The future that haunts us

Solange Farkas

Solange Farkas is the general curator of the Festival de Arte Contemporânea Sesc_Videobrasil, an event she has organised since its first edition in 1983. She is the director of the Associação Cultural Videobrasil, created by her in 1991, and of Galpão VB, the headquarters of the Associação since 2015. She was director and chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia from 2007 to 2010, and has participated in committees, juries, and curatorships for important prizes, art festivals, and biennials in several countries. She has introduced into Brazil the works of many important contemporary artists, including Sophie Calle, Isaac Julien, and Akram Zaatari, and she has been a guest curator of important exhibitions of video artists around the world, including in Portugal (2011, 2013, and 2017); Dakar, Senegal (2016); Jakarta, Indonesia (2011); the 10th Sharjah Biennial, United Arab Emirates (2011); and Israel (2010).

Editor’s note: The text below is an edited version of
remarks delivered by Solange Farkas in May 2017 at
arteBA in Buenos Aires. Farkas serves as general curator
of the Festival de Arte Contemporânea
Sesc_Videobrasil. She is also director of Galpão VB, an
exhibition space that also serves as headquarters of the
Associação Cultural Videobrasil.

Mauro Restiffe, Oscar
Mauro Restiffe, Oscar

I would like to begin by thanking you all for your presence, and also thank my dear friends Octavio Zaya and Agustín Pérez Rubio for their invitation—which I couldn’t refuse—to participate in this conversation about the future, this encounter that seeks to bring us closer to an idea of the future, or rather, to analyze our position in relation to a set of ideas about the future. What I’m going to talk about is my experience derived from a dual point of view: I speak as a Brazilian citizen, but also as the director of an institution that for more than thirty years has been fomenting articulations between Brazilian artistic production and its counterparts and interlocutors throughout the countries of the Global South. That is the mission of Videobrasil, whether at the festival or in the programming at Galpão.

From this dual perspective, the current moment is a very timely one for us to talk about the future. If we look at the world, the future as we conceived of it two or three years ago is no longer what it used to be. And the image of the future from five years ago is even more radically distant; the future in 2012 was completely different. We’re entering progressively deeper into a cycle of extremist positions that could lead us anywhere. Depending on where we look—Trump and North Korea, for example—the possible outcomes of this journey are frightening indeed.

When seen from the perspective of Brazil, the future looks ominous as well. The government that illegally replaced President Dilma Rousseff has initiated a sweeping plan of dismantling the programs and measures that had been aimed at attenuating the violent class and income disparities that still exist in Brazil—just as in several of our Latin American neighbors—and at guaranteeing a very basic platform of rights. I emphasize: very basic. Because although the gains of the last few years were in fact impressive, we were still very far from achieving a dignified social compact, and above all far from drawing up a symbolic narrative at the level of our past, one that would take into account the questions left unresolved as an inheritance from our past, and—why not?—also at the level of our (desired) future. Among the countless examples that I could give of this broad process of dismantling is the Parliamentary Inquest Committee that is investigating Funai, the National Indian Foundation, which is the Brazilian state organization responsible for mediating relations with the indigenous populations living in Brazil. As I prepare these remarks, the Committee’s final report has not yet been voted on, but with its main positions of responsibility being occupied by the right-wing Democratic Ruralist Party, the Committee is requesting the criminal indictment of anthropologists, indigenous leaders, religious leaders, and other activists who defend indigenous rights, and is even going to the extreme of seeking to prohibit the presence of certain professionals in indigenous areas. This action, which represents a serious threat to free academic activity and to the production of knowledge, is being carried out by the deeply reactionary and conservative forces that have taken power in Brazil.

Mauro Restiffe, Oscar
Mauro Restiffe, Oscar

In May 2017, the literary critic António Candido died at the age of 98. He was one of the great figures of Brazil, the author of critical work that is fundamental for understanding Brazilian literature and therefore the country. Right after Candido’s death an interview that he had given was circulated in social media, one in which he spoke about the achievements of socialism with a very optimistic view. He recalled that holidays, maternity leave, and the eight-hour day were all victories of socialism, which at all times sought to limit and strictly moderate the perverse voracity of the owners of capital. The current moment in Brazil, I’m afraid, is one of the retraction, reversal, and loss of some of those victories.

In that context, perhaps we can see a single positive development, one that is small but deeply significant for our thinking about our future, at least in relation to Brazil. The frightening scenario outlined above perhaps indicates one single possible avenue for those who still seek to make politically consistent gestures: namely, to free ourselves from the curse of the future.

When Stefan Zweig, an exiled Austrian writer of Jewish origin, lived in Brazil at the beginning of the 1940s, he provided a definition of the country that would become a cliché, one endlessly repeated in schools, in journalism, in art, and elsewhere. Zweig wrote an essay entitled “Brazil, the Country of the Future,” and that nickname—”the country of the future”—has stuck with us ever since.

In the 1940s this sobriquet might have sounded like a kind of praise, a positive prophecy. Seen from the perspective of that time, the future was going to develop out of Brazil and we would have pride of place in the future, but this blessing soon turned into a curse. The gift of possessing potentially unlimited possibilities gave way to an eternal postponement of the present, an eternal putting off of a beginning that would bring about the glorious future that had been foreseen for us, a postponement motivated by the fact that the future was (or so we thought) already ours, already guaranteed. The present moment, however, allows us to free ourselves from the promise of the future, from the condemnation to the future that has made our present so often and so insistently seem the same as our past.

This moment without a future or with an obscure future, that is, our freedom from the curse of the future, forces us to come face to face with the present—face to face with the urgency of the present and the small victories of daily life. The present has once again become urgent, in the sense proposed to us by T. J. Clark in a short essay, entitled For a Left with No Future, that was originally published in the New Left Review # 74 in 2012. Clark is writing, of course, from a European perspective, but one which may be useful for us today. He talks about the need for a profound self-criticism by the left, which should, in his view, involve an acknowledgement of our defeat, of the defeat at the macropolitical level of the left’s prospects and projects for power. Clark defends an abandoning of all projects for the future—including projects for power—and a renewal of the left’s perspective by, for example, giving up predicting the collapse of capitalism. I won’t dwell on the essay as a whole, but I would like to quote its final passage to illustrate this point. He states:

There will be no future, I am saying finally, without war, poverty, Malthusian panic, tyranny, cruelty, classes, dead time, and all the ills the flesh is heir to, because there will be no future; only a present in which the left (always embattled and marginalized, always—proudly—a thing of the past) struggles to assemble the “material for a society” Nietzsche thought had vanished from the earth. And this is the recipe for politics, not quietism—a left that can look the world in the face.

Mauro Restiffe, Oscar
Mauro Restiffe, Oscar

In Brazil, our late modernity produced beautiful and extremely seductive images of the future. The unique hybrid between an aesthetic project of European inspiration—in architecture, in urban planning, in the arts, in literature, in poetry even—and an economic project based on the American model produced lasting and glowing promises of a future. The city of Brasilia is perhaps the greatest symbol of this project, but there are vast numbers of other, smaller, and more everyday symbols, all bubbling up from the crucible of the processes of Brazilian modernization.

Like all modern projects, however, ours, which was out of place and late, failed; it was a chimera, and we came up short. At that time, like today, the enormous weight of the Brazilian conservative tradition prevailed, precisely when—again like today—we were slowly advancing towards more stable social relationships. The advance was halted in its tracks.

In the field of art, or rather in the poetic production of some Brazilian artists, that failure of the modern project is absolutely clear; and here I’d like to consider some images that give an idea of the dimension of that fall, as seen from the perspective of the present. The first, which is on a fairly direct symbolic level, is an image from Oscar, a series of photographs by Mauro Restiffe. This particular one shows the wake of the architect Oscar Niemeyer, which was held at the Palacio do Planalto presidential palace—a building designed by Niemeyer himself.

Rubens Mano, futuro do pretérito, 2010
Rubens Mano, futuro do pretérito, 2010

Another series revolving around the figure of Niemeyer, this time by Rubens Mano, shows Brasília in its less monumental aspect, depicting the cracks and shadows in that urban monument, the abandoned and lesser side of the city. The series, Futuro do Pretérito (Future Preterite), deals strikingly with the modern inheritance through the back door.

Carla Zaccagnini has also dealt with the promise of Brazilian modernity from the viewpoint of a foreigner, by bringing together two instances of that gaze in the form of two magazine covers that bring two moments in Brazilian history closer together.

Carla Zaccagnini,Evidencias de uma Farsa Time and The Economist 2011
Carla Zaccagnini, Evidencias de uma Farsa. Time and The Economist 2011

The Time magazine cover depicts Juscelino Kubitschek, the president under whose mandate Brasilia was built. The second image was published in 2011, during the presidency of Lula da Silva, and is quite self-explanatory. It’s called Evidências de uma farsa (Evidences of a Farce).

In this sweeping criticism of the modern project, which is symbolized so well by architecture and urban planning, three other artists refer to Oscar Niemeyer as an iconic figure who, for better or for worse, encapsulated modernist progress, the shoddy quality of the promises of the modern, and the extent—particularly in architecture—to which high-voltage poetic design was based on absolutely archaic working relations.

In 1994, the first artist, Rosangela Rennó, assembled a series of photographs called Immemorial, which brought together photos of all of the workers who died during the construction of Brasília.

I draw your particular attention to the title, which somewhat ironically places the work alongside the monuments that recall the illustrious dead, those killed in combat, our special, memorable deceased. Immemorial as well is the duration of the precarious and violent working relations that Cildo Meireles once called “the holocaust of the invisible.” Clara Ianni, in a video entitled Forma Livre (Free Form), returns to two interviews—one by Lucio Costa and the other by Oscar Niemeyer—in order to examine the same topic: the matter of the workers killed during the building of the city. Lais Myrrha, in Projeto Gameleira 1971, also sheds light on a fatal accident that occurred during the construction of a Niemeyer project, this time in Belo Horizonte. The same model was also explored by filmmakers during Brasília’s first years, as in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s 1966 film Brasília: contradições de uma cidade nova (Brasilia: Contradictions of a New City), and Vladimir Carvalho’s Conterrâneos velhos de guerra (Old War Compatriots).

All of these artists accompany the critical revision of “modernity Brazilian style,” that is, of the future that was going to be left to us by progress. Currently being exhibited at the Videobrasil Galpão is Nada levarei quando morrer, aqueles que me devem cobrarei no inferno (I will take nothing with me when I die; I will collect from those who owe me in Hell), a project which also points towards our future as opposed to our enormous debt from the past. This exhibition employs the poetics of various artists in order to give faces to the victims of the progress that has brought us here and that seeks to take us from here to wherever it is we are going. That image of an unbridled progress, running over both ourselves and our precious past—or, rather, the few precious bits of the past that are left—is well documented in the work of Virginia de Medeiros. Her 2018 video, Cais do Corpo, records the final moments of a red-light neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, just after it was submitted to a process of re-urbanization—which, as usual, entailed gentrification and the expulsion of the inhabitants and users of the area amid the resurgence of a discourse about “progress” and “revitalization.” In addition to the narratives and forms of life that disappeared, other human matter also disappeared there in the midst of the reshaping of an extremely rich archaeological site, the Cais do Valongo, which at one time was the main port of entry for slaves into Brazil. I say it “disappeared” because very little was excavated, very little was researched, and the museum that is dedicated to the subject, the product of a private, individual initiative, is threatened with closure due to lack of visitors. This museum is fundamental for the history of Rio de Janeiro and of Brazil, yet in spite of this fact (but not surprisingly) it receives less support than the recently-built Rio Museum of Art and the Museum of Tomorrow—a highly suggestive name—both of which were opened within the context of the regenerating of the area. The archaeological site has been left buried under the restructured square.

Such is the future that haunts us and sometimes threatens us. But there’s also a stimulating, exciting future, which is the future of the Sesc_Videobrasil Festival of Contemporary Art. We inaugurated the 20th edition of the festival this past October 2017, celebrating 34 years of its existence.

Rosangela Renno, Imemorial Silas Siqueira
Rosangela Renno, Imemorial Silas Siqueira

Thus we remain caught between these possibilities of a future. To conclude, I’d like to mention something that occasionally comes back to me and that may serve to temper our reflections on possible futures. What I see now, not without a certain frustration, is a progressive emptying out of artistic discourse—and by this I don’t mean only the discourse of artists, but all of the discourses that surround and shape the artistic field. What I notice is a progressive irrelevance of the art field, at a time when our cultural context inflicts successive defeats upon it and on its ambition to provide relevant (or even desirable) symbolic experiences in the way that other fields of culture provide the acquisition of symbolic capital in a more efficient and ultimately more gratifying manner. That is, to put it more succinctly, in the most immediate sense the future today means taking action against the narrowing of the horizon, taking action in order to preserve some prospects for the future, however precarious or painfull that process may be.

Thank you very much, and NO FEAR!

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