Perspective is everything. At first glance, Letícia Lampert’s book Conhecidos de Vista—or “Known by Sight”—positions us outside: an onlooker gazing out at the facades of buildings that line downtown streets in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, and into the windows of its inhabitants. But as this curious accordion book unfolds and we turn it over, we suddenly find ourselves in the interiors of the apartments opposite—on the inside, looking out. We enter into the contradictory condition of city living: windows facing other windows, both intimate and anonymous.
Intrigued by this common paradox of urban life, living side-by-side with strangers, Lampert set out to look at this banal everyday view afresh. Focusing on the downtown area of her native city, she entered the homes of people living in apartments that looked out onto other apartments, and interviewed the inhabitants about their neighbors opposite the street. The result covers a spectrum of neighbor relationships, from friendship to suspicion, and many things in between.
In this interview, Lampert talks to LensCulture about her background in design, the virtue of seeing through the eyes of others and finding a tactile form for her playful images.
LensCulture: You have a very diverse background, with interests across photography, graphic design, architecture and visual poetics. Can you elaborate a bit on how these different fields overlap?
Letícia Lampert: I first studied design, and this influence is very apparent in my work as an artist, especially with regard to my pragmatic and rational way of dealing with projects. But there are also moments when I ask myself how much this pragmatic vision affects the artistic work, and how to put the rational aside to access a more poetic and intuitive way of dealing with things. It is an eternal quest for balance.
At first, I was more concerned about separating the designer side from the artistic work, but today I think these cross areas are what define me as an artist. Graphic design gives me autonomy, for example, to craft my books all by myself. For me, it’s all part of the process of creating the work.
LC: A lot of your work focuses on architecture, and how it informs our relationship to places and the way we experience them. Tell me a bit more about these foundational interests. What brought you to them?
LL: My focus on architecture and the urban landscape came to me gradually. The first time I did a project that had the city as its theme was when I was trying out various things, and trying to figure out what moves me. It was a project that involved photography and collage; it had no documentary purpose. For me, it was a kind of abstraction of the city, so I did not see a direct relationship with place. After a while, when I began living in another country, I wanted to continue this project. It was then that I realized I could not simply repeat the same process. The previous project was much more connected to the city’s characteristics than I had imagined. It was necessary to carefully look at the new city to find a new way of working with photography and collage that made sense with that specific place.
This movement made me understand how much the creative process itself can be affected by the place we are in, and this became an interest in itself: to investigate how the urban landscape determined my process. And of course, when I talk about process, I’m also talking about a psychological relationship with the place—about the sense of being there. Through empirical observation, I became aware of things that later led me to discover theories of urbanism that corroborated those impressions. Today, my main focus investigates how my work to reacts to different places and landscapes, and how I can use that to understand and bring issues about the place to light.
LC: In a way photography does a similar thing in mediating and shaping our experience of a place. What kind of tool is photography for you in this practice?
LL: For me, it’s a way of collecting things—a way of appropriating the world to be able to rearrange it and create new meanings. It is also a way to enhance observation. I think I started to see more, and to see better, since I started photographing. It’s also an excuse to feed my curiosity. It’s as if being with the camera allows me to wander aimlessly in a city without being judged as crazy, and to knock on the others’ houses, asking to enter just because I want to see what it’s like on the other side. Art and photography allow you to access these other worlds that would normally be closed off to you.
LC: Tell me a bit about how Conhecidos de Vista was born as a project in relation to these interests in architecture and our experience of our environment.
LL: Almost all of my works are an evolution or continuation of an earlier project. Conhecidos de Vista came soon after this moment of understanding how much the landscape affected my process. I wanted to investigate how the same city could be perceived as a different place when seen from different people’s eyes. Windows are a good metaphor for vision, so I decided to compare the views seen from the windows of a variety of different inhabitants. But I was particularly interested in the views that do not give a full view of the city; the buildings that are faced by other buildings, hiding a good portion of the landscape. Gradually, the human relationship established between each neighbor, who don’t really know each other, but do know about a lot of each other’s daily habits, started to interest me more than the view of the city itself. This is when the focus of the work changed completely.
LC: The project illustrates a common problem in cities. Can you give a brief sketch of Porto Alegre, the area you worked in? What was your relationship to this place and why did you decide to shoot there to point to these wider issues?
LL: Porto Alegre is the capital of Brazil’s most southern state. It’s the city where I was born and where I was living when I did the project, so doing it there was a pragmatic solution. The city has around a million and a half inhabitants, and is very similar to other Brazilian cities. The social demography is very diverse, but is also divided into classes. There are the rich and poor neighborhoods, but I chose to photograph the middle class inhabitants of the downtown area. My intentions weren’t necessarily about doing a project on Porto Alegre itself, but rather about a specific condition that can happen anywhere: the proximity of buildings and the lack of immediate view.
The city worked more as a sample of a situation. A lot of people that see my book without knowing where I photographed think it is São Paulo, which is the most vertical and dense city in Brazil. Other think that it might be a mix of a bunch of Brazilian cities, which it could be. In fact, Porto Alegre is not very vertical, so somehow the project is a bit dystopic. What will the future be like if cities keep growing and expanding without proper planning? If I wanted to show a ‘reality’, the sky would appear at some point, as well as other types of buildings. But you can never see the sky in my book; you are totally surrounded by buildings all the time.
LC: You’ve spoken about the word ‘flaneuring’ in relation to this project, which suggests a more informal encounter with the city—one that is open to chance and random meetings. What was your strategic process like while you were working on Conhecidos?
LL: I really like to take on the role of flaneur when I’m doing a project; it’s my most natural way of working. But in this project, specifically, I thought it would be necessary to present myself first to then schedule visits, particularly because of the fear of urban violence that is so present in Brazilian cities. For my first visit, I chose a building, talked to the administrator, explained the idea, and he got in touch with the dwellers. Sometime later, he called me and told me that he had scheduled two visits. When I went, these two visits turned into six or seven, because while walking in the corridors of the building and in the street, people saw me with camera and tripod, and they became curious.
This provided me with a natural avenue for presenting the project and taking advantage of these chance encounters. I prefer working without a fixed schedule, so I started to walk around the city, choosing the buildings and trying to make some visits more spontaneous. It helped a lot that in these buildings, it is common to have doormen. They acted as mediators—someone who knows who’s at home, and which dweller might be more open to taking part in the project. Of course, many times, they were afraid of trouble and didn’t allow me in. But the majority were open and helpful. In the book, I mention that the curators of the project were actually the doormen of the buildings, because they were the ones who decided where I could go.
LC: In some sense, you’re dealing with a lot of issues surrounding privacy and trust, which must have come up a lot while you were trying to gain access into the spaces that you eventually photographed. How did people respond to you while you were working?
LL: The issue of urban violence and security is very present here in Brazil. People are always afraid of robbery—of a stranger entering the house to steal their things. At first, I was concerned that people would be afraid to let me in. But when I started out, friends of mine became were actually worried about my own safety, because as a woman I am vulnerable in a stranger’s house. It’s sad to realize how prevalent this fear is, and that it can disrupt women’s lives. I never had a problem with the visits, but because of this fear, the doormen gave me a sense of security, because they saw me and knew I was there. I found it important to always go in alone, because I wanted to create an situation of both confidence and vulnerability with the dweller. Having someone with me would be much more intimidating for those who opened their doors to me.
LC: A lot of the complexities that come with being a ‘neighbor’ arise in the small fragments of text that accompany the pictures. From empathy right through to suspicion and judgment via close and intimate friendships, you paint a broad picture of how people living side-by-side relate to one another. What did you learn about these ‘unique’ city relationships?
LL: What made me change my initial focus was this realization that some people developed a kind of ‘friendship’ with their unknown neighbors, or even felt comforted and less alone in the city knowing that there were other glances that verified their existence. When I started, I was thinking about the blocked views and proximity of buildings as a negative thing, so it was a surprise to see that this was not always the case. Not that anyone could say that it is positive to have a barred view—it’s not. But it turned into a way of understanding the complexities in the relations that arise in this situation.
LC: The images have taken form in both an AV project and a beautiful, interactive accordion book. Both of these seem to embody this idea of different and varying perspectives. Can you tell me a bit about your main concerns and decisions while thinking about the final form for the project?
LL: When I was doing the work, I was not sure what format it would take; I wanted this to manifest from the process of making. Once I decided to explore the relationship between neighbors, I began to record their answers when I asked what they knew about their front window neighbors, so the voices became very important for me. I chose to not make portraits, so the apartment dwellers never appear. I wanted the audience to create a mental picture of the residents through the interior of their apartments and their voices—the way they spoke. This is why I decided to first show the project as an audiovisual installation.
But on the other hand, after doing that exhibition, I realized I had enough material to make a book, and I love making books. The work deserved to be seen calmly and intimately, through the conditions that a book creates for its viewer. The big challenge was finding the best format for the book, and solving the voice issue. The project passed through several forms before its printed version. Since the voice was an important presence that the text did not really cover, I decided to show people in the windows outside to create this connection, as well as a circular way of reading the project. When you look outside, you see some people in the windows, and when you look inside, you can read some testimonies and try to figure out who they belong to on the other side. But in the audiovisual version, nobody ever appears.
LC: The book is very playful and tactile. Was it important for you to create a way for the audience to interact with the material?
LL: Yes, for sure. Playfulness is very present in all my work. I like to deal with my subjects with some humor, even when they are serious. It was very important for me to bring several concepts that were the core of the project into the design of the book, in a physical way. First, the opposition between inside and outside is present. I wanted this part to be physical, almost as if the sheet of paper functions like a wall. It was also important that the book had two sides and, even more explicitly, an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside.’ I wanted that moment of discovering the inside to be a bit of a surprise.
I tested other formats, but in the end the accordion format was the one that best touched all these facets. The cover is fixed so that that when you look at it quickly, you can only see the outside. This means you have to get to the end to realize that there is still a whole other side waiting to be discovered. I wanted the book to simulate my own experience of creating the project as much as possible.
LC: What do you hope people take away from Conhecidos?
LL: This is a hard question, as interpretations are always open, and that is the beauty of a work of art. But, as with almost all my work, I think that what I am looking for is to sensitize our gaze of banal, everyday situations that tend to pass by unnoticed. I like to make people look at the same things with other eyes, to show them that each story has many possibilities, and that everything just depends on your point of view.
Editor’s Note: Conhecidos de Vista by Letícia Lampert is published by Incompleta in a limited edition, and can be purchased from her website here.