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Entrevista com Gabriela Mureb

[09 de agosto de 2021]

Raphael Fonseca: I want to ask you about your first experiences as an artist. There was an untitled performance that you did in 2007 that can be seen as a classic in your body of work, in which you were attached to a wall, with your face covered. You were trying to move from the wall to the middle of the space. I was wondering about your educational background, and why performance, or why works that could be done directly with the body, were important at the beginning of your career.
Gabriela Mureb: My education as an artist started in grad school. I did my BA at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, at a time when the art courses were limited to painting, sculpture, and engraving. I didn’t have any relationship with visual art before then. I did the painting course, but, like the others, it was still very nineteenth-century oriented. As students, we wanted to do something with other media, and I was lucky to have good teachers who allowed us to experiment with different things. Then I took a class at Parque Lage.

RF: It wasn’t a theoretical course, right?
GM: It was a course where we’d turn up and show each other what we were doing at the time and discuss it. It was an important moment for me, because I met a lot of people my age who were starting to do something in art. We had an exhibition that would close the semester, and that was when I did that performance. At that time, I had no experience, especially with showing my work in public. It was actually the first time I did it, so it was a radical experience for me. The action was a bit dangerous—I had my head attached to rubber ropes hanging from the ceiling. There was no structure for what I was doing. I invented the whole apparatus, so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if it was going to sustain my weight. But the experience of putting my body in that situation was very important in my formation as an artist. After grad school I did a Masters and now I’m finishing my doctorate. I’m also a professor now at the visual arts course at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

RF: After this first performance, your subsequent works in video dealt with the image of your body. When you’re not addressing your body in an explicit way, you’re trying to constrict or control the movement of something, like plants, for example. Could you talk about this?
GM: I was interested in the idea of impossibility, and the experience of unknowing, and being in physical contact with a limit. In the performance where I had my head covered in a rubber rope, I  couldn’t see where I was going. I was throwing my body in the space, pulling the strings, and literally didn’t know where I was going because my eyes were blocked. The work with the plants had to do with that, trying to make visible this experience of touching a limit and of this tension between forces, the violence in it. The plants had a thread around them, so they couldn’t grow. In order to grow, they’d have to try to rip the strings or deform themselves.

RF: Instead of working publicly, in live actions like the previous works, you now seem to prefer to work with video.
GM: When I started working with video, I felt it gave me more possibilities to experiment with the duration of the work. When I thought about performances, my ideas were about repetitions, continuous processes, a kind of intensity sustained for long periods. So figuring out how to start and how to end the action was kind of a problem. Doing video solved that problem for me, as it became a tool to create a continuous flux by looping the video, or by presenting simultaneous shorter actions. It took my interest away from the presence of the body a little bit. I became very interested in this kind of temporality, a continuous action that doesn’t build a narrative, something that’s persistently on the edge, with no closure. Just an ongoing situation. Using video made that technically possible.

RF: In 2011, you made your first machine, called Máquina #1: Batedor in Portuguese; in English that would be something like “Hitter.” How did you get to the idea of working with machines? It’s such a jump from performance, photography and video, to suddenly doing things with mechanical engineering.
GM: “Hitter,” yes. It started very intuitively. Because I’m interested in time-based, long, durational works, I can see the machines as a continuation of the process that started with the video loops, as a technical solution for the ideas I was having at the time, but kind of going to its core. At the same time, it’s hard to say how we get an idea—we can only dig to a certain point. I was turning to my body, trying to listen to more primary things that were moving me as very early formations of ideas. I started paying attention to how things affected me in terms of intensity and rhythm. Some of these machines began as little sounds, movements, or sensations that appeared insistently to me, that I felt almost as presences within my body. The machines were the medium that made it technically possible to organize those ideas, movements, images, rhythms and noises, to give them a body. I guess each idea or work, in the process of its formation, generates a technical medium through which it will gain materiality. Machines are moving artifacts, so they’re very convenient forms for materializing forces and processes.

RF: Some of your machines make very repetitive movements. What’s the importance of repetition in your work? Do they make a statement, for example, about philosophies of working and its relation to capitalism?
GM: I think they are intimately related to that, but not precisely as a statement, because, as I said, most of these works started as a more intuitive movement. So I think these things emerge in different ways. But of course, once I’m building these machines, it’s inevitable to think about their relation to the world that produced them. These are very specific objects, produced in a specific geographical, political, and cosmological context, with particular dynamic processes, and I believe these dynamics are embodied in these objects.
I mostly work with industrial materials, motors whose power is measured in horse-power units, pieces of old machinery, gasoline engines that are used in construction sites. These combustion engines are objects that are still operating today in the same way they were working in the Industrial Revolution. They’re fossil-fueled engines. Not only are they deeply symbolic of destructive actions of capitalism, but they’re actually active agents of it. The modern, Western, technical world and its brutality is inevitably connected to the objects I do. But I think these things appear in my work in an absurd or failing way, never heroically, even when it’s a violent gesture.
A machine can carry the reality that produced it in its movements. It can extend the logic that founded it. So to look at a machine is also to look at a reality that’s still present through these operating objects. That’s also why I’m interested in the technical sounds of the machines, sounds that amplify their operations. I like to think of what it could tell us about itself, not only about its functioning but about the world that produced it, that put those operations in movement, and the worlds that are now being produced with it.

RF: I’d like to talk a bit more about the importance of sound in your work. Recently, you’ve been having lots of exchanges and collaborations with artists coming from the field of contemporary music, particularly noise musicians.
GM: My interest in sound started when I visited Plano B, an independent space in Rio de Janeiro that was crucial for the experimental music and noise scene here. It was actually very important for a whole generation of artists. During the day, it functioned as a vinyl shop and at night there were shows and performances. It was quite different from the visual-arts spaces at that time. It was open to whoever wanted to present their work there. Going there was an enriching experience; it was very alive. I guess I was attracted to that, although I wasn’t doing anything with sound at the time.
Then I started working with machines, and the sound appeared in my work. At first, I was interested in how the sound made the temporality of the work more intense, how it could bring more tension to the work, how it would affect the body, how it could fill the space. But as I started doing noisier works, I started having some trouble with showing them in museums and galleries. I understand that: in a group exhibition, some works will require silence. But as sound gained importance in what I was doing, I started getting closer to this noise and experimental music scene again, and showing my work to friends. I felt that scene was very receptive to what I was doing and I had really special opportunities for collaborations. I got invited to show my machines in different situations in music venues, theaters, festivals. So it also provided different possibilities for presenting these machines. In a gallery, the machines are continuously working objects; they function before you arrive and keep working after you go out. This has a specific kind of engagement with the public. But when we’re in a concert, our body has a completely different relation to the work, and that has something to do with sound. I got really interested in that kind of situation, where the work is being produced and simultaneously modulates the public experience of it.
When I did the Rrrrrrrrrrr exhibition at Central Galeria, São Paolo, I invited musicians to create performances in collaboration with the machines that were in the gallery, with each musician choosing one of the works for a duet. The machines had this double agency, being presented as sculptures and as performers at the same time. After that, I started an experimental music project called MUTA with two other artists, Sanannda Acácia and Luisa Lemgruber, where I use the machines live, as scene objects and instruments. Then I began to produce some objects specifically for that.

RF: Are you interested in trying to explore different theatrical ways to deal with the machines?
GM: I had that opportunity when I got an invitation from Festival Multiplicidade to occupy the theater of Oi Futuro. I proposed Machine—Part 1 (2017), a performance where we put twenty gasoline engines on stage and I turned them on, as a kind of a concert. I was lucky that the festival and the theater administration agreed to put the gasoline motors inside a small, closed theater. We had to buy the oxygen masks, which were absolutely necessary because of the gases. So people came in, the masks were on their seats. A fireman gave security instructions to the public. People had to sign a paper saying they were aware of the risks and that they wouldn’t sue the theater. The whole thing took about twenty-five minutes. Some people left before that, but others stayed. It was very intense. They were combustion engines, which produce movement through the energy of explosions. Every minute, each one of them can make approximately 1,800 explosions. With twenty of them, it would be 36,000 explosions every minute. There was a lot of smoke and smell; it was physically hard to stay there.
It was a very unique situation to have that window in time and space where I had the opportunity to do that and where the curators, institution, and the public collectively were willing to take that risk, and people actually wanted to experience it. I’m definitely interested in exploring different kinds of situations of presentation of my work.

RF: I was thinking about the title of the New Museum Triennial, Soft Water Hard Stone in dialogue with one of the works you’re showing, Machine #4 (2017). That work deals with a stone that’s being pierced by a motorized drill.
GM: I wouldn’t say it’s being pierced, unless you put it in a wider scale of time, as we can’t really see it happening. In that way, you could say that it’s an action that fails, because it repeatedly hits the stone, but the stone never falls. It just moves out of its axis a little bit, and it goes back. You could look at it as a failed action, although it would be a failure of the machine. You could also look at it as a persistent and resilient gesture, since there are little grains of sand being produced by the repeated impact. So you could say that, in time, persistently, the machine could perforate the stone.

RF: You used to work with more solid materials, and you’ve told me that now you’re working more and more with liquid materials. Which direction do you feel that your work is pointing to in the future?
GM: This is something that I’m still working on: using viscous and soft materials.  I’ve started using some silicone parts with the machines, and I’m also preparing machines with fluids. The work that opened this interest in more viscous materials was Untitled (grease) (2017), a machine that has a spinning iron tube covered in a machine lubricant. It’s usually used inside of a machine, not on its surface, to protect the hard parts from breaking with the friction. I’d already used grease in some drawings—it’s a material that will melt, that will fall. These works made me think of a more erotic, undefined, viscous aspect of the machine. Along with these materials, I’m also researching production, formation, and genetic processes through machines, things that are still in the process of making. And fire.

(entrevista realizada para a publicação relativa à “Soft water hard stone”, Trienal do New Museum, em Nova Iorque, de 2021)
© 2021, Raphael Fonseca | Todos os direitos reservados.