On the eve of his solo exhibition at Centre Pompidou, Paulo Bruscky talks about mail art, fluxus and outwitting the Brazilian military dictatorship
In 1971, Paulo Bruscky died. Or, at least, he had a funeral – one that the artist, then just 22, organized and hosted in the flesh. The climax of Arte Cemeterial (Cemetery Art) came when Bruscky, along with his friends and family, paraded an empty coffin through the streets of Recife, his home city in northeastern Brazil. The subtext was clear: in response to the brutal threats of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Bruscky would reclaim control over his life – and his eventual death.
Decades of resistance to political repression can do strange things to a man, but Bruscky’s famous sense of humour remains intact. When I visited him at his studio in the historic heart of Recife, the smile rarely left his face: pointing out the dadaist jokes in his many drawings, collages and performances, made over more than 40 years, proved a repeated source of amusement. Language lies at the heart of this diverse oeuvre: Bruscky is first and foremost a poet – a pioneer of concrete poetry who explores the visual and aural qualities of words on and off the printed page. For example, for his 1977 work Poesia Viva (Poetry Lives), which was reperformed in May at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Bruscky ordered ten performers – each dressed in a white tunic emblazoned with a letter from the work’s title – to re-assemble, often chaotically, into anagrams. As the Brazilian progenitor of fluxus and a founder of the mail art movement, Bruscky has corresponded with luminaries from John Cage to Yoko Ono. Their letters, books and records pile up in his studio, gathering dust (and the occasional termite). As we sifted through this yellowed mess, unearthing historic gems, Bruscky told me how it all began.
Evan Moffitt When you first started making mail art, did you conceive of the process or the object itself as the primary artwork? These letters and postcards are presented archivally in exhibitions as precious objects, but they were also designed to be circulated.
Paulo Bruscky Artists have corresponded throughout history, but they didn’t have a subterranean network to the extent that we did in the 1970s. What is important is the way that the network is activated through the transmission of information or the movement of the people that comprise it; art can be made this way purely through the communication of information. Of course, the envelope can also be made into a work of art, too.
EM Given that your work is all about communication and the dematerialization of the art object, it could be seen as a forerunner to the internet’s power to radically disperse cultural information. What do you think the effect of the internet on the art object has been? Does it solve some of the problems that you were trying to address in the 1970s, or does it simply obscure them?
PB The mail art movement – and, by extension, fluxus – was the first to actively seek to transcend geographical borders. The huge network it utilized incorporated all the technologies available at that time; when fax machines came into use, it became clear that the art object would be dematerialized and reconstituted in real time. The internet is a logical consequence of this evolution. In 2000, I created email art and I still receive responses. The mail-art network is not as strong as it used to be, but we do use the internet to communicate.
EM If you send mail through the post, it generally means relying on a government distribution system – the postal service – or a private company, such as FedEx. These days, the internet is subject to the same kind of control, by service providers and the state. So, although mail art is a creative way to circumvent the institution, it also relies on certain other institutions to reach its audience.
PB We pay to make art, one way or another. In order to reach their destinations, most mail-art works had to pass through many hands, which cost money – at least in postage. Internet access requires a certain technology that isn’t always available in Latin America, especially in Brazil. But, without paying much, I could visit the post office and, within a week, receive something back and know that my work had travelled around the world. It was a fairly immediate form of gratification: people had to like it to circulate it. The internet compresses this time even further, although you can’t send three-dimensional objects. I used to receive artist books and recordings or what [composer, poet and artist] Dick Higgins called ‘intermedia’.
EM How did you first encounter the fluxus movement and how did it affect your own thinking about art?
PB It changed my life. In 1970, I received a letter from [graphic artist] Robert Rehfeldt in East Germany, which included the addresses of ten people to whom I had to forward correspondence. I added my own list of addresses, so that everyone who received something from me would be connected with my network. That meant the network kept multiplying and becoming more global. Around that time, I met some people involved with fluxus, like Ken Friedman, though a big moment came in 1981, when I received the Guggenheim Grant for Visual Arts. I had been very isolated in Recife, so when I moved to New York in 1982, then visited the Netherlands and Germany, that network expanded even further.
EM How was your work received in Brazil at the time? Were you connected to other key figures of the 1970s and ’80s Brazilian avant-garde, such as Lygia Clark or Hélio Oiticica?
PB I was ignored in Brazil in those days and received far more invitations to participate in exhibitions and performances outside of the country. It took me a long time to realize how much work I’ve made in my life, because so much of it is ephemeral and took place outside of Brazil. I sold my first work only ten years ago
EM Did you train as an artist?
PB I grew up with six brothers and sisters, and we weren’t able to afford art supplies until I won a cash prize for drawing at the age of 15. It was a full house, so I would wait until everyone was finished eating dinner and stay up all night drawing on the dining table. I’ve always researched; even when I made drawings, I loved to experiment with line and texture. I’m an autodidact, but eventually I took a couple of courses to teach myself technical skills. Etching, for example, is like chess: it requires sleight of hand, but is finessed through technique. If you don’t study it, you’ll never know how to do it.
EM What would you cite as your formative influences?
PB I’ve always been influenced by poetry and I studied journalism: language is central to my work. When I was younger, I read the entire dictionary backwards and forwards to get a sense of how words would sound both ways; I even wrote a story in which words reverse their direction halfway through.
EM How has your work responded to your home town?
PB It’s important for you to know your environment so that you can know the world. Recife is a beautiful city,
geographically speaking, because it’s at sea level – bathed by the sea – and cut up by rivers. In 1972, I invited 30 artists to participate in a show called ‘Recife for Recife’, in which they would all choose a different part of the city and present work that captured its essence. It’s a rich city for public art, too, and a number of my works have tried to engage with its history in public space – like my 1972 work Burial at Sea, in which empty coffins were thrown into the rivers to represent those ‘disappeared’ by the dictatorship. Whenever I travel to a new city, I consider how I might appropriate some element of its geography. In late 2016, in Stockholm, I published a classified ad in a local newspaper that claimed the aurora borealis as my own work.
EM A very dadaist gesture!
PB I’ve published 50 classifieds over the years. Once, on a visit to Bogotá, I discovered a book entirely dedicated to Raoul Hausmann’s classifieds, which were an inspiration. Dada is a huge influence, of course, but it extends far beyond Marcel Duchamp, who was simply the most famous; like fluxus, dada was a network – the classifieds are an art form that have been in use since then. For nearly ten years, I’ve been trying to write a book on the history of artists’ classifieds, from Man Ray to Christo.
EM One of the most poignant qualities of dada, in the interwar period, was its use of humour and absurdity, both through language and the jarring appropriation and juxtaposition of images – elements that are also present in your work. The dadaists were responding to a socio-political and economic crisis. How did your use of language and images develop in response to the military dictatorship in Brazil during the 1960s and ’70s?
PB I worry about Brazil and about the world, about political repression and the refugee crisis. My art is a reaction to these concerns. I’ve always used the written word as my weapon: under the dictatorship, I had to craft critical language in clever ways to bypass censorship. I was never scared of the military or the police because I knew that, if they had killed me, I would have died for a just cause.
EM When you staged your own funeral procession in 1971, you had already been arrested several times by military police. Did you feel like your life was in real danger? Was the work a provocation in response to that threat or a more symbolic statement about the state of art and free speech in Brazil at that time?
PB The government made real threats on my life. One of the times I was arrested and then released, the officer said to me: ‘I have experts in accidents and I can make sure an accident happens to you, no problem.’ For six months, I was followed everywhere by two conspicuous agents of the police – to the bar, to the university, to my home. After that, I performed Nadaísmo (Nothingness, 1974) to make it clear that, if I was killed, it would not have been an accident. So, I confronted their threats with an act and fled to the eastern part of Pernambuco state, where I remained in hiding for three months. We discovered later that I was on a list of people who were to be killed.
When I returned to Recife, I gave myself in to the federal police, and I invited people to witness it and take photographs. It was important for them to see – both as proof of the injustice but also as a safeguard for my own life. This was in 1974, just after a law was passed that prohibited protest and stripped all rights of due process. I was kidnapped once by the police and I had no right to a lawyer; I wasn’t even charged. The perception that I was a critic of the government was enough for me to lose my right to representation.
More recently, the curatorial team for the 2017 Venice Biennale asked me for a list of books that had influenced me and one of the titles I gave them was George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). It’s fiction, but it really connects to my own experience of repression.
EM It was the best-selling book in the US after the recent election of Donald Trump.
PB Which is good! Even if the cause is not. In the book, Orwell’s world has neutral points, in which characters can escape surveillance. But, there is no way to escape surveillance in today’s society: we’re constantly being watched. Recently, I’ve made two works – a copy of 1984 and a suitcase – with peepholes in them. It’s as if there’s someone inside looking at you, but you can look right back at them.
EM How would you define the responsibility of artists to respond to political repression? Does it go beyond representation?
PB The art critic and curator Walter Zanini once told me how proud he was that I remained steadfast in my vocal resistance to the dictatorship. Given the risks, very few artists at that time continued to speak out. Artists such as Antonio Dias and Cildo Meireles realized it was much easier to make more traditional work, like painting, that would be less polemical and could sell. I’m worried that the art world today has become so professionalized, and the work of many younger artists so overvalued, that they end up taking themselves too seriously – preoccupied by the market rather than the world around them. You can see them at openings, standing in corners, all dressed in black! [Laughs] Being an artist is like walking a tightrope: on one side, you have sanity; on the other, you have total madness. To make good work, you constantly have to walk back and forth along that tightrope and you need to have the courage not to fall.
EM Through all the hardship you faced, humour is still integral to your practice. There’s a light-heartedness to your works of the 1960s and ’70s that I think gives people hope when they see them now, even though they were created at a time when you had little to look forward to.
Your contribution to the frieze ‘Art and Protest’ survey in April this year was one of your famous slogans: ‘Art Is our Last Hope’. Yet, in 1978, you asked, whilst standing as still as a mannequin in a shop window: ‘What is art and what is it for?’ After all these years, do you feel like you’re in a position to answer that question?
PB The day I know the answer to that question, I’ll stop.
Main image: Paulo Bruscky, Conexão (Connection) (detail), 2013, suitcase and collage, 34 × 54 × 18 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler, New York/Rio de Janeiro/São Paulo
First published in Issue 190