Rafael França: Work as Testament

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posted on 07/20/2020
Text by Arlindo Machado from the catalogue of the 13th Festival (2001)

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 in 1991, 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.

Rafael 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 Catastrophe" (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.

Download the catalogue of the 13th Festival.