The questions of what and whom an exhibition is for are relatively easy to answer with a repertoire obtained from within the art system. What it might do for those immediately involved, as core participants or initiators, for art and its history, for what we might understand as relevant in what we do, as people who make it, organise it, administer it, discuss it… Answering these questions with what, from an insider perspective (artistic, professional or academic), might be considered secondary or external is a harder task, one that often goes neglected. The work that we have done with the Exhibition Histories project until now, in these books and the events that have accompanied them, has not exhausted these questions. Today, in retrospect, I understand the project with the help of an image, or an assumption: in the same way a game is not equal to the toys, tools or players that are involved in it, ‘art’ is more than the objects of art and those who make them, own them, arrange them. The choice of the word ‘game’ is not accidental: ‘art’, or what the complex, at times very concrete and at times ghostly system of art identifies as art, functions in many ways as a game. As in a game, the end is often itself, its goal self-reproduction – securing, even if as an alibi, the independence of the game from the need (or, rather, possibility) to produce anything beyond it. 01
Being consequent with that image, the Exhibition Histories project has, since its beginning, attempted to address art from the moment it enters into contact with publics, through an approach that brings together different disciplines and different voices – those who were involved, and those we asked to look into what had been done and how, into the ways the curatorial, artistic or discursive work had left something behind. At the core was a belief, not always explicit or conscious, in the need to intervene into practice through discourse. Using Henri Lefebvre’s words, the exhibitions we selected as case studies can perhaps be seen as ‘total phenomena’, 02 events from the past that make things possible in the present, and whose historical character resides in the realisation of these possibilities. The task of the Exhibition Histories project, then, is not only to point at these moments of realisation, but to also render some of the events’ possibilities more likely.
This absence of innocence in the historiographic task, what Lefebvre calls ‘objective relativism’, became for me clear when working on this book on the 24th Bienal de São Paulo and, at the same time, being involved in the development of another edition of the biennial, the 31st.03Perhaps more importantly, in addition to becoming conscious of the intervention the book was attempting, the parameters used to assess what made that past edition relevant also shifted. Now ‘possibility’ could not be defined by the rules and values of the art system, by general criteria developed in relation to past practice, but rather by the particular political conjuncture of the São Paulo and the Brazilian situation. This meant, to some extent, not playing the game, or playing it wrongly.
What if this perspective was adopted when writing the history of exhibitions? What if the comprehensibility, relevance or exemplarity of an exhibition from the past were articulated in terms that are exogenous to the discourses that constitute contemporary art as we know it? What if we assume that the fundamental engine was not the interest of those ‘involved’ but the interest (or forced, abstract or ghostly interest) of those who are not immediately interested? Perhaps because of its strong emphasis on pedagogy, it is, I think, possible to look at the 24th Bienal de São Paulo through this lens. Although, in order to do so, we would need to undertake a series of suspensions: we would need to step aside from the history of a Bienal that likes to think of itself as the fundamental art event in Brazil and beyond, in Latin America; from the work done by a very extensive curatorial team with an intense expertise in art and its histories; from a list of works and artists that proposed something equivalent to a ‘parallel’ art history; and from a system of national representation that is a fundamental problematic within the history of biennials.
If we abstracted from all those points – points that this book has addressed – we could perhaps suggest a reading that is beyond the art logic, one that is instead urged by the class structure of Brazilian society and the position of what is considered contemporary art and culture within it – at the time of the 24th Bienal in 1998, but also, in slightly different constellations: at the time of the foundation of the Bienal in 1951; at the time of the publication of Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Manifesto antropófago’ in 1928; and still, today, in 2015.
In a society with an intense and resilient class divide that overlaps with a racial divide, often in conflict with, when not camouflaged by, a dominant national narrative of miscegenation and ‘racial democracy’, the position and under- standing of art, as a system, acquires aspects that are at least uncomfortable. The Bienal itself is here exemplary: an institution created by business elites – and still, sixty years later, ‘owned’ and run by them – using public funding to disseminate and promote a vanguard culture (a culture made for and embraced by the elites) to a mass audience of around half a million people who, in their majority, belong to what could be identified, in shorthand, as the lower classes.
The questions this raises – questions that could be posed to the art system as a whole, worldwide, even considering the differences between the class structures of diverse territories – are not easy to answer. How is a culture made by and promoted by the dominant class of benefit to other classes? What mechanisms of mediation need to be established in order to allow for a critical reception? Whose interests does this construction respond to, which interests does it incite or promote, and how?
Historically in the Bienal de São Paulo, and in an emphatic way in the 24th edition, the answers to these questions were articulated through a word and a practice: ‘education’. Education was one of the three pillars of the 24th Bienal (together with the exhibition and the publications, all considered by the organisers of equal importance), the fundamental framework through which the construction of sense, discursively but most importantly politically, was secured. An educational impulse that, in Brazil, is a response to the perceived deficit within the general education system (one of the ongoing effects of the dictatorship that finished in 1985). For the contemporary art context in the country, and for the majority of those who run, fund and work in it, educational activity is essential: it is a constituent part of many of the initiatives, projects and institutional policies in place. For Brazilian art institutions, audience relations are not a question of marketing, as they seem to be in large institutions in, for instance, the Anglo-American context, or an issue of communicating to those already at least interested, who seem to be prioritised by most of the Western art system. It is a matter of reaching those who are far from being invested, through applying a set of pedagogical tools and with an emancipatory remit.
In Brazil, where it could be said that art’s fundamental relation to audience is through education, a different game is created, where funding determines practices that are assessed through quantitative measure and a humanist ideology of individual emancipation through culture. If games operate either according to rules or by adopting fictions, in the game of ‘contemporary art as education’ the rules of inclusion, exclusion, formalisation and operation continue, but accompanied by a fictional narrative of the emancipation of those who are allowed only as spectators.
For the 24th Bienal, the choice of Andrade’s ‘Manifesto antropófago’ as a leitmotif, as a curatorial method and as a topic complicated this Brazilian art-education equation (then in its initial stages) in a manner that offered a set of alternatives that are still to be explored to their full potential. Because, while the adoption of education as one of the exhibition’s three fundamental pillars can be seen as responding to a historical lag, as an attempt to secure finances through the appeal of education and as an emancipatory strategy from above (the above of an art history of objects by artists, rewritten by experts), the irreverence of Andrade’s thought – its playfulness, its populism and its anti-academic stance – sabotaged the machine. A partial sabotage, but one that filled the exhibition with possibilities.
The ‘Núcleo Histórico’ that constituted the core of the exhibition, and which remains responsible for its reputation, was the inheritor of a populist initiative of a different kind: the historical rooms that were introduced in previous editions as an attempt to increase visitor numbers, a remedy to the limited appeal of the languages and forms of contemporary art. Paulo Herkenhoff’s response was to use this platform to create an alternative history of art, one that was radical not in its elements – nothing that was included in the ‘Núcleo’ was too eccentric to be assigned a historical role – but that employed a grammar dictated by a modernist construction – anthropophagy, or cultural cannibalism – and a display strategy of contamination. Together, they did away with the linearity, progression and coherence of modern art history, and opened the doors for a game in which, following Andrade, anything could be done, if joy was the result. (A joy that was also the effect, in the exhibition as well as the ‘Manifesto’, of an intense rigour of construction. 04)
This approach didn’t question who was allowed or able to create an emancipatory culture, but it proposed that this culture could be articulated differently, ‘inconsistently’, playfully, and that any hierarchy was a sterile pretence. And it created a system of mediation that helped enact this through the work of a large number of educators or mediators, the training of schoolteachers and an intense programme of guided visits. The tension was present throughout: between, on the one hand, academic texts on the wall, books in vitrines and a main catalogue that functioned like a book of art history, and, on the other, an ambition to create a situation that allowed for direct access, without the tools and knowledges of art history; between this direct access and that facilitated by the large and complex system of mediation set in place; and between the attempt to undo hierarchies within cultural materials while the long-standing institutional hierarchies persisted, especially in relation to those for whom the exhibition was intended.
Brazil had to wait until 2013 for the tension between class interests to be expressed publicly, at a large scale, in its streets – a manifestation that echoed recent, similar cries in many parts of the world. But this conflict, despite its scale and intensity, and echoes that continue two years later, still hasn’t found strong echoes in the system of contemporary art, which by and large responds to the interest of the dominant classes – not just the ‘1 per cent’, but those who are comfortable enough to access a certain level of education (that is, income). The 24th Bienal de São Paulo, in its unresolved tensions, was perhaps a test of sorts, able to question the logic of the game of art by embracing a set of mechanisms (discursive, thematic, operational) that undermined it from both inside and outside. And, as a test, it shows how those ‘external’ questions are consistently ignored by those who decide what and whom art and its exhibitions are for.
1.See Roger Caillois, Les jeux et les hommes (1958), Paris: Gallimard, 1991.
See Henri Lefebvre, ‘What Is the Historical Past?’, New Left Review, issue 90, March–April 1975, available at http://newleftreview.org/I/90/henri-lefebvre- what-is-the-historical-past (last accessed on 24 June 2015).
I was one of the curators of the 31st edition of the Bienal in 2014, as part of a team that began with five people working horizontally (Galit Eilat, Charles Esche, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Oren Sagiv and myself ) and expanded to include two more (Luiza Proença and Benjamin Seroussi).
A possible question is whether Andrade’s modernism was, in 1998, a popular construct, one that was able to echo the culture of those who attended the exhibition from the periphery of a city with an extremely deficient transport system, and with stubborn (also material) social barriers. The leisurely aspect of the ‘Manifesto’ was present in the exhibition, as it is in the contemporary art system as a whole; the conflict that is present within the words of the ‘Manifesto’ and that could also be found within the display of the exhibition remained on the level of culture, and did not travel to class relations