RUBA KATRIB: I would like to continue the conversation we had when we met up in Rio de Janeiro in September. Moving from New York City to work in Rio last spring, you’ve been involved in a number of projects and initiatives, one of them being the Bienal de Cuenca in Ecuador opening in early 2014. Can you talk a little bit about this exhibition, which you are curating with Jacopo Crivelli Visconti? What is the history and role of this biennial in Ecuador and the surrounding region?
MANUELA MOSCOSO: I am originally from Ecuador, and left Quito in my teens to study Fine Arts in London, and [since then] I have lived in Europe and the States. For me, being in Rio is a way to be back in South America. Indeed, one of the first projects that came up in this latitude is the invitation to be the adjunct curator at La Bienal de Cuenca working with Jacopo Crivelli Visconti as the chief curator. It is a very exciting project to be involved [in] and a challenge. This is the first edition [in which] the Fundación Bienal has invited only one team to propose a project and has given that team autonomy on its content. A lot of changes are going to take place and hopefully will create a new precedent for future biennials in Cuenca, and I am speaking here both conceptually and operationally.
La Bienal de Cuenca started in 1987 as a painting biennial, and up till its 9th edition (2009) was organized through country representation for international artists. For Ecuadorians, the process of inclusion was made through a pre-salon and open calls. Two editions ago, the biennial was a hybrid format where the Cuban curator José Manuel Noceda received artist suggestions from a network of curators and art professionals around the world, and he made a selection from this list while a team of local curators organized the Ecuadorian participation. The last biennial had three different curators, each of them proposing their own curatorial framework with the mandate to include both international and Ecuadorian representation. I think for a biennial this size, this strategy was a complicated way to go, there were too many ideas in a small place and it was hard for the curators to make a consistent proposal. Gradually, the biennial is trying to find a new identity in tune with the present moment, especially since we are all experiencing a region that is a lot more articulated than it was years ago.
La Bienal de Cuenca has survived difficult crises, particularly the one at the end of the ‘90s, which makes it a rare case of an established institution in a region where it is difficult to maintain art events over time. Therefore, la Bienal de Cuenca has an important history that cannot be underestimated; if one checks the past participants, many relevant artists and curators (particularly from the continent) have been part of it. In terms of its impact, I would say that the biennial had its bigger resonance on the local art system; this selection was always larger than the other country participants. However, for this biennial we are thinking less in number of local representation and more about which artists can contribute to the conceptual framework and how this particular context can contribute to invited artists. Therefore, Jacopo and I have reflected on which way this biennale can have an impact in the region today and how to be responsive to the vibrant moment that we are going through in Latin America. Thus, taking into account the size and budget constraints, we have decided to invite a larger group of artists from Latino America, mainly from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Despite being our next-door neighbors, we want to challenge the existing shy relationship and support exchange across the region. Our aim is to enhance conversations which focus on cultural production today between art professionals and audiences. To reach our aspirations while providing a proper working platform, we are inviting around 40 artists total.
KATRIB: How do you see biennials, as a format, functioning in South America? The most international ones are in Brazil with both the São Paulo and Mercosul Biennials, but there are other biennials across the region that—as you mention in the instance of Cuenca—have been rife with complications as a result of shifting political and economic climates, often limiting their regularity and scope. However, it seems that more of these events could create a more integrated discourse. How do you view the potential of the biennial to create increased connections between artists in neighboring countries, as you are trying out with the Andean region? It also seems that a central condition of many of these biennials is that they are often tied to a municipality, one that is very local, often eclipsing the opportunity for a larger international conversation. I am not a proponent of creating more biennials! But it is interesting that there are already a number of them within Latin America that seem to slip under the radar of many international art audiences. Is it important to revitalize them to achieve this visibility, or do they serve a completely different function?
MOSCOSO: An interesting case to look at is this year’s Salón Nacional de Artistas in Medellín, Colombia. The Salón has adopted a format closer to a biennial than to a salon. The head curator, Colombian Mariangela Méndez (the person behind many of the changes), invited four other curators for this year’s selection. All of them were given autonomy and had the possibility to invite local artists as well as international ones. They could also propose curatorial narratives within the large exhibition frame. The Cuenca Bienal 12 is another example, and I would venture to say that these format revisions are happening because, on the one hand, although the cultural infrastructure of the region is not yet well structured, there is a growing number of artists and professionals interconnected today across the globe. As a collective, we want to open the local conversation to a larger number of people, and we are all curious about what is happening with our geographic neighbors. On the other hand, these types of shows, many times with established financial support, can be subjected to fast changes due to the fact the collective effort is periodic. In our contexts, this form of speed can be used as an advantage to introduce well-curated shows forging exchange and circulation.
So, perhaps I am speaking from a specific generational perspective, but yes I think it is important to revitalize and re-think this format in the region today. Of course, this decision-making should be proposed and discussed by working art professionals and not taken as political “props.” And we should also support that. Along with this revitalization of biennials, other local forms of circulation should occur too. It should be easy to agree that our collective goal is to prompt a healthier ecosystem for all.
KATRIB: Since you have been spending more time working in South America, have you encountered any fundamental distinctions in the organizational structures of contemporary art entities (as in the biennials we just discussed)? It seems when we are talking about these changes, we are also talking about a new group of professionals and changing ideas around professionalization, which is evident in a lot of recent initiatives in South America, manifesting in the seriousness and scope of the many alternative spaces and galleries. There is a lot of criticism in recent years against an “over-professionalization” of the art world in general, but to me, this doesn’t necessarily coincide with “over-commercialization,” which is what I think is largely meant by those objections. What has your experience been?
MOSCOSO: Perhaps, with a fear of generalizing too much, I would say that in the South American context, the problem often rests on the level of informality, the poor funding for culture (private or public), the few references of well-programmed institutions, or even the level of education—all issues that affect the ways in which one can navigate as a professional. However, in the past years, South America has entered into an economically better place [compared to how it was] 10 years ago. A more stable context is creating opportunities where people tend to stay in their own contexts, rather than look for opportunities elsewhere. Also, there is a wider circulation of people (and money) in the continent, and therefore more communication and connections. This new scenario is definitely having a big impact on the types of contexts that are being constructed and how, ideally, one takes part in them. And yes, I will agree with you, when speaking of “professionalism,” the criticisms often are in relation to the “over-commercialization” of the arts, and not in relation to an appropriate working framework guaranteeing labor standards and the accountability that comes along with a job. From my experience, and I would say not only in South America, it is extremely important to have professionals behind any art project, both in practical, as well as intellectual levels. Resources will be well invested and projects will have conceptual depth. So, when saying “professional,” I am thinking about an engaged agent, who invests time researching, being informed, and open to learning from their experiences and being changed by them. For instance, specifically in the curatorial field, it isn’t only about knowing how to stage an exhibition, but also exploring how discourse emerges from curatorial activities, and the impacts on the contemporary art field and viewers. At the end, we do not work alone; we work with artists, organizers, editors, institutions, funders, academics, contexts, etc. in the assembly of visual culture.
KATRIB: This raises an interesting conundrum though. With more money and an increased flow of people and goods, we can experience some of the more stabilized working conditions in the arts within South America, as well as other regions, undergoing similar shifts. But what is lost or forgotten amidst these changes? Is there an experience you can speak to in your current projects that touches on the more unexpected impacts of these shifts?
MOSCOSO: I would say that it differs very much from place to place, and still, there is a lot to be done to improve our working conditions in the art world and outside of it. Therefore, in this aspect, I think when institutions are working towards stabilization and professionalization of any field, things are not being forgotten, but rather are being transformed. Here, I think our key responsibility is to work from whatever exists, never underestimate idiosyncrasy, since that is where the beauty of difference lies. Therefore, we have to work within the specificities of the town, city, and region, outwards, like a Doppler effect. That said, global exchanges are present in every aspect of our lives. Therefore, local circumscription in the [facilitation of] representation and the appropriation of consumer values are increasingly shifting into standards, and in many ways, are forces difficult to avoid.