Curating Videoarte Brasil: an interview with Jeffrey Bussmann

Videoarte Brasil: Tamar Guimarães

Tamar Guimarães, Canoas, 2010, 16mm transferred to digital, 13:25. Photo: Courtesy of the artist & Galeria Fortes Vilaça.

In preparation for ICA’s 50th anniversary exhibition ICA@50: Pleasing Artists and Publics Since 1963, the museum’s curatorial team invited all staff to propose exhibitions and programs in response to ICA’s past. Jeffrey Bussmann, associate director of development for individual gifts, drew inspiration from the groundbreaking 1975 exhibition Video Art, curated by Suzanne Delehanty. Bussmann’s project Videoarte Brasil, on view as part of ICA@50from March 12–30, features three contemporary, Brazilian video artists. An accompanying screening program on March 26 explores the stories behind Brazilian participation in the original Video Art show.

We spoke with Jeffrey about Brazil’s difficult past and its unresolved present, his passion for Brazilian culture, and what we can expect from Videoarte Brasil.
Videoarte Brasil: Rosângela Rennó

Rosângela Rennó, Febre do Sertão (Savannah Fever), 2008, two-channel video, 21:04. Photo: Courtesy of the artist & Galeria Vermelho.

Institute of Contemporary Art: What drew you to research and respond to Video Art for ICA@50?

Jeffrey Bussmann: I was intrigued by a brief mention of Video Art in ICA’s 40th anniversary catalogue. A pared-down version of the show was sent to the 1975 São Paulo Bienal to represent the US, but jurors for the Bienal refused to watch hours of video. The American delegate Jack Boulton, of CAC Cincinnati, was so frustrated that he threatened to withdraw. Also, I saw that five Brazilian artists were part of the original Video Art show at ICA. I wanted to find out more about both the Brazilian participation in the ICA show, and what happened with American participation in Brazil.

ICA: You’ve lived and traveled in Brazil too.

JB:I’ve been fascinated by Brazil since my first trip there over a decade ago, traveling with my girlfriend—now my wife—to meet her family. On that first trip, I had recently graduated from college with a degree in art history, but I’d mostly learned about the art and attitudes of the northern hemisphere. Visiting various places throughout Brazil—and living and working on a volunteer program for several months in the city of Recife—was an education in art and visual culture that fell largely outside the canon.

ICA: What did you learn from speaking with the Brazilian Video Art artists?

JB: The two most eye-opening interviews were with Jom Tob Azulay and Anna Bella Geiger. Azulay owned the video camera that the artists used to record their works, and in most cases he was behind the camera while the artists were in front of it. Geiger was fairly well established by that time, and a friend of Azulay. The artists featured in Video Art were all, at some point, students of hers. She told me firsthand what it was like for an artist working during the military dictatorship.
Videoarte Brasil 1975: Anna Bella Geiger

Anna Bella Geiger, Passagens no. 1 (Passages no. 1), 1974, video, 9:00. Photo: Will Brown.

ICA: What was that like?

JB: Intellectuals and artists of all kinds—visual artists, poets, musicians—were censored, exiled, detained, and even tortured. Videoarte Brasil, the new exhibition I’ve organized as part of ICA@50, includes Tamar Guimarães’s film, Canoas, 2010—it contains many parallel conversations, one specifically about the radical musician Jards Macalé who was taken by police on a boat out into the ocean at night, tossed into the water, and left to swim to shore. Geiger told me that her husband, a university professor, was arrested, leaving her to raise her children as a—literally—starving artist. Artists boycotted museums and organizations that received subventions from the federal government, and they tried, not terribly successfully, to convince influential art world figures and governments to join in their boycott in order to remove international legitimacy from events like the Bienal.

ICA: What did Azulay bring to the nascent video artists?

JB: Azulay studied film in Los Angeles in the early ‘70s. In 1974 he brought a second-generation Sony Portapak back to Brazil at the behest of his artist friend Ângelo de Aquino. Aquino was not part of Geiger’s atelier group, but they were friendly. Aquino recorded a video for the ICA exhibition—a long, one-take shot in which he discussed his views on himself and art. Suzanne Delehanty, however, who curated the show, declined to include it.

Geiger, who’d had some experience with Super-8, viewed videotape as a regression, because at that point it was only black and white while Super-8 had color. Most of the Brazilian artists had never seen video art: that is, work shot natively on video. They had to experiment with the camera and learn the language.
Videoarte Brasil 1975: Ivens Machado

Ivens Machado, Versus, 1974, video, 4:18. Photo: Will Brown.

ICA: You’ll be screening some of these experimental works as part of the March 26 program, Videoarte Brasil 1970s. What can we expect to see?

JB: Nearly all this video work is performative, with the artist placing his or her body squarely in front of the camera. In Latin America in this era of dictatorship and unrest, being an artist was inextricably a political act. Most artists suffered; some had to leave the country. In addition to documenting performance, video was also an opportunity to make one’s own television at a time when TV was either a mouthpiece of the military government or so heavily censored as to be practically without value.

ICA: Making one’s own television was also a starting point for US video art. I’m thinking, for example, of Vito Acconci’s Undertone, 1972, made during the Nixon/Vietnam-era of mass media war and screened in Video Art, 1975. Were there points of contact between the ways that United States and Brazilian artists made their own television?

JB: There is a connection, though with a giant caveat. A person living in a free society can grumble—with some claim to truth, mind—that the interests of a few very wealthy and powerful people or corporations control television. But under a dictatorship, those in power really and truly do control it. For an artist living under an oppressive regime, making television is much riskier and far more subversive than in a free country. He or she is not just questioning the prevailing mores or tastes of society—but actually putting their life on the line.
Videoarte Brasil: Tamar Guimarães

Tamar Guimarães, Canoas, 2010, 16mm transferred to digital, 13:25. Photo: Courtesy of the artist & Galeria Fortes Vilaça.

ICA: Your ICA@50 exhibition Videoarte Brasil focuses on video art being made now in Brazil, perhaps under better circumstances. Still, Brazil’s difficult past remains “unresolved,” as you put it in the Videoarte Brasil exhibition text. How does the show handle this?

JB: Canoas, 2010, by Tamar Guimarães, deals with the domestic servant class still in place in Brazil. Anyone there who can afford to hire domestic help does: there are maids, cooks, nannies, chauffeurs, and gardeners. Even people who are domestic servants themselves will hire someone to do work around their own home. These people often live in favelas (slums), but still take pride in their simple and often self-constructed homes. If you cannot hire an empregada (domestic worker) in Brazil, you are in a bad way. This culture is slowly changing and domestic workers are demanding fairer pay and working conditions. But the culture is still very firmly entrenched.

In Brazil, there is a history of migration during the twentieth century from impoverished areas to urban centers—particularly from the sertão, which is a hardscrabble, arid expanse in the northeast. Cultural and class prejudices affect immigrants to the city and their descendants. Jonathas de Andrade’s O Levante (The Uprising), 2012, brings such invisible people into the middle of an urban setting, stopping and disrupting traffic. Under the pretense of filming a movie scene, Jonathas invited people from the margins of the city, and from rural areas, to bring horses into the very center of Recife for a race. Signifiers like the horse or horse-drawn cart are vestiges of this rural existence and often a function of insurmountable poverty.
Videoarte Brasil: Jonathas de Andrade

Jonathas de Andrade, O Levante (The Uprising), 2012, digital video, 7:59. Photo: Courtesy of the artist & Galeria Vermelho.

ICA: What do you hope visitors to Videoarte Brasil will leave with?

JB: The three artists in the show are doing outstanding work, and there are so many other high caliber contemporary Brazilian artists. At some level, I want to fight against the “samba, sand, and soccer” syndrome that constitutes much American awareness about Brazil. For example, Brazil’s special role as a political and cultural outlier within Latin America, both historically and in the present, is still not well understood by many Americans. Nor is the fact that Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo exert a duopoly of dominance: the concerns of the vast northeast, center-west, and Amazon regions are lesser known and mostly ignored. The exhibition includes the work of one artist who lives and works in Rio, one artist from Recife, and one artist who was born in Brazil but lives in Europe. I hope that these three viewpoints will provide the audience with a diversity of perspectives on Brazil’s complexities.

Find out more about Videoarte Brasil and its accompanying screening program.
Video ArtICA@50: Pleasing Artists And Publics Since 1963Videoarte Brasil / Video Art (1975)ICA@50Videoarte Brasil 1970s / Video Art (1975)