When Andy Marshall, Talitha Bewlay and about 100 other artists stormed past a security guard and broke into the huge building at 63 Ouvidor on May 1, they didn't really know what was going to happen. They had seen the scores of other occupied buildings around South America's biggest city, and some friends had told them their effort stood a chance.
Not long after, they had taken up residence and were putting on classes and musical and artistic performances — usually open to the public but sometimes for a small fee that went toward restorations and exhibitions in the 13-story building.
Augusto Amaral had a showing of a collaborative installation on the open second floor, which was as filled with projections and paintings as it was with the dirt and broken windows the group hadn't managed to fix up yet. A newly formed band, Piratas do Ouvidor, plays its subtropical hippie rock here and elsewhere, and many of the trendier children of Brazil's elite have lined up outside for the huge parties.
"Basically, prices have been going up so quickly that we just couldn't afford to pay rent here, and this building presented us with an option," says Bewlay, 25, from the southern city of Porto Alegre. "We were inspired just as much by the squats in Europe — which we've never seen — as the other, really present occupations in São Paulo."
As it turns out, they may be kicked out soon. Or they may not. They're not sure, as they don't have the legal experience or organization that Brazil's much more numerous left-wing landless and homeless workers' movements have acquired as they overtook many of Brazil's abandoned spaces in recent years.
But as one of the small but growing number of artist groups that have recently added artistic occupations to the landscape, they have provided new spaces downtown, brought attention to the struggle for space and touched on themes that have become central in Brazil's mainstream contemporary art scene.
In fact, the 31st Bienal São Paulo, currently on display, has been organized both spatially and thematically around a preoccupation with public space, notes Galit Eilat, one of its curators.
"We're dealing with the different issues of housing, which are related to last year's demonstrations and unrest, either in favelas or occupied buildings, and with the homeless and landless movements," she says, sitting in a part of the Bienal building that was intentionally kept as open as the park surrounding it, and where a conference on "Housing: Impact and Resistances" was held, with speakers from Brazil to Turkey.
"Upstairs," says Eilat, gesturing to the initial works in that greet viewers in Oscar Niemeyer's famous Bienal building, "we have patches of the city."
The Bienal — which is set to receive 1.5 million visitors, making it one of the world's largest — has been going on since 1951 and this year chose to stare straight into the face of themes such as revolutionary action, occupation and protest.
The work "Não é sobre sapatos," or "It's not about shoes," by Gabriel Mascaro, examines the ways that Brazil's undercoverpolice keep track of protest groups. The video installation "Wonderland" by Turkey's Halil Altindere treats in dramatic fashion the same themes that have dictated the trajectory of protests and occupations in São Paulo: clashes with police as youths fight gentrification, defend their turf in slums and sometimes slip into the irresponsibility of Molotov cocktails and the fetishization of revolutionary aesthetics and violence.
The performers rap, deadpan: "Stop the demolition / dissent for destruction / let art and music be your armaments."
The connection to Istanbul may not be accidental. Brazil's protests last June started as the unrest in Istanbul's Taksim Square was ongoing, and via Twitter and Brazil correspondents, Turks send messages of support to São Paulo.
Meanwhile, the overtly political Bienal generated controversy earlier in this tight election year when members of Brazil's growing evangelical Christian movement objected to its treatment of abortion and homosexuality.
The curators and speakers from the Bienal — Brazilian and Turkish — took a tour of the city, including to a space occupied by the Homeless Workers' Movement, which occupied a site near the World Cup opener in June, and the Marconi building, occupied downtown just blocks from Ouvidor.
Authorities acknowledge that there is a severe housing shortage in the country as real estate prices rise — by some estimates there's a shortage of 5 million units — and after the red flag-waving groups of mostly poor families take over buildings and abandoned lots, sometimes they can stay or earn the right to public housing after negotiating with the government. Or sometimes, they get into fights. In September, police clashed with squatters and filled the streets with tear gas in the process of removing occupiers from another building downtown, and detained 70 activists.
Other than Ouvidor, which belongs to the Ministry of Culture, São Paulo's other famous artistic occupation is the Casa Amarela, also in the center, which was taken by the group Shared Atelier in February.
"In practice, this ends up being a cultural, political and social action," says Vanessa Gomsant, an artist in residence at the "Yellow House." As at Ouvidor, they put on free classes and exhibitions for the public but don't have the big fundraising dance parties.
Some who have long been acquainted with Brazil's history of working-class occupations have been perplexed by the arrival of middle-class artists who occupy public space only to turn around and charge hipsters steep party entrance fees and promote their careers as artists.
But Manuel Moruzzi, coordinator at the traditional families-and-workers Marconi occupation that was visited by the Bienal, says there are benefits when the cool kids arriveon the scene.