The Phantom Matrix (Old Structures, New Glories)

Phantom Matrix (Old Structures, New Glories), 2016

Sugarcane mill, engine moved by animal or human traction and designed to grind sugarcane.

02.04.2026 – 23.04.2016 – Mill exhibited in its initial state.

28.04.2016 – 10.06.2016 – Dismantled mill with its pieces cataloged and rearranged.

11.06.2016 – 25.06.2016 – Pieces removed from the space. Audio installation with the sounds of processes connected to that engine.


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Photos Filipe Berndt


Self-perpetuating matrixes and the utilitarian production of inequality

In the seventeenth century, the Portuguese settler Afonso Sardinha assembled the first sugarcane mill of the village of São Paulo, in what was then called the Ubatatá farm, the region currently known as Butantã. Although it seems like a secondary datum to the development of the city, the emergence of this kind of engine foreshadows the formation of a specific set of relations between power and land ownership, which precedes what would be the structuring model of the Brazilian territory over the last centuries.

The cultivation and processing of sugarcane was Brazil’s main colonial “industry” between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. It marked a new and important period in the country’s colonization because it benefited from the strategic combination between the extensive plantations required by sugarcane, and the colonial strategies for dominating and populating the territory (large portions of land donated to a handful of Portuguese settlers). This connection not only proved to be successful for the commercial interests of the time, but also favored the strengthening of the latifundium model, privately owned agricultural estates specializing in monoculture destined for export.

This type of plantation, more than a large portion of land or a strategic farming-system, was a system of socio-spatial domination that was the basis for the power of the “mill-owners” (“senhores do engenho” in Portuguese, which literally means “lords of the engine”). This restricted group had full sovereignty over the domestic, social, political and economic spheres. Such authority prevented the formation of intermediate classes that were not directly linked to these aristocrats or to the agricultural production that they monopolized. The power of this small landowning elite was represented through the spatial hierarchy established by the dichotomy big-house/slave-quarters[i]. It was also reiterated by the presence of the sugarcane mill as a symbol of slave labor and as the trigger for the intensification of the Atlantic slave trade and for the formation of a vast underprivileged social base in Brazil.

Even though this land tenure matrix may seem very distant in time, centuries of history and numerous political changes in the country were not enough to appease the afflictions it caused. Much less the traces of the patriarchal and slaveholding “social formation” it established. The successive laws that were created towards an agrarian reform strategically ended up reiterating the existing privileges and injustices in relation to the ownership and distribution of land. The official discourses have continually neglected the concentrating, expropriating and excluding character of this type of land tenure and its resulting socio-spatial formation. Instead they end up glorifying its profitable character. Under the new title of agribusiness, there has been a consolidation of the modern latifundium of the large (multi)national companies and agricultural projects or agroindustrial and stockbreeding enterprises.

Through these kinds of processes Brazil has succeeded in moving from a predominantly rural to an urban country in a short interval of half a century. But the legacy of this secular economic development has also left its mark in the cities. The historic landowning monopoly motivated the migration of a large number of rural workers and poor population to the cities, which did not have the adequate infrastructure to receive such intense population fluxes. This initiated the development of a number of complications that persevere until today, such as: the explosive growth of slums and illegal settlements; the intensification of a lack of control over the use and occupation of the city; the clash between the interests of the real estate market and poor housing, resulting in the constant attempt to move poor populations away from valuable areas, also moving them away from the city’s services, facilities and infrastructure; among many other factors.

Such forces are clearly the result of a patrimonialist society whose political, economic and social power still remains concentrated in the hands of an elite. Whose political clientelism remains strong, allowing them to act as owners of portions of the city and challenge every kind of impersonal and rational perspective in its planning. Space (from the territorial to the domestic scale) has been a central tool for this self-perpetuating system of classist and racist hierarchy, which guarantees the maintenance of a strong socio-spatial duality and segregation.

The fetish of equality, which has been recurrently sold/consumed in the country, conceals an extreme social polarization that only becomes visible in times of sociopolitical eruption. Only then one can see the traces of a socioeconomic configuration continuously (re)founded in new kinds of slavery and in a secular subjection to the world market.

Bruno de Almeida | 2016.03.30


[i] In Portuguese Casa grande/Senzala alludes to the book The Masters and the Slaves by Gilberto Freyre.


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