“When one writes with one’s hand, the writing becomes corporal, transformed into a material thing.” So reads one of the many poems painstakingly etched in blue lettering onto the façades of the Boquense buildings lining Garibaldi and Olavarria streets. It is precisely what sculptor Américo Gadben had in mind nine years ago when he conceived the idea for inscribing 1000 metres of poetry onto Buenos Aires: to give life to words by injecting them with “the energy of the street”.
Gadben, a stereotypical eccentric artist with a carefully cultivated Dali-style moustache, is a Buenos Aires-based sculptor. The project is his creative brainchild, executed in association with socially conscious publication ‘Hecho en Buenos Aires’, for which he regularly conducts artistic workshops. Gadben enthuses “it is extremely enriching to work with this sort of people, who have other concerns and a unique perspective as a result of having lived on the streets.”
Thus the 1000 metres of poetry occupies the nexus between art and social work, combining creative credibility with engaging otherwise marginalised individuals in fulfilling tasks. Over the course of its lengthy development, the project has evolved from an artistic whim into a standard-bearer for economically sustainable tourism, thanks to a collaboration with Turismo Sostenible de La Boca-Barracas.
The organisation is a subsidiary of the Italian NGO Institute for International Economic Cooperation (ICEI), which promotes what it terms “responsible tourism”, focusing on “sustainable projects in an urban context”. In this case the emphasis is economic rather than environmental and it complements ICEI’s alternative tours through La Boca and Barracas. These eschew the beaten track, aiming to do justice to the colourful history scored through the neighbourhood’s grid of streets.
The paintings were undertaken by 20 volunteers, comprising staff and homeless vendors of Hecho, artists and La Boca residents. The volunteers were required to complete a series of ten intensive workshops in order to ensure that the same calligraphic style was reproduced in every line of poetry. The painting took an official five days, after which Gadben spent a couple of weeks adding the finishing touches. He recounts a carnivalesque atmosphere and affirms: “we had a lot of fun.”
The experience has resulted in a unique fusion of art and the urban landscape. All painting was executed with the residents’ permission, some of whom volunteered their walls. Even schoolboys were so enchanted by the project that they copied poems into notebooks. When explaining how much of the poetry inscribed on the train tracks has already been rubbed away by passing vehicles, Gadben’s features light up with child-like wonder at the idea that “the train travelled on poetry.”
The finished walls are adorned with fragments of poems mostly by Argentine authors of varying degrees of celebrity. Big names such as Borges and Cortázar are present, democratically sharing wall space with tango lyrics as well as two poems written by homeless people. Indeed, reading a poem written by a man who beds down for the night in a train station alongside Argentina’s literary giants is one of the project’s most affecting features.
Gadben is adamant that art should be an egalitarian affair, available for all to both create and appreciate. A stylised ‘X’ flanked on either side by two smaller ‘p’s represents “poesía por el público”. This is a personal passion of Gadben’s, who insisted upon a collective signature “so there’s no author”. Although he works in the visual arts, Gadben is fascinated by their relationship with words, letters and language. Much of his work revolves around sculptures of alphabet blocks piled into various conceptual constructions of elusive meaning.
Gadben punctuates every day with a haiku and opines “it’s not necessary to write a whole page to be understood. With 24 syllables you can get the same thing across.” Similarly, he believes in the power of the fragments to light up a kilometre of the drab asphalt jungle. An enigmatic improvisation of his own, intended to convey the emotions at the end of the experience, is emblazoned on a wall: “a voyage, words, a rose, everything in the suitcase, my shadow, the wind, the water which carries the wind far away.”
The poetry in fact extends beyond the eponymous thousand metres, although it zigzags over an area considerably shorter than a kilometre. A variety of setbacks scrapped the initial plan for a linear presentation, including the threat posed by breaching what Américo describes as the “safety limit” beyond the 1000 metres. The positioning of the poetry within La Boca is no accident. Its intention is to lure tourists from Caminito’s confines, to become acquainted with the real Boca and contribute to the socio-economic reinvigoration of one of Buenos Aires’ more disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
People who work in Caminito generally have very little to do with the Boquense community, according to ICEI member Sabrina Carlini. They live in other parts of the city and commute daily to prise open foreign purses, sidelining locals from the profits and locking the community in a vicious cycle of deprivation and marginalisation. ICEI’s vision of economic sustainability entails the integration of more residents into the tourist industry in the hope that instead of regarding foreigners with hostility, they will view them as an economic and social opportunity.
“Caminito is not representative of La Boca’s rich culture and history,” laments Carlini. Yet for many tourists, it is an iconic image of old Buenos Aires which encapsulates both city and neighbourhood. Gadben is equally adamant that although San Telmo is marketed at tourists as the epicentre of porteña bohemia, La Boca has a vibrant artistic reputation. He insists that Caminito is surrounded by studios occupied by myriad talented artists. Even his own relationship with La Boca is artistic. It is the site of the escuela de bellas artes he attended, and filled with memories of lazy afternoons whiled away as a student.
La Boca is a neighbourhood of contrasts. Caminito is Buenos Aires caricatured, a tourist paradise of overpriced leather goods, tango dancers and a glamourised representation of times past. It sits awkwardly in a barrio which remains largely an exclusion zone for non-residents. Guidebooks highlight the potential threat the area poses to tourists and although it is not unusual for intrepid travellers to escape unscathed after strolling around La Boca’s crumbling buildings and ramshackle shops, warnings from locals either concerned or aggressive are a common occurrence.
The Argentina Independent was given a guided tour of the 1000 metres of poetry by Carlini. Although a matter of metres from Caminito, we were stopped twice and instructed to turn on our heels, clasping our cameras tightly. Embarrassed by the intervention, her explanation was the locals’ “contradictory attitude” towards tourists. Theirs’ is a complex relationship in which they are both fascinated and repelled by foreigners, proud and ashamed of their surroundings. Poetry may not be able to regenerate a neighbourhood overnight, but in opening up La Boca to visitors perhaps the only right path to take is a step in the wrong direction.
The 1000 metres of poetry are located in La Boca along Olavarria and Garibaldi, passing by Aráoz de Lamadrid, Magallanes, Rocha and Quinquela Martín.