Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca’s work celebrates—and reframes—vernacular cultural forms as they have manifested through time; as popular traditions become pop culture, for instance. Through photography and film, the artists examine a space in between, where cultural forms of the past adapt in response to changing economic conditions—particularly in emerging economies or post-colonial geographical contexts—and where popular genres persist through cultural mixing and diasporic refashioning.

The artists look to how performative forms of colonial cultural resistance in Brazil’s northeast continue today but in revised expression. For instance, the 12-minute video and accompanying series of lenticular prints, Faz que vai (Set to Go) (2015), features four dancers demonstrating the contemporary musical and dance style of frevo. Deemed an intangible heritage by UNESCO in 2012, this popular tradition traces its roots back to capoeira, the 16th-century Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines dance, acrobatics, and music.

For the protagonists of Wagner and de Burca’s films, self-fashioning becomes a means of political, economic, and social survival. This subtle cultural revaluing is a key concept behind the photographic series Mestres de Cerimônias (Masters of Ceremony) and the film Estás vendo coisas (You Are Seeing Things), produced for the 2016 São Paulo Biennial. The film’s protagonists are part of Recife’s brega scene, a once regional musical genre that has since gained global attention via social media. The brega music industry reflects the newly acquired power of this generation of Brazilian MCs, who view their participation in social media outlets such as YouTube and Instagram as legitimate professional occupations. For Masters of Ceremony, Wagner followed some of the genre’s best-known video-clip producers to document MC culture in Brazil. The series of 16 photographs reveals an economy of desire for visibility, consumption, and celebrity. Wagner’s documentary photography practice often acts as an initial research process, introducing the artists to the main practitioners of these burgeoning cultural phenomena, who later collaborate on developing the film’s script and also play roles cast for them in the film by performing exactly what they do in real life.

Countering the impulse to categorize culture in terms that are fixed, Wagner and de Burca explore cultural change across generations and geographies. Shot on the island of Réunion, Cinéma Casino (2014) joins radically different kinds of rhythms and dance traditions through a synchronized, split-screen film installation that explores the movement of and in bodies. Here, rhythms of mayola and sega set the stage for dancers of mixed cultural backgrounds to demonstrate choreographies adapted from dancehall, zouk, ragga-love, and coupé-décalé, all the while talking in the film about the meaning of these gestures. As such, the film performs as a tutorial not unlike the ones watched by the dancers themselves over the internet. Combining traditions “from home” and mixing moves mimicked from elsewhere, the cast of Cinéma Casino “dance in the present,” as an expression of “I am in the here”—as one of the dancers depicted in the film explains. As if inbetween the split screen of this syncretic installation, a third space is navigated by a new generation of Réunionnese youth.

Straddling the border of documentary and fiction, the artists have developed a subtle system of pointing that reveals rather than classifies. In the slippery spaces between the staged and the actual, the gendered, racialized, and socio-economic contexts of the subjects emerge. And, it is precisely there that the self-generated strategies of visibility and subversion between the fields of pop culture, high art, and tradition are performed anew.

Co-presented with the Art Gallery of York University, in partnership with the Images Festival