Rodrigo Maltez Novaes, is a Brazilian/British visual artist. Having completed two years of study at the European Graduate School (EGS) in Saas-Fee, where he earned the certificate of Ph.D. (abd), he is now a doctoral candidate at the Vilém Flusser Archive at the Universität der Künste, Berlin. Also affiliated to the Interdisciplinary Centre for Cultural Semiotics and Media (CISC) in São Paulo, Rodrigo is the translator and editor of the first English edition of Vampyroteuthis infernalis, by Vilém Flusser, published by Atropos Press, New York, 2011. With a BA from the University of Gloucestershire and an MA from the University of the Arts London, his main areas of activity are painting, philosophy, media and communication. Currently he lives and works in Berlin where he now leads the long-term project for the translation and publication of Vilém Flusser’s work from Brazilian-Portuguese into English in partnership with Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis, US..
Interview led by Jeroen van der Hulst, Photography by Pedro Jardim
You have worked with many different disciplines in your career - painting, digital media, photography, video, and more recently philosophy - can you tell us how this trajectory came about?
I think this hinges on what kind of person I am. I mean, I've never gone for a "career"; rather I've always wanted to have experiences. The choices of things that I wanted to do have always been related to something that I wanted to experience. I was born in Brazil and lived there until I was a teenager. The move to London came when I was fifteen, with my mother. But before I went to London, my first desire was to become a fashion designer. So as soon as I arrived in London I enrolled on a design course that would eventually lead to a BA course. On that first course there was a teacher that I really got on with, and she managed to get me an apprenticeship with the Hartnell’s fashion house, which had recently reopened under Marc Bohan. So when I was very young I was already working in haute couture. That dispelled the mystery of the whole thing for me. I went into fashion because I love the craft of it and working with all the materials. But through these early experiences I very quickly realized I wouldn't survive in the fashion industry. When I went into university I started to go into the direction of visual arts. I did my BA at what used to be the Cheltenham School of Art and after that I moved back to London with a group of friends and we set up a performance collective called Core. Because of my skills with making clothes, I was the one who made costumes for everyone for the performances, but then we also made large scale the paintings as backdrops for the performances. We created immersive environments, which we used to install in different places. But from that period many other things developed. The group separated eventually. Things were changing and I decided to continue doing paintings for nightclubs. This developed into photography – initially doing documentation for music events and so on.
As a result of that, completely by accident, there's a lot of serendipity in my life, I ended up working as the press officer for Gay Pride London '98. It was the pride that collapsed, though. They needed a press officer but they didn't want to hire a PR-company so one day the manager of the agency where I was working as an events photographer asked if I could do the job, and I took it. It was a great learning curve, because despite the fact that the actual party never happened, I had to do a lot of crisis management and so I learned all the skills of PR in less than six months. After the collapse of Pride I went back to Brazil for a break, to relax and rethink what next. When I went back I was decided to do an MA and ended up doing an MA Enterprise and Management of the Creative Arts. This course was the first in the UK that focused primarily on management skills for people working in the creative industries. I was part of the very first cohort of students from this course. It became obvious, though that I am not a businessman or producer. Thankfully, I had a very good relationship with the course director, who encouraged me to stick to my artistic production. After the MA it was impossible to live in London. I had two jobs and an MA to do and only just enough money to live in a little shoebox in Hoxton. So I went back to Brazil for six months and ended up staying six years – and that's where I started painting. Just before I moved back to Europe I started working as an assistant curator for an arts festival in Brazil. I always had in my mind that I wanted to do a Ph.D. So when the time came, I ended up at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. The plan was to live in London again and do the Ph.D. from there, but after the first year residency at EGS, on my way back to go to London, I stopped over in Berlin to meet a friend and decided to stay here instead. I had all my stuff already in London so I got on a coach, got my things, and brought them back to Berlin!
Since you moved to Berlin in 2009, you have been engaged in comprehending the work of Vilem Flusser at the Flusser Archive at UDK Berlin. How did this interest start and why has his work captivated you?
When I came to Berlin I didn't know that the archive was here. By that time I had already read his work, I knew him and I liked his work. But at that point it was not my intention to work solely on his work. When I found out about the archive I decided to make a visit because one of one of his books. I wanted to see the references and the notes and I made some copies of the essays. This is when I saw that there was a lot more than I expected. That winter after doing a painting residency in Austin, Texas, I decided to focus on Vilém Flusser’s work for my Ph.D., not only because he is such a strong and inspiring thinker, but also because it is still uncharted territory. Initially I wanted to write or do something with Nietzsche, but then so many great philosophers have already written about him that I didn’t feel I could add anything particularly new to the discussion of Nietzsche’s work. So Flusser’s work offered itself as some kind of virgin territory. That is how I got to start my work at the archive and to study his work. Once I started researching in May of 2010, the work at the archive really picked up and I have been working there ever since. I started translating his work at the end of 2010. Vampyroteuthis Infernalis was the first one that I translated and published. I spent about one year looking for a publisher to do a whole series of Flusser’s book in English, and I found one in the U.S. called Univocal Publishing and signed to initially translate nine of his books. At the moment I'm doing The History of the Devil, which is a very powerful book that in fact is not about the history of the Devil, as we in the West think of the Devil.
Can you tell us a bit about this book and the process you are in with it?
This is just an amazing book. It was written in 1958 and everything he expanded on in his work is already in this book in an embryonic form. So in this book, there's at least one paragraph about one of the concepts that he later developed, where he introduces an ideas in this book that later became an entire book or field of study. It's the very beginning of his thinking and the book is kind of a critique on humanism, on western humanist tradition. This idea that we as humans are at the centre of everything and that we're the pinnacle of evolution. So in the book he undermines this concept that we are the centre of the universe. Of course The History of the Devil, is not the actual history of the Devil, he doesn't tell us that history. The Devil in this book is kind of an allegorical figure that initially represents the inexorable passing of time. Because the passage of time is what takes us towards death, he equates the concept of the “Devil” with time and the concept of “God” with the end of time. But then he structures the book according to the seven deadly sins. He starts with Lust, which is one of the main chapters of the book. Lust is described as the main force of life, because through it, obviously life is created. Then he goes into Wrath, which represents the scientific mind. From Wrath it goes into Gluttony, which is the emerging of technology and so on and so forth. The thing about the book is that it has to do with his biography as well, because he was Jewish, and from Prague. He had to leave in '39 because of the Nazi’s invasion and the only two books that he managed to take with him were Goethe's Faust and a small Jewish prayer book. So The History of the Devil is based on Faust. It's based on the idea of Mephistopheles and our Fuastian desire for knowledge. In Brazil, one of his first important friends was a Brazilian writer named João Guimarães Rosa. He wrote a very large book, which is probably Brazil's most famous book, a modernist piece called Grande Sertão: Veredas (translated as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands). This book is also based on Goethe's Faust. This is where they have an affinity. Grande Sertão: Veredas was written in '53 and Flusser's The History of the Devil was written in '58 but only published in '65. I am working on the book at the moment and it will probably be published in March next year. We've already published three books now: Post-History, Natural:Mind and Vampyroteuthis Infernalis.
You have been involved in projects such as the Flusserian Studies at UDK and the Metaflux Lab at Humboldt. Can you explain us about those?
Yes the Flusserian readings started as the Flusserian Philosophical Friday's at the archive. I wanted to bring together different researchers that had an interest in Flusser to read and unpack his work together. Most of his work is not published, so we were reading the manuscripts and the best way would be to bring people in and read together and discuss it. One of the main elements in the way that Flusser constructed the texts is how he intended for them to be read out loud to others. Because of that they have a very fluid rhythm and they're very short. This is how he would always work. I wanted to reproduce this structure and it was really interesting. We discovered things in the works that were only noticed because we read it out loud and discussed it
I organized this with Claudia Becker, whom I know from the archive. It went on for a few years and it started to spread to other universities in other countries. It became the Flusserian Philosofical Flux, because we started doing irregularly at other institutions, s on any day of the week, so we had to change the title. When we read the essays we don't read them from beginning to end and then discuss. We're discussing as we read, so we do a paragraph, stop, people ask questions and we expand on things. There's a flow to it. This is where the Flux comes from.
We created the Metaflux Lab to basically bring together a whole range of things we were doing at the end of last year. We did a series of workshops at the Humboldt University, which were called the Kittler-Flusser Mediations. It brought Friedrich Kittler's and Vilém Flusser's work together to be discussed. The person who organized it with us at the Humboldt was Paul Feigelfeld, so then we invited him to join the Metaflux Lab. Momentarily we are in a temporary rest period to establish ideas for next year.
In June 2013, you presented a collaborative work with Jonas Wendelin, Hans-Henning Korb and AEAEAEAE at Agora Collects - 'The Kubrick Moment'. How was this process?
First of all I met them when I was doing a residency at the Institute für Raumexperimente, where I did the post-graduate residency for six months. When 'Agora Collects' came and asked us to make a piece together, the initial idea was that they would do an installation and I would write a text that I would then read inside the installation to create an event. We started talking and it gradually grew into a collective piece, because when we met for the first time to talk about this and they told me their ideas, they already had the title, which was Kubrick Moment, and they wanted to create an environment that had something strange about it, something you couldn't quite explain. It would be perhaps like an abandoned film set. We started working with these ideas and looking at 2001: A Space Odyssey and the concept that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were working with in the film, this question of where human knowledge comes from. The book 2001: A Space Odyssey suggests that it was an alien civilization that built the monolith, that black thing, and sent it to earth so that the early primates who came into contact with it had their minds triggered to evolve into hominids and become us. That's the premise of the film. We started to think what the monolith could represent and the idea that this alien thing enters our environment and causes a change. This was the starting point. Eventually we imagined the installation to be the inside of the monolith, rather than the outside. This developing process was interesting because I had been in collaborative projects before and some of them also had to a certain extent, but it was still a new dynamic to be explored. The dynamics were interesting because of course we didn't designate roles for each one; instead this had to emerge naturally.
In what way did this occur?
We had a series of meetings and the ideas changed every time we met. We would agree on what to do and then go our separate ways, but when we met up again everybody had had different ideas! There was one point we agreed that I would write a text and condense the piece around the text. At this time I was just finishing the translation for Natural:Mind. So one day I came to one specific paragraph in the book and it triggered some ideas and I wrote an aphorism that became part of the text of Kubrick Moment. The next time we met I read it out loud to them and it suddenly galvanized everyone into one idea. Everything then coalesced around this one aphorism. After that I sat down and wrote out the whole text. From that we started experimenting on the objective side of the installation. Kubrick was already in the title, the idea was contained in the text but then there was also Wagner. He was going to come into this project, because Henning wanted to work with Wagner's music. Wagner comes in with the notion of mythology, the building of fictions from the past. We model the future on myths that are based on the past. With 2001 we're looking at the future of humanity and then combining it with Wagner and these notions of mythology or origins of, in this particular sense, German culture. This is when we started thinking of manipulating scales. Simen was working with these images made with electronic microscopes. Looking at them, we realized they look like operatic backgrounds, these amazing and huge landscapes. But the images are of things on a microscopic scale so this idea of inversion came into play by printing these images onto a very large size so they actually become landscapes. This would create something in the space that would maybe be like a miniature of a landscape. So then we were getting into this idea of building of a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk and an element that is often left out of such pieces is often smell. Jonas works a lot with things that smell or have a particular flavour like liquids or incense and so he wanted to work with washing powder to introduce some smells into the piece. We were initially thinking to make mini washing powder mountains, which later grew into one centrepiece: a large washing powder mountain. So everyone’s ideas came together quite spontaneously.
After it was done we were all very surprised at the impact that the piece had. Any one of us separately would never have made something like it, it emerged because we were working on it as a group.
Now you've also started working more with sound, no?
Yeah this is another thing, because through the FPF I discovered I really enjoy reading things out loud. So I decided to work more with the human voice. This has evolved in my own work after Kubric Moment. I've been creating art pieces that are textual and one of them will be published now in the Architecture& journal of the University of Edinburgh. I see that as an art piece, not as an essay. I'm working more in the direction that pieces don't necessarily have to exist in a gallery environment. When I do take them into that environment, I read them out, and the text becomes sound. Henning and I wanted to do more of these things. I want to write pieces so that he can create soundscapes with them, but we don't know yet if we would present them in a gallery format. This is how things have always evolved for me – never with a clear aim but more like accidental developments.
You did a reading in KM Temporaer.
Yes, with Judith (Lavagna)! That was in the New Atlantis show. She wanted me to present a lecture but I told her I'd rather do a performance so I read the text from Kubrick Moment together with parts of the essays that inspired that text: Vilém Flusser, Aldous Huxley etc. This is a format that I am experimenting with at the moment.
In AFFECT, you will be the facilitator present in the conceptualizing phase. How do you intend to approach it?
When I was asked to do this I just made clear what I am good at – because I had been running a seminar at UDK for two years, I like interacting with artists in relation to their work directly. Instead of giving a lecture I'd rather come in when something is already forming and then interact with that. Perhaps I can help them to see something they are not yet seeing in the process, like coming in from a tangent. Basically to antagonize the situation a little bit, to make people think from a different perspective. This is what Flusser taught me. That is how I think I can best work in these situations.