An Ode to the Gambiarra
Chapter 2—Gambiarra, Another Ontological Approach
In order to start considering other epistemologies of design, a key term that must be understood is ontological design -a term with complex nuances and theoretically rooted in Heideggerian thought of notions or worlding and worldhood- which is, in its simplest form, what Willis calls “a double movement—we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us” (2006, pp 80) or as Escobar states: “ we design our world, and our world designs us back—in short, design designs.” (2018, pp 4). This implies a continuous mutual influence that we exert over our world and that our world exerts over us, not a one-time occurrence nor a one-way street but a reciprocal synergy of our constant development that goes much deeper than notions such as environmental determinism (Willis, 2006)
This can have something of a “chicken or the egg” dilemma in that it opens the space for us to question if we are a specific way because of the things we design; or; if we design those things because we are a specific way (Escobar, 2018); and although the continuous and mutual characteristic of ontological design should render that question null there is perhaps a more interesting line of thought to be pursued: are the things we design a reflection of who we are or are the processes by which we get there a more accurate window into the essence of a culture? (Moura Wanderley, 2013)
“Implicit in this question is the challenge to think of design as a process which, often, reveals itself more important than the final result given that it amplifies and potentializes the comprehension of objects and of the actions involved in their creation.”
—Moura Wanderley, 2013, page 17
With that thought in mind I want to introduce Gambiarra—a word from Brazilian Portuguese that, in its most direct iteration, denotes a creative process of improvisation by which designed objects are subverted to address a different set of necessities (Naumann Boufleur, 2013). The term is actually much richer and invites an infinitely deeper exploration that goes beyond the ability of this paper, but some key points made by Naumann Boufleur are: 1) a subversion of the industrialized artefact post consumption, 2) the act of improvising material solutions with utilitarian purposes, 3) its response to an individual’s need vs that of society, and 4) its embeddedness in a particular socioeconomic context (2013).
Gambiarra is one of those cultural terms that is extremely difficult to define or translate because of its deep cultural roots, it signifies a creative process, but it goes a long way beyond that; it is an omnipresent spirit in the collective creative consciousness of a country, the most exciting manifestation do jeitinho brasileiro.
Broken window + tape = fixed window (Guarçoni, 25 Nov 2020, Vitória)
A popular definition is “Grande Artifício da Mecânica Brasileira Inventada para Arrumar, Recuperar, ou Realizar Algo” (Great Artifice of Brazilian Mechanics Invented to Fix, Recuperate or Accomplish Something) or as the narrator of the film “Gambiarra” (2020) explains “Gambiarras are resources used to resolve a problem, generally utilizing objects for functions which they were not originally projected to accomplish”.
Before we can assess whether Gambiarra could be considered a counter narrative to the hegemonic design epistemology of western patriarchal modernity (Escobar, 2018) we need to set parameters for that which we consider design to be. Since we are working within Willis’s definition of ontological design in order to recognize that design is not created from an objective point of view but more so a reflection of the world in which the creator inhabits (2006), then there is an important concept that we must reconcile with if we are to legitimize the Gambiarra as a valid practice.
“Designing is fundamental to being human—we design, that is to say, we deliberate, plan and scheme in ways which prefigure our actions and makings”
—Willis, 2006, page 80
Willis states planning as one of the key features of design yet the instances where I felt my design abilities were more explicitly put to the test were times when I had to solve issues with no premeditation or forethought, when, by not having the ideal material or tool, I was challenged to find a solution through unexpected ways. Similarly, the reality of Gambiarra is that it happens spontaneously through improvisation, which Naumann Boufleur explains:
“Improvisation can involve chance, accidental movements, irregularities, lack of planning, preparation or plan”
—Naumann Boufleur, 2013, page 8
2. Chairs made out of canvas and stretcher bars (Guarçoni, 15 Apr 2019, Havana)
These points are clearly contradictory, but I believe there is something to be said about Gambiarra’s spontaneity; its immediateness is reflective of characteristics that are fundamental to most definitions of design, which is that of problem solving and of innovation (of use of materials and tools in this case). To me this type of resourcefulness is one of the most brilliant iterations of design, a sentiment that I see as being echoed by Escobar’s analysis of cultural critic Ivan Illich in his statement, here simplified, that a limited set of tools and materials could foster diversity of ontologies and stimulate creativity (2015, cited in Escobar, 2018).
It is worthy of mention that this improvisation happens not necessarily by the desire of the creator, but more so by the context in which they find themselves. The idea of Gambiarra is intrinsically linked to a lack of material resources and a scenario of precariousness; this spontaneity of design is simultaneously a spirit that can be seen throughout the culture (Moura Wanderley, 2013) but also a response to a vulnerable socioeconomic reality within a capitalist society (Naumann Boufleur, 2013). It is therefore unsurprising that Brasil is not the only country where these manifestations of vernacular design take place, in fact they are quite common through much of the Global South, but for the purpose of this paper the focus will remain on the Brazilian/Brasileiro territory and expand on its peculiarities and connection to the idea of a national creative identity.
The film “Gambiarra” is a reflection of a society that has improvisation as a politico-economic-structural process. It is an attempt, a misunderstanding, an epistemological ‘swagger’, whose final objective is to make clear that poverty isn’t, nor has it ever been, a condition of degradation in this country.”
As enchanting and poetic as these creative expressions can seem, it is utterly important to not erase the financial hardship imbued in these design solutions and to acknowledge them as forms of resistance to capitalist imposition (Moura Wanderley, 2013; Naumann Boufleur, 2013). These two aspects - rich creative solutions and impoverished social situations - are well exemplified in Maria Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos’s work with homeless communities where she points out the marginalized and ostracized position these individuals occupy within society with their potential for innovation- “In each of these places the material culture of the homeless reveals their creativity, ingenuity and the spontaneity of their design” (Loschiavo dos Santos, 2014, pp 199)
“‘Out of poverty, poetry; out of suffering, song...’
—a Mexican saying”
—Anzaldúa, 1987, page 65