⁞ From the mountains to the sea: a conversation with Márcio Vilela ⁞

This conversation took place in July 2014, over the virtual space of Lisbon and Brazil. The original, portuguese version, of this conversation, can be seen HERE.

Sofia: This conversation is driven by your recent book featuring the work done in Azores. I have a few questions about the images, but I’ll pose them later on. For now, what intrigues me is the object-book, namely your options regarding the fabrication, production and distribution of the book. Before I go into more specific questions, can you give us an idea of the reasons behind such choices?

Márcio: In my projects I always try to leave behind an object that speaks about the creative process. In Mono there was the box of Polaroides, accounting for the two years of production, in another project I’m currently working on it’s a transfers notebook… it’s always like this, there’s always something that stays.
I’ve always wanted to make a book, but had never manage to reach a successful compromise between the personal and manual labor of such objects and an industrially printed book. I then started to research an object that could be made by hand, like a book… and look like it was handmade.
I’m the one doing the printing, using the same method (inkjet) I use when doing the exhibit prints, this time in a continuous 5m print. This wouldn’t be possible in a Print Shop, the book would have to be bound with glue. The book’s cover is made on wooden paper, cut with its specific measures. I spent a lot of time searching for this paper, it had to be something really special. The inscriptions on the cover and the back (‘Azores’ and the map of São Miguel) are handmade, by transferring a pigment (a process I also use in other works).
The book is inside a card box which is also handmade. I wanted whoever opened the box to feel like he/she was being gifted something special, I wanted them to feel that what is inside is a part of me and it is unique.
Inside the book there is a text by Eder Chiodetto and an extra print that is not part of the exhibition of the series Azores. This extra print tells the story of what I went through during those 4 weeks in São Miguel, the extreme beauty, the freedom, the loneliness and the fear… a powerful mix of emotions. Eder’s text is beautiful, a result of conversations we had about such emotions. I think he was able to account for things I had felt, before I had thought about them.
Since it is a very limited edition, 100 copies, the distribution is also made by hand. People come to me to get the books, we talk, it’s all personal. There will be no mass distribution of the book. Besides myself, only three places will be selling copies: Photo Book Korner and Carpe Diem, in Lisbon, and Madalena’s bookstore in São Paulo. Meanwhile there are no more than 10 copies in these places. I really want people to come to me.

Sofia: Are you the one doing the handwork?

Márcio: Not anymore… in the beginning I chose the materials, the model, the box, everything. After that I asked a designer, Joana Durães, for help with the layout of the pages. As soon as the process was tuned, I started on the final books but it was taking me an entire day to finish each copy and at such a pace the project would never be over. So I decided to speak to Luís Rendeiro, in Tomar, in order for him to help me. He folds and cuts the 5m prints, and he also does the boxes, all by hand.
I then bring everything to my studio in Lisbon and finish the process, do the transfers, print and cut the extra image that comes with the book, fold in the text booklet, sign and number everything. Then I put it inside the box and it’s done.

Sofia: And why the preference for the handmade process over the industrial one? Are those options a result of an emotional connection, of an idea on ‘affective labor’ or is it a way to enhance the product with qualities than potentiate its economic value, such as singularity, rarity, amongst other things?

Márcio: It’s only a very strong emotional process, I’m not sure if the fact that it is made by hand can effectively potentiate the objects’ economic value. I think that happens more naturally because of the content and the way things develop inside a book, than because of its materials and its fabrication process. Besides, the exchange value of the book is relatively low, close to the production costs. My interest here was to move from the objects I used to make to a book, with losing control over the manual aspect of things.

Sofia: I think the value of a book, as with almost everything else, is greatly dependent on the nominal value of the author. If you have that authority, everything you produce has its value. But what interests me in this case is that your book is coming at a time when the handmade product is being overvalued, besides being trendy. To my knowledge, this is the result of a process of alienation between author and work that has been escalating since the Industrial Revolution in the XVIII century and is now reaching a peak with the notion of ‘virtual labour’ introduced by all the new technologies. Anyway, my question is: although it is not a strategy, do you care that your emotion connection to the handmade process is translated in an economic value?

Márcio: Yes, I do agree a book can depend, in part, of the author’s nominal value, but I also think the art public is more attentive than we think, people don’t say they like or dislike something based on a signature on the corner of the artwork.
I think the artwork needs to circulate, reach people. Those who can’t afford to do a professional high cost book, do it by hand… in the end what is judged is the consistency of the work.
An artists ruled by trends is a hostage of that strategy, and is always looking for references outside of himself, waiting for the marker’s approval. I always thought a true artists creates because he/she needs to, even without the monetary reward or the recognition… like food for your soul. I know a lot of people like this and have always admire them for it.
In regards to your question, I can say I care about the economic value of my works, but that isn’t a goal.

Azores_06© Márcio Vilela, from the series Azores. Courtesy of the artist.

Azores_05© Márcio Vilela, from the series Azores. Courtesy of the artist.

Sofia: And regarding this project, how do you think the handmade aspect of the book meets the images? I suppose the book wouldn’t lose its meaning if it was made through industrial processes, so in your understanding what does this personalized approach to the object adds to the photographs?

Márcio: These images are relatively big, 120x150cm. When on a wall, the set of these 6 images has a different relation with the spectator, you can have a distant look at them to get an overall perception of the composition but you can also get closer to see the details… but it ends up being an object with a very strong presence.
I think this book would lose its sense if made by industrial processes, I’m addressing this book in particular. I’m not sure if it’s the object-book that adds something to the photographs or the other way around, maybe in the end they are one unique thing.
The relation one establishes with the book is very different from that one establishes with the image on a gallery wall, it is more personal. When we hold a manufactures object on our hands that relation is even more intimate, there is the notion that the thing we’re holding is delicate, that we need to hold it with care, that it needs time to be looked at. This time, this wait, they are important.
For me this book brings very strong sensorial experiences, there are the different textures of the papers, the smell of the cardboard… with careful attention we can also smell the solvent used in the pigment transference. It is an object one keeps rediscovering and that only strengthens that affective relationship I’ve been talking about.

Sofia: That’s why I mention alienation, because the great majority of people create more immediate empathies with objects in which the extension of the author’s body is easily recognizable, but I don’t think that empathy is more or less natural than any other (I don’t support the essentialist discourse), rather it is a reaction to a sincere discourse and that sincerity can manifest itself either in manufactured or industrial discourses. As a spectator, how are you, do you also create empathy with artworks in which you recognize the author’s footprint, or is that irrelevant?

Márcio: Certainly there’s an expectation when I go and see the work of someone I really like, be it a cinematographer, a plastic artist, a musician… I’m always curious and open to absorbing that experience. There have been exhibitions where I stayed for over an hour without talking to anyone, or I didn’t want further visual stimuli (as much as possible), I wanted to take it all in very slowly… I’ve spent over an hour sitting on the floor of a dark room at TATE looking at a Da Vinci’s sketch (and they have chairs)… I was stagnant on the floor, couldn’t get that out of my mind. This had happened a few times and some of these experiences have been with author’s I had never before heard about. Being unaware of the author’s footprint has only accentuated that experience, as if I had just discovered a new color.
When I know the artist I’m very emotional in my analyses, I can either enjoy the work very much and end up in a sort of “sensorial blockage” state I mentioned or I can be really disappointed by what I see… really sad, as if they had disappointed me. When I go to see a work I’m not expecting the artist’s success or failure (because sometimes I feel people root against you), I go out looking for a surprise and hoping that such experience can open another door in my mind.

Sofia: It’s curious that photography is precisely the most polarizing medium, its process is profoundly subjective and its presentation tendentiously objective. This seems quite clear in this series: on the one hand you have the installation of the photographs, public, with no anomalies, forcing the spectator to maintain a certain distance in order to contemplate; on the other hand you have the manufactured book that calls out for an intimate sensorial experience. Does this bipolarity between the private and public discourse suit you?

Márcio: It doesn’t bother me, I think they’re different situations. The exhibition is always the presentation of an end result, I like seeing people’s reactions to the artworks, sometimes I pass by a spectator and join a group in order to share that experience. At the Bird Eye View exhibition I even stood by a couple and asked what they thought was the white spot in the middle of the blue image… after thinking for a while they said they thought it was an aeroplane. I told them it was a ship, and suddenly the expressions on their faces changed completely, in that moment the sky was converted in the sea. It was a very special moment for me.
On the other hand, openings always give me a mix of emotions, a part of me is happy because the work is done, another is deeply sad because it is over… In Açores this was very strong.
I’m more interested in the process that in the end result, it’s the experience that counts, to allow myself the failure and the dream.
Regarding the objects I make, as the book Azores, this relation is quite different. The object will last, every time I open it, it is “new”, it ceases to be a memory and becomes something you touch.

backstage MONO_11© Márcio Vilela, from the series Mono. Courtesy of the artist.

backstage MONO_02© Márcio Vilela, from the series Mono. Courtesy of the artist.

Sofia: In reality, photography has always been associated with wandering and you seem particularly drawn to the contrast between the infinitude of the landscape and the limits of the human dimension. For that matter and because your discourse over this conversation has been one of proximity, I’d like to finish with a question I know will be hard to answer but that I find inevitable: what are you looking for?

Márcio: Problems… inevitably I’m always looking for problems. Not in terms of difficulties, confusions or suffering, mas in terms of challenges that are on the verge of being impossible. I get bored very easily and routine has a harmful effect on my life, while it comforts me (grants me security and stability) it prevents me from moving on.
It’s funny that you ask this question at this point in my life, because I’m in the middle of big changes, once again. I’m not going to lengthen these stories, nor do I pretend to appear like a fearless and detached human being… which I’m not.
In 2002 I was in an extremely comfortable position in Brazil. I was finishing the third year of my studies in Veterinary Medicine, with a stable emotional and financial life, I had many friends and my family close to me. It as a perfect scenery for someone wanting to be “someone”… that thing that frightens our parents to death: the possibility of us not succeeding. I wasn’t unhappy, but was tremendously bored and annoyed. The “happiness pack” was right there, but there was something missing… I needed to break the routine. “Still water rots”, my brother used to tell me. He has total influence in my decisions regarding art.
When I discovered photography, in 2001, was as if I was discovering the world once again. Instead of “discovering a color”, I felt I had been seeing the world in black and white… it was overwhelming, out of control. So profound that in less than a year I had packed two suitcases and was at my hometown’s airport, in Recife, on my way to Tomar… I knew they had a graduate course in Photography and not much else.
Time in Tomar was very harsh, though also very productive, I learned a lot.
Being detached brought me here. In Recife the weather was good, there was the beach, friends, financial freedom, and an “eternal” love… but so what?!
I mentioned your question is very pertinent in this moment for the same reason, because I’m bored again… extremely accommodated and bored. I’ve been teaching photography for the past 8 years, I love classes, but it’s taking up all the time and mental capacity that I have, even if it is also a great comfort. I am “someone”, a graduate school teacher. I know that on the 23rd of each month there’s this salve alleviates the pain and calms the tedium. It’s like “I have a car to go to work to pay my car”, or something like that. So I’m out, I won’t be teaching anymore.
I love to teach, I feel alive when I’m inside the classroom with my students, but all the extra-curricular problems kill me. I decided to become “no one”, I decided to be what I’ve always wanted but had never had the corage to fully become… an artist. When I’m involved with my projects there is never boredom, there’s never anxiety…
I think this constant dissatisfaction is the result of an extremely boring childhood, spent inside an apartment with few friends and little to do besides the daily suffering at school… I’ve sort of always been a terrible student. That only changed in Tomar, when I started studying what I really liked, that’s when I discovered that the secret to success is to be doing what one enjoys, I’ll never let anyone take that away from me again.
This sense of boredom is very noticeable on my work, everything that seems too easy causes my disinterest. This raises several problems, either financial or emotional. During the residency in Azores that was very simple, I would have four weeks to photograph and enjoy the island… to work and to relax at the same time. Of course I had to make things harder for myself, so I woke up early every day and coursed through the island from one side to the other without stopping, eating sandwiches and chocolate milk from Azores. I worked till nightfall, went to extremely remote places, always on my one, I took full advantage of the power a Jipe gives to be transported from point A to point B… drove into roads where there could have be no way out. I went up, down, then reversed… There was no music in the car, no travel companion. There was the silence, an eternal silence I had never experienced before… I went looking for the mountains and the cows, people simply weren’t around. I felt like coursing through a deserted island most of the time. When I returned home at the end of the day there was no one to share the adventures of the day with. It might seem strange, but I met no one in the island, I kept outside, on my one… maybe due to a social inability, lack of time for it… I’m not sure.
It’s obvious this has caused me physical problems and by the end of the third week I was taken to the emergency room in São Miguel during the night, I must have been dehydrated, hypoglycaemic… in chock even. My body was simply refusing to continue… I was on serum for hours. That day I had reached my physical limit, the landscape had literally crushed me. After spending two days at home resting I started it all over. I can’t do it differently.
The other day I was talking with Daniel Blaukfus about chess and I was telling him how boring it was to play against me because I had a suicide strategy when playing games. In jest he answered I had a suicide approach at life. I smiled, I take it as a compliment, specially coming from a friend.
I don’t think of myself as a strong person because of these things, on the contrary, my body gives me clear signs when I cross the line, but at the same time that’s what makes me wanting to be “here”.
In another recent event, this modus operandi has led me to a big discussion with a great friend and curator, Lourenço Egreja. He invited me to an artistic residency in Berlengas, the idea was to stay in the island for a period of ten days producing work in the archipelago, working and relaxing once again. This time I took the project to an extreme, I simply decided not to stay in the island… “I’ll get out of there”, I thought. I bought a life raft, one of those you throw at the sea when a ship sinks and is automatically inflated. I’ll turn myself into a voluntary castaway, stay adrift in the sea till one day I reach land… always alone. The scale of this project caused him to worry a lot, understandably, no one wants to feel responsible for the death of a friend… that was the base for the discussion: “It is my decision, you can’t stop me”, on the one hand, and “I won’t let you do that, I don’t want you to die”, on the other. It’s hard to hear a friend saying “you can’t stop me”. I’m deeply sorry that I cause this sort of anguish on people… but I can’t avoid it, I do it because I need to… I will do it. There’s a curiousity that makes me move forward anyway, when I make a decision it’s almost impossible to stop me. When I decided to come to Portugal it was the same thing, “you can’t stop me”… and here I am.
A very good friend from Germany, Jessica Lennan, once called me a “trouble maker”… I loved it, we laughed a lot about it. This is it, I like to go looking for problems for me to solve, I think that’s what I’m looking for. As if this problems were mazes invented by me… there is always a way out, I know there is. This is what drives me, no matter how difficult it is I know there is always a way out of there. This is why, going back to your question, I think I’m looking for a way to dream freely… and dreaming causes this problems.

Sofia: Thank you for being so prompt and willing to make yourself known and to expose your strengths and fragilities. Thanks for this conversation. All the best with the drift away project, no doubt you will succeed, as much in the more immediate dimension of breaking with the daily routine and go out on a limb, as in the spiritual dimension. One day, in a PhD class where we were discussing that same old question of how to define ‘art’ a colleague suggest that an artist is a ‘problem solver’… I suspect you can identify with such description.
See you soon, Márcio.

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