FITA Magazine Vol. I / Invisible Atlas

John Romão 
The Encounter With The Other

Interview by Ricardo Ramos Gonçalves

Photograph © Bruno Simão

Non-definitive, open to experimentation, peripheral, but giving visibility: under different premises it is possible to look at the work of the Portuguese creator John Romão. Whether in theater, in the performing arts, or in the different intersections that ensue, his work denotes a constant concern with the other, that Lacanian subject under which it is possible to discern our understanding of contemporary artistic practices.

    He has staged in different performance halls, such as for BoCA – Biennial of Contemporary Arts, which he directed since 2016. John Romão has created an unmistakable name in the epicenter of what has been done best in Portugal. Moreover, the artistic objects he has created are a constant call for critical thinking about the contemporary world, which is not always easy to understand, but also seeks no definition.

    In this entropy, he stresses the permanent search for freedom. On his point of view, it must be maintained, even if it is hard to guarantee. At the same time, the adoption of practices for sustainable cultural development, safeguarding the need for encounter and dialogue (online and offline). There begins the encounter with the other.

Photograph © Bruno Simão
O Teatro Peste

Over the years, your work has materialized a harmonious symbiosis between the performing arts and the visual arts. In retrospect, how do you look at the works you have developed and the premises they were intended for?

Whether as a director or a programmer, I have a commitment to different layers of what’s visible: I deal with invisibility, with dimensions of marginality and periphery, with the exposure of shadows. I use my practice to reflect publicly, shedding light on aspects that are erased or overexposed and therefore often invisible. My creations are born out of a fascination for “the others”, for the image, and for the power and potential of poetry. Since I was young, I have had the impulse to create. Attentive to and identified with those who had no voice, at the age of 16 I created my first artistic project, the series “Sem Nome” (Nameless). Years later I began the process of summoning to the stage, in a Duchampian gesture - I called them “dynamic ready-mades” because they refer to people and not objects - people weren’t necessary actors. They came from social subgroups (skaters, prostitutes, gymnasts,...). I gave them other interpretative dimensions.

Once I graduated in theater studies, fascination for reality connected me to the history of performance art. At that point, I dived into the visual arts, where today I find today most of my references and stimuli for stage creation. It can be a creation based on a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, transcribing the texts of performances for the camera by Vito Acconci or based on an installation by Dias & Riedweg... or the cinema of Béla Tarr or Pasolini, about which I made a trilogy of performative creations. I find in what is foreign to the theater, whether in the visual arts or in cinema, a freedom and a safe haven that I need to bring into the theater. I would say that the visual arts are my language and theater is my device.

Many times, experimentation in my creative processes has led to a better understanding of who I am in relationship to the world around me. Other times it has been an entry key to universes I fear and shield myself from freedom and courage that artistic practices warrant. Other times I simply remove layer after layer until I expose what is already there in evidence, skeletons of the visible. This stripping or revealing is a gesture that pleases me. Intimate, public, and reflective.

At a time when so much is being said about the concept of disciplinary intersections, how do you relate to it?

We are deeply connected to what the other is and what belongs to it. Refuse it, accept it, negotiate it. Human beings have the prepotency to decide the other, imposing identities or names on him, or also the absolute otherness for acceptance. The other as artistic territory, as corporal and identi- ty territory, as geographical territory that operates between centers and peripheries, as artistic territory that is evoked. Maybe the fact of having lived in such a multicultural area and of having experienced from early on “the other side”, Almada, in detriment of “this side”, Lisbon, where I live today, made me refuse polarizations and stigmas to propose dialogues based on what is different and that, in the theater, was not contemplated. That is, first of all, the disciplinary crossings or the crossings with difference are the result of my personal experience and only then comes conceptual approach. The disciplinary crossings are, for me, an ethical, subjective and political gesture, in which the others (artistic territories) are called to dialogue at the table. Now, with the pandemic, we rush not to meet the other but to refuse the other. We distance ourselves. Fear and distrust of the other has set in. We cannot touch him, we cannot kiss him, we cannot talk face to face in the middle of the street. We are driven to flee from the other. Artistic practices serve as a good counterpoint to this state. The disciplinary intersections, with the other, with the different, are more and more essential.

Photograph © Bruno Simão
Virgens Suicidas

Photograph © Bruno Simão
Virgens Suicidas

In the plays you have staged there is, once again, this trend towards deconstruction - of canons and ways of thinking about space and characters. How do you look at the theater that is being made nowadays? Do you feel that there is a gradual opening for new approaches?

I think that today there is a greater awareness and agenda to open up spaces for new voices and looks that were previously kept silent. There is more space for new thematic and conceptual approaches, for rewritings of the past, such as postcolonial reflections, for a more socially and politically engaged agenda in the performing arts.

Regarding the recent movement of direct transcription of performing arts projects to online, motivated by the pandemic... it is very dangerous. If on the one hand theater is becoming more and more inclusive, it also runs the risk of becoming impersonal and losing the attraction for the real and for the experience of the sensitive, which only the encounter in a certain physical space, of a certain city, in a certain culture of a certain country make possible. Theater is by definition the place from which one sees. There is even the risk of the word itself disappearing, because the place from where one sees is, these days, the house.

Photograph © Susana Paiva
Morro como país

Photograph © Susana Paiva
Morro como país

Through BoCA Bienal you created a space that gave another support to transdisciplinarity in artistic work in Portugal, giving it more space for dialogue and another visibility for emerging artists. Do you feel that also due to BoCA there has been an advance in Portugal regarding the way contemporary artistic practices are looked at?

Throughout these 5 consecutive years of BoCA, I can identify some changes at the artistic and ins- titutional level, since we collaborate with dozens of cultural institutions from Lisbon and other cities invited to each edition. BoCA came to activate transdisciplinary programming, made in a serious, committed and unprejudiced way. Our action has evidenced, first of all, a gap and delay between contemporary artistic practices, based on transdisciplinarity, and the programming and missions of some cultural institutions. That is, a gap between what is produced by artists today and the respective programming contexts. Presenting an exhibition for the first time on the stage of Teatro Nacional D. Maria II (João Maria Gusmão & Pedro Paiva), presenting an installation by a choreographer at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (Meg Stuart) or joining the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Museum and Music departments in a common project (Ricardo Jacinto and Marino Formenti), are some of BoCA’s strate- gic operations that promote dialogue between artistic territories and cultural spaces, and of which we are, if I may say, precursors.

On one hand, there is a new generation working transdisciplinarity in an undisciplined way, and through BoCA I have been commissioning new creations, which we produce and accompany, offering them national and international visibility. There have been several younger artists with whom we have dialogue, such as the choreographic duo Jonas & Lander, to whom we commissioned a first piece for the museum, or the artist Odete, who won the first edition of RExFORM - International Performance Project, which BoCA started in 2020 with maat. On the other hand, BoCA is like a playground, as the director Gus Van Sant calls it, who, like the artivist Tania Bruguera, artists consolidated in their practices, take advantage of our transdisciplinary context to venture into new paths of their body of work, as a platform for new ramifications that did not exist until then. In this case, I invited both artists to create objects outside their territory of expertise: we produced and circulated (touring) nationally and internationally their first performing arts projects (Gus Van Sant’s piece will premiere at BoCA 2021; Tania Bruguera is preparing for 2022 a second performing arts project, on the heels of her first approach to theater, which I commissioned). Consolidated but emerging artists in new territories.

I like to look at BoCA as a place of dissidence. It is in the deviant movement that new freedoms are experienced, without barriers or categorizations. For example, we commissioned the first exhibition by choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas, invited film director Salomé Lamas and artist Alexandre Farto / Vhils to create their first stage project, or we discovered for the first time in Portugal the investment that choreographer William Forsythe has been developing in visual arts since the 1990s, with the confidence of our partners, the cultural institutions that co-produce and welcome our proposals and experience an elasticity of their missions, inaugurating, in some cases, new collaborative dynamics. We have contributed to decolonize practices and conventions of the cultural and artistic fabric. And I am, of course, pleased when we are referred to as an example, whether in cultural policies or in programming entities, inside or outside the country. We must be doing something right.

Photograph © Bruno Simão
Romeo e Julieta

Photograph © Bruno Simão

Photograph © Bruno Simão

Photograph © Bruno Simão

Taking into account also the approaches that you have imprinted in your work, what is it like to be a creator in Portugal? Does this design have any symbolic influence on the way you think about the creative process?

I would say that what distinguishes one country from another are, above all, the cultural policies and the resources we have at our disposal. Even though in Portugal we are on an evolutionary and positive path of these policies, with the implementation of the statute of social protection for cultural workers and well-defined strategies for the network of national movie theaters, there is still a lot to do. As a programmer and creator, I have had the opportunity to move around a lot, which gives me a comparative view of different cultural realities between cities and countries. But I would emphasize the difference between locality, nationality and the globality of artistic creation. To be a creator in Lisbon is different from being a creator in Braga. The locality, in the geographical sense, establishes differences at the level of access, of cultural offer in a smaller and peripheral city from a more central one, of cultural spaces, if there is nature around or not - we create from these particularities and local resources. Being a creator in Portugal is different from being a creator in France or Australia, for several aspects, including cultural or geographic ones. For example, the Australian government gives specific support for research and creative investigation and other support for creation and public presentation, which allows the same project to be developed for a longer period of time, in a more mature way. In Portugal, for example, there is a lot of pressure for the public exhibition of the creative object in detriment of the period of reflection and experimentation. From a more global perspective, we live in a period of overlapping layers, in which I can be working from Lisbon, at a distance, with someone in New York. Artistic creation increasingly responds to a nomadic and trans-border style, in which the definition of place is increasingly cloudy, a reflection of a time mediated by technology and driven even more, with the pandemic, to a technological mediation, at a distance. Being a creator in Portugal is as particular as it is universal. On one hand, the pandemic has closed us more in our place, in the local dimension (in the physical sense) but simultaneously global (mediated by technology).

In your vision, what kind of concerns and themes should be on the agenda of contemporary artistic creation?

First of all, freedom. It is a mission that we carry within us and for which we must fight daily, on a social, political, cultural, and artistic level. Freedom is never guaranteed. Also, the adoption of practices for sustainable development at the cultural level, safeguarding the need for encounter and dialogue, both digitally and physically.

Photograph © Bruno Simão

What advice would you give to young people who want to enter the field of artistic creation?

I would say to give way to their creative impulses, not to fear the unknown, and not to fall into the trap of definition.

The interview to John Romão was published on pages 8 to 13 in Intricate Canals first chapter of FITA Magazine Vol. I / Invisible Atlas dedicated to the city of Venice.
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FITA Magazine

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︎︎︎ Vol. I / Invisible Atlas / Venice
︎︎︎ Vol. II / Garden Constellation / Lisbon
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