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Lorena Peña Brito talks with Daniel Garza Usabiaga, Willy Kautz, and Víctor Palacios about the particularities of curatorial practice in Mexico and Latin America.
Lorena Peña Brito: I would like to start marking out territories within territories. When we mention Latin America and specifically Mexico, loose maps and borders emerge. Mexico’s self-perception in cultural terms as part of Latin America or the Americas is different from what Guatemala’s, Uruguay’s, or Brazil’s is. In this context, what are the particularities of contemporary curation in Latin America from your point of view?
Willy Kautz: Trying to articulate the particularities of curation in Latin America is an ambitious task. But anecdotally, I can say that a seminar with curator Gerardo Mosquera was very significant for me. There, he outlined a narrative, or a model of thought and language that can be summarized by the use of two prepositions: in and from. During the first part of the twentieth century, a historiography was formulated to which curatorial and theoretical discourses were subordinated in order to establish the particularities of modern art “in Latin America” that would be representative of democracies and developing nation states. But the kind of curatoing that began to take shape during post-modernism, the preposition shifts to “from”—as in “contemporary art from Latin America.” If I remember correctly, the first art historian to outline this question was the Brazilian Aracy Amaral. I bring this up because the philosophies that claim a thought of their own, that is to say, that emerge from Latin America, also ask themselves, in the words of Argentine, Mexico-based philosopher Horacio Cerutti, “How is it possible to philosophize from Our America to the world?”
Now, if I could talk about particularities, I believe that the challenge today for curators working in a Latin American framework lies in how to discuss and make visible the tensions and contradictions implicit in the very historicity of the concept of Latin America and the complexity of thought—either post, anti, or decolonial—while condensing multiple narratives and aesthetic economies.
Víctor Palacios: The category of “the Americas” is ambiguous and confusing. On the other hand, the field of Latin American art contains a series of very harmful contradictions and generalizations even today. However, because the term remains a useful and productive classification for the great hegemonic centers, it is a solid category that will continue to prevail in historiographical discourses and in large public and private collections. The recent “gifts” from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) (as it was named by the director of MoMA in New York) that have been presented to MoMA are an example of this, and clarify a whole way of operating and directing a collection that has been in place for decades to finally consolidate both the exotic-tropical label and the transcendence of the prestigious institution and its colossal collections.
Daniel Garza Usabiaga: I agree that it is difficult to talk about the particularities of curatorial activity in Latin America. Obviously, Mexico has participated in these proposals for many decades—I’m thinking, for example, of the popularity of geometric abstraction in the seventies, in so-called “geometrism.” However, I believe that along with these more or less dominant tendencies there have been other ways of conducting and understanding the practice of curatorial activities—other discourses, other perspectives. In Mexico, curation as such is a fairly young practice and I think that even today it would be very difficult to talk about particularities.
LPB: Willy, in another interview you mentioned the role of the curator as an editor, and Víctor has raised the question about the functions of the curator in a cultural framework. Through proposals for collaborative, collective, and critical work at the level of the exhibition model and the presentation of artistic and creative processes, how has curation moved its own limits and shaped its practice to re-establish and expand its functions?
WK: Yes, many curators have equated the role of the curator with that of the editor. Today, I think of curating as a practice related to reflective montage, a way of organizing what is public for the reflective aesthetic experience. In this sense, the expansion of curation has precisely to do with the way in which the museums or art spaces flank their autonomy and are linked to non-artistic or socio-historical contexts. I think that, here, art opens up to areas such as ecology, ethics, feminism, etc.
DGU: Certainly, there is some of an editor in curatorial practice but, like Willy, I also relate it to the articulation of reflective montages, stagings, or situations. In my case, for example, I have not only made montages for art exhibition spaces but also of anthropological or historical material. These are works that do not receive as much visibility as art exhibitions but I think they show my interest in working with objects, without limiting myself to the sphere of art.
VP: From my position as a curator of a public institution such as Casa del Lago, I have tried to take advantage as much as possible of the avant-garde legacy of this space to propose certain curatorial and museographic changes, or to revisit some of those forms of interaction and co-production that have been gradually replaced by fashionable models or trends, that is, by the canons of curation that have been popularized by the international circuit of contemporary art and its increasing standardization and commercialization. I am doing this not only to question curation but also the artistic practice and the art object. I think that the social function of the curator of contemporary art is to generate discourses and platforms that may have a certain critical, uncomfortable, or experimental character. Otherwise, curating becomes an administrative and executive task, a docile and complacent way of integrating into the cultural apparatus. It is to accept conservative public policies, strategies of visibility, legitimacy and the market, the standardized conception of an average art spectator, educational, or mediation programs, etc.
LPB: We are in a moment of crisis at the socio-political level in Latin America. Particularly in Mexico, we have returned to one of the worst faces of PRIismo, and we are too close to the United States under the Trump administration. Now, there is a new permissiveness for the resurgence of racism, the dominance of hetero-normative, patriarchal, sexist thinking, and of an exacerbated neoliberalism. Returning to the history of Latin American art seems to be a pertinent way to situate ourselves within history and within a narrative of political and cultural relations that have changed over time. What would be the role of local (on the level of the nation) and Latin American historicity within a self-critical framework for current curatorial activities?
VP: It is the usual crisis in Latin America. We are not in a “moment,” but in a constant state of crisis. This is true of a good part of the stipulated geopolitical territory, but we must not generalize either. In the case of Mexico, the situation is particularly serious and desperate in many ways. The Trump administration is far from being the cause of our core problems. Rather than fear of an exacerbated neoliberalism, we must be terrified of the levels of corruption, ignorance, and impunity that define the present in this country. This includes a large part of the culture industry and, clearly, the still childish Secretariat of Culture whose main features are its paralysis and stagnation in the outdated and worn-out nationalist discourses from last century. The cultural field in Mexico is self-indulgent (I include myself in this statement) because we have not known how to generate collective platforms that could demand the necessary changes. More precisely, the role of historicity should be focused on generating reflective discourses around the political, social, and economic circumstances that affect the future of contemporary culture. However, it seems to me that in Mexico we are far from the day that research centers, dedicated to this and other similar tasks, will produce some kind of self-critical framework for curating, art history, artistic practice, cultural management, etc. Academia cannot escape the generalized crisis.
LPB: I think it is important to place curation, as well as different practices from different contexts, in a network of privileges. This is something that feminism and recent critical studies suggest, for example, that to negotiate with diverse interests, convergences, and ideological differences, and to visualize economic, social, historical, and cultural emphases, etc., it is necessary to contemplate this network and the place of the work within it, whether curatorial, executive, administrative, educational, etc. What do you think about this?
WK: I think that from the feminist point of view, and here I refer to Francesca Gargallo Celentani, there are privileges (beyond curation) normalized according to class, traits, skin color, hair type, body constitution, etc. According to Celentani, where there is privilege, rights are denied precisely because privileges are not universal, as rights are thought to be. For the same reason, where a right is denied, privilege is built. Now, regarding this, I believe that curation tends to rely on critical discourses that answer these privileges, which sometimes, paradoxically, become a new difference instead of building a space of opposition. This happens a lot at the academic level, for example. It is a complex issue, but I would insist that curation is a public responsibility that makes these contradictions visible.
Therefore, curation is not a fair practice prone to exercise egalitarian discourses capable of distributing neoliberal economics that social policies have failed to distribute. If we think in terms of curation as a form among others of symbolic organization of public affairs, we must question how we occupy, share, and coexist in that public. As I see it, another thing that has been left out is nature. In the modern legal framework nature has no rights. How can we give it a voice? This is why representations of nature from the perspective of non-Western cultures today are so strong in the midst of the environmental crisis. And I do not think that this is an issue of Mexican identity, but rather that it is linked to the ways of seeing and constituting the public as an organization of the relationship between the human and the non-human.
LPB: I understand. So, exactly because curatorial practice cannot be fair, I want to ask you what you think when you suggest that you have to put into perspective “who occupies this public setting?”
WK: Those who participate in the configuration of the arts institution. If we use it for our own interests—that is, to obtain privileges—then we contradict its public function.
DGU: As a historian, I have been interested in dynamics of exclusion and how, for different reasons, different characters or artists have been completely occluded in narratives of the present. Perhaps for me, this exclusion has to do with the approach to the past that contradicts the taste and fascination for the new within the logic of the contemporary. The exclusionary of this logic obeys an obsessive search not only for new artistic objects, but also for new artistic generations, thus excluding past generations. I think that history is the repository of key perspectives to renew our perceptions of the present, our understanding of time and all the things that surround us. Because of this, history must be addressed beyond a set of references, we must use its power, updating it.
VP: I would like to start with the last question. The lack of visibility has been and continues to be flagrant at very different levels and spheres of action. Yes, in fact, curators act as catalysts, but since there is no solid institutional structure, the moments of visibility of the artwork are, in most cases, ephemeral. We produce and generate projects at an accelerated pace, but just as they appear, they fade away due to the absence of a suitable scenario for medium or long-term development. It seems to me that this circumstance affects fully what I would comment on the two previous questions and many others about contemporary art in Mexico. Scarcity (or shortage) causes a vicious circle, a kind of paralysis or impossibility of finding other horizons, other perspectives or models. Turn your eyes towards the possible “other.” Now, the dilemma of exclusion and of a dominant sector will never cease to exist, since the mechanics of the art system also depend on it. On the other hand, I believe that, given the circumstance that the country is currently in, we should focus our attention on generating projects that, beyond visibility, have a social focus or an interest in establishing some kind of link with the local community. I think that an important example in this sense is what Casa Gallina has managed to develop in the area of Santa María la Ribera neighborhood in Mexico City during the last three or four years.
LPB: And now, to finish the cycle here; the specific stories of development of regional scenes—I’m thinking of Monterrey and Zacatecas—that run the risk of being assessed not from their local point of view, but also from a central perspective. How do we avoid it, and how do we allow the voices of the different localities in Mexico to emerge for themselves?
WK: The cultural program of the two editions of the FEMSA Biennial that I have been in charge of, the twelfth edition and the one that opened in Zacatecas in August of 2017, are attempts at decentralization. What we intended was to build an approach to art and the biennial model that originated within the locality itself, from the convergence of commissioned projects, guest artists, institutions, and local collections with a strong participation from the local artistic community. This scheme is consistent with the notion of the prepositions “in and from” that I mentioned in response to the first question. For example, in the case of Zacatecas, there is a strong presence of local institutions and their collections; this was the starting point that articulate a biennial conceived in historiographical terms. On the other hand, we must relate these collections with recent production, beyond the canons we see in the museums and galleries of Mexico City. The title “We Were Never Contemporary” alludes exactly to that problem. What are the local cultural interests? What art models are reproduced there? What artistic subjectivities? And what are the questions that a curatorial practice that looks beyond the center must try to answer?
DGU: In my training, I believe that a historical review of curatorial practice that does not privilege centralism can change the perception of this cultural phenomenon, one that is very typical of Mexico. I think there is a lot to say about places like Tijuana, Monterrey, and particularly Guadalajara since the nineties in relation to curation, exhibition spaces, and institutional alternatives. Based on these reviews, we could reconsider certain initiatives that took place during the nineties and the beginning of the twenty-first century outside of Mexico City led by curators such as Carlos Ashida or Osvaldo Sánchez. I believe that Osvaldo’s practice is very important in his constant exercises of decentralization, not only in relation to geography, but also in relation to the prevailing or formulaic discourses, as well as certain logics of visibility and spectacularization of art.
LPB: Are we really facing such a big crisis in curatorial practice? Because I see this critical moment as a possibility for many different kinds of open dialogue, self-reflection, and experimentation.
DGU: For me, critical situations are an invitation to organize pessimism, using Pierre Naville’s term. As I mentioned before, adverse moments can be very productive for re-imagining situations in their entirety from an intuition that distrusts at all times those who in, one way or another, claim to be right or to sustain the truth.
VP: I do not perceive any major crisis in curatorial practice. I wish there was a real fix with enough force to shake its foundations a little bit. I agree with you that the possibility of dialogue, experimentation, and reflection is open, but I think we are not taking advantage of that opportunity in concrete and tangible terms. Once again, I consider that we are quite disjointed and that dialogue between the players in this medium is, to a large extent, a conversation between the deaf. More than a major crisis, it could be a crisis of imagination, of an excessive fear of saying something that could mean a professional failure or disqualification (self-censorship), and of an obsession with being up-to-date and of the latest fashion, that is, updated, informed, and weak…before any possible exaltation. The crisis of curation is a crisis of meaning and attitude towards the present. The confusion is real.