“HERE WE ARE”
ARTIST LINKS: CLARE CHARNLEY & PATRICIA AZEVEDO
Two forms held by black straps appear to dance. Sometimes they move together, at other moments they move independently of each other. The forms are clear plastic sacks placed on the back of seats on a traveling bus. Currents of air keep the strangely anthropomorphic forms suspended. These fragile shapes hover, totter and then collapse. For a short time they appear to be signaling to each other, like two figures using semaphore flags and then it quickly ends. The work is called What do you think I think about you? It is a wonderfully stripped, bare moment. Composed of no more than three or four close-up shots using a hand-held camera and filmed on a bus in Brazil moving quickly, the sequence is accompanied by the sound of the bus’s surging engine. The landscape outside is tangible only from the shifting light and shadows falling across the seats. The work is perceptive and charmingly informal reflecting the interactions of two individuals working together.
There is a scene in Director Sophia Ford Coppola’s film Lost in Translation when Bill Murray’s character Bob, mimes for a Japanese commercial for whisky. This takes him to Tokyo where he hopes to be well paid. In the end he just delivers the line, “Its Suntory Time.” The scene is beautifully staged, and the dialogue quick paced and humourous. Here language and cultural nuance, and how this gets translated is comically explored.
Patricia Azevedo and Clare Charnley’s work comes from observations and negotiations about language, territory and power relations. It is also an attempt to give material form to a series of encounters, games and stories to do with the act of communication. Each artist has their own distinctive identity and means of working . Patricia Azevedo is primarily a photographer who explores portraiture & community, with a strong interest in history, place and context. Her method is informed by traditional techniques of photography, including conventional darkroom developing and printing . She is based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and has worked and exhibited internationally taking part in residencies, workshops and commissions. Clare Charnley is a British artist based in Leeds, Northern England and also familiar to exhibiting internationally. She has a diverse practice, collaborating, taking part in festivals and exhibitions. She develops projects with a performance element exploring cultural expressions & translation . Her films and performances will often use spoken words in foreign languages, collaborating with people from other countries exploring communication & cultural misunderstandings.
Director: [in Japanese] Mr. Bob-san, you are relaxing in your study. On the table is a bottle of Suntory whiskey. Got it? Look slowly, with feeling, at the camera, and say it gently - say it as if you were speaking to an old friend. Just like Bogie in Casablanca, "Here's looking at you, kid" - Suntory time.
Ms. Kawasaki (Japanese translator): Umm. He want you to turn, looking at camera. OK?
Bob: That's all he said? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.
Ms. Kawasaki: Yes. Turn to camera.
Director: [in Japanese] Got it? You love whiskey. It's Suntory time. OK?
The two artists had not worked together until two years ago. Charnley visited Belo Horizonte having gained some support through University of Lincoln where Charnley is a research fellow. A Visiting Arts supported trip for Azevedo to the UK, under the Artist to Artist scheme consolidated things. It was after that the two artists proceeded to submit an application to the Artist Links programme between Brazil and the UK. This in turn led to the range of projects forming part of Here We Are with created works both in Belo Horizonte, Brumadinho and Allendale, Northumberland.
A starting premise for Here We Are is “that the place of an artist is to ask different kinds of questions. And from the shared observation that being a foreigner sometimes allows special privileges”. “A foreigner may blunder into situations that locals avoid. They can open up embarrassing topics, innocently asking the kind of questions that are usually left unvoiced. Sometimes these questions elicit surprisingly frank responses; the visitor is perceived to have a charming naivety that can generate reciprocal goodwill or openness in those that witness it. Sometimes this breaking of behavioral norms can occasion disapproval or worse. However the foreign visitor has the option of shrugging and going on their way in the knowledge that they need not meet the disapprover again.”
The project set out to, in their terms ‘use this special privilege as a communicative tool’. They draw on their independent past experience to articulate a beginning point, and then through one project after another, move outwards to develop more public encounters, embrace social engagement & public intervention and installation.
Translating another person’s language, or conveying an ‘other’s culture is not without its semantic burden. The art historian Sarat Maharaj has written extensively on this within the wider context of a discussion of postcolonial art practice and critical engagement.
“Translation…is quite unlike buying, selling, swapping - however much it has been conventionally pictured in those terms. It is not a matter of shipping over juicy chunks of meaning from one side of the language barrier to the other - as with fast-food packs at an over-the-counter, take away outfit. Meaning is not a readymade portable thing that can be 'carried over' the divide. The translator is obliged to construct meaning in the source language and then to figure and fashion it a second time round in the materials of the language into which he or she is rendering it. The translator's loyalties are thus divided and split. He or she has to be faithful to the syntax, feel and structure of the source language and faithful to those of the language of translation. We have a clash and collision of loyalties and a lack of fit between the constructions. We face a double writing, what might be described as a 'perfidious fidelity' or, to use James Joyce's words, a 'double-cressing' loyalty - tressing, cross-dressing, double-crossing, treacherous. We are drawn into Derrida's 'Babel effect' .Charnley and Azevedo are tuned to the issues of a cultural imperialism that bedevils any collaboration between two unequal countries. “Who asks the questions? Is it through the medium of English?” We are engaged to be wary then of the ‘double writing’ that Maharaj refers us to. Azevedo, a native Brazilian, reflects several times in interview on the reality of what it means to work through the medium of English. “This big, powerful language…” reflecting on the experience & the challenge of not mastering the language, and of revealing yourself. The role of English as this ‘dominant language’ of discourse. Charnley too is interested in the ‘double-cressing’ loyalty that is figured in this serious, double sided game.
The first work they made together is Conversation of Things, 2008. A sequence of images composed of photographs of objects, on bright coloured paper accompanied by texts. The works are exhibited with each experiment next to each other in pairs. Working in and around Azevedo’s apartment in Belo Horizonte they laid out objects, personal items, and the stuff of everyday and suggested words to go alongside them. An unfolding story of a greater familiarity with each other as well as some peculiar and amusing juxtapositions are revealed. This was a structured game with rules and a way of testing each other. Exhibited as pairs, the same objects can be used to tell different stories.
Their next project also explored interactions between the two of them, using portrait photography titled What is Possible, 2008. This resulted in a series of large photographs showing the two artists adopting a number of positions. Photographed directly from overhead against a neutral backdrop, the appearance is to fuse their two bodies in a surreal, almost absurd sequence of images. There is a humorous positioning made with their arms and legs appearing like clock hands. Evidently these portraits were a lot of fun to make! They coax each other to challenge themselves. It also explores the idea of location, and plays with the notion of collapsing distance and geography. Initially, with these experiments this research was with themselves, their possessions, their bodies, and it gradually moves outwards.
It is said a game can be defined as “An activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context." . Game play here is about trust, and an exchange of ideas. “What can this result in?”, “How can we move forward”. The game play also determines and structures how the social interactions take place with the communities in Brumadhino and in the Allen Valley, Northumberland.
Rules of the Game – “Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing.”
The Dutch writer and sociologist Johan Huizinga was one for the first to write about the role of play in culture and how culture itself bears the character of play. An idea that he developed in his book Homo Ludens published in 1938. One of the lines he wrote was, "Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing." Later the French sociologist and member of the surrealists, Roger Caillois also looked at the fundamentals of play. Moving beyond Huizinga he also noted the considerable difficulty in defining play, concluding that play is best described by six core characteristics. These are: that it is free, or not obligatory; that it is separate (from the routine of life) occupying its own time and space; that it is uncertain so that the results of play cannot be pre-determined and so that the players initiative is involved; That it is unproductive in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins; that it is governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours and that must be followed by players; and that it involves make-believe that confirms in players the existence of imagined realities that may be set against 'real life'.
In Man, Play and Games, Caillois argues that we may understand the complexity of games by referring to four play forms and two types of play. The four forms are: Agon, or competition, like in the game of Chess. Alea, or chance. E.g. Playing a slot machine, or rolling dice. Mimesis, or mimicry, or role playing. And Ilinx (Greek for "whirlpool"), or vertigo, in the sense of altering perception. E.g. riding roller coasters, children spinning until they fall down. Using these categories, as set out by Caillois, the projects that make up Here We Are combine the spirit of ‘Ilinx’ and ‘Mimesis’ in the majority of forms.
Setting rules, defining experience and then documenting the results can be an effective way to the making of striking contemporary art. Two artists in dialogue is equally fascinating, perhaps even more so as we are complicit in the observer relationship, and any tensions between them are likely to be revealed. Partnerships in art and performance are often structured as serious games. Here, one can consider the sheer power of Marina Ambramovic’s art and the personal chemistry of her work with partner Ulay.
The regular games of chess between Marcel Duchamp and artist friends in the 60s in New York including those with the avant garde composer and artist John Cage can also be seen as great art games. Was this a ‘Dada’ act? or just a hobby. Humour also has a role to play, as is so evident with another art partnership, the Swiss duo Fischli & Weiss. In the UK scene, the work of the Bristol based artists’ Wood & Harrison who revel in creating constrained environments using the simplest of means, and setting the video camera to record.
Azevedo and Charnley turned to make work in several forms, using interaction, audio recordings and indeed games that were played with people. These recordings of the voice, all recorded locally play an important part in this next series of works. As an aside here , there is a quite inspired use of low technology at the heart of these; democratic, flexible and very portable. They used a simple push button playback machine, that record speech for between 20 seconds and 2 mins. Charnley had used these devices before in her projects and their original use being to assist the blind and partially sighted people to identify the contents of food tins. The sound emitted from these is reminiscent of a child-like toy or talking doll; evidently it is a sound that captures the attention of the listening participant.
Red Questions (Bus Station)
In each location the foreign artist opens up discussions with local people about their preconceptions, expectations and myths about those within their region but outside their immediate group and habits. The bus station in Brumadinho is the site for an installation that was like a temporary exhibition & intervention that the artists then film. People are moving around the central block of the bus station, in a busy public square, and are seen pressing the red recording devices and listening to the answers.
The artists were determined to side step the convention or trap of ‘letting the people speak’, of collecting answers and representing other’s viewpoints with a set of preconceived questions. The people in the square are involved in asking a series of questions, it is these that then get recorded and replayed. Questions such as “What it means to be happy?” “Who to believe around you?” touching on religion, society and place.
The process is edited into a film, observing the ambient sounds of the busy square and the intrigued and occasionally bemused pedestrian. Whilst there are shots from further away, the majority are intimate and close in. It doesn’t appear as an intrusive surveillance film, but more as patient human observation, and the artists willing the result of an engagement from the public encounter.
The artists’ method of recording these on the red portable units results in a device where the voice is reinserted into the public domain, being transmitted and responded to again. A discursive loop is formed.
Red Questions II
In Northumberland Charnley and Azevedo chose to talk to people living along the 15 mile country bus route that terminates in Allenheads. Allenheads is a remarkable place and one of the UK’s highest upland villages, located some 1200 ft above sea level. The two artists were hosted for a time by ACA Allenheads, an arts organisation run by two artists Alan Smith and Helen Ratcliffe and who have run several international residencies and are keenly focused on facilitating artists to respond to the unique rural context of this remote area of Northumberland, both its people and the landscape. Setting their challenge on this rural and peripheral node, they decided the bus would function as a link between the places the artists worked in.
Azevedo and Charnley have an eye for a poetic beauty whilst also subtly revealing the process of making work. Red Questions II being one such example. Setting their camera to record, it captures the Brazilian artist walking along a road with the green landscape of Northumberland stretching far into the distance. The artist is carrying a sack of recording devices all playing at the same time. It is a striking and resonating image. Whilst walking down the Allen Valley road a car goes past, the artist keeps walking, all the time the cacophony of voices in the bags are playing out. A moment that conveys both the work, and the ‘taking away’ of the field recordings, the artist appears like a latter day pied piper of Hamlyn or an unlikely anthropologist carrying her collection of voices from one place to another.
Placed within a dark recess in a disused stone chimney, high in the Allen Valley are a collection of recording devices. Each unit has the voice of a resident or passerby mostly with short descriptions of place. All the devices having been previously placed on bus shelters along the 15-mile route between Hexham and Allenheads that followed the local bus route. In their film, a hand comes into shot, pressing each device and setting in motion the short sequence of recorded sound. A volley of different accents & ages, young and old is played out. The pulsing red light to confirm the device is activated gradually becomes the only thing to emerge in the darkening evening light. A mass of red lights holds the screen, flickering like dancing fireflies against the black.
The effect is a collage of voices and a simple cut and mix approach repeats. It is a soundscape bounded in time and space. A broad Northumbrian accent starts “The view I am seeing at the moment, is a path leading to a wall”. Another voice chimes in “I can see a broken down bicycle covered in plants and that is about it!” Another describes the local Northumberland grouse, recently shot, being loaded into van to be taken to London to be sold. Others describe the Allenheads Heritage centre or the local pub. Yet another “There are trees everywhere”, “Oh the sun… you can’t miss that can you?”
With Leave Blank scores of immigration forms collected from around the world are displayed and exhibited. Wry observations from the artists about the familiar shape of the immigration form distinctive only by the country badge emblem left in the top corner. Here, stripped of much of their meaning, they appear like abstract sketches in pale blue, pink and yellow.
Leave Blank shows a perceptive way of addressing a prevalent concern. A ubiquitous example of officialdom, and a familiar experience the world over and a perfect example of the unequal relations between First and Third World. Working together, they devised a variety of strategies for creating encounters with people using these flyers. More recently the artists have created situations for handing them out to people and entering into conversation on immigration. Having a ‘foreigner’ ask questions about immigration or indeed law in a Northern city centre, on a weekend is a bold act and it further destabilizes the convention for engagement and plays on the observer-observed relations.
It might be suggested a precursor for the Leave Blank project was the Dirty Saints campaign developed by Azevedo in response to a local situation in Brazil. This was a street intervention with the production of flyers, posters and billboards, that used Brazilian politicians and their hollow promises, by making them appear like catholic votives, “ex-votos” and parodying their mass appeal. During an election campaign with the prevalence of image, these ‘saintly images’ and ‘ex voto’ portraits were handed out at bus stops and train stations. A simple message transformed.
One can see several parallels with Leave Blank; as both are documents originating in the official realm, subsequently rendered dumb by the artists and then employed, (not to impart information or definitive message, but rather) to generate one-to-one discussion on an urgent topic - corruption in one case, immigration in the other. The potent quality of the Leave Blank project means the artists continue to explore new ideas for them. One future proposal the artists have an idea for is for a series of UN style flags made from the form outlines to create the kind of collective displays that you might find outside a city civic plaza.
Despite the distances involved between Belo Horizonte and the UK, between Leeds and Brazil Here We Are has not been a one off encounter, as occasions for visits and follow up projects & commissions have been pursued. The artists making the best use of lecture opportunities and festival commissions.
It has been a remarkably artistically productive time for Azevedo and Charnley, a journey that is still being shaped through fresh commissions and opportunities to exhibit both in the UK and in Brazil. It would appear that the encounter as game and a shared notion of trust and building understanding are central. The idea that the artists are working at trusting each other in their judgments, the materials they use & the media they choose recurs. What started as an inward exploration and what amounted to an extended period of ‘eyeballing’ one another, now moves forward with confidence.
One of the things that you get is a broad range of strategies explored to make work, accompanied by a fantastic sense of the spirit of free-play and of wanting to try something different. Some embrace social encounters, even awkward ones, with language structuring the interactions. Others develop interventions in public space. Whilst setting rules and negotiation is part of this, ultimately though, it is the human stories that come through in the work. There is real pleasure in showing people describing what matters to them, to their community, their faith and ideals in both Brumadinho and in Allendale, Northumberland. These are indeed responses made to a set of situations devised by them, yes, but whilst it should be about ‘others’, it seems equally to be revealing of the relationship between the two of them. A relationship of trust & exchange and a genuine partnership. Like the short film of the two dancing bags, described at the beginning, titled, What do you think I think about you? there is serendipity to the encounter; an artistic collaboration that is evidently also full of potential.
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
The Artist Links Programme facilitated the artists being together for five weeks in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil, followed by five weeks together in Allenheads, Northumberland, England
Patricia Azevedo is a photographer interested in the power of printed images, and the telling of stories and in enabling others to make their own photographs. She has worked both collaboratively and by herself. One ongoing collaboration with two others; the photographer Julian Germain and fellow Brazilian Murillo Godoy.has been the project of using disposable cameras working with street-children in the favelas of Belo Horizonte. This has involved them printing their own photographs, and making these into a book and billboard street exhibition. The project titled “No Olho da Ruha” was seen on billboards in the city, and is part of a long term project of extending opportunities, the ,creation of books and a library project.
Charnley’s Speech is a series of collaborative performances with artists, writers, theorists in other countries exploring issues of translatability and the politics of language, both in a personal and global context. It has spanned video, photography, audio and performance in a number of forms between 2002-2007. Among other things, it is an attempt by the artist to develop a model of working that acknowledges, and then utilises different cultural experiences, urgencies and intentions. It is not based on consensus. One of Charnley’s collaborators described Speech as opening up a situation of mutual vulnerability. Added to this is a wider long term project or context for the work that questions the implications of the current ascendancy of English as a world language. A project that aims to probe cultural illiteracy, questioning how this uncomfortable mix of power and ignorance positions her as an artist and whose first language is indeed English.
Sarat Maharaj, 'Perfidious Fidelity: The Untranslatability of the Other' p28-35 in Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, edited by Jean Fisher, Kala Press, 1994/5.
Clark Abt, C. (1970). Serious Games. New York: The Viking Press.
Notes & References:
Film: Lost in Translation, 2003 directed by Sophia Ford Coppola
Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, first published 1938.
Man Play & Games by Roger Caillois, first published 1961
Serious Games by Clark Abt, published by Viking Press, 1970
Other observations from interview with the artists by the author, Leeds, March 2010