In their exhibition “Divine Violence,” currently on view at the Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago, Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle and Brazilian filmmaker Tiago Mata Machado present a trilogy of moving-image works produced between 2011 and 2016. Within these works, Marcelle and Mata Machado, who represented Brazil at the 57th Venice Biennale, illuminate the tension between civil order and mounting social unrest. The single- and two-channel videos on display visualize the key moments of an uprising, the shots shifting between images of agitated protestors congregating, urban detritus thrown into a seemingly ever-growing pile, and aerial footage of demonstrators hurling Molotov cocktails at something just beyond the frame of the camera.
In light of the dangerous rise of censorship and attacks on culture in Brazil, with recent right-wing protests at Queermuseu in Porto Alegre and Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM), “Divine Violence” offers a foreboding, albeit realistic, portrait of polarizing forces in the country. I recently interviewed the artists via email and they responded collectively.
In your own words, how would you characterize the key concerns of “Divine Violence”?
The tension between the limits of dialogue and confrontation, order and chaos, inside and outside, subordination and rupture, reality and fiction, action and staging, culture and art, rule and exception, civilization and barbarism.
Walter Benjamin’s term “divine violence” serves as the major source of inspiration for these works; are there other philosophical ideas or references that you return to when thinking about the subject of order and chaos?
The video “The Century” is based on the idea of the impasse, the type of impasse of revolutionary potential that Walter Benjamin associated with the general strike, specifically the type of strike which, should it persist, could lead the state to consider the “right to strike” abusive, and hence declare strikes illegal, thereby leading to an impasse that could lay bare the sheer contradictions that are inherent to the very system of legal order. To this kind of purely destitute power, Benjamin gave it the name “divine violence.” He referred to a type of power of a purely destructive and destitute ilk, which did not aim at founding a new right or a new state. But at the end of the gesture—and this video is actually inspired by the photo of the spoils of a strike demonstration—in the end, what remains is a heap of ruins. So we’re closer here to that classic image of history that Benjamin withdrew from Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus (New Angel)” (1920)—“The Angel of History”—maybe that’s why we gave the video the title of Osip Mandelstham’s poem (which in turn inspired two key books for this trilogy, “State of Emergency” by Giorgio Aganbem and “The Century” by Alain Badiou), because we too are reflecting in this work on an image of history. This image exemplifies Benjamin’s “history as ruin.” Benjamin spoke of history as overlapping ruins, but also of a story in which the past is loaded with the present and moves towards the jungle of the past. In many ways, the three videos in the exhibition trace this idea.
In 2007 we began to combine our creative processes in the script for Tiago’s second feature film. After the intense filming of “Os Residentes (The Residents)” in 2008, we felt the need to try a more “homemade procedure,” or an approach to making moving images outside of the traditions of cinema. We wanted to be free from its apparatuses and hierarchy. So we began making the video “Buraco Negro” at the end of 2008, when we officially began our creative partnership (which for us is different from a collaboration). In the following years, we shared the process of editing the film by Tiago and the direction of all the other videos I made, as well as “475 Volver” in 2009, the first video signed by our producer Katásia Filmes (together with the filmmaker João Dumans), the “Cruzada” (2010), among all the others. But it was in 2011, when we did our second work together, “O Século,” that we understood that our partnership takes place through a kind of dialogue / confrontation that ends up testing the limits of creation, authorship and field of activity. Next, we produced the video “Rua de mão única” (2013) and the “Comunidade” and “O outro processo” (2016) which, together with the video “O Século,” make up the trilogy “Divine Violence,” shown for the first time this year at the Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago. We recently produced a new video “Nau/Now” for the Brazilian Pavilion for the 57th Venice Bienniale.
Can you expand upon the significance of “Buraco Negro (Black Hole)” (2008) within your artistic partnership?
“Buraco Negro,” a completely “homemade” video, worked as a sort of ritual liberator thinking that we had left a long process of scriptwriting and filming of “The Residents”—during the two months of filming we occupied two houses that in the end would be demolished. At that time we were a couple and, in a way, we felt that it was necessary to rescue the intimacy in our relationship without losing our creative partnership.
Can you describe the relationship between “Nau/Now” (2017)—the work you recently produced together for the Venice Bienniale—and how it relates to the “Divine Violence” trilogy?
In the “Divine Violence” trilogy, to a certain extent, we reflect on the contradictions of contemporary politics, and especially on a theme: the state of exception (state of emergency). Provisional politics of revolutionary tradition, born in the French Revolution, the state of exception was consolidated in the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century (the Third Reich was a official state of exception that lasted twelve years) surviving nowadays as a political technique—like the emergency measures that make the day to day of modern democracies. The state of exception survives within the Democratic Rule of Law, as ruin (as Benjamin would say). In the trilogy, we start with the Benjaminian idea that, in face of these State-of-Exception-Becoming-Rule, a true State of Exception must be proposed—returning to the revolutionary origin of the concept. “Nau” continues this research. But the characters are others now: the ever-increasing ratio of people who in today’s world are not full citizens (the “denizens,” a term created by Thomas Hammer to show how the concept of a citizen has become inadequate to describe the political-social reality of modern states). They are the ones without something: without documents, without land, without rights, without home. What Agamben calls “the naked life” and which go back to the “Homo Saccer”—those who, in ancient Roman law, could be banished from the Polis and could be killed without this being considered murder, people destined for sacrifice. Prisons in Brazil are medieval institutions, as everywhere—regimes, parties and rulers change, but the prisons remain the same. Those who are forgotten there, if they are not regimented by organized crime, are destined for some form of sacrifice. At the height of the political and institutional crisis that began to plague the country recently, rebellions began to pop up in Brazilian prisons, which seemed to us as a symptom of a country on a collision course. As one Brazilian intellectual, Millôr Fernandes, once said, Brazil is the country of the future with a immense past in front. We were already, at the time, in the process of producing the film, whose inspiration was some rebellions that had happened even before this new wave.
How do you direct the actors in your videos? Do you allow for chance occurrences?
Concerning the direction of actors, our role is to engage these people from different backgrounds in the same game, to make them believe in the strength of their own gesture and the importance of the role they play within the game. It consists in making them have fun and at the same time take the game very seriously. It is sometimes necessary to give precise instructions; sometimes it is better to let the actor improvise. It’s a combination of being in control and out of control.
Does “the game” mean the situation you create in directing the video? How do you set up the game?
Yes, the situation, but when we refer to a game, we are talking about the art itself; it is basically about persuading the actors to share our creative joy in the same direction. The rules vary from video to video, but it is almost always about convincing people to engage in a kind of game (or play), giving them a stage and some pre-established actions and motivations. These people are never professional actors, but workers from the most different array of socio-economic backgrounds. The most difficult part of the process is to explain the game idea and to find the point of engagement for each person, but once they understand and share the idea, good surprises happen.
These works make legible the mounting collective energy of social unrest. What does the notion of anarchy mean to you within the context of Brazil at this moment?
To think about anarchy today is necessary in terms of overthrowing the system, and addressing the internal anarchy inherent to that very system. To once again turn our minds to the idea of anarchy, it would first be necessary to try to capture and deconstruct the internal anarchy of established powers (currently advanced capitalism, with its self-propelling dynamics without law or sense, and its political representative, which is the group of modern democracies, in which the state of emergency exists within the very legal system), requiring a kind of destitute power, a kind of “divine violence.” But we need to talk about Brazil more than ever. The motto of the coup regime that governs Brazil now is “order and progress,” a positivist motto drawn from the national flag. Brecht wrote, “One could say that disorder is when nothing is in the right place. Order is when in the right place there is nothing.” So that means, following Brecht, that there is nothing in the right place in the country at the moment; we are in a period of complete institutional chaos—to begin with, the state was taken over by a real thieves union. “The Century” (2011) is the beginning of a trilogy (“Divine Violence” trilogy) centered on the clash between order and chaos and, in a way, this first video foreshadowed events that would occur in Brazil two years later, the days of June 2013, a spontaneous insurrection that was gradually being emptied and manipulated, the anarchists being replaced by middle-class families who wore the colors of the national flag and sang hymns, a perverse mixture of carnival block and mobs of lynching, Brazilian’s ordinary fascism. The right hijacked the June revolt and there began the white coup we live in in the country today. In 2013, still in the heat of the events, we ran “One Way Street” with the black blocs that participated in the demonstrations. Then came “Community,” already the fruit of disillusionment, a video about the difficult balance of the Brazilian social contract. The point is that there is a large coefficient of chaos and anarchy within the system itself—there is nothing more anarchic than the bourgeois order, Benjamin said. There is nothing more anarchic than the modus operandi of advanced capitalism, we can say today. In countries like Brazil, which came from colonies, chaos is the norm: a colony is a normal state of emergency. Here, the only law that ever mattered was the law of the market. How to say which violence is legal and which is illegal when the state itself breaks its own rules constantly, when there is no legal and institutional normality.
One of the things that I find most powerful about this exhibition is that it evokes the sensation that comes with the rise of the total collapse of civil order, which is something that might relate directly to the long history of coups in Brazil, but might also characterize our current moment on a global scale. Your visual vocabulary creates this scene, of course, but I also believe it’s due to your use of sound. There are moments when the soundtrack of the videos overlap and produce a cacophony. Can you both speak more about your use of sound and polyphonic strategies?
We consider the sound in our works as important as the images. We purposefully weave in moments where there isn’t anything visually happening on the screen, but you only hear the suggestive audio. During the filming we recorded the sound of the video directly, but in the post-production we don’t hesitate to add extra and/or artificial sounds. They are different from the images of the videos that are recorded from above. They usually consist of only one plane sequence. The sound is recorded near to the action and then is completely manipulated in the edit. We believe that these two procedures contribute to taking our work to a field of impurity, as the polyphony created not only from the sound but the constant reconfiguration of images, sounds, dark, silence, full and empty.
In a past conversation you both mentioned that this installation “plays with the edge,” which seems to imply that whatever exists just beyond the frame of the camera is essential to this interplay between entropy and systems of order. What are we not seeing? What lies just beyond the frame?
In a sense, from a formal point of view, we believe that this trilogy revolves around centrifugal or centripetal forces that stress the boundaries of the picture. What is out of frame is what cannot be formalized, a bit like this political vision that goes through the trilogy, something that does not fit within the formal limits of the state, something that is beyond formal boundaries and cannot be defined.
What are your thoughts on the rise of censorship in Brazil and attacks on culture?
What really is behind these attacks not only on the culture but especially on democracy in Brazil is the dispute of an electoral power between the right and the ultra right, first by the Catholics of the network Rede Globo TV, responsible for the appearance of the “verde e amarelo” movement of a conservative middle class that enabled the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and now by the evangelicals of the Rede Record TV, linked to the MBL (Movimento Brasil Livre), which attacked art museums as a strategy to repress and weaken left-wing movements and gain space in the media until the 2018 presidential elections.
But at the same time that the right gained space by opening up its manipulative way of doing politics, the left has lost the power in a self-flagellating movement: debating itself against identity and gender issues, the left became weakened by confrontations between itself, which shows a certain political impotence of the post-Lulismo era. And this in relation to censorship also has a repercussion because there is a censorship coming from the right, ultra conservative but increasingly there is a self-censorship of sectors of the left, which are no less relevant debates such as the black movements and the feminist movements, although in their excesses also imply a form of censorship to be problematized by art, to be put on the table, not to serve as a pattern of creative stifling. These are issues that are being debated and, at this point, have catalyzed an important period of discussion and confrontation. However, these discussions can create a herd mentality on social networks.
We are living in a moment that’s beginning to recall the global spread of fascism in the early twentieth century. What role does art play in times of great crisis?
As Jean Luc Godard once said, “culture is the rule, and art is the exception.” So while on the one hand we are aware that all of this provocation against art and freedom of expression is based on an opportunistic electoral tactic on the part of the ultra-right evangelical, from the point of view of art, this strategy of the right served basically to resuscitate the political agency of contemporary art. The idea that art is self-centered and self-satisfied ended up happening, in a way, by distancing itself from the debates and consequently staying away from society. In a positive way, we think that finally art once again has the power to bother and that artists will have to rethink their works, and especially their places of action in order to recover the social function of art, in the political and poetic field of reason and subjectivity.
Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado
Curated by Yesomi Umolu
University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts
Through October 29, 2017