Issue 13: The Split Wall

Laura Burocco

Reading time: 13 minutes



Gentrification in the South: the Neocolonialism of Cognitive Capitalism

From the cases of Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg, Laura Burocco analyzes the impact that as knowledge workers we exercise on our urban environment through gentrification processes anchored to a colonial logic.

Gentrification in the South: the Neocolonialism of Cognitive Capitalism
As an element of architecture’s developmental praxis for urban regeneration, gentrification is an inevitable aspect of population growth in urban centers around the world. However, gentrification in the North and South takes on very different forms that have not been analyzed using a method of critical thinking that operates outside of Western logic. With the goal of contributing to literature on the South written in the South, I have spent the last six years studying artists and cultural agents whose work deals with public space and urban questions in the cities of Johannesburg, South Africa and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. [1] The starting point for my work was recognizing my own position as a precarious researcher who is part of the creative class [2] or, to use the term I prefer, a knowledge worker [3], who, by participating in the creative economy, is an essential part of the gentrification process.
The promotion of the creative economy has been used in Europe and the United States as a means of economic recovery in the face of the global financial crisis. In the South, the promotion of this model becomes not only a possible economic rebirth, but also an instrument of modernization and internationalization for the cities and actors involved in the renewal process.
Since 2013, I have been studying urban regeneration processes through my project Gentrilogy [4], which focuses on three cities: Johannesburg, Milan, and Rio de Janeiro. [5] I would like to focus here on the Distrito Creativo in Rio de Janeiro and the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg, where the transition of the port and manufacturing economies to creative industries can be observed in a context of the local and global productive relationships unique to post-Fordism, and in light of the histories of the two postcolonial societies, still violently marked by deep economic, social, and racial inequality.

Urban phenomena depend on the contexts where they evolve, and they are shaped by the combined effect of mechanisms and institutions that participate in the market, the state, and civil society, as well as the specific form and durability of local socio-spatial realities. The differences between Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg reflect the two cities’ distinct histories, which must both be recovered, as they have been systemically denied by authoritarian states, starting with the colonial war machine—or through spectacle, in the case of extreme positivism as it is manifested in the society of the spectacle. Reflecting on gentrification from the South must start with denaturalizing the homogenous discourse on globalization that reproduces eighteenth-century Eurocentric narratives incapable of addressing global change due to its singular voice. We must free ourselves of the flawed gaze established through Western theoretical, aesthetic, and spatial references and learn new ways of decentralizing and extending knowledge. This will allow us to create a new independent literature that is our own, that draws from the experience of those places that put into practice a process of dismantling truths held to be self-evident. As Gayatri Spivak suggests: “Deconstruction does not say there is no subject, there is no truth, there is no history. It simply questions the privileging of identity so that someone is believed to have the truth.” [6] The trilogy therefore became a methodological choice.
Both the Distrito Creativo in Rio de Janeiro and the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg are imaginary territories. Public and private investors use them as functional media and symbolic zones for marketing in pursuit of, or based on, the demands of new forms of production. In the Brazilian case, all three levels of government—municipal, state, and federal—are involved in delegating construction projects to a cartel of private companies, while creative companies are charged with the task of modernizing the area by concentrating activities that are seen as modern (design, fashion, marketing, new technologies, etc.). In the case of Johannesburg, the urban regeneration of Maboneng Precinct is in the hands of a single private company, Properuity, which has made the area more attractive to the eyes of potential visitors through ongoing partnerships with artists and a strong investment in public art. Based on marketing strategies, murals, public works, and building and graphic design have been developed as tools that function, following Foucault [7], as practices of a regime of truth that frames that which previously had neither been defined as true or false as real. These instruments are used to control and manipulate the perception and desires of individuals, extending the polarization between physical and concrete realities and the propaganda used to represent them in both cities.

Circuito Futuristico, Río de Janeiro, octubre 2016. Pósters realizados por Laura Burocco y Pedro Victor Brandão. Fotografía por y cortesía de LB

This is how investments destined for the cultural apparatus of the museum are justified in both cities, as is the case in the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Johannesburg or the Museu de Amanhã and the Museu do Arte de Rio (MAR) in Rio de Janeiro. From its 2013 inaugural exhibition O Abrigo e o Terreno: Arte e Sociedade no Brasil to the 2014 Zona de Poesía Árida, the latter museum has not failed to present controversial exhibitions with the aim of neutralizing and diverting public attention away from the museum’s role in port conflicts. The MOAD’s exhibition #ULTRACONTEMPORARY#EMERGENCYART#AFRICA played a similar role in Johannesburg, as the work of a Danish collective criticized the use of art in gentrified urban contexts as if it were a vacuum cleaner. [8] It is a shame that in this context, the invited artists were in the service of the very forces they sought to criticize. The function of both museums is explained in terms of offering “informative objects” [9] that “serve to tell a story about something or someone under the prism of power that they are placed in and gives them the ability to speak,” [10] reproducing the management of colonial power that serves to silence the realities that powerbrokers seek to cover up.
The activation of cultural structures is accompanied by the transformation of the labor market. This transformation ensures that new processes of capitalist accumulation can concentrate the economic value of knowledge production (cognitive capital) by means of connectivity, conferring greater importance upon intellectual work. If in Fordist societies, there was a division between workers and factory owners, in our post-Fordist age, work outside the factory makes employees both workers and entrepreneurs. These new economic subjects are the motors of the so-called creative economy: “individuals engaged in activities in which creativity and intellectual capital are the primary input for the creation, production, and distribution of goods and services.” [11]

Creative economy is organized around urban enclaves where knowledge, relations, and information (cognitive and relational competencies) are the main source of value production. [12]

In the cases I examined, these are artists and professionals, ages twenty-five to forty-five, working in fields related to design, architecture, marketing, new technologies, culture and sustainability, music, and audiovisual production. They are united by a shared vision of themselves as social innovators, transformers of the societies they live in; they are active in an urban environment, they are highly educated (the majority attended private schools and many know each other from that era), they have access to initial investment capital, and they are originally from rich or upper-middle class families. This portrait is not surprising when we take into account the current configuration of the creative industry, not just in Brazil or South Africa, but globally. It is organized around professionalization, high levels of education, and mobility and connectivity—resources that are the prerogative of few in the South. Locally, the result is the pacification, depoliticization, and submission of land as well as the expansion of a twisted vision of progess and modernity that seems to lead to a normative assimilation of aesthetic concepts and subjectivities; the creation of closed, global networks whose communication is restricted to a select few who are able to mobilize resources, the audience of local elites, and the reproducibility of these networks in international circuits.

Pursuing an ongoing questioning of the power relations that concern us as creative or knowledge workers in postcolonial societies, I promoted a series of debates around the concept of creative control as well as an examination of the relationships in which we participate. Artists and cultural laborers whose works concern public space and urban questions were invited to discuss their role as well as the role of cultural institutions and their workers within contexts of urban transformation in the three cities where Gentrilogy was carried out.
My intention was not to assign a social-political function to art, nor an activist responsibility to artists; rather, I wanted to question the common use of culture, art, or creativity by elite sectors to renegotiate the meaning of urban space and redefine urban identity. I wanted to raise awareness of everything we do in daily life related to our work in order to deepen our understanding of the forces that shape artists and creative agents’ decision to intervene in marginalized territories and communities; the meaning of participation in performances in these contexts; the type of relations that are created in these territories. In this way, I also questioned why public art can be perceived as an aspect of cultural domination and how it can become a problematic element, either as an instrument of inclusion or in relation to its supposed function as a denouncer.
These discussions aim to go beyond the classic model of gentrification (as rent gap [13]), in which the artistic/creative class is the cause of the physical displacement of low-income residents, to look deeper into the ways in which cultural policies function, conferring power or a certain cooperation. In particular, I am interested in the links between insertion in a creative class in the South and the exercise, frequently within the very relations of cultural diplomacy, of so-called soft power, defined as “the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion.” [14] Due to a greater imbalance in socioeconomic forces in the South, these practices emerge more explicitly than in the North. Clearly there are financial arrangements in the cultural sphere that elicit criticism and doubts about the real intentions behind them in Europe and the United States; however, unlike in the southern hemisphere, in the north, the funding always comes from the same hemisphere. In the South, the configuration of power makes the convergence of local and global elite economic and cultural interests evident. A clear example of this is foreign cultural institutes. With the expansion of a new phase of globalization governed by cognitive capitalism, international partners multiply among select cultural and creative representatives, with university and cultural institutions, both local and global, becoming central for cultural diplomacy in terms of managing power relations between the North and South. [15] In this way, the South is integrated into the North through the (colonial) values originating from these new power centers that cross and recolonize the South, from inside and out. These elite networks of global professionals give life to new forms of colonialism reproduced through forms of dependency, while intersecting with traditional clientelism and the elitist coloniality of power. [16] The new forms of coloniality invest in subjective configurations, cultural appropriation, and violating the intellectual property rights of indigenous cultures.

A desire to denounce these practices motivated the Circuito Futurista e Especulativo do Desrespeito da Herança Africana, do Esquecimento Urbano e do Apodrecimento da Sociedade (Futurist and Speculative Circuit of Disrespect for African Heritage, Urban Enrichment, and Social Decay) [17]. This artistic project offered a series of six dystopian scenes presented in lambe lambe [18] along a walking route organized to highlight certain “suspicious oversights” of the Circuito Histórico e Arquelógico da Celebração da Herança Africana, a project designed by the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro city to commemorate black identity in the port city. The Circuito was presented as a response to the public call from the Theatrum Mundi in association with the People’s Palace Project and the Museu do Amanhá. These institutions invited residents, artists, activists, performers, and others to identify a space or social relation in the city that produced disrespect. The connection between the chosen theme (respect) and the institutions involved in the project constituted a space or social relation in the city that produced conditions of violation. 
Gentrilogy has consisted of several collaborations that have demonstrated that there is still hope. In my opinion, there are many cases in which these new economic subjects have not been able to develop the capacity to recognize and transcend the colonial gaze that constructs the “other” [19] in two societies that are still marked by social inequalities and the legacy of slavery and colonialism. This leads to the reproduction of elite colonial logics within the contemporary power relations that govern the world of culture and creativity. 

It is important to remember that Brazil and South Africa have among the highest levels of inequality in the world; this statement should not surprise or restrict us. We must at least question naturalized habits we take for granted. For example, the white uniform used by the nannies that raise rich Brazilian children, or the fact that in Johannesburg, black gardeners live in precarious housing without water or sanitation while working in elite mansions (with electrical irrigation systems). One of the ways that modernity obfuscates coloniality is by endowing the colonizer with superiority from a Eurocentric world vision. This creates the Other, a figure who doesn’t respond to a European pattern, someone who is less capable, barbarous, crude. Those endowed with superiority are obliged to contribute to the development of those who oppose the civilizing project. Thus, the phenomenon I observed is reinforced through the creation of independent networks that are set up among small, informal self-valorizing collectives. These are fundamental if the South is to be included in the circuit of international innovation and creative circulation, a vital circuit of contemporary global cognitive capitalism. Modernity does not imply overcoming coloniality, but rather the uncivilized behaviors that prevent the advancement of the opportunities and lifestyles the global market offers. Physical and symbolic violence are applied to satisfy this “social” function. 
Thus, the “elite service providers and consumers, who are found globally” [20] create stronger links with their peers on the other side of the planet than with the residents in the cities they live in. It is clear that in the contemporary colonial project, power relations have, among their various facets, the task of questioning identities, thereby giving life to a concatenation of powers within a new regime of cognitive capitalism: disciplinary, biopolitical, and necropolitical. [21] On the global level, the connections between these individuals are proof of the existence of collaborative international networks that constantly seek opportunities and resources, networks that, contrary to their own declarations, are ever more closed-off in order to maintain their force and reproduce the initiatives of their participants, exacerbating inequality in terms of access to economic, cultural, and spatial resources. 
We must pay attention to the steps that led Brazil, the last country in Latin America to abolish slavery, and South Africa, the only country in the modern era to implement a legalized regime of racism, from slavery and racism to a contemporary system of creative precarity. 


  1. My observations are the result of institutional theoretical research (in the form of a master’s and doctoral degree) combined with transdisciplinary artistic practices: video interviews, photographic and cartographic mapping, derives, and debates held among local communities in the two cities, as well as in Milan, Italy, where I am from.

  2. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Book, 2000).

  3. Peter F. Drucker, The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society (Heinemann London; 1969).

  4. [].

  5. The project will be presented in an exhibition that explores my analysis of all three cities in the Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica in Rio de Janeiro.

  6. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (USA: University of Illinois, 1988).

  7. Michel Foucault, Nascimento da Biopolitica (São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2008).

  8. YouTube, Gentrification at the Athens Biennale? “Are Artists Used as Vacuum Cleaners?” Thierry Geofroy’s channel. Accessed on October 21, 2018.

  9. George Yúdice, A conveniência da cultura: usos da cultura na era global (Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2006).

  10. Vladimir Sibylla Pires, Metrópole Cultura e breves reflexões sobre os novos museus cariocas. (São Paulo: Revista Lugar Comum – Estudos de Mídia, Cultura e Democracia, No. 35) p. 19–196. Accessed on January, 2018: [].

  11. John Howkin, The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas (London: Penguin, 2001).

  12. See Antonio Negri and Maurizio Lazzarato, Trabalho Imaterial: formas de vida e produção de subjetividade (Rio de Janeiro: DP&A, 2001), 112; Maurizio Lazzarato, “Trabalho e capital na produçao dos conhecimentos: uma lectura atraves da obra de Gabriel Tarde,” in Capitalismo Cognitivo, trabalho, redes e inovação, orgs. Giuseppe Cocco, Alexander Patez Galvao, Gerardo Silva, (Rio de Janeiro: DP&A Editora, 2003), 61–82; Manuel Castells, La città delle reti (Italia: Marsilio Editore, 2004).

  13. Neil Smith, “Towards a theory of gentrification: a back to the city movement by capital not people”, Journal of the American Planning Association, No. 45, 1979, p. 538–548.

  14. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs; 2004).

  15. Laura Burocco, “Designing Politics: Designing Respect – poder e alteridades dentro de parcerias cultuais internacionais” in Ciências Sociais Unisinos 53, No. 3 (September 2017 ), 400–412.

  16. Anibal Quijano, “Colonialidad del poder y clasificación social” in Journal of World Systems Research 6, no. 2 (2000), 342–386.

  17. [].

  18. Street wallpaper

  19. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (United Kingdom: Pluto Press; 1986).

  20. Leslie Sklair, The Transnational Capitalist Class (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

  21. Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (USA: University of California Press, 2001); Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (Duke University Press: Public Culture, V. 15, No. 1, Winter 2003), pp. 11–40. Accesed on March 2018: [].


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