By LUCAS DAVIS, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Mentor: Corralu Buddenbohm (Paper advisor); Ms. Mary O’Rourke, Lausanne Collegiate School
What does the Cartonera have to offer in weathered economies? How is it effective in teaching and distributing literature?
In 2003, Argentina’s economy had plummeted into a depression so deep that 25% of the country’s working age adults were unemployed. (CNN) Due to previous governmental instability caused by military coups in 1966 and 1976, the value of Argentine currency fluctuated heavily. Monetary issues evolved into economic instability, thus creating the circumstances behind the Cartonero. A Cartonero is someone, usually homeless, who searches through waste to find recyclables (predominantly cardboard) to sell. Several estimates put around 40,000 Cartoneros in the province of Buenos Aires alone, yet the actual numbers are most likely higher. The economic instability not only shrunk the amount of jobs in the industrial sector, but many in the arts as well. This is where writers Washington Cucurto and Javier Barolo come in. After losing their jobs and not finding publishing during the financial crisis in 2001, Barolo and Cucurto created Eloisa Cartonera, a cooperative publishing house which physically binds books with carton (cardboard) sold by Cartoneros. By reusing materials to back their literature publishing house Eloisa Cartonera not only reduced the amount of wasted materials, but also created an artistic challenge to form. The use of cardboard for book backing gives way for innovative and creative concepts. This essay will illustrate the Cartonera movement's conception in Argentina and will analyze its potential application in the United States, as it redefines notions of art, mechanical reproduction, and allows even people financially pressed access to literature. The Cartonera is extremely relevant today not only in the literary forum but also in economic discussion, as the movement is especially resilient and productive in spite of the state of the economy.
Though the Cartonera is simply a new method of collaboration in the literary world, there are several misconceptions surrounding the system, many of which come from attempting to draw parallels to similar operations in other parts of the world. Though these publishing houses enable people to work together and subsist regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, there is not necessarily a direct parallel or sister project to the Cartonera in the United States. To truly understand the Cartonera, these misconceptions need to be fully clarified.
One of the largest fallacies when it comes to how the Cartonera operates is the belief that the Cartonera is exclusively for the poor. Though untrue, the misconception does get at the idea and goal of accessibility that the Cartonera focuses on. As Eloisa Cartonera explains on their website, their reason behind the collective is a bit more complex than profit-driven goals.
"Some say we are a product of the crisis, or that we are aestheticized misery. Actually, it was nothing like that. We were a group of people who came together to work in a different way, to learn new things through work, to build up a cooperative, to learn how to subsist and manage ourselves, to work towards a common good." (Eloisa Cartonera)
As the 2001 Argentine financial crisis drastically shrunk the economy and job market, many publishing houses respectively cut their own budgets. Publishing houses like Eloisa Cartonera allows for collaboration between all types of people, as the crisis did not only affect the poor. Though the initiative is beneficial and accessible to those under financial duress, it is definitely not a “relief effort” and/or a unidirectional flow of resources with the intention of aiding the poor. Rather, Eloisa’s vision is to reinvent ways of distributing and creating literature to be inclusive to all regardless of social and economic conditions, a recreation of the publishing house into a powerful collective based on equality.
A similar misconception is the one that states: “The idea of the cooperative is a good one but doesn’t function in practice.” Often critics of the movement feel that the Cartonera is only wishful thinking—as the Cartonera doesn’t hold a tremendous start-up cost like full publishing houses. On the contrary—the Cartonera is a successful cooperative which has been replicated many times throughout South America, Africa, and Europe. The Cartonera excels at its primary goals—to redefine established trends of literature distribution, and to manifest the labor that goes into producing literature in the book itself. The cooperative is not a call for sweeping economic change—rather it organizes creative minds across economic borders and pushes new and innovative solutions for writing and publishing, a method especially resilient in the wake of a financial crisis.
Furthermore, the utilization of cardboard to back books can appear at first to be a limitation to the creative form. Yet ultimately, the economically-minded requirement of cardboard is a creative task which challenges an author. Yerba Mala Cartonera in Bolivia describes the reasoning behind utilizing cardboard to back books:
"Our urban habitat has brought us, through wisdom and seriousness, an ethical obligation to use the resources available to us, and this is at no time a disadvantage; conversely, it serves as an effective exercise of creativity, inventiveness, and an assessment." (Yerba Mala Cartonera)
Yerba Mala and similar Cartoneras’ mindsets allow for a positive yet not utterly idealistic strategy behind the repurposing of materials which would often otherwise go to waste. By removing book backing from the list of purchased materials, the Cartonera not only reuses materials already present around them, but also creatively challenges authors to play with the structure of their works.
These misconceptions often give the false impression that the Cartonera itself is a jab at political/economic systems. The Cartonera and its mission are not calls to arms. On the contrary, the main goal of the Cartonera is to utilize available materials, facilitate the creation and distribution of literature, and through that, to allow people to subsist through its unique concept.
As Argentina’s financial crisis of 2001 shrunk the amount of authors being published, alternatives were necessary for many authors who found themselves out of work. Since the Cartonera utilizes a simple yet effective strategy of operation, there is a lot of room for innovation. The environmentally-conscious decision to reuse materials available and reduce the amount of materials being consumed presents a challenge to artistic form, one which affords the author a creative task while also improving the lives of those who live around the Cartonera.
But what is it that makes the Cartonera and its products so effective? Several aspects of the Cartonera make it very powerful, yet they are not necessarily explicit in the works themselves. As we live in an age of both mass marketing and large-scale mechanical reproduction of the book, the Cartonera achieves a certain connection with a reader that many mass-produced books fail to fully grasp. When you first analyze a Cartonera book, something about it not only feels real, but truly tangible. Walter Benjamin describes the very effects of mechanical reproduction in his book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
"To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics." (Benjamin)
Benjamin expertly conveys the very fascination with the original—a human tendency to appreciate art, and in its most basic form, work. Since the labor which makes the Cartonera possible is reflected in not only the way they operate but also the books themselves, a greater appreciation for the work of the individual is achieved. Since the Cartonera’s main goal is to afford even the less financially lucky the ability to develop their interests in literature, the valuable manual work which goes into literature must be explicit throughout the process of the Cartonera. Thus the true focus of the Cartonera is less about the reproduction of the work and the profit-driven motives behind replicating a piece of literature, and more about the development of an affinity for literature.
Though the Cartonera excels at diffusing literary works, an issue emerges when attempting to ascribe the Cartonera and its fruits as “art.” The traditional understanding of art is loose and lacks a proper definition. It usually involves some form of human creativity applied to a physical medium, be it a canvas, stage, or instrument. Most often there are those who solely regard the Cartonera as an art project. Cartonera books themselves are works of art, but the creation of “art” is hardly the ultimate goal. Though the importance of art as a creative endeavor cannot be stressed more, the term “art” is often used to justify bad practices to maintain a certain lifestyle for those who produce it. As Leo Tolstoy describes in his book What is Art?, the term is often misused in such a way.
"Every ballet, circus, opera, operetta, exhibition, painting, concert, printing of a book, requires the intense effort of thousands and thousands of people, working forcedly at what are often harmful and humiliating tasks. It would be well if the artists did the whole job themselves, but no, they need all the help of workers, not only to produce art, but also to maintain their – for the most part luxurious – existence." (Tolstoy)
Tolstoy expertly conveys how art can sometimes be a one-sided affair, and how to fully appreciate art, the notion of one-sided exclusivity must be abandoned. The product of art, in the case of the printed book, is not only the author’s work, but also the work of the printers, Cartoneros, and the many more people involved in a single book’s conception. The Cartonera presents an effective solution to the one-sidedness of art by providing more people not only access to literature, but also allowing people to involve themselves in the creative process. As the Cartonera is a collective effort, no help goes unrecognized. By enabling more people to immerse themselves in a world of literature regardless of social and economic classes, the Cartonera creates a more inclusive art, improving the standard of living for all those involved in its creation and distribution.
The Cartonera not only possesses great literary power, but also holds pedagogical potential. The format and process of Cartonerism facilitates an environment where learning is something constant. As the system is quite effective in teaching, many in the field have begun to utilize Cartonerism in different ways. The story of David Santos, a 9-year-old Colombian boy recounted by Elizabeth Pettinaroli gives tremendous insight into how Cartonerism can enrich the learning process for all parties involved.
The story of David Santos begins with a Colombian schoolteacher, a young woman who taught in a school in the Colombian jungle. As Colombia is plagued by the trade of drugs, many families are displaced throughout the region. This schoolteacher attempted to help a family who was targeted by a drug cartel, and found herself fleeing for her life to Bogota, Colombia. The schoolteacher thought she would be able to avoid the cartel by going to Bogota, and was joined by many other families fleeing the cartel.
The schoolteacher began teaching at a school in Bogota, and was introduced to David Santos, a young boy who would rarely (if at all) engage in any classroom activity. David was very quiet and reserved, as the violence of the cartels resulted in depression for many of its victims in countries like Colombia. This depression is disproportionately common for children also. The schoolteacher did see, however, that David enjoyed learning about animals. Drawing animals was the only thing David would do in class, so the teacher utilized this fact to involve David in the class. Every day, the schoolteacher would give David a piece of paper to draw his animals on. She began encouraging him to write the names of the animals, and after that she had him classify the animals, an important exercise for children exposing them to the concept of taxonomy. As David struggled with writing, the names or descriptions of animals would take up to a day. David then expressed interest in creating a book, which excited the schoolteacher as David had never shown interest in almost anything.
By asking David in a Socratic manner exactly what he needed for the book, the schoolteacher was able to get David focused on creating his book of animals. The schoolteacher at the time had been studying Cartonerism, something which she wanted to incorporate into the learning environment. Acquiring the resources necessary was relatively simple, and the whole class was involved in the production of the book, an interesting learning project. The schoolteacher brought the book to a learning conference in Bogota to show Cartonerism’s effectiveness in a learning environment. (Pettinaroli)
Though the Cartonera was conceived in Argentina and most operate within South America, similar projects have arisen in countries like the United States, many of them centered on productivity in the wake of financial crises. One of which—The Bridge, is a street newspaper based in Memphis which allows the homeless to work alongside Rhodes students to create and distribute a newspaper. The Bridge “aims to bridge the gap between homeless and sheltered by providing the homeless community of Memphis with tools to obtain a self-generated income” (The Bridge) Much like the Cartonera, The Bridge is more than a relief effort. The paper pushes for the homeless to sell papers for their own profit, an important step in employment and increasing homeless peoples’ sovereignty. Much like the Cartonera, the Bridge also encourages homeless people to write and publish their works in the paper, giving many homeless people access to literature. The Bridge’s success in Memphis exhibits how publishing opportunities like the Cartonera are not only possible yet also needed to improve economic problems like homelessness.
The story of David Santos truly shows how the Cartonera facilitates creative projects like David’s animal book. Though a simple concept, David’s book was made into reality thanks to the accessibility of the Cartonera and the simplistic nature of the endeavor. As many families in areas like Bogota have fled violence, the effects are much deeper than what is first apparent. Children like David often suffer from depression, a sickness so complex there is often no simple remedy. By allowing David to manifest his creative energy into a project like this, the teacher involved a student whom otherwise was not participating in the class. Cartonerism’s true potential is shown in these creative projects, as it facilitates the execution of ideas which otherwise would be quite difficult to put to paper. Projects like The Bridge have also shown how effective and needed Cartonerism is, as it can cross economic borders.
So what is it exactly that makes the Cartonera not only useful, but extremely relevant in today’s world? The reinvention of the concept of “originality” is an important step in the right direction, as it puts a spotlight on the value of the work which goes into creating Cartonera books. By reinvigorating the definition of “art,” the Cartonera also generates a more inclusive environment conducive to better work practices and the appreciation of the labor it needs to operate. And by facilitating creative projects that not only unleash the creative spirit but can also function as remedial projects for those affected by emotional illness, the Cartonera is extremely powerful in any learning environment. Through the Cartonera’s aspects of appreciating the value of labor and being accessible to all, the Cartonera becomes extremely relevant in today’s world.
Since the Cartonera employs effective strategies in diffusing literature to people regardless of socio-economic status and the re-evaluation of the work which goes into the product, the Cartonera is a very effective strategy anywhere, especially for weathered economies. The Cartonera is very relevant in the literary forum as it has been often used as a tool for instruction of students of many ages.
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