Free. To do whatever we

Vincent van Velsen

Text written on occasion of Artissima, November 2018. Vincent van Velsen (1987) is an Amsterdam based writer, critic and curator with a background in art and architectural history. He regularly writes for individual artists, institutions and magazines; amongst which Frieze, Flash Art and Metropolis M – where he also holds a position as contributing editor.

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Published in 2018
By Cinnnamon (NL) and Division of Labour (UK)

What do artists do when they want time off? Going to the museum is part of work. Reading a book most likely sparks some thoughts reflecting on one’s own practice. Going to the art fair does too. So as, Jerry Seinfeld said: “Doing nothing is not as easy as it looks. You have to be careful. Because the idea of doing anything, which as you know easily could lead to something, would cut into the nothing; and then forces me to have to drop everything.”

Priscila Fernandes is interested in looking at notions of leisure and play as positive strategies that resist the expectations on cultural work and productivity. Thus, Fernandes’ nothing is actually comprised of something: she addresses the transmission of knowledge, didactics and the ideologies behind varying forms of education and their dissemination through play, creativity and production. She focuses on seemingly innocent modes of formation; such as the way architecture influences our condition(ing), or pedagogy, playgrounds, and the role art fulfils within the cultural constructions of individuals and society.

Recently, Priscila Fernandes has become more interested in modes of leisure. She considers this way of spending free time as a subversive act to all kinds of rules and regulations: from social obligations to demands from family and friends; working hours, bosses, measured productivity and contracts, liabilities and responsibilities that collectively shape our quotidian possibilities. At the same time she addresses the coalescence of work and leisure and the influence this has on the perception of art. She aims to create an awareness about how we are being asked to perform labour in the present day by questioning the frameworks and systems in place.

The theoretical and philosophical background of the perception of productivity and artists as lazy both reach back on the Calvinist and Puritan background of Western Europe, the United States and capitalism: the religious strive for the ascetic life defined by peace, purity and regularity. The piety that imposes rational and systemic work, order and focus, while prohibiting abundance and enjoyment. From this line of thought stems the contemporary demand of giving meaning to one’s life through work. Efficiency and a sense of sobriety are key; while being lazy, idle, or sluggish are capital sins.

On the other hand, the appeal of these sinful traits is what comprised the medieval utopian myth of the Country of Cockaigne - a place of abundant food, pleasant weather and where work is unnecessary. Such fantastic places reveal the deficiencies of a society as much as that they indicate its deepest desires. However, over the last five decades materialism and consumerism, enhanced by pragmatism and neoliberal politics have done away with such imaginative thought. Predatory capitalism in which lavish rewards are promised to those who work hard and consume accordingly has become the status quo.

Important to propagating such thought was Margret Thatcher. The Iron Lady who coined the TINA doctrine (There Is No Alternative). She combined the repudiation of alternatives and alternating world views with an imposed lack of imagination: neoliberal Utopia only exists in the here and the now . In the aftermath of this dim constitution, Oasis was founded in Thatchers hinterland. The band stemmed from the working class of Manchester and through their ludic, rebellious, and discomforting music came to live the rockstar dream. The title of this presentation by Priscila Fernandes is an enhanced sentence from their song Whatever (1994). The track seems to be a middlefinger to the forlorn situation that was supposed to have been their destiny; and an ode to possibilities.

Fernandes propagates a similar act of disobedience. Free. To do whatever we is a series that wails to go on a razz. She wants to break free. Free from the framework of society’s expectations and the constant need to be productive. In her series of works on show, she depicts the transitory process of breaking free. Every single work is indicative for a step towards such freedom. She starts at a bound and constrained structure, and moves along welcoming gestures that tell to take off your hat and let your hair down, towards an eventual culmination implying a total freedom of movement – beyond the restrictions of society, space and time: Free. To do whatever We...


Conversation between Priscila Fernandes and Sjoerd Westbroek

Priscila Fernandes and Sjoerd Westbroek

Excerpt of the Dolf Henkes publication. Priscila Fernandes spoke with fellow-artist Sjoerd Westbroek about the function of leisure in modern society, the difficulty of escaping our ideology of productivity, and her own search for freedom by means of light, colour, film and painting with fluid beeswax.

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Published in 2019
By TENT. Rotterdam

I meet Priscila in her studio in Rotterdam. It is a congenial environment for a conversation; the workspace reflects the thinking of the maker. Cautious starts sit alongside crystallised images, in a manner seemingly ready for exhibition. Possible topics for discussion are literally for the taking.

Sjoerd: Your practice seems very diverse, there’s painting, video, photographic prints, a book. Of course, as an artist, you are at liberty to work in any appropriate medium to express certain ideas. Could say more about how this works for you?

Priscila: For me, there’s a clear line running through all my works. The subjects I deal with arise usually out of a personal conflict, such as not understand- ing why I am so strongly informed by a modernist tradition. Why did I learn to do things in a certain way? Why is it so difficult to truly play freely?

Sjoerd: When did you know that ‘Cuckoo Land’, originally commissioned for the São Paulo Biennial, had to become a film?

Priscila: The film started to materialise during a visit to São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park. I spent a week there, observing people using it for their leisure ac- tivities, thinking I would produce a work back home based on my field notes. However, being there made me understand I could merge different per- spectives by working with the park itself. It became a playing field onto which I could project my ideas. Ibirapuera includes the Biennial pavilion and several museums. So this vibrant park is a meeting point for various communities and leisure activities, but it’s also dedicated to the experience of art. By shooting a film in the park, I could reflect on how we engage with this architecture of leisure.

Sjoerd: In the film we see many bodies moving about. And there’s you, dancing...

Priscila: And the camera circling around me.

Sjoerd: There are lazy bodies, resting in a ham- mock or by the water. And many people are using the park to work on their bodies, jogging, doing yoga, exercising in an open-air gym. A striking mo- ment is when we hear some of them express their aspirations during their workouts, like a self-em- powering mantra: I want to become the boss! I am going to be the director! Could you elaborate on the role these activities play in your film?

Priscila: These are activities we usually consider as part of our leisure time. But they can also be understood as activities that promote self-discipline and self-improvement. I found it interesting how leisure can be a mirror that reflects the way we are expected to perform in professional working environments but also in many aspects of our daily lives. If you study leisure, you see how much it is part of an ethics of work and serves to fulfil a desire to be productive. But I also want to counter this logic by considering laziness and idleness as subversive acts. In the film, I connect the bodies in the park with cultural or mythical representations. For example, the children playing in the park evoke Cockaigne, the imaginary land of plenty where trees are made of candy and you can sleep all day. There is also my own body behind the camera, getting mesmerised and distracted by the architectural forms or the interplay between sunlight and greenery.

Sjoerd: Are you also thinking about the viewer’s body?

Priscila: Yes, I have developed an installation for this film, where the exhibition space is filled with beach chairs. Hopefully, these chairs will not perform as an allegory of leisure but will actually invite the viewer to use them. It would be nice if the viewers’ bodies could mirror moments in the film.

Sjoerd: There are other projects in which you depict bodies at leisure. For example, in encaustic paintings made with pigments dissolved in heated wax. This technique gives the paintings a translucent quality, so the figures seem to bathe – maybe almost dissolve – in light and bright colours. Their atmosphere seems celebratory.

Priscila: I’m glad to hear that. I made these paintings inspired by a friend’s wedding party, as a celebration of free time and being together with friends – being in a situation where you share love. It is a celebration, but I also see this as a moment of emancipation, of understanding there are other ways of being. I try to capture a state of ecstasy, where you somehow transcend, lose gravity. But I’m also working on another series, ‘Free. To Do Whatever We’, which is more about trying to break with my own modernist hang-up of always trying to make something meaningful and productive. I wanted to explore a certain playfulness.

Sjoerd: Do you mean that you don’t depict freedom in these new paintings, but instead try to enact it?

Priscila: Yes and no. I like the idea that as artists we should allow ourselves to feel more of the enjoy- ment of just doing things. I think there is a moment of liberation if you avoid focusing on a predefined outcome. It’s not about working differently, but about being differently. But I still find it difficult to let go. Those paintings, for example, are based on a series of sketches made during my holidays – and that’s as close to freedom as I could get. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what could it mean if I saw myself more as a hobbyist or an amateur with aspirations.

Sjoerd: The etymology of the word amateur is interesting: someone motivated by love. It starts with an affective investment in the activity of making something, and the result maybe expresses this affective relationship.

Priscila: Perhaps we become better people if the priorities we set when choosing the labour we en- gage in are based on affection and pleasure. That’s why I see a societal and even political potential in free time. Sure, action is often necessary to enforce political change: going on a strike or protesting is often the only way of fighting against unjust aspects of how we organise work in our society. But I also like to think that free time, liberated from implicit assumptions around productivity, could help new forms of human subjectivity emerge. This is why I find the discussion about universal basic income interesting.

Sjoerd: The premise of universal basic income is that rather than producing laziness, it unleashes creativity and allows working on new forms of community. If we see utopia as a new way of organising society that abolishes fragmentation, then perhaps a society where everyone has a basic income is a con- temporary utopia. Can we connect this back to the body as a medium? We are trained in certain ways, and learning is bodily too, so how do we unlearn
our habits? How do you cultivate freedom? Is using encaustic painting also a means for you to create conditions to cultivate a certain amateurism, to give up a bit of control?

Priscila: That depends on what you mean by giving up control. With encaustic, I go to great lengths to overcome the medium’s inherent limitations: for example, by making a heat table to keep the wax liquid. Initially, working with encaustic was a con- ceptual decision based on its visceral potential for transparency and light, to evoke a sense of heat and fluidity. This, however, creates a space for a process that is open-ended to a certain degree. Something similar happens in my ‘Other Futures’ series, where I paint directly into photo negatives after exposing them. In this case, I am working, quite literally, in the dark. Time is needed to learn how to predict what the outcome may be. That’s what I do: I repeat the process over and over to overcome gaps in my skills and knowledge. Once printed, it takes time to learn to appreciate the image.

Sjoerd: So does this produce an opportunity for an encounter with something new, a moment of not knowing how to deal with what you are seeing?

Priscila: The best images are the ones that I don’t like at first, and the images I eventually discard are the ones that I immediately like. It’s important to give things time.

Sjoerd: That’s something I recognise from the process of drawing. The idea of being ‘out of the habit‘ is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Being ‘out of the habit’ as being not yet familiarised with something, paired with a slight awkwardness. I think that’s an interesting place to be. It’s very much about your own position. First, you think: hmm, what have I made now? Then, later, you realise it’s interesting because it can’t be pinned down. There’s something in the image that makes you gravitate back toward it.

Priscila: Something that makes you doubt.

Sjoerd: You started by mentioning the difficulty of playing freely, but you do seem to play a lot.

Priscila: When I started working with play as a subject, I knew I was fooling myself by just trying to be more playful in the studio. It was precisely because of this that I started to consider the pres- ent-day role of play and how it is instrumentalised in our working lives. There are very few moments in which we can actually play, because you can only truly play if you don’t expect to gain anything from it. But are you ever in that position as a viewer, an artist, a worker, or, for that matter, a citizen? Can we consider different ways of operating that are not based primarily on productivity? I feel there is something extremely empowering and liberating in imagining a future where activities such as play and leisure allow us to rethink labour in terms of affec- tion and love. Perhaps I can get there, perhaps with a bit more of self-improvement and self-discipline.