Tropixel festival: Tropicalization in Ubatuba

By | November 20, 2013

I share some notes about a festival I attended in Ubatuba, “Tropixel”, that mixed art, science, technology and transdiciplinary themes.

The place: Ubatuba

A municipality located in the north east of Sao Paulo´s state, Brazil[1]. Ubatuba was founded 376 years ago and has a population of almost 80.000 inhabitants dispersed along 100 Km of coast. More than 90 beaches, one better than the other one, explain why the city has been baptized as Brazil´s “surf capital”.  The overwhelming Atlantic forest only adds to the features that set the place as an attractive tourist spot.

Ubatuba,  São Paulo

Ubatuba, São Paulo


Besides its natural diversity, the city has a rich and impressive cultural background[2]. Three types of indigenous communities live in the region. First, caiçaras communities can be found on different locations, like in in Picinguaba´s beach. Their members are said to be the “first Brazilians”, because they were originally born from the mixture of Portuguese colonizers with indigenous tupi tribes[3]. Their cultural practices, such as artisanal fishing, and food dishes like fish with banana (peixe com banana), can be appreciated daily very easily. Second, Quilombos communities are located in Ubatuba. These were founded by people of African origin before and also after the abolition of slavery in their search for autonomous and independent ways of living. Last but not least, tupi-guaraníes communities that migrated to Ubatuba inhabit the region as well. These last two groups keep part of their cultural practices, and face similar challenges in terms of land protection and their interaction with urban areas and new technologies.

The festival: Tropixel 

Despite this wealth, the organizers of the festival detected several challenges locals face[4]. Among them: generalized low self-esteem; lack of diversified job opportunities outside from tourism and commerce; lack of infrastructure like a good and cheap transport to connect ubatuba´s inhabitants scattered along the coast; last but not least, the need to improve natural resources management. For example, the municipality spends a high proportion of its budget on waste exports, which could be improved by changing waste management processes. These, among other challenges identified by Tropixel organizers, describe the context in which the festival took place. Undoubtedly many of them, though with varied degrees, are shared by many other cities around the world, and in particular Latin America. But, how to imagine and walk along pathways that lead to different futures?

The organization of a festival to raise awareness and experiment with new practices seems to be a good strategy to start answering such question. Tropixel aimed to connect part of global discussions and experiments with the existing local problems. The highly used (and many times misused) term “glocalization” comes to my mind to synthetize the aim of the festival. Thinking globally but acting locally. Or more honest with the Brazilian tradition (and to the name of the festival), tropicalism is as a good strategy to follow. This implies applying the antropofagic idea of absorbing, devouring and changing foreign influences according to the local context where they are going to be applied[5]. What is particularly clear is that in many cases the promoters of such strategies and different lifestyle options come from civil society organizations. The example from the international community was Pixelache[6]. It is a civil society network based in Helsinki that aims to challenge mainstream conventions in media and technology. For that it supports interdisciplinary projects mixing art, design, research and activism. From the national sphere, the experiences of the Brazilian network Metareciclagem[7] inspired the activities. Its aim is to foster critical appropriation of technology. The basic idea is to receive technologies which are adapted, for example by installing free software in them, so that they can be used for diverse purposes with a clear aim of social transformation.

As regards its agenda, the festival had a charged one that aimed to cover topics related to three main axes[8]: environment; people; and things[9], including several subtopics where technology, art and science played a relevant role. On one hand it was organized with prearranged talks and events, like during its inauguration where authorities and representatives of financing institutions spoke; or activities that took place in Quilombos to restart their telecentres. The “ônibus hacker”[10] group also had an important role during the conference. During 2 days they stopped their bus in different parts of the city to diffuse free culture and technology practices. On the other hand, the festival implemented a collaborative programming scheme which in my opinion is a healthy way to avoid falling into the trap that most conferences in the 21st century still do: rigid organization that limits the diversity of ideas and the potential interaction among participants. Instead, Tropixel received and selected a varied list of activities proposed by potential participants before the festival that were then conducted during different parts of the city. Clearly this helps to propagate and disseminate diverse sorts of knowledge far beyond the one that “experts” are said to have. Finally, the event closed with an intervention of an unused public space. Artistic and technological performances took place there, plus the exposition of synthesis of the results of several group activities conducted during the week.

Some final observations

For several reasons, in my opinion Tropixel has been a good initiative for Ubatuba. First, the festival helped to enhance social connections. Many people shared concerns about the issues deliberated during the festival, however never before had the city such an event in which they could meet with each other and discuss them from varied points of view. So a first effect seems to be an increased interconnectedness of locals interested on these issues. These increased threading of networks might materialize in future practical projects. The second one was to inspire action based on foreign practices. Of course here the cultural and institutional distances have to be taken into account. Success will depend on a critical absorption and adaption of practices that worked in other contexts, in other words a real “tropicalization” of practices. Third, the event had the assistance and support of several actors of Ubatuba. Local politicians assisted, which suggests a potential avenue for policies on the issues that the festival covered. Most of the assistants were part of Ubatuba´s younger generations. I speculate that the diffusion of such ideas will have in the mid to long term and even greater impact, if maintained in time, since many of them will share such desire to change the city in a future. Fourth, is that such sort of events seem to be particularly effective in small cities due to the large diffusion they can achieve among locals. Why do I play with such hypothesis? Well, given that they might not always be in such context so many events at the same time as in those cities with more that one million of inhabitants, the visibility such events gain might be relatively larger. Thus, most of the citizens who bother to read the publicity for the event get informed about it. I experienced this in many cases while interacting in shops and restaurants. “Hi, why are you here? Tourism?”, to which I generally replied “no, I came to an event”, with a high probability of being answered “ahh, Tropixel?”.

Just to close, it is important to highlight that at the center of such event is a challenge to standard ideas of “development”. Creating new futures, requires courage. As Felipe Fonseca[11] remarked in the opening of the event it also requires “to experiment, which is to fail many times”. Thus failure is part of the process, but without experimenting there is no way to produce new good working results. Unluckily still many bureaucratic practices prevail in several Latin American cities. If local governments are not porous to such events, it seems civil society group and entrepreneurs must take the lead to offer new roads for change and raise awareness. In that direction, the case of Ubatuba and Tropixel offers good lessons that illustrate possible ways of action.




[4] For more information check

[5] For more details see an English translation of the “Cannibal manifesto” by Oswald de Andrade





[10] Hacker Bus


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