Jesse James and Sofia Botelho: Ten years of Walking and Talking in the Middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, Walk&Talk Festival

Sofia Botelho and JesseJames, W&T19 Photo Sara Pinheiro, Courtesy W&T
Sofia Botelho and JesseJames, W&T19 Photo Sara Pinheiro, Courtesy W&T

Jesse James and Sofia Botelho
The next edition of Walk&Talk will be will be our 9.5 edition (July 9-19, 2020). We were supposed to celebrate our 10th anniversary in 2020, but due to the current situation, we decided to move it to 2021 in order to ensure all our commitments to the artists who are currently working with us. For this 9.5 edition, all participants are presenting new commissions for a 10-day program that will develop in an Online/Onsite logic: an epicenter on a digital platform, embracing the possibilities of the online and global, and local physical extensions on São Miguel Island. The artists won’t be flying to the island, but our amazing W&T Team will be there to activate all the projects. It’s a great example of our interdependence, and an opportunity to highlight all the art workers, like the producers and the technicians, and their importance in these economies of making and thinking. 

Jesse James
Walk&Talk was created because we wanted to reimagine our islands. In the Azores, we were usually known for our extreme weather and earthquakes. As 22-year old starting an arts festival in 2011, we didn’t necessarily have an elaborate discourse, but we were naive enough to believe that we could change public space through art. Back then, it was all about reacting to the moment, in the context of an economical and social crisis, with our guts. We brought people in (such as Portuguese urban artist Vhils) to disrupt the use of space, to challenge local entities, and to raise questions just by doing. Back then, we had this punk attitude in occupying the city of Ponta Delgada in São Miguel, the largest island of the Azores archipelago. Can you imagine twenty murals popping up in less than two weeks through the city? The first edition was very physical. From there, it was impossible to stop. 

We grew up with Walk&Talk, from one edition to the next, stretching our limits and those of the island, by experimenting, failing, and learning, with artists, curators and our audience. Fast forward almost ten years and it has been an amazing ride. Walk&Talk opened many conversations and, to a certain extent, proposed a renewed relationship between our periphery and the places viewed as centres, in Europe and elsewhere. It now happens in a cultural ecosystem that is much more vibrant and exciting. It’s a very different festival now but the “punk” attitude of the early editions made it that we were never afraid to change and evolve.

Nowadays, Walk&Talk is looking for that balance between big and small. As the festival becomes more institutionalized and more visible, it draws different crowds. We love that it keeps changing, as we invite different artists and curators, but we’re also becoming more committed to our residency program, and feel the need for more time for reflection. That takes a bit away from the spectacularity that W&T had in its previous editions. Also, with the current pandemic situation, as circulation becomes more complex, we will all have to look more into our proximity. In the arts, as a sector, we’re very drawn to international line-ups and cosmopolitan programs, especially since they legitimize our activities and feel more prestigious, but will that still make sense in the future, even just from an ecological perspective? We feel the need for slower rhythms, horizontal structures, and more local engagement, all the while still being able to move ideas between geographies. That’s our challenge!

Jesse James, Walk&Talk 2018, Pavilion designed by Mezzo Atelier, Photo Sara Pinheiro, Courtesy W&T
Jesse James, Walk&Talk 2018, Pavilion designed by Mezzo Atelier, Photo Sara Pinheiro, Courtesy W&T

Jesse James
The best way to work with a team is, honestly, just by treating people well. With that I mean, acknowledging their contribution, crediting their work, saying thank you, sharing compliments and showing that you are trusting them. Of course there is an Artistic Direction and a vertical organization and hierarchy, but simultaneously there’s this horizontal structure that comes from our earlier editions, when we had less resources and had to help each other out. That means that I will sweep the floor if needed. During the festival, our team is composed of around twenty-five people, plus the volunteers, so it’s a lot of personalities and egos to manage, but we try to cultivate this notion of a group with our daily meals at the Pavilion and during our general meetings. Besides all that, not yelling and bullying staff members, helps a lot! 

Sofia Botelho
The best way to get to know an artist is by sharing. For me, the best thing, when on the island, is to take them out to eat in a place I would like to share with them. That includes fried mackerel at Mané Cigano in Ponta Delgada or grilled fish at Bar Caloura. The conversation normally flows from there. I always try to understand what moves them and why they do the work they do. 

It just like working with our team, honesty and respect are paramount. It can seem like a cliché, but the truth is, as the team grows, there has to be an open and direct dynamic between all the members of the team. If you unite this with the love for the project and the artists, you have an amazing team. Which I quite frankly think we do have right now. 

Jesse James
We’re not interested in organizational structures that revolve around the figure of the director or star-curator, it just feels obsolete and it doesn’t respond to the challenges of these new times. So, we’re committed to trying new processes and experimenting other ways of imagining and building a common space, that can cultivate a sense of ownership and belonging towards the project. This year, during the 9.5 edition we’re going to organize a W&T Team residency in São Miguel island, with all the members of our team, to discuss the future of W&T at different levels. Again, it’s about sharing agency and giving them an opportunity to co-design what this festival can be in future editions. By having a more horizontal strategy we’re collectively safeguarding the mission of W&T and maintaining its diversity. Because we build the festival from the encounter of different tastes, experiences, and desires—it’s a negotiation! 

Sofia Botelho
The way we reconcile our personal taste with the mission of W&T is reminding ourselves of the “why?”. When in doubt, we always get to the “why we are doing this”. My personal taste might have a say but, ultimately, what’s important is what makes sense for the Festival. My experiences, as well as everyone’s on the team, are extremely valuable, so it’s important to confront them together, but then we need to understand what should be prioritized. That’s why it’s so important to have a diverse team working together.

It’s hard to choose a specific place that would be representative of the festival. Throughout the years, many projects had the capacity to change the dynamics of a particular site on the island, or to create moments during the festival that will forever be shared by those who experienced them. But I would have to select Nuno Pimenta’s “Two Manifolds”, a wooden platform made for the 2016 edition, as it transformed an arid location, between a parking lot and the ocean, into a place of encounter and interest. 

Sofia Botelho, W&T2018, Work by Luis Lázaro Matos, Photo Sara Pinheiro, Courtesy W&T
Sofia Botelho, W&T2018, Work by Luis Lázaro Matos, Photo Sara Pinheiro, Courtesy W&T

Jesse James
Two of my personal favorites among the many landmarks created for W&T are: “Casa do Quarteirão” (the neighborhood house), where architecture collective Orizzontalle, from Rome, transformed a street of Ponta Delgada into a public square, by building urban furniture and involving the local residents. Neighbors carried on the transformations afterwards. And then there is “A House for Ferraria”, a concrete sculpture by Teresa Braula Reis in Ferraria, on the western tip of São Miguel, and part of the 2017 Island Circuit curated by multidisciplinary platform KWY Collective. You can look at it as a ruin, or as a foundation for a space that was never built. There are many interventions still present on the islands, like some of the murals. Other projects are more ephemeral, and last only for the period of the festival.

The perfect meal with friends are those where you ask for a bunch of “petiscos” (snacks), and you just share them. There’s this place in São Miguel, Mané Cigano, where we take all our guests that just embodies that spirit of sharing and straight to the point good food. I also like big dinners or friends gatherings, like my annual “Menino Mija” in Lisbon. Menino Mija is an Azorean tradition of house hopping during the Christmas season. Friends and family will usually knock at your door and ask as a way to get through the door: “O menino mija ?” meaning that the “little boy needs to pee”. I recreated this in Lisbon for the last three years. We start in my apartment and then we take the party to other friends’ houses, where people join, move around, eat, drink and yeah… walk and talk!  

Sofia Botelho
I never curate a show without trying to concile the wishes and visions of the participating artists with the right strategies to challenge the perceptions and expectations of the audience. 

Jesse James
We do take risks, and we learn along the way. Walk&Talk built its program based on the intersection of many disciplines and geographical points of view. That allows us to wonder in many directions, which means we are always finding something new, and that’s super exciting. However, with time we are learning that it’s not only about including, but mostly about how you enable an artist or a project, and also about how comfortable you are with taking risks. Our usual answer to artists is “yes, let’s do this!”, and we feel that most times they are surprised how fast we follow their ideas. I admit, sometimes we are afraid or have doubts, but we believe that working with artists should happen in a context of trust. We prefer to react to an idea by indicating possibilities, rather than dictating a way of doing.

Sofia Botelho
One of our biggest challenges is communicating about all the Festival programs, including internally so when we’re considering an artist, we need to understand if our production system and island context will be positive for the development of the project. If not, that artist will feel lost. It has happened before. With experience we learned to be more cautious, as we are looking for open and flexible collaborations.

Jesse James
It is tough to get people who are not in the arts to join, and for us it includes different strategies, applied simultaneously. From our experience, the best way is to create an informal environment. The art world can be intimidating, yet we all like to feel invited and comfortable. We experiment, and try to propose alternative dramaturgies to allow more relaxed environments. From our early editions, we had to resort to non-art venues and public spaces for many of the projects. Those feel closer to the audience, because they recognize them and occupy them in different situations. Our knowledge program is another important tool. The Pavilion (we started to invite architects in 2018 to build a structure to host our information point, our canteen, talks, concerts, and parties) was also an important step, as it created an open and permeable meeting space in the middle of Largo de São João square in Ponta Delgada. And of course, we use our parties. Looking into the performative aspect, parties are interesting horizontal spaces of encounter that can demystify many ideas (about the institution, art and artists, and the festival) and generate further interest and curiosity. Then, the main challenge is how you move these audiences between different programs and activities.

Sofia Botelho
We are investing more time and resources in our Knowledge Program as a way to strengthen the connection between the contents produced in the festival and our different audiences. It started in a shy way, by inviting students and older audiences with special needs to participate in guided tours and workshops. In our recent editions, this program is developed alongside our other programs and in conjunction with the artists, the curators and our team (throughout the year, our Knowledge Program provides open classes to art students, taught by the artists and the curators who come to the island). It now consists of a set of activities that includes tours, workshops, a Summer School, a volunteer program for Azorean teens (from all of the nine islands), lectures etc. We can then invite these audiences to the festival, to our open canteen, and to our brunch&talks. It’s hard work but it’s worth it, especially because we see the results, not only through an increase in numbers, but also because we feel attendees become more present throughout, and they start to be more critical about our program, questioning it, and suggesting new things.

Walk & Talk Team Picture 2019, Pavilion designed by Artworks and GA estudio, Photo Sara Pinheiro, Courtesy W&T
Walk&Talk Team Picture 2019, Pavilion designed by Artworks and GA estudio, Photo Sara Pinheiro, Courtesy W&T

Jesse James
When I am not working you can find me exercising. I exercise almost every day, so it has really become my escape to create mental space, because it’s really about focusing on your body, knowing and defying its limits. It’s my therapy. And plus, gyms are so performative, so it’s fun! Other than that, as an islander, I love any activity by the sea! Running, sunbathing, swimming, paddling, as long as the ocean is there.

Sofia Botelho
For a good life work balance I practice meditation. Currently I have been practicing Kundalini meditations in the morning. Or if I really need to switch off, you can find me melting into the hot thermal waters of Terra Nostra Garden, in Furnas valley. Furnas is a village with a really special energy because of its volcanic hot springs with sulphuric waters, and the luxurious vegetation surrounding it. Also I love sculpture, and if I could I would have a collection of it within a garden especially drawn for it.

Jesse James
I am a podcast person. I follow many, but I love “Talk Art” by actor Russel Tovey and gallerist Rob Diament, where they host informal talks with artists; “99% Invisible” by Roman Mars of Radiotopia, about the things we never pay attention to but that go into shaping design, architecture, and urbanism; or “Legends Only” a weekly pop culture podcast by New York queens T.Kyle and Bradley Stern.

But currently, Sofia and I, are reading a couple of books on commonality, as we’re researching about the commons. The first one is “The city of Commons” by greek architect and activist Stavros Stavrides. It gives us an interesting perspective on how capitalism destroyed our notions of commons through architecture and urbanism, but also on the processes that can lead us back to that space of utopia. There is also “Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson, that traces the origins of “community” as an idea, and how it can be manipulated (he focuses on nationalism). And the third one is “Commonism – A new Aesthetics of the Real” edited by Nico Dockx and Pascal Gielen. It is a compilation that maps the ideological thoughts of Commonism.

Sofia Botelho
My favorite holiday type depends on my mood at a given time and of what’s happening in my life. But I always try to head to somewhere I haven’t been before, and where I can learn something.

Jesse James
If I was an art collector I would collect a lot of paintings. Right now, I would get some paintings by English artist, journalist and political activist Caroline Coon; American artists Louis Fratino and Tschabalala Self; Portuguese artist Horácio Frutuoso who integrates graphic design, performance, and digital images in his paintings; and a sculpture by British artist Tai Shani! 

Jesse James
I imagine my 10 years older self is visiting me from the future today and they tell me: “Don’t dye your hair anymore, other than that, trust your gut!”

Sofia Botelho
Mine would tell me to relax and to remember to have fun!

If we weren’t curating we would probably be organizing something else, and still be working with audiences and people. Always.

Walk&Talk was co-founded by Jesse James and Diana Sousa, in collaboration with friends Dalila Couto, Rui Freitas, and Marta Freitas.

Jesse James, artistic director of Walk&Talk, based in Lisbon and Ponta Delgada.

Jesse James (Vancouver, 1987): Lives and works between Lisbon and Ponta Delgada as a cultural programmer and independent curator, combining curatorial projects and strategic management of projects, artists and cultural structures. He is co-founder and president of Anda&Fala – Cultural Association, a contemporary and multidisciplinary creative structure in the Azores Islands, and leads the artistic direction of Walk&Talk – Arts Festival. He is co-founder and part of the curatorial team of Fabric Arts Festival in Fall River (Massachusetts, USA). In Parallel, over the last years, he has assumed the direction of Production of structures such as Nome Próprio and artists such as Gustavo Ciríaco or Sofia Caetano. He regularly participates as a speaker in seminars and lectures and was selected for the Atelier for Young Festival Programmers in 2016 in Budapest. He has a degree in Tourism and Leisure from ESTH / IPG – specialization in Communication and Cultural Planning and attended a postgraduate program in Curatorial Studies at FCSH – Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

Sofia Botelho, co-artistic director of Walk&Talk, based in Ponta Delgada.

Sofia Carolina Botelho is co-artistic director at Walk&Talk – Arts Festival and coordinator of its Knowledge Program, organized by Anda&Fala – Cultural Association, of which she is vice-president. Since 2019, she coordinates the Educational Program at Carlos Machado Museum. She is part of the curatorial team at Fabric Arts Festival in Fall River (Massachusetts, USA). She has participated in several lectures and seminars on artistic education, the relationship between audiences and structures and cultural spaces, and the 12th edition of the “Atelier for Young Festival Managers” at EFA in Merano in 2017. Graduated in Fine Arts – Sculpture with a Master in Museology and Museography (Intangible Cultural Heritage) the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Lisbon.

Art critic and writer.

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