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© Vogue Portugal

That Obscure Object of Freedom

Vogue Portugal : Freedom Issue, April 2020

Foto Femme United
Foto Femme United
+April 05, 2020
We are so grateful and honored to have taken part in the current issue of Vogue Portugal, the Freedom issue. April, FFU Founder discussed artistic freedom with Vogue Journalist Rossana Mendes Fonseca (@popmolecule). Taking into consideration the current pandemic and lack of postal service, Vogue has released a free pdf version of the issue, which can be downloaded here, https://www.vogue.pt/shop. The article has been translated in English below.
FFU image
© Vogue Portugal
FFU image
© Vogue Portugal
Have you ever wondered what you talk about when you talk about artistic freedom? We invoke its close relative over and over again, freedom of expression, especially when we feel it is taken away from us. And, in fact, this common denominator has become the most precious good claimed throughout history, sometimes through civil movements, sometimes through political revolutions, sometimes through artistic manifestations. By Rossana Mendes Fonseca
If we did not know that it was the motto of the French Revolution, or that George Michael gave it voice in the 1990s, we would at least know that freedom is an inalienable right, and that any mode of expression, artistic or otherwise, can constitute its terrain of action. Thus, if freedom of expression is the possibility for someone, whoever they may be, to express their voice, artistic freedom constitutes the autonomy of an artist to create his work. These two concepts intersect in their most political sense, in that all citizens can be an intervening and active part in the cultural life of a community. Nevertheless, in order for this cultural life to be open to all, the conditions, means and instruments must be in place to promote this creative territory. Despite the incessant talk about the various forms of freedom, the censorship of movements, behaviours or any expressive gestures of an individual (or group), either by government force or by agents outside the state, is admittedly serious. This has led to concerted action among political powers around the world, the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, whoseannual reports have been produced with proposals for the implementation and support of governance systems for culture. On the other hand, independent international organisations, such as Freemuse, are seen as agents of freedom of artistic expression. On the digital platform of this organisation, we find an analysis of cases of violation of this freedom, for which a legalistic reading is proposed evoking basic principles of human rights, such as equality or non-discrimination.
According to Paulo Mendes, plastic artist, whether artistic or not, freedom is always the most powerful and important concept of all, being the basic capacity to reflect from a critical point of view on everything, from which there should be nothing untouchable, that which constitutes the role of the creator. However, the art commissioner, with a career of almost 30 years, manifests a certain uneasiness concerning the curtailment of freedom in the contemporary. "I think there's a problem these days that seems quite serious to me, which is self-censorship being implemented by a kind of contemporary medievalism", he declares, comparing a certain naivety and idealism that experienced when he started working in the 90s, to something more insidious today. "Today, there are these kinds of public courts. On the one hand, they can have the advantage of quickly putting things ahead of people, but at the same time there is a great perversity [in the way] these events are judged and promoted; how they are distorted and perverted," he explains.
Artistic freedom was one of April Wiser's great motivations to create the FFU (Foto Femme United) digital platform. In order to give visibility to the photographic work of women, non-binary and trans people, the founder says that the reason why she wanted to start this project was a series of initial suspicions about the lack of women in the photography sector, which were later confirmed. "The more I talked to women photographers, the more I realized that it wasn't something in my head or that it was just isolated events", she explains. In fact, the constant transformation of this platform, from an Instagram account created in 2017 to its most recent form as an independent website since June 2019, was largely due to the restrictions and censorship suffered. "It was a relief to have our own platform and be able to choose what we want to show. It was becoming frustrating to have works removed with comments from social networks indicating that we were posting pornography, or that the images were sexual or vulgar. I imagine that some users have also complained about our images, sometimes there are people who don't understand or agree with third wave feminism".
Technological developments and the expansion of digital media have brought a number of new issues and attempts to rethink communication and information distribution. If on one hand, the dissemination and democratization of information appear as something positive from the point of view of freedom of expression, on the other hand, its excess and fragmentation often lead to an inconsistency and dispersion in the way this same expression is constituted. Examples of this distortion, such as fake news, are known for obvious and, above all, dangerous political manipulation. "I think obviously new technologies have a lot of advantages and you have access to a lot of things, but there is a kind of euphoria of which I do not share. I don't think it's all good, and I have a lot of doubts about the new generations and how they will use the new technologies. I think they have the advantage of speed, and of escaping the media dictatorship and the status quo. If information does not run through certain networks, it can run through others. That's the interesting side because you can short-circuit with what you might want to shut up in a way. You have the possibility of having a voice amplified by those networks but, on the other hand, there's a whole manipulation that's done and that scares the hell out of me, namely political manipulations. And that is quite frightening, because for us it is still a bit invisible, because you cannot get a sense of what is being done and what is happening, but then you have the results. It's a kind of invisible hand that's behind you and that you can't perceive", says Paulo Mendes. April Wiser, on the other hand, finds in the digital and Internet environment not only a way to reach the maximum number of people, but also their target audience. "It's millennial and young. I love working with print, but for us, in practical terms, it's the best option", she says. However, the American artist does not deny the perversity of a system that portrays itself as inconsistent and that makes it difficult to promote and make certain works visible. "What I and many feminist photographers are trying to understand is why they accept certain images from other accounts that, according to their own 'community guidelines’ violate these rules. And when we try to publish images with the same 'amount' of nudity, they remove our images," she says.
"I think freedom as a word, in a way, is threatened, not directly. Of course there's freedom, but that freedom has a lot to tell you", comments Paulo Mendes, whose artistic work has already suffered direct censorship attacks - works such as Portuguesa Monochrome (Portugal's black and white flag flying at the window of the old AXA building on Avenida dos Aliados, on 25 April 2013) or O 25 de Abril existiu? (a billboard proposed to Lisbon City Council under the Quartel, Arte, Trabalho, Revolução project in 1999). "The problem with this freedom is that it is not a total freedom. Often, people don't express themselves out of fear.
And fear has the form of economic dependence, it has the form of social collusion, it has many possible forms. These and other underground layers are very important to condition people's thoughts and actions, which are never talked about because they are very invisible, almost petty things of everyday life, but deep down there are many of these things that make people not react and take other positions", he defends. Self-inflicted censorship as a product of a depoliticized life can lead to intimidation and the consequent lack of demonstration on emerging political issues. "The function of artists in different socio-political moments is to put sand in the gear in order to stop it. Or, using another image, it is to stretch the rope to the maximum and understand the limits of the system", says the art commissioner, whose exhibition Trabalho Capital, inaugurated on 7th March in the industrial landscape of the former Oliva Factory of S. João da Madeira, refers to the historical figure of the worker. "I think one thing that has always interested me is the way plastic artists or creators are looked upon as workers. I'm interested in the figure of the worker as a kind of symbol of a certain class that has to fight for a certain objective and has to claim from other classes the best conditions for their work and their living conditions", he declares. The relationship with the history of the spaces he occupies and with the people of the community that once inhabited those spaces is, for Paulo Mendes, a great part of his work. "I've already occupied, over the years I've been working, several factories and I always try to use these spaces as well, as casings with memory. They are not dead spaces, that have no memory, it's exactly the opposite. I want people to go in there and feel like they were workplaces, where there's another work installed. I like to work with this demystification of what is the context of contemporary art," he says.
Like the Portuguese artist, April Wiser also calls art a place of observation and political and social criticism, whose close relationship with history is of extreme importance in the way it manifests itself. "Art is a form of communication and is History. Activism and social commentary are both often revealed and expressed through art. The history of art is how we learn about people's mentality in relation to what happens in the world. It is not only aesthetic. To suppress this is to suppress freedom of expression, which is a fundamental human right". Paulo Mendes agrees. "People are predisposed to perceive other realities, if they have that possibility. Now, these possibilities are closed to them in a way that is often relatively subtle. Exactly because the system knows how to devise ways to show them that this does not happen. [...] The exhibitions to me are like segments of life, and life is all that. If you can show people that there are different ways of thinking, different ways of looking at the world, and if that's all they're asked to do, you're already doing something that's very important, which is to take them out of a routine reading of the world". An affirmation which seems in no way averse to what the creator of the feminist collective proposes: "Sometimes art is the only way out, the only voice we have. It is a way of finding solidarity in injustice, it is a way of strengthening, it is a way of starting a conversation about things that people sometimes turn their backs on. It's an absolute necessity for humanity."