CAConrad with Alice dos Reis and Isadora Pedro Neves Marques: Hidden in the cave we forge of one another
CAConrad’s exhibition Hidden in the cave we forge of one another, curated by/with Pântano Books (Alice dos Reis and Isadora Pedro Neves Marques) for Batalha Centro de Cinema, was a magical web spun from poetry, film, publication, exhibition and performance. Sensitive and generous, it served as something of an introduction of the legendary poet CAConrad and their poetic and ritualistic work to the Portuguese audience and art scene—and opened a new pathway for the creation of a genuine community.
Fittingly, Reis and Neves Marques are established young Portuguese artists in their own right working in visual, text and film art. Together, they run the publishing project Pântano Books, dedicated to translating English poetry into Portuguese and publishing new works in Portuguese. Their second publication was the first Portuguese translation of CAConrad of The Book of Frank (orig. 2010; trans. 2021)—leading to an invitation from Cinema Batalha to make a film, an interview, another publication and an installation. Batalha’s and its artistic director Guilherme Blanc’s roles were key here, as it is (unfortunately) unusual to see people come together to unilaterally co-create a project with this many different facets and forms. The young centre of independent cinema thereby successfully fills a hole in the Porto art scene by creating a space for art and cinema that is open, experimental, welcoming and actively engaged with the Portuguese art community.
The exhibition showcased the homonymous commissioned film, screened in the far end of an elongated exhibition room, reachable first after a “poetry forest” installation of ragged cut-outs in the shape of CAConrad’s poems. The space was sheltered by a large-scale semi-transparent fabric with another poem printed onto it. The installation caused a rather unusual, quiet interaction from its audience: people would slide around the initial fabric, and then walk through the “poetry forest” one step at a time, reading each poem to themselves until carefully moving around the crowd so as not to disturb others’ readings, and finishing with a solemn watch of the Hidden in the cave… (2022) film. The apparent care and work put in by Reis and Neves Marques created a foundation for the transforming power of the installation and the extraordinary public reading, organised one May weekend, that brought together a network of people who deeply care for CAConrad’s work. If we are to create a vibrant contemporary art community in Portugal, it is events such as these that are key.
Saturday saw an introduction by Reis and Neves Marques and a presentation by CAConrad, explaining their work with (Soma)tic Poetics, their life and recent journeys, based on listening and interacting with various creatures that informed their latest book. Sunday was instead curated entirely by the choreographer, dramaturg and performer Ana Rocha, who invited around a dozen unnamed artists selected simply because, as she said, “they should meet CA.” The performance carefully navigated the line of joy and sadness, staying true to the contents of The Book of Frank, which, as CAConrad put it, is a dark, deep publication about people dying, disappearing, and getting abused and creating “a spell, a pagan fantasy but here and now … [because] that is how you open new gateways.”
For the occasion, Rocha transformed the bar of Cinema Batalha into a cosy, dimly lit space: placing carpets on the floor one on top of the other and tables with chairs in semi-circles around, hanging sheets with hand-written poetry hung on the wall, and screening at the far wall a 25-minute silent film recorded outside of Cinema Batalha discreetly featuring Rocha dressed as CAConrad and smoking a cigarette while sat at the bus stop. At the furthest end of the circle, CAConrad and Rocha sat at each side of a table, facing the audience that filled the chairs, floor, cushions and steps. And then it all began. CAConrad read selected poems from The Book of Frank in English, followed by audience members taking turns to read Pântano Books’ Portuguese translations. Microphones were passed around, pages were turned; everyone was active, and the invited artists read just like any other audience member. Some people had more flow, others found it harder. Everyone read in their own style, and with time a sense of co-creation formed, with CAConrad’s scored reading creating a rhythm of hypnotic solemnity as Frank’s life unfolded in our imagination.
Reaching the final thirty-sixth poem, the ritual was shifted by Rocha, who, having sprayed a fragrance around the room, gave the instructions for everyone to simultaneously repeat one line from The Book of Frank like a mantra: “Frank knows a butterfly who wonders about her caterpillar friends.” As people’s voices grew from a murmur, some in sync with some and others with others, Rocha stood up, took CAConrad’s hand, and then someone else’s, and then someone else’s. Before anyone could realise what was happening, a slow caterpillar formed by people holding hands with one another in a long, spiralling line. Almost everyone joined as people invited each other into the slow-motion dance with the human structure folding in on itself until we all stood together, close to someone whose hand we were not holding, unable to see the faces of those whose hands were in ours. A song had started playing, and the mantra had died out. “While you may want to giggle, this isn’t a laughing matter,” Rocha instructed; and the crowd settled down, trusting the feeling and almost unconsciously entering a slow, communal swing back and forth. Five minutes later, we loosened the grasp of our hands. People were giving each other genuine, silent smiles in honour of the shared moment; there were tears in some of their eyes. Something strange had happened—something magic. For a brief few minutes, all the people in the room had shared a body, a consciousness; there was an intimacy spun from the embodied presence of CAConrad’s poetry.
Days later, the surreal feeling of the weekend returned over and over again: magic, community and connection on the one hand side, and grief, sorrow and an alienating melancholy on the other. It felt as if there was still such a long way to go to build that kind of community more permanently—its very physical memory was painful for having been taken away. Weeks later, the feeling remains fresh, cemented in a new belief in the transformative power of communal remembrance and embodiment. Just as the butterfly who wonders about her caterpillar friends, Hidden in the cave we forge of one another left a lasting wonder of the human caterpillar that formed on this Sunday, where art connected people through touch and solidified in communion.
Maria Kruglyak is a researcher, critic and writer specializing in contemporary art and culture. She is editor-in-chief and founder of Culturala, a networked art and cultural theory magazine that experiments with a direct and accessible language for contemporary art. She holds an MA in Art History from SOAS, University of London, where she focused on contemporary art from East and South East Asia. She completed a curatorial and editorial internship at MAAT in 2022 and currently works as a freelance art writer.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
CAConrad with Alice dos Reis and Isadora Pedro Neves Marques: Escondidas na caverna que forjamos umas das outras. Batalha Centro de Cinema, 2023. Photos: Filipe Braga. Courtesy of Batalha Centro de Cinema.
 The piece is from the first exhibition that CAConrad took part in: a group show they participated in thanks to their refusal to read at the opening. To paraphrase their account of the story: “Why should we poets be just an accompaniment to others’ work? I say no. Poets are also artists. I want to be in the exhibition!” After some thought, the curator agreed, and CAConrad’s poem was printed onto the fabric and hung a foot from the wall.
 A strange coincidence of events meant that the day that Reis, Neves and CAConrad filmed in New York was the day before the death of the latter’s mother—who had been a very important figure in their lives. Conversely, this weekend coincided with the one-year anniversary of her death.
 (Soma)tic Poetics is a concept created by CAConrad themself, who explains it as follows: “My idea for a (Soma)tic Poetics is a poetry which investigates that seemingly infinite space between body and spirit by using nearly any possible THING around or of the body to channel the body out and/or in toward spirit with deliberate and sustained concentration. The writing of (Soma)tics is an engagement with the thing of things and the spirit of things.” See “CAConrad’s (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises”: writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/somatic-exercises.pdf.
 Ana Rocha had invited CAConrad to Portugal to participate in a cultural program already in 2019 but, due to the onset of the pandemic, this never materialised.
 Quoted from a phone conversation with Ana Rocha on 30 May 2023.
 The Book of Frank was CAConrad’s way back into writing following their inability to do so after the death of many friends during the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent brutal murder of their long-term partner Mark Holmes a.k.a. Earth. To quote CAConrad’s re-rendition of this through (Soma)tic Poetry Ritual #58 DOUBLE-shelter: “Reflect on a personal violence you want undone. Some terrible THING that removed the beauty you once lived with. My boyfriend Mark (nicknamed Earth) moved to a queer community in Tennessee to work the land. He meditated in a cave each day where homophobic men followed him, bound and gagged him, covered him with gasoline, and set him on fire. For a long time I would go to sleep and dream of stabbing his murderers, shooting his murderers, drowning, choking and bludgeoning his murderers. Breathtaking dreams of retribution for the man I loved, which, woke, me, each, morning, more inconsolable than the last. I was never going to feel happy again it seemed. Take notes about how the violence in your life will not leave. How it may never leave. Take notes about how you are sensing the world differently since then.” See CAConrad, “#58 DOUBLE-shelter”, (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals (2011): somaticpoetryexercises.blogspot.com/2011/06.
 Quoted from a phone conversation with Ana Rocha on 30 May 2023.
 The bus stop has special significance in CAConrad’s life as this was the place they started writing when left at bus stops by their mother, who would then leave to sell flowers.
 Part of the abovementioned mantra Ana Rocha created from a line in CAConrad’s The Book of Frank (2010): “Frank knows a butterfly who wonders about her caterpillar friends.”