I love to give a work of art the benefit of the doubt that I normally wouldn’t; when something seems so obscure that I can’t figure it out. It reminds me of my first post ever on Artifactoid, and my initial purpose for art writing: to break boundaries, expand thought, contribute to the active dialogue of the field, and hone taste and values upon which to better understand both art and humanity. I recently experienced a work of performance art at Americas Society that returned me to this original idea. The performance was brickwork (2017) by Pedro Zylbersztajn, a Brazilian artist who works with technology, sound, publishing, and other media. brickwork is defined as “a physical record of the process of re/construction of language.”
When I first arrived at Americas Society for the performance, I was handed a four-page pamphlet with sections of ambiguous poetic text printed in black ink on black pages. It was difficult both to visually read and comprehend.
I then walked to the room in which the performance was being held. The performance was unintelligible, like the pamphlet. It entailed the artist sitting at a desk in the center of a room. Viewers lined the surrounding walls, looking in. There was a record player placed upon the desk, and for about 15 minutes, the artist deejayed transparent, white records on it, playing the sound of words being spoken with extremely low sound quality, almost as if the voice being sounded aloud was underwater.
Witnessing this was a perplexing and frustrating experience. The words sounded aloud on the records were the artist inaudibly vocalizing the illegible text written on the pamphlet.
Zylbersztajn continued to swap out one record disc for the next in silence until all the text had been sounded aloud in scratchy, low quality. When he placed the final disc on the player, it played the first line that the audience could hear: “this will not be my last sentence,” over and over again, until it stopped. The performance had ended. My reaction was a hope that the Q & A to follow would provide a thorough explanation because I didn’t know how to feel after witnessing it.
Thankfully the Q & A, led by Americas Society Chief Curator and Director of Visual Arts Gabriela Rangel, revealed many intricacies of Zylbersztajn’s brickwork and contextualized it within his body of work as a whole. Rangel shared that she discovered his work while conducting studio visits at the MIT Art, Culture, and Technology program, from which Zylbersztajn commenced the following day.
brickwork has to do with the process of re/construction of language. For Zylbersztajn, this relates to his “interest in the perpetual shifts and slippages in the use of language, an object [he assumes] to be individually and socially constructed and reconstructed with every new utterance, which is where this metaphor of language as a permanent building site comes from.” Words are like bricks, which can be both building blocks and political weapons. Zylbersztajn also notes that “the text references the Tower of Babel quite a lot, and this relationship of building, bricks, mortar, and language is very present in this story.”
Zylbersztajn’s idea of the black pamphlets printed with black ink as difficult to read, and his idea of the bad quality of the records as difficult to audibly process, were intentional choices. These step-by-step blockages of comprehension, via different media, each in relation to distinct senses, were part of a structured process created by the artist.
This structure (order, reception, method, execution) and texture (printing quality, recording quality) in each part of the performance were two of brickworks‘s core elements. Zylbersztajn noted that the Brazilian poet João Cabral de Mello Neto once said, “we’re people of much texture and little structure” (referring to Brazilians). It is interesting that this quote was a factor that inspired Zylbersztajn to create an equivocal artwork that isolates structure and texture.
Additionally, the audience’s discomfort, related to both the inability to read the text and the inability to hear the recorded sound well, is representative of the artist’s emphasis on the idea of opacity, another central element of the piece. Opacity has a tradition in poetry, and it is also a political concept. It was the element that created tension in the performance. Zylbersztajn notes, “opacity, illegibility, and the borders/limits of language are very much in the center of this work and my practice in general.” Conceptually, brickwork confronts the importance of opacity in an age of transparency, in which we are all publishing our lives via data sharing. We are accustomed to living transparently in 2018, and brickwork demands another type of interaction.
An unexpected note that Rangel’s Q & A revealed was, that the final repetition of the last line of the text, “this will not be my last sentence,” was a much more profound choice for the artist than initially perceptible. This line was inspired by a poem that the artist read following 9/11 about the tragedy’s victims, by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, called “Photograph from September 11,” which ends with the stanza:
I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.
According to Zylbersztajn, “this sense of impossibility and futility in that statement, which is technically a paralipsis, was something I was thinking about when I wrote my own ‘not-last-line’ or ‘not-last-sentence.’”
The artist’s choice to study at MIT also had a specific influence on brickwork. The artist custom-created the records using a laser cutting technique developed by fellow MIT student, Amanda Ghassaei. Zylbersztajn explains that “regular records are made by cutting the grooves onto a wax plate, in an analog process of translating the sound to movement. Zylbersztajn explains that “regular records are made by cutting the grooves onto a wax plate, in an analog process of translating the sound to movement. This plate is then used as a matrix to create vinyl copies that have the same grooves which can be ‘read’ by the player’s needle. The process that I used, which was developed by Ghassaei, converts digital audio into lines that simulate the movements of the analog grooves, and these lines are then laser etched into a surface. The needle reads it in the same way, but the material, the definition, and the digital-analog conversion don’t allow for hi-fidelity, and there are some other interesting quirks, such as the fact I explored of the decaying sound quality in function of the radial dimension of the record.” Zylbersztajn decided to utilize Ghassaei’s records for this performance piece as the vehicle to play his own voice recording of the text in the pamphlet in an indecipherable and degenerative way. This comments on the materiality of the records, and presents them as objects that mediate communication. Also a professional publisher in Brazil for many years, Zylbersztajn is interested in abstract forms of publishing, and the giving and receiving of information through the manipulation of various media.
brickwork conveys Zylbersztajn as thinker, publisher, DJ, poet, and researcher. This performance piece comprehensively showcased the artist’s ability to create something unique and challenging. Regarding his future endeavors, Zylbersztajn also mentioned that he is particularly interested in the concept of “art as research” and “research as art,” which is emphasized in his MIT program.
Author’s Note: I wanted to include an addendum that at the time this article was written I wasn’t aware of the work of sound artist Alvin Lucier. I believe that when looking at artwork like Zylberstajn’s it is important to consider the history of sound art and artists who laid the groundwork for this type of project. Lucier’s famous work “I am Sitting in a Room” is a 45-minute conceptual piece from 1969 that also is based on deteriorating repetitive vocals. You can listen to it in full on YouTube below. I hope you enjoy it!