THE NODAR CASE
ART AND LIFE IN PORTUGUESE RURAL COMMUNITIES
I heard that long time ago, when Persia
Had I don’t know which war,
When the invasion was burning in the City
And women screamed,
Two chess players played
Their continuous game
In “The chess game”
“Odes” by Ricardo Reis (Fernando Pessoa heteronym)
Here we are, arrived into an era where many feel that almost everything concerned with art (concepts, styles, practices, media) was already thought, tested or discussed. Using a game metaphor, we could say that the pieces are since long time ago inventoried and just a few (and final) combinations are yet to be tried.
Even the notion of avant-garde is to some extent a cliché. So many considered themselves (or are catalogued by the media) as being part of some vanguard or alternative, that we could ironise by saying that the real alternatives are the classics.
Many contemporary art practices seem to get away from genuine sensitive impulses, either because they are too dependent from mass culture mechanisms or because their genesis is very much based on intellectual or technological processes that work in a circular way or apart from the most immediate reality (intimate, social, political).
In the specific case of contemporary experimental arts (sound, visual and/or performance), it is common to hear amongst its practitioners or followers that the audiences are always the same (the majority of which being other artists or arts professionals). Another evidence of a system fed in a close circuit.
Returning to the initial preamble, we could suggest that some contemporary artists reveal a lighthearted indifference towards the world. They hear the flow of life from a distant point and only perceive it when it “disturbs the players’ concentration”.
It is urgent to return art to life, to give attention to the minimal things, not so much to the big ideals or theories. This sensitive amplification of the intimate, the forgotten, and the peripheral is (still) a mandatory necessity.
The approximation between art and life must be promoted in a radical way: by putting in close contact artists with realities / communities that aren’t influenced by public or political radars (peripheral, marginal, rural, etc.). This radical approach stands for the return to a certain purity of art, to a sense of less mediation by self-reference and critique processes.
Art and specificity. One of the paradigms generated by the esthetical ruptures of the 60’s and that over the years has been subjected to several mutations and questionings. Nevertheless some potential delusions, we think it still is, both as a practice and a methodology, a valid paradigm to the production of art forms engaged with reality, in action and communication with life.
The artistic work based on interaction with social groups mustn’t forget that a community is not a coherent and uniform social entity, but an “unstable and (somewhat) inoperative spectrum” (in the expression of Miwon Kwon in “One place after another”). Therefore, it is probably wiser to use the expression “context-specific art” instead of “site-specific art” or “community-specific art”. “Context”, meaning a more dynamic and contingent reality, less subjected by exclusivist, purist or authoritarian deviations.
Under this paradigm, the artist must assume the challenge or the risk of working with new contexts, the necessity to adapt to unknown circumstances associated with the social contact, by adapting, reconfiguring and questioning languages, materials and esthetical approaches.
It is important to move away from a certain anthropological sway (still very much present in contemporary art), in which a community is considered just as a carrier of images, stories, knowledge or experiences, and the artist just has to receive that information and work from it. What should be privileged instead is a context of common involvement, a meeting of different forms of living, of conceiving and transcribing the world. The meeting between the artist and the context shouldn’t be merely instrumental (in the sense of field work for future development), but on the contrary, should be something organic, that is naturally built over the time, that is based on a daily and communicative experience. As it is obvious, these encounters demand mutual availability, a sense of openness to the other, with an inherent degree of tension and unpredictability.
The Nodar Case
Nodar Rural Art Lab, coordinated by Binaural/Nodar, is located in a rural region of Portugal (Viseu Dão Lafões) and organizes and produces multidisciplinary artistic projects (mainly in the areas of sound, visual and intermedia arts) from both local and international artists, followed by public presentations in the region. During their stay, the resident artists are encouraged to establish interactions with the place, its inhabitants, geographic space and social memory.
Since March 2006, over 150 international contemporary artists developed projects at Nodar Rural Art Lab in close connection with the local communities. Issues such as life and death, geography, topography, myths and traditions, crafts, leisure activities, agriculture and shepherding, and consumption habits were used as a thematic background for many of the art pieces created. Exhibitions, concerts, workshops, artist talks, have been organized in the region with growing audience and visibility.
Since Nodar Rural Art Lab started its activity, it is already visible a growing sense of individual and collective self-esteem within the local communities. And this happens due to the simple fact that the local inhabitants see their daily routines, memories, opinions and life experiences having importance to the resident artists, and in some cases they even hear/see their own voices/images being part of the final art pieces. It is our utmost conviction that, by following the development of the art works, every person (regardless of age or educational degree) captures the rudiments of sensitive transformation of reality into art and recognizes that reality as his/her own. And this understanding somewhat reduces the gap between creation and reception.
It is both paradoxical and ironic how simple rural villagers receive in such an interested way art pieces that can be catalogued as experimental. The same art pieces that in big cities most probably would be seen as a simple curiosity or with indifference, bearing in mind the considerable amount of cultural activities taking place at the same time, in an era where there is the impression that we already saw and heard everything.
We consider the art residencies as an exchange. What the artist and the local inhabitant give and expect in return? Is the relationship established between both a biased one, as for the artist it is (in principle) clearer what he/she needs from the locals, but the inverse is not necessarily true? Due to this, does the artist have a supremacy over the local inhabitant? To reflect on these issues is for us crucial. It is an exercise that needs to be practiced and adjusted over the time.
The work that we develop in the Viseu Dão Lafões region (a simultaneous process of creation, documentation and reflection) demands both time and availability, and it is deliberately invisible (or having a limited visibility). Not being an objective in itself, it is a way of working with total freedom, through processes of individual contact (with artists, audiences and critics) and with enough patience not to expect huge changes in the near future. That is, with the same patience of the farmer who waits for the right moment to seed, grow and crop.
Epilogue in the form of a poem-manifesto
Now that much of the contemporary art
seems to be loosing the sparkle of real emotions,
Trapped in self-contemplation
and self-justification mechanisms.
Artists and commentators in a single body,
powered by a technophile fascination.
We have to walk off.
To search on the other side of the freeway,
on the outskirts of the world,
For the artists who say:
I created this piece out of necessity.
Not to forget.
To keep me afloat on the swamp.
As an homage to my bother who fights,
to the sun that heats us,
to the water system that feeds us
to the wine that animates us.
Down with the labs full of hygienic artists.
Down with the brilliant minds trapped on their algorithms.
Art is not science.
Long live the road dust.
We want powerful arms
My medium is a plough,
Needs muscle and sweat to work.
Let us salute the virtue of things necessary.