Ashley Larson talks “Conversations/Conversas,” the Vanderbilt Art Dept & University of Sao Paulo collaboration

People often ask me (family members especially), “why are you learning Portuguese?” or “why do you speak Portuguese?” The answer I frequently give is that I have always had a love for the Spanish language and so when I was earning my bachelor’s in Latin American Studies at Cal State Fullerton and they told me that an intermediate level of Portuguese was required, I responded with enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t want to learn a new language and a new culture? Many people think that Brazilians speak Spanish…wrong! The giant of the South American continent speaks Portuguese which is a romance language, like Spanish, but they are not the same. Brazil should not be ignored or grouped with all of the Spanish-speaking nations around the world. Trivia time: Brazil is actually larger than the continental U.S.! It is the B in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and has officially arrived as an economic powerhouse. Unfortunately, the country still has one of the highest rates of unequal wealth distribution; the poor are very poor and the rich are über rich. But, let’s talk about culture and ART! Brazilians pride themselves on being creative and artistic. As most of you know, the 2014 World Cup will be in Brazil. but did you know that the Brazilians have invented a different way of playing ‘futebol’ (soccer)? Bet you didn’t! The “Jogo Bonito”, which literally translates to ‘beautiful game’, is a way of playing soccer that combines style, beauty, and cunning. They even play to the beat of Samba music for artistic inspiration and motivation! But their creativity doesn’t end there. AND … it is not contained within Brazilian borders!

…and that leads me to the second most-asked question I receive, “what exactly do you do for Conversations/Conversas?” Well… first, I have to explain what the initiative is: a collaborative project between Vanderbilt and the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil that was started in 2010 with support of an Exploratory and Development Grant from the Vanderbilt International Office. Project participants include Vanderbilt professors Vesna Pavlovic (Art), Mel Ziegler (Art), Beth Conklin (Anthropology), David Wood (Philosophy), and USP professors Ana Maria Tavares (Art), Mario Ramiro (Art), and Martin Grossmann (Institute of Advanced Studies, USP). They reflect on the legacy of modernist architecture, the imagination of the city, over-population, the use of natural resources under conditions of accelerating growth, and the problem of sustainability. What does this all mean? The eight members actively participate in exchange between the two countries to collaborate on projects and engage students with their research and artworks. It is one-of-a-kind! This initiative helps bridge the artistic and intellectual gap between these countries. Just think of how cool it is that a student in Nashville, TN has the privilege of working with leading artists from a city more than 4,800 miles away, like the recent “Boom Box Bikes” sound urban intervention project with Mario Ramiro and Mark Hosford. And vice versa, how neat is it that an USP student can attend a photography workshop with Vesna Pavlovic or discuss Brazilian underground comics with Mark Hosford? This project is the birth of collaboration and often leads to exhibitions and projects for audiences outside of the university. In this respect, Conversations/Conversas reaches out to all São Paulo and Nashville residents. Any Nashville resident can visit member Ana Maria Tavares’ exhibit “Deviating Utopias” and experience what Nashville Scene’s Laura Hutson says makes “you feel like you’re walking across an immense chasm, Temple of Doom-style, only to be met with a kaleidoscope of steel structures as they crumble down on screens that fill all four gallery walls.” I find her description very accurate! It causes a sense of instability and intrigue at the same time. I admit that I did want to lie on the floor and watch the images on the wall move around me, but I’m not sure that the other FRIST visitors would have appreciated it. The Nashville community also engaged with Vanderbilt students in “Boom Box Bikes”, constructing bikes and participating in urban sound intervention rides. Nashvillians surely were surprised to hear several Brazilian birds chirping in unison as the bikes, complete with stereos and unique sound tracks, cruised through Vanderbilt and throughout the city! In São Paulo, Vesna Pavlovic presented her work, “Iconography of Spectacle”, at the Archivo Vivo (Alive Archive) exhibition at the Paço das Artes. Her photographic project focuses on former Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito’s career and travels around the world from 1945 to 1979. Although I have not had the opportunity to visit her São Paulo installation, I know that the images are visually appealing and invoke another time and place, one that neither Brazilians nor Americans experienced first-hand. So, other than appreciating member exhibitions and interventions, what do I do at the Curb Center? Well, I help coordinate member visits and facilitate conversation between the eight members. I document the activities and am currently TRYING to get a website up and running so that the world knows what a great project we have! Oh, and I get to write articles and blogs, like this!

We hope you all take advantage of our member exhibitions! And please watch for future Conversations/Conversas events and for our website unveiling.


Ashley Larson is an M.A. Student at Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies, and the “Conversas/Conversations” Project Coordinator