Why are we fetishising the same crap all around the world?
While we were sitting in a stylishly decaying café in Santa Teresa in Rio, watching the local “creatives” go about their Saturday the way “creatives” anywhere else in the world do, my mother had a hissy fit.
“Why do you always take us to these crap places? Why are you afraid of going somewhere nice and just enjoying things?”
I was taken aback and instantly annoyed. Santa Teresa’s derelict villas of Rio’s fin-de-siècle elite shooting up from the jungle were Instagram gold. The bar we were at was beautifully evocative of 70s, but still clean and pleasant. The people around us, including the 70-+ charismatic bar owner who tried to woo my mom, were quirky and nice. Maybe they looked like the people in Shoreditch, or even their counterparts in Belgrade’s Savamala, but still they were cool and nice: artists (or at least media people), good looking in their intentionally-raggedy-slightly-smelly way, who could probably talk hours on end about their exciting lives and travels… or hoppiness of their craft IPA. I was puzzled why my mother, who was no uncultured oaf, did not find this gentrifying gem so brilliant?
I held my own and said that not only were these places not crap, but that they were my generation’s avant-garde, and that she simply does not understand. Ok, some of it was not great (like the fact that we travelled for half an hour to see one half-empty street) but that it is worth still worth seeing how people in Rio live, away from the tourist trail.
“But it’s the same like everywhere else you take us in the world. You take us to places like this wherever we go. Rio people also live in wonderful bars in Ipanema, and in favelas. Why this? Why always this decrepit stuff?”
“But these are the nice places!”, I half-yelled, exasperated. Wherever I travelled, from Kerala to Copenhagen, I made an effort to find a good third wave coffee roasters, the best breakfast place (ideally doing a cool egg menu and serving avocado) and a nice craft beer bar to sample the local scene. But then I realised that there was no end to this argument: she did not have the (refined) taste for this… and that she was actually right about one thing. All of these places were the same, the world around.
This realisation hit me hard in the past two weeks. While at Primavera festival in Barcelona I was overwhelmed by the realisation of the sameness of all the “authentic” places I tend to frequent. A bunch of us waited for 20 minutes for over-hyped mediocre sour espresso when I had my epiphany. The place we went to, “Satan’s coffee”, a hole in the wall in the Jewish Ghetto, could have been anywhere, from Copenhagen to Kerala. There was the minimalism, the tattooed barista and the pretence that it is possible to make an “authentic” brownie in Barcelona, although the recipe was the same in Belgrade as well as Brooklyn. Most chillingly, I felt indistinguishable from all the other patrons, with their love of Arcade Fire and tropical prints. We were just a different aesthetic to all the middle aged socks-and-sandals who love going to Hilton because it’s the same around the world. We just had a higher tolerance for heartburn from all the sour artisanal coffee or at least we pretended to. The sad thing is that we also had a higher tolerance for thinking there is authenticity or class that can be bought, or, more bafflingly, found in the same minimalist decoration all around the world.
Another awakening came yesterday, when I went to an alternative art festival, Devet (or “Dev9t”) in Belgrade to see an immersive play my friend was in. My friend was great (thank God), but the venue and much of the art were derivative and overly sloppy. Moreover there was clear fetishisation of sloppiness: from not clearing the parking of construction material that probably scratched most of the cars to many displays that looked like they were just unloaded from the junk truck. Of course, there were a few really nice art-pieces that did not look like they were trying to warm up past more transgressive movements, but the festival lived on the hype produced by the people in tropical prints for the people in tropical prints.
The conclusion that fetishisation and commodification of authenticity does not bring authenticity is rote and derivative, I know. However I cannoy help but hope that at some point soon, this fetishisation will at least hold itself to a higher standard morally (and aesthetically) or at the very least, not scratch my car by unnecessary debris. It’s not as if I will throw away my (sweatshop produced) tropical shirt, but still all these creative smart people would probably benefit from saying that the emperor is naked or that acidic coffee is disgusting. Who knows, maybe we need to be honest about these small things if we want to dispel other worse illusions?