Meet the Artist Making Headpieces Out of His Facial Dystonia Diagnosis

Tiago Valente’s headpieces take an anthropological look at health, capitalism, and anthropology.
November 19, 2016, 12:55pm
All imaged courtesy the artist

In 2013, artist Tiago Valente was struck with a bout of Facial Dystonia, a condition that causes the muscles in the face to spasm painfully and involuntarily pull into uncomfortable and jarring positions. He sat in front of the mirror and analyzed his tremors in great detail, then extrapolated them mathematically into models that he then built into complex headpieces made of wood, sequins, beads, mirror, and other materials.

Valente's art is multifaceted, interactive, sometimes wearable, and always intelligent. With a background in performing arts, journalism, fashion design, creative direction and more, he imbues his work with a thoughtfulness and keen observation of the world around him. He mostly explores anthropological and sociological issues in his work, from hanging wall structures that evoke survival mechanisms in the digital age to a multi-sensory theatrical installation comprising partly of satchels that include hand-written notes by the craftsmen of the piece that discuss their dreams.

The project is named, simply, Dystonia. “This was the key for me to understand the physical manifestation of those spasms,” he writes on his website, “To understand them as explosions.” The Creators Project spoke to Valente about his condition and his process of looking inward, outward, and beyond.

The Creators Project: A lot of your projects are mostly sculptural and often wearable—what draws you to this medium?

Tiago Valente: I’m obsessed with evolutionary and adaptation theories and studies.

Since the very first proof of life on Earth, human beings and animals have been running an endless journey towards environmental and social inclusion. This absolutely fascinates me. I study human behaviors and their relationships with their surroundings and other individuals. In each of my projects there’s always an underlying tendency to redefine their physical or social landscapes and think about how would they adapt in order to survive in those fictitious realities I map them in. Therefore, once I understand their internal circumstances and what motivates their behaviors in these worlds, I proceed to give them their respective skin and physical appearance.

How do you usually get started on a project? Do your ideas often come from life events like this?

I see my work as a constant exploration of human identity. I manifest alter egos and their internal circumstances among theatrical environments, ready to be integrated into any physical, cultural, or emotional landscape. These experiences may vary from real encounters while coexisting with non-developed tribes on remote areas of the globe, to improvised stages created in front of a mirror at my studio, or even through public intervention.

I confront these characters with different sociological issues such as tradition, politics, ageism, education systems, health disparities, and affection manifestations amongst others, and study their reactions from an anthropological approach. Their response is always organic and intuitive, and so is my process. I make visual decisions based on the immediate conclusions of these movements.

In order to make these decisions accurately, I need to be very well connected to my intuition, which is key on every project.

A lot of your work seems to deal with anthropological/sociological issues—how did it feel to turn inward for this one?

Actually this project also talks about all that. The doctor that gave me my final diagnosis insisted on immediately initiating a treatment with haloperidol, a high-potency antipsychotic medication only given to extreme cases (mainly of schizophrenia), which had nothing to do with the episode of facial dystonia I was suffering at that time. Moreover, one of the main extrapyramidal side effects of the drug are drug-induced movement disorders that include acute and tardive symptoms. These symptoms include dystonia (continuous spasms and muscle contractions), which is exactly what I was already suffering from.

Basically this man was going to turn me into a zombie and for an indefinite period of time, just like that. I asked for other alternatives and he didn’t want to offer me any other choice. He was condemning me to depend on such serious treatment with God knows what consequences, and God only knows from what hidden motivations or reasons.

Together with the frustration and the anger from the diagnosis, I had something similar to an epiphany in that same moment: I could see right in front of me the sedative intentions of a capitalist system, hidden under the cover of the economic interests behind certain sectors of the pharmaceutical industry. Social sedation, corrupted values, ethical manipulation, you name it…

How did you choose the materials for your headpieces?

The explosive nature of such reactions and unpredictable movements, leads to my election of materials and construction methods, manipulating different materials and using handcraft techniques. Often, wood is the main element I use due to its organic and ever changing quality, and the main one I chose for this project. I use thousands of chips, after breaking wood planks manually, I start assembling them as an attempt to freeze these explosions. It’s a construction process that starts from its own deconstruction.

You talk about graphics and mathematical parabolas that came from the sketches you made based on your observations. In “extruding” them, did you use actual mathematical formulas to find graphical patterns, or was this more of an artistic impression? Was there a therapeutic element to this process?

Oh yes, it was definitely therapeutic. After my episode at the hospital and my decision to refuse treatment with haloperidol, the first impulse that hit my mind was to go straight to my studio in Shanghai (where I was living at the time, before I moved to New York). I sat in front of my table and I cried. Then I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror, slightly embarrassed from my own facial spasms and those sadly weird faces, trying to understand what the hell was going on in my brain and my nervous system.

And then it happened… As I mentioned before, I observe human behaviors and this was a purely physical one, motivated from an extreme situation of emotional stress, therefore a physical manifestation of something abstract and not palpable.

My own intuition was talking to me from that same mirror, showing me an incredible amount of physical data. If my purpose was to understand what my brain was trying to manifest, then I should definitely start by gathering and recording all that physical data.

That’s how I started tracking the frequency, amount, trajectory, and intensity of each one of those spasms from each muscle involved. I sat in front of that mirror, video shooting myself with time lapse photography and taking notes. I developed an organic metric system in order to gather as much data as possible. I didn’t know exactly why I was doing all that, I just knew I needed to do it.

Comparing the results on each graphic, I started synthesizing these conclusions and translating them into actual mathematical quadratic equations, and later on evolving these into more complex parabolas. The whole thing started making sense, all that data started revealing two dimensional shapes, representing the explosions on my nervous system through the parabolas. But they were still just flat lines. I needed to get to the end of it and find out how to freeze those explosions through three-dimensional representation.

The next step was about finding out how to connect the dots in order to build these intricate shapes. I found my answers back in the 1960s, from a surprising field: automobile design. Engineer Pierre Bézier used special curves in order to specify how he wanted car parts to look like. These curves are called Bézier curves, and these are the ones that finally led me to three-dimensional shapes. That was the key: I was finally able to “freeze” those explosions and understand better those cryptic messages from my brain, and build the headpieces of the project.

As you can see, this whole process was absolutely analog and very old school. Although my symptoms have almost disappeared and my facial dystonia is now very mild, I continued studying these extensions of movement and their trajectory relationships within the space. I forced myself out of the analog world and am currently using 4D immersive virtual reality technology in the construction of a new series of sculptures and spatial installations, merging both technology and handcraft techniques.

What’s next for you?

A lot actually! At the moment I’m collaborating with some global companies and agencies as an innovator strategist, which is something I really love to do and will keep doing alongside my art practices. It’s very interesting to see how big companies are increasingly appreciating the benefits of these creative exchange sessions.

I’m working on a couple of projects that review different theories of “adaptation,” projected to be presented under the format of multi-sensory experiences, including sculpture, installation, performance, and public intervention.

The first one draws from data collection and comparison between a series of different landscapes, looking at specific socio-economic and political moments, relevant to specific geolocations in Asia-Pacific and the US.

As for the second one, it has a more conceptual approach, in which I’m working with 4D immersive virtual reality to create the first analog 3D printing sculpture, following the principles of Reverse Adaptation. This is a very challenging process, but so far it’s been incredibly exciting and rewarding.

I just finished a very complex and emotionally demanding project, consisting of a series of tapestries and wall hangings accompanied by a manifesto that praises and cries the principles, desires, and failures of a (not-so) utopian political dream. This will be presented in NYC in the early months of 2017. The project started in 2012, and has evolved along all these years and through different countries as a testimony to different migration motivations and their responses to neo-colonialism movements.

And always open to make more magic happen, of course!

See more of Valente’s work on his website.


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