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Where are we now?

What role does art play in society? What can, and must, art do today? How are we to speak of art, education and transformation? What sort of transformation are we talking about? How are we to bring more people into the folds of that experience? Within the sphere of interpersonal relations, how are we to transform society? How are we to speak of things that don’t exist? 

These were some of the questions that structured the Open Meeting held at SESC Sorocaba in April, as part of the fact-finding/brainstorming mission undertaken by the 31st Bienal de São Paulo in conjunction with institutions and professionals from cities and towns throughout Brazil. The Bienal will be held at its pavilion in São Paulo between September 6 and December 7 this year. 

Representing the Bienal Foundation were the Curator Galit Eilat, the associate Curator Benjamin Seroussi and some members of the Bienal’s Educational team. Despite the Open of the title, those present at the meeting were artists and lecturers from Sorocaba and the surrounding area, and most of these were members of the Visual Poetics Research Group, accompanied by the project Coordinator, the Art Critic and Curator Josué Mattos, and the team from the local SESC. The encounter could have benefitted from a more heterogeneous public. 

The meeting began with a presentation of the illustration created by the Indian Prabhakar Pachpute, the artist invited to develop the visual identity for the 31st Bienal. The picture showed a large cylindrical tower being carried on legs. The tower has neither a beginning nor end and the legs are all scurrying in different directions, following no set course. Driven by a collective desire, shared intelligence and pooled sensibility, the illustration transmits four ideas that are key to the event’s curatorial teamwork: imagination, transformation, collectivity and conflict.

The curators presented the involvement of the educational team, artists and the general public as the bedrock of their project and process. The meeting itself took the form of an informal conversation during which the curators proved more interested in listening than in speaking, lecturing or expounding about the 31st Bienal.

In concrete terms, little was actually said about what the 31st Bienal would become; no method, no umbrella theme, no list of selected artists or exhibition plan. What they did present, however, was a series of actions already underway, such as the curatorial tour throughout Brazilian cities to establish contact with artists, curators and museum-goers nationwide, proposals for collaborative work between artists, the insertion of the educational team within the curatorial project and the intention to involve the public at every level. These open structures suggested a range of behaviors to capture something that, for the 31st Bienal team, was already one of its main contributions. 

By touring Brazil, the team behind the 31st Bienal is able to appraise itself of the local artistic perspectives, interests, concerns and needs. Sorocaba, a town that enjoyed notable cultural effervescence in the 1990s, albeit without solid cultural policy or any articulation between independent proposals, has since experienced a protracted stagnation, a situation that has changed somewhat since the creation, in 2013, of the Visual Poetics Research Studio, the first of many initiatives under SESC Sorocaba’s Frestas (Chinks) project, curated by Josué Mattos. Frestas is modular, and encompasses exhibitions, theater performances, concerts and transdisciplinary artistic actions, all intended to boost the local art scene.

Frestas plans to hold an Arts Triennial, which will be structured around the following question: ‘What would become of the world without all the things that don’t exist?’. The curatorial idea was inspired by the 2006 play ‘O que seria de nós sem as coisas que não existem?’ (What would become of us without all the things that don’t exist), conceived and staged by Lume Teatro – the Interdisciplinary Theater Research Center at the State University of Campinas. It is opportune to mention that this exhibition – featuring local and foreign artists – will take place in the second half of 2014, at the same time as the 31st Bienal.

If the curatorial team intended to explore relations between the center and the periphery, it is interesting to note this overlap between the 31st Bienal and the Sorocaba Triennial. The recurrence of poetics and curatorial and artistic strategies that aim to achieve some social or political impact beyond a significant range harks back to the paradigm of contemporary art: the dissolution between art and life, between audience and work.

Though in constant transformation since its creation in 1951, the Bienal de São Paulo wants to broaden its range and reach a wider public. Galit Eilat reiterated this desire to expand the idea of the Bienal and extend its reach. If the strategy is to create actions that allow the experience of this exhibition to abide beyond immediate consumption, then this conversation in Sorocaba strikes me as very relevant indeed, as it threw up a number of discussions and reflections, enabling those present to look anew at local issues through the lens of the Bienal. The Bienal de São Paulo emerged as a reference at once close and remote. The geographical proximity between São Paulo and Sorocaba is no measure of any affinity on the cultural front.

One thing that was evident from the conversation was the emphasis placed on inserting the 31st Bienal more deeply in the public sphere, making it more widely accessible. However, this self-styled cultural epicenter remains confined to its emblematic home: the Bienal Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park.

As occurred with the Bienal’s touring show, which took some of the work to other cities and towns, I can see a lot to be gained from taking part of the Bienal to places like Sorocaba, outside the network of capitals. This strategy would reinforce the team’s arguments, promoting and expanding contact with the population by affording an artistic experience in places where there is limited access to art.

On this edition of the Bienal, the curators plan to revise their use of the pavilion. After studying the layouts of earlier editions, the building’s architectonic qualities caught the team’s attention, and the decision was taken to free up access to the first floor. With this more fluid influx the 31st Bienal hopes to increase and unfetter visitor circulation. One of the few plans disclosed showed that the first floor, as an open floor, will be used to draw people in from the park and create a semi-private, semi-public buffer zone. The idea is to treat the pavilion not as a receptacle of art, but as a space for the event’s estimated half a million visitors.

This prototype would make the Bienal a superlative event in terms of works, visitors and sheer size. Inherent to the guiding thought of positing art for the people, an art that is collective, participative and engaged, and which demands of the viewer a more critical, active and participative approach, is speculation on whether visitor numbers can really be taken as a measure of an edition’s success.

In its attempt to revert deep-rooted models for which art is the preserve of the few, much of the investment in finding ways to make the experience more accessible falls to the Educativo Bienal. Taking this Bienal as a whole as an experience interspersed with and built out of educational processes, the robust educational team has already taken its place at the heart of the curatorship. In addition to commitment to its poetic discourse, the curatorial team also showed a strong belief in art’s power to foster social and political transformation.

The educational team revealed its capacity to deepen reflection upon, and the practical role of, art as a mediator, in a dialogic and collaborative process intended to straighten the bonds between people and art. It is important to remember that the budget allotted to the educational departments has grown in recent years, and this has favored an increase in visitation and sponsorship across the board, especially from 2000 on, when the Educational Development Fund (FDE) started organizing school visits to museums and cultural centers.

The educational professionals present at the meeting spoke of an infrastructure shortfall in art-education in the Sorocaba region which makes dialogue with the event more difficult. They also remembered deficiencies in the areas of education and security on previous visits to the Bienal by the region’s schools. If a lot of sponsorship money goes into specific support for seasonal cultural events, long-term formation still lacks funding.  While education is an ample process of formation, the educational department’s remit is confined to an exhibition whose success cannot be gauged from visitor numbers.

‘To speak of things that don’t exist’ is to cast doubts beyond culturally pre-established bounds. This fumbling in the dark is precisely what the 31st Bienal proposes, without any set destination. It is the realization that contemporary art has long been unable to account for the complexity and power of artistic, intellectual, economic and political production. In this state of emergency, configured by instability and risk, latency is potency.

texto: Ellen Nunes


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