A series of neon signs appears over the urban landscape of Benito Pérez Galdós Avenue in La Boca, a working-class neighborhood located in the south of Buenos Aires. The poetic messages address territory, identity, and change: “Volvernos invisibles” [To become invisible], “El terreno se vuelve a mover” [The ground is moving again], and “El silencio es imposible” [Silence is impossible]. Despite the anonymity that public art installations impose, Escrituras: un proyecto de contraseñalética urbana [Scripts: a project of urban counter-signage] was developed between 2014 and 2016 by Argentine artists Gabriela Golder and Mariela Yeregui with local residents. Escrituras establishes a renewed open-source cartography based on the community’s experience of the neighborhood. I spoke to Gabriela Golder about her creative experience working on a public art project, her approach with the community, and the implications of countersignaling a well-known urban landscape.
Tania Puente: How did you become interested in developing Escrituras?
Gabriela Golder: This project was selected from an open call for site-specific artistic projects that the city government organized. Part of the rules were to think of a neighborhood we’d like to intervene, and one of the given options was La Boca. We chose it because there’s a rising tension right now in this area, between the real estate development and the longstanding inhabitants of the neighborhood. Apart from economic issues, there’s also an identity struggle between its residents. Every group in the neighborhood tries to constantly reaffirm its own identity, instead of recognizing themselves as part of a wider community. In historical terms, La Boca is a neighborhood born from Italian immigration. Nowadays, there is a different kind of immigration, mostly from the bordering countries—a more marginalized population.
In looking at this overall picture, we thought La Boca would be a very interesting place to find interstices to get into and to start working with those who inhabit this place. A public space installation necessarily has to consider and be developed with others. If it is not done this way, it becomes an imposition.
TP: What was your approach towards this context?
GG: To begin with, we had to start understanding this particular urban tissue. One of our main questions was how to look at La Boca. This neighborhood carries a big cliché regarding its touristic activity while, at the same time, being considered one of Buenos Aires’ most dangerous neighborhoods. How could we escape those preconceived ideas? In order to understand it, we discovered we needed a new map—one that could be traced through a series of workshops.
TP: What did those workshops consist of?
GG: We designed four workshops in which artists from different disciplines developed activities around a renewed understanding of this space. Everyone could join these workshops, whether or not they lived in La Boca. One of these sessions was dedicated to the sounds of the neighborhood. With small recorders, the assistants would register the sound landscape, such as the water running in the sewers, the noise from the soccer field, and the sirens. Because of the loud noises that came from the stadium, many houses have gigantic cracks in their walls. The second workshop consisted in thinking about how to become invisible in this given space. This idea had to do with how these inhabitants are ignored most of the time to privilege a touristic approach of the zone. A third workshop focused on the writings on the walls, and how passers-by “read” this area. The last workshop aimed for a visual intervention. Each participant was given some sort of cartographer’s kit, with pencils, a notebook, and colors. They recreated the space, noting cracks, holes, and small details that were never repaired, in order to write down and trace a broader image of these streets.
After each workshop, all the participants would gather and write their impressions on Post-its, which would be later posted on a map. We made a first selection of the strongest phrases with all the neighbors, and afterwards, we cut it down to restrain the number of characters.
TP: Do the signs follow a specific order?
GG: We wanted to interweave a narrative. The main sentence is El terreno se vuelve a mover [The ground is moving again], located on the highway, and from there, the other messages radiate. Nevertheless, one can read just a single phrase and still try to decipher a random narrative. Despite our poetic interest, we faced many problems regarding the places where the signs were going to be installed. We had to talk to the neighbors and explain to them that these signs weren’t selling anything—they were just pointing at some thoughts. There’s a huge responsibility in fostering a thought. The residents questioned the signs’ functionality. Some of them really wanted the signs on their facades, so they would light up that part of the street. Because of the electricity, this is a very fragile project. Anyone can cut the power source. We are thinking of ways to make it less vulnerable.
TP: The locations of the pieces are relevant, as this is a project with a clear cartographical intention. Despite not being about identifying specific places, the project indicates the community’s intersubjectivity.
GG: That is correct. We cannot deny the implicit power discourse this territory possesses in terms of the official history, where, from the clichéd perspective, locals aren’t considered in what is indicated. How can we think of this place beyond the official discourse? Museums and tourist spots are indicated, but what about the drugstore or the mechanical workshop? Do these places still count? With this counter-signage project, we are tracing a different map—one that distances away from the official discourse.
TP: In going through all the files uploaded onto the project’s website, I was thinking that this piece has become an intersubjective neighborhood archive—one that implies an individual stare that simultaneously turns into a collective in front of the public eye.
GG: There are many pictures where you see different hands writing: each one of them is a hand from a body that is rewriting its own place. At the same time, this process is collective because those appraisals were gathered in collective drifts. It’s all about discovering the same place together from an individual point of view.
TP: As well as remembering…
GG: Yes, just like the cracks on the walls, the peculiarities of each street, the plants that start growing in the interstices, these are the signs that provide evidence on how time passes by. The way we look at things and spaces can turn repetitive—we stop noticing small changes. But our main aim is to look at this place intensely, to shake the context, and to be able to forge an individual stare—one that has the ability to be interwoven with other stares and that constantly reflects the past, in private history and life.
Escrituras: un proyecto de contraseñalética urbana will be on view through May 2017.
 Apart from being famous for its soccer team, La Boca shelters Caminito, a pintoresque street with colorful houses and local souvenirs. It is one of the main tourist attractions in Buenos Aires.