Source: New York Times
By: Denny Lee
03.16.2008THE tango dancers took their places inside a cramped apartment in downtown Buenos Aires, as David Lampson, a 29-year-old television writer from Boston, wiped his brow. Despite the 100-degree weather, the fans had been shut off, spotlights switched on and windows blacked out with trash bags. The cameraman waited until the smoke machine blurred the parquet floor before yelling "Action!" Then just as the iTunes track reached its dramatic crescendo, the fuse blew. For the fourth time.
"Let's unplug the other fan and try again," Mr. Lampson told the polyglot cast and crew, which included a Greek mother, a Colombian architect and an Argentine shoemaker. Also present was a New York City film student, who was editing the footage for YouTube distribution. Mr. Lampson likened the process to creating art from garbage. "There is a tango dance based on this idea," he added, "called cambalache."
A better term might be bohemians-in-exile. A new kind of tango is taking shape along the crooked back streets of Buenos Aires. At a former furniture factory on Calle Honduras, the British music engineer Tom Rixton, who has worked with top acts like Depeche Mode, runs a stylish boutique hotel called Home with his Argentine wife. Nearby on Calle Garruchaga, Amanda Knauer, a fashion designer from Manhattan, sells a chic line of leather handbags at Qara. And at Zizek, a weekly dance party run by an expat from San Antonio, the cha-ch-ch-cha rhythms of cumbia folk music quivers to an electronic beat.
"There are expats everywhere tapping into the city's thriving cultural and arts scene," said Grant C. Dull, Zizek's founder, who also runs the popular bilingual Web guide WhatsUpBuenosAires.com. "And it's not backpacker types, but people with money and contacts."
Drawn by the city's cheap prices and Paris-like elegance, legions of foreign artists are colonizing Buenos Aires and transforming this sprawling metropolis into a throbbing hothouse of cool. Musicians, designers, artists, writers and filmmakers are sinking their teeth into the city's transcontinental mix of Latin élan and European polish, and are helping shake the Argentine capital out of its cultural malaise after a humbling economic crisis earlier this decade.
Video directors are scouting tango ballrooms for English-speaking actors. Wine-soaked gallery openings and behemoth gay discos are keeping the city's insomniacs up till sunrise. And artists from the United States, England, Italy and beyond are snapping up town houses in scruffy neighborhoods and giving the areas Anglo-ized names like Palermo SoHo and Palermo Hollywood.
Comparisons with other bohemian capitals are almost unavoidable. "It's like Prague in the 1990s," said Mr. Lampson, who is perhaps best known for winning a Bravo TV reality show, "Situation: Comedy," in 2005, about sitcom writers. Despite his minor celebrity, he decided to forgo the Los Angeles rat race and moved to Buenos Aires, where he is writing an NBC pilot, along with his Web novela, www.historyandtheuniverse.com. "Buenos Aires is a more interesting place to live than Los Angeles, and it's much, much cheaper. You can't believe a city this nice is so cheap."
That wasn't always the case. For much of the 20th century, Buenos Aires ranked among the world's most expensive capitals, on par with Paris and New York. Broad boulevards were lined with splendid specimens of French belle époque architecture that evoked the Champs-Élysées, and tree-lined streets were buzzing with late-night cafes and oak-and-brass bars. Locals, it is often said, identify more as European than South American.
Then came the financial crisis of late 2001. The Argentine peso, which was once pegged to the United States dollar, plunged to a low of nearly 4 to 1 in the face of mounting debt and runaway inflation. (It holds steadily today at about 3 to 1.) Overnight, Buenos Aires went from being among the priciest cities to one of the world's great bargain spots.
There was a silver lining. Even as local artists flocked overseas, producing a kind of creative brain drain from Buenos Aires, foreigners arrived in record numbers. And what they discovered was that this fast-paced city of three million offered more than just tango and cheap steaks. The Argentine capital also had balmy weather, hedonistic night life and a cosmopolitan air that thrives on novelty.
Situated at the wide mouth of the Río de la Plata, Buenos Aires sprawls across the flat landscape with the force of a concrete hurricane. It takes more than an hour to traverse opposite ends by yellow-and-black taxi. And that's not mentioning the 48 barrios that creep inland, each with a distinct personality and crisscrossed by a web of cobblestone alleys and 12-lane mega-streets. There are business districts like Microcentro, leafy barrios like Recoleta and manufacturing sectors like La Paterna.
And nearly everywhere you turn these days, the new arrivals seem to be planting their flags, whether at a so-called chorizo house in historic San Telmo or a glassy condo in Puerto Madero. Or, for that matter, a former door factory on Calle Aguirre, which Sebastiano Mauri, 35, a painter and video artist from Milan, recently bought with several artists on the industrial outskirts of Palermo.
"Some are now calling this area Palermo Brooklyn," said Mr. Mauri during a recent visit of his renovated factory, a bright yellow building on an otherwise gray street. Cost for the entire four-story factory? $130,000. "Buenos Aires makes Milan look like a neighborhood. It's lively, multiethnic and you have Europeans from all over."
After gutting the third floor, Mr. Mauri spent the past year converting it into an artist-in-residence studio with hardwood floors, stainless-steel kitchen cabinets and midcentury-modern furniture. To celebrate the near-completion, he held a rooftop barbecue on a breezy Saturday in January that drew a cross section of Buenos Aires's art elite.
Drinking malbec out of plastic cups and eating steaks with dollops of ratatouille, the crowd of about 20 artists, curators and collectors chatted easily about the hyper-commercialized state of art, a towering sex hotel (known as a telo) nearby and the city's obsession with ice cream. "Artists come here because they can be free," said Florencia Braga Menéndez, whose namesake contemporary art gallery is arguably the city's most influential. "As a gallerist, I never tell my artists what sells. They must create for themselves."
That creative freedom has fueled plenty of cultural cross-pollination. Dick Verdult, an avant-garde musician and artist from the Netherlands, began toying with cumbia around 2000, manipulating the childish rhythms of the South American folk music with electronic bass lines, time delays and sampled voices. "Cumbia is like a ball of clay," said Mr. Verdult, 53, who is better known by his stage name, Dick El Demasiado. "If you stick to the simple laws" - a 4/4 rhythm that he likens to a galloping horse - "but disregard the tradition, you can do a lot with it. Argentina has a very elastic culture."
His first cumbia album, "No Nos Dejamos Afeitar," released in 2002, was so well received that Mr. Verdult decided to move to Buenos Aires. "The reaction blew me away," said Mr. Verdult, who is regarded as the unofficial godfather of this new electrotango sound known as experimental cumbia.
Not surprisingly, many of his disciples are fellow expatriates. "There's a group of maybe 10 producers and D.J.'s who are really pushing these new styles," said Gavin Burnett, 26, a D.J. from San Francisco who blends cumbia with hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall under the pseudonym Oro11. "If you're an artist looking to be inspired and have $10,000 saved up, you can basically come down here and work, and not worry for a year."
It's not only artist types who are soaking up Buenos Aires's budget bohemia. Stumble into many of the city's trendy restaurants, bars and hotels, and there's a good chance a foreigner is behind it.
One of the newest is Le Bar, a martini lounge and restaurant in Microcentro with sunken seats, cool lighting and a rooftop terrace. It was started by several French expatriates including Manuel Schmidt, 40, an architect from Paris who sailed to Argentina with his wife and young daughter three years ago, and basically didn't sail back. Brasserie Petanque, a new restaurant in San Telmo, looks as though it was transplanted tile by tile from the Left Bank. "When I came in 2003, there were no French restaurants, so I stayed and opened this," said Pascal Meyer, an owner who was tending bar on a recent Sunday night. Before becoming a restaurateur in Buenos Aires, he was a culinary tour guide for the United Nations in New York City.
AND then there are the novelists, journalists and screenwriters, quietly tapping away in their $600-a-month apartments, seeking to make a name for themselves on Argentine soil. Nate Martin, a 24-year-old from Wyoming, moved to the city in November and took a job as an editor at The Buenos Aires Herald, an English-language newspaper, because, he says, "I didn't want to be a waiter while writing." For his creative outlet, Mr. Martin maintains a blog, Grating Space. Like dozens of similar blogs written by foreigners, it rhapsodizes about the Argentine good life. He also D.J.'s on the side.
"We play stuff that they've never heard of," said his friend, Tom Masterson, a 35-year-old transplant from Chicago, during a night out at Bahrein, a stylish sweatbox in Microcentro where the headlining D.J. hailed from Belgium. "They love me here."
Some literary efforts are starting to bear fruit. The writer Marina Palmer quit her advertising job in New York City, moved to Buenos Aires and, in 2005, published a "Sex in the City"-like memoir set in the city's vampish tango scene. "Kiss and Tango" has been optioned by Hollywood, with Sandra Bullock recently floated as a possible lead. (The film that has everyone buzzing these days is Francis Ford Coppola's "Tetro," a drama about Italian immigrants in Argentina that is being filmed in the city.)
But moviemaking is hardly restricted to foreigners. Argentina has a storied film history - notable examples include the 1968 political documentary "The Hour of the Furnaces" and the post-junta feature, "Official Story," which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1986 - and, in recent years, a so-called New Argentine Cinema has emerged, thanks to a new crop of directors like Daniel Burman and Lucrecia Martel who are winning prizes in Berlin, Toronto and other film festivals. They have set up shop along the fringes of fashionable Palermo, in an area now known as Palermo Hollywood.
As with other creative fields, the cinematic revival got some unexpected help from the financial crisis. Not only did the industry benefit from the influx of foreigners looking for cheap production costs, but the peso meltdown also provided grist for creative self-examination. "People were no longer talking about pretty dresses or soap operas," said Tomi Streiff, a filmmaker who moved to Buenos Aires from New York City with his partner and fellow screenwriter, Jane Hallisey. The couple is now working on a romantic comedy about a priest. "Everybody was hurt, so their skin was open."
The wellspring of creativity is starting to leech out of Buenos Aires and onto the larger cultural stage. Local fashion designers, who flourished when European imports tripled in price, are making inroads into the global marketplace. Tramando, a high-end fashion store in Recoleta started by Martin Churba, now has boutiques in Tokyo and the meatpacking district in New York. And Maria Cher, a London-trained designer who has an airy boutique in Palermo SoHo, exports her glamorous dresses throughout South America, as well as to Tokyo.
Experimental cumbia music is reverberating beyond the city's packed dance floors. Mr. Burnett, the D.J., just started his own cumbia record label, Bersa Discos, and is playing shows in his native San Francisco. Zizek, the weekly dance party, is taking its urban tropical beats throughout the United States, with stops this month in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin.
Buenos Aires's buzzing art scene, meanwhile, is being touted as the next big thing. Or that's the hope, anyway, of the city's eager artists and wide-eyed gallerists. "This city reminds me a lot of Berlin," said Elisa Freudenreich, 27, a gallery manger who recently moved from Berlin and sees parallels in the profusion of street artists and graffiti-splattered spaces. "The scene is very fresh, very underground."
Scruffy galleries have gone up along the city's edges, most notably Appetite, an irreverent, punk-inflected gallery in San Telmo started by Daniela Luna, a feisty 30-year-old known for her shrewd eye and cool parties. On a steamy Thursday afternoon, as office workers were climbing aboard buses back home, Ms. Luna was flitting through her grungy gallery in a brown miniskirt and sparkly pink T-shirt, like a teenager in a vintage clothing store.
"My first gallery was so messy that when people came to my parties, they didn't know if the stuff was art or trash," Ms. Luna said, as she showed off works by Santiago Iturralde, a local artist who paints portraits of narcissistic young men based on their Facebook-like Web profiles. "We're growing fast and furious." So fast, in fact, that she is exporting her cheeky blend of trash art to the real Brooklyn, where she just opened a small gallery.
Her gallery will get additional exposure in Milan when the contemporary art fair, MiArt 2008, spotlights emerging Buenos Aires artists in April. Adriana Forconi, a jet-settling consultant to the art fair, was in town recently to scout for worthy galleries, and was struck by what she calls the city's "frenetic and blissfully chaotic" pace.
"There's definitely something happening here," said Ms. Forconi, who was among the guests at the artist-filled rooftop barbecue. Dressed in a flouncy party dress and strappy sandals, she looked ready for another long night on the town. "There's a clash between European and Latin American cultures that's fascinating."
"And unlike Milan, there are no rules," Ms. Forconi added, as she looked out at the twinkling city and took a sip of wine. For a moment, she sounded like someone toying with a move to Buenos Aires. "You can do whatever you want here."
FROM PALERMO HOLLYWOOD TO PALERMO BROOKLYN
American Airlines and Aero Lineas Argentinas fly direct from Kennedy Airport to Buenos Aires, starting at $762 for travel in April, according to a recent online search. The 20-mile taxi ride to the city costs about 100 pesos, about $31 at 3.2 pesos to the dollar. Buses and subways are fast and inexpensive. Taxis are plentiful and cost 10 to 15 pesos for a typical trip.
WHERE TO STAY
Unless you're packing a business suit, consider the neighborhoody barrios of Palermo Viejo or Recoleta.
Home Hotel Buenos Aires (Honduras 5860; 54-11-4778-1008; www.homebuenosaires.com), opened by the British music producer Tom Rixton and his Argentine wife, Patricia O'Shea, is a boutique hotel on a quiet block in Palermo Viejo. The 17-room hotel features midcentury-modern furniture, a pool and a restaurant. Rates start at $120.
Designed by Philippe Starck, the Faena Hotel + Universe (Martha Salotti 445; 54-11-4010-9000; www.faenahotelanduniverse.com) offers over-the-top elegance in Puerto Madero, a planned waterfront district. The spacious hotel, which occupies an old grain silo, has everything from a cabaret stage to a hammam, with 110 rooms starting at $425.
There are plenty of great hotels for under $100, like the Art Hotel (Azcuénaga 1268; 54-11-4821-4744; www.arthotel.com.ar). For longer stays, apartment rentals offer even better deals. Two reputable agencies include For Rent Argentina (www.4rentargentina.com) and ApartmentsBA (www.apartmentsba.com). I paid $125 a night for a modern two-bedroom apartment in Palermo Soho that slept three comfortably, and included a large terrace and pool. WHERE TO EAT
Olsen in Palermo Viego (Gorriti 5870; 54-11-4776-7677) serves a chic blend of Scandinavian and Argentine cuisine in a modern space seemingly plucked out of Copenhagen. Dinner for two with wine, about 250 pesos, or $78 at 3.2 pesos to the dollar.
Le Bar in Microcentro (Tucumán 422; 54-11-5219-0858) evokes a space age bordello, with red-velvet sunken seats, a rooftop lounge and a global tapas menu. Dinner for two, 200 pesos.
Brasserie Petanque (Defensa 596; 54-11-4342-7930; www.brasseriepetanque.com) brings Parisian comfort food to San Telmo. Dinner for two with wine, 200 pesos.
WHERE TO GO OUT
Zizek is held on Wednesdays from midnight at the Niceto Club in Palermo (Niceto Vega 5510; 54-11-4779-9396; www.whatsupbuenosaires.com/zizek).
Bahrein (Lavalle 345; www.bahreinba.com), in a century-old downtown building, has a popular Tuesday drum-and-bass party.
Kim y Novak (Godoy Cruz y Güemes; 54-11-4773-7521; www.kimynovak.blogspot.com), a drag-queen-friendly bar in Palermo.
What's Up Buenos Aires (www.whatsupbuenosaires.com) is a bilingual guide to the city's arts, music and cultural offerings.
bue (www.bue.gov.ar), the city's official tourism site, has event listings, useful tips and directories.
TangoSpam (www.tangospam.typepad.com) is among dozens of blogs written by expatriates. Links to other blogs can be found on it.
External Link: Click here for the external link.