ParticipAction: notions on cultural agency and Antanas Mockus.

Art is embedded in society.

The illusion of autonomy helps art achieve its social character.

Theodore Adorno


Sergio Davila, Amsterdam – I heard about Doris Sommer two years ago while I was assisting the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes in his retrospective exhibition celebrated at the Carpenter Center and organized by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. Sommer is the professor of Latin American literature at the University and directs the Cultural Agents initiative. She also edited a very inspirational book called Cultural Agency in the Americas that I always recommend and follow almost religiously. I am part of the organizing team of the symposium “Primus Pilus” that will take place on the 12th of June, the symposium is an exploration of the new responsibility of the designers by analyzing some cases of study and having discussions with active designers in the field. While we were discussing about inspirational cases I did not doubt to talk about Antanas Mockus, the most spectacular cultural agent of our days. While I was working in the way that we want to present his case I was lucky enough to find a beautifully written article by Doris Sommer about the subject. On the following lines you will be able to find some of her phrases, quotes that she used and citations that I thought, would complete the reading.

The term Agency refers to the creative actions and reflections that can turn first movers towards collective change.

A cultural agent is for instance a teacher; they redistribute the knowledge from their research to their students. In fact, all of us are cultural agents: whenever we comment about something, when we buy, sell, reflect, allocate, decorate, vote, do not vote, or otherwise lead social, culturally constructed, lives. The appropriate question about agency is not if we exercise it, but how self-consciously we do so; that is, to what end and what effect (1).

Antanas Mockus, ex-mayor of Bogotá, is an international icon of creative administration. Philosopher and mathematician twice elected mayor, he knows and teaches the value of artful responses to crime, corruption, and violence (2). Mockus have been engaging culture in order to connect the body and soul of the city.

Super Mayor

For example, the municipality’s inspired staff hired twenty pantomime artists to replace the corrupt traffic police. Each artist subsequently trained another twenty amateurs and soon the urban space became a stage for daily merriment based on rules of red lights and crosswalks. Spectacle created a public, a res-pública to enjoy and to reflect on the law after citizens had been avoiding one another during years of lawlessness, lack of trust, and fear (3).

Among many other creative solutions, Mockus together with his team organized a ladies night in the city, increasing therefore the confidence of walking thru the capital and enjoy public spaces. A massive performance followed this strategy: the government gave food coupons in exchange for weapons, the place to make the exchange was inside the confession booths and was performed in collaboration priests, this option worked quite well specially for mothers that would prefer not to have any gun at home. This huge recollection of weapons ended with a public action where the metal was melted down and casted again into spoons for babies. Also the city broadcasted a result of this public action by showing a group of teenagers stepping out from graves and going back to their families, symbolizing the amount of people that was not killed as a result of this project (4).

In an interview with Pedro Reyes Mockus said: While I was the mayor of Bogotá, I received occasional death threats. Therefore, I had to use a bullet-proof vest. I made a hole right where my heart is. The hole was in the shape of a heart. I believe this kind of gesture, gave me indeed more protection (5).

The dramatic reduction of homicides, alongside an equally striking increase in tax revenues (and even voluntary taxes), register successes that outstripped everyone’s expectations, including the mayor himself and his advisors. Engaged citizens don’t simply follow laws; they also participate in constructing and adjusting law to changing conditions. The list of examples of creative solutions is vast, the word spread and other governments are mimicking this strategies in Lima, México city and even in London (6).

Without imagining an alternative, transformation is unthinkable. And thinking otherwise is an invitation to play. The methodology is simple but it requires a better effort: surprise of ingenious responses to difficult challenges. An unexpected situation disentangles unproductive repetition, including the procedure and political arguments that get jammed by corruption or tendentiousness. This makes renewed deliberation a possible after-effect of art. The mimes and participants in other civic games produced the immediately refreshing effect of estrangement. But by the time their performances failed as art, they had succeeded in effecting a secondary delayed result; a renewed respect for law that brought Bogotá a step closer to coordinating law with culture and morality (7).

The urgent issue today is a creative process and multidisciplinary action in civic development. Art’s socially constitutive appeal needs more advocates; otherwise, citizens may not appreciate art, including the art of interpretation, as the precious foundation of democratic life.Constitutional democracies that confer rights and obligations are themselves collective works of art. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to remain creative. ( 8 )

1. See Art and Accountability by Doris Sommer, Literature and Arts of the Americas, Issue71, Vol 38, No. 2, 2005, Page 262.

2. See Space Wars in Bogotá: The Recovery of Public Space and its Impact on Street Vendors, by Michael G. Donovan. MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, February 2002.

3. See Cultural Agency in the Americas, by Juan Carlos Godenzzi (Author), Santiago Villaveces (Contributor), Claudia Briones (Contributor), Diana Taylor (Contributor), J. Lorand Matory (Contributor), Denise Corte (Contributor), Doris Sommer (Editor); Duke University Press, 2006.

4. From a Conversation with Pedro Reyes on the Summer of 2005.

5. See Art and Accountability by Doris Sommer, Literature and Arts of the Americas, Issue71, Vol 38, No. 2, 2005, Page 263 – 264.

6. See Principals of social topology, Pedro Reyes. El tiempo celeste No. 25 spring 2007.

7. See “Anfibios culturales y divorcio entre ley, moral y cultura” Revista análisis político No. 21, National University of Colombia, 1994.

8. See Art and Accountability by Doris Sommer, Literature and Arts of the Americas, Issue71, Vol 38, No. 2, 2005, Page 275. And “The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitutions” by Eric Slaughter.


48 Responses to “ParticipAction: notions on cultural agency and Antanas Mockus.”

  1. 1 Martijn van Berkum May 26, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Hi Sergio,

    Interesting articles and an interesting case you point out. Grant Kester wrote some interesting paragraphs on cultural agency in Conversation Pieces, Community + Communication In Modern Art.

    Have you been reading Stuart Hall? I think he’s quite an authority on the subject of cultural agency, identity and representation.

  2. 2 infirmness June 4, 2008 at 3:37 am

    Infirmness says : I absolutely agree with this !

  3. 3 Lila June 20, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Lila!

  4. 4 sergiodavila June 23, 2008 at 8:31 am

    Dear Lila,
    Thanks for your comment, it makes me think in better ways, maybe less complicated, to work on my posts for the next time. I also agree that there is an opportunity for me to be an accurate translator of my ideas. I’m glad that you consider the blog good and will be looking forward to hearing from you in the future.

  5. 5 Máire Davey January 6, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Hi Sergio,

    Just came by your blog by chance, loads of food for thought! I’m undertaking an MLitt looking at Participatory Arts, only in very early stages but loads of references now to follow.

    Thanks and keep it up..


  6. 6 sergiodavila January 14, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Dear Máire,

    I’m glad that you found good references in the article. There are many examples around and I’m constantly researching about the subject. Just recently I’ve been working on diagrams to show the participatory process. More info will be uploaded at

    Thanks for the comment.


  7. 7 Máire Davey January 25, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Hi Sergio,

    Thanks for the link, can’t seem to upload it for some reason? Would love a look at it as I am looking at mapping active and passive engagement within the context of participatory practice at present.

    Irit Rogoff might be of interest, as might Maxine Green, Green more in the area of arts education research but depending on your focus you might find some interesing parallels…



  8. 8 eduardo July 10, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    nuevo Presidente de Colombia.

  9. 9 Andres March 30, 2010 at 2:47 am

    I know totally what the autor means. I was grown in Bogota and I just had some memories of every little thing that Mockus has used to make us understand the level of decadence in values, education and development as a society.

    Mockus President 2010

  10. 11 Ligia P Bernas May 29, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    I was born in Bogota, Colombia and I admire the creativity of Antanas Mockus as a politician. I hope he gets elected as President of Colombia.

  11. 12 April 22, 2013 at 1:00 am

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Many thanks, However I am having problems with your
    RSS. I don’t know the reason why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody else getting the same RSS issues? Anybody who knows the answer can you kindly respond? Thanks!!

    • 13 Sergio Davila April 22, 2013 at 3:25 am

      Hey Pic-sell
      Thanks for the comment. This is actually an old post and we have closed this blog a couple of years ago. This might be the reason why you cannot subscribe.

      I leave you my studio’s website in case you are interested. If you have any comments that you would like to share please feel free to send it via that site.


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