Gilberto Gil: the open minister

Jose Murilo
18 August 2008

The resignation of Gilberto Gil as Brazil's minister of culture was announced on 30 July 2008. The great and influential musician says that music - and family matters - have after more than five years in the post called him back from his political responsibilities: "I feel like I have come full circle and I want to remove myself. I felt a big pressure on my artistic work that was accumulating."

Some of openDemocracy's collection on Gilberto Gil and open culture is here

A quick look at the reactions in the headlines of Brazil's establishment media tell of a singer-minister who did a passable job in using his social capital to promote the ministry's actions in international channels. Gil's assignment was almost passed off as just one more of Lula's "populist tricks" to hold qualified support for himself.

The seemingly condescending tone of Brazilian media comments and analyses about Gil's performance as a minister are definitely not a surprise. During his term, most powerful commercial outlets basically ignored or ridiculed some of the major international coverage he received - such as the magazine article in Wired (2004) that relates Gil's ahead-of-the-curve awareness of the importance of the principle of openness in the digital revolution.

He was ridiculed, indeed, when during an inauguration class at the University of Sao Paulo in August 2004 he declared:

"I, Gilberto Gil, Brazilian citizen, world citizen and minister of culture of Brazil, develop my work in music, in the ministry and in all the dimensions of my existence under the inspiration of hacker ethics; I am concerned about the issues that my world and my time pose to me, such as the issue of the digital divide, of free software and also the issue of regulation and development of audiovisual content production and distribution, by any media, for any purpose".

At that moment, there was a highly charged debate over the proposal of Gil's team for creating a National Cinema and Audiovisual Agency (Ancinav) to "deal with the audiovisual as an integrated and convergent economy, following the evolution of new technological platforms." The powerful media and TV networks were quick to react, violently.

Gilberto Gil was the target of much scorn: the epithets included xenophobic, authoritarian, Chavez-like and even Stalinist. He had to rise above that and concentrate on policy. During his period in office, Juca Ferreira - the sociologist whom Gil designated as his preferred successor - outlined one of the most important of these policy areas, in the context of the need for a regulatory agency in Brazil:

"In the audiovisual sector, the economic environment is being rearranged and the ownership concentration is growing. Big telecom companies are acquiring smaller companies from the movies, media, journalism and entertainment sectors, generating mega-corporations eager to conquer new markets. These companies are able to maintain powerful relations with their own rich governments, while also promoting interest-based relations with its poor-country hosts. They implement political strategies to take down what they call barriers, and fight against ownership concentration regulations in their home countries... It is important to mention that these strategies are performed by highly competent and proactive state bureaucracies making use of all kinds of resources" (see Juca Ferreira, "Brazilians debate regulation and media convergence", Global Voices, 15 September 2006).

An indication of this strategy can be found by googling for English content on Ancinav, where an (albeit protected) article reveals enough of the style of attack: "The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) threatened Brazil with commercial retaliation if the government continued its plans to create ANCINAV..."

Brazil's President Lula, in face of such heavy artillery - and though he had already compromised in the creation of the agency - felt the pressure and retreated; he asked his minister to continue to study alternatives.

All this occurred during Gilberto Gil's first months as a minister. He learned a lot from the Ancinav episode: one lesson drawn was that the goals were to stay the same, but the strategy was to be reframed.

A hacker in power

Gil chose from the start of his term to call himself a "hacker": the first major venture orchestrated from his podium in government was the grand overture of the Tropicalia movement's vibe.

The tropicalist visionary perspective is a legacy of the late 1960s when Gilberto Gil and his group were discovering a new global audience and experimenting with all kinds of cultural fusions. This perspective and the work that gave it life was inspired by a liberating, mind-opening and pioneering recognition: that the cosmopolitan electric-guitar beats from abroad and the rhythms of regional groups in the hinterlands of the Brazilian northeast were resonating to the same pulses of modernity. The urge to communicate and mix across cultures was the key to what came to be known as tropicalism.

In the 2000s, Gil's focus on the hacker ethics of openness for the digital culture was instrumental in highlighting a comparable mixing of cultures, peers, rhythms, codes and complexities. In his own way, he managed - four decades on, and in a transformed cultural, musical, media, political and technological environment - to creatively introduce new conceptual layers and nuances to his public discourse. The result was that he opened new ground for political debate over a range of contemporary issues: among them mass culture, the market, technology, traditional-modern tensions, and intellectual-property regulation.

At that moment, the seeds of what would become some of the main projects of Gil's tenure were tossed into the air. There was the pioneering push to port creative-commons licenses to Brazil, which were displayed as Gil's first moves toward the process of revising Brazilian copyrights laws. The fruits of such a debate are surely reflected in Brazil's strong (and successful) positions at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) and in the creation of an ongoing national forum to debate revisions on Brazil's copyright framework.

Another significant move came from Gil's engagement in restoring to life the Unesco convention on cultural diversity. The convention's opponents were keen to label it as a "deeply flawed" treaty, overly protectionist, and a threat to freedom of expression. Gil worked on the possibility that the initiative could result in a counterbalance to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rulings when deciding conflicts between trade and culture. In June 2007 the Brazilian ministry of culture sponsored an international seminar to debate practical implementations and tools to activate the powers of the convention in each country.

The launch of the first Pontos de Cultura (cultural hotspots ) as a concrete programme and as a showcase for Gil's vision for digital culture was broadly recognised as a great idea in terms of cutural policy. It all starts with the selection of a project, a living cultural process developed by groups such as indigenous tribes, quilombolas, cultural groups in favelas, and academic centres at universities.

The "architecture" of a hotspot is both structurally simple and broadly innovative. It is established with a broadband connection; infrastructure is made of recycled equipment; and, most important, technical workshops on open-source audio and video-editing software, enabling the cultural groups to digitise their creativity and publish it under alternative licenses. The project mixes three things: free software, advanced concepts on copyrights, and an awareness that the appropriation of technology by the people is the emergent social movement which supports the generative dynamics of the digital era.

Gilberto Gil explains:

"We need to relocate what is now centralised in the hands of few. The majors of the cultural industry haven't left anything for the peripheries. That's why today the role of the Brazilian state in formulating public policies is to empower the micro manifestations so that they become able to occupy the public spaces while being protagonists of the promotion and protection of diversity" (see Brasil lidera países americanos por políticas para as expressões artísticas [Brazil leads in America on policies for artistic expression], O Abismal, 3 July 2007).

The one complaint made by Gilberto Gil on the day he revealed his departure was related to the low budget of his ministry. This would not satisfy his many critics, the milder of whom talk about good ideas poorly implemented; the more severe (such as the media giant Globo network, whose website depicted Gil as a cartoon figure mumbling esoteric nonsense) helped influence a situation where 53% of the public voted his ministerial record "terrible".

A tropicalist minister

A definitive assessment of Gilberto Gil's term at the Brazilian ministry of culture awaits. It will have to decide whether his achievements are sufficient as to persuade publics that culture can be trusted as a locus for activism and progressive change in the global-networked society.

Gil seems to be able to embody the "use of culture" as a communication tool that both enables and invites broad participation. This invitation to cultural exercise - as if a readiness to jam with widely different musical partners, anywhere - blends into the tropicalist current of his speeches on digital culture:

"To act upon digital culture is the concretisation of this philosophy, which open spaces to redefine the form and the content of cultural policies, and transforms the ministry of culture... Digital culture is a new concept. It comes from the idea that the digital technology revolution is cultural in its essence. What is at stake here is that the use of digital technology change behaviours. The plain use of the Internet and of free software creates fantastic possibilities to democratise access to information and to knowledge, to maximise the potential of cultural goods and services, to amplify the values that form our common scripts, and therefore, our culture, and also to prime cultural production, generating new forms of art.''

Before his resignation, Gilberto Gil affirmed that digital-culture initiatives contain a built-in revolutionary device, and are able to play a fundamental role in shaking the inertia of a traditional politics that has excluded much of society from public life. He described the emergence of a bottom-up, worldwide, non-governmental political movement - which he referred to as "peer-acy" - that was able to mobilise cultural and counter-cultural forces to influence public policies.

For those of us who worked with him, the loss is big. But it must be great for him to feel free again to dedicate himself to music and family. Meanwhile, one thing is sure: Gilberto Gil's tropicalist period in office has transformed the Brazilian ministry of culture. The tones and rhythms of his leadership will live on.


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