Marcelo Guimarães Lima, PhD, MFA, is a visual artist (drawing, painting, printmaking), writer and teacher. He directs the Núcleo de Artes do Centro de Estudos e Pesquisas Armando de Oliveira Souza (São Paulo). He taught History of Art and Studio Art at the University of Illinois (USA), Goddard College (USA), American University in Dubai (UAE); and, as visiting faculty at, among other institutions, the Art Institute of Chicago (USA), Universidad Internacional de Andalucia (Huelva, Spain), Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), DePaul University (USA), Canadian University of Dubai (UAE). As a Fulbright recipient he worked at the art studios of the University of New Mexico. He was a visiting artist/scholar at Stanford University and at Rutgers University. He has published articles and essays in English, Portuguese, French and Spanish on themes related to contemporary art, the history of art, art education and public art, philosophy and psychology of art. He has directed community based art projects (drawing, mural painting) with native groups, youth and minorities in Brazil, Spain and the US. His works can be seen in private collections in Brazil, the US, Spain, France and the UAE; and in public collections such as the Museu de Arte Contemporanea da USP (São Paulo), Rutgers Center for Innovative Printmaking (New Brusnwick, NJ, EUA), Cabinet des Estampes BNF (Paris), Cabinet des Estampes (Geneva Switzerland), Centre Genevois de Gravure Contemporaine (Geneva, Switzerland). He is presently Independent Study and Dissertation Director at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (Portland, Maine, USA).
This conversation took place via Zoom on 30 November, 2023. It has been edited for clarity.
Kevin Andrew Heslop: I wonder about your beginnings. I’d be fascinated to hear about your growing up in Rio, its significance for you, what you came to understand about the place as you travelled significantly. Sometimes I feel like you can only understand where you come from by being away from it.
Marcelo Guimarães Lima: I was born in Rio de Janeiro and my parents were from Rio. But then when I was five, they divorced and my mother moved to São Paulo. So I grew up mostly in São Paulo. And Rio is a beautiful city; it’s a nice city; and we visit frequently. But I lived there until I was five years old, so most of my life was in São Paulo, before I left the country to study and work.
São Paulo is a very vibrant city. Sometimes it’s a difficult city. It’s too big. But there is something about the cultural life that is very important. It’s very vibrant and has a depth of different cultural manifestations in São Paulo. They have excellent museums. They have the University of São Paulo. I went to study philosophy at the University of São Paulo. And it was an interesting experience because the culture of the place challenged you as a student, especially in the philosophy department. I went to study philosophy. It was a choice, my choice. And it was a very “French” department—There were direct links to France. So the intellectual life of France was very much a part of the philosophy department. Many of our professors studied in France and also many professors from France visited and taught in the department.
I met Michel Foucault at the university. He came to give conferences for a certain period. I met other intellectuals from France—Jean-Pierre Vernant, who was a specialist of Greek philosophy; and then Claude Lefort, who was in Socialisme ou Barbarie; and Michel Serres, who was a very important philosopher—He died not too long ago. And he became a friend, because when my daughter went to Paris to study he helped her, and so we became close. I have an essay about Leonardo da Vinci in which I use some of his ideas. He was a very well-rounded individual in the sense that he had a scientific background, he was a naval engineer, and he had also a literary background. He became a philosopher and he was known for his work in philosophy, so it was very interesting during our contact, reading his stuff.
And that is my background. One important thing that I took from the philosophy department at the University of São Paulo was the idea of rigour, intellectual rigour, which is not a popular idea these days.
What does it mean? It means that you mean what you say; you say what you mean. You’re clear; you’re not wish-washy with ideas. You try to be strict in the sense that, when you’re talking about a subject, you clarify the concepts you are using to approach your subject. This is the idea of rigour.
I must say that it was not an easy experience for me as a an undergraduate. when Michel Serres was at the university he was teaching the graduate students, but I was there, listening to the course. I couldn’t understand half of it but I stayed there.
And that was my education. It was hard. It was kind of traumatic when you enter the university and you enter this context of high intellectual pursuit. And nobody would tell you, Oh, poor guy. Let me help you. That was not the case. If you want to do this, you have to do it. This is it. If you don’t want to do this, you can go away and there are ten more people who want your place.
Something like that. It was harsh but at the same time was good. I understood my responsibility as a student. Today it’s not very clear what the responsibilities of the students are. You are responsible for your own intellectual development, that was the lesson I learned. The institution presents you with the conditions, with the texts, with the teachings, and it’s up to you to do something with that. That was the positive side of it.
I have a number of questions. The first one that comes to mind has to do with this question of rigour. I think one of the things that most attracted me to your work initially was your writing on Guy Debord and your dialogue with his work about the society of the spectacle and communicating through corporation-mediated platforms, and what it would mean for us to have that conversation through Zoom. And I’m trying to think about how to communicate a rigorous, lengthy conversation of depth through platforms which require a kind of concision.
There’s a tension here between rigour and concision; and I’m thinking about something that Noam Chomsky discusses sometimes as to why he can’t appear on television. He’s not capable of concision. You only have seven minutes until the commercial break. You’re probably going to be interrupted by the host. At best you have seven minutes, so either you can agree with the question or you can disagree with the question, but nevertheless you have to take the axioms implicit in the question on board. You can’t challenge them: you don’t have time to. In that sense, Chomsky’s not capable of concision. He says he fully agrees with that.
You mention, Marcelo, that rigour isn’t something that’s very popular these days and I think it has something to do with the media through which we communicate. And so I wonder whether you would say a few words about the tension between rigour and concision.
My wife—I can give you her example—Dr. Elvira Souza Lima is a psychologist and neuroscientist. She did her PhD at Sorbonne in education and she worked with educators. And she has that capacity to present complex ideas in ways that people can understand without falsifying the idea. I’m always amazed how she can do that, but she can. It’s a talent. There are some people that can do that. She can do that.
But the point, perhaps, for those of us who cannot do that is: when you’re dealing with a medium, somehow you have to present your ideas and also talk about the context in which you’re presenting your ideas. Be aware of the context. So Chomsky is aware of what television does and he cannot abide by it. Maybe somebody else would be able to present the idea, and at the same time tell the viewer or the people who are listening, Look, I am presenting this way because this is the frame I have. To be aware of the frame—that’s the whole thing.
You asked me the other day about what to do in the society of the spectacle.
Well, maybe what we can do is limited, but if we are able to present the context, to present to people that this is the context we’re living in, we’re living in the society of the spectacle — that is already something extremely useful and important. Maybe you don’t pass all the content you want to. Maybe you cannot explain everything. But you say, Look. Listen. And that’s the point you make. It’s not easy to do that, of course, but what we can do is make people aware of the context, the context in which we live, the medium and the media in our lives. If we’re able to do that, well, that’s already something, isn’t it?
Mm. I mean, I think that one of the ways that maybe historically the frame is referred to is through farce and satire.
Yeah. That could be a good way.
Yeah. I’m wondering about other alternatives. And speaking of alternatives, something that recurs your work is reference to this idea of—There’s an acronym for it, TINA. There Is No Alternative thinking in relation to capitalism.
This is a tribute to Margaret Thatcher, you know? The Iron Lady, the godmother of neoliberal politics. When she died, her death was celebrated in the pubs of London. She was so hated by the people, There Is No Alternative looks like a factual thing, but it’s not: it’s a perspective.
It’s something that they want to convince you that there is no alternative. She said it as if she was expressing a fact. It’s not a fact. She was giving us a perspective, her own perspective, which is not necessarily how things are. And this is the whole thing about the time in which we’re living—the sociopolitical context—Well, people say, Things are like this if you like it or not. Well, this is disguised as a factual statement, but it is not a factual statement. It is a desire from the other side: they want things to be like that. We need to say, No, is not a factual statement. This is what you’re imposing. It’s an imposition. And here I can quote from Debord. He says, People are given orders. We live in a time where we are given orders and these orders are presented as something rational, something factual, and they are not. They are orders. But we have to interiorize them, right? Everything is made to naturalize the way we live now with the current structures of power.
And I’m thinking about that in popular media platforms like Instagram where one replicates the idea of maybe managers and employees by binarizing a population into those who are followed and those who are following.
Yeah. We are working for these platforms for free. Some specialists already wrote about that. These platforms make money from everything we do, right? And we don’t. We don’t have the control. With all the censorship that’s going on in the so-called liberal democracies, for instance, in the name of censoring the fascists, everybody’s censored.
Censored and perpetually surveilled.
Exactly. You know, Guy Debord saw all this. It’s interesting. I said that he was able to see the future in the present. He saw all of this coming. This is the importance of his work. As I wrote, he kept his revolutionary thinking but he had no illusions and that’s why I think his work is so valid for us now. He had no illusions about it and he kept his values, his position. This is fundamental in his work. Because after he wrote La société du Spectacle in the mid 60s, in the 80s he came back and wrote comments on his work, which were comments on how the situation had evolved.
And he’s very lucid. He has no illusions. But that doesn’t mean that he abandons the critical position that he had. No, he doesn’t.
He modulates it as things progress and change.
Yeah. In a way, he says, Well, my book is confirmed. And it is. His book was confirmed. He doesn’t have to retract. But he said, Things have changed for worse. We know it. We are aware of it.
Which returns to your mentioning earlier that you need to be aware of the context in which you’re communicating. Be aware of the frame.
And this is the great educational task that we have as artists, as conscious persons, to educate people about how what they are seeing is framed in a given way, and this is not the only way to frame things. You can pass this idea as writers, as artists, saying, Look, there are ways to frame this. The way you are seeing is not necessarily the only one—The way you are presented with is not necessarily the “natural” way. Natural in the sense that, This is it, there’s no alternative. There is no alternative, like Margaret Thatcher wanted us to believe. For her there was no alternative.
*chuckles* A recent conversation I had with an artist in Montréal involved a reference to this idea coined by Mark Fisher called capitalist realism, which is basically that in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, people in the capitalist West lost an example of a non-capitalist superpower. And so, How to refer to the frame in such a way as to propose an alternative?
Well, yeah. We are doing this. We are trying to do this all the time. Me and you, even if we’re not fully aware. We are doing that all the time just by presenting artworks that talk about things in the world today, that talk about our experiences. You are proposing your own, a different, perspective on things. Now the way you propose is important in the sense that if you make people aware of that we’ve already done enormous work, and we are doing this.
We are living now in this horrible situation of war in Palestine. Now, the media, the politicians, the establishment is imposing their views. But people are protesting everywhere because they know that, in the end, who’s going to pay the price of war? We are—the common people. People know this. It’s a struggle. It’s not easy. But they are presenting another way. No, it’s not like that. It can’t be like that. But by being creators, artists, we are doing that as part of what we do. we are presenting different perspectives on whatever subjects we are dealing with.
Now, our presentations are mediated by the languages of art, so people have to know a little bit about that. But it is about breaking apart established discourse. We are doing this—whether we know it or not. But if we know it, we may be more efficient in doing it.
We don’t have to create a dream world in which we can do what we want. That’s not the case. But true imagination can propose looking at things in different ways. I love that idea coming from the formalists, the Russian Formalists in the beginning of the 20th century. They developed a literary theory, they were Russian thinkers coming from a 19th-century symbolist aesthetics. The idea of the Formalists was that what art does is to defamiliarize reality. Defamiliarize, that is, make it strange. Because in making it strange, it forces you to use your eyes and your mind in a different way. We are prisoners of habit. And art is there to break those habits so we can see things in a different light—see things in different perspectives and realize that reality is more complex. It’s more complex, for instance, than how we go about it in our daily lives. And this in terms of perception, say visual perception; or in terms of language, of literature. I wrote about Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist who developed a theory in the beginning of the 20th century. He studies the way signs work in the mind and how the evolution of the mind, the evolution of sign systems is historical. He has a book titled The Psychology of Art in which he dialogues with the Formalists. He criticized the Formalists but he dialogues, saying, The Formalists, maybe they don’t have the complete answer. But they put the right questions.
Now this is a fundamental thing—to put the right questions. Even if you don’t have the answer. This is something amazing to do in all kinds of disciplines in art, in philosophy, in science—to put the right questions. And Vygotsky said, The Formalists put the right questions but I disagree with their answers. Vygotsky presents an analysis of a short story by a well-known Russian author called Bunin. In this short story there is a character which is a young lady who manipulates people. In the story she seduces a young sailor, and she seduces an older man, a rich man. She seduces everybody. And she plays with this. But the sailor, at a given point, he discovers that he is being fooled—He goes mad and he kills her. That’s the story. Vygotsky analyses it and points out the interesting manner by which the author presents the story because the plot is a very hot one—very dramatic, but the style in which Bunin writes, the way in which he presents it is a very cold one. When things are going towards a climax of emotional distress, he shifts the narrative and starts talking about the weather. And that contrast, that contradiction between the form and the content of the story, this is what makes the impact of the work.
So that’s the idea of strangeness, of defamiliarizing things. This is what art does. And artists must do that because we are creatures of habit. In our perceptions, in our ideas, we tend to be rather lazy. So how to break that? How to break the habit? Art defamiliarizes reality so we can go back and look at reality in a different way, go back and say, Oh, it’s not what I thought it was. To go back and say, Oh, there’s something more here. That idea I think is crucial. The Formalists had this creative, amazing idea that we can use in the arts. We can use it to understand all creative endeavours.
Whether we fully aware or not, what we are proposing is a different perspective on things. It may be banal things. Whatever it is the reality of banal things in our daily life I link it to other realities, through the realities of history, the realities of social structure, of the economy, et cetera. So, when in our limited activity, we are proposing that things can be seen in a different way, can be experienced in a different way. That will also affect other areas in different ways. We are not going to solve the problems of the world, but we are telling people, Look, you need to think again. Think again about what you’re seeing. Think again—So it’s a riddle. It’s the artist proposing riddles to people. And disturbing the common sense. It’s interesting that “common sense” has two different meanings. In American culture, common sense is what everybody knows, that it is what it is. When you read the French philosophers, they say, Common sense is what people believe things are, that is, received ideas that people don’t examine and don`t challenge.
And we are challenging the common sense in this sense. This is the challenge: you have to present us with arguments, with structured perspectives—not just with your feelings or your habits or whatever. Arguments. Explore. Examine. So art has always an educational side, but the educational side is not to tell people—I wrote this recently—is not to tell people what they have to think. Religion does that. Ideology does that. Art problematizes what people think. What you think is not the answer. It’s a problem. So let’s examine it. And what you think, what you see, what you feel. These are questions. These are problems to be explored. And that’s why art is not very popular in certain quarters, right? Artists are not very popular in certain quarters.
Do you feel like—I mean, I see this sort of development in you of sophisticated and acute and nuanced philosophical thinking as well as an impulse towards work as an artist and I wonder about academic protection within an institution and how that relates to your development in Brazil, the way that you have accumulated a certain amount of social and maybe political power by means of your progression through significant institutions of education and how that is a way of defending the work you do as an artist in order to, as you say, defamiliarize and unsettle common sense.
Well, I don’t know. I don’t have much power. I have been to different institutions … My education was in philosophy at the University of São Paulo. There were things that I didn’t like about it but then I realized later on that all the troubles I went through, all the hard work was necessary. And when I became a teacher, I tried to pass this to the students, Sometimes I would say to undergraduates, You can come here to socialize. But that’s not good for you. Because you are investing years of your life as a student, and this will be reflected later, right? And your professional formation is one thing, but also you’re being formed as a citizen. That’s what education is about. You become a professional, but you also are a citizen. And the more aware you are of your role as a citizen, the better professional you will be.
I did my undergrad in philosophy and then I went to the United States. First I lived in France for a while because my wife was doing her PhD degree at Sorbonne, and then we went to the United States where I went to the graduate program in visual arts. And after that, we returned to Brazil and then I had an opportunity to go to the United States again, and then I got a job at the University of Illinois as a teacher.
After that I went to Dubai to teach. I stayed in Dubai for seven years, because I thought that I had done what I could do in the United States. As a professor I always had this sense that my duties were not only to follow the rules of the institution, to follow whatever I was told to do. But I had a duty to the students to do my best. And sometimes there was a conflict there. What the institution wanted from me and what I thought was my responsibility for the students. And my responsibility to the students was to say, You need to improve. We all need to improve. You are here to improve. Let’s try to. Because this is the time you have. You don’t know yet. But this is the time. I’d tell the students, This is the time for you to make mistakes. This is the time for you to ask questions. There are no dumb questions. This is a time for you to make mistakes. All the mistakes you need to do, you do now—with a willingness to search and to find. Because when you enter professional life, you can’t do mistakes anymore. So you’re caught. So in all this, the educational institution
is must be a place for freedom. And so as a professor, I have to balance institutional demands, and what I thought was my role to create this classroom environment for freedom, freedom of experimentation, and what I think was the rigour necessary, the self discipline that is an essential part of what is to be free. If the student doesn’t do a good work, and if I say to them, It’s okay. It’s not good for him or her. I have to say, You can improve this. You can do better. And as a teacher, you may have institutions that understand this process, and others that don’t.
I think censorship within institutions has been something that’s been in the zeitgeist lately. Cancel culture, as its called—censorship of different kinds. Even the banning of books, which we’re seeing a rise of in the States—not to centralize the States in our consciousness, as it often tries to insist on. But I wonder about the limits to freedom within institutions.
There are limits, of course, you know: freedom is not anything goes. That’s not freedom. But let me tell you one thing about—I lived my youth in Brazil in the 60s and 70s under a military dictatorship.
What is interesting about that experience is that you understand what the serious things in life are. You understand that when you are in opposition to a military dictatorship, you risk serious consequences. Now, this is not a reason to give up. It is a reason to become smart. And even under the military dictatorship, we were studying, for instance, Marx at the university. Of course we wouldn’t say publicly that we were studying Marx; no, we were studying the philosophy of praxis.
But the things is, like the stoic philosopher used to say, Man is really free. As long as you keep your dignity, you keep your inner worth and autonomy facing the troubles of the world, you’re free. And we created spaces in which we could exercise our freedom to say no to the dictatorship. Of course I wouldn’t go to the streets and shout. OK, sometimes we did that too. But there’s no point in going to the street and start shouting, Down with the dictatorship! if you know that they’re going to beat you, and you’re accomplishing very little or nothing. So you have to become smart and accomplish things even if they’re small things within that environment that you live, that you work, that you act. And that’s what happens. And if you have any illusions about liberal ideology, you lose those under a dictatorship. You can’t be naïve in a situation like that. What the powers that be say to you is one thing; reality is something different.
So, dictatorships are a great school for political awareness. I had friends, people who were in jail, people I knew that were tortured because of their ideas, because they wrote something. And I always and still today have this anger at dictators. And this gives me always the right directions.
Anger as fuel.
Yes. I despise dictators. I really despise people in power who oppress. I really hate these people *chuckles*. It’s personal *chuckles*.
I appreciate that there was recently a significant election in Brazil and that Lula is the current leader, someone who is of the left. And I wonder if you would say a few words about current Brazilian politics, if I could just open things up as broadly as that.
Yes. Well, Lula saved us from the fascists, although the fascists are still there. They have some power. This was interesting in Brazil, and maybe not only in Brazil. In 2016 we had a coup-d’état, a parliamentary coup-d’état, that deposed the president, Dilma Rousseff. And they invented stories, they invented laws, they invented everything to take her out of power. So that was a coup. It didn’t need the military. The military were involved, though, but they didn’t need the military going to the street with tanks as they did in 1964. At that time they went to the streets, the fascist military, with tanks, with troops. Well, they didn’t do this in 2016 because there was an organized conspiracy, a very clear conspiracy done under the sun. If you’re not naïve you saw the conspiracy between the politicians, the liberal politicians, and the extreme right-wing politicians, the press, which is a monopoly where there are five, six, or seven families that control the press in Brazil, and the judiciary—because they went along with invented laws and all kinds of wild claims.
And then came the election. Lula was a candidate. And there was this fascist judge who blackmailed people to accuse Lula of being a bandit, a corrupt leader and all that. Which he is not. He never was. And this judge spent billions from public money investigating and he couldn’t find anything investigating Lula. So what did he do? He jailed people and only released them if they said Lula did this and this and that. And they jailed Lula. Lula was the favourite but he could not compete and this fascist, this horrible fascist called Bolsonaro was elected. He became the alternative for the majority of the population because they didn’t know him. They didn’t want to vote for the traditional politicians; they could not vote for Lula; and the press was doing this terror campaign, so, like in Argentina—exactly like in Argentina nowadays; we had a fascist in power; and the Argentinian guy who was recently elected won’t last very long because he’s incompetent; he’s a fraud—Bolsonaro was a fraud, but he had the backing of the press, the backing of justice, the backing of the military. But his presidency was a disaster. Especially the way he handled the covid epidemic. The official count says that 700, 000 people died. That’s the official count. It’s more than that. Because he didn’t do what was necessary. He was against vaccines at first, and later tried to commercialize vaccines under shady deals for personal gain.
Lula, won the election, last year, it was by a small margin, but Lula won. So thank God that we had a leader like Lula to do this, to win the election, because now we breathe a little better.
But the forces that ousted president Dilma Rousseff are there and they will try again, as they do always in Brazil. And all this in the name of honesty, in the name of democracy, God and country! *chuckles*.
So when you live through a dictatorship you lose any illusions, because dictators and power grabbers talk about beautiful things and they do horrible things.Anyway we have to thank Lula. He’s trying hard to better the situation of the Brazilian population. But he cannot confront directly the right wing liberals. He has to go and make some adjustments. And God knows where this will go. But we have to support him in his presidency. I know that his task is very difficult.
So politics is everywhere. This is one thing that I learned when I was a young guy living under a dictatorship, that politics is everywhere. You can’t escape it. And neoliberalism is amazing in how efficient it is as an ideology. Because as I wrote in my essay, Debord points out—and after Debord there’s a series of people who pointed out—that in neoliberal times, the state is very present, and the capitalists need the state. Debord talks about the fusion between the economy and the state. And this is presented to the masses as if the state has nothing to do with daily life. Minimal state. It’s completely crazy. What neoliberals say is not what they do.
I came across a wonderful line in your writings: A capitalism of competing mafias corresponds to a state as the general administrator of crime.
*chuckles* Yeah. And this was when Debord was writing about Italy, together with the Italian author Sanguinetti, they collaborated in examining the situation in Europe and specially in Italy in which there was these terrorist bands—so-called terrorists, the radical leftists. And Debord would say, Isn’t it interesting that some of these groups are helping the fascists, are helping the state to become more and more dictatorial—because the people in power say, We need to protect the state. So there was a collusion. Debord wrote about the secret services penetrating these groups and inflating them and making them radicalized in order to create a crisis. And in this crisis, everything will be permitted for repression. That is the situation that Debord was talking about. So things are not what they seem, right? And especially when you get your news from the official sources.
A question at one point came to the American poet Gary Snyder about the state of the climate filled with concerns of impending apocalypse. His response was something like, We’ve been entertaining ourselves with ideas of impending apocalypse since humans could communicate with one another; and so the question isn’t what to do about impending apocalypse, but rather, What to do with apocalyptic fear?
And so I wonder whether you have any anti-despair cream that we might apply. How do you deal with the question of despair? The conversation that we’re having and the context in which it’s taking place—the conversation itself being mediated by a corporation—and having a conversation about essentially offering unpaid work to the hall of mirrors that is the internet—I feel like these are ingredients that could contribute to despair. I wonder where your fortitude comes from to resist the feeling of despair.
Well, it’s a difficult thing, but the main thing is to understand and to try to make people understand that fear is also imposed. And when you understand that fear is imposed, you can distance yourself a little bit. There is a manipulation of fear; and the more people fear, the more they respond emotionally and the less you think. When you are in a situation where you’re fearful, you don’t have time to think. You respond emotionally. And some times you respond exactly the wrong way. You harm yourself more. And so you have to create a distance and understand that there are people who want you to be afraid. The system at times wants you to be afraid, more or less the same way they want you to be entertained at other times; they want you to do this thing now and that thing later as needed. They want you to fear. Fear is a way of controlling. Now, you have to distance yourself from that.
And what culture in general does, and I think what art does, is to create this symbolic universe that distances people from direct, automatic, impulsive reactions. It creates a space of freedom in this sense. You have to distance—You have to think about and reflect. And also the work of art presents you with different emotions or different ways of expressing emotion. The goal is to create that distance that we need. We need to distance ourselves. We need to look in a more objective way. And I think art can do that too.
And interestingly enough, in a very concrete way, through emotion you create a reflection on emotion. You have an emotional experience at the same time as you have a reflection of that experience. And it doesn’t mean you have simply an intellectual reflection. You kind of duplicate yourself And you try to understand your own emotions by way of a response to the work of art. That’s what the artwork does.
Like a mirror, like a mirror to the self: this is your reaction; and this is how you’re reacting to this. Let’s understand your reaction. Understand it. In most of daily life, we don’t need to understand. We just react. But when you come to reflect about your emotions in terms of experience , about the meanings of things that you are seeing and experiencing, that’s I think what art can do.
And I’m thinking about your creation of images, about your interest in the image as a mirror of the kind that you’ve just described; and I was wondering whether we could look at a few of your images which I’ve drawn from your website, and just ask for you to say a few words, if you have any to share, in response to each. Is that okay?
To begin with this piece here, Cinnabar. This is a digital painting.
Was it constructed entirely digitally?
No. I started with the scan of a painting of mine. Cinnabar is a colour. And the title is the colour that you see there. But what I find interesting in painting is that it’s a metaphor, it’s an analog to the body and the skin, it relates space as container, occupation of space, movements and surfaces.
I think there’s something about skin and body sensation. When I say that art is like a mirror, the painting is a mirror of our experiences of bodily self. In a way we are present in there, in the virtual space of the painting. We are reflected in there bodily. This is an abstract piece. There’s something about the tradition of abstract art, abstract expressionism, which I think has to do with physicality. And the physicality of the work is a metaphor, a symbolization, a replication of our physical bodies. Merleau-Ponty is a French philosopher whose whole philosophy is about embodiment, the body as this site of ideas or representations. This is what I think about this piece. At least in my imagination, this is how I see it.
I’m thinking about a line which goes as follows: haiku of which we understand 70% is good haiku, and haiku of which we understand 40% is great haiku. And I’m thinking about abstract work and ambiguity and how much a piece might invite the projection of the viewer and that contrasted with what the artist’s intentions might be. I’m looking at this line here in the upper third and projecting the idea of a horizon onto it, and that therefore it might have a kind of optimism because the horizon is high.
But I guess I’m trying to parse where the line between the projection of the self onto something meets with what is actually there in the image. And I think that the metaphor of the body is helpful here. You’d mentioned skin. And maybe any time we’re encountered by the texture of a mirror, say, that we’re projecting ourselves onto, we’ll immediately have an association with the surface of our body, but I’m also thinking about something like the horizon which is both abstract and something that we all deal with on a regular basis to the extent we have access to vision of the outside. Is that clear at all?
Yes, the landscape is the idea also. And I did some pieces that are related to that one, pieces in which the idea of landscape is more prominent. The horizon, which also in philosophy is a concept from Kant—the horizon of ideas, the horizon of perception, the perspectives and limits of human knowledge.
Every work of art involves projection. It’s a form of communication and as so it involves projection related to the capacity of the artist from his personal experience to create something that is more than personal. Something that has this personal substance to it—it has this personal matter to it but it’s more-than-personal—in the sense that what the viewer will see, as the viewer will be involved in the imaginary universe of the artwork, is his own subjective experience. So, the artist’s subjectivity is a means for this sui generis communication between subjectivities.
If my artwork is able to speak to viewers, it doesn’t speak about my life as such. Of course the materials of the work are in different ways from my life experiences. But it speaks about somebody else’s life, in the sense that there is an identification from the viewer—The viewer identifies and sees something of him or her in the work. And this is what interests the viewer. You see yourself reflected in it in different levels. It doesn’t need to be very conscious or descriptive or plain. But in different levels you create a communication with the work because the work speaks something about you, and maybe also something new or forgotten, and about all of us, but about you—it discloses something specific. It’s never vague. It’s always specific, in a particular sense. So our emotional relation to works—when I see artworks, I’m not conscious of all this process, but what is disclosed becomes something familiar, recognized. It is something familiar within its very difference, the objectivity of the art piece. The difference between the artist and those who are not artists is the mastery of a language. We have a language; we have an instrument to talk about our experience, to propose and create meaningful things. To create things that talk about our experience. Our experience, and other peoples’ experience, have many common elements. We are talking about this commonality in this sense. Whether we can put the artwork´s “conversation” into words is a different thing. Whether we can make a narrative or whether we can write about it, the point is that, from the artist’s subjectivity he’s creating a work that is reflecting other people’s subjectivity and experiences. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a language. That’s the difference. Because we all have experiences, and our experiences whether they are good, bad or indifferent are equivalent; nobody is special. As an artist, I’m not a special being. But I have a language to talk about my experience, a language that can be understood by others. I have the instrument because for many years I painted, I made drawings, so I learned how to do this. And that’s another challenge. Every time you’re going to do something as an artist, you have this accumulated knowledge, practical knowledge, the experience of the work you’ve done; and then there’s the challenge of not repeating. Repeating yourself is not the point. The point is to create something new. Not completely new, of course. But there is something that you add to what you did before. You add to it. So that’s the difference between you and the viewer of your work. You master a specific language to talk about things. Other people create different languages and others don’t have the proper language to express themselves at the communicative and reflective dimensions proper to art. But they recognize something when they see something that talks to them.
And I do not think this is idealistic. It’s a fact. Artwork matters. This is why we’re involved in making them and why people are involved in appreciating them.
Mm. So, you just mentioned the importance of not repeating yourself as an artist. And I think about this in the context of film, which is a medium that I’ve been thinking about and practicing more lately. And I listened recently to an interview with a filmmaker—I think it was Guillermo del Toro, in fact—who said that there was a fundamental tension in the medium of film because the artist is always looking forward to do something new, something different, and the producer or production company, the person who has access to the capital to make it happen, is always looking backwards to what has been made before and what might be commercially viable. And so I’m thinking about this tension between the artist’s responsibility, if I can put it like that, and then commercial activity—that the artist is always looking forward and the businessperson is always looking backwards. Do you think that there’s anything to that tension?
Well, yeah, but that’s the context. Film is an industry that requires capital. And commercial film is an industry that requires big capital. But the people who make films, they are artists. Actors and photographers, even the technicians—they are working artists in the sense that they’re putting their skills into making a product with artistic appeal within the restrictions of cinema as business, the film as a commodity. But due to the amount of capital that you need to make a film, it’s a business and there is this clash between business and art. And in the end the business prevails, of course, because people put money in and they want that money back. They need to make a profit. And that is what I think people in this business with a more artistic sensibility must suffer a little bit or a lot from this condition.
But when I say “making something new,” it’s not the absolute new, because—
No such thing.
No such a thing, absolutely. But how do you develop? You have accumulated, as an artist, the skills and perspectives and all that, and what you need, every time you do a work, is not to throw out this—but to renew it. That’s important. To renew it. And I wrote in the catalogue—if you have the catalogue there—in the beginning I wrote something about, What is the role of art? I think it was something like, To renew our symbolic meanings. Because the meanings we live by, the symbols we live by, if we don’t take care of them, they go stale; they lose their ability to explain things to us, to structure our minds and our hearts. “Art registers and puts into perspective our experiences and their associated meanings, it is made of memories and anticipations, and in this way it contributes to the renewal of our symbolic universe and perspectives. It has therefore a vital role to play in our emotional economy, in our self-understanding and our perspectives of action.” I think this summarizes it. I like this paragraph. It’s neat. Because our symbolic universe can go stale. And if we live like we live now, in the context that we are living, our mental health is threatened. When things lose meaning, we’re in a state of disorientation. There is a French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler that has a book called Disorientation. And he says, What we’re living through in the neoliberal era, in this transition to something we don’t know what it is, is a process of general disorientation. How can you live disoriented?
And in the sketch I wrote for my catalog opening I wrote this sentence: art has a wider role to play whether it is acknowledged or not. Most of the time, it’s not acknowledged. People think of art as entertainment. And art is not that. Art is vital for the renewal of our symbolic universe. And we are living indeed in an era where there’s a crisis of meaning, a crisis of language, a crisis of symbolism in this sense. Our symbolic universe is falling apart. So, artists should be supported more.
Hear, hear. I wonder whether we can relate this to the question of rigour and also to heterodoxy. Something about rigour that one can think something cleanly as separate from something else I think reflects a way of perceiving a world in which we didn’t have such a proliferation as we do now of forms of media and algorithms which present to people a whole variety of different perspectives on the same happening. And so I wonder whether that contributes to that sense of the disintegration of the universal of symbols, and whether this is a phoenix-like disintegration, in your view, whether a new universe of symbols has to reanimate itself from the ashes of the old, or perhaps what you foresee as a result of that fraying and disintegration.
Intellectual rigor is no rigor mortis but the capacity to distinguish true from error. In the same way that freedom requires self discipline, autonomy is the capacity to give yourself your own nomos (law), to have a direction that is self-direction. What are algorithms used for? We are in a situation in which algorithms and media are used for what, basically? To make profit. A reduced class of people use this for their own profit. And this is the challenge that Stiegler talks about. We need to capture all these new instruments and give them a different use. Because if it’s for profit, one day you’re going to see one thing; the other day you’re going to see a different thing; you’re going to contradict yourself but it doesn’t matter. Because in the end you’re going to produce profit. So profit becomes the guiding light of everything. And when you say profit, in the structure of neoliberal capitalism, you say profit for some. The rest of us are going to lose
Profit can’t exist without deprivation.
Yes. In this context the manipulation of desire in our society leads in fact to emotional and mental deprivation. So, Stiegler examines the idea of the uses technology and he uses the Greek term pharmakon, which is where the word pharmacy comes from. Pharmakon in Ancient Greek means both “remedy and poison.”
So Stiegler was saying that it’s not the technology per se; it’s how technology is structured and used to what ends. The way things are happening, according to him, they are poisoning our hearts and minds. But restructured and used in a different way, it can solve problems for us. That’s what he called a pharmacological approach. The Greeks had this great perception. They understood that things in reality are contradictory. There are contradictions. And the more you know about these contradictions the better you are to deal with them. Isn’t that amazing that you use the same word for poison and for medicine? Because it’s a matter of dosage.
It’s a matter of use and dosage. And the Greeks had this idea of harmony in the sense of nothing in excess. Nothing in excess, and harmony as a dynamic construction within a reality and human reality made of contradictions and oppositions. How do you balance? How do you balance your life? How do you achieve balance? That was a common idea in Greek life, culture and the arts: harmony born of struggle. They said: You have to become who you really are.
The Greeks had this saying: You have to become who you really are. Now if we ask ourselves, in this time that we’re living in, Who are we?
We all have ready-made answers and answers that are not very helpful. Debord talks about the way things are manipulated in the society we live in. We get orders to do things this way but the orders come disguised as something that we need or that’s something that we want.
Now the Greek idea of self knowledge means that, first of all, you have to think about, Who are you really? What are your illusions? And what is your reality?
Yeah. I mean, my trouble with this is that it locates identity with the individual. I think that as soon as you start asking the question—
Not necessarily: who we are really has to do with our context, also. There’s a phrase by a Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, who can be considered an existentialist in some ways. He said, Yo soy yo y mis circunstancias. I am myself and my circumstances.
So to be aware of your circumstances, you know, this is part of who you are, too. Identity is not that fixed. Except for identity politics *chuckles*. People believe that they know who they are without any effort. With no need to do anything. They have the answers but they do not really understand the question,
So, I took part in a conversation with a photographer from Malta who was talking about how identity politics essentially serves up means by which algorithms can more effectively sell things to people—that if you subscribe to certain characteristics, then those will inform algorithms which present you with products online. I think that there’s something to that—I think it might also be seen as a cynical viewpoint, and that one’s identity can only be understood within a nexus of capitalist exploitation—but what do you think of that? And also, do we dare open the door to identity politics with the time that we have remaining?
*laughs* Probably not.
But I think that it’s a common experience in the way that you’re searching the internet and then you look for something and then the next time you search, things related to that something will appear to you without you asking. You didn’t ask anything but the engine or whatever said, Oh, this guy did this, this, this, and that, so we’re going to present this and this and this and that. It’s much like the way that the fascist groups work in Brazil. They operate through WhatsApp. It’s a very popular application. So they created these groups, these WhatsApp groups. They feed these groups with what people want to hear. And it’s all these crazy things about how Lula is doing this and this and that. It has no basis in reality.
But the people who listen to this, this is what they want to believe. And how do you break this cycle?
Well this is, I think, the large theme of our conversation, which I appreciate is coming now shortly to a close. It is this question of how to encourage people to free themselves from habit and to provide them with sufficiently attractive inducements to do that work, to lead them to the water and ensure that they drink. How is it that one induces others to do well by themselves and do well by one another?
On one hand, you have to break the cycle, right? You have to break it. And it is that idea of the Russian Formalists: you have to create something that will take people out of their common attitudes in some way. Which may be interesting. Which may be painful. But the problem is—and I don’t have an answer to that, but—as I said before, To put the right questions is already something. The problem is, If we take the same ways in which people have been seduced and try to apply is to something else, that may not work. They have been seduced by this big spectacle. They’re expecting to be seduced. And maybe you are just recreating the same cycle.
So you need to break that, somehow. Somehow. I don’t know.
Okay. This is very interesting. I really think that there’s something there. Seduction non seduction.
*chuckles* Exactly. Contradictory in this sense. To create this clash, right? Which produces, again, this idea of the Formalists. The short story I was talking about, there was a contradiction, an opposition, a clash between the form and the content. And this is the interesting thing, the odd element that makes people look again and say, Hey. Wait. Something is wrong.
I was reading about Leonardo [Da Vinci]. I wrote a paper about Leonardo. And there was an interesting observation from an art historian that the Mona Lisa is a portrait; but there’s some mystery about the Mona Lisa, right? What is it? And what the art historian pointed out is that the horizon line of the Mona Lisa, the two sides—because the figure cuts the horizon line—they don’t match exactly.
One line on the left, other on the right—
I see that, yeah.
They don’t match. So this is an optical device that Leonardo created. It’s at a low level of perception. We notice it but not consciously.
And this helps to create the mystery. The mystery of the Mona Lisa has many dimensions. Who is that lady? And all of that. But according to this art historian, the Mona Lisa is playing with our perception. Leonardo is playing with this imbalance that’s very subtle, and yet, in a subconscious way, we notice it. But we don’t know where it’s coming from. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that a kind of estrangement?
I saw the Mona Lisa many times. I saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. I never realized that until I read about it.
Mm, mm. You can see it. This horizon line does not accord to this one.
So that creates a visual tension. It’s a visual tension that we are not fully aware of. We perceive it in a kind of subconscious way. And so master Leonardo was an avant-garde artist!
There’s a poet called Li-Young Lee who says that the difference between art and religion is like the difference between lava which, exuded from a volcano long ago, has cooled and hardened into these patterns that are beneath the surface of the water, and that art is the lava at the mouth of the volcano. It’s still swirling. And so long may we live at the mouth of the volcano!
That’s a nice image. And it’s about what I talk about to renew our symbolic universe. To renew. This is an important task for artists. That’s the task. Whether we are aware of it or not, you know, it’s a very important task. It’s a vital task. Some people think that art is for the Sunday afternoon. It’s not. It’s really not. It’s something more vital than that.
Of Danish and Scottish ancestry, Canadian citizenship, and Nichiren Buddhist faith, Kevin Andrew Heslop lives at artist residencies around the world, most recently in Costa Rica, Serbia, Finland, France, and (currently) Brazil, with Denmark and Japan on the horizon in 2024.
As he travels, Heslop facilitates in-depth dialogue with leading artists, most recently Canadian playwright Camille Intson, Brazilian performance artist Guta Galli, Brazilian artist Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Canadian poet Arleen Paré, Italian installation artist Remi Picó, Maltesian photographer David Pisani, Canadian Mi'kmaw writer Tara McGowan-Ross, Canadian poet Benjamin Robinson.
Heslop is also the author of the correct fury of your why is a mountain (Gordon Hill Press, 2021); curator of six feet | between us (McIntosh Gallery, 2022) and in medias res (Westland Gallery, 2023); director-producer of mo(u)vements. (Astoria Pictures, Rose Garden Press, 2023); co-author, with Roxanna Bennett, of the rules of grammar will save you at the hour of your death (Baseline Press, 2024); co-author, with P. F. Tego and Taylor Marie Graham, of Human Voices Wake Us (Rose Garden Press, 2024); and writer-director of Some Things Are Too Important to Take Seriously and Art Is One of Those Things (Astoria Pictures, 2024).