Marta de Menezes is an artist, making and researching, within the intersection between art and biology. She is the curator of “Emergências”, the new media exhibition, taking place between the last 16 June and 02 September, in the historic city of Guimarães (in Portugal) and this year the European Capital of Culture.
“Emergências” (Emergencies) is a contemporary art exhibition. “Emergencies” is a word simultaneously translated into emergence and urgency connecting with relationships and identity: these keywords describe the concept of the exhibition “Emergências”. The exhibition presents twenty pieces on the intersection between art and research under the broad landscape of art being done within new media. While approaching the curatorial concept of the exhibition, the conversation with Marta de Menezes crossed with other related subjects, such as identity, science and art, real and the virtual, among others.
As Marta says: “New media is something which is not completely resolved and that is clearly defined by an experimental component. Thinking new media, it also comes to mind the materials, which present no limits and can be divided in two broad areas: the virtual and the real – not that the first is less real, it is rather less tactile. Within the virtual, one can find telecommunications, virtual reality, augmented reality, programming and interactivity. Within the real, one can find physical phenomena, chemical phenomena and biology (life). I started to develop the concept of the exhibition within these parameters. Right at the beginning, it came to mind the idea of emergencies (in Portuguese ‘emergências’, the name of the exhibition), because all of the pieces of the exhibition, due to their experimental character, emerge from research into the capacities of the materials. Not that these materials are new, but the way they are used, either at a technological level or at a conceptual level, react to the culture we live today and not the culture we lived back ten, twenty or fifty years ago. This is what connects the exhibition to a definition of new media: the relevance it is not in new materials neither new concepts. The questions continue to be the same and so are our concerns. Identity is a subject that has always concerned us: identity as living beings, as human beings, as individual beings. The subject is not new in itself but the way we think about it is unique to the present. This connects to new media in a way that is changing constantly: through acquisition of new knowledge, new technologies, new ways of working the materials we think the same concepts.”
Ana Carvalho: Which pieces, from the exhibition, would express clearly the concept of new media?
Marta de Menezes: The performance Bleu Remix (Yann Marussich) is clearly new media as it is a work that could only be done now because we have access, outside the laboratories, to the necessary knowledge to do it. It is not that this knowledge didn’t exist before but we had no access to it. With this knowledge, by visually highlighting certain metabolisms of the body, the artist could work his ideas related to the biological identity we are permanently reflecting upon, being the body a common vehicle to express themes related to identity throughout the history of art (in other areas perhaps has even a longer history than in the fine arts).
There is also an installation with five videos that shows UV ray recordings of the cooling down process of different animal corpses (Community by Terike Haapoja). Once again, the subject of identity connected here to the relationship between humans and other animals, which is currently in questioning. The relationship we establish with our ecosystem, being it through, for example, the cow, which relates to consumption, or relating to the wilderness, or through the bird – the one on the video, is not a domestic one. The title, Community, describes this, the death of these living beings and the position we take in connection with these deaths: as the cause, the responsible, and, if so, how can we work for this to happen in a more responsible way, with more care and taking the responsibility as members of the ecosystem?
The lamp (Latro, by Mike Thompson) is a merely speculative piece of a possible future. How will we develop a relationship with consumption objects when they stop to be easily disposable? When we have to look after the algae so they can provide us with electric energy, how will we related with the objects? The tendency seems to be towards the reduction of waste (its what we are all trying to do) fuelled by the consumption habits we have nowadays. The piece goes in this direction by proposing the use of biological metabolisms and the establishment of symbiotic relationships between organisms. What will happen when chairs are dependent on our relationship with an organism and our capacity to maintain this organism alive, happy and healthy in order to seat pleasantly? The subject of relationships presented here may be more visible in some of the pieces (of the exhibition) than in others but is something always present in the unconscient of the individual.
The public does not expect to see a kind of work as the immersive environment (JND – Just Noticeable Difference, by Chris Salter) in an exhibition of visual arts. Firstly because it is a sound piece and the public is expecting, for a visual arts exhibition, to be stimulated visually. It stimulates, besides vision, other senses. Visual arts are currently a lot more than visual stimulation and this is part of our contemporaneity. We don’t take for granted any longer that works must be interactive to be new media, instead, there is more attention to stimulation of all the senses.
Ana Carvalho: The exhibition brings up connections as philosophical reflections as practical outcomes. Instead of an essay or a book, the public would read the author’s ideas in each artwork: taking an Utopian perspective, as is the case of the work Lampsacus by André Sier, a sensory perspective, as is the JND by Chris Salter or by exploring a connection with a historical infinite past, as is the Voltar by Shawn Brixey. All these, as all the other pieces of the exhibition seems to bring up the philosophical concern of: who are we, reinforced by the elementary materials related to each of the pieces.
Marta de Menezes: As an artist, without noticing, I end up developing work that reflects the subject of identity, related to my relationship with others, with nature, with everything that is around and the way I develop while maintaining my own identity. All my projects have somehow dealt with the subject of identity. The list of pieces I would have liked to have in the exhibition is endless. There is so much interesting and beautiful work being done all over the world and one of the criteria for the selection of work for the exhibition may have been effectively a personal interest on identity.
Ana Carvalho: All of the pieces are coming from research, produced within a laboratory environment, being it the medical laboratory, the technological or the artist laboratory.
Marta de Menezes: All of the pieces in the exhibition are product of research and result from the collaboration of the artist with other people with specific knowledge. Once again, here as well, comes to the surface the relationship between the others and us. None of the artists loose their own identity by working with other people and they are not afraid to loose it either. The works I feel more difficult to maintain this line of thought are the pieces of NetArt (The rotten machine aka the toothkess old thing, by Brian Mackern and IP Poetry by Gustavo Romano). I think NetArt continues to be new media. It is almost resolved but there is still an element to be resolved which is its relationship with the public. NetArt is difficult to be exhibited to a public – it is actually exposed to each person. One has to go online with the mind set to look for art made exclusively for the Internet. More than able to reach the interested individual, I think art lives of the attempt to reach the unattended person. How do these pieces enter the public sphere?
Ana Carvalho: By allowing those who are not aware to find something new, to surprise.
Marta de Menezes: I found important to give to the public a glimpse onto the story of NetArt so it becomes easier to understand the NetArt done today. Without knowing the story of the art on the Internet since the 1980, the 1990s to the 2000s, is much more difficult to understand current art being made with Google, with Facebook, with the new social tools. Effectively, this same problem exists across other areas of new media; the public in general has little contact with work being done currently.
Ana Carvalho: To each piece, in its identification, there is a group of materials (that specific piece is made of), such as water, bacteria, fire, and other. It somehow relates (but expands on) to the essential elements that constitute the planet.
Marta de Menezes: I got to think that the virtual uses the same materials as the real and is in fact as real as the tactile real. I didn’t want to put into relevance neither the artist nor the work but the media as vehicle of artistic expression and the way the material is used. This is the reason why the materials are highlighted.
A sound piece works with the wood and the wood is the plant (even if after its death). A piece on the Internet works with electricity, the light, it is therefore working with electrons. The same goes to a piece that works with communications, regardless if it is wireless or not. I found it important to break the hierarchy between materials as well as the hierarchy between the virtual and the tactile real. For example, we consider second life less real than our lives. What I think is that some people decided to put it in first place the same way others decide to put the other (tactile real) life in the first place. To the first group, the virtual is more real than the reality where we eat. This is a mental block that most people have, because they don’t have access to an immersive experience on second life to understand how real it is.
We are at the limit of succeeding to create artificial intelligence but part of the reason we haven’t got there yet is because conceptually we cannot conceive that artificial intelligence works with electricity. In terms of artificial intelligence, when computers start to compute and learn by themselves, that fills the criteria of intelligence, it will become a conscience being. It is too strange to us to think that something made out of plastic and metal can actually be alive. This is a conceptual frontier very difficult to overcome for the human being. But that is the step we need to take in order to break a biological limit.
Ana Carvalho: We seek conscience in other animals, which are just, as ourselves, biological. Their existence does not break that limit.
Marta de Menezes: We identify closer to animals than to computers. “Emergências” is not only about emerging (of something), but also about a certain urgency. And this is part of the play with the name. Now that I am organising other exhibitions, I continuously go back to it and think that the urgency is still there.
Ana Carvalho: You are establishing a parallel between research in science and in art and the difficulty that is to express results. Both make an effort on that direction, together.
Marta de Menezes: Because urgency exists and will continue to exist, relating to the specialised public as well as the non specialised. There is too much of a gap between what is being done and what the public is able to understand and relate to. I had the concern to choose pieces with different levels of engagement, having in mind that there are always different levels of appreciation.
I live surrounded by scientists who have the mission to explain their research to different groups both of specialists and of non-specialists. This effort has been growing, within the scientific community, from the need to make the research reach the public and therefore the current politics.
There is contemporary art being done with paint, on canvas, and makes sense to do art this way. But what about the research being done at this moment to broaden the scope of what is art? Scientific knowledge is established by scientists, the same way artistic knowledge is established by artists. The gap exists between these kinds of knowledge and the public. As biology is developing at a vertiginous pace, the knowledge in art and biology is also developing at a vertiginous pace, and the same with other areas of knowledge: scientific, technological, materials, and others. If we don’t establish bridges regularly between this artistic knowledge and the non-specialised public, it will stop being funded and then it will be really difficult to develop work.
We are already confronted with the opinion that in art is not possible to create new knowledge, which is unthinkable. I generate new knowledge; another researcher in science will generate new knowledge too. These are not of the same nature, are not measured the same way, no, but it is knowledge. I have to systematise this knowledge otherwise no one will understand what I am doing. There must be efforts to systematise the research being done in the laboratories (being in science laboratories or artists studios) and to use it, once systematised, to reach the public. Otherwise the public will not support politics that imply funding this kind of knowledge, leaving it behind.
Something we are known for is our creativity but this is a feature of other areas as well. Our value and expertise lays in knowing how to deal with scientific, philosophical, practical and sometimes basic knowledge and combine it into something new that will not diminute the value of each of these knowledges but rather makes them into something more complete. Art does not make distinctions of value between different knowledge, for example, scientific and popular knowledge – always in competition.
Ana Carvalho: This is art evolving, through experimentation, to which the exhibition “Emergências” allows a glimpse in to the possibilities.
Marta de Menezes: And things there are not too highly sophisticated. But they don’t have to be. The most advanced technology is not necessarily the most sophisticated. It is only advanced because it makes more sense now.
Ana Carvalho: Why did you chose cork raw?
Marta de Menezes: Before using the cork is necessary to understand its usefulness, the qualities of cork in order to recur to technology to transform it. Same thing with wool. Indeed, I refer to what we have in Portugal. These materials that we produce are absolutely fantastic everywhere in the world. The cork, the wool and the plants (the living being) are fundamental materials, basic and irreplaceable.
The misuse or over use of the materials compromises its origin – the wool has limits and the cork has its limits too. For example, how many more trees can we plant? What is the limit of growing of a cork tree? How can I take a position that is more useful (which may have nothing to do with more as in the degree of advanced technology)? Cork is removed from the tree in the same way for centuries and there is no possible evolution, we have tried but it damages the tree. Effectively, the cork is, in terms of cultivation, ecologically healthy because we don’t destroy the trees in the process. The same happens with wool. We have to take a position between two opposites: This is not about deleting everything from the past, nor about accepting automatically what is ahead. It is about looking for a position: there is no interest in stopping evolution; there is though an interest in directing that evolution. We cannot stop it and is good to recognise that some directions cannot be avoided – in those cases; the best way is to understand and find ways to deal with it. Where can I situate myself to understand better? Can I constantly shift between the look of the eagle and the look of the mousse? The position of the eagle allows me to see broader horizons but I need to be in the middle of it to understand the ant, everything.
Ana Carvalho: Would you like to highlight one or a few of the pieces?
Marta de Menezes: I like so much all the pieces, it is really difficult. I like very much Peter’s piece (Instrumentation, by Peter Flemming) with a resonance table and the speakers made with lockers.
Ana Carvalho: Took me a little while to find the connection between the table and objects inside the room and the three objects outside. It requires time to understand how it works.
Marta de Menezes: The crystals of ice (Voltar) are also a beautiful and complete piece. It is technically very healthy, everything there is real. Sometimes is difficult, in the exhibition space, to actually show the work without subterfuges: the crystals are what he says they are. And simultaneously include an overwhelming dimension that is capable of putting us in our place by stating that it has twenty millions of years – and I am this small.
Ana Carvalho: It is, once again, a glimpse into the past, with beauty.
Marta de Menezes: Absolutely. I find interesting the narration of the train (Train, by John Klima). It is the most personal of the pieces and shows a unique perspective on films most people know. The public travels the landscape through the interests of the artist, entering an experience which is not their own. Some other pieces have a more playful aspect.
Ana Carvalho: Another piece I was curious about is one by Maria Manuela Lopes.
Marta de Menezes: The piece (Ethology I, by Maria Manuela Lopes) has a special interest in subjects of memory, or rather about its loss. The piece is very interesting as it deals with remains of an event and I relate closely with the piece of the ice, although they have different temporal dimensions. In the ice, what the artist did was to clone a crystal of ice from the atmosphere of about twenty millions of years ago. In the atmosphere existed bacteria and virus, which are different from the ones that exist now. The memories we have from those past times are the ice crystals and the bubbles of air that still have the microorganisms. Maria’s piece is about the trace left by microorganisms, which will not come back to the same place. That is, the piece is effectively very site specific and time specific in the sense that it plays with two perceptions of time: one is the time at the beginning of the piece – as it was on the first day, uncovered – then, afterwards the time of the organisms since that first day, covered and sealed. What we see is the living traces developing, let to grow to become a different reality. They will develop patterns, which are proof that the organisms are there in continuous growth. On the first day everything is too small and the colonies have not been formed yet. They become evidence when starting to grow into bigger colonies. At some point the colonies are so big that start to compete between them. At this point this is a reality completely different from ours. We were transporters and the work is the proof or the memory of everyone who were in the first day on the exhibition.
My interest is to show significative research being done in art. Although there is research, although this is art very thought throughout the process, it is not necessary to have knowledge about science nor technology to enjoy and engage with the pieces presented at the exhibition.