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Constructing the Self Collectively


with Ricardo Basbaum

Ulisses Carrilho talks with Ricardo Basbaum about his experiences and what he learned from the project Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? (1994), its lessons so many years after it was first launched, and the multiple possibilities for finding in art new ways of relating through education.

Ricardo Basbaum (São Paulo, 1961) is a Brazilian visual artist and writer, known for his experiments and research on art as a mediating device for expressing sensorial, social and linguistic experiences. His work, characterized by the use of diagrams, drawings and installations, transforms exhibition spaces into knowledge devices that question, individually and collectively, those who engage with his work.

Ricardo Basbaum: "Building the Self Collectively." Conversations, La Escuela___ (2021).

Ulisses Carrilho: I would like to begin this interview by reflecting on one of your works: Você gostaria de participar de uma experiência artística? [Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?]. In reviewing this work, I perceive that you are an artist who likes to question the audience, and as in our meeting today about art and education, it seems to me that the question has a specific potency: that of giving 'something' back to the people who are going to participate in such experiences. That is precisely what I wanted to talk about, the question, about the ethics of this question.

Ricardo Basbaum: That is a good question, a question about the one I asked: "Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?" (and which I have to ask you now because I need to know if you answer 'yes’ or ‘no,’ ‘perhaps,’ ‘maybe,’ ‘tell me more about it,’ ‘I'll think about it for a bit’). This is a fundamental factor in this project because I see no point in the existence of a participatory dedication if there is not some kind of willingness involved. You have to want to, a wanting that is essential in any situation involving artistic and educational practices as well — because nothing happens if these movements are imposed. They must start from some kind of desire, some kind of will.

I often place elements in my exhibitions that ask a similar question: they are close to the entrance, so when you enter an exhibition room, you are confronted with some kind of barrier. They are not hindering barriers but barriers that impose some kind of situation on you: lifting a leg, turning to one side, turning to another side. I like to lay these things so that you can really decide whether you want to go in or not. Asking me this question is relevant because I understand that nothing, no activity in this realm, should be forced; you should not feel ashamed of taking part in these actions. I think it is tasteful if you will, that I ask this initial question: would you like to?

RICARDO BASBAUM en conversación con Ulisses Carrilho: Construirse a uno mismo en colectivo

But of course I would like to! Another keynote that appears, reappears, reconfigures itself in your work — and which perhaps is also related to what is happening here in this interview — is the use of pronouns: you and me. These pronouns do not appear in opposition as they usually do. They often appear linked and I think this is also an interest in understanding this ‘you – me’ bond. How do you understand this?

Actually, I like it very much. I set out from pronouns for a series of situations that are strong in my artistic practice. And these pronouns can be configured in a somewhat opposite way. There is a conflict in these positions, in the position of the self and in the position of the other. It is always a conflicting position but not one of annihilating antagonism. This conflict points to the need for mending. So, the initial relationship, the let's say “traditional” starting point is actually the artist setting himself a purpose of looking for that other, looking for some kind of interest in you.

I like to try as much as possible to put these positions into play and see how they can be reversed as well. In this way, I can pose the initial provocations as a proposer, but then at some point, there is a reversal and I am left in a position of reaction to the questions that come in return. So, I like to think of these me and you positions as reversible and as carriers of some kind of generative conflict that sets things in motion: a conflict in which the position of the I is invested with an authority that, in order to be preserved, requires that the position of you, of the other, be annihilated, be diminished, be shamed. Of course, these positions do not exist in a pure condition: they are established to the extent that the work succeeds in positioning these agents in some way, and from there some kind of action is triggered.

Ricardo Basbaum: “Yo – Tú” Diagram (2004).

Within this pairing and this conflict generated by the you and the me is a question that you have already written about and which has been considered important in Brazilian art and within this historiography, as is the very question of participation. You have built and are still building an authorship that has been calling on various other agents to participate in this practice. Can you discern any certain turning point that has become important to you?

I think it would be best to make this a little more concrete: I can have a metal object in my hand and offer it to you, to a group, to a school, to an institution to do something with it. In fact, I pose a question: Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? The word 'artistic' in this question is somewhat redundant because it is not the most relevant part of the question; the most relevant thing is, in fact, to be a question. And from the moment you answer it, this reply comes in many ways: you agree to keep that object, you agree to take that object home, you agree to work with that object collectively, you agree to make that object travel through different places, through some institutional bias or not, to traverse diverse spaces.

So, I understand that the participatory situation has already been triggered from the moment you accept that answer, that initial provocation. The word ‘participation’ is a relevant one. I like this word in the sense of involving others in the processes, in me delegating a part of my processes to them. I understand that participation comes from the moment of moving others, of them bringing me some kind of provocation in return — which can also unsettle me in some way, forcing me to react in one way or another — and that brings me to new questions and new places as well.

In our conversation so far, talking about your work, we have come across a series of terms that would be extremely pertinent to think about in the educational context too. You just spoke of provoking the other, of generative conflict, of the creative space not being confined to a certain space. It seems to me that these would be interesting keys for thinking about education as art or about art as education; even this fusion between the ‘you’ and the ‘me’ is interesting, as well as that of art and education. I would like to ask you how you see all of this at this point and how you have been developing projects that have a pedagogical potential within the field of art.

Yes, these are good questions! Of course, the word ‘art’ and the word ‘education’ have an intrinsic redundancy. When speaking of art in the broadest and most advanced sense of the word, I understand that the term education is placed within an ellipsis. There is no need to bring it up either because I think that the most interesting situation is when provocations from the field of art overlap with questions of the educational field.

I understand that the word education is being formalized in human cultures to name this procedure, which is actually of teaching, of learning. But we know that this process is part of being alive, in the best sense of the word, of collective health... This search for collective health goes through the matter of constant learning, of a kind of healthy community composition, of exchanges and conflicts, but arising in a way that does not annihilate the other and is always opening spaces instead. So, when the questions are contained in this path, the term education is somehow embedded. There is no need to talk about the school formally because we step into another territory.

I really enjoy thinking about the questions of art in its sufficiency, its self-sufficiency, beyond the formalities of the school or the formalities of teaching. This is what I understand: the protocols that artworks can bring in these invitations, in these provocations, in this engagement with communities, in this assessment of an issue or problem, in this understanding of the various agents who are there trying to lead this joint game, or even in the need to move away from the collective social anesthesia, that is, in de-anesthetizing and building these provocations, the so-called educational aspects are underway, and the field of art likes to pull all these strings.

And what would be the ideal place for these processes?

Actually, I like to think that these collective projects insert themselves in a place before the school, before the formalization of the school. Because these collective projects mobilize groups already, and I see myself as an agent provocateur, a triggering agent of some device so that these groups begin to develop their drifts, which are often very specific in these projects that I mentioned that I am developing. And as they unfold, with a certain precision, with certain care, I understand that there is a process of some kind of collective learning in this effort, even by the fact of arranging themselves together into some kind of group.

Within these two fields of art and education — or teaching and learning, where I also like to introduce some friction between the terms — it seems to me that a recent historical achievement is that of the de-standardization of the idea of collectivity. The historical conquests of social movements have made us aware of the fact that the collectivity is not a universal entity but is composed of subjects; subjects that have specific backgrounds and stories. And even though your work has always permeated very general terms, it seems to me that there was always a care so that these gathered individuals could reveal themselves and express what they came for. Perhaps we could comment a little bit on this perspective under which we are living today, and how both the term ‘art’ as well as the term ‘teaching-education’ are also loaded with a history of violence, of silencing, and of a need for recognition.

I always find relevant, fundamental, and decisive — in any gesture, in the act of seeking/proposing some activity within artistic or even pedagogical-educational practices, and everything else — the understanding that we are situated, we are always situated. We are not speaking from neutral standings; everything we seek to bring is also situated. We are on a map, we are in a cartography, we are not disjointed. And this helps us to realize, very clearly, that everybody else is also situated and has a standing.

We have just talked about the public sphere, public spaces, public domains, but it is important to always comment on it in the plural and to understand that these collective arenas are also arenas marked by clashes, marked by hegemonies, by interests, which also go through issues of the market economy, many times through issues of aids from social policies for the communities that are at stake. So, with my work, I try to be aware of this. Although it could be said of my work that it is not focused from a perspective that tries to bring a self-nominative formulation of its inscription in terms of identity, I do try to bring an awareness of that inscription.

Ricardo, I am going to ask you a broad and difficult question, but this interests me a lot. You were just commenting on the statute of authorship and how it was historically constructed from an idea centered on a very self-sufficient "I." And I am pretty sure that is not the paradigm from which you undertake your work; in fact, you have just explicitly revealed it. That is why I am going to ask this somewhat broad question: Could you tell us what you have learned about your own work with others? I think this is a question from collectivities, whose answer I would be very interested in hearing.

This is a question that opens up the horizon, you know, from different horizons... And the answer is not exactly on the tip of my tongue, but it is a great question because it forces me to think, to consider all these situations that I have told you about here. Situations where, in order for the work to happen, I had to live with the groups for a week, fifteen days, or even ask myself: what should I do? What should I say at this moment or another? Or if perhaps I should step aside? So this, in the history of this object (Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?), is quite interesting. Because, at a certain point, I realized that it was a project to which I could devote myself entirely and not do anything else; that is to say, that it could be my only project because it brought me enough demands, questions, and a need for management to make it work.

However, I did not want to assume that position, so I thought: This project would unfold in a more interesting way if I do other things at the same time, if I do other projects of mine too, while I do this one. If I can put it aside for a bit, to forget it, to abandon it... This is, in a way, a learning from the project. I think it already has five phases. So, I can count five different stages already, from the moment I went after people who would be interested, eventually looking to build this interest, without succeeding. Only after a few years, and from the moment when the object begins to have answers and these answers start to point out a path on its own, from the project itself, showing me that I could take a step back... The object is moving on its own now. I no longer need to think about where it is going because those who are with it already indicate the following sequence of its circulation.

There is a project of yours that we have not yet mentioned and it seems to me that it would also be interesting to talk and think about it within this pairing. Would you care to explain a little about Novas Bases para a Personalidade [New Bases for Personality]?

My smile is not surprising because that is something I want when people say it or when someone expresses it in that dimension: New bases for personality. Smiles are welcome because, yes, there is also a humorous thread in that triad. It is a very problematic triad and I don't even know how entirely convinced I am of these new bases either. The idea of the new is a very complicated issue. The basic idea and the personality... What to say about that? But these three terms together perhaps compose a reciprocal provocation there, which pulls them out of this exhausting position.

However, I would say that the term ‘personality’ appealed to me a lot. At that time, we are also talking about the beginning of a process within a series of practices, which have been gaining substance and deviating over the years. But this NBP, this acronym, this proposition along with the design, the term ‘personality’ conveyed me in the sense of moving myself and, therefore, everyone involved in those propositions into the public arena. Beyond the immersion into the black hole of individuals, of self-expression or profound individuality. I mean to build oneself, necessarily in public, collectively. I understand the word “artist” to mean exactly that: the construction of the self in public.

Ricardo Basbaum: “Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?” (Work in progress since 1994). Participation: Éverton Almeida and Roberta Benevit. Palhoça, Brazil, 2007. Photo courtesy participant; Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? Project.

A question, a provocation, which perhaps is not exactly about your work specifically but about what we are talking about here: the discourses that have been permeating the field of contemporary art, especially when we begin to see it in this ellipsis that encompasses teaching and learning, they often point to this... I would say generosity in relation to audiences and to an imbued knowledge that exists in people. However, institutionally, within the art system, we keep calling ourselves teachers and not students. We continue to call ourselves artists and curators, and not audiences of other artists, when, in fact, perhaps we absorb much more than we produce. Would there not be a small contradiction and a need to subvert these discourses from a radicality to which — it seems to me — your work also aims?

These small hierarchies installed sometimes have certain functional pragmatics, generally to trigger processes in a collective organization. The important thing is to understand that, as these processes are in their places, we have to reposition these places. But the practical world, the pragmatic world, keeps stratifying us in these roles all the time. So, as I understand the very term ‘artist’... As I was commenting about Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?, this “artistic” term in the phrase that gives name to my project is a little bit jammed in there. Because, in fact, the invitation is to escape the protocols of art, but this escape also reworks those protocols in some way. So, I actually understand that this is a major negotiation and that if we want to be minimally critical about these positions and understand their stratifications, we have to know how to dissolve them in the works we want to build.

I often see myself in this way: I have a different responsibility for that to happen within that set of interests. I do not like to hide it, but this is not a pyramidal hierarchy, just a pragmatic matter of making things work. I understand that these roles can be used as triggers for actions, as long as we know how to dismantle them, minimally, to make things happen and not get stuck in such small hierarchies’ protocols, because if that happens, nothing occurs in the end.