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Conversations about a Bienal
Report on 31st Bienal Open Meeting held in Fortaleza, on 7 November 2013, by Luciana Eloy.

On the invitation of the team involved in putting together the 31st São Paulo Bienal, a meeting was held at the rectory of the University of Fortaleza (UNIFOR) on November 7, 2013. The encounter, between three of the event’s curators (Charles Esche and Galit Eilat, co-curators, and Benjamin Seroussi, associate curator) and local agents in the areas of culture and the arts, was intended to reflect on the forthcoming edition of the Bienal based on an understanding of what is going on here and now in Ceará. These meetings are part of a strategy that will see the curators tour cities throughout Brazil doing fieldwork for the 31st São Paulo Bienal. In Fortaleza, the encounter drew artists, researchers, educators, gallery-owners and cultural managers who made their contributions to a lively critical dialogue on the present context of the Bienal and of contemporary artistic production in Ceará. As a participant in this dialogue, and on the invitation of my university (Unifor), I present myself as an interlocutor with the express intention of presenting a panorama of the issues that arose from the discussion, while emphasizing the deeper reflections that emerged from the momentary circuit formed by the gathering.

The discussion started out by addressing the unfavorable political and cultural conditions surrounding artistic production in places peripheral to the hegemonic Rio-São Paulo axis. This was an idea that spiraled about between the questions raised and always resurfaced as the core concern.

Tied in with criticism of the hegemonic, globalized arts system that decides what gets seen in Brazil, the following question was raised over and over: how does the curatorial team plan to become familiar with the peripheral artistic output that does not circulate outside Ceará and, therefore, is not considered on a par with that which graces the hegemonic, globalized surface?

The main criticism levelled by those invited to the meeting concerned their disbelief in the hegemonic system that gave rise to and still underpins the São Paulo Bienal—an institution founded in the 1950s in the economic hub of the nation as a cultural product of that very milieu, with the express aim of consolidating and promoting Brazilian modern art on the international scene and establishing São Paulo among the world’s major art centers. The main question to arise from this criticism was how the institution, so intrinsically associated with Brazilian modernism, and which even today is seen as a product of the hegemonic system, plans to put itself in such a position as enables it to understand that there are other ways of producing art.

While the curators expressed their concern with these questions, they clearly had no answers. They were there for dialogue, open and willing to look for means and strategies with which to tackle this asymmetry and the gaping divide between different artistic watersheds in Brazil. From that point on, the whole discussion hinged on this one question: how do you devise a single message for the Bienal in a country with so many internal borders; a message at once hegemonic and peripheral? Moreover: how do you question the system from inside the system?

Other local problems were mentioned, such as the lack of financial incentives, the fact that our art market is incipient, with few galleries, as yet unable to absorb the local production. However, it was clear that the main obstacle was the absence of strong institutions interested in the critical formation of the artist and art-appreciator, capable of fostering debate and propelling that output forward.

For Eduardo Frota, one of the artists present at the meeting, what we are missing is a “good institution”, as the local organizations are incapable of objectifying the art system, with the exception of the Centro Cultural Banco do Nordeste and Dança no Andar de Cima, which currently run programs to assist young artists, are open to experimentation, and fill certain gaps left by art courses and other cultural institutions. Frota mentioned Alpendre as an example of a collective action that sought to bring artistic production and its criticism closer to the art circuit. A lively and proactive environment, Alpendre was born of the need to subvert the system so lacking in “good institutions”. It was a place open to experience, with a library, study groups and periodical courses, which aggregated all sorts of contemporary languages—the visual arts, dance, video, and performance—while garnering visibility and making information circulate.

As I see it, the Alpendre example fits well with Charles Esche’s response to Frota. He believes that action has to be allied with a message and that the problem is not a lack of funding, institutions or market, but essentially of a coherent cultural policy. Esche went on to add that there are many different ways to develop a cultural policy, whether top-down or bottom-up.

From criticism of the unfavorable position local cultural policy left Ceará in vis-a-vis the Rio-São Paulo axis, the focus of the discussion shifted to another geography: Brazilian artistic production in relation to the rest of the world.

This refocused matters on the Bienal, the deficiencies of which Esche is well aware, especially the outmoded model it continues to replicate. That said, he believes the forthcoming edition could become a powerful tool, depending on the manner in which it is approached and used. However, this observation failed to convince the artist Sólon Ribeiro, who feels the Bienal is not only totally passé, stuck in a modernist past, but also way too small for Brazil, the country he sees as being best placed to develop “art content” today.

On this, Esche would seem to agree with Sólon, and he spoke as someone who is familiar with two phases of Brazilian art: all but ignored abroad in the 80s, the world is now interested in hearing what Brazil has to say.

This, however, would seem to be the challenge facing the curatorial team: making this reflection possible. And this has led Esche to wrangle with a paradoxical question that he makes very clear is the key to approaching this Bienal: how are we to trigger reflections and produce meanings that start from the local and move toward the global?

This paradox is a problem the curators will have to deal with. And on this Esche sees part of his role as being to find ways of handling the problem and understanding it as something that goes beyond the logic of the art system.

This issue of the local and the global provoked other lines of questioning among the participants, who did not seem to be convinced of the efficacy of the curators’ strategy. Sólon Ribeiro said he did not understand this logic of local versus global, as he currently lives between Fortaleza and China, while Eduardo Frota said that all actions stemming from the artistic phenomenon are paradoxical by nature—for him, the local/global issue is already a challenge to the hegemony.

Both Sólon and Frota are of the opinion that this paradox needs to be deconstructed, as the “local vs global” dichotomy is a rehashed, ineffective discourse that poses various risks given the limited timeframe the curators will have in which to get a handle on the deep-rooted problems facing Brazilian production. They alerted the curators to the reality of Ceará, a state that belongs to a semi-arid region that is a national blind spot with serious climatic and social difficulties, but which has nonetheless historically constructed itself as fertile ground with massive potential as an exponent of various artistic languages. So to think about how the local reflects on the global is already paradoxical in a country that does not even have an art mechanism that can cope with the multiplicity of the art produced on its own national expanse. These are issues difficult to broach from a São Paulo perspective, as not even São Paulo actually understands Brazil.

These subjects are important in order to problematize a Bienal that wants to know the art being produced throughout this vast multicultural territory. Considering the local reality means taking time to listen to the artists, recognize their work and establish partnerships. This concern echoed throughout the meeting and the ensuing conversations citywide.

The team of curators responded to the rigorous criticism lodged against this “local and global” approach by saying that the richness of the paradox lies in its very indissolubility. Its contradictory elements are two truths that do not annihilate each other, but retain their individual powers to produce knowledge. They imagine that this space created as a forum in which to consider the Bienal can yield a new paradigm and that the present moment is particularly promising in that respect, as the world’s eyes are on Brazil. It seems that Charles Esche has his own tack on this new context, which he sees as a “flux that gives rise to a sort of Brazilization instead of globalization.”

César Baio, a lecturer on the master’s degree course in the arts and with the cinema department at UFC, closed the meeting by raising a reflection which he believes to be a major challenge to the curators, namely: how can those from the outside look in make aesthetic and poetic connections without getting lost or failing to get under the epidermis of exoticization?

A very clear impression left by the curators was their desire for dialogue and to find ways of looking at the Bienal as an idea under construction. During this meeting I could see that the curators were genuinely interested in building this space, unafraid to talk about things that do not yet exist. They came in for some heavy criticism, were met with a succession of questions that exposed the fragility of their proposals, but they remained open to new ideas and true to their initial purpose: no structure could be proposed for the Bienal without this prior knowledge. The best strategy-building starts with a good conversation.

The Bienal is controversial, and always has been. The 10th São Paulo Bienal, held in 1969, is a case in point. Protest against the military regime led Brazilian and foreign artists and intellectuals to withdraw from the event, later dubbed the ‘boycott Bienal’. Roberto Pontual, one of Brazil’s best-ever art critics, made a brilliant assessment of this in the article Bienal: mudar e não morrer (Bienal: change and not die), in which he underscored the event’s resounding absence of contemporaneity, denouncing the Bienal’s “lack of correspondence with the various levels of reality in Brazil and the contemporary world” as its main defect.

Even back then, Pontual was already talking about bringing past, present and future closer together and melding the national and international as indissociable elements of the multiple tendencies of contemporary art. His work was pivotal in the process of internationalization undertaken by Brazilian and Latin-American art. An example of this is his curatorship of the exhibition Geometria Sensível (Sensible Geometry), held at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro – MAM-RJ in 1978, which brought together Latin-American artists in a bid to reveal the common ground between the constructive art being produced in Brazil and in Latin America, marked by opposing sets of elements: the exercise of reason and the unpredictability of the intuitive gesture. The exhibition figured as a critique of Latin-American art in relation to the international art system. In addition to conceiving of some highly significant exhibitions, Pontual also dedicated his time to problematizing the issue of internationalization in a series of articles and critical texts, such as “O olhar do velho mundo sobre o novo” (The Old World’s view of the New), presented at the 1989 colloquium “Force critique: nature, role et function” in Aix en Provence, France, in which the author discussed the difficulties Latin-American art faces in finding a space for itself on the international scene. This and many other valuable contributions which Pontual made can be found in the book Roberto Pontual Obra Crítica, edited by Izabela Pucu and Jacqueline Medeiros.

In the light of the discussions and multiple ideas that emerged from this meeting between the Bienal curators and their guests in Ceará, I close this account with a message from Roberto Pontual that strikes me as a pertinent translation of what this encounter meant: “Here, it doesn’t matter who won or lost, only the benefits of the fight”. From this discussion I would say the first benefit derived was that the curatorial team opened itself up to the vision of those on the fringe and tried to understand what is going on in places that lie off the map, to get to know an artistic output that is not yet fully inserted on the national scene, and to use this fieldwork as raw material from which to extract answers that can help them create the next São Paulo Bienal.

text: Luciana Eloy

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