PATRÍCIA PORTELA’S "THE PRIVATE COLLECTION OF ACÁCIO NOBRE" AT PERFORMATIK, BRUSSELS
By Pieter T’Jonck
Chances are small anyone ever heard about the Portuguese devil-does-all Acácio Nobre (1879–1974). It is only thanks to the Portuguese artist Patrícia Portela that we now know a little more about the legacy of this man who was deeply connected to many of the artistic, pedagogic and political revolutions of the twentieth century. That is what it looks like, at least.
Somewhere in the course of the one and a half hour of The private collection of Acácio Nobre, you become a little suspicious that this story is nothing but a mystification, invented by Portela herself. Nobre then somehow becomes the embodiment or summary of the many ideas and technological changes that defined the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
Portela presents her material in a delicately surprising way. At the start of the performance, the stage is all but empty, apart from two writing desks and two stools. Because of an opened flap the tables somehow look like a grand piano, just as the two elegantly cantilevered stainless steel stools resemble an avant-garde version of the classic music stool. And what is more, as Portela and her fellow performer André Teodosio enter the stage, they pose as concert pianists. She is dressed in a perky blue silk dress with upright collar, her hair worked in a conspicuous aigrette. He is dressed in a white dress costume and adorned with a similarly prominent aigrette and blue-colored eyebrows.
As if she were an archivist
The concert they give is not for piano however but for an oldfashioned typewriter and a PC keyboard. Portela is retyping her text from a stack of papers on a music stand. Her opponent however is mainly improvising on his “instrument”. Portela opens the evening. Her typewriting appears immediately on the right half of the screen at the back of the stage. In her text she tells about her discovery of a lot of documents and objects by the hand of a man called Nobre in the cellar of her grandparents. Some of these objects, such as a remarkable erotic jewel and a booklet for the “young engineer” are also exhibited at the entrance of the venue. The whole piece long, Portela will assign numbers and dates to these items, as if she were a zealous archivist. Wherever needed, she also annotates them.
Her opponent is completely unlike her. As a nervous artist, he is hammering away on his typewriter. His feet are nervously tapping along. His texts treat all kinds of subjects. Sometimes he is writing letters to a secretary of state about the educational system of Friedrich Fröbel, advocating the playing materials he has devised for it. In another letter he starts a heated discussion with futurists to stop raving about the usefulness of ideas and the uselessness of pictures. In that way, a huge number of ideas, often derived from Dada, tumble over the screen. Through an ingenious “preparation” of the typewriter by sound artist Christophe De Boeck, these texts appear on the left hand side of the stage backdrop.
De Boeck also did something else. He amplified and distorted the sounds of both typewriter and PC keyboard and added a soundscape to it. As a result, the crackling of the PC and the hammering of the typewriter evolve into a loud buzz or even a deafening drone. The logic of these acoustic manipulations is however completely unpredictable. As unpredictable as the light set of Daniel Worm d’ Assumpçao. As if that was not enough, pictures and drawings ceaselessly roll over the screen at the back of the stage, half hidden by the stream of texts produced by the performers. On top of all that, a timeline mentioning the most important scientific, artistic and political events during Nobre’s life are projected on the side walls of the auditorium. It takes an immense effort to process this onslaught of information. The result of all that is worth the effort however: what you get is a striking evocation of a turbulent, revolutionary era. Once more, in looking back, you discover how amazing all of this has been. That makes for a really nice concert of ideas.