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FILIPA RAMOS, ecological entanglements of animals & humans in art & culture

Interview by Agata Kik

The Family and the Zombie, Karrabing Film Collective (2021). View from the Pedestrian area Ortisei, Biennale Gherdëina 2022. Photo credit: Tiberio Sorvillo

An art curator and an animal lover; writer, researcher and lecturer; the Artistic Director of the Galeria Municipal do Porto in Portugal, Filipa Ramos, is currently co-curating the 8th Biennale Gherdëina, which between May and September 2022 is taking place in a valley in Northern Italy.

The 8th edition of such an immersive contemporary art festival, merging with the natural environment of the Dolomite Mountains, Biennale Gherdëina, titled this year Persones Persons, is an explicitly eco-activist endeavour of artistic interventions into contemporary critical thinking around individuation and personhood, while either in the wild or dwelling domestically, blurring the boundaries of the interspecies hierarchies, first and foremost giving importance to the rights of the Earth, so painfully ravaged and ruined in the recent decades.

This close co-curation and collaboration with curator Lucia Pietroiusti stems from their friendship and mutual understanding, critical queer feminist theories, shared love and care for ecological entanglements of the human world, which has been evolving over the years. We work as one entity; in Filipa’s own words, curating practice belongs to the body, which is not one; which develops in the mind that is multiple rather than single; which is predominantly performative, interdisciplinary and discursive. 

Between 2020 and 2021, Filipa Ramos was also one of the curators of the 13th Shanghai Biennale titled Bodies of Water’. Referring to Astrida Neimanis’ book of the same title, the Biennale foremost highlighted that all individuals create a collective being on this planet, being made of and constantly crossed by fluctuating but balanced systems of liquidity from a physical or political perspective. 

While the Biennale Gherdëina is reverberating remotely within its works, Ramos has been developing an over-eight-month programme of discursive and time-based events at the Porto Contemporary Art Department. Under the name of Gallery Energy: Encounters in Art, Music, Nature, and Science, and running between April and November 2022,  this series of concerts, talks, and walks constitutes encounters of extraordinary figures to gather experiences rather than exhibitions and present exchanges of ideas rather than objects.

Talking about this project, Ramos refers to Lisbon-based philosopher Michael Marder’s concept of energy. To model her curatorial practice on such an unorthodox idea has meant allowing the artistic encounters to deliberately develop into events of knowledge; distributing contagiously the ideas and affects across anyone who happens to be involved in any way in this creative web, connecting them like a big brain with multiple octopus’ tentacles, tangling up, tightening around and accelerating the intensities freely flowing through the space in-between. 

Inspired by the exhibitionary apparatus of zoos and bringing nature to art, Ramos suggests animals are significant constituents of art. Any artistic exploration stems from the animalistic nature as the fundamental driving force. By bringing together the viewpoints of science, ecology, critical animal studies, and exhibition studies into the art scene, the curator aims to acknowledge the importance of animals in our culture. She is also the founding curator of the ‘online cinema’ Vdrome, finding the moving image a powerful art medium, able to retain the attention and engage the concentration-deficient art audiences of the present day.

Ana Vaz and Nuno da Luz, Wolvews howling -  In choir -Evening snow, 2022. View at Hotel Ladinia, Ortisei. Commissioned by Biennale Gherdëina. Ph. Tiberio Sorvillo (1)
Wolves howling – In choir -Evening snow, Ana Vaz and Nuno da Luz (2022). View at Hotel Ladinia, Ortisei. Commissioned by Biennale Gherdëina. Photo credit: Tiberio Sorvillo
28 May 2018 - The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 1 (Photos by Plastiques)
The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish, Part 1 (2018). Photo credit: Plastiques

As a writer curator, you mostly engage in cultural production at the intersection of nature and technology. Could you please share a bit more details about your background and the significant events, influences and inspirations that have made you devote your practice to the field of ecology? 

There was a moment around ten years ago when art started to feel short. In the sense that the things I loved to do up to there, like conceiving and organising exhibitions and writing about artists and artworks, stopped making sense. I felt the need to engage more concretely with those aspects of the present that felt more urgent and pressing to me and to identify those who were doing the same from the context of art. At the same time, I always had a deep love for the natural world, particularly for animals. If, until then, the possibility of bringing them to my professional realm hadn’t occurred to me, it, all of the sudden, felt like the only possible way to move forward. This coincided with the beginning of my PhD when it was clear to me that if I wanted to maintain a sustained enthusiasm for a research topic for so many years, I had to choose something that I was genuinely passionate about, and that is how I started my research on the exhibitionary apparatus of zoos. 

So it was nature that made me want to work with nature. But there were key authors and references, too, my conceptual mothers, as I like to call them. Donna Haraway, her incredible way of writing and her capacity to deconstruct the operative logics of science and society is undoubtedly a major influence. Chus Martinez constantly attests to how personal stories and large narratives are interdependent and can always be told anew from different perspectives. This has been an incredible lesson for deconstructing inherited discourses. Vinciane Despret’s call for a direct engagement with animals, asking them questions they can and will answer, has also been crucial. 

You are known for being the founding curator of the ‘online cinema’ Vdrome, and throughout your practice, you have been interested in relationships between contemporary art and cinema. Could you tell us what it is specifically in the medium of moving image that attracts you the most and that you find mostly compatible in exploring environmental topics? 

The capacity to tell stories and to do so in compelling, immersive manners that move us deeply. I have the impression that many people from younger generations are losing the passion for reading and moving images retain that strength of creating imaginaries and shaping desires that literature has, which are so important to create a sense of belonging and endow us with concrete missions for ourselves. 

Besides, artists’ cinema bypass those conventional logics concerning what an art object is—a painting, a sculpture, a drawing—and often are not engaged in material discourses, and this can be very liberating for you to look at the work for what it does and says and not for what it is made of. 

Last year you co-curated Bodies of Water for the 13th Shanghai Biennale. Could you please share what you have learnt during your work on this project? What do you see reflected in the element of water in particular? What can a human being learn from looking at its surface or diving into its depths? 

The Shanghai Biennale was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had due to its scale and ambition and to the exceptional context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced us to adapt to new circumstances and invent new formats. The context was so complex and bewildering that it was only through the solid work relationship we had as a team, accompanying Andrés Jaque’s incredible steering capacity, that the Biennale came into being. 

The major inspirational figure was theorist Astrida Neimanis’ book Bodies of Water, whose phenomenological approach inspired us to observe the interdependent functioning of past and present environmental policies (or often their absence), infrastructural transformation and economic growth, the uneven distribution of rights and matters to living beings (human and non), and the recognition of how fluids shape and connect individuals. But, more than water, it is the fact that we—we planet and we individuals—are made of and traversed by very uneven but permanent systems of liquidity that we learned to see through the perspectives of the Biennale.

You have been the editor of Documents of Contemporary Art: Animals, published by the Whitechapel Gallery and MIT press. Could you reflect on what you feel one can take from artistic explorations into animal nature and carry it with themselves into the daily life of the present moment and the future? 

Could there be artistic explorations without animal nature? I don’t think so. From themes and subject matter for artistic representation to providing material support to artistic creation—bones and hair for brushes, gelatine for film, collagen for adhesives, colours for dyes and pigments —animals are major constituents of art. With the work on the book and my work on animals in art and culture in general, I try to make people acknowledge the importance of animals in our culture and recognise that we are one species among others who we should respect and care for. One of how I hope this happens is by showing the incredible affective and cognitive lives of animals, thus the importance of working in an intersectional manner, bringing together the viewpoints of science, ecology, critical animal studies, exhibition studies and, of course, art.

As Artistic Director of the Galeria Municipal do Porto in Portugal, you lead an eight months-long public programme of events titled ‘Gallery Energy: Encounters in Art, Music, Nature, and Science’. Could you describe the thinking behind its specific performative and participatory format and the origins of the context in which this project was conceived? What is your vision for its effects and influence beyond the duration outside of the exhibition frames?

When I arrived in Porto in January 2022 to be Artistic Director of the Contemporary Art Department of the city, I faced what could be seen as a significant problem: the City Gallery, our main exhibition space, was going to close for renovations. This meant I would not be able to programme shows for over one year. Yet I saw this as a great advantage, as it allowed me to discover the city’s cultural scene at a good pace while imagining what would make sense to do there. At the same time, it gave me the opportunity to develop what I love the most, which is a thread of discoursive and time-based events that rely on the exchange of ideas rather than on the display of objects.

Following a transdisciplinary logic that is key for my thinking, I started planning a cycle of encounters with extraordinary figures working across different fields: music and postcolonialities, farming and chemistry, biology and activism, cultural theory and visual studies, cinema and installation… Inspired by Lisbon-based philosopher Michael Marder’s concept of energy, which he defines not in the classical, capitalist logic of an object of extraction and appropriation but first and foremost as a circulatory entity activated by movement, transmission and potentiality, I devised Gallery Energy as a force that circulated and distributed ideas and intensities across people, uniting them in powerful and unstoppable manners.

The programme has four complementary movements that consider four key issues of the present: Commented Concerts brings together music and story-telling, inviting artists working with sound to share their references and choices; Imaginaries invites key cultural theorists to reflect upon an urgent theme for the future from a concrete source of imaginary, being it an image, a song or a film; Science is Art shares the research and methodologies of scientists, pairing them with those of art; and Grazes considers how art and ecology are triggering alternative, natural, non-invasive forms of food finding and producing. Hopefully, these four areas will contribute to the creation and solidification of communities of people in and around Porto. They know the strength of art to act as a mechanism for societal transformation and emancipation.

Apart from your curatorial practice, you are also an academic who lectures on the topics of contemporary art and nature. Could you please share your experience with the emerging generation of creative practitioners whose work is increasingly done through the screen? What is your idea of the future involvement of arts in natural environments and the new age networking in the context of contemporary digital technology?  

Screens and wilderness provide similar experiences of immersion, discovery, transformation and encounter. And a bit like the above-described relationship between animals and art, I also don’t think digital culture could be without nature. Likewise, the idea of nature has been re-conceptualised by digital technologies, so there is a deep co-dependency that younger generations seem to have smoothly resolved. At the same time, the dominance of a connected life is leading many to move away from large urban centres to more remote areas, thanks to but also against the speed at which people’s lives are currently led. Art is an excellent place where these dynamics are tested and negotiated, and we are assisting more and more to a coexistence of both.

You have also previously collaborated with curator Lucia Pietroiusti on the symposia series ‘The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish’ for the Serpentine Galleries. This year you are together with the curators of the 8th Biennale Gherdëina. Could you share how your work together has sprouted out and how you feel about collective curating? What are the challenges, and what does another person introduce into your independent thinking? 

The work with Lucia is not a form of collective curating. We work as one entity, complementing one another at all levels, from the conceptualisation of a project to its production and final arrangements. It emerged out of friendship, trust, mutual admiration, and love, which is why it keeps evolving in different configurations. It’s as if we were two minds in the same body, that acts as one with whom we think alike but naturally face different directions.

For instance, while I am invested in displacing human-centric perspectives from the humanities, opening them to consider other living forms,  Lucia is a true humanist—ecology matters for her because it guarantees a better future for humankind and is a unique tool for emancipation. But our common roots are feminism and an embrace of queer perspectives that are less gender-determined and more understood as a way to embrace the world from a more caring, independent and non-normative standpoint. 

And could you give us some insights into the 8th Biennale Gherdëina? What would be your primary reflections with the perspective months away from its closure? Any surprising outcomes?

We never expected the Biennale to be visited by so many people and to have such a positive reception from general audiences and specialised press alike. This was a major surprise, which made us feel we were doing the right thing. The whole process has been such an adventure! The team challenged themselves to embrace a project that was radically different from what they were used to, trusting us while doing so. For us, it was a huge learning experience after coming out of the massive scale of the Shanghai Biennale to a little jewel of a project that tried to be as caring to the local audiences as to the international ones. It made us trust even more that art and ecology can be very good allies and cooperate for a healing world. 

What would be your biggest curating extravaganza? 

Dogumenta. A project made with and for animals. 

You couldn’t live without… 

Being in the countryside with my animal companions. 

(Images courtesy of the photographers)
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