We spoke to Portuguese-Canadian artist, Emanuel de Carvalho, on the occasion of his new solo exhibition, code new state, which runs through to June 1st at London’s Gathering gallery. In our conversation with De Carvalho we touch upon the theory he has been reading, his compositional choices, and the way disruption is central to his work and our own understanding of our cognitive processing and societal constructs.
De Carvalho’s work is anchored in phenomenology, queer theory and performance theory, as his lines of inquiry are in conversation with the writings of Michel Foucault, Sara Ahmed and his collaborator, French philosopher, Catherine Malabou. As a student of medicine, De Carvalho repurposes his knowledge around the functions of the human brain to challenge our natural neural responses to images and objects.  In a sense, his exploration of lack and his use of uncomfortable, skewed perspective, drive us as viewers to find new ways of seeing and feeling. 
The work in this presentation contains subtle disruptions in point of view and theme in order to induce a sort of anxiety in the viewer. The exhibition features several large-scale oil paintings and two towering sculptures depicting spaces where human subjects are absent or not necessarily central agents (in the literal sense, figures are not fully within the canvas). Through this strange point of view, the work subtly distorts our preconceptions around institutionalised spaces, queering the hierarchies of knowledge that have been socially handed down to us through education or upbringing. This  defamiliarisation within the artworks opens different, non-normative avenues of thought for the viewer, and creates a space for a confrontation with the self. De Carvalho seems to be asking us to reflect on the question: what happens when art collapses meaning instead of creating it? 
Congratulations on your new solo exhibition at Gathering! Before we delve into the presentation, we wanted to start off by asking you: what books are currently at your studio or bedside table since textual sources are a huge part of your work?
I have been enjoying reading Vile Days by the New York art critic Gary Indiana, which serves as an archive of the art world during the mid to late 1980s.
During the install of code new state, I was concerned with the orientation of objects in space and this led me to revisit Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. What is the meaning of being oriented towards objects that are not supposed to be there. I have also been delving into Catherine Malabou’s latest book Stop Thief!, where anarchy is presented as an alternative political form that is suited to the unpredictability of human existence. In the current climate of political instability, her work stands as particularly timely.
In the past, you’ve referred to your solitary creative process and how transformation can be brought about by the “subtle insurgency of ideas, narratives, and expressions”. What relationship do you have with your studio space?
The studio is where my actions and thoughts are solely directed at the production of work, with my own physicality deprioritised at times. I work alone, systematically, for extended periods of time. In this way, the studio acts as a grounding and structured space, it directs me. I wonder, however, whether the studio is confined to a physical site. The conception of a work often arises from experiences in the real world.
This presentation is steeped in your collaborations with French philosopher, Catherine Malabou.  How did this collaboration come about and how did you interact with her conception of plasticity?
Catherine Malabou’s work draws on the transformative ability of our brains to adapt to evaluative codes over time. I was drawn to the concept of disruption being able to shift our perceptual constructs. According to Michel Foucault, one cannot escape power structures, only acknowledge them. Can we then ever attain moral freedom? Perhaps the first step is to become aware – to understand that social reality is an acquired construct, especially when it pertains to ideology.
Malabou draws attention to the destructive (and malleable) power of the brain, alerting us to the fact that humans are not static entities, but exist in a perpetual state of flux, continuously evolving. The work lack skill I is a 5-meter vitrine-like narrow sculpture that sits in the centre of the gallery. It stands uncomfortably high, peer inside through the side openings and all you see is a dark passage. My collaborative project with Malabou will follow this work, presenting some of her philosophical teachings in the form of sculptural artefacts, a sort of archaeological display of knowledge.
Here is a slightly open-ended question—what do you think constitutes being a radical artist in the current climate? 
My standpoint is that our social realities are constructions that we follow, perform and repeat. In doing so, we grant (and perpetuate) authority to these institutional and symbolic structures. Being radical would involve tactfully challenging these relations, queering hierarchies, in a way that would open alternative discourses. To me, this comes about whenever a work is disruptive, goes against convention. Being radical would imply, in the words of performance scholar theorist José Muñoz, to disidentify with the normative cultural narratives.
Can you tell us a little about your background as a neuro-ophthalmologist, and how your studies in medicine intersect with your creative practice? How has this moulded your relationship to the viewer of your work?
Studying medicine has impacted my way of seeing. It has taught me to observe without discourse which in essence lies at the core of what we regard as modern medical praxis. I studied the human brain, specifically focusing on visual and cognitive processing. I have dealt with patients whose perceptual responses are affected by pathological processes, a manifestation of Catherine Malabou’s destructive plasticity as described in her book The Ontology of the Accident.
When faced with this, you can’t help but wonder about reality and the structures that dictate our thought-process. I began to question everything, dissecting my very own perceptual responses in the context of my own environment and upbringing. I learnt that Michel Foucault has written extensively about this, calling it a practice of the self, or askesis which relies on an individual exercise of reflection as a means to analyse and develop your own moral code.
I am also acutely attuned to the biological nature of the self, as the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux states: we are our synapses, being human relies on the ability of our brains to establish neural connections. I find this liberating; recognising the influence of the brain and institutions on our thought processes, we can endeavour to shift our perceptions toward what we believe is the truth, with the hope that our perceptual frameworks will follow suit. This transformative process is undoubtedly challenging—I've experienced its difficulty first-hand – but it is essential to persist. I regard my work[s] as tools that allow this awareness to come to [the] surface, by creating work that is slightly disruptive, anxiety-inducing. Ideally, I would like my works to cut knowledge.
In some of the large-scale paintings in code new state, there is a piercing sense of absence, particularly absence of bodies in institutional spaces such as the lecture room or what could look like pews in a religious space. We were fascinated by this sense of absence which feels like it’s setting up an empty stage, or speaking to a power vacuum of sorts, since knowledge cannot be exchanged or imparted without someone to receive it. Can you delve into your conception(s) of lack, since it’s so central to this new series of work?  How did you intend for lack to manifest and echo in pedagogical or institutional spaces such as the ones you portray in these oil paintings—especially when lack or absence are also ways of speaking to what is present, on the canvas and in life generally?
Kathy Acker once said, “murder is a dream because lack is the centre of both.” Lack stems from my innately nihilistic tendencies, the belief that in fact, nothing truly matters. Absence and totality of space hold equal importance across all the works in code new state. Yes, I seek to understand the world and others around me, but at the same time I realise this will never be possible, never attained. Lack acts as a sort of punctuation, a reminder of the finite nature of existence, acting as a grounding element that reminds me (and the viewer) that the work should be interpreted with an existential mindset. I am aware of the danger here.
With the collapse of meaning and purpose, a crisis arises, some opinions taking precedence over others. It appears we are living through this crisis today, the question being whether humanity will recover from it. My intent is not only to document, but also confront this moment. With this in mind, the depiction of the institution as a vacant space, bare architecture(s), the void, becomes a key interpretative element that holds special significance in an era where the unknown is perceived as menacing.
As a Portuguese-Canadian artist living in London, how do you think place has informed your interests and direction as an artist, if at all?
Portugal has certainly exerted an influence on the questions I research, however, more from a socio-cultural perspective than geographical. I wonder if this is widely recognised, but this is a nation that grapples with the effects of an oppressive dictatorship, in rule until 1974, during which a whole population was imbued with conservative values. I did not live through this regime, but was scrutinised from this viewpoint.
I have also lived in Amsterdam, Milan, Montreal, and am now based in London; being away from the country that holds so much significance to my identity enabled me to recognise the power of its cultural norms over my perceptual codes, it freed me from public scrutiny. In that sense, my work is not so much about place, rather it evolved because of place.
Your work challenges and remaps normative visual signals, ways of seeing and traditional use of perspective. The figures in your paintings are sometimes not fully in the canvas (document lack II), or the viewpoint or angle are somewhat distorted or disrupted, such as in code lack. How did you arrive at this particular mode of composition?  Do you think disruption and a sense of isolation necessarily go hand in hand?
Disruption in the context of my practice and across the different mediums, stems from an interest in using it as a strategy to understand the social fabric of interpretation, self, difference and othering. Whenever there is a disruption in processing, for instance when looking at an image that is slightly out of balance or the orientation does not match what is expected, an anxious response is elicited in your brain – this is called anticipatory imagery in neuro-psychology. My hope is that this forces you to look a bit more closely, and in this fleeting moment you become attuned to your feelings; you feel a feeling as Antonio Damasio would posit. Along these lines, the compositions are characterised by unusual orientations and viewpoints, with perspectives that are skewed. The human figure is treated as an object, in a phenomenological way, standing equal in significance to the backgrounds and inanimate objects. I want to go against our innate human-centricity, the figure is always displaced. It might sound contradictory, but I am not interested in portraiture or depiction of real spaces, at least for the time being.
Contemplation and the activity of thought are incredibly present in your works. Where do you find yourself entering your innermost state of reflection?
The studio. It is the place where I recognise myself the most.
Canadian poet Anne Carson recently said that swimming is a huge part of her practice. Do you have any non-artistic skills that are part of your creative process?
I am interested in language(s). I title my works categorically, using a language system that is personal and reflective of my practice at that time. It offers me a way of coding that is systematic – an organisation of thoughts. This language system can be pictorial, for instance, in code new state, there are multiple references to cracks and fragments.
Let’s turn to the sculptures in the exhibition. Scale is something you experiment with in your paintings and installation work. Can you tell us more about your 9-foot steel sculpture which in a sense, dominates the gallery space since it is at its centre?
lack slit system presents a tower-like structure with a slit that is reminiscent of surveillance units. Crawl inside, and you notice that you are unable to reach the slit, you can never become the surveillant, in fact, you become enclosed in a cell where the only surveillance that can be done is against your self. I regard this work as a tool for the exercise of thought. While the scale is oppressive, it is intended to act as a totem of hopeful transformation.
When you finish a project like this do you usually have some ideas germinating for what comes next? If so, is there anything exciting on the horizon, or do you need to replenish by stepping away for some time?
My research carries on, and I have a clear idea what will follow code new state. This was an important exhibition as it consolidated my artistic practice as rooted in academic engagement. The challenge hereon is to continue making work that feels pertinent to society today.
code lack, 2024 © Emanuel De Carvalho
ground lack, 2023 © Emanuel De Carvalho
unground lack, 2023 © Emanuel De Carvalho