Every Book is a Work of Art

No. 32 – Buenos Aires, November 2006

There is already talk of an “Eloísa style” and a “Cartonero art”. Laura Batkis interviewed Javier Barilaro, one of the mentor artists of the project, who shares all the details, the history and the current panorama with us.

Eloísa Cartonera tries to modify society through artistic praxis. They make books by hand, in a shop at 4237 Guardia Vieja Street. They never imagined what is happening to them: American universities buy their books and international curators come to see them in Buenos Aires. They were selected to participate in the International Art Biennial of Sao Paulo, which opened on October 7, and have just chosen the cover of one of their books to illustrate the catalog. And today’s art star, the Swiss Thomas Hirschhorn, is enthusiastically shaking up this enterprise.

What is Eloísa Cartonera? 

A group of artists, writers and cartoneros (people in Latin America who collect discarded waste, such as cardboard, to reuse or resell) who make books with cardboard that we buy from cartoneros and give work to other kids who are ex-cartoneros because they now work making the books. The cover is made of cardboard. We buy the cardboard, cut it to size and with a stencil, we paint the cover, the title and the name of the author with colors. We use texts from unpublished or unknown authors, who are outside the commercial circuit. 

Who are the members of Eloísa Cartonera?

Washington Cucurto, who is a writer, Maria Gómez, a social communications student who came to do a university assignment one day, found the project interesting, and stayed to work. Other writers such as Cristian de Napoli, Ricardo Piña and Julián González, the former cartoneros Celeste and Daniel Portillo (they are brothers), a cousin of theirs named Carolina, Matías and I.  They are specifically dedicated to painting.

There is also Ramona Leiva, an artist who was in the workshop La Estampa and then came with us, she is putting together the idea of making clothes. 

When did all this come about?

In March 2003. Cucurto and I had been making books with an independent publishing house, as there are thousands in the city. It seemed to us that the book was an excuse to do something else. We came up with the idea of making them out of cardboard in order to include cartoneros and and give them a job, like giving them a boost through creativity. To use art as a liberator and as a stimulus for creativity and personal development. Now we are trying to obtain a piece of land in Berazategui, with a house. 

How do you finance it?

From the sale of books. We have the shop thanks to money provided by Fernanda Laguna, the printing press was donated by the Swiss embassy, and the Brazilian embassy donated six titles by Brazilian authors and gave us the paper to make these books. We also received money from the Spanish embassy. All deals involve paper since we are not legally registered.

How did you convince the cartoneros?

We offered them a job. To the ones we bought cardboard from we offered $1.50 per kilo which is a lot more than what they are paid, $ 0.40. – $0.60. To those who work with us, we pay ten Argentine pesos an hour, although we started paying with three. We’re lucky that we sell books in Europe and the United States for five dollars and that allows us to pay a little more to the people who work with us.

And where do you sell the books?

To bookstores, which buy them at four pesos. Here in the store we sell to the public for five. 

How did you obtain international recognition?

Through the press. We are quite well known in Latin America and Europe.  Through curators as well. A US journalist came and told me that they did a show of our books at the University of Arizona and I didn’t even know about it.

How do you handle copyright? 

We ask writers for permission. We have also pirated some books.

Aren’t you afraid of lawsuits?

No, I don’t think they will sue us. They sue you when you have money, it’s more expensive to sue than what they could get from us.

Which titles did you pirate?

We pirated Copi’s La Guerra de las Mariquitas, and Evita Vive by Perlongher. Now we’re going to publish some stories by Rodolfo Walsh and the Open Letter to the Dictatorship.

Pirated too?


I mean, you don’t talk to the family or anything.


What is the visual arts part of this project like?

Each book is unique, so each book is an artistic object. And if that can include people who are outside of art and I can contribute something to social sculpture, I find that twice as rewarding. In fact, my artistic production is influenced by the work I do at Eloísa Cartonera: by working with low-income people I can see their needs and their worlds, their imaginations, and try to do something with that, and serve them as well. 

And do you feel that it is helping them? 

That’s pretty hard to know. I always wonder if in the end I don’t do it for myself. 

Out of your own compassion, shall we say?

Of course, I realize everything I learn, and I see how they don’t have all the awareness I have of what we do. I suppose it’s good because we pay them, we buy the cardboard and we give them work. The only ones who get paid are the ones with the least resources; we say that in this project the one who needs it the most earns money. Because I can get money from other places, with the commercialization of my art in Belleza y Felicidad.

By selling your work you can dedicate time to this project.

Yes, it is like a way of giving back, and an exercise to dilute the artistic ego, something that for me is not very healthy. I joined this because of my interest in contributing to the modeling of social sculpture, that seems artistic to me. Cucurto and I are there all the time, thinking like crazy so that other people understand what we do. Art can give someone who is totally marginalized the possibility of understanding how things are. I tell them what to do, I encourage them to contribute what they have, to think and reflect. We always tell them that we really do this work so that they can learn and realize how things work and that they have to take ownership of it. We are not their bosses, but we contribute our ideas so that they can develop in relation to creativity, to understand a little bit that the world can be modified with an activity that benefits everyone.

Do you sign the covers? 

No, in this project we try to question a lot of things, including authorship. The idea is that we do this together. Since I have certain knowledge and desire, I contributed with the initial idea, but the project is done by all of us.  

Here I am in charge of interior design, I create an original copy and then we photocopy it. Now we have the printing press so some of them are done there, the rest we do ourselves. We print, we cut, we staple.  

How many books do you publish per month? 

I don’t know exactly; we have almost ninety titles published. Of the thirty that we make per printing house, we make three hundred copies. Of the first one by Aira we made more than a thousand.

Do you train the kids who paint?

What I did was develop a system where there were limits that allowed for freedom. We make a stencil, that is, a model, we draw the letters, we cut them, and then each one paints as they wish. I try to get them to gradually make the stencils. As each one paints as they want, they do not repeat themselves. Besides, the cardboard already comes with something printed on it. My training is not training. It’s about not telling them anything and then talking about which one is prettier and which one is uglier. In this way the “Eloísa Cartonera style” appeared, which involves using letters, with the primacy of excessive color. I take that in my work.  

Is color more popular than neutral tones?

Yes, among the many things I learned in this project is that taste has a social class. There is no universal taste.  Duchamp said that taste is a habit. There are preconceptions. For example, that the exacerbated color is vulgar, the upper class prefers the subtler shades, the browns. Upper-class people and the more sophisticated artists prefer cardboard to look like cardboard, brown without color, but here they dress it up with colors.

The art world likes to call it “intervened” cardboard, the middle class prefers to say recycled cardboard, because it’s more of a hippie craft. 

You are part of the official presentation at the São Paulo Biennial.

When we were invited I asked myself what we do in a Biennial. It’s not just making books, what we do is art because action modifies society, and social sculpture today is a discipline of art. The artistic fact in Eloísa Cartonera is the network that is formed between writers, artists and cartoneros producing together. The book result is the object, but the artistic experience is in the process, and curators understand this. That is why they call us.

Your statements are similar to those of Joseph Beuys. 

I read what he wrote, I admire it all.

What did the presentation at the Biennial involve? 

It was not enough for me to show the result and make an exhibition of little books. 

I want to show the integration of a person in the present time. The integration is done only if we are with the cartoneros there. Because when we close the blind they go home and they are still cartoneros, excluded from a system. 

So what I proposed to the curators of the Biennial is to reproduce the project in Sao Paulo, working with local Paulista cartoneros and for that to work as a starting point so that later the project can continue autonomously in Sao Paulo. Our project is already being reproduced in Lima, it is called “Sarita Cartonera de Perú” and in the upper suburb of La Paz in Bolivia it is called “Yerba Mala Cartonera”. 

So those three months of the Biennial you are going to be there working.

Of course, we are there. There will always be one or two of us, plus the Paulistas, for support. We are going to try to generate things like the ones we did here when we were at ArteBa, when a cumbia band came to play.  

We have great ambitions and I don’t know what will happen. It is a somewhat utopian project, with some Christian compassion, and a social laboratory. 

It’s a project of faith. 

I think about what the interpretation of this can be. I remember Oscar Bony and La Familia Obrera (The Worker Family) at the Di Tella Institute in 1968: workers on a platform while people looked at them reading the sign that indicated the price paid to be there. 

We always ask ourselves everything, I live in permanent conflict: I wonder if we have to be there all the time and be seen by all the people, or if we are a like a zoo. However, this is out of our hands and at the same time we have to sell and it has to continue, we can’t put ourselves in an ideological constraint and let it all end. We could be an NGO and try to get into the congresses, because there is a whole industry of social enterprise, they are there lobbying and there is money for that. We could be there but we don’t want that. Anyone who wants to come and help should do so spontaneously. Everything will continue to be artisan. No cell phone or any technology. 

And you are, however, so connected that you are called from all over the world. 

The hyper-communication that is being sold today is a lie. 

Duchamp said that one paints (or makes art) to be free.

Yes, freedom is something quite interior, you can be free in many different ways.