What I propose here is a brief account of the conversation, followed by some issues I’ve been mulling over in the weeks since the encounter took place. The discussions did not follow a set course, and rather than heaping questions on the curators, I feel it was we, the guests, who came away trying to imagine what form the next edition of the Bienal would take. The subjects that cropped up conducted the gathering on a brief group-therapy session that fielded more questions than answers about the cultural environment of our hometown of Belo Horizonte. Perhaps this is one of the indirect aims of the encounters, to share some of the anxieties that go with an event of this size, entrusted with representing a country of such continental proportions and with addressing the urgencies of the present conjuncture. I believe the proposal to be genuine in intent, and I was touched by the honesty with which the curators expressed how overwhelmed they were by all the concerns and interests stirred up by their attempt to find a new way to do the Bienal.
The encounter turned out to be more intimate than I’d imagined, with just a handful of artists, producers and researchers from town, and the curatorial team from Inhotim, which had helped organize the event, gathered in a circle in the multi-use room at the Museu Mineiro. The number of participants came as a surprise, as I’d expected the local art scene to rally. However, I’m left wondering whether the group, which was less than representative of the sheer diversity of the city’s cultural production, was not limited by the fact that it was invitation only or by a sheer lack of interest in discussing.
The Bienal de São Paulo Foundation was represented by the Curator Pablo Lafuente and the Associate Curator Luiza Proença. After a brief introduction by the museums superintendent and Júlia Rebouças, from Inhotim, the 31st Bienal curators introduced themselves, their reasons for being there and their expectations for the event. According to Pablo, the curatorial team for the forthcoming Bienal has opted for the position of ‘Apprentice Tourist’, a term Mário de Andrade used as a title for some of his chronicles and columns about his travels in the Brazilian north and northeast. Initially, I found it interesting that the curatorial team, which, with the exception of Luisa, is entirely made up of foreigners, should adopt the position of Tourist, and yet I ask myself – and this is just one of the questions that went unanswered – whether the term really conveys an approach that avoids treating Brazilian culture as anything other than exotic. I also wonder whether this posture enables the curatorial team to address some of the most pressing issues of Brazilian society post-June 2013, which, according to Pablo, is one of this Bienal edition’s targets.
Kicking off the conversation, the curators asked those present about how the visual arts scene works in Belo Horizonte. The answers they received were sundry and suggested that ours is a scene that has complexified and, in an interesting way, become richer and more diversified. Belo Horizonte is a city recognized for its cultural importance, but it tends to experience periods of greater and lesser effervescence. We have seen people pursuing independent projects here that ended up stalling in the face of economic and political difficulties. This transitoriness also accosts public institutions, which see their managerial and administrative staffs completely replaced with each change of mandate. This inconstancy prevents the local art scene from developing properly, as whole portfolios of centers, exhibitions, educational programs, festivals, shows, and publications are wiped out overnight. That said, more consolidated policy and a certain degree of professionalization have increased the durability of cultural initiatives in recent decades.
Those present at the gathering mentioned a number of proposals and initiatives that drove this change. The Pampulha Scholarship, for example, which, in 2002, replaced the old Belo Horizonte Salon after 27 editions, was highlighted as one endeavor that helped dynamize the local art panorama, both through the visiting residents, some of whom settle in the city, and the curators, critics and other artists who come to accompany the projects. Most initiatives designed to foster art in the city are institutional, which means governmental and imposed top-down. However, in recent years, many incentive-starved artists have been looking for new ways of producing, exhibiting and selling their art, not yet achieving anything like the diversity and art-market standards of São Paulo, and still far from constituting anything resembling a livelihood. After that, those present at the encounter started describing their own projects, and what emerged was that the local art scene, despite its modest size, does not have the habit of sharing information and processes, which was quite symptomatic really, as many of those in attendance didn’t even know each other. Among the projects presented were Ceia and Perpendicular, largely responsible for putting performance on the local map; Marginalia, which focuses on art and technology, and the Art and Technology Center – JA.CA; and a number of collective studios, such as Mini Galeria, KazaVazia and Casa Camelo. The curator Pablo Lafuente asked about how the city has been fostering an environment propitious to critical reflection, and some artists complained that it is hard to find interlocutors who can produce critical texts. Pablo suggested that the artists look to each other, assuming, even if only temporarily, the roles of critic and writer, as part of a healthy reversal of functions that might lead to a shifting of positions within the system. Others spoke about magazines developed within academic contexts, such as Piseagrama, which, in only six issues, has generated interesting discussion on issues related to public spaces (existing, urgently needed and purely imaginary).
These people, those proposing new discourse and pushing the prescribed disciplinary boundaries, were a notable absence. Particularly sorely missed was a significant and very active parcel of the artistic community that has been working autonomously and which really came to the fore in the face of last year’s political unrest. These groups, made up of professionals from a range of areas, including architects, urbanists, artists, musicians, lawyers and activists, emerged out of grassroots assemblies and formed work groups pursuing a spectrum of very powerful aesthetic and socio-cultural experiments. Some of these initiatives date from before the wave of street demonstrations, such as the MC Duel, Praia da Estação and street carnival, which, in their own ways, have been taking back the city for more democratic use by the people.
Belo Horizonte is following a course familiar to the major contemporary cities, despite the fact that political interests coupled with economic greed mean that many of the decisions taken go against the grain of the international art scene. Over the last few years we have seen some troubling transformations, such as excessive control over public spaces, where, in some cases, people are not even allowed to sit on the grass; the uncurbed shrinkage of the city’s green areas which was a place once known as the garden city; and, gravest of all, the decision to relocate the state government to the outskirts of town, which means that 30 thousand civil servants who used to work in the city center now have to commute to work. This shift in the local geography would not cause such a major impact on the cultural dynamic of the city were it not for the reason behind the move: the buildings previously occupied by the State will be used to create a large cultural complex, the Liberty Square Cultural Circuit.
Those present at the encounter wanted to know more about how the 31st Bienal will materialize, and this changed the dynamic of the conversation somewhat, with the guests posing their questions to the curators, who replied that it will function as a laboratory, exploring ways of working, and encouraging connections and dialogues between artistic models. As the 31st Bienal will be an experiment in how to work, it will lay aside its role as a temporary museum. This edition of the event will focus on boosting visitor numbers by attracting people not interested in art. Though the 30th edition received 520 thousand visitors, the curators feel this figure is still low for a city the size of São Paulo. Luiza and Pablo spoke about Niemeyer’s original design for the pavilion, in which the first floor was to be open, in dialogue with the marquee, which would tap the flow of parkgoers into the pavilion, creating a spontaneous encounter between the works and the public. This discussion showed me just how chained the event is to its enormous venue. Also apparent was Pablo’s frustration with the fact that, after the whole process of engaging with different social movements, encouraging them to connect with artists, all the visitor will see is a building full of art. I kept dwelling on this: how is the Bienal to expand as an event without having such an imposing space to expand into? How is it to root out new publics and address issues in a more contextualized manner? These questions went unanswered and we felt a little frustrated at being left with only an abstract notion of what the 31st Bienal would become. And though touched by the anxieties voiced by the curators, we were also left wondering whether the encounter had gone some way toward satisfying the curiosity of those ‘tourists’.
text: Francisca Caporalli