Anna Bella Geiger. Passagens 1. 1974. Standard-definition video (black and white, sound). 19:55. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2023 Anna Bella Geiger

Anna Bella Geiger’s Passagens 1 screened here August 23–September 6, 2023. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views, screening on September 20.

Since the 1960s, Anna Bella Geiger has been interested in cartography as a contested terrain that expresses and contains geopolitical boundaries. The act of mapping and its language of symbols has provided fertile ground for the artist’s experimentations in drawing, collage, sculpture, video, and painting. Geiger’s first video, Passagens 1, charts Rio de Janeiro’s topology of staircases. Captured on a Sony Portapak in a single day in 1974, Passagens 1 was but one video made alongside works by several other artists who gathered to experiment with the new video equipment, which a Brazilian diplomat had just brought back to Rio after a trip to Los Angeles.

At the time, Geiger was a professor at the art school of the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio, and had become disillusioned with her abstract art practice in the wake of the Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) of 1968, which marked the military’s abandonment of relative political moderation (coinciding with Castelo Branco’s 1964–67 presidency) in favor of harsh authoritarian measures that shut down Congress, subjected all crimes to rigorous scrutiny and punishment, and engaged censorship as the ultimate form of control and repression. This was personal for the artist, too, as her husband was imprisoned at the end of the 1960s, along with many other liberal academics, as part of a repressive military campaign.

There was a swell of interest in the new technology of the Portapak for Brazilian artists in the ’70s, who found in minimal and quotidian actions a way to reclaim intimacy and individualism amid a state-sanctioned militaristic regime. Passagens 1 marks the artist’s turn away from what critic Mario Pedrosa called Geiger’s “visceral phase” of her organic and abstract works on paper, toward the technological and performative, where she centered daily, repeated acts that sustained her. In the video’s three segments, Geiger relentlessly traverses the staircases of Rio, experiencing what she called its “archaeology.”

I spoke with the artist about the personal and political importance of this work.
—Molly Superfine, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Media and Performance

How did you arrive at video as a medium? Had you ever thought about working with film?

I got a Super 8 camera in 1969, when I was living in New York. My husband was teaching at Columbia University and I was filming everyday life. It was after I went back to Rio in 1970 that I started to get ideas about making Super 8 films. I made two films that I showed in Sao Paulo in 1973. I threw out the Super 8 camera when I moved from one apartment in Rio to another. At the time I was leading a very normal life, as a mother of four children. Then in 1974, a friend who was living in Los Angeles and who eventually became a film director here in Brazil, brought a Sony Portapak, which weighed like 40 kilos.

He lent it to me and I did my first videos with it. Also, the coup that established a military dictatorship in Brazil happened in March of that year. With video, I saw a possibility of saying something, and found that I could work in a more conceptual way.

Can you talk about how you came up with the idea for Passagens?

At that time I lived in a hilly neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro with lots of stairs. It was a poor neighborhood, not a favela, but lower middle class. And so the community I shared around those stairs was with Portuguese, Italian, and Black people.

The spiral stairs I climbed in the video belonged to a house that was about to be torn down. I was unsteady climbing those stairs and almost fell many times. In my mind, the question was whether people would notice that I was climbing and climbing and not arriving anywhere, you know? And there was no sound. The only sound was of my steps, and when we were on the big stairs outside, the sound of the buses and traffic.

What do you remember about shooting it?

It was raining, which you can hear in the video. There were several friends helping me. Two were carrying the Portapak, and one carried an umbrella. There was an unexpected encounter with a big dog, and I’m terrified of big dogs. And then suddenly a child who was watching us yelled that we were filming a commercial for sardines. Sardines—can you believe it?

Anna Bella Geiger. Passagens 1. 1974

Anna Bella Geiger. Passagens 1. 1974

Anna Bella Geiger. Passagens 1. 1974

Anna Bella Geiger. Passagens 1. 1974

I love that in the video there is no soundtrack except for your own repeated steps. It’s so powerful, just watching you climb. It makes me think about the exhaustion that you must have felt mentally as a wife and mother during this time, also the physical exhaustion of the climbing.

You understand this very well. The exhaustion had to do with the feeling of not having a future. That was on my mind but also carried in my body. I was fighting against this in my everyday life and representing it on video.

You’ve talked about feminism not being part of what you were thinking about in the 1970s. But I want to ask about your position as a woman because in Passagens it sometimes feels like we are stalking you, and there’s not much space between you and the camera. I wonder what you were thinking about while making this work?

The video is not a declaration about feminism. I wanted to call attention to what the experience of dictatorship was like for an artist. The dictatorship here in Brazil lasted for 22 years, and at certain moments it was very violent. I was always working on questions of politics. And even before I started to work on this project, I was exploring many questions through a feminist lens. Of course I’m a feminist. But I was very much concerned about our political situation and our lack of rights. We were not permitted to vote or express our opinions publicly. Discussions were so constrained. Even when we would meet in someone’s home, we were watched by someone in the building. I've had the police raid my home. The fight was for our citizenship.