Interview: José Canepa
Luca Curci talks with José Canepa during ANIMA MUNDI FESTIVAL 2019 – VISIONS at Palazzo Ca’ Zanardi.
I am a Chilean born multimedia artist grown up in London and now based mostly in Berlin, though moving around for specific projects. At Brighton University I studied Performance & Visual Arts, an experimental course focused on developing one’s own interdisciplinary practice. My work in different mediums has been shown internationally in; Germany, England, Italy, Australia and China. My grandmother Teruca Llorens was one of the pioneering archaeologists in Chile leading to a wide array of exposure to indigenous art from a young age as well as European and even Asian influences from my mother’s research and work for her PhD of the arts. I believe that art is a great tool for communication and at this tense time in the Earth’s history I feel it’s absolutely essential to do so. It is like a universal language that in its different mediums can break down boundaries of race, language, gender and create social and psychological change. My practices range from; painting, to experimental film, through to music, poetry and to creating immersive installations considering how the arrangement of space affects our psyche, where many of the mediums function in unison. My works are windows into my world and what I’ve seen along the way, showing the range of influences synthesised in various mediums. As an active creative and concerned citizen, I wanted to take back some of this space to share ideas generally dominated by the noise of the spectacle. Seeking a truth that I feel is more beneficial to our journey as humans. Thus connecting us to the reality that exists outside of the media dreamland and attuning to a more harmonious state with ourselves and in accordance with Earth.
Luca Curci – What is art for you?
José Canepa – There is something rather undefinable about art because of its evolving meaning and subjective nature. So I will not try to pinpoint it but instead describe it in more abstract terms though clearly there are recurring culturally accepted formats that have remained over time. To me art is a language of expression that has and will continue to take many forms, from the first handprint marks making meaning painted by our ancestors in primordial caves, to the virtual reality experiences now being explored at ever growing speed. Each creative act reflects the place and period of time it was created in, with the conditions often forming the outcomes. Great shifts have occurred with technological advancement such as the camera liberating representational painting in order to paint what could not be seen, exploring the metaphysical as a closer representation of reality. The many movements beginning with Expressionism following this crucial historical moment became more about ideas and this has continued down that path to conceptual art, though of course there remain more traditional schools. The move into electronic music with the advent of machines is another example, bearing in mind all the stepping stones along the way such as the early experimental pioneers Pink Floyd and the Beatles, it is also evident that all these elements are connected in a form of conversation. Whereby what one person or group creates influences others who may in turn be affected in their own process of creation, they may indeed even be connected in real life. This is how scenes or movements arise, the artists opening spaces for that culture or thinking to exist in the world, which then by resonating with enough other people gives a group something to identify itself by, a common cultural ground linked by ideas. In a sense finding ones resonant wavelength with art appealing to ones core sensibilities, what makes this so interesting is everyone has unique sensibilities. In this creative language there is a suspension of normal communication rules, things can be metaphorical and a gesture in movement can take on other meanings. The visual symbols that are more or less universally understood can even be subverted to be given new meaning. A choice of melodic phrasing can cast an atmosphere welling with emotion without even a word spoken. A poem can define that moment in a great movement. Words from books have become part of spoken language. Leaving a trace in history which can then be referenced, a touchstone time capsule for historical retrospection. The artists open a window of perception for the time and culture they belong to. Now these varying forms have served different purposes at different times, but essentially art mirrors existence as a form of historical archive. What certain individuals, groups, or societies produce in terms of creative content gives insights to their psyche and intentions, anti-semitic propaganda from the Nazi period would be an example of this. By listening to the music and lyrics of Nina Simone we can access beautifully encoded information about the situation during the US civil rights movement from the perspective of a politically active black woman. Art is always a response to the environment, this response is simply in the creative language where perhaps a more abstract metaphorical and symbolic communication is allowed, this also reflects the non-linear thinking generally found in artists. Here we see the process, a reaction to the environment, an internalisation of that and some form of sense making or processing within the mind of the artist leading to a response. This in turn creates further responses in what could be an endless feedback loop. This is in constant evolution and is the ‘creative conversation’ we call art. Each place will have its own accepted norms but the forms are fundamentally based around our senses. The arts bring people together, in concerts, exhibitions, performances, plays and so on, and when together the people are engaged by the ideas carried in the art which feeds back into the cultural conversation. The artists may make us feel something, learn something, stimulate the senses, decorate life or time, each one creating their own unique style of doing so. Furthermore the fact that every culture in the world has its own patterns of creation show that sense making, identification and expression are intrinsic human qualities. Just as language continues to evolve in our changing cultural landscape so too the conversation in the arts unfurls cascading as organically as the humans who create it.
LC – What are you currently working on?
JC – A painting entitled ’Shit is Finally Hitting the Fan’, which is a satirical critique and in a sense mosaic mapping of the right wing wave that is politically breaking around the globe currently, with a focus on the Brexit situation and the UK class system. It also hopes to highlight the abuse by social media platforms that has influenced in that particular case what could be a once in a lifetime decision to leave the EU for England, as well as elections in; Brazil, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Myanmar, the US and the list goes on. History clearly shows as new technological innovations emerge the consequences are originally unseen and this has been the case once again in more recent years. In particular by creating information databases of each person through their online traces made whilst surfing the web, then secretly using that information to target certain individuals they deemed to have a persuadable psychology in order to sway their vote. Much in the same way they have begun to target consumers with products based on searches but with a much deeper political edge and directly to the phone or computer of each person with modern military grade precision. This has led to an extreme almost global polarisation as countries begin to close borders and we see an evident rise in hate crime. As those that have opened their doors to multiculturalism deal with the reality of that attempt at integration I feel this is a historic moment in which the UK and the US are drawing closer once more as allies, bad memories of the Iraq war return, England severing its ties with Europe and its open border policies, the stepping down of Angela Merkel who has led Europe through a very open and intensive migration period, the Amazon burning and the Arctic on fire as well. What I also wanted to understand by exploring this was why it was happening, what interests are at play. The people in the UK have very little faith in the media and rightly so because the likes of Rupert Murdoch are operating propaganda machines controlling various outlets. By observing these patterns in behaviour and historical patterns of media manipulation it seems rather clear that once again powerful conglomerates are continuing their grab at control and there are great forces like him at work in the background helping them take it. The story in fashion these days sold to the people is about immigrants and nationalism but there’s always a scapegoat. I discovered there were Russian trolls behind the scenes inflaming the tensions all over the internet fuelling polarisation. Those pushing for the hardest Brexit are indeed using all this crazy technology and breaking the law to do so as they want the UK to exit the EU before the new EU tax laws come in, pushing their country in the direction of a tax haven at the expense of their own people. I wanted to get into what’s going on behind the scenes and the process helped me formulate an understanding of the the situation and in this fake news world that is somewhat settling. Included are current and also relevant historical references that show how things connect with each other essentially telling the story how I see it as an alternative view and playful satire, that in turn hopes to open a space for debate or commentary on the matter. In a sense also point to the fact that if the elections were knowingly manipulated last time, what is being done to prevent this or rather sadly whats been done to allow this industry to expand. The work supports the case currently being built for the UK to push for a second referendum in the future now that evidence of corruption in the electoral process has come to light which the government themselves deemed ‘not fit for purpose’. Something which I am considering is to create an image map, a webpage containing the image in a large format where one can zoom around and click specific spots which open the relevant links which explain that mosaic piece of the story and in a sense the case I am putting forth.
LC – Which is the role the artist plays in the society? And in contemporary art?
JC – Art has many different functions so there are many roles to play and these are also changing over time and from place to place. Precisely because the needs of societies also go on evolving. The main functions I’d say are; therapeutic, entertainment, decoration, community, communication, innovation and these often are interwoven with one another. On my short path I’ve met many unemployed dancers and musicians as there are too many people for too few roles, whilst simultaneously many people needing physical therapy in an increasingly sedentary world, music and dance sessions are known to be beneficial for one’s health and so a niche forms where creative folks could adapt themselves in the right environments. I spent some time in Brazil where there was indeed rhythmically strong live music combined with a dance class by an Afro Brazilian master, who in a sense conducted the sessions and the musicians, the class was a great success with international students visiting to study there year on year. She created a form of matriarchy rooted in her deep connection to dance and a job for not only herself but the school and the musicians, and many students left that class freer, more comfortable and stronger in their bodies. It is important to mention that this master was the student of another master who had developed a technique, ergo she had cultivated her skills to the deepest level and was able to teach it to others. This development of abilities is essential to fulfil the chosen function. The artist then is present to use their respective sensibilities to scan the environment and respond with some action, remedy, commentary or innovative idea depending on the chosen art form, some even carry on advancing the cultural tradition. To give an example of this sensibility I have an old friend who is a musician and wants to pursue acoustic ecology, clearly over time he has trained his ears through his explorations and study. So he tells me that there was a mass produced hand dryer that emitted a frequency that was damaging to children’s hearing, something which was left dangerously unconsidered by the company though is something that is relevant to his curiosity and this in itself justifies this new branch of studies, putting the sonic pollution currently taken for granted under the microscope for inspection, amongst other things. Let’s take the emotional sensibility, for a long time there has been and still remains tension surrounding women’s equality and the patriarchy and there have been those female and some male artists with grace enough to find a way of sharing their opinions and experiences that captivated audiences and added some quality signal into the ongoing debate, perhaps they are even saying things that others were thinking and were unable to express themselves, also making those individuals feel understood and less isolated in their thoughts. Someone who studies and makes images will have a sharper eye in terms of understanding them and as the technology has improved to such a degree and the relentless frequency of these calculated images has only become more saturated in a money fast climate, an untrained eye may be unable to decipher the effective traps media uses to hook people in. The Bauhaus school opened a little over a hundred years ago, combining fine arts with practical design philosophy and these ideas as well as the school remain actively influential today. Good ideas stand the test of time and it is the creatives in the world who see the new possibility and move to manifest this. After all the world around us has been imagined, we created and continue to shape our surroundings, not only in physical space but also in the psychic environment. For example the number of girls and boys with eating disorders or self harming whilst they should be studying at school is an overlooked case for concern and artists can be active and attempt to produce antidotes for such intense media exposure of the homogenised ’right way to look’, even by presenting themselves in a different less toxic way to be a better role model. They are alive, part of the conversation and can challenge things, like David Bowie did back in 1983 calling MTV out for racial discrimination way before this became a common debate. One pattern that has emerged is that the better you are at your trade, the more leverage you have and less likely to be made a mannequin by a record label. There are very inspiring independent artists who paved their own way and this has been amplified to a degree by the viral nature of the internet. I also believe there is something in the artist that allows them to drift between worlds and cross borders, they are given access perhaps because of peoples curiosity already feeling connected via their art. They can drift in and out of social circles in ways that others may not be able to giving them a wide scope of perspective in a world where people are becoming more and more specialised in one thing. They observe the big picture. The city would be all grey, tarmac and brick were it not for the colourful hand of the artist. I suppose now there’s a philosophical question too given the climate of collapse whether artists have a duty to engage that discussion, to be Artivists, but there are multiple artists performing multiple functions and there will never be a one size fits all. What I would say is that the gift of the artist is not for the artist but the communities to which they belong.
LC – What is your creative process like?
JC – It’s like a stream, each artist will have their own line of inquiry and interests and every so often the channel opens to let it flow. The stream is on going, thoughts arranging themselves and ideas forming as long as it’s continually cultivated, for some its completely compulsive. There is a dedication to the craft, a sacrifice to be made in allowing the art to come through. The process itself is continually unfolding, non-linear and I feel coming from the subconscious, though the ideas then get polished in the conscious mind. Some solitude and peace are essential for me in the working phase, when I am all consumed by the process it’s difficult to concentrate and engage with the surroundings, there’s a sense that nothing else but that matters at the time. There is an internal calling to follow, an instinct that arises, the feeling to do something, make that kind of a mark, explore that line of inquiry and so on. The ideas begin formulating, intuitive feelings growing from the inside, it’s an organic process, images appear in the mind or a fragment of a melody, a poetic phrase. Some of these can become quite formed for example I can envision some light paintings I am beginning to develop, I can see the format, I know which technique I must harness, which style to use, I have a sense of where the explorations will go and what to ask the creative technologist. This process is ongoing all the time and ideas spring forth intermittently from the life-time train of thought lets say. Some make more sense to create at a specific time, moving in relation to the surroundings like the painting I mentioned I was working on. For my ideas to have substance there is a cultivation period required, study, research, thinking, tending to it, seeing connections, arranging the jigsaw. This occurs quite naturally by satisfying curiosities. Then comes a sketching process beginning to form the composition, though I must say I often improvise with an instinct to dive straight in after planning the skeletal structure in the mind, sometimes working against the clock. In some cases like when working with assemblage there is a need for collected found objects, things from nature and collage materials, but the collecting process reveals itself when something interesting crosses my path, that is the best way of finding things that I know later will be relevant rather than going out to find something. Sampling society and the surroundings when something triggers my curiosity then creatively hoarding until the time comes to use them. Even finding an object can provoke an idea, or someone saying something, seeing something. This often leads to a little drawing, the basic idea. So when the relevant materials are collected, the idea formed and everything required is present for that phase of work then the music comes on. I try and listen to music that has a similar frequency to what I am painting, there are things that correlate and work well combined. When the flow comes I go with it seeking that state of mind, I lose sense of time and become quite consumed by the process, that’s where the energy is going, I am not thinking about anything else, feels like travelling in the mind, although technically staying in the studio it does feel indeed like these emotions, thoughts, memories and understandings are all passing through during the experience. I feel it is a form of meditation and have trained to focus for long hours. Although I have a studio which is my base in Berlin I have often painted whilst travelling finding little makeshift workspaces on the go. Rarely am I without a little notepad and a pen for when the inspiration strikes one must allow it the time. There are many different threads that get picked up when the moment comes for them, but there is a big picture in mind which when all these threads become woven together will fulfil this longer-term vision.
LC – Did your style change over the years? In which way?
JC – There has been various phases and lines of explorations in different media which has led to an evolving style, this also reflects the changing interests, contact with other working creatives and observing different aspects of life. Whilst I had painted more figuratively previously there was a moment where the work went completely abstract and I found the process which I have stuck with and this remains the backbone of each work. Even though now I have combined this once again with figurative paintings, I feel it’s evident one can see the influence of the geometric dissection of the field from previous works. Interestingly this process isn’t linear at all, when combining the abstract and the figurative I returned to something I had been exploring back in my school days. I was also invited to do a project in Brazil two years ago where I took some materials that were portable and I had been experimenting with a range of pens at the time, I did however learn the pressure from planes affected the pens and to my dismay one burst while working, though this was also a happy accident for it taught me a new way of mark making and broke some rigidity. Eventually I found the colours of the pens to be alright for specific sections of the work but my love of watercolour returned to me and I found I could be much more specific at mixing the correct colour frequency. This also became a challenge to train the eye and learn how to mix very specific colours, after having painted the sea once for example then I remember how to combine pigments to find that frequency. I found retaining some of the old style whilst moving forward with watercolour technique and ability to represent worked well in unison. Different media are selected specifically to discuss a particular idea for example assemblage where the material directly speaks for itself. About a year ago I had the idea of creating works in this style though at the time I had no idea it was called that. It was an instinctive curiosity and I was finding many things that fit the puzzle perfectly. Around the same time a friend recommended me a place that does 3-d and textured scanning with a very high quality, I found I was able to make excellent scans of my work which I much preferred to the previous photographic method of documentation. This also meant therefore that I knew I could work more freely in that medium. I feel the whole process goes in waves, learning while doing, right now I am nearing the end of a long creative painting spell finalising one style but I already see how there are other possibilities to produce work in different scales and media. When I began to travel more in connection to the arts I also began to paint outside, landscapes and scenes, drawing from direct space rather than from a screen, this was a similar experience when painting a nude, each providing a new challenge and sharpening my skills. Funnily enough some of the themes repeat in other paintings and the process has overall developed my ability to imagine things in 3-d space then draw them. I am influenced easily when connecting with my surroundings and can trace back elements of my work to specific things and people, although some of these influences I understood much later on from childhood, now that I am older I feel the connection immediately and understand how that process of cause and effect is constantly inspiring new ideas. Learning on the go coming into contact with life and other practitioners like the phrase says, ‘monkey see, monkey do’. There have been moments of collaboration creating a specific type of project that has proved influential over my style and output. At university I was experimenting more for example with abstract light and visuals collaborating with a friend and making experimental films, he had showed me the works of Brakhage and Fischinger which then began to influence me as well.
LC – So how then does your background inform your work?
JC – My grandma was one of the pioneering archaeologists in Chile, so when we went to visit and stay with them from a young age I was exposed to predominantly South American indigenous art, as well as Japanese art as my grandpa had spent time working there, he even kept a collection of a few bonsai trees in his garden. He would write poetry and read us stories at nighttimes. I remember there being a wall painting of an indigenous warrior with a spear. I think they are essential influences from that time and continue to be, there’s even a picture of me as a very young boy observing a fish by the seaside with my grandpa. This for me is a moment captured where he is teaching me this love of observation. South American families’ are also on the whole Roman Catholic therefore I was taken to church where I encountered stained glass windows, beautiful architecture designed for audition and singing as well as the ritual aspect of religion. My mother was often studying in London’s museums where I grew up and would take my brother and I along, I have a vivid memory of her asking me to draw a bird. Writing this brings the picture back to my mind. These museums had a massive range of artefacts, fossils, sculptures and paintings from around the world, I remember having a fondness for the samurai armour and the dinosaur skeletons. During school I did a little job for her as well, helping to catalogue Chinese porcelain, later on we ended up visiting China together where I was invited to paint some myself in the traditional cobalt blue. At the age of sixteen I went to visit some relatives living in the countryside in Engelsdorf, they remain working professional artists and there they taught me some things and allowed me to experiment, she has remained a distant mentor and inspiration. During my art foundation year I had my first relationship with a fellow creative and this affected me profoundly in many ways. A world opened where I could see an entirely different way of thinking about the same subject and learn a lot about myself and life as well. We also went to see art together, I was very fortunate she invited me to see the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A. I felt we were simultaneously inspired and with a little more belief to create with one another’s backing. My time at Brighton university was my first encounter with conceptual art and one that I’m very glad to have had, the course was also based around developing one’s own practice which suited me very well looking to be a multi-disciplinary artist. On my course I made a friend rather immediately who came to be really rather influential in my life, I would say together we sharpened our vision literally by observing the world and also in a more poetic metaphysical sense. In this time we were also exploring more the environmental realm and began swimming in the sea regularly, bringing us both closer to nature and no doubt understandings with that. A clear one I remember was seeing the ripples flow in front of me whilst performing the stroke and thinking how ones actions leave traces, this could also be thought of as what strokes to paint. A little group of us formed and together we moved to an artist’s community in Berlin which was quite raucous at the time, a lot of energy and new influences on a personal level. I met my first artists who were surviving from their trade and some continue to share their previous knowledge of how to do so and more generally of the city which itself is a truly magnificent creative ecosystem. The quality and energy of the music in the streets and late at night in the park had a strong pull on me, just as the energy in Brighton had also done so. I was invited to be a part of a documentary project in Brazil which has also proved to be influential in my life, an encounter with a person on a hiking trail led to a cultural exchange and now I believe us to be friends, he is a very talented multi-disciplinary artist and teacher. I noticed a change in my fingerpicking technique from before and after the trip and it’s a clear difference in compositions from those periods, the latter being heavily influenced by the rhythmic Bossanova style birthed in Bahia. I was even greatly influenced by a street artist whose work I first encountered in Salvador then coincidentally in the place where I went for the ayahuasca rite. He produces some images I would define as ‘psychomagical’. Essentially I am the sum of all my experiences and whatever I come into contact with that engages me then influences my ideas. From childhood I had an innate curiosity about the world, and what I would now define as practices began as little poems, rhyming words, drawing, singing when people were out of the house and so on. I have also been very privileged to have come into contact with some very talented older and wiser practitioners who helped me along, each in their own way.
LC – What do you think about the theme of the festival? In which way did it inspire you?
JC – It was actually the theme of the festival that attracted me to apply, particularly because I felt what I had been creating was entirely in tune with it. Anima Mundi, the connection between all living things and earth, connected like the soul is to the body, in one of my works exposed I created a depiction of the current world state and in the centre a figure formed of puzzle pieces, which were also scattered around the image implying the universe is all one big connected puzzle. We are living in a time of heated scientific debate where Richard Dawkins’ science dogma is a bestseller stating that the world is mechanical and dead, of course this benefits the current status quo where the planet is seen as an exploitable resource and the simplest things such as the health of the soil are ignored as the skin of the earth gets ripped apart to extract whatever mineral or oil they seek. I wonder if that’s why he is in fact a bestseller, because he’s saying what the establishment want to project onto the world. I guess this also raises the question between scientific and experiential knowledge, I think nature teaches us things that you won’t see from inside a lab. Wim Hof is the ultimate example of this, the science books had to be rewritten for his discoveries, the autonomic nervous system can indeed be influenced which counters even the name science had given it, autonomous as in being automatic. He trusted his feeling, intuition which led him to many breakthrough discoveries, now formulated into the Wim How Method which he is sharing by travelling the world and teaching workshops. Having spent some time with a tribe in Brazil and from my own feeling as well I see the world as alive and intricately connected, that all earth’s creatures are her children and evolving creations. The ayahuasca and psychedelic experience does seem to provide en masse this sensation of connectedness and brings peace with it, I know from my own experiences, conversations with others as well as the scientific backing it’s now receiving that this is true and coincidentally a friend the other day linked me to an article stating that after a psychedelic experience people are more likely to do something about the current environmental crisis. When I look into the eye of an animal or insect at times I feel there is an acknowledgement, sentience looking right back at me. Therefore I’d say it is one of the most current things to be discussing, creating and engaging with in the form of exhibitions or otherwise. Naturally if you see the world as alive and this mechanisation destroying that tree of life then there comes a natural emotional reaction for some people I would say. By having this as the theme I feel it opened the space to to be active in instigating change or spreading consciousness surrounding these prevalent issues. By reacting to the theme it made me believe what I had been working on was currently relevant and I tightened up the relevant texts with more confidence. I was of course very curious to see how others had responded to the theme and see myself and work in relation to contemporaries from around the world, each sharing their unique perspective. The whole experience also inspired me to go ahead with another joint exhibition entitled Re:Present, an idea had been floating around in the mind but now the time arrived to manifest it. The premise is the same, to engage people with current affairs, bring people together, link working artists all responding to a conceptual theme and give them a platform to share.
LC – Do you think ITSLIQUID GROUP can represent an opportunity for artists?
JC – It’s a good platform for upcoming artists depending on how well it does it’s job of attracting a crowd and essentially providing the exposure that the artists are seeking in a competitive world. I remember speaking with Luca and he is also looking to push things forward online, presenting a space where the artists can sell their work digitally, which could strengthen the whole platform. The world is becoming more expensive and art takes money and time, so if they are able to facilitate selling artworks then ITSLIQUID can represent an opportunity at a difficult time for artists. My favourite part of the whole experience was to connect with the other artists involved, to discuss our works and ideas. It’s also a good process to see how the work relates to the world outside of the studio in an exhibition context and to have this contact with contemporaries which the Anima Mundi festival provided in this case.