|CONTEXTS AND IDENTITIES IN THE WORK OF JOSÉ CARLOS TEIXEIRA: 2003-2006|
The work of José Carlos Teixeira (Porto, 1977) is, in terms of both form and content, largely connected to the most pressing current issues, as three of his latest works, Touch I & II (2003), It’s OK (united) #1 #2 #3 – three steps to a (r)evolution (2004-06), and 38 minutes of anthropology (strangers to ourselves) (2005), clearly attest. These three devices combine performance, video and installation, in order to address, in one way or another, such issues and concepts as otherness or displacement, or the notions of limit and foreignness.Yet, while his approaches share much common and well-trodden ground with the rest of contemporary artistic production, the tensions they arouse give them a vivacity and complexity which place them quite beyond the limits of some hypothetical post-modern academic art. Far from dealing self-complacently with the topics that influence and shape the work of many current artists, José Carlos Teixeira’s videos include discordant elements and ambiguous readings that disturb their very nature. His artistic practice is clearly rooted: a unique voice, integrated in a concrete context and turned into images through specific means. We will demonstrate this over the following lines, by examining the evolution of his latest works.
It’s OK (united) #1 #2 #3 – three steps to a (r)evolution is a project in which the artist began working in late 2004, after arriving in Los Angeles to live and work there for a period of three years. This bit of biographical data may seem superfluous, but soon we will see how necessary it will be to our understanding of the guiding principles of his work during that period: almost as important as the whole of his oeuvre until then. Between 2000 and 2003, Teixeira – while living in several different cities, like Porto, Bilbao or New York – began articulating an artistic project whose main objective was the creation of forms and channels of dialogue with the people surrounding him – in other words, with his spectators – within the context of what Nicolas Bourriaud called “relational aesthetics”. This formula, the object of much praise and misgivings, was coined by the French critic to describe the work of artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick or Vanessa Beecroft, among other members of the generation that “exploded” internationally on the Summer of 1997, via their presence at the Münster sculptural project and Kassel’s Dokumenta X, and whose most notable signs of identity included a concern with performance and audiovisual media as appropriate strategies (given their temporality) to attain a more “interactive” level of communication with the public. This is another equally polemical term, but one that acts as a kind of conceptual meeting-point, in spite of the endless variety of nuances and interpretations to which it has been subjected.
The photographic project Touch I & II (2003), conceived by Teixeira during his New York stay, is a good instance of that phase in his work. During the same period, he had already completed other works with a common denominator, like O Estendal, Would you like a Fence?, or Inner.Home.Out.There (in spite of the fact that their modes of representation are widely different), in which he experimented with several devices that laid down the conceptual bases for his later pieces. In this sense, Touch already displays his concern with generating a dialogue between artist and spectator by means of the work of art. Here, the chosen approach took the form of a convocation that brought a group of people to his studio and be photographed with their eyes shut, while Teixeira caressed their faces. Focussing on notions like movement and inner experience, the objective of the work was “to explore levels of trust, empathy and intimacy, challenging [pre-established] physical and personal spaces”. Touch, which presented itself as a series of photographs organised in a pattern near a folded red blanket laid on the floor, made an intimate moment publicly visible, while literally enunciating the desire of “drawing closer” to the other, thus claiming the void between artists and their audience.
After this piece, Teixeira has continued to explore the same subject, that is to say, artistic production as a means to inter-subjective relationships, throughout his work, while considerably altering the material form he would give to his ideas and intentions.
This is what happens in It’s OK (united) #1 #2 #3 – three steps to a (r)evolution. In this video, Teixeira perfects the notions of temporality and movement already present in a clearly performative work, like Touch, in order to critically reflect on “dominant educational, socio-cultural, and political premises in the West”. Thus, and according to the artist, “Appropriating the American national anthem and creating different lyrics for such a music, [It’s OK] subverts ironically the founding principles of behaviours and attitudes taken as normal and positive.” . An idea that becomes reality via the sum of three versions of the same action as performed on three different sets: first, a collaboration with five Hispanic children in an East LA park; second, the failure of the same action in a Santa Monica high school; and finally, the successful completion of the same project with a group of teenagers in another school.
In each of these ceremonies there was a reinterpretation of the American national anthem, so often used as a nationalist cohesive element in major sporting occasions and other spectacular events. On the contrary, the first and third of the abovementioned choirs now found themselves intoning a lyric in which all values upholding the unity, coherence and “normality” of the motherland were parodically replaced by their opposites. Unlike the original, which upheld a series of stable principles, José Carlos Teixeira’s version of the anthem gives pride of place to everything against the grain:
“It’s ok to not succeed, It’s ok to fall down, It’s ok to feel lost, It’s ok to fail […]”, the first version goes, concluding in an apotheosis of uncertainty: “It’s ok to not be sure of who I am or what I want”.
The three sequences that make up It’s OK… illustrate the various rapports of their performers with the national symbols of the USA. Thus, while the Hispanic children amusedly sing a lyric that contradicts the expression of their faces, the teenagers in the second part display a very different attitude. The high school students’ faces, filmed moments before the singing was to take place, are mostly sceptic and distanced. Unfortunately – or maybe not – the event was called off by the school board, to avoid damaging the institution’s public “image”. So, we will never know how the final result would have looked like. Would it have displayed a group of languid, listless adolescents, incarnating, perhaps unconsciously, the tenor of the lyrics given to them by the artist? That is uncertain at best. Hero, Mariah Carey’s kitsch ditty which accompanies this section, ironically expresses its failure, together with a series of letters in which the school board presents its excuses for not allowing the artist to pursue his work, due to “rules and policies”. This phrase is actually repeated, rigmarole-like, at the end of the second part: “rules and policies, rules and policies, rules and policies…” On the other hand, we do know about the behaviour of the third group with which Teixeira worked. Attitudes, at least, now seem more varied. On the front, a boy sings energetically and a little jokily, a few shy girls keep their voices low and another girl refuses to sing and looks down on the table, disinterested. All this is quite normal, given their age.
In any case, we must not allow ourselves to be misled by the performers’ attitude. This, actually, was one of the guidelines – the most important, probably – in the conception of the project, regardless of the participants’ degree of collaboration, and it has proved most illuminating. The Latino children, though not very aware of the project’s meaning, seem to have found a measure of optimism in the new lyric. Life in the developed world seems to contain a certain “promise of happiness”. On the other hand, in the eyes of the North American teenagers, the words appear to have taken on a decidedly pessimistic streak. They acquire a sombre tone, which apparently indicates an absolute lack of illusions, as if the future in a rich and ostentatious society were irredeemably doomed to frustration. Such is the anxiety of those who have it all, and thus lost the desiring capacity that drives life.
Like a suburban ethnographer, Teixeira turns this work into a reflection on the effects of education on two opposite communities of the most powerful country on Earth: “natives” and “newcomers”. Those who have it all, and those who want to get it. His stance combines the “relational” concern of dialogue with the Other and the anthropologist’s outlook. It is the aesthetic approach detailed by North American art historian Hal Foster in his text “The Artist as Ethnographer” , where he stated that, just as Walter Benjamin, in 1934, had taken notice of some artists’ intention to “stand by the proletariat”, now a similar situation was taking place, only focussed on immigrant workers. Foster’s stance regarding this phenomenon is rather ambivalent. On the one hand, he acknowledges the “need” for such practices in transformative terms: “this elsewhere, this outside, is the Archimedean point from which the dominant culture will be transformed or at least subverted”, but on the other, he does not hesitate to warn about the risk in the excessive or defective identification of artists with their reference subject, causing what he calls “ideological patronage” . In a certain sense, that tension between excess and default is observable in It’s OK…; but José Carlos Teixeira incorporates it parodically in the piece, as one of its most probing dimensions.
Perhaps with this in mind, José Carlos Teixeira changed his approach in the next piece, deciding to work with people who would create distinct kinds of rapports with his new project, in order to be able to carry out a freer, more personal work, even though with a common thematic background. While the “actors” on It’s OK… were strangers to the artist, on 38 minutes of anthropology (strangers to ourselves) he is dealing with friends and more or less close acquaintances.
Consequently, and in spite of the fact that he is again dealing with such subjects as identity, displacement, home/exile dialectics or foreignness, he brings these concepts to the screen in a radically different way. Now, it takes the form of a series of conversations and interviews in which the artist has tried to create an intimate, confessional environment, so that the deepest level of the realities he intended to mirror could be approached in a “non-conclusive” way, as he phrases it.
This new approach can be observed, for instance, in the absence of a screenplay, since the participants are telling their own intimate experiences in their own words. Or in the kind of sets used, home interiors in which the speakers feel at ease. Or even in the way the picture is framed: while previously the shot was static, centred and wide (thus mimicking the position of the artist-spectator), now it becomes fragmentary, lingering over details of the person’s body, like the hands, neck or feet. Because of its more efficient use of the narrative resources of film, 38 minutes of anthropology seems more “cinematic” than It’s OK, which defines its meaning as the document of a previous action.
But the most interesting elements in 38 minutes… are found in its innovations in terms of content, even though they are surely connected with its formal changes. Now, the opinions of the interviewees are extremely important. It is no longer a matter of having them perform a pre-established theme; they are expected, instead, to express their own opinion about the experience of being a foreigner, which Teixeira will depict in a way as respectful and appropriate as possible. Their overlapping statements are full of doubts and hesitations, contradictory thoughts and paradoxes. Some feel permanently dislocated, perpetually moving around. From one place to another. “What is home, after all?” Asks one of the voices. Others, on the contrary, stress the need to feel at home while abroad, to find their roots “in the absence of a place”, while an oriental-looking speaker states that she could not return to her country but, on the other hand, would like to be buried there. We are, thus, confronted with a varied catalogue of human beings, who experience issues like globalisation, identity and displacement in many different ways. The participants’ accents create a polyphony based on the sum of manifold singularities. A myriad points of view, actually, where “through [Teixeira’s] filming, bodies become topographies”, as Elizabeth Line accurately phrases it, and which try to find a precarious balance between the extreme promiscuity of nomadic movement, so characteristic of the age of global capitalism, and the rooting of the body itself.
And it is precisely at this point, after this particular reference to “landscape”, so to speak, that the general setting, the invisible protagonist that connects the interviewees’ heterogeneous stories, makes its reappearance, revealed by a girl with South American accent: the city of Los Angeles. A space that becomes the key and consolidating element for the entire project, since, in my opinion, it would be hard to understand these works outside the experience afforded by this city, one of the places where the feeling of transitoriness and rootlessness is stronger. No wonder, then, that the most important theorist of these issues is Miwon Kwon, teacher of Art History at UCLA, and descendent of Korean immigrants. She has a theory according to which the site-specificity explored by several artists during the 1970 and theorised by Rosalind Krauss is now missing. Reasons for this, according to her, can be found in the way the world has changed during the years of globalisation that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall:
“[…] The deterritorialization of the site has produced liberating effects, displacing the strictures of place-bound identities with the fluidity of a migratory model, introducing possibilities for the production of multiple identities, allegiances, and meanings, based not on normative conformities but on the nonrational convergences forced by chance encounters and circumstances”.
However, Kwon’s theory on the fluidity of subjectivity, identity and spatiality, as defined by Deleuze and Guattari in their theory of rhizomatic nomadism, goes further than this. In her opinion, this kind of mobility-based descriptions are more than just the stuff of sophisticated discourses; they are also being manipulated by international capitalism, which has given maximum expression to this exaggerated contingency:
“The advocacy of the continuous mobilization of self- and place identities as discursive fictions, as polymorphous critical plays on fixed generalities and stereotypes, in the end may be a delusional alibi for short attention spans, reinforcing the ideology of the new – a temporary antidote for the anxiety of boredom. It is perhaps too soon and frightening to acknowledge, but the paradigm of nomadic selves and sites may be a glamorisation of the trickster ethos that is in fact a reprise of the ideology of the ‘freedom of choice’ – the choice to forget, the choice to reinvent, the choice to fictionalize, the choice to ‘belong’ anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere”.
Her argument is rounded off with a third dialectic movement:
“It is not a matter of choosing sides – between models of nomadism and sedentariness, between space and place, between digital interfaces and the handshake. Rather we need to be able to think the range of the seeming contradictions and our contradictory desires for them together; to understand, in other words, seeming oppositions as sustaining relations” .
This reflection leads her to conclude that:
“Only those cultural practices that have this relational sensibility can turn local encounters into long-term commitments and transform passing intimacies into indelible, unretractable social marks – so that the sequence of sites that we inhabit in our life’s traversal does not become generalized into an undifferentiated serialization, one place after another”.
Indeed, Teixeira’s oeuvre also deals with situating itself and understanding the interval that separates these two realities. It is concerned with avoiding the “undifferentiated serialization of one place after another”, as it looks for the “contradictions, oppositions and sustaining relations” that grow between the imposed origin of nationalism and the schizoid difference of capitalism. That is the reason why, with the introduction of this factor, Teixeira’s work seems to deconstruct itself. On the one hand, it deals with displacement, exile and constant (physical and psychological) movement; on the other, it reacts to very specific and characteristic motivations of the place in which it was conceived and filmed:
“In a time where globalization and mobility are praised as fundamental and unavoidable aspects of a new century” Teixeira tells us, “this art-documentary-video seeks the implications and effects of people's journeys and displacements” . Which leads us, having located these two specificities – medium and place – to a third one: the author, whose invisible presence as a ninth voice in the group of interviewees precisely reflects those “effects” and “displacements” that are so typical of the globalised world. And there is also his concern with finding a point of balance, as unsteady as it is unlikely, between the past and the present. He is interested in heightening the interplay between the memory of the individual and the memory of the context. His desire, in the end, is to explore the connections between identity and the different environments it inhabits.
It is thus that, finally, we may interpret the role played in 38 minutes by nostalgia and melancholy, feelings that have remained unchanged in the Portuguese community over the years. Never, supposedly, as a manipulated version, as far as Teixeira’s work is concerned: rather as a sophisticated reading of a series of memories, originally connected, in the time of the discoveries, to such notions as voyage, exploration and colonialism, and later, with emigration, to a rootless identity, divided between one’s origin and one’s destination. Sound, an element of the utmost importance in Teixeira’s oeuvre, underlines this impression. In its absence, the intimist, withdrawn and psychologically introverted tone of his aesthetic approach would be hard to understand. Similarly, the centrality of the images is strengthened by a series of intercalated texts, which act as a kind of parallel character, pondering on concepts otherwise absent from this polyphonic conversation. Thus, in accordance with Julia Kristeva’s theories in Strangers to Ourselves, José Carlos Teixeira’s work addresses the issue of the Other, not only as something different from the subject, but also as the difference that inhabits him/her.
For all these reasons, Teixeira’s recent works come across as the outcome of a dialectics between identities and contexts, between “ethnography/ies and geography/ies”, as stated in the title of the present exhibition. They are the consequence of crossing the Portuguese notion of saudade, which is basically the nostalgia of place, with the apparently “ready-made” space of Los Angeles. 38 minutes of anthropology (strangers to ourselves) is, in the end, a highly personal piece that mirrors the effects of movement on both body and subjectivity, the contingency of identity, and the artist’s experience at a given moment and place.
Pedro de Llano