Lampedusa: Migration and Desire, an interview with Vik Muniz

by Mara Sartore
June 4, 2015
Mara Sartore
Muniz Vik

On the 11th of April 2015 I met Vik Muniz (b. 1961, São Paulo) in his beautiful house in Rio de Janeiro to ask him about his new work titled Lampedusa, which will be unveiled in Venice on the occasion of the 56th Venice Biennale.

Mara Sartore: You told me that Lampedusa project took shape when you found the book “Migropolis” by Wolfgang Scheppe and the IUAV Class on Politics of Representation. The book is about migrations and, surprisingly, connects this subject to the city of Venice.

Vik Muniz: Yes, I found the book amazing because I have a keen interest in how the means of representing the world have evolved since Paleolithic times to the present. This evolution impregnates everything from our own personal relation to our immediate environment to our impression of the world through media. Big Data has radically transformed that in the recent years. Computers enabled us to process previously unthinkable amounts of data, something absolutely impossible to achieve before, and has furthered our understanding of the mechanics behind the way we describe the world. The sheer complexity of these figures gives a “texture” to quantitative information; it gives it a “feeling”. This whole idea of understanding the world through a mass of numbers is something I have been hyper-conscious of for a very long time. When I read Migropolis it just hit me: if you apply a lot of knowledge to something relatively small, you can develop from there a case that could be applied elsewhere. This book talks about a theme of interest to me for a few years: human migration. It maps up through pie charts and graphics, a phenomenon that can be quantified but that it is based on an entire set of emotional, emphatic, and other feelings and sensations that can not be described by numbers. The depth of its research made statistics meet feelings. From rummaging through its pages I got a clear picture of migration closely related with the expansion of media and the symbols it disseminates.

MS: In your vision migration has much to do with desire…

VM: I think that one thing that defines the media landscape around us is the obsessive production of desire. For years, the whole of culture was to produce updated meanings for our experience as a way to restraint our innermost impulses. Contemporary culture however seems to be focused on inverting this process. Now desire precedes meaning. A little over a hundred years ago schools were designed to provide the industrial revolution with technicians and bureaucrats. This has now changed: schools produce consumers, which is good because we live in a consumer society and we want people to buy things; but the reality is that they consume mainly images and technology. This is how it is right now and it’s not just a matter of selling things seen in Harper’s Bazaar or the September issue of Vogue; there are many types of desires. For a long time I have been thinking what could be a practical way to understand this picture of desire that the world has become, and I thought that migration would be a good way to think about it. Migration is a way to change your life, to go where things might be better for you and that has to do with a picture of the world you are able to construct. A few years ago in the US there were many interviews of people rescued while fleeing Cuba on boats. When I watched them I felt I should have been there because I wanted to ask them about their abstract idea of ‘good’ they had for themselves and their families, an idea that was good enough for them to possibly sacrifice their lives for. Thinking about that made me want to expand this idea into a bigger project. The Lampedusa project launches this way of seeing the world through the lens of migration. In order to create the project, I needed more information beyond what we can get in books, the kind of information that is more effective for me as an artist, such as experiencing the place. I kept thinking about Venice, I love Venice, that’s the one Biennial to which I go, but I also love Venice because of the tourists from all over the world, some with their umbrellas going through the streets, and I love Venice because of the immigrants selling neon flying things and lasers on the streets. I find that this place is a fairytale land that promotes desires that are really specific. I was surprised when I came upon the book and saw Venice on it, and then I realized that the study could have been made anywhere else but the fact that it was made there, I knew I had to make this boat with the Lampedusa newspaper article in Venice. The newspaper article itself is a way to mediate between what you want to say and what is there, it’s a way to talk about the subject matter, a way to start the conversation.

MS: Will the boat actually be made of paper?

VM: The boat itself will be made of wood made by the expert hands of the Venetian artisans at Polo Nautico Vento di Venezia and it will float like a regular boat as it is built on a barge. It wouldn’t be feasible if it were an actual boat that people could drive because we would need licenses that we wouldn’t be able to get on time. So instead, it will look as if it was made out of a giant sheet of paper and it will float. I am figuring out which newspaper to use, it will be a local Italian newspaper dated October 4, 2013, a day after the tragedy.

MS: There is also a playful side in this project…

VM: Yes, I’m working on a few similar projects at the moment.

MS: Like the one for Basel for example?

VM: The cars are similar, they have to do with memory but they also have a lot to do with desire. The “Mnemonic Vehicles” are something that helps you to remember. The kids love sport scars like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche because they see the big ones around and then, because they love those cars and they learn how to love them, when they grow up and they have money the first thing they want is a sport car, so they keep making the sports cars, it’s a circle! These cars are actually not good for driving on the streets, they are ridiculous, but they are beautiful, they are about design, and desire. Everything has to do with desire. A lot of people think they represent speed because of the shape. I think speed is not the reason, I think these cars just perpetuate a circle of masculine desire. My job as an artist is to create a situation that makes people ask questions, like seeing a big paper boat in Venice. Artists are very bad at answering questions, as you can see you asked me a few questions and it’s taking me one hour to actually tell you what you want to hear, and we will probably not get there. But artists are good at asking questions and seeing this big paper boat in Venice will make people wonder what it is. If you’re a kid and don’t know anything about Lampedusa, you will just have fun seeing this boat floating around, which is good; it’s something that will break your numbness, it will wake you up. Art does that. When I first thought of the boat, I thought about Lampedusa immediately. The boat may take you to something you want to think about, or maybe not. I think it is also about the opportunity that something offers for you to actually get there and to think about the issue. Lampedusa is not meant to criticize any political positions regarding migration, because this is a very complicated matter. What I want to express is that because it is really complex, it should be considered and discussed.

MS: How would you exactly explain the link between migration and desire?

VM: The question is, what are you selling? What kind of picture of success are you portraying to the world? How does that affect you when seeing this from the outside? I think this is something we need to think about in countries in Europe, as well as in Brazil, the USA, and others. Wehaven’t really thought about it because the geopolitics has offered local solutions, but immigration and its coverage by the media is everywhere. It is becoming a worldwide phenomenon that we should consider approaching in a different way, maybe a more holistic way. I’m not a politician or a political scientist but I think that one thing that art can do is to point the finger at the things that should be looked at, and I am very curious about that.

MS: I think people will be completely surprised and shocked when they see the boat floating in front of St. Mark Square, and they will ask questions. It’s a toy, a paper boat and linked to a very hot topic as migration, you’re putting a big contrast out there.

VM: The project is a metaphor for a vessel, something that saves you, takes you from one place to another. It’s not a criticism; it’s a platform. Once you’ve seen it and you’ve thought about it, you might have the need to discuss it. I find it interesting to extend this platform to a place where we can start talking about certain things and can start learning. I see this project leading to something similar to what happened to Wasteland, the documentary. This is just the beginning of Lampedusa.

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