Manuela Moscoso shares some reflections on her experience as curator of the 2021 Liverpool Biennial.
Your curatorship for the 2021 Liverpool Biennale—The Stomach and the Port—seeks to disrupt the modern-colonial notions that designate what is “body” and what is “human” to ask about porosity, vulnerability, and interdependence as paths for an imagination that recognizes our entangled existence as inhabitants of a wounded planet. How does the Liverpool context lead you to non-Western ways of thinking? Why is it important to disturb the imaginaries around “body” and “human” from an international biennial in a colonizing country such as England?
At the time I was invited to do the Biennial it was a turning point for South America when Bolsonaro came to power. At the time, I was in shock—I still am—and it felt very threatening. I became concerned with what form of agency we all have in such a scenario. I asked myself: How can we let ourselves be influenced by non-western ways of thinking? How can we empower ourselves? How can we have an understanding of what a human could be where our lives depend on each other—be these human or otherwise? These questions were the starting point for researching and establishing the biennial framework. We have to remember that we are all very much framed by and a product of a euro-centric way of thinking, that is, we are all colonial bodies to a certain extent. And in this context for centuries the social understanding of what a human is has assumed a particular body: the one of a “white”, “European”, “man”. A “man” is not a neutral designation.
Specifically, the Biennial questions how this notion of the body—and by extension what it is to be human—becomes the assumed default position. How was it fabricated? By whom? In the interest of whom? At what moment? Informed by what? Artists and thinkers included in this edition are interrogating definitions and forms of classification constructed by those who control knowledge—and therefore subjectivity—upon which the western model operates. For instance, ideas of porosity, kinship beyond the human, embodied knowledge (the body and not the mind as the knowing subject), somatic learning, antropophagia, non-linear history, and a non-discursive understanding of the world are present in this edition. The hope is, through these propositions, to encourage de-learning and re-leaning of our ways of being in the world by understanding presuppositions founded by western formulations of thinking, with the outcome of recalibrating our sensibilities and tuning in to a living praxis where lives are co-dependent, to encourage a greater understanding of the individual’s role and empowerment in the production of the world.
I strongly believe that we should always ask what a body is because it should never be a question that accepts the status quo. I also believe it should be asked in any place at any given moment, because the learnings, or de-learnings, are going to be located, different, and no less significant. Now, to me, asking that question in Liverpool was incredibly powerful because of two reasons. Firstly, many of our assumptions of what we assume by saying human had to do with centuries of a colonial process and Liverpool has those traces, wounds, and histories embedded in the city. But also, it is a port and maritime site, which allows us to talk about ideas of connection, transmission, and exchange. This is key when talking about the porosity of our own bodies.
From your experience curating the biennial, how has the consciousness of your own human-body been transformed? What artists and works part of the biennial led you especially to expand doubts, demolish certainties and transform your curatorial starting point in relation to your own life?
I consider myself a curator of practices rather than objects and the exhibition—understood in the expanded field—is a form of gathering. Your question relates to another question and that is the power of art, and to me, the field of art is the place to go to open the possibilities of being with others. When I invoke the presence of an artist, I am exercising some sort of empathy towards their work and proposition. It is through this process that I learn from that perspective, and by learning through the body of others I transform myself. This is not to say that I become that other, but I do incorporate certain aspects fully into my being, as a curator and a person. Each practice expands, questions, experiments, proposes a different understanding of experiences of being in the world to me and when doing exhibitions I believe others too.
There’s an impression that the art world that germinated in the context of global neoliberalization through the professionalization of the arts, stripped the “curator” of their linguistic genealogy related to caring. Considering the world we live in, what does it imply to practice curating from the sense of its etymology?
There are different levels of caring if you like, and therefore, to me, the word care is not sufficient, especially because this sometimes implies somebody in need. So, I am cautious, and I do not use that word too often, nor I have used it in the framing of this biennial. To me, as a curator, we work on different fronts and there are different levels of responsibility that one must take on when inviting somebody to dislocate their trajectory to meet yours. Much like your last question, the way in which we invoke people has an ethical dimension that must correspond with the fights that we might have in our daily life. So, to work within ethical grounds, I understand my work as a manager of desires, including my own. And they are all equally important to take into consideration. So, in a way, curating also implies a negotiation where one must care, to use the etymology you point out, for all the people involved. Not easy, but totally possible. Then it is a process of construction, which requires us to be utterly present and be ready to learn from the process itself. In any given work, we must have ethical and political principles that we would never give up, but we are also hoping to succeed them. If one is on the search for social and climate justice, for instance, and one gets involved with artists that are working with those types of questions, be ready to amplify, modify, and take your principles to places that you could not imagine by learning from others. One should be reasonable, knowing our limitations, and also we should accept sometimes we could have done it better. I believe we should definitely try our best within each circumstance, even if we fail because that is the energy that I want to give to any project.
Beyond the digitization strategy and the security protocols that have been standardized as mediation responses to the context of a pandemic crisis, what changes were there in the conceptualization, production, and monitoring of an event such as an international biennial?
Although it resonates with current times, the process of making the biennial started in 2018 and by March 2020 the biennial was shaped, though the global issues of 2020 have forced us to adapt and reconsider some of the individual works on display. I often say: we are doing the same biennial but different. It has been important to me to keep the integrity of the project. The effort, however, has been and still is to reconfigure and recalibrate the exhibition informed by the global conditions and the impacts that these events have had on people and places. For instance, the work by Luisa Ungar A Regurgitation is a Song is a Spell (Consultations to recreate the colonial disease) had to be reconfigured into clairvoyants telephone calls as live performances are not possible—the work became a place for Luisa to experiment with performance in a socially-distant world, and it works amazingly. We were preparing a parade around the city of Liverpool on pandemics with Ines Doujak, and the pandemic stopped the process, the project is now a series of amazing podcasts called Transmission: A series of five Podcasts on Disease and Pandemics in a Distorted World (2021). Erick Beltran had to change multiple times his initial idea; the project Superposition (2021) is now an audio work that can be listened to in taxis around the city of Liverpool, also working as mini podcasts on the relationship of Cumbia and Quantum physics. Another example is Haroon Mizra The Three /\/\/\/’s (2021) which is now a social gathering and a ritual where humming is used as a form of healing. These are some examples of our adaptation.
Finally, the closure of exhibition spaces caused by the pandemic has raised a series of questions around the sociocultural relevance of cultural institutions, such as biennials and museums. Some wonder if they should remain open or closed, if they impact the social imaginary or if they impact the community they respond to. What opinion do you have about these doubts?
I have to question for instance why, in England, any commercial enterprise was allowed to open before cultural spaces. After having so many months of closures and being able to meet a restricted number of people, the power of experiencing something other than shopping, I think, could have been so powerful. So, I would say, that with the pandemic, cultural places are more important than ever. Participating in public spaces, like the Liverpool Biennial, encourages us to revisit the ways we experience life, and through the work of artists it opens up possibilities to look at the world through the world of others. To me, art can highlight the incredible capacity for humans to (re)invent themselves. I can only see it in a positive way, but of course, like any other organism, museums, and biennials, should be capable of changing, transforming, and adapting—not for the profit, but responding to the conditions of the time.