Since the start of quarantine, my computer has been on with three browsers open, in which, with no method at all, I open (and lose track of) tabs for future consultation, tabs with texts about the end of the world and the reinventing of worlds, non-dystopian science-fictions, newsletters about virtual exhibitions, online festival programs, lists of films about lock-down, and artist’s Vimeos. There are even tabs with recipes, with Brazilian, English, New York and French newspapers, some with stories which are 15 days old; tabs that show the curve’s evolution, tabs with petitions to save the Brazilian Cinemateca, others asking for the impeachment of the Brazilian president and for a progressive coalition against authoritarianism.
In the most unexpected moments, competing songs and conversations in different languages start to play without me being able to tell where they’re coming from. If I sit down to watch a film, it may come accompanied by another film’s soundtrack. I have watched the first few minutes of a Maxakali film with the voice-over in a language of Germanic origin. Numbed by the inertia of the past days and months, it took me a couple of minutes to realize that there was no way northern European languages could share the same roots with the languages of indigenous Brazilians. It reached the point where I didn’t bat an eyelid when O signo do caos, a film by Brazilian filmmaker Rogério Sganzerla, started with the opening credits from Les Films Imaginaires, by Maurice Lemaitre. Honestly, it made sense.
Once I get over the initial embarrassment caused by my inattention and failure to listen, I accepted the state of lethargy. I allow these images and sounds to blend into a tangled mass. Deep down, I’m not certain that I really wanted to watch films. I’m not even sure what’s the point of watching films at the moment.
I should be using my time during quarantine to translate Robert Smithson into Portuguese; or to write about him and thus fill my post-doctoral obligations. I have given up trying to do anything substantial with this research project, which should be about the role of cinema in the artist’s thinking. At this point, coping with my bureaucratic obligations would be a victory.
I haven’t managed to make any progress with the project in two years. It’s not that I have lost interest in Smithson, on the contrary, I find him ever more fascinating. I even went to Utah last summer to see the Spiral Jetty. For five days, I drove alone through a lunar landscape, trying to understand what attracted him about those places where time appeared to stand still and geology defied logic, causing ideas, concepts, systems, structures or abstractions to collapse. I came back with a notebook full of notes, which I haven’t managed to organize. My office has posts-its everywhere about Smithson and his plans for underground cinemas in mines. But I’ve never managed to make any of this into a text.
Whenever I sit down to write, I remember the rejection letter I received when I first applied for a grant for this project. The anonymous referee report justified the decline with two sentences: “The research project is original, and it might be important to the field of Contemporary Art History. However, it regards a rather marginal and obscure production, which is extremely specialized, with restricted interest and limited reach, even in the USA.” I received this rejection exactly nine days after the 2018 presidential elections, in which the alt right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected after a campaign against the “cultural Marxists”. The expressions “might be of interest”, “extremely specialized”, “marginal” and “obscure” seemed to come from the world he represented and which, even today, I still do not feel prepared for, especially not coming from a leading research agency. I shifted my state of despair with my country onto this research project, although I have continued to write about other topics.
Even though I am unable to write seriously about him, I go back to Robert Smithson, thinking about his description of the cinematic experience as a privileged passage to limbo. In Entropy and the New Monuments, the artist describes the movie theater as an ideal “mental conditioner,” to make “a hole” in one’s life. His limbo is entropic and atopic; a borderland where memories of films react and recombine themselves through fusing together. It is also irreversible: the entropy cannot be mapped or rewound.
Smithson’s ideal filmgoer is the opposite to the classical one; the latter with his notebook in hand, and his encyclopedic memory, his archivist’s pleasure in citing names, dates, and places. For the artist, the authentic filmgoer would be “a captive of sloth. Sitting constantly in a movie house, among the flickering shadows, his perception would take on a kind of sluggishness. He would be the hermit dwelling among the elsewheres, forgoing the salvation of reality. (…) Between blurs he might even fall asleep, but that wouldn’t matter. (…) This dozing consciousness would bring about a tepid abstraction. It would increase the gravity of perception. Like a tortoise crawling over a desert, his eyes would crawl across the screen. All films would be brought into equilibrium – a vast mud field of images forever motionless.”[i]
Just as Smithson sees the ideal filmgoer as the opposite of the classical one, his interest in cinema moves beyond classical interpretations and their celebration of film’s power for capturing and preserving a moment in time intact – what André Bazin called “the mummy complex”. Smithson’s interest in cinema is sparked precisely by what is lost, muddled, erased, what can be found in the in-between spaces where oblivion takes over.
“If there was ever a festival in limbo, it would be called “Oblivion”[ii], he wrote. As a curator, this idea has hounded me since well before the post-doc. Perhaps that’s why I’ve pushed for this project. Even when it was no longer possible to work as a cinema programmer in Brazil.
Smithson died in 1973, at a time when artists were just beginning to dream up the possibilities of computational art. Before home video or the smartphone, before we got used to falling asleep with laptops in our laps, only to wake up, hours later, with them falling on our faces. Before Covid.
Smithson never came to Brazil; he never got to visit the Brazilian Cinemateca.
I read in an editorial in the largest Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, that the Brazilian Cinemateca “finds itself in limbo”.
Limbo, as we know, was the place where the Catholic Church sent children who, as a result of dying before baptism, hadn’t obtained the necessary entry visa for Paradise. Its abolition in 2007 by the Second Vatican Council was not enough for it to be erased from other spheres of life.
In one of his first acts after taking office, the alt right President Jair Bolsonaro dissolved the Ministry of Culture. As a consequence, the Brazilian Cinemateca was handed over to the Ministry of Tourism. However, the organization directly responsible for running it, the Roquette Pinto Association, falls under the Ministry of Education. When this Ministry decided to end its contract with the Association, the Cinemateca fell into a juridical and institutional limbo, cutting it off financially and endangering a collection of more than 250 thousand film reels which require constant temperature control. The Cinemateca has already suffered fires and floods – some 730 rolls of film, 270 of which were the only surviving copies, were destroyed in a fire in 2016.
Time has shown that the Cinemateca is not in limbo, but in a hell designed and desired by the current Brazilian administration and its destructive project. In 2020, the Bolsonaro administration confiscated the keys of the institution, rejecting every offer of help from civil society or local administrations and making it clear that they were not interested in saving the institution. The Cinemateca’s problem is not that it lacks the proper paperwork to receive the necessary funds and to continue operating satisfactorily. No, the Bolsonaro administration project is to dismantle it entirely, to lock and let rot and burn all the stories of resistance, all the proofs of past violence and every remembrance that it is possible to world other worlds in film. To preserve and let loose only the ghosts of the authoritarianism, knowing then that no proof will ever be accessed against them in the future.
“Let them set fire to the Louvre . . . right away . . . If they’re afraid of something beautiful.” says the French director Danielle Huillet, quoting Cézanne, in Une visite au Louvre (Straub-Huillet, 2004).
In Brazil, there is no need for threats, even less for fear of beauty. Institutions, museums, films, memory, and bodies burn each and every day. From criminal oversight, from despair; we burn and are burnt. In the past ten years, we have witnessed at least eight institutions with collections of inestimable cultural or scientific value, burn down, some of them, with fewer than ten years of existence and with architectural investments worth millions (Museum of the Portuguese Language); others, with valuable collections that had been amassed over two hundred years (National Museum). As I am writing this, the Museum of Natural History, based at the University of Minas Gerais, has also suffered an irreparable loss.
Here, even the Louvre burns. In 2012, I organized a major retrospective of Straub-Huillet in Brazil. My co-organizers and I brought 35mm and 16mm copies from Europe and the United States to be screened. On the last day of our retrospective in São Paulo, the copies of Une Visite au Louvre, Quei Loro Incontri and Il Ritorno del figlio/Umilitali were stolen from the vehicle of our courier service. The retrospective was taking place downtown close to “Cracolândia” (literally: Crackland, an area in downtown São Paulo where crack addicts trade and use drugs). I can only imagine that the robbers hoped to find objects far more valuable than film strips to sell on some black market. And thus, the Louvre most likely ended up being dumped on some bonfire one cool summer’s evening, melting a rock of crack.
Jean Marie Straub received approximately fifteen thousand euros from the Swiss insurer that we had hired, which is not a bad amount to remake distribution copies of three films with.
In Brazil, to be foreign and to burn can sometimes be a profitable business. The Brazilian Cinemateca, however, is not insured.
So much for Brazil being the country of the future.
To have worked in the country of the future