as a Work of Art
Discover Daniel Buren in Graça
“Discover Daniel Buren in Graça” is an Airbnb Experience, offering a guided walking tour (current rate: 25) in the colorful Lisbon neighborhood of Graça, visiting five historical sites in which celebrated French artist Daniel Buren (b. 1938) posted his impromptu creations, “Affichages Sauvages,” in 1980. This tour is followed by a visit to the home of Ricardo Valentim (b. 1978), a Portuguese-American artist, offering one of the best panoramic views of Lisbon, where refreshments are served and conversation on conceptual art carries on from the public to the private sphere.
After having set up the page on the company’s website, Valentim, concept developer and initiator of the Experience, was contacted by an Airbnb representative, a young Brazilian living in Dublin, in order to confirm the information, and, over an hour-long phone call, help develop the right marketing strategy and descriptive phrasing. After that, illustrative photos taken with friends were uploaded and the project was good to go. An artistic-touristic experience and a potential small business venture. This was back in early 2020. Bookings started coming in, three experiences took place, then COVID happened. Tourists vanished, and the neighborhood went silent.
Valentim, a short-term resident of Graça, who previously lived in Lisbon between 1997 and 2003, before going on to study art and anthropology, ended up spending most of 2019 to 2021 there, while in transit with his family, between New York and San Diego. At this time, he experienced his own gentrification, having rented with his wife and their child a spacious apartment offering exceptional views of Lisbon, and felt that in this privileged sense, he was implicated with the idea of a site-specific project, by associating himself with the context that was literally outside his door when taking his child to school: his discovery of a disregarded footnote in local art history.
In February 1980, Buren was invited by gallerist and collector Mário Teixeira da Silva, who had recently returned from New York, to create an installation Modulo a travail in situ that was shown over a month in the Graça apartment that was formerly da Silva’s grandmother’s home and then the Centro Difusor de Arte. In images from the show we see the installation featured red and white stripes running along door frames, window panels, wooden linings and walls, playfully deconstructing what seems to be a typical bourgeois Portuguese salon. Over the weekend during which Buren installed his work, he also took the liberty to explore and experiment in the residential neighborhood, posting his fabric-like stripes in strategic spots, relating them to the traditional azulejos. A quick nighttime operation followed by a photoshoot the next day.
Seemingly, the project shadows Buren. However, Valentim stresses that it is not an homage. Buren’s visit to Graça, six years after the fall of the dictatorship, occurred at a key transitional moment in his successful career, after having pioneered in minimalism and re-thinking the circulation of art beyond the institutions. Surpassing the common notions of the art market, he was about to become extremely commercial, with his works produced in shopping malls and hotel lobbies, not to mention his iconic Les Deux Plateaux (1986) in Paris.
The Airbnb experiencers are offered a brochure that Valentim designed and produced for the tour; in it, we see historical images in black and white. These are the same images that are available in color on Buren’s website archive, taken by him at the time. These mostly detail-shots are juxtaposed in the brochure with the same exactly-framed replica photos Valentim took recently of the existing spots where the Buren stripes were once placed. These images “verify” what we are looking at in real time on the tour. By opting for the black and white, Valentim makes the “then and now” reading easier and more explicit. This also encourages the participants to take their own photos in living colors. Basically, all we “see” are the stripes aligned against the azulejos. However, whereas the stripes have long disappeared, the tiles remain almost perfectly intact.
In some sense, Valentim, who spent over a decade in New York and is now a US citizen, seeks to pass as an “authentic” local artist tour guide, but his critique of the Lisbon art scene’s provincialism is that of an “insider-outsider.” The two-hour performative experience is meant for tourists who themselves are in passing. An “imaginary tour” sanctifying the public space of a working-class neighborhood deprived of any internationally acknowledged artistic landmarks or institutions, and then desecrating it. Yet, by bringing in the people and getting the conversation going, it’s also more real than the white cube.
This experience can be likened to those moments surfing the web, when one is lost in exploration of a meaningless detail in an artist’s biography that perhaps can be attributed to one’s personal life, interest, taste, etc. This detail might be completely irrelevant to understanding that artist’s work but could inspire or even trigger a strong reaction or change in us. Valentim’s project can also be seen in terms of what French critic Nicholas Bourriaud termed “relational aesthetics,” which sees artists as facilitators rather than makers and regards art as information exchanged between the artist and the viewers, giving access to power and means for social change. In September 2018, hundreds of Lisboans took to the streets, protesting against uncontrolled rents, due to short-term rentals in the capital.
The search for Buren’s missing stripes serve as a kind of momentary reminder of how exceptional the azulejos façades—which most locals may find banal—are, alongside their soothing effect on the eye. Valentim validates what we “sense” has some artistic value, though we experience it first as decorative: our excitement over the beauty of the Lisboan street corner. In “Affichages Sauvages” (“wild postings”) there is also some violence that is re-inscribed, a kind of social disobedience, especially when performed by a visiting foreigner. Like Buren, the tourist is seduced by the idea of leaving a trace behind.
One reading suggests that Valentim’s artistic performance ironically questions mass tourism: indeed, Graça benefits, but also suffers, from a gentrification process linked to massive short-term rentals. While mass tourism transforms monuments, landscapes, and picturesque places into so many simulacra, Valentim’s Experience works in the opposite direction, allowing us to see what has been made invisible by time—the last traces of Buren. This indeed is the reverse path of the simulacrum, since the latter annihilates the real, while saturating the image: Valentim, on the other hand, lifts the veil of nothingness—the entropy of time—to bring about the past, ironically staging the absurdity of tourism.
Mass tourism is today more than ever largely based on images and photography: tourists already know the places they’re going to visit by their online engagement. Our job as tourists then consists of verifying that reality conforms to its imaginary version. Tapping the right hashtag into the geo-localized image. Susan Sontag already anticipated this imagistic “mental pollution” that dissolves the real in her essay “On Photography”:
By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is. Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.
This time, it is not simply the sensitive world that would be made of simulacra, but the photographic medium that redoubles the simulacrum. Likewise, Jean Baudrillard affirms the message’s disappearance in favor of the medium in Simulacres et Simulation (1981), which corroborates our perception of mass tourism in its links to photography. Moreover, Valentim incorporates into his Experience a Buren-themed apéritif that plays on the French clichés (“wine and cheese”) and the obligatory stopover for French tourists in Graça (“wine with a view”). In the vast supermarket of imaginary waste produced by mass tourism, Valentim questions what has disappeared, and that which only the mind and knowledge acquired through in-person encounters can reconstitute. The saturation of images gives way to emptiness and consumption, and this in turn gives way to the impossibility of possessing by looking.
Valentim exerts his artistic authority in order to achieve authenticity. As the saying in Pedro Almodovar’s greatest film goes: “It costs a lot to be authentic, and one can’t be stingy with these things because the more authentic you are, the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.” Theodor Adorno once defined art as content that turns into form, here we witness content that turns into format. In the age of glocalism and Airbnbzation, making use of the commercial American-performative means of production at his disposal, Valentim proves that he, like Buren himself, lives and works in situ.