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Meet the visual artist offering companionship to strangers

Brazilian artist Anna Costa e Silva talks about the art of encounter

By Isabel Sachs

Anna Costa e Silva is an expert at creating spaces where people connect in the most fantastic ways. Acting more like an anthropologist then an artist at times, she is interested in "ways of living" and doesn't take this task lightly.

In the performative series Ofereço Companhia, the artist posted an ad in a newspaper offering her companionship to anyone who might need. Everyone who responded was seen and for 21 days, everything else from Anna's life came second.

These strangers confessed crimes, loves, and dreams, which were smartly contained into small monocles, placed side – by – side on the gallery wall. To experience excerpts of these conversations, the audience must come close to these monocles, one at a time, creating an intimate space to "meet" these strangers – each one on their own. 

Anna's practice also brings to mind the work of French artist Sophie Calle, as it similarly looks into the intimate nature of our human experience.

I recently caught up with Costa e Silva, to explore her path to visual arts and find out if she thinks an image can really change the world.

Tell us about your path to visual arts from Film

Anna Costa e Silva: I actually do not consider that I started my career in Film. I had a very intense creative moment in my late teens, in which I wrote novels, did some installations with photos, acted in plays and then directed a short film. Nothing professional, but my practice has been interdisciplinary since very early on. I decided to study Film in college because I thought it would somehow bring together all these interests – photography, writing, sculpture, acting, and directing. I really enjoyed studying and working with cinema but it was also clear that I was more interested in experimenting with that media, in creating processes for things to happen, than in writing a script and following it.

My thesis short film, Voices, was a project that combined sound-only conversations with esquizophrenic people and an “imagetic track” made after editing all the sounds, with actors on an abandoned factory. There was no script or idea of what the final result should be, it was all based on this listening process that I created. This project led me to several questions that expanded my practice to other formats. Does it need to be screened from beginning to end? What if it had more than one screen? What if there was no image, only sound? What if it is not shown on a theatre?

The next project I did, Asymptotes, was also very connected to cinema, but it was a 3-screen video installation, like an expanded cinema, I wanted to bring the cinematic experience to space. I think I migrated to the “field” of visual arts because I felt like I had more space to experiment different strategies, although what I do is very much connected to cinema, theatre, dance, and also to psychology and anthropology somehow. I wish there could be more connections between these areas, many interesting things can be done in the borders and intersections.   

Image courtesy of Anna Costa e Silva

Which imaginary character would you like to meet?

Anna Costa e Silva: I was thinking about this question for a while. Curiously, I always wanted to meet the actors when I watched films that I really enjoyed, specially the actresses. I am very fascinated about the person that is making the character, about the emotion that a person brings to a character. It is impossible to dissociate the character and the person who is playing it, and I am interested in this game between the two. I always wanted to meet Liv Ullman, when she was playing Elisabeth Vogler in Persona. I wanted to meet her exactly when she was doing that film, it is one of my favourite films. I hope I can meet her someday while she is alive, even though she will not be playing this character. Also, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars Von Triar’s Antichrist. I wonder what it is like to go through that. Another character I wished to meet is the man that is lying down in Beckett’s Company. Company might be my favourite book. I have felt like this person so many times that I would like to meet him.

“I think I am more driven to the possibility of art as a state of existence than as an object” – Anna Costa e Silva

Your work is often placed between arts and anthropology, with many of them starting form an exploration of human aspects such as Ofereço Companhia (I Offer Company). How does that process work? Do you start with questions and then transforms them into objects?

Anna Costa e Silva: I always start projects not knowing exactly where they will take me. This uncertainty is a very fundamental part of my practice. I am not that interested in any specific media or material, I am interested in constructing a situation, in defining parameters for things to happen, and not knowing exactly what these things will be. All my projects deal with people; and what might happen when encountering another person is impossible to know. I think I am more driven to the possibility of art as a state of existence than as an object.

Some processes might unfold beautifully in videos, sounds, words, or images and others are just that ephemeral moment. Most of the things I do are impossible to be reproduced, because they are dealing with an instant, with some feeling of suspension of time and space that come with presence. But I am also interested in the traces that these experiences might leave, and in the way that this might be shared. I have used different strategies, such as video, sound, photography, words, texts, and installations. The works always tell me how they should unfold, I need to be an attentive listener.

Image courtesy of Anna Costa e Silva

Through your process, you can often be in risky or vulnerable situations. How do you manage these experiences? Do you feel comfortable with strangers?

Anna Costa e Silva: My work deals a lot with trust and agreements. So, if I don’t trust people, it is impossible to do what I do. On the other hand, they also need to trust me when they choose to have me sleeping in their house or something like that. I have never experienced an unpleasant or dangerous situation so far. By the tone of the messages, when people first contact me, I can tell if a person is trying to abuse me. This has happened very few times and I explained to them that they did not have the right to violate me in any way and then they gave up about meeting me.

I feel very safe and comfortable with strangers. I enjoy the blank space, the possibility of creating anything together when there is no previous relationship involved. It is very freeing in a way, we can invent our own codes. I think that it produces a kind of suspension, like when you are travelling to a place you have never been before. I am interested in this feeling. It’s curious that I feel much more comfortable sleeping in the house of a person that I do not know than, for example, at an exhibition opening or any event that has very clear social dynamics, characters, personas, and social masks. Sometimes I think that I do what I do because I find it very hard to interact with people more superficially.

For your next project, you are searching for letters handwritten by women. Can you tell us a bit about what sparked your interest and how it might develop?

Anna Costa e Silva: Yes, I have just started this work. I am very interested in female ancestrality, what we carry and pass on from mother to daughter. Recently I have been studying a lot about family constellations. I find it fascinating to think of the energy and the pain that come from previous generations and the patterns that we are repeating or healing from our ancestor’s experiences. So many stories of pain, abuse, sexism, but also so many stories of love and affection. During other encounter works, like I Offer Company and Purpura, many times people spontaneously brought their letters and read them to me. These are always some very strong moments. I am fascinated by letters, by the feelings that people choose to put on paper. The way one chooses to eternalise some feelings, to make them become something we can touch or see. I love to think of tiny narratives that exist in drawers.

“As a feminist, I am interested in our inner battles as much as the macro ones” – Anna Costa e Silva

For this work, I have put an open call on social media to visit any woman that feels like sharing the letters she wrote or received from her female ancestors and descendants. We read the letters together, I record the sound of them reading and we also talk about our experiences with motherhood, our relationship to the women in our families. It’s been extremely strong for me, and I think I can say it has been strong for those who are sharing their letters as well. I do not make any images of these encounters, just the sound. I still do not know how it will unfold, but I have been thinking about a circle with chairs and these letters on headphones. Also, some very strong images have come to me, which I intend to record in video, such as a rope being undone little by little and a ritual of burning thoughts and feelings we do not want anymore. I plan to shoot these images at some point.

I think that this work is very much about our open wounds, and also our stronger ties. About the things that are passed on and passed on and passed on, and our need to look at these things and also to help and support each other. As a feminist, I am interested in our inner battles as much as the macro ones.

Image courtesy of Anna Costa e Silva

What has been the most impactful meeting so far?

Anna Costa e Silva: It’s very hard to pick one… There have been several experiences that were very impacting and they were all extremely different from one another. There was this walk on the cemetery, during I Offer Company, with a woman that I had met briefly before. She proposed that we walked on the cemetery talking about life and impermanence. I would never decide to walk on a cemetery on my own, or even with a friend, so I was pretty scared. But it turned out to be one of the most precious moments I could share with someone. That feeling of being taken into some other space, talking about things we would not talk otherwise. And the cemetery did take things into another level, the proximity with death, the idea of our losses, how everything in life is put into perspective in that place, and also the peace and silence. I don’t even know how long that encounter lasted. 

Another example happened just last week, after the open call for letters between women and their ancestors. I was contacted by this woman to meet her mother. Her mother has Alzheimer’s and she started a ‘game’ in which she asked her mom to write letters to her, telling about her life experiences. The letters would be a way to help her exercise her brain and not forget things she had lived, and also to keep her memories alive. Her mother had had a very hard life, a black woman who worked as a maid since age 13, and had endured many abusive experiences. It was so powerful to hear the daughter reading her mother’s words about the past. Also, to meet these two women, and see how they took care of each other, seeing how writing could bring them closer and also keep the mother alive. We sang together, read the letters, and talked about feminism and care. I was so grateful for having been invited into their house and have them share a little bit of their universe with me.

What question has no one ever asked you about your work which you would like them to?

Anna Costa e Silva: There is something funny about giving interviews, it is very rare that people ask me what I am feeling. How I woke up that day, the things that I have been interested in, my first thought during the day, my last thought at night. I am very interested in things like that. Maybe the questions that I would like people to ask me are not exactly about the work, but more about life in general, about things I am not that sure. I miss having spaces to talk with less property about matters and also to hear other people in that sense. The way we communicate, the distance between what we feel, and what we are expressing, that is something that interests me – I think this is pretty clear in the works as well.

“I believe that artworks have a powerful possibility of moving people and people can move structures” – Anna Costa e Silva

Finally, can an image change the world?

Anna Costa e Silva: There are many worlds in the world, right? For me, if something I do is capable of changing one person’s day, it is already like changing the world, this person’s world. I believe that artworks have a powerful possibility of moving people and people can move structures. For me, triggering some connection between oneself and his or her emotions, some connection with a more sensitive and less rational take on what is around this person is a very big thing. Opening space for the sensorial, for that which is not logical, for the things we do not really understand. I feel like we are all very numb, like in a fulltime anaesthesia. And I think that gestures, encounters, images, or artistic situations might take us off this anaesthesia, at least for some time.

Image courtesy of Anna Costa e Silva

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