During the lead up to this second installment of the Venice Biennale Performance Programme, we will release a series of conversations between Aaron Cezar (Delfina Foundation) and the participating artists.
The first episode is featured by artist Vivian Caccuri.
Aaron Cezar: Your practice focuses on sound, taking specific references and investigating the meanings with which they are imbued and the responses we have to them. How did you arrive at your interest in sound and this particular approach to it?
Vivian Caccuri: I come from a family of musicians and I have always been fascinated by music performance and how it creates different dynamics between people, be it body or attention-wise. At the same time, I was very strong in my drawing passion as a child and teenager, but the nature of this expression was not exactly cathartic or liberating enough for me. That’s why music expression and electronic music became my way out of a rigid Christian education. When I turned thirteen I started faking my IDs and running away from home to go to the rave parties of the late 90s/ early 2000s and to drum’n’bass nightclubs. It was a whole new world for me, and somehow similar to the Catholic experience because it brought so much visuality, spatiality and ecstasy together, but the only clear rules were freedom, innovation and a positivity/optimism for the digital world or the internet could heal the world. So I was a Napster / Audio Galaxy / Soulseek kid for a couple of years until I learned how to program own sounds using MAX / MSP, an amazing coding platform for music, sound and noise.
AC: During your residency at Delfina Foundation in 2018 you developed an interest in the sounds emitted by mosquitos. This led you to embark on a wide-ranging research endeavour. Could you talk about the directions this took you in and your process in this regard?
VC: As soon as I became more aware of the history of the Americas, my heritage and the peculiarities of tropical nature (the kind of nature that surrounds me in Brazil), I started to develop a stronger sense of self in a global context. I believe that those experiences deeply impact the way we listen and feel the world, and they can definitely be a path to a very unique perceptual knowledge. That’s why I was so puzzled by the distress around mosquito noise. I was looking for other reasons why people hate that sound so much other than the obvious – they are an epidemy, they bring misery or they are simply and absolutely annoying. To go below the surface, I started researching the history of the mosquito-related diseases, as well as the aesthetics of the campaigns, the treatments, the hospitals. The Wellcome Collection had so much about this theme that it was almost easy to imagine that the fear of mosquitoes and the distress around their sound have roots in the colonial movements of the sixteen hundreds.
AC: An outcome of the research, “Mosquitos Also Cry“, was presented last year as part of Frieze Projects London in the form of a lecture-performance stemming from your Delfina residency. It combined the sounds of the insects, a visual montage of materials from a range of sources including scientific, archival, popular culture relating to the mosquito, along with a narrative delivered by yourself. This script wove these disparate areas together into often quite speculative, provocative theses. However, it was also playful. The audience were burst into laughter numerous times. What function does play and humour perform in your work?
VC: I believe mosquitoes are quite charismatic. Every time I tell people I am working with mosquitoes they don’t react disgusted but quite the opposite, they respond positively like “wow, so interesting”. I believe it has something to do with how they are related to human skin and to how mosquitoes are democratic, although they might prefer some people over others. Everyone has at least one mosquito story to tell. I guess people laugh at my jokes because they access their own memories and I am actually aiming right at them.
AC: Since the Frieze performance I know you have continued to work on this project. What other outcomes have there been and what do you think has been gained from this sustained interest?
VC: Mosquitos are a very broad theme and it was inevitable I would treat it quite densely, in a sense that every aspect they raise opens up a new door to explore. I have been very interested in the “come back” of yellow fever. This is a very old disease that used to haunt South American and Caribbean coasts, and it somehow survived inside the forests and inside the bodies of sabethes mosquitoes and monkeys. It is a very ironic fact that a great number of yellow fever cases happened right during the rise of a Brazilian alt-right movement that has yellow as their main color. I turned my attention to the hallucination that is typical of this disease to also talk about politics and courage, to the intricacies of the body and the self in a larger social fabric. This was my inspiration for the work “A Soul Transplant” that is a large sound installation that has a composition made by me and Italian-Slovenian pianist Sven Lidén on a high-end Swedish organ at Luleå University of Technology. There I mixed the harmonies of Brazilian mestizo flutes to the sounds of mosquitos, some even processed as a choir.
AC: Broadly, you explore how socio-political contexts impact our reception to noises. Given you have presented works relating to mosquitos in a number of different places now, and to many audiences, do you have any interesting observations as to how the work has been differently received?
VC: In a very short period of time, I have shown these works both in India and in Sweden and I could see how different the meaning of mosquitoes is in both places. In Sweden, mosquitoes are hibernating most of the year and they are not everywhere. Although they can be extremely aggressive when summer comes, there are no disease-carrying mosquitoes there, so this fact definitely changes everything when it comes to their socio-political meaning and how government and society behave towards them. Even though mosquitoes mean something else in Sweden, “A Soul Transplant” was one of my favorite productions of my career as an artist and the audience response was magical. In India, I could feel it was quite similar to what I had in Brazil, the structural issues, the temperature, the diseases, the colonialism heritage… I felt completely understood and the Indian audience was simply amazing… very interactive and curious.
AC: Could you reveal a bit about the work you will be presenting at during the final weekend of the Venice Biennale?
VC: “The New World Syrup & The Fever Hand” is another work about yellow fever, similar to “Mosquitos also Cry“, a performance lecture where I dive into the yellow fever hallucination to raise aesthetic hypothesis for its come back. I look at the Portuguese colonial world and the ritualistic life of the Kayapo people, that has many aspects that involve “yellow” elements. I then tell a fictional story of how Yellow is a revengeful entity that was making justice for the enslavement of indigenous people in the form a disease: yellow fever.
AC: Finally, I wonder if you have any particular thoughts about bringing the work to Venice – a city where mosquitoes are prevalent in the summer months and which has its own history in relation to them?
VC: It is very relevant to look at Venice’s role in the sugar trade and its prior importance in European commerce, one of the main distribution hubs of colonial products. Sugar plantations and the harbors that were exporting raw sugar were the best environments for feeding mosquitoes, therefore, they brew yellow fever epidemics. Mosquitoes from Africa made to America in slave ships. Mosquitoes from America and Africa went to Europe in slave and sugar ships. The fascination around sugar, the need for a sugar high provoked a human disaster and completely changed not only the Tropics’ environment but also the European. I really admire the wisdom behind the popular saying: “Sweetness always comes at someone’s cost.”
Vivian Caccuri’s participation in the performance programme of the 58th Venice Biennale of Art is supported by Frances Reynolds/Inclusartiz Institute. The programme is commissioned by Arts Council England and co-produced by Delfina Foundation and the Biennale as part of Meetings on Art.