Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Translated from the Portuguese by Adam J. Morris
Brazilian artist Paulo Bruscky started his career, and developed a significant part of it, as the military was solidifying its hold over the country after the coup of 1964. Like many artists of the post-concrete generation, it was only inevitable that Bruscky’s work would reflect the jarring new environment imposed by the military on civil society. The shutting down of humanities courses in universities around the country, as well as the persecution of student and union leaders, for instance, gives a measure of how deep the need for control had become. In 1975, the killing of journalist and playwright Vladimir Herzog during a police interrogation sent out a chilling message that the news media was no longer an independent institution—nor was any kind of communication, for that matter. Despite this paranoid backdrop, Bruscky went on to develop a body of work based largely on the dissemination of messages (postcards, newspapers ads, billboards) and audience participation. More to the point, he managed to do it, for the most part, in his native Recife, a city steeped in tradition and wary of the avant-garde.
Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco, the center for sugarcane production during the colonial era, has a convoluted history. In the early 16th century, the city was taken over by the Dutch, who appointed the Count Maurits van Nassau as its governor (1630–1654) in a bid to reign over the entire northeast region. Nassau set up a formidable system during his tenure, implementing most of the city’s early infrastructure. Upon his defeat, the thriving Jewish community that had arrived with him left the city in fear of the Portuguese Inquisition, and eventually settled in New York. Back under control of the Portuguese, the area became synonymous with monoculture—a system that privileged a few landowning families that for over two centuries held the monopoly on sugar trade. Following the 1964 coup, Pernambuco became a hub for students and labor activists who sought to inform peasants about their rights, and the entire area soon became a major focus of military intervention. For Bruscky, born in 1949 into a well-educated family (his father was a photographer whose family emigrated from Belarus in the 1930s, and his mother once ran for city council), art became “the last hope,” as he stoically claimed in a billboard work—an arena for provocation and for exposing the absurdities of the situation.
The following conversation is one of many I had with Bruscky while I was curating Art Is Our Last Hope, an exhibition of his work on view at the Bronx Museum through February 9, 2014.
—Antonio Sergio Bessa
Antonio Sergio Bessa Tell me a little about what Recife has represented for you, especially during the period when you began performing interventions in the city.
Paulo Bruscky My relationship to Recife has been quite visceral. I’m fascinated by the city’s geography. It’s all cut up by rivers and bathed by the sea, so I always worked on bridges, over the rivers. Also, Recife is flat, which is very good for urban interventions. I drift through the city, never taking the same route when I go someplace, so that I’m always paying attention. Due to this walking, Recife is always on my mind when I work.
ASB You could have moved to Rio or São Paulo like many artists from this region did, but you decided to stay here and create works about Recife and its local reality. This notion of locality is very strong in your work.
PB For a year I lived in New York and Amsterdam on a Guggenheim Fellowship but aside from that, I never had any desire to move to Rio or São Paulo. After I got involved in arte correio(mail art) at the beginning of the ’70s, I became aware of what was going on in the world thanks to my correspondence with other artists. I felt that I didn’t need to leave even more strongly than before.
ASB This strolling through the city and seeing different things every time—it’s really a poetic activity. You’re in a dialogue with the city.
PB I’ve been here in this studio now for a little over a year. In this area of Recife, for example, they have these street corners where there’s not even room for someone to pass by. The sidewalks are the width of three toes and no good for anything.
ASB Surreal …
PB Yes, surreal. So now I’m taking photographs of these sidewalks that I find on my walks. When I’m abroad, in cities I don’t know, I wander about so I can get really lost. First I map out the area around the hotel where I’ll be staying, and then I go out and catch a bus, which is the best way to get to know a place since it’s stopping every now and then. For example, in 1998 I was with a friend at a bar in Belo Horizonte, and I saw a bus with a sign that said “Saudade” [longing or nostalgia]. After my friend told me it was the name of a neighborhood, I asked for the check so we could catch the next bus there. We walked around Saudade for a bit. When I went back to Belo Horizonte a few years later, I asked another friend if we could go spend the day there. After that, I put a classified ad in the newspaper that said: “Landscape Art: Saudade is not just a neighborhood in Belo Horizonte: it is a proposal, a feeling, art.” It was all part of a conceptual work consisting of riding a bus to the neighborhood of Saudade, and once there, walking around and taking a number of photos that ended up in a couple of artist books and other works. So I’m always working with the issue of geography. I have more than 20 classifieds in which I appropriate things related to cities—when I don’t know a place I appropriate its geography.
ASB What you said about Saudade not only being a city, but a feeling, could actually be expanded to your general notion of cities, right? In your work, cities aren’t just places, they’re feelings.
PB Our relation to cities is a very complex thing. For example, smell is something that got into my work very early, because it evokes particular places. I researched this matter in Ouro Preto in the ’70s, where I spent several days thinking about what smell is in relation to people and place. Various art pieces resulted from this period. One was Summer Salon, which was an envelope with the words “Open and Smell: The First Memory is Art.” Besides circulating it as mail art, I included this in an artist book and some other works. Cities have things that aren’t just visual and auditory, but olfactory too. The senses for me are very important as I experience these trajectories, the paths or non-paths that I follow.
ASB Your work’s aesthetic has a lot to do with Recife’s characteristics. An interesting thing happening now is this separation between life and work. The majority of artists’ studios are clean and well-organized and what is made in them is often highly aestheticized. What always fascinated me about your work is that it’s often as gritty and chaotic as the city. It’s as if you were trying not only to understand the city but also to learn something from it.
PB The city teaches me everything. Last year I did a performance for an exhibition at the EXA(Espaço Experimental de Arte / Experimental Space for Art) in Belo Horizonte, with three people departing from three different points of the city at the same time and all arriving atEXA. I had current maps of the region and some from the time of Belo Horizonte’s construction. After studying them, I discovered that there were three neighborhoods with indigenous names, each of which had a chapel or a church. So I decided that the three participants in my performance should depart from those churches in order to emphasize the issue of the Jesuits’ extermination of indigenous people, which the Catholic Church continues to cover up to this day. I also did another piece in which I paid tribute to the architect who planned Belo Horizonte by making a drawing of his face using the tracings of rivers on a map of the area. I added practically nothing to the map—I just drew out his features from the tracings in homage of his brilliant planning of the city. My jumping-off point for these pieces is always something real, a physical situation. In this particular case, it was discovering these three neighborhoods with indigenous names and churches in them—they were signs pointing which direction I should go in.
ASB They are signs of the Church’s domination too. So this relationship to cities also serves to “ground yourself,” as they say in English. Once you’ve taken root and are standing on solid ground, then you follow the paths cities open up for you.
PB Yes, very much. For me this is important because I don’t separate my life and my art. It’s been a long time since I knew which was which.
ASB Many of your works are like sketches, because you’re only annotating an insight, a reference. It’s as if a sense of urgency makes you jump from one to the next. There’s an immense volume of information that the city throws at you and that you try to filter.
PB For me, art is a form of seeing and not of doing. It might seem utopian, but the day will arrive when the artist will no longer be necessary. The artist makes things only because people don’t know how to see for themselves. Someday artists won’t need to sacrifice themselves so much, because people will begin learning how to see art in everything. The function of the artist is minimal, because art is present everywhere—the artist merely captures and displays it.
ASB You started to make art at the end of the 1960s, a crucial time in Brazilian politics due to the military coup in 1964. You started showing just when the junta was consolidating power.
PB The worst repression happened between 1969 and 1973 or in the middle of ’74, at every level, but mainly among intellectuals. The military police was quite keen at seeing subversion everywhere, like trained dogs, though dogs are more intelligent. But behind every politician there’s always a person of intellect, and behind the Brazilian military government, there was a very intelligent man: Golbery do Couto e Silva. When Gilberto Gil was Minister of Culture [2003–08], Golbery’s library was auctioned, dismantled, and sold. I wrote to the Ministry in protest, saying it was a shame. That collection should have been bought and analyzed by sociologists and historians.
That was a rough time for me because I was doing public interventions. The first time they arrested me they said I had a leader’s spirit and was awakening something in people with my participatory works. They had people who had gone to other countries to specialize in interrogation techniques. There was one who would ask me really strange questions, for instance, “I know that the concept of art is very open. If I put a piece of the floor on the wall, is it art?” To which I responded, “If you do it, no, but if I do it, yes, it is art. That’s the big difference between you and me.”
ASB He was trying to get something out of you.
PB You could tell that he was different from the regular police. My participatory works made me rather visible. I was already confronting the problem of the cultural structure of Recife, with its “sugar-coated art.” At that time I had more friends in the areas of literature and music—they were more open-minded. In those days there wasn’t any art criticism in Recife, which was a good thing, since I began to theorize about my own work because of my isolation. Back then, some journalists who didn’t have backgrounds as critics and wrote frivolous articles for the social pages published attacks on me—rubbish. Even my own colleagues, most of them painters and sculptors, said I didn’t have a body of work. Aside from regional culture, I also faced the problem of the dictatorship. They were always trying to arrest me, and even threatened to kill me. Not long ago my name was discovered on a list of people who were to be killed. When the military invaded my house, I had already gone into hiding. Then I turned myself in at the army barracks with a witness—people were photographing me and everything—so that the same thing that happened to [Vladimir] Herzog and others wouldn’t happen to me. So I was up against a wall, but I’ve always been very strong in that regard. I don’t think of anything that happens in my life as bad. I was always conscious of the work I was doing and I reflected a lot while I was in prison.
ASB You were jailed three times?
PB The first time, in 1968 or ’69, I was 18 or 19 years old. It was a short imprisonment since they couldn’t fit anybody else in the cells at the DOPS [Department of Political and Social Order]; I was released on the same night. The other two times I was tortured at the army barracks. I was picked up, taken to the Federal Police, and had my house surrounded.
ASB What years?
PB 1973 and 1976. It was a pretty low time. They were nabbing people all over Brazil.
ASB How long were you in prison in 1973?
PB Between 8 and 10 days. The second time I spent two weeks with the federal police. They blindfolded me and transported me somewhere—to this day, I don’t know where—just to scare me. They used to do that. I’d say to them that in order to interrogate me, we’d need to be on the same level. My work has to do with theory, philosophy, with a host of issues. It’s not enough to say I’m a subversive, case closed.
ASB The country was going through a really volatile moment due to the student movement and peasant leagues. Many students abandoned the universities to become factory workers in order to educate the workers about their rights. At that time, the state of Pernambuco [of which Recife is the capital] was a hub of political activity.
PB There was a reaction in the whole country, but here in Pernambuco it was more structured. What [Francisco] Julião and [Miguel] Arraes did here was very organized, mainly with respect to the peasants and the working class. When Arraes was mayor of Recife, he assisted some extraordinary artists, such as Maria de Jesus Costa and Abelardo da Hora, who participated in the creation of the Movimento de Cultura Popular [Popular Culture Movement]. It brought cinema and street theater to poor and working-class neighborhoods, even putting on classic plays by Ibsen and others. The Departamento de Documentação e Cultura [Department of Documentation and Culture], a wonderful invention of that era, had a public discotheque where you could go to listen to whatever music you wanted. All of that spooked the military because it was a way of educating the people, who liked having access to culture. The movement in Pernambuco was always strong; that state had the only leftist government that remained in the whole country.
ASB In 1982 you spent some time in The Netherlands on a Guggenheim grant.
PB My project was to research sensory perception, specifically in children who had not been exposed to artistic processes. And in Amsterdam there was also a bookstore belonging to Ulises Carrión, one of the pioneers of the artist’s book. I’d met him through mail art, and later, in 1978, I invited him to give a performance and a lecture at the Festival de Inverno [Winter Festival] at the Universidade Católica de Pernambuco. Carrión was traveling for two months and let me use his bike, which was great. I was fascinated by the city, so much so that I made innumerable works about its geography. I did various works there exploring the relation between Amsterdam and Recife, whose geographies have interesting parallels given their canals and such.
ASB Mapping is at the base of your work with mail art, but you’ve also spoken about the fact that in countries under military regimes, mail-art exchanges protected individuals who were being persecuted by the government. They formed part of a network of communication with international reach.
PB In that era there were international amnesty committees that had knowledge of what was happening in Latin America and the rest of the world. News traveled through the mail. If there was an exhibition of prints by exiled Chilean artists, for instance, the amnesty committees would send thousands of letters about it to various people, including the authorities. This was a type of accusation and a way to keep the artists alive, because the military knew that the whole world was aware of what was going on. This all helped a lot. Another curious thing was that mail-art catalogues always contained the addresses of the participants in the various projects so the network could continue to grow. Someone would submit a piece and after that they would gradually come into contact with other people. There was an awareness of a network. I was in touch with people like Robert Rehfeldt, the German Fluxus artist, and Klaus Groh, Clemente Padín, Edgardo Vigo, Horacio Zabala, Jorge Caraballo, Robin Crozier, Ray Johnson, Shozo Shimamoto, John Armleder, Felipe Ehrenberg, and A. Ferrô e Sarenco, among many others.
ASB Was it mail art that started this amnesty movement?
PB No, we asked for help from the amnesty committees, because they were much more serious and made actual denunciations. Maybe not all of them, but the majority of the amnesty committees supported the mail-art movement.
ASB The network was like a prototype of the Internet. There’s a poem by Décio Pignatari about a concept in Teillard de Chardin called the “Noosphere.” The idea is that the next evolutionary phase would be a connected network of brains. McLuhan was also interested in this concept. This communication over distances, whether through the telegraph, the radio, or the mail, in a certain sense forms a part of that network. The whole world is linked through it.
PB In the ’70s I made stamps for “Tele-Art,” suggesting telepathy or teletransportation. Mail art wasn’t restricted just to the mail; people used the telegram, the aerogram, the telex, and after 1980 even the fax, which was in real time.
ASB It wasn’t a strategy of simply showing the work in galleries in other countries, but of bringing about a deeper comprehension of communication systems.
PB A lot of people didn’t understand us, because we were an open movement. For our shows we preferred alternative spaces like storefronts, for example, as well as areas with a lot of foot traffic, but any space could be an exhibition space for mail art. We weren’t very worried about preservation. The works were made to be manipulated, to be passed from hand to hand. The big conquest of the movement was that it broke out all over the world. Dadaism, Futurism, and all those other movements—even Pop art—existed merely in the context of a few cities or a few countries, but mail art was global.
ASB There’s a work of yours that reads, “Today art is this communication.” It seemed to me an invitation to live in the present of this flux. In a way, you turned your back on the arts and on traditional institutions.
PB I mobilized that work principally through telegrams, because the work was information, the work was the contact with that network.
ASB Let’s return to your relationship to the city. The actions that you orchestrated in Recife were provocations not only of the public, but also of the authorities. At the same time, they were strongly autobiographical. The first action I’d like to discuss is the burial you staged in a gallery: Arte Cemiterial (1971) is a work full of connotations, as it brings to mind ideas that were discussed around the “death of the artist” and the crisis of art.
PB One of my objectives was to critique the censorship imposed by the military. I did the burial in a gallery and the police closed it the next day, but I also scheduled a mass at the Catholic University because I thought the Church had some responsibility in the whole thing. I was reading a lot of theory and I had the question of the art-historical canon in mind, as well as the question of how an artist is constructed.
ASB There’s another aspect of this burial, which is the poetic dream of giving oneself completely to the work. There’s something half cannibalistic there—this idea that the body of the artist is his work and that he’s giving himself to it, placing himself there in the moment.
PB Yes, you make a good point: the fact that I always work with performance and urban interventions somehow must be related to the issue of cannibalism.
ASB What about that other action for which you stopped traffic on a central bridge in Recife by faking an inauguration ceremony? The people attempting to cross thought they should wait for an authority to cut the ribbon. Could you comment on that?
PB When I would go from Boa Vista to Guararapes, I was always analyzing the flow of the city and I noticed that this bridge was in the center of all the traffic. Knowing that the bridge had been constructed in 1733, during the Dutch colonization of Recife, I thought of closing it down and re-inaugurating it in 1973. I spoke with some photographer friends and a group of sociologists at the Catholic University with whom I used to do my events, and we decided to do it. The action had to be very fast because if it wasn’t I’d be thrown in jail. Of course everything had to be anonymous too.
ASB It’s an important work that functioned on various levels. You appropriated an official format, the inauguration of a public work, which obviously pointed to the military situation. But on another level, it also alluded to a purely linguistic convention having to do with the ritualistic force of language in naming locations and events.
PB At that time there was a mayor who inaugurated all kinds of things, so I was playing with that confusion too. Even on the video, when someone finally breaks through the ribbon, everyone applauds. For some minutes the whole crowd stood there watching without understanding anything or reacting. It’s a curious thing. And other unexpected situations occurred on the pedestrian walk: instead of breaking it, some people wanted to go over the ribbon and some under it. There was such wariness and fear that no one wanted to take action. If that work were done today, someone would probably calmly break through the ribbon as if it were no big deal.
ASB In those days the population was rather docile, wasn’t it?
PB There was a climate of silence, a sort of general depression. People didn’t really understand what was going on, but they knew they couldn’t join forces because the military’s subliminal propaganda was very strong and effective.
ASB How long did it take for people to figure out that the “inauguration” was a staging?
PB It took about 15 minutes, more or less. There was one light before the bridge and another at the end. We organized it so that a friend of mine would be there at the beginning of the bridge to give me a signal when the first light turned red—we couldn’t lose a second. Then I ran between the cars and tied the ribbon to both sides of the bridge. After that I walked away quickly but came back when I noticed that cars were stopping.
A friend was already filming the scene, and another friend hidden above the bridge was photographing it. When the cars finally advanced, I went to take the ribbon as a souvenir, and when I looked back I saw the police arriving. We all dispersed so that we wouldn’t be seen, each of us leaving individually with the cameras in our coats. We would always meet up at the same bar, but we’d arrive separately and leave separately, and would never walk together to avoid being seen with each other.
ASB These actions seem so improvised and humorous, yet you actually planned everything very carefully: you studied how the traffic signals worked and chose strategic sites for photographing the action. Again, all this had to do with your knowing the city and its flows and conventions.
PB Yes, and for other works I had to study the flow of the river to know if it was cresting or falling, that kind of thing.
ASB You’ve said your art is like a process of unlearning. If official education forces people to follow rules then, in contrast, your work aims to prompt people to be more attentive and to question what’s happening around them.
PB I might have gotten the Guggenheim fellowship because my proposal focused on this concept of unlearning—or rather, relearning—sensory perception.
ASB You have a series of drawings made from encephalograms that focus on the mind.
PB Since I worked my whole life in the health sector (I started working in hospital administration and then became Director of Human Resources for Penambuco’s Ministry of Health, though I’m now retired), I have befriended many doctors. I was always interested in art and technology. I struck up a friendship with a neurologist who had arrived from Paris and let me use his office once a week to experiment with encephalograms—I could make drawings directly from the brain, without using my hands as intermediaries. It was very gratifying to complete a piece made by pure thought. This friend of mine lent me books about the process, and explained how the electrodes on the machine worked and all of that. The face is the part of the body with the highest concentration of muscles, so to make these drawings I would make certain facial expressions, which was also a sort of performance. Sometimes I laughed a little or moved my lips around a bit. It’s lovely when color shows up on the cerebral cross-section—it’s as though every thought were giving certain colorations to different parts of the brain. I have two films about this work, one from 1979 and another from 2007. I also have a sound poem, “Poem of Repetition,” based on The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley—I repeat those same words “poem of repetition” as a mantra until exhausting the signified and dissociating its sense in my brain. At the end of the 1960s I had a few experiences based on what Huxley narrates in that book. I tried fasting in order to sharpen my perception, while drawing before, during, and after in order to see the difference. I noticed that perception does get sharper, and that you can hear more clearly—that type of thing.
I actually have various works with visual and sound poems about the brain. Its functioning has always interested me. I studied communication because I was interested in the question of the sign. Some of my conceptual proposals are really about the question of signifier/signified. One curious thing that generally isn’t analyzed is how the word and image link functions in the brain.
ASB This process of unlearning that you mentioned has a little to do with what Rimbaud wrote about the “derangement of the senses,” doesn’t it?
PB It does, and I did those works when I was still very young.
ASB Have you taken LSD?
PB No, because I never could get any, or else I would have taken it. I never really took drugs. I’ve never tried cocaine, for example. I tried smoking because all my friends smoked, but it didn’t do anything for me. They really liked getting stoned but it didn’t affect me. I’m always lit up already.
ASB The interesting thing about Huxley is that he took up an interest in this idea of the expansion of the mind that was quite popular among artists, poets, and writers in the 19th century. All of that had a lot to do with speculation about how the brain perceives information and how we communicate this perception through language.
PB Words have a fundamental role in my work. I often go from the word to the work, examining linguistic and semiotic issues. But I don’t have a fixed methodology; my projects are all scattershot.
I don’t rush to finish a work; I hang on to things from decades ago because I still haven’t figured out a solution to them and I don’t want to force myself to finish. I also don’t edit my films because I don’t edit ideas. My films are all direct, and short too: the longest is ten minutes.
ASB So you regard the work purely as an idea that you materialize, regardless of how it turns out?
PB Chance and risk are always present in the work, and you have to know when to take advantage of the unforeseen. I’ve transferred all of my Super 8 films to DVD. Some of them don’t have sound and it doesn’t make sense to add it after they’re finished. I can’t go back in time, you know? If a piece doesn’t stir any emotions in me, it’s because I no longer have anything to do with it—the thing is over for me. Clearly I have memories and everything, but if something doesn’t excite me anymore, it’s over. A finished piece is dead for me. That’s how it is. A work is something that happens by chance just once.
Bruscky’s exhibition Art Is Our Last Hope, curated by Bessa, opens at the Bronx Museum this fall.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby