It’s a date is a new column of Contemporânea written by Alberta Romano dedicated to studio visits with artists from Lisbon and from all over the word, both in person and online.
Episode N4: Alice dos Reis
Pescara > Lisbon, January 29, 2021
"Once upon a time there was a child named Enola. He grew up on a small island in the middle of the ocean, and his favorite pastime was looking at the sky while dreaming of becoming an astronaut. Lucky for him, his family had been working with the "sky" for generations. His grandparents had worked for the island's airport, and his parents were the directors of the city's spaceport. It was easy for Enola to receive a good education, which allowed him to soon become one of the most ambitious space commanders among his peers. He left for his first space trip in no time. He flew over the ocean and the Earth, sailing between planets and galaxies. Enola was incredibly happy, finally surrounded by that same outer space that he stared at while he was growing up.
During his journey he planted a flag into every new place he visited. He also built numerous control stations, each one equipped with a vending machine for food, fuel, and space maps. When he felt nostalgic, he left some small maps of his island along with the ones of the galaxies, so that, if any astronauts were interested in finding a new place, they would know where to go.
After five long years of travel, Enola decided to return home and finally hug his parents again. The trip was long, but it didn’t take him much time to realise that things looked a lot different from how he remembered them. He soon understood that nothing was the same anymore and that time in space had passed much faster than how it had passed on Earth. His beloved island had disappeared at least 50 years before his return, and with it all its inhabitants.
He discovered that, when many years ago all the young people on the island had left for space, the few remaining elders were forced to move to more populated islands.
In an instant, Enola realised that maybe he couldn't meet his parents again and that all the maps he had left in space would be of no use to anyone to go anywhere. And he was also certain that he would never be able to set foot on his beloved island again. After a few years of complete abandonment, the island began to gradually disappear under the sea, and, surrounded by fish, jellyfish, and seaweed, finally felt like it would never be forgotten by its inhabitants again."
“Alberta, please, write me a story.”
That’s one of the last things that Alice dos Reis told me before ending our skype call. And I literally couldn’t resist her invitation before starting this new episode of “It’s a date”.
Here we are again. Almost one year after the first one, Lisbon is facing its second wave of Covid-19. This time I am not going to wait here until things get better; I’ve taken the first flight back to my hometown.
It may sound ridiculous but the more this pandemic lasts the easier it seems to find the silver lining in this situation. I guess it’s a way to deal with it.
For sure, one of the positive things that Covid brought me was the awareness of the importance of my home in the process of knowing myself better. I had already had an inkling of it in the past, but I had never really understood how, in order to reunite with my most natural inclinations and passions, I had to rediscover them right here. Of course, now that I’ve understood this, it makes total sense.
Anyway, I should have done this studio visit in person with Alice, but Skype seems to be the best soundtrack for this column, so here we are.
The current pandemic situation leaves us speechless for a few minutes, so we jump right into a comfortable subject: food.
Alice with, slightly embarrassed, confesses to me that she just had some pasta with vegan cheese. (There is this thing with Italians. People are always afraid to confess their food habits or experiments to us; I guess it’s just because we absolutely love any chance to act shocked… so please keep doing it.).
In no time, we start to talk about her latest video, which has brought her to the Azores. For those of you who don't know, the archipelago of the Azores is composed of nine volcanic islands located about 1,400 km west of Lisbon and continental Portugal, 1,500 km northwest of Morocco, and 1,930 km southeast of Newfoundland, Canada. The Azores are not close to Portugal at all; they are literally floating in the middle of the ocean. By the way, Alice went there to film in November 2020, but her project is the result of a very long process, so I decided to ask her more about the idea and how it came to be.
Alice: In 2018 I was finishing my MA in Amsterdam and I think that’s when I started learning about this project of building a spaceport launcher in Portugal, which, to be precise, would be the first European spaceport. The idea was to build a low-cost launcher for small rockets and satellites that would only serve commercial purposes… like telecommunication companies for example.
Alberta: How did you first learn about it?
Alice: I first heard about the spaceport not through Portuguese media, because it was really not being spoken about in the national media at all, but through a talk by Rory Rowan on e-flux called 'Beyond Colonial Futurism'. The Portuguese media were almost silent about it, but the idea was already very specific; they knew that the spaceport was going to be built on the island of Santa Maria in the Azores Archipelago. And that’s basically how I ended up there.
Alberta: Oh wow… And is there any specific reason why they chose that island?
Alice: Santa Maria has an incredibly interesting story.
In the 1940s the USA built a huge airport on the island. It was conceived to guarantee a place where to refuel for every flight coming from the United States or Canada, before arriving in Europe. When in the 1970s high-range aircraft started being able to do the full crossing without stopping, the airport became unnecessary. Today it is mainly dedicated to Portuguese internal traffic. The interesting thing is that the inhabitants are still very attached to the idea of the airport and to how, because of it, the economy back in the day was prosperous, with many people visiting the island, many job opportunities, and wellness.
That’s why some are seeing in the construction of the spaceport a new opportunity for their future. There is a very vibrant discussion about it; half of the population really thinks that it’s going to be an incredible opportunity for the island. They were actually arguing that the fact that I was going there to make the film was already the first proof of their theory."
Alberta: Oh, wow, sure! That’s incredible.
Alice: Yes, but the other half of the population thinks that it’s going to be problematic for the ecology of the island. Santa Maria is an island of geological and paleontological singularity, and the spaceport is going to be built on a protected area.
Alberta: There's already a lot at stake here.
Alice: Yes, definitely.
We keep discussing this idea of conquering space as if it was something free, ready to be taken by us, basically what Elon Musk takes for granted in every single one of his speeches. Alice also explained to me that Rory Rowan (the guy who gave the lecture on e-flux’s channel) reported that, when taking part in one of the presentations of the Portuguese spaceport, he actually heard people recalling the power of the old Portuguese colonialist campaigns to gain the support of investors. It’s impressive to see this mentality of oppression as it keeps being applied to new projects.
This research will mainly converge in a short film that Alice will show during the Walk&Talk Summer Arts Festival, since she was one of the winners of the Open Call of the 2019–2020 Residencies Program. Her idea is to make a movie that stands between speculative fiction and experimental documentary, set in a near-future where the spaceport has already been built. It would be the story of two people who perceive themselves as family, and have different positions regarding the construction of the spaceport. She confessed to me that she also wants to give the movie some sort of “teen vibe”, and now I am even more excited to see it, especially because during this conversation she referred to Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana. Twice.
Looking at her short video Stan Rehearsal — Ensaio para Plataforma de Lançamento (2020), shot on a similar topic during the first pandemic, I am sure that this second movie about the spaceport will be epic. Stan Rehearsal is a small speculative fiction film set on the day when the first rocket is launched from the spaceport. Using the launching event as a backdrop, a group of young teenagers films each other while dancing to Korean pop.
Alice: One of the fun things about this video is that, since we couldn’t travel when I had to shoot it, I made it from Lisbon… I mean, the team was in the Azores and they built a stand for me, I was inside a phone on a stick and they were bringing the stick around to coordinate everything and talk with the kids, it was so fun!”
Alberta: It sounds like the beginning of another possible sci-fi movie.
What recurs in Alice's works is this ambiguity, free of any moral judgment, that allows the viewer to take one position or the other very naturally. I am sure this requires some sort of talent, because giving nothing for granted is for sure an effective way to stimulate critical thinking. I realise that, while concentrating on this idea, I am thinking about Undercurrent (2019), a short sci-fi movie that Alice recently made and that is currently part of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial’s program.
The movie is about a marine biologist who is mapping one of the deepest areas of the North Atlantic Ocean and whose “project depends on the controversial use of developing biotechnology that works directly with a species of krill that lives at low depths. Throughout months of observation and communication, the marine biologist develops a relationship of friendship and kin with the krill swarm, while observing their movements through the nano-cameras incorporated into their bodies as they slowly move through the deeper zones of the ocean. As the end of her project approaches, the biologist is faced with ethical questions regarding her relationship to the non-human and the systems that mediate their contact with humans.”
It is now clear that biotechnology, the transformation of our surroundings, and a good dose of human empathy represent some of the most recurrent topics in Alice's work. Our conversation is coming to an end, but I still want to ask her more about the project she presented in the gallery Lehmann + Silva in Porto called Malva field, submerged (2020), which I didn’t have the chance to visit.
Alice: Yes, the entire exhibition revolves around an Escherichia coli epidemic…
Alberta: — surprised face —
Alice: Yes, I made it before Covid… I know… but it’s based on a true story, a personal story. I was fighting E. coli in my body quite intensely last year and I was constantly under antibiotic. Nothing seemed able to solve it, and after a while I found out that E. coli is present in many other things, and I felt somehow connected… So I understood that I probably had to learn how to live with these bacteria instead of fighting it. So, I thought about my grandmother, who has also suffered from it, and I remembered that once she suggested that I should bathe with mallow plant extract.
That’s how I came up with the story on which the show at Lehmann + Silva is based. In this story, an outbreak of E. coli in the ocean is causing many people to get sick. So, a group of women biotechnologists gather in order to find a solution to balance out this E. coli outbreak, and after a few experiments they decide to plant fields of bioengineered mallow flowers on the bottom of the ocean, and soon the ecosystem finds its balance, and the epidemic subsides.
Listening to Alice as she talks about her works is like listening to fairy tales; I could go on forever. Moreover, listening to stories that start from personal experiences makes me think of another issue that I would like to raise here.
I clearly remember that while I was attending the Fine Arts Academy some professors defined most of the works produced by women as "too diaristic", as if the fact that they were developing a topic starting from personal experiences was enough to judge them negatively. These are lessons that, if absorbed during a learning phase, can convince you; and "too diaristic" for a while was a discriminating factor for me as I evaluated artworks, I have no problem admitting it now.
It took me a while to realise that there was absolutely nothing wrong with that; indeed, there were more positive aspects in that approach than negative ones.
Being drawn towards a new research because of a personal experience gives back a more thorough analysis of the chosen topic, not only because you know it closely but especially because it can be easily relatable and is therefore more effective in a possible audience. Now I won’t say that this is a clear example of toxic masculinity in our society, but it has certainly been a reason for easily putting aside a good part of artworks (mostly produced by women) just because they were accused of being too personal, and therefore not as interesting for others. In the end, though, they turned out to be exactly the opposite.
Anyway, now time is really running out, and that’s when, while we talk about sci-fi novels, Alice asks: “Alberta, please, write me a story.”
The Mystery Box
The Mystery Box is made out of links, randomly arranged at the bottom of the page, that will take you to things we’ve been talking about during the studio visit. The way in which they are presented is not only a nostalgic way to remember the magic suspense that belonged to early internet structures, but also hides the hope to tickle the curiosity of the readers a bit more than the classic footnotes.
Alice dos Reis is an artist living and working between Amsterdam and Lisbon. She holds a Masters in Fine Art from the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam and has exhibited, read and published regularly in galleries, institutions and film festivals including EYE Film Museum (Amsterdam), 5th Istanbul Design Biennale, Display (Prague), Serralves Museum for Contemporary Art (Porto), Seventh Gallery (Melbourne), Galerie InSitu (Paris), and Galeria Lehmann + Silva (Porto). She’s had her films featured on platforms such as Vdrome and Museum of the Moving Image (NY). Together with Pedro Neves Marques, she runs Pântano, a literary and poetry press. In 2020 she received the Mondriaan Fonds development grant for Emerging Artists.
Alberta Romano is an art historian and contemporary art curator born in Pescara in 1991. She is currently the curator of Kunsthalle Lissabon. Since 2017 she has worked with the CRC Foundation in Cuneo, coordinating the acquisitions for their contemporary art collection. After graduating with a BA in Art History at La Sapienza in Rome and with an MFA in Visual Cultures and Curatorial Practices at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brera in Milan, she attended the curatorial program CAMPO16 at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. She has written for Artforum, Flash Art, Contemporânea and Kabul Magazine, among other magazines.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Alice dos Reis, images 1 e 2: See You Later Space Island; image 3: Stan Rehearsal; image 4: Undercurrent; image 5: Malva Field, Submerged. Exhibition view at Galeria Lehmann Silva, Porto. Photo: Dinis Santos. Courtesy of the artist.