By Ana Sécio
Head of communication of EMERGE, Cultural Association
Interview with Márcio Carvalho
Artist and independent curator
Your work as a performer artist is always related to the concept of memory, namely to the collective memory. How did you choose performance as a way of expressing you as an artist and how did you come to the collective memory main subject?
Actually my work and research about memory formation started with autobiographical memory and autobiographical remembering, especially its creative, constructive and reconstructive processes linked to the idea of remembering as an activity, a social, discursive and cultural practice, beyond archival logics of learning – encoding, storing and retrieving information. And since autobiographical memory is not independent from the cultural economy of remembering and forgetting made by biological-social-cultural lives of human beings, and the cultural and historic worlds they live, it was natural that a large part of my art work and research use and defy notions on collective memory and collective remembrance. Because my work is concerned with memory formation it was fundamental to use performance art, a medium that allows myself to remix the past, present and future – less about localizing myself in a specific chronology of time; more about creating a web of meaning in relation to an ongoing shifting cultural world.
We could talk about many of your artworks, but today I would like to focus on a particular one: “Floating Platforms” project (2015). A project with the PhD researcher Eeva Puumala, which built up a dialogue between art and science with the goal of being a meeting point between asylum seekers and the locals in Finland. Could you please explain how the idea for this project came and how it was developed?
“Floating Platforms” was a project that set collaborations between artists and professionals from other fields of inquiry. Since one of their interests was memory formation they paired me with Eeva Puumala, who has been working on the issues of immigration and asylum seeking for more than a decade. Since my interest came from memory formation, forms of remembering, the selectivity of history and counter-narratives, we immediately thought about working with people, in a process where relationality was central. The only thing we brought was the wish of working with asylum seeker groups. And since we both, in the past, had been working with our grandmothers, exploring their past, experiences and how memory is influenced by aging, we decided to meet elderly people in Turku. Our collaboration was slowly made by the interaction we made with both asylum seekers and elder Finns groups. We ended up acknowledging that those two groups had many things in common and faced similar challenges and experiences of isolation and vulnerability in their daily lives – the fact that both groups had experienced war situations in the past, that neither of them could be independent from social help, and the uncertainty that both groups had about their futures, were just a few similarities we found and we wanted to work with. So we went to visit refugee camps and elder houses in Turku. We had conversations with them and set interviews with two main requests – one memory that they would like to remember forever and one memory that they would wish to forget. Those memories that we called stories (counter-histories) were recorded from asylum seekers and narrated to elder Finns and vice versa. Then, we asked the listener to continue the story that they just heard on the basis of their life experiences either by finding similarities or differences – or both. The stories were read to people without telling whose story it was and not giving out any other background information than what came up in the stories. In the end the stories were assembled in the form of a letter, as if one person only had written it. We dissolved those stories in a way that is impossible to separate them, although one can note through the letter, that time and locations are shifting constantly. The letter navigates through stories taking place in Syria, Turku, Iraq, Helsinki, Ethiopia, just to name a few. It was a project that took place at a time when growing numbers of asylum seekers had started to arrive in Finland and polarisation between those who have adopted a critical stance towards humanitarian forms of migration and those who see these movements more favourably increased rapidly. For this reason this process was to set find out what kind of (im)possible (hi)stories could be formed between people who inhabit the same urban environment, but who might not ever meet otherwise than through our project.
To what events is the most cherished memory of your life related? What is the most painful memory of your life? What do you think of your present condition? Those were the three department questions of the project. What did these queries allow you to take out from people that other approaches would not allow?
I think this approach allowed us to investigate people as human beings that face hurdles and experience joy in life. This approach allowed ourselves to get deep in autobiographical life’s of the participants, without politicizing their life’s and their places of origin and without exposing them, or creating a commodity out of them for the sake of an art project. We believed this system allowed us to culminate the research in a final work in which acts of remembering were melted with acts of imagined remembering. After all memory in itself, its foundations, relies not only on retrieving the past but on reconstructing it each time you do.
During the interviews process, what was the most surprising answer?
It was really surprising how people collaborated with us and how people shared their memories of extremely intimate moments and events willingly, travelled back and forth in time without avoiding sensitive subjects and even painful topics. People decided for themselves what kind of stories and themes they wanted to tackle, and in this sense their stories gave a direction for our work and not the other way around – we didn’t expect their stories to fulfil a pre-determined wish of format.
The “map” that links your interviews, and which is the final product of the “Floating Platform” project, makes me think about the six degrees of separation theory. What kind of connections had you established on this “map”?
Those connections were named as (im)possible (hi)stories because although these stories come from people that lived in distinct sites and contexts in the globe, after the project and as a result of their assemblage, a new place was created, one in which these people co-exist that could had something to do with the physical space they are inhabiting together, in this case Turku. As I said before we didn’t anticipate those connections. For example, we read the story of a young asylum seeker boy to a volunteer of the Finnish Red Cross, but as it turned out, the boy’s story intersected much more with the story of a 90 year old Finnish woman. The story of the volunteer, in turn, had more points of contact with a lay Finnish man than with the stories of asylum seekers.
In your opinion, what is the artists’ responsibility in nowadays humanitarian refugee crisis?
The different stories that are not clustered within our hegemonic histories, they tell us about chronologies made of centuries in which different Western super powers invaded non-Western countries most of the times with economic interests behind, the way people were enslaved and displaced from their own houses and places of origin. It seems that now we helped created places in the world where it is not possible to live decently. So are we responsible for this crisis? It seems that we are. And this consciousness should be debated more often, so artists and other professionals, and people in general, can understand that this crisis is ours too and not something that has to do with the people that are fleeing over our countries. There is a long tradition of artists working with communities and within the social and political sphere. I guess they feel they have the ability to delegate power to people. Many projects have been made in this direction and more are to come. Funding has been feeding these projects so it’s possible. The only problem is that many projects, especially the ones coming from giant projects and biennials, in which a fierce art market runs a big part of it, end up commanding these people while they attempt to include them and give them visibility.
How is, in your opinion, collective memory build up in this crisis context in Europe?
Different interrelations are happening between different people. Different projects allow people to come together, debate about their actual conditions and share the virtues of their cultures and habits. In another project I made with refugee kids I created a time machine that took them to their home countries while they were holding typical German goods, as a form of talking about Germans old assumption that Germany was not an immigrant country. So in YouTube I found videos to embed in performance from all the places the kinds were coming from. I found videos for all of them except from Afghanistan. All the videos were somehow about war. So I told this to him and he used it in its speech for the performance. He told me that love, friendship and all kind of feelings, they existed in Afghanistan too. Through these collaborations one ends up knowing more about the other cultures, not through media and hegemonic forms of history but through autobiography remembering of real people. And this changes the way we look at us and the others, which in turn changes the ways we look to our past and the ways we might project our future collective histories.
Most recently you are involved in a new project around the refugee crisis problematic launched by EMERGE, Cultural Association. “Emotional Geographies” is a project, based in Portugal, with the goal of promoting the debate around the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, involving people from different backgrounds. Which are your expectations about “Emotional Geographies”?
My expectations would be to involve and work with the people that are facing this crisis firsthand, namely the ones who had to exile themselves away from their homes, their places of origin and their families. To involve them means them giving the multiple directions the project might take. Of course other forms of data and historical records might be included, especially the ones related to territory occupations in the past by Western powers, which changed territories, geographies and relations between different countries – the Tordesillas Treaty, the Sykes-Pickot Treaty and the Berlin Conference (the “Scramble for Africa”) to name a few.
Ana Sécio holds a degree in Media Studies and a Master in Cultural Studies from the Catholic University of Lisbon (Portugal). She has professional experience in the fields of communication and culture within the country and abroad. She is currently the head of communication of EMERGE, Cultural Association.
Header image: Márcio Carvalho.