The mention of Rio de Janeiro will likely conjure images of Carnival with masked performers and hedonistic revelers filling its streets. One will think of samba dancing and swathes of lush tropical forests tracing the edges of pink sand beaches, glistening skin and sultry odalisques lazing away long languid afternoons. While this Rio exists, it is accessible only to a tiny fraction of its nearly seven million residents. Photographer Paul Kurucz conceived of the Zones project as a way to simultaneously highlight the intensity and glamor of Rio’s subcultural denizens while also drawing attention to their marginalized (and increasingly precarious) social position.
In 2015, in conjunction with the Kolor Collective, Kurucz began creating images staged throughout Rio’s industrial sites which are added weekly to Kurucz’s website. The “zones” are assigned numbers and titles that loosely correspond to their concept. A few of these zones include: Black Blue, Occupy Gamboa, and Infernal Factory. The images, like Rio itself, are discordant and full of contradiction: flawless drag queens and genderqueers pose among decaying buildings, lithe dancers and performers are caged or shackled but remain flawless. These tensions are felt as tremors once the initial jolt of bare skin, latex, and ruin porn has faded.
When I was asked to write about Kurucz and Zones, I looked through the images and was hesitant because they looked so highly produced and pitch perfect, as if they were spreads for a glossy high-culture magazine, impenetrable to a critical gaze. But looking more closely, and learning more about their inception, what became clear is that the images are the result of a tremendous amount of labor—the models are residents of Rio: performers, artists, musicians, and other personalities with whom Kolor collaborates. The locations are derelict sites throughout Rio, and the at their core is the pervasive community and collective spirit fundamental to the Rio art scene.
The Kolor collective was initiated in Budapest by Kurucz in response to a period of emotional crisis. Its inception was an attempt to channel heartbreak into a productive and fertile hub for counter-cultural art exhibitions, music, film, performance, and underground parties. Over time Kolor expanded to include a film club, which committed to showing under-recognized and socially-conscious films that might not otherwise have found an audience in Hungary. In the community spirit, Kolor also hosted thematic parties held at secret locations, which included a floating barge, a horse racing track, and an abandoned marketplace.
The early impulses behind Kolor remain clear in the Zones work: it’s insistence on individuality, counter-narrative, and community, as well as its DIY aesthetic. The images in Zones employ a “glam-trash" aesthetic which has become ubiquitous across advertising, fashion, and pop music. Its seeds might be found within drag communities and has, like so many other subcultural aesthetics, become mainstream as art directors and commercial photographers appropriate it to sell goods and services. Kurucz is aware of the taste for this aesthetic and has been approached by potential advertisers to use Kolor to produce works with the intended purpose of advertising. While this would no doubt give the collective a healthy injection of capital, Kurucz notes that he is not interested in a corporation dictating the images he creates. Rather, if he were to partner with an advertising campaign, he would do so only with complete artistic license. Photography, perhaps more than any other medium, folds into itself the potential to be deployed as an advertising strategy and Zones, with its subversive sex appeal and underlying social commentary, could easily be translated in to an ad campaign.
Today, Kolor operates out of a brick and mortar studio in downtown Rio. In addition to producing their own works, the collective rents studio space and equipment to other photographers in the city. Because photography production in Rio is prohibitively expensive for emerging artists, the collective serves a need to the artistic community at large; their operations allow them to sustain their individual and collective studio practices while assisting in the production and development of the greater arts community. While community-based and collective art practices have become increasingly visible (and desirable) this model is especially prevalent in large global cities like Rio, Mexico City, Tehran, and Istanbul, where economic conditions and resources require artists to form networks out of which they can sustain their individual and collective practices. In Rio de Janeiro the number of jobs in the formal sector fell by 1.5 million in 2015, and the projections for 2016, according to analysts, are grim.
There are many images in the Zones project but one in particular struck me as a potent example of the project’s overarching conceptual strategies. In "Andy" (2015) a copper-skinned person whose gender is unclear sits on arch-shaped piece of broken playground equipment amonga pile of rubble. According to Kurucz, the title comes from Andy Warhol (who inspired the editing style) and the model’s real name is Aretha. “She is a great friend and a very well known character within the Rio and São Paulo LGBTQ and art scene.” Andy cranes their neck and laughs at something unseen just out of the camera’s periphery. He grips the metal bars of his seat, pulling his lean arms tautly behind him so that the skin and muscles of his upper torso are exaggerated: the filigree shape of the clavicle, the perfectly round ball of the shoulder, the slight dimpling of the sternal muscles. Andy wears a bright red satin corset, the cups of which crumple, unfilled by breasts (this suggests that Andy is male, but is by no means conclusive evidence.) One can infer a gender assignation here, as in many of the photographs, but Kurucz deliberately plays up the gender ambiguity in his images. On the ground near the subject are two blue bicycles; one with training wheels to his left, the other on its side behind him. The cobalt color of the bikes pops against the forlorn shades of rust and grey that dominate the scene. Andy is a study in primary colors: blue tights, red corset, and bright yellow (dyed) hair. Everything about him is alert and vibrant from his clothing to his luminous smile.
This image in particular cuts to the center of the precarious situation trans people face in Brazil, a country where evangelical lobbyists have made it difficult for the government to pass effective legislation that would protect its LGBTQ citizens. With a declining economy, rising unemployment, and increasing cartel activity, violence against trans people has risen steadily over the last five years. While Brazil is still thought of widely as a sexually liberal and inclusive country, in cities like Rio and São Paulo, violent crimes including murder targeting the LGBTQ community are a daily occurrence. So Andy’s gaze out of the frame becomes not playful but self protective. (S)he smiles but her posture is tense: muscles contracted ready to leap from her seat at the sight of danger—a gang of thugs rounding the corner? Andy wears teal colored checkered slip-on shoes, not ideal for running but beside her (as mentioned) are two bicycles. One, however, is for a child—too small for Andy to make a getaway and the second bike is tipped over on its side. She’s sitting amidst a field of rubble so it seems likely that the second bicycle might not be operational.
Zones is an important reminder that the images we see on television and social media are incomplete. Spectacle and seduction bait us in to snap judgement and uncritical acceptance of what we see. Despite its image as a sort of playground and “anything goes” culture, homophobia is entrenched in Brazil, with one gay, trans, or bisexual person killed on average every 28 hours. Zones alludes to this crisis and implicates its viewers who are likely drawn in by the sleek and impeccably produced images it contains. However, once inside, one wanders through the the zones as a tourist wandering the streets of Rio, drunk on fantasy, stumbling into a neighborhood not on any map. If you are lucky, you might encounter someone like Andy.
Check out more photos from Zones below.
LGBTQ, Brazil, Homosexuality