It’s late on Friday and the weekly swing night held in hidden-away arts venue El Teatro Mandril has attracted far fewer numbers than usual. The class is running some 45 minutes late, as if the organizers are still debating whether or not to go ahead with the whole thing. There is a low, uncomfortable murmur simmering through the bar area as awkward groups of hopeful attendees hesitantly sip their drinks. The tension is thick and gloopy – like dulce de leche left outside for hours on a hot summer’s day. Eventually, the instructors call us onto the dance floor. They have made their decision. The band strike up and the crowd, gingerly, starts swinging.
The story behind El Teatro Mandril is familiar to anyone who’s ever been to one of Buenos Aires’s many chameleonic cultural centers. These unique spaces claim multiple identities and self-define liberally as bars-cum-theaters-cum-night-schools-cum-nightclubs. (No doubt they have a hard time opening a Facebook account). The metaphorical rags to cultural-riches tale of El Teatro Mandril reads thus: an ex dingy basement is transformed into artsy creative hub, with a little help from the magic of extremely buena onda staff, buckets of stellar-value Campari and Orange, a cheeky, inviting box of free condoms at the door, and perhaps (in some cases, although entirely at the discretion of the party-goer, of course) a little of Buenos Aires more potent fairy dust.
However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that tonight it looks like our protagonists’ Fairy Godmother is on strike. In fact, El Teatro Mandril seems to be still suffering from the shock provoked by the turbulent affairs of the previous week, when the center was temporarily closed down after a spot-check issued by the City Government. This is not the first time one of the capital’s cultural centers has come under threat.
Shockingly, over the past two years, the dogged, bureaucratic pursuit of these venues, which has become popularly known as “el clausurazo”, has seen more than 25 cultural centers spontaneously shut down, for various given (and highly dubious) reasons. Among the victimized institutions in question – a range of community centers, cultural and educational hubs, food cooperatives and independent theaters – are regional favorites such as Vuela El Pez (Villa Crespo), El Café de los Patriotas (La Paternal) and La Casa de Teresa (Villa Crespo). A full list of the known closings (although some parties purport knowledge of many more) was published last month by La Nación.
Under what auspices, you might be asking, can the City Government just barge in uninvited, disturbing innocent evenings of cultural enlightenment, and start barking orders? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the destructive wind that tunnels through what is known as a “vacio legal” (legal oversight). For, according to city law, these cultural centres come under the same legislation as that which affects all other bars and boliches in the capital. In other words, the cultural centers must comply by the same set of rules pertaining to health and safety, and the same set of functioning requisites as all other city-center commercial bars and nightclubs, in order to continue operating.
However, anyone who has ever been to one of these venues will know it is a million worlds away from many of Buenos Aires’ commercial bars and nightclubs. There is no need to go into the differences between El Teatro Mandril, where the artistic charm and sense of community spirit touch your heart, and somewhere like, say, Pacha, where the guys touch your bum.
This “vacío legal”, which refuses to acknowledge the individual characteristics of cultural centers, leaves venues like El Teatro Mandril open to damaging, random decrees of closure, like that which occurred just over two weeks ago. Some of these places face paying fines of at least 6,000 pesos – sometimes more – in order to reopen; impossible sums for the more unfortunate among those affected. To add insult to injury, La Nación’s inquiry revealed that many of the officially-stated reasons for closure were not exactly water-tight. Centers were criticized for the state of the sanitation facilities (how outrageous, a disgusting, shit-stained toilet in a Buenos Aires bar! But they’re usually such a sweet-smelling delight!) many for allowing guests to smoke indoors (how outrageous, indoor smoking in Buenos Aires! But the air in nightclubs is usually squeaky Geneva-clean,) and many for even (heaven forbid) refusing to allow the inspections to take place at all.
Unsurprisingly, the cultural centers and their supporters are not taking this lying down. The 13th of August saw a growing number of grievously upset campaigners come out in full force to protest in Plaza de Mayo. Many claim that the government’s anti-cultural activity violates the city’s law 2176 against human rights, specifically article 32 which refers to the promotion of creative movements. MECA (El Movimiento de Espacios Culturales y Artisticos) has drawn up its own “Ley de Centros Culturales” which aims to recognize cultural centers in their own right, to adapt the current legislation to better suit their needs, and to protect all future creative undertakings. Its website offers information about where you can go to sign the petition that will, it is hoped, force the city government to take the law to court.
However, so far the City Government, headed by Mauricio Macri, remain unmoved. They, of course, have their own version of the story, complete with their own, wildly-varying statistics about the total numbers of shut-downs that have taken place over the last two years. And, needless to say, the Kirchnerites too have put their oar in, claiming that the cultural centers are being penalized for offering services (like tango classes or community theater) that really ought to be provided by the City Government in the first place.
This political sparring is not entirely unexpected.
Historically in Argentina culture and politics are as obvious a match as jamón y queso. We’re talking about a country whose government, long before the outcome of the Malvinas War was known, had made plans to build a National Museum on the islands to better diffuse national ideals. We’re talking about a country whose president prioritized the building of a lavish, Disney-land-esque, (and actually incredibly cool) children’s cultural center to teach kiddies the values of socialism. We’re talking about a country whose dictatorship so feared the insurrectionist power of culture that it heavily censored all artistic production for decades (creating what was known as “the cultural black-out”).
Now, no one’s comparing the recent shut-downs of Buenos Aires’ cultural centers to the dogmatic and heinous cultural and artistic repression during the dictatorship years. Or, at least, no one is comparing them in so many words. Claudio Goreman, MECA’s director, in an interview for El Pais earlier last month, commented on the City Government’s “animosity” towards cultural movements in the city, and the “abuse of power” which was clearly at play. So, while independent theatergoers all over the city are sat on the edge of their seats dreading an unannounced government interruption, and while art-lovers are constantly glancing over their shoulders lest an unexpected visitor should disrupt their gallery-viewing, in El Teatro Mandril a nervous crowd of swingers are stepping out tentatively onto the dance-floor. The instructors half-jokingly warned us that if suddenly the lights went on and the music went off and we heard the loud intervention of a government official, we should all immediately stop dancing and start innocently whistling. But, it was all just a bit too La Noche de Los Lápices to be funny.
El Teatro Mandril might have managed to re-open its doors, re-gather its loyal crowds and be bouncing along happily again to the sound of live bands. However, on the city’s art scene, it is not just the swing rhythm that is rocking back and forth: in this niggling state of uncertainty, the culmination of two years of constant threats, the survival of Buenos Aires’ cultural expression is hanging in the balance.