31a Bienal de São Paulo

Charles Esche, 2018

The São Paulo Biennial and the paulista elite

By Fabio Cypriano

Finally, this famous Biennial has been organized and has gathered a whole block of foreign companies (and national ones linked to them) that have exploited our people miserably and now want to appear as the protectors of our art.

The 31st São Paulo Biennial, “How to (…) things that don’t exist” experienced a significant rupture between the Biennial Foundation board and its team of curators shortly before the opening of the event, which led to somewhat dramatic consequences for both sides. I believe this happened because the Foundation’s management model was based on business principles, which do not take into account the artistic sensibility that an event on this scale deserves. This issue is, in a way, closely related to the current crisis facing the country: the standoff between transparency in relations between the public and the private; or rather, the private use of public funds.

Although, at least apparently, in the last six years the Biennial Foundation has abandoned questionable procedures such as employing relatives of its president or contracting their companies, - both of which were happening, despite being explicitly prohibited by the institution’s statutes -, the new management has focused on organizing a financial recovery model. It has not, however, fully taken on the democratic and transparent procedures consistent with the field of culture. There is now caution in financial management, but a lack of sensitivity towards artistic production.

A good example is the first public image of the entrepreneur Heitor Martins, on the eve of his election as President of the Biennial Foundation in 2009. Praised for taking on the challenge of a failed institution, Martins allowed himself to be photographed sitting on a sculpture by Edgard de Souza, one of the works from his collection, for his interview with the newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo [2]. His casual attitude there only pointed to a lack of respect for what is at the heart of the Biennial: art. It seemed that the then future president, without really noticing, agreed to photographer Danilo Verpa’s request, revealing in this simple act that art was a mere support in establishing his image. With that gesture, he summed up the more than 60 year relationship between the São Paulo, or paulista, elite and the São Paulo Biennial. Martins was president of the Biennial Foundation for four years, between 2009 and 2012, and the businessman Luis Terepins was elected his successor. Martins is currently president of the São Paulo Museum of Art, having achieved the feat of occupying the posts formerly belonging to rival patrons, Ciccillo Matarazzo and Assis Chateaubriand, as we shall see further on.

The 31st Biennial took place in the midst of an intense process of self-analysis, begun in 2013, which the stunned country was still undergoing. Strong signs of hysteria were clearly to be seen in the irrational discourse asking for a return to dictatorship in 2015, when the movement was at its height. It was not by chance that this hysteria also manifested itself in the Biennial, opening wounds that had always been covered up, this typical Brazilian process of pretending that everything is fine. The Biennial Foundation had not been fine for decades, but it needed the provocation of a group of foreign curators to speak of “things that do not exist” for the real situation to surface.

The tip of the iceberg, regarding this issue, was the announcement of the curators of the Brazilian delegation to the Venice Biennial, immediately after the opening of “How to (…)things that do not exist” on 6th September 2014. The contract signed between the president of the São Paulo Biennial and the Van Abbemuseum, which represented the four curators invited, at the time, to organize the 31st São Paulo Biennial (Charles Esche, Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo and Pablo Lafuente) [3], on 16th October 2013, established that this team would be responsible for three objectives:

  • the organization of the 31st São Paulo Biennial, in 2014;
  • the touring exhibition to not less than eight cities and not more than twelve;
  • and “the curatorship of the Brazilian delegation at the Venice Biennial with the exhibition being held at the Brazilian pavilion at Giardini, in Venice, in 2015.” [4]

As we know, however, it was not the team of seven curators that was responsible for the Brazilian pavilion in Venice and, yes, Luis Camilo Osório and Cauê Alves, who had nothing to do with the São Paulo show, despite of the group having already presented a proposal to the director, who would be organizing the delegation with the group of young curators who took part in a workshop during preparations for the 31st Biennial. [5]

The question here, therefore, is what would have led the Biennial Foundation to ignore the contract and select new curators, without the knowledge of the 31st Biennial curators, who were informed about Venice as a fait accompli? According to the President of the Biennial Foundation, Luís Terepins, responding by email to questions about the broken contract for the aforementioned article:

The contract was not broken. When we signed it, we foresaw all the activities that could be carried out by the curators, subject to adjustments as the project developed. It did not originally contain, for example, the international touring, which was added after discussion with the curators. The same thing happened with Venice. We heard various suggestions over a long period of time and concluded that organizing the São Paulo Biennial and the Brazilian delegation in Venice were two different and independent tasks. As a result of this process, we were convinced that it would be more appropriate to try a new model.

Terepins ignores the explicit clause in the contract that foresaw the curators as being responsible for the Brazilian delegation in Venice and creates a more convenient version for himself. Asked whether the rupture between the presidency and the curators took place because of the debate concerning the money from the Israeli consulate, he reaffirmed:

These decisions have come about through the natural development of the ideas we have had concerning the appointment of a curator for Venice who is more closely linked to the work of Brazilian artists. We simply put a model that was already being matured into practice.

Once again, the President avoids the issue of the difficulties in the dialogue between the Biennial board and the curators because of the crisis that involved the 31st Biennial on the eve of its opening. This denial is so overwhelming that Terepins refused to attend the opening of the 31st Biennial tour at the Serralves Museum in Porto, in 2015, confiding to friends that he didn’t go because he didn’t want to run into the curators.

This rupture between the presidency of the Biennial Foundation and the 31st Biennial curators began in the week before the show opened, due to the debate concerning the boycott of the Israeli State logo being among the sponsors of the event. This issue gained public attention when the artist Tony Chakar told the Folha in an interview that artists intended to boycott the Biennial if the State of Israel's logo remained among the Biennial’s sponsors. This was published in the newspaper on 08/28/2014, entitled “Árabes ameaçam deixar Bienal por causa de patrocínio de Israel” (“Arabs threaten to leave Biennial because of Israel's sponsorship”). On the same day this was published, 55 artists of the 100 participants signed an “Open Letter to the São Paulo Biennial Foundation” with the following text:

We, the undersigned artists, participants in the 31st Biennial were confronted, on the eve of the exhibition opening with the fact that the São Paulo Biennial Foundation has accepted money from the State of Israel and that the logo of the Israeli Consulate has the right to appear on the Biennial flag, in its publications and on its website.

At a time when the people of Gaza are returning to the rubble of their homes destroyed by the Israeli army, we do not feel it is acceptable to receive Israeli cultural sponsorship. By accepting this funding, our artwork displayed in the exhibition is impaired and implicitly used to legitimize aggression and the ongoing violation of international law and human rights in Israel. We reject Israel’s attempt to normalize itself within the context of a major international cultural event in Brazil.With this statement, we call on the São Paulo Biennial Foundation to refuse such funding and act on this issue prior to the opening of the exhibition.

There had already been some meetings with the presidency of the Biennial and, after this letter, more followed. With the issue having been made public, the situation now became extremely tense. The Foundation would not consider withdrawing the logo, arguing that "Nós somos uma instituição plural, não tomamos partido." [6] According to other Foundation board members, the President felt betrayed by the curators, who publicly supported the artists in the following document:

We, the curators of the 31st São Paulo Biennial, support the artists and understand their position. We believe that the artists’ statement and demand should also be a trigger to think about the sources of funding for major cultural events. Many of the works at the 31st Biennial are aiming to show the fight for justice in Brazil, in Latin America and elsewhere in the world. The idea of living in an era of transformation is central to this Biennial; times in which old patterns and behaviour have worn themselves out and entrenched beliefs are being questioned. These changes also affect the relationship between curators and organizers of major cultural events like this Biennial. At the beginning, we accepted the traditional arrangement in which curators have artistic freedom and the Foundation is responsible for financial and administrative affairs. The Biennial Foundation, quite correctly, has maintained that agreement. For our part, we help in international financing.
However, as a result of this situation, along with other incidents and similar events, it is clear that the sources of cultural funding have a dramatic impact on the supposed “independence” of the curatorial and artistic narrative of an event. The funding, be it state, corporate or private, fundamentally shapes the way in which the public receives the work of artists and curators.
As this is a bigger issue than the 31st Biennial, we ask the Foundation to review its current sponsorship rules and make sure that artists and curators agree with any support for their work that may have an impact on its content and reception.

The curators were, in fact, simply following what the Brazilian art critic, Mario Pedrosa (1900 – 1991) had always stated: “in moments of crisis, we need to be on the artists’ side.” In the end, an agreement was reached and the logotype was only used with Israeli artists, making it possible for the show to open.

Nevertheless, the rupture between the two parties due to this crisis was the most plausible reason for the president to choose another curator and break the contract, since this practice was not uncommon in the institution and the Biennial Foundation itself had begun similarly. This, I believe, is why the institution has had so many crises in recent years. So let's return to its origins: The Biennial started life in 1951. It was created by Ciccillo Matarazzo (1898 – 1977), as the International Biennial of the São Paulo Modern Art Museum (MAM-SP), an institution Matarazzo had founded in 1949 and run since then. With MAM as the responsible institution, Matarazzo was the Commissioner of the first Brazilian delegation in Venice, in 1950, and so before the 1st São Paulo Biennial.

The history of paulista sponsorship in the 1940s and 1950s comes down to two businessmen that rose up the social ladder and were not part of the cultural and economic elite of the city. One was Matarazzo himself, born in São Paulo as the son of Italian immigrants who built an industrial empire, but did not circulate among the quatrocentões (lit. “the four hundreds”, as in four centuries) of São Paulo, a term for the families of Portuguese origin who formed an oligarchy in the early 20th century. The other was Assis Chateaubriand (or ‘Chatô’) (1892 - 1968), from the Brazilian state of Paraiba, who became a communications’ magnate in Brazil and who had, at the peak of his power, more than a hundred newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. He was, in fact, responsible for inaugurating the first TV channel in Brazil, TV Tupi, in 1950. While Matarazzo inherited the empire from his uncle, Count Francisco Matarazzo; Chatô built his himself.

To enter the closed circle of the paulista elite, both courted the quatrocentona, Yolanda Guedes Penteado, who could provide a free pass into this exclusive world. Chatô asked Yolanda to marry him on the day he met her and, having been rejected, even sent weekly letters reiterating his proposal. In vain. It was Ciccillo Matarazzo who won her hand but, in her memoirs, Yolanda reveals that her best friend was Chatô, as if confirming their rumoured affair. Both Chatô and Matarazzo used the creation of cultural institutions as a strategy to access the São Paulo elite: Chatô created the São Paulo Museum of Art, MASP; while Matarazzo founded MAM-SP, the São Paulo Biennial and, later, the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo, with distinct and peculiar styles. Chatô managed to gather the best modernist collection in the southern hemisphere by simply blackmailing business men: if they did not donate a work to the museum, his newspapers would attack their business. [7] On the other hand, throughout his management of the museum, he had the couple Pietro Maria Bardi and Li Bo Bardi, who created a dynamic institution that is still a model in terms of content and innovative forms of display. Ciccillo Matarazzo had other peculiar habits, such as giving ‘pocket money’ to journalists to ensure favourable articles. As an employee of MAM-SP, Guiomar Morelo, said: “Quirino da Silva was one of the Diários Associados critics and Matarazzo gave him money every month. It was an allowance for an employee of Assis Chateaubriand. He popped into the museum every month to pick up his little envelope.” [8]

Matarazzo had a greater international involvement. In addition to creating MAM-SP with the support of Nelson Rockefeller (who donated five works to the museum), he travelled around the world, on behalf of the Biennial, as an ambassador of the country. The research is still to be done on how these initiatives fed into their business success, but it is clear that both men created public cultural institutions. Within them, however, they followed the typical procedures of Brazilian private companies, and this is what I was referring to at the beginning of this article, when I related the history of the Biennial to the crisis in the country.

The 1960s, however, were difficult for Matarazzo. Overall, the first editions of the Biennial were, almost exclusively, financially supported by him, but with a personal debt of $115,000, he had no means of supporting the event. What was the way out? Firstly, he got MAM-SP off his hands. Matarazzo simply got the Museum Council to approve its extinction, transferring all its assets to the University of São Paulo, about 1,600 works, plus another 400 from his private collection, which together formed the Museum of Contemporary Art, University of São Paulo (USP). Matarazzo, who was always considered a great patron of the arts, underlined by his donating 400 works to USP. As he was in debt, however, could this not simply have been a way of not having those works confiscated? This is another issue that deserves exploration.

In order to keep the Biennial, he convinced the then President of Brazil, Janio Quadros, to create a Foundation, through a bill that would make it a public institution, and got funding from the São Paulo City Council to carry it out. This reveals another facet of the business community: in times of crisis, they look to the State. However, despite largely operating on public funds, as from 1962, the Biennial continued with Matarazzo in charge, and with the administration never being asked to present accounts. This would carry on until 1975, and the 13th Biennial, two years before his death.This dependence on public funds proved to be problematic, especially in the years of military dictatorship, when artists began to boycott the event in 1968, and Matarazzo defended the institution with a speech very much in favour of the regime (i.e. the major sponsor), as he had done in his opening speech for the 10th Biennial in 1969:

We regret this inopportune and counterproductive boycott, because art and politics should not be confused. The more so because the arguments used and the information disseminated, especially abroad, contain exaggerations and even untruths, aimed at creating a climate of hostility not only in relation to the Brazilian authorities but also to the Biennial itself, which insists on being true to its statutes. Only by remaining above competition between groups can we act in universal terms. [9]

After 1962, it was also the Biennial Foundation who decided on the Venice delegation, which continued up until 1968, when Matarazzo passed the responsibility on to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1995, the then banker Edemar Cid Ferreira, again on a personal internationalization project, joined the Biennial Foundation with responsibility for appointments, outsourcing the function to his institution BrasilConnects, in 2001 and 2003. Since 2005, the Biennial Foundation has taken care of the delegations, despite the fact that the Federal Government has continued to pay the bills.

Edemar Cid Ferreira is, incidentally, another good example of the self-seeking figure that the Biennial Foundation attracts. Owner of the former Banco Santos, he presided over two editions of the Biennial [10], the 22nd and 23rd in 1994 and 1996; then going on to create the Associação Brasil 500 Anos [11] (the Brazil 500 Year Association) to organize the Redescobrimento (Rediscovery) exhibition in 2000 that ended up actually competing with the Biennial, draining resources and derailing the next edition scheduled for 2001, that would have been curated by Ivo Mesquita. The Redescobrimento exhibition was superlative in everything. It cost 40 million reais, occupied three pavilions at Ibirapuera park, and was visited by around two million visitors over for six months. Sections of the show were taken to six countries: Portugal, Argentina, Chile, United States, France and England. In New York, Cid Ferreira organized the exhibition “Brazil, Body and Soul” at the Guggenheim for no less than 8 million dollars. [12] BrasilConnects went on to organize shows based on collections in the Pompidou (Paris), Tate (London) and the State Russian Museum (Moscow), as well as in China, using another public space, the Oca in Ibirapuera Park, an example of globalizing action in the arts, which only came to an end because of its bankruptcy in 2005.
This individualistic nature, in which a figure, independent of their significance as a patron, can decide the destiny of an institution was, as we can see, in the origins of the Biennial Foundation. Furthermore, the exclusion of the 31st Venice Biennial curators was not an isolated case but already had a precedent.

In 2006, again due to disagreements between the curator and the Biennial President, in this case, Lisette Lagnado and Manuel Francisco Pires da Costa, the curator didn’t do the Brazilian delegation in 2007; despite Venice being stipulated in her contract. The task fell to the then Biennial exhibition manager and ally of the president, Jacoppo Crivelli Visconti, an Italian who had settled in Brazil. Among the reasons for these disagreements was Guaraná Power, a work by the Danish group, Superflex, which the Biennial board vetoed. The veto was to prevent the institution having problems with Ambev, owners of the rights to the word Guaraná that prohibits any company in Brazil selling another product with the word guaraná. At the time, it was said that the work was vetoed because the then president of the Biennial had links with Ambev, but this was never proven. The fact is that, forbidden in the Biennial, Guaraná Power was sold in the Galeria Vermelho, which represented Superflex at the time, and at the Pinacoteca do Estado, without any lawsuit. In other words, there was too much legal zeal and too little artistic sensibility at the Biennial Foundation, further proof of the institution’s excessive business mentality. So, here we have the story of the first entity to grant its president such centralizing powers that curators had to submit to them unconditionally, with the institution thus behaving more like a company with commercial ends than a purely cultural organization.

The lack of dialogue between the institution and its curators is, nonetheless, surprising. There have been exceptions, the best being the 24th São Paulo Biennial, when Julio Landman was the president of the Foundation and Paulo Herkenhoff, the curator. The harmony of their working relationship led to a historic edition, the Bienal da Antropofagia (the Anthropophagy Biennial, on the theme of cultural cannibalism), as shown in the statement below [13]:

With Paul, I could ask for what I wanted, for example: a Biennial with a Latin American theme and that was a “window” for its contemporary art; that would give credit not to the country but to the artist, that would have a special room but whose contents would be fully connected to the theme (so as not to be accused of competing with museums) and would have, for the first time, an educational board. The focus would be on the three “Es”: Exhibition, Education and Edition (catalogues with real content rather than “coffee table books”). This is how I laid the foundations of the XXIV Biennial with him. Putting these ideas into practice would be entirely Paulo’s responsibility, so he would have complete freedom. It would be up to me to get the resources.
For me, putting a Biennial together is like building a house where the president is the engineer and the curator the architect. If there is not total harmony and mutual trust, the outcome will not be good. In fact, this is what I said on the opening day.
Being with and talking to Paul was pure pleasure. I made a point of giving him a lift home at night (he lived in Avenida San Luis) and then returning to my home in Chacara Flora just to enjoy a little more of his precious company.
The curatorial part (which includes the exhibition and the publishing of the catalogues) and the educational part cannot be treated in the same way as the administrative, financial and legal parts. The first two are the soul of the Biennial, the others are only tools or necessary evils.

This 24th edition was, however, an exception. Organized on a business model and, after all, entrepreneurs do not have to satisfy their employees, the Biennial Foundation lacks an artistic sensibility. An example of confronting this power occurred in 2001, when Ivo Mesquita ended up resigning as curator when the then president Carlos Bratke changed the date of the Biennial by a year without consulting him. It was, again, an authoritarian act, and the curator only got to know about it through the newspapers.

One of the possible reasons for this disparity was the abolition of the Conselho de Arte (Art Board), created under Oscar Landman, the first president of the Foundation after the Ciccillo Matarazzo era. The Board functioned as a bridge between the business side of the institution's directors, and everything involving curatorship, as the president himself argued:

Today, we are presenting to the public a Biennial that has undergone radical changes. For the first time, it has been programmed by an Art Board, to which we grant complete autonomy to meet the interests of artists and art critics. The new regulation [of the 14th Biennial] has been prepared by the Board and is based on the installation of seven Contemporary Propositions for Confrontational and Anthological Rooms [14].

At the 16th Biennial, in 1981, it was the director of the Council of Art and Culture (CAC), Professor Walter Zanini, who took on the show’s curatorship, creating one of the most daring editions. Instead of the traditional national representation in exhibition spaces, works were presented through linguistic analogy. Another Biennial that had strong repercussions was the 18th, in 1985, when the CAC was presided over by the theatre critic, Sabato Magaldi; and Sheila Leirner was chosen as curator for the show. She was the representative of the Secretary of State for Culture and the Brazilian Association of Art Critics, which shows how CAC operated.

These cases show how, in the not too distant past, the Biennial Foundation was more in tune with representatives of cultural thought, rather than just having business men on their boards. It was no coincidence that the Board of Art was abolished under Edemar Cid Ferreira. This lack of dialogue with people actually producing art in Brazil gave this new group of business men in the Biennial Foundation, from 2009 onwards, the freedom to organize exhibitions in years when there was no Biennial, through their concern that the institution should continue functioning, but without the slightest rigour in terms of the shows. The first of these, “Em nome dos artistas” (In the name of the artists), was organized in 2011, based on the Astrup Fearnley Museum collection in Oslo, Norway, and had works from some of the major names in the contemporary art world, such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Matthew Barney. The São Paulo Biennial had received some recognition for having distanced itself from the art market and what these new managers seem to have done with this show was to compensate for the absence of such names in previous editions.

The 2013 edition was called 30 X Biennial. Aiming to give an overview of the 30 previous biennials, it was curated by Paulo Venâncio Filho. In addition to arguing about resources with the Biennial itself, the institution’s main objective, after all; the exhibition catalogue produced was another example of a complete lack of artistic sensibility. Two articles were selected for each Biennial, and in the more recent editions, such as the 24th, 26th and the 28th, only criticizing the event were chosen, giving the impression that the institution – the curator’s name did not appear in the exhibition catalogue - had a negative view of these biennials, including the Bienal da Antropofagia. After harsh reviews, these exhibitions in between Biennials simply stopped being programmed.

Perhaps the question of disparity between the new business men and the art circuit actually lies in the name they like to be called: “collectors.” This role has a very specific function within the circuit, which is based on the accumulation of objects and their valuation. In other words, there is no concern for anything more structural, such as culture being a space for critical thinking. Explicit proof of how these collectors are concerned about speculation is found in the conditions they impose when their works are requested for exhibitions. When negotiating a contract Heitor Martins, for example, stipulates as a loan condition that pictures of his works must be in the catalogue, which increases the value of his collection. These collectors, therefore, represent a logic that barely understands contemporary artistic practices and there, obviously, lies the difficulty for dialogue.

Besides the lack of harmony between business men running the Biennial as a business and practitioners used to artistic thought, the institution has another dilemma: the somewhat schizophrenic situation of having a board primarily composed of businessmen, from which they elect one of their own to direct the institution but, in the end, they are not responsible for financing the show, public money is. But why then is being a business man a condition for access to the board? Because of this, private enterprise administrates the institution through an ethic that is frequently inconsistent with cultural activity, as governments do not define cultural policies. It is important to underline that it is the Ministry of Culture that finances the Brazilian delegation in Venice, through Funarte, so what sense does it make for governments not to be involved in the process of selecting artists?

However, the 2013 – 2014 Management Report [15], that the Foundation published and that details its activities in this period, highlights the Brazilian delegation at the 55th Venice Biennial in 2013, which was curated by Luis Pérez-Oramas, also responsible for the 30th São Paulo Biennial. Funarte’s support is not even mentioned, while the Foundation is praised for how the Biennial was organized. It is also forgotten that the pavilion was only ready after the official opening of the Venice Biennial, which meant that the guests and the press did not see the finished pavilion and created tension between the curator and the president of the institution. The same report, when dealing with the 31st Biennial, discloses a survey showing that 90% of the public were satisfied with the event and the attribute most associated with the Biennial was ‘daring’, chosen by 42% of those surveyed but, once again, nothing is said about the resources involved. The Ministry of Culture’s logo, at the end of the report, is alongside that of dozens of all kinds of companies.

Through previous biennials, we know that between 70 and 80% of the financing comes from the public sector, whether directly through sponsorship or State incentives; while only 20% comes from companies. The government should therefore have more power of decision. If so, Caroline Piveta da Mota would probably not have spent more than 50 days in prison after she attacked the white walls of the Vazio (Empty) Biennial, in 2008, with a group of graffitists. In one of the institution’s most shameful cases, the sentence was requested by President Manoel Francisco Pires da Costa at the meeting with the police. Here is an extract from one of the most eloquent texts - written by Paulo Herkenhoff - on the prison:

The Biennial Foundation first acted intolerantly and is now cynically washing its hands. It seems that “in living contact”, the Biennial’s proposal, is being seen as an exercise in anger or cruelty that are, after all, among mankind’s deadly impulses. Or is it just revenge? In the end, someone has to pay. [16]

Due to all this, the difficult dialogue concerning sponsorship and the consequent punishments of the curators are not isolated cases, but must be seen in the context of the history and composition of the institution. Up until now, however, these conflicts were “things that did not exist” in the Biennial Foundation. With the coming of the 31st Biennial, they now do.

Conflict, Collectivity, Imagination and
Transformation: A report on curatorial frameworks and methods at work in the 31st Bienal de São Paulo

By Clare Butcher

Having been initiated in 1951 by one of Brazil’s foremost industrialists at the time, Ciccillo Matarazzo, the Bienal de São Paulo was entangled in the region’s complex web of economics and politics from the start. With the assumption that Brazil lay ‘at the margin of the global elite’, or, as the Bienal Foundation’s fifty-year celebration publication puts it, ‘using the economic jargon, in this world’s third world,’ [1] the Bienal was a means of opening doors to the artworld, positioning Brazil on an international stage as a cultural player, while also filling in museum collections and art historical references on a local institutional level. Set in the impressive 30,000 square meters of the pavilion designed by Oscar Neimeyer and Hélio Uchôa [2], the Bienal gradually has come to frame ‘what really counts’ in the history of modern and contemporary art practice within a Brazilian/Global context (with São Paulo as the hub). And while the setting up of external cultural diplomatic relationships proved paramount – relationships which have been tried and tested both in the past as well as more recently as discussed later – the need for internal cultural dialogue between the bourgeois, or as it is translated directly from Portuguese, the “elite”, “Paulista” cultural scene of the metropole, and those on the country’s margins (not necessarily geographic peripheries but also historical ones) remains. While a legacy exists of other serial exhibitions occurring in different parts of the country – such as the Bahia Bienal, Rio’s Bienal de Jeunes [3], the more recent Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, Videobrasil, and others – the São Paulo Bienal retains a kind of exceptionalism as the oldest, having weathered the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, and one of the most well-financed, capable of ever expanding its curatorial remit.

The following report attempts to situate the 31st Bienal de São Paulo within this web of relationships, historically and spatially, by focussing particularly on the curatorial methodology and framing of this edition, as well as the subsequent challenges which emerged.


As the second oldest biennial in the world, the Bienal de São Paulo was modelled after the Venice Biennale and its tradition of national pavilions. For a number of years the Bienal had been curated by the Museum of Modern Art São Paulo (where Matarazzo also had influence), however since 1967, the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo (from hereon referred to as the Fundação) has organised the exhibition. During the military dictatorship, the Bienal’s guest curators sought various strategies within which to work with the Fundação and the political landscape at large. The five editions which occurred during the height of governmental censorship, received little critical attention from the outside world, ostensibly cutting them off from the very international art circuits which the Bienal was initially intended to connect with.
The most (in)famous examples of these fall in the 1969 and 1971 exhibitions which saw manifestos of solidarity signed and issued [4], as well as letters of refusal published by invited artists in a Contrabienal, made in support of political prisoners at the time [5]. While many of the nationally curated pavilions continued, a number of diplomatic ties were also loosened, and those Brazilian artists who have come to be well-known internationally, such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, left the country. The history of those local artists still participating within the emptying halls of the Bienal’s grand pavilion is less complete. And while many more experimental, often ephemeral, projects were gradually admitted into the curatorial framework of the exhibition, the archiving of such, the creating of a counter-narrative to the supposed silence, is still in process [6].

This is an important backdrop for any of the Bienal’s subsequent editions. And in fact, those which emerged after 1981 gained an increasingly international scope through the reestablishing of artistic and curatorial links, despite, in the words of former director of São Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art, ‘ephemeral glories and chronic crises.’ [7] So much so that in 2006, in the context of the 27th Bienal de São Paulo, curator Lisette Lagnado did away with the structure of the national pavilions entirely, and thereby enhanced the authorial capacities of each edition’s guest organisers. In addition, the pooling of corporate sponsorship [8] with what were formerly nationally specific funds (i.e. foundations and embassies supporting the artistic contributions from their respective nations) has meant that the scale of the Bienal and its projects could grow – with sources saying that by 2014, the exhibition’s production budget came to $11 million. [9]

Other shifts over time include the more outward focussed aspects of the Bienal’s mandate, for example education which, since 2000, involved the Education Development Fund’s bussing in of school groups (up to half a million students) from around the region to see the show. Also, since 2011, certain parts of the Bienal have toured to other areas in Brazil such as São José dos Campos, Belo Horizonte and Minas Gerais’s Palácio das Artes; as well as internationally, such as the Brazilian Pavilion in the Venice Biennale and this year’s presentation of projects from the 31st Bienal in Porto’s Serralves Museum.

The titling of the Bienal’s curatorial position has also migrated from the more formal ‘artistic director’ to ‘chief curator’ to ‘team’ with the most recent edition, comprising Charles Esche, Galit Eilat, Pablo Lafuente, Oren Sagiv, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Benjamin Serrousi and Luiza Proença. And while this shift in nomenclature may seem small, the ramifications of individual to collaborative responsibilities brought with it significant changes in the curatorial methodology applied. While it is indeed, in the case that, to quote Charles Esche, “the kind of information you need to put an international exhibition together would be incredibly difficult to acquire as a single brain…you need collectivity – that cerebral mass that’s bigger than the individual – and a process in which members are free to concentrate on specific areas but also to interfere in other areas, constantly challenging each others’ work” – the decision was not only a ‘practical’ [10] but also a political choice.


This is not a Bienal built on art and objects, but with people working with people on projects, on collaborations between individuals and groups, on relationships that should continue and develop throughout and, perhaps, even after the 31st Bienal is over [11].

In the summer of 2013, just over a year before the 31st Bienal was due to open, the curatorial team was composed, with curators Esche, Eilat and Lafuente coming together with exhibition architect Oren Sagiv and local curatorial associates Benjamin Serrousi and Luiza Proença who acted as knowledge sources and translators amongst other roles. Within the heated context of what has been called the Brazilian Spring, or the 2013 Confederation Cup riots – sparked in response to the raising of public transportation fees, corruption in government and police brutality – and in the midst of São Paulo’s ongoing water crisis [12], the team’s formation had a complex local terrain to contend with, particularly as only the second non-Latin American curators to be invited by the Fundação, which consists of a 60-person permanent local staff.

With the relocation of the curatorial team to São Paulo for the development and duration of the exhibition, the notion of the journey as an initial itinerary or a way of moving came to play an important role in general. Through time as well as space – both geographically and architecturally – the team began looking into the Bienal’s own institutional history while also setting up several ‘open meetings’ in various parts of Brazil and a few abroad, though most of their research was focussed on Latin America. While the Fundação had certain existing institutional connections, the curatorial team sought to extend the circle of their attention as widely as possible, including those venues which had perhaps formerly been considered less significant artistically speaking.

The Brazilian open meetings which took place in ‘Porto Alegre in the South, Fortaleza, Recife and Salvador in the North East, Belo Horizonte and São Paulo in the South East, and Belém in the North, allowed [the curators] to set up a situation of exchange through which to hear about local artistic perspectives, interests, concerns and urgencies.’ [13] Those attending these meetings ranged from those involved in the local art circle, educators, to those who were simply curious and the curatorial team would delegate amongst themselves as to who would and could attend. In addition to offering those artists not on ‘the [usual] list’ of visiting curators the chance to introduce themselves and their work, the meeting conversations touched on subjects of infrastructure (cultural and educational) as well as local and regional relationships particularly within the arts – told from a less centralised perspective than that of São Paulo and Rio. The stories of displacement, access to public amenities, and the need for establishing ‘interlocution with indigenous peoples’ surfaced most prominently during these sessions, henceforth becoming core features of the curatorial thinking around the exhibition [14]. Already the team was able to identify certain key contributors which they could imagine being part of the exhibition’s constellation, and the hoped-for shift of the evident cultural, historical and political parameters they encountered, in another direction, through art, on its own terms. [15]

In addition to ‘open meetings’, the curatorial team made site and studio visits in pairs or small groups and as they travelled, shared the names and work of possible contributors to the Bienal, negotiating their relevance through discussions and what Eilat describes as a ‘dropbox process.’ [16] What became clear through the ongoing research, particularly in relation to Brazilian artists, was the presence of the modernist legacy in work being made close to Brazil’s centres, and a total reinvention of artistic heritage at the country’s margins, as seen in the work of artist Armando Queiroz based in Belém, who focusses on the invisibility of indigenous groups from Amazonia.

As opposed to previous Bienal editions, roughly 75% of the work involved in the 31st was commissioned for the context of the exhibition specifically, meaning that many of the artists needed to spend time working in São Paulo prior to the opening. The Bienal formed a partnership with Residência Artística FAAP which allowed several artists to stay and experience various sides of São Paulo and Brazil. During this time the curatorial team invited the Educativo – a 250-person strong group of employees of the Fundação who have worked for four years under Stela Barbieri (Bienal Educational Curator) – to work alongside the artists themselves. For the curatorial team, this would mean that when it came to the exhibition and the 500,000 students who entered it, members of the Educativo could speak from a first-hand perspective of the works’ process themselves, rather than reciting from a script issued them from ‘above’. Alongside the Educativo, the Bienal's technicians were incorporated into production processes from the start, meaning that that they too felt a great deal of ownership in the work done for the show.

During January, May and October of 2014 a series of workshops brought together sixteen young artists, educators, writers and curators (who applied via an open call), in order to think together about a ‘Toolbox for Cultural Organisation’ in different times and places – again highlighting the processual and discursive nature of the Bienal’s developing programme. Out of the 300 applications received, participants included 11 Brazilians and 6 from abroad. The three week-long workshop subjects included ‘Writing Histories’ and ‘Conflict Zones’, with visiting speakers such as Suely Rolnik, Ana Longoni, artists involved in the exhibition such as Walid Raad, Sandi Hilal & Alessandro Petti, as well as members of the curatorial team.

In addition to these aspects which sought to generate a vibrant discussion around the possible subjects and objects of focus in the exhibition, the generation of funds was also a part of the curatorial team’s responsibilities. Contractually, the curators of any Bienal de São Paulo are bound to assist the Fundação in garnering support from various sources – either through specific meetings or in general communication. This aspect of the relationship between the curatorial team’s role and the expectations placed on them by the organisation came under scrutiny in the final stages of the exhibition’s development.


The titling of the 31st Bienal de São Paulo became a dynamic means of negotiating the various developments and uncertainties which lay between conception and realisation of the show. ‘How to […] things that don’t exist’ presented a conceptually flexible umbrella, the ‘[…]’ of which was replaced by terms such as ‘speak about’, ‘learn from’, ‘fight’, ‘look for’, ‘live with’, ‘use’, throughout the duration of the exhibition. Not only leaving linguistic elbow room for a shifting terminology, the shape, sound and meanings of ‘things that don’t exist’ was important in the framing of a project which sought to gather together communities ‘invisible to one another’. [17] The elliptical nature of the project’s title was echoed in the architectural design of Sagiv and the curatorial team. The Matarazzo Pavilion, which according to the curatorial team was ‘simply too big,’ [18] is situated in the heart of the Parque Ibirapuera – a large, rare, public space frequented by everyone from skater kids to more elderly citizens – its borders have always been closely monitored. While the large panes of glass surrounding the Pavilion’s foyer give the impression of transparency and openness, lines of turnstiles or in Brazilian Portuguese ‘catracas’, have filtered visitors to the, technically ‘free of charge’, Bienal for decades. As part of the curatorial team’s negotiations with the Fundação, the entrances to the foyer were kept open, allowing the large open area to become an extension of the park as a space for ‘social interaction’, with a series of ‘plataforma for hosting gatherings as well as other parts of the Bienal’s ‘Programme in Time.’ [19]

The rest of the exhibition space was devised around “zones” of experience which worked around the impressive existing architectural facets of the pavilion. Walking upwards through the airy Ramp section, a visitor would gain partial perspectives on the host of works surrounding the balconied floors above. These perspectives then shifted with the movement of the visitor, allowing for a multiplicity of routes and therefore narratives to be made through the space. In the 120 meters-long Columns section on the second floor of the exhibition space, a darkened series of corners and niches unfolded which could house video pieces and works requiring a more secluded setting.

An artist named quite early on in the collective process was Prabhakar Pachpute, whose visually communicative work positioned him as a valuable part of the design team working on the exhibition’s visual identity over a four month period. Over the process a number of typefaces were adopted (developed by Julian Waters and another by Richard Lipton) the colour palate of which shifted between black and red, constantly drew attention to the margins of printed space. Coupled with Pachpute’s intricate drawing of ‘an impossible conglomeration of bodies inside a Tower of Babel structure’, used as the Bienal’s poster image, the character of the edition’s visual identity reflected the Bienal’s investment in the tension between hand- and machine-made histories as well as that of collective movement on an uncertain landscape. [20]

A further four ‘interpretive lenses,’ [21] were introduced to the thinking behind, structuring and mediation of the edition: ‘Conflict’, ‘Collectivity’, ‘Imagination’ and ‘Transformation’. Not exactly themes as such, these lenses acted as tools to navigate the exhibition and programme narrative, generating discord from the start as a means of catalysing a hoped-for negotiation and movement between participating artists, programme contributors, visitors, as well as the structures of power surrounding the Bienal.

This hands-on, operational language of tooling was taken further in the Bienal’s educational material, which was discussed over time between the curatorial team and the educators who wished to be a part of its development. The notion of (self)education was central to the exhibition and programme’s curatorial logic and was also taken up in some of the artists’ projects explicitly.


With more than 100 participants, the 31st Bienal de São Paulo hosted 81 projects (officially). The word ‘project’ was used as a means of once again affirming the trans-discipulinary nature of the work and ideas involved in the edition (which included that of architects, performers, educators, sociologists, etc.) as well as the collectively authored nature of many of the works themselves. In addition to physical projects presented, the more durational aspects of the Bienal’s ‘Programme In Time’ were equally important elements in the constructing of a context in which, through conferences, rituals, screenings and ‘saraus’ (Brazilian performative gatherings), urgent aspects of civil life could be addressed and reimagined by visitors and Bienal contributors. Amongst the many projects, the description of a few serve to map this overall constellation through the interpretive lenses offered.

In addition to the video Ymà Nhadehetema (meaning ‘In the Past We Were Many’ in Guarani) (2009) by Armando Queiroz with Almires Martins and Marcelo Rodrigues, other artists dealing with the disappearance or marginalisation of certain communities in Latin America and elsewhere include Romy Pocztaruk whose photographic work in the Transamazonas brings these ‘forgotten’ territories into view; Clara Ianni’s collaboration with Débora Maria da Silva which resulted in Apelo (2014), a film which connects the disappearances of political agents during Brazil’s military dictatorship with the current state of police violence; as well as Danica Dakić, whose films operate on the borders of social anthropology, dealing with recent histories of certain Balkan communities as well as those closer to the exhibition site, such as the immigrant neighbourhood Bom Retiro (Ceu, 2014).

These disoriented representations entered into conversation with the many projects dealing with the problematics of mapping and cartography. Upon entering the Bienal visitors would be (mis)led by a large wall drawing of a Map (2014) by Qiu Zhijie, whose navigation takes twists and turns around the Kingdom of Heaven, the country of Marxism and the Gulf of Anarchism. These diversions lead to others in the work of Jonas Staal whose Nosso Lar, Brasilia (2014) attempts to delineate the zones of spiritualism and modernism in relation to Brazil’s history of social structuring; as well as Otobong Nkanga and her modest yet powerful Landversation (2014), which set the scene for conversations about geology, economy, agriculture and gardening.

Other works which addressed other means of thinking through ecology and relationships with the environment included Arthur Scovino’s installation of a domestic space which housed a shifting set of rituals and actions throughout the Bienal; Jo Baer’s painted series around ancient rock features in her home region of Ireland; also Ines Doujak and John Barker’s Loomshuttles, Warpaths (2009-ongoing) which explores the history of the textile industry in Latin America since the time of Spanish colonisation through magazine-cover designs and a fashion line.

Some larger-scale videos and installations included Yael Bartana’s Inferno (2013) which brings one of São Paulo’s grandest developmental schemes metaphorically crashing to the ground with her melodramatic filmic fulfilment of the third destruction of Solomon’s Temple in São Paulo; Mark Lewis’s multi-channel projections frame other aspects of the city’s urban environment through the fictional lens which contends that cinema has only been recently invented; as well as Ana Lira’s Voto! – an impressive photographic archive which she began in 2012, documenting ‘obsolete campaign materials, abandoned by candidates and appropriated by the population through anonymous interventions’ in her hometown of Recife. [22]

In addition to the conceptual mobility of many of the works, some projects sought to physically moved beyond the exhibition walls, becoming part of the Bienal’s ‘Programme in Time’ as well as in-situ collaborations. Bik Van der Pol’s Turning A Blind Eye (2014) utilised the Bienal Park’s platforma and other more public spaces around the city as platforms for discussions about privatisation, information and the urgency of making things public. Their scoreboard was a prominent feature of the Bienal Park foyer –  a message board that was meant to be maintained by the Bienal’s technicians, who often used it to comment on news events in Brazil or aspects of the Bienal’s public life. Another project which seeped into the city’s transport politics was Graziela Kunsch’s Ȏnibus Tarifa Zero (2014) whose proposal of a free bus service without destination responded to the calls made by Movimento Passe Livre in the 2013 protests.

Mujawara (2014) was a collaborative project by collective Contrafilé together with Palestine-based Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, which sought to bring both the Arabic tradition of neighbourliness (mujawara) and knowledge of the work done for rights amongst marginalised groups of Brazil’s landless workers, into the exhibition’s open Park space. Also, the last remaining favela in São Paulo became the site for a collaborative work by collective Comboio who have lived in the favela since 2012 and define their project as active "research and urban intervention, which since 2010 operates in 'informal spaces' in the center of São Paulo, seeking ways to exercise and assert the right to the city.” [23] The project, which began in 2013, was structured in two phases focussed on constructing a public house and park for the neighbourhood. Over gradual discussions between the community and the curators of the Bienal – who were wary of slipping into certain ‘Brazilian clichés’ [24] –it was decided that the event of the Bienal would act only as an ‘accelerationist “kick,”’ [25] giving the project focus and production budget, while keeping its framing by the Bienal as an ‘artwork’ to a minimum – small fragments of Comboio’s project would be collected and displayed on some large panes of glass in the Bienal Park foyer. Potentially mired in the mirky sphere of social work, the Bienal’s involvement with the project sought to interfere with what have come to be biennial tropes of city-improvement and longevity, using gestures which were nonetheless “real” in terms of support through visibility and capital.

Together with the projects and ‘Programme in Time’ came a dynamic set of publications: a map, an exhibition guide, a catalogue or ‘book’, as well as a mobile app for smartphones, audio guides and a dynamic Bienal blog/website – available in Portuguese and English. For the exhibition guide, various writers contributed short texts approaching each project. The result was a polyphonic set of voices presenting multiple narratives, wherein the curatorial team’s desire to share authorship was again affirmed. The exhibition book provided not so much a comprehensive overview of the whole Bienal edition, but rather served to collect and archive the talking, researching, negotiation behind the many projects. Difficult to navigate, the reader soon realises that disorientation, as in so many of the projects themselves, is the point, and that they themselves must use the tools provided in their own way. The audio guides were added to frequently and for those who could not purchase printed publications, sample copies were made available in the exhibition spaces.


Interestingly, it was specifically these mediation materials and other aspects of the Bienal’s public relations which came to the fore in a heated discussion which emerged only weeks before the opening of the Bienal. With the ‘Protective Edge’ incursion into the Gaza Strip during the summer of 2014, Brazilian-Israeli diplomatic relations had been strained to say the least. However, it came to the attention of the curatorial team that a funding application to the Israeli Embassy in Brazil had been made by the Fundação, despite the institution’s knowledge that many artists participating in the exhibition could not be seen to be supported by such a source. With the aforementioned pooling of funds and the contractual obligation to support the garnering of the Bienal's budget, the curatorial team’s hands were ostensibly tied and an urgent discussion about the necessity of withdrawal began amongst a large number of the local and international contributors to the exhibition as well as members of the Educativo. [26]

Having learned of the funding confirmation, a number of ‘assemblies’ were held between the artists themselves – unmediated by the curators or anyone from the Bienal structure. In these assemblies, which lasted hours at a time, the artists present (who numbered most of those in town – some considered these meetings not to be inclusive enough), discussed the possibility of withdrawal should the money not be returned or no solution be found. [27] While the conversation focussed on the conflict of interests surrounding the Middle East, many of the local and Latin American contributors found the discussion to be ignorant of the politics of funding on a Brazilian level, with budgets coming from large corporate entities involved in the formation of other environmental and socio-political impasses.

On 28 August, just days before the Bienal was set to open, an open letter to the Fundação was published online, pertaining to the non-transparent pooling of certain Bienal funds which endangered not only the positions, but in some cases, the personal safety, of some of the Bienal’s contributors was issued by the exhibition’s contributors. Signed by an eventual total of 61, the prospect was one of withdrawal if a solution could not be reached concerning the representation of certain logos on sponsorship walls, publications and press material.

Open letter to the Fundacão Bienal São Paulo,

We, the undersigned artists participating in the 31st Bienal have been suddenly confronted, just as the show is about to open, with the fact that the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo has accepted money from the Israeli state and that the Israeli Consulate logo appears in the Bienal pavilion and on its publications and website.

At a time in which the people of Gaza return to the rubble of their homes, destroyed by the Israeli military we do not feel it is acceptable to receive Israeli cultural sponsorship. In accepting this funding our artistic work displayed in the exhibition is undermined and implicitly used for whitewashing Israel’s on going aggressions and violation of international law and human rights. We reject Israel’s attempt to normalise itself within the context of a major international cultural event in Brazil.

With this statement, we appeal to the Fundação Bienal to refuse this funding and to take action on this matter before the opening of the exhibition. [28]

In support for the artists’ right to express their consternation, the curatorial team’s official response, issued a day later, called for an awareness of the deep impact of cultural funding sources in general on the ‘supposedly “independent” curatorial and artistic narrative of an event.’ [29]

We, the curators of the 31st Bienal de São Paulo, support the artists and understand their position.

We believe that the statement and demand by the artists should also be a trigger to think about the funding sources of major cultural events. In the 31st Bienal, much of the work seeks to show that struggles for justice in Brazil, Latin America and elsewhere in the world are connected. The idea of living in transformational times is fundamental to this Bienal, times when old patterns of behaviour are exhausted and long-held beliefs are questioned. This transformation also affects the relationship between curators and organisers of major cultural events such as this Bienal. At the outset, we accepted the traditional agreement in which curators have artistic freedom and the Foundation has responsibility for the financial and administrative affairs. The Bienal de São Paulo Foundation has very correctly kept to this agreement throughout. In our turn, we assisted in international fundraising.

However, as a consequence of this situation, alongside other incidents at similar events worldwide, it is clear that the sources of cultural funding have an increasingly dramatic impact on the supposedly ‘independent’ curatorial and artistic narrative of an event. The funding, whether state, corporate or private, fundamentally shapes the way the public receives the work of artists and curators.

While this is a wider issue than the 31st Bienal de São Paulo, we ask that the Foundation revise their current rules of sponsorship and ensure that artists and curators agree to any support that is forthcoming for their work and that may have an impact on its content and reception. [30]

In large part the Fundação remained quiet, and finally a discussion directly with the signatories of the letter was mediated. The subsequent process could be mapped almost microcosmically, or rather symbolically, by the Bienal’s prominent sponsorship walls, with the small addition of one sentence to the logos presented: ‘The institutions below only support the artists from their respective countries’. On the night of the opening of the Bienal, which included all of the contributors as well as their works, two guards were seen standing in front of the logo in question, leading one to wonder whether they were protecting the public from the icon or the other war around. ‘There’s no limit on visibility,’ says Galit Eilat, one of the curatorial team, in discussing the lack of policy surrounding corporate branding of the Bienal space.


Following the opening, another set of signs began to emerge in the exhibition space. During its first weeks, the Bienal’s PR desk as well as the police, received over 4000 complaints concerning the appropriateness of some of the artworks for the Bienal’s substantial amount of young student visitors. As mentioned, these visitors constitute a quarter of the Bienal’s million viewers. [31] The complaints pertained to specific projects with provocative titles – such as the collection display organised by Miguel A. López, God is Queer (2014), bringing together works by Nahum Zenil, Ocaña, Sergio Zevallos and Yeguas del Apocalipsis – and subversive content, particularly relating to gender and birth control – as seen in Hudinilson Jr.’s xerox paradise Tension Zone (1980) and the Espacio para abortar (2014) of the Mujeres Creando which created a rare space for discussion and performative protest concerning reproductive rights – or a certain kind of violence – supposedly made explicit by Halil Altındere’s rapper video Wonderland (2013).

All of the above, and more, were flagged as “inappropriate” and the following days saw members of the curatorial team filling out affidavits of artworks in the exhibition space. The result was a warning notice which appeared around the Bienal comprising an exclamation mark inside a triangle bids viewers under the age of 18 be advised by ‘Law 8,069 of July 1990.’

For the Educativo, this restriction ostensibly meant they might have had to cut short their tours with school groups in half. However, due to the ongoing, dynamic conversation amongst themselves and a number of the artists in the Bienal (conducted in person and via a closed Facebook page which did not include the curatorial team), the Educativo introduced what they’re calling the Proibido [prohibited] Tour.

On this route, student groups are, as usual, taken to all the works. However, when approaching a prohibited piece like the Etcétera… collective’s antechamber of relics from Argentinian iconoclast Leόn Ferrari and phone conversations with the Almighty, entitled Errar de Dios [Erring from God] (2014), or the Línea de vida / Transvestite Museum of Peru created by the late drag queen and philosopher Giuseppe Campuzano, the tour guide would send the group’s teacher in to see the installation and report back to the students what they found.


While the events of August 2014 had meant a rescinding of the Fundação’s invitation to the curatorial team to organise the Brazilian Pavilion in the Venice Biennale of 2015, the 31st edition remains active to the writing of this report.

Since 2011, parts of the Bienal have always been toured to other hosting institutions in Brazil. And since February 2015, the 31st edition, in various tailored versions travelled to various exhibition venues, including São José dos Campos, São Paulo (FAAP), Campinas, São Paulo (SESC), Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais (Museu de Arte Murilo Mendes), Riberão Preto, São Paulo (FAAP), São José do Rio Preto, São Paulo (SESC) and Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais (Palácio das Artes). This part of the process has been overseen by Pablo Lafuente who remained in Brazil after the official closing of the 31st edition. According to president of the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, Luis Terepins, the travelling shows ‘aim to expand the possible interchange between the cultural life of São Paulo and exhibition spaces throughout the Brazilian countryside and abroad, bringing the issues raised by the 31st Bienal to new audiences and taking the exhibition into new directions.’ [31]

One of these new directions included parts of the show being taken aboard for the first time, to the Fundação de Serralves, in Porto, Portugal, which opened at the start of October 2015 and ran until January 2016. Overseen by Charles Esche, Galit Eilat and Oren Sagiv, this iteration of the exhibition brought together many of the programmatic as well as material projects included in the original editions. Importantly the reconfigured exhibition needed to function within the new coordinates of a Portuguese city. Included in this presentation were Éder Oliveira; Armando Queiroz; Anna Boghiguian; Virginia de Medeiros; Voluspa Jarpa; Clara Ianni; Walid Raad; Edward Krasiński; Wilhelm Sasnal; Yael Bartana; Etcétera… and León Ferrari; Grupo Contrafilé; Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti and others.

Working closely with the Serralves Museum’s Educational Department, and having met a number of young artists, activists and researchers in Lisbon and Porto, the curatorial team introduced what they called ‘three fundamental moments’ of the exhibition’s public life. The first was a roundtable discussion following the opening of the exhibition, entitled ‘A School beneath the Tree - Education, between Imagination and Activism’ which brought together educators, artists and activists involved in community education. The second is a symposium in November 2015 entitled ‘Reverse Colonialism’ which reflects on the relationships between Portugal and Brazil, using these as a starting point to discuss artistic approaches to received colonial heritage in general. And the third will continue the series of conversations around the ‘Right to the City’, focussing particularly on the criminalisation of the poor, both on a local and international scale.

Perishable notes about problems that do not exist: an analysis based on the 31st São Paulo Biennial Educational Program

By Cayo Honorato

This article is both more and less than a text about the 31st São Paulo Biennial Educational Program (2014). More, because to some degree, it takes the opportunity that came up in the course of the exhibition – with the leaving of its then education curator –, to take stock of the Permanent Education Department – a project started by the institution in 2011. Indeed, in this regard, it is quite incomplete. But it cannot be ignored, since maintaining this project or not under the terms in which it was implemented should be, at this time, one of the institution’s main dilemmas, with repercussions for the fate of education within art exhibitions in Brazil. However, it is also less, because its questions, even in relation to the Educational Program of the 31st Biennial are very specific, but perhaps fundamental.

Objectively, the text focuses on three main issues: (1) how the Biennial Educational Program, based on what it defines as its curatorial axes, deals with conflicts that arise in the exhibition; (2) the relationship between the permanent and the temporary, providing a retrospective view of how the institution has thought out the Permanent Education Department; (3) the relationship between the education and artistic curatorship, considering some occurrences of the phrase “education curatorship” (and similar terms) in the Brazilian context. They are “problems that do not exist” in the sense that, if I am not mistaken, they have not yet been publicly discussed, although they have been present for some time. Indeed, they are issues that this text could not exhaust and that can neither be the exclusive object of analysis or reflection. So much the better, in fact, if their discussion is continued by others so that it might finally stir up public debate.

In writing this, I have turned to information provided by the Wanda Svevo Historical Archive on the São Paulo Biennial – and here I take the opportunity to thank Ana Paula Marques, Archive researcher, for all her help - and the pages of the institution on the Internet (website, blogs, YouTube channel and Facebook profile), among other references. I have also interviewed some people directly involved in the 31st Biennial, to whom I express my warmest gratitude: Conrado Vivacqua (educator), Deborah Rose (teacher), Filippa Jorge (educator), Graziela Kunsch (artist), Jenny Mutigliengo (educator), Julia Lotufo (supervisor), Juliana Salles (educator), Luiza Proença (curator), Pablo Lafuente (curator) and Raíza Cavalcanti (supervisor). Even if their comments, in most cases, have not been explicitly used, because of the specificity of the direction the text ended up taking, listening to them was essential for me in considering the many aspects of the area that could have been addressed. Finally, I would like to note that the transcriptions, whether of the interviews or Internet videos, are quite colloquial. This is not intended to reveal or suggest that any of the speakers where, in any way, inarticulate. Spoken thought and written thought are quite distinct. Anyway, I hope these changes in register can be perceived without interrupting the flow of the reading. Moreover, we know that words have no fixed meanings and therefore need to be perceived not only as statements, but as statements in a specific context. In any case, my working preference with statements publicly available, most of the time, is also a way of working with certain material limits as regards an “art thought.”

Perhaps the 31st São Paulo Biennial Educational Program should not (or cannot) be discussed exclusively in relation to this exhibition, but rather as one of the actions of what is known as the Permanent Education Department – a project started by the institution in 2011, “with a commitment to enhance the network of relationships established at the 29th Biennial” (Barbieri, 2010a), among other reasons. But if our aim is extended through this, it is, on the other hand, divided in half (or nearly so). Before or after the exhibition opening in September 2014, Stela Barbieri, the curator responsible for the Biennial’s educational projects since June 2009, left the institution – a decision that had been known publicly since, at least, April 2014 [1]. Whatever her reasons for doing so – and they appear to have been personal – [2], it was an unexpected demonstration that the educational calendar did not coincide with that of the exhibition. But there was a less obvious issue in all this. After all, what did this leaving mean, setting aside personal reasons? Or, moreover, how does the permanence of the Education Department connect with the temporary nature of the exhibitions? (Images: 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Education Department has been, to some extent, aware of this issue. In a round table [3], the then supervisor of the Biennial Education Department’s internal relations, Carolina Melo, asked: “How do you keep the structure of a project that can be carried out over the years without making it fixed, without leaving it completely rigid and, at the same time, have a coherent line on everything that happens over the years?” As can be seen, the problem has its ambiguities. It was also approached, in other words, by Daniela Gutfreund (2014), who had been the Biennial Education Department’s communication coordinator, in a report on one of the 31st Biennial’s Open Encounters [4]: “The São Paulo Biennial, with its permanent staff since 2010 [sic] must undo themselves with the closure of every show, with greater or lesser difficulty. They are permanent, but necessarily permeable to new concepts and perspectives that come up with different curatorships [...]. The permanent staff must be willing to constantly re-learn.”

But what is the “structurality” of this structure? Certainly, this difference between temporalities does not reflect an Education Department’s absolute indifference to exhibitions. According to Barbieri, “The artist [...] brings new procedures, new possibilities of looking at reality [and] is a great source of inspiration to us all; the work of the artist, the ideas they put into the world.” [5] The curator seems to refer to artists in general, but she could be understood as meaning both the artists and the curators of each exhibition – since the artists are not chosen by the education curator – are a fundamental reference for the Education Department when conceiving and carrying out its work. In this sense, the artists, curators and exhibitions are not only the “material” the Education Department wants its diversified public to come into contact with in their efforts to spread contemporary art, but also the means by which the Program itself should demonstrate its learning ability and/or availability. This permeability, however, has not only an educational, self-transforming dimension but also an administrative and self-preserving one. [6]

To some degree, the Education Department has realized that to remain it needs to change: being open to exhibitions is a condition of its permanence. It is in this aporetic situation that the chances lie of building itself an unprecedented leading role. But even when it states it will run a “workshop-based curatorship” – a position that seems to take in both curatorial and artistic practices – the Education Department seems to conceive its “inventions” within the limits of a “direct relationship” (something mimetic) with the curatorship of each show [7]. For Carmen Mörsch (2007, p. 661), in contrast, “Art education has the advantage over art that is [sic] does not have to be new.” More than that, the educator seems to posit an independence of the Education Department – in relation to art but also to certain visitor expectations – in a way that restores a conflictive dimension in the relationship between the various agents (artists, curators, educators, visitors, institution, etc.), separated by a social division of cultural work. However, the Biennial Education Department does not seem interested in taking on / building up a political position in the midst of these intersections. Regarding curatorship, for example, their position seems to correspond to a kind of parallelism – to which we shall return later.

At the same time, the Education Department has its own procedures, which continue in spite of changes. Even though Barbieri has left, the same curatorial axes remain [8]. It is they who have to solve the problem of the organizational structure, as its “fixed origin”, its “centre [that] is not the centre” (Derrida, 1978). If the Education Department’s inventions have seemed circumscribed by the curatorships, this time, it is the exhibitions that appear circumscribed by those axes. According to Barbieri (2013, p. 25), “Every action of the Education Department is crafted, [...] on the basis of proposals derived from artists’ ideas and the curatorial concept, always ensuring that all this happens according to our founding concepts: dialogue, experience and encounter.” By the way, it is these “permanent concepts” – and not the exhibitions – that, from the new coordination’s point of view, demand changes: “a sensitive look, moving between the macro and the micro, dynamic, negotiated and collaborative, always in transit, keeping time and following the diversity of its actors” (Azevedo, 2014).

For Carolina Melo (op. cit.), Barbieri’s curatorship took on “concepts of human relationships, values.” The supervisor was referring to curatorial axes, which she says are “concepts explained very well by many theorists” and that have been, to some extent, “behind everything that we have been doing.” In fact, it is the curatorial axes that, in the absence of a more consistent project [9], seem to have been supporting the Education Department conceptually. Certainly, their meanings are not so self-evident. But we could think of them as elements of an apparatus [10], responsible for producing a certain “reconciliation” between permanence and permeability. Or, as they claim to represent “everyone”, we might think of them as the “pure activity of government that only seeks its own reproduction” (Agamben, 2009, p. 49). In short, they signal a (discursive) opening to changes in the midst of a (pragmatic) commitment to the actual maintenance of the Education Department. In another context, Melo has said: “These are concepts that are slightly open, because [...] you can look at these biases with a lot of flexibility, you can walk down many paths, and that's what makes a structure that can be continued, which can present an institutional line giving clarity and substance but, at the same time, with a lot of flexibility.” [11]

Let’s consider dialogue, for example, which appears to mediate between the remaining axes (encounter and experience). Barbieri says: “for us, it is essential that everyone can [...] say what they think, [...] that we have dialogue as a source of exchange and knowledge for all of us involved in this meeting.” [12] However, this openness does not revoke a “constitutive split” in the Education Department, which tends to separate the Program from the issues arising from the exhibition. Thus, the subject produced by that apparatus “says what it thinks”, but its thinking is politically innocuous, in that it has no visible result [13]. Similarly, when it was decided to discuss the concepts of conflict and community – brought up by the 31st Biennial curatorship – their proposals seemed to (poetically) simulate a conflict between the participants, and then invite them to “paint a collective picture.” [14] In fact, this attempt to calm the conflict down also appears in the speech of Luis Terepins, current president of the Biennial: “We really have a space here for discussion, for questioning, but above all to build relationships, not to destroy relationships.” [15] Thus, the Education Department presupposes a problematic harmony, in which “all actions go hand in hand” (Barbieri, 2013, p. 24).

The problem is that there have been many conflicts, in addition to those represented in the exhibition. [16] As regards working with more controversial pieces and the need that the Education Department should have a project – in relation to which educators could decide on their commitment – Conrado Vivacqua (2015), who worked in the exhibition as a “professional educator” [17], says: “If a group of evangelical teachers – and this happened a few times – refuse to work on any piece, that project is powerful for me; such a conflict is powerful. So that is what I want to talk about, I will not run away from it. In the group of 'prohibited' works, I spoke of the sign [18], and now the board has become a subject of discussion. Because the project for me is not to speak of the work; the political project that I created for myself is this meeting, the confrontation, the difference, the conflict. But it needed to be clear to all the educators.” Here, it must be stressed that the conflict as a project, or rather the need to position yourself educationally before the conflict, was the educator’s initiative, not that of the Education Department.

Similarly, considering the possible consequences of the rejection of Israel's sponsorship among the educators, in addition to how the Education Department could receive them, Luiza Proença (2015), who worked in the exhibition as an associate curator, believes that: “Just as the educators in the Mercosul Biennial [in 2013] took on the energy of the June protests, I think several issues also came up for [the São Paulo Biennial educators] [...]. But the reaction of the [Education Department] coordination was fear. [...] They were afraid that the educators would do what those at the Mercosul Biennial had done.” [19] Referring to the time when the educators wrote “the periphery is our Gaza Strip,” in the work of Bik Van der Pol [20], the curator continues: “the coordination said that we were creating conflict for the sake of conflict, and that the educators did not know the difference between good conflict and bad conflict. [...] And this fear was constant during the Biennial. [...] They were afraid that the educators would become friends with the artists and turn against the institution, writing against the Education Department’s work”.

Ultimately, dialogue, as conceived by the Education Department, does not seem to allow for conflict. This means that the Education Department, more than working to turn conflict into dialogue, works to mitigate conflict through dialogue. However, it is a dialogue that does not seem interested in building a common understanding but, rather, in maintaining a previously posited sense of harmony. In this sense, if we are living in a “time of transition”, or even in an increasingly conflictual world in which “societies around the planet seem torn apart by ethnic, economic and religious divisions” (Esche, 2014), it is their own educational task that is at stake. Nonetheless, one aspect cannot be overlooked here, although it would have to be considered in all its complexity. For Paul Virilio (2012, p 17), the problem of the administration of fear is also “a problem of identity in the proximity and interpenetration of different realities”. In other words, it is a problem of maintaining an identity despite differences – which, moreover, corresponds to a typical institutional stance [21]. In any case, the desire to remain should not be justified, much less organized by fear of perishing.

With Barbieri’s departure, the 31st Biennial’s Education Department became the responsibility of a general coordination – which would soon become known as the management –, meaning the position of the education curator was left empty or abolished [22]. Publicly, the change was made very discreetly and without attracting the attention of the press [23]. Changing the artistic curator in such a manner might well have had another outcome [24]. But we are not discussing a hierarchy of visibility between different curatorships here. The point is that, at this moment, it can be imagined that the Permanent Education Department might free itself from a specific education curatorship, when in fact it remains inextricably linked to it. In late October 2014, Daniela Azevedo (op. cit.), now manager of the Biennial Education Department, wrote the following: “In 2010 [sic], at the 29th Biennial, Stela Barbieri began her education curatorship, which became permanent in 2011. The continuity of actions changes the scenario, enabling better qualitative analysis, fundamental for the improvement of subsequent projects.” It was not enough to confuse the Permanent Education Department with Barbieri’s curatorship, the manager seems to have assigned it an instrumental role, in terms of future projects, without clarifying its current aims. Undoubtedly, discontinuous actions can neither be improved nor worsened: they are what they then could be. But how (and in what sense) can permanence improve the project?
Anyway, the present coordination seems willing to sacrifice the “new” in favour of permanence: “In every edition [1953-2008], new ideas, concepts and methods were put in practice encouraging the contact and enjoyment of diverse audiences. In these multiple encounters, innovative proposals emerged that gradually increased public interest. But these generally occasional proposals, began and ended with the coordination, requiring the next Biennial to set up a new Education Department” (Idem). Interestingly, from this perspective, it is as if the problem of the ‘new’ is not to remain. At the same time, it is as if permanence could better ensure its effects that, in any case, do not seem to have been dispensed with. Moreover, the role assigned here to the Permanent Education Department, as well as being contradictory, was tautological: not having to set up a new Education Department for every new exhibition. In 2010, Barbieri had a similar explanation: “the idea is that, in the Post-Biennial period, we will maintain a permanent education sector because the Biennial changes its entire team for each edition and, therefore, does not establish long-term partnerships. Everything always starts from zero” (Barbieri, 2010b). But the partnerships mean nothing in themselves. Simply establishing them cannot be a project’s purpose. Here, they seem justified by an abstract continuity; they are what allow this continuity. Perhaps they could be a means of achieving educational goals, as well as building consensus about the project [25]. What, after all, was the aim of trying to set up a Permanent Education Department?

In 2011, Barbieri limited herself to stating that “The president and current board, aware of the importance of the educational services of the previous biennials and the significance of their work, decided after the 29th Biennial to consolidate a Permanent Education Department, responsible for the direct relationship between the Biennial and the general public” (Barbieri, 2011). The following year, Heitor Martins, then president of the Biennial Foundation, said: “For two years [sic], we have had the privilege of promoting a Permanent Education Department, whose work has been expanding the field of discussion between people and art works, generating dialogues between team members and the public” (Martins, 2012). In turn, and a little more specifically, the 2011-2012 Management Report stated that “This initiative intends to offer continued education, increase dialogue with teachers, strengthen networks and set up Biennial Education Department activities within the school year” (FBSP, 2012). For now, we can see that in this series of arguments, the abstract character of the partnerships will give way to something more specific: a kind of increment in the relationship with the public, especially with state schools.

But such aims have a history. At this point, it should be recognized that “If the Biennial Permanent Education Department has come to prominence through the breadth of its actions [26], it is the fulfilment of an old Biennial desire, for which there was no lack of initiatives” (Minerini Neto, 2014, p. 386). So this is not an exclusive decision of the president or the “current” board. In his thesis on the history of education at the São Paulo Biennial, Minerini Neto mentioned proposals for courses, centres, sections, boards, etc., in order to ensure education a permanent place in the institution’s activity. To this end, different roles were assigned: in 1966, “to attract the constant attention of interested parties and the public”; also in 1966, to create “the possibility of a closer cultural dialogue between [foreign experts] and the intellectual and student elite in Brazil”; in 1969, “to offer continuous training courses for monitors”; in 1975, “to disseminate the Biennial in schools”; in 1980, “to widen access to different audiences,” etc. (Ibid, pp. 107-108, 113, 129 and 133). Here it is curious to note that the Education Department is, in some cases, designed with communicative functions (public relations), which are not necessarily educational. Similarly, it is not an absolutely inaugural decision: a Pedagogical Section was maintained between 1972 and 1979, under the coordination of the art critic Antonio Santoro Junior, which however did not have, for most of that period, a formal contract with the Foundation Biennial (idem, pp. 118 and 386).

But the recommendation that a permanent Education Department be implemented would appear more explicitly in the curator’s report for the 28th Biennial [27], in 2008: “The lack of continuity in the Foundation's programs and activities is its weakest and most vulnerable point, and has a high financial cost. It's as if every edition started from scratch! The existence of a basic core operating within the institution would ensure the continuity of activities in the intervals between exhibitions, in order to arouse and promote continued interest in discussing themes and issues in contemporary art. [...] The Permanent Education Department would serve as a reserve for knowledge and accumulated experience, enabling the development of a more effective and systematic program for the various types of visitors attending the Biennial” (Mesquita & Cohen, 2008). The relationship between continuity and lower financial cost would certainly need to be better thought out. Be that as it may, here we finally have two functions that seem to consider the specific possibilities of permanence: (1) carrying out effective work in the intervals between biennials and (2) the creation of a space for knowledge and accumulated experience.

But this was, so to speak, its imaginary moment. The holding of intermediate exhibitions in recent years has left almost no gaps between the biennials, which seems to have pressured the Education Department into being something permanently temporary, rather than temporarily permanent. Similarly, there would have to be discussion of what sharing policies of “accumulated experience” have been established. For example, whether the “qualitative analysis” (which Azevedo refers to above) involves a public / collective development process, or whether they simply serve to manage the Education Department’s institutional image. Anyway, among its many actions, we can perhaps identify three different groups: (1) actions similar to those of a temporary Education Department, directly related to the exhibitions – as in the case of visits, educational materials, training courses for educators, etc; (2) actions that may take place before or after the exhibitions, but which refer to the artists and projects that are part of them – as in the case of the laboratories, the training meetings for teachers, etc.; and finally (3) actions that go beyond the exhibitions, whether in terms of schedule, or issues, in an unthinkable way for a strictly temporary condition – as in the case of the Biennial Schools’ programs and the Biennial with Communities (now the More City Biennial), or, an exhibition based on the seminar Art in Time (2013), about the history of the Biennial Education Department. One thing can be mixed with another; for example, when there are “different visits” in which artists invited by the Education Department raise issues alien to the exhibition [28]. But it is in that third group that we can glimpse how the “permanent” (long-term) actions are linked to temporary actions.

Started in 2013, the Biennial Schools’ Program, for example, currently employs 2 teachers (Anita Limulja and Deborah Rosa). They each accompany teachers and students from 5 classes each from 4 different state schools in São Paulo, both in their school activities and their visits to the exhibitions (images: 1, 2). In addition, the project is designed to follow the same classes over 4 years: from the 1st year (when children are between 6 and 7 years of age) to the 4th year of elementary school. This is a pilot project in the execution phase, with the primary goal of “expanding the teaching of contemporary art in the classroom.” [29] However, its aims may be more nuanced, extending from the moment when the institution seeks to learn from schools to when it tries to inform schools about Biennial exhibition themes. According to Deborah Rosa (2015), the intention is that we “approach the state school reality, bring it into the training of educators, actually participate in school, be close to the teachers, [...] challenge them with contemporary art.” For now, one could not say how this monitoring is involved in research that could develop objectively shareable knowledge. But there would certainly be a possibility of transposing the kind of intangible character usually reserved for the consequences of educational actions. Some continuity is, therefore, indispensable for that.
In a photo posted on the Biennial Facebook page, the children taking part in a project use the opportunity to turn the projection of a video – a piece, in fact, by the artist Mark Lewis – into a game of shadow theatre; a sign that an audience may not just appropriate and update what is offered to them, but create their own “secondary production” (Certeau, 2014, pp. 38 ff.). By the way, shadow theatre is also one of the tools used by the AntiKulti Atelier collective, which was formed in 2012, bringing together people living legally and illegally in Zurich, interested in developing artistic and political projects. In this case, theatre is used to juxtapose the concepts and traditions of historical and current struggles in different geopolitical contexts.

The Atelier was born of the Education Department of an exhibition project on design and globalization, held by a Design Museum connected to a local university, in collaboration with the Zurich Autonomous School, a self-managed project, which organizes courses for “illegal” people or refugees awaiting a decision on their appeal to remain. However, after the exhibition as well as the project financing had finished, most of the members were interested in continuing working, which led them to create a permanent workshop, external to the institutional frameworks of the museum and the school. Therefore, according to Nora Landkammer (undated, p. 32), one of the Atelier educators, “For a collaborative model to generate an oriented community space, there must be a tension between two logics: the logic of the education 'project', with limited time, organized in terms of the exhibition program, and the activist logic of permanently constructing a position, a joint space.”
In the above example, the demand for permanency comes up in a specific context, which does not necessarily correspond to the dissemination of institutional offers. For Landkammer (idem), “Working against racism and immigration policies [...] cannot be a 'theme' that, after the project is completed, is simply replaced by another”. The continuation of this work, therefore, has to do with the actual emergence of the issues it takes on, as well as with their resolution which cannot be put off. In this sense, continuity should not constitute an end in itself, as the Education Department at times seems to believe, or even, as a definition of museums – as “permanent institutions” (ICOM, 1999, p. 06) – seems to endorse. It should imply both the construction and permanent revision of a joint space for collaborators, as well as another way of getting to know each other through the institutions, not necessarily based on the “identity of the norm”. In this process, according to Landkammer, “the cultural institution cannot remain the same.” Along these lines, as the partnerships emphasise the “exchange of ideas and experiences” – in which an abstraction of the use value seems only to confirm previous interests, in analogy to relationships based on consumerism and dominance [30] –, collaboration emphasises the “construction of new interests”. Therefore, the tension underlined by Landkammer between two “time economies” – not only between the temporary and the permanent, but also between the time of the exhibition and that of the educational processes – should consider the tension between two social entities: one institutional, the other extra-institutional [31]. There is no doubt, however, that in mitigating that multifaceted tension, the institution will choose a side.

But what does no longer having an education curatorship mean? As mentioned above, though the same curatorial axes remain, they are now continued by management. According to Carolina Melo, “The use of the term education curatorship can represent specific political positioning. [...] It is about creating more respect for the role of the educator, who is thus placed on the same level of importance as the curator.” [32] Certainly, that egalitarian desire is held dear by the Permanent Education Department. But there could be a misconception in that particular claim for “more respect for the role of the educator.” Firstly, it confuses the position of education curators with that of educators, as if one represented the other [33]. In fact, the term seems to broaden the scope of the Education Department’s internal hierarchies: between educators and curators, there are supervisors, researchers and coordinators. Secondly, it belittles the importance of the educator as such. After all why, in order to be important, should an educator have to be called a curator? We know that in the so-called “permanent staff”, educators are not permanent. By the way, they know themselves when they are respected, but the term for that is “good working conditions.”

Let’s take a pause here: in a particularly precarious professional field, working for the São Paulo Biennial can be seen as relatively attractive. Nonetheless, we could refer to some of the collateral effects, which do not necessarily have to do with financial considerations. As regards the diversity (and quantity) of visitors educators must attend without knowing what is supposed to be done with these groups led Vivacqua (op. cit.) to state that “we were there with this task of receiving the public. [...] The frenetic pace, the idea that we had to get as many people as possible, the modern scale of the building, of the undertaking that is the Biennial… the Education Department did not want to question it. It wanted to keep up with that megalomania, that shopping centre ride. I find it very strange that there has been no self-criticism about it. Especially because this receiving of the public en masse based solely on guided tours, suppresses or competes with the creation of workspaces in which the authorship of educators may appear, since it limits their activities to micro-projects oriented by their own research.”

Proença also comments on this reducing of educational work to something abstract, whose meaning fades into itself. For the curator (op. cit.), the achievements represented by the implementation of the Permanent Education Department have continued to consolidate a massive attendance policy, common to “non-permanent” education projects: “I see that it has a very interesting structure, this longer training [for educators]... You may question how this training is done, but there is previous work, there is support, there are meetings. [...] The perspective of the 29th [Biennial] has become unquestionable over the years: the idea of recovery [34], giving the Biennial an importance in the city again, [...] attracting and engaging the maximum number of people possible. [...] I do not know if I can say [...] what the objectives [of the Education Department] are, beyond meeting the demand they have created, but it certainly does not resonate much in the institution. It is not registered in any way apart from in the Education Department. It does not figure in the Council, on the board, in the presidency, the production or the Wanda Svevo archive. It is an experience that remains there and that could be shared rather more.”
To return to the problem of “educational curatorship”, it’s important to remember that one of the first appearances of the term in Brazil was to do with the broadening of the concept of curatorship, in the sense of making exhibitions a means of cultural action. According to Luiz Guilherme Vergara (1996), in an observation that seemed aimed at curators, “Making art accessible to a diversified public is to make it culturally active.” Despite the caveats we could now present about this democratizing perspective [35], it is clearly a proposal to incorporate education in curatorship rather than promoting education to curatorship, as the Permanent Education Department seems to argue. Of course, they are different views on how to achieve the same aim, namely, the expansion of an educational presence in the exhibitions. But while the former wants to convince the curatorship of education’s importance; the second basically announces its affirmation of a kind of sharing. In other words, it is not only a (collaborative) wish for equality but also for (competitive) demarcation of the boundaries between different operating territories.

Another indispensable reference for the Brazilian context was the Mercosul Biennial that, in its 6th edition (2007), created the figure of the pedagogical curator [36]. As a result, according to Mônica Hoff (2013, p. 73), who coordinated the institution’s Education Department between 2006 and 2013, “the pedagogical project increased its participation in the curatorial project, and came to have a more major role.” In fact, this “inversion” appears in a radical fashion, in Luis Camnitzer’s proposal (apud Hoff, idem, p. 73), who was the first to occupy the position: “The Biennial defines itself as a permanent institution of cultural action, in which the periodic exhibition is only one of its activities.” Nonetheless, Camnitzer did not become a permanent curator. In the following editions each had a new pedagogical curator, counting on the support of a local coordination, which was not permanent, but was involved in different editions. In this respect, although Hoff’s text proposes discussing relations between mediation/education and curatorship, or even, between different kinds of curatorship (artistic and educational), in different (national and international) cultural contexts, it would have been opportune if she had included the relationships between the different education curatorships and their own coordination. This could have led to a discussion on relations between the temporary and the “permanent.” (Images: 1, 2)

Anyway, the author argues that those places (mediation and curatorship), despite not being about the same thing, operate in proximity, since both have unstable meanings; they “are not what they seem.” Hoff, however, seems to believe that if mediation – “which is also a curatorial process” – came closer to curatorship properly speaking – which is “a pedagogical process par excellence” –, particularly in Brazil, mediation’s subjugated position could be questioned. This was the experience of the Mercosul Biennial. Hoff states in her report that, in this context, “the negotiations between the artistic and education curatorships have always been friendly and productive” (idem, p. 83). Nonetheless, it’s important to clarify that in this case the pedagogical curators have always been invited to be part of the same general curators’ team; their affinities were therefore suggested beforehand. At the same time, in her view, the projects resulting from this approximation, or even, from a “total integration” of the pedagogical and the curatorial – to the extent that, in 2011, the pedagogical curator was involved in selecting the participating artists as well as working on exhibition concepts –, “exist only in communion and contrast with the environment in which they live and from which they originate. In other words, at the same time as they respond to the educational community’s demands, they are attentive to artistic trends and norms” (idem, pp. 83-84).

The overview may seem more enigmatic than enlightening, especially when this kind of integration cannot be assumed. What, actually, would be the terms on which the different curatorships collaborated? Moreover, how would mediation/education be recognised, as an intellectual, investigative, critical and creative practice, in its own terms? The question does not suggest regulating the place of each activity, but exploring its way of introducing itself in a network of multiple unstable meanings that, nonetheless, is organized around a few stable signifiers. In a text on the 6th Mercosul Biennial, Camnitzer (2009, p. 15) argues that “The pedagogical curator is someone who does not influence the selection of artists. It is someone who acts as a public ambassador and watches the event with the visitor's eyes.” But if there are discrepancies, as the author himself acknowledges, between the visitor's perspective and the exhibition codes, it seems salutary to recognize and even expand an area of conflict between the different curatorships, in the sense that it is not only about teaching that code to visitors, but also making the exhibitions (and institutions) assimilate that perspective.

What, nevertheless, would be the management position in relation to that “political positioning” (which Melo refers to above)? Or rather, would such adherence to business vocabulary, given the term “management” or “partnerships”, entail a loss of political positioning? Considering how the São Paulo Biennial Education Department took on the management role in the face of the conflicts and the possibility of its own transformation, without necessarily providing a political-pedagogical project, Vivacqua (op. cit.), in considering those issues, states: “Managing is making the thing happen in an optimised way, so that it works out, with guarantees and it seems to me that the role of the curatorship at the time I was at the Biennial, and often that of the coordination as well, was to manage problems, manage the work and less to discuss education and what the Education Department was. […] When I ask myself about the project, it is a positive attitude, which a manager does not necessarily have […]. At the moment a manager takes on the role of proposer […], it seems to me that the problems are resolved in the sense of transforming what the project is. […] The sustainability of a project is about the problems that come up during its course, but if you only have an institution that is managing problems, that is also reacting, […] the problem there is ruinous, it is not a good problem.”

There are, undoubtedly, hierarchies, both contractual and symbolic. As to that, returning to the problem of the relationship between the different curatorships, the question that concerns us is the way the Education Department seeks to put that sharing into practice. In that it is consolidated, comes into existence, in a “structured” manner, prior to any artistic curatorship, the Permanent Education Department creates certain prerogatives, but not necessarily independence. As stated, this is a kind of parallelism; i.e., a position conceptually subordinated to curatorial proposals, but which at the same time – with variations in each edition – indirectly expresses a degree of “non-submission”, either through a discreet reference, or an unconfessed indifference to those proposals. For example, the fact that the educational material is presented as a task for the curators, even before many of the artists are confirmed (Proença, op. cit.) [37], or the workshops [38] are run without much relation to the projects on exhibition [39], does not necessarily mean a counterpoint to the curatorial and artistic prerogatives.

Thus, the Education Department fails to publicly articulate a confrontation of the hierarchies that threaten to subjugate it, much less to take the conflicts that arise in the exhibition as opportunities for mutual learning and self-transformation. In this sense, permanence seems to have allowed the Education Department, more simply, to construct a Parallel Program, which “does not resonate much in the institution” (Proença, idem). In fact, the Permanent Education Department has been consolidating a parallel institution, with its own team for communication, production, etc., in addition to their own sponsors [40]. As Proença has observed (idem), “There was an expression they [the Education Department] always used [...] it went like this: 'We will collaborate with you [with the curatorship]. We will give you someone from our team to help you.' So, really, we were not together in the same boat. [...] You could see they had become a separate institution apart. They collaborated with the Biennial. But they had their own stuff. [...] It was very difficult to move within this structure.” This is certainly not to suggest that one curator might interfere with the work of another. It is salutary that the Education Department can work independently, demonstrating its possible divergences in different instances, as a “public ambassador.” It might, nonetheless, be appropriate to revise the actual sense of permanence, questioning the sharing of its benefits among those different “time economies” (between the temporary and the permanent, exhibition time and education time, institution time and the time of extra-institutional dynamics). Moreover, the terms of collaboration could be prepared not only between the different curatorships, but also between the different agents involved in the institution; as if to emphasize “the importance of some cross-cutting dialogue on the different responsibilities and ‘self-educating’ processes between educators, producers, curators, coordinators, supervisors, maintenance and security teams” (Kelian, 2014). Finally, it would be up to the institution to consider whether the resolution of conflicts arising in the exhibition was through a reduction or a promotion – in a political and / or conceptual sense – of the Education Department in this context [41]. Perhaps, more appropriately, its short-term historic task is to demonstrate if the “accumulated experience” of the Permanent Education Department is circumscribed or not by the experience of a parallel institution, embodied by a single education curator.

Brasilia, September 2015.

Acting Together, Enacting Democracy: The Boycott at the 31st Edition of the São Paulo Biennial ‘How to (…) things that don’t exist’

By Florencia Portocarrero


Unquestionably we are living in a moment in which not only the democratic public sphere has been radically diminished, but also, when democratic political systems themselves are under pressure worldwide due to neo-liberalism and its counter-movement, neo-nationalism [1]. Indeed, as Pascal Gielen has put it, the two ideologies are at odds with the basic principles of democracy: while the later sees national cultural identity as the ultimate basis, the former elevates the laws of the free market to a transcendental level. In doing so, both suggest that the essence of political action lies outside of politics, removing major concerns of the public sphere, as well as from any possibility of political regulation [2].

In such scenario, art biennials –that are currently one of the most important sites for the production and circulation of public discourse around contemporary art- face new challenges and responsibilities. Certainly, biennials are increasingly being used by authoritarian regimes in order to glamorize their image and enhance their tourism industry (as the recent wave of newly founded biennials in Gulf States shows [3]), or even more paradoxically, national identities forged in the struggle for decolonisation are turned into cultural commodities for international consumption [4]. Under this framework, conflict and critically are not wanted and the idea that art should promote a positive sense of identity is celebrated. These circumstances have generated what Peter Osborne identifies as the ‘crisis of the biennial curation.’ [5]

But, how can art biennials produce meaningful, or at least critical interventions in this context? While it’s true that a relationship between art and economic globalization is inevitable, biennials and other cultural institutions need to start asking themselves what kind of global culture they are underwriting and how that support is made manifest in the role they play within art's active participation in the revitalization of democracy, opinion formation and free discussion. In this line, one of the most interesting recent cases is the 31st edition of the São Paulo Biennial ‘How to (…) things that don’t exist’, which has promptly become a reference for utilizing a physical, institutional and professional structure of the artistic sphere not only for the production and reproduction of art, but also, to set the ground for debates that are urgent in a context where using public resources to discuss subjects that are actually of public concern, has become almost a subversive gesture.

Curated by a seven-member curatorial team composed by Charles Esche, Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Pablo Lafuente, Oren Sagiv, Luiza Proença and Benjamin Seroussi, ‘How to (...) things that don’t exist’ was conceived as a political/discursive platform confronting controversial questions that are repeatedly expelled from the public sphere. In this way, the concept for the show departed from the massive civil protests that took place in São Paulo and other cities in Brazil during June of 2013 and 2014 [6] - but soon ‘scaled up’ to open a discussion about similar political and social circumstances in other geographical contexts.

The title of the exhibition –‘How to (…) - things that don’t exist’- worked as an invocation of arts capacities to reflect and address things that the current political landscape doesn’t allow us to recognize in order to make them part of the public imagination. In their introductory text to the project, the curators stated that the generalized crisis in Brazil and elsewhere has resulted in a situation of turn, which was exemplified by what they called the ‘Trans’. ‘Trans’ for transgression, transcendence, translation, transgender, transsexuality, transformation, and so on. That is, subjectivities that embrace new relations with the body, time, sexuality, environment, culture and work. Modes of existence able to disrupt the ‘natural’ order of things that the biennial would welcome.

Inasmuch as the show tackled issues that are sensible in contemporary Brazil (and elsewhere) and, more importantly, invoked an emancipated and politicized subject, it was not a surprise that -within the few months it was open to the public- the Biennial became a site of multiple controversies, or to use one of Chantal Mouffe’s terms, an ‘agonic public sphere.’ [7] Indeed, the exhibition not only had an ambivalent reception from the national and international specialized press [8], but it also generated strong reactions among conservative and religious sectors of the Brazilian society [9]. However, perhaps the most visible conflict surrounding the event was the so-called boycott, which took place in late August of 2014, even before the Biennial had opened.

The boycott started when, in solidarity with the Palestinians artists on the exhibition, more than half of the artists participating in the Biennial signed a letter demanding the Biennial’s administration to decline the financial support of the State of Israel. Although this was an unpredictable situation, the way in which the artists and curators reacted was coherent with the political subject that the exhibition wanted to bring about, or to put it in other words, with the ‘world horizon’ that the curatorial project was putting forward at a discursive level. Certainly, the boycott at the 31st edition of the São Paulo Biennial is one of the few –if not the only- recent art- boycott in which the curatorial team and artists ‘acted together’, taking distance from the Biennial’s administration and the institutional interests.

By narrating and examining the events that took place around the boycott at the 31st edition of the São Paulo Biennial, this text aims to articulate different levels of analysis: give an historic overview of how boycotts have impacted the São Paulo Biennial; discuss the political anatomy of art-boycotts and its relations to the increasing integration of the art world into the realms of high capital; and lastly and perhaps more importantly, reflect upon how the artists and curators of the 31st edition of the São Paulo Biennial put in crisis the neoliberal ‘common sense’ of the biennial institution and broadened the subjects that are available for discussion in the art world by enacting an alliance that appealed to a democratic political imaginary.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that all the data and reflections presented here have been built through an extensive period of time which started when I was invited to be part of ‘A toolbox of Cultural Organization’, a workshop organized by the curatorial team of the 31st edition of the São Paulo Biennial that brought together fifteen curators and cultural agents from Brazil, Latin America and Europe. This workshop allowed me to visit São Paulo in three different occasions during 2014. Since then, I have discussed about the Biennial with around thirty people: members of the curatorial team, my colleagues at the workshop and artists who participated in the show. Among all these people, I would like to give special thanks to Galit Eilat, Pablo Lafuente, Miguel A. López, Michelle Sommer and Grupo Etcétera, whose time and insights have been invaluable for the construction of this text.


Although the 2014 boycott to the 31st São Paulo Biennial ‘How to (…) things that don’t exist’ can be considered one of the most significant manifestations of this global-art phenomena, it is not the first time that this Biennial faces a boycott. Quite the opposite, the biannual exhibition has a loaded history regarding this subject. Indeed, its 10th edition, in 1969, was the object of one of the first international large-scale organized art-boycotts [10]. Known as the “No” campaign (“Non à la Biennale de São Paulo”), the boycott was proposed by Mario Pedrosa, the president of the Brazilian Association of Art Critics (ABCA), and was supported by prominent local [11] and international [12] artists. The 1969 boycott was thought as a strategy to call attention to the brutality of the Brazilian military regime of Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969–74), and more specifically to the violence perpetrated against the Brazilian intelligentsia. This first boycott was followed by a second call to impugn the Biennial only two years later, in its 11th edition. This time, the protest was organized by a group of Latin-American artists exiled in New York, who managed to publish and circulate a 114-page artist book called ‘Contrabienal’. Also known as the ‘printed biennial’, this book contained contributions from 61 artists, written and photographic testimonies denouncing governmental torture and murder in Brazil, and letters of support signed by 112 notable figures from throughout the Americas and Europe. [13]

While the 1969/1971 boycotts denounced the systematic use of torture, disappearance and mass murder by the right-wing dictatorships -that in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America- were supported by the CIA in order to repress the revolutionary aspirations born with the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and prepare the way for the expansion of capitalism in the region [14]; the more recent boycotts shed a light on a completely new political landscape, one that has been redrawn by the globalization of neoliberalism and the development of institutions of global capital beyond the reach of the nation state.

Indeed, after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, both postcolonial and post-communist states were brought into the new world order on cultural as well as economic terms. Despite at the beginning there was a sense of possibility and optimism, finally these changing relationships allowed imperialism to be recast in terms of international development and, furthermore, as Charles Esche affirms, ‘a phase of global economic concentration and of wealth redistribution in favour of a liberated world- elite was inaugurated.’ [15] Unexpectedly, this reconfiguration enabled the reproduction of the western art system in regions which had been previously considered peripheral -such as South East Asia and Latin America- and facilitated an influx of artists onto the international art scene from countries whose histories and national contexts were not necessarily familiar to the rest of the world. [16] Furthermore, the proliferation of biennials around the world –also known as the ‘biennial effect’- coincided exactly with this process of geopolitical restructuring, as several cities sought to reposition themselves in a new ‘decentralised’ global scenario.

Insofar exhibitions began to be organised not only by the West but by those outside of it -on a scale and with a reach inconceivable in earlier decades [17] - in Europe and the US, artistic discourse started to focus on the cultural politics of identity. However, for the 2000’s this interest in difference -promoted throughout the 1990s- had lost steam as the increasingly asymmetric distribution of wealth fuelled the growth of the commercial art market and of art as a leisure industry. In this context, the art-world in the West was compelled to shape itself around the financial market values: public museums and galleries reinvented themselves in the language of cultural industry and artists found a new role as creative consultants for addressing social needs, while the contradictions with the surrounding capitalist system were hardly mentioned. [18]

In ‘There's No Place Like Home’, the text that constituted Andrea Fraser’s critical contribution to the 2012 Whitney Biennial, the artist points out towards how, the art market expansion since the 2000’s, has paradoxically coincided with the emergence of an increasingly politicized art discourse – that utilizing the language of the radical left- revolves around the revolutionary nature of contemporary art practice. In this way, critical, social, and political claims for what art is and does seem to have become central to its legitimization [19]. However, even if artists, critics, curators, and historians try to elaborate on the contradictions between what art really consists in from a social and economical perspective (a high-valued luxury good or an investment vehicle) and what they say art does and what it means on a discursive level; frequently they fail in providing the tools to make any significant alteration to the way in which the system operates [20]. Moreover, art discourse normally ignores the social and economic conditions of the production and reception of the artwork, concealing the artistic field’s mode of functioning, as well as our investments in it. [21]

Far from judging this manifest contradiction as a kind of hypocrisy or fraud, Fraser turns to Bourdieu’s use of the psychoanalytic concept of ‘negation’. As a ‘mechanism of defence’, negation allows us to deny a fact that is evidently overwhelming in order to avoid the pain that its acceptance would cause. Freud describes ‘negation’ as a procedure through which an ideational content is separated from its affective counterpart, so that it can find its way into consciousness but without any emotional conflict [22]. Therefore, even if resulting in full intellectual acceptance, the distress is not felt, and the ‘self’ can easily take distance from the conflictive situation [23]. As a conclusion, Fraser compels us to recognise how we embody the seemingly irresolvable contradictions of the art world in our own positions and every day practices. Therefore, instead of reducing cultural critique to a defensive and reproductive function -that may often conclude in distancing our immediate and active investments in the field- she suggests that the first step towards a change might lay directly within our grasp; namely, in the way we structure art discourse.


More recently, however, the amount of petitions, threats to withdraw and other public acts of dissidence in the art-world show that to some extent the years of apathy or ‘negation’ –to use Fraser’s terms- might have come to an end. Certainly, lately, critique within the art world seems to have borrowed activist strategies. At the heart of this new politicisation of the art field lies a set of conditions: the fact that the economic and political utility of contemporary art is becoming clear to global players, who have discovered how supporting vanguard cultural production can humanize their own image [24]; the managerial logic that has been imposed as the common sense in art institutions, forcing museum, cultural centres, and so on, to adapt their program to meet corporate values [25]; and finally, and perhaps more importantly, that art workers have been turn into a paradigmatic figure of the new post–fordist conditions of labour: always flexible and used to precarity. For better or worse, this reality has reached such a degree of visibility, that few artists and cultural agents today can pretend their practice takes place at a safe distance from capitalist markets. As a consequence, artists are increasingly being perceived –or even perceiving themselves- as destined to a double and contradictory role, as agents of defiance and service, while the art world is seen as a sphere where politics are choreographed but not practiced, a hyper-ideologised space that is actually empty of politics.

It is precisely in this ambivalent and confusing scenario that artistic boycotts have emerged with epidemic dimensions -empowered by the global reach and quick dissemination of information in social networks- as a strategy to call attention to cultural complicity in systems of power as well as to deal with ethically compromising situations such as censorships, questionable funding and governmental policies. Thus, as David Beech stresses, against the transnational system of interdependence and dense economic interaction in which all sorts of art institutions and individuals are tied together into a process that subtracts value from the mass as a means of generating exponential value-multiplication and privilege for a very few, the art boycott has established itself as a political device for calling institutions, corporations and the state to account [26].

When analysing the political anatomy of art-boycotts Beech finds clear precedents or affiliations. The first one is of course, the economic boycott related to the consumer activism: ‘a combination of non-participation and public announcements that specify preconditions for re-participation’ [27]. Nonetheless, as Galit Eilat notices in a recent article [28], there is an important difference between the consumer and cultural or artistic boycott: ‘while the later takes place at symbolic, representative, and public-relations levels and its effectiveness relies primarily in that which it introduces, or even enforces, the very discussion of boycott publicly; the former is generally performed by individuals refusing to buy certain products and therefore fails to generate much media coverage.’ In addition, it is important to mention that, art boycotts are focused on supply rather than on demand [29], specifically on the withdrawal of artists or curators participation, in a context in which participation is understood to be charged with ethical consent.

The second important reference for the art boycotts according to Beech, would be the way in which the wider political landscape was redrawn by the 2011 social movements; or to put it in other words, by the cycle of social struggles that shift the terrain of political debate and opened new possibilities for political action over the course of that year. That is, the Arab Spring and its reverberations in Europe and America: the Spanish ‘Indignados’, the Occupy Wall Street, the global occupy movement, among others.

As Hardt and Negri affirm in their 2012 book -‘Declaration’- even though each of these movements was singular and orientated towards specific local conditions, they share claims as well as strategies that makes them part of a global struggle. In this way, these demonstrations inaugurated a new mode of mass political protest based on occupations of the streets, internal organization as a multitude and consequent consensus-based decision-making and struggle for the common [30]. Moreover, one of the most radical and far-reaching elements of this cycle of movements was the rejection of representation and the construction instead of schemas of democratic participation.

It’s not difficult to trace the influence of this kind of political activism over the artistic boycott. In many cases, art biennials and other mega-exhibitions have become the emblem of the transnationalization, translocalization and denationalization of the contemporary art economy, ‘unproblematically collapsing neoliberalism and colonialism through a temporal jump cut between the nineteenth century and now.’ [31] Against this backdrop, the exodus of the artists in the art boycott from the exhibition and their self-constitution as a political alliance subverts this capitalist programme by introducing an agonistic element to the event. Furthermore, it also tackles the problem of representation. In fact, in an increasingly neoliberalized art world, artists are seen and treated as subcontractors in art events or exhibitions, not as owners of their work [32]. But, if participating in exhibitions is necessarily to comply with its objective institutional form, what happens when the content of the artwork appears to be nullified or misrepresented by the political circumstances of its institutional display? In this line, boycotts can be understood as a way of recuperating control over circulation of the artwork and its content, as well as a strategy for renegotiating the balance of power within the art institution [33].


But to get a deeper understanding about how boycotts work, it essential to reframe the discussion by moving from the abstract back to a concrete case. As it has already been mentioned, the 2014 boycott to the Sao Paulo Biennial ‘How to (…)things that don’t exist’, is not only the most notable case of the revival of art boycotts, but one of the latest large-scale manifestation of the cultural boycott to Israel. Therefore, in order to continue, it’s important to outline and analyse the context in which the boycott took place.

The 31st edition of the São Paulo Biennial ‘How to (…) things that don’t exist’ came immediately after the 30th edition of the São Paulo Biennial ‘The Imminence of Poetics’, curated by Luis Pérez-Oramas, the first non-Brazilian based curator of the Biennial, who also happened to be the curator of Latin American Art at the MoMA in New York. The selection of Pérez-Oramas signalled the interest of the Biennial Board to forge closer ties to Latin America as a region of flourishing economic power and increased art world influence [34]. The resultant exhibition -which I had the chance to visit in 2012 -was a beautifully installed yet conventional show that functioned as a showcase for an important group of emerging and consecrated Latin American and international artists. After this experience, the selection of Charles Esche as the chief curator for the Biennial’s following edition was not surprising; quite the opposite, it reinforced the increasing global aspirations of the bi-annual art event.

Esche’s first action as the chief curator of the Biennial was to invite a group of professionals, with whom he had already collaborated in different contexts, to work with him as co-curators of the show: Galit Eilat (Founding Director of the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon and a Research Curator at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven); Nuria Enguita Mayo (former Chief Curator at the Antoni Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona and Co-Editor of Afterall Journal), Pablo Lafuente (Co-Editor of Afterall Journal and an Associate Curator at the Office for Contemporary Art Norway), and Oren Sagiv (Architect focused on art installations and professor at the Department of Architecture at the Bezalel Academy for Art and Design in Jerusalem). Afterwards, the team would also invite Luiza Proença and Benjamin Seroussi as Brazilian associated curators.

Since the beginning, the main idea of this edition of the Biennial was to deliver an experience to the audience that could reverberate in the world outside the Biennial, or in other words, to attempt to let the world come inside the show. In order to meet this goal for ‘How to (…) things that don’t exist’, the curatorial team decided to bring the relations between the social movements in Brazil and the Biennial to the foreground. In this way, the exhibition project proposed a reflection that departed from the massive civil protests that took place in São Paulo and other cities in Brazil during 2013 and 2014, but soon ‘scaled up’ to open a discussion about similar political and social circumstances in other geographical contexts. Accordingly, 81 artistic projects -which consisted mainly in activist practices that sought to resist the system through collective action- were commissioned for the show.

The installation of the show began at the end of July, almost in parallel to the 2014 Israeli attack to the Gaza Strip. Since by protocol the Biennial Foundation had approached the Israeli embassy for funding -as it does with all the embassies in the country- and the exhibition featured artists from Palestine and Lebanon, the curators were well aware that this political circumstance could potentially impact the show or, in the worst scenario, turn it into a target of the global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel [35]. Yet, it remained unclear whether the consulate would support the Biennial, especially on the basis of the tense diplomatic relations between the two countries at that moment. In fact, short after Israel attacked the Gaza strip, its Foreign Ministry spokesman -Yigal Palmor- declared that Brazil was an ‘economic and cultural giant but a diplomatic dwarf’ [36], as the Latin American country decided to return its ambassador to express its disapproval with the escalation of violence and the unacceptable use of force over Palestine.

However, just 10 days before the preview opening of the exhibition, programmed for the first week of September, the Israel President–Reuven Rivlin- publicly apologized to the Brazilian community and the Israeli consulate finally manifested its support to the Biennial. Once the Israeli funding was confirmed, Tony Chakar, a Lebanese artist participating on the show, began to share his concern about the danger that him and other colleagues could face in their home countries as a result of being part of an event supported by the Israeli government, and more importantly, about colluding himself with the State of Israel. Chakar’s apprehension resonated with a significant number of the artists, who were also puzzled about the idea of directly or indirectly representing a state that is violating human rights. As a result, the artists and curatorial team started to organize an assembly -named among them ‘the 7 pm meeting’- to meet face to face and discuss about the state of affairs, its consequences and possible solutions. As it was expected, their most pressing request was the refusal of the Israeli money.

Left: Security guards covering the Israeli logo in São Paulo on the evening of August 31st, 2014. Right: 31st São Paulo Biennial sponsor board on the ground floor of the main exhibition hall after the exhibition was opened to the public.

Although the curators tried to explain the complexity of the situation to the Biennial’s Board, the latter didn’t seem willing to negotiate [37] and they were prepared to open the show even without 70% of the artists [38]. The Board’s argument was apparently simple: they defended the idea according to which ‘the Biennial was not political and would not boycott parties willing to offer their sponsorship.’ [39] This reaction not only showed their limited understanding of the relations between art and politics, but as Manuel Borja-Villel points out in a recent article, is symptomatic of how artistic projects and institutions are increasingly evaluated according to their capacity to generate financing, and how they are confined within a complex bureaucratic apparatus that tends towards banality rather than towards reacting to the needs of the context [40].

The refusal of the Biennial’s administration to negotiate sparked a media protest that rapidly scaled up to reach the international press. On the 29th of August, a few days before the preview opening of the Biennial and just one week before its official opening, 61 of the participating artists signed an open letter asking for the devolution of Israeli money [41]. This announcement was supported by the curators, who released an open letter the following day, taking distance from the Biennial’s administration and its decision to keep the Israeli sponsorship. In this short statement –that implied the temporal rupture of the relations between the curatorial team and the Biennial Board- the curators recognized that the sources of funding have a direct impact in the curatorial narrative [42].

After this escalation of tension, finally the different parties reached a consensus on the 1st of September, as the Biennial administration agreed on adding an amendment to the sponsorship board that stated that each consulate involved was only supporting artists from their own countries. Therefore, the money from Israel was symbolically redirected to the artists of this nationality and clearly disassociated from the general sponsorship of the exhibition. So, even though the biennial foundation didn’t remove the logo from the wall or returned the money, the artists could remain in the show without facing manifest contradictions.


The 2014 boycott to the 31st São Paulo Biennial ‘How to (…) things that don’t exist’ allows different layers of analysis. Perhaps, the most evident is that it represented a victory in terms of raising international visibility for the BDS campaign. Boycotts seem to be contagious -other biennials and large-scale international exhibitions will definitely consider this incident when planning their future projects.

The second issue that the boycott tackles is the subject of representation in the context of international large-scale exhibitions, in which artists are usually treated as subcontractors and not as owners of their work [43]. In this framework, problems arise when the content of the artwork is nullified or misrepresented by the political circumstances of its institutional display. If we re-examine the first release of the artists, this appears to be one of their main preoccupations. The artists state: ‘…in accepting this funding our artistic work displayed in the exhibition is undermined and implicitly used for whitewashing Israel’s ongoing aggressions and violation of international law and human rights…’ In this respect, and as Galit Eilat affirms, boycotts can be understood as a way of recuperating control over the circulation of the artwork and its content as well as a strategy for renegotiating the balance of power within the art institution [44]. Although in the case of the São Paulo Biennial, the solution of redirecting the Israeli money to artists from this nationality may appear just a symbolic gesture, it was actually the result of a tense negotiation that implicated a modification of the balance of power by generating an antagonistic dialogue between the board members and other functionaries working in the Biennial, and the artists and cultural workers invited to the exhibition. At the root of this dispute lies a request for transparency and accountability. Therefore, what was being negotiated was not only how artworks were being dealt within the exhibition context, but also the redefinition of the field of power and agencies, and of the voices that are authorised to speak with and about those agencies.

On the other hand, it’s also important to consider the profile of the group of people involved in the Biennial and consequently in this particular boycott. As it has already been mentioned, the artists invited to the exhibition, work mainly in activist practices and have themselves a history of resistance in their own contexts. Indeed, artists and collectives such as Chto Delat, María Galindo & Mujeres Creando, Erick Beltrán, Grupo Etcétera, Ines Doujak, Jonas Stall, Walid Raad, Tony Chakar, among others [45], are well known for understanding their artistic practice as a way of introducing in the public sphere socio-political issues that otherwise would be erased from the collective debate. Likewise, the members of the curatorial team are also recognized by their interest in subverting the dominant model in exhibition making and introducing an 'agonistic' model of artistic public sphere. So, we can infer that the boycott not only answers to the fact that the exhibition had among its participants Lebanese and Israeli artists, but more importantly, to the way in which the artists and curators understand their role in the artistic field.

However, what is most interesting and particular to this specific boycott hasn’t been discussed yet. That is, the alliance between the curatorial team and the artists. The case of the curators and the artists acting concertedly and forming a political alliance -that somehow enacts the type of order that they want to bring about- is quite unique and it materialized itself in the ‘7 pm meeting.’ Thus, over one week, the artists and the curators would work in the installation of the show during the day and meet from 7 pm onwards to discuss the boycott and its implications. These meetings operated as an assembly: a presentation of different arguments in favour and against the boycott was followed by a group discussion and the draft of a report.

According to Hardt and Negri, assemblies share the intention to disrupt the ingrained tendencies to centralize power in a small group of leaders, by providing instead a mechanism by which all can be included in deliberation [46]. For the authors, it’s only in this type of setting where being together is allowed that the production of political affects and an appetite for participation can be cultivated [47]. However, this doesn´t guarantee a smooth process. On the contrary, even if most of the artists participating in the boycott had a politically engaged practice as well as experience on acting collectively, building the affinity and solidarity that allows new ways of doing politics to emerge in the context of an international biennial -that crosses national boundaries and artificially brings together different geopolitical contexts and interests- constitutes a complicated subject.

Consequently, the ‘7 pm meetings’ were characterized by their agonistic dynamic. Parallel to the artists that defended the boycott, different, if not totally opposed perspectives, were expressed. A large percentage of the local and/or emerging artists argued that their practice was incommensurable in terms of their economic conditions and institutional support to the ones of the more successful/globalized artists, who were more actively promoting the boycott. Hence, they felt that the boycott was invisibilizing the urgencies of the local context and their everyday struggle as cultural agents, while privileging a foreign agenda [48]. In a similar train of thought, some artists and curators signalled that the boycott could have as a by-product the glorification of an ‘heroic act’ coming from the most visible part of the chain in cultural production –that is, the artists and curators- while concealing its consequences over the more modest workers that form part of the support structure that allows the Biennial to exist [49]. Moreover, the long term destabilizing impact that the boycott could have over the Biennial as an institution, the Brazilian audience and artistic milieu, were also brought to discussion. Finally, some artists recognized economic necessity as a limiting factor to their freedom and autonomy. Indeed, most of them couldn’t have afforded breaking their contracts and paying back to the Biennial the money invested in the development of their projects. Nevertheless, 70% of the artists supported the boycott with the expectation of reaching a consensus with the Biennial administration. Discussing and reflecting collectively about all these issues was essential to understand how complex and compromising a boycott can be.

Left: Saturday 30th of August 2014. Artists writing an open letter to the Biennial. In the top row, from left to right: Ahmet Ogut, Jonas Staal, Bik Van der Pool, Charles Esche, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Rupali Patil and Prabhakar Pachpute. Bottom Row: Sandi Hilal, Jonh Barker, Tony Chakar, Jakob Jakobsen, Clara Ianni, Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Imogen Stidworthy, Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhoj. Right: Artist and Curators receiving negative answer from the emissary of the Biennial Board. Photos: Miguel Á. Lopez.

Right and Left: Sunday 31st of August 2014, artists discussing in the moments prior to the final negotiation with the Biennial Board. Photos: Miguel Á. Lopez.


Undoubtedly, art boycotts hold a series of paradoxes that need to be discussed further. Firstly, we could ask if art boycotts function just as a symbolic ameliorative to irresolvable contradictions of the art world. As David Beech affirms [50]: ‘the problem that the art boycott cannot fully shake off is that, insofar as it focuses on a particular issue, it implies that the institution under normal circumstances is unobjectionable… Therefore, boycotts are ill-equipped to tackle general and deep-seated conventions and structures common to all art institutions’. Secondly, and probably on the other side of the spectrum, an additional problem of art boycotts is that they can indirectly act in detriment of the daily work of many of the people involved in ethical practices of critique within institutions, generating a spectacular aura, alongside superficial or even negative long-term effects.

Nevertheless, and as it has been pointed throughout this text, art boycotts might be less about withdrawing than about creating a space for an alternative set of social relations to emerge. As the 31st São Paulo Biennial case shows, the boycott generated a space of encounter – far beyond the pressure of market forces and build around empathy and solidarity- between the artists and curators. Artists and other cultural workers are very fragile when acting alone; but acting together can be a radical and transformative initiative, which has the potentiality of re-politicizing the spaces of cultural production. The analysis of the boycott to the 31st São Paulo Biennial -‘How to (…) things that don´t exist’- demonstrates that this is not an easy process. Quite the opposite, all the contradictions and the tensions that the growth of the global art system has generated in the past decades will inevitably come to the foreground and confront us. Still, boycotts might be a necessary tool to answer to political circumstances that by far exceed the internal discussions within the art world, and more importantly, that are beyond what is ethically tolerable. In this respect, it makes sense to compare the 1969/1971 and the 2014 boycotts to the São Paulo Biennial. Despite the evident temporal gap, these 3 boycotts were implemented as a strategy to denounce and fight against the normalization of acts of state terrorism and human rights violation. Thus, with all its contractions, art boycotts seem to be based on achieving a reflection about how much we are willing to compromise while creating the conditions for art production. Or, to paraphrase Andrea Fraser, a necessary movement towards confronting the social conflicts we experience, not only at a discursive level, but also within ourselves, and consequently stop reproducing structures and relationships of domination that we claim to oppose.