Statement 05/09/2001

Senteces about Rafael França - Regina Silveira and Arlindo Machado

"...Rafael França’s prints were all similar, for him the important thing was seriality, the small differences, the in depth exploration of the same topic... This seriality, and the fact that the he always maintained the issues of time and of transformation present, brought his work over to video." "His production was vertiginous. Actually, he knew how to wrap up all these media: the street interventions, the prints, the books, the photocopies, the video. I think the Rafael was an artist with this capacity." Regina Silveira "What Rafael sought was creating fiction, but not by resorting to those seduction resources that cinema or television use to capture the spectator. So Rafael França’s videos are totally de-dramatised, they constitute a Brechtian resource in the manner of video, and not in the manner of theatre." "Rafael França is a character in his own videos, independently of the fact of him being physically there or not. For, even when an actor is playing the role, the actor is in fact playing Rafael França. That is, the universe which is being staged in França’s videos is a personal universe.... Few Brazilian artists have such a systematic oeuvre, so coherent." Arlindo Machado

Associação Cultural Videobrasil

Essay Arlindo Machado, 2001

Rafael França: Work as Testament

Rafael França's highly personal oeuvre for electronic media remains to this day not only underground, in the sense of being little seen and known, but it also constitutes a lingering gap in the reflection around Brazilian art. In a strict sense, the only systematic effort in the interpretation of this work remains the dense volume organised by Helouise Costa, Sem Medo da Vertigem (No Fear of Vertigo), published by Paço das Artes in 1997. In this sense, França's videography demands an urgent revision, so that one can finally situate his importance in the history of video art, Brazilian or international. The sudden and unexpected rediscovery of video art (in this year's Venice Biennale video predominated as the main expressive language by young artists) could be, perhaps, a good pretext to evaluate the real contribution of this Gaucho artist, who died precociously in1991, before reaching 34 years of age and after contributing in a important way to areas of painting, printmaking, performance, installation, urban intervention, curatorship, criticism and reflection on contemporary art. Rafeal França's videography is one of the most coherent e systematic in the whole history of our electronic art. It introduces and develops themes and procedures with a persistence and obsession that has no parallel any other work in this country. Such is the case with his experiences with fictional narrative. A literature lover, França adapted to video Marguerite Yourcenar's Du Vain Combat (1983) and also the short story Insônia [Insomnia] (1989) by Graciliano Ramos, besides being under the clear influence of Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson in his Reencontro [Reencounter] (1984). The relationship with literature is, indeed, one of the links between França and Gary Hill. There are, for instance, many contact points between the recreation of Graciliano Ramos by França in Insônia and of Maurice Blanchot's Thomas L'Obscur in Incidence of Catastroph (1987-88) by Gary Hill: both start off from the same initial situation - the deliriums of a man who wakes up in the middle of the night and is haunted by the ghosts emerged from his nightmares - to build disturbed narratives, in the very threshold of madness. Also in As If Exiled in Paradise (1986), a writer is terrorised by hallucinations sprouting from his writings, exactly as with Hill's Thomas. The difference is, however, that while Hill opted for the condensed and anagrammatical form of poetry, França preferred to explore the diegectic flux of fictional narrative, according to the model of prose. Narrative in an electronic medium is a particularly problematic issue in video art. In fact, few video artists ventured into the fields of fiction. In its 40 years of history, video art has accumulated few narrative experiences really worthy of attention, above all if we think of diegesis in a distinctive way, both in relation to narrative models canonised by cinema and in relation to models serialised by television. In Brazil, particularly, we have witnessed nearly no incursions into that area. Besides Rafael França, only Artur Matuk, Lucas Bambozzi and, to a certain extent, Eder Santos presents a more systematic production in this direction. In general, in the field of video art the predomination is of documentary (and its hybrid docudrama variation), performance or personal statements in the “first person” style, plastic experiments tending to the abstract, the essay or reflection about art itself, the parody or criticism of mass communication means, besides other more personal or sporadic “genders”. There has been the time when, indeed, it was supposed that video was not an adequate medium for narrative proposals, a statement that, despite being contestable on a theoretical plane, is still effectively corroborated in the medium's practice. One of Rafael França's richest veins is precisely the experimentation of creative alternatives for videographic fiction. One could go as far as saying that, excepting a rare example of a nearly documental recording - Prelude to an Announced Death (1991) - and a fake documentary - Without Fear of Vertigo (1987) - all of the other works by França are always experiences on the invention of new narratives forms for video, with no loss, however, for confessional or self-testimonial aspects, basic to this work. One should not expect, however, to find in França's videos classic narratives, in the manner of certain literature or certain cinema, not even the most open narratives, of a modern profile, according to the models of the nouvelle vague or of avant-garde cinema. França's narratives are totally experimental, absolutely elliptical and fragmentary, exploring things such as the dynamic contrast between very fast and very slow cuts, whole sequences presented frame by frame (as in a slide projection), faux raccords with sectioned planes in the sheer duration of a phrase, out-of-focus images, absence of synchrony between sound and image (dialogues with no lip synch), long silent stretches, use of different colours or black-and-white textures and so forth. As a general principle, França never resorts to seduction procedures consecrated by cinema and by television. The mise-en-scène is completely de-dramatised, decoupage progresses in a direction opposite to spectacle, discontinuity is total. Images of Rio Carnival, for instance, which would potentially seduce the spectator and evoke the local exoticism, end up completely disarticulated in O Silêncio Profundo das Coisas Mortas [The Profound Silence of Dead Things] (1988). Generally, França's characters present themselves directly to the camera, as if making a confession to the spectator. This interpellation of the audience by means of the frontal point of view of the camera and the straight gaze towards the lenses transforms the spectator into interlocutor, producing a visual uneasiness, since it is not normal that fictional characters present themselves in a narrative. In its turn, the use of inverted dialogues (presented back to front), as in many moments in Reencontro, is another element in common with the work of Gary Hill, as in the use of sound palindromes in Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (1984) and Ura Aru (The Backside Exists) (1985-86). O Silêncio Profundo das Coisas Mortas is a story of love and betrayal between two homosexual lovers, in which present and past, reality and memory, experience and desire are fused in an intricate manner and contaminated further by the interference of the social, of the urban (the city, the traffic, Carnival) in the lovers' intimacy. Reencontro seems a modern interpretation (set in the hard times of the military dictatorship, with explicit references to torture methods) of William Wilson's parable, Poe's celebrated narrative by about a character persecuted by his alter ego that ends up committing suicide to flee from himself. Getting Out (1885) is a tense and claustrophobic narrative about a woman who simulates being locked in a burning building. Combat in Vain (1984) and Fighting the Invisible Enemy (1983), in their turn, work with the creative absorption of the zapping effect (chaotic collage of images and sounds, similar to the quick scanning of television channels), in such a way as to suggest shattered narratives, splinters of a fiction, possible but not completed, one step from complete dissolution. França occupies a sui generis place in the history of Brazilian video art. He comes from Porto Alegre, outside of the Rio-São Paulo axle, where all the videographic production is concentrated, and has made a good part of his videos in Chicago, where he went to study and later taught. The technical facilities and the intellectual ambience of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago were fundamental to the development of his style, something that has happened, by the way, with other important names of Brazilian electronic art, such as Carlos Fadon and Eduardo Kac. This relative displacement forged in França's work a distinctive character, and to a certain extent, a radical one. Criticism to television and to mass media in general, as well as insubordination to market values have frequently put França in a position of antagonism with his Brazilian colleagues of the “independent video” generation. In the same way, he would be one of the first to break away from the founding generation of Brazilian video (known as the “pioneers”), where it put forward semiotic indifference, aversion to issues pertaining to the rhetoric of the medium and a certain merely instrumental conception of video, regardless the fact that he still kept the same existential stance of this generation. Indeed, França was one of the first Brazilian video artists to seriously dedicate himself to the research of the expressive medium of video and to point out creative paths for the organisation of plastic and acoustic ideas in terms of being adequate to the medium. This concern was never marginal in his work, despite the fact that semantic aspects, so strong and imposing, often foregrounding with greater emphasis, obscuring innovations in the syntactic plane. Above all, video allowed França to meditate about his biggest obsession: the fatality of death. Indeed, the theme of death (and its threshold version: suicide) cut through the whole of the videographic work of this maker, as the pathos that gives unity and coherence to the whole of his progress. The character in Reencontro is faced, suddenly, with the condition of mortality, in Getting Out he simulates his own suicide, and in O Silêncio Profundo das Coisas Mortas he plans the assassination of his unfaithful lover. At the same time, this work, of a very personal tinge, has also been centred on a dramatic question about the issue of homosexuality. One shouldn't forget that França's videographic work was built in a moment (the 80's) when Aids appears as inescapable scourge (at that time) for the homosexual and haemophiliac communities. The homosexual drama par excellence was, in that context, less social exclusion than the inevitability of death. In this sense, Without Fear of Vertigo occupies a strategic place within França's oeuvre. In this half-fictional and half-documental video, França himself and many Brazilian and American friends discuss suicide and death facing experiences. In the end, we see a supposed police suspects parade with character Peter Whitehall, condemned to five years in prison in the United States for having filmed the suicide of him partner Yann Bondy, a terminal Aids victim, instead of preventing him from taking his life. França died in 1991, himself a victim of Aids, after having offered us the most authentic testimonials of fidelity to himself. His last video, Prelúdio de uma Morte Anunciada [Prelude to an Announced Death] (1991), finished a few days before his death - knowingly so -, is a veritable celebration of the values that guided his life and that he never let go, not even in the most agonising moments of his illness. The video, in its almost absolute bareness, reminds us of Derek Jarman's Blue, also made as a kind o testament by a director in the terminal phase in the evolution of Aids. In França's work, the director himself exchanges the last caresses with his partner Geraldo Rivello, while on screen appears a list of all his Brazilian and American friends victims of Aids and the soundtrack delivers a searing interpretation of “La Traviata” by Brazilian soprano Bidu Saião, recorded in 1943. The last thing that appears on video is the phrase Above all they had no fear of vertigo, retaking the central idea in Without Fear of Vertigo: to take on, to the last consequences, life's intensity as it burns in the chest, for death is the unavoidable fate of all.

ASSOCIAÇÃO CULTURAL VIDEOBRASIL, "13º Festival Internacional de Arte Eletrônica Videobrasil" [13th Videobrasil International Electronic Art Festival]:19 to 23 September 2001, pp.140-141, São Paulo, SP, 2001.

Essay Arlindo Machado, 1997

A Radical Experience in Video Art

The first generation of Brazilian artists to dedicate themselves systernatically or sporaclicaily to video cropped up in the '70s. lt seems that the first Brazilian to publicly show works of video-art was Antônio Dias, but Dias showed his works in ltaly where he lived at the time. Critics all seem to agree that video, seen as a medium for esthetic expression, made its official appearance in Brazil in 1975 when two large shows of Brazilian video tapes were held. These shows featured the works of artists from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and were held in São Paulo and in Philadelphia.This first wave of video artists came to be known as the pioneer generation. lt is common knowledge that as of the mid '60s, many artists attempted to break away from the marketing and esthetic schemes of easel painting, seeking more dynamic materials with which to give form to their plastic ideas. Among the various alternatives proposed, one consisted of seeking material for innovative esthetic experiences in the technologies created by the image-generating industries as is the case of photography, cinema (Super-8, 16 mm), and video. Video was given preference due to its low production cost, its absolute independence of development and sound labs - which during the period of military dictatorship served as production-inspection centers - and above all, due to the fleeting and anamorphic characteristics of the electronic image, more suitable for plastic treatment. This preference for the electronic medium in the quest for alternatives in the expression of creative ideas was to encourage the appearance of the esthetic phenomenon of video-art in the Brazilian context. In Brazil, the whole first generation of video creators was made up of names already well known, or in the process of becoming well known, in the universe of the plastic arts.This was the case of names such as Antônio Dias, Anna Bella Geiger, José Roberto Aguilar, lvens Machado, Letícia Parente, Sônia Andrade, Regina Silveira, Júlio Plaza, Paulo Herkenhoff, Regina Vater, Fernando Cocchiarale, Mary Dritschel, Paulo Bruscky, and so many others. Video-art was thus already born as an integral part of the project of expansion of the plastic arts, as a medium among other media, but in the artist's creative process it never came to be seen as exclusive. At times it was even difficult to understand video art works outside of the overall context of the author's work. There was as yet no attempt made to explore the possibilities of a language actually inherent to video, except in one isolated case or another, at times even in an accidental manner. This situation was only to change a little later, when a new generation, more committed to exploration of the rhetorical resources of the electronic image, finally appeared on the scene.This was to be the generation of Rafael França. However, França occupies an intermediate position within the history of Brazilian video art, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, a transient position. On one hand, he is an artist who is out of place in relation to the Brazilian video-art movement since he is a "gaúcho" (from the State of Rio Grande do Sul), and therefore extrinsic to the Rio-São Paulo axis that featured the greatest concentration of Brazilian video-art production. França carried out a sizable portion of his videographic work in Chicago where he initially went to study and later to teach. In addition, he is a contemporary of the second generation of Brazilian video, known more generically as the generation of independent video. The horizon of this generation is no longer the sophisticated circuit of museums and art galleries, but the mass universe of television and the attempt to conquer a more extensive public - a public not necessarily made up of initiates or specialists. Quite symptomatically, this second wave of artists was opposed to the video-art of the pioneers due to its tendency to feature documentaries and social themes. However, França never bowed down passively to the generation of independents. He staunchly retained his critical view of television, and like the whole pioneer generation, he felt that video was something quite different, something along the line of a significantly dense and radical operation that, without concessions, could never penetrate household screens. França was also skelptical about the main divulgation circuit set up by the independents - that of the video festivals - which he found lacking in seriousness, very little concerned with esthetic concepts, and more interested in revealing talents to the market. Although he appeared later than the pioneer generation - which soon abandoned video and went on to other plastic experiments - França was one of the few who remained faithflul to his basic principles and carried on with his tradition throughout the '80s. Actually, most of the works produced by the first generation consisted basically of registering the artists' performance gestures. The fundamental device of the first Brazilian video consisted nearly exclusively of the artist-camera confrontation. To exemplify, in one of the most disturbing works of the '70s, artist Letícia Parente embroidered the words "Made in Brazil" on the soles of her own feet pointed at the camera in a big close-up. In a certain sense, the experience of the Brazilian pioneers echoes a certain American video circle of the same period, represented by people such as Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, and Peter Campus, whose work, as Rosalind Krauss noted at the time, consisted of placing the artist's body between two machines (the camera and the screen), to produce an instantaneous image, like that of Narcissus viewing himself in a mirror. No one did a better job of carrying on the esthetic project of the pioneers - formal simplicity, moderate use of technology - "narcissistic" insertion of the image of the actual artist, public self-exhibition - than Rafael França. As was the case in nearly all the work of the first generation, the main character of França's videos is almost always he himself, either featured personally as an actor, or projecting himself in another. In video, França found a suitable medium to meditate and speculate on his own interior conflicts, above all, on his greatest obsession - the fatality of death. His work, of a quite personal nature, was also centered on a dramatic self-questioning as to the issue of homosexuality. Perhaps it could be said that "Without Fear of Vertigo" occupies a strategic place in his work. In this video, França himself and several American and Brazilian friends discuss experiences of suicide and of facing death, exactly at a moment (1987) when AIDS gradually begins to appear as a scourge, but a scourge that, up to that time, was restricted to the homosexual community. At the end of the same work, the artist shows the assumed police questioning of Peter Whitehall, condemned to five years in prison in the United States for having collaborated in the suicide of his companion,Yann Bondy. França died of AIDS in 1991 after having presented us with one of the most authentic testimonials of his faithfulness to himself. His last video, "Prelude to an Announced Death" (1991), finished only a few days prior to his death, is a true celebration of the values that guided his life, values that he never relinquished, not even in those moments of greatest agony of his illness. In the video, França himself exchanges caresses with his companion, Geraldo Rivello, while the names of all his Brazilian and American friends who died of AIDS appear on the screen and the sound track features a dilacerating interpretation of La Traviata sung by Brazilian soprano Bidu Saião, recorded in 1943. The last thing that appears on the video is the text: "Above all they had no fear of vertigo", which clearly links Without to Prelude. lf on one hand França carried on in the '80s the esthetic project of the pioneers in terms of existential posture, radical nature of the undertaking, and refusal to be subordinated to market values, on the other hand, he was also a pioneer in breaking away from this project in as regards its semiotic indifference, its aversion to issues related to the rhetoric of the medium and a certain merely instrumental concept of video (video as a mere recording device). In fact, França was one of the first Brazilian video producers to devote himself seriously to the expressive media of video and to point out creative ways to organize plastic and acoustic ideas in terms of suitability to the medium. This concern was never marginal in his work, despite the fact of the semantic aspects, so strong and imposing, often leaping more emphatically to the forefront, obscuring his innovations on the syntactic level. lt must be kept in mind that França, besides being a producer, was also a researcher of electronic media: he taught, wrote for newspapers and art journals, handled the curatorship of video-art exihibitions, and it is impossible to imagine that all this metalinguistic activity had no repercussion on his work. On the contrary, França's ideas about the expressive potential of the video contaminated not only his own work, but the work of many of his contemporaries of the independent video generation as well. lt could even be said that several generations of Brazilian video-artists developed thanks to the ideas and courses that he pointed out. Even now, França's videos constitute one of the best repertoires of creative ideas ever made in Brazil, and could be serving as a source of inspiration to new generations, if it weren't for the fact that everything that is good in our poor colonized culture is immediately relegated to the underground. Let us take a look at an eloquent example. Ever since the origins of video-art in the '60s, one of the most complicated discussions, and which to date has not been entirely resolved, has to do with the problem of fiction in the electronic medium. There are those who have defended the idea that video is not a suitable medium for narrative proposals, an idea which, although it may be debatable on the theoretic level, is corroborated by the effective practice of the medium. Actually in its slightly less than forty years of history, video art accumulated scant narrative experiences truly worthy of attention, while television, on the other hand, demonstrated that the narrative form (serials, soap operas) proposed for the small screen were never really more than mere stylizations or dilutions of models provided by the big screen, the movie industry. One of the richest features of the work of Rafael França is exactly the experimentation of creative alternatives for videographic fiction. lt could even be said that, with the exception exactly of the two works mentioried above - Prelude and Without, rare examples of documental recordings in França's work - the remaining works are always experiments of invention of new narrative form-is for video, but without ever relinquishing his most basic confessional or self-witnessing aspect. Moreover, one does not expect to find in França's videos any classical narratives, like certain types of literature or cinema, that accustomed us to some canonical models of fiction. França's narratives are totally experimental, absolutely elliptical and uncontinuous, exploring things such as the dynamic contrast between very quick and very slow cuts, whole sequences presented frame-by-frame (like the projection of slides), faux raccords with planes split in the midst of a phrase, images out of focus, a lack of synchronization between sound and image, dialogues presented backwards, the use of different textures of colors or black and white, and so on. O Silêncio Profundo dos Coisas Mortas (The Profound Silence of Still Lives, 1988) for example, is a story of love and betrayal between two homosexual lovers, where past. and present, reality and memory, experience and desire are intricately mingled as well as contaminated by the intrusion of the social, the urban (the city, traffic, carnival) the lovers' intimacy. Reencontro (Reencounter, 1984) gives the impression of a modern interpretation (set in the hard times of the military dictatorship, with explicit references to methods of torture) of the parable of William Wilson, the famous narrative by Poe about a character pursued by his alter ego, and who ends up killing himself to escape from himself. "Getting Out" (1985) is a tense and claustrophobic narrative about a woman who simulates the situation of being locked up at home in a building that catches fire. In their turn, "Combat in Vain” (1984) and "Fighting the Invisible Enemy" (1983) work with a creative absorption of the zapping effect (chaotic paste-up of images and sounds, similar to quick scanning of television channels), in such a way as to suggest shattered narratives, just a step from complete dissolution. To this effort to renew fiction in the electronic medium, another, equally systematic, must be added: that of re-interpreting video's techinical resources from the inventive and authorial viewpoint. Unlike a large portion of his colleagues of the independent video generation, França did not allow himself to be seduced by the machines of effects, increasingly frequent in electronic media, but nor did he simply reject them. On the contrary, he was one of the few creators who seriously devoted himself to study the expressive functionality of each of these effects, in terms of their dramatic yield. For example, in "Insomnia" (1989), a free adaptation of a text by Graciliano Ramos, once again set in a homosexual context, one can see a quite contained and nearly minimalist use of certain digital effects used on television, such as the compression of the image, or the multiplication of screens within the videographic frame. França went so far as to make a version of this video for video-wall, a device characterized by excessive and spectacular presentation, used almost exclusively in the realm of advertising. In this version, he manages what up to then had seemed impossible: an intimate, concentrated, and reflexive use of the video-wall, thus successfully placing it at the service of the narration instead of technological ostentation. For a generation that grew up subject to the excessive images of MTV, França's intervention worked as an illuminating and necessary counterpoint.

MACHADO, Arlindo. "Uma Experiência Radical de Videoarte". In: "Sem Medo da Vertigem" (org. Helouise Costa). Editora Marca D'agua. São Paulo, 1997.