The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for the ‘Buenos Aires’ Category

An outdoor art gallery on Buenos Aires’ shuttered storefronts

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This is Avenida Patricios, a commercial avenue that serves as the border between two Buenos Aires neighborhoods, Barracas and La Boca. Both barrios have heapings of charm and grit, the kinds of traits associated with the city’s poorer southern half, although La Boca has the bigger reputation for seediness and crime.

The division between the two barrios was once as much visual as psychological; in La Boca, a port neighborhood historically vulnerable to flooding, the walkways in front of buildings rise and fall between three and six feet above the street level. A few years ago, the city government re-leveled the sidewalks of Patricios to make the avenue friendlier for pedestrians. Even with increased foot traffic, the street is still a hit-or-miss experience for retail, and a number of storefronts remain shuttered. Instead of amateur graffiti, however, these shutters bear dignified imitations of paintings that characterize the neighborhood.


Some popular images of the neighborhood, including the touristy Caminito (center)

I thought of Avenida Patricios recently when reading about a similar proposal for Germantown, Philadelphia’s historical onion of a neighborhood that has its own share of grit. The idea of painting the commercial shutters on Germantown Avenue to fight blight is a smart one, and while it won’t be the cure-all to stimulate retail, it certainly can instill a stronger perception of safety and vigilance in pedestrians who remain intimidated by it. And the idea of small-scale high-art isn’t a bad example to follow.

Here are a few more shots from Buenos Aires. Note that these were just the stores that were shuttered during the day; many more art pieces join them when the active businesses close at night.



And it’s not limited to the roll-down shutters: this business has touches of Van Gogh and Dalí between the windows, 24 hours a day:


What always captivated me about public art in Buenos Aires was its lack of pretense, its do-it-yourself quality that seemed to stay within the material limits of its surrounding grittiness instead of covering it in a sheen of newness. There were exceptions, of course, but in La Boca and Barracas, that from-the-ground-up impression was the rule. I do wonder how Philadelphia’s murals strike visitors, whether that same impression prevails — and it will be interesting to see what results comes of this similar proposal for Germantown.


Written by cwmote

March 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Angels, Beats, and a Party for the World: May in Review

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When I arrived in Argentina at the end of February, I knew that the summer weather was nearing its end and the colder months lay ahead of me. I knew it, but at the same time, I distrusted it. The northern hemisphere mindset is hard to shake if you’ve known summers in July all of your life.

Sure enough, by May the temperatures had dropped, the days shortened, the soft and lazy rains set in. Even though it’s not nearly as cold as it was in Philly around my departure, you get used to griping wherever you are.

Yet, far from being one continuous panorama of gloom, Buenos Aires was livelier than ever during the month of May. A lot of that newfound energy came from the anticipation of the biggest event of all, the bicentennial. Here are the highlights from that lead-up:

Circus Acts. Yes, snow is a rarity in this city. Three years ago, a chilly stretch brought a dusting to the streets, but it was a once-in-a-century occurrence. On the evening of May 8, as Buenos Aires wrapped up its week-long International Circus Festival, it was a different sort of white stuff that had people frolicking like children again: Plaza San Martin, a tango hat’s toss from the train station in the city’s Retiro neighborhood, was reinvented as “Place des Anges.”

Courtesy of La Nacion

The French troupe Les Studios de Cirque de Marseille turned the plaza into an acrobatic stage…although, in fact, the “stage” extended over a hundred feet above, as wires suspended across surrounding buildings served as the performers’ way of entrance. This was the stage for the angels, albeit angels of an otherworldly, new-wave aesthetic. The spectacle, accompanied by music with Near Eastern influences and waling vocals, reinforced that feeling. The angel/acrobats came and went here and there up above, scampering across ropes like crank-consuming possums or dangling, spinning and swirling from their harnesses as they gently came to earth.

Courtesy of La Nacion

And they brought with them a heavenly gift: feathers. Lots of them.

Courtesy of La Nacion

It’s impossible to exaggerate their number. They fell sprinkled from pillow fights, they fell in large chunks as if they were pillows, and in the coup de grace, they were shot through giant tubes into the air. They wove themselves into the hair and coats of all who were present. The whole event lasted around half an hour, but people stayed long after. And seeing the crowds reduced to childish glee, throwing the landed piles of feathers that were everywhere and dancing in the plaza afterward, made at least this northerner smile.

The Best Beatle Band in the World. Yeah, it’s true: a Beatles band in South America.

If you thought the soundtrack to Argentina was exclusively a playlist of tango and Spanish-language rock, you were sadly mistaken. All it took for me was a visit to the Gran Rex, a true giant of a performance venue on Avenida Corrientes in the theater district, to witness The Beats, “La mejor banda Beatle del mundo,” to agree that they well were the best on any continent.

More than a lingering curiosity, imitation rock-and-roll ensembles (also called “mock stars”) are a defining cultural staple of our times. The first generation to witness the phenomenon of mass-produced popular music, passed their envy down to their children, and so we have to sort of make believe what it was like when all was golden on the charts. Beatlemania is the pinnacle of this movement. The Beatles tribute bands are many, but the idea of musicians impersonating the fab four for a living is in a whole other realm. As it turns out, that realm does not exclusively belong to the English-speaking world.

The actors don’t quite have the resemblance to the real guys. Paul doesn’t have the eternal baby face down, but you can still pick him out easily, and Ringo appears less giddily agitated than nonplussed, besides the fact that he’s too scrawny, which is saying something. John and George seem resigned to the fact that they require a bit of imagination at face value, although during the show, John in his later years post-Revolver becomes more believable with glasses and a longer mane.

All that said, if you can withhold counting their looks against them, their sound is pretty commendable:

Once you realize that they’re not pretending to be the real thing — offering, instead, a historical reenactment for generations and nationalities who never got to witness Beatlemania first-hand — the show can be quite enjoyable.

“Irrepetible,” their most recent show, featured a multitude of sets and costumes representative of nearly the entire Beatles run. Interestingly, they began the concert with a medley of standards from the Let it Be era and then jumped around the time line, even strolling in white suits for “Your Mother Should Know.” They finally capped it off with a page from the clean-cut “British invasion” onset: “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” then “Twist ‘n Shout” for the encore.

Individual talents were also (mostly) stressed. John offered a pair of anachronisms, “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance,” the latter from his bed (minus Yoko) while a video montage of current global conflicts cemented his all-too-obvious status as a prophet (to some souls, he is still bigger than Jesus). Paul soloed on “Yesterday” and “Fool on the Hill,” betraying his Argentine accent a little in his enunciation of the, behind the teeth rather than on them. (To his credit, he does play left-handed.) And George, who really sounded like freaking George, brandished a sitar for “Love You To” and tore it up.

Alas, no “Octopus’s Garden” from Ringo. Not a word. It’s like the guy was just happy to be there.

The Beats will never out-Liverpool the Liverpudlians, but their act is impressive. About time more fans of the original group took notice.

However, it was a few steps away from the Gran Rex that the most touted performance venue in the city would soon be celebrated.

The Teatro Colon. Opera houses are a big adjectival deal. They have always been containment areas for the well-heeled to witness the most grandiose statements of human emotion that artistic performance can achieve. Even as they’ve grown more egalitarian, they remain the surest test of a cultivated citizenry, ensuring the highest denominator for all levels of entertainment below. The Teatro Colon is not just the most storied such theater on the continent; it’s on the shortlist of best in the world. For a city whose heritage is indebted to Europe, the Teatro is a link to that Old World tradition–an emblem of cultural continuity and exchange in a country that is barely celebrating 200 years as an independent state.

When it originally opened in 1908, the Colon proudly stood as an emblem of the immense wealth of the country. It then withstood every tumult and collapse of the long century, and finally emerged into the next one in serious debt and need of repair. There was no option but to close the opera house in 2006 for long-needed renovations. After several delays, the theater foundation and the city government at last arranged to christen its reopening on May 24, 2010–the eve of Argentina’s bicentennial.

The Colon overlooks the wide expanse of Avenida 9 de Julio, just a few blocks north of the obelisk in the heart of the city center. The bicentenario, it was clear from the throngs of the masses packing that boulevard, would be a gargantuan celebration unlike any other. (At least, unlike any not football-related.) I arrived at the center before 7pm to find crowds nearly impenetrable on the way to the Colon. When the ceremony started, a half-hour late (as lateness is fashionable in this part of the world), the weary crowds were desperate for a good show. They got it.

The theater’s facade became a screen onto which a montage of images were projected, narrating the history and legacy of the opera house. The images, however, were painstakingly designed to fit into the nuances of every window and column on the facade. (The Argentines call this un mapping, which is in the spirit of their tradition of taking gerunds from English and misunderstanding them slightly in the original. For the record, the Italians and French do this too.) And as the montage covered the great moments from the opera, the symphony orchestra, ballet, and performances of folkloric and popular music, all under the Colon’s roof, it was the task of the audio to accompany the visual and allow glorious music to pour all over 9 de Julio. Well, too bad the audio kept malfunctioning — even ruining the climax of “Nessun dorma,” which elicited a lot of groans and whistles of disapproval.

In spite of the imperfections, the “mapping” of the theater was a feast for the eyes and carried the night:

So while the theater didn’t literally open up for the ceremony, the new season has since gotten underway. A city that has withstood so many tribulations has reason to be proud again.

[Next: More on the Bicentenario. Stay tuned.]

Conceptions of Buenos Aires: Everything is dirt cheap

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(This is the first in an occasional series of looks at common perceptions, true or false, that people may have about life in Buenos Aires.)

Since the economic crisis of 2001 resulted in the crippling of the national currency, travel experts have touted Argentina as one of the most affordable destinations in the world…for those with dollars, euros or pounds sterling in their pockets, that is. But are things really as cheap as they say they are?

Yes, the hard currency has held strongly against the Argentine peso, which currently floats at around $3.90 to the dollar. What this exchange rate doesn’t reveal is the meteoric rise in inflation over the past two years. As prices of basic necessities go up — a kilogram of beef, the staple product here, can cost more than 30 pesos at the supermarket — Argentine salaries have struggled to keep pace. Economic instability means that people have to devise creative ways to make ends meet: eating out less often; living in close-knit units; taking advantage of some loophole in the law or just the relaxed nature of government corruption; having palancas, or connections, to land a steady job — or just giving and taking a little generosity among neighbors and families in the face of uncertainty.

Of course, if you’re an expat, you’re circumstances are probably different. You probably won’t need to worry about scrimping costs, at first. The exchange rate is, overall, still pretty favorable, but don’t expect crazy bargains. Instead of paying 40 pesos for groceries that would cost $40 in the States, you’ll more likely pay close to 100 pesos for $40 worth of groceries. Expect to pay even more if you are wedded to buying condiments and snacks imported from home. A pint of beer goes for anywhere from 8 to 14 pesos in a fancy bar, and a ticket at the movies will fall in the 20-25 peso range. If you’re shopping for new books, clothing or electronics, you will probably pay even more than you would at home. One thing that does fit the dirt-cheap category is public transportation: thanks to government subsidies, a one-way ticket on the Subte (or subway) is just AR$1.10, and the usual bus fare is AR$1.25. The services, though often sardine-packed, are efficient and reliable. But time will tell where these fares end up.

For long-term visitors, there are at least two common frustrations: renting an apartment and withdrawing money. It is well known that expats have great difficulty finding apartments with standard two-year leases and will often have to pay much more than the natives for a temporary rental. Still, compared to London or Manhattan, the prices in Buenos Aires’ upscale neighborhoods are a steal. For comparison’s sake, the cost of my living situation here — a large furnished bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment in trendy Palermo — is very close to that of mine in Philadelphia, a larger two-bedroom apartment but in a down-to-earth, working-class neighborhood.Starters should check out craigslist and Clarin, as well as Solo Dueños and Comparto Depto. Knowing Spanish, or someone who speaks it, goes a long way to assure that you’re paying a fair price. If you’re flexible, you can settle for cheaper and steadier living quarters a few months after your first temporary rental.

Then there are the ATMs. Most of them limit your withdrawals to 300 pesos at a time and charge you a fifteen-peso fee on top. But not all. The bank I frequent the most is Santander Rio, which allows up to AR$1,000 withdrawals at a time. Higher amounts make the fee somewhat more bearable — although chances are that your bank is charging you $5 (almost 20 pesos) or more along with it. So definitely contact your bank and find out what the deal is; there may be ways around it. At the worst, the fees will likely be an annoyance but little more. When it comes to affordable living, Buenos Aires may not be the haven it was once thought to be, but you can live comfortably and get around town on less if you play it right.

Written by cwmote

May 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Culturas, Steve McCurry

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The photography of Steve McCurry is the meeting place of journalism and art. It is not just the skill of rendering a piece of the visual world into a colorful, captivating image; it is the hunger for seeing the world, for revealing something about it to a wider audience, something edifying and deep. If you’ve read National Geographic over the last thirty years, even taken a glance at some of the images now and then, chances are you’ve encountered his work. And chances are, whether for a passing moment or far longer, you’ve been struck.

The work of McCurry — as it happens, a Philadelphia native — is the subject of “Culturas”, an exhibit taking place at the wonderful Centro Cultural Borges. It is the first showing devoted to his work to open in Argentina. McCurry’s most renowned photograph will probably always be that of the displaced Afghan girl, taken in the mid-80s during the tumultuous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Doubtless, the girl’s green, scintillating eyes define the photo, offering scores of unspoken words that delineate the plight of a refugee. And yet, by some trick or generous skill on McCurry’s part, the moment preserved in the photo is both dramatic and natural, beautified but unforced.

That quality carries across much of the work exhibited in “Culturas”. Across the vast scopes of the world that we safely deem “non-Western” — and as a consequence, have often passively deemed Cultural Others — McCurry carries his camera. His photos give light to cultures affected by the usual suspects of global inequality: war, poverty, disease, pollution. Yet while they can overwhelm with their bleakness, they don’t exploit the feeling of their subjects in an attempt to jar the viewer. They are more of a testament to people’s resilience in the face of hardship. The moments of rest, worship, and jubilation among people are documented just as well.

The conscientious mind perusing the stills in the gallery will exit with a sense of amazement at McCurry’s technical brilliance, while feeling a little less centric about his or her place in the world. No one can ever capture the whole world as it really is, of course. Unlike photographs, cultures are fluid and living. But a dignified, artistic rendering of the world as it is will still go a long way. As another superpower has its boots in Afghanistan in the present, it’s clear that some realities are not so quick to change.

[“Culturas” runs through March 31 at the Centro Cultural Borges, on the top floor of Galerías Pacífico, at Viamonte and San Martín. $10 general admission, $8 for students and seniors. For more images, see Steve McCurry’s homepage here.]

Written by cwmote

March 25, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Now Playing in Buenos Aires

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See if you can identify the following Hollywood films based on the Spanish titles under which they get marketed in Argentina:

  1. Vivir al límite
  2. Sólo para parejas
  3. Un sueño posible
  4. La isla siniestra
  5. Un maldito policía en Nueva Orleans

All of the films were released in the US in the past year — some recently, others not. Hint: two of these films recently won Oscars in the “Major Categories” (Picture, Acting, Directing).

The first person to send me the correct answers gets…well, a shout-out and a big fat plug on this blog. After all, you can’t put a price on glory. And remember: no peeking! (OK, only take a peek on IMDB if you absolutely must.)

UPDATE: My brother came close, getting all except the last one. Muy bien hecho, Dan. See here for the answers: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]  (And honestly, for #5, the Spanish title is way better than the original. Sometimes other countries get it right.)

Written by cwmote

March 15, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Notes from an expat

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Plaza de Mayo, with the Casa Rosada (presidential palace) in the background

I came to Buenos Aires two weeks ago because I could. I had no knowledge of the culture here before my arrival, except for what I was able to glean from talking to a few native Argentines and past visitors, reading guidebooks and the stories of Borges, listening to Piazzolla’s greatest hits and watching a few Ricardo Darin films. All of which was good preparation, I suppose — but nothing can really prepare you for surviving in the culture until you go there and experience it for yourself. And, so far, I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’m making progress. For one thing, I found an apartment to share with a pair of Argentine students instead of one with fellow expats, resulting in a near-total immersion in Spanish. At the same time, I’ve been in touch with travelers like myself, people who are looking to stay in Buenos Aires or venture around South America for a few months, and of course I have my own audience over the web to communicate with in my home language. So I’m in both worlds, and careful not to let one overwhelm the other — but hey, the more Spanish practice, the better.

My first intention was to stay here for a few months, maybe three at the most, but for now I have no definite plans. Finding a steady job would do much to ensure that I can stay longer, and that’s basically where I’m at now, trying to build up a network. In the meantime, the postings here will likely be a mixture of the usual observations on the world of art along with day-to-day reflections on being abroad.

Example: there is no television in my apartment, so I didn’t catch the Oscars (which aired here in the wee hours Monday morning), but I was relieved to hear that Avatar didn’t win Best Picture, interesting and stimulating though it was. In fact, most people here are still celebrating over El secreto de sus ojos, which is the next Darin film on my must-see list.

So there: I still got it.

Thanks to everyone for their wishes and concerns. I know everyone must automatically assume I’m having the time of my life down here, that Buenos Aires is a blast, so let me just be clear about this so that there’s no confusion about how things are going:

I am having the time of my life down here.

Buenos Aires is a blast.

Happy reading…or as they say, ¡Buena lectura!

Written by cwmote

March 9, 2010 at 5:54 pm

From the Department of Big Announcements

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For those who haven’t heard, and are rightly wondering why the hell not, here is the news: this week I am traveling to Buenos Aires. How long I’ll be there, I have yet to determine, but it’s a goal I’ve set to make something for myself in a different culture while my spirit is still restless. Naturally, I’ll be blogging the whole experience, and I may even get a Facebook account very soon. (Yeah, finally.) So if I have any more Big Announcements, I won’t be so remiss in getting around to them so late. Promise.

As I post this entry, I am on board a Megabus in the middle of the New Jersey Turnpike. Ah, the miracles of wifi and electrical outlets on a moving bus. (Yes, Vash, there are outlets on this one.) 😉 Philadelphia is behind me. Soon, the whole homeland will be too. I’ll miss it, somewhat, I admit. So best to enjoy the luxuries while they last.

Written by cwmote

February 22, 2010 at 9:25 am