For Adriana Morán Sarmiento
I used to walk around Maracaibo back then—an activity that struck some as unusual, and could even be indicative of social class.
So much so that, waiting for a light to change on the corner where pedestrians crossed the street, there was seldom more than one person; any build-up of strangers was odd, and soon gave rise to suspicion. Especially among those who passed by in their cars, those who had to pull over to the pavement, or those who simply had to get out at the bakery.
To be truly at ease, drivers preferred an empty street. Perfectly lit, but empty. And it was more or less the same among the pedestrians themselves, except for those who accepted the presence of another, but only if they kept a reasonable distance (about a block), and if their footsteps landed at the same pace; that is to say, if both (assuming there were two pedestrians) went at the same speed; a speed at which they couldn’t bolt, because that would call the attention of the police.
I remember, on a cloudy, hot April day, seeing a man stopped by a patrol car. I was walking down the pavement on the opposite side when the first drops on my umbrella coincided with the abrupt acceleration of his footsteps. The policeman issued a warning over his loudspeaker; he lowered his window halfway and exchanged a few words with the poor guy, who kept raising his hands to his chest and then skywards as if pointing to the coming storm. He looked to be saying, “Don’t blame me, Mr. Officer, I’m just trying to get to shelter before it’s too late.” Scenes such as this were commonplace in a city with almost two million inhabitants; or, I should say, with almost two million people sitting down, stuck to an interior with tinted glass and low temperatures; an artificial nighttime on wheels, propelled by cheap gasoline.
…And the trouble was, besides pitying you, they would often also get offended: “How are you going to walk when they’re basically giving gas away?” they would scold you from their seats, their bodies held hostage by seatbelts. And that recurring phrase—which could be said in many different ways—was really a parasite on a bigger phrase, this one more complex and connected to the abundance of a resource, and mostly to the culture born of oil exploitation: “When something is so cheap, how can you not consume it?!” And this standard applied to almost everything, as if gasoline not only filled the tank in your car but also dressed you, fed you, and provided your entertainment. I mean to say: it was common to confuse the abundance of oil with the abundance of money, as if the process of monetization in between did not exist—as if you could hit the ATM if you just drilled deep enough.
In these conditions, walking was a subversive, profoundly counter-cultural act. Nonetheless, not all of us who walked were aware of this. Many of us fell easily into the pit of stigmatization; you could read disadvantage on our faces; we let the seated beat us. And to think that we were the ones most commingled with the life of the city, with the taste of the air and the weight of the sun, with the gusts of warm wind that blew in the evening… With the human speed of legs.
How absurd it was to keep that distance between us, that half-block space, ample enough that two cars could fit in a row. Maybe we were walking as if we were in invisible cars? Had that object seeped so deep into our footborne minds? I don’t think so, really. What I do think is that perhaps it wasn’t mistrust—or the suspicion that we would somehow do each other harm—that kept us so far apart as we walked along, but rather a certain respect based on incredulity. It was hard for us to recognize each other for what we were: a fledgling community of pedestrians, free of the limiting radius of a steering wheel.
We preferred for our skin to turn brown in the sun, to get where we were going soaked in sweat, our eyelids heavy with weariness… We preferred this because the experience was another, the city was another; miniature episodes took place with every step, details difficult to appreciate through an orthogonal window. Like, for example, the smell of stuff under boiling heat, when the temperature reached forty degrees or more in the shade; the smell—and sometimes the creak—of the bark and the leaves, of the scattered lemon trees and mango trees, so familiar over the cement smell of the pavement. The melting smell of everything metallic; burnt hair, burnt arms… And the flammable rumble of gasoline, that additional film over everything.
I liked walking through Maracaibo, despite running the risk of being incinerated, despite its oppressive sensoriality, because I believed in an alternative, socially incorrect lifestyle: the norm was the linear story imposed by the automobile, coupled with the notion of progress, the notion that by pushing down on the gas you pulled away from the past, which was marked by a life without status, a life of sweat and public transport; all in all, a life on foot.
Curiously, if you belonged to the middle or upper-middle class and you chose to walk, they branded you “European,” and if they caught you using the public telephones on the street, even more so: to the moniker “European,” they added “romantic.” If you carried coins to make a call on a street corner, you were a “romantic European,” although, depending on who saw you, you might also be a “European queer,” especially if they knew not only that you liked to walk and talk on the phone under the searing sunlight or the pouring rain, but also that you were in the habit of reading books and trying to write poetry. I do not know where this association with Europeans came from—an association that smelled of an obvious cliché, at any rate. But so it was for the seated: Europeans walked, Americans drove. Therefore, I was a European, never having been to Europe.
Having a car in Maracaibo reaffirmed your masculinity, your macho power and your status as “man of the house.” It meant you had made a pact with petroleum, with the way of life inherited from the first American drillers; and it broached something much stronger, a gritty pragmatism without compromise, very much in the style of the “American way of life”—that is, an ideal that presumptively guarantees prosperity and success, and thus, your ascent of the social ladder. In short, all it took to “pull yourself up.”
The seated wore out the moniker of “European,” accompanied by whichever adjective they happened to choose, at the first sighting, and that was that. If they spotted you outdoors again, either they judged you as “being poor” or you actually were. They went from a curious look of discovery to a look of indignation and pity. They could not come to terms with the need to share territory with those who did not drive, whether out of simple impossibility or choice. Nor could they cope with the fact that someone would go six blocks to get to the pharmacy or the liquor store, or twenty to get to a museum, without the intercession of a carburetor.
I remember a walk I loved. It went from the Costa Verde Shopping Center to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The former was two blocks from my family’s apartment, where I spent a good part of my youth. So I would start there, not before taking a stroll through the halls and the tree-lined courtyard of that anthill of a building (designed by local architects along with others from Uruguay, exiled during the dictatorship), open to the street, without grilles or glass doors to impede the walk. You could move in and out of the shopping center without stopping, and that was odd; it was odd because it contradicted the norms of the malls that would later settle into Maracaibo: immense, air-conditioned boxes, completely out of context, designed ex profeso to stimulate consumption at any time of day, out of sight of the changing sky.
These malls (which were really called “malls,” using the English term, rather than “centros comerciales” as they would be in Spanish) were the sacred automobile in hyperbolic terms—considerably superior because, as well as sitting down in them, protected by security guards who only let the right people in, you could eventually go to the cinema, buy whatever you fancied, or have something to eat and stay stuck to your chair, enveloped always in the same artificial winter.
These characteristics writ large were so seductive that most of the population—both seated and unseated—ended up flooding the malls en masse, and malls thereby began to multiply like evangelical churches do today, with one—or several—at each of the city’s cardinal points.
Of course, this phenomenon ended up crippling Costa Verde, in whose name, “green coast,” the elements behind Maracaibo’s suffering happened to coexist: contact with the lake and with the shade. The former had been reduced to a purely contemplative matter, since repeated oil spills ended up permanently polluting the waters; and the latter called to mind the lack of foliage to filter the sun off the streets, already overheated by the cars.
Costa Verde quickly began to lose customers as shopping and entertainment options moved to the malls. Nonetheless, some of us kept going. I would stop by for various reasons: it was the first place I ever went into a cinema, to watch the first King Kong, I think. I would go with some friends to Calle Vieja, a massive place crammed with arcade games where we spent whole afternoons mashing buttons, betting the meager allowances our parents gave us on Super Sidekicks tournaments. I bought my first books there at a bookstore called, perhaps not coincidentally, “Europa”—books I would read then and there, sitting on a bench in the courtyard under a tall coconut palm, holding the pages tight so they wouldn’t turn in the natural breeze.
Was Costa Verde the insular beach of us walkers? The shopping center was gradually left empty, and it was as if a part of my childhood was erased. Maybe that’s why I liked to start my walk there, because in the ever more desolate halls there remained an air of resistance, of secret age-old struggle against “pulling yourself up,” even if Costa Verde had been up once.
With that sensation steeped in memory (in memory rewritten every time I rewrite it), I would walk out onto Avenida Cecilio Acosta, right where the bustling Ruta 6 bus came juddering to a stop, a sort of mobile vallenato party from whose red bodywork smiled two big, bulging heads (with smiles typical of men who have pulled themselves up): President Hugo Chávez and the acting mayor; as if, along with music by Rafael Orozco, it were also a propaganda bus, a may-I-remind-you-that-I-am-the-State-and-eventually-the-guy-next-to-me-will-be-too-if-he-pulls-himself-up bus. I could have saved myself the twenty blocks and gotten on the raucous Ruta 6, putting myself a step away from the Museum in fifteen minutes. However, I preferred to skirt the puddles of motor oil leaked out of the hundreds of cars parked on both sides of the avenue (the motor oil was also a distinctive smell), rather than become another passenger on the performance, because the Ruta 6 bus was a performance, no doubt about it, one that someone will one day present at documenta in Kassel.
I preferred to once again come up against that sudden change in scale, from the intersection with Avenida Las Delicias, and to slowly make my way alongside the hollow bricks of the Department of Engineering, Architecture, and Design; the multicolor tower of the admin building; the university hospital, imported from Sweden, where my father saw patients in the mornings; the abandoned construction site of the Aula Magna, the great hall, sitting on countless years of sand, lack of budget, and corruption. And, finally, the light gray bulk of the Museum, built on the premises of the old airport, in the heart of the Ciudad Universitaria, the university’s sprawling campus; a many-hectare space into which urban density refuses to foray, as if the runway were still being preserved for some future, unexpected landing.
That long strip, unused since the year of the first moon landing when a plane fell from the sky after takeoff, was kept strangely intact, a little more than a block away from the Museum, as if it were an outdoor installation, a piece of Land Art recalling Magritte’s pipe.
But it wasn’t. In reality the runway had been reduced to a place for drag races and driving classes since the cars had reached it: learners with their instructors in the daytime, speed demons at night.
The fact is that, in Maracaibo, any bare plane could turn into a common parking lot, or the continuation of a gray highway. In the city, horror vacui prevailed. It was strange, even, that the Museum was not an AutoMac; that instead of walking from room to room on foot, you weren’t sent through in neutral gear; or, easing lightly off the clutch, moving in a straight line through a single tubular chamber… Anyway. The Museum of Contemporary Art was devised to be viewed upright, and that’s what we walkers did. I would walk on unpausing up its wide ramps and through its open-air halls that flanked, on one side, the great central courtyard that gave it a feeling of kinship with Costa Verde, peopled with sculptures and reflecting pools, intense sunlight and slender palm trees; and, on the other side, the entryways to rooms I remember being almost all closed, with no artwork on display.
I remember the security guards at the two or three rooms that remained open, lying on the floor in a fetal position, dispirited by the boredom of not having anyone to watch. For the umpteenth time, I would walk into those rooms and once again find these bodies like the lovers of Pompeii, which, when they saw me, would abruptly spring up, clamber into the chair in the corner, and, hoarse-voiced, say, “Good afternoon.” And such was the solitude, so alone were we in those immense rooms, that any attempt at formality seemed ridiculous. Besides, we already knew each other after so much springing up and so much intrusion. Because, at the end of the day, that’s how I felt: like an intruder, interrupting the guards’ siestas, guilty of misconduct every time.
So why was I dead set on visiting a place that practically never changed? What sense did it make to form part of the laughably low visitor count of what was then the largest contemporary art museum in Latin America? Its thousands of square meters evinced the intention to “pull up” art, but the people were not on board with this ambition. It was odd to have dedicated so much space to such a purpose in a city as culturally apathetic as Maracaibo. The massive public to which such a generously endowed museum might aspire was busy pulling itself up in other regards, or making desperate attempts to do so. And maybe this is what drew me in: this disproportionate undertaking for an almost nonexistent audience, or for a future audience that would only come about after a social paradigm shift; or, in other words, the faith, the almost Fitzcarraldian belief that, in a few years’ time, thousands of people would be lining up outside, under forty-degree heat in the shade, and that among those thousands there would be tourists who would, of course, pay for their tickets, like we have to pay for ours at museums in Paris or New York.
It was, without a doubt, a risky play: building a museum with the proportions of a mall in a city where the abstract was boring, because it was “European” or because it was too demanding.
To go from the Costa Verde Shopping Center to the Museum of Contemporary Art was to bring together two places that might have disappeared into invalidity, because they were “pulled up” not on new or old reality, not on European or American reality, but on the undetermined. Just as to walk is to administer uncertainty, step by step, those two places administered instability, day by day. One survived off the faithfulness of the nostalgic, those who still saw symbols there of a part of their childhood and early adolescence, so far away from the crushing pressures of pulling yourself up… And the other survived off the obstinacy of a select few, those who knew they were betting on a losing side, those who urgently sought to escape the set-up, even when the goal was for art to pull itself up too. That is to say, for art to reach—or, perhaps, surpass—the level of importance that oil had attained in society. For art—and not the perks of black gold—to be what set people free. But, of course, pulling up art also implied the risk of trivializing it, as oil had indeed been trivialized, along with the way of life that came with it.
Including art in the commercial interests of oil would assign it a duty not its own. The fact is, the furthest thing from art would be an abundance of money holding it up, letting it squander as much as it wants whenever it wants.
Art is always in crisis because it offers a symbolic abundance, because it branches off from life, pure and simple; and so, those who had pulled themselves up kept art at arm’s length. Because having pulled yourself up, or being in the process of doing so, meant going for “the safe option,” shunning the constant tension of living with one foot in life and the other in death, preferring the well-tested mold to improvisation; a perfectly lit street where you could feel at ease, but a street empty of individuals, loose and on foot.