Art&Mosquitoes: an unusual combination
Vivian Caccuri’s (Brazilian, born 1986) work encompasses sound, drawing, and sculpture. Her broad interest in how sound and music circulate has led her to years of studying one of the most successful vectors of disease in world history: mosquitoes. In our conversation below, Caccuri offers insight on the impact of COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro, where she lives and works; her perspective of what we can learn from viruses and mosquitoes; and the potential for sound and music beyond free content.
Vivian Caccuri performing "Mosquitos Also Cry", at Frieze LIVE London, 2018. Photo by Lynda Nylind
We agreed to do this interview a few days before COVID-19 related shutdowns began in the United States and Europe. What’s the situation in Rio? How are you holding up?
Rio is deactivating the public transport system. Inter municipal trips are forbidden and is now fighting to get federal money. The president is willfully denying it to create more chaos and blame the governors for the consequences. The majority of Brazilians are shocked with how corona virus is being handled as a political strategy by the presidency, and not as a grim reality that needs immediate actions and precise intervention. Politics aside, most of the people I know are staying home, avoiding any contact or going out. Yesterday I went out to buy groceries and the landscape was puzzling. There is a large group of people that don't have the privilege of working from home, but there are also a lot of people that just don't consider covid-19 to be a real threat. Rio is very worrying because, in the favelas, social distancing is impossible. That's why everyone has to isolate so it doesn't spread in the impoverished communities.
Since we last spoke, the Brazilian government has denied the threat posed by COVID-19. Local groups have been doing more and more to step into the void left by the Federal Government's murderous recklessness. Can you discuss what's happening in Rio right now?
I see that people in Rio are motivated to help and be sympathetic with impoverished communities, and I have come across many groups gathering to develop health technologies alternatives. There is a large research group developing cheaper ventilators at the Federal University. Dozens of "makers"/engineers and 3D print designers making pieces of face-shields and assembling them cooperatively. But biggest the challenge is definitely the favelas, especially large communities that have an unstable water supply, crime and challenging geography. As far as the artists I know, many are coordinating donations, charity auctions and other fundraising for these communities. The urgency is bigger than the State is able or is willing to handle with.
Vivian at the final touch ups of "Mosquito Shrine" in India. Courtesy of Kochi-Muziris Biennale
For the past few years, you’ve been focusing on mosquitoes as agents of global change, influencing health, colonization, sound, and other conditions of life. Can you tell us how this interest began?
I have always been living with mosquitoes around me. If you were in the peripheries of São Paulo in the 80s and 90s, it was certain that they would visit you at night, and that twitch they provoke with their sound in our ears is vivid in my memories as a kid. But my artistic interest in them started as a prank. The story began when I went to West Africa to participate in an art show. There I started paying attention to the contrast between my reaction and the local's towards mosquitoes. I was fearing malaria in Ghana and Nigeria, having come from a country that also has dozens of mosquito-carried diseases and having listened to my Angolan father-in-law horror stories of fever. I understood that malaria is something I couldn't afford physically speaking, so I made sure I was wearing repellents at all times. The locals had a different take on how to deal with mosquitoes, as their resistance is way stronger than of people that had never had malaria as a child, so I was feeling like a paranoid obroni (white person in the Ghanaian Akan language). But I was wrong. There were obronis way worse than myself in Nigeria. In this case, it was the curator of the show. He gave me boxes of anti-malaria medicine and cans of repellent that were likely to attend a whole family for two months. Also, his whole existence in Nigeria exhaled bitterness, contempt and zero social or geographic acclimatization. I asked myself: is the fear of disease an expression of fear of another culture? Is the extreme fear of mosquitoes a syndrome that attacks the descendants of the colonizers that died of malaria and yellow fever? It was fascinating to think of the mosquito as a scapegoat of our white people's inadequacies in the Tropics. I started studying the history of mosquitoes, how colonizers perished of these diseases and had to retreat to Europe, how yellow fever epidemics were a consequence of the slave trade and sugar plantations, mosquitoes' biology, their impact on health and politics, the genderization of these diseases (zika, a threat to pregnant women for example), GMO mosquitoes, and most of all, their world-wide hated sound. I coded an artificial mosquito sound synthesizer using existent biologists' parameters and studies and made two performance lectures about this subject (Mosquitoes Also Cry, about the hate of mosquito sound, and The Fever Hand, about the comeback of yellow fever in Brazil). The next time this curator invited me to a show, I proposed a work inspired by his fear. I proposed a shrine for the Mosquito. This was my prank.
"Mosquito Shrine" at Galeria A Gentil Carioca at solo show "Yellow Fever", 2019
What positive things can we learn about survival in difficult times from the mosquitoes you've studied?
In some of my readings, Yellow Fever and mosquito-carried diseases are usually described as a by-product of the colonization structure of plantations, the slave market and a primitive health care system in cities that were growing disorderly. When the disease crossed the ocean, it found indigenous people and European settlers that had never had contact with it before, there were no immune individuals. The result was people dying all over Latin America and the Caribbean by the thousands. There are some relations with what is happening now: a disease thriving int the structures of globalization. At the same time, during the yellow fever epidemic in the seventeen hundreds, a great number of people survived and became immune. The message behind this is that immunity can be acquired, be it through the exposure to the virus or through vaccine, and both require a huge amount of effort: the effort of strenuous scientific research and of course, the pain of the disease itself. In both cases, there are some kinds of knowledge being produced, Scientific knowledge and body knowledge. I believe that while this new knowledge is being produced in ourselves or around us we will have the opportunity of imagining new realities with more purpose than we were before.
It’s a serious time to be thinking about virality. Is COVID-19 impacting the thinking that goes into your artworks?
I am feeling more aided to think of the impacts of COVID-19 after all this reading about mosquitoes at the same extent that I am feeling very overwhelmed with evolving information as well as the meaning of the pandemics in society. This meaning is changing hour by hour. Any thought, idea or insight on COVID-19 is born in the newness of this threat, in the unpreparedness we were at to deal with the problem, and now, with the need for social distancing. I tend to avoid the common sense of these sensations as materials to create new work, understanding that artists have at least to scratch the surfaces of superficiality and consensus. For me, the most interest impact of COVID-19 on culture so far, is definitely not the amount of content that is now available for quarantined culture-hungry people (why weren't all these cultural goods and productions available before?), it isn't the change of platform (from presential to virtual) but the acknowledgment of a phenomenon that can change the world permanently. Each person, culture and country will acknowledge this fact in a different way, and because of this, there will be another wave of diversity in speeches, a lot of dissonance and new challenges adding up to the prior ones. At the same time, I truly believe that neo-liberal mindsets will not look as seductive as they were before the pandemics, that people will trust and care for collective coordination more than they used to. Personally speaking, I really hope that the aftermaths of pandemics imprint themselves for good in the way I think.
Your work also engages with the history of sound and music. Historically, sound has been used for various pseudo-medicinal and therapeutic purposes, ranging from torture to therapy. Sounds are also often used to control insects and rodents that can be vectors of disease. What uses can you see for sound in this moment--whether practical, medical, or experimental?
It is interesting to see that, when it comes to sound therapy, the more "aesthetic" the procedure is, the more it raises memories of 60's psychedelia, multicultural pastiche nonsense and pseudo-gurus. But the usage of sound for health purposes dates back to Pythagoras. The philosopher developed a theory on how sound organizes a cosmic order, having a direct impact on our well-being when the order is broken. Music therapy is a recognized field of Musicology and there are thousands of musicians and researchers trying to crack down the codes of Western and non-Western music for neuroscientific purposes, immunity strengthening, anxiety treatment, social rehabilitation and so on. And here we're only talking about music, the organization of sounds in time, and not for the properties of sound itself. When scientists started studying sound and its physical aspects, a whole other world exploded. Ultrasonography, the radar, the prediction of earthquakes, health technology became possible with the sophistication of sound technologies. But going back to Pythagoras, I have a sort of emotional belief in the properties of sound and music to reestablish health, be it mental, physical, social... I am interested in how large or small groups do that. What to me is also exciting is the re-purposing of capital's productive machine. Could we imagine that in less than one month, new super low-cost ventilators would be developed in 10 or more countries simultaneously? Audio and music are also part of capital so it is interesting to follow how they can re-position besides giving people free content.
You recently posted a video on your Instagram teaching people how to make homemade face masks. What other resources are you producing, or involved in, during this global pandemic?
I thought of a home-made face mask using very cheap and available materials, understanding that a country like Brazil does not have the same resources for fighting the crisis as South Korea and China do. We now don't have masks being sold in pharmacies. The two doctors I consulted, one of them a pulmonologist, loved the idea with the same verdict: it is better than nothing. Studies that started with the H1N1 epidemics have tested several materials for DYI masks and many don't recommend their use for health professionals, although they can work as a barrier and should only be used when no alternative is available. I am adapting the ideal to the real with my mask: the resources we have in Brazil are not necessarily the ones desired by Science, Science that has structured itself in North Hemisphere standards, climate, and privileged historical materialism. Although I had the counsel of two doctors to make the masks, I have been severely criticized including by other artists. 'How do you dare create objects with real utility in an emergency? Stay quiet and be an artist'. I feel these people might be waiting for material reality to become ideal with a magic spell in a developing country. Thinking of that, artists have to put their minds and hands to the service of the common good in times like this. We have to be available and constantly looking for opportunities to collaborate with coordinated groups and health professionals that might benefit from an artistic or creative mind.
What have you been listening to in order to stay sane?I have been taking some hours of the day to study guitar, singing, and synthesis. I believe the healing aspect of music comes to me more often when I play music than when I consume recorded audio! At the same time, dancing can also be extremely healing. Thinking of stuff I would like to dance to, I made a 80s/90s only playlist with artists from all over the world. It is a very escapist playlist, it's like you were traveling around the world and there were no smartphones. You can listen to it here.
"Mosquito Shrine", installation view at Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2018. Photo by