Territory as theme and strategy: Geopoetics and the 8th Mercosul Biennial

My intention in this paper is to present a case study to consider ways through which contemporary art–and particularly curatorial practice–currently address and examine the idea of territory. I shall be concentrating on the 8th Mercosul Biennial, which took place in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil, between April and December 2011, under the title Essays in Geopoetics. The chief curator of the project was Jose Roca, who worked with a team of six curators–in a very collective way of operating–which included myself as assistant curator. 

Two main points of this curatorial experience guide this presentation: the idea of territory as a theme, namely the ways in which artists have addressed issues central to this discussion, such as ideas of nation and nationality, cartography, identity, colonialism and global/local relations; and the idea of territory as a strategy for curatorship, namely the attempt to develop the project in a close relationship and dialogue with the context in which it is held.

Before going any further, however, I think it is important to provide some contextual information about the event and the location where it took place. The Mercosul Biennial was created in 1997 in Porto Alegre, a city with a population of about 1.4 million in the extreme south of Brazil. The city is the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the fourth-largest economy in the country and one of the five states with the highest Human Development Index (HDI)–measured according to factors such as per-capita income, health and education. This means that it is a relatively wealthy region within the Brazilian context and it also has its own particular characteristics, such as a subtropical climate with four defined seasons, the important presence of European immigration (especially German and Italian) and a strong identification with the far south of Latin America, especially Uruguay and Argentina. These are countries with which the region shares its climate, the Pampa landscape, the identity of the gaucho, the culture of the churrasco/parrilla and even specific linguistic constructions: characteristics which, among other aspects, have fed the considerably shared view among inhabitants of the state that Rio Grande do Sul is “less Brazilian” than other states in the country. 

Although these features do in fact distance the region from a certain stereotype of Brazil (tropical, hot, with beaches, carnival and festivals), the belief is clearly questionable in that it implies the existence of a “genuine and unique Brazilian identity” that is more-or-less fixed, homogenous and timeless. I do not want to spend more time on this aspect here, but I think it is important to mention this issue, since it is something that was also present in the development of a Biennial focused on the idea of territory.

Despite what its name may suggest, the Mercosul Biennial is not a project developed collectively by the member countries of the Mercosul trading bloc, nor is it based in different locations or focused solely on the artistic production of the region. The project was created by a private foundation, financed fully by Brazil, with funds coming mainly from public sources through legislation offering financial incentives to companies interested in supporting cultural projects.

On the one hand, within the Brazilian context, the Biennial was created at an important time of re-valuation of the cultural context, a moment of intensive institutionalisation and professionalization on the art scene, although we should note the relative fragility of those processes, supported by the country’s economic stability achieved with the Plano Real and the creation of cultural incentive legislation, among other factors. It was a time when the central position of the Rio-São Paulo axis on the cultural scene began to make way for other centres of production and dissemination in the country, such as Porto Alegre and Recife, and the Mercosul Biennial played an important role in this process.

On the other hand, considered in a broader context, the Mercosul Biennial was created amidst the proliferation of Biennials in various parts of the world during the final two decades of the twentieth century–and particularly in places distant from the traditional centres. Many reasons contributed to this process: a pursuit of political, economic and cultural affirmation, a search for legitimation in the face of the global and an attempt to establish an “articulation of difference” to use Homi Bhabha’s concept.  In other words, establishing another place for articulation of the discourse about the other, the outsider, the eccentric–an aim which, as we know, was not always achieved. It is therefore important to stress that at the time of its creation the Biennial as an exhibition model was already being questioned in terms of its nature as spectacle and tourist attraction, the ossification of its format and the difficulty of addressing an important sector of contemporary production which is more process-based and less adaptable to the exhibition format–just to name a few aspects.

This is the context in which the Mercosul Biennial was created, with a special focus on art made in Latin America. It sought really to establish a discourse about this production from another place/point of view; with an important emphasis on its educational role; and with a format that was re-modelled with each edition, both in terms of the spaces in which the event takes place (there is a relatively fixed core, but the Biennial always explores different places with each event), or in relation to its structure: quantity, format and curatorial strategy of the exhibitions, how they function as a whole, the role of the curator and the artist, the presence of a historical section, etc. In this sense, the 8th Mercosul Biennial forms a dialogue with the two previous editions in particular, which in some way sought to “twist” the Biennial format, testing ways of organising and articulating the event that do not just translate into exhibitions.

The title Essays on Geopoetics refers to the various ways in which artists address the notion of territory and redefine it, based on geographical, political and cultural perspectives. The proposal was inspired by issues such as the tensions between local and transnational territories, the idea that local and global are related terms and not descriptions of well defined and isolated physical or symbolic territories; also by the connection between political constructs, geographical circumstances and the construction of narratives of identity, and finally the way in which cultural interchange and circulation of symbolic capital are articulated today.

On the one hand, the event proposed a discussion about the idea of territory, while on the other it also sought to investigate and act upon the actual territory of Porto Alegre and Rio Grande do Sul, intensifying the relationship with the local–and it is worth recalling here the recurrent criticism that Biennials often turn their backs on local audiences and focus more on the international art community. The 8th Biennial therefore extended the action of the event in space and time, involving the organisation not just of exhibitions but also activation strategies. 

A total of seven major actions were organised under the titles of: Geopoetics, Travel Notebooks, Unseen City, Beyond Frontiers, the Eugenio Dittborn exhibition, Continents and Casa M. An important aspect of the project was the participation of the education curator, Pablo Helguera, in defining the development of the curatorial proposal, which led to each component also being presented as a platform for connection with the education programme. As we shall see, this meant that instances of curatorship and education were not devised in isolation or in parallel, nor according to a kind of hierarchy in which the education programme only responded to the curatorial proposal.

Time – and space – prevents a detailed presentation of each component, so I have chosen to centre on three actions in particular: the Geopoetics exhibition, Travel Notebooks and Casa M.

The Geopoetics exhibition involved more than half of all the 105 artists in the event and also involved a greater concentration of participants from countries beyond Latin America. It occupied three warehouse spaces on the Porto Alegre quayside, which was one of the main locations of the event. That is probably the component that best exemplifies the treatment of the idea of territory as a theme. The show was centred on a discussion about the idea of nation within the context of a globalised world: How can nation be defined today? As a cultural construct (unlike the country, which is defined by geographical territory, and the state, defined by political organisation), to what extent is a nation also a fiction? And to what extent are the conventional concepts of nation/state/country being questioned by new forms of organisation that go beyond territoriality? These may be forms based on religious or political belief, ethnicity, customs, language, or forms of articulation that are not governed by political control or geographical boundaries, such as transnational entities with political or economic aims. What is the status of a fictional nation? Can there be cartography that is not at the service of domination?

In this sense, Geopoetics explored different aspects of the ideas of state, country and nation: their symbolic rhetoric (map, flag, anthem, passport), the ways they represent themselves and are represented by others, strategies of self-affirmation and consolidation of identity, processes of cultural hybridization or the ways they address and transform or are addressed and transformed by other nations and cultures, etc. 

Barthélémy Toguo (Mbalmayo, Cameroon) showed a new version of his performative installation The New World Climax (Berlin, 2001). He made a series of huge carved wooden stamps, displayed on tables together with woodcut prints. The stamps relate to the very complicated process of visa application and immigration experienced by citizens from developing countries. Ironically, they take the form and materiality of typical African carvings commonly bought by tourists as souvenirs–and easily transported from one place to another. The images are inspired by the markings in Toguo’s passport and his own experience with constant migration. For the 8th Biennial, the images also referred to territories under dispute or whose political status is questioned or also to identity narratives based on aspects other than territoriality. The work thus indicates the fragility of these constructions while at the same time pointing out the ambiguity of a world in which displacement and movement become constants, where being in transit means somehow belonging to this new order, and where, on the other hand, the circulation of people is more strictly controlled than the one of services and goods.

Jonathan Harker (Quito, Ecuador) also addressed the relationship between hegemonic and non-hegemonic countries and the way in which narratives of identity are also constructed by these relationships. In Manawa, Nicarawa (2010), the artist presents a sort of video clip based on a famous foxtrot composed in 1946 by the Americans Irving Fields and Albert Gamse. A huge success during the hay day of the Nicaraguan capital, the song is still part of the national imagery nowadays. Its English and Spanish verses celebrate an idealised tropical paradise with a warm climate, abundant nature, easy women, little work and much partying “for a few pesos down.” This satirical imagery full of clichés reflects foreign perception of the country–and to a degree Nicaraguans’ perception of themselves–while evoking the exploitation and inequalities in the complex relationship between the United States and Nicaragua, which for decades experienced direct interventions by the North American government. 

Relationships of domination and subordination between countries and territories are also suggested by Hago mío este territorio / I claim this territory as mine (2007) by Manuela Ribadeneira (Quito, Ecuador). The piece symbolically and literally reclaims a territory through an implacable gesture of thrusting a knife displaying this statement into a wall, exploring the rituals of possession and conquest of territory and the various ways in which a kingdom, a government or a community declares a land as theirs. 

Representations of territories were also present in Geografia de encontros / Geography of encounters (2010/2011) by Mayana Redin (Campinas, Brazil). This series of drawings creates new cartographies based on the overlapping of places and landscapes–or the lines that outline their shapes and define their boundaries. Examples include bringing together all the countries without seas or the confluence of three coloured seas–the Black Sea, the Red Sea and the Yellow Sea. Geographical features, geopolitical issues, historical conditions and images suggested by words are the inspiration behind Mayana Redin’s fictional geographies. 

Among other works included in the Geopoetics exhibition were spaces known as Zones of Poetic Autonomy: small symbolic territories that represented a nation within the exhibition, sometimes a fictional one created by an artist, sometimes a real one inspiring an art project, sometimes a nation that wouldn’t fit into either category, such as the Principality of Sealand, a micro nation created in 1967 on an old military base 11 km from the east coast of Great Britain in what were then international waters. With a territory of less than 500m2, and a national currency, flag, anthem, stamps and passport, Sealand has never been internationally recognised, although some episodes in its history have reinforced its independence.

Travel Notebooks was another exhibition shown in one of the quayside warehouses, but one that developed through a series of journeys and activities in different regions of Rio Grande do Sul in an attempt to take the Biennial beyond the city of Porto Alegre. It is a component that offers a very good interpretation of the idea of adopting territory not just as a theme but also as a curatorial strategy, since it developed precisely through close contact with the region: at first, with curators doing research trips and, most importantly, with the artists themselves travelling and producing within this territory.

Travel Notebooks involved the work of nine artists travelling to different regions of Rio Grande do Sul from April to August 2011. Each journey lasted two to three weeks. The idea was that this experience should work not as a research trip but that the artist should develop work during that time, allowing the experience of travel, the landscape and social or cultural interaction to indicate how the project would develop. At the end of the period each artist held an exhibition in a space at their destination, displaying the results of the art processes followed during the journey–their travel notebooks, in a way, which took the form of video, photographs, drawings, installation, etc. The participating artists also offered workshops related to their projects and gave talks about their work. Having completed the journey and returned to their studios, they then developed the works to be shown in Porto Alegre. 

Mateo Lopez (Bogotá, Colombia) travelled to a region known as Caminho dos Moinhos [The Mills Route], in the north of Rio Grande do Sul, staying there for three weeks and developing a body of work concerned with the culture, history and meaning of bread in the region. Making notes and drawings and collecting small objects, the artist transformed the old mill of the Ilópolis Museu do Pão [Bread Museum], where he showed his work, into a kind of studio which visitors were invited to explore, discovering the artist’s investigations and interventions in the place. The installations combined architecture, objects from the region and drawings that sometimes recreated and sometimes imitated reality to produce three-dimensional constructions. During his stay Mateo Lopez ran a series of drawing workshops, held an open discussion with the public and took part in a museum-organised event in Ilópolis town square, teaching local inhabitants to make bread sculptures in the square’s clay oven.

Marcos Sari (Porto Alegre, Brazil) travelled to the Pampa region in the southwest of the state, developing a series of works based on the landscape of the region. His particularly painterly way of seeing used the vastness and luminosity of the landscape as a kind of background for his works, investigating colour, planes, light, texture and depth through temporary interventions on site, which were recorded with photographs. The works involved the use of fabrics that created kinds of marks in the landscape and the use of ropes, fabric tape and metal bars to draw shapes in the location. Although coming from Porto Alegre, Marcus Sari had never previously visited the region. During his journey, he also organized a series of activities with the local community, such as workshops on painting, intervention and landscape, a talk about his work and an exhibition in a local cultural centre.

The work of Nick Rands (London, England) developed in a quite individual way in the context of the project. He often works using systems of counting (taking a photograph every so many paces, using a colour every so often in painting), and his project did not develop out of the experience of travelling or through contact with the places visited, but rather through a particular travel strategy (or approach to territory) and a system of collecting images and materials from the places visited. The artist drew the largest possible square on the map of Rio Grande do Sul and planned to visit every point at which the line of the square intersected with a road: 80 in total, together with the four places at the corners of the square. At each location he collected earth from the ground and took a photograph of the sky–and at every kilometre of the journey (3.600 in total) he took a photograph of the road ahead. At each corner of the square he also collected more earth and recorded a 360º panoramic video of the landscape. All the rules and procedures were defined before the journey began, indicating but not defining the final result of the work, which is always an unknown for the artist. The earth collected from the four corners was used to paint four large “spherical paintings,” which were shown at the art museum in Santa Maria, more or less at the centre of the square travelled by the artist, together with a video of the four panoramic recordings from the corners. 

If Travel Notebooks was the component that most extended the 8th Biennial in space, expanding the places of the event’s activities and also allowing it to be fed from that space, Casa M extended the Biennial’s actions in time. As a cultural space in the format of a house, it opened in Porto Alegre before the main event and remained in operation after it had closed, with a total of seven months of activities. In addition to hosting discussions, workshops and courses about the 8th Biennial artists and themes, Casa M also had its own programme which featured intersections between art languages and fields of knowledge through the encouragement of encounter, debate and exchange and an emphasis on the art process and experimentation rather than presentation of results.

Although not an exhibition space, Casa M did have an exhibition programme, which was concentrated in the building’s small vitrine–having been a hat shop in the early twentieth century–for which a different artist each month produced a site-specific project. In addition to these small exhibitions, the building also had three permanent works which in some way merged with the architecture and the use of the space: the doorbell, which played different sounds throughout the building, to create a kind of symphony, by Vitor Cesar (Fortaleza, Brazil); the garden, which was covered with different tones of red sand and also had a cube made of burnt timbers, contrasting with the grey of the neighbouring buildings and the green of the vegetation, by Fernando Limberger (Porto Alegre, Brazil); and finally the furniture housing art books and magazines from the Biennial Foundation’s Research and Documentation Centre, available for public consultation for the first time in a kind of library, designed by Daniel Acosta (Pelotas, Brazil). 

The internal architecture was also elaborated to be able to meet a variety of needs, creating flexible spaces and furniture, like the library itself, which was also used as a space for courses and discussions; the kitchen, which many times became a meetings room; the entrance space, which sometimes contained tables and chairs as a kind of café or could be transformed into a large hall for performances, music and theatre presentations.

As part of its programme, Casa M hosted a group of twelve artists from different art forms (theatre, music, literature, dance and the visual arts) who used the space during the seven-month period as a place for working and research, giving workshops and developing joint proposals in pairs, which were presented to the public each fortnight. The works involved a mixture of a wide range of formats: performance, installation, video, musical, puppet theatre. There was also a fortnightly discussion programme bringing together professionals from different fields to share experiences of projects in development and exchange ideas about their practice, be it artistic, scientific, curatorial, gastronomic, critical, etc. Another important activity involved a series of curatorial residencies, in which four curators from different Latin American countries spent one week in Porto Alegre, visiting studios and activating the Casa M programme.

Besides the activities offered, one of the key aspects of the project was that Casa M also took shape through how it was used, being effectively taken over by its public and being reinvented by the people visiting it. It could be considered as a space simply for being in. Like a house, it could be a place for reading a book, having a cup of coffee, meeting friends, making contact with new people, listening to music, taking the sun in the yard. It was a place that could be adopted as a kind of third place, outside the space of the home and of work, a place for social interaction and opening out other possibilities of relating to art, life, the other and the city. 

In this sense, the first audiences for the project, besides the cultural and artistic community of Porto Alegre, were the Biennial team itself–particularly the 200 mediators of the education programme, who in fact adopted the space as a meeting point and proposed numerous activities, such as evening get-togethers, workshops, video sessions, walks through the neighbourhood, picnics–and Casa M’s neighbours, who despite being more hesitant in their involvement also took part in the project, attending discussions, workshops, meetings and monthly tea parties. Many of these neighbours also took part in the “Fica Casa M” campaign at the end of the year, organised in favour of retaining the space as a permanent fixture. It should also be mentioned that the programme grew and diversified throughout the year as a result of suggestions from the community itself (not just from Porto Alegre but also from other parts of the country and Latin America) involving workshops, publications launches, video presentations, theatrical performances, etc. Even for us, as curators, it was surprising to notice how much attention Casa M attracted in the cultural scene of the city in such a short period of activities and how the project began to take on its own life over the months.

Vegetable-garden in the yard, musical rehearsals in the basement, a kitchen transformed into a bread studio or into a classroom for university students, the library hosting a play, the garden converted into a children’s playground, performances on the stairs and a studio improvising a dance floor: these are just some of the experiences that activated Casa M and brought other meanings into the place.

That was perhaps the action that most markedly achieved closer contacts with the local community and took shape through close dialogue with it, addressing the local context not as a “passive receptor,” but as an active agent deeply involved in the development of the project. The idea of territory as an action strategy here acquired its own special shape. Traversed by the different components, themes and artists of the 8th Biennial (in the courses and workshops or through the discussions with artists and curators), Casa M formed a kind of community around the event, a territory through which the project was offered to the public while at the same time sharing its development process and being infected and transformed through that relationship.

The other components of the Biennial involved two further activation strategies: Continents, involved residencies by six artist-run spaces from different places in Latin America in three separate towns in Rio Grande do Sul, with each host space loaning its facilities to the guest space for three weeks to develop a joint collaborative programme. The Unseen City project involved nine invited artists who developed works for places of historical, architectural or social interest in Porto Alegre city centre that usually passed by unnoticed by the local population. 

The Biennial event was completed by two other exhibitions: a show of Eugenio Dittborn’s airmail paintings, as the artist of honour for the 8th edition; and an exhibition that brought together different views about the frontier regions of Rio Grande do Sul: the Pampa (shared with Uruguay and Argentina), the Jesuit missions (shared with Paraguay and Argentine) and the canyon region (shared with the state of Santa Catarina). These are places where political-geographic boundaries become blurred by the contiguity of the natural and cultural landscape in particular.

If the 8th Biennial investigated different ways of addressing and defining the idea of territory today, considering the concept not just as a theme but also as an action strategy, it also proposed ways of seeing the territory in which it developed and from which it sought sustenance. This is a sort of “articulation of difference” involving not only art production but also about the region itself. One example can be seen in the work of Cao Guimarães (Belo Horizonte, Brazil), made for the Beyond Frontiers exhibition. The highly attentive and sensitive eye employed in his film Limbo focuses on the context of country people in the Pampa region on the Rio Grande do Sul-Uruguay boundary. The images the artist recorded are permeated by a melancholy tone, extended tempo, broad horizons and a sense of disenchantment. The work creates a kind of portrait of this place that is neither one country nor another, but rather a region in itself. It is a place where Uruguayans, Argentinians and Brazilians call themselves “border people” identifying their origins in this “in between place” defined more by its interconnections than by its boundaries. 

* Paper originally presented at an international symposium organized by the Royal College of Arts (London) together with Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporâneo (Seville) at Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, in Seville, March 2012. The symposium was named Coloniality, Curating and Contemporary Art.

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