More than a decade ago, the Spanish artist ANTONI ABAD started Megafone.net, an internet channel for socially-discriminated groups, such as taxi drivers in Mexico City, immigrants in New York and prostitutes in Madrid. For the Brazilian version, Abad gave mobile phones with cameras to São Paulo motorbike messengers – “motoboys” – so that they could record their routine. The resulting photos and videos showed the daily life in the street and moments of leisure, as they happen. The project helped give visibility to the group and counteract the image of motoboys as rebels, besides contributing to identify some of the city’s problems. It came to an end in 2015 but the channel remains as a pioneering and visionary experience, based on the use of image and digital tools.
In the centre of São Paulo, near Avenida Rudge, motoboy Ronaldo Simão da Costa uploaded the picture of a dog staring into the camera of his mobile phone. He added an audio file – just six seconds long. “Hello, hello, testing?,” he checks if the canal*Motoboy system (an on-line platform for audio, photo and video files which is part of the Megafone project) is working.
The question, made on 1 August 2015, closed the cycle that Ronaldo started almost nine years before, when he began his involvement in the project set up by the Catalan artist Antoni Abad by sending a picture of a baby wearing dark glasses and sticking his tongue out. The caption is more impressive than the one for the photograph of the dog: “This is my life.”
From then on, images of his family were interspersed with thousands of images of the city, of the scenes that are repeated daily – traffic jams and accidents involving fellow motoboys. And of less common events, such as a suicide attempt on a bridge in the west of São Paulo, where a man, “tired of this crazy life,” threatened to jump, clutching a bottle of cachaça.
As well as Ronaldo, another 16 motoboys became storytellers of the metropolis as from the end of 2006. Abad gave them mobile phones equipped with cameras – which were just starting to become popular at the time – and encouraged them to document in real time the daily routine of a group that was detested in the popular imagination of the city’s population.
The city’s inhabitants – Paulistanos – love to hate motoboys. While at the same time indispensable, thanks to their agility in making deliveries despite the terrible São Paulo traffic, they have become a synonym for the aggressive behaviour that a significant part of them display.
The “crazy life” of the “mad dogs” has some impressive statistics. According to the city’s traffic authority, of the 28,618 traffic accidents with victims in 2014, 49% involved motorcyclists. Of the average 3.4 road deaths per day that year, 1.2 were motorcyclists. Although the study uses the word “motorcyclist” and not “motoboy”, on a day to day basis it does not make much difference: the connection between the image people have of motoboys and motorcycle accidents has been set in stone for years.
When looking at groups like this, Abad foresaw the creation of the project Megafone. net, in which a set of communication tools was offered to marginalised groups so that they could express themselves. In addition to the work with motoboys, he distributed mobile phones and set up a platform for audios, videos and photos registered by prostitutes in Madrid; Nicaraguan immigrants in San José, Costa Rica; gypsies in León and Lérida, in Spain; and wheelchair users in Barcelona, Geneva and Montreal. But it was in 2004, with 17 taxi drivers in Mexico City, that Abad put his project into practice for the first time. The experience served as a test for the São Paulo project, the city in which Megafone had been conceived the previous year.
In Mexico, Abad introduced the general concepts of the project and organised weekly meetings to promote a subject debate among the members of the newly-created channel. He used the same approach in meetings outside the Mexican Federal district. He stood back, neither leading nor offering an opinion, leaving it to the discriminated community members to decide what they wanted to document. “I liked to take photos of potholes, water, leaks, so the weekly meetings helped decide: ‘what’s the focus for this week? A clean city? Where’s the garbage?’ Sometimes, we would take pictures of rubbish in the morn- ing and that afternoon someone would go and clean it up,” recalls Ronaldo.
The ways the activists were recruited varied according to the location. With taxi drivers, Abad resorted to ads in a local newspaper and a radio programme, popular with these workers, while in Brazil he invited the participants more directly. As soon as she heard of Abad’s motoboy idea, the artist Regina Silveira suggested that he contact Ronaldo, a motoboy she used to hire to make deliveries for her. Ronaldo went on to become the spokesman and the most prolific photographer in the entire Megafone project. In little more than nine years, first using SMSs and then via the internet, he contributed 3,832 media files to the system. He was also responsible for suggesting the other participants – Viralata, Beiço, Cleyton, Neka, Renato, Adriana, Bahiano, Crispim, Deton, Djalma, Edison, Andrea, Mirtão, Luiz, Tadeu, and Alexandro. There were two women amongst the 17 members. The proportion makes sense. In São Paulo, according to the traffic authorities, only 9.49% of the 1,111,998 holders of motorbike driving licences belong to female riders.
If there is a disparity in gender, the themes addressed by the collective differ little. Using a language where content is more important than form, accidents, traffic jams, tunnels, motorcycle parts, traffic violations and graffiti- covered walls are interwoven with interviews with other motoboys, which always start in the same way: “How long have you been on the road?,” followed by the normal complaints of the profession – against the ban on them using bus corridors, against the companies offering despatch rider services, against the police, against the prejudice they suffer and against the law in general. Between pictures of helmets and California Racing jackets, however, there are many shots of friends and family. On 11 July 2007, Adriana mixed her professional and private worlds by registering the four stitches she had in her left knee after suffering an accident. Three days later, in a text which was a harbinger of the way we use the internet nowadays, she uses the caption to a photograph of herself to warn her friends in the collective: “Hey, guys, I’m dizzy. My labyrinthitis is back, I’m not going to the meeting.”
Selfies like Adriana’s are not that frequent. With the hashtag #vidareligiosa [religious life], Crispim took advantage of his last post to the project, on January 23, 2015, to tell people that he is in a “new phase of his life,” although the “heart is still that of a motoboy.” Andrea is very different from the other participants. Frequently, she just sends texts, with no media files. When she does, sometimes she repeats the same image, using the captions to create whole new dialogues. A mix between pre-historic social networks and a reality show, done exclusively by motoboys or taxi drivers, Megafone reveals both the individuals and the collective views.
Megafone was not the first experience involving art and the internet produced by the Catalan artist, who was born in the town of Lerida, 150 km from Barcelona, in 1956. In 2001, two years after taking part in the Venice Biennale, which was put together by the Swiss curator Harald Szeeman, where “attitudes take form,” Abad created Z, a work based on a piece of software in the form of a fly. “The fly was an undercover agent, infiltrated into the user interface, appearing only when the user was connected to the internet. As such, it made the technology more difficult to use, and questioned the relationship of people with computers and networks. But Abad’s fly was more than a visual element created to subvert digital interactivity. Anyone who installed the program opened up a communication channel with other users and became part of a community,” writes Roc Parés, the Mexican researcher, in Megafone.net (Macba, 2014), a book marking the first ten years of the project.
After 2009, Abad took Megafone to immigrants in New York, refugees in Tindouf (Algeria), peasants in Manizales (Colombia), and again to Barcelona, this time for the visually impaired. In addition to files from their cell phones, the group members also sent keywords that have become a kind of catalogue mural, identifying each participant and the local platform to which they belong. While in São Paulo terms like “family”, “bus corridors” and “accidents” stand out, the group in Madrid, for example, uses words such as “adult”, “female”, “home” and “laziness.”
In Colombia, the coincidence in using the same keywords by groups antagonistic to each other helped show that they did have some things in common. Manizales, in the centre of Colombia, was the only place where two separate communities came together through the same project. On one side, there were the people who had been forced to move from farming districts to the outskirts of the city because of armed conflict. On the other, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) fighters, who had le¬ the guerrillas to become part of society again. “They said I was crazy, that I could not bring them together in the same place because they would kill each other,” recalls the artist. It did not, in fact, prove possible to hold the meetings on the same days, but Abad made it a condition of the project that both sides should use the same uploading platform. After five meetings, held separately, the participants realized that the keywords that they were all using were practically the same. “They spoke of ‘reconciliation’, ‘dialogue’, ‘conflict’. They had the same concerns.” In the end, Abad managed to convince them to meet on the same day, and Megafone showed its potential for promoting harmony to the extent that, according to the artist, both groups ended up in a bar, drinking together and chatting about life.
The concept of “tactical media”, set out in the manifesto “The ABC of Tactical Media” (1997), by Geert Lovink and David Garcia, has direct links to Megafone, in that traditional communication processes are transformed by the appropriation of technological directories capable of creating new channels, whether they are used to express indignation, criticism or opposition. “Awareness of this tactical/ strategic dichotomy helped us to name a class of producers who seem uniquely aware of the value of these temporary reversals in the flow of power. And, rather than resisting these rebellions, do everything in their power to amplify them. And indeed make the creation of spaces, channels and platforms for these reversals central to their practice,” defends the manifesto.
According to historian André Mesquita, author of Esperar não é saber: arte entre o silêncio e a evidência (2015) [waiting is not to know: art between the silence and the evidence], aspects such as the ephemeral nature of films, actions in “enemy” territory and the use of consumer goods, such as a cell phone, for functions they are not designed for, are essential elements in understanding the tactical use of the media. This was a strategy used, for example, by the American artist Ricardo Dominguez, who was part of the cult collective Critical Art Ensemble. As well as collaborating with the Zapatistas, he created the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a cell phone app that helps illegal immigrants cross the border between Mexico and the United States by showing them places to hide from the police or safer routes. In Brazil, an example of the use of the strategy is the emergence of the Media Ninja collective in the street demonstrations of June 2013. It showed, in real time, the wave of protests against an increase in bus fares and the police violence which accompanied them.
For the Catalan artist, the Megafone idea is more than a communication channel for marginalised groups – it is intended to help them overcome the difficulties they face in expressing themselves through the mainstream media, “the same media that help stigmatise them.” This resistance, however, seems to have been set aside by these same media, which quickly fell for Abad’s concept. “Hi, good afternoon to all, I am here in the centre of Rio de Janeiro. And it’s that same old problem, a car breaks down and everything stops, there’s nothing to be done. I’m near the airport, taking some pictures as it is still not time for our flight, and I would like to thank the staff of Ana Maria Braga’s show, who received us really well. I hope that the story was good and that it will be aired,” says Ronaldo in his report, aired on 28 April 2010.
Five days later, that report for Braga’s Globo TV show Mais Você was shown nationally. It is one of many produced with members of the canal*Motoboy. The press extended the reach of the project into newspapers and TV shows, even if glossed up as digital inclusion. The project was also included in technology events like the Campus Party and, because of the way the members of the collective create, it has been the subject of exhibitions held in important cultural spaces in São Paulo, such as the Centro Cultural São Paulo (an individual exhibition) and the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP) (the 2013 FotoBienal). It has recently being shown at the Pinacoteca Museum, as part of a retrospective of Abad’s work.
It was after an interview for the weekly magazine Veja, that 43-year old Marcelo Veronez gained the nickname “The Motoboys’ Poet.” A paramedic with the São Paulo Ambulance Service since 2004, Marcelo had already stopped working as a motoboy when he started to participate in Megafone. His involvement in the project is different from the other collective members. Instead of producing media files for the platform, the musician, who does not appear in the list of members on the channel’s site, became a kind of entertainer at the events organised to promote motoboy culture. “In 2007, how many motoboys had a cell phone with a camera? You were speaking to a lot of people that had no reason to be interested in it.” The number of phones on offer was so small that, at the beginning of Megafone, a single phone was shared between the members of the collective, who swapped it amongst themselves for periods of up to two weeks.
The articulate poet was chosen to speak and sing at the anniversary parties for Megafone, which included artistic actions such as exhibitions of graffiti and craft. In the 1990s, when he was a motoboy, he said that he felt immortal, just like so many of the boys who climb onto a bike nowadays and head off, scorching rubber in the streets of São Paulo. Together with this feeling was the terrible quality of safety equipment sold at the time – the “paper helmets” – not to mention the poor working conditions provided by the courier companies. He decided to champion the cause of awareness-building amongst the motoboys.
As well as Marcelo, another participant had also le¬ the profession at the time when he became a member of the project. 49-year-old Eliezer Muniz, or Neka, the third most active member in the channel, stopped working as a motoboy in 2004 to start studying Philosophy at the University of São Paulo. Nowadays, he is a high school teacher in state schools on the outskirts of São Paulo. “The channel served as an interlocutor. There was a gap between the reality of the motoboys and what society thought it was. There was no direct dialogue. From the moment the motoboys gained their own voice, the authorities and society in general started to look at the reality and the needs of the motoboys, as well as changing the motoboys’ own view of themselves.”
The “pre-historic WhatsApp,” as Marcelo Veronez defines Megafone nowadays, has been supplanted by social networks. Despite not sharing the same purpose nor offering the same results, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others quickly became part of the daily life of the group, which moved its discussions onto these platforms.
For Giselle Beiguelman, a visual artist and lecturer at the University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, Abad’s work was a precursor of practices which are now so common. She argues that, although Abad’s idea is anchored in the same instant publication methodology, Megafone operates from a different point of view to the other social media apps. “Antoni does not follow the logic of the flock, where the term ‘followers’ encourages that view. Neither does he operate through the logic of social Darwinism, in which the strongest wins – who has more likes will attract more and more likes. That is a dynamic that is difficult to break. Abad’s work is the opposite, the interlocution and brokering of privileged actors who are involved in a particular issue.”
Abad follows the same line of reasoning in making a distinction between users and participants. “The principal success of the project is that these people come together as a group. When they are faced with the task of representing their daily lives, they have to think who they actually are, both as a person and as a community,” she argues.
This media access has allowed the motoboys to start a dialogue with groups and interests in the city that did not see them as a community with its own principles, practices, activities and, more important, aesthetic sensitivity, argues Lucas Bambozzi, creator of the festival Arte.Mov. “Social media and cameras in people’s pockets are tools for them to express themselves. At some moment, they can discover that this is an exercise in sensitivity, one that is not so commonplace. When the person feels capable of exercising this sensitivity, it is transforming. Politics needs to be more sensitive to poetic and aesthetic issues.”
Once, one of the Mexican taxi drivers said to Abad: “After many years at the wheel in the infernal traffic of this city, this project has made me remember that imagination exists.” ///
Images: courtesy Antoni Abad. Megafone.net/São Paulo. Creative Commons.
Antoni Abad (1956) was born in Lerida, Spain. His projects Megafone.net and Blind.wiki have been realised in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Algerian Sahara, Switzerland, and the USA. He has participated in biennials in Venice, Lima, Sevilla, Porto Alegre, Foto- Masp São Paulo, Curitiba, and Berlin.
Daigo Oliva (1985), journalist, is deputy editor of the arts pages (Ilustrada) of the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper. He edits Entretempos, a blog about photography hosted in the online version of the paper.