Francisco Salas: Gabriel part of your work was developed and emerged during the brazilian military dictatorship which started in 1964 and ended in 1985, how did this political and social situation influence your early work in the late 60’s and 70’s? You were very active during your days at the university and in a way, I believe, this is reflected in your work?, I’m thinking of your early pieces like Pinturas de urgência, or later in the installation you made at Espaço B Nós in 1977 and then in the video Nós versão II. At the time were you deeply affected by what you saw and experienced in this period? How and why were these works created? What was the idea behind all of them?
Gabriel Borba: We are a violent country. Last year almost 60.000 people were killed. Our rate is 25 murders per 100.000 inhabitants. In the northeast of the country it reaches 60 per 100.000. For comparison the rate in Spain is 0,8 murders per 100.000.
In the period you mention violence seemed to come closer, from both sides, the system and the opposition. At the same time the world was meeting Pop Art with its crude figuration, useful to denounce the state of things. Some figures like Rafael Canogar were a good example.
With no mention of political engagement, which is being glamorized nowadays, it is politically correct you know, what I was doing was painting in a very fast way [using “no noble” materials] scenes of violence that I saw or heard about. Recently, working with Adriana Palma, an art student at the University of São Paulo, we named them Imagems de Urgência [Urgent Images] . Many of them disappeared.
The idea behind them was having something to show very quickly, if the opportunity arose, or simply thinking and feeling about those events. Nós came from the same internal source: my impression about violence against the individual. I can explain it more specifically, describing the 3 versions of Nós, not only the 2 you mentioned. First of all nós, in Portuguese, can mean us or knot, at the same time.
The first version was made, as print and collage, when I heard about the assassination of Salvador Puig Antich, by Franco’s government in 1974. As you know he was submitted to the “garrote vil”. He was about my age, a few years younger, and I got impressed by what I saw. So I installed a wooden devise looking like the garrote and stood there, transfixed, to feel what it would be like. It was 1975.
The installation itself was made after seeing a french short film in which scenes of beauty and happiness were cut in flash, abruptly followed by the scene of a man hanging on the gallows.
The project consists of 5 white linen sheets hanging on a clothesline, four of them featuring pictures of idyllic landscapes chosen by four different photographers; a pair of pants and shoes lying on the floor under some names written on the wall; and a “phony” old tape recorder from which a voice emerged saying in a loop the names of those who disappeared by police violence.
The VT version was taken inside the installation and shows a shooting with someone’s body falling down, interweaved by a face in the mirror and the pants lying on the floor. In such a subjective action the face in the mirror, my own face, has a very deep meaning following Lacan.
FS: You were quite close to Walter Zanini, how did it affect your relationship with him in the way you approach art and the way you started to made other projects? Was he a support for the people who wanted to go ahead and who tried to change the perception of the contemporary art world at the time? I understand, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that you ́ve exchanged a large number of letters and documentation with him, so he was a real interlocutor for you that accompanied you for many years?
GB: No. I didn’t exchange letters with Zanini but we talked a lot. He used to correct my stubborn and clumsy theories of art and followed what I was doing with interest. He pointed me to the Bienal de Paris; to teach Multimedia I and Multimedia II at the Department of Art of the School of Communication and Art at the University of São Paulo. At the time I was working in the Department of Cinema Television and Radio, in the discipline of Visual Arts. When I was the Director of the Division of Fine Arts of the São Paulo Cultural Center he sent me those 10.000 issues of mail art that were in the collection of the Bienal de São Paulo to keep and maintain.
But no letters, except the ones I wrote for presentation or for catalogue use. We talked by phone about videoart when he was writing a book on this subject and I figured as one of the pioneers in the matter. He died before finishing the book. Zanini gave support to those who were working in new formats of art and literally invented some of us.
FS: Also you’ve been the assistant of Vilém Flusser in the Theory of communication at the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado. Was he the kind of person that opened new doors for you?, did he play an important role later in the way you approach your own work? If so, in what way was he really helpful to you?
GB: Vilém Flusser payed a visit to my exhibition, my graduation work at the University, in 1971, that was held in the Institute of Architects and, after seeing the whole thing without saying a word, he invited me to listen to his conference at the Academia Paulista de Letras near by. At the end of his speech about Marxism he said “ I’m sorry but I don’t understand this matter quite well and who does understand it is that young man sitting back there, whose exhibition I just saw and who I am inviting to be my assistant. Do you accept?” I did.
He was a great influence to my intellectual side and I followed him in his interest in art which was kind of eclectic. With this I learned to see things behind the momentary idiosyncrasies of the circuit of art. I remember the day he claimed I was not taking advantage of the step he was offering me. I thought wow!. But I am a rebel, you know. He didn’t influence my work but gave me important support. He was interested in video art by that time but never saw my production. We talked a lot about all this, that’s all.
You should know that I was close to other artists and intellectuals, older than myself, who I was influenced by on the way I was wondering what life is about: Sergio Ferro; a painter and my assistant professor of History of Art at the University, released a note from the prison. He was arrested as a guerrilla member, asking me stand on for him as a professor at the school of Architecture in Santos, another town. So before my graduation I was already professor and chief of the department.
My teacher of economy at the University, Gabriel Bolaffi, invited me to work with him in a French Office of Urban Planning. I worked a while as a junior economist. My teacher of Visual Communication and my graduation work advisor, set designer and painter, Flavio Império, showed me the freak side of life, in opposition of Flusser and others.
So I was in good hands, I should say, and all I’ve done is the result of this multiple side of this adventure.
FS: The strength and power of some of your projects of this period back in the 70`s lie in the tension one perceives when viewing these works, you were under a dictatorship and some of your actions were openly political and against the regime, weren’t you afraid of the possible consequences that presenting these works and projects may have caused you?, were you aware of the statements you made at that time?
GB: What I did and what I do should be seen as very intimate and subjective things related to the solitude of that moment just before THE moment, which could be seen as a provocation. But not many people have seen it –I’m not so famous‐ so I felt safe despite my two sisters, who lived with me, having to runaway because of their own matters. Sergio Ferro being busted, Flavio Imperio a little later and many others friends. Very little happened to me and my family.
You know, when I was chief of the Department of History in Santos I hired, as professors, one or two intellectuals who were leaving jail or being chased in their hometowns. In fact people misunderstand the period mixing up what was happening in Argentina, Chile or Uruguay, despite the enormous differences of force, violence and damage.
FS: It springs to mind the work of Jaula da anta, 1970, a project which was rather polemic at the time and which provoked people so that you were expelled from the Colegio de arquitetos de SP and then you were back again in the same day, why were you expelled the first time and what made the members of the committee want you back again?
GB: The thing is: let’s say I was being seen as a naughty boy doing preposterous things and the project I presented to a International Congress of Architects, with no selection, was taken as provocation because of the theme, of the memorial and of the place. By chance, and as I said there was no selection, my project was hung between two of those popes of Brazilian architecture and the people became bothered with it. At the auditorium, during the debates, someone said that it was absurd and because of it Gabriel Borba should be expelled from the Institute of Architects.
I was told people approved of the idea but others came in my defense so enthusiastically that they changed their minds. In fact I was not really expelled from the Institute so quick was the action. I didn’t see a thing because I was busy with something else. I was inscribing myself in a contest of Industrial Design in which I won, later, the first prize. The project Jaula da Anta –Anta’s Cage‐ had three versions. The first one, presented at the Congress, looked like a conventional project of architecture, in blueprint. The second one, presented at the Bienal de Paris was quite the same, a little larger, with texts in French and a better drawing. The third one was a offset printing with collage, small format, to be published in the album TRÄMA, released by the General Cooperative for Art Subject. Jaula da Anta is amazing and should be seen. It made sense those days because it worked as a funny provocation against the bunch of serious people with their vanity. Nowadays it works because it is sympathetic. The funny thing is that an American curator asked the Jaula da Anta because it is blueprint. I hope this is not its only quality.
FS: In the conversation we had at O Embú das artes at your home last march 2016, you told me that some critics and art historians named you under different labels, some call you a video artist with a political approach, others call you a more existential conceptual artist and some others call you a visual poet. As we talked I think the three of them suit you well but without making any exclusion. There are three aspects of your practice that can be complementary. For instance some of your collaborative works like Trama are strongly political but also they have a visual poetry that makes it even stronger.
GB: Indeed it happens because people are not aware of the diversity of matters and media I have been dealing with. Those who call me a videomaker, usually are surprised by the small number of videos that are available. The same with my installations, happenings and so on. Nobody talks about my drawings which are the main part of what I am doing. In fact the way I think, the instrument of my thought. Not always in the same style.
You are right. All I care about is understanding what life is and for this I can use any thing that comes up: drawing; writing; filming; you name it. In a big unity. In an exhibition in New York a critic called me a Lyrical Conceptualist, that is a joke, theoretically speaking. Others call me a visual poet and so on. No one has put it all together which is a kind of schizophrenia. I mean, you just did it. Thanks for that.
FS: You were one of the pioneers in the use of the video in Latinoamerica, how did you understand the use of the moving image? I mean was this as Walter Zanini says in “video‐arte: uma poética aberta” an opportunity to show off your work with your own theoretical concerns?
GB: It was 1971, 1972. I was teaching at the University of São Paulo. A professor of mass communication, phd in comic strip (can you figure that?), who won a scholarship asked me to replace him. And I went to teach visual art in the television and radio Sector (radio sector, can you figure that?). But I had a huge and sophisticated television studio where I made experimental actions by applying what I had learned working in the Theatre Sector. At the time I knew nothing about videoart, not even the name. I don’t know how this experiment came to light and I was invited, with others, to an exhibition somewhere in USA. As my tapes had been erased I had to go after those who had the equipment to do more.
I was confronted with many theories about video in these days when it was a novelty. There were Flusser, René Berger, Jean Otth and some other friends of mine who were interested in the suject. To adjust to myself, I would change Zanini’s statement saying that it was an opportunity to show off what was going on in my mind and soul. At the same time, Flusser used to say that with video, unlike a mirror, you could see yourself in a straight way, not in an inverted way.
Just like others see you. This was important on what I wanted to do. As you noticed I used a mirror on NÓS VIDEO VERSION, interspersing the scene…
FS: There are some aspects of your work that are rather critical with the art system, I ́m just thinking of Artista professional, can you tell us a little bit about this project and how it emerged?
GB: First of all the name of it is PGU 666. Prontuário Geral Unificado 666 (General Record Unified 666). As you know, 666 is the number of the beast. As I wrote Artista Profissional on the cover, people confuse the name.
It started in 1972 when Zanini decided to make an Art Salon without any kind of selection. Radha Abramo, critic and curator, made a speech saying that Gabriel Borba had to participate. So she bought the space of participation from someone who was not interested, just passing by, and made a donation to me. I asked for documents such as receipts, donation certificates, authorization of the director of the house (Zanini, director of MAC USP) and started to take those documents to be certified by other authorities. Some of them asked for more documents as Residence Certificate or Morality Certificate, and many other stupid things. I added titles, stamps and other elements to falsify some of the documents to be able to introduce them in one more bureaucratic office. The last one I got was a card naming me Professional Artist.
I put those falsified documents all together following the structure of Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule. It was a photocopy edition.
Ten years later in 1982, the Cooperativa de Artistas de São Paulo made an offset edition where I included a card that, once completed and signed, certified that the possessor was an artist. This, in fact, has to do with art circuit criticism; bureaucracy criticism and, in the last version, the idea that anyone can become an artist if he satisfies certain conditions dictated by himself.
The book, the same book, was nominated under three status, and sold with different prices.
FS: At the time you started working you and your artists friends were working and trying to do something to give voice to your own concerns and ideas making them visible in that very difficult context, there was not an art market and the museum system was not very strong at the time and not specially concerned about contemporaneity and social ideas, so what was the channel of distribution of your work?
GB: I am doing what I always did since I was a kid: drawings and weird things. In the sixties and before I thought I was going to be a painter. But painting is good but boring because the canvas is always between you and your subject. You can say that abstractionism puts new things in the world, OK! But drawing does the same in a simpler way and much more directly. Please do not misunderstand me. I am an admirer of many painters, not because they are painters but because of what they do and the way they do it. Take a look in Tapies, Kiefer, Towmbly…
In the late sixties and in the seventies it became a fad working together in communities or in associations. Collective painting is an example. The “Coletive d’Art Sociologique”, in France, is another one, or “General Ideas” in Canada. Following this I participated in ON OFF and some other groups. And I created, with Mauricio Fridman, the COOPERATIVA GERAL PARA ASSUNTOS DA ARTE. General Cooperative for the Art Subject. A fake association with the appearance of something very serious and straight. All this had nothing to do with the art market, which I didn’t know very well.
And in São Paulo, we had Zanini at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea, followed by Aracy Amaral at the Pinacoteca, Fabio Magalhães after her, then Mauricio Fridman and myself at the Centro Cultural São Paulo. All of us promoting contemporary art and new experiments without neglecting the old stuff. Also the Bienal de São Paulo showing new concepts of art since 1952.
I think we had a strong system of art and that’s what those I mentioned were working against. Or innovating, I may say. But I feel those groups of experimental actions had nothing to do with the market or any stablished system. We could say that the work itself was experimenting on unused channels of production and distribution. Somehow it worked, slowly perhaps, and the symptom is the existence of Francisco Salas and perhaps others that I don’t know.
FS: You also collaborated with other artists and made some collaborative works and postal works as well, was this collaborative way of working the direct result of the political and social context in the country or was it more of a reaction against the conservative system of the arts?
GB: Working in groups has been kind of a tradition. Usually to impose an affinity of ideas. Take the example of COBRA or BLAUE REITER. All this was made to impose ideas on the system. Others did it just to do or to complete his own work [Josef Beuys, for instance]. Does this have anything to do with the political and social context of a country? Sometimes, depending on the intention of the group.
In my case I used the liberty we had gained in the sixties and seventies to feel deeply and to comment on what I was already feeling. Above all I had a deep impression of the suffering imposed. Of course the military period gave me something to think about. Hino do Vencidos is an example.
Now you see, I could have said what I said with this anthem in many other ways but this was the way I felt fitting for the matter, and the context was much more a reaction to overthrow the conservative system than a result of the political and social context, even if they came mixed up.
FS: Did the weight of the western cultural tradition affect your work? the first time I saw works such as Deconstrução or Pequeno mobiliario brasileiro among others I saw that in a certain way there is a need to work and to advance leaving behind this imposed culture just to present a new one…
“Não gosto da clara do ovo
Não gosto da gema do ovo
Gosto da gema do novo”
The western cultural tradition is as imposed as to be Brasilian, or male. It is not a weight but a step, a support. I am living and working with the liberty that this same culture allows me. I have no intention of presenting a new culture but to confirm the legacy of liberty that the west is conquering, some times with sacrifices. I mean a legacy on thinking and on art.
Deconstrução may seem on the surface, the negation of an icon of western culture. Instead it is the confirmation of the idea of a support for the new. The concept is, somehow, parallel to the concept of descontrução from Derrida, 1962. If you pay attention you will notice that the images 11 and 12 are very near a painting by Sheila Brannigan. On the other hand Pequeno Mobiliario Brasileiro is much more sophisticated as it deals, ironically, with the idea of a specific Brasilian culture at the same time it shows a few examples of western culture of the suffering that we think that is mostly ours.
FS: Please can you explain to us how was conceived the project Pequeno mobiliario brasileiro, and in which context you made the performance which is featured in the small group of polaroids which are presented under the same title. In the performance the structure or chair you use while performing is created with your own clothes during the event, what was the purpose of this?
GB: I had an unfinished project that I called Pequeno Mobiliário Brasileiro, to be made of light metal structures and small hammocks, looking like small chaise‐ longs with wheels. I would invite the audience to lie down on it and push with the feet one against the other like those bumper cars in a funfair.
By that time I had a few drawings made as a study of figures from Picasso, most of them from Guernica and his parallel drawings. When I had applied in a contest of Industrial Design, furniture was the theme. I came back to my studies of Picasso, wondering how to transform a visual structure into physical structures.
The result was five chairs, with which I won the first prize, and a performance that I took to the Bienal de Paris and to the MIS, Museu da Imagem e do Som, in São Paulo.
The chairs were made out of the female figures. And the performance was made upon the dead warrior, the only male figure in the painting. The action was to come to the stage, or wherever, dressed in jeans, carrying five wooden sticks and to lie down, nude, in a kind of chaise‐long made of clothes and wooden sticks.
Unfortunately the only document left is a group of six polaroid images. There is a video made in the presentation at MIS where I came already nude and I dressed the clothes, distributing the wooden sticks among the audience who started kind of a sword fight with them, but the first part of it got lost.
*To be continued…