Gilberto Gil: the tropicalist voice for an open digital culture

Gilberto Gil has left the Brazilian Ministry of Culture. He says that music has called him back.

A quick look at reactions surfacing this week in the headlines of the Brazilian mainstream media tell of a singer-minister who did a passable job in using his social capital to boost the ministry’s actions into international channels. Gil’s assignment was almost passed off as just one more of Lula’s ‘populist tricks’ to hold qualified support for himself.

The seemingly condescending tone of Brazilian media comments and analyses about Gil’s performance as a minister are definitely not a surprise. During his term, the mainstream outlets basically ignored or ridiculed some major international coverage such as 2004 Wired magazine article, telling about Gil’s ahead-of-the-curve awareness of the importance of openness among the principles of the digital revolution.

He was ridiculed, indeed, when during an inauguration class at the University of Sao Paulo (USP) in August 2004 he declared:

“I, Gilberto Gil, Brazilian citizen, world citizen and Minister of Culture of Brazil, develop my work in music, in the ministry and in all the dimensions of my existence under the inspiration of hacker ethics; I am concerned about the issues that my world and my time pose to me, such as the issue of the digital divide, of free software and also the issue of regulation and development of audiovisual content production and distribution, by any media, for any purpose”.

At that moment, there was a highly charged debate over the proposal of Gil’s team for creating a National Cinema and Audiovisual Agency (ANCINAV) to ‘deal with audiovisual as an integrated and convergent economy, following the evolution of new technological platforms‘. The powerful media and TV networks were quick to react, violently.

‘Xenophobic, authoritarian, Stalinist, Chavez-like and soviet-style’ were items included in the name calling Gil had to bear. At the time, Juca Ferreira — the sociologist designated by Gil to be his successor as head of the ministry — managed to clarify the context that called for a regulatory agency in Brazil:

“In the audiovisual sector, the economic environment is being rearranged and the ownership concentration is growing. Big telecom companies are acquiring smaller companies from the movies, media, journalism and entertainment sectors, generating mega corporations eager to conquer new markets. These companies are able to maintain powerfull relations with their own rich governments, while also promoting interest-based relations with its poor countries hosts. They perform political strategies to take down what they call barriers, and fight against ownership concentration regulations in their home countries. It makes sense… It is important to mention those strategies are performed by highly competent and proactive State bureaucracies making use of all kinds of resources.”
Juca Ferreira in ‘Brazilians debate regulation and media convergence’Global Voices Online

Googling for English content on ANCINAV leads you to a protected article which allows enough reading for us to understand the drift and recognize the style of attack. “The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) threatened Brazil with commercial retaliation if the government continued its plans to create ANCINAV…”

Amidst heavy artillery, and although having already compromised in the creation of the agency, Lula felt the pressure and backed off, asking Gil to continue studying other alternatives.

All this occurred during Gilberto Gil’s first months as a minister, and he learned a lot from the ANCINAV episode. The goals stayed the same, but the strategy was to be reframed.

Lessig with Gil @ Porto Alegre’s WSF05:
Is this what democracy looks like?

Perhaps calling himself
a hacker while being attacked as a ‘stalinist’ by local mainstream media right on the occasion of his very first major venture as minister was the grand overture of the Tropicalia movement vibe from his podium in government.

The tropicalist visionary perspective is a legacy of the late 60’s when Gil and his group were discovering a new global audience and experimenting with all kinds of cultural fusions. Here for the first time was the recognition that the same pulses of modernity were resonating from the cosmopolitan electric guitars from abroad and from regional groups from the hinterlands of the Brazilian Northeast. The urge to communicate and mix across cultures was the key to what came to be known as tropicalism.

Gil’s focus on the hacker ethics of openness for the digital culture today, forty years later, was instrumental for a similar mixing of cultures, peers, rhythms, codes and complexities. In his own way, he managed to creatively introduce new conceptual layers and nuances to his political discourse, thus breaking open new ground for the political debate over mass culture, the market, technology, the tensions between the contemporary and the traditional, intellectual property regulation, and more.

At that moment, the seeds of what would become some of the main projects of Gil’s tenure were tossed into the air. There was the pioneering push to port Creative Commons licenses to Brazil, which were displayed as Gil’s first moves toward the process of revising Brazilian copyrights laws. The fruits of such a debate were surely reflected in Brazil’s recent stiff (and successful) positions at WIPO — the World Intellectual Property Association, and in the realization of a National Forum to debate revisions on the copyright law which is now underway.

Another significant move came from Gil’s engagement in bringing back to life the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity. While opponents were keen to label the convention as a “deeply flawed” treaty, overly protectionist, and a threat to freedom of expression, Gil worked on the possibility that the initiative could result in a counterbalance to the World Trade Organization (WTO) rulings when deciding conflicts between trade and culture. In June 2007 the Brazilian Ministry of Culture sponsored an International Seminar to debate practical implementations and tools to activate the powers of the convention in each country.

The launch of the first ‘Pontos de Cultura’ (Cultural Hotspots) as a concrete program and as a showcase for Gil’s vision for digital culture was broadly recognized as a great idea in terms of cutural policy. It all starts with the selection of a project, an existent cultural process developed by groups such as indigenous tribes, quilombolas, cultural groups in favelas, academic centers at universities, or the like. The “architecture” of a hotspot is both structurally simple and broadly innovative. It is established with a broadband connection, infrastructure made of recycled equipment and, most important, technical workshops on open source audio and video editing software, enabling the cultural groups to digitize their creativity and publish it under alternative licenses. The project mixes (1) free software, (2) advanced concepts on copyrights and (3) an awareness that the appropriation of technology by the people is the emergent social movement which supports the generative dynamics of the digital era. According to Gil:

“We need to relocate what is now centralized in the hands of few. The majors of the cultural industry haven’t left anything for the peripheries. That’s why today the role of the Brazilian state in formulating public policies is to empower the micro manifestations so that they become able to occupy the public spaces while being protagonists of the promotion and protection of diversity”
[pt] Brasil lead American countries on policies for artistic expressions – o Abismal

The one complaint made by Gilberto Gil on the day he presented his departure to president Lula was related to the low budget for his ministry. While Gil’s critics from different positions generally talk about good ideas being poorly implemented, on the website of the media giant Globo network — where they use to represent Gil the minister as a cartoon mumbling esoteric nonsense — 53% of readers voted ‘terrible’ in judging his term. His achievements were in the face of much hostility.

But, the final assessment that is yet to be made about Gilberto Gil’s term at the helm of the Brazilian Ministry of Culture is whether his achievements are enough to lead us to believe that culture can be trusted as a locus for activism and progressive change in the global networked society.

Like managing to jam with widely different musical partners, anywhere, under all conditions, Gil seems to embody the ‘use of culture’ as a communication tool that both enables and invites broad participation. The invitation for cultural exercise is to be found mixed into the tropicalist vibe of his speeches on digital culture:

To act upon digital culture is the concretization of this philosophy, which open spaces to redefine the form and the content of cultural policies, and transforms the Ministry of Culture… Digital culture is a new concept. It comes from the idea that the digital technology revolution is cultural in its essence. What is at stake here is that the use of digital technology change behaviors. The plain use of the Internet and of free software creates fantastic possibilities to democratize access to information and to knowledge, to maximize the potential of cultural goods and services, to amplify the values that form our common scripts, and therefore, our culture, and also to potentialize the cultural production, generating new forms of art.

In a recent speech, Minister Gilberto Gil affirmed that Digital Culture initiatives present a built-in revolutionary device, and are able to play a fundamental role in shaking away the inertia of the traditional politics that has excluded much of society from public life. He talked about a bottom-up unrest happening everywhere, which he sees as a very positive sign of the emergence of a non-governmental political movement that he believes to be a direct and evolved result of recent cultural and counter-cultural forces which have been increasing their ability to influence public policies. He talked about ‘Peer-acy‘.

For those of us who worked with him, the loss is big. For him, I think it will be great to feel free again to dedicate himself to music. And one thing is for sure: Gilberto Gil’s tropicalist term has transformed the Brazilian Ministry of Culture.

The tones and rhythms of his leadership will live on.

Here is an interesting interview with Gilberto Gil @ YouTube