Yona Friedman (1923-2020) at the "Museum without Building", held at the CNEAI (Centre National Édition Art Image, Pantin, France), in 2018. Photo: Courtesy Fonds of Dotation Denise et Yona Friedman, with the collaboration of CNEAI and Sylvie Boulanger.

“TJust as important as the right to life, the right to work, the right to justice, and many others,” wrote Yona Friedman, is the “right to understand.” This would be – for the artist, architect, urban planner, sociologist and anthropologist – one of the essential human rights, since “understanding things allows us to know how to behave in the face of what surrounds us”. “For to understand things is to be able to master them,” he continued. These statements, written alongside illustrations with simple lines and in comic book format, are part of one of several manuals produced by Friedman throughout his life (1923-2020), which are now presented in the exhibition Democracia, at the São Paulo Resistance Memorial.

In this same piece, the artist continues with criticisms of an intellectualism or scientism that despises laymen and illiterates: “Knowledge that is considered true can be explained as easily in the layman's language as in that of the intellectual. It is more advantageous, however, to express a truth in the simplest language”, says the text, accompanied by images in which mathematics, science or engineering are explained through everyday situations.

Despite the varied facets and vast production of Friedman – a Hungarian Jew who lived through the Second World War, spent years in Romania and Israel before settling permanently in France - the exhibition highlights this aspect of communication and human rights in the work of the artist. author, with his search for the creation of an accessible and democratic language. “Whoever wants to understand must first ask questions. No question is silly (while many answers are)”, follows the author's manual. This and other manuals, dedicated to social issues such as housing, democracy and the environment, made for institutions such as Unesco and United Nations University, give the main line of the exhibition.

Curated by Ana Pato, coordinator of the Memorial since May 2020, and assisted by Carolina Faustini Junqueira, the show brings together productions from different moments of Friedman’s trajectory, including films, drawings, collages, installations and proposals for cultural spaces. The curator, who had previously developed research on Friedman – including a residency at CNEAI, in France, in 2019 – proposes a parallel between the work of the Franco-Hungarian and the ideas of the São Paulo memorial, mainly dedicated to the memory of the dictatorship periods in Brazil. : “In times of denialism on topics that are non-negotiable for the Memorial of Resistance, Yona Friedman's defense of open and participatory forms of knowledge transmission is essential for us to think about the role of communication in the struggle for the valorization of democratic principles, for the exercise of citizenship and human rights education”, she writes in the introductory text.

The multidisciplinarity and hybridism in Friedman's production are notable in the exhibition, although not all facets of his work are in-depth. In the construction of the exhibition space - conceived by Anna Ferrari, Isabella Rosa and Pedro Lins -, a slide show is projected, drawings and manuals are written directly on the walls, posters “come down” hanging from the ceiling, licks are glued to the floor and an installation made of aluminum wires, it appears suspended, evoking intuitive constructive techniques. In all this, highlights Ana Pato, the image is central: “He puts this point of view that the right to understand and the right to interpret always come according to the experience of each person and, in this sense, the image is makes it central to communicate. For for him, the image is a language that demands attention, but not necessarily knowledge”.

An unusual architecture

Friedman's more architectural production – for which he was known at universities and influenced counterculture media in the 20th century – appears more discreetly in the exhibition in one of the two exhibition showcases. What the author called cultural spaces are presented there, being them the Street Museum: Graffiti Museum: Open Air Museum: Walking Museum and the Museum without Building. In general, they were more propositions than projects to be built, even though some of them got off the ground – such as the Museum of Simple Technology, built in 1987 in the Indian city of Chennai. Ephemeral and adaptable structures and reused materials to be molded collectively appear in these projects that are sometimes just drawings and writings: “He said that it is no longer about building, objects or buildings, but about expressing functions. So he will discuss a lot this possibility of imagining social configurations that would be achievable. Without a doubt, Yona didn't care much about the outcome. He brought the proposition and that is why his work is so free”, explains the curator. THE Space City designed by the author also appears in drawings in the exhibition.

Returning to the text of the manual quoted at the beginning of this article, Friedman’s own words deepen the reason for his innovative proposals, and how the ideas of democratic communication and architecture are intertwined: “A museum is not a museum without its public: a museum without public is just a deposit of useless objects. But those who visit a museum are not always part of its 'audience' of insiders. Many visitors are passersby who do not carefully observe what is offered to the attention of all, initiated or not, and who do not ask questions because they do not dare to do so, ashamed of their ignorance. These give up at the outset to understand.”

At this point in the show, the visitor does not miss a contrast between Friedman’s proposal – who “elected the street as a public and democratic place to create collaborative spaces for intervention in the city” – and the very configuration of the exhibition at the Memorial da Resistance, which occupies one of the floors of the building shared with Pina Estação, with little opening to the street. Located in one of the liveliest and most deprived areas of downtown São Paulo, the institution is next to the busy Estação da Luz, cracolândia and urban spaces that house a series of collectives and social movements.

Ana Pato explains, however, that dialogues with the population and collectives of the region were established throughout the process of designing the show, and will continue to do so until its closing in March 2022. The idea of ​​creating some kind of museum in the region ended up being prevented by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the impossibility of generating agglomerations. “I was always very concerned about not creating any artificial situation within the space, such as building a street museum inside the memorial. I thought this was totally incoherent with Yona's proposal, because everything he says about these mobile structures, the use of material, the solutions given by the inhabitant and resident themselves, are things that are there in the center of São Paulo”, says Pato.

Among what was possible to do, the collectives Artists casadalapa and Paulestinos were invited to collaborate with the production of the show's lambes and a banner that will be fixed in front of the exhibition – they are also expected to participate in other urban actions. “They approach Yona's thinking in this dialogue between communication and politics, talking about reciprocity in human exchanges”. In partnership with Sesc Bom Retiro, the cycle of meetings “Democracy is possible: experiences of resistance in the territory” will be held in the first week of August. And, to go beyond just the exhibition space, most of the materials presented, such as manuals and slideshows, are available on the Memorial's website, based on a freedom given by the author, while still alive, so that his works could be disseminated, translated and appropriated.   

The search, therefore, is that the exhibition Democracia follow the steps proposed by Friedman himself, once again in that same manual mentioned above: “A museum does not satisfy the right to understand if it limits itself to presenting a single answer to the questions that have been asked, nor if the answers are given in a hermetic way, nor, above all, if the answers given are not related to the daily life of the public. (…) It must provoke in the public the desire to understand”.

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