Interview about AiR 351 by Umbigo Magazine

AiR 351. © Cascais © Paula Malinowska

AiR 351 is an international artist residency program in Cascais and an important tool for connecting and internationalizing contemporary art.

Under the shade of the huge stone pine tree in the garden of the former Escola Monumento D. Luiz I, now home to AiR 351, Umbigo talked to the project’s founders Luís Campos e Cunha and Luísa Especial, and production director Heitor Fonseca.

AiR is short for Artist-in-Residence and 351 is the code for Portugal. An independent, non-profit organization, AiR 351 promotes artistic projects and exchanges, developing an international and fertile network for artists, curators and art agents

Ana Grebler – How did the project come about?

Luís Campos e Cunha – The beginning came about through my and Luisa’s will.

We wanted to be international from the beginning, meaning that we are a residency that takes place in Portugal, but with artists and curators from all over the world. We have already had around 56 artists and curators from 26 countries. We always have at least one Portuguese artist in residence, which keeps our relationship with the national artistic context.

Besides partnerships with art schools and Portuguese institutions, we regularly visit Portuguese artists, invite international curators and national curators, museum directors, etc. Now we’re going to have an extension in Torres Vedras, which will allow us to receive more artists.

AG – And will it work in the same way? How is the dynamic of the residencies?

Luísa Especial – In general, it will be the same. In Cascais, we have six studios with about twenty square meters. AiR 351 is a professional development programme and we work very much on a case-by-case basis. Before the resident arrives, we get to know the work each one does and we try to anticipate some possibilities, focusing on what might be interesting to develop. For us, for artists and curators it’s important to allow access to venues. Based on the area of interest and research of each artist or curator, we try to understand the museum, collection or institution where this project could fit in. When we receive them and have the first team meeting, we do a kind of road map, we ask for a portfolio presentation in an informal conversation where we try to understand each one’s way of working and thinking. For us, it is essential to know who we welcome here.

For the artists who have plenty of experience in the studio, the day is spent here, we share the same room. There are things that emerge during the day and relationships that are established from informal conversations. This coexistence is very important and profitable for us.

By understanding the way an artist or curator thinks, we can more easily refer them and develop connections.

AG – What are the pros and cons of being outside Lisbon?

LE – Access to Lisbon is quick because the AiR 351 is 5 minutes away from the train station. And, at the same time, there is enough separation to have this quiet, almost countryside professional environment. It is very conducive to concentration and the outdoor area is used a lot by artists, where we also have meetings and lunches. I think it has a good scale, not industrial, megalomaniac, but human, almost homely. The relationship with nature is becoming more and more important. Several artists, due to the fact that they are two steps away from the ocean, have taken advantage of this and used it in several of their works.

As for the challenges, because we are a new structure with limited resources – for example in terms of communication – it took more time for people to find the project. At the moment I think that, mainly through the artists and the work, people know we are here and visit us more frequently.

AG – What is the usual duration of the residencies?

LE – We try at least three, four months and at most one year, so that the contact is not superficial. We want some rooting and also more consequences and layers.

We have not yet mentioned a difference of ours in the work done with the residents. Our team is quite small, but very complementary. Heitor’s work – who has training and practice as an artist – with each resident also has a technical level: if someone needs a specific material, he has plenty of references and valid contributions to understand the best instrument, tool, etc., to achieve a project or piece.

AG – The three of you are the key pieces of AiR 351, each one in a particular area.

Heitor Fonseca – Yes, and highly complementary areas. That is important.

AG – You also have the Talks and Open Studios, right?

LE – Yes, during the Open Studios Day – two or three times a year – artists open their studios and talk to visitors. At the Talks we invite professionals from different fields and research that match the residents’ investigations. Everything we do here stems from the residencies, according to the residents we welcome at that time. It’s important that we also understand the consequences that the work done can have in the long term. For example, Ellie Ga, after her residency at AiR 351, made a new video directly related to our context, later exhibited in her gallery in New York – the Bureau – and also in Paris, at the Jeu de Paume.

This network generates and produces effects after the residencies.

AG – What do you consider to be the most important when selecting the residents?

LE – The selection jury of the AiR 351 artists is external, it does not belong to the board of directors, and it is formed by three members – one Portuguese, one North American and one French – with very different perspectives and positions. At the moment of selection and evaluation of each candidature, this plurality is quite visible, something very important for us. We want to understand if the artist has enough openness to do something outside their usual area of work or something that can add to, branch out, amplify the work they’re doing.

So far, we have created around 20 opportunities (grants for artists and curators) through partners that do this sponsorship, FLAD, PLMJ, dgArtes, Temporada Portugal-France and, in the past, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

In four years, we have had some excellent artists join us.

In terms of support, we would like to highlight the fundamental role played by the Cascais City Hall, by lending us the building, the Millennium BCP Foundation, our leading sponsor since the beginning, and the Vodafone Foundation.

AG – How is the mediation between AiR 351 and the Cascais local community?

LE – Right now, we are developing the educational community through Plano Nacional das Artes. Last year we started a collaboration with the high schools of Carcavelos and we have four students every year accompanying the residents. This makes perfect sense to us. There is often a huge gap between the learning that students have in an academic context and the practice, the reality of how artists work and produce. Promoting this approach was very important, as was having them here to follow the creative process.

We are also part of the Bairro dos Museus project, of the Cascais City Hall, interlocutors for questions related to specific projects, to whom we resort. We’ve already had actions in Cascais in a very close interaction with the local population. Furthermore, one of our residents – Keren Benbenisty – arrived here with a well-defined project. As soon as she got here, on the first day, she took a walk around and saw the tide-gauge dome – an instrument that measures the tides and records analogically on a drum; it can be digital, but this is the only one in the world still analogue, made in the 19th century – and she became interested in it. Through Bairro dos Museus, we had direct access to the old equipment and documents, the first records, we organised interviews and the artist worked on that.

We also promoted a collaboration between Israeli artist Keren Benbenisty with Portuguese musician João Pimenta Gomes. They didn’t know each other’s work and a piece was born that was entirely related to our heritage and to the location itself. It was a wide-ranging action, symbolising the strands of what interests us. Or of what can happen when this meeting occurs because it is unexpected.

LCC – One of our goals is to expand the local critical mass, to have more people connected to art, who are part of this community and present different perspectives. We want to be leaven.