What is the Political Agency of Sex? An Interview with Pedro Neves Marques

As his show at Gasworks opens in London, the artist discusses postgenderism, power, violence and intimacy

BY Lorena Muñoz-Alonso in Interviews | 10 APR 19

For a decade now, the New York-based Portuguese artist Pedro Neves Marques has been challenging ontological oppositions – nature/culture, human/nonhuman, organic/transgenic – in a prolific body of work that encompasses films, research and writing. ‘It Bites Back’, which opens tomorrow at London’s Gasworks, is Neves Marques’s first UK solo exhibition. The show’s centrepiece is the installation A Mordida (The Bite, 2018), which unites two short films, Sex as Care and The Gender of the Lab (both 2018), with a multi-channel sound installation by the music producer HAUT. The films, both set in Brazil, create a dialogue between two fraught realities: one features a laboratory in which transgenic male mosquitos are being bred to tackle the Zika virus epidemic; the other is a series of polyamorous encounters that explore the daily intimacies of queer lives, currently threatened by the recently elected far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro. 

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso: One of the constant threads of your work is its focus on Brazil, a country facing major socio-economic and ecological problems as a result of its colonial past and its political system, now worsened by its recently elected far-right government. What prompted your fascination with Brazil and, as a white male artist from Portugal, do you feel you can escape the pervasive colonial legacies intrinsic to your position?

Pedro Neves Marques: It’s impossible to escape the contradictions inherent to the historical Portuguese/Brazilian relationship, but they can and should serve as a starting point for both political and personal relations. Nowadays, in my work, I consciously allow these contradictions to develop, hoping they will be provocative in a constructive way. I do not pretend to represent anyone, neither am I working to heal anything: I am looking at the differences and preconceived notions – including my own – between the two countries. In this respect, filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Cinema Interval (1999) and anthropologist Marilyn Strathern’s Partial Connections (1986) have been very important to my thinking. I can neither sidestep my background nor expect to fully understand, for example, indigenous worlds and livelihoods. Instead, I investigate the unevenness of relations, the ambiguous borders between worlds.

Pedro Neves Marques, Sex as Care, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Umberto di Marino  

LMA: There’s an erotic turn in A Mordida, particularly in the film Sex as Care. Did your earlier preoccupation with transgenics and the laboratory as a site of creation/destruction lead you to an exploration of human post-gendered reproduction and gender fluidity?

PNM: Controlled reproduction, both in humans and nonhumans, is central to several of my works but I would agree that sex and gender have become more explicit, both at a hormonal level and in social relations. The longstanding regulation of women’s reproductivity is increasingly expanding to animals and plants, with normative structures being reinforced in scientific practices. To counteract this implies looking at how gender normativity is constructed, and how nature and culture have always shaped one another. It also means looking at those technologies as spaces for liberatory struggles to be co-opted by the left. In that sense, moving from a critique of gender to gender as a site of struggle felt natural to me. 

LMA: Your poem ‘Sex as Care’ (2018) contains the line: ‘Sex as care, in times of crisis, among friends, among enemies.’ What’s the political agency of sex, in your opinion? 

PNM: That poem came from a deep feeling of hopelessness in the face of the current rise of fascism and of finding, in sexuality, a community of healing, involving both exposure and fragility. I’m not only talking about pleasure, but also about understanding, trust and bonding. If sex is where many of our social anxieties get sublimated, then sex is also where we can regain some ground. Today, we’re yet again witnessing an attack on women’s rights and the LGBTQ community globally. Sexuality has always been at the centre of social normativity and it’s mostly been feminist and queer communities who have been disruptive (and also visionary) about it. In science fiction, I think Samuel R. Delany and the late Joanna Russ have been exemplary in writing about queer sexuality and desire as visions of care, but also as a space of tension, which must constantly check itself against the intrusion of patriarchy and power. The last verse of that poem is: ‘See the mosquito resting on the net.’ Threat always lies closer than we expect.

LMA: Your work orbits around a constellation of concepts – colonization, cannibalism, penetration, contagion – that creates a catalogue of aggressive interactions between two or more agents.

PNM: Violence is imposed on all of us daily, and much of it is invisible: chemicals and contamination, say, or exclusionary politics and patriarchy. Obviously, violence is not evenly distributed in terms of gender, race and class. Exiting one’s position of power or, inversely, being a minority claiming a position of power, cannot but be violent. Moreover, it seems clear to me that a certain condemnation of violence stems from the particular fears of a liberal mind, which is well-intentioned but oppressive precisely due to those same rules of conduct. I’ve taken this critique of the white, liberal mind further in my fiction writing, for example in my short story collection Morrer na América (Dying in America, 2017). 

Pedro Neves Marques, The Pudic Relation Between Machine and Plant, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Umberto di Marino  

LMA: Your recent films seem to have become less essayistic and more oneiric. Even if they are still informed by research and speculative thinking, the tone appears less controlled and more open to (mis)interpretation. Is your growing interest in fiction and poetry, after years of penning essays, behind this shift?

PNM: For a number of years, I mostly wrote articles and barely made any art. When I returned to filmmaking, I realized that the politics I was looking for relied on emotion, plot and world-building. Unsurprisingly, fiction, which I’ve always written, and poetry, which I have taken up more recently, have also come to the fore, bringing in some of my more speculative influences, like new-wave science fiction. I am not interested in realism or straightforward documentary: I want to create works where you only realize midway through that what you’re watching or reading is touched by science fiction or otherworldly realities.

LMA: Your protagonists include plants, mosquitoes, humans and androids in a system that is resolutely non-hierarchical. How does your interest in Amerindian cosmologies and concepts like perspectivism and multinaturalism, coined by Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, inform your work?

PNM: These concepts propose that there is not one but many natures, and that the boundaries of nature depend on your position in a given time and place. What constitutes nature varies according to each society’s definitions of nature and culture. For example, we might see androids as being our contemporary version of spirits, as angels were in medieval times, but for Amazonian communities jaguars take on this mantle. I do not wish to surpass the nature/culture divide: I’m looking for variations between cosmologies. If I choose to explore androids or genetically modified ‘monsters’ in my work, it’s because they connect distinct anthropological expectations about technology and futurity. I believe we need an art that kills fascists as much as one capable of inspiring us with images of other possible worlds.

‘It Bites Back’ is on view at Gasworks, London, UK, from 11 April to 16 June. The artist will give a reading of poems from his forthcoming book, Sex as Care and Other Viral Poems, on 15 June.

Main image: Pedro Neves Marques, If the Mosquito Can Kill it Cannot be Born, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Umberto di Marino  

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso is a writer and editor based in London, UK.