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Desaniversário – A project by Catarina Alhinha and Larissa Kansler

Atualizado: 29 de mai. de 2023

Interviewer: Sofia Lopes
Translated by Rita Magalhães

Brought to the public in November 2022, Desaniversário is a multifaceted artistic project by Catarina Alhinha and Larissa Kansler who found its home in the social network Instagram. Extremely ambiguous and awaiting interpretation from its ‘unreaders’ who stumble upon its profile, Desaniversário has its roots in the same titled book, by Catarina Alhinha. The piece was finished in 2020; however, it's still unpublished. Combining literature and photography, both artists explore the different themes of an omniscient book, one that welcomes everyone's participation.

Anybody who bumps into your project, and realises that it's a book, expects a synopsis, since it's the norm. In your case, the subject of the book isn't stated anywhere, it remains a mystery. I presume it's intentional, correct?

Catarina: Yes, it was our strategy. This decision is directly intertwined with the interpretation of the book in itself. This is a rather peculiar book because it deconstructs the idea of the traditional shape of books. We don't have chapters that build towards a novel. Each chapter may just have one line. The titles aren't numbered, meaning, there's no order to the chapters. For example, we have a chapter titled "Scene 1", therefore it's a book that brings a certain theatrical touch to its own structure. In the very nomenclature of the chapters, we also bring up character names, as in "A Chapter dedicated to the Saxophone Man". All this originality regarding the way I wanted to construct the book make us not want to provide a synopsis for those who encounter the page, because the synopsis could limit the interpretation of the book. This book is so dense and so ambiguous that we in no way want a ‘unreader’ to reach the page and already know what the book is about. We want to keep that mystery and for the ‘unreader’ to start with the picture that they wish, from beginning to end, and start to wonder what this book is about, if it's only pictures... For now, we want to hold the mystery.

How did this project come about, or rather, what was the source of inspiration that made it spring forth?

Larissa: Given the artistic and ambiguous dimension of the literary work, we wanted to create a multifaceted book, as well as other projects that branch out from it. Desaniversário is more than a book, it's also a project that explores a part of that work in different mediums. We started by making a photographic exploration, which also has a great theatrical dimension. Likewise, in the future, we want to explore other media, such as video and painting. It's very much what happens in the book itself, because all the characters have their own essence, which is what we want to convey on our page. This is one of the motivators.

Catarina: This project aims to answer the necessity of uniting artistic fields, because reading a book could be more than a brief break where words are interpreted. Words can reach many artistic areas. I believe this book is only the beginning and we want to show that literature is not something limited, that is, not only about words.

Larissa: Yes, we want to create a whole visual support. Of course, all this has a bit of our personal interpretation, mainly mine, but the fact that we use these digital tools also allows people to interact and see things for themselves. That's what happens a lot in the comment section: people interact, we ask them questions, we have a certain voice speaking to them and the viewers absorb it in different ways. I think it's a beautiful part of our project.

“Desaniversário” is commonly associated with Lewis Carroll, who coined the term, and Alice in Wonderland, his masterpiece. Why that title? Is it merely an inspiration or is it a reference to the book?

Catarina: The term "Desaniversário" means a celebration of every day of the year, as if you were always celebrating your birthday. I confess that I always loved Lewis Carroll and I am a fan of Alice in Wonderland; however, there isn't a direct connection with the title and the content of the book. I choose this term in the sense of wanting to use that concept of "every day of the year", because the main character lives each day intensely as if it were the last on an artistic level. Every day, they deal with different artists, from painters to writers. The character is constantly clashing with this artistic world and trying to figure out if they really have talent or what is their purpose in that place. To add on, the book doesn't have a specific location, as I try to play with space and time in this intensity, allowing the character to go through their birthday every day. The term 'unbirthday' (desaniversário) is a metaphor within the book, and equally, I think each person can make their own interpretation of the title as they read it. For example, Alice in Wonderland may be part of your interpretation, even though the content has nothing to do with Lewis Carroll's work. When Larissa and I read some excerpts together, the need to create a photograph on a table with various props from a tearoom arose, as if it were the Mad Hatter's, but this is an interpretation of the book and not a direct association of the events that occur in the work. This is the magic of the book: having nothing to do with Alice, but the set of situations that happen reminded us to put together a picture that metaphorically encompasses several artists in a Mad Tea that, in a way, symbolizes this chaotic artistic dimension of the book.

Still in the topic of the title, accompanied by it is, what I believe to be, a subtitle: ‘To Be Published’. In a private conversation, Catarina, you confessed that it's not by choice that you haven't published a book. What's stopping you?

Catarina: I think several young people have experienced the same situation which is, when it comes to publishing a book, that process is not open to unnamed young people. What happens is that, usually, on the publishers' page, there's a general email. Many of the emails we send with the original manuscript aren't read by publishers, since they receive hundreds of originals every day. The fact that they provide a general email address doesn't facilitate access to the publishers themselves, causing young people to spend years and years trying to publish their book, because they do not have a wedge within the publishers. The expression ‘To Be Published’ implies this struggle with publishers. I, Catarina Alhinha, can't publish my book because they don't make way for me. Nowadays, publishers mainly give preference to influencers and even ask them directly to write books for later publication, as they're interested in you having a well-known Instagram with plenty of followers, because they know it will sell. They're often required to write plots that are easier to understand, the so-called "standard literature", because they want a quick read, as it sells more. This subtitle is a bit ironic and I understand that those who come to the page might wonder about why this book is not yet published. That's our intention, we don't like to explain the whole story. We want people to read and think about why this is happening. Us doing this on Instagram is also ironic because this is the social network that publishers want and see as a requirement.

Larissa: I think this way of doing things is under-explored. There are many writers that don't explore literature on the digital level. Several publishing houses have already explored that field and they go searching for renown, influence and impact in society. Although, I believe there are a lot of writers who are starting to realise they don't know how to reach the public's attention. Instead of falling within standard literature, we create and expose the work, discovering our audience. We're saying, "we're sharing this and sharing our art" and people are attracted, whether they like it or not. It’s something I believe might be difficult to do with a physical version of the book. The creation of this digital gallery allows people to get to know the book and much more.

Catarina: I'd like to add that another problem that happens is that many publishers demand you to pay to have your book published. What happens is that if you don't sell the 200 copies of the first print run, you're obliged to pay back the ones you failed to sell, within a certain period of time. That's very unfair, because I believe art deserves not to have those constraints of being dependent on getting money to publish your book. There should be more investment for those writers. Publishers should take the trouble to look for these qualified writers, because I took a literature course, I have lots of colleagues with talent and qualifications and it's strange how a course in literature doesn't give you a place to publish books. Publishers favour publishing authors without any linguistic or literary training.

Even though the book isn't published in physical format, it looks like it's slowly being published digitally on your Instagram page. What made you pick Instagram to be your ‘chosen social network’ to share your art?

Larissa: One of the reasons was what Catarina said: publishers prefer it because it's the one where people can gain the most influence. We felt that Instagram was one of the most widely used tools currently for content dissemination, so we thought it was a good starting point. Another reason is the very dynamics that the app allows, as we have the freedom to show the chaotic dimension of the book, where there is no well-defined chronology. We have the opportunity to create and, at the same time, explore, from a photographic medium, this sharing of excerpts and addition of parallel elements to the work, such as the creation of the Voice - this identity is part of the work, but not directly related to it. We created an ambience that includes several details. Still in terms of dynamics, on Instagram there is the possibility for people to interact with the work and that is what we have been exploring recently. The ‘unreaders’ can share their interpretation and we can explore it. The online gallery is equally important since the artistic creations can be appreciated there.

Catarina: The most important thing is that we don't see Instagram as a typical social media network, but as an online art gallery, where we can exhibit our work freely.

Larissa: Something we also talked about is the matter of the break we experience when reading a book. Nowadays, we have a shorter attention span and if the account was only about sharing text, maybe it wouldn't have as much support, because now everything is very fast and very few people still dedicate time and attention to a book. Instagram and the images allow a person to ponder and take that break. Someone uses the app and sees a picture that sparks curiosity, and some mystery, since they won't understand the photo at first. This makes the person immerse themselves within the visualisation and perhaps then to get deeper within the excerpt. It's all a strategy to deepen the engrossment of the reader.

Catarina: In my opinion, social media apps really limit the writer's creativity. One of the techniques of digital marketing is to publish a short excerpt with flashy words, because, truthfully, nowadays, people want to consume something fast that doesn't make them lose a lot of time in one post. Our idea is to make people feel as if they were in an art gallery, where they can lose some time on the text. We've received answers not only regarding the interpretation of the text, but of ‘unreaders’ that have started to write original texts and adding plot to the story. We have one link for a Google Forms, where they can leave an email so in the future they'll receive information about the book, when it's published. We get incredible comments where readers start to make stories parallel to what they had read on Instagram. This means that they paused and lost time to interpret the image and the text.

The posted photos say, by themselves, a lot about the story of Desaniversário. Larissa, Catarina told me that you were one of the few people who had read the whole book and that the photographs, completely of your authorship, are based on your personal interpretation of what you read. How was the creative process behind those?

Larissa: The photographs we composed consist of a visualisation of what is the cyclical ’unbirthday’, that is, an interpretation of the days that play out inside the book. There is a whole interpretation of spaces, characters, and colour that gives off that serene and unpredictable mood, that is, that matter of the narrative always having something happening in a more or less absurd way. Our goal is to register, in a creative way, the environment of the palace that exists in the book through an almost theatrical approach. This is a very interesting issue of our project: we have static images; however, they all involve a dramatic process, that is, in many of our sessions we don't ask for models to pose, but to act. A preliminary phase exists where, as the ‘unreaders’, the models have to dive into the book and create a persona. My role is to catch these brief moments that the models spontaneously perform. One example is the table photo shoot, where we created a scenario with the characters and told them to act according to how the book plays out. We captured several moments that prove not only an interpretation, but a narration of history. I find that, sometimes, it's literal, other times not. Some of our references were the surrealist current, such as René Magritte, Dwayne Michals and Helena Almeida. Within photography, we explored storytelling, which is the creation of narratives from certain visual elements. Each character in the book has an undefined identity, which changes and alternates between others. Even so, we know that all of them have dreams and want to create. Through photos, we try to create enigmatic portraits that reveal a piece of them, such is the case of the Painter. We have several sessions with the Painter in which he paints himself. We still haven't posted them, so this is a tiny spoiler. In short, we have great performers on our project, even if we work with static images, which is interesting. In the future, we're even thinking of including more means of presentation, such as video, drawing and whatever makes sense within the art world.

Catarina: I only want to add that I really liked what Larissa said, ‘We don't ask for a pose, we ask for a performance’. Posing, in the traditional way, can fairly limit our photo sessions, so we like to work with models that are actors. We took on a bit of the role of playwrights because we were always giving directions, as if it were really a play [laughs]. The models didn't show up to the table seen in the photograph and sat down. They did warm-ups, like you do before a play, to make everyone comfortable, and they embodied the characters as they sat at the table.

Being a bit more nosey now, which is your favourite photo? and why?

Larissa: Now, this was something we talked about, because we still don't have a favourite picture [laughs]. We have a lot of content that's unpublished and there are other scenarios that we have a greater affection or emotional connection for. For me, one of my favourite sessions was the one where we created the tea scene, a bit related to the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Because, apart from having several characters in the same context, they interact with each other, which was quite interesting to capture. We have some images already on Instagram from that session and I think the ones that have that kind of performance are the most interesting to me, since even for a viewer who wasn't there at the time the photos were taken, you wonder about the before and after. It wasn't just a static moment. You can see in the pictures that there was a conversation.

Catarina: I'm the type of person who never had a favourite book. I don't like to limit my taste to just one option. So, my favourite photo would be the one that doesn't exist, that is, the one that is still to come. I visualise a lot of our conversations and ideas in photographs that are yet to be taken. Of course, I loved the whole process and all the photos that have already happened; however, when I talk to Larissa and see the ideas that are brewing about the next photo, I get very excited. For me, the next photo is my favourite, because it's the one that gives me the most excitement to work on the artistic process in order to birth it.

Larissa: Right. When we sort out the models, we have an a priori meeting where we stipulate which character they will play. We don't just think about the setting, we think about a feeling and the whole story that will be imprinted on the shot. In the last session, we turned to them and said: ‘Today, you get to be Hungarian’. This is one of the characters in the book that is a little more insecure and unstable - the only mind within the book that is not as creatively free or spontaneous as the others, so the model has to feel that weight. That is our creative process.

Catarina: Yes, especially because several photos come from one session. We did an outdoor photo shoot, but then thought it had no connection or meaning to the book, although it was an aesthetically beautiful photo that readers might enjoy and appreciate.

Keeping on the topic of posts on Instagram, you regularly appeal to your ‘unreader’. Who are they? And why do you call out to them?

Catarina: A ‘unreader’ can be anyone who wants to leave their interpretation on the page, through the comments or by private message or, at a more advanced level, anyone who wants to become a writer. We give people the space to leave their own text, even if it's just a sentence, on the page. We believe that ‘unreaders’ are very important, because both poetry and prose don't need to belong to a single writer. I wrote this book, but if, for example, someone feels that there's a point missing and wants to add that, and since it's a book of ambiguous character, they can do so on the several blank pages that can still be filled in. That's the challenge: to get to the page and leave your mark or even your questions.

Larissa: We play with the words ‘unbirthday’ (desaniversário) and ‘unreader’ (desleitor), granting people more freedom. Beyond readers, they can be more than that. Another issue is that the book has not yet been published, but people are already experiencing it. The ‘to be published’ book is not physical, but almost omniscient. An atmosphere that people can belong to.

Can any of us become a ‘unreader’? Are there any requirements?

Catarina: I would say that, perhaps, the only requirement is to want to take a break at our page, spending more time than in other accounts. The only requirement is to disconnect from the idea of social media and come into our page as if you were entering a gallery on a Saturday afternoon [laughs].

To wrap things up, about a month ago, you spread around the city several papers with the title of the project and a QR code so that whoever picked them up could access your page. I think it is a creative idea because it guarantees attention to the project, since you’re messing with the day of whoever comes across with the papers without them being really aware. What was the purpose of this initiative?

Larissa: We believe that art is something to be shared. We created a small blank book format and shared it, as if we were releasing it, again playing with the issue of publishing. In truth, we didn’t display everything, hence why it’s blank, because beyond raising the curiosity of who discovers it, it invites the person to take that moment of pause and contemplation. It's a fun way to advertise it and to reach different types of audience. The title itself raises questions and I believe that whoever finds the pamphlet on the street will ask themselves what Desaniversário is about. There's a QR code they can scan and learn more about it. In addition to the blank pages, we left a small excerpt in the middle, so the person can only find it if they have the curiosity to look for it and flip through the booklet. It's an uncertainty that we propose.

Catarina: At the same time, we give the chance to the person to become an ‘unreader’ and to write something in the blank pages, as if they had found a ready-to fill notebook.

Larissa: That's right. Moreover, the thing about sharing these pages in various locations is to make people stop their day, since we left them in trains, libraries, among others. I find it an interesting idea because the person can take the booklet home or just leave it there for the next person to find.

About the artists:

Catarina Alhinha has a Bachelor's Degree in Portuguese Studies, in the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon. At the moment, she is writing a thesis on Fernando Pessoa for her Master's Degree in Portuguese Studies at theSchool of Social Sciences and Humanities (NOVA FCSH). At the same time, she is working as a researcher with a grant from the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) on a project about fairy tales. In addition to the project Desaniversário, she is also doing a professional Drawing course.

Larissa Kansler did her degree in Multimedia Art at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Lisbon. She has developed her career in the art of design and multimedia, focusing on identity design, illustration and branding. Photography is one of her hobbies and she holds a great interest for experimental photography.

Useful links:

- Page of the Project Desaniversário:

- Portfolio of Larissa Kansler:

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