Hélio Oiticica: O Q Faço é Música, in Detours/Desvios IV, Michael Ashbury

Hélio Oiticica: O Q Faço é Música, Michael Ashbury

Cinema Novo by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, from Tropicália 2 of 1993, celebrating 25 years since the launch of the album Tropicalia ou Panis et Circensis, which arguably revolutionized Brazilian popular music. Here, 25 years later, we find Caetano and Gil tracing the history of cinema novo, as music and poetry, as an example of the breaking down of social divisions within subject matter, between high art and popular culture: in short, as a way of invoking Tropicália music as image.

The opening lines of the song are revealing:


O filme quiz dizer eu sou o samba

A voz do morro rasgou a tela do cinema

E começaram a se confirgurar

Visões das coisas grandes e pequenas

Que nos formaram e continuam a nos formar


Film would like to say I am Samba

The voice of the slum tore up the cinema screen

And begun to configure

Visions of great and small things

That where formative and continue to form us


The vision invoked in Caetano and Gil’s song could not be clearer: the opening credits for what is generally considered the inaugural Cinema Novo film, Rio 40 Graus, by Nelson Pereira dos Santos (released in 1955). Accompanied by Ze Keti’s classic samba ‘A Voz do Morro’ (1955), the camera flies over Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul (the wealthy quarter, from the Sugar Loaf to Leblon) until cutting briskly through the clouds (ripping through the white screen as the song implies) and arriving at Zona Norte at an alley way within a favela.

In associating samba with cinema the tropicalists remember their own formative years and their historical contexts, namely: bossa nova, concrete poetry and 1960s pop, popular and counter culture. Not that this claim benefits in any way from hindsight. Augusto de Campos had already argued for such a conjunction in 1966 adding a political dimension to the association by quoting Marx and Engels no less (BdB p142) in order to sustain that the intercommunicability of mass media leads to the impossibility of narrow national canons.

This point must be understood within the specific historical context, since, as Celso Favareto has argued, Brazilian popular music was ‘policed’ not by the dictatorship (although this would become a fact following the degree of the AI5) but until 1968, by the self declared enlightened middle classes, who submitted music, particularly that being presented at the festivals, to a rigid criteria that demanded political engagement and association with national traditions, often these being assumed to be synonymous.

Writing in the wake of the Musical Opiniao, that brought musicians Ze Keti (author as we have seen of the introductory song to Rio 40 graus), Joao do Vale and singer Nara Leao with theatre director Algusto Boal (who would later develop the concept of the theatre of the oppressed), Augusto de Campos in the heat of the hour, tries to bridge the aesthetic with the political in light of Caertano and Gil’s perceived ambivalent engagement with ‘nation and narration’ (as Homi Bhabha would later describe similar identitarian positions).

The interconnection of distinct media went, at that moment, hand in hand with the mapping of cultural territories and an attempt, at least at a rhetorical level, at purporting multiple contamination, as a means of undermining strict nationalistic canons.

Augusto de Campos posits Bossa Nova as the first step in a process that brought music out of its folkloristic cupboard and into an active participation with poetry, visual arts, and architecture. (p286) Here an early example of the historical construction that would come to dominate the production of contemporary art in Brazil begins to emerge.

The modernity of Caetano and Gil’s texts [note that it is music as writing that interests Augusto here] has led many to approach them with the concrete poets […] A point of connection between the two groups is without a doubt Oswald de Andrade. Instead of Macumba for tourists as Oswald condemned, […] we have Batmacumba for futurists (p.287).

And so references to North American Pop culture and afro-Brazilian religion meet through the invocation of art history, that of modernismo brasileiro and Italian futurism.

The association with Oswald de Andrade also recalls the very origin of the name Tropicália, which emerged not in music but in art, from the conjunction of the favela hut and mass media through Hélio Oiticica’s environment exhibited at the New Brazilian Objectivity exhibition, at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art in 1967.

In the catalogue Oiticica wrote a manifesto-like essay entitled Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade – General Scheme of New Objectivity in which he claimed to have invoked “Oswald de Andrade and the meaning of ‘Anthropophagy’ […] as an important element in this attempt at a national characterization.”

On the installation itself Oiticica stated that:

The created environment was obviously tropical, like something hidden away in a backyard and, most importantly, one had the feeling of treading upon earth. This is a sensation I had felt previously, walking through the hills of the favela, and even the trajectory of entering, leaving, and winding through Tropicália’s corridors is strongly reminiscent of walks through the hill. […] the participant comes into contact with a multiplicity of experiences that refer to the image: tactility, furnished by elements available for manipulation; playfulness and the purely visual […] until one arrives at the end of the labyrinth, in the dark, where a television is permanently switched on: the image absorbs the participator in the global accretion of information. (AGL, p.99-100 translated excerpt in Oiticica in London p.32).

If Rio 40 graus flies over Rio to arrive at an alley way in a favela, Oiticica presented the viewer with the task of winding oneself into the labyrinthine structure reminiscent of a favela hut in order to be confronted with a television set. The beautiful neo-realism of cinema novo is confronted with brutal meta- reality of the installation.

Two years later, in 1969, Edward Pope, who met Oiticica in London during the Whitechapel Experience, discussed the happenings elaborated in London at the time by the Exploding Galaxy group as forms of transmedia, stating that “Whereas the psychodelic shows at the UFO club called themselves multimedia, where they would project some Mark Boyle-type light shows onto the Pink Floyd or the Soft Machine, the idea of transmedia is that one medium acts on, or becomes a metaphor for another. So for instance, you wouldn’t think of writing a poem just in black and white – you’d immediately think, ‘it’s made of letters, which are visual constructions’ and the sound would have pitch, and so on’ (OiLp.47-8)

Returning to Caetano’s borrowing of the name Tropicalia: this would not have seemed such an outrageous thing at the time. The name Opiniao had been borrowed from theatre becoming the title of a series of exhibitions organized at MAM-Rio, in the first of which Opiniao 65, Oiticica famously inaugurated his Parangoles, his first ‘transmedia’ work, one could say. Opiniao immediately provided a politicized context to the exhibition given its association with the play, despite what happened with the Parangoles, when inhabitants from the Mangueira Favela, who had been invited by Oiticica wear and dance with the Parangoles during the opening, were forcibly expelled from the Museum by apprehensive staff. Following Opiniao 66, the 1967 edition became entitled New Brazilian Objectivity adopting by the very change of name a stand point closer to that of a manifesto.

Given that Caetano Veloso appropriated the name Tropicália from Oiticica’s environment/installation, it is perhaps fitting that the tropicalist musicians chose to remember their formative years through a media other than music. Cinema provides all the narrative ingredients for such a mapping, linking aesthetics, history, politics and above all the depiction of territories whether spatial, social or cultural. Art borrows from musical theatre only for music to borrow back from art. All this remembered by the invocation of another media, or perhaps the synthesis of all these, cinema.

Already in 1967, the same year Tropicalia was first exhibited, Augusto de Campos wrote about Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso’s songs as cinematographic:

As Décio Pignatari had observed, whilst Gil’s lyrics remember Eisenstein’s montages, with its close ups and fusions […] Caetano’s lyrics are like a hand held camera, more like the open and informal way of a Godard, collecting the casual reality ‘between facts and names’.(p.153)

Another precedent for this hypothesis of transmedia as a driving force in 1960s

cultural production, would be the conference held during the 1957 first national exhibition of concrete art, when poets Haroldo de Campos and Ferreira Gullar disagreed about the (visual) nature of concrete poetry. The event was reported in O Cruzeiro as the Rock’n’Roll of poetry, where the young Hélio can be perceived, listening attentively if somewhat bemused, to the heated debate ensuing.

As far as Oiticica is concerned, the article now seems somewhat prophetic, given his inroads into prose as a form of art in the late 60s, which he called autos and contos, the conjunction of his interests during the 1970s while living in New York, namely Rock’n’Roll and experimental music (ranging from the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix to John Cage) and how these diverse sources had been fostered by his friendship and correspondence with a number of Brazilian musicians, artists, intellectuals, film makers, and poets, including of course, the Campos brothers, ultimately leading to his concept of quasi-cinema.

In his essay, ‘In the White Forest’, Gonzalo Aguilar explores how Oiticica and the Campos brothers by the 1970s had transcended the old concrete-neoconcrete disagreements through, amongst other reasons, their common ties of friendship with the Tropicalist musicians and the invocation of Sousandrade’s narrative poem ‘O guesa errante’ of 1877, which the Campos brothers brought out of obscurity in the 1960s, particularly in relation to Canto 10, denominated by the Campos brothers as ‘O Inferno de Wall Street or nightmare on wall street’ which they saw as being an example of proto-modernist poetry.

Oiticica (1971b) became enthusiastic about Sousandrade’s own incursions into his new home city and attempted to identify the places in New York described by Sousândrade[1], with the aid of a study of the history of the city by his friend Dore Ashton[2]. This project became for him a form of transcultural and transhistorical mapping of the city.

Sousandrade’s 19th century New York, Mallarme’s Un Coup de De, the Brazilian artist Antonio Dias and Mario Montez in drag as Carmen Miranda, come together in the unfinished film Agripina é Roma-Manhattan as a synthesis of poetry, literature, art, and popular culture.

Haroldo de Campos would in fact have a profound influence on Oiticica’s own reevaluation of his practice towards the end of his short life, during and after his seven-year self-exile in New York.

Recently arrived in Manhattan, Oiticica interviewed Haroldo de Campos in 1971, establishing what would become a recurrent practice of recording conversations with his guests, which Haroldo from the outset entitled Heliotapes. This first recording registers Haroldo de Campos speaking of Helio’s Ninhos (whose concept had originated during Helio’s residency at Sussex University in Brighton 1969 and later exhibited at MOMA’s 1970 Information exhibition, these structures later integrated Oiticica’s own living environment in his New York lofts, which renamed as babilonests). Haroldo in the tape recording associated these ninhos with the Hagoromo play from the traditional Japanese Noh theatre. According to Haroldo de Campos:

I was thinking about that thing we saw at your studio the other day, the Nests. I came out of there and began thinking about a series of things that interested me in this very idea of yours, I was remembering a play from the Japanese Noh theatre, the hagoromo (the feathered mantle) which is one of the plays Ezra Pound translated into English, a short play, very beautiful. Where precisely at the centre of the play is a feathered mantle that at one and the same time is beautifully coloured and has fragrance, a wonderful perfume, that at that moment presented already the issue of synesthesia, the correspondance between sounds, colours, [dance].

In the play, the hagoromo, the feathered mantle, is left upon a tree like the most beautiful nest, after having been momentarily discarded by the angel, it is found by a fisherman, who demands from the angel a dance, the dance of the moon. Upon performing the dance the angel dissolves into the sky, in Haroldo’s words, ‘dissolves into the sky’s white: like the nest, white on the most white of whites’.

There is no doubt that these associations made by the poet Haroldo de Campos had a great impact on the artist, not least for their reference to Oiticica’s hero Malevitch. Evidence of which can be found in several notes and typed texts produced by Oiticica during the period and which he entitled Aglomerado[3].

In one such example, entitled Bodywise of September 1973 (two years after the initial recording), we find Oiticica returning to Haroldo’s observations and expanding on them. From the outset Oiticica claims:

Sight looses him [the angel] in a visual-sensorial performance: Haroldo gave me this translated fragment as a reference that he establishes with the effect of the Nests in New York (Babilonests): the feathered mantle, an already sensorial plumed performer dissolves into the sky of white on white sky beyond the reach of sight: performance- limit: white on atmospheric white, a situation where the body can only refer to itself and no longer to the edenic vision of the mantle: THE MANTLE IS OBJECT AND BODY AT THE SAME TIME

And further on:

The MANTLE-object dissolves itself into the MANTLE-space That is, space-environment

In page 2 of the same document, Oiticica invokes an incident with a fan at a Rolling Stones concert. In page 3 it is with the Parangolé that the hagoromo is associated with. Page 4 discusses the relationship between the mantle, space and clothing in the context of the rock concert, using Mick Jagger as an example of body-environment. While in page 5 the concept of Capa (or mantle)- clothing is concluded as: Corpo-climax, Bodywise, wise like Rock. Page 6 sees a precedent in Lygia Clark’s Nostalgia do Corpo. Finally pages 7 and 8 refer to Vito Acconti’s rumbing piece as: a body-performance whereby the body is instituted within the performance-event: a performance that embodies itself as time-duration. Time-duration refers of course to Oiticica’s early reflections on how his Penetrables invoked Bergson’s notion of duration as a form of apprehending colour.

The document therefore establishes quite broad relationships between the hagoromo, Oiticica’s past production as well as that of his peers, his contemporaries such as Acconti and his enthusiasm for Rock music and culture.

That same year Silviano Santiago described Caetano Veloso’s performative character as the ‘synthetic character that was being presented by the art of Glauber [Rocha] or Ze Celso, of Helio Oiticica or Rubens Gerchman’ concluding that Caetano ‘wanted his body, its plasticity, to capture the public so that it would be the live image of his artistic message.’(p.234).

Interestingly the idea of synthesis emerges in Oiticica’s own re-evaluation of the Parangole during the 1970s. Not through any Parangole, but one dedicated to Haroldo de Campos and inspired on the Hagoromo. If we return to Haroldo de Campos’ initial recording in Heliotape 1, he speaks of synesthesia, the exchanged experience between sight and smell. It is my contention that Oiticica’s notion of experiencing colour as music, or music as a tactile-spatial entity emerges from this encounter with the Hagoromo.

In 1977, still in New York we find Oiticica making quite a significant statement: that all his previous work was but a prelude for what was to come.

This critical reassessment of his trajectory would incorporate his experiences of the 1960s from the Penetrables, the Parangolé to Tropicália, together with the influence gathered by his proximity to the Campos brothers during the 1970s, to experimental film making (from Jack Smith to his own quasi-cinema cosmococa proposals) and his enthusiasm for Rock music (The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix in particular). The conjunction of these factors would inform his somewhat mysterious claim that O Q FAÇO É MUSICA.

The statement is generally credited by Oiticica scholars to an article dated 1979 in which Oiticica claims:

I discovered that what I do is music and that music is not ‘one of the arts’ but the synthesis of the consequence of the discovery of the body: that is why Rock for example, has become important for me to put into check- mate the key issues of creation (samba in which I was initiated, came together with this discovery in the early 60s: Parangolé and dance were born together and it is impossible to separate them): Rock is the phenomeno-planetary synthesis of this discovery of the body.

An earlier mention exists and is perhaps more revealing still:

I begin this small notebook on the 7th of August 1978, Caetano Veloso’s birthday, and therefore I dedicate it to him, THE POET

4.50 pm to the sound of the Stones on the HI FI I thus name this penetrable PN (?) Magic Square 3, which I am completing, it’s title Brown Sugar -> o q faço é musica, this penetrable is my Rock of the day. It is not that what I do, or this penetrable has the ‘spirit of rock’ or that it is musical


The invention of Colour is ROCK and there is more

Rock is important because rock is always a state of invention, just as

what I do is music and never a finished work of art

The invention of colour is invention, it is music

brown sugar magic square 3 is rock

just as Bach’s Fugue is the invention of art

To understand Oiticica’s return to the investigation of colour within space in the Magic Square series, represents therefore a synthesis of his interests in the Bergsonian notion of duration, together with a rethinking of the significance of the relation between the Parangolé and dance, now demythified from its primitivist connotations via the synesthetic image of the hagoromo, which bridges space, touch and smell through the synthetic notion of the body and music. During the neoconcrete years and with his so-called penetrables where colour was the principle concern, Oiticica had written about the silence that emanated from within the work, and since silence can only be perceived as time, the work of art became inescapably associated with duration: in his view, it became duration. Now, with the later penetrable projects duration became noise, music.

During his lifetime these works remained as projects, maquetes to be built one day in public squares, within the urban fabric of the city. Two, actually two versions of the same Magic Square n5, have been built. One in the Museu do Acude in the Parque da Tijuca the other at Inhotin, mining billionaire Bernardo Paz’s, answer to North American philanthropy and European public/private models for arts funding.

Brazil experienced during the 70s, an economic boom, the so-called brazilian miracle. Regarding the commercial appropriation by the music industry of tropicalia transforming it into the brand name tropicalismo and the concurrent slogans promoted by the regime such as Brazil love it or leave it, Oiticica responded with an essay entitled Brasil diareia. I wonder what he would make of this second brazilian miracle, and within the booming field of culture how his own art has come to figure?

In whichever case, whether slowly being taken over by the tropical surrounding and the lack of maintenance or immaculately preserved at Inhotin, that show case for the power associated with art collecting that has come to dominate the contemporary art world, the penetrable seems today to have returned to silence.


[1] After having studied in Paris at the Sorbonne, Joaquim de Sousa Andrade (1833-1902), later moved to New York in 1870, where he published (in Portuguese) the journal ‘O Novo Mundo’ (the New World). His literary work was generally ignored until the Campos brothers ‘re-discovered’ it during the 60s. See: http://www.secrel.com.br/jpoesia/soua.html

[2] See: Appendix 2 for translated excerpts.

[3] See Coelho, F. (2010) Livro ou Livro-me: os escritos Babilônicos de Hélio Oiticica (1971-1978), EDUERJ, Rio de Janeiro.