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by Katerina Valdivia Bruch

11th Berlin Biennale: On the Human Condition

The 11th Berlin Biennale chose to start its activities one year before its opening date. Following a process-based curatorial approach, the team of four curators began its undertaking at the ExRotaprint complex, working in small groups, and involving the locals and the artistic community. The programme includes reflections and discussions around vulnerability, care and solidarity, as well as extractivism, fanaticism and the rise of nationalisms. While a worldwide pandemic has forced us to stop and go back to basics, all these issues have become more urgent than ever. We spoke with the curators on creating sustainable relationships, doing things on a human scale, and the meaning of community in times of the pandemic.

The Female Voice and Ways of Working from the South

Katerina Valdivia Bruch (KVB): In recent years, political identity has been a recurring topic in the arts field. The team of curators of the 11th Berlin Biennale presents itself as a female voice. What do you mean by that?

Agustín Pérez Rubio (APR): Today, after decades of feminism and queer theory, of theories on political thought around gender, there is still – mainly in society, but also in the arts field–a macho way of thinking and a reduction of powers, managed mostly by men.

When we speak about the feminine, we do not only group what is not the masculine. What we are actually doing is seeking to break the idea of machismo. As you know, in our countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Spain – the situation of violence against women and LGBTQ communities is horrendous. That is why we are interested in defeating this macho and violent view of reality that is present and reproduced in many institutions as well.

KVB: How does this voice manifest itself?

APR: It's about not imposing positions, not having prejudices, being open to communication, or doing something between several people. We, with our curator's voices, are a small example of this, but you will see that several projects of the Biennale are collaborations between different artists. The idea of process, that is at the core of our project for the Biennale, is also a way of understanding this kind of voice. Also, by slowing down the machinery of the Biennale itself, in favour of more sustainable relationships with the locals and with the idea of care. All these are modes of trying to change our ways of doing and saying, which are based on feminist and queer accounts.

KVB: The South is a concept implicit in the Biennale's proposal. How would you define it? What characterises it?

Renata Cervetto (RC): We bring different ways of doing things. For example, in the way each one of us thinks the programme or an exhibition, or in our communication with other people. Improvisation comes into play, but also a different way of planning, in which things are not so regulated. We are always in this negotiation, between a less formal structure and an established institution, trying to generate more porous and fluctuating processes that adapt to the requirements of each situation.

APR: Actually, we are not thematising the South, but there is a part of our South that is impregnated in ourselves. And, with this, I don't mean only a geopolitical relationship. What interests us is to explain that there are other achievements, lessons and theories, that come from our South and from there extend to the Global South. 

Establishing Sustainable Relationships

Installation view exp. 1: The Bones of the World, 7.9.–9.11.2019, 11th Berlin Biennale c/o, ExRotaprint, Photo: Mathias Völzke

KVB: Why did you start your first actions at the ExRotaprint building complex in Wedding, a popular neighbourhood with a fairly high migrant population?

APR: It was clear to us that we didn't want to work in the city centre, nor within an art facility. We were also very careful to not further accentuate the gentrification that has already happened in certain areas of the city, occasionally as a result of the arts context. We wanted to find an initiative that was already working, an umbrella containing social, artistic, and business parts in equal terms, as it is the case of the projects developed by the ExRotaprint community. In fact, we didn't choose to work in Wedding. We chose to work with ExRotaprint, that happened to be located in Wedding. The district interested us, because of its migrant communities and also because there are other artistic initiatives nearby that have been working for some time in this neighbourhood.

RC: When we began to think about the project, we were asking ourselves how we could work with the format of the Biennale in such a way that it would generate a sort of commitment, not only with the city, but also with the people we are working with. We are not revolutionising the space or bringing in novelty. For us, it's more about integrating what people can bring to the project from what they are already doing, from their own initiatives. And that takes more time, more presence from us in the space, a different engagement. One example of this are the schools we were working with in the first stage. We offered them a project that might work for their curriculum, and opened up the space to develop it.

APR: With all this, what we are trying to do is to point out how a biennial might help to establish sustainable relationships and intertwine different agents: artistic, social, economic, political, etc., within a city, among themselves and with the rest of the community. We consider it fundamental to understand the Biennale as an open process that includes the neighborhood, the people and its initiatives, and, of course, the artistic community of Berlin. Besides this, our space at ExRotaprint is a sort of tribute to the famous CAM (Club de Artistas Modernos, English: Club of Modern Artists), founded in 1932 by Brazilian artist Flávio de Carvalho (1899-1973), who is like our ally in this Biennale's edition. We are trying to bring Flávio's experiences back to the present, and also include the current experience we are going through due to the pandemic. While the CAM of São Paulo proposed a kind of open artist workshop for the community, our idea is that of an open curatorial process, in collaboration with and open to our social surroundings in Wedding and with the ExRotaprint building complex.

Flávio de Carvalho wearing the New Look-suit and walking on the streets of São Paulo, Experiência n. 3, 1956, Photograph, b/w. Source: Fundo Flávio de Carvalho/CEDAE-UNICAMP, Campinas © The Heirs of Flávio de Carvalho

Reflecting from the Arts

KVB: What were the reasons to choose to work with Flávio de Carvalho's legacy for the first phase of the Biennale?

Lisette Lagnado (LL): I have always been attracted to working with artists who have a conceptual density. For instance, I have spent many years researching Hélio Oiticica's writings. For me, it was no longer important to show his work, which was widely known, but rather to present his urban and environmental programme for the public space. The case of Flávio de Carvalho is also an example of an artist with multiple interests, including anthropology, psychoanalysis, architecture, etc. I could have started referring to theorists such as Walter Benjamin or Hannah Arendt, philosophical figures who have formed my own theoretical background, but I needed to start from an artist's point of view. This allows the Biennale to have a more conceptual structure. Of course, it is completely legitimate to take references from theorists or social scientists, but it is different to work with an artistic perspective as an entry point. From there, we can elucidate common points, difficulties or contradictions, and then contrast them with the present.

María Berríos (MB): For us, it was necessary to have something, a kind of vehicle or guiding principle that was familiar to us. This was one of the reasons why we chose to work with Flávio de Carvalho's artistic practice.

LL: We began to think about Flávio's failed experiences and how they could be contextualized today. The idea of experience brings with it the idea of failure as well, of things that don't turn out the way one wants. We are interested in dismantling a modernist narrative that only chooses the highlights within a trajectory and doesn't problematise the failures. Flávio was considered a transgressor in his time, and this also reflects how civilization has been thought of over the years.

On Building Alliances and Collective Work

Virginia de Medeiros, Trem em Transe, 2019, Video stills, Courtesy Virginia de Medeiros

KVB: The Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende (Salvador Allende Solidarity Museum), presented as part of the Biennale, was inaugurated in 1972 by Brazilian art critic and journalist Mário Pedrosa, who was in exile in Chile at that time. What is the meaning of the museum in today's context?

MB: The history of the Museo de la Solidaridad has been usually told either from Allende's or from Pedrosa's perspective. But, the truth is that the principles of the museum were developed long before that. In the late 1950s in Chile, for example, there were a number of initiatives that took art to remote locations, by train or by bus, managed by an entourage of artists. The museum project itself was the collective work of a group of Chilean artists, journalists, and art historians. They were the ones who invited Mário Pedrosa to take on the direction of the museum. Many artists, including the strategic incorporation of some internationally renowned artists at the time, donated works as a political act of solidarity with the Chilean people and their struggle.

The generation of alliances between more fragile positions and the need to bring together vulnerabilities, principles that were at the base of the museum's establishment, are present in what we are doing for the Biennale. I think the Museo de la Solidaridad is an exceptional experiment in that sense.

Solidarity and Care in Times of the Pandemic

The Fatigued Compassionate Oracle: Q&A, participative format by Sickness Affinity Group/Feminist Health Care Research Group, 11th Berlin Biennale c/o ExRotaprint, 8.2.2020. Photo: Mathias Völzke

Feminist Health Care Research Group (Inga Zimprich/Julia Bonn), Collages of materials from the health movement of West Berlin during the 70s and 80s, 2018, contribution to Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 19

KVB: The Biennale had to close its exhibition space due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). What reflections can be drawn from this worldwide pandemic?

LL: Before closing our space, the Biennale had more than 50 invited participants. Several projects were already taking place. In the midst of all these changes, I began to reflect on how we would be able to process such a radical global change. Immediately, the motto “ninguém solta a mão de ninguém” (no one should release the hand of anyone) came to my mind. This slogan arose in 2018, as soon as the results of the presidential elections in Brazil were known. Many people went out to the streets to protest against the newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro, known for his racist and sexist statements. However, the vast majority were afraid to go out alone to demonstrate, because inside the crowd were infiltrated members of law enforcement agencies and police, who generally use violence against protesters. That phrase, told by a mother to her daughter, just before the latter was about to leave the house to protest, allowed us to feel the strength of the collectivity, of a united and protective crowd. And now I think: our strength, the fact of holding the hand of our peers, has become a danger of contagion. What a cruel contradiction!

MB: At the moment, it is fundamental to insist on different ways of supporting each other. A “social distance” is demanded, but what is actually needed is to think socially, to take care of one another. This is not just an individual or isolated act —it is a social act. The virus accentuates inequality, which means that those who will perish will be the most vulnerable. It is essential to reflect on how people are going to meet again during and after the pandemic. Instead of this, what is unfolding around the world are severe measures, typical of authoritarian regimes: border closures, police and military deployments, restrictions on free movement or citizen denunciations. The current situation forces us to think about how to slow things down, to return to a more human scale, without accentuating the fierce elitism and violent exclusion that are already structural to and systematically reproduced by the cultural institutions we work in.

RC: I believe the change has to happen first in oneself, in order to be able to transmit and generate a collective consciousness of care. This virus makes it clear: any decision one makes in relation to one's body is going to affect others sooner or later. Coping with this virus implies trusting strangers, trusting that there is someone else who takes care of herself/himself in order to take care of me as well. It is a very powerful gesture, since it generates a network of containment and support among people. We are privileged, because we have a job that allows us to think of new ways to meet and, from there, continue to build a joint journey. This also entails a great responsibility, because it is not a change that will happen in a year. It will take time to meet again, not only physically, but also emotionally and from our own feelings.

Osías Yanov, Soplo de humo, 2019, Courtesy Osías Yanov | Osías Yanov, Josefina, Poroto y Tronco, 2019, Courtesy Osías Yanov

exp. 3: Affect Archives. Sinthujan Varatharajah – Osías Yanov, 11th Berlin Biennale c/o ExRotaprint, 22.2.–2.5.2020, extended until 25.7.2020, Installation view, Photo: Mathias Völzke

LL: Several of the urgent issues we are experiencing right now were already part of our agenda for the Biennale, among them the emphasis on the local audience, small meetings on a human scale, as well as issues on solidarity and crisis management, a job mostly done by women. Right now, borders have been closed again. This is something against essential human rights, such as mobility and the right to life, especially in the case of migrants and refugees. How can we re-found a community of human beings in a situation of confinement, prohibition of mobility, and restrictions on physical contact? It is too early to draw conclusions about this pandemic, but enough to observe that neoliberalism is fueling human arrogance, instead of reassessing and putting into place the necessary measures to provide a greener economy and global solidarity. I would like to finish with a sentence by the artist duo The Black Mamba, that sums it up quite well: “Some curves will not be flattened”.

Translation from Spanish: Katerina Valdivia Bruch

This interview took place in September 2019 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art and ExRotaprint. It was updated in May 2020, during the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

A shorter version of this interview, with the title “11ª Bienal de Berlín: Voces femeninas, acciones colectivas y enfoques desde el Sur”, was first published in November 2019 in the online magazine of Goethe-Institut Argentina (in Spanish and German). The Portuguese version was published in May 2020 in the online magazine of Goethe-Institut Brasil.

Katerina Valdivia Bruch is a Berlin-based independent curator and arts writer. She holds a BA in Philosophy (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú), a Cultural Policies and Management Diploma (Universitat de Barcelona), and an MA in Museum Studies and Critical Theory (Independent Study Programme, MACBA/Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). Katerina has curated exhibitions and organised symposia, talks and lectures for a number of institutions, including ZKM-Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Bielefelder Kunstverein (Bielefeld), Grimmuseum (Berlin), CCCB (Barcelona), Instituto Cervantes (Berlin and Munich), Instituto Cultural de León (Mexico), Para/Site Art Space (Hong Kong), and the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. In 2008, she was co-curator of the Prague Triennale at the National Gallery in Prague. Besides her work as a curator, she contributes essays, interviews and articles to art publications and magazines. Among her publications are several articles and interviews on previous editions of the Berlin Biennale, Biennale Jogja, Kochi-Muziris Biennale and Manifesta Biennale. For more information, visit www.artatak.net


11th Berlin Biennale
The 11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art is conceived as an extended process of unfolding artistic projects and encounters. The Biennale's presence in the city has not been limited to the dates of the exhibition. The intergenerational, female identified team of curators is composed by María Berríos from Chile, Renata Cervetto from Argentina, Lisette Lagnado from Brazil, and Agustín Pérez Rubio from Spain. They started to build up their programme in a temporary space at the architectural complex ExRotaprint, located in the district of Wedding.

The curatorial group was established from its personal backgrounds and affinities with South America, mainly Brazil, Chile and Argentina. The three countries, together with Spain, form a particular constellation, which served as a starting point for discussing various social and political issues that we are currently experiencing, such as the "return" of racist and fascist manifestations, the growth of hate speech and religious fanaticism, the appreciation of an ecological feminism, among others.

Over the last few months, the curators have developed a series of experiences in three moments:

exp. 1: The Bones of the World
The experience of arriving in Berlin was marked by the meteorite that survived the fire that  burned down the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro in September 2018. It is an attempt to hold on to the complicated beauty of life when the fire erupted. It is not an obsession with the ruins, but an attempt to be attentive to what is made with the rubble. A way of working with and remaining beside that which moves us now.

exp. 2: Virginia de Medeiros and the Feminist Health Care Research Group
Series of discussions and meetings on topics such as the repoliticisation of health and illness, care, accessibility and sharing vulnerabilites, amongst others.

exp. 3: Affect Archives, with Sinthujan Varatharajah and Osías Yanov
Recollection and reflections on bodily memories and practices of survival, communion, borders and mobility, through different political and affective geographies.

Since September 2019, the 11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art has been unfolding as a process through a series of lived experiences with exp. 1, exp. 2 and exp. 3. In a fourth step, conceived as an epilogue, the 11th Berlin Biennale will bring these experiences together with artistic participations from around the world. In their diverse modes of articulating solidarity, fragility and resistance, these contributions rise up to materialise the complicated beauty of life amidst the turbulent times we inhabit.

The Corona pandemic has affected the preparations for the 11th Berlin Biennale, which was originally scheduled from June 13 to September 13, 2020. We are currently looking into new dates, in close cooperation with the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the exhibition venues. The dates will be made public as soon as they are determined.

Berlin Biennale für zeitgenössische Kunst (11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art)

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