Issue 3/2005 - Hoffnung Südamerika?

Action and Resistance in the Global Era

A conversation with three artists about the Brazilian situation.

Miguel von Hafe Pérez

At the time this conversation was taking place, Brazil was going through one of the most dramatic political crises of the Lula da Silva presidency. His image has been undermined by the spectre of corruption, yet he still maintains high levels of popularity, although the scandal came very close to him.

In a society that is still marked by striking social inequalities, artistic action in Brazil has shown a propensity towards resisting clichés connected to politically committed art, and instead has proposed alternatives in which language, the dematerialisation of the work and the deconstruction of the conventions of visibility point towards territories of critical integration of the art sphere within the social flow. We present here a conversation on these and other issues with three artists who have had a strong presence in the Brazilian context and whose international visibility is growing. Lívia Flores (born in 1959 in Rio de Janeiro, where she lives) held a solo exhibition in 2004 at the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, Barcelona, and participated in the last Sao Paulo Biennial. Lúcia Koch (born in 1966 in Porto Alegre and living in Sao Paulo) is currently participating in the Gothenburg Biennial for Contemporary Art, entitled »More! Than This«, and Ricardo Basbaum (born in Sao Paulo in 1961, lives in Rio de Janeiro) recently showed his work in the exhibitions »Tres scenarios« at the Gran Canaria CAAM, Spain and »Be what you want but stay where you are« at Witte de With in 2005. In 2004 the three of them participated in the exhibition ENTRE PINDORAMA: Contemporary Brazilian Art and the Adaptation of Anthropophagic Strategies at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart.

[b]Miguel von Hafe Pérez[/b]: While in the European context, at one of the year’s most striking exhibitions, there was debate on a social model held up as being one of the most successful in the Western context 1 »What happened to social democracy?«, Rooseum, January 29 to April 10), in Brazil I don’t think that the political change brought about by the election of President Lula da Silva had much of an echo in the different kinds of artistic representation. How can one explain this putative alienation of the Brazilian arts circuit from the social and political issues that more or less directly influence our daily lives?
On the other hand, what sense does it make to immerse artistic proposals in that type of concern when we think how abstract and distant a concept like »social democracy« would be for the socio-artistic reality of a country like Brazil?

[b]Lúcia Koch[/b]: Unfortunately, the incredible political change represented by the election of Lula has not produced as radical a change as we expected from his government. Not even all the political capital he obtained with the votes has guaranteed a true transformation in Brazilian economic policy. And this capital seems lost today, precisely because of this frustration of expectations. The place that Brazil occupies in the world has not changed in terms of consequences for the economic and social life of the country, even though everything seems new when seen from the outside.

[b]Ricardo Basbaum[/b]: I have no doubt that the same social inequality, expressed in the present unjust distribution of income in the Brazilian economy, is also reflected in an unequal distribution of symbolic capital: the Brazilian circuit is still too dependent on paternalistic initiatives by collectors and patrons, who act as if they were doing the artists a »favour«. In an environment like this it becomes difficult for artists to move with greater independence and raise critical and political flags. Fortunately, after the nineties young artists took a more critical and less submissive attitude to the circuit and organized themselves with greater independence. But their paths always become narrowed and most of them end up settling into the traditional modes of collection and distribution because of a lack of alternatives. When the artist develops links with the international circuit he can emancipate himself a little from the local network and take on a stance that is a little more independent. But I believe that we still need a lot of internal debate in order to make the circuit a little more »fluid« and »flexible« – I think this would be very good for Brazilian art, which could thus show a very interesting pluralistic side and could again take up its tradition of debate about art criticism, which was responsible for some of the most important moments in Brazilian art in the second half of the 20th century. I also see that the curatorial and critical debate – and not only the production by the artists – is tied down by the circuit’s lack of greater fluidity, both in relation to the local and international environment.

[b]Lívia Flores[/b]: Social democracy? No comprendo. Political change brought about by the election of Lula? No comprendo. Perhaps this is a particularly interesting moment – because it is also very complicated – for thinking about our relationships with politics. When we see high-ranking justice officials refusing to do anything about an extraordinary situation of corruption in the government without explaining how, why and for what millions were embezzled in the name of or by the party of the Lula government, then one cannot think about any party, political programme, public institution or law.
Alienation? Yes, fatally. Superimposed? Partly, but perhaps the least. In a class-based society, heir to a slave system, art is also a matter of caste, produced among peers, in the dome, in circuits of safety.

[b]Pérez[/b]: From an »outside« point of view, I have always been surprised by a certain pessimism that is a result of the theoretical production by Brazilian critics, curators and contemporary artists, as opposed to a wave – which is now perhaps a little more cooled – of outside reception of that same phenomenon, that is, »Brazilian art«. In this regard, the reception of that context always seemed a little tricky, given that it is often anchored in a problematic that is too nationalistic as opposed to the individualized reception of specific projects. That is, group exhibitions by Brazilian artists end up being more common in Europe than in the USA or in other places, with it being more difficult for solo penetration by artists into the international circuit. Do you agree with this view and how would you explain it?

[b]Koch[/b]: At the beginning of the nineties Gerardo Mosquera was already saying that it was more interesting to exhibit in situations like those. I hope that even the European circuit is getting tired of us and these Brazilian group exhibitions, and I can start to see some Brazilian artists appearing as simply artists, full stop.
But this »penetration« implies a direct articulation with the international market. Let the pro-Chinese or pro-Latin Americans come and go; it doesn’t matter. We understand how this works and we can’t afford to pay too much attention and try to live up to the fantasies about what Brazilian art is.

[b]Basbaum[/b]: I think that to have one’s work received abroad in an »exhibition of Brazilian artists« is not so interesting, because it keeps us within a sort of ghetto of purity of Brazilian art, as if we were working in a parallel, nationalistic time and space, outside today’s world. Our productions have to be debated alongside those of other artists from the most diverse parts of the world, because only in that manner will we be effectively contributing towards discussions about today’s art. It is much more difficult to get onto the circuit as a »contemporary artist« than as a »Brazilian artist«, from whom one always expects some welcome demonstration of exoticism, humour and sensuality, etc. On this point, perhaps the Brazilian curators (with some exceptions) suffer from an international projection that also places them at the centre of contemporary debates: many of them are projected abroad only through group showings of Brazilian art, and I believe that at this moment it would be more important for them to begin to put on shows in which Brazilian art is combined with, mixed with and dissolved into what is produced in worldwide contemporary art. And then the nationalist label would no longer be necessary, because the debate would be about ideas on contemporary art and not Brazilian ideas. Only in this manner could our work be assessed in its true importance – if it really exists – in relation to the art of today. As Lúcia Koch said, the fact that our works are labelled only as »Brazilian« comes from two sides: both from Europeans avoiding a more direct confrontation with the works, and Brazilians avoiding a more bruising critique. Indeed, I feel that the absence of critical work in Brazil is much more serious...

[b]Pérez[/b]: Paulo Herkenhoff once stated: »Brazil is also a system of art of equidistance: the same political distance that separates the major Brazilian art centres from the major European and North American centres of art seems to separate the Brazilian regional and peripheral centres from the hegemonic centres of Brazil (Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro). In other words: the (neo/post) colonialism of international relationships is reproduced as internal (neo/post) colonialism.« Might it be that the recent movement of cultural de-centralisation that can be detected in Brazilian artistic reality, namely with the protagonism of cities like Porto Alegre, Recife and Fortaleza, where institutions and artists’ collectives have achieved greater visibility, to some extent indicates a greater awareness of the practicability of working from a local context in order to then emerge with greater productivity on the global field of international art?

[b]Koch[/b]: I don’t think that it is through reproduction of an international model that relationships of this sort are established, but rather through specific reasons internal to this system, which is not the same as that of an adapted colonialism. It would be better to understand how the Brazilian system of economic relationships determines the dynamics of relationships in the field of culture: between cultural production and state or private initiatives, for example. To look at the probable types of market in cities without the capacity for the diffusion of cultural goods or support for the continued backing of popular manifestations of culture. Perhaps this centralization corresponds to a much more familiar pattern, which is the principle of the concentration of extreme wealth and poverty.
This starts with the wearing down of the dominant scenes of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and the desire on the part of other large Brazilian cities for a life of their own.
But, for example, Porto Alegre has had the Mercosul Biennial for eight years and this has not meant the creation of a market or the strengthening of the local scene. And there is also no leadership, as the Brazilian national circuit doesn’t pay much attention to this biennial. Perhaps one day it will help define a new state of affairs in Porto Alegre and thus point out a new centre of forces that can communicate with the already active ones, but this will not occur by simply repeating the classic model of the major exhibitions, setting up great exhibitions that are brought to the city every two years. If the overriding principle of isolation (which is particularly strong there), added to the lack of generalized communication (there are no art magazines with any significant circulation), is not ended, then nothing will happen. Only through decentralization will there be a network, will there be an understanding of the possible flows, not just the showing of new centres. This is more a problem of heating and circulation than of pure visibility.

[b]Flores[/b]: Our »system of equidistances«, if it exists, is not just geo-political: it is social. One might even think that on a somewhat rarefied level there might be equidistance between Brazilian and international centres, between Sao Paulo and Fortaleza, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre; but the socio-cultural distances within an individual city, in a major hegemonic centre, are immense, and are much greater, both as regards production and the processing of art information. I thus prefer to speak about a well-established system of distances, and I agree with Lúcia about the difficulty of forming networks.

[b]Basbaum[/b]: I believe that a decentralizing is already going on and is producing results: as you know, there are already other cultural centres throughout the country that are not so directly subjected to the centralism of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. That is, you no longer have to go immediately to these cities to intervene in the path of things or »start a career«. Of course, the economic power of a place like Sao Paulo will not be altered – and one can see how this might is visibly demonstrated in the Sao Paulo Biennial, which has exclusive control over Brazilian representations at other biennials, such as Venice, for example (which I think is totally absurd). But what matters is that groups of artists in other cities (a great example right now is Florianópolis) have been carrying out affirmative actions of self-organization that are gradually adding other stop-offs to the main circuit, creating paths, structures and situations with which everyone will then have to deal. Without doubt they might have greater access to the »global debate« without having to go through the mediations of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro – there is the creation of important direct lines, new routes of contact and communication. At the same time, most of the regional museums don’t have any money and do not develop new strategies to arrange finance (one must always invent something), but remain stuck in the sluggishness of the local elites, which are generally conservative, although there are exceptions, of course...

[b]Pérez[/b]: As the theoretical debate on post-modernism in Brazil was to some extent started by the critic Mário Pedrosa and had to do with the de-materializing action of the artistic object in the paths of Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, for example, and given that all these actions took place within the context of a highly repressive military dictatorship, how can one face up to the artistic action that might correspond to issues of aesthetic and social depth within a context that is politically much closer to what would be the natural expectations of the artistic community? Or might it be the case that there are still internal contradictions on the horizon that could produce a critical stance in relation to the system?

[b]Flores[/b]: The policy I know is the one that starts and end in pubs, in conversations between friends, in the block with me alone, in the attempt to go from ethics to personal practice in several spheres of life and which ends up being reflected in the artist’s work. The »block with me« is the guy in the carnival dance (another cliché)) who invents a fantasy outfit in order to strut his power stuff and has to get out of the whole do under protest. As an artist I am often taken up by the sort of fury that is not aimed at anyone or anything in particular, but which also includes art and its methods, its good methods. I see colleagues setting up their contacts and processing disturbing thoughts (I’m always pleased), each within their own poetics and means, without making this a programme of »political« or »social« art or whatever it might be, particularly trying to flee from the flags.

[b]Basbaum[/b]: In countries like Brazil, which have been under military dictatorships and which have very high socio-economic deficits, it is always necessary to be careful that the work of art is not used as an instrument or pamphleteering broadsheet for political struggle in a simple and direct manner – there is always a potential tendency for this to happen, in view of the gravity of the situation. But to carry out political action through artistic actions is rather complicated; one needs a great refinement of language, and there are very few artists who are really interesting in this regard. I above all believe in works that debate a »politics of the arts« and which make transparent the way the circuit is crossed through by macro- and micro-politics, showing that the field of art is not beyond the order of the world. I believe that there are some artists who invest in that issue, and this is important: de-naturalizing the circuit and showing that there are different groups and interests, language conflicts, different ways of making a stand as an artist, a curator, a critic, etc. But what I think is most serious in Brazilian cultural policy is the opposite situation: politicians and cultural administrators using culture for their own most immediate political interests, without any commitment to continuity or responsibility, and without any consultation with the group that is directly interested (artists, curators, critics, etc): during election years, when they want to get votes, they come up with cultural projects; then they give up these projects, leaving them without any funds; or they change the administrators, who are now unable to carry out a long-term project. The Rio de Janeiro Council Department preferred trying to bring the Guggenheim to the city instead of thinking, for example, about a museum for neo-concrete art (a movement that took place in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s), which would certainly become an international attraction at a greatly reduced cost without royalties having to be paid. Its cultural policy combines the »shopping centre« with immediate populist instrumentalism (no comment on this).

[b]Pérez[/b]: Up to what point do you feel that you have an obligation, or reveal a desire, to inscribe your discourse in the wider field of the reception of culture as an element bringing together different knowledge and concerns that are not exclusively those that might limit the more or less traditional field of the plastic arts? And in what way might that agency take place within a context that is strongly determined by the market and by a somewhat predictable institutional fabric, seeing that it is highly dependent on corporative finance?

[b]Flores[/b]: A concrete example can be used to illustrate several of these issues: last semester I lectured for the first time at the state university to arts students who were starting out on their course. In the first class, talking about Hélio Oiticica, it occurred to me that I should make sure I wasn’t talking over their heads. And I was – and I don’t know whether it would have been much different if I had been at the private university: in two classes only one person had a notion who I was talking about. And this was in Rio de Janeiro, where Hélio was born, lived and worked; a city that has a Hélio Oiticica Arts Centre, with a magnificent holding of his works. However – what irony – the students were still unable to get to know this jewel. The centre has been closed for months, perhaps more than a year, because of political incapability to manage culture in a consistent manner. So when you ask how we worked or what we did in a »context strongly determined by the market and by a rather predictable institutional fabric, because it was highly dependent on corporative financing«, I can only answer by asking exactly how we worked or what would be done in a context of total unpredictability, with an institutional fabric that is shredded, ruptured, failed, unable to be constructed and ignorant of the cultural heritage/potential of a very restricted market. The exit ends up being the world, life – the airport, university, school and other places that one might (precariously and provisionally) invent. Thus there might be a certain experience of »aesthetic and social pregnancy« – as you state, of recent decades and involving the disturbance of parrots and exotic flowers that they insist on printing on our artistic passports.

[b]Koch[/b]: Our field of action is truly caught between these forces, but in a very particular form, because the market acts according to the perverse logic of increasing demand, following the international interest in Brazilian art, without there necessarily being an increase in its public or any work to prepare new consumers that might lead to this. The number of galleries and artists represented is increasing, but that doesn’t mean that there is the same increase in the number of collectors. New museums have no way of forming collections through acquisitions, and thus depend on donations by artists or private collections. And what about that incomplete institutional fabric, in which only the instability of the financing is foreseeable? If we can see beyond the small and difficult routine of the circuit, of the field of culture, that’s the issue. But not because we feel obliged to do so owing to a social responsibility, but because we want to exist and act in the culture to find a meaning for what we do in the real world, no matter what the level.

[b]Basbaum[/b]: We should teach the history of modern and contemporary art at school, because then people might grow up with a minimum of repertoire and familiarity so they can converse about art. Only in this way might we be able to start widening the circuit, little by little, including other social strata and fusing the activities of the visual arts with those of other areas of culture. We might even think that the modern utopia of bringing art and life together should have some concrete efficacy when developed through the education system, producing a population that has been instrumentalized through a »critique of the sensorial field«: an experimental area carried out in the late sixties and early seventies and applied in schools – a sweet optical illusion... But none of this will take place in the short term, of course. In the Brazil of today public power is still absent from its responsibilities, is too involved in populist policies, with no consistent cultural and educational policy. While the state universities are going through a crisis, the history of Brazilian art is being made by private banks, whose cultural centres are the only ones which have the money for catalogues and retrospective exhibitions. For this reason I believe that only small independent initiatives have a real possibility of providing a more potent thought – although they may be involved in all sorts of financial alliances in order to get financing – because they may be more agile and less bureaucratic, bringing together artist, critics, curators and the public interested in local and occasional projects.



1 »What happened to social democracy«, Rooseum, Malmö, 29.1.-10.4.2005, review in springerin 1/2005, p. 64f.