Bienal de Berlim #1
Berlin Biennial special, part one: curating biennials, conceptual and practical aspects
Dereck Marouço / Felipe Molitor
2 Dec 2019, 5:42 pm
This “Berlin Biennial” special was developed from a presentation of the project for the 11th Berlin Biennial, which took place in São Paulo at the Casa do Povo on the 21st October, and from an interview with curator Lisette Lagnado, which took place four days later, in Berlin. In this first part, a lengthy conversation with the researcher connects her curatorial investigations at the 27th São Paulo Biennial – largely inspired by the work of Hélio Oiticica and his concept “Environmental Program” -, with the next edition of the biennial in the German capital, the launch of which is based on the work Os ossos do mundo [The Bones of the World], and experiences of modernist Flávio de Carvalho. The talk also reflects on institutions, cities and research processes.
Lagnado is an independent critic and curator. She curated the 27th Bienal de São Paulo – Como viver junto [How To Live Together] (2006) and the 33th Panorama of Brazilian Art at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (2013). She was Director of the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage in Rio de Janeiro, from 2014 to 2017.
Before reading, it is worth reminding ourselves briefly of what Flávio de Carvalho’s experiences consisted of. In the 1930’s, the multidisciplinary artist was already evoking his own personal concerns to renew artistic production. He gave the name “experiences” to a number of actions he performed to investigate behavior. In Nº2, he walked in the opposite direction of a 1931 Corpus Christi procession, with his head covered by a green velvet hat, much to the fury of the worshippers, who wanted to lynch him. In Nº3, Flávio paraded through the streets of São Paulo wearing the “New Look”, which, according to him, was attire specifically appropriate for the tropics. And Nº4 relates to an Amazonian expedition – which in fact took place in 1958 – to find and study a tribe of blonde and blue-eyed Indians, and produce a film about the “blonde Goddess”. The film was never made.
DERECK MAROUÇO: In 1981, Walter Zanini organized a São Paulo Biennial where, for the first time, artists were connected by their artistic practice and were no longer exhibited closed-off by country. His Biennial, in 2006, was also the first to abolish national representation. These were two important statements in updating existing models. Can you tell us a bit about how the curator of the Brazilian Biennial was chosen and how international representatives chose the exhibiting artists?
That was the first Biennial I saw, and it was super controversial for the time. Zanini introduced arrangement by “language affinity”. If Canada sent an artist working with video and, say, Korea sent another video artist, the Biennial’s architectural installation would position them close together. Given the transdisciplinary nature of artists’ research, doing this today would result in a formalist arrangement.
The São Paulo Biennial is different from any other in the world because it’s a project that was born of a mission to modernize the country and to position it in an international circuit – read: Western. It also has a pedagogical character in the Historical Rooms of artists with as yet unpublished research, because in Brazil, a country far away from Europe, the museums have been unable to fulfill that remit. This was essential, but it also created an imbalance. Evidently, the public found it easier to identify with rooms of a modern character, as they were more museological and didactic, whereas the more contemporary (and radical!) wing couldn’t attract the public, for obvious reasons.
I am the only curator to date chosen from an independent stage of selection, where the voice of the jury outside the institution’s leadership was paramount. In this case, when I sent the project, I defined it with the famous phrase of both Cildo Meireles and Hélio Oiticica, “I am not here representing any country”, precisely to bypass any deliberate choices by government agencies.
I think the most important thing of all was to at the very least make equal the participation of countries that are weaker, in terms of their institutional infrastructure, to that of countries with greater economic power, which invest more in culture and in their international representations, regardless of any diplomatic relations Brazil has with those countries.
DM: What is the significance of moving to Berlin in terms of the conception of the Biennial? The public is quite different, right?
LL: Yes! Firstly, in terms of scale, the São Paulo Biennial always has around one million visitors. Secondly, in terms of accessibility: it’s a free Biennial, with a contingent of schools I’ve rarely seen in other biennials. In this way the São Paulo Biennial carries out an educational agenda, which is very unique and very special for Brazil.
The Biennial here in Berlin doesn’t have just one fixed building. It starts at the Kunst Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW) and every curator, depending on their project, ends up allying with a museum or some other space. It’s a scattered biennial, it’s a bit like the Istanbul Biennial. What is interesting is that, in the São Paulo Biennial you have this desire created from a longing to be modern, to see what is happening in the world, but on the other hand, when there are editions that present politically engaged works, the critical reception is very hostile – an edition that, for example, raises issues of gender, the city outskirts or prejudice, still hurts the historical structure of the Biennial that was created by businessman and magnate Ciccillo Matarazzo, and which still serves the economic and financial elite that made the founding of the Biennial possible. Here in Berlin, the situation is different, there are museums who regularly do their homework, and there are specialized initiatives.
Once a week, the Biennial distributes internally information on what is happening in the city, so we can follow the exhibitions, performances, debates, and it’s impossible to cope with. There is one Biennial a week here. So, how can you make the proposal generate interest in a city that is already a hub of nationalities and cultures, where there are artists from a thousand places, where there is an advanced level of criticism? What is the true identity of the Berlin Biennial? This is something that every curator has to face when they arrive. So, to me it seems necessary to exhibit unknown artists from the European circuit, Venice, Germany…
DM: Is Berlin really a city of resistance?
LL:What do you call resistance?
DM:Do you feel that it’s a more open, experimental city, in an artistic sense?
LL: What we are doing here, having a space for work, along with the exhibition and receiving people, is something I experienced before at the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage in 2017. I opened an exhibition derived from Cildo Meireles’ “Desvio para o vermelho (Red Shift)” (1967-1984), and we had no more funds for education, for monitors or even for guards. We had an exhibition by Cildo which came out of a collaboration with students, ex-students and teachers. And we didn’t have the conditions to open the space. So, we brought our desks there, and when anyone visited the Parque, I would attend to them and tell them about Cildo and the collection of red objects, etc. Of course, not closing the Escola was an effort of resistance on a micro scale. Here, something beautiful is happening. There was a workshop for schools with the artists Florian Gass and Mirja Reuter, and every day since then two children have been coming here alone, thinking that there are activities here for them. They sit at the table, cutting things out, they watch the videos, and now this has become a space that they regularly visit. If I were in São Paulo, I know that I would have more flexibility to give these children a specific program. For now, small cells of activation are being introduced. We understand that this procedural biennial allows people more time to get to know what will be landing here, like a UFO, in June 2020 (the “official” opening date of the Biennial). Like Flávio de Carvalho himself, who nobody knows, who is barely known in Brazil, but who people are getting to know. I believe in this way of making people aware of names over a long period of time, that is not a list of sixty names that in reality needs time to be worked out carefully.
DM: Yes, I think that in our environment, which is so hierarchical, simply being available is already a very radical act because, in the end, that’s also what an exhibition is, as a process: an invitation for people to participate in this dialogue in an open manner, less like an institutional white cube.
LL: Yes, I can even say that maybe having a procedural biennial here has been a big change. Because the Biennial model is a machine, it is a machine used to making exhibitions. And when you say, “we’ve already opened”, what is in your spreadsheet in terms of the cost of producing the works we have to understand is not going to wait until June 2020. You have to say that that was designated for the education project further ahead, with guided tours, and that we want to start using it now, because the public program has already started, and it also means that you dilute the amount that is usually very concentrated in those three months.
Another big challenge is to incorporate the neighborhood. To create long term sustainable projects, you have to learn from the location. And by the time you’ve learned, you have to leave. I think there is a great degree of idealization, but that if we don’t try and don’t believe, we end up making a very bureaucratic project resembling what museums today have become, which means exhibitions conceived well in advance, with very little room for invention.
DM: The curatorial team is comprised of people born in or who have experienced the geopolitical South, especially Latin America. In what ways do your bodies and experiences create a counter-vision within a German institution?
LL: There is the question of language and communication. Perhaps it’s no accident that [German philosopher Jurgen] Habermas wrote so much about the problem of communication. We are all interrelating in English, which isn’t our first language, nor that of the people from the Biennial. It’s a second language for all of us, and clearly, I realize that this creates, first of all, misunderstandings that come from language, in a cultural and not only linguistic sense. Thinking about Glauber Rocha, when I talk, for example, about the gambiarra [an improvised device used to steal electricity] as a modus operandi, which is well known in Brazil, I’m not talking about the aesthetic of the gambiarra. I’m not trying to talk about the gambiarra as this electrical wire that you pull from your neighbor’s house to get light. I’m talking about a modus operandi of knowing how to work with the minimum. I’m not talking about a visual thing that looks like a gambiarra or something, like a little wire, but about managing to work without extraordinary guarantees. I’m not boasting about the lack of resources, because there is a name for that, and that is precariousness. I am not eulogizing misery, I hate that romanticism, I’m asking for flexibility in the means of production. When you go on strike, you hand over the equipment, and then something else is installed in your place and the movement vanishes. But when you occupy, you take the territory for yourself and it becomes increasingly difficult for another initiative – say, gentrification – to push you out. I consider the Hotel Cambridge in São Paulo a good example.
DM: For the second time in a second Biennial, you have appointed an artist not to compose a team of artists presented in an exhibition with art objects, but rather to start a program: how important is it for us to consider art and life as producers of thought, as an agenda, as a concept of work, that goes beyond the physical presence of the works of art?
LL: I don’t think you can do that as a rule, not all artists left texts and concepts on things they thought about beyond themselves, on a separate platform. For example, Hélio [Oiticica], wrote about cinema, wrote about artists, television, dance, music. I found a source there from which I was able to think about a theory of culture, and I thought it necessary for that to come from an artist. I owe a lot to my experience at the 24th São Paulo Biennial (1998), which took Oswald de Andrade and his Anthropophagic Manifesto as a theme, to the fact that this was possible at that time, and that it was done by a Brazilian curator, Paulo Herkenhoff. I thought, “I’m not going to use [German philosopher Theodor] Adorno, to discuss aesthetic theory today, if I have an artist who died in 1980, but who lived in New York, who exhibited at Whitechapel, was in contact with the London underground etc”. This gave me opportunities to think theoretically, and I don’t think I had ever spoken about it in that way, about the fact that Hélio Oiticica had already been shown a lot as artwork: the Jeu de Paume (Paris) had shown him, Witte de With (Rotterdam) had shown him, which I didn’t think was disseminated enough. I thought that Hélio’s environmental program hadn’t been as recognized.
Flávio de Carvalho’s case is a little different, because he doesn’t have a system and, in truth, he also produced many writings and has disparate interests that oscillate between fashion, religion, behavior, psychology, anthropology, ethnology and theatre. This is what allows me to venture out again. It’s what we call a “total artist”, and it’s obvious that I would suggest a Brazilian artist. In Flávio’s case, it’s also interesting to work with failure, fiasco, things that didn’t go right, both in terms of misunderstandings in the local reception, and in terms of the artist’s ambition, an ambition almost incompatible with what it would have to be. We know that Flávio’s “Experience nº4” is very problematic, with him being a white artist wanting to make a film about a white woman kidnapped in the Amazon. Even today I don’t know if we can stick to that version of what motivated Flávio to go up the Rio Negro, in the same way that I think of “Experience nº1” as obscure enough for us, as curators, to be able to work with it more as fiction.
DM: Would you say that when art drinks from its own source, that is to say, from a source as vibrant as an artist’s work, rather than directly from philosophical theories, there is an “outcome” in an exhibition that is more distinct than a project based purely on theory?
LL: I find it more vibrant, yes. But I think that maybe we should think about other authors who are just as vibrant, but who are writers etc. It’s an exercise and at the same time an excuse, because you have to start from somewhere, and it serves you as a structure of thought, for you to have a compass. From there you decide how much you are going to use, and how much you are going to corrupt that structure. The things that we don’t want to do are an illustration. I didn’t go to curating school, I learned this myself, and I think that was super important for me because I lived with artists who were the biggest critics of the curatorial works and who realized that critics imprison their work within a concept. This is how I came to understand artists in relation to the work of the curator, it made me uncomfortable, of course, but they felt uncomfortable, or trapped, used as a means to an end.
LL:Exactly. This warning has been present since the start of my curatorial practice. What not to do.
DM: You said that you chose Flávio not only because he is Brazilian, but because, as a figure, he has relevance both in theoretical and artistic terms, which has not been recognized so much in the history of art. But there is also an arc between the 1930’s, when Flávio went to Europe, and the 2020’s, where we are now. What can Flávio’s poetics contribute to our times and to what extent is it interesting to think of him as a contradictory figure, an “anti-hero”?
LL:That’s why I suggested Flávio to Agustin, Maria and Renata [the other curators of the Biennial], and they were immediately on board. In 1920, the Institute was created in Berlin, which would later become the Institute of Psychoanalysis, and I thought that it made a lot of sense for us to return to a time when Flávio was analyzing behavior in large groups, he was reading Freud, he was reading and observing a religious mass. And we, what are we seeing? What is happening in Brazil, Argentina, Turkey and the Philippines? In this sense, I think that the nationalism and fanaticism of the 1930’s give us access to a recent past which ought to appear in the 2020 exhibition, and I think that is a process here, of course, but these are issues that we read about every day in the newspaper: the Evangelical presence on the government bench and the presence of a church that is driven by chauvinistic and neoliberal values (prosperity, success, meritocracy), issues that Flávio analyzed in “Experience nº 2”.
DM: With the rise of nationalism and fanaticism, people start to create heroic images that can save them, rather than taking a combative or active stance against these games of political and social influence, etc…. Why is there this anti-hero in Flávio, even though he enjoys a high status within the “Brazilian hierarchy”? He was a white-hetero-cis-male – terms which are used today to define a subjectivity – and enjoying the position he was in, he was able to set up these little episodes of chaos and observe their outcomes.
LL:Historically, I think it has always been that way, you know? I think there is a relationship between the bourgeoisie and this radicalism. Yes, it’s the radicalism of a good thinker, a person who studied abroad, who spoke many languages, who was educated, maybe one of the most educated of the history of that time. Any serious historian is conscious of how important Flávio is when establishing a context, including a pre-biennial one. Imagine how provincial the city of São Paulo would have been. I agree with this interpretation, but we have to be careful not to be anachronistic and to employ judgment tools for a different moment. Actually, there are many things written, including about dress codes or sexuality, where he comes close to bisexuality or hermaphroditism. Hélio Oiticica was not made aware of the word queer, he proposes instead something he calls “hermaphrodipopothesis”, which is the expression he found to refer to an idea that isn’t sexist, but this was the vocabulary in use at that time. It’s obvious when you see them that you can contextualize the boys in Hélio’s series Neyrotika in today’s gender issues. I think Flávio does have these limitations, but I wouldn’t take away from him the instigation of restlessness, the introduction of fundamental questions about freedom and Eros.
DM: What I meant was that, although he enjoyed his position, he was able to install chaos. Maybe not thinking in these terms, because, as Marcelo Moreschi once said in a lecture, the New Look came before the feminine skirt, that is to say, these are terms that are not directly applicable. But was he capable of opening doors to other issues, even though he wasn’t thinking directly about doing so?
LL: It might seem extremely snobby today, but imagine the following scene. When you read J. Toledo’s biography of Flávio, it’s really incredible, because there’s a nudist practice in the house he built for himself in Valinhos, a practice found in some groups that is an understanding of clothing as a social costume and of the naked body being able to wander freely. Apparently there was a device, some sound that was set off to warn people that people were nude, because there were experiences of that happening in the pool, at the dining table etc. On the other hand, you could look at this scene as one of a euphoric bourgeoise, depending on the perspective from which you interpret these gatherings. On a farm where intellectuals met. It was Flávio’s Salon.
DM:And what about Flávio as an anti-hero figure?
LL: It find it interesting! Do you know why? For me, the identity of the last Biennial, which was inspired by the song, We don’t need another hero, and not by Tina Turner, was a decolonial statement basically blurring or eliminating the setup of the Father, the religious leader, God, myth, the Idol, the Church, and whatever else. In this sense, Flávio is out of place, and not because he is cis, or heteronormative, I don’t know how I can even say that about a person from that era, or because he is an anti-hero, but because we keep going with the misguided notion of designating a protagonist, because I think that the work made in the last Berlin Biennial isn’t a work that can end with a biennial. I think it is wrong for us to think of Biennials cancelling each other out in a process of constant reinvention. It’s not about introducing Flávio as an icon, or an example. Especially because we do come across some moments that are problematic, particularly in the expedition (Experience nº4), in terms of him being with the tribes as a white man. This has to appear in some way in the exhibition. So, he is an anti-hero because, when he went there, more than creating an ethno-fiction, he went in search of the white Goddess and her descendants. We don’t have the script, we would need to really understand what this film consisted of…