We’re told it can be quite painful for artists to explain their work to someone else. Unless that someone else is another artist and a friend. Then, the discussion can be lush, relaxed and pleasant. That’s the kind of conversation KubaParis would like you to have access to. We’re therefore happy to introduce our new series Artists talking to Artists. This time, Laura Langer chose to speak to Dudu Quintanilha. For the next interview, Quintanilha will choose a conversation partner of his own, hence creating a chain of interlinked interviews.
Laura Langer: I met you in 2010 in Buenos Aires when we did the DiTella’s Artist Program together. From that year I remember you as a “real” photographer. I recall the portraits of your friends in the swamp house and the series of large-scale, black-and-white self-portraits in a swimsuit after joining DiTella University’s swimming team. There were also other series of photographs that you shared in the crits, which were taken in porn movies sets.
Dudu Quintanhilha: “Real” photographer (laughs), well yes, you remember well. I’ve became a photographer’s assistant when I was 18. Parallel to that I was an assistant in porn productions. I think that’s kind of my school: I started with porn when I met a producer while working in a hotel serving breakfast in 2007. I saw all the tripods, lights and cameras in his room, and I told him: I am a photographer too. When I quit the hotel job I contacted him and he got me in. I was still doing photography but also got super involved with the guys, who were mostly escorts working as porn actors. Among them there were some curious amateurs who just wanted to have the experience or who fetishized the porn world or sometimes just needed the money. After some time, I developed a bond with them and started to learn more about their lives, and as we became closer, they would only say yes to a job if I was involved. Back then I realized what it meant to be part of a group of people who get together to make a movie. By bonding with them I became aware of the emotional pressure, the amount of work, the contracts or deals, and the health and security issues related to taking care of a group. This is when I started to document our backstage life and looking at their bodies and our surroundings with my camera. That lasted for 5 years.
During this period, in 2012, I discovered I was HIV positive. I relate this moment to some decisions that came after: I was pushing myself and my body to the limit, which brought me to develop works and images that used mostly my body as a reference and a performative tool. Just like my overexerted self and body, I started pushing the medium so much that photography wasn’t enough in and of itself. At the time I was doing a residency and I had the desire to work with immaterial things. So – I started to push things through video, and writing and thinking about performance.
L: When you moved to Brazil and I moved to Germany about 6 years ago, I lost track of you. I knew that you started to work with video and performance, but I didn’t know much more than that. Last year you visited Frankfurt while you were travelling between shows in Europe. When we saw each other again, I asked you: what have you been doing all this time? You seemed overwhelmed by the question and chose to talk about the last 2 months. I remember your story so well because it was different from stories I have heard since moving to Europe, where I studied in a context that boasts a kind of approach to art that could not be farther from your own.
D: When I arrived to São Paulo in 2014 my practice and research were fully moving towards video and performance. I started working in a shelter for homeless men, where tranvestites and transexual women were also living. I was taking care of the art workshop there. During my working hours, I wanted to get to know people with no artistic education but with artistic interest in order to start making a series of videos and to develop some new ideas about performativity. I started calling this idea-archive-project Ungovernables. I needed to start this by making what I call “performance meetings”. This is: meet someone in an empty space with no audience and just my camera recording. The idea was to develop simple propositions in collaboration with the performer. I wanted to meet more than once, to have continuity in the work in order to create a memory with the person I was working with. And this memory, created during each meeting, would be used as a starting point for the next meeting, and so on.
Ungovernables went on for years and maybe is still on. Now I have only a edited few and have a huge archive. I say this because this is how the story you heard that day started. By wanting to give Ungovernables a radical twist.
L: What kind of radical twist?
D: I needed to push the idea of the marginal, the outsider, further. To research more about these concepts and realities that I was getting closer to while living in São Paulo: the idea of the marginal, hospício (in Portuguese, which it’s translation in English could be hospice) fragility and altered bodies. In our past and present society, there are people who are classified as undesirable, and we all think we have an idea about “the marginal.”
I was getting particularly interested in sedated bodies due to my own experiences with drugs, from observing tired bodies around the city, from thinking about the pharmaceutical industry, of how they are controlling diseases and through this our bodies and lives. And Brazil as a top world consumer of analgesic and psychotropic medications. I, myself, have been taking antiretroviral pills every day since 2012.
I ended up proposing to take the Ungovernables “performance meetings” to the Museu Bispo do Rosario Arte Contemporanea as a project. This museum is located within the Municipal Institute of Health Care Juliano Moreira, a mental health complex known as „Colônia,“ located in Taquara, the west zone of Rio de Janeiro. The complex has a very long history. The museum is responsible for the preservation, conservation and diffusion of the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosário, an artist who lived and worked in Colônia as a patient, and after whom the museum is named. The museum promotes projects related to mental health and contemporary art, so I approached them, and they proposed to develop a project with the Jurandyr Manfredini Psychiatric Hospital.
On the 16th of December 2016, I went to Rio de Janeiro with a small bag, my camera and some books. I presented the project to the hospital team: the lawyer, the director, the supervisor and the medical staff. The presentation went well, but my idea was turned upside down in a matter of minutes. They suggested I could to stay and live with the patients for 20 days to work on performances, but the patients could not appear on camera. I had to sign a document that stated I was taking full responsibility for whatever happened to me during my ‘hospitalization’.
L: Why were the patients not allowed to be on camera?
D: Every person who enters this type of institution in Brazil loses their status as a legal subject. People become Incapazes, the legal term in Portuguese for this peculiar status. In English, it literally means “Unables.” It means, in other words, that one is unable to freely exercise their own rights and duties… and most of the people there suffer from psychosis. Cameras, lights and TVs are very common triggers for this. They are afraid of what could possibly be inside the actual machine, behind the glass or the lens, and also just terrified of being watched. This is a fear existing in our society, it is simply not as pronounced in all of us. This is why I proposed that I would give the camera to the patients so that they would film me. The “performance meetings” would be directed by us both: the camera would be directed at me and every aesthetic decision with the patient.
L: What was it like when you entered the hospital?
D: They took my phone and my ID. Before entering we agreed to meet every Wednesday with someone from the museum and with the staff from the hospital to discuss how the project was developing.
My first impression of the hospital was very strong, I crossed a fence controlled by security guards. There was a patio with two trees and almost no shadow, some concrete chairs and tables attached to the ground, paintings on the walls, and many doors. One door for older men and those who needed more care, one for violent men, one door for the women’s bedrooms, one door leading to the dining room, one door for the multi-purpose room and another door for the technical staff office. I mention the doors because that’s all I could see— doors. These doors only open when it’s time for them to open. My room had 22 beds and two bathrooms. Not one single empty bed. They wake you up around 7 am, and open the door to the patio at 7:30. 8:30 coffee. 10 fruit. 12 lunch. 3 pm coffee again. 6 dinner. 6:30 back to the room. It breaks down to 13 hours inside the bedroom, one TV and everybody in there together. No windows, no mirrors, no door handles. And the remaining 11 hours on the patio. There was also this separate patio with an avocado tree behind a fence with a locked door that was impossible to reach. This tree became very symbolic for me. Some of the patients, myself included, would watch the avocados fall and rot on the floor. I brought this up as an important issue during one of the Wednesday meetings: why aren’t we allowed to reach for the fruit, eat it and take care of the trees?
L: So in watching some of other works, you are extremely present all the time. Even though you don’t appear in the image itself, your voice is there and it’s quite dominant. You sometimes are by the performers’ side, almost mimicking their actions or accompanying them.
What you had to deal with in this project sounds like the opposite of what you have been doing in the other videos where you are dominating the situation and giving directions to the people performing in front of the camera – almost as if it was a photoshoot. What happened when you were suddenly on the other side, when you could no longer have full control of what your video would be like?
D: I liked the idea of switching positions and doing something I hadn’t done before but that still followed the same rules: one-to-one “performance meetings” recorded on camera. I sort of knew that the video restriction meant to conceal the “performer’s” identity, and this would naturally backfire, that if they held the camera they would be free to do whatever they want with it. It happened in two performance meetings that they recorded themselves.
I like that you bring up the word accompanying, because this is how I, and the instructions I give, actually work. The “performance meetings” consist mostly of accompanying and following. We were performing ourselves in this specific place, so I started to use the building and objects as important actors which helped facilitate conversations and actions with the patients. The recordings, our conversations, were mostly about what they were looking at, what was around them. I knew that I was losing control of the camera, but handing over the decisions of framing and letting performers look directly into the camera enabled them to imprint their own subjectivity into the work. In all this process I had to abandon my initial ideas and let them become shared ideas in the end; ideas that permeated our shared reality in that moment. It was an attempt to not let an idea or project become more important than the immediate lived reality.
L: I wonder how much an idea can actually be shared in such a context. If the patients even want to share an idea or if they are interested this offered idea at all?
D: Well, it is delicate, very delicate. I wasn’t taking sedatives like them. I know that the patients didn’t know exactly what I was doing in there and that we probably don’t share the same idea about art, or many other topics. In fact they didn’t show much interest in me or what I was doing there. The performers wanted to talk about themselves, mostly. I was very influenced by what they said. I didn’t know why anyone ended up there to begin with. Everything around me had quite an influence on my perception. The time we spent together was shared, and the idea was that when I found someone who showed interest, I would open up the process to them. Actually, it could be that my ideas were not shared but opened. You are right. But to deny the possibility that they could be sharing the idea with me is also to deprive them from their potential. If we do this, we would continue to assert the incapacity they were labeled with already. I wanted to “activate” a subjectivity together and this needed to happen in a shared moment.
Did we talk about risks already?
L: You were portraying a situation that you had no control over, but also you were part of a dramatic context with problems that you couldn’t ignore. This it’s not the first time you’ve worked with the “real” like this. This time, maybe like no other, that reality seemed to take over your project.
D: What happened is perhaps the only possible, foreseeable reaction to all of that: I had a breakdown. I woke up one day, and everything scared me. Then I took all my belongings from under the mattress and I started carrying them with me and the medical team soon realized something was not OK. They said the psychiatrist wanted to see me. I asked him to record our conversation. Then the director called me and said I still had four more days there and that they had called the museum but nobody answered. He proposed that I go to my bed and they will calm me down. The second he said that I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my right hand in an act of (self-)defense or something. I knew I had to leave right away.
I ordered them to give me my phone and I called a friend in São Paulo. But by then the hospital had finally managed to get someone from the museum to take care of me. The state I was in when I left the hospital was documented in a report by Guilherme Marcondes who came from the museum to get me. This report is a fundamental document for me, one I find very difficult to read.
What is left? All of this stayed with my body for days until I was back in São Paulo and could start remembering things, though my memory of the hospital became like a “real” fiction. I reacted in this way because my propositions were too fragile. The breakdown was a translation of the frustration I felt in my loneliness and helplessness in the hospital.
And eventually that became also a frustration about the role art takes on in some contexts, in which it becomes merely a lubricant and a distraction. A sedative.
L: Yes, that was exactly what I was going to ask you, what is left? Can an art project from the outside ‘survive’ in a situation like that? In this particular case you had to use the “emergency exit” so-to-say, because you were in actual danger. The project was not even able to think itself through because of urgency. Somehow the art project was expelled from that context.
At the same time I think you entered a game that became way bigger than what you may have been initially interested in. It’s like the image of the doors you evoked. So many doors, each filled with so much content that is for sure violent and poses many problems. You could for sure talk about politics, health systems, madness, fear, care, violated and doped bodies, the marginal, the abandoned, the forgotten and much more. This is an avalanche. How to work with these images? These images that come from the hands of people automatically associated with all of these problems because of their confinement?
It seems that now for you as an artist the big challenge is to understand what you want your work to be with this aggressive material stemming from such a specific context. How to include it in a contemporary art context which also has a very specific and very different audience. Do you know what to do with the material that you now have?
D: After this experience, I became sensitive to reproducing systems and ways, careful about reproducing systemic violence. I still find myself caught up in this though. It makes me think about institutions and ideas of care that are fundamentally wrong and oppressive in so many ways. But the idea that art doesn’t have a space there and that I had the feeling there I couldn’t do anything, is just an improductive idea that leads nowhere. We do need to do research, and research is not only reading but really dedicating time. There are works to look at, like Nise da Silveira’s work, whom the museum was named after before it changed to Bispo do Rosario. She is a reference when thinking about psychiatric history in Brazil and the world, especially her work on art therapy and the therapeutic relationships between patients and animals. Also what Guattari wrote in the fifties while working at a psychiatric hospital. The Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas da Subjetividade (Brazilian Postgraduates in Clinic Psychology study and research group in subjectivity), among others. Not everything is shit in the end.
This work opened all of this to me. I wonder what scares me more: entering this hospital or the perception of what I did there in an art context. Even though I don’t do political art, through my work I understand and stand for political issues, problems and consequences, both as an artist and as a citizen.
The work still a work in progress and now consists of text and objects I took from the hospital, 35mm photos and video documentation. It’s called Unables or Incapazes.
Dudu Quintanilha lives and works in Frankfurt am Main. He works in a hair salon and will publish his first book, Actividad de Uso sobre el trabajo de Dudu Quintanilha, in Buenos Aires. His latest work was presented last May at Kunstenfestivaldesarts at Kanal, Centre Pompidou, Brussels.
Laura Langer lives and works in Frankfurt am Main. In 2017 she had a solo exhibition at Weiss Falk, Basel and her next latest solo exhibition The World is Round took place at London’s Piper Keys this Fall.