In the impossibility, to exist

There is a common ground between the invisible and the impossible. A place where the two notions overlap, like in a Venn diagram. But this overlapping can also be the space that distinguishes and separates them.

If the first concerns what cannot be seen or cannot be seen, the second is what cannot be or happen.

The impossible can be translated into text, sound or image, the easiest format to observe. But the same happens with the invisible, whose contours can be delineated in order to transmit it to others. Both in the process of conceiving the idea or thing that cannot be seen or that is not, and in its transposition into a format that allows this information to be disseminated, there is an indispensable faculty: imagination.

The Impossible Cities project takes as its starting point the descriptions Marco Polo relates to Kublai Kan, in the words written by Italo Calvino in The Invisible Cities (1972/1993). The veracity of Calvino’s text can be read between the lines. It is not a reality transformed into fiction, but a fiction that, if we understand it as a metaphor, we can transpose into reality. If we change their name, many of these descriptions would fit perfectly in cities and places that we know, referring either to urban aspects, populations, events or moments that are more or less specific or more or less general.

The search for a fictionalized Porto didn’t happen having the book as a guide, but having the format and the form of writing in the mind as an aesthetic conception to achieve.

I have searched for the fictional city by wandering in the space of the real city. I’ve walked through the city observing fixed urban equipment, I’ve stopped and followed with my eyes the people in motion. Simultaneously, an inner drift occurred in me, a journey through the thoughts that arise both from the physical experience of the journey and from observation, either turned towards what is external to me or turned inward.

To search in the city for what I had not yet seen seemed to me insufficient from a creative point of view, and therefore illusory. To search for that ultimate authenticity of what doesn’t yet exist, seemed to me a megalomaniacal task, and therefore unrealizable.

I thought that the trick to finding that necessary originality would be to look at what exists. To admire the banal to the point of seeing it as singular. Like when we repeat a word so many times that it loses its meaning and its sound becomes strange. And it is only at that moment that I can try to transform the ordinary visible into the absurd, that particular place of the impossible that resides in the real.  It is precisely in that place that invisibility is in potency. Invisibility is impossible only because it does not yet exist.

What is sought that is not yet has all possible forms except that which actually exists. Potency becomes possible when it concretizes a form.

Similar action describes Álvaro Siza in his book Imagining Evidence (2013). He teaches us that creating something new depends on careful observation of the context for which we create. Perhaps by training defect I have the need to think the object together with the space. The site-specific is an essential condition in the way I learned to design architecture, and I can hardly free myself from that in my artistic work.

First step, learn to look at what exists. Learn to read history and predict some piece of the future. Because “the project is in place”, already before we design it, waiting for us to discover it. Let’s not be reductionist, there will be many possible projects in the same place, and many of them will fit you perfectly. The message is not that we have to find the needle in the haystack, because it really isn’t there yet. The message is that we have to look into the haystack, feel the hay with our hands, and pull out at least one stalk of dry straw that can be used as a needle.

Without being very aware of it throughout the process, I later realized that I started in this project to grope socially engaged art (ASC). I freely translate the expression into Portuguese, from the term “Socially Engaged Art”, preferred by Pablo Helguera (2011) among the many that proliferate nowadays for this type of artistic practice.

The social dimension has always been the object of my personal interest and for that reason, inevitably present in the work I have produced, although until then in a much more covert or discreet way. ‘The Impossible Cities’ included a diverse group of participants, young people connected to the arts but not only, who through participation became performers in the proposed actions, and only one of them is a professional performer.

However, I place this project as ASC not because of the participatory dimension, but because of the discourse produced, focused on issues of urban design and functioning – with particular focus on the ecological issue – but also on more general issues of citizenship, such as forms of belonging and social inclusion (or lack of them), the political and economic model of city building and the possible forms of public participation in that building. This, done through an audiovisual document that records the city and some of its transformations over several months of 2021, in conjunction with performative actions in the places concerned and a narration that digests and rewrites only partially Calvino’s text, as it rests on the image in an almost natural way. I conceive of the project as a form of active citizenship, which through artistic production is able to question specific parts of the social model that exists in the space and time in question.

In the same way, the actions in the public and semi-public space are proposed as a form of “sensitive attack” on the places and other users, without reaching the point of vandalism, but as docile acts of insubordination, subversive enough to cause astonishment and questioning in those who encounter them. About the problematic that a project of this type raises around the public, I am still left with some questions that I don’t know how to answer. Among them: does the public understand?  Is it essential for the public to understand?

The fictionalized city I created includes three notable points in the city of Porto: Campo 24 de Agosto garden and the recent Continente supermarket, the wasteland behind the Lapa metro station, where Rui Vilela street is in fact a dirty road that crosses an unused soccer field, and finally, the wall – recently demolished – that along França Avenue enclosed the land dedicated to the future El Corte Inglés, where a group of citizens claim a public garden.

In each of them I made sound and image recordings and a unique site-specific performative action took place. Pavonear (to flaunt), Circular (to circle) and Sementar (to seed), respectively, were the names of each of these three moments. Pavonear consisted in a “migration” of artificial beings – ambiguous creatures between flower and peacock, potted on wheels – between the public garden and the interior of the supermarket, where they would end up becoming a utilitarian equipment to carry the groceries. Circular was an experimental soccer game, where the players invented in loco the rules of the new game, and their movements were conditioned by compasses where they could only move in circles. Sementar was a ritual of planting an invisible place, through the wall that excludes it from the city. Each of the actions refers to peculiarities of the space in question: the abundance of luggage bags, people in transit and supermarket carts in the former; the cranes building a new hotel in the neighbourhood that overshadows the neighbourhood on Lapa hill, a background framed by a rusty goal with no net; a barren, empty lot in an city center where concrete and asphalt dominate, isolated from the city by a wall that is also an occasional support for public expression that tends to be quickly whitewashed by the municipality.


We walk dogs on a leash, but not cats. The dog consents and is happy to be private property, while a bird in a public garden is a common good without knowing it. Giving food to ducks that don’t belong to us is a pleasurable pastime, but offering a word of comfort to a dirty beggar becomes an act of discomfort that requires some portion of courage. We hitch up animals that we don’t use as cargo transport, but we pull luggage on wheels in various circumstances in our daily lives. Neither wheel nor leg are synonymous with nomadism anymore. Long journeys are made without touching solid ground. And the nomads of our days are divided into two species: those who divide their days between the chair at the café where they work remotely and the new city to discover, and those who spend the day on park benches and the night on the grass. The curious fascination with the exotic has turned into contempt based on the less common skin tone, with a certain amount of fear of other people’s culture that we think we already know. The eccentric does not always seek the position of not lining up in the circle, and when one sees himself there he may feel that he belongs there in a natural way, try to make himself invisible or seek the radical solution of camouflaging in an artifice that only makes him more dissonant. An island can be a paradise garden if it is not surrounded by horns and exhaust pipe smoke. And bridges can be built by walking, or by the possible connections at the bus station. There is no minimum distance for a move to be called migration, but it is understandable that migration requires a drastic change of environment. Between the garden and the interior of the supermarket there is an invisible ocean. We arrive in the New World with the baggage we carry from home and even if we update our style to fit in, we will never stop being foreigners there even though we call ourselves brothers. But we can be brothers without having a single resemblance. What we can’t do is live from new Continents at every corner where they sell already dead Asian vegetables while the streets murder us with air without oxygen.


If even the horizon line is not horizontal how to know what radius turns a curve into a pretentious straight line? Exclamation marks can be sinuous too! It depends on the font that sends the message, whether it is stiff or runs fluid. And the car runs, run in circles made of straight lines in the city designed with a ruler. We need the circle when we don’t want to walk. And when we walk we only look for the shortest line. The good journey we want it not to end quickly, and the good life we think should not be winding. The game of the good life is easier for those who break the rules. Breaking the rules can be remaking the rules to suit yourself. Spinning on yourself like the Sun King does not help life on Earth. Being a Satellite without being peripheral. As the anchor is to ship, the hook is to the crane. And the hook for the interrogation like the crane for the doubtful exclamation. Because the sun when it rises is for everyone except for those who have no window in their room. Or for those who have a hotel-wall in front of their house. Prevent from living without prohibit from eating. Unless the rules change, but when they do it always seems to be to increase the difficulty or the VAT, which never stops rising. Sometimes rules are relaxed for soccer tourists. It makes sense, they arrive here tired. They came here on foot on a dirt road made by free slaves. Non-air bridge that is manufactured from the desire to take the subway to go to work for minimum wage. And the beacon of what is acceptable remains invisible as it frames the construction of a present, poisoned with inauspicious future. This is what we have, cheap beers on the street at the end of the day. It could be better than nothing, but it is worse than better. We might as well ballpark the demolition of the neighborhood before ceding the building rights to the condo. Drop the idea, but without hurting the ideal of the social society. Like the slap that is a dull cavity in the teeth of humble people, but for impertinent people is a delicious salty gastropod. We know it happens, but who it happens to is the important question. We have to know how to laugh at other people’s misfortunes because we have also been taught to laugh at our own even when it hurts.




Schrödinger’s Land. A place that cannot be seen, existing and not existing simultaneously. A place behind walls, you can see the outside while not seeing the inside. A place where you can’t enter, you don’t know its potential for renewing fresh air, even though you know the gross floor area. The waterproofing index will never be higher than what it already is and yet it is said to be improved. To flourish in damaging concrete and glass. Sowing iron to sell wines with fruity notes of polyester. Cotton flowers that arrive already shredded at promotional prices. To bring more life to the center that dies of claustrophobia. And cars to the new asphalt park. Nobody remembers that before you need not to know how to parallel park because there were spaces left on the spine. Vacant land is also fallow ground that waits on the wall like Spanish Humpty Dumpty. Beyond the wall there is no Englishman or foreigner who knows how to cement flowers. On this side of the wall, whenever the Portuguese attacked with letters, the whitewashing militia immediately arrived. Stop air conditioning the hypermarkets so that they can freely ventilate the nickel smell. The only consumer protection solution is to defend a future that supports air that does not condition. Seeding air and wind, only and unsustainably – this is overreaching in numbers. Attacking with seeds is like dropping fresh love bombs. Soldiers marching away from their shadow for lack of the shade of a leafy canopy. When the water runs out the end begins. When the grain runs out there is no more future generation. There will be one hand left to write what the mouth no longer had the breath to blow. And no one to pay with interest for the sadness.

Going back to the beginning of this text, I don’t think that the Impossible Cities project has been extraordinarily successful in making the invisible – places and characteristics of those places – evident. Besides being an experimental project about the possibilities of what scenography can be in the public space and in confrontation with it, it turned out to be an exploration focused on an artistic discipline to which I am still almost totally alien – performance, in this case closer to the happening format.

It was not, however, a failed experience. I believe that the greatest learning did not happen throughout the process, but at the end of it, after the conclusion of the study, revisiting the thoughts and material concretizations produced during an entire year. It was only in the dismantling that I managed to put the drawers in order. And not all of them.

I have also recently realized that it is not just the action of observing exhaustively until it becomes unbearable. It’s a way of doing it, and one that I sometimes can’t escape. But I discovered a formula that I feel speaks more about what interests me: I learned to look not to see what is there but what is not there. So it is no longer just a matter of turning the real into the impossible, but of looking for the invisible to show it as not impossible.

The impossible is just a delirium turned real.

Cidades Impossíveis (Impossible Cities)*  is a project of intersection between art and architecture that Rossana Ribeiro** created in the city of Porto. Between the invisible and the impossible, the performance invades the streets, based on the concepts of Pavonear (To Strut), Circular (To Circle) and Sementear (To Seed).

Text, images, vídeos: Rossana Ribeiro*

Published on 26-07-2022


Calvino, I. (1972/1993). As cidades invisíveis (J. A. Barreiros, Trans.; Vol. 53). Teorema.

Pablo, H. (2011). Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook.

Siza, Á. (2013). Imaginar a evidência (S. d. Costa, Trans.; Vol. 70). Edições 70.


Impossible cities*

Artistic record:

Conception and artistic direction: Rossana Ribeiro
Performers: Amanda Brasil Cavalcante, Filipe Tootill, João Gabriel Michetti Ferreira, João Pedro Monteiro, Leonardo Vicentin, Letícia Moro, Maria Eugénia Cavaggioni, Zane Ester Gruntman
Image Record: João Gonçalves Fernandes, Fátima Pinheiro, Rossana Ribeiro
Video Editing: Rossana Ribeiro
Narration: João Delgado Lourenço
Text: Rossana Ribeiro, rewritten from Italo Calvino’s The Invisible Cities, with the collaboration of João Gonçalves Fernandes


Rossana Ribeiro**

Rossana Ribeiro has been an architect and multidisciplinary artist since 2013 when she completed her training at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto with her master’s dissertation entitled “Do It Yourself: inhabiting the 3rd Millennium. Self-designed and self-built housing models.”
In 2021 she finishes her Master in Performing Arts, with specialization in Scenography at Escola Superior de Música e Artes do Espetáculo do Instituto Politécnico do Porto, with the project “The impossible cities: scenography and(m) public space. Spatialities of the common between real and fiction”.
Co-founder of the Suspect collective, which explores the relations of interdependence between work, receiver and space, with regular production since 2016.
With a personal path located at the intersection between architecture, scenography, installation and performance, denotes a tendency for urban and landscape issues, often covering works and public with a mobile or nomadic nature, approaching creation with a perspective based on the particular characteristics of the place and population in focus.


LOCAL: Porto

LATITUDE: 41.1493428

LONGITUDE: -8.599388