Power, the body and a mosquito swarm
How I ended up making art about the most hated insect in the world.
For the Brazilian composer and sound artist Vivian Caccuri, the sound of the many mosquitoes in Brazil initiated a fascinating search for history, biology and political context. On Monday May 30, she will talk in Zwolle with students of Classical Music and Illustration Design and anyone else who wants to know more about her working method and interdisciplinary collaboration. In this blog she tells more about her work.
This blog is part of our project The Body and Power(lessness), on how we physically experience autonomy, power(lessness), (in)justice, care and collectivity.
I live in one of the warmest cities in Brazil - Rio de Janeiro - where the largest urban forest in the world, Floresta da Tijuca, lies. In Rio, humidity makes my hair voluminous and wavy, my skin oily and all of the spaces I have lived in are somehow full of life, interspecies life. Here are some practical examples:
there’s no way of keeping bread out of the fridge in Rio, it will get moldy even before you finish eating the loaf.
leaving sugary goods, pastries, water or fruit unprotected will quickly attract an angry surge of ants.
At night, close your windows. Depending on your neighborhood, bats will fly in and eat your bananas, persimmons and mangoes (I bumped into a hungry one once) and monkeys will steal whatever they feel like stealing if you are living in their area.
Almost wherever you go, you will share the space with a mosquito. Or many mosquitoes. And that’s not a summer problem, it's an all-year-round feature and our mosquitoes can carry diseases.
To that same extent, my experience in Lagos - Nigeria in 2017 was life-changing because I understood myself from a different position in the Global South. This new perspective made me realize mosquitoes are indeed a fascinating subject for art and a great way to bully a curator and a museum director. In this video I explain how it all started:
The ugliest sound in nature
The opposite of birds
There might be a synonym between mosquito noise and any sound that does not comply with dominant standards of musical beauty. For example, Italian Futurist musicians such as Luigi Russolo’s were pursuing a similar family of sounds - machine sounds - as a way of defying the traditional aesthetic standards of the early 20th century.
When I hear the sound of machines and realize that we reject their noise in the same fashion as we reject a mosquito’s one (by not recognizing their “natural” beauty and classical standards of balance), it never fails to amaze me that we, as humans, deny the mosquitoes’ animality while putting them in a place where we feel entitled to act sadistically; killing them just for fun while feeling awesome as we do it. As humans, we have a similar sadistic impulse when we laugh at the humiliation of bad singers and musicians. Don’t be fooled: I’m not a pro-life mosquito activist; I’d kill one as quickly as you would, but the contribution of artists towards trivial or unwanted subjects might perhaps help us not to spend unnecessary and unpragmatic time with them but instead lure the public to observations that are not as superficial as everyday-life’s ones. Some souls will be moved and shook; some will have new sensations; some will leave exactly as they arrived in the exhibition room.
Mosquito, an invertebrate militia
That insight just stuck to my mind and probably won’t ever go away. Is there any social circumstance where the mosquito could “protect” people or “shield” a territory?According to J. R. McNeill in the book “Mosquito Empires” and Timothy C. Winegard in “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator”, it happened throughout history, at the cost of many lives.
The expedition met with ruin. Colonists, sickened by yellow fever and strains of malaria for which their bodies were not prepared, began to die at the rate of a dozen a day. […] After six months, with nearly half their number gone, the survivors—except those too weak to move, who were left behind on the shore—returned to their ships and fled north. […] the expedition did have some lasting results: the overwhelming debt from the failure drove the reluctant Scottish to at last accept a unification offer from England. The mosquitoes of Darien led, by an unexpected route, to the birth of Great Britain.
Brooje Jarvis, reviewing Timothy C. Winegard
Mosquito, the perfect villain
As any Art History student knows, representations such as those have a history and an origin of their own and as far as my research went, what became clear was that mosquitoes bring to the surface the pre-Modern fearful visions that represent the “New World” and its lack of Christianity, along with the current dominant ideals of health, cultural belonging and legality. There is a lot to this and I still have to distill this further. At some point, I will hide away in a hut in the snow or in a tropical forest to write about my contributions. In the meantime, please appreciate some studies:
Research-based art is also knowledge production and artists, in my view, are completely entitled to produce new knowledge through art. Art is a way to connect micro and macro visions of the world with acceptable clarity of where the artists stands in terms of place of speech, opinion and criticism towards certain subjects. In my opinion, it is always a pleasure to learn from artists because they usually have diverse standpoints that are not often found in Science.
While my own book isn’t written, please appreciate some studies that helped me put my ideas together:
Other readings you might enjoy
Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire, Felix Driver & Luciana Martins
On Ugliness, Umberto Eco
Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, J. R. McNeill
Remember Nature, Hans Ulrich Obrist & Kostas Stasinopoulos where I contributed with instructions for a mosquito listening session.