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June 07, 2007

Interview with Susana Mendes Silva


Explorations of 'Constraint'

Interview with Susana Mendes Silva by Miguel Amado; Commissioned by Rhizome.org :: Lisbon-based Susana Mendes Silva is a pioneering artist in the Portuguese new media art scene. Although her practice reaches beyond the conventional genres of this field, her technologically mediated performances, in which she explores the emotional states underlying personal relationships in general and intimacy in particular, granted her a deserved recognition both locally and abroad. She is about to relocate to London, where she will do a studio-based PhD at Goldsmiths College and, recently, she presented the latest installment of her important work ‘art_room’ in the US at Upgrade! International in Oklahoma City. This led Rhizome Curatorial Fellow Miguel Amado to interview her about her practice.

MA: Tell me about your background.

SMS: I have studied Visual Arts in Lisbon’s University and have been showing my work since 1996, being part of what one defines as the generation of Portuguese artists of the mid- to late-1990s.

Recently, I have had a solo show, called ‘Did I hurt you?,’ in the Zoom program (dedicated to cutting edge projects) at Lisbon’s Carlos Carvalho Gallery, and a site-specific installation was commissioned for the group show ‘(Re)Volver’ at Lisbon’s independent space Plataforma Revolver. My practice, however, is not only studio-based, as I participate in several projects that take the form of discussions or talks. For example, I was a participating guest in the ‘Bare Life’ conversation, moderated by Christina McPhee, that took place during July 2006 at Empyre - http://www.subtle.net/empyre - in a collaboration with Documenta 12 Magazine.

MA: What are your interests as an artist?

SMS: My practice addresses the human condition in general and allegorically explores constraint in particular. Constraint can be related to a physical or a psychological condition as well as to an ethical positioning and socio-cultural conditioning. There are also related concepts playing an important role in my work: limit - in its physical and psychological meanings; impossibility - as an imposed boundary (by the self or by others); violence - as a visible or invisible exercise of force; affection - in the sense of a human feeling and of disease, either of the mind or the body; and desire - as a powerful human drive. I am very interested in subverting concepts, rules, and prevailing points of view. I am therefore committed to a critical vision about art and of the world.

MA: You operate in different media, some that one defines as ‘traditional’ (drawing, photography), and other that one calls ‘new’ (video, Internet)...

SMS: I am not very concerned if the media that I employ is seen as old or new, but whether their properties are suitable for my work. I understand media as tool, as something that can be used according to the project that I am developing in a given moment. I use media very freely, and frequently in a grouping manner – for example, in installations and performances. If one considers Lev Manovich’s definitions of cyberculture and new media, some of my works would belong to the first category, some to the second, and others to both.

MA: How do you approach these different media?

SMS: For me, it is fundamental to use media in an experimental way, and to explore specificity, whether site-specificity, media-specificity, or context-specificity. This is a strategy that encompasses and is an attempt to overcome the dichotomy of constraint-freedom that exists in artistic practice. My work is associated with some kind of discovery, mapping, or combinatory method. This is quite present in the way I function and brings together the dimensions of each project.

MA: Can you discuss one of your most well known projects, ‘Artphone’ (2002)?

SMS: In 2002, I applied to be a participating artist of ‘Free Manifesta.’ This was a project by the New York artist Sal Randolph, that was part of Manifesta 4 held in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. A place in Manifesta 4 was purchased by Sal, for $15,099, in an ebay auction. Any artist who wished was invited to show their work, and over 225 artists and groups participated in public art projects which took place across the city as well as through the broadcast airwaves, telephone and mail systems, and on the Internet. I did a performance, via mobile phone, called ‘Artphone.’ There was a flyer and an online page with my personal mobile phone number and the sentence: ‘Don’t be afraid to ask everything you always wanted to know about contemporary art.’ I received the calls and established a completely spontaneous and improvised conversation (about a contemporary art issue) either with someone I knew or with someone I had never met before.

MA: This work led to ‘art_room’ (2005), right?

SMS: Yes, as a development of ‘Artphone,’ I created ‘art_room.’ I used a webcam in a webchat site called webcamnow. In this site there was only the possibility to exchange text messages as the software available did not support voice messaging. The performance occurred during a pre-set schedule, during June. When I started the performance, on the first day, I went to Room One to announce what I was doing by simply posting the sentence: ‘Don’t be afraid to ask everything you always wanted to know about contemporary art.’ I moved to a free room (from 30 rooms, only three had people in them), and I began to chat with some of the people. I soon realized that some of the users felt like they ‘own’ the website (no matter what room I moved into), and they began to become very aggressive towards me. If ones looks at the performance’s documentation, one will only see my eyes, as I was hiding behind my laptop, because some of the users kept saying that I was showing off too much (even though I was properly dressed). In order to avoid the disturbance, I ended up ‘veiled’ by my computer.

MA: The interaction with the user, in ‘art_room,’ was different from that of ‘Artphone’?

SMS: This time the result was totally the opposite from what I expected. Even though there were a couple of interesting chats, the experience of a certain degree of intimacy and significant questions was this time replaced by aggressivity and exclusion from most of the usual members. For example, in the second day I was expelled from the ‘family and friends’ area: my camera was shut down, and I was disconnected as a user by the moderator in an arbitrary way.

MA: Nevertheless, there was another installment of ‘Artphone’ later that year.

SMS: During ‘Prog:me’ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil I did ‘Artphone’ again yet using Skype this time (still with no image). One of the interesting things was that visitors could talk to me from the exhibition space. This went quite well and it was not very difficult to overcome some shyness or awkwardness. I spoke with people from all ages and from different backgrounds, including some artists and curators. Several visitors saw the show more than once and spoke with me on different occasions. Every time I talked with a person it was a very intimate experience.

Carlos Sansolo (one of the curators of ‘Prog:me’) expressed this ambivalent feeling - of pleasure and fear - very accurately: ‘The Portuguese artist Susana Mendes Silva proposed the ‘Artphone.’ The idea is quite simple: she provides her address so we can talk to her through a microphone and headphones from the computer about contemporary art, using the computer as a telephone. I have talked many times with Susana, never about art, always about technical issues and always presenting one other artist that appeared while talking to her. Actually talking to an unknown person on the phone gives you a certain degree of intimacy that I always felt terrified about. As a matter of fact, I have always felt a certain compulsion to confessing things to this unknown voice. My first thought is always about the history of sexuality of Michel Foucault, about this fear of confessing in intimate moments. She says: ‘Have no fear, ask me what you’ve always wanted to know about contemporary art’ - and all I felt was fear. The simple presence of a voice that talks about contemporary art has the ability to inspire disturbing or great situations for whoever contacts it. One may think it is a reflection on intimacy on the Internet. The work is not only a proposition, but the result of this chat that can never be completely predictable.’

MA: When was the performance done for the last time?

SMS: The last time was at the Upgrade! International in Oklahoma City - as part of the Upgrade! Lisbon’s presentation - and I used Skype with voice and video on both locations. However, a year ago, I tried to do ‘art_room’ in a very different way. I was participating in the exhibition ‘Between word and image,’ at Fundacion Luis Seoane in A Coruna, Spain and, on the opening program, there were some performances. I distributed A4 posters in the museum building announcing that people could meet me in the patio next to the auditorium. I had a table with two chairs (one for me and other for the participant) and I received the visitors that wished to talk with me for two hours. It was very interesting to interact in physical presence, and some of the people started to call it the ‘confessionary’.

MA: Do you plan to reenact this version of the work?

SMS: I always try to do both the ‘Artphone’ and the ‘art_room’ with different components, and this version was an attempt to explore new features for the work, but repeating this performance will depend on the context of its presentation.

MA: What do you think about the passage of the piece from a technologically-mediated context to a face-to-face situation?

SMS: It might sound strange but the situations are not very different. I guess that, on face-to-face, I was a bit nervous because I was not sure if someone would participate. Also, it was more awkward when I was wondering who would be the next person to approach me, perhaps because there was no device separating us.

MA: What are you working on now?

SMS: I am working on my studio and doing research for some projects that will happen later this year. One of them is a group show that will take place within a Lisbon psychiatric hospital, and I am sure that the audience’s reaction will be very different from that of a conventional exhibition space. Next September I will start a studio-based research program at Goldsmiths College in London. I’m very excited with the prospects of this experience, as I will be living and working abroad for the first time and I am sure that this will initiate new directions in my practice.

Posted by jo at June 7, 2007 11:04 AM