“Field Conversation: Da terra ao corpo, do corpo a terra” [From the Earth to the Body,(?) the Body to the Earth], 2013. Exhibition view: 9th Mercosul Biennial, Montenegro, Rio Grande do Sul. Event led by agronomist and researcher Flávia Charão and psychologist Paulo Gleich. Photo: Liege Ferreira
In the vibrant field of international biennials, the Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, Brazil, is distinguished by its commitment to pedagogy and active exploration of new methods for mediating and presenting contemporary art. Including fifty-nine artists from Latin America as well as across the globe, the ninth edition of the biennial was organized around three components: a major exhibition, entitled “Portals, Forecasts and Monotypes”; an initiative called Island Sessions, involving field trips, discussions, and an online publication; and a five-month art education program, entitled Cloud Formations. On December 7, the New Museum hosted a lecture by Mercosul Artistic Director and Chief Curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy in which she discussed the exhibition’s unique structure and themes including time, weather, and technology. One of the Mercosul Curatorial Cloud Fellows, Sarah Demeuse, expounded on the contours of the education program, highlighting Home Inventions, an open call for videos in which individuals present their everyday inventions, and Island Sessions, which included monthly field trips to Ilha do Presídio [Prison Island] for discursive events.
To follow up Hernández Chong Cuy’s talk at the New Museum, we invited the Pedagogical Cloud Curator of the 9th Mercosul Biennial, Dominic Willsdon, and the Ground Curator, Mônica Hoff, to discuss the history and approach of this particular program, particularly in relation to the idea of the city as curriculum.
Dominic Willsdon: It is often said that the Mercosul Biennial is an “education biennial,” but what does it mean for a biennial to be defined by its educational identity? Before I arrived in Porto Alegre last year and began to work with you, Mônica, I would have said that the educational identity of the biennial was comprised of two elements. First, a commitment to schools, which enables more than 400,000 students to visit during the ten weeks that the exhibition is up. Second, each edition of the biennial contributes a unique theoretical position in an ongoing discussion on the role of education in contemporary art. Through symposia or publications produced by the biennial, education is revalued, in one way or another, as an essential process in art and not merely a framework in which art is viewed. But now I realize there is also a key third element, one that is less well known: the training program that the biennial holds. Through this program, the biennial plays a role as a kind of college for continuing education in contemporary culture, giving hundreds of people the opportunity to participate over six months, both before and during the exhibition. This is not a temporary school, but a periodic school, one that pulses through the city every two years.
Mônica Hoff: Yes, these are the three core elements. They have come about organically, for a variety of reasons, and not according to any blueprint. The educational profile ascribed to the biennial results from a convergence of common interests: a will to learn together, lots of work, and a dose of utopian spirit.
DW: In addition to these elements, there is also the post of Pedagogical Curator, which was created for the biennial’s sixth edition in 2007 and first held by Luis Camnitzer. He was succeeded by Marina de Caro in 2009, and then Pablo Helguera in 2011. While having a post such as Pedagogical Curator gives education a certain status, the biennial’s emphasis on education certainly predates the creation of this post.
MH: Right. The theoretical emphasis on education also emerged around 2006, just before the creation of the post. From that time, the biennial sought to understand itself as a self-critical exhibition that constantly feeds back into and remodels itself—or, as proposed by Camnitzer and De Caro respectively: “A way of formulating and solving problems,” and “Education, as a space for the development of experimental micropolises.” 1 Also, the commitment to schools that you mention is based on a social imperative, which has been in place from the start. There are deep relationships between the biennial and schools in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Each edition of the biennial offers free transportation from Rio Grande do Sul schools in addition to free admission, which is available to everyone.
The third element, the training program, is the most dear to me. The mediators’ training program has been in place, in one way or another, since the first edition of the biennial in 1997. It has “trained” (now quite the wrong word for this) over two thousand mediators to date. As in most cultural institutions, the original intention was to produce a workforce to assist the visiting public with special attention to students and teachers. However, behind these numbers and this service lies its real meaning. The mediators are not simply “training,” but they support a set of encounters between people from many backgrounds; they invite the public to exchange ideas, experiences, practices, poetics, paths, and forms of affection, akin to friendship. The mediators are not translators, decoders, or transmitters, but “transcreators” and cultural producers; they learn, produce, and exchange knowledge all at the same time. As proposed by Camnitzer back in 2006–07, the Mercosul Biennial changed from an exhibition-centered institution to a micro-university, or a periodic college of contemporary culture, as you said.
But, even in the fifth edition of the biennial in 2005, the shift began when the mediators’ training was opened to university students from all disciplines—ranging from visual arts to medicine, from architecture to social sciences, from engineering to law and biology, all disciplines… Although it didn’t feel like a big step at the time, this led to a more profound opening up of the biennial to a greater range of publics, and that, in turn, provided a way for the exhibition to be infiltrated by many different forms of knowledge and experience.
After 2005, the mediators came to be seen as more than service providers. They themselves were “the public,” in fact the biennial’s first public, I would say. Most importantly, the biennial was transformed by them. They became the agents through which the biennial could review and renew itself institutionally. In addition to conducting public tours and other discursive events that interface between the public and the exhibition, the mediators represent the aggregated cultural communities in Porto Alegre. Edition after edition I have seen so many mediators returning, changing courses, changing their lives, becoming researchers, artists, curators, educators, producers, critics, journalists, historians, founders of alternative spaces, directors of cultural institutions, and in other ways to contribute to a regional conversation around contemporary art.
I was a mediator myself at the second edition of the biennial in 1999, and the lead producer/coordinator of the pedagogical program for the sixth edition through the eighth. I also have a relationship with this community: I live in Porto Alegre and attended public university there. So my stance as a pedagogical curator has been different from Camnitzer, De Caro, and Helguera.
DW: The structure of last year’s program seems shaped by your experience in Porto Alegre as well as your experience with the Mercosul Biennial over the course of many years. I would like to discuss how the mediators fit into the overall design of the pedagogical program at the 9th Mercosul Biennial, the Cloud Formations (Redes de Formação).
The first time we met you showed me, as an introduction, the short 1989 documentary by Porto Alegre–born filmmaker Jorge Furtado, Island of Flowers, which takes its name from Porto Alegre’s landfill. The film, a dark comedy on political economies, follows the life of a tomato from plant to waste. For me, this film is an essay in imagining an educational system of relationships in space, organized around particulars—and in that way, it was also the starting point for Cloud Formations. In Cloud Formations, we, like Furtado, wanted to portray a system that is nomadic, in transit, and occasioned by a variety of encounters and sites across Porto Alegre, across the entire state of Rio Grande do Sul—the whole region would be our classroom, our curriculum.
MH: Yes, Island of Flowers and some thoughts by Bruno Latour and Vilém Flusser on ecology, art, and politics were inspirations for thinking about education in the context of the biennial. Cloud Formations was a school for educators, mediators, and curious members of the public, without headquarters or regulations. Moving between places in the state of Rio Grande do Sul that were chosen for their relation to nature’s transformation processes, Cloud Formations was comprised of a series of meetings and research trips (or field trips). There were laboratories led by artists, educators, and the mediators themselves. Mediators took part in micro-residencies in schools, in research centers, even in scientific laboratories, industries, community centers, and cooperatives. And Cloud Formations facilitated the creation of a community school/workshop coordinated by the mediators—the Home School of Inventions. Cloud Formations was animated by the idea that art is, apparently, where it is not. It asked us all to relocate our curiosity, creativity, and critique, and to think of education as an encounter.
Looking back now, I recall these principles embodied in our movements across the city: at this non-instrumentalizing training, the discussions on the trains, in the botanical gardens, city square, orchard, and coal mine that addressed topics as diverse as Aeolian energy, agriculture, water, fishing, oil, not to mention all the trips to places in which we did not talk about art… Then the visits to the Ilha do Presídio (a now-deserted island with a prison that was active during the dictatorship), and the collaboration with industries—in steel, oil, and gas, as well as pulp and paper manufacturing… And then the strikes and protests…
DW: You are talking, of course, about the protests organized by mediators in late October and early November 2013, where they argued for greater equality and access to art within the context of the Mercosul Biennial and, beyond that, for greater recognition within the field of art education in general. These protests can be connected to the widespread demonstrations in Brazil this past year concerning issues in education, public spending, and public life.
MH: Yes, looking back now, all this goes together for me. It makes me think that Cloud Formations actually worked, even if at times I wasn’t so sure about it. Today, I feel that somehow the 9th Mercosul Biennial was not just another exhibition filled with public programs, but a larger educational project that reworked beliefs and the functions of places and power from start to finish—especially in its theme, in its anti-spectacle, and in the mediators’ demonstrations.
DW: It is worth saying something more about the roles and responsibilities of the curators of the Mercosul Biennial in regard to Cloud Formations’ success. You emphasized how, in contrast to your predecessors, you are deeply connected to Porto Alegre—to the city, its education system, and the biennial. No doubt this will be seen as a distinctive characteristic of the ninth edition of the biennial, equally important to the way in which Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy chose to restructure curatorial and educational responsibilities: instead of having a Pedagogical Curator, you were the Ground Curator and I was a Cloud Curator… weather permitting.
The importance of local knowledge and local relationships to curating educational programming is widely accepted within many museums—and you are a great example of this. Speaking from my own experience as an education curator who, as it happens, often arrives from elsewhere, I must ask: What does it mean for an education curator to think internationally? While I do not have a view about this, it has been on my mind more and more as a non-American seeking to create an agenda for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that is more international, but also international in a different way. I am currently working through this in two research projects: one with the New Museum on education, public life, and the language of crisis in different countries; the other with the Liverpool Biennial, thinking about what it means to view the city as curriculum. My experience in Porto Alegre has given me a head full of ideas for all this. Putting it another way, I ask: How should we think about locating responsibilities when curating education?
MH: After each of the biennial editions that I’ve participated in, I would begin to consider who should be the Pedagogical Curator for the next one. Before any appointments for the ninth edition were made, I felt that it was time to change the model—it seemed that it would be more interesting to give this responsibility to a transdisciplinary working group of locals as well as non-local artists, educators, mediators, and researchers, rather than limit the role to just one person. Then I realized that such a structure already existed—the biennial curatorial team. Although the curatorial team had not yet been recognized as such a group, they had been fulfilling this function for many years. It was time to end the segregation of roles, which was a drastic but liberating move. It was time to eliminate the Pedagogical Curator.
Curiously, some days later, Sofía invited me to act as Ground Curator for the 9th Mercosul Biennial, working with the Cloud Curator as a partner. Without knowing it, our thinking had converged. Sofía managed, in a single blow, to eliminate the role of Pedagogical Curator and organize a collaborative working group consisting of someone on the ground and someone from the cloud. The role of the Ground Curator, which had at first seemed to be just a new name for an old function, was instead a chance to rethink the responsibility for education at the Mercosul Biennial.
Looking back, it seems like a big mistake to think that one person can be responsible for education in any kind of project or initiative, cultural or not. Education is “ungovernable,” par excellence. So we must ask ourselves why do we repeat the model from which we are trying to escape?
DW: Now that we’ve covered the changing role of the biennial curators and mediators, let us end with some further thoughts on the idea of learning in situ—in this case, the different sites in Porto Alegre. My view is that the distinctive character of Cloud Formations lies in what I have called “the city as curriculum,” as well as in the way we think about the mediators as agents for change within the public, within themselves, within us, and within the institution. These are among the values in which I believe we can argue for biennial exhibitions as platforms for informal education, both in Porto Alegre and elsewhere.
MH: Learning in places like Porto Alegre allows one to address a community, not as an audience, but as a network that is as able as an institution to offer an opportunity for informal education.
I learned this in 2009 when De Caro questioned why we needed to create new educational spaces in the biennial. She asked, “Aren’t there artists’ spaces, spaces of learning and creativity in Porto Alegre?” I said, “Yes, of course.” Then she wanted to know: “Why shouldn’t we connect the existing artist initiatives and strengthen the networks that are already here instead of limiting ourselves to the venues of the biennial?”
These remarks still move me every day. Especially because the public of the Mercosul Biennial mainly consists of local communities, students, teachers, families…
To be in the city is to learn with every step, with every non-institutionalized encounter. It is to learn with others, through interest and desire. It is to enter into a sphere of human relations. It is to realize that, quite often, one learns more in bakeries or in buses, in places not designated for learning, than one does in classrooms, museums, or art exhibitions.
1 Luis Camnitzer, “Access to the Mainstream,” in On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias, ed. Rachel Weiss (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 37. Marina De Caro, “7th Mercosul Biennial—Screaming and Listening,” Fundaçåo Bienal do Mercosul, 2009
The Island Sessions were a series of monthly field trips from May to November 2013, to Ilha do Presídio [Prison Island], a now-deserted prison island that held political detainees during the dictatorship years in Brazil. For each of the visits, a dozen artists, intellectuals, and educators were invited to join the boat ride and participate in the discussion session on the island. Six commissioned texts on or about islands and prisons were commissioned as “Inflections.” Following this, each of the “fellow sailors” involved in the Island Sessions contributed two pieces of writing: “Perceptions” on islands were sent before the boat ride, and “Reflections” were sent after the session. All these contributions are published online here →
The Cloud, 2013, is an anthology for teachers, mediators, and aficionados of the 9th Mercosul Biennial. With contributions by Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, Mônica Hoff, Júlio Verne, Vilém Flusser, Annette Hornbacher, Walter De Maria, Bruno Latour, Eduardo Kac, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Maria Lind, et al. Downloadable PDF here →
Home Inventions was an open call for videos in which individuals present their everyday inventions. See a sample here →