Insights into the Brazilian Art and Culture Scene
“What We Need Is to Imagine a More Porous Museum”

Rhizome Project Collection: work developed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Belo Horizonte, 2020.
Rhizome Project Collection, 2020. | Photo (detail): © Marlon de Paula

During the pandemic, museums opted for more open spaces and drew in a portion of the Brazilian population which is traditionally distant from art. On social media, the user substituted the visitor: actively demanding, provoking, and questioning curatorial strategies.

By Camila Gonzatto

During lockdowns and social distancing throughout the pandemic, art entered homes through computer screens. Paradoxically, the cultural sector in Brazil, which kept the public living and breathing at home during those long lockdown days, was among those most affected by cuts and restrictions. Artists and institutions had to rethink approaches and strategies to stay alive amidst the health and political crisis which the country is still going through.“Brazil is experiencing a fusion between the political and the viral. It is obvious that there is an intimate relationship between the two, and that drives everything and everyone crazy. Thus, the discursive difficulty to understand what is happening. What made up social life has been broken. We have lost the gauge,” artist Nuno Ramos probes.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ramos has been creating works that dialogue with and reflect upon the current situation. In addition to the performance piece Marcha a Ré (Reverse Gear), created jointly with the Teatro da Vertigem, and presented at the Berlin Biennial in 2020 as well as on several occasions in Brazil, the artist also created the project A extinção é para sempre (Extinction is Forever), which brings together theatre, music, film, and dance professionals by asking them to reflect on the current moment. One of the outcomes is Chama (Flame), an online installation that memorialises mourning and whose flame will remain lit for a year in memory of those who died during the pandemic. The project also includes live stream performances. “Art’s weapons are stronger than anything else to take this on. In any case, I think that talking is very difficult because we are being buried in this ground, on behalf of some kind of anomie, a complete lack of consistency,” Ramos observes.

Independent Spaces and Major Institutions

Another entirely digital project created out of the urgency to rethink artistic creation and, mainly, its ways of presenting to the public, is the Pivô Satélite, a virtual exhibition site. “The project was driven by the unfeasibility of continuing with our in-person programming of exhibitions and artistic residencies. And, also, by the emergency financial situation which rapidly set in among the artistic community. For each edition, a young curator is invited to programme four months of the platform and the artists receive a scholarship to complete their works,” Fernanda Brenner, Pivô’s Artistic Director explains.

Major museums were also seeking digital solutions to account for the period of social confinement. The São Paulo Pinacoteca, for example, besides expanding the content it offered with the project “Pina de casa” (Pina from Home), held the online exhibition Distância (Distance). “I understand that the context of the pandemic bolstered a change that was already underway before 2020. More and more, museums and cultural institutions are having to rethink strategies that allow for a more direct dialogue with a public that is becoming increasingly vast, including a part of society that does not consider itself to be a frequent recipient of culture or that has turned its back on the arts completely. This requires more diverse programmes and more open spaces when creating new institutional languages, which are closer to everyday life. There is a constant need to invent new spaces, occupations, and dialogues. In that regard, the pandemic is making us abandon the concept of a museum that is monolithic, particularly the concept of the museum as merely safeguarding material heritage. What we need is to imagine a more porous museum, architecturally and conceptually speaking,” says Jochen Volz, Director of the Pinacoteca in São Paulo.

Reinventing the Biennials

With the inability to visit exhibitions in person, art biennials have also had to adapt, as was the case of the Mercosul Biennial. Scheduled for 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the 12th edition of the exhibit  was held entirely online. “The transition was being made in the face of the fits and starts that characterised our pandemic times. As the scope of the health emergency was worsening, the curatorial team started meeting to propose new paths,” Igor Simões recalls, curator of the 12th Mercosul Biennial’s educational project. The site of the exhibition progressively became much more than a simple repository of artists’ videos. “We started proposing a series of actions that were adapting old proposals and at the same time were creating strategies to claim the platform as a space that goes beyond the physical existence of an exhibition and occurs through the exchange of ideas that comprise it,” Simões says.

The São Paulo Biennial also had a strong online presence until its opening, which suffered delays. Among the digital projects was the programme of correspondences written by curators, artists, and collaborators, in addition to the debate cycle As vozes dos artistas (Artists’ Voices) and training activities. “We understood that social distancing measures required the Biennial’s interactive programmes to become more engaging and varied for the public. The number of those programmes allowed for diverse debates to be introduced and developed before the main exhibition even opened, a rare occurrence at events of this size,” assistant curator Paulo Miyada says.

More Intense Interaction

New ways of exhibiting and discussing, over time, were leading to a new way of interacting with the public. “I am observing a change in the public’s behavior, caused by the duration of the pandemic and the virtual contact with cultural institutions. It seems that the visitor has become a user, with greater and more direct interaction. On social media, for example, the public is demanding, provoking, and questioning in a way that is much more active than at in-person visits. Our great challenge for the post-pandemic context is to translate this interaction, participation, and direct dialogue to the physical space also,” Volz says. There is a general consensus that establishing exchanges with the public was possible despite the physical distance, Simões points out: “We were getting used to a life through screens in such an intense way and we saw that we can invent ways of being present, in spite of it all.”

Despite all the reinvention and solutions found during the pandemic, meeting in-person continues to be seen as absolutely essential. “Even with delays and in the face of uncertainty, we understand that the role of the Biennial should be to value the art experience and the encounter between people and works. This is something which makes sense to try to keep,” Miyada believes. “The digital expands the possibilities of production, mediation, and the reach of the content generated by artists. If we take into account the diversity, quality, and volume of the Brazilian artistic scene, there is certainly space for new initiatives or for revising models that are no longer in sync with their time or with the needs of the artistic community and of the public,” Brenner concludes.