Preludes: before, after and in-between.
Viewed from the end to the beginning, Rafael França’s production chronicles a trajectory that is divided in two moments or chapters. Regina Silveira, who closely followed both phases (the first one in person, and the second, through letters), confirms this hypothesis, as the signs are clearly displayed in the works from this period:
The narrative and autobiographical data in Rafael’s video work and video installations were elements that unfolded gradually, but which certainly started to occur after he went to Chicago. They were totally new and original, now far removed from the geometric and formal aspects of his first approaches to video, which were always firmly anchored in his own graphic objects. The videos with a more narrative character, which told short stories with a greater degree of subjectivity and with carefully annotated scripts – which he sometimes would ask me to read before actually showing me the video itself – were, in my opinion, a leap ahead, and stemmed from the changes occurring in Rafael’s life and the expansion of his repertoire, while he studied and later worked at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
This exhibition gives shape to an exercise of chronicling the story of a life. The two moments of França’s individual production are recovered and revealed here as a selection of graphic works and another one, of video works. In addition to this, an assortment of other works and documents evoke a difficult, and in no way obvious, continuity between these two phases. In another interview, from 2001, conducted for the video Obra como testamento (Work as testimony) , Regina herself highlighted that the graphic series, with its repetitions and minor variations foretold the artist’s concerns with narrative that became evident in later works. In the graphic series Ingravatas (1978), produced when the artist was in the process of moving to São Paulo from Porto Alegre, he made use of humour to evince the provocative nature of his social commentary. This attitude is inscribed more incisively in videos such as Without fear of vertigo (1987), where a statement in defence of an existential posture outlines itself on the limits of common sense.
In his graphic work, composed of sequential studies involving the tiniest parts of the image reproduction process, França imprinted an increasingly subtle analysis of the gestural technique that results in the copy. For such, it was necessary to separate the machine into smaller, fundamental elements, thus revealing the device contained in the nucleus of the apparatus. It is impossible not to mention that during his graduation years at the Escola de Comunicação e Artes (ECA/USP, or the School of Arts and Communication of the University of São Paulo) França was a student of artists and researchers who had followed the theoretical production of Vilém Flusser, who lived in São Paulo until 1972, during their studies.
Even if these works are formally configured on paper surfaces, I call attention to its project-oriented dimension (the production process is frequently revealed in the final result) and its process-oriented dimension (the sequences “tell” the micro-story of their own making). There are no special effects, no hidden wires or camouflaged details. It is important to recall two work tools: the electric off-set printing press from the Centro de Estudos Aster ; and the OCÉ copying machine, found in the building of the Department of Letters at USP, which was also used by artists Mario Ramiro and Hudinilson Jr.
From his vídeo installations, França begins to develop another type of project-artwork relation. The particular temporality of video in the generation of images is fully affirmed in the installation IX Commentary – reinstalled here for the first time in Brazil, thirty-two years after its original installation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here, the image generation within a closed circuit establishes a repetitive time, destined to eternally return. The apparatus sets in motion a chain of events beginning with a luminous source of quartz, a cubic object, a semi-transparent screen, an image-transmission camera and a TV monitor in a linear sequence. In this monitor, which acts as both the machine’s starting point and output, the image is created in a pulsatile continuum. The temporal characteristic of the video is not made evident, and the machine itself – within itself – offers an uninterrupted narration of its workings. Indifferent to time, the set-up nevertheless synthesizes the architecture of the cave which enfolds the contemporary consumer of images. With an important provocation: we are dealing with a reproduction process whereby the matrix is already a copy (shadow on canvas)
In this installation, França imports the technical rationale inherent to print-making, reducing the resulting vision to its indexical origin and gesturing towards the dense machinic interval. The message is empty (I will return to this point), and the medium exposes itself in its entirety, apparent and nude before the eyes of anyone who wishes to look at it.
The reductionist legacy of minimalism is found convened in IX Commentary – this was already the case, to an even greater degree, in Polígonos Regulares, from 1981. But the legacies of artists such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris, referential in França’s early art education, are apparent here, even if with a few deviations. After all, how can we regard the condition of pure and a-signifying presence of the minimal elements, in a time where the technical image, in televisions, computers and other devices seem to instantaneously carry the spectator off to another place? In IX Commentary, the immediate presence of objects in space is affirmed and, at the same time, called into question. The mediation of the television corrupts this presence, openly exposing the cold flesh of this representing machine: the closed circuit video system.
“A premise of sixties modernist art was to present the present as immediacy – as pure phenomenological consciousness without the contamination of historical or other a priori meaning.... My video time-delay, installations, and performance designs use this modernist notion of phenomenological immediacy, foregrounding an awareness of the presence of the viewer’s own perceptual process; at the same time they critique this immediacy by showing the impossibility of locating pure present tense.”
As Dan Graham points out, the use of mirrors and other vision equipment (such as the television and the camera) undermines the concrete and self-affirmed presence of minimalist “bodies”, duplicating the spaces, outlining relations of coexistence, and, in the ultimate analysis, opening windows to other places, within the space that is inhabited by the physical body. Once the simple quality of presence is contested, the installation indicates what it actually is: a likeness-producing machine. The assembly line of the final image (lamp-cube-screen-camera-monitor) indicates an interval, and materializes it. In its technological version, the minimalist literality affirms itself in the immobility of this luminous image, immaterial module of a “presence” in space.
If, among his entire collection of work, França’s video installations represent an apogee of his analytical thought directed to the reproducibility of the image, the later video works add a layer of white noise to the research on this media, which, produced in the same medium, reverberates in more extensive spheres of human experience. In the wake of video artists such as Gregg Bordowitz and Martha Rosler, França makes use of the communicational virtues of the moving image to perforate it from within its very core. Here we are no longer dealing with the study of the language itself, but with the pursuit for a particular diction that can inscribe stuttering, stammering, a sputter or murmur into this language. The movement conducted by Rafael runs parallel to the direction of the previously cited Dan Graham. In Rock my religion (1982-84), Graham creates a personal account of the impact of rock in the urban environment – in a synthesis of his own passion (attested by his deep friendship with Patti Smith) and his sharp, piercing approach to video editing.
There are no heroes in Rafael’s videographic narratives. His characters are suicidal, murdered, tortured and insomniac. The videotape format seductively called for the narration of a life, or at least, to the construction of a character; that these lives were exiled from anything common, or rather, they were infamous, can only be understood in light of the tumultuous moment of the elaboration of the videos, as a highly radical political option. While many of França’s colleagues at the School of the Art Institute worked on electronically generated abstract compositions – making technology rebound onto itself – França takes the camera out to the street, uses his own apartment as a film set, and debates suicide and the love between men.
The difficulties in communication are present not only in works such as Memories of Bijou (1983) and O silêncio profundo das coisas mortas (1987). Ambiguity is carved onto the matter and is written step by step at the editing table; it hovers over the abrupt cuts in the timeline, in the dyssynchrony of the audio and video tracks, in the attention to the materiality and the environmental dimension of the audio. It is also in these last nine years that Rafael starts to include a select group of friends in his video work. “I was never comfortable in front of the camera; and I believe that this is exactly what appealed to him”5 , remembers the artist (and now, also curator) Maggie Magee, Rafael’s most constant partner in the videos produced in the 80s.
It is not only as he discovers that he is infected with HIV that Rafael questions death. This urge is already evident in the videos Combat In Vein, from 1983, and Reencontro, from 1984, for example. Back in his graphic works, and later in the video installations, a black rectangle is a recurrent icon, bearing its silence and dissimilarity to all that we know. The hypothesis of a turning point, between the initial formal experimentalism and the later subjective implication present in the autobiographical videography, is therefore a narrative concatenation, one which this exhibition aims to reinforce and, at the same time, seeks to question. With the presentation of works rarely, or never, been shown, Preludes is also a quest for the nuances which, lying deep within the core of the work, reveal the subtleties of the articulations between life, language and oeuvre, articulations which have been thoroughly re-examined throughout this journey.
The attitude of taking life and the city as pretext for an inventive activity that extrapolates the limits of artistic language, unsettling the very category of the work from within, can already be found in the actions of the 3NÓS3 group. Formed by Rafael, Hudinilson Jr. and Mario Ramiro, the group was known for their urban interventions, which frequently made use of the city of São Paulo as the medium, support base and target. Casos (1979), a story told using photography in the format of comic strips, is one of the group’s less known works; the first chapter is distributed for free in this show. According to an account given by Hudinilson, the work was staged using the last shots of a photographic film roll. The result reveals the readiness of the three artists to dive headfirst into the depths of their artistic processes.