If My Grandmother Was a Historian
Solo Exhibition in conversation with the curator Elena Agudio, Atelierhof Kreuzber, Berlin, Germany 2015
If My Grandmother Was An Historian is a solo show by Márcio Carvalho in conversation with the curator Elena Agudio. The exhibition tries to look at different cultural models of remembering and forgetting. It performs different types of interferences and perturbations on found objects as a way to think about the delicate processes of memory formation in individuals and groups. By disrupting a universe of stories, metaphors, images and other forms of action and imagination, Carvalho tries to look at the ways by which autobiographical memories are formed by collective stories and how collective history can be disrupted by individual remembrance.
Elena Agudio to Marcio Carvalho
EA - Marcio, the new projects and works you are presenting in "If my Grandmother was an historian" are the result of a process of appropriation and negotiation with some found books, photographies and objects that you have been collecting in the past year. As you explained me, each of these remains have been materializing on your research path as sort of epiphanies of both a collective and a personal history, as crystallizations sprout at the crossroad of forgotten past narratives and of your own autobiographical memories. I am interested in the act of negotiation between these two entangled dimensions. Which were the narratives that have been triggered your own remembrances and which the autobiographical stories that have challenged a certain common sense of the history that we are sharing? And, what if your grandmother was an historian?
MC - In 1866 my great-great-great-grandfather was obliged to choose between going to the army, and maybe to a war, or going to a Portuguese colony to work as a farmer. At that time he was 18 years old. He chose the 2nd option and left Azores for Angola. When he arrived he met an Angolan girl, they felt in love and a new chapter of my family was born. All my family, from the part of my father, was generated after this encounter. During the war for independence of Angola almost all my family had to exile themselves in Portugal. At that time Portugal was still suffering from the repercussions of the dictatorship. In general Portuguese people were very conservative and saw my family as a threat. They were mistreated and were constantly a target of prejudice.
Although I was born in Portugal, I always felt different from my colleagues at school. In the history classes we use to talk about the kings of Portugal, theirconquers and heroes. But at home the heroes were different. They were all coming from Angola, and they were contemporaries of my family. At home was quite normal to listen to Rui Mingas music (one of those heroes), especially on Sunday mornings. At night around the dinner table elder and young components of my family went through different scenarios of Angola where many extraordinary events took place. After so many years and so many family meetings, I embodied many of those stories, contexts and landscapes as my own. I had so clear images of Angola and its landscapes that I could tell those stories myself, with the same intensity of those that really experienced them. The fact that I passed all my life listening to Angolan music in my fathers old cassette player, eating Angolan food made by my mother and grandmother, listening Portuguese from Angola, etc., helped me consolidating those memories as mine. Today, I can say that my autobiography was and is still made by many things that although I never experienced I do have in my body as my own.
For the last 3 years all my research and practice have been dealing with memory, especially with the ways we remember and forget as individuals and groups. It was after I started to deal with my autobiographical events that I understood that we cannot separate individual memory from collective memory. That my brain was not a stable reservoir of memories, but a potential generator of existing and non-existing data. It was after some collaborations with professionals, that afterwards became my friends, e.g. Christoph Ploner (neuroscientist), Jens Brockmeier, (psychology, language studies) and the curators of SAVVY Contemporary art space in Berlin, that my notions of memory became more that a mere remembrance of past events but a way to look at the present time stories and a way to elaborate alternative, individual and collective, narrations.
If my grandmother was an historian she would remember about all the great achievements carved on the Portuguese history, all its feats and conquers. But although she leaved half of her life in Portugal, her experiences, stories and heroes were others. Her autobiographical memories were fulfilled with other kind of phenomena. So she remembers Angola the way she lived it and not only as a distant piece of earth discovered and colonized by Portugal. Although my grandmother his now dead, I am still collaborating with her. This co-authorship work tries to look at the ways different cultural models of history have influenced us and specially how mnemonic symbols and systems have influenced our individual identities and memories to become aligned with one version of History. So, me and my grandmother we are together in this, remembering together. We are tracing and disrupting the history of our family and using it as a model to understand the historical relationship between Portugal and Angola.
EA - Appropriating those images, books and objects, you have probably been interested in accomplishing an act of archiving and of retrieval of memory. Drawing upon Freud’s concept of the death drive, in Archive Fever Derrida reminds us that every act of archiving is an act of destruction: archives occur at that moment when there is a structural breakdown in memory, archives are mnemonically unreliable insofar as they are somewhat feverish, hallucinatory, fragmentary, and sick about them. The act of archiving, in my understanding, has also to do with the concept of trauma. Could your acts of disruption be read in this direction?
MC - Yes, I guess that retrieving memories by re-archiving data is probably one of the core actions I used for this exhibition. I think finding and disrupting became the method to deal with this data. The mind, it turns out, cares more about crafting a good narrative than staying close to the truth. That can be explained by recent neuroscience findings, proposing that each time a memory is reactivated it may undergo a process of re-stabilization, termed reconsolidation. Apparently, this mechanism allows for the incorporation of details of the context in which the memory is reactivated, and thus serves to adapt memories flexibly to changing environments. There is now abundant data from behavioural experiments in humans, showing that reconsolidation may underlie phenomena as diverse as false memories, wrong eyewitness testimonies, treatments of phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic pain. So, each time we remember a past event it changes immediately because the event and its memory are two different things. When I choose to archive an object is not for the purposes of preserving these object, but to disrupt its potential stories and to formulate other kind of narratives that might be useful to look at the present and to project the future.
Is the act of arching an act of destruction? Yes, if destructions means a re-activation of affects in relation to the archived objects and their surroundings.
In my work are there any relations between the act of archiving and concepts of trauma? I mean if we consider the changes that traumatic memory takes throughout the sphere of cultural production, we might be able to argue that, especially through the contemporary memorial culture and public remembrance, traumatic memories might reconsolidate in a positive way. By using mnemonic symbols such as books, photo portraits and masks the exhibition might look at trauma not only as a closed, definitive experience and implicitly negative, but an experience that can foster other ways to think about our framed histories and the ways we carve our identities based on them.
EA - In On the Plurality of Worlds (1986) philosopher David Lewis has been formulating his metaphysical idea of the concrete and real existence of many possible worlds: "there are many spatiotemporally and causally isolated concrete non-actual possible worlds, whose ontological status is the same as our world’s". Quantum mechanics has also produced a many-worlds interpretation (see Hugh Everett). That said, even if we want to think that other possible worlds are existing (where all other histories are possible, and where you grandmother would be an historian), we are speculating here about this precise world in which we are happening and acting. Interestingly, about this world, David Lewis is writing: "There is nothing so far away from us as not to be part of our world. Anything at any distance at allis to be included. Likewise the world is inclusive in time. No long-gone ancient Romans, no long-gone pterodactyls, no long-gone primordial clouds of plasma are too far in the past, nor are the dead dark stars too far in the future, to be part of this same world."
Marcio, how do you perceive all these temporal and physical dimensions to interact? are the disruptions and the retrieval of memories that you are delivering us all lacerations of the same Maya's veil?
MC - "If you take two images and link them by superimposition, a simple enough device, you—the spectator—are actually in two places at once: a logical impossibility." I once read this quote from the film director Raul Ruiz. It resonated in everything I was doing. For example I am working with portraits of anonymous people. I found them mostly in flee markets, in the bottom of old boxes. They were somehow mistreated, forgotten. I like to think about the life's of those pictures/objects, and the people that carry them in a different time and space. Where were they taken, where were they hanged. Were they kept in special places? Last time I was in Portugal I found a couple of portraits. At that time everybody was complaining about the economic crisis, and many were looking at the past, specially the discoveries time, showing a kind of a nostalgia of a golden age. As I was walking through Lisbon I crossed myself with the Portuguese Tile Museum in which those same glories were perpetuated by exuberant tile paintings. Immediately I had the idea of printing the images of those tiles on the faces of those people in the portraits I found. It was a way to manifest this idea that collective history have somehow overtaken our autobiographical memories and consequently our identities. Although most of the people in those portraits have already passed away, I like to think that they are still capable of existing in a different time, with a different purpose. By disrupting those images and the stories of those people, I believe that I am giving a continuation to their life’s, a new purpose in which some of my preoccupations became their owns.
It is strange to deal with those portraits. Sometimes I think about the life behind those pictures and the people that surrounded them. When I was hanging them in my studio I had a strange feeling as if all this people were looking at me. I think this work is looking at memory through absence and death, things that never took place and others that might still happen. Some weeks ago I had a dream in which many of those people from the portraits were next to me in the same room. Somehow I had to explain them that my aim was not to impose other stories to them but to continue creating memories through them. My life is very affected by dreams. Since very young I started to practice lucid dreaming. I feared them and then I learned to enjoy them, even the bad ones. I am very interested on how fragments of dreams become intertwined with fragments of reality. Because the result of that equation are memories of places where I have never been or events I never experienced while awaked. I called them invisible realities, things we don’t see but they still exist and influence our life's. My great-great-grandmother she was a healer person. She was healing many people in her town, with massages and praying. It was an amazing practice that was lost forever. Nobody in my family wanted to learn it and now is lost. Other things were lost when both of my grandfathers died. I regret I didn’t learned more through them and I guess that is a feeling that led me to work with them. The experience of working with them can surface these invisible realities, affects that didn’t had the chance to exist. Recently I saw a video about Quantum Mechanics in which they were trying to explain that matter has different behaviours depending if you are looking to it or not. Through some experiments they could really proof that if scientists were looking at the experiment, atoms they would changed their behaviours. The process of working with those portraits, from my grandfathers or from people I have never been with, might produce a similar result as those scientific experiments. I believe that the act of finding those pictures, or even looking obsessively for them, triggers already those invisible realties and prepares new narratives and memories that come prior to events.
Photo credits: Joana Voa