What should we expect from the 31st Bienal de São Paulo? How will it approach the local contexts and communities of the city and its outskirts? What responsibilities do the curatorial team and the Fundação have towards their audience? These enquiries, among others, were addressed during an encounter between two of the event’s curators, Pablo Lafuente and Nuria Enguita Mayo, and local agents in the area of the arts at Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid on February 20, 2014.
The curatorial team of the Bienal de São Paulo — comprising Charles Esche, Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Pablo Lafuente and Oren Sagiv — is organising a series of open meetings with the intention of functioning as a research tool and form of critically assessing the curatorial practice. Their backgrounds in rethinking the role of art in society, the making of exhibitions — structures and processes —, and researching artistic practices normally relegated to the margins of official histories and canonical modernity, demonstrate their intention to search for new configurations, interactions and propositions for art in relation to the world. These encounters involve artists, students and other stakeholders in the organization over the course of a year.
Pablo Lafuente kicked off the conversation, starting with the idea of “the apprentice tourist'”. In 1927, Brazilian modernist Mário Andrade started writing a travelogue, a research diary of a journey through Brazil’s culture, landscape and folklore, with the said title borrowed by the curator, from the newspaper O Diario Nacional. At roughly the same time, Spanish filmmaker, poet and artist José Val del Omar was travelling around Spain as part of the Pedagogical Missions before the Civil War and right after the Second Republic was proclaimed in 1931. Both Andrade and Val del Omar toured their countries with intellectual curiosity, uncertainty and an interest in learning. These remarkable though seemingly unrelated ethnographic approaches based on observation and desire to know, are metaphorically connected to the conviction of the current curatorial team to further develop their proposal, to put forward a space for critical thinking, and to offer “encounters (through the arts) with experiences and emotions that are not present in most analyses of human life.” 1 However the question would be how to contribute to these experiences without being naïve or innocent while an extremely delicate global (political, economical and social) situation is taking place at this very moment around the world?
Nuria Enguita Mayo made clear that the team had started with the premise that their function was not to transform or empower local contexts like, for instance, the regional political movements, but rather offer processes and alternatives. It is important to highlight the fact that curators change every two years and only team up for a year; more than this would be financially unsustainable for the organization. For this reason, Enguita emphasised in her intervention the impossibility of provoking changes hierarchically, instead favouring proposing new ways of imagining the world differently.
They announced that for the 31st edition around seventy-five projects are being developed. No artist’s names were mentioned in the conversation. The idea would be to propose open processes of artistic production based on communication and exchange. The title of the event “How to talk about things that don’t exist” reinforces this notion of changeability, the evolution of the journey. The curators plan to change the verb in the title as the phases of the biennial move on: from ‘talking about’ to ‘living with’, ‘using’, ‘struggling against’ or ‘learning from’ things that don’t exist. And judging by the slippery actions in a “moment of listening” as Pablo Lafuente indicated, the response seems to be focused on how this proposal is going to be inevitably materialized within Niemeyer’s walls without losing the impulse and course of communication.
There are three ideas I would like to draw attention to in this event, which occurred in the Protocol Room of the Reina Sofia’s Nouvel Building. These are the pedagogical methodology, the approach to the notion of conflict, and the relationship between communities and the hegemonic structures. For the past five years the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo has formed a permanent group of educators who have at the same time trained not only the teachers of a variety of schools, but also the curators invited to the event. With a set of materials comprising more than four thousand documents, this ongoing relationship between the vested institution and schools, colleges and other communities, aims to contribute to the dilution of the boundaries between art and life. The educational task occupies a very significant position in this year’s biennial. It is presented as a tool for social intervention, a chance for movement, a real apparatus to articulate communication, and a way to generate negotiation. Likewise, ‘pedagogy’ is conceived as a proposed experience that aims to give form to subjects in order to begin a process of transformation2 — it connects the pedagogical approach to an aesthetic experience.
In opposition to a contemplative reflexive model of education and culture, Pablo Lafuente and Nuria Enguita faced the question launched by Jesús Carrillo (Head of Cultural Activities at the MNARS) regarding the impulse of conflict in relation to their programmes. Taking as a frame of reference the pedagogical response of Paulo Freire, the curators gave a vivid account of the way Brazilian frictions can be addressed by promoting an education of questioning in which dialogue between participants would focus on the emancipatory strength of knowledge as a form of easing confrontations. Freire’s notion of ‘praxis’ defines the learning process as a conversation between action and reflection, which allows the learners to develop their critical consciousness3. In this regard, there is also an important concern about the curators’ position as outsiders, or “apprentice tourists”. Even though they are already working with a team of approximately one hundred people — mainly Brazilians — the five curators are making special efforts in avoiding parachuting practices into their proposals. This matter leads us to the subject raised by Agustín Pérez Rubio. The art historian and MUSAC ex-director asked if the possibility of generating cultural structures or artistic platforms, not only during the biennial but perhaps afterwards, is being considered. Is there any chance of establishing deeper ties with other artistic communities in order to develop cultural projects for the future? Enguita responded by saying how incredibly immense São Paulo is and how difficult would be for a short-term team to do this. Being a hegemonic structure, the biennial has already colonised many locations. As Bill Kelley Jr. said in relation to the strategies followed by the MDE114, it is more about reinforcing or strengthening already existing platforms than creating new ones. What the biennials can definitely do is to provide them with visibility.
And beyond the exigencies of the moment, it is useful to be reminded to step back and seek for a wider perspective. Perhaps how this 31st São Paulo biennial is going to be materialized — the final display — is not that important in the end. What would matter is the way this format proposed by the curatorial team may contribute towards changing the way audiences understand the world through tangible or intangible things, through new subjectivities. In the same way ethnographic propositions of Andrade’s writings and Val del Omar’s assemblage of raw images, this event reveals an attempt at presenting a variety of proposals that do not try to make totalising analysis; on the contrary it describes the relations and images within the world. Curator’s plan is to reach toward these things that do not seem to exist; things that might be experienced, suffered, imagined but not proven or explained; things that are often disregarded when it comes to the logic of a systematized society. Artist David Wojnarowicz said that he was beginning to think that one of the last frontiers left for radical gestures was the imagination5. This is an invitation to imagine the contemporary world in a different way. And yet, unlike most biennials, the 31st edition of São Paulo also has a more ambitious goal. Lafuente concluded that “the biennial has to work on its own history”, which means they aspire to turn the space of criticality into the subject of critical enquiry.
1 See “How to talk about things that don’t exist” 31st São Paulo Biennial, February 4, 2014.
2 LAFUENTE, Pablo: “Ricardo Basbaum, or that elusive object of emancipation”, Afterall Journal #28, Autumn/Winter 2011. Freire, Paulo: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.
3 FREIRE, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.
4 Encuentro Internacional de Medellín (MD11) was co-curated by Nuria Enguita Mayo (Spain), Eva Grinstein (Argentina), Bill Kelley Jr (USA) and Conrado Uribe (Colombia).
5 LIPPARD, Lucy: Imagine Being Here Now: Towards a Multicentered Exhibition Process, lecture given in Falmouth, Cornwall on 20 May 2010.