Embracing the Sāo Paulo Biennial’s Acute Uncertainty

Carolina Caycedo, "Dammed Landscape (El Quimbo)" from the "Be Dammed," 2012-ongoing. Courtesy the artist.
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1951. “I don’t look back. I don’t want to know. I only think about the future, and I know that it’s certain.” These words came from Ciccillo Matarazzo Sobrinho, founder of the Sāo Paulo Biennial, an occasion inspired by the Venice Biennale that, throughout time, consecrated itself as the only vehicle through which Brazilians could see the best of the international artworld. It also became a maneuver, a way to elevate the local artistic production in an international context, something achieved thanks to the unwritten “law” that states that approximately 30% of the Biennial participants must be Brazilian. The enhancement of the Biennial accompanied the development of a characteristic national aesthetic with a peculiar flavor (to the extent that they often talk about the art of other neighbors of the continent as Latin American, as if they were something else), which came as the result of the cannibalization of the European influence, as Paulo Herkenhoff brilliantly showed in his anthropophagy Biennial in 1998. For at least three decades, the Biennial has succeeded in making the Brazilian art circuit the most powerful of the continent.

By the mid-2000s Brazilians had enough of seeing “the best of the artworld,” and the local artistic industry peaked. At least that’s what Ivo Mesquita concluded when proposing his Empty Biennial in 2008, when he showed absolutely nothing on one of the floors of the event. Some called it a pioneer sample of institutional critique in Latin America; others, the coherence between the dematerialization of art and budgetary adjustments.

2016. Brazil is a mess. Besides the financial and economical crisis, there’s the Zika outbreak and an outlandish political circus that will immanently leave the country without a President. If we focus on the Brazilian artistic circuit we’ll see a new megalomaniac infrastructure closing, Casa Daros in Rio de Janeiro, galleries pulling down the blinds, huge museum budgets that have been toppled, a decimated Mercosur Biennial in Portoalegre, and the threat of total obliteration of hundreds of other cultural institutions. The time when galleries were going to art schools in Sāo Paulo to recruit “future artists” are now memories of another era. The consequences of this sudden precariousness, as shown in the last SP Art Fair, is a smaller selection of galleries and a diminishment in creative risk-taking. Brazil’s “peculiar flavor” has become a cliché and artists have chosen to turn in on themselves. With this scenario, it’s hard to remember Matarazzo’s words, especially if we want to trace a preview of the next Sāo Paulo Biennial entitled “Live Uncertainty.”

Jochen Volz, the curator of the 32nd edition that will take place from September to December of the present year, has been working since 2015 with co-curators Gabi Ngcobo, Júlia Rebouças, Lars Bang Larsen, and Sofía Olascoaga. I asked Volz how the function of this Biennial has changed since Matarazzo’s initiation, and he confirmed a mutation: “It doesn’t have the same function that it had 50 years ago, it’s no longer the window that allows the Brazilian people to see the best of the artworld, but it’s still the most important platform for experimenting in the artistic practice, and in the field of narratives. It still has political and symbolic value, an educational function, and it’s mostly for an audience that doesn’t have access to these kinds of events.” This answer fits with the fact that most of the exhibition’s artists are in the beginning of their careers.

I refrain from indulging in critical dismissal too quickly. Because although the Sāo Paulo Biennial has changed a lot since its foundation, it is, undoubtedly, a unique opportunity to admire the best of the international artist circuit; the Biennial is still the main artistic event of the continent. That’s why, despite the aforementioned crisis, authorities raised the budget by 20%, this edition. So I look to the curatorial thesis, and dig in.

One innovation of this Biennial is the The Study Days. These are basically previews of the Biennial in different countries, where the curators intend to explain “Live Uncertainty” and its curatorial thesis. It’s a mixture between ecological concerns, community and service, political shifts and cosmological thinking. I attended the first of these Study Days, in Chile, and understood how this “uncertainty” term binds with the instability of the absolutes, of the “official” history, and how human or natural disasters prevent foreseeing everyday life as it is. This theory applies to individual routines and the failure of economic, social, and political systems. After the curators’ explanations during Study Days, what I concluded is that the curatorial thesis appears naïve and confused, especially when they’re binding aspects like cosmological thinking or ghosts with global warming, the give-and-take between science and occultism, or “the injustice in the distribution of the Earth’s natural resources and global migration”: an odd mixture in the midst of a drifting country.

Once I analyzed the curatorial mission, I wondered if the artists’ projects – most of them commissioned – would be engaged with the present economical or political crisis in Brazil, principally given that issues relating to the exhaustion of capitalism or democratic systems are outlined in the theoretical content of the exhibition. For the curator, these current events are on the table: “When we proposed the theme Incerteza Viva to the artists, we were anticipating some issues: when we thought about the uncertainty in education, schools went on strike in Sāo Paulo a few weeks later. We talked about ecology and extinction, and we had the horrid catastrophe in Mariana. When we talked about narratives, we saw how the political discourse in Brazil became so frightening, so superficial. So, many of the things were kind of there. Many of the projects began before the political crisis. Now it has changed, and how we adapt to these changes depends on us and the artists.” It’s easy to become a prophet when you’re working with such wide, diverse, and foreseeable issues. The question is how will the artists focus on these troubles, and how are they translating the curatorial tasks. Which is why I asked them directly.

I spoke to Carolina Caycedo, who will continue her work with dams, rivers, and the privatization of water and its consequences: community displacement and ecocide. She attempts to make a connection between what the curators want to display and her mission, saying, “Working with displaced communities in moments of uncertainty is when collective bodies are generated. This condition of uncertainty is an opportunity for emerging communities and resistance. If we look closely, this concept of uncertainty is a living thing, it may allow alternatives and resistance: the creation of other worlds and other situations that can turn things around.” On a more poetical note, the young Chilean artist Pilar Quinteros advanced me her proposal, Smoke Signals. It will be a mix of musical pieces, drawings, and an installation: “I made reference to the story of an English explorer named Percy Harrison Fawcett who knew of the existence of a lost city in Mato Grosso during the first half of the twentieth century, and imagined it with so many forces that he ended up traveling to Brazil, entering the jungle, and getting lost in his will to find it. My idea is to revive the impulse that led him to seek the unknown.” The first example shows us a well-intentioned artist trying to address serious problems by optimistically relying on the power of the collective. One of the causes that led the country into the present state of impeachment is the the lack of community organization from leftwing supporters. Will a performance in an artistic environment be able to encourage the masses? The second provides us a useful metaphor: an artist lost in the jungle following the steps of an explorer obsessed with a fantastical place. We don’t have to make great imaginary efforts to see how this adventure in Grosso can connect with the Biennial’s idea of uncertainty.

In the midst of our current state of precariousness, the curatorial team published the complete list of artists in early May, as well as the layout of the works along the Matarazzo’s Pavlovian (the “Aircraft Carrier”). It’s the first time that the full list of participants has remained unknown until five months before the opening. And this was planned: “We wanted to react to the political but also artistic situation.” Will the curators and organizers have the sufficient ability to work towards completion of an “uncertain” thesis? And in five months? It seems to me that the curatorial concept’s lack of coherence will become too much of a challenge. Let’s make a comparison with the other crucial appointment of the Brazilian agenda: the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Try to imagine an athlete summoned a few months before the competition. To my mind, he would have two options: to reject it, or force himself to make superhuman efforts in record time.

The moment in which the artists and curators will have to demonstrate whether they have good reflexes is getting closer. Anyway, this imposed state of doubt has no antidote. As Jochen Volz foresees, “On the tenth of September, when the Biennial opens, only 50% will be ready. The audience will bring their ideas, feelings, and expectations, and they will complete the project.” I can come up with a few ifs, considering the current state of affairs: if, considering the Biennial as a privileged oasis with a budget increase, it’s the proper place for experiments. If, with this political struggle, we can talk about cosmological thinking. If the Brazilian art circuit will continue ignoring what happens amongst its neighbors. If there will be a reposition by opening up to what their neighbors are bringing to the scene (Chile, Argentina, Peru). If our only way out is to invoke Fawcett’s spirit, the English explorer of Quinteros’s work, while searching for an imaginary Biennial. Until the time comes, we are nervously embracing our uncertainty.

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