Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence

Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.

Williams: Victoria, it has been about ten years since ARTNATOMY. It is a beautiful and practical tool for students, artists and illustrators. Has it been doing well, and getting the attention it deserves?

Contreras Flores: Yes, ARTNATOMY will celebrate its ten-year anniversary in September [2016]. I’m preparing a celebration! My little virtual pedagogical toy fulfilled and exceeded all my expectations: it is still selling an offline version, although it remains free online for students. It has also led to derivative commissioned works, interesting collaborations and international contacts and friends. It has exceeded the user target I predicted and the application is avowed useful not only by artists but by psychologists, neurologists, plastic surgeons, coaches—even criminologists. It has received international awards, been featured in magazines and cited in books and academic papers. I could not be more satisfied. For it to be a more popular site and tool I would have to overcome my laziness for business and social media marketing. But I have other interests, too.

A screenshot of ARTNATOMY by Victoria Contreras Flores.
A screenshot of ARTNATOMY by Victoria Contreras Flores.

Williams: You refer often in your correspondence, sometimes by way of apology, to what you call your ‘dilettante-ism’. To be an amateur is not such a bad thing. But you have made it your style to be a professional non-specialist, a dabbler who is also a discoverer of new things. I can see an advantage in this, if a way must be found to pay the bills. It also means, does it not, that some of the brief artistic commitments do not work out the way you planned?

Contreras Flores: Let’s see… First, I distrust works that ‘need explanations’. I produce objects, works, music that do not belong to the realm of language. They can simply thrill you or not, make you feel, identify with them, or not. When a work comes to us, we do not mind the author. I am much worse than my best works and I should not matter.

Victoria Contreras Flores
Victoria Contreras Flores

I understand, since I am also a spectator, other people have an interest in the person behind the art. When I have to introduce myself, to define myself, to be honest, I can only do it from the dilettante-ism which is neither more nor less than the result of my curious nature and my heterogeneous interests. I tend to emphasise—not in a cynical way—I work hard and humbly in learning everything I try. I’m a professional player. I accept me as ‘numerous’ and enjoy it. In this way, I think people understand why my production is so diverse.

This makes me an outsider within the art market. It is a sign of the times because ‘experts’ frown on unskilled labor, but I am sure that culture is the antithesis of specialisation. In any case, in me, this is not a theoretical starting point, not an a priori, but the result that I work by passion and curiosity: there is never much planned and the result always surprises me, and in a positive way.

None of my inventions, it is true, manage alone to pay the bills.  I have to accept commissioned work such as programming, or teaching. There are other costs, too: being free of children, luxury and property. I prefer to live this way to dedicate my life and efforts to make a business from my creations. I do not serve as a businessman. I did not choose that profession. I could, perhaps, get better economic results devoting all my efforts to a single thing … but only by being as bored and as sad as if I were working in a bank or living in a jail forged with my own hands.

Williams: … “Mientras voy, y vengo, por el camino me entretengo” [“I go, and come back, by the way I enjoy”] is the phrase you have mentioned. It seems like a good philosophy, and one way to prepare for any surprise from the Nietzschean demon.

Your interest in putting new technology to work in artistic projects appears to have led to the creation of some beautiful necklaces. They are made with 3D-printing, I think. The project combines the decorative, the literary, and a little eroticism.

Contreras Flores: They were created playing, by mixing things I love: reading, calligraphy, typography, arabesque, and ajouré. I suppose I am not immune to the fact that my birthland mixes seven centuries of Muslim heritage with Spanish baroque. I design working on paper, getting a single, quick piece that must be legible. After that, I order the laser-cut from a supplier, and finally I hand-mount it. This is one of those inventions for those I would love to find a producer. I am interested in the field of jewellery because it mixes again l’objet d’art and applied art and allows sculpture in small sizes, experimenting very freely with materials and shapes.

I hope I will not be lost in translation but I am flattered to be related to ‘the smiling and playful’ Nietzsche. He aims and encourages us to be free from time-calculation—the furthest thing from a megalomaniac—facing our ephemeral insignificance should help us to live more freely, more calmly, and to enjoy more. In this way, too, I am just an ‘amateur’ who will die learning. So, I am glad if you find some eroticism—another of the simple good things of life—in my necklaces, which I could not prescind from formal exuberance to transmit their passionate messages.

The phrase ‘I go, and come back, by the way I enjoy’ has a good dose of black humor, by reducing life—‘el camino’—to a short, and not very serious, trip. This idea is also in the Spanish reflexive verb ‘entretenerse’, which is more like ‘to amuse oneself’.

Nietzsche is a key philosopher for me. It is interesting you mention him though we have never spoken about him before. People sometimes refer to Nietzsche as a severe, permanently angry, megalomaniac. Very different from the Nietzsche I know. I am flattered if you associate, at some point, some of my statements with the Nietzsche of ‘gaia scienza’: ‘superman’ is an ideal of courage to face life, which is facing death;  active thinking, not-condescending. A ‘logos’ strengthened in the consciousness of its insignificance, should manifest itself in a rigorous ethical demand, auto-immune to self-deception and, paradoxically, liberate us from false responsibilities and illegitimate ambitions. This makes life light, encouraging us to live in a more lucid, more laughing, and more vital way…

I will say that the human is my only theme and my inexhaustible source. The senses are instruments of knowledge for me (in Spanish, ‘sentido’, can mean ‘sense’, ‘felt’ or ‘meaning’ ) and I’m glad if you perceive any kind of sensuality in my work.

Williams: Yes, there is something about the choice of quotations, and the writers, that invites that interpretation. There is also the simple fact that in order to read the text of the necklaces it is necessary to gaze at the bare neck of the wearer. Imagining this moment invites erotic interpretation.

When you wrote to me of ‘the brief trip by which we amuse ourselves,’ I was reading The Gay Science. The allegory of the demon is a striking idea. I wonder why it is not taught in schools. (It may be because it is a dangerous idea; and perhaps because we now have a complicated relationship with the character that Nietzsche has become in our imaginations.) I am thinking of ‘eternal recurrence’, now, not in terms of its meaning to our isolated selves but as either rebuke or praise of the way we treat other people. Am I prepared for the violence, judgments, and wrongs committed against others to be endured, by them, over and over again?

In Australia it seems a majority of the voting population supports harsh measures—I would say inhumane measures—to prevent asylum-seekers reaching our shores.

Contreras Flores: Valencia is a wide-open mediterranean sea town, but there are no boats of people arriving on the beach. The refugee situation remains ‘someone else’s problem’, in Valencia as for most of Europe. I could not be more ashamed by our politicians—applying inhuman laws on our behalf, fomenting fear and nationalist discourses that only conceal ignorance and fear of ‘the other’ and the unknown. As a political subject—as we all are—I try to ‘Think globally, act locally’, I am involved in civil associations, and personally try to fight with my humble weapons, which are just pencils and thinking. It is always insufficient.

Williams: What are you working on now, Victoria?

Contreras Flores: I have been focused on music, learning amazing software that allows me to record and produce my own music with an acceptable quality. In the realm of soundtracks and music for shorts films I collaborate in projects by talented people and continue to mix all the disciplines I am interested in—films, literature, images, and music.

Contreras Flores’s necklaces can be bought directly online from her website, where there is also a short list of retailers, information about her experiments with 3D-printers, and other design objects for sale.

‘The lesson in filing stories about love’

I have entered a seminar or tutorial about some subject I am not very interested in, and a strange teacher—well, let’s be generous and say that he’s more like a salesman—makes a few remarks in his odd-looking check trousers and then arranges everyone in a great circle, men forming one half of the circle and women forming the other half of the circle. He tells everyone to start picking off participants they don’t like. I have adopted the strategy of positioning myself at the cusp of the male and female semi-circles. It doesn’t seem to be working, until I realise that I am being ignored—so, in this particular case, it is working. I do not get chosen to be excluded. Understand? I don’t really understand what happened, but it’s too late and the next part of the lesson has started. The horrible man in the strange trousers has written something on the blackboard: a long sentence about sexism against women. It ends up being a very stupid question. I do not want to write about it. However, everyone else has already started, so I am behind. I go up to the blackboard to get a closer look. The writing is tiny and I do not have my glasses on. The teacher tells me to sit down. While I am up I get some nice yellow paper to write on. When I get back to my desk I realise the paper I have chosen is deep red and very difficult to write on. I write on it anyway, completing something that is pretty good, I think. I have been writing in pencil. I search through a satchel for a fountain pen that I think will enable me to write on the red paper in a way that is easier to read. While I am doing this a young version of my mother enters the room and starts talking to me in a loud voice so that everyone can hear the conversation. We exchange remarks about the subject and the man in the check pants, even though he is getting quite annoyed with us. When I have found my pen I have to find the couple of paragraphs of writing that I have done on the seminar’s stupid subject. Where are they? I look through all the files, satchels, bags, boxes and even filing cabinets that are nearby but cannot, despite my increasing frustration, seem to find them anywhere. Jeff Klooger, who appears from nowhere, tells me that I never was very good at filing. Yes, he’s right. But I don’t need to be good at filing now they’ve invented ‘tags’: I just put everything in Evernote.

It’s not about the clothes, dummy

“It’s about plastic surgery,” Walter van Beirendonck told me. I knew it wasn’t about fashion, or clothes, which is what I had a right to expect it would be about. After all, Van Beirendonck is a fashion designer, and he had just spent an hour or so with an enthusiastic young crowd at the RMIT Storey Hall auditorium, saying several times during the discussion on stage that he was not an artist.

To be an artist, if you are a fashion designer, I began to think, must be something like being branded impractical or noncommercial or incapable of designing wearable clothing.

Van Beirendonck’s recent designs, clothes that are much less commercial than the street wear and jeans for which he became well-known, can still be bought from his shop in Antwerp. Just the place to go if you want an haute couture, plastic, cherry-colored suit—available in all sizes.

Spring 2012 collection

The problem is that van Beirendonck is an artist, or is behaving like one. At a Paris show a few years ago he put his models on stilts (the kind that plasterers use to reach ceilings), covered their faces, turned on the spooky music and waited for a reaction. The resulting ‘performance’—it’s difficult to continue calling it a ‘fashion parade’ or anything else that implies display of goods—was tremendously affecting, presenting the audience with the unexpected vision of models who had distorted their bodies to achieve a sort of perfection and had, at the same time, erased their identities. It’s no wonder that van Beirendonck’s shows are popular.

Transplanted to a theatrical stage, cut loose from the delimiting response of an industry audience, some moments he devises could easily be mistaken for ones by Pina Bausch, the German dancer, choreographer and champion of modern dance.

These effects on the catwalk have not come easily or suddenly to van Beirendonck. It’s clear from the videos of him, when he began teaching fashion in Belgium in the mid-1980s, that he used to look and behave more like we imagine a fashion designer should.

These days, fortyish, he admits that a gradual change has overcome him, the result of a desire to be more himself. He’s gone through many changes, in fact.

Fashion is the commodification of change, n’est-ce-pas?

He used to say, “Fuck the past! (Kiss the future).” One of the audience at Storey Hall wanted to know why he hated history. He is adamant that he does not; it’s just that he does not want to be tied to it.

Now he says, “You are not alone.” In the last few seasons he has stripped his designs of all ornamentation and shown us a bland future; dressed his models in hokey cowboy street wear and made them boot-scoot; then presented them all in pale-colored, knitted, clingy frocks.

Walter van Beirendonck

In a way, it’s interesting: fashion as a vehicle for thought… Do you think it’s going to work? Van Beirendonck certainly gives it a go, but the problems are too obvious. One of his recent shows sported the title ‘Gender?’ It was not about gender at all. It wasn’t even about sex (which is what most people think ‘gender’ is). It was a display of androgynous models. There weren’t any women.

“It was a male collection!” van Beirendonck explains. Exactly. Why pretend to be thinking about gender at all?

The reason, I suppose, is that fashion is not about the clothes, and not about being an artist, and not about thinking, or performance, or even business and money. It’s about expressing yourself. So there.

Originally published in RMIT’s Openline in 2000.
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