An application of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra for the analysis of the power dynamics between formal and informal
GUEST POST by Reed Purvis
Simulacra: Copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original.
The physical space where the informal settlements- or villas– in Buenos Aires exist are left blank on maps. Practically no representations of the villas exist aside from falsely being considered structurally unsound and associated with crime and poverty in the local media. Most tourists who travel to Buenos Aires are unaware of the existence of the villas and often wander there by accident, becoming easy targets for thieves, as residents warn them to turn around before their cameras or backpacks are stolen. The informal city, though real, has almost no representation of itself; it’s an anomaly of which practically no simulacra exists, outside of academic circles.
In hyperreality, the simulacra quickly becomes the “truth”. A society that does not exist as a simulacra ceases to exist. Battles and wars are fought with images and representations. An entity without a reproduced replica, a simulacra, forfeits by default. For the villas, the lack of power can be correlated to the villas’ lack of identity and lack of a representation as part of society. Taxis refuse to take their passengers near the villas as if they were empty holes in the earth’s crust. There is poor access to emergency medical services as ambulances often arrive hours after an incident. Residents constantly have to protest for electricity shortages, and for justice when an innocent person is killed in a shootout, among other major and minor inequalities. Villa residents are fighting to change the discourse of their collective image, fighting to take control of their image. It is a battle for identity, a struggle for control over one’s own identity and how that identity is constructed.
Each city has an identity. This identity is made up of its beginnings, its creation story, its growth, its people, its physical structure, art, industry, history, stories, images, feelings, and memories.
As this identity takes shape and form, it shapes symbolisms of the city and its culture – architecture, shopping, films, news, music, literature, etc., created by visitors, tourists, residents, immigrants, print and television media, governments and artists…the city becomes a construction of a perceived reality, a representation of the city that often supersedes the original; what Baudrillard refers to as simulacra.
The image of the city and its culture, the experience of the city, is a product in and of itself; marketed as a product, sold as a product, and consumed as a product. The constructed image of the city is experienced before the city itself can be experienced. The virtual city precedes the physical city. In the case of Buenos Aires, the image of the “official” city, the “formal” city -its markets, cultures, parks, museums, restaurants and tourist attractions, etc.- is one disrupted by the informal city.
To project the image of the first world “tourist” city, complete with historical sites, cultural sites, and shopping centers, a product marketed in a similar way as a five-star restaurant with live music, the city attempts to make the villas invisible and controls the construction of their simulacra. It is their invisibility however, where the villas’ visibility can potentially begin; the origin of their autonomous simulacra.
In Rio de Janeiro this has happened with several favelas such as Rocinha, Vidigal (both high profile tourist destinations, favela tours), and Santa Marta (where Michael Jackson filmed his music video – They don’t Care About Us). In fact, this happened at a time when the government of Rio de Janeiro was worried the music video would show the city in a negative light and attempted to censor it. The perceived reality of the favelas, constructed by the formal city, was and often still is, one of violence and criminal behavior; the criminalization of urban poverty. The non-conforming and humble appearance of the favelas also helps project an image of poverty that contributes to their negative image. The formal city attempts to disassociate itself from the favelas, as if they don’t exist or as if they’re a separate city in a parallel dimension. However, these same non-conforming images of the favelas were shown in the music video as the physical spaces of a vibrant community of residents and families, fans of Michael Jackson, dancing, playing music and singing.
With invisibility comes a discovery by others, by those from outside the informal city, outside the favela. And the discovery gives way to a new image of a different way of living, a different community, society, and culture. It is through these new discoveries, absorbed into discourse, thought and perception, that favelas have been able to create a new identity. An identity that is now internationally recognized and associated with Brazilian culture, especially when it comes to music and dance.
The villas have yet to gain a representation of their own unique identity the way the favelas have. They remain mostly invisible, segregated from the city, on the horizon of the social, outcast. The city suppresses the autonomous production of the image of the villa and uses the empty space that is left by this absence to deposit its unwanted images. The little visibility they do have is constructed by others from outside the villa; in the local media, in TV series like El Puntero, and in the film Elefante Blanco, which construct a mutated image of the villas and of their culture. This is where much of the power of the formal city lies and where urban poverty begins.
Urban poverty isn’t only defined by income levels, it is also affected by the inability to participate in decision making, the production of identity in the city and the mechanisms for the latter. The residents of the villas have built their own model of a city, a different form of urban environment compared to the modernist city plan driven by the private sector around the automobile and the privatization of space. Despite their growth and success as places of economic advancement for new arrivals to the city, the lack of a valid representation is what cripples the villas.
This one-sided power dynamic contradicts the city’s own objectives in sustainability, equity and inclusion. The distortion of the villa produced by the “formal city” emphasizes class divisions within society and fosters ignorance, discrimination and fear. The result is an increased justification of discrimination and class divisions, which helps augment the very conditions the city claims to be struggling against. The city becomes more violent and insecure and the fear of insecurity becomes real, even more real than the insecurity itself. Many people decide they are afraid to walk in certain central areas of the city, yet their decisions are not based on personal negative experiences in those areas, instead, they are based on society’s portrayal of these city spaces. When class divisions and discrimination are prevalent, they become self-prophesying, making conditions more difficult for the working class people in the informal city to get jobs in the formal economy, to claim proper services, etc. It leads to a greater absence of the state. Reinforcing the construction of a distorted simulacra of the villas, this becomes a never-ending cycle that is perpetually attempting to escape itself.
Only by coming to terms with the realization that the perceived reality of the villa that the city has produced is distorted, can this cycle be slowed. Every time the residents of the villas protest for the redevelopment of their neighborhood, they are attempting to change this perceived reality. Political and cultural organizations such as Movimiento Popular por la Dignidad have created medical centers in the villas, trained residents to operate them, and organized cultural activities and protests in their struggle to counter the city’s production of their collective simulation. To counter the negative influence of mainstream media in Buenos Aires, Mundo Villa produces a newspaper (online and print) and video news segments that tell stories and news from the perspective of the residents of the villas. Movements like these are always political in Argentina, but their ability to change the construction of the simulacra of the villas has yet to have a larger impact.
In realizing that the current constructed simulacra of the informal city is in fact distorted, comes the realization that the city, and therefore that society itself, is in fact distorted. Society will see itself for the first time. Although it doesn’t realize it, when society looks at the villa, it is really looking at itself. It doesn’t recognize itself and therefore doesn’t know itself. It is lost in hyperreality, confused about its origin and unaware of its destiny. As Baudrillard proposes, the original ceases to exist in a hyperreality, everything is real and nothing is real, there is no distinction between what is real and what is simulacra, there is no deeper finality.
*All the photographs included in this post were taken by the author.
With a passion for adventure, filmmaking and social justice, Reed spent three years in the villas of Buenos Aires, making a feature documentary about these communities and the right to the city. The vibrancy, richness, and even insecurity of these communities was addictive and often proved more interesting and more inviting than that of the “formal city.” Reed’s specialty and interest primarily focuses on connecting with people and discovering communities that are undervalued and misunderstood.