Andre Verissimo

Andre Verissimo
with Jo Thomas and Katy Beinart
at Hackney Wicked Festival

JT: Shall we start really openly, can you describe your practice to us?

AV: Well I do a few different things but mainly I work in performance, well what people call performance art, which is very broad. I do also puppetry, a bit of video, photography. I also work within community groups, again what do community groups mean? But it tends to be through outreach programmes and projects, a lot with young people as well…. which I see as part of my practice as well. Most recently these tend to be working with film and a bit of puppetry as well. But mostly film, at the moment I make a lot of film, in terms of my facilitator work.

KB: Did you start off doing work with communities or did that kind of come later?

AV: No, this came later, to be very honest it’s a combination of belief and also of financial reality and… fortunately I don’t do it just for the money otherwise I would be doing something else, and you know I always wanted to work with people as well but not so much in this participatory way.
It’s like, OK I have a project where I want people to be part of it, it’s a from scratch thing, you know, there is an art form and there is a group of people you can work with maybe it’s a school…

Recently I worked with a tuition centre, with kids who have been expelled from mainstream education. So rather that it being my project and I needed people for it, which tends to be the rule in participatory projects, it’s more of, I work with this art form, it’s here and you do something with it and I support you and guide you... for me this is quite important…

KB: So, are you saying with these community groups that’s how you work? You just offer them the medium?

AV: Yeah, well they might have some basic ideas to start with, there might be a theme that is not given by me, but it’s the company hiring me or it’s something they are already working on and that’s kind of the frame work, but I tend to take a very open approach, just to make sure it is about people doing their stuff. In those cases I see my side of art as just helping things happen rather than being in my own project.

JT: So, you do your own projects as well, and you are working with other people and helping them do their own projects…

AV: Yeah, actually for me it’s essential to do three main aspects of my work, and I feel the need actually to do these three things

One is solo work, mainly performance work. Which starts with me and ends in the ‘live moment’ with other people. And it’s very specific to my inner reality, in terms of the mind and my daily life.

And then I do some work when I work with other artists which is a more puppetry related work, because I’m part of a collective of puppetry, we do performance as well, we do video but mostly puppetry and I also like to work with other people, you know, in this shared creation.

Then there are what are normally called outreach or community projects where it’s more like just making things happen rather that ‘this is my idea and I want to make it happen’ for that I do work alone (not in a collective) if that makes sense.

So, yeah, I sort of do these three strands of work. And there are one or two things that are not curatorial but more organisation, I prefer to say organiser, because I don’t really curate stuff.

One of them is called Site Space, which we were planning to do today but it didn’t really work out. It's with another artist called Poppy Jackson. It’s a monthly meeting, performance meeting. It’s an open source thing, we invite people, whoever wants to come – we just send mail outs.

It’s very simple, we choose a public space. It’s always at the same time, we meet at quarter to two to start at two, whoever wants to come can just join in and it’s a group action.

KB: A group action where one person leads?

AV: No, it’s open, people can do what they want, the only thing we do, we keep it in sight of everyone, so we can see each other. So if it’s a square, we suggest we stay within the square…. So there is this sense of being together and also in case there are any issues, because there have been some issues in some of the spaces we chose.

JT: So what sort of spaces did you choose?

AV: They are quite different from each other, I was going to say random, but they are not random. We have done it in the Olympic park, we have done it in Hackney Town hall, we’ve done it in Deptford market, Hackney Marshes, we have done it here in Hackney Wick a while ago… and we’ve done it in Winns Gallery which is like a community gallery in Walthamstow in the park, but that was from an invitation, someone was doing a residency there and where inviting a lot of artists to do stuff.

KB: So it sounds like your work is either self-generated or people commission you to do something?

AV: In this case...

KB: In this case it was, but most often you do things spontaneously?

AV: This actually started as a very grounded simple idea which was we choose a public space and we go and do whatever we feel like with the space. And without being too organised or looking for funding, you know just as a way of being out and communicating with people.

KB: I know you’ve mentioned the financial realities of doing this kind of community work but do you think that on balance doing work where you have funding or something like that makes you feel more restricted?

AV: I want to believe no, I guess it just depends on who is funding it and if there are some restrictions or not.
In my own practice when there is funding I tend not to restrict myself even if that might bring some tension I try to take that approach. Also working in performance people get a bit more shaky about certain artists and certain works, because it’s more unexpected and it’s happening in the moment and it might be harder to censor something then and it’s one of the reasons I do performance. Every art form has its own specifics and they are all great for that, but I personally feel for performance because of this live moment and being able to use the unexpected. And in terms of the funding and restrictions well, from experience I don’t think I’ve felt really restricted, I have felt restricted but not with funding, just in public spaces actually, I have had quite a few encounters with security and police and stuff like that…. Even without really expecting it or wishing for that.

FC: Do you want to be more explicit about that in terms of what public spaces and why?

AV: yes, well some of the choices we made for the space, in particular for this project Site Space they are deliberate… the Olympic Park was deliberate, a deliberate choice, you know. It was I think September last year…. And I don’t think all the artists were on ‘that mission’ but for me, for the kind of work I do I was very interested in doing work that is intrusive but at the same time, it might be taken as aggressive or weird or suspicious, but at the same time they can’t really stop what I’m doing because it’s not entering anyone’s space…

It’s sort of borderline work. What happening in this particular space (The Olympic Park) was, after a while, the security came and said ‘you have to stop’, ‘why are you doing this?’

JT: So, I’m not familiar with your work. Could you describe some of the actions that you were doing?

AV: For this action, I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and I had, tied to my waist, half of a dolls body, just the legs, and coming from inside it there was a very small doll of a little girl shouting….and there was a machine gun glued to the, the supposedly vagina of the legs, because it was a female doll. And I had a gas-mask on…

JT + KB * start laughing*

AV: So, I was actually just walking around like this and balancing a crowbar on my head… so, I know it is quite an unusual image…

There were some families passing by, you know… but I wasn’t going up to people, I was not throwing a crowbar at someone. It was in itself something that people could take as an aggressive image, some people laughed at it as well, some people though it was ridiculous as well. So it was quite subjective I suppose. And it was with the crowbar that the security, after a while, found the excuse to come to me saying this is actually a weapon. We had a bit of an argument and then came the police... the community support police.
I really didn’t want to stop so I just put the crowbar down and we continued because I just thought, well actually, I’m not really doing anything but I realised they probably had something grounds with the crowbar being a weapon, it really is a tool, but I’m sure legally they could get around it, so its fine, I’m just like I’m going to put the crowbar down. But they were asking ‘But is this for a theatre? Is it a performance? Do you have permission? What is it for? Do you have a website?' It’s a classic example of people fearing what they don’t know.

And I told them ‘this is public space’ and the guy said ‘yeah, but I’m telling you to stop and I am the authority here’ and for me that made the point of the whole event… it’s an example of that in a public space you can still have someone telling you ‘I am the authority here, I rule over you’ you know. And the only thing you are doing really is you are just doing something weird and they can’t quote work out what it is…

JT: So, is that your main motivation, or do you have other motivations in your practice?

AV: No, it’s not the main motivation actually. In this particular space I knew that it was but…

I think my main motivation is to create experiences for people. Sometimes unusual yes, I mean each piece of work might be different, and definitely there is a political aspect to some of them, but at the moment I’m trying not to make things too explicitly political because it’s always there implicitly. I think I just want people to experience something deeper that daily life.

KB: Did you start of by making maybe more internal work, did you gradually develop a more public aspect to your practice? Or did that always happen as part of what you were doing?

AV: When I was in University, the first performances I did were quite public, and then there were about two years where I didn’t really do performances in public spaces. There were performance to the public but there were at set events or in galleries. And at the moment it is really is a mix of both things, you know… The examples I just gave you are mostly based on this monthly meeting (Site Space) but in the last three months I might have performed three times and they were all quite different.

KB: I was just wondering where the interest in having those more public interactions can from? Was it a political thing? Was it wanting to shift the audience?

AV: it’s a mix, it’s definitely political in the sense of reclaiming public space; last year was a commission from the festival (the Hackney Wicked Festival’s Development programme) it was called Navigate, I don’t know if you know Sadie and Gerald?

KB: Oh yeah…

AV: Well, I ran a workshop in madness and sanity and gentrification. It was very much about owning public space, and what I find interesting is the bridge between madness and sanity, for instance, when you are doing something in public people think you’ve gone a bit mad or ‘he’s a bit of a weirdo’ or ‘he’s showing off’ this changes depending on who is watching and the context.

You know, if it was here in this festival it would just be like ‘OK, it’s some artist’ you know ‘just a wanker’ (excuse my language…) but if you go in a random street of East London, we did something in Bow and some kids were like ‘why are you doing this?’ ‘What are you doing?’ and they really genuinely didn’t understand what was going on.

So to get back to your question and why, I really feel constrained in public space. And in the ten years I’ve been living in London it’s got worst. And this is one of the reasons why now more than ever I want to continue working in public spaces.

I want to make sure I stand for what is ours really, for everyone, which is public space. If something happens like someone comes up to me and says ‘mate, you are doing something strange’ it is fine, it’s a dialogue, you know, people can give their opinions you know. But when there is an actual physical, possibly violent, restriction then that is for me where the problems start.

JT: Does the work have any life beyond the moment? Do you document it?

AV: Yes, but not every work I have done. Last year I always used photographic documentation, sometimes video.

JT: So does the work have an audience beyond what is happening in your performances?

AV: I would hope so, through my website if people actually look at it. But to be honest, at the moment, it’s all a bit scattered, I never exhibit documentation of word, it’s shared mainly through blogs like the one for Site Space and my own website but that’s pretty much it.
I am interested in reaching as many people as possible, but I’m more interested in the live moment.

FC: So, and I think you’ve addressed it, what’s the motivation?

AV: To change my reality and to change the reality around me. It’s tricky to say things like ‘for better’ I don’t know if it’s for better, but definitely change something…

KB: Do you think there is a bit of utopianism?

AV: Absolutely, even if I think I’m not going to live to see it. It might seem a bit naïve but, I’d rather be naïve that fatalistic about and to say we can change anything.

FC: Do you think your cultural background shaped your practice and your politics?

AV: I think so, I think my years in London have influenced me very much as well. I’m originally from Portugal, but I did grow up on an estate and I think from a very early age I was aware of social inequalities. I have grown up in an area with some deprivation…
although it was not a pure run down estate but it also wasn’t a middle class estate, so there was a mix of people coming from around the estate as well…you know as fifteen, sixteen I was already quite politicised…

KB: So, do you think, and this is a question we have asking other people, that place is important?

AV: Absolutely, I think if I was living in the countryside in Spain, I don’t think I’d be doing the work I’m doing…

Something I’m into as well is trying to make, well not a contradiction, but something that is double sided. I don’t want to be doing stuff that is just responding to the social and political context, because I feel there is almost a limitation, its counter-productive…. I want to go against impositions but at the same time its imposing rules on how I go about my work…

So I try to keep this balance I try to add that is more about experiencing or feeling something, even if it does make you think about David Cameron, so it’s this ‘in between’…

I want to say something about the context in which I live and things that piss me off, but at the same time I want to go deeper into my own… erm, actually to borrow from my artist’s statement ‘raising awareness of the human condition’ so I try to make work that goes beyond immediate reality.

JT: Do you consider yourself a public artist?

AV: Can it be otherwise? Can we be artists without being public? Of course we can, but no, no because I don’t actually know what it means… I would call myself an artist and that’s as far as I would go

But for me personally, if I do work just for myself then no one with know about it. But if I bother to go into a place and I know there are going to be people there, then I think it would be naive to think that wasn’t public art.


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Place Specific