Natalia de Campos & Thiago Szmrecsányi

jr / You both offer rich context into how many overlaps there are in your work. Again, I cannot help but feel even your responses become collaborative and alive — even performative. There is a journey here — elements of observation and creation — action and contemplation — all set in time and place. A narrative through practice and life.

Thiago, you touched on art handling and restaurant work. Natalia, you have mentioned work translating and in production. How does an active studio practitioner, who relies so much on social engagement and activating public space, balance studio practice and the needs of daily livelihood? How do these decisions affect possible outcomes in your practice? (Like your lampshades, Thiago).

I ask because I believe many higher education institutions mislead their future graduates by telling them they are going to make it in the art world… they will be the next great artist (I know this is a generalization). Often without offering any resources on how it might be done, or prioritizing a foundation of strong studio commitment. Of course, these institutions may be producing the next great artist, but it also takes so much work and sacrifice. So much failure. And so much time!

I guess my summary is that studio practice, social engagement and the activating of public space are one. Education is essential, but it trespasses formal learning too.”

— Natalia de Campos

NdC / I started working professionally in the theater when I was 13. I continued to study and work simultaneously. Then while in High School, in parallel I got my union affiliation and acting license in an acting school in São Paulo. My main mentor there, Célia Helena, gave me the best advice ever when I was 16: “Here you will learn a solid foundation in acting, text analysis, and theater history. The rest that you ask for, you’ll have to find for yourself elsewhere”.

While her school did give me a very solid foundation, she also sparked my curiosity to go after all the avenues I wanted to build my foundation. In college I decided to study History as I kept working in the performing arts in the evenings, teaching English as a Second Language in the mornings while attending full undergraduate courses in the afternoons. I found all kinds of other jobs during college time that expanded my learning in the arts. One was being a translator/interpreter and production assistant in an international performing arts festival in São Paulo. This put me in touch with artists from all over the world, in four languages, and from interdisciplinary practices. It influenced me a lot to move to New York a few years later. It also became obvious to me that I would need to balance all three aspects continuously: study & income-producing work, to be able to keep doing the experimental, somewhat non-compromising art that I wanted. It was intense, but inevitably one area of work ended up informing the others. Multidisciplinarity was already how I worked in Brazil.

In New York, with artists in a tight-knit community, and the acquired freedom of being a pedestrian, I met many different artists. My Brazilian heritage of being syncretic, made me blend and absorb multiple cultures fast and seamlessly, as influenced by the Afro culture in the North of the country, and with Tropicália, in the arts in the late 1960/70s — with Theater, Music, Visual and Literary arts coming together in a mashing of color and references. I really carried that syncretism in me, and founded a producing entity called Syncretic Pleasures (SP, also the acronym for my birth city). SP naturally blends this need of combining my daily experiences, the people I meet, in the outcome of my work, especially in performance, text and sound.

After 15 years in New York I went to Graduate School (where we met, John!). The program, Performance & Interactive Media Arts, was multidisciplinary too, and was collaborative, which was natural for me for 20 years already. I delved into learning other disciplines — like video, art, computer programming, translating my own poetry. Some of my own past references were taught there too — including Paulo Freire. Freire’s work reminded me of how much better learning and collaborating with non-art communities required one to understand their environment — and create a common language, further stretching the imagination about where to make art. Revisiting this certainly delineated a new chapter on how to approach different New York communities, or even the old ones I was embedded in, like the Lower East Side, with fresh eyes.

I guess my summary is that studio practice, social engagement and the activating of public space are one. Education is essential, but it trespasses formal learning too. At least it always did for me. I don’t look at them separately. The activities that sustain that practice (i.e. the relationships, maintaining them via interactions, and practically, the income-producing possibilities, which we often call “second jobs”) had to start informing one another, or there would never be time for reflection, for the art-making, and for presenting it. It is a huge challenge to balance all — mainly because there is never enough time for everything in a day! But I love that they interfere with each other.

The main activities that informed my work throughout the years varied broadly: from working in retail in my first 3 years in NY, to always teaching languages and translating. And then there’s producing for myself in more solo work, producing with my collaborators, and also for others, including 15 years of part-time studio managing for Emma Amos, the luminary African American woman painter from whom I learned immensely (especially about being a feminist!).

Now I incorporate more oral history into artworks, always this bilingual life, the activism, and playing with the objects and sounds of the words. Though when I started questioning our role in consumption…, my first NY job hit me back, and I made Dis-Play (how Brazilians may pronounce “this play”). It became a new piece of our “store”: ART&COM Work Displays History which was first presented in Jamaica Flux (in the Jamaica Colosseum Mall in Queens) but then we reconfigured it for the Lower East Side, within blocks of our studio, for ART&COM: Re-location (its second iteration).

ART&COM continued to sell nothing, but in the LES we also incorporated a walking-tour, from the gallery to the studio, stopping at Essex Street Market, where LOCAL and insert had first incorporated my collaborative work with Thiago’s, and the local community of the market. I felt that was another way to make time work in our favor.

Re-Location: Art&Com: Work Displays History, 2016
detail: “Dis-Play”
Installation Shots at Emma Thomas Gallery
Photo: Keka Marzagão
Re-Location: Art&Com: Work Displays History, 2016
Installation Shots at Emma Thomas Gallery, Lower East Side Dec/2016
Photo: Keka Marzagão

TS / My training as an artist and development as a person did not follow a straight path and was shaped both from school and from life experiences. As a migrant, I had first to assure the basic means to survive, and then actively fulfill my other interests. The time I spent in the East Village cafe that I mentioned before was an important turning point: there I met a lot of interesting people, a more satisfying social life, a sense of belonging to a place. Wages were not great, so I had to work long hours. It enabled me to rent a loft, yet it was hard to find time to create.

I returned to school much later, when I wanted to have here in NY the same opportunities that I had in Brazil, and college was a part of that. At the time, though, I had already participated in programs like the Bronx Museum’s Artist in the Marketplace, and had my studio in the Lower East Side, and an active art practice. At Hunter College, I had to follow the Liberal Arts distribution, so I did not get a super in-depth studio foundation. But I was already working on my own. Plus I was assisting many other artists, helping others with fabrication, art handling, and with designing and presentation tasks.

Working as a technician at Hostos and at Lehman Colleges somehow extended my links with CUNY beyond graduation. More recently, I was part of the exhibition Playthings and Performing Objects and in the related performance event Animated Objects & Resistant Bodies (both curated by Edward Miller and Valerie Tevere), the first at Staten Island College and at the second was at the Graduate Center. Artivists, my work with the lamp shades from the East Village cafe from the 80’s was a part of the exhibition, and UAAU was part of the performance. On a personal level, moving the work to the gallery created a loop linking the two different experiences that I embodied, in the arts and in the café…

Yet, as an artist, I feel I should not rely only on my personal experiences. The art and the world are both open to multiple interpretations.