philosopher waits for a friend who never arrives. Coming to visit the tropics along with other philosophers, scientists and artists invited by Nassau, he sees his logic and reasoning debased by the heat, the mesmerizing environment, and – so it seems – psychotropic drugs. Drifting chaotically, in his blabbering, from memories to a profound astonishment with the surrounding trees and animals, Descartes seemingly dissolves and merges with the forest, losing whatever remaining rationality and self-absorbing identity he could still sustain.

Extrapolating Leminski's joycean narrative, Cao's film stretches from colonial to contemporary Brazil, taking Descartes from the Amazon to cities such as Recife – where Nassau's company was based, back then – or the country's capital Brasília, the epitome of Brazil's modern project. Inaugurated in 1960, it is a planned city, artificially implanted in central Brazil as if erected by alien invaders, planned to be the blueprint for the country's future – and perhaps it has actually been so: shaped like an airplane, it is made to be seen from the sky, escaping, in fact, all human dimension. An arid immense desert of concrete and asphalt, unwalkable, uninhabitable, unsurmountable except by cars.

In Cao's film, Brasília emerges as an image of Descartes' hallucination, with white geometric figures blending into the sky, as if we were taken into a disturbing tropical cartesian dream. "This world is a place of delirium. Proper reason raves here. Tigers know they never err. Smoke until it all turns red. I want fever. If Brasília will not come to Cartesius, then Cartesius will go to Brasília". Order converts into madness. Perhaps it is there the primary site for resetting Brazilian modernity – from within. No better way to set the problem in place and bring the visitor into the proposed question of how to reorient local modernity, redrafting possible futures to come: reset Brasilia.

About the Author

Andre Mintz is a Brazilian scholar, artist, and curator in the fields of Media Art and Media Studies.

Category: Exhibitions