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Agreements, indifferences and graffiti

It sounds obvious and it is. Human relationships are constituted by two possibilities: agreement and disagreement. Although both occur in private life and in public life, it is in the latter where such relationships manifest themselves in more tangible, random and surprising ways. It is in our public life where we coincide or not, less and more, with that infinite mirror that strangers are.

In Colombia, it could be said that collective custom inclines us to disagreement. Because of our unfortunate inability to conceive, accept and attend to the pacts (tacit and express) we are forced to live at only one end of the possibilities of life in society. Since our greatest fixation is the failure to comply with what has been agreed, we have no choice but to crash into the other. We are a high-speed avenue but with only one lane. We are the inevitable.

Moreover, this reality is aggravated by the fact that we only have one way (the most primitive possible) to face this condition: violence. Our rain on wet. All a waste, considering that every disagreement embodies a probable dialogue. If we knew how to build (instead of destroy) every time a conflict arose, many of our shortcomings as a society would have been left behind. However, as if that were not enough, today there is an even more distressing difficulty. A problem disguised as a solution that goes beyond destructive disagreement in its social consequences. A problematic pact that abounds undetected: indifference.

In other words, when the other and his/her universe (full of interests, opinions and particularities) is unobserved and neglected, the opportunity to conceive the human experience in much more comprehensive ways is lost. Annulment as an effect of invisibility. The other becomes a distant possibility; an unnecessary and passing presence. Indifference, half attitude, half decision, seriously fractures the original composition of a society; by preventing the intersection of interests, the formation of alliances and the setting of limits. (That which they call -to the point of satiation- the social fabric). It cannot be woven if the threads do not meet.

However, it seems that the solution to this indifference is -literally- just around the corner, and in a quite elementary way: the presence of other people's thoughts and their traces, their shadows and their footprints. The whisper (or the scream) stopped on a wall: the graffiti. In fact all the forms, traces, images, no matter their quality, are brief reminders of the other. All the graffiti in the world formulates a truth that we easily forget: we are not alone on this earth.

Moreover, it seems curious that the greater the indifference in a society, the greater the number of graffiti. Hence its relevance and pertinence. (Hence also its enemies). Graffiti is a short story in which the dying person remembers being alive because of a mosquito bite. The alarm that allows us -and imposes- to consider that there is a world beyond ourselves. Painting the street is a form of gravity. A snap that wakes us up from hypnosis. A brake that pushes us forward.

The maze of emotions.

There were so many violent deaths that the Ministry of Health declared the situation a health emergency. Knowing that traditional mechanisms had long since ceased to work, the agency decided to try new ways of "intervening" in the community. The Agua Blanca district, which represents just over thirty percent of the city of Cali, was a patchwork of Colombian violence: drug traffickers, paramilitaries, guerrillas and criminal gangs passed through there - and stayed. Of course, it wasn't easy territory or flat or ground level solutions. That is why the Ministry decided to hire Corpovisionarios, a social research institute famous for its founder: the former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, to try to discover the root of the problem, which involved -fatually- thousands of children and young people. Charged with the complex task of understanding Aguablanca, Corpovisionarios observed, monitored and concluded. In fact, one of the conclusions -of several very interesting ones- reached by their investigations was that the community -and hence some of its violent behaviour- missed art.

For this reason, Corpovisionarios decided to contact the Vertigo Graffiti team: known for leading the community murals of Getsemaní in Cartagena and the sharp Kiss of the Invisibles in Bogotá. The first phone call from Corpovisionarios resulted in a preliminary agreement between those involved: the graffiti team was to visit Aguablanca. The artists knew beforehand that one of the deepest yokes in the community was the stigmata. The prejudices could be tamed with the basic exercise (taught by the graffiti) of walking the streets. Even the taxi drivers, once they arrived in Cali, prevented them from visiting the Las Orquídeas neighborhood, which was chosen by Corpovisionarios to carry out the artistic measures - at that time undefined - that Vertigo Graffiti would be charged with creating, designing and executing.

From that first visit, which consisted of a couple of interviews with members of the community, including a tireless leader of urban culture named Andrés, it seemed that the outlook was not promising: the diseases of hopelessness and distrust of the other, had permeated the community to the bone. Among their vague and disinterested responses, an artistic action seemed to them as appropriate as it was irrelevant. It seemed a dead end.

However, in one of the conversations in a park with the young people, who were the real victims of the health emergency (and seemed to be taken from a battlefield: with scars on their faces, amputated limbs and distracted gazes) something unusual happened. In the distance, a grandmother appeared carrying two heavy plastic bags. Immediately, on seeing her, a couple of young men ran out to help her. The apathetic and elusive boys showed that they did care about the old ladies of the neighborhood. On their return, and invaded by curiosity, the Vertigo team asked them why they were behaving as they did. The answer, from one of them, a small, shirtless boy, who was swinging on a broken brick, was forceful: "the grandmothers are the only ones who open the door for us when there is shooting. Even our parents throw him out for sure. And suddenly, the image and message became clear to the artists: grandmothers should be at the heart of the intervention. The transformation of the hopeless and indifferent young man into the affectionate and helpful boy, triggered by the scene of a grandmother in distress, told much more than the lazy story of each one.

Weeks later, the Vertigo Graffiti team, some Corpovisionary volunteers and community members, stuck huge portraits of neighborhood grandmothers (some nearly six meters high) with yucca paste (a homemade glue) in the places where violence had been committed: alleys, parks and paths hidden by the brush. What used to be places repudiated by the inhabitants because of the crimes that had taken place, now became sanctuaries protected by the grandmothers: who in the photos held up signs in which, from affection and understanding - a scarce commodity in the neighbourhood - they advised the boys to avoid committing crimes, getting into fights or killing each other. In January 2016, Antanas Mockus, questioned about some strategies of citizen culture that should be implemented in Bogotá, said in an interview with the newspaper El Tiempo: "...we have not found a person who says that he was going to kill another one and he regretted it because he saw the picture of the grandmother, but we do have several testimonies of boys who were going to smoke marijuana and when they saw the picture of the grandmother they said: "No. In front of the grandmother, no".

Although some explanations were left pending, in terms of the marginal effects of the portraits of the grandmothers in Aguablanca, and thinking about it years later calmly (and with the encouragement of a couple of famous authors) of the experience at least three possible conclusions can be highlighted. Firstly, the finding, research and study of emotions in human beings, in terms of their relevance to people's decision making, is a much more accurate and fertile process than the brief and cold analysis of their behaviour (If the Vertigo Graffiti team had kept the words of the young people in the community, they would surely not have been able to understand what they were trying to tell them: we want to be valued). Second, when individual emotions persist in time and frequency in a collective environment (hopelessness and distrust in the case of Aguablanca), they become a collective orientation that will end up mutating into a shared belief, which would lead the community -beyond individual behavior- to assume a kind of predictable group choreography. Finally, if the behaviour of individuals and communities is traceable and determinable, from the perspective of emotions: it is through them that changes in individual and community behaviour can be sought.

In this sense, it is worth clarifying that for some time now the idea of what we could call the irreverence of emotions has been discarded (in this respect the famous philosopher Martha Nussbaum is sufficiently and eruditely committed). For her and many other authors, the classic stoic thinking, which questioned them because of their volatility and enslaving vocation, must be abandoned for an understanding that embeds them in an absolutely rational process, close to thought and ordered by more complex processes that the author calls beliefs. Belief makes emotion sprout, disguises itself as thought and through it we make the decisions we make in our lives. In conclusion, if the emotions are not those arbitrary fevers that lead man to his perdition -as it was thought- it is totally feasible that from a judicious and particular study, it can be transformed the behaviors of people, and even of societies; if they know how to decipher and have the patience to obtain the results.

Regarding the importance of emotions in describing -and discovering- the true intentions and decisions of human beings, the literature on this subject is sufficient and convincing. For example, for the English author Clotaire Rapaille, author of The Code of Culture (a 2010 best seller) its importance is such that it represents one of the most important gears in the conception and constitution of a specific culture. Just as water surrounds the fish in the ocean, so do the emotions, invisible in many cases, envelop every human experience. In this sense, Rapaille maintains that it is from these emotions -and also from the intensity of them- that the learning -good and bad- takes place in people. In this sense, the author assumes us as a kind of canvas on which impressions are recorded that influence our behavior and make us who we are. For him, although we are similar in many ways, the point that makes the difference is the culture we conceive. In other words, it is the emotional repertoire, defined and put into practice, in a given period that defines culture (seen in general terms as the sum of behaviours of a community).

On the other hand, if there are collective emotions that "define cultures" or "fix beliefs" this is because much of our nature is mediated by the influence of others. In fact, although we have created images (and shadows) of the individual and of independent behavior, the overwhelming majority of our decisions are caused by the influence of others. Tying in the two authors mentioned above, it could be said that what influences our behavior as individuals are the prevailing emotions: governments constituted by "popular feeling"; a version of the spectrum of what we feel "among all of us". This is established by Jonah Berger, in his -also- best seller of 2016 Invisible Influence, in which something surprising stands out: 99 percent of the decisions we make are previously "decided" by others, seen as a whole. And what is even more interesting: from that collective influence (which we have already established is emotional) comes what we consider to be right or wrong. In other words, the vade mecum of values that constitutes the ethics of communities is built by the emotions that govern them collectively. The ten commandments should rather be the ten emotions.

In conclusion, societies could be understood and above all made more predictable, if greater efforts were focused on "decoding" communities and their individuals emotionally. Of course, this is no small matter, if we consider that it is this emotional repertoire - whether collective or individual - that determines how we behave.

Probably, what remains to be reflected on from the experience of Aguablanca's grandmothers is that the emotional finding discovered: the need for minimum affection and trust towards young people immersed in violence (their affliction), suggests that the intervention of public spaces with artistic processes can help to unravel that first clue (only the first one, it is not a magic formula either) of the behaviour of our societies and, in passing, provoke an encounter with their beliefs, from which, I repeat, their ethics are derived. Once again, the philosopher Nussbaum has suggested -and she has plenty of evidences- that in art there are very effective alternatives to build better citizens by allowing, among others, imaginative exercises in which we see the other from a humanizing process. The reflection of the other in ourselves, arranged in the artist's creations, be it Mahler's symphonies, or the murals or street graffiti, sculpts us and reveals who we are. The greater the number of artistic experiences, the better the democracy, says the American one.

We Colombians have struggled a lot to understand each other and we still find ourselves inexplicable. Most of the time we resort to the magic of excuses and pointing to justify why we behave the way we do. However, just as it happened in Aguablanca, it is time that we reveal our truth based on what we have been feeling -and believing- for decades, and in this way we can avoid and transform those harmful behaviors that make us see the other with so much mistrust and our country with so much despair. (Positive emotions could also be strengthened, which in any case are also present, just look at the thousands of examples of selfless solidarity that are occurring because of this pandemic).

Thinking about it, Colombia is an Aguablanca magnified in size and population, and for this reason, nothing would be lost if processes are articulated that help us to understand a little more about ourselves from the impression that artistic experiences and their emotional effects cause. The problem has never been feeling, it has been not understanding the reasons and thoughts behind these feelings.


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