The Eloisa Cartonera (EC) publishing house was set up in March 2003 by the writer Washington Cucurto and the visual artist Javier Barilaro. (Also initially involved was Fernanda Laguna, the artist, writer and owner of the alternative space Belleza y Felicidad.) Just 15 months earlier – in December 2001 – Argentina was plunged into the deepest economic, political and social crisis of its history. The stability of the country’s institutions was seriously under threat, although there was no prospect of a military coup. Then in May 2003 Néstor Kirchner took over the Presidency (he is still in charge today), and normal life gradually began to return.
During the crisis Argentina’s middle class, which historically had been the largest in Latin America, collapsed. Half the population fell below the poverty line, and thousands of people walked the streets collecting scraps of cardboard and paper from the gutters and rubbish bins to sell for whatever they could get. They were, and still are, known as cartoneros – ‘cardboard people’. With most consumers finding it almost impossible to buy everyday household items, let alone luxury goods, Argentine publishing houses were struck particularly hard: imported books cost four or five times more after the great devaluation of the peso at the beginning of 2002.
Social experimentation, improvisation and cooperation occurred in neighbourhoods and cities across the country: factories started up again, run by shop-floor workers; a barter system evolved, in which millions of people participated; unemployed members of the middle classes and others began to create their own forms of self-government; street artists formed themselves into collectives. Since 2005 the country’s political institutions have been shored up, and a process of macroeconomic recovery has taken place. The period of greatest social crisis has passed, but it has left its mark; the government can no longer follow the neo-liberal approach of the 1990s. Yet while there has been a slight shift to the left, basically the system has recovered, and although there is less poverty, wealth is still mainly concentrated in the hands of the few. There is less unemployment, but people’s buying power has also decreased.
EC’s work began in this economic and political context. From the outset it bought cardboard from the cartoneros for five times the normal price. Several of Latin America’s most important writers or their literary executors waived the copyright on some of their works. The front and back cover of each of EC’s publications is produced by a group of cartoneros, cutting and painting and then attaching a little pile of photocopied text (although this is gradually being replaced by offset printing).
EC has built up a list that now comprises over 100 titles, ranging from fiction and poetry to comics and essays. Authors include: Haroldo de Campos and Waly Salomão (from Brazil), Reinaldo Arenas (Cuba), Gonzalo Millán and Enrique Lihn (Chile), Luis Chávez (Costa Rica), Mario Bellatin (Mexico), Oswaldo Reynoso and Martín Adán (Peru) and César Aira, Néstor Perlongher, Arturo Carrera, Rodolfo E. Fogwill, Alan Pauls and Cucurto himself (Argentina). But younger writers are also encouraged. They are invited to bring their portfolios to the firm’s small office-cum-shop, located in Buenos Aires’ La Boca district, just a stone’s throw from the stadium of Argentina’s most popular football team, Boca Juniors. Cucurto and Barilaro don’t draw a salary. Revenue from sales is distributed among the people working in the shop (in cover-making, printing, etc.), most of whom are cartoneros. The proceeds generally amount to roughly the cost of a typical family shopping basket, a common Latin American unit used to calculate retail price indexes.
EC expresses a characteristically Argentine (and indeed Latin American) condition: it is the product of a social structure that is economically weak but culturally strong. Expenditure on production is minimal, by Western standards, but there is no denying the quality of the writing. Furthermore, the approach to production values is quite deliberate, seeking to question the Argentine publishing establishment, which until a few years ago was among the most powerful in the Spanish-speaking world, alongside those in Mexico and Spain itself. Fighting globalization and trans-national domination of the local publishing industry – with content increasingly homogenized and editorial production increasingly seen simply in business terms – EC sought to establish a closer relationship between reader and publisher, and to add an extra dimension to the cultural mission of creating books by imbricating literature in a network of social and economic cooperation.
The embracing of poverty represents a deliberate aesthetic choice. In visual terms this takes the form of using garish colours, the ‘badly done’, the lack of ‘finish’ and the fact that the book covers can be designed by anyone at all rather than by a trained professional. In literary terms it takes the form of an opposition to the star system, to the culture of Europeanization and, even more radically, to ‘high’ culture. This approach is articulated by Cucurto in both his narrative writing and his poetry. As Claudio Iglesias and Damián Selci argue on revistaexito.com, Cucurto restates things in a modern way: instead of arguing for an acceptance of ‘low’ culture alongside the ‘high’ in a Postmodern way, he actively defends the low, like a Modernist in reverse. Thus, while the EC list of publications is not a simple reflection of Cucurto’s position, it can be argued that his aim is to sketch out the battle lines and the rules of engagement: a political strategy in which, implicitly at least, many well-known writers are involved.
Barilaro’s work is another clear influence on EC’s approach. He uses the colours and typography associated with cumbia (the music, dance and general aesthetic that binds the Argentine lower class and immigrants from Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia) and the vocabulary and style of its songs to create a sort of pan-Latin American language and visual style in a tradition that harks back to Xul Solar among others. However, like Cucurto, Barilaro remains committed to a distinctly demotic view of culture.
After meeting members of the Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis (National Movement for Hunters of Recycled Materials) and under the auspices of the São Paulo Biennial, Barilaro and others involved in EC helped set up a similar project in Brazil, called ‘Dulcinéia Catadora’. New titles by Brazilian authors were put into circulation, one of the members of MNCMR became a key figure in ‘Dulcinéia Catadora’, and a powerful visual style was created, based on using cardboard in as many different ways as possible. Ultimately, the Brazilians were allowed to model themselves on EC without paying any copyright fee, in what could be called an integral example of ‘copy-left’. Similar projects were also subsequently created in Peru and Bolivia.
This ability to reproduce itself, however, is no guarantee that the EC model will be as successful on a social level as it is on a critical one. Indeed, what happens all too often is that something that seeks to pursue an alternative path ends up being turned into just another brand name. On the other hand, the group seem to be working on a basis that goes something like this: for literature – and the visual arts – to be able to dissociate itself from a narrow élitist specialism, there must be some form of social and material change and even an aesthetic movement away from the materials and production techniques with which literature is traditionally associated. Ultimately this requires not the kind of discussion that takes place at a privileged level but a more cooperative form of thinking and production.
Santiago García Navarro