Towards An Epistemology Of “Gambiarra”: Technical Resignification In Brazil

  1. 1. Leonardo Feltrin Foletto

    No affiliation given

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

The techno-political manifestations that seek to breach the established order abound in the north or south of the globe. Tactics and strategies (Certeau, 1984) are used by subaltern groups to express their opinions or deviant practices. In challenging socio-economic environments such practices can assume a wide variety of forms: for instance, by using the digital as both discourse and practice of subversion to established orders. In this article, we choose a single expression of such subversions to represent one of the ways through which the digital take part in everyday lives.
The practice we discuss in this paper is what we call “Gambiarra”: a term applied to a myriad of improvisations, usually material and technical ones as a result of scarcities of all sorts. Gambiarras are normally the technical expression through which people overcome everyday obstacles from the most ordinary ones to the outmost complex environments. Rosas (2006) and Clinio (2011) define Gambiarra as a “do it yourself a la brasileira”, in which the technical limitations are overtaken through creativity in proposing innovative solutions. As a synonym for improvising in a popular culture realm, this is a “inventive process of repossession, adaptation and transformation of available materials in an alternative design form, which allows the creation of improvised solutions for real demands” (Clinio, 2011, p.76, translated).
Widely used in the Brazilian quotidian, Gambiarra has a meaning in the daily lives of people that tactically adapt its (digital) apparatuses in order to resist to daily-life problems of all sorts. As such, the paper is supported on two case studies. The first is “Gambiarra Favela Tech


”, an artistic residence held in July and December 2015 in the Maré Complex, in the northern area of Rio de Janeiro, through a partnership of the Olabi makerspace and the “Favelas Observatory”. The initiative brought together 12 young people from the local community to propose new usages for obsolete materials. Taking as its motto the improvisation and the inventiveness that transform realities, around 40 hours of workshops were provided in order to practice the usage of materials in line with gambiarra rationale: "to take something that is used in a traditional way and to use it in another way, in a way that nobody would imagine" as one of the young participants commented

The first testimonial of the project summary video, available at:


Gambiarra Favela Tech's proposal was anchored in three main aspects: (a) developing environmental awareness, which indicates that better than producing something new and discarding another product in the environment would be to recycle non used products; (b) losing the fear of opening the black boxes, by discovering how technical objects work through a playful

unable to handle picture here, no embed or link
manner; and (c) “sevirismo”, a brazilian expression that represents "the science of dealing with what one has," - a term that can be seen as a synonym for gambiarra.

Such project interacts with the history of the word gambiarra as a concrete example of a"badly done" improvisation – also typical of favela environments as already mentioned. The improvisations in this case used few resources, trash and unused objects in order to produce works of art that could relate to the favela community. By rearranging materials and giving alternative means to waste, bricolages and gambiarras are put forward as a way to produce art in a scarce context. The success of the project in that local context was, thus, a product of symbolic re-ordering of materials.
The second case is “Hacker Clubs” activities in Raul Hacker Club,“a group of people interested in using, re-using and sharing technology, learning, fun and culture in a collaborative and indiscriminate manner”. Located in the northeast Brazilian coastal area, this hackerspace defines itself as an assemblage of different people managing a non-hierarchical space, without influences of public or private institutions (Martins, 2017). The name honors a well-known Brazilian singer-songwriter born in Bahia, Raul Seixas, whose songs praised, among other themes, the alternative ways of living. Some of the projects carried out by this group are the
Criança Hacker

Infant Hacker, in English

, series of activities of education free of informatics and basic electronics for children;
Data Laboratory for Citizenship Hacker, a collaborative space for research, work and discussion on scraping public data for journalistic purposes; among other diverse activities of learning and production of projects in the areas of electronics, free software, open data and hacker culture.

The approach of the hacker culture - of which hackerspaces like Raul are some of the main representatives – has for many years included the idea of a gambiarra such as the creation of a network called “Meta-Reciclagem

Meta-Recycling, in English.

”: a movement that brings together hackers, students and artists who propose the deconstruction of technology for social transformation, which relates to a gambiarra rationale as an ideological practice of resistance to the dominant order. One of his projects, no longer in activity, was called the "mutirão gambiarra

Mutirão means a group of people that join efforts towards a specific goal in the form of a task-force. Also described as a “communal work”.

" (
mutgamb) and constituted as an "editorial collective that articulates collaborative publications on themes such as creative appropriation of technologies, experimental digital culture and collaborative networks". The network has helped to popularize the term "gambiology", a fusion of gambiarra with "ideology" in Portuguese, which can also be interpreted as "science of gambiarra", a term that shifts the expression out of its pejorative meaning by entailing gambiarra as a localized practice of technological innovation with few resources”.

In hackerspaces, gambiarra is a quintessential form of a “hacker culture

We support our claims on the notion of “hacker” based on Coleman’s (2015) writings about the term.

” as if the term would entail the brazilian form of hacking materials, codes and ideas. As a typical hackerspace suggests, learning is based on collaboration in a “hand-on” modus operandi. Teaching, living and working with computers and electronics is an example of hackerspace that can be better understood by framing such practices as gambiarras.

Every technology represents a cultural invention in the sense that it produces a world (Escobar, 2016b). It was our intention to shed light on practices that produce a world and, therefore, entail a form of getting to know the reality though the improvisation. It would be possible to argue that improvisation is not only related to materials and artifacts, but also ideas. We draw on Le Breton (2017) as well to argue that the mind-body division that such assumption would suggest is not feasible in gambiarra terms - solely because even though our examples of gambiarras are technical and material applications of digital humanities, they are a result of ideation and creative improvisation that cannot properly work without planning. As such, we argue that applying gambiarras might evolve into an epistemology, a way of reaching reality through its manipulation.
Gambiarra, therefore, is a combination of practices tailored to solve practical problems of an everyday life. Although not typically restrained to global-south areas, we argue that typically brazilian gambiarras resignify the material usage into new symbolic realms. Even though overcoming the myth of modernity (Escobar, 2004) is not a new argument in itself, the combination of such endeavour with the practices that shape everyday life in global-south regions was also the goal of our essay.
Finally, as means to propose empirical continuations of this paper, the ethnographic and anthropological investigation of gambiarras in all sorts of forms and places is likely to make emerge a myriad of practices from the outskirts of the world, where the digital finds a way to exist despite its possible restrictions – socio-economic ones mostly. By showing the richness of gambiarras, we argue that it is possible to theorize digital humanities as mostly applied to the people that make use of it in its daily applications.

Certeau, M. de (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. Coleman, G. (2015). Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy the many faces of anonymous. London: Verso.
Clinio, A. (2011). Mídias táticas no Brasil: dinâmicas de informação e comunicação. Master thesis (Information Sciences) - Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
Escobar, A. (2004). Beyond the Third World: Imperial Globality, Global Coloniality and Anti-Globalisation Social Movements. Third World Quarterly. Vol. 25, No. 1, After the Third World? (2004), pp. 207-230.
Escobar, A. (2016). Thinking-feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South January. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana. April, Pages 11 - 32.
Escobar, A. (2016b). Bem-vindos à Cyberia: notas para uma antropologia da cibercultura. In: Segata, J and Rifiotis, T. Políticas Etnográficas no Campo da Cibercultura. Brasilia, Brazil: ABA Publications.
Le Breton, D. Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Martins, B. (2017). Hackerspaces, ciência cidadã e ciência comum: apontamentos para uma articulação. Liinc em Revista, Rio de Janeiro, v.13, n.1, p. 59-71.
Rosas, R (2006). Gambiarra. In: HARA, Helio (Org). Caderno SESC Videobrasil 02 - Art Mobility Sustainability. São Paulo: Sesc São Paulo, 2006.
Santos, B. de S. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO