College of the Arts of Coimbra University, Portugal DECEMBER, 7, 2012





Susana Mendes Silva

João Silvério: How did this idea came to you within the context of the Coimbra University, where we are currently holding, as part of the Ph.D. Course, a presentation (I wouldn’t call it an exhibition) of the research carried out by each one of us? How did you come to this idea you are going to present at Empty Cube? 
Susana Mendes Silva: As you know, my Empty Cube idea had not been originally conceived for the premises of the College of the Arts. It was meant for the concept of the cube itself. As soon as I learned that the cube was going to be moved from Lisbon to Coimbra, I inevitably had to come up with a few references and do some research on them. I was put in mind, namely, of the academic crisis, and of the important historic role played by the Coimbra University during the final years of the Estado Novo regime. Indeed, that subject had been recently revived; after the death of José Hermano Saraiva 1, there was some discussion of the academic crisis. Yet, when people are discussing the 25 April Revolution, that topic does not come up much: the importance of those facts in the Portuguese context tends to be neglected.   
JS: This, then, in terms of your working process, marks a return to historic research – as I mention in the short text I wrote for –, an archival research that is connected to a particular moment in history, but that historic moment seems to resonate in the times we are currently living through. For that reason, I’d like you to speak a little about the title   ‘69-12’.
SMS: What really amazed me was that, when I started to find images, the very first ones I saw – and that’s what grabbed me – struck me as strangely contemporary; they were quite contemporary, it was almost as if time had not passed. Hence the title, which may seem cryptic: ’69-12’, but it refers to that time. I mean: these sentences show that from 1969 to the present something should have happened and did not, and what did not happen was that these sentences did not maintain their value as slogans.
JS: In a certain way, that reminds me a bit of your work on the suffragists, for the Commemorations of the Portuguese Republic: it remains perfectly current. Not that there is a problem with suffrage, nowadays, but there is a problem regarding the position of women, now as then. Does this make sense to you in terms of process, bringing into the present certain facts, not only historical, but also relating to a certain form of activism that seems once again necessary? 
SMS: There are many sides to that. What interests me in the work you call ‘archival’ is not so much the archive in itself as the action of bringing things back to life, especially things that were erased or forgotten, that are not given proper importance in history, and that work, I think, is quite close to performance art. I mean, it is almost a performative action to make these things live again, making them present by being said or written once again.
JS: Just now, you said ‘performative’, a term that seems to be employed all the time, nowadays, but in your case is a bit like the main feature of your work. How do you see the element of performativity, in close connection to the word, in the evolution of your work? I believe this is your first action of this kind.   
SMS: Yes and no, because action is more than just word-related here. I mean, the cube’s space is full, the cube is inaccessible because it is already filled with people, and these people tell us something and those things people tell us, if you read the sentences, if we read those slogans, some of them are quite straightforward messages but others almost look like poetic lines, like the one on the picture: ‘continua o diálogo do silêncio’ [the dialogue of silence continues]. If we do not know the reference behind that sentence, its context, ‘the dialogue of silence continues’ will nowadays seem like a pretty line someone might say. But, at the time, ‘the dialogue of silence continues’ referred to the fact that the students could not speak to the Minister of Education; there was no dialogue and, because of that, things went pretty badly and he was discharged.  
JS: In a certain way, today there are also a number of political and social situations in which a certain lack of dialogue is present, in spite of all the protest demonstrations. Even though we live in an atmosphere of freedom, it seems that that ‘dialogue of silence’ is still quite present, isn’t it? 
SMS: Yes. And, at the start, this idea of filling the cube with people was much more connected to the history of performance art, but now it has taken on a political meaning that was not there at the start. In other words, it’s just as you’re saying: we are there, we may say things but perhaps nobody cares about what we’re saying and, even if spaces are occupied, there is always that difficulty between the will of the people and what is really happening today, especially in Southern Europe. Now, anyway, and as you know, I am not interested in creating propagandistic works. Nearly all my pieces have a very strong, politically militant content, but people fail to notice it because it is not obvious. You have mentioned my work on Adelaide Cabete and Carolina Beatriz Ângelo 2, and then on the early history of the Portuguese Republic, the ‘before’ and ‘after’, all those people who were forgotten and only later remembered, through Vasco Pulido Valente’s doctoral dissertation, for instance. There is a militant side to this, in the sense that this must not be forgotten, this must come back, because this is not just history, this is today. 
JS: I would call that less a militant than an interventive side: something that intervenes not only in the viewer’s space, but on the very consciousness of each person there. Probably, some will have no clear notion of what is going to happen, while others will come because they understand the invitation made to them and the kind of action that is going to take place. And that leads me to another question. This is a quite unique project because it is limited to a single event, something common in performance art, but, as a member of the audience, how do you see your contribution to this project, which already has featured a sizeable number of artists who have worked in many different ways? In other words, how do you see Empty Cube in the frame of your work?
SMS: I have worked with a wide variety of spaces and, as you know, I like being challenged to work in certain kinds of spaces that are, I would not say necessarily ‘alternative’, but unexpected spaces in which artists can also work. Nowadays, Empty Cube is one of those very special spaces. And, in this case, Empty Cube is more than just its space, being a space within another space – the College of the Arts, within the Coimbra University…
JS: With all that added symbolism they carry.
SMS: Precisely. That is why this is a special moment, since at other times, if I remember rightly, the cube was housed within an art space.
JS: Yes. Even when the project went to Tomar, it was installed at the gallery of the Tomar Polytechnic Institute. And here, it is a bit like the gallery of the College of the Arts.
SMS: But it does not carry the same weight, and this is not a criticism, it does not carry the same kind of weight, especially given the type of room it is – and we even had the chance to discuss where to house the project – I mean, it is a cube that is inside a room that is not cubic, but nearly so, and which in turn is contained within all those structures, almost like a tiny matrioshka doll, but there are many symbolic levels at work there, and even the participants themselves are not just students. There are students, but I’m also there, and there may be teachers, their relatives, children, friends and all those people that may wish to come and take part in the event; all they need to do is come dressed in black. We will all be there, dressed in black, and we will fill that space with ourselves and those sentences.
JS: That raises two issues that strike me as interesting. The first is the issue of localisation, and the way you localised the work made it become part of a history, let us call it that, the history of Empty Cube. On the other hand, there is the issue of the host spaces into which Empty Cube typically enters as an intruder, and that subject undergoes here a deviation, I would call it a particular deviation, which is the fact that the host space is now the university, and that brings us back to the whole matter of what the university stands for and symbolises.
SMS: As to that matter of it not being an intruder here, I believe it also has to do with another characteristic of my work, the fact that I am passionate about making my work – I don’t know if ‘site-specific’ defines all this – I don’t know if that word will do, but I want to make it involve itself… 
JS: A more appropriate term here would be ‘context-specific’.
SMS: Yes, but context is not the issue.
JS: No?
SMS: It is true that the work itself gets involved. But that term is a bit troublesome: while preparing my Ph.D. degree I came to the conclusion that it was very hard to use, because it had a ‘bad karma’ and a bad legacy. But I do have this interest, this passion of connecting myself to people, to history, to places and making that project belong there – which is terrible in commercial terms, because then things belong there and nowhere else. But that ‘there’ does not belong in the site-specific tradition of the late 1960s and early 1970s; I mean, nobody sent me an invitation, it’s not a commission because I was not asked to do that…   
JS: You are being asked to take part in something, to develop a project.
SMS: I am not being asked to do something for the community. I’ve never worked with a community. Other artists are asked to do that. But that simply never happened to me. Yet, in some way, things end up belonging there. They’ll belong to Coimbra, or, in the case of my projects concerning Repórter X 3, they belonged to the various places he travelled through, and then achieved an online existence.
JS: Curiously, and that shows my point, that kind of coincidence has allowed you to make an exhibition in a gallery in a street named after…
SMS: Curiously, the name of the street has no connection with the character. I mean, it both has and has not, and that is very interesting. And then the project kept growing, because I had so much to explore and everything was so interesting that the thing unfolded across Porto, Guimarães and did not go further because I didn’t get the chance. I mean, the project could have gone to mythical locations – like Russia, where Repórter X supposedly wrote some articles, though it is not certain whether he was actually there or not, Paris or London. But yes, that characteristic exists, and once again it will be quite visible here. And if there are older people, from my parents’ generation, perhaps it will make perfect sense to them, and they will get it at once. However, since these sentences are so specific, there is no real need for anyone to know or not the history behind them. Nothing whatsoever is being imposed on the visitors.  
JS: That is good because it also leaves things open, not only for those who know the historic reference, but also for those who do not know it and those who may wish to know it.
SMS: Exactly. That is the case with most works of art, isn’t it? Sometimes, people fail to get them and reject them, simply because they won’t open their minds a bit or because they’re not willing to…
JS: Or because they are projecting something else on the work.
SMS: Or on what a work of art is.
JS: They may even project on a work of art certain intimations, things that have no real connection with what the artist did.
SMS: Of course. 
JS: Thanks.
SMS: And good luck (laughs)!
JS. Good luck!                   

1 Translator’s note: José Hermano Saraiva (1919-2012) was a historian and jurist. As the Minister of Education between 1968 and 1970, he was confronted with the 1969 Coimbra academic crisis.

2 Translator’s note: Adelaide Cabete (1867-1935) and Carolina Beatriz Ângelo (1878-1911) were two medical doctors who were also militant feminists and republicans.

3 Translator’s note: Repórter X was a pseudonym used by journalist Reinaldo Ferreira (1897-1935).