Other images, other gestures, other ways of being together
3 Apr 2019, 8:17 pm
by Moacir dos Anjos
To the regular visitor, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that, over the years, art exhibitions have become more numerous and larger, not necessarily in spatial terms, but in relation to the time required to visit them fully. Exhibitions that display not only paintings, drawings, photos and sculptures, but also installations, which often demand prolonged interaction in order to be wholly appreciated, as well as a growing number of videos and films that can last from a few minutes to uninterrupted hours. Art exhibitions that can only be comprehended in their entirety if an extended period of time is dedicated to digesting them. This is the same extended period of time that so many instances of contemporary life – such as work, study and relationships – suggest no longer exists, with so many products, events and affections competing for the attention of the consumers of image, text, sounds and gestures, inaccurately referred to as ‘the spectator’ by the cultural industry.
The resulting tension between an artistic production that requires a deceleration of the senses and the everyday experience that incessantly incites these same senses can frustrate those who, when visiting exhibitions, do not allow themselves, or perhaps are not able, to be affected by the temporal subversion that is implicitly proposed. This reaction means that the works that demand time – because of their size and/or complexity – are often overlooked by those who are more adept to the temporality of ordinary life. Fearful of pushing away a portion of the public that feels unsettled in the face of experiences that disrupt established ways of seeing and thinking, those in charge of exhibitions often give in and omit these works from the programme. The perverse side of this conservative solution is that these are often artworks that matter precisely because they challenge existing ways of perceiving and understanding, expanding the potential to understand the facts of the world in multiple ways. Works that – independently of the media they use – can upset conventional ways of relating to time, opening up to everything that, despite being so close to us, is in fact beyond the reach of our senses impaired by the pace of contemporary life.
Amongst the many works that go against the acceleration of everyday life, I would like to mention two artworks that were included in a curatorial project in which the conceptual directive was the utopic dimension of art: the exhibition Arte democracia utopia. Quem não luta tá morto [Art Democracy Utopia. If You Don’t Fight You Die], which took place from September 2018 to May 2019 at Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR). In the show, the concept of utopia was associated with the invention of other possible life arrangements that could be more inclusive of those who are not considered part of the communities where they live. The show reflected on the various struggles that challenge a multitude of inequalities, injustices and violence in an attempt to transform our (immediate or distant) world into a more equal, fair and peaceful place. Artworks that, despite the many marked differences between them, share a search for a relationship with the other that requires a protracted period of time. Artworks that challenge the pressures that force brevity on relations, which are typical of an era that incites the simultaneous devouring of everything, whilst discouraging reflection on the interstices and murmurs that unpretentiously conjure and announce a more generous and ample future against a narrow present.
The first artwork emerged from the experience of implementing a psychoanalysis clinic called Clínica Pública de Psicanálise at Vila Itororó, a historical building in São Paulo currently under restoration. Headed by artist Graziela Kunsch and psychoanalyst Daniel Guimarães, the clinic, which opened in 2016 and is still in operation, was founded to offer former residents – who were unwillingly removed from their homes when the residential complex was expropriated by the State Government and the São Paulo Mayor for ‘cultural purposes’ – the chance to use psychoanalysis to deal with the suffering resulting from their material and emotional losses. It also came to light as a project that challenges conventional ideas of culture and art, occupying a space that, although under construction, was already welcoming other creative activities: a way of resisting the adversities experienced by those who once lived there. The idea of implementing a community psychoanalysis clinic, that is, a clinic that was not dependent on its clients’ financial disposition to operate, was made possible thanks to the participation of a large number of volunteer psychoanalysts, whose practices and exchanges with the displaced residents and other interested parties have collectively contributed to the blurring of the edges that separate different fields of subjectivity, including a joint effort between the analyst and the analysand to develop the psychoanalytic arrangement most suited to each individual.
Invited to participate in the exhibition Arte democracia utopia. Quem não luta tá morto, Kunsch and Guimarães proposed the installation of three interconnected artistic-clinical apparatuses, which evoked the experience of the clinic by making available some contextual information to the visitor. The first installation was called Lugar de escuta [Place of Listening]. Formally, the apparatus consisted of a dozen chairs displayed in a circle in the middle of the exhibition room, which could be occupied by specific groups mediated by the museum education staff or other public groups that wished to use them for the purpose of collective listening activities. The second installation, titled Escuta mútua [Mutual Listening], was made up of pairs of chairs placed in front of each other (or with their backs to each other), which were scattered around the exhibition space. These were also available to be used by individuals willing to make contact or have a more reserved chat. Even when the chairs were not being used, the fact that they were arranged in a way that could potentially support an exchange between any two people suggested the possibility of different speaking and listening exercises that were valid without the presence and legitimation of a ‘specialist’. And, finally, the third installation was called Uma clínica pública no Rio de Janeiro: grupo de trabalho [A Public Clinic in Rio de Janeiro: Work Group]. At the beginning of the show, Kunsch and Guimarães held a two-day meeting at Escola do Olhar [School of Looking] at MAR – with a group of professionals and individuals interested in public psychoanalytical initiatives – aimed at sharing knowledge and experience on social clinical practices, both past and present. During the exchange, they defined artistic-clinical actions to be performed for the duration of the show, not only in the museum but also in its surrounding areas and in specific contexts, such as Favela da Maré and the so-called Little Africa. In the months that followed the constitution of the work group, these actions became a new experience of community clinical practice in Rio de Janeiro, which was named ‘listeners’ (escutadores in Portuguese) by the participants themselves.
The extended and uncertain period of time necessary for these propositions to make sense, as well as the need for an unspecified other (in this case, the exhibition visitors) for their effective activation (without an imposition but an invitation to exchange multiple singularities), is also present, from a different perspective, in another work showcased in the same exhibition: Política pública [Public Policy] produced by the collective Amò, made-up of Ana Lira, Marina Alves, Marta Supernova, Thais Rocha and Thais Rosa. The project arose from the decision by the artists – all Black-descendent female activists – to use invented means, or borrowed from varied disciplines, to counter the dynamics of obliteration and silencing of bodies that, in Brazil, do not fit the defining outlines of a normalised existence legitimised by a ‘universal ideal’. This ideal defines, explicitly or implicitly, criteria of race, ethnicity, gender and class that socially justify or negate unique ways of existing. Amongst the several life control mechanisms in place today, the artists highlighted the most extreme: the extermination of ‘dissident’ bodies, as attested by the murder of City Councillor Marielle Franco in 2018 and of many others who, before and after their brutal end, were physically eliminated. Killed for being Black, gay, lesbian, transgender, poor or for challenging institutionalised mechanisms that restrict access to the law and public funding, which are supposedly equally applicable and available to anyone or any group.
In particular, the art collective was interested in establishing listening activities with the residents of the area surrounding Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR), which has been the object of recent urban interventions (including the creation of the museum itself) that have strongly impacted the way of life of those who used to live in the region. This is an area that holds important landmarks for the Black population in Rio de Janeiro, such as the Valongo Wharf, which was, between 1811 and 1831, the arrival point for hundreds of thousands of enslaved Black men and women coming from different parts of Africa; and Pedra do Sal [Salt Stone], a monument that marks the presence of Black people in that part of town during slavery (in the 17th century the site was used as a slave market) and a meeting point for Black people who lived in Rio or moved there in the decades that followed the abolition of slavery at the end of the 19th century. It is no coincidence that this was also the place where, in the first decades of the 20th century, several musicians and composers gathered to create samba.
The acts of listening performed by Amò – individually and in small groups of residents – were an attempt to open up to narratives that intertwine loss and resistance, both material and symbolic. A type of listening that could not and would not be neutral, given that the artists subjectively have something in common with those who were telling them stories of obliteration: the marks of enduring an allegedly universal way of existing that seeks to annul differences. Through the speech of someone else who was also silenced by structurally racist and classist governmental action, this act of listening activated a common desire to affirm the singular and revisit the ancestral, acknowledging its strong presence in the contemporary world. The materialisation of this process of listening – which began before the opening of the show and evolved throughout its duration – undertook multiple formats and was gradually brought to a social gathering space created inside the exhibition site. And once the texts, audios, videos, books, games, drawings, gestures and other formal and informal records of the listening exercise with local residents were introduced, they began to function as triggers of another type of listening, which now welcomes the voices of residents from other parts of the city who visit the exhibition. Unfolding into a long and open process – and inscribed in a vast territory where the museum is only one of it effectuation sites – this Public Policy proposed by collective Amò sought to percolate the dissident and dissonant voices that constitute the world and that are, despite their constitutive presence, constantly shut down by the violent imposition – translated and contained in governmental actions – of a paradoxically excluding universality.
The works briefly examined here share a temporality that is completely distinct from the acceleration that the several spheres of life currently require from us all. To be materialised into an effective proposition, both artworks rely on a horizontal relationship with someone else that goes beyond their role as audience to become an engaged party. In this sense, both projects demand an extended artistic experience, both in terms of the artists who propose them and the people who are ultimately targeted by the project but whose participation is fundamental for its existence. Considered as a set, these artworks also evoke a question that overarches a number of current artistic propositions: why, after all, do we call art those works that, by their own means or borrowing from other fields, denounce the lack of listening (proposing even, within its limits, to redress it) in the individual and collective realms? One way of answering this question – without the intention of exhausting its possibilities – requires attention to the way these projects fracture some of the consensuses that inform mental health policies and many of the so-called social policies that often serve to justify exclusions and maintain chronic inequalities. Consensuses that arbitrarily naturalise as ‘universal’ or ‘uniform’ established hierarchies, limits and ways of making that the artworks here (and many others) challenge and criticise by insisting on the possibility of inscribing in the world – including institutionally – different gestures, different images and different ways of being together. Ultimately insisting on a type of aesthetics that can rise to the challenge of building a different life.