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Article » An Interview with Arto Lindsay

Clara Meister

The pop musician, audio provocateur and artist Arto Lindsay held his first parade in collaboration with artist Matthew Barney at Brazilian carnival in 2004. It marked the first of a series of parades that Lindsay has since then organized around the world from Venice to Frankfurt to Hong Kong. He performs as artist and musician, a career that started in the 1970s in New York with No Wave bands like “DNA”. He developed his philosophy of music exposing himself to new influences in Brazil, where he had spent his childhood and later came back. In his innovative musical style Lindsay brings together popular songs, avant-garde tunes as well as traditional Brazilian music. This form of hybridisation is distinct in Lindsay’s English and Portuguese singing, which he pairs with his particular subversive guitar play. Curator Clara Meister talks with Arto Lindsay about parades, carnival, politics, and pop-culture.

Clara Meister: Let’s start with what interests you in parades.

Arto Lindsay: Many things—since I was a kid I watched all sorts of parades and loved their excitement, ebb and flow. Always too much and never enough going on: much to enjoy and to think about. In the early 1990s I started to go to Bahia every year for the carnival and along with diving into its excesses, I became fascinated with its history and the social insights it provides. During carnival the best and the worst, the ugliest and the beautiful, the most repressed and the freest, the most and the least racist are on display. So I guess you can say that, for me, parades are mainly about carnival, or that my parades derive from and aspire to the condition of carnival. In particular during those years I became involved with the “Bloco Afros”. These Afro-centric groups descend from the afoxés, the public and profane extension of a particular Candomblé terreiro and they reinvent Africa every year, inspired by the African liberation movements and the American Civil Rights Movement. Later the Blocos de índio, named after North American Indian tribes, were more openly confrontational and were eventually suppressed. Both an outlet from and a barometer of racism and repression today “Bloco Afros” promote both dignity and ecstasy. I always wanted to encourage a museum exhibition in which carnival artists are treated as fine artists, where people like Alberto Pitta, J Cunha, Carlinhos Brown, and Joãozinho Trinta could get their due. Trinta famously declared that rich people like serious art but poor people like gold and diamonds. He then did a parade with beggars, totally contradicting his own previous parades and other groups with their shiny costumes and half naked TV stars. One of his allegorical cart, as the floats are known, was covered in black plastic and his revellers wore rags, in the midst of all the prevailing glitz and showbiz. His parades were even censored for being too subversive or erotic! To me these guys are great visual artists. I was excited when I met Claire Tancons who is focusing on parades and processions as art forms. We have been exchanging ideas ever since and indulging in the fantasies common to all who love these oversized events. Scale is important in carnival!

CM: How did your first parade come together?

AL: Matthew Barney and I have wanted to collaborate for a while before we finally decided to organise a parade together. I was involved in parades in Brazil and Matthew has already done a parade in Rotterdam as part of his first retrospective. We worked with Alberto Pitta and Cortejo Afro, using their parade members and their carnival license. This is the only parade I have done so far in the actual carnival context. I hope to do another one in the next few years. I think we only got away with what we did because carnival in Bahia is a porous institution that places great value on novelty. The police control during carnival is both stiffer and less efficient than during the rest of the year. After this, I did more parades on my own as kind of performance, as theatre, as sculptures, as a film, a flirt, a song …

CM: Your projects are sometimes described as processions or parades, other times as artist parades. What is the difference in your view? Would you use a particular term for your projects? And if so, how would you define them?

AL: I’m not really interested in the differences. I guess you could say a procession would be a religious procession and a parade could be also a military parade. In Portuguese the word “defile” is also used for fashion shows. To me a parade definition would be very simple: people walking together in the street. Sometimes I perform music myself but most often I act as a sort conductor, setting the speed and adjusting the choreography of the whole parade as it happens, or trying to! Maybe one could also say I am the storyteller …

CM: As storyteller and conductor can one engineer a democratic space? And how do you think of bands and parades as spaces of possible democracy?

AL: Parades can be displays of despotism as easily as they can be democratic… my parades sometimes allude to protests, deliberately confusing political and other sorts of language. I want these parades to be read in many different ways. And yes, you could say that all the participants and all elements have the same importance. One thing that a parade does, is to give people a chance to display themselves as important! I thought a lot about bands as a democratic phenomenon when I started to play music. Even a band with a strong leader is democratic. I never felt comfortable singing political lyrics, it always seemed like preaching to the converted. The way you put the music together seems politically more telling, in other words: the relationship of the instruments to each other. For example, what changes if the rhythm section is louder than the voice? Also the relations of the musicians to each other matter, to whoever is employing them, and especially to the audience—ah, the audience: do you seduce them, incite them, teach them, abuse them, confuse them? You have to make some decisions regarding [the audience]! I see the participants of the parade as a band.

CM: How do you engage your audience?

AL: I want to give the audience something to remind them to think about things in this way as much as I want to grab them on a sensual level with the music or the dancing or the visuals. I tend to repeat a few devices: one is always trying to come up with a different sound system design. Another is to have one part of the parade try to block the parade progress so that the parade has to bust through—this works like a choreographic intensifier. Another one is the discursive component. The conversations are never staged; they are set up to engender actual dialogue between the participants.

CM: You often work with students, for example with the students of the art academy Städelschule in Frankfurt, IUAV University of Venice, or high school students from Roosevelt Senior, Los Angeles. Is there any particular reason?

AL: I invite them for a simple reason: young people have time on their hands and they want to have a good time! I need bodies to make a big parade (laughs). I tend to work with established groups as they generally have their own dynamics, their own energy flow. Though I often try to tweak and to twist these established and stable groups’ internal dynamics.

CM: You have organised parades in a cities like Berlin, Venice, Bahia, and Hong Kong. Do you try to establish a link between the history and the present of the city?

AL: Sometimes links are more direct than others. In Bahia, for example, we worked with Candomblé cosmology representing, roughly speaking, the god of iron and the god of plants. To me a local link is there whatever you do; a parade always tells you something about the place you are. Though it can easily represent a fantasy-land too!

CM: A parade occupies a city by altering or even dramatically interrupting the normal flow of daily activities. The music creates a different atmosphere that changes the perspective on the city and the reception of time: pedestrians slow down and get lured onto your route. How does a parade activate space and enable forms of political actions?

AL: Any parade activates the space by being there! You gather mass, noises—visual attraction—and we work very specifically with this for example by making aggressive music or wearing extravagant costumes. I have always asked for police permission for the parades as they have been sponsored by institutions and have to follow certain rules—as the carnival does in Bahia. There is a set route. It is not a guerrilla action. I am not usually organizing political parades, a guerrilla parade seems like a contradiction in terms.

CM: I would like to discuss the parade I AM A MAN in 2008 where you chose a title referring to signs carried in a demonstration led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a workers strike in the 1960s. This parade featured a German brass band, a local parade band, and a group of robot dogs that carried speakers and dancers. Meanwhile a small group of philosophers carried on a debate on the subject of the language specificity of philosophy instigated by Heidegger’s famous remark that among modern languages only German is suitable for philosophy. How do you combine all those different elements in one space?

AL: (laughs) When you describe it to me like this it sounds like channel surfing! In this case all the references were very disparate. I would say we took the title seriously but not literally. Normally references of parades are generated by pretty unified systems, like the Rose Bowl Parade associated with a college football game or the 4th of July Parade. But I wanted to create a tension between marvelling at the energy and the floats and actually providing something to reflect upon. My parades are not specifically political but the format is political by its nature—a bunch of people gathering and walking the street feeling free to do things they wouldn’t normally do.

CM: Is there a narrative or a single subject in your parades?

AL: Sometimes there is. Sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes there is a topic and other times many that I am weaving together. I used the model of the Brazilian samba school parades in Rio de Janeiro where there is a theme every year and the floats and different groups – or wings as we call them in English—have an allegorical relationship to the theme. In my projects, as in the carnival, the parade is put into the context of a narrative, but you don’t have to act it out during the course of it! You announce a theme, write an introduction, but you don’t literally need to have the snake bite the queen. It is way less explicit or way more explicit. Sometimes I like to force a narrative link. There is no real message except to look for a message. You are never quite sure what parades are when you see them. The parade for Performa in 2009 was in single file, a single line. The participants were dressed in trench coats and the music came from cell phones, not even trying to compete with the audible and visual chaos in Times Square where it took place. The next day I saw 50 men in trench coats carrying boom boxes advertising a movie! This was, as well, a parade! I like that you can’t always tell what a parade is. It is obvious and at the same time mysterious.

CM: The parade is an element that condenses and flattens the space into one moving image where many things happen at the same time …

AL: Yes exactly. A parade is like a series of images and like one long image flattened, as you say. In my parades the groups can be confusingly different from each other! Once I did a parade in Hong Kong and it was sponsored by the art fair, which already makes a context. And than this city is unique in being so close to China and at the same time being a capitalist outpost and no one knows how long this special status will last. Also there is this historical echo, which gave me an ultra romantic feeling—this Wong Kar-Wai mood. The parade marched along an unbelievably soulless park where the British navy used to be headquartered and where mainland Chinese are trying to build a naval base. When I walked through the area I saw many barriers and plastic gates, which I wanted to use, so the artist Nadim Abbas copied these objects. To go back to your earlier question, I meant that I don’t understand the situation in Hong Kong enough to make a statement, so I made a parade you can attach your own meaning to, I offered a frame of a political parade.

CM: I was wondering about the political links some of your parades seem to have. For example De Lama Lâmina (From mud, a blade) in 2004, where one of the trucks carried a tree and an actress played the role of environmentalist Julia Butterfly Hill, demonstrating her year living in a redwood tree she wanted to save. In this case the carnival was taken as a forum for environmentalist concerns. Or Paper Rain, the artist parade that took place in 2013 during Art Basel Hong Kong. One part of it was that Nadim Abbas fabricated foam barricades modelled after actual barricades from the streets of Hong Kong. At the same time I read in your statement that “this is the dead skin of a protest, what we’re doing is like a political demonstration without content. It is a husk, like when the insect sheds its skin”. Can you elaborate on this?

AL: When you watch a parade you normally know what its message is so you look to the signs for the visualization of thoughts. It is interesting to me what happens with a political slogan out of its context. I liked the moment of having a crowd thinking of Dr. King and the garbage strikers totally displaced in time as it takes places years later and also in space as it happens in Frankfurt, who are accompanied by architecture students carrying bonsais. It squeezes out connections. In 2011 Rirkrit Tiravanija and I organised the parade Trespass in Los Angeles. The parade was particularly interesting in a political sense. Rirkrit contributed t-shirts with slogans and invited local artists to do the same. We gave lots of them out so the audience became visually indistinguishable from the parade. The parade proceeded down Broadway in central Los Angeles, a street that resembles New York with its skyscrapers but has been abandoned to super low rent stores. Many parades take place there—like the Mexican Day Parade—already charging this urban space politically. Our parade was almost a parade about political parades. I also wanted to have black ticker tape forming a black cloud over the gathering in some sort of beautiful apocalypse but that didn’t work out.

CM: Your parade invokes the participation of the viewers to move along and make it grow creating something like a moving satellite in an urban environment. As Claire Tancons put it: “By blending spectatorship and participation, Carnival realizes the postmodern ideal of the viewer completing the artwork”.1 The audience and the passers-by can observe, empathise, and decide to join …

AL: Follow. Think. Reflect. Dance. They are pretty much free—they can sing, dance, try to stop us, shout, throw things, leave. Great point that by definition parades are free! Already being there and thinking is the participation! Any parade exhausts you. Exhaustion is a different form of consciousness. A parade has lots of drive also in a sexual way, so: be ecstatic! In that sense this is what I expect from the audience—to go through this simple physical transformation. Let me name an example: Candomblé is a religion where someone can be possessed by something divine. This can be a reference for any parade, to create a situation where people undergo an intensified experience. And as this happens in a public place, it is a challenge to get this concentrated experience in a borderless, amorphous space. So that’s what I want! That’s a reason to put all these crazy elements together. Like the oldest device where you put two words together and people jam them into a meaning.

CM: This makes me wonder how close “fun” is to political action.

AL: “Fun” is interesting: the idea of “crelazer”, describing the creative leisure that Hélio Oiticica defined; a state of attentive fun. Fun is important and to me very political. Being in a crowd you give up individuality but at the same time your individuality is rewarded.

CM: Your music is widely described as subversive—would you say the same for your parades?

AL: I consider parades as subversive in the way that you are allowed to do things that you wouldn’t be allowed to do normally. But of course that is a political paradox as you are allowed to be free but it’s the state allowing this only for a moment, it’s bread and circuses.

CM: Let’s talk about the important Brazilian cultural movement Tropicàlia and the subversive role that music, art and the carnival played for its members. Their political and aesthetic engagement brought about an important change in the Brazilian cultural landscape. What’s your relation to this movement and its protagonists?

AL: Regarding Tropicàlia, when it took place I was still a kid, I was growing up seeing these artists as pop stars on TV unaware of many of the issues involved in this very deliberate movement. It was a specific self-conscious music movement in the 1960s. They wanted to make an impact and to reach a lot of people with their ideas by using TV and recordings in an original way. A lot of their ideas are similar to the ones of Brazilian modernism and were very specific to Brazil, while at the same time being influenced by other art movements like pop art and pop music.

CM: The recent protests in Brazil kicked of by a revolt against rising prices of public transport. What are your thoughts on the recent protests that are punctuating the political and social life in Brazil?

AL: I am intrigued by the fact that there is no leader behind this movement. It is both similar to and different from many movements in the recent years; Seattle, Genoa, Occupy Wall Street in New York. For me the criticism in Brazil is in a sense more real and direct then those of the other movements—about lousy schools, government and business corruption—and not a general criticism of a system. All of this can be watched from the inside, by cameras and social networks everywhere. A group called “Midia Ninja Broadcast” publishes arrests and looting in real time. In a way it is an underground movement but yet not as it is very visible and of course most of it is organized via Facebook, a huge American company … The government is letting this happen, maybe because the protesters on the streets are their voters and consumers!

CM: What do you think about the possibilities of art to become subversive?

AL: There can be subversive experiences in art but are there subversive artists? I’m not sure. Art can certainly be used for subversion and mine is available.


  • 1.
    “The Greatest Free Show on Earth”, prospect 1, 2008.

Clara Meister

Clara Meister is a curator based in Berlin and co-founder and editor of …ment. She was the 2012 curator in residence at MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38 in New York, with a publication series published by Sternberg Press. Meister contributed for exhibition catalogues and wrote for various magazines.

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