Sheltering in a very yellow-green light condition during heavy rains in the Venice gardens, I met Brazilian artist and composer Vivian Caccuri for a long and pleasant chat to discover the value of historical storytelling and social engagement in her wide range of conceptual performance art.
You life in a few lines
I was born in San Paulo in 1986 from a family mixing artists-musicians and very pragmatic professionals like engineers and mathematicians, as my mother who is also a computer programmer. I’ve Italian ascendance and that played a vey important role in my upbringing also because I was always wondering where were the ‘traditions’ because some of them got lost.
That ignited your passion for History
Yes, I was always attracted by the idea of history because I didn’t feel that we had some sort of connection with our pasts. Something happens when you cross the ocean and you’ve to forget what is there, I speak in this case of my Italian origins.
There is also a lot of imagination and sewing of very different original sources in your ‘imagination’ and narration of history. First of all you create links between data and facts which are not visible to anyone so easily and many times you explore the ‘unofficial’ and not predominant historical culture.
Yes. As soon as I started working with sound, I’ve been of course interested in its phenomenological component but before that I was also trying to perceive myself in a global context, where I was speaking from: being in the global south is a very important fact and information, especially being a woman in the global south having experience of the tropical nature.
As soon I understood all that, my work changed in form.
Your relation with sound is of course very professional because you’re a composer too having being enrolled in many qualifying courses of sound design in and out your continent. Sound is, yes, a way to express native contents for that discipline but what I feel is that you use mainly sound to convey other kind of knowledge and other stories. I wish to take as example your performances in form of ‘lectures’ you presented already in London and Italy (at Serpentine Gallery and at Venice Art Biennale) but also other more traditional works of art (like the sculpture acting as a big ‘Carnival Sound’ you made and exhibited in London).
In the first case (pieces of art in form of lectures) you’re conveying an articulated explanation of the colonizations effect from a different – and very few times acted by the persistent traditional historiography – view.
In the second case you’re making very political, localized summaries of excerpts of untold history, which is expressed only as an entertainment phenomena now.
I believe that sound and music are the hardware that surround these cultures, they’ve the power to synthesize a moment of the body. I think that there are certain genres that truly show how uncomfortable or comfortable human being is in this point of history.
To issue the performative piece you’re mentioning, for instance I researched about what kind of music was made in the peak of yellow fever epidemics because I think there might be a connection…
Of course, it is very spiritual and narrative – and I was surprised how you designed the narrative one!
Your lecture was also including a seminal text you wrote, able to conduct the spectators, better passioned persons, to very different problems. The way you link historical subjects and truths is pure narrative. It’s very peculiar. Which are the readings enforcing your preparation for these pieces of art?
It’s very peculiar, you’re right. The fact I embrace the tropical point of view requires I read tropical authors and literature. One of the main books I read for this research was Robert McNeill’s The Mosquito Empires (Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914).
It is about the history of the colonization of the Americas under the perspective of the diseases that the mosquitoes brought and how the mosquitoes changed the demographic, social and political context of these countries. For me it was a very important issue to bring to wider audiences.
You convey them totally on your view, you can bet it. Your tailored sound composition in this case is outstanding for the scope as well as the footage you mastered in it. Sound, particularly, was not the main mean for you, you seemed to me to privilege writing.
Yes, this research started with another one I presented the day before the one you’ve seen. It focuses on why the people hate the sound of mosquitoes (she rewrites and champions the sound of mosquitoes) – that for me was the first observation of this wider and vaster problem. I’m always driven and interested in those sounds put in a subaltern position, why some sounds are considered ugly, minor, etc.?
It’s very subjective too, people at different latitudes can react different to certain sounds (mosquitoes ones apart!)
It is but there are also patterns and some patterns are created and provoked and all these becomes forms I can work with. So the mosquitoes all concur to the ugliest sounds of nature. They are so close to human beings and is annoying for some reasons. There are also degrees of annoyance, the closest to the West we get the most intense this annoyance is so I was wondering why. I’ve been in countries like India and Africa like Ghana and Nigeria and of course there the people also consider it annoying but with a different distress. So I was thinking that maybe some colonial traces are part of this extreme sensation and reaction that we have toward it, like the immense pain and the memories of what happened.
When I was questioning people about the root of this annoyance, the reply was always because they feared being bitten would cause them the disease. But I think there are deeper reasons.
Zika’s situation is revamping this sensation and is difficult to cope with it. You also talk about this in your work.
I wish to talk about the incredible knowledge you master and gift to audiences with your performative works.
Visual art nowadays explores paths which are not always known and the role of art is really beyond boundaries especially with authors like you who subvert the traditional form a work of art has.
I’m not talking of the fact you’re skilled in many media – from music and video composing to sculpture and so on – I talk about the way research rules your creations and often you acquired this solid knowledge through keen residencies.
Yes, and we cannot also underestimate the overwhelming power of English language in the art field. It’s a vehicle to access not only knowledge but this very system of residencies and if you don’t master it, your carrier is harder.
There are so many artworks dealing with this exact problem and I was thinking very much to this because I’m privileged to have learned this language very early in my school life through a good education. With English I could access, for instance, to residency programs in Nigeria and India.
Returning back to your professional path: your way to make art is equally split in creating traditional pieces with a traditional market (i.e. gallery sales) and performance art. With this latter, you’re easy to address very quickly big meanings. How do you find budget for them apart the residencies? How did you build a work method not so ‘endemically’ linked to the usual budget constraints, shortages or modification?
Actually I usually have ideas that I keep developing together also with the tools needed to deliver these ideas. As soon as I have a chance to put together tools and ideas, I come up with a performance. But being ready for a performance, requires me constantly exercising…
Your time, your energy – and the fact you have to pay bills as everyone else. Is therefore hard to build budgets and find them in order to sustain this system of work? Is easier indeed for what we can call ‘objectified art’?
It’s a tricky question, it really depends on which kind that performance is.
I can make a very low budget proposal but also think in a more complex way, by adding a team (for instance musicians), it depends on the context.
As I work with music and sound I need anyway a constant preparation, time for composing is the time of life, there is no other way to source for it.
During this time I have also to prepare other works whose sales are sustaining also my living, they’ve to be connected to this whole world of performance because for me there is not another way to think and imagine it. I cannot be two people at the same time but it’s sure that one dimension of my work supports the other.
To summarize, the most expensive part of this work is the time for composing.
if I had a different model of production, it could be different – like being completely dedicated for music.
Which was in these very busy Venetian days your reading and musical diet?
I’m listening to this half American, half Greek band (Xylorious White) and they’ve a very beautiful way addressing historical Greek music with completely contemporary take.
I’m also very interested in what is made in Brazil in this super popular dimension that is funk so there are so so many artists, hundreds of super talented artists composing in this field.
I also recently found out an electronic underground compilation of the ’80 – Brazilian bands nobody heard of! Lots of synthesizer-based bands which constituted an ideal soundtrack for my trip.
I just started James Bridle’s The New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, and just downloaded Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no Longer Talking with White People about Race.
When I flew in, I read Gilberto Freyre’s Casa Grande e Senzala one of the main books explaining the misfits of demography of Brazil through the colonizers’ architecture.
Do you read only digitally?
No, no! I read both.
Many Venice Biennale national pavilions were working with a solid writing list or products beyond the catalogue, I’m meaning proper readings part of the show itself, like the very political Swiss Pavilion involving also the ‘refusal’ or critical thinking about this new supremacist wave we suffer in the West right now but is also vivid in Brazil and other countries.
What do you think Rio de Janeiro your actual city is giving to you as a citizen and what do you think to gift back to it?
I grew up as an adult in Rio and that means that as soon as I got there I found an empty space which I renovated, a little room in a big abandoned factory. I was then inviting friends to see this place and maybe build their studios there. Other artists came and after two years it was completely packed! All started from me when I rented from the family who used to run the factory until they could. It was all about explaining the importance to have a space like this in Rio because we did not have something similar before. That for me was an example of a project I totally gave to the city.
After around three years we got the news that the factory was to be auctioned to a beer factory so we would be expelled: I created of a non profit association of 120 artists and also designers or retailers to protect the space.
In Brazil is hard to be an artist without being involved in a larger community. The nature of Rio is very different from cities of San Paulo where people are more pulverized and spread apart so you don’t feel so much to be part of the community.
There are also artists fighting for the Amazonas and also against the brutal changes in art schools management applied by the actual government.
Being a Brazilian artist means it is a luxury not to be socially involved. This country asks for engagement.
It’s not only a matter of our future, it’s a matter of our history. If we know only a little about the history of the country in arts and music, we see that we showed always a great openness and cross-culture in every corner of our nation; the audience was always interested in forms and art propositions pulling them out of their comfort zone. We have to get of of this dark era as soon as we can.
Knowledge is the ultimate rebellion, in my opinion, not only in arts. You express the knowledge art which is the most conceptual frontier of visual art and with your persona and your engagement you defeat the usual thinking that conceptual artists are avulse from reality and practicalities of real life. Especially younger generations of artists like you can give us, the viewers and the institutions, the possibility to see where art really goes.
Histories and history you bring to us in such a clear way make a great job!
Which was the piece of art stunning you more in the ones you stumbled upon on a Venice Biennale curated by one of the most famous British curators (Ralph Rugoff)?
I think it was Arthur Jafa’s video The White Album, very touching, it provoked a deep impact on me. I have also one of his limited editions records, I really appreciate his take on sound too! Loaded with this richness of human information too! I met him also personally once, in Porto, during a panel I was also part of (Future Forum).
I was very interested also in the people’s reactions around me while seeing the video.
He won the main prize of the festival (the Golden Lion)!
What happened during his awarding with was touching too: Jafa cried for the commotion and thanked all his team deserving this prize according to him. But there was also an horrific epilogue: the politician giving him the prize was Luca Zaia (president of the Region Veneto, among the public authorities supporting of the Biennale).
Zaia is our version of ‘suprematist racist’, he is a long standing presence of the party Lega Lombarda (that has been briefly ruling the government in the previous government). No press in Italy commented about that even if so striking, of course!
Wherever you go nowadays there is a pungent contradiction, mainly in Brazil that was born over a contradiction.
Jafa’s movie was very very moving. In a very intimate way.
I think is because he catches human beings for what they are in the worse and in the best scenarios.
The same did the Brazilian artists Wagner&De Burca!
Also there I got very emotional, I was visiting the Brazilian Pavilion with a friend from the country too. We saw how fragile we can be.
There is so much strength in the figures of the community narrated by these two artists but they’re threatened at the same time, the woman singing as she was in the backyard incorporate the ‘old days’, a way of selling products that comes from medieval times, the sound and the intensity of that voice stroke me so deeply.
We both cried, me and my Brazilian friend, it was so intense for us because touched very delicate areas of the self and the nationality.
What did you learn so far from your life? You seem to me a person with a strong plan to go on!
I do have a plan and some learnings come immediately and some develop in time.
Now I’m digesting the tour in Europe but this time acqua alta told me something more: how flexible and resilient we can be (everywhere). I’ve seen here the cafes opening while people were literally drowning….
Rio has cliffs higher than the rising sea level but ironically is where the poorest people reside so when the things will be worse and something similar happens also in my city, the places in which the poor people are will rise in value becoming the most precious.
We’ve been through the reformulation of the coast line a lot of years ago: we demolished two hills to give more room there.
It was a Portuguese knowledge programmed by the Brazilian government on how to landfill the coasts.
The portrait of Vivian Caccuri in Venice is by Rodrigo Pinto.
In our section Short Stories we’d published an excerpt of her The New World Yellow & The Fever Hand (Serpentine Galleries 2019 | The Circle in The Mind of a Fish With Plants)