rio de janeiro’s Praça XV flea market: the paradox of waste


This is a version of a paper that I gave at the Global Garbage conference hosted by the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis’ (ASCA) Cities Project in Paris last year. It is included in the collection Global Garbage: Urban Imaginaries of Waste, Excess, and Abandonment, to be published by Routledge in December 2015.

At the end of each day, very little rubbish remains on the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s affluent and middle-class suburbs. Through the night and early morning phalanxes of sanitation workers and scavengers, working in both the informal and formal economies, sort and clean up much of it. Some of that rubbish is handpicked and re-classified as waste, and bound for secondary markets where it can be sold and bought anew (Coletto, 2010). Informal and formal secondhand or ‘flea’ markets are a node within this network of secondary economies that generates valuable social, economic, and material infrastructure in cities (Evers & Seale, 2014; UNHabitat, 2010).

From 1979 until the end of 2013, the Feira de Antiguidades da Praça XV set up every Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in an otherwise unused channel of land hemmed in on the sides and from above by roadways. The flea market took its name from a nearby square, Praça XV de Novembro, that is both national monument and tourist destination. The square and the area occupied by its namesake market are incorporated in Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Cultural Corridor’, a central urban precinct geographically demarcated because of its heritage and cultural attributes (del Rio and de Alcantara, 2009). Following Mary Douglas’ (1966) influential formulation, the flea market is ‘matter-out-of-place’ because it is at odds with the official place-image (Shields, 1991: 61-62) of historic, touristic Praça XV, and of Rio de Janeiro itself as an egalitarian, modern metropolis (Seale, 2014). The market’s conspicuous display of waste in the street resists hegemonic projections of what constitutes liveability in urban contexts (Coletto, 2010: 59). This, combined with the visible congregation at the city’s political, financial and cultural centre of market’s community of ‘urban outcasts’ who are usually pushed to the social and spatial peripheries of the city (Wacquant, 2008), is interpreted by some as a failure of urban governance (Hiebert, Rath and Vertovec, 2014). However, counter to the secondhand market’s discursive positioning within the representational and material orders of the city, Feira da Praça XV instigates order in an arena where many assume there is none to be found. The market as a space, a set of practices, and a community reinstitutes order amongst previously discarded objects through inventory, exhibition, and above all, commodification. The vendors at the market are entrepreneurial (Seale, 2014), re-incorporating waste back into circuits of exchange in a process that provides employment and waste management for the city.

We are socially and culturally pre-disposed to view waste pejoratively (Elias 1978; LaPorte, 2000). Some of our rationale for marginalising it may have sound physiological basis. Nevertheless, waste is an obligatory, insistent, and above all, valorised component of global, neo-liberal capitalism. Waste is neither abject, nor excessive; rather it sustains capitalism’s growth. We might even say, as David Trotter does, that in capitalism ‘the success of the enterprise can be measured by the waste-matter it produces, by the efficiency with which it separates out and excludes whatever it does not require for its own immediate purposes.’ (2000: 22) As indications of the status quo, we can look to the existence of a globalised industry whose driver is the management and movement of the catastrophic amounts of material waste we produce, or to the deliberate configuration of products to deteriorate or to become technologically or stylistically obsolete. To be measured successful, such industries and innovations are dependent on generating increasing amounts of waste. The disconnect between waste’s symbolic role and waste’s actualised role in global capitalism is what I understand to be the paradox of waste. Through diagrammatic reference to Feira da Praça XV, I aim to construct a theory of waste that acknowledges this paradox. Continue reading “rio de janeiro’s Praça XV flea market: the paradox of waste”


wilson lane

When I turn into Wilson Lane from the corner of Golden Grove Street, I never know to what my eye will be drawn.

Sometimes, it is the shapes, colours and textures of the buildings and walls that line the laneway:


Or it might be the random words and images that people add to the landscape:


I always photograph the refuse. A lot of rubbish gets left in Wilson Lane and some of it arranges itself into compositions that make me think of other artists. Russian formalist Malevich made lines and circles like this.


Wilson Lane runs parallel to the south end of Wilson Street. Walking from where I live, it starts at Golden Grove and finishes at Shepherd Lane. I use it as an alternative to Wilson Street, but not because I don’t like the bigger road. Wilson Street is leafier and you can see all sorts of railroad detritus because it runs alongside the Eveleigh train yards.


Since the rebuilding of the carriage-works and the re-zoning of the precinct, Wilson Street has lost some of its character. The local council regularly scrubs the graf and the bill posters from the brick and corrugated iron that edge its eastern side, and which used to act as a de facto community notice board. Skipping Girl, the iconic Wilson Street image, gets defaced from time to time by jealous vandals. She is scribbled over and has paint thrown at her, but some street artist usually takes pity on her, and overnight, she will return in a fresh incarnation.

I wander along Wilson Lane several times a week. When I first met Nick, it was the path to Edward Street where he lived. I took this photo at that time:


I pointed out this patch of paint to Nick as we walked between his house and mine. It was immediately on the right as we entered the lane at my end. It reminded me of a speech bubble in a comic. I like the possibilities of a speech bubble with no speech. Its blankness is a space that could be left wide open, or could be filled – whichever you chose. I took a series of photos of Newtown walls for Nick as a souvenir of the city he was leaving. I called this one Nicolas dit, ‘Nicholas says’, and it became a visual joke about his immanent move to Paris and his next-to-non-existent French.

I took this photo of Wilson Lane with Nick’s departure in mind.


It reminded me of Paris – the rubbish, the smoking, the refuse left in the street after the produce market has moved on. So, its title is French Kiss.

[Of course, everyone knows that real Parisian cigarette butts look like this.

In the Latin Quarter:

Latin Quarter

At the Palais de Tokyo:

Palais de Tokyo

And at the Arc de Sebastopol:

Arc de Sebastopol

And this is what it really looks like after the market has packed up for the day



The lane is transformed daily. The empty speech bubble has been covered over in the year since I photographed it. It looks like this now:


In the past week, this map of utopia has been scraped off the wall near the back of the Buon Ricordo restaurant, along with the accompanying stick ups that made an ad-hoc open-air gallery .


The pumpkin vine growing incontinently over the fence has shrivelled and turned brown.


The shapes of the rubbish form, disappear, re-appear, re-form.


This is what I found today.