Daniel de Paula
Something concealed in the physical space
Earlier this year, as part of its new program, KIOSK set aside two rooms that were once dedicated exhibition spaces and turned one into a common office space and the other into a lounge/reading room. The new common office would be used by KIOSK’s team, and the lounge for the display of long-term projects relating to printed material. As part of the setup for the new office space, students at KASK were asked, through an open call, to propose a design project for the office’s furniture. The inauguration of the common office coincided with the opening of the exhibition Dear Yves, and thus the interaction between the two spaces, office and exhibition, began.
In relation to the repercussions of having an office in a former dedicated exhibition space and closely adjacent to the main exhibition room, I invited the artist Daniel de Paula to discuss a similar experiment he had initiated in the past. During the exhibition the conductive form of dominant flows (2017), de Paula moved the office space of Galeria Jacqueline Martins into its exhibition space, embedded inside an installation he had made. Keeping in mind the contextual differences between the two cases, namely the position of KIOSK in relation to that of a commercial gallery, I asked de Paula about his experience in order to help us think through and speculate on the promises and potential problems of KIOSK’s new office.
The following interview was transcribed and edited from an audio recording of a conversation between artists Daniel de Paula and Vijai Maia Patchineelam on February 16, 2022, in São Paulo, Brazil.
Vijai Maia Patchineelam: In 2017, I visited an exhibition of yours in Sao Paulo in which you brought the gallery’s office—tables, chairs, and computers—inside the exhibition space, and not just the exhibition space, but inside an artwork made of scaffolding and rock core samples. When the workspace was installed, the staff began to work inside your installation, on view in the commercial gallery. The purpose of this conversation is to reflect on the maneuver that you proposed with your work, by learning about your intentions and your observations on the day-to-day life of the work in that exhibition. I am interested in the exhibition’s whole lifespan, not only the period that it was open but also before, during the negotiations that made it possible, and afterward, with the discussions it looked to generate. Could you share some of your intentions, observations, and comments from those who took part in this work of yours?
Daniel de Paula: I think it is important to highlight the title of the exhibition: the conductive form of dominant flows. Because of our artistic initiation, we seem to have a habit of understanding form only in the physical and material sense. But when I used the word “form” in the title, even though it was within the context of art, my intention was not to state a simply physical or physiocratic notion. My interest was in a sociability, in a social form that conducts and reproduces certain “dominant flows,” and how we are subjected subjects of this sociability, participants condemned to reproduce it. We are not simply detached agents looking at it from the outside. On the contrary, we are implicated in this social form. In this mess.
The title of the work itself was simply form. And the caption described not only the material qualities of the work, such as rock core samples and scaffolding with multidirectional clamps (all resulting or coming from public works of urban mobility in the state of São Paulo) and the gallery’s displaced office structure—furniture, computers, telephones, internet cables, etc.—but also, most importantly, the social relations latent in the context of the gallery. I attempted to frame all the interactions that took place in that context. All the conversations, negotiations, and exchanges, whether face-to-face or through devices, were all constituent parts of the form.
Galeria Jaqueline Martins itself is composed of three floors, the first floor being an exhibition space (a white cube of sorts), the second being partly an exhibition space (a white cube as well), and partly an office space with as many as five employees (somewhat private), and the third floor being another exhibition space (more rugged and raw than the other exhibition spaces).
I feel that we know there is a fetishistic relationship to the experience of viewing art in the context of contemporary art, a relationship that creates exhibition spaces in which we seem detached from, or at least unimplicated in, the evils of the world and so on. For me this assumed neutrality of the white cube and art institutions paints a purist relationship with art or the art object, and with the world itself, almost as if we’ve entered a kind of physical vacuum, which materializes a kind of social vacuum, generating abstractions. Even when a work has political aspirations, in many cases certain self-implicating and self-critical postures are nowhere to be seen.
It might be relevant here to draw upon Karl Marx’s incipient and germinal trinity of economic critique based on land, labor, and capital, which are revealed socially through income, wages, and interest, all of these being foundational to the production of value itself. With that in mind, I believe we sometimes forget that a commercial art gallery is very much the epitome of the symbolic production and representation of value, right? Which in itself is not much different from other forms of labor or speculation, but I think we can overlook how much an art gallery is implicated in the production of value. So one of my intentions was to explicitly emphasize or highlight the performance of the production of value, and the fact that the “art world” does not exist autonomously in relation to the social relations taking place in the world. We are not pointing to it from afar, we are inside it—inside a form that conduces and reproduces a certain violence, or what I am calling “dominant flows.”
Clearly, beyond my intentions, other occurrences took place throughout the unfolding of the work and of the exhibition itself. But that was my initial intention, or trigger, even if somewhat ungraspable as a totality.
VMP: The moment that you propose this to the gallery, you have to negotiate with the gallery owner, but also with the staff. How did they respond, and how was the negotiation around accepting to enter the work?
DdP: It was an informal process at first—it wasn’t disclosed to the gallery by means of an official letter containing my intentions. I simply sat down with the gallery owner, Jaqueline Martins, and shared my desires for my upcoming solo exhibition, and fortunately she was very receptive. She displayed trust towards my vision. I believe there was also an interest and curiosity on her part for the potential of changing the dynamic and the daily routine of the gallery space. Perhaps the everyday felt tedious at times, and she saw an opportunity to shake things up. After I talked to her, I talked individually with all the employees, making it explicit that they would be on display uninterrupted during the entire exhibition, performing within an artwork while also performing work. I asked if they had any objections, if there would be some kind of impediment, and to my knowledge there was no objection. But I also understood that, even if not verbalized, a hierarchy might have revealed itself through this negotiation process. The gallerist’s interest in the work may have made the gallery staff feel a necessity to agree to my proposition. So looking back now, I feel that the possibility of top-down hierarchical pressure may also have shown the limits of the work within that reality.
VMP: Did the work cause any change in the daily dynamics of the gallery?
DdP: During the span of the exhibition, considering the hierarchies in place, I felt that bringing to the public (not only to a visiting audience but also the gallery staff) certain exchanges and conversations that are constitutive of the private quotidian life of the gallerist generated awkward moments. Private dialogues between the gallerist and collectors, which sometimes take place behind closed doors, occurred amid employees who might not have had access to them otherwise. But I made it explicit to the gallerist that all the conversations and all the labor done by any member of the gallery should take place within the work’s framing—conversations with collectors, curators, or with other artists represented by the gallery discussing, for example, the upcoming exhibition that would take place at that very same space. A collector would sit within the work’s structure in conversation with Jaqueline. I also made it clear that all phone conversations, email, and text exchanges that happened within the structure were part of the work’s scope.
VMP: How did you follow this up—did you try to document or record it somehow, or were observations made unsystematically, based more on the day-to-day experience of the work?
DdP: It was more of a day-to-day involvement where I would talk with some of the gallery employees without prior notice. Kind of curiously asking about any possible anecdotes or memorable events that might have occurred, that would be worth mentioning.
I recall that due to the necessary electrical cable rewiring and extensions made by the internet provider, from the former office desk to the middle of the exhibition space, at a certain moment there weren’t enough electrical outlets for all the employees, gallerist, and potential clients that sat down for meetings within the work. So the staff had to call an electrician to add some more sockets and outlets, and this generated a question about their interference in the work.
That began to interest me. The fiber-optic cables made me think more about the accelerated flow of data that took place, and how it was constituent of the work, materially, you know, physically, and how it also hid something. The fiber-optic cable was a materiality that concealed the explicit performance of sociability I intended to highlight: emails, art fair applications, website maintenance, social media posts, wire transfers, wages being paid, etc. In the end, the infrastructural space around us is an extension of our social relations, it simultaneously hides and reveals the “social form” I wanted to address.
But I was also aware that even though the staff was there, and the gallery office was there, it was not necessarily equivalent to the social form, which is impalpable, it is among us, it’s among things, inside us, inside things, or above us. It is a relation among us and it controls those who interact through it. I’d be untruthful if I said the work was capital itself, for example.
I must confess that all that happened within the scope of the work is itself somewhat vague and abstract, hard to grasp or to name all the processes that transpired. But I enjoy the idea of performing value by means of the performance of value itself, if that makes any sense.
VMP: When you were thinking about making the work, speculating over these relations and what they could generate, were you aware that by bringing the office into the exhibition space, open to the public, that the employees would end up working under another set of eyes? And that it could make the employees work in a way that is perhaps more self-conscious, adding another layer of an already existing pressure in the gallery’s hierarchy?
DdP: There was perhaps something cynical, on my part, in the maneuver of relocating the office structure and the gallery employees into a work of my authorship. The staff was inside a material spatial structure proposed by me, in which they were cohabiting and performing, and I see it as cynicism on my part to attempt to make explicit the dynamics that produce the value of the work that I do. The framing of these social relations was circumscribed to a material object, to an art object. And the insertion of the gallery employees within that structure made them part of the work, meaning that they were also constantly exposed—raising the question of how might a hyper-consciousness about their performance of labor and exposure within the work affect their subjectivities.
VMP: This hyper-consciousness is caused in the employee when certain aspects of their relation to a superior in a working environment is exposed to the public. Anything that is done there is going to be seen by others.
DdP: There is something curious about a commercial gallery's office dynamic. In this case, the original office was situated in an ambiguous place, where the public didn't have direct access, but it was simultaneously visible and part of a performance of labor in itself. So somehow the staff was always in a position of potential exposure, yet not inside a work. But there was also a room into which the gallerist would sometimes go to have private conversations. And this room was somehow abolished for the span of the exhibition. But these instances, perhaps more related to a certain relation of power and subjective dynamics, escaped me in terms of measurement, or any attempt to objectively verify if they occurred.
But there was no positive intention on my part to perceive or frame the exhibition as annihilating the hierarchies in place simply by abolishing the confidential or private meetings that might have occurred otherwise. I didn’t want to perform an idea of equality of labor and social relations. Mostly because it wouldn’t be possible, since very clear hierarchical relationships that pertain to wages or sale commissions, for example, weren't addressed.
Yet I think the question that you pose did inform the work. I could ask if it was a potential failure of the work, or something the work brought to the surface—this discussion, you know? When I talk about cynicism, I have no interest in pure cynicism; what I mean is the degree of cynicism that we all have in order to survive within the economic system in which we exist. So that is something I intended to highlight in the work, a sort of self-critique.
VMP: But that is if we keep a distance and look at it from the outside. I would like to bring in some observations, comments, or exchange with the employees to our conversation. We can stay here analyzing and speculating on the various implications of the work, but the work ended up having its life. It would be interesting, during this conversation, from time to time, to return to a situation that happened there because of the work.
DdP: I recall having a somewhat potent conversation with the artist Ricardo Basbaum. I think I met him by chance while he was having a meeting with the gallerist inside the structure, inside the work. And I ended up talking to him there too, briefly, and it was a conversation that began in the work, both physically but also thematically, and it unfolded into other, wider, content. At least for me, it was as if that exchange I was having with him was informing the work itself, or becoming part of the work, which suited the work well, considering Basbaum’s practice. I also remember at certain times witnessing the gallery staff receiving deliveries of food or documents, and that the courier would enter the space and go up onto the platform, within the work, and that without warning, or any knowledge that it was a work of art, that person was becoming a part of it, constituting the work.
VMP: Do you think that many of these people were unaware that they were entering a work of art?
DdP: Yes, I think most of them weren’t aware—this is why I took the example of people who were not initiated in the field of contemporary art. But I know that many people did not understand this gesture that I proposed.
Some visitors initiated in the language of conceptual art thought that it was simply a move from the office, from one floor to another, with some unconventional setup, possibly permanent but not necessarily linked to an artistic gesture. That even though it had happened at the same time as my solo exhibition, it might have been simply a coincidence. So I think the work occupied the limit between the functioning bureaucratic mechanisms of the gallery and the exhibition of works, a gray area. It made one think about what is part of the artist’s work and what is part of the gallery’s work. The placement of the work in this gray area revealed that perhaps there’s no separation between these things.
There was some confusion among the people who went to the exhibition; afterward, once the show had ended, some commented to Jaqueline, “Wow, but I thought the office had moved here forever,” and she'd reply, "No, it was an artist's work. It was temporary.” They had seen the entire exhibition, but not recognized the work as part of my artistic practice.
VMP: Now, can we think of this same work not as an artwork? In your case, there was a formal aspect that was very much present and that reinforced the framing between art and life, but it was also a rearrangement of the gallery space itself. Would there be a way to render irrelevant the framing of the courier coming into the space as a participant of an artwork, yet still keep the proposal challenging for you as an artist?
DdP: Well, we can be conditioned by framings and contexts. For example, framing a work by means of its caption present in a publicly available floorplan of the gallery, or by means of the nomenclature of a work being a work, having a title, or being determined by an artistic language or contemporary art practices like institutional critique or site-specificity, and so on. The framing was explicit once you entered a gallery, or on the gallery’s floorplan containing captions, or through a critical text that was there. And I think we are conditioned to believe that for an artistic work or gesture to be constituted, it needs to be framed by this language and its tools.
Concerning the possibility of someone being physically present beside or inside the work, and whether that means that they are part of the work, I think that there are multiple points of access, both from the point of view of the observer and from the point of view of the object. I believe we can participate in or witness an artistic experience without knowing it at that precise moment, and that the process of acknowledging or not acknowledging an artistic experience or work can occur over an extended period of time. I can’t precisely state what questions arose or didn’t arise for the public, but I can say I am interested in the fact that someone could enter that space without necessarily knowing that it was an artwork, and experience it in some way regardless of preconceptions or nomenclatures or field of knowledge, and that such an encounter could be formative for that individual.
VMP: Cynicism aside, it seems to me that there was a desire for the work to function in an almost didactic manner in relation to the public, so that the visitor would have access and to better understand how an art gallery works?
DdP: It was an attempt to enunciate a problem or to reveal something that is way too often obscured. But this goes back to the other question you posed, and my response that it was not an attempt to de-hierarchize the social relations in the gallery in a positive sense.
VMP: Or a corrective, because after all the exhibition ends and the office goes back to the same place it came from. After the return, did you have any conversations with the staff or gallerist about whether they had learned anything from the experience?
DdP: Yes, one member of the staff disclosed to me that he never saw the exhibition space the same way again. He felt that the work, and his participation within it, was amplified in the space and materialized itself in the space even in its absence. So, for him, the concreteness of the wall, the floor, the lighting apparatus, and the exhibition space itself now contained the social relations that the work attempted to reveal. He said that it was as if there was a permanent residue, a kind of ghostly dematerialized form, remaining from the actions that had occurred.
I found that interesting. He didn’t describe the experience with a sense of pride, pride at being part of the gallery, or that his labor was valued or anything of that nature, but he described a kind of understanding that there was something concealed in the physical space. This produced a reaction in me as an artist—I thought, “ooh,” the work had, in some way, achieved some of the ambitions I had. Yet this is a very personal and subjective account. So I’m not certain if this realization, on the part of the gallery employee, is something that needs further work and building on to reach other public, beyond the gallery staff. Sometimes I reflect that at certain moments you come across a work and it affects you immediately, while other times it is more temporally dilated. Works can produce affect years later, at least in a less immediate manner, and it is thus less apprehensible too. I like to think of that work in such a manner, not only for the audience but for myself as an artist. There are meanings of works that I am not fully capable of comprehending at the moment of elaboration, the moment of exhibition, you know? Sometimes the ripples and waves produced by a work come later on.
VMP: What did you learn from the work that you carry forward with your art practice?
DdP: I confess that there is a kind of ambiguous feeling or reception when I look back to that work in relation to the agency of other bodies within a work of mine. It’s not something that I have a definitive answer to, whether I find it interesting or not, predatory or not. Each exhibition has its own particularity, but that work made me question this kind of procedure and it has informed my practice today. I don’t have a conclusion, but there was something there, a kind of calibration of scales, that I tried to grasp, something in relation to the space of the gallery, and how spaces are modularly built and scale up physically and socially. Standards, logistics, and infrastructure interest me. Anyhow, that experience was like a microcosm of the social relations at play in a larger field, and it helped me grasp the social form residing in the in-betweenness of things and of people—and in between you and yourself, not only between you and another person. I saw people working and selling time from their lives in order to live. It made me think that perhaps it is not necessary to have an expanded social critique, you know, of society in a wider frame, but perhaps something specific about the relations between the agents that constitute a certain space. Like the relations between gallery owners and collectors, gallery employees, salespeople, and artists, and fundamentally, your relation with your own subjectivity and agency. It was almost as if it were an atom of all the relations.
I think that the work ultimately spoke of relations beyond those that are mine alone or circumscribed to that legal entity that is the gallery, or the artist, by speaking about the relations in the gallery itself. In an inverted way, I think it also spoke of a larger capitalist sociability. And that circumstance was framed by an art context, but it takes place in the establishment next door, in the front, in the back, it happens with you and yourself.
But I can’t tell, Vijai. I think there is something that escapes my understanding of what happened there. Not in the sense that I don’t have reports, that I didn’t ask, but that it escapes the possibility of formalization or enunciation. I think that, on my part, contradictorily, there was also an intention to formalize the social form in an artistic form. But using form in the artistic sense to circumscribe something amorphous, something fluid, something that escapes concreteness—I don’t think that is possible. In that sense the work fails. Because it cannot contain everything that happens there. It doesn’t present you with a resolution.
VMP: But that is if you think of the artwork as something closed and complete. The work itself was a stage-slash-frame, and whoever or whatever entered there ended up stepping into a stage of sorts, but what completes an artwork is the discursive part or critique, the conversations with the public. Did you have any conversations with visitors about how they saw the work?
DdP: I’ll be quite frank: I was somewhat disappointed with the public’s reception of the exhibition. I remember that this disappointment was a determining factor in me seeking an interlocution outside of São Paulo, and outside of Brazil. I felt that the work and the exhibition, which also contained other complex works, had no critical deepening or analysis among my own peers or through a specialized critique—one that can be almost non-existent in Brazil. But there wasn't a conversation like the one we are having now, or ones we have had in the past, me and you, with other peers. No analytical depth sprung from the exhibition.
VMP: But who’s to blame for that?
DdP: This is a good question, because at certain moments I even thought, “Well, maybe I didn't have the capacity to properly mediate my intentions with the public.” Yet as an artist one also questions oneself about the possibility of underestimating an audience in order for them to access your work. So, you’re caught, at times, in a middle ground between underestimating and overestimating. But I felt this not only in relation to that work but regarding the exhibition as a whole. I did not feel an equivalent return to the effort, the commitment, and the labor directed to the exhibition, and I don't mean financial return.
But in the end, did the work bring these social relations into the artistic field, or did it bring the artistic field into the social relations? What was the flow of this interaction? Because, as I said at the beginning, my intention was also to reveal that art is not unimplicated in the world. That art is a commodity just like any other, including our own labor, ourselves as a commodity. I don’t know if this was clearly evidenced, or if it was the other way around somehow—as if by fetishizing the sociability I disengaged it from the world, producing an artistic aura that generated a kind of separation.
VMP: Being a gallery visitor, sometimes more consciously than other times—depending on which gallery or exhibition space one enters—it makes you aware of your class, of a type of consumption that is out of one’s reach. So I wonder if that movement you made generated transparency or reinforced the mechanisms you have mentioned. Also, this is not a critique, but did you worry that it could appear redundant?
DdP: Maybe the word redundancy is inadequate—illustration, or scenography actually, might fit better. In the sense of an attempt to illustrate something that is already there. Perhaps the work was illustrative of an existing dynamic inside that space. But as the gallery worker testified afterward, maybe he only saw them because of the work. So then you wonder, if there hadn't been this illustration, would that understanding have been reached?