Class Action: Mercosur, the Pedagogical Biennale in Brazil

In emphasizing pedagogy rather than presentation, the Mercosul Biennial in Brazil challenged the primacy of the art object and shifted the focus to the audience.

There was no official diagnosis for the welts that sprang up all over my body one night last October in Porto Alegre, Brazil. But if I had to wager a guess as to their origins, I might note that the outbreak occurred shortly after meeting Alfredo Olivera. A young psychologist based in Buenos Aires, he told me about Radio la Colifata (Loony Radio), the first radio station run by patients of a mental institution. When I questioned the benefits of publicly exposing the insanity of his patients through a radio broadcast, he pointed out that my skepticism came from a position of power, a position that his patients were able to assume when they went on air. An overwhelming feeling of hope suddenly hit me. Radio la Colifata wasn’t art per se (it is a closely monitored social experiment that started more than ten years ago), but in its willingness to see what happens when the inmates take over the asylum, so to speak, it seemed proof of art’s potential for change. The following day, a thousand people attending a symposium on art and education might have felt the same emotional response to his description. But I don’t know for sure. The welts had erupted on my skin, and I was rushed to the local general hospital.

Located in the southern region of Brazil, Porto Alegre is a city better known for being the original home of the World Social Forum than for its art biennial. And yet the sixth Mercosul Biennale rivaled the Venice Biennale, Documenta 12, and Sculpture Project Munster for scope and ambition, but was mounted with a lot less fanfare. As the title hints, it takes its name from the 1991 regional free-trade agreement known as Mercosul (1), including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and it is a generously funded venture. Since its inception a decade ago, the biennial has followed a tried-and-true formula: national representation with a varying selection of guest countries. That the biennial’s newest edition eschewed the nineteenth-century model for exhibition making alone made it noteworthy. But that the biennial entailed a pedagogical experiment of no small proportions made it momentous.

At the start of the research stage for the biennial, the chief curator, Gabriel Perez-Barreiro created the position of Pedagogical Curator, and appointed Luis Camnitzer (a participating artist in the first Mercosul Biennale in 1996). Since his arrival to New York City from Uruguay in 1964, Camnitzer has approached art as a tool for education, employing this idea while teaching at the State University of New York, curating at the Drawing Center, or hosting a print-making residency program at his summer studio in Italy. His most recent book, Conceptualisms in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (2007), a history of art from the 1960s to ‘70s, is an important follow up to “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s,” an exhibition that he co-organized in 1999 with curator Jane Farver and the art historian Rachel Weiss. For Camnitzer, the term conceptualism, and not conceptual art, is used to define a tactical shift in art making during the second half of the twentieth century. Conceptualism according to the three curators, allowed artistic focus to move from the object to the conduct of art.(2)

The backbone of the biennial’s education program was not only inspired by the dematerialization of the art object, but was also bolstered by Paulo Freire’s philosophy of pedagogy, challenging the prevailing notion that the audience is an empty vessel to be filled with information rather than an intelligent being to learn from. After many conversations between Perez-Barreiro, Camnitzer, and local artists and educators who had participated in previous editions of the biennial, it was determined that there would be an intensive arts training program focused on teaching creative methodologies over art history. University professors and students, artists and other interested individuals attended, some becoming involved in simple dialogues that took place at different venues throughout Porto Alegre before and after the exhibition period, others officially becoming “moderators” of the biennial’s ideas in their schools or at the exhibition, and as such became facilitators of ideas between the artists participating in the biennial and the public. Camnitzer asked a select number of the artists to define their artwork or artistic practice by first articulating a problem that they were interested in, and then offering a response by elucidating their arguments with their own work.

This was a brilliant ploy of misdirection—undermining superficial discussions of taste by suggesting the audience supplement their aesthetic experience with reflective judgment. The artists’ questions then became the content of the teacher sessions, appearing in material packages handed out to thousands of schools in the state as well as in text-based work stations set within the exhibition; there were also areas and social spaces throughout the galleries where young and old moderators and the public met to discuss particular artworks or the exhibition. While it’s true that every major international biennial has an education program, the emphasis this one gave to pedagogy as a communication tool and as a process that precedes and continues after the exhibition was what made it unique—and unprecedented. (One exception might have been Manifesta 6—an exhibition proposal in the form of an art school which was to have taken place in 2006 in Cyprus, but was cancelled for political reasons.) No less important were the enormous resources that the sixth Mercosul Biennale invested in education. So great was the expediency and regional impact of this program that the exhibition was locally referred to as the “Pedagogical Biennial.”

The investigatory nature that is characteristic of education as well as artistic processes was best exposed “Tres Fronteiras” (Three Frontiers), one of the four exhibitions that comprised the biennial. Co-curated by Perez Barreiro and the Paraguayan curator Ticio Escobar, this part of the biennial consisted of commissioning project-based work resulting from four intermittent artist residencies in Brazil’s southern border with Paraguay and Argentina, a neighboring region to Porto Alegre. Guatemalan artist Anibal Lopez focused on the illegal trafficking of goods in the region—products primarily originating in Asia and landing in Paraguay—and together with the help of a number of collaborators followed a secret route to illicitly transport the materials of his artwork to Porto Alegre. Titled Sculpture Smuggled from Paraguay to Brazil, the work in the exhibition was a set of 600 empty cardboard boxes, each insulated by black plastic trash bags and packaging tape, arranged in a stack alluding to Andy Warhol’s Brillo box installations of the 1960s, as well as Tony Smith’s stark steel cube, Die (1962). A series of photographs and video presented the sculpture’s material history, the “performance” that preceded its construction. The work’s powerful effect was due in large part to the artist’s matter-of-fact approach to the border region, and the equal bluntness with which he addressed its covert economies.

And what about Alfredo Olivera? The Argentine psychologist was participating in one of the biennial’s pedagogical programs, and had been invited because a modest radio station that he had founded about a decade ago had revolutionized the field of psychiatry by doing nothing more than expose the hierarchies of communication, and offering his patients a sense of dignity. His presentation was followed by a discussion with the public that went on for hours into the night. This exchange was typical of the 6a Bienal do Mercosul. The dynamism emerging from the interaction between artists, educators, and the public demonstrates that international exhibitions still provide an important platform for the advancement of contemporary art and culture, and can best continue to raise the bar if curators of such shows begin to consider “art for education and education for art.”(3)

1 “Mercosur” is a compressed form of Mercado Comum do Sul, or Southern Common Market.
2 Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss in the “Forward” of the exhibition catalogue for Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999): VIII.
3 “Simpósio Internacional Terceira Margem: educação para a arte / arte para a educação” (Education for Art / Art for Education) was the title of a symposium took place on October 17-18, 2007 at the Salão de Atos, UFRGS in Porto Alegre, organized as part of the pedagogical program of the 6a Bienal do Mercosul.