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Some notes on looking up from underneath: Interview with Diogo da Cruz

Diogo da Cruz was selected for the UmbigoLAB art residency – as part of the collaboration that Umbigo has been working on with ArtWorks since 2019. After the inevitable postponement, their factory in Amorim could finally welcome him and the project he had presented in 2020. AXECIDYR won’t stop here, but a significant part of the work will be on view at Forum Arte Braga until November 23. It’s about starting from the depths and bringing it up – or as he says: looking up from underneath.

Carolina Machado – I want to take a step back: when and how did you start the project that is the cornerstone of this exhibition?

Diogo da Cruz – The project – or the first idea – came up in November or December 2019. I was developing a project associated with experimental physics research on the ocean floor and I started to get very interested in that part of the world. I always try to look for areas where human and scientific knowledge hasn’t reached yet – or where there are no explanations – seeing them as places of speculation and possible mythologies. That part of the world – about which we know so little – started to excite me. Through certain coincidences, I got to know the music of Drexciya and started to really like the mythology they created, while trying to figure out how I could work on that myth…

CM – The Afrofuturist myth, which we had already talked about [in an article for Umbigo #75]?

DC – Exactly. Drexciya is a Detroit band. They were active in the 1990s, very prolific in the world of electronic music, being quite well known… They are part of a Detroit music scene that is bigger than them. They created a strong mythology, where the Drexciyans are descendants of slaves thrown off boats, dying on the Atlantic crossing. They created [the myth] out of this historical event: a civilisation that lives at the bottom of the sea, that is technologically more evolved than humans and makes the strange music that they [Drexciya] play. Gerald Donald, one of the Drexciya members, refers in another musical project [Arpanet] to technology and the development of the internet at the very beginning of the 2000s, with speculations about how we would live and work from home: The Analyst, Wireless Internet, Illuminated Displays… I think it’s very interesting that they were kind of visionaries, [having predicted] what was going to happen in the future. I became a huge fan of Drexciya’s work. That was maybe the starting point of this project, then I tried to find more references and perspectives on how to work [that myth].

CM – It was from music – or from a [Drexciya] record in particular – that your interest in the matter arose and that you found readings, theoretical references… and even scientific approximations, right?

DC – Yes. Maybe more philosophical… At that time, I was reading texts by Astrida Neimanis. I saw a presentation of hers online and I was quite enthusiastic about philosophies that use water – not as a metaphor! – as a tool to think about the human, to connect the human to the non-human, the human to the other human, [the human] next to us. Something that connects us in a materialistic and undeniable way. It is very interesting how [water] can be worked on philosophically. In this field between human and non-human, there are works like Donna Haraway’s, that have been influencing me for a while as well, or Édouard Glissant’s, [on] post-colonialism… he also uses metaphors to talk about the ways we can relate to each other. These influences gradually nourished my project.

CM – There are several references about the mineral extraction: the equipment, all the artillery you would later evoke. I think you bring up lithium, for example. Is it at that moment that you begin to reveal a visibility… a technological visibility, an imagery somehow linked to technology?

DC – Yes. The mining activities at the bottom of the ocean was deeply present in my mind. I had seen the Inhabitants’ projects about prospecting on the seabed. They have an episode about mining in the Azores region and [the theme] had been in my head for a long time when I thought about a possible civilisation: how humans would find it, where the clash would happen… and I thought about creating this fictional story, where humans start mining the seabed and come into conflict with this civilisation.

CM – I remember the first pieces you made in glass, even before the residency, with organic and very delicate shapes that referred to the underwater creatures from the expedition’s

records. Were the experiments with glass the first moment of materialisation of your idea?

DC – Yes, I believe so. I hadn’t blown glass for two or three years. It was [at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München] that I learned that. At that point, everything was still undecided, and the opportunity arose to sit down to do lampwork. It’s a more detailed work, but also based on glassblowing. I thought about looking for almost transparent marine beings, almost completely made of water, but very dangerous for humans. The image of medusas and certain jellyfish, which can even be deadly, became a perfect symbol. Representing them in glass seems almost an antithesis: taking this animal – soft, transparent and dangerous – as something very fragile, in glass… it has been a problem to transport and assemble them, but also an interesting challenge. This was the first… material manifestation.

CM – When you were working with glass, the copper pieces appeared, the vestiges of industrial society, something like that…

DC – Actually, the first copper assemblies were made from leftovers. Well, they are not really leftovers: they are models of my previous piece, [parts of] a machine that I reused in this project. It was a way to go from one project to the other, to start making drafts…

CM – I think that, in this case, it makes sense to go from the part to the whole: not from the general towards the particular, but from the particular to the general. I’m talking about the particular or particularising dimension of the project… of the particles. Among the many references, the diatom appears: a single-celled microorganism that inhabits an important part of the underwater territory. I think that’s from this life form that you begin to conceive the form of these creatures, of these unknown species… and to discover the appearance or plasticity of such a civilisation. Am I right?

DC – It was that image! I wanted to represent this very tiny, unicellular microorganism, whose cell walls are made of silica. I wanted to represent it in large, in iron, with a much more aggressive appearance, since this microorganism has a great agency over us. I had a drawing which I made from a microscopic photograph…

CM – Yes, vector drawing!

DC – Exactly. I chose a diatom species [Thalassiosira], which I drew vectorially, and it was cut when I arrived. So, they [the ArtWorks experts] had already seen the drawing before I arrived. It was a piece I had in mind and I was very pleased with it. I even thought about doing a series, but it was so much work… one is done already! This piece triggered something quite special. On the residency’s last day, I did a shoot underwater and [the piece] began to take on a character… like the main character.

CM – When it shows up in the video, it has some rust, a temporal dimension, there is time in it… something that comes from somewhere, although we can’t pinpoint it.

DC – Right, the rust! The idea was to work from the rubble, with surplus material. [At ArtWorks’ facilities] there was a deteriorated plate, quite thin, that wasn’t all that useful for the factory… and I ended up using it, also liking the rust. The funniest thing was that [the piece] was underwater, I took it out of there, finished the residency, it stayed at ArtWorks… and now it looks very different than it was, because it rusted quite a bit. After a day in the saltwater, it’s now totally dark brown, completely oxidized, with remnants of algae… it has that temporal reference.

CM – Yes, it seems to have a history.

DC – Exactly.

CM – I also remember a piece that looked like a reptile, with legs like this… maybe another species of that civilisation?

DC – It was a clear reaction to the factory remains, whilst also thinking about the power of amphibians. The amphibians are the visible species that can show us that step from the sea towards the land, that we were in the sea and moved to the land… [this piece comes] with the thought that we could be more amphibious and start living more in the water to understand how dependent we are on it.

CM – And besides the sculptures…

DC – I was working on the sculptures, but there was a conceptual background that I wanted to display… I wanted to add some meaning, a thought to these beings I was creating. When the invitation for the exhibition came up, I thought of adding to the pieces I was developing a video where I could introduce the narrative ideas, of how everything started, the reasons why I am looking at the sea, at its bottom, to tell a story, to speculate about what these spaces can symbolize. The idea [of the video] was also to talk about the pollution of the oceans, about how deep-sea mining seems to replicate and perpetuate the abuse of natural resources, something linked to the colonialist project. It was necessary to narrate this complexity and I thought it was relevant to allow the visitor to see the sculptures, watch the video and perhaps find [in those sculptures] a different meaning.

CM – This video reminded me of some readings from last year: Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, among others. I would say that your work is very close to an «affirmative praxis». In a single project, you manage to mention all or almost all the issues we are facing today: environmental, ecological, social, political, economic, etc. If we see the words that show up in the shots, [the audiovisual piece] asserts itself as a speculative fiction very close to the manifesto. Among your works, this is perhaps the one where the intention ends up weighing more evidently or consequently. Do you agree?

DC – Yes. I think it was the project where I had more time to mature the idea, to understand what I wanted to say… and having collaborated with other people gave me the strength to be more assertive. I collaborated with Fallon Mayanja from the beginning, trying to respond to the sound piece [composed by Fallon] when editing the video. Fallon also ended up acting, with a character added at the last minute… whom will appear in the future [of this project]. Aidan is a reference to the alternative: represents a group of activists who seem to have an alternative to the ecological dialogue…

CM – Someone who questions the potential of this alternative?

DC – Yes. During our dialogue, we were talking about how renewable resources are still a Western thought, but there are many people [scattered around the world] who know the limits of resources, who use them, who know how to live within those limits… The Western world wants to retain its standards of living and looks at ecology as a chance for technological evolution. The answer to environmental problems is technology. With this character, [the video] is also deconstructing the idea that technology has come to save us.

CM – I have been reflecting on this question, especially in relation to the work of a group of young active artists, but not only in the Portuguese context. Would you fit this project and your art practice into a post-humanist or post-anthropocentric perspective? Are we starting to understand that this individual – male, masculine, white – is not the centre of the world?

DC – Hmmm… that makes me think! In art practice or… in things that I see happening? I saw an interesting development during my studies, especially in Germany. When I arrived, there was a think tank at Goldsmiths that talked about speculative realism. It was a philosophical wave experienced by artists, with various artistic dimensions. With Mark Fisher, a more critical wave emerged… and I also found it interesting how that changed.

CM – The criticism of an anti-capitalist struggle that is centred on itself, that cannot get out of itself…

DC – Exactly. Accelerationism was one of the movements: the idea that capitalism had to accelerate to destroy itself. Then a group emerged with almost extreme right-wing ideals, others with a socialist stance… I saw plenty of artworks through that lens, which eventually evolved into object-oriented ontologieslooking at a more materialistic side of the world, thinking that our material is what makes us subjects – and [that strand] started to disperse. It was interesting. It was a theory that emerged in the West, but [you realized that] there are many other cultures with an animistic view of the world, where a stone – or a non-human being – has almost as much agency and decision-making power as a human being. A lot of artists started looking at that animistic side and trying to decentralise the focus away from the human being.

CM – The idea that we need to get out of the discourse of man: not only of the masculine man or the white man, but also of the human man, the man with capital M… of humanity, deep down?

DC – That’s what I want to display with this audiovisual piece of mine: I want to work objectively at the level of our particles, our constituents… [on] what we share with other things. If I go to the core or the singular particle that constitutes me, there is not that much difference [from what is] around me. It’s also part of what I am and it’s always coming in: what I breathe is both me and my blood, my blood is water, I’m drinking it, I’m exchanging it… it’s a very easy idea to accept, isn’t it? The idea that the human being is not delimited by the skin. In fact, we are like any organism: we depend on the outside, on [the place] where we are, on all the other beings… and the others become very relevant in our lives.

CM – You were talking about your academic career in the last five years. Can you imagine yourself in the figure of the artist-researcher?

DC – If you asked me a few months ago, I would say yes. I’ve been thinking about research methods, what they mean… and it’s interesting when we think about art practice, because research is something very broad. Which is good, right? Going into academia – MAs, PhDs, those things – and [reflecting on] the methods of manufacturing a typical knowledge, of our way of seeing science and validating reality… Yet again: validating and replicating these methods through art practice ends up seeming unnecessary. I think that the word [researcher] started to have a very different meaning for me, and one very much associated with the academic realm. I’m now starting to be more critical, although I understand the context you mention.

CM – I don’t think you separate your art practice from your other interests, particularly from an academic point of view.

DC – Yes, that’s true. What I develop academically is my art practice and everything I read has an extremely visible component. But I don’t do research per se. Even with my work as an assistant at the Akademie, I try to challenge the foundation itself. I don’t try to create [academic] knowledge or transmit it as ready-made baggage. I try to transmit influences, other things. I think my art practice is my research.

CM – Finally: how far do you want to extend this project and what will happen soon?

DC – I’m starting to look at this video piece as a prelude, the first episode of a series. The idea is to recover these characters in future pieces, of course! Maybe go for a second episode. I’m very open about the themes, very eager to work and for other opportunities. I’m thinking about the next exhibition, near Munich… and how to talk about the oceans in the middle of Europe. Where the oceans are so far away! Thinking about how the oceans influence migrations, which then influence this continent in such a profound way. I’m trying to get a perspective on how to bring this project to the centre of Europe.

Carolina Machado (Lisbon, 1993). Currently working as a researcher at Instituto de História da Arte with a fellowship granted by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia to attend the PhD in Art Studies - Art and Mediations at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Already holding a MA in Aesthetics and Art Studies - Art and Political Cultures and a PgD in Art Curatorship from the same institution, as well as a BA in Painting from Faculdade de Belas-Artes da Universidade de Lisboa. She is moving forward with her research project: «Genealogy of derivative practise: Study on the production, mediation and reception system of derivative work within the emerging art scene in the Portuguese context (2015-2025)» comes from «On the transgressive gesture under the aestheticising logic of the post-contemporary scene: An approach to emerging art practise in the Portuguese context (2016-2019)» and aims to scrutinise the ascendancy of a derivative force over the creative gesture, progressively nurtured by the youngest generation operating within this spatiotemporal framework.

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