Todd Lester by Lorena Vicini

Todd Lester discusses his new personal project, Lanchonete, and the status of contemporary artist residencies.

Abrons Art Center
Feb 1, 6:30pm

Todd Lester 1

A lanchonete in SÃo Paulo’s Centro taken during a walk Lester took with a local photographer, Pedro Marques.

“I’ll have glasses and red shoes. And maybe my suitcase.” That’s how I was to identify Todd Lester in a café in Edifício Copan, the symbolic building by Oscar Niemeyer in downtown São Paulo. It was a gorgeous day and the interview would be done in a hurry: Todd was leaving on the same day back to the US, after a week in the city.

Todd came to São Paulo to start the bureaucratic procedures for his personal project,Lanchonete, a five-year, site-specific artist residency project in the center of São Paulo.Lanchonete (which means “lunch counter” in Portuguese) will have a staff and operate as a business; 32 international and Brazil-wide artists-in-residence will live in a suite of adjacent apartments for periods of four months each, four at a time. It will take the form of a Brazilian non-profit, membership association, Associação Espaço Cultural Lanchonete.

Todd is the founder of freeDimensional, an organization that supports activists and artists-in-distress by providing safe haven in artist residencies. Until just a few weeks ago, he was the Executive Director of Global Arts Corps, an organization that uses theatre to advance reconciliation in societies emerging from violent conflict, a job he just quit to dedicate himself entirely to the Lanchonete project.

Lorena Vicini As a Brazilian, I was curious about the name of the project, Lanchonete. As we understand the concept in Brazil, it’s an establishment where snacks, drinks and sandwiches are sold, but in a totally different way from a deli. In a way, “lanchonete” is an old-fashioned word, going in the opposite direction of the gourmet wave. There is no line, there is no order—it’s chaotic.

Todd Lester The first time I came to Brazil, in 2005, I stayed in Praça da República, in the heart of downtown São Paulo. I saw all the lanchonetes in the neighborhood and just thought they were amazing. I chose the lanchonete as an establishment with an open front, which is disappearing nowadays. This organic and spontaneous movement is disappearing from capital cities. In the lanchonete it’s still possible to rub elbows with different kinds of people.

Todd Lester 2

Members of the Associação Espaço Cultural Lanchonete interacted with New Museum IDEAS CITY 2013 festival-goers from behind a food cart, borrowing from the methodology used to engage neighborhood residents in São Paulo. Photo by Adriana Fernandes-Halloran.

LV But will the artists work in the lanchonete as cooks?

TL That’s funny because normally people ask me three questions about Lanchonete. 1) Will the artists exhibit their works in the lanchonete?; 2) Will they have to work in the lanchonete? 3) Will the customers know it’s an artistic project? And my answers are 1) No. 2) No. 3) I hope not. It must be an actual lanchonete and being an actual lanchonete, we can’t predict how the artists are going to get involved. In any group of four artists, one is going to say to me, “fuck you, Todd, I am going to work in the restaurant”. But I am not going to encourage it because I don’t want to say it is necessary. We start with NO and maybe we are going to become a YES.The power source of the project is that the artists should engage with it.

LV Although Lanchonete is a five-year project (2013–2017), the residency itself will take only 32 months. Why so short?

TL The full project consists of more than just the residency itself: showing how the bureaucratic process works and involving the community are also parts of the project. Residencies have been turned into commodities, they are directly bound to capital.Lanchonete aims to be a transparent process that supports and engages local and non-local artists while documenting its growing collective ownership via the membership association,Associação Espaço Cultural Lanchonete.

LV And in what way is Lanchonete going to be different from other residencies currently operating?

TL I give myself permission to be critical of the residency sector, because I love to work in it and I worked in it for a decade. I feel able to criticize it because I know it. There are many ways to do a residency, but what works best is to have a bilateral negotiation with the community. Because right now you can have a week-long residency in São Paulo, but it can be just tourism. I listen to a lot of smart older people, for example Jan Willem Schrofer, who ran the Rikjes Akademie for years, saying that those sorts of programs start to deteriorate the idea of “the residency.” We call everything residency. But for me it means something, it really means you are IN something, you are part of a community. Í’m going to be a guardian around the Lanchonete—not letting her being fetishized.

Lester2 Body

Members of the Associação Espaço Cultural Lanchonete interacted with New Museum IDEAS CITY 2013 festival-goers from behind a food cart, borrowing from the methodology used to engage neighborhood residents in São Paulo. Photo by Adriana Fernandes-Halloran.

LV Fetishizing the lanchonete? Sounds funny.

TL What I mean is that I don’t see the Lanchonete as a food project, I see it as a way to understand community. I think there is something about the way a lanchonete is used that is very simple. You go to the lanchonete and have a coffee. I want the lanchonete as a sometimes visible and sometimes invisible point of reference for the artists-in-residence. Thelanchonete, the artists’ apartments and the Pivô gallery will form a triangle in downtown São Paulo. That’s the benefit of having three corners, three types: not everything depends on thelanchonete itself. We expect the artist to go out, meet people, see things. The uses of these three spaces can be many: a writer can use her apartment to write; a sculptor can use the production facilities of Pivô to construct and assemble works; residents can have meetings, conduct interview and so forth at the lanchonete. The lanchonete itself is interesting but not as interesting as the center of the city. The lanchonete is the leitmotiv, the power source, but not the center of the project.

LV There are some similarities between the Lanchonete project and the site-specific FOOD, by Gordon Matta-Clark.

TL It’s funny because I have not studied art history, I am a self-guided student, I was only made aware of this project by a Brazilian friend, who runs Pivô. After I started the Lanchonete, many people mentioned it and I was embarrassed.

LV But do you see these similarities?

TL Now that I know the Matta-Clark project, I think there is more similarity with Fast and French, a project run in South Carolina by the artists Gwylene Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet.

LV One big concern about the Lanchonete project is transparency. But half of the artists are going to be invited. How do you preserve transparency in the invitation?

TL Hmm, I don’t have a prepared answer. But, let’s say that we select 50 percent of the artists internally, so we have 16 who are pre-selected and 16 who respond to an open call. There are a couple of reasons for those 16 who will be pre-selected: in addition to their track records as artists who respectfully enter and engage new communities, they are essential to the project’s business plan. Whereas many of my past projects have leaned toward the ‘administrative’ side of art practice, Lanchonete is intuitive… generative, moving from the hypothetical to a realized system demonstrating if/how 32 outside artists who get to know the local community (creative and otherwise) can join and—perhaps—impact a neighborhood undergoing rapid change. There will not be a minute of this project that is not accentuated by my doubts. That said, I trust myself to manage and referee the process.

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Brian Fernandes-Halloran. Event-specific postcard asking evocative questions on personal taste and neighborhood change to festival-goers. Photo by Adriana Fernandes-Halloran.

LV So, some well-known artists assured in the residency will give you more possibilities to raise money?

TL Yes, you can say that. When we know who those 16 artists are, we can use their agreement to be part of the project. There has to be quality control. They have to be people that I respect, I am spending four years doing this and it is not going to be lucrative. Yes, I will be a benevolent dictator in the process.

LV To finish the interview: what do you most like to buy in a lanchonete?

TL Feijoadapão de queijo, cigarettes, chewing gum, cake, coffee, queijo quente, chicken-rice-and-beans, abacaxi com hortelãvitaminabrigadeiro, and the list goes on.

For more about the Lanchonete Project, visit their website.

Lorena Vicini is a journalist and cultural producer in São Paulo, Brazil.

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