Miguel A. López
Miguel A. López is a writer and the chief curator of TEOR/éTica, San José, Costa Rica. His essays have been featured in magazines such as Afterall, Manifesta Journal, E-flux Journal, Art in America, ramona, ArtNexus, Journal of Visual Culture, Art Journal, and Atlántica, among others. His curatorial work includes Patricia Belli. Frágiles. Obras, 1986-2015, TEOR/éTica, 2016; Teresa Burga. Estructuras de aire (with Agustín Pérez Rubio), MALBA, 2015; and Deus é bicha at the 31st Bienal de São Paulo, 2014. He is editor of the series of books entitled Escrituras Locales. Posiciones críticas desde América Central, el Caribe y sus diásporas, published by TEOR/éTica. Together with Renata Cervetto he edited Agítese antes de usar. Desplazamientos educativos, sociales y artísticos en América Latina (TEOR/éTica and MALBA, 2016). In 2016 he won the Independent Vision Curatorial Award granted biennially to a curator from any part of the world by the Independent Curators International (ICI), New York.
Pablo José Ramírez
Born in Guatemala and based in London, Pablo José Ramírez is a curator and art critic. From 2010 to 2014 he was executive director of Ciudad de la Imaginación and co-curator, with Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, of the 19th Bienal de Arte Paiz. His recent curatorial work includes This Might Be a Place for Hummingbirds (co-curated with Remco de Blaaij), Center for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, UK, 2014; The Transmodern Dictionary de Terike Haapoja, web project; Guatemala Después (co-curator), Parsons Gallery, New York, 2014-2015; MUXU´X, Benvenuto Chavajay, Ciudad de la Imaginación, Guatemala, 2015; and Materia Remota de Adan Vallecillo, MIN, Tegucigalpa, 2016. Ramírez sat on the jury for Contextos Volcánicos, TEOR/ética, 2015 and Inquieta Imagen, MADC, 2015, and participated at the Visible Award Curatorial Advisory Board. In 2016 he completed the CPR, Sudamérica residency.
Tamara Díaz Bringas
A former assistant curator and editorial coordinator of TEOR/éTica, San José, from 1999 to 2009, Tamara Díaz Bringas is an independent curator and researcher. She was the general curator of X Central American Biennial, Costa Rica (2016). She has a degree in Art History from the University of Havana (1996), and in 2009 graduated from the MACBA Independent Studies Programme, Barcelona. Her curatorial work includes Playgrounds. Reinventar la plaza (with Manuel J. Borja-Villel and Teresa Velázquez), Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2014; and assistant curatorship of the 31 Bienal de Pontevedra: Ut(r)ópicos, dedicated to Central America and the Caribbean and directed by Santiago Olmo, Galicia, 2010. She curated Estrecho Dudoso, San José, 2006, together with Virginia Pérez-Ratton. A selection of her essays was recently included in the book Crítica próxima (TEOR/éTica, 2016).
Tenth Central American Biennial: A Conversation on Art Production in Central America through the Lens of a Biennial
Arriving with the moniker Todas las Vidas (All Lives), the X Bienal Centroamericana (aka “la Décima” or the Tenth) was staged in the Costa Rican cities of San José and Limón from August 30th to September 30th, 2016. Under the general curatorship of Tamara Díaz Bringas, the biennial showcased the work of sixty-seven individual artists and collective projects. In addition to Díaz Bringas, the curatorial team included Marlov Barrios (Guatemala), Gladioska García (Nicaragua), Edgar León (Costa Rica), Gladys Turner (Panama), Adán Vallecillo (Honduras), and Simón Vega (El Salvador). First established in 1998 under the name of Bienal de Pintura del Istmo Centroamericano (Painting Biennial of the Central American Isthmus), the event has changed over the years, but this most recent edition marked a true turning point in how it operates. In this conversation, Miguel A. López, curator of TEOR/éTica, engages in dialogue with Díaz Bringas and with Pablo José Ramírez, a Guatemalan scholar and curator, on the impact of the event on the region’s art scene, its funding, its working conditions both within and outside the event, and the role of institutions and curatorial practice as a locus for critical exchange and public responsibility.
Curatorship, funding, and conditions of production
Miguel A. López: The X Bienal Centroamericana signalled a sea change in the event’s history. Under your general curatorship, Tamara, one could see a move away from the traditional model of national representations and competitions with prizes, in the direction of an exhibition built around research and direct dialogue with the artists involved. I’d like to begin by asking what, to your way of thinking, this transformation has left us in the Central American art community. How does it set itself apart from previous iterations, and what do you believe is its future horizon?
Tamara Díaz Bringas: I believe that, in many senses, the Tenth instigated a radical change in the Bienal Centroamericana. But I’m not talking just about the change prompted by the organisers, consisting of moving toward a more curatorial-based model. For me, the main achievement was to enable a protracted process of curatorial research grounded in local work carried out in each country. Another key shift was to move away from the conventional format of making an initial call, having a jury, a selection process, and national representation, because this reinforces a way of understanding art in terms of competition, career-building, and attention-catching names. Our idea was to address art as a form of collective knowledge, where art practices are conceived in interrelation with each other and within a given context, as part of an overall fabric of situations, agents, spaces, institutions, publics, and debates.
I’d like to think that what this biennial has left us is another way of understanding art practice above and beyond individual figures, a practice that advocates the consolidation of networks built on shared affectivity and working practices that are already well-established in Central America. Another legacy it gives us is the promise of successful collaboration with other agents and with public and private institutions, freelance organisations, universities and schools, communications, and so on. And even though the biennial has been sustained, for practically two decades now, by the private initiative of businesspeople and professionals from each of the Central American countries involved, the event itself belongs to the art community, which is what gives it meaning and legitimacy. Understanding the biennial platform as a public responsibility is the chief challenge for future iterations of the event.
Miguel: I’d also like to speak about funding issues. The effects of changing the model of representations at the biennial are much more than just conceptual and political in terms of how art practice is conceived and represented; the new model also poses challenges concerning how to imagine a funding programme that would guarantee the continuing survival of the event and to obtain equitable support for all participants. It goes without saying that the resources we can find in Costa Rica are different from those in other countries of the region.
Tamara: I agree. Even though the Tenth introduced significant changes in the format, focus, and contents of the biennial, a comparable transformation in the organisation’s structures is still pending. What I mean is that a project common to the whole of the region, like the one that is now being proposed, should also be matched by a shared—or at least coordinated—management of its resources. In this year’s event we had a regional curatorship, but the responsibilities and decisions pertaining to the management of the budget and of the financial resources were taken by the individual countries. What this meant was that there were vast differences in the support artists received, depending on the means, contributions, and commitment of the organisers or sponsors in each different country. For instance, while the organisers in Panama gave the go-ahead for the production of the whole curatorial proposal we submitted, which included raising funds for production as well as travel and accommodation expenses plus modest fees for the artists, in Honduras the support from local organisers was limited to shipping the works. The lack of transparency in regards to available funds and freedom that would allow artists to develop a project in consonance with those resources resulted in a highly fraught process with intersecting tensions for the team, the participants, and the collaborators.
Bearing in mind all these contradictions, the Tenth was made possible thanks to a combination of joint efforts, financial contributions, sponsors, and institutional collaborations, but also to all the voluntary help, affective networks, huge amounts of unremunerated work, commitment and engagement, self-management, self-precarity, and indeed exhaustion. For me, one of the big challenges, not only for the organisers of the biennial, but also for a lot of cultural institutions in Central America, has to do with lending value and dignifying cultural and artistic work. The German artist Hito Steyerl recently said that, leaving aside the domestic and caregiving jobs usually undertaken by women, art is the industry with the highest rate of unremunerated work. In fact, “industry” is probably too big a notion when applied to our Central American contexts, but what she says about free cultural work is spot on. Going back to that future promise you mentioned in your opening question, I believe that one of our main political needs as a community is to stimulate debate and practices which will gradually modify the conditions for the production of art.
Miguel: I absolutely agree. The conditions of precarity and unremunerated work are rarely discussed locally. On the contrary, these forms of exploitation often tend to be endorsed by the practices themselves. For instance, the fact that institutions do not pay fees to artists or cover the costs of producing their projects becomes accepted as the norm. All too often artists themselves end up investing all of their money in producing a large show for an institution! This often means that art practice is not even seen as a form of work. This question pertains not only to artists and institutions, but also to businesspeople and collectors. We should try to eradicate bad practices based on economic need, such as when collectors offer artists laughable fees or accommodation alone in exchange for art, or when, for instance, art foundations ask artists to donate work in exchange for being featured in a book. It’s a serious problem and one that is largely ignored. I would like to think that one of the effects of the Tenth would be to encourage a rethinking of how to tackle the precarity of cultural work, and that means setting in place forms of empowerment as an art community.
Institutional frameworks and historical perspective
Pablo José Ramírez: I agree with what you both have said. The X Bienal Centroamericana set a precedent for how an event enunciated from Central America could be articulated and presented. The biennial was organised in a thoughtful, decentralised, and critical fashion, through a curatorial discourse that was predicated, for the first time in its history, on research and the articulation of a variety of dissident voices. It also took into account the fact that one of the main lessons to be gleaned from this edition was based on the perception that building a renewed discourse of art in the region calls for a simultaneous transformation of the institutional structures that support it. In other words, no matter how much we want to defend the idea of the community and the artist as spaces of autonomy, such autonomy will never be possible—at least in the framework of a privately funded biennial—until institutions learn to operate differently and until there is a critical overhaul of the technical mechanisms and the discourses on which the funders justify their support. We are therefore faced with an uneasy paradox, which is further troubled if we consider that most cultural institutions in Central America are not exactly known for their fluid relationship with contemporary forms of art and culture.
Having said that, this year’s event showed how the aspirations and power of a community organically based on connections of sensibility and intention can move forward with, and indeed in spite of, the institution. As Tamara said, the biennial took place thanks to a network of collaborative work, shared affections, and huge amounts of unremunerated work. What I mean to say is that we are not asking for the impossible, but only for something that has already happened in nearby places: a vital modernisation in the manner of understanding an event of this kind, in other words, a change in the way in which institutions work. Maybe what we should call for now is a conversation among cultural agents, involving individuals (artists, curators, writers, etc.) as much as the institutions themselves.
Miguel: I think dialogue is paramount, a dialogue that, of course, goes beyond, let’s say, the mere publication of a catalogue. I also believe that we can’t afford to waste the opportunity of the processes and protocols set in motion in this event. For example, the way Tamara was chosen through an open call for proposals was absolutely necessary. We need transparent models of management that will legitimise decisions. That way we can avoid having choices made on the basis of contacts or friendship, or motivated by political whims. Instead, candidates have to explain their motivations and defend stances, which I believe is what is needed. This should also apply to the everyday running of the institutions and museums of our countries, because these posts also entail public responsibility. That was one of the things I was most happy about last year when I arrived at TEOR/éTica: that there was an open call for the post and the evaluation was carried out by two independent bodies. Otherwise, how could one defend one institutional decision or another if there wasn’t a transparent mechanism of debate and evaluation in place? In that sense, I think the Tenth has succeeded, although not without some difficulties, in underscoring curatorial work not as a locus of authority but as a form of co-responsibility and commitment to intervention in the context, something that, in many cases, involved rowing against the tide.
Pablo: I think you’re right. I think that the aftershocks of the event also involve those challenges for curatorial practice. Curators often have to operate as facilitators for an uncomfortable balance between institutional frameworks and art production. It might even be worth asking ourselves, from a certain historical perspective: How and to what extent has the way in which art is produced and disseminated in the region been transformed? How were these transformations made visible in the most recent event? When I ask these questions, I am keenly aware of the emergence in recent years of a boom of collaborative networks for presenting art in international circuits that are no longer necessarily tied down to a regional discourse.
Tamara: As chance would have it, over the last few days I was taking a look back at MESóTICA II. Centroamérica: re-generación, the exhibition organised by Rolando Castellón and Virginia Pérez-Ratton at Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo in 1996. The twenty years that have elapsed since that first initiative, which envisaged the curatorial articulation of Central America, give us a perspective to recognise all the changes that have taken place. One of the main ones is the change in relation to contexts that, back in the mid-nineties, viewed themselves in isolation from one another. In contrast, at the present moment we have witnessed the consolidation and multiplication of networks of work and education and of a new mutual understanding and shared affection. What in the mid-nineties began as the by-product of an institutional resolve—from, among others, Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, TEOR/éTica, or the creation of the Bienal Centroamerican—quickly turned into an organic fabric of singular relationships which, instead of a single meeting place, had manifold nodes. That’s why the Tenth proposed a decentralised model for a biennial which would have individual anchor points in each context. I also get the feeling that priorities have changed. The earlier agenda of generating international “visibility,” which pushed the image of the “regional” in the nineties, was useful and had its effects, but it also had its limitations. That being said, the possibility of sharing questions, debates, and critical tools in Central America is unquestionably indebted to those earlier projects.
For me, working from Central America isn’t about having a “regional discourse” but rather specific articulations, poetic constellations, and shared political imperatives. For instance, one of the core axes of this biennial was to counteract the violence of normalisation, producing other representations, imagining other bodies, other sexualities, and other lives. The sense of “not being alone,” which the Nicaraguan artist and educator Patricia Belli mentioned when talking about what MESóTICA II and the contact with Central American art had meant for her, sums it up nicely for me.
Stories and imperatives
Miguel: A key aspect of the curatorial project was the issue of what stories need to be told today, to be radically rewritten and retold. This was behind your decision, for instance, to reach beyond San José and include Limón, a city on the Caribbean coast, and to recall the strike of banana plantation workers in 1934. Looking at the biennial’s many projects, what are the stories that you believed needed to be brought to the table?
Tamara: By moving the biennial to Limón and, as a result, to the Caribbean and the Atlantic, we tried to tell other stories. The hypothesis of the sinking of two galleons off the shore of Cahuita, Limón, due to a revolt of slaves and sailors, as told by María Suárez, a local writer, activist, and fisherwoman we worked with, was critical in summoning up that insurgent memory which we believe it is imperative to put on the table. In the same vein, the work of the collective unity IS SUBMARINE, through activist associations in Martinique and Guadeloupe, evinced the connection between the environmental struggle of the present and longstanding struggles for decolonisation; and also the role of the carnival or gwo ka—the music and dance practiced by the enslaved people in Guadeloupe—as a form of resistance. Another example would be the project that Veinti3, a collective from Nicaragua, has been working on since 2010 along with Rizhoma from Austria, with communities affected by the use of Nemagon (a pesticide used by banana companies), which was presented in Limón in the form of documents and works. One of these provided an account of an action in which a number of people affected by the pesticide decided to use tools closer in nature to performance, street theatre, and fiction for their public interventions. Other projects attempted new and different retellings of shared stories, as when the participants in the workshop entitled Banana Experience 3D* deliciante, diferente, danzante used the abundant visual catalogue of the “banana archive” compiled by the Brazilian artist Libidiunga Cardoso to suggest other relations and readings of those images, to turn them on their heads, to dress them up, to dance them, to attenuate and mock them.
But apart from the stories that we’re able to tell, I wonder about the other things the images can mobilise in each one. For instance, what memories and experiences could be conjured up in Limón by a gesture like that of the artist Oscar Figueroa, when he wrapped the former headquarters of the United Fruit Company in those signature blue pesticide bags that cover bunches of banana on plantations? In that building, several works and interventions told stories that are common to the region and indeed to a large part of the hemisphere. To my way of thinking, it was very important that the opening of the X Bienal Centroamericana took place in that building; to ask questions of our present from there, from a key place for a company that “modelled the whole of the world” and that used Central America as a unique laboratory to try out the economic, political, fiscal, labour, and environmental practices of multinationals, perhaps the most influential institutional form of our times.
Pablo: First of all, I would highlight our eschewal of a single-themed curatorial gesture in favour of the intersection of many interacting imperatives. The works responded to varying explorations, shifting between the discipline of the body, dissident epistemologies, memory, trauma, emancipation, and indigenous people, among others. In short, the biennial’s curatorial remit was viewed as a melting pot of regional dissidences.
With that in mind, I believed it would be decisive to include a critical gaze on the civilising rationale of Latin American criollismo, through such forceful works as Ixtetelá (2016), a performance by Benvenuto Chavajay. In this action, which follows an exercise in repetitive writing carried out by his mother, his negated surname, “Ixtetelá,” took on the quality of a symbol which was then tattooed on his own body. Close in feel to this was Nuevo mundo, an action carried out by the Costa Rican artist Javier Calvo for the opening of the biennial in Limón. Calvo [His surname is Spanish for “bald.” –Ed.] tattooed some accounts on his bald head using white ink, thus establishing an analogy with the accepted belief that baldness was introduced into the region by Spanish genes. Important issues regarding the sensible presence and consequences of colonialism in Central America were addressed by means of subtle poetics.
In my view, another key vector was the reconsideration of the effects of memory, trauma, and war on the territory, for instance in the El Juego (2016) project by the Salvadoran collective The Fire Theory. Taking a community-based approach, it proposed a soccer match in which former soldiers and former guerrillas played in mixed teams. This work struck up a dialogue with key historical pieces, such as Aldea modelo, pequeña historia, 1984, begun in 2006 by the Beirut-based Guatemalan artist Yasmin Hage; in it, the artist invited former soldiers to rebuild, using oral testimonies and scale models of what were known during the war as “model villages,” nodes built by the military forces on the rubble left after burning villages in Guatemala.
So, it was a biennial that strove to shape a contemporaneity out of multiple temporalities. I wonder, for instance, how it was able to connect the historical revision of practices of artists like Rolando Castellón with more recent artistic explorations of decolonisation, or how the homage paid to the Guatemalan artist Aníbal López—one of the seminal artists from the post-war period in the region—was able to speak so clearly to practices such as that of The Fire Theory.
Miguel: I would like to finish this conversation with a question for Tamara. I think many of us were left with a desire to see all those projects exhibited in the new venues for a longer time, particularly because of the effort it entailed. Could you talk to us about other projects that were activated after the event outside of San José? And, finally, are there are plans for a publication, which I believe is absolutely essential to bear witness to the event and the implications of this process of change?
Tamara: It’s true that the duration of the exhibitions in San José and Limón was very short. Unfortunately it was impossible to obtain a longer period in the programmes of the nine venues. Nonetheless, from the moment we started preparing this event back in 2015, we insisted on lending equal weight to all of the processes entailed in the event: from the meetings with artists and collectives we had in each one of the Central American countries, to the quietest moments of research or the activities carried out, like the symposium “Entre el terror y la fiesta” (Between Terror and Festival) by the Argentine researcher Ana Longoni in San Salvador, or the workshops imparted by the Spanish artist Diego del Pozo in Managua and San José. The mandate of the preliminary curatorial proposal, which I called “Bordados y desbordes” (Embroideries and Overflows), was to break the boundaries of the format and the limited temporality of the exhibition, while at the same time aspiring for the biennial to establish anchor points in each place. These boundary breakers included an exhibition of illustrators recently opened at Museo de Arte de El Salvador, exploring the notion of the “monster.” In Panama, a programme including forums and workshops with artists remains open, and an exhibition is to be presented in January 2017 at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. As far as a publication is concerned, we view it as an essential element to strengthen and publicise the artistic and critical proposals of X Bienal Centroamericana. For that reason, I hope to get confirmation of the necessary resources to launch the publication in the coming months.