An Interview with Mike de Sousa

Aesthetica is an international art and culture magazine which published an interview with Mike de Sousa in its June/July issue (2017). The unabridged interview follows.

Art and Danger
  • Aesthetica Magazine: Questions and Answers

    Short Biography

  • Mike de Sousa works with light, sound and words - sometimes in isolation, and often together.
  • Indebted to the music scholarship system in England which awarded him free piano tuition through his formative years, Mike's first music commission was a forty minute piece for dance in 1981, the same year he received his first photographic commission. Mike went on to work with dancers from the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, New York Ballet, Ballet Rambert, and Paris Ballet before creating multi-layered works of music, text and spoken word.
  • Alongside his music and writing Mike continued to work on his photography and visual art which has received plaudits from the art critic Jonathan Jones and is viewed online by thousands of people from across the globe every week. The composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley described Mike's work as "highly individual and imaginative", and the author Alan Bennett wrote “I like the style of his writing, it is unlike anything I have ever read”.
  • You can experience Mike's evolving retrospective by visiting 100 Artworks.
  • Aesthetica caught up with the artist to discuss his creative practice and the role of contemporary art.

  • What drives you to create public art?

  • I consider the creation of art as part of the human condition. My reason for making is to share. What I share might be an idea, an aesthetic exploration, or an articulation of something that I have been moved by or feel strongly about. I wish for the products of my expression to be freely available so as many people as possible have the opportunity to experience them.
  • I view 'public art' in all its forms (visual art, sculpture, dance, drama, film, music, literature etc.) as art that is free to access, whether in the real world or through a digital medium. Public art in this sense is distinct from community art (art created in partnership with a community), and I mention this as they are sometimes mistakenly thought of as the same.
  • My drive to create public art arises from my nature, my experience, and my political views. My mother and father found caring for their children difficult. By the time I was a little over a year old I began living in a series of foster homes until I was reunited with my two sisters when I was three and a half. We were then fostered by our two aunts who gave their time, energy and love to raise us. I was given the chance to flourish as a result of their generosity which in turn has left me with the desire to give as much back to others as I can. I also believe the arts are of immeasurable value, and that access to the arts should not be constrained by affordability. My firm conviction is that exploring our creativity is the world's best hope for peace, cooperation, and constructive communication.

  • Have you ever considered devoting your attention to a particular artistic medium?

  • I am far too easily distracted! I view each artistic medium as having its own strengths. I love the beauty and forms that light gives and enjoy creating images immensely. When something moves me I often turn to music to convey my emotional response, and if I want to articulate an idea, there is no better way than through words. Of all my senses, I value seeing the most.
  • Giving myself time to ponder is a crucial element of my creative process. For me, effective expression is often achieved through an exploration of unlikely connections. After working all morning on visual art for example, I might turn to working with words in the afternoon. A change of direction not only reinvigorates me, it allows my mind to work unseen in the background on those things I began earlier in the day.
  • Composing music is a different matter altogether as I find this all enveloping. What is fascinating is that although music is defined by time, when I work on it, I completely loose track of time :) After I complete a composition it is important I turn my attention back to visual art and words as this allows my mind to quietly cement my musical experience. Perhaps I'm too scatterbrained to focus on a single medium!

  • Do you view digital art as lacking certain qualities that only the plastic arts can deliver?

  • Now that's a question I could spend hours talking about! Ten years ago: yes. Now? No.
  • Perhaps it is easier to consider digitally recorded words and music before turning my focus to visual art.
  • The essential qualities of words are that they are meaningful, contain rhythm, and that when they are spoken, their meaning can alter depending on tone and context. Whether words are on a paper page or digital screen however makes no difference to their meaning, although we may have a preference or practical requirement for the medium we read from. Because of this, words are easily accepted as having equivalent value within the digital domain.
  • Performance art may contain digital elements (perhaps the inclusion of digitally recorded music or film), so if I think carefully about your question it's clear the answer is far from straight forward as creative people begin to move more freely between using a mixture of real-world and digital expression. Whether I paint with a physical or digital brush, the work's composition, colours and textures are my choices, and it is my gestures that are recorded for others at a later time to view.
  • The capture of sound and images in digital form is fast approaching the resolution we experience in the real world. The recent meticulous three dimensional print of a 'new Rembrandt painting' demonstrates the immense changes that are taking place in both the creation and production of art. At present, the physical medium of a painting conveys three dimensional textures that are not apparent in digital form, however the advent of more sophisticated recording devices and 3D printers are changing this so, to the viewer, a digital reproduction of a painting will appear visually identical when compared with the original work.
  • The resistance to embracing digital artwork within the art community seems to occur because of one of three reasons: fear of change; issues surrounding exclusivity (a significant tool of persuasion to assert the economic price of artwork); and the desire to protect the interests and status of artists and the many commercial industries that have developed around them (commercial galleries, publications, artist representatives etc.).
  • Having worked with both, I have observed an increasing convergence of the physical and digital manipulation of a medium. The great challenge digital files of any kind pose however are their long term format and survival. Words etched in stone remain unrivaled as a way to pass on ideas as compared with the comparatively short-lived digital storage we have thus far created. Our only strategy to archive digital files at present is to continually copy them as we seek a more permanent and lasting solution. If a solar storm of epic proportions caused a geomagnetic disturbance of the Earth's magnetosphere today, very little of our digital world would remain, and yet the ancient and beautiful cave paintings of Sulawesi would be completely unaffected.

  • Would you talk about your work 'The Stillness of my Life'?

  • I began working on this piece when asked to consider the theme 'Still Life'. As I thought about the qualities of stillness and life, I imagined how unimaginably difficult not moving for any length of time would be. This led me to consider the plight of those who suffer paralysis of all voluntary muscles in their body, yet remain aware and cognitively intact. In addition to the work's central focus I wanted to create a piece that encouraged people to think about the nature of still-life in art. Life is characterized by movement, and yet we are intensely captivated by its absence. It is because of this the painting and photograph will continue to enchant us, despite the enticement of moving images.
  • Like much of my work, The Stillness of my Life presents an interplay between mediums. A poem is presented with a triptych, an abstract figurative representation of three states of a person who is 'locked-in'. These three images are partnered in the poem by three stanzas. My hope is that people not only find something of value in the interplay between art and poetry, but also renew their sense of compassion, respect and love for those who are bedridden through sickness, damage or old age.

  • Much of your work has a philosophical or political subtext. Do you view the role of artist as an agent of change?

  • Yes.
  • Some view the value of art as purely aesthetic, and in this, art has the potential to give great dis/pleasure. Many artists are satisfied by eliciting an emotional response to their work, and others wish to provoke thought and discussion through their art. An artwork can make us feel, but it only begins its journey to becoming an agent of change when it also makes us think.
  • Art affects change to varying degrees depending on the medium. Think of *the* piece of music that most moves you, then ask yourself how much lasting change has resulted from it. Music is essentially an abstract emotive art-form. Although music is powerful on a personal level, it is not language: it does not contain meaning. As a result its capacity as an agent of change is surprisingly modest. Music touches our emotions, it rouses, consolidates and comforts, it is undeniably important to me, but it does not last long beyond its moment. In contrast, visual art and dance has the potential to represent relationships, and as such they can be meaningful, while words by their nature are best suited to articulation. When music, words and images are presented together, for example in a music video of a song, the experience is compelling. So perhaps creative people have different potentials in acting as agents for change, depending on their chosen medium.
  • An idea is the fuel of change, but change only happens when an idea moves a person to act. Art can be an expression of love - love of people, places and living things. Art is the treasury of our best and worst, but perhaps art's greatest value is that it can lead to change - a change of heart, action, or intent.

  • What are you currently working on?

  • A thousand and one things! I write a little something everyday at Think ThisToday, and I continue to explore the beauty and hardship of people and place. I am also seeking support for the project Public Art World which has the potential to stimulate the commissioning and appreciation of public art.