The “Ocupação Algerinha” (Algerinha occupation) or “Vila Algerinha” (Algerinha neighborhood), formerly known as “Ocupação Dona Algerinha” (Mrs. Algerinha Occupation) was one of the biggest occupations in South America in the first decades of the twentieth-first century. During its five-year existence, the occupation was home to around 120.000 people, distributed over an area of approximately 1.33 square kilometers in Southeastern Brazil. The exact origins of the occupation are unknown, but it is believed that the families were initially part of a transmigrational group in Latin America which, in itself, was dissident from a larger group of families directly affected by the housing crisis that followed the wave of Coups d’Etat all over the continent. Due to increased incentives to real estate markets, progressive gentrification in big cities, and the suspension of most social housing programmes in South America, thousands of families – many of whom also unemployed – were forcefully expropriated from their homes, and hence started waves of peregrination and demonstrations all over the continent, particularly in the Southern Cone and Brazil.
The first occupation took place in an abandoned industrial park, owned by ATAS-GAS – a water and waste management conglomerate. The area had already been inactive for more than twenty years, at the time of the first settlement; after a failed attempt of allotment motivated by the increased interest in the neighborhoods around the industrial park, the area was ultimately abandoned and the company ceased paying taxes to municipal administration. With that, a few squatters – around twenty families – started living inside most of the empty sheds, and improvised, impromptu renovations immediately took place to make the space inhabitable. In only a few months in, the industrial park was almost entirely covered with illegal energy supplies, water, TV, and Internet. At the same time, around three hundred more families from the aforementioned transmigrational groups slowly started to arrive at the industrial park, occupying not only the few spaces left within the buildings but also the open spaces around and within the park. Soon enough, an official community was established with elected leaders, small associations, a few churches, and other small businesses such as bars or repairing workshops. With the allocation of so many people in such a large, abandoned but privately-owned area, the municipal administration and the conglomerate attempted to negotiate with occupation leaders the dismantling of this settlement – to no avail. A few weeks later – around fourteen months after the families arrived –, a tentative expropriation took place, and the violence surrounding this episode eventually ended up giving the occupation the name it was known for. Argélia Sousa, a seventy-two year old woman, was murdered at the front door of her makeshift home by a stray bullet, in front of her two daughters and sister-in-law. Occupation activists blamed the Military Police for the incident, and the case gained media attention. Public outcry demanded quick action from the municipal court, and in collaboration with the Military Police’s own internal investigation, Camilo Dias, leader of the insurgent group that tried to counteract the forced eviction, was framed as the perpetrator. The massive coverage of mass media used the image of Mrs. Argélia, known in the community as “Dona Algerinha,” as the martyr of an illegal struggle; hence the occupation came to be known publicly as “Ocupação Dona Algerinha.”
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Connected to such an unfortunate event, the first tentative eviction did not go through. There were several casualties, and human rights groups as well as activists were pressuring both city council and conglomerate to seek other means of accommodating the continuously growing families in the area. In the meantime, similar occupations were taking place all over South America, inspired by the struggle of Algerinha, not only due to housing shortages but also motivated by political demands. Thus schools, universities, city councils, and churches were constantly taken over by activists and demonstrators, only to be forcefully evicted by a militarized police; activists’ demands were more often than not dismissed, and met with severe violence. Many of these occupations lasted only a few weeks due to media pressure and forced evictions; however, several persisted amongst waves of mistrust, hate speech, and segregation. This period of uprising and massive occupations all over South America came to be known in the media as the “year of occupations”, or sometimes “occupation crisis”. A good number of “neighborhood watches” and self-proclaimed “moral vigilantes” started acting on these occupations, with due attention from South American mass media.
A conversation about the decision of buying several “crickets” (most probably referencing Long-Range Acoustic Devices), in order to deal with a perceived “problem” in the neighborhood.
Public opinion on the subject was inflamed, and in the case of housing, occupation leaders were particularly keen on creating a good image of their communities. Despite their efforts, media focused on the tensions and prejudices arising from the neighborhood around Algerinha. The legality of these occupations was subject of long discussions in the media; little attention was given to the occupation’s voices, except for when they lost their temper. Conversely, most of the inhabitants from the neighborhood surrounding the Algerinha grounds had their complaints amplified by the public opinion, connecting an alleged increase in petty crime, violence, loitering, loudness, and drug use, as well as blaming the decreasing value of the real-estate, to the presence of the ‘Algerinha people’. In contrast, information from and about the struggles of the occupation flooded online discussions.
Blog post from a pro-eviction Website, in which the author discusses the alleged ‘real’ motivations from the Algerinha occupation.
II. The “Vila Algerinha” Project
With the upcoming election of a new mayor, negotiations around the occupation were suspended during the campaign. Candidates had strong opposing views on the subject, and the case of Algerinha was continuously brought up in online and televised debates. Apart from one or two candidates with radically conservative or liberal opinions, most favored negotiations, with varying degrees of tolerance as to the alleged legality of the occupation and the motivations of its inhabitants. When Sonia Shayeb, the so-called “progressive” candidate was elected, negotiations took a different turn: she vouched for more integration of the community into the city, and slowly attempted to promote a “renovation” of the public opinion towards the occupation. Her project was branded to investors, policy makers, and civil society as the “Vila Algerinha” project, a multi-purpose initiative to integrate and turn the occupation into a proper neighborhood in the city. The project’s final aim was to open up the space for external investment and infrastructure, as well as to promote entrepreneurship within the community from both members and outside initiatives. This project was developed together with the urban planning and infrastructure department and the neighborhood association, and had supervision and full strategic support from her administration’s partnership with the Latin American Hub for Social Design – also known as ¡Hubla! –, a public-private innovation hub focused on designed solutions for urban planning and socially-oriented politics in South America.
The Hub developed the Algerinha ‘integration’ project over the course of eighteen months. The project had several outlets, spanning from media campaigns and community-led parties to re-painting the façades of the occupations’ buildings, attempts of urban signalling and mapping, design contests on the internet, as well as participatory design activities with both occupation members and outside volunteers. It was during this time that “Ocupação Algerinha” came to be known as “Vila Algerinha”, a carefully orchestrated media campaign towards domesticating public opinion by perceiving Algerinha as a neighborhood rather than an occupation. The purpose of this partnership, as well as the question of what were its real goals, are still subject of high controversy today. The amount of influence the Hub had in the occupation has led to contrasting views on its efficacy; while many believed it helped the occupation strive further, sociologists and political scientists claim that in fact it fostered a mass surveillance operation, aimed at slowly dismantling the community from the inside out. ¡Hubla! tried to engage with the community by promoting activities within and outside it. A “pop-up Lab” was built inside the Algerinha grounds, and a few community members took part in design-driven workshops aimed at understanding and improving the occupation’s living conditions towards social inclusion, and the development urban planning policies. Among these workshops was Ruídografías (roughly translated as “noiseographics”), a transnational endeavor in order to tackle issues of noise pollution by raising awareness for and improvement of listening practices within occupations in large cities. The workshop was marketed by the media and the Lab:
In this week-long Workshop led by the Latin American Design and Innovation Research Lab, in collaboration with the urban development council, we will create playful devices with which to locate, measure, and map the loudest and quietest places in our neighborhood. With that we want to empower the inhabitants themselves to become aware of their own sonic footprint, and develop a better listening experience for families and businesses both inside and outside the community.
However, the arrival of this pop-up Lab in the occupation was met with varying degrees of mistrust, and occupation leaders were in constant (often heated) debate as to whether or not to permit the Hub designers to have full access to the occupation’s infrastructures (both physical and social).
One of the activities of this workshop consisted in augmenting kites with sensors and a high-sensitive microphone. Flying the kites around the occupation would gather overhead soundscapes as well as location, weather, and other data points for the Lab to use at a later moment.
The Lab also introduced a prototype they’d been working on: a binaural Earbud with the ability to focus on specific auditory “points of interest,” which the wearer could isolate and record using a smartphone app.
Selecting one from a few interested volunteers from the community, the Lab instructed the wearer to keep the Earbuds on at all times during the workshop, and to listen for sounds that would be more interesting as a “sonic marker” of the community.
Amongst the results of this workshop were the creation and implementation of the so-called “smart silence laws” which heavily targeted the sonic practices of Algerinha. The development of these laws was aided by specific data visualizations designed by the Hub after the workshop, such as the above map. This particular map presents the visitor with two layers of sounds captured by the devices in Vila Algerinha: the lower and larger one for sub-bass and bass frequencies (45 to 512 Hz), and the upper and smaller one for mid-range bands from 512 to 2048 Hz. Each layer has several circular indents, varying on size and profundity on the acrylic sheet; the larger the indent on the map, the lower the captured frequency; likewise, the deeper the indent on the sheet, the louder that specific frequency is. Based on this description, we can see on this map a strong predominance of sounds on the sub-bass and bass spectrum, with loudness varying from 30 to 50dB, depending on the part of the neighborhood where the sounds were captured from.
III. The seven-days massacre and the aftermath of Algerinha
A few weeks after ¡Hubla! moved out of the Algerinha grounds, a tragic event triggered what would be the demise of the occupation. Three teenagers were shot, right at one of the entrances to the occupation, by an older man from the neighborhood surrounding Algerinha. Two of them did not survive the wounds, while the only survivor suffered severe brain damage. According to witnesses both from within and outside Algerinha, the shooting took place after a heated discussion over the loudness of the music played by the teenagers in their own personal stereo speakers. Accounts diverge, however, as to which party was the first to engage in physical violence, as well as to whether the teenagers complied with or defied the complaints of the shooter. The forty-three year old was arrested but soon released; rumours started circulating in the media that he belonged to the self-proclaimed “vigilante group” targeting the inhabitants of Algerinha. The murder of the teenagers created enough tension to take community leaders, inhabitants, and activists from social movements to the streets in protest. Military Police immediately blocked the area, employing so-called “non-lethal” devices such as LRADs (Long Range Acoustic Devices), Teargas drones, and other tactical manoeuvres to prevent protesters from occupying the streets.
Their actions, while drawing enough attention and support from outside, are not fully effective. After seven days of protests and violence, Military Police is finally able to lead the protesters to a dead end near the occupation’s borders. Trapped in a corner and away from journalists, a massacre ensues. Several protesters and community leaders are shot dead by the Police, while a good number of activists go suspiciously missing. Attending to public outcry from social movements and online media, Military Police starts an internal investigation on the actions of the officers on duty during what came to be known as the “seven days massacre”. Other media outlets and activists start drawing connections between a leaked receipt from a large acquisition of low- and high-frequency oscillators by an anonymous buyer, to the effectiveness of the Police tactics, implying an active collaboration and direct participation from the vigilante group. However, the investigation is not further pursued, and nothing is proven in the eyes of law and media.
Newspiece describing the forceful eviction to happen at the Algerinha occupation in 48 hours.
Following the massacre, the tension within Vila Algerinha reached its peak, and several streets were blocked, activists engaged in often violent acts of resistance, and new community leaders were as loud as ever on mainstream media. One night, a fire starts within the community, and slowly destroys the majority of houses and structures created during the five years Algerinha was active. After a few days of unsuccessful attempts of extinguishing the fire, little to nothing is left standing, and families start to slowly move out of the former industrial park. The majority of the families end up reallocated in new development projects undertaken by the municipal administration; others move to smaller occupations or join transmigrational activist groups.
Internal investigation by the Military Police rules that the fire which consumed the occupation was, in fact, result of an accident.
The cause of this fire generates even more controversy in public opinion: while “official” accounts place it as an accidental fire, the new Algerinha spokesperson, Gabriel Castro also known as “Chacal”, publishes several articles and interviews calling the event a deliberate arson, and demanding further investigation and reparations. In the meantime, Chacal runs for city counsellor in the upcoming municipal elections, but ends up not being elected. Slowly, the story of Vila Algerinha fades out of public attention.
Gabriel “Chacal” goes public and contests the Military Police ruling: for him it was not an accident, but rather arson.
IV. Of New Beginnings
While browsing for old records at a pawnshop in the countryside of São Paulo state, Brazil, we have come across a small box containing an old Walkman, a tape, and a curious little 3D-printed object. Intrigued by the apparently anachronistic character of its contents, we ended up buying the box and taking it home. The tape, labeled “Algerinha Vive” (“Algerinha lives on” in English), revealed a universe in the shape of short compositions, partly documentary and partly aesthetic.
The 3D-printed object, however, was very cryptic; we took a picture and posted it in a game design discussion board, in an attempt to get some clues as to its origins and uses. It ultimately led us to a person whose mother had a similar object, and from her we learned about a particular playground game, in which sounds made through and by the object played an important role. The game, called “O Jogo do Tarréfono“, with the Tarréfono being the 3D-printed toy, employs this device in several distinct ways; based on our findings, we came up with a possible schematics for how the object somehow guides the players through the game routine.
Interview with the daughter of the original owner of a Tarréfono. She describes the object and tells a little about the game mechanics; she also discloses that the object we came in possession of is, in fact, incomplete. She is rather old and has a strong, unidentified accent.
Both objects trace back to the same, long-forgotten place: Vila Algerinha, the largest occupation in Latin America after the housing crisis and the series of Coups d’Etat all over the continent. While the story of the occupation is easily traceable via news pieces and media reports, we believe that the sonic narratives of both tape and game construct an alternative set of events that led to the occupation’s tragic demise and its aftermath.
Found audio message of someone describing what seems to be a group of kids playing the game of Tarréfono. The person recording this message addresses a group, telling them that the sounds coming from their window are somewhat odd, loud, screeching. The person seems scared at first, but then proceeds to complain about “them,” implying the children belong to a different group of people that seem to be unwelcome.
More than that, we believe that these other stories directly confront the “official” account we both knew and found online. However, many links are missing from what connects the mixtape and the game together, and for how long they have been in that box. Our own assembled story is, after all, as speculative as we found the “official” one to be.
Algerinha Vive tells the story of a semi-fictional occupation in Brazil, whose population encounters various forms of violence. The story is expressed through a variety of outlets, including an investigation around a children’s game which supposedly retells the history of the settlement’s tragic demise; an audio tape, containing a collection of soundscapes allegedly created by a local artist; reports surrounding a polemic “co-design workshop” led by an Innovation Lab within the occupation; and finally, a timeline which summarizes the main events around the history of the Algerinha occupation.
Inspired by Brazil’s current political tensions, the story of Algerinha was developed collectively in five open-ended, fabulation and storytelling sessions, held in four different countries over 2015–2016. In these sessions, participants engaged with ambiguous and often conflicting fragments of the story, and in doing so developed their own narratives around the occupation and its struggles. Their fabulations and discussions all help craft the events that construct the story of this place and its idiosyncracies, thereby not constraining this design piece to an individual and hegemonic narrative.
The project thus presents a visual and aural narrative adjacent to the political conflicts of everyday life in Brazil’s peripheries. At the same time, by focusing on the possible aesthetic outcomes of such an estranged reality, the project never intends to speak for the disenfranchised. Instead, it presents this encapsulation of political struggles as the starting point for a more profound engagement with the urgent issues it portrays, as well as design’s own accountability to them.