Embodied experiences in the Public Market of Braga
Precisely because the body is so central to our lives, it becomes something to be transformed in order to present itself to the eyes of others according to the rules of convenience. (Fernandes, 2021, p. 17)
When we abstract the body, all that remains is a being of pure spirit, a being that is not itself a being, precisely because it ceases to be individuated, a kind of… impersonal, homogeneous and undifferentiated substance. (Henry, 2001, p. 142)
What if we begin, like Luís Fernandes, saying that “by investing so much in the body as an image, we diminish the lived body” (2021, p. 13)? What connection could this sentence have with a micro-essay on public spaces, more specifically the public market of Braga?
About the body-subject
In his latest book, As lentas lições do corpo. Ensaios rápidos sobre as relações entre o corpo e a mente (The slow lessons of the body. Short essays on the relationship between body and mind), Luís Fernandes revives and rescues the simple but often ignored idea that every human being is constituted by a lived body, endowed with historicity and the target of a social construction in which the head is a part (and is not, as we often think, the only body part valued/exercised). At this point, we are reminded of the unusual relationship between water and fish that McLuhan speaks of in his The medium is the message.
According to Fernandes, “it is because the body is so central to our lives that it becomes something to be transformed in order to present itself to the eyes of others according to rules of convenience” (2021, p. 17). In this way, we understand the fact that everyday human interaction unfolds with different corporeality. If we do not allow it, the daily contact we have in a group does not take place through the body, but through the “totality of symbolic manifestations of bodily existence properly contextualized in historical time and social space” (Ferreira quoted in Fernandes, 2021, p. 18).
Fernandes uses a threefold metaphor to speak about the bodies as images that roam the streets of the city. The metaphor he creates and uses refers to the bodies 1) on the massage table, 2) on the podium, and 3) on the catwalk. Put simply, the metaphor introduced by the author assumes that these bodies desire a) medical approval, b) recognition of their performance, and c) the display of their bodies according to a general expectation. In the middle, at the intersection of these three bodies, there is something to achieve: health. Or rather, what is meant by “health” nowadays.
We will not dwell on the fact that we have sought, consumed, and craved so much health in recent years. Is it an adaptation of the self-made man in neoliberal times? Would “health”, understood as a consumer good, be the pinnacle of human conquest, something that guarantees our survival in a world where institutions are no longer able to do so?
Our goal is to discuss that there is a connection between the bodies of this metaphor and the body-subject / body-space, both in terms of the construction and maintenance of life and the regulation that takes place in urban landscapes. To this end, we use the words of the above quoted book that are still fresh in the memory (and of other authors) to present an idea.
About the embodied space
We have long observed a renewal of public markets. The phenomenon is not limited to Portuguese cities. It crosses borders and reaches different parts of the world. In Shaping the social through the aesthetics of public places: the renovation of Leeds Kirkgate Market, researcher Elisabetta Adami reflects on the semiotic regulation currently taking place in different urban spaces, with a focus on Kirkgate Market (UK). According to the author, semiotic regulation in urban spaces is a trend that limits the use of popular resources for representation in different areas. As has been shown, organizational research has increasingly explored the “aesthetics of organizations”, i.e. how companies can shape (and design) the semiotics and materiality of their spaces and products, regulating the appearance of the material space and the subjects/bodies working there (clothing, appearance, behaviour…) in order to create a desired image of their brand and control the perception of their customers.
After carrying out ethnographic work at Kirkgate Market, the author reflects on possible gains and losses resulting from the rebuilding of the market. The renovation plan aimed to “attract a younger, more affluent target audience and promote the image of the place, long surrounded by discourses of decadence, neglect and crisis” (Adami, 2018, p. 94). To this end, the semiotic changes identified in the space include 1) a greater presence of institutional signage aimed at marking the place, 2) a greater semiotic regulation of visual resources, 3) the regulation of the appropriate style of merchants and their stalls according to the new target audience. Considering the discourse about the decline of the place – for whom was this produced? –, the goal was to link the image of the new market to a discourse that would promote it as a reinvented local historical heritage, a traditional space of community and coexistence (Adami, 2018, p. 110).
If the gain in visual cohesion with a minimalist landscape and modern logo achieved by this redesign is obvious, appealing to younger people, it is, however, accompanied by a loss of “expression of the lived (rather than the promoted) in the practices of the space” (Adami, 2018, p. 109). As an example, the author remarks that after the renovation of the market, there is no longer space for the welcome and prose invitation benches that were previously placed by the vendors, nor is there space for personal signs that used small props and decorations, letters and colours to signal the prices and identity of each seller.
Stitching observations: a reading of the field notes
How can we not think about the Public Market of Braga (Praça) after this discussion by Adami? How has the body-space, customer-seller, customer-customer relationship been taking place?
Below, we highlight below two excerpts from our field notes written as part of the COMPRAÇA project.
“I arrive at the market – A Praça – at 8:32. Rain, wind, grey day. The first impression I have is one of surprise when I see the market. I enter. The gates have kept their original green. I remember them. The square is wide and bright, a nice contrast to my memory of a dark entrance, crowded with people and a lot of clutter. (…)
I also remember that just to the right of the entrance were the flower vendors, some sausage and cheese stands, and a few fruit stands. This was the darkest and stuffiest place for me. The right foot has dropped considerably now. Or it is higher, I don’t know, but the considerable size of the “wooden slats” makes the place look flat. The architecture automatically reminds me of Tree of Life Chapel, which I found odd indeed”. (Field note by Thatiana Veronez, January 20, 2021)
“Near the fountain, I face an extraordinary enlarged photograph standing on one of the stands on the other side. Suddenly, I stumble into the past of my childhood (I imagine a similar feeling to Proust’s mnemonic shocks, like a trip back in time triggered by the smell of the famous madeleines or by hearing a certain melody on the piano). It was this stall right at the entrance on the left, the stall that looked more like a garden, so exquisite was the arrangement of the produce, the variety of colours, the careful arrangement of the beautiful cauliflower heads, the pumpkins… and there, in the photo, is the vendor, not as I remember her, but much more aged that. I remember her as a young woman, forty years ago! She seemed tall to me then, slim, with blonde or red hair, fresh from the hairdresser, with one of those voluminous lacquer hairstyles in the style of the sixties. I have a vague idea that she also painted her nails red. My mother kept commenting on how good the fruits and vegetables looked, but to my great disappointment, she never stopped. At one point, I confronted her. She always told me that everything was so beautiful there, that must be very expensive. We always ended up strolling around the farmers baskets’. I remember my mother never stopped haggling over prices and measurements, saying things like “Look, the pound is not heavy!”. An art of shopping I did not inherit. On the contrary, I never ask the price, I never confirm the change and I never bother to look at the scales. In the Public Market of Braga, as elsewhere, I do a little shopping on the off chance, without very sure criteria, mainly letting myself be carried away by the look of the goods (and the packaging, if there is any).
I remain caught in my memories, transfixed by the image. In the background, I see some hanging ornaments that make me suspect that this photo was taken in S. João festivities. At the bottom, in the corner, are engraved two dates, “1957-2017”. I gradually step out of the picture and feel struck by the vivid reproduction of a very similar scenario, in real space. The stall that the photograph decorates belongs to the same owner, who, meanwhile, approaches me, realizing my interest in photography. She is composed with the same perfection as in other times. It is the same Dona Maria Teresa (I ask her name in the conversation that follows) from the image, the same one that had so enchanted me decades ago”. (Field note by Helena Pires, February 18, 2021)
Between the image and the lived: embodied experiences in the Public Market of Braga
If we start from the individuality of human reality as a sensitive individuality, we must necessarily consider the body, which defines us by the way we move and express ourselves in interaction with others and in a particular place. Our body is an habitual body, a memory body, a body of feeling more than sensation (Henry, 2001, p. 144).
From the first steps we accumulate the memory and learning of each experience, the explored, the touched or transported objects, the construction of an intimate, personal and social or public space, as Hall (1959/1994) described it when he spoke of proxemics in the 1960s.
In the Public Market of Braga, the vendors’ bodies speak to us, representing symbiotic modes of experience gathered over many years and sutured into a quasi-prosthetic body that transcends the organic. They include the stall, the baskets and crates of vegetables and fish that were often carried on the head in the past, the sharp knives ready to slice the meats, cuting them into smaller pieces or separating them from the bones. A long rehearsed choreography is expressed in his movements, a constant coming and going between benches, scales, suppliers, customers and many other invisible tasks that take place in the backstage, around the lunch box or the milk coffee.
The body of the female vendors, like that of Maria Teresa mentioned in the field note excerpt, impressively folded in on itself, tells us of all this, but also of the woman-mother who cared for her newborn child, cradled, in the fruit crate, under the stall, among the customers. Now it is a fragile body that has not withstood the weight of life. There is another body that has not won. Maria Teresa’s upright and haughty body, living up to her reputation of being one of the well-presented sellers in the old market, always with her hair and painted nails, and then with a privileged and particularly well-designed stall, right at the entrance. Maria Teresa then had an “urban flair” that contrasted with the rude manners and sweeping gestures of the other vendors, especially the farmers sellers. There was no haggling at Maria Teresa’s stall, and if there was, Maria Teresa was unflappable and stopped anyone from bargaining even a cent.
Even among the farmers sellers, everything was a pretext for the bodies to fight each other. The badly weighed sacks, the “shameless” prices, the rotten fruit hidden at the bottom of the hastily filled sack, the insults from both sides, the wars and invectives exchanged between neighbours. Amidst the haggling, but also the adulation, such as “my sweet” or “my darling”, there were grimaces accompanied by intimidating facial and physical expressions, from arm-waving that literally tried not to let the customers escape, to exuberant physical gestures, from sprouts or pods raised in the air.
The composition of the gestures was orchestrated with a varied and contrasting soundscape as one walked across the market, above and below, on the upper floor where there were the expensive flowers and the large polished fruits, where there was a quieter environment, or in the various nooks and crannies, on the way to the pile of baskets and loose chickens beside the fountain. A few women vendors moved around the market in search of customers, carrying a basket in their arms or on their heads. Messy, unhealthy conditions prevailed, the black floor littered with cabbage leaves and other severed yellow vegetables, a degrading environment punctuated by a few flashes of pride, as was the case with Maria Teresa’s stall or the cleaners’ stalls upstairs. Social stratification was palpable in the architecture of the space, which subtly drew different circuits for the popular and more “rural” classes and others for the “servants” of the “family houses”, some of which were close by, in Rua Abade da Loureira, from the city or for the more “urban” housewives. Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphors of the “body-without-organs” or Bourdieu’s maps of economic, social and symbolic “distinction” would describe well the structure of the old market.
Today, the Public Market of Braga is a disciplined, regulated, increasingly uniform body space, a transparent body conducive to control and surveillance in Foucault’s sense. We can easily see every point from every point. The ground floors have given way to “broad avenues”, as if the Haussmann’s inspiration had grown far beyond the redesign of Paris, in the transition to the 20th century, imposing the same ideal of modernity, the same ideological paradigm and preference for impersonality, already observed by Baudelaire, Benjamin, or even Vertov, when he highlighted in his cinematic records the great changes taking place in the urban landscape of the great metropolises at the beginning of the 20th century.
As Hall (1959/1994) discusses, “space speaks” and is a “communication medium”. It promotes both contact and distance. It is characteristic of modernity to organize space, to put everything and anything in its place. Everything fulfils a function, or must fulfil a function, and material structures must counteract the intermingling, the unclassifiable. So it is with the new architecture of the Public Market of Braga. The predominant panoptic form, the wide corridors, the brightness, the standardization of materials and design – albeit with more or less subtle variations, as with the umbrellas of different colours and shapes that stand out in the cohabitation of the “official” – inhibit spontaneity and even the eventual tendency towards a certain promiscuity that the close and constant cohabitation of subjects in the same shared space could provoke.
In the captive sellers’ bodies, and of the costumers, the effects of such a new disciplinary paradigm seem to resonate unconsciously: We hear less haggling, the bodies present themselves in a straighter posture, almost in a military parade pose – a visible pose often adopted by florists, for example – there is less visible tension, more silence, a kind of general containment in the way of being and interacting, in the way of bodily expression, speaking, approaching, and withdrawing: “The flow of words and the change of distance between people in interaction are elements of the communication process” (Hall, 1959/1994, p. 202). More body as images according to expectations than lived bodies in a public space.
Sensory perceptions and emotions shape the body’s actions. However, as David Le Breton (2003; 2010) argues, in line with models of symbolic interactionism, these are mediated by social representations that are transformed, which in turn has implications for the performativity of subjects. What body are we talking about when we talk about embodied experiences in the Public Market? Of body as images on the catwalk, massage table and podium that shows themselves in this “historical and traditional” place, buying/selling organic and healthy products? Of a trans-human body, a body that wants to be controlled? What other bodies overflow in togetherness?
Braga, October 2021
Adami, E. (2018). Shaping the social through the aesthetics of public places: the renovation of Leeds Kirkgate Market. In E. S. Tonnessen & F. Forsgren (Eds.), Multimodality and aesthetics (pp. 89-111). Routledge.
Fernandes, L. (2021). As lentas lições do corpo. Ensaios rápidos sobre as relações entre o corpo e a mente. Contraponto.
Hall, E. T. (1959/1994). A linguagem silenciosa. Relógio d’Água.
Henry, M. (1965/2001). Philosophie et phénoménologie du corps. PUF.
Le Breton, D. (2003). Adeus ao corpo. Papirus.
Le Breton, D. (2010). A sociologia do corpo. Editora Vozes.