Illustration and review by Judith Carnaby
In mid-July I travelled to Abrantes as one of the 20 selected participants of the third edition of 180 Creative Camp. Organised by Canal 180, a Portuguese television channel dedicated to arts and culture, the camp was conceived in collaboration with and partially funded by the Abrantes city council as a way to bring creative energy to the city. This year’s theme was ‘The Power of Storytelling’. More than 20 artists from diverse creative fields including video, music, photography, design, architecture and the fine arts were invited to spend a week creating work in Abrantes. The artists were part of a busy public programme designed to engage the residents of the city, which included eight days filled with performances, interventions, exhibitions and talks as well as workshops for children. Alongside the invited artists were places for 20 selected participants who had access to all of the workshops and special events. After applying as part of an open call, I was delighted to be selected to participate in the camp.
Abrantes, known as the flowered city, is a small city in the centre of Portugal, about an hour and a half north of Lisbon. Its cobbled streets are lined by crumbling white houses topped with terracotta tiles and shaded by citrus trees. It is a sleepy city, crowned with a castle that has spent centuries with its stony roots dug deeply into the hilltop, quietly enjoying its view overlooking the Tagus River. The town’s youth seemed to have been taken with the river’s current and swept down to the capital, just like countless other country towns in Portugal whose young people have left for opportunities afforded by big city life.
As I stepped off the bus outside the Abrantes youth hostel, I could feel the blazing sun almost singe its way through my big straw hat. After dropping off our bags and fighting for bunk bed positions, the camp participants and artists headed in to the city centre to the evening’s official welcome event. The sun dipped over the horizon and took all its heat with it, but we were kept warm by a well-stocked sponsored bar. Following the welcome speeches, we had the opportunity to talk to one another and meet the Canal 180 team and people from Abrantes.
The other selected participants came from throughout Europe, with a large number from Portugal, Spain, and Poland, as well as two from the USA. With my inclusion they could claim a participant from New Zealand, even though in reality I travelled to Portugal from my home in Berlin, which does not sound quite as exotic. Our purpose as participants was not really made clear to us at the beginning, and not all of the artists had arrived in the city, so we spent the first day exploring the town. As the week passed and the artists’ projects developed, we had more to do, either attending workshops, assisting in artists projects, or creating our own work.
The most meaningful aspects of the camp were engaging discussions with the other participants, and being able to talk to and learn from the invited artists. Some artists were so busy you only bumped into them at breakfast, whereas others had fewer commitments and could also participate in other projects. Early in the week I had the opportunity to assist at an animation workshop by Arthur Carvalho, and as the week developed I spent a lot of time with contemporary artist Olaf Breuning and his constant tail Astrid Gleichman, who was filming a documentary about him for Gestalten TV. I enjoyed the short morning talk given at our hostel by We Came From Space, a collaborative studio-school project run by designers, teachers and artists based in Porto, and I was disappointed to miss their printing workshop. At the end of the week I was part of the group who helped Olaf to create his photographic work, travelling half an hour from Abrantes and awkwardly squatting in the prickly dirt to paint the bodies of the ‘protesters’ in his photograph.
Alongside the public programme participants were given the opportunity to work with local store owners as part of a ‘Stores Attack’ initiative. Many of the central city’s shops, bakeries, small cafes and bars were open to collaboration with participants. I decided to focus on learning new animation skills and developing this special, but I enjoyed seeing what the other participants developed. The two standout projects for me were by Ece Canli and Rubén Martín Hernández. Working with the power of storytelling theme, Ece created a new history of a citizen of Abrantes. Her project blurred gender lines and identity as she sat in the hairdressing salon, slowly reading aloud her imagined story of José de Oliveira Tiago António as the hairdresser transformed her into the character she created. Rubén worked with a local second-hand shop owner to transform the shop, for one night only, into ‘The Greatest Shop of Secrets in Abrantes’. In the centre of the city he shrouded a telephone box, creating a sort of confessional where citizens of Abrantes could write down their secrets. Later that evening curious customers could buy goods from the store and receive one of those secrets tucked away in their newly purchased item. The family who owned the store was at first enthusiastic about the project and then overjoyed as they sold more items in one night than in the previous six months together.
Almost every night there were public events in the centre of the city. These were the busiest, perhaps because the townspeople could relax with their afterwork beers in the refreshingly cool night air. One night there was the opening party for ‘Karat‘, one of two funded urban intervention projects. During the day the sculpture’s spin-able geometric surfaces reflected golden light onto the buildings lining the main civic square, gently decorating the cracked and worn ornately-patterned tiles. Another night was a large-scale video-mapping project by Dub Video Connection. Camp participants and the public could create or watch others draw patterns or images on a digital tablet connected to a projector that beamed onto the facade of the city’s bank, making it appear as if they were drawing onto the building itself. On other nights musicians played at a former monastery, in the municipal gallery, or deejayed in the main square.
Detail of Karat, The 12 Thousand Pairs of Shoes from Abrantes, and the We Came From Space printing workshop.
A number of events were also held outside of the city. One night we travelled out to a large deco-style community centre in neighbouring town San Miguel die Rio Torto. There we made ‘Make a Wish’ LED and paper windmills in a workshop by lighting designers Marisa Mariscal Ferreira and Arjen Van der Crujsen; banqueted in the back garden under strings of colourful lightbulbs; then danced to the eclectic electronic sounds of sweaty leather-clad band Tocha Pestana in the adjoining community hall. Another evening we travelled down the hill to an elegant nature reserve, where we ate dinner and watched video presentations by Like Knows Like and Gestalten TV, set among the tall pine trees and lit by a starry sky.
One of the most successful projects for engaging people of the city was the other funded urban intervention project ‘The 12 Thousand Pairs of Shoes from Abrantes‘. While not a particularly strong concept, the installation of the work generated unintentional and interesting collaboration between the city’s engineers and the artists. Two days of struggle, ingenuity and traffic diversion finally led to a structurally-sound net of shoes above the city square. However not all of the events were successful, and some had very few people from the town attend. One of the evening events in a former monastery was a shambles. Illustrator Jonathan Calugi had spent too long at the bar and gave a very unprofessional talk, beset with technical problems. The following set by musician Noiserv was unfortunately interrupted by rain. The META exhibition of digital art, held “offline” in the city’s contemporary gallery and with a connected online platform, took a lot of people’s time and energy, with participants painting intricately designed walls late into the night. Finished just in time, the opening was filled with camp participants but there were few locals attending. META was a re-presention of selected work by curators and artists from an online digital art biennale held earlier in the year. I found the concept of the group exhibition quite weak, although slickly presented. The lack of strong ideas underpinning creative work was my main issue with many of the works at the camp.
Canal 180 is a TV channel focused on cool visual content, and I felt that many of the artists were selected due to the visual quality, not the conceptual quality of their work. Canal 180’s focus for the camp was on creating collaborations between artists, participants and their team members, which I think did enanle meaningful and successful friendships and connections. But in creating a connection to the city, I also felt that many of the artists either didn’t have enough time, or had little interest, in working to really engage with the people around them.Artists like Isaac Cordal, or Ella & Pitr, continued making their same work, just in a new location. I feel that being somewhere for a week is not long enough to engage with a place other than at a surface level. If Canal 180 and the council of Abrantes really want to make long term change, or to create a meaningful event that doesn’t just plop down for a week and then shoot off, leaving disintegrating posters in its wake, then it needs to foster involvement with the creative people that already live in the city. If the council is interested in bringing international artists to Abrantes, they could look into establishing a three or six month residency programmes, giving an artist time to research and connect with the city and, if interested, involving the townspeople in their projects. Those artists could then present their work as part of the following creative camp, giving participants like me more context and awareness of the history and people of Abrantes.