Interview with Yuri Firmeza: Following the trail of earthquakes

As part of the monthly UMBIGO online cover, Yuri Firmeza (São Paulo, born in 1982) presents Arca-Palimpsesto (2015). This interview is a complement to the photographic documentation of the piece, providing a general context to the artist’s work and, at the time same, exploring more substantial concepts, quintessential in Firmeza’s work. Among other subjects, we discuss his collective and diverse disciplinary modus operandi, the relationship with the contemporary art system, the origins of Arca-Palimpsesto and the concept of travel in current times. With an unpretentious and lucid language, Yuri Firmeza is a singular voice in contemporary art. He opposes the fast production process, preferring objects when foreseeing their past-future history. He also cultivates a community life through the idealization of a global network of knowledge and discovery.


Francisca Portugal – Your work is based on research, dialogue, discussion and interdisciplinarity. What advantages do you find in these processes and methodologies?

Yuri Firmeza – Yes, there is always an attempt to escape diffuse and immediate productivity. I have tried to do this mainly through a certain inaccuracy in the act of doing. An imprecision marked by intuition. And, in this sense, research, dialogues, interdisciplinarity say more about the sharing of this not-knowing than the attempt to justify what moves the process. Faced with the productivity-based side of art, education, life, it seems to me that to opt for ways of decelerating – which would correspond to wasting time – is a radical gesture, an “I would rather not”, much in the vein of Bartleby. For me, the research that each work demands is, on the one hand, the refusal of ready-made answers and, on the other, the affirmation of faltering, unsuspected and provisional forms.

FP – Bearing in mind that you dedicate yourself to the investigation of events from memory, from the cultural and historical legacy of others, as happened in the 2013 exhibition Turvações Estrátigráficas, or in the video Nada é for the 2014 São Paulo Biennial, what is your relationship with the realities that you document?

YF – I consider this question fundamental. It needs to be elaborated, made and remade at all times. First, I would say that all processes are crossed by an ethical dimension, in relation to places and people. And ethics implies respect, responsibility, care. There is no predetermined formula that allows us to approach places and people. For example, the two projects you mention had completely different processes. I’m affirming it so that this answer does not seem like a prescriptive manual, which applies uniformly to all projects. There is always the risk that, when facing certain contexts, the work and the artist are extractivist and perform a symbolic added value from these contexts. This is dreadful! At the other end, there is always a police-esque morality, which tends to go for narrow and simple criticism, sustained by a reductionist reading of such an important issue as the place of speech. I have been to a dozen places where, for different reasons, I have not done any work, precisely because there have been no meetings. In other words, there has been no mobilisation, no crossing and no desire on the part of the people and the contexts. When, in partnership with Igor Vidor, I made the video clip for the rap band Brô MCs, we were criticized for having filmed an indigenous rap band. I find this criticism simplistic and worrying, because it assumes that the members of the band, who wanted to see the group exposed to more people, were participants in Xuxa’s television show, for example. It assumes that the members, Bruno Veron, Kelvin Peixoto, Clemersom Batista, Charlie Peixoto, do not have the autonomy to make choices about the clip. I think that’s where the colonising gesture lies: to treat these people as being unable to refuse – if that was their wish – or to think about the ways of doing it.

FP – In a brief description, how is the Arca-Palimpsesto built and what are its elements?

YF – Arca-Palimpsesto came from an invitation I received from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to develop a project. More specifically, the invitation came from two research groups – Medios Multiplos and La Colmena – coordinated by the artist and professor José Miguel Casanova. I had recently prepared a course on earthquakes. We were working on Writings on the Lisbon Earthquake, by Kant; O Pequeno Livro do Grande Terramoto, by Rui Tavares, among others. I organized this course after witnessing two temblores in Chile.

When I arrived in Mexico, still not knowing exactly what I was going to develop, I had meetings with the groups based on discussions about the hypotheses of Gaia, The Fall of Sky, Anthropocene. From then on, we began to do several activities: derivations following the trail of earthquakes and pre-Hispanic remains buried in the city; research in public archives; conversations with archaeologists and architects; interviews, among others. At the end of each day of field research, the group would meet and share the material they had collected or produced. In a very succinct way, this process resulted in all the elements that are in Arca-Palimpsesto: ancient maps, maps built in our derivations, earth, photographs, archives, foundation stones, texts…

FP – Your work originated the idea of archiving and cataloguing your research process. What forms of exhibition can your research and subsequent objects produce? For example, how do you imagine Arca-Palimpsesto presented in a digital format, on a platform like UMBIGO online, compared to the presentation at the Museu del Chopo in Mexico City, in 2015?

YF – In Mexico, as you say, the work was also at the Museu del Chopo, when we did a public lecture-performance, guided by the materialities enclosed in the box. In 2017, I held a solo exhibition in São Paulo, at Ateliê 397. Entitled Palimpsesto, the exhibition had, among others, an unfolding of the work done in Mexico. We built a sculpture table in relief, with the map of pre-Hispanic Mexico on different levels. On the table, we arranged the elements that are inside the box. But this experience proved what I suspected. To present this project again requires a site-specific approach. In other words, going to the place, listening to it, forming groups, raising questions, deriving, organising meetings, social thinking, making the research public. From 2017 until now, I have received three proposals to present the work. I have always made the counter-proposal of going to visit the places and trigger the work in this methodological opening: the process with all its constellation of events. Unfortunately, none of the three times has it been possible to do so. As for the presentation in Umbigo, in digital format, I believe it is a possible means of disseminating the work. There may even be an invitation to do it again (laughs).

FP – You are skeptical about the institutionalisation and market of contemporary art. How do these agents look at your working method?

YF – The very idea of Art, which includes institutionalisation and the market, is an elitist, epistemicidal, Eurocentric construction, etc. That is a question. But I would be being cynical if I said that my work has not passed through these places. I could say that my operations act with and against the Art institution. After all, that’s where the clash happens. But, in this case, I would not be cynical, but rather naive, for genuinely believing in the labor force in the face of such a great pretension. After some years of work, I think that certain projects, even in these places of power, can produce cracks, invent problems, and ignite questions.

FP – Your artistic work requires regular on-site research, leading you to visit other countries or cities. How do you look at the act of travelling in this pandemic?

YF – I think this forced pause is a warning or even an act of revenge. Els Lagrou, an anthropologist living in Brazil, wrote during the pandemic about a conversation with a Huni Kuin leader. He told her that his people, in the face of the pandemic – understood as nisun, revenge – are treating into the forest. That is what I have done. With this knowledge in mind, I have been retreating myself.

FP – You are currently in Portugal. What project are you working on?

YF – I am doing a Ph.D. in Portugal, but it is difficult to establish research at such a difficult time. However, I am living in Ericeira and I have a project called Pitomba Natural, with my partner. A gastronomic project. We deliver food made by us, mainly cakes and cheeses, vegan and organic, in the village of Ericeira and its surroundings. Also, after the pandemic, we have a project to make a film club on the beach, projections on the cliffs of Praia do Matadouro on summer nights.

With a background in Arts and Humanities (Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon, 2018) is a public programer and an independent curator in contemporary art. Currently, she is taking a Master in Fine Arts in Curating from Goldsmiths University of London while dedicating her research to non-conventional exhibition spaces and alternative curating methodologies. (portrait by Hugo Cubo, 2020)

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