To celebrate the 33rd edition of the Bienal de São Paulo we spoke with Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, its chief curator and director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
Rethinking the curatorial role, this edition which opens in September 2018 will see twelve individual projects selected by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro and seven group shows conceived by the artist-curators invited by the chief curator: Mamma Andersson, Antonio Ballester Moreno, Sofia Borges, Waltercio Caldas, Alejandro Cesarco, Claudia Fontes and Wura-Natasha Ogunji.
Here, we speak with Pérez-Barreiro about the upcoming edition and why the decision was made to give the creative power to the seven artist-curators.
First off, congratulations on your position as curator for the 33rd São Paulo Bienal opening this September. Perhaps you could begin with telling us about which direction you wanted to take this edition, and if it differs from previous editions?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
Thank you! When I received the invitation to curate the 33rd edition of such an important and long-standing event, the first thing I thought about was how to try to avoid some of the commonplaces of contemporary curatorial practice, such as the choice of a theme, the assembling of a laundry-list of artist names, the cramming of the exhibition space, and so on. In making list after list of sources of inspiration, I realized that most of the people I wanted to work with, and most of the exhibitions that had impressed me in the last few years were artists, or exhibitions curated by artists and so I thought that it would be interesting to invert the traditional curator-theme-artist relationship and place artists at the center of the project, giving them real autonomy and power within the curatorial structure. The bienal will consist of seven different artist-curated exhibitions, along with twelve individual projects that I have selected. Rather than trying to create an event with a single thematic axis, I am actively looking for different, contrasting experiences, which I also think helps the audience to have a more manageable and human-scale experience.
Your decision to distribute the decision-making power and to focus on creative relationships was selected by the the Fundação Bienal, but how has this decision been received so far? Has there been any difficulties with enforcing this shift of decision-making?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
None whatsoever. The Foundation has been very supportive of this new model, and I feel that the artistic community has welcomed this experiment.
Can you tell us about the seven artists that have been invited to conceive the seven different exhibitions created specifically for the Bienal? How was the decision made to select these seven and what was the selection process?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
I started with the sense that I wanted between five and ten artists, and that there should be a balance of around one-third Brazilian, one-third Latin American and one-third rest of the world. And of course a gender balance. Once these criteria were set I started looking for artists that I thought would be interested by this challenge. Not every artist wants to curate, but some either have this as part of their practice, or were waiting for the opportunity to do so. The final list reflects a range from established artists who have curated before, like Waltercio Caldas or Alejandro Cesarco, to people for whom this is a new challenge, like Claudia Fontes or Antonio Ballester Moreno. After several months of studio visits and conversations I felt we had the right balance.
What is the meaning behind the title ‘Affective Affinities’? In a way, does it act as the over-arching theme of the exhibition?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
It is not a theme but rather an evocative title. It comes from a mash-up between Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1809) and Mário Pedrosa’s thesis On the Affective Nature of Form (1949) which was a key text in the development of Brazilian art. On one hand I am interested in how artists create a universe of references and dialogues with other artworks, and also in how each member of the audience will construct their own relationships with the different artworks presented in the bienal. I feel we are too used to the idea that a biennial (or any other curatorial project) has a ‘message’ to communicate, independently of people’s actual experience of the exhibition, and I wanted to recover that sense of an individual construction of experience in an exhibition.
In addition to being the curator of the 33rd São Paulo Bienal you are also the director of the Director and Chief Curator of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, one of the most most acclaimed collections of Latin American art. How has working with the collection influenced your position as curator for the 33rd São Paulo Bienal?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
The Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) is an unusual organization is that it is a collection without a museum, with a very specific mission to encourage scholarship and critical thinking on the place of Latin American art in a global context. It has been a great platform from which to observe the many changes in the field over these last few years as Latin American art has increasingly become part of the global mainstream. It’s also a collection in which the relationship with artists is key, and for example our publishing program is dedicated to book-length scholarly conversations with artists. So I think that some of these interests are common to both projects, while of course the biennial is a totally different, and very public, project.
The Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros is renowned not pigeonholing itself within the genre of Latin American art, with many of the works challenging the preconceived ideas of Latin American art. How do you ensure that the collection continues to develop and grow, whilst also continuing to challenge itself?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
The CPPC actually consists of five distinct areas: ethnographic objects from the Venezuelan Amazon, colonial art, 19th century traveler-artists, modern art and contemporary art. We are perhaps best known for the modern collection, a large part of which was recently donated to MoMA together with the creation of the Cisneros Research Institute. We continue to work actively in the other areas of the collection, and also have a very active publications and grants program, and our website is a forum for debate and discussion about the central issues in our field. So we continue to have the same mission, but the programs change in accordance to the context around us, and also the possibilities of new technologies.
As a curator for the 33rd São Paulo Bienal and as Director and Chief Curator at Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, what responsibly do you carry in regards to educating the public about Contemporary Art and in particular, Latin American art?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
I don’t really like the idea of ‘educating’ as it presupposes a body of knowledge that is transferred from top to bottom. I think that as curators we create opportunities for people to have experiences that are non-instrumental and therefore experimental. I am suspicious of categories like ‘contemporary art’ or ‘Latin American art’ because they presuppose a specific set of contents and assumptions. Of course we use these terms every day in our professional lives, but I think we should try to leave them behind when we are curating, and try to imagine that we are coming across these objects for the first time, and work from that place of uncertainty and unfamiliarity.
Latin American art has seen a steady increase in visibility in the West in recent years – what do you think is the contributing factor for this?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
First of all I would question the idea that Latin America is not part of the “West”. I think that over the past decades, as the art world has globalized, and scholars have questioned the dominant Europe-US axis of art history, we are all becoming aware of the great contributions of other parts of the world whose histories have not had so many opportunities to be known. There are many factors behind this: economic, political and academic, but I think we are in a much better place than a few years ago.
You once stated that “art is a language” – can you tell us more about your relationship to language and translation and how this impacts your role as a curator?GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO
I grew up in a household of translators, and I always liked the idea of translation, or ‘transcreation’ as Haroldo de Campos called it, in regard to art mediation. Art is a codified language, and there are often specific contexts or ideas that can be helpful in approaching a work of art. At the same time, experience is fundamental, and as curators we need to find a balance, or multiple strategies, to make sure that we provide as many points of entry as we can.