he placard, decorated around the border with colorful leaves and flowers, outlined the regulations for life in an unusual community in Caracas, Venezuela: a 40-story skyscraper occupied by thousands of squatters. “These boards would be on every two or three floors,” said artist Ángela Bonadies. “They indicated how to pay rent for the apartments, and requirements. It also illustrated who could clean during the week and the different chores. Also there were — above all — rules on what could and could not be done and restrictions regarding children.”
A photograph of the placard is one of 13 in the installation La Torre de David in SITE Santa Fe’s biennial Casa tomada. The tower is named after Venezuelan banker David Brillembourg, who began building the skyscraper in 1990. Known colloquially as “King David,” Brillembourg died in 1993 and his company went bankrupt the following year. Work on the tower never resumed.
The occupation began in 2007, according to a statement by artists Bonadies and Juan José Olavarría. During their project about the squatter community, the two photographed “transitional spaces — doorways, corridors, common patios — to address the clashing of architectures and cultures.”
The people who lived there represented a cross-section of the Caracas demographic, though obviously not including the wealthy. “Like in any community, there were all types: artists, hairdressers, teachers, construction workers, students, nurses, bus drivers, everyone,” said Bonadies (whose Spanish responses to questions were translated for Pasatiempo by Drew Lenihan). “It was a community of three thousand people, with a deeply vertical structure of power.”
The rules placard was just one example of the importance of decoration in the vast vacant building. “In the tower, the people decided to build their home, their ‘place,’ and the walls and the space reflected the interests and passions of each person. They hung and placed received gifts, familiar photos, and trophies. There are distinct characteristics of decorating homes in Venezuela, and this is evident here.”
In one of the photos, we see a wall lined in mirrors. Residents removed sheets of the material from the façade of the tower to create ventilation, and recycled them for mirrors, tables, and other uses. “Like each person who was busy constructing these walls and decorating his/her house, each space used colors and different supports to make something very showy,” Bonadies said.
Some of the illegal residents of the building were there for seven years before Venezuela’s new president, Nicolás Maduro, began evictions in 2014. They were completed the next year; the tower has been an empty, unfinished ruin ever since. Bonadies said there are some in the capital city who supported the occupation and others who did not. “The tower had no running water and the trash ended up in this space next to [the adjacent neighborhood] Sarria, and would accumulate for days and the smell would be very strong.”
La Torre de David provided a home for hundreds of families, but life there was no paradise. “There was a boss and later a group that served the boss. Not all had a voice in the tower or had a vote in the tower. It didn’t generate a society of equality. Although it was called a ‘cooperative,’ it more resembled a military structure that responded to a ‘military leader’ who had the characteristics of a dictator: macho, homophobic, violent, and totalitarian.”
Bonadies, who lives in Rome and in Venezuela, and Olavarria, who is now a resident of Buenos Aires, are at work on a different kind of portrayal of that community: “a graphic novel or comic book about our experience in the tower, a delirious narrative that extends itself to the experience of living in Venezuela,” as she described it. “By getting closer to fiction and science fiction, perhaps we can better revisit the recent history of Venezuela.” — Paul Weideman