Essay Juliana Monachesi, 06/2007

The Catch-22 of Luciano Mariussi

Entre gritando [Enter screaming], a work by Luciano Mariussi presented in Panorama MAM 2005, features some of the hysteria surrounding contemporary art. Hysteria of misunderstanding, let it not be mistaken. The artist’s proposal was as follows: whoever would scream, “I know what contemporary art is” upon stepping into the Modern Art Museum of São Paulo would earn a discount of 1 Brazilian real at the entrance. The difficulty in personifying the visitor idealized by Mariussi was twofold: people in general were embarrassed by the remote hypothesis of making a screaming entrance—whatever it was that they would be screaming—into a museum; furthermore, they had to deal with the question “have I got any idea of what contemporary art is?” In addition to entering the museum screaming, a behavior that does not comply with any rules of conduct in art premises, the challenge consisted in yelling, at the top of one’s lungs, something that was probably a lie. What if the discount would only be granted if one delivered a definition of contemporary art?

There was too much at stake for 1 real. In the three or four visits I made to the Panorama, I did not bear witness to a single brave screamer winning the discount at the ticket office. But there are accounts from the museum, as the artist told me, of people who took a chance, mostly children. The work was, in fact, a trap (a conceptual one, of course. Whoever yelled “I know what contemporary art is” won a discount without having to explain their knowledge of art to anybody). It was a friendly invitation to win a discount (who does not like a promotion?), which, in a contradiction of terms, would inhibit visitors from pleading their well-deserved discount. The work was paralyzing, although it announced itself as a proposal for action. A summoning into action that was destined to fail. This somewhat perverse strategy is typical in the production of this artist from the state of Paraná. Take, for instance, the works Jogo para jogador inepto (1999) or Unfriendly (2001) and the strategy, with variations in the mode of application, can be witnessed (and enjoyed) again.

More than the paradox, the criticism, and the questioning that are present in Entre gritando, what pleases me the most in the work by Luciano Mariussi for the Panorama 2005 is its very physical presence: for more than three months, the front of one of the city’s major museums had imprinted on it the affirmative imperative of the verb “to enter,” followed by the gerund of the verb “to scream.” In this large-sized advertisement (the remaining information, “...I know what contemporary art is and earn a discount of 1 Brazilian real at the entrance of MAM,” appeared in proportionally “tiny” letters) there lies the major subversion that the work promoted. If it were nowadays, in the times of the “operation visual cleansing” promoted by Kassab,(1) mayor of the city of São Paulo, the lettering at MAM would be even more subversive. The fact is that the presence of this “enter screaming” shouting out at the entrance of the museum gave way to lots of free association of ideas. Besides being a trap, the work was also a charade: contemporary art is... to insert noise into everyday life, and to make people think or wonder.

The binomial embarrass/make think or paralyze/call into action, hereby described as “perverse strategy,” permeates all the production of Luciano Mariussi. In the documentary series comprised of the works Não entendo (1999), Estética (2002), and of three other projects, which are still works-in-progress, the artist uses a “journalistic” approach—a simple camera and a microphone in hand—to talk to people on the streets or in an art venue, and steal a statement off them, point-blank.

Não entendo was a work made in the downtown streets of the city of Curitiba. A film crew would approach unsuspecting passersby and ask them a question about art, in languages other than Portuguese. Not understanding what they were asked, the people would react with discomfort and, invariably, they would say something like “não entendo” [I do not understand]. According to the artist: “The word ‘art,’ which was always mentioned and which has a similar pronunciation in many different languages, was the unifying thread in the interviews, being one of the few words that the public would understand. The answers were filled with estrangement: ‘Art? I do not understand!’ In the video edit, the question was removed, leaving just an answer filled with embarrassment. In addition to the answers, the edit also emphasized silence, which was also frequent, because the subject approached did not flow as in a regular interview. Maybe the typical journalistic approach, already familiar to the passersby, and used here as a trap, has contributed to the feel of discomfort that dominates the video.”(2)

The target of the artist in this video performance is clear: the incommunicability between lay public and art. The strategy to attain the goal of portraying so well and to what extent this abyss is clear to see was questioned in different occasions when the video was shown. But given the presentation of the work, the questions omitted, those who do not understand are the very members of the art audience. Both the layman who was made to feel embarrassed by the artist, which would give way to ethical questionings, and the expert, equally embarrassed for not understanding the work, are in the same situation. The same holds true for the video Estética, the interviews of which were recorded at the opening of an exhibition, held in 2000 at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Paraná.

“Contrary to Não entendo, the focus of attention in Estética is not the manipulation and distortion of the interviews conducted, but rather the integrity of the thoughts formulated by interviewees. This video was made during a contemporary art exhibition featuring several important names in Brazilian art, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art – MAC in Paraná. Visitors at the museum were invited to do a reading of the artwork on display, expressing their doubts and (un)certainties regarding contemporary art. The comments are shown in their near-entirety. The video edit favors comments that reach a conclusion, because for this work it was important that each interviewee’s line of thought was exposed,”(3) explains Luciano Mariussi.

To the viewer of the video Estética, due to the camera angle that the artist used—never showing the work that the visitor at the MAC exhibition is commenting on—, the position of doubt and uncertainty that the interviewees experience coincides with the position in which the video itself puts the “metavisitor”: he who observes the visit of the other. Despite the fact that Estética virtually does not manipulate the verbal content of interviews, differently from the approach adopted in the edit of Não entendo, this video manipulates the context in which the set of interviews took place, thus rendering viewers equally unable to grasp the meaning of the “documentary film” that they are viewing. The comments that the interviewees make, some more consistent than the others, some more timid than others, begin to apply to art in general, including the video Estética: the comments are vague, unsure, reluctant. The video is a portrait—or a mirror, as suggested by artist Ana González in an analysis of the work of Luciano Mariussi(4)—of the experience that the contemporary art audience, lay or not, has in the exhibitions that they visit.

The question, then, is: how much of documentary film do these works really contain? A comment that the artist made on his Não entendo video allows us to explore other implications of his work, which flirts with documentary film: “Another important fact in the making of the video was an aggressive tone, adopted by the film crew, upon recording the interviews. This procedure, imposing and embarrassing, was in keeping with the key concerns I had then: the passivity of the viewer when facing contemporary art, and the great power of manipulation exerted by the mass media, combined with the passive acceptance and the lack of knowledge of this power. This last question elicits another question, about the subjective vantage point of documentary films for television and cinema, which are always viewed with a certain ‘aura’ of objective, impartial understanding of the world.”(5)

This is not a new discussion, but the recent flood of artwork that stand on the verge of documentary film—for which a quick, synthesized genealogy could be traced, going back to the Documenta 11 (2002), including, in the Brazilian context, the curatorship of Catherine David, “A respeito de situações reais” (Paço das Artes, 2003), and the 27th Bienal de São Paulo (2006)—makes this a flaming issue. The 1980s are usually regarded by art critics and historians alike as a reflux of conceptual practices from the two previous decades. The reply to the dematerialization of art was the “comeback of painting.” Art, in the 1990s, was characterized most of all by the subjectivity, the “alienation” to which artists in the first decade of the 21st century reacted with political involvement and activist practices.

The reductive schematics in the paragraph above aside, the fact is that art in the present decade, obviously synchronous with the antiglobalization and antiglobal corporation movements (i.e., contrary to the new economic configuration, described as postindustrial, with all its hazardous consequences to environment, to work, to identities, etc.), seems to have turned to rules that were in effect in the 1960s and 1970s, but with a different approach. In the more restricted field of flows and refluxes of artistic traditions, the dominant practice is the adoption of a stance (favorable, contrary, critical or not) with regard to the emergence of the Internet as a means for circulation and diffusion of mass communication. Once again in schematic, reductive terms, the production that characterizes the present times is that which deals with (or engages itself in) political, environmental, and/or media-related issues.

Taking all of this into account, although in very general terms, it is interesting to notice the play between art and documentary film that Luciano Mariussi proposes to us. By means of a critical view of the media formats that the contemporary person experiences in his/her daily life, from television to cinema, from documentary (through photography, television, or cinema) taken for reality, to the game taken for pure virtuality, from the computer to the cell phone, etc., the artist creates his works or actions (the ultimate goal of which is to become works as well) using disruptive elements in terms of the parameters known and adopted regarding each of those formats. The disruptions that the artist promotes specifically regarding the game and computer formats will be dealt with further on.

Still in Mariussi’s documental series, which, as stated in the beginning of this essay, is comprised of three other projects, which are currently underway, the art vs. viewer relation unfolds into forays into the relations between artist and circuit, art and discourse (in the form of accounts from art critics and curators), and art and value. Two videos will result, for instance, from the artist’s experience as a guest at the 61st Salão Paranaense (2005), at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) in Curitiba, and as the author of a proposal for an odd division of the annex space at the Laura Marsiaj gallery, in Rio de Janeiro, during his solo exhibition held at the gallery, between April and May 2006, entitled Aluga-se.

In the room that was made available to him at MAC, in 2005, the artist organized a group exhibition featuring the work of artisans who usually sell their items at a fair in the surroundings of the museum, in Curitiba. The work, recorded from the negotiation with painters and the request for the canvasses to be loaned until the day of the vernissage, under the title Exposição de arte contemporânea, according to Mariussi, aimed at promoting the displacement of objects that belonged in a circuit parallel to the art circuit, bringing them into the established circuit. In Aluga-se the procedure was similar: in an answer to an announcement, made by the artist, that in the exhibition room in the annex space of the gallery, in which he had been invited to carry out a project, lots in different sizes and prices were available for rent for the duration of the exhibition, artists of all kinds (and members of various “art circuits”) closed deals and exhibited whatever they wanted to for a month at Laura Marsiaj.

The shape that these actions are going to take when all of the recorded material is edited will determine the reading that one can make of the works, but in both cases, one can notice an unfolding, in the artist’s research, of the binomial “paralyze/summon into action,” always by means of an element that disrupts the traditional rules of conduct in the art medium. By choosing to turn these events—the lay public being approached in the streets, the random request for a guided visit made to visitors at an exhibition, the short circuit of showcasing works of a different nature than that which the viewer expects to find in spaces dedicated to contemporary art, etc.—into documentary videos, Luciano Mariussi widens the spectrum, both in terms of audience, and of possible layers of interpretation for his work. And he also chooses to “drive” the interpretation according to his “perverse strategy” for relating with the audience.

But who is it that still entertains illusions of any type of pure, simple relation—direct, without any intermediation—between art and the audience? The “perversion,” in the sense of a “corrupted” relation (how difficult it is to avoid terms with a pejorative connotation!) with art, is the rule, and not the exception. Luciano Mariussi makes art with the spirit of his time, for the people of his time. The utopia of “aesthetic fruition,” of the appropriate time to take in each “aesthetic experience,” of the full, unrestricted reach—related to Enlightenment, if you like—to an “aesthetic culture” is not in the horizon of the artist.

And his nondocumental works are the ones that best make clear this contemporary stance: Jogo para jogador inepto (1999), a 3D video simulating a game environment, with corridors leading to other corridors in a sort of endless maze, which the camera travels, playing the “role” of the game player; Unfriendly (2001), a computer interface featuring several familiar tools—such as “create,” “show,” “insert,” “help,” etc.—, but which are completely unfriendly when one tries to interact with the software; and Entre (2003), an installation in a closed room, consisting of four video projections that show life-sized characters addressing the visitor using aggressive language, attempting to drive him/her out of the room. Those who want to enter, those who have the courage scream.

(1) Who decided to have all outdoors and advertising removed from commercial storefronts in the city; the last act of our mayor was to forbid feirantes (street market vendors) from yelling: sound-cleansing operation; why does not he dedicate himself to solve the problems of unemployment and lack of habitation in São Paulo, instead of impersonating [former mayor] Jânio Quadros?

(2) MARIUSSI, Luciano. “Não entendo – Entre o documentário e a videoarte,” text published on the Web site of the Federal University of Paraná, as part of the project “MUVI – Museu Virtual de Artes Plásticas”; the entire text is available HERE.

(3) MARIUSSI, Luciano. “Estética – A inclusão do espectador dentro da obra,” text published on the Web site of the Federal University of Paraná, as part of the project “MUVI – Museu Virtual de Artes Plásticas”; the entire text is available HERE.

4) GONZÁLEZ, Ana. “Espectador: apreciador ou consumidor?” Specialization (History of Art) – School of Music and Fine Arts of Paraná, Curitiba, 2004, pp. 41–43, quoted by Luciano Mariussi in “Estética – A inclusão do espectador dentro da obra,” as in footnote no. 3. (5) Ditto as in footnote no. 2.

Interview Paula Alzugaray, 06/2007

Why have you chosen the documentary film format to think about the relations between art and the audience, which lie at the core of your recent artistic reflections?

The documentary film is a format that can be discussed within the field of arts, since several artistic processes are ephemeral, hence they are strong candidates to documenting. A problem I perceive is that not everyone who needs some sort of documental recording is aware that they are also conceptually rebuilding their work, and not just changing their support. The documental format, to me, is more of a learnt strategy than it is an actual document. If we look at the history of documental filmmaking, we will notice that strategies change radically. What was regarded as documentary film, decades ago, is now perceived as a language filled with exaggerations. Fictional works can still be found that are based on a documental language, and which use it to achieve greater effectiveness regarding the audience. The Blair Witch Project was effective thanks to this procedure. The borders are diluted, or rather, they have never actually existed. That which has always changed is our perception regarding this format.

What is your relation with documentary film? Which filmmakers attracted your attention and contributed to your own process?

I think my main influences in the field of film (documentary or otherwise) were the work of the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and of the American Michael Moore. Generally speaking, Michael Moore is not fully understood. I always hear comments about the political content, and about how much he manipulates information. But this manipulation is the gateway into a more conceptually complex territory, which is precisely the field of arts. The discussion involving the documentary film format is not recent at all, it was born along with film itself. The Lumière brothers, for example, would ask passersby not to look at the camera, i.e., there was acting involved. And the entire history of documentary film is filled with similar examples: Flaherty, Grierson, Rouch... Makhmalbaf’s films, on the other hand, are extremely documental, although they are not categorized as documentary films. Films such as Salaam Cinema and A Moment of Innocence attest to the bluntness of that thinking about the experience of reality versus the representation of reality. The same applies to a large share of Iranian cinema. Jafar Panahi was another strong influence on me, as were the realistic movements in the first half of the 20th century.

How do you regard the recent convergence of art and documentary film? Do works dedicated to producing recordings of the world establish a more direct communication channel with audiences?

I am not certain whether it is more direct or not, but I have noticed that the procedure is effective. The documentary film was born along with cinema, and since the video started being used in the artistic field, there also arose a documental approach toward recording performances. To create “documents” has always been a concern in the arts. If not a document of the real world, then a document of a way of thinking.
A significant share of current artistic production seeks to promote channels for dialogue with the audience. Your career, though, has been dedicated to disclosing the embarrassment of the public inside museums. How do you regard the strategies in contemporary art that are aimed at bringing art and the public closer together?
They are all strategies for bringing art and the public together. To promote channels for dialogue, and to lay bare the problems in the relation between art and the public are part of a same desire for communication.

Do you see any connection between initiatives for art as social intervention, and documental art initiatives?

I believe that they pertain to the same line of thought, although the connection is not an obvious one. Art seems to want to incorporate life, despite being part of it. “Reality” has become a strategy for promoting nearness, it is no longer enough to represent it. “Reality” is no longer even raw material. It is the artwork in itself.

What are you aiming for with the provocations in your documentary films and actions: to contribute to the eradication of the public’s intimidation in such a special world as that of the “white cube,” or to pour salt in the wound and stir up these conflicts?

The passivity of the public and its non-reaction in their confrontation with artwork is frustrating to me. I try not to leave room for the viewer to be passive, if that is possible. In my work, somehow, I attempt a closer contact with the audience. To elicit a process of reflection is the least that an artist can hope for.

Interventions in museum windows and fronts are part of this series of works of yours about the relation between art and public. But here you seem to have opted for not recording videos. Why not document the reactions elicited by the work?

The recordings were planned to be included in the window works, they were not made due to technical issues. All of my other works, such as interventions in museums and galleries, have unfolded into other video works, even if they were projects, and were not concluded to the fullest. The video recording becomes a work in itself, which can no longer be called a recording. It is derived from the intervention, but it discusses and proposes other issues, pertaining to its own linguistic realm.

Ever since artists transformed artwork into actions, documenting became a vital part of the artistic work process. What is the importance of documental procedures to your actions?

When I think about a work, its unfoldings and derivations are already part of it. The documenting in text, photography, and video becomes a necessity, because that is how the work leaves a more closed-off circuit, and is able to expand and reverberate in other points. What would have been of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty without recordings in text, photo, and video?

Performance also plays an important role in your strategies. In Entre, there is the theatrical performance. In Não entendo, you seem to use the news report language to carry out a performance act. How do those elements—theatricality and performance—articulate in your work?

The theatricality in the Entre installation was unintentional. On the contrary: it was something that I tried to avoid, but couldn’t, when directing the actors. Later on, I ended up incorporating that information into the work. Not fully satisfied, I sought, instead of actors, artists who could give their statements with a little more knowledge of what they were talking about. I redid the same installation during an exhibition I had in the U.S., using local artists, and the tone of the work changed considerably. Both versions contain acting (by actors or by artists), but the same issue can be raised as in the discussion between documentary film and fiction. It is an imprecise interface, which depends upon the perception of those who relate to the work.

In some of the texts in your master’s course conclusion paper you claim that, by discussing art and the audience, you discuss your own self. Why has that issue become so important to your process?

Self-portrait. I think that is a keyword for relating to my work. All of the issues discussed by me are not simply theoretized. Firstly, they spring from my own experience as a viewer, and only then they are confronted with an audience. Generally speaking, most artists make self-referencing work, and the ones I make are, to me, objects of personal study. My relation with contemporary art is conveyed as an experience to other viewers.

Comment biography Paula Alzugaray, 06/2007

Luciano Mariussi entered the artistic career through the doorway of engraving, by holding a solo exhibition at the Solar do Barão, in Curitiba, in 1996, and participating in group exhibitions, such as Gravadores Contemporâneos do Paraná, at Paço Imperial, in Rio de Janeiro, 1997, and Mostra Rio Gravura, at Museu da República, in 1999. Nevertheless, the comfortable situation provided by the medium is soon put in check, as the artist defines himself through a research in art and technology. “In my work with engravings, I felt a lot of receptiveness from the public. But the answers I obtained were seldom profound, and visuality was always in the spotlight. It was after that visual ‘success’ and conceptual failure that I changed my entire line of research, in order to investigate that relation,” says the artist.

It is a paradox that Mariussi’s interest in the public’s estrangement, when faced with art and new technologies, derives precisely from the relation of love that that same audience establishes with his graphic work. But this is how it happened, and that relation, formerly based on the pleasure of visuality, is later converted into a sort of confrontation. “Estrangement” becomes the keyword that drives Mariussi’s research after the making of the video Não entendo, in 1999. In the video, the artist appropriates himself of the television news report mechanisms, subverting them as he approaches passersby on the streets, and asks them questions about art in foreign languages. In other words, any familiarity that interviewees might feel with regard to a hypothetical journalistic approach is instantly reverted into a reaction of estrangement.

What takes place here is a metalinguistic critique of the artistic and media discourses using visuality and narrativity, one that is conceptually rooted in the work of artists such as Gary Hill, Pierrick Sorin, Tadeu Jungle, Rafael França, Paulo Bruscky, and Bruce Nauman. Não entendo, according to Luciano Mariussi, features strategies similar to those in the video Heróis da decadên(s)ia (1987), by Tadeu Jungle and Walter Silveira, in which a supposed journalist starts interviews on the street, and surprises by asking nothing whatsoever.

The research that began in Não entendo is a critique of two forms of mediation: that which institutions promote between the artwork and the audience, and that which the means of communication promote between event and society. Initially using the video documentary format—Não entendo and Estética (2002)—, this critique later on takes the form of interventions, in the projects Vitrines, from 2002 to 2005, and Aluga-se, at Galeria Laura Marsiaj, in Rio de Janeiro, in 2006. In his documentary films, the artist lays bare both communication gaps between art and public, and gaps between the experience of reality and its representation. Whereas Não entendo discusses manipulation of reality, Estética approaches the discourse about art and the confrontation between viewer and artwork.

The reflexive character of these works gave birth to Mariussi’s master’s course conclusion research, which he finished in 2005 at the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo. Entitled Arte X Público: uma leitura poética mediada pela tecnologia [Art x public: a poetic reading mediated by technology], the paper reflects on how the artwork relates to the audience, thinking about the ways in which the format or medium that is used influences that mediation. In 2005, when he received an invitation to teach classes in cinema history and language at the graduate course in design of the SENAC University Center, Mariussi left Curitiba for São Paulo. Presently, he also teaches at the postgraduate course in film, video, and photography of Centro Universitário Belas Artes. 

At the course, Luciano Mariussi, the teacher, is able to reflect on and interact with one of the issues intrinsic to the work of Luciano Mariussi, the artist: the intersection between film and visual arts. “In the classes, I practice a mental exercise and a reflection about the procedures and strategies in contemporary art. By contemporary art I mean everything ranging from performance to digital cinema, and internet-based art,” he says. 

Bibliographical references 06/2007

Itaú Cultural
The entry on Mariussi in the Itaú Cultural Encyclopaedia of Visual Arts contains a brief biography, a résumé, bibliographical references taken from published catalogues, and an excerpt from the introduction text written by critic Tadeu Chiarelli for the exhibition Imagem experimental: Paulo D’Alessandro e Luciano Mariussi, held at MAM Higienópolis, in 2000