THE FUTURE OF EXHIBITIONS BEYOND THE PANDEMIC
Luiz Camillo Osorio (with Marta Mestre)
The post-pandemic world will be different. Art exhibitions will also be different. It seems to me inevitable that part of the work inherent to making exhibitions will take place virtually. Even the circulation of artworks will surely end up making use of social media and online settings. The in-person element of exhibitions will not go away, we will still experience the materiality of works and exhibition spaces, but it will no longer be possible to conceive of them without this virtual component. This last year-and-a-half of the pandemic has speeded up a process that was already waiting in the wings. But there is still a long way to go and room for manoeuver between automatic uptake and absolute rejection of technology.
I want to exemplify this by giving two examples of exhibitions prepared during the pandemic. For one of them, Mario Cravo Neto, at IMS-SP, I myself was the curator (assisted by Mariana Newlands). I am using it here because as I worked on it, I felt the effect more directly. The other, entitled FARSA [FARSE], at SESC-Pompeia, also in São Paulo, was curated by Marta Mestre. The exhibitions were assembled remotely, but this was only possible because the production and assembly teams at both institutions were so professional. I should also stress that neither I nor Marta live in São Paulo, which is what made working virtually a necessity. A host of technological resources came to our aid to enable us to take part in the assembly process without being there in person.
Actually, it is worth noting that for some time now, architects and exhibition designers have been using sophisticated digital tools to plan exhibitions, proposing “quasi-physical” ways for curators to get a sense of how the works will look in the space. When it comes to actually putting together the exhibition, you have a sense that the space has already been erected and the works are already in their allotted places, based on a curatorial narrative. Obviously, physically arranging the works and putting together an exhibition implies situating what was previously only represented on a computer screen in relation to our own body. Which itself prompts movements, displacements, replacements – and a process of adjusting the relationships established in the virtual setting to the scrutiny of a gaze roaming through space.
Similarly, the catalogues produced to accompany exhibitions may take on a particular interpretation of the work(s) throughout this exhibition development process. Curatorial authorship must interact with the work of architects and designers, who inevitably contribute to this authorship. In this respect, there is something in the process that is akin to theater or film production: it is collective work, authorship spawned of many hands, gazes, and ideas.
In the case of the retrospective exhibition of the work of Mario Cravo Neto, just two days before the initial opening date in March 2021, with preparations near completion, I set off for São Paulo to make the final adjustments and oversee the fine-tuning of the lighting. I should explain that the exhibition was supposed to open in June 2020 at IMS-Rio, but was rescheduled to open nine months later at IMS-SP. Because of the announcement of another lockdown on the eve of the opening, it finally opened to the public in late April. Several activities were posted on the IMS-SP website to accompany the progress of visiting. One question worth asking in this context is how much the Cravo Neto photographic archive will be reworked by the fact that it was made available online for international researchers, and how much his work may be appropriated for circulation in virtual curatorships. Certainly, there are parts of his oeuvre that are less suited to this kind of circulation (I am thinking of the Eternal Now series), while others are more so (e.g., the Fogo [Fire] series and some images of Candomblé and ex-votos). Cravo Neto’s own creation and graphic design of important photobooks in the early 1980s is itself indicative of how many modes of circulation beyond the gallery wall – and ones that are no less impactful – are available to his photography. Such routes can only be expected to multiply.
As for FARSA, the impact of the pandemic was more radical. As Marta Mestre is Portuguese, she was in Lisbon, about to set off to Brazil to oversee the assembly of the exhibition, when Portugal closed its borders. An email account she wrote speaks for itself, giving an idea of the need to circumvent the situation by whatever means were at her disposal at that point in time, for which technology proved a trusty ally. As she put it: I was getting ready to travel, even after the virus was in the news, and I actually checked in for the flight. Everything was ready for me to join the team on the other side of the Atlantic. Suddenly, overnight, Portugal announces a state of emergency and closes its borders. I was prevented from travelling, but we carried on with the assembly, since in Brazil the news of the virus was still remote at that time. A few days before the opening date was due, Brazil also went into lockdown and its cultural institutions, museums, and universities closed their doors.
The image that took shape in our imagination during those days was of something quite unprecedented: in the huge Pompeia warehouse, which we know full of hustle and bustle, was now host to a half-assembled exhibition, empty, mute. That’s how it stayed for 5 months… on hold.
So the digital dimension the exhibition gained was inevitable, even with the sense of “defeat”. In fact, there wasn’t the option of reclaiming the way exhibitions were before, that experience we know, which fuses our relationship with artistic objects, insofar as everything called for new responses and a new language.
The fact is that many of the works we selected for the exhibition gained new layers of meaning. The dimensions of “fracture,” “failure,” and “fiction” contained in the title were manifested in a surprising way.
All this suspension produced by the pandemic had the effect of generating a new kind of urgency: how to avoid succumbing to the failure of the old normal and, by the same token, naturalizing a new normal. To begin with, we were thrown off kilter by the new online platforms for meetings, communications, and distance learning. How to find the right tempo for this new modus operandi in the midst of so much social injustice and vulnerability is an added challenge. But it seems to me there is no way we can turn our backs on it going forward.
Five months after the thwarted attempt to assemble FARSA, the exhibition was reopened under new rules, and the curators wrote an amendment for the exhibition text. I reproduce what seems to me to be a fitting passage from it here, in view of these new post-pandemic exhibition formats: In the midst of so much doubt and uncertainty, we had to incorporate loss into the project, make cuts, identify the damage, adapt the original design, and ultimately embrace the challenges posed by the digital environment. Between the Sesc Pompeia exhibition space and the virtual platform, where regular exhibition formats are defied by new forms of communication, Farsa reiterates a dual presence and its inevitable paradoxes. Curiously, previous meanings have been transformed by the radical experience of the present, and many works selected within the curatorial scope have gained new layers of meaning. If before we may have spoken of certain limits in terms of language and communication, now the discussion takes a different turn. We are at an in-between time: between pre and post-pandemic, a past in crisis, and a future uncertain. Reflections are underway, exercises in process, calling for the necessary capacity to imagine, prospect, and construct. It will be down to us to fabricate new lexical fields and vocabularies to usher in a more vital reality. Again, it is a matter of language and possible worlds. Avanti.
Avanti, for sure, but without haste. Not necessarily forwards, but by multiplying in a way that the real and the virtual can come together without becoming one. These developments in online platforms and social media will be one way of making virtual visits available to a much larger audience. It is a fascinating turn of events and a world worth exploring without preconceived notions and with a keen gaze. It is not just a matter (though this would already be something) of enabling educational interventions or even communication, but of communicating and echoing some type of exhibition experience on the web. Or even exploring the possibility that some works may be conceived and even created especially for this circuit.
The way the exhibition world (and the art world in general) takes up this online performativity will be crucial. It would be naive to imagine that online platforms are neutral instruments that simply enable whatever you do to reverberate further afield. They impose their own formats and are designed to make expression artificially fluent. In fact, they tend to reduce poetic expression to the logic of information, taking away the attrition inherent to the production of original meanings and over-accelerating the time of experience. Clashes within this virtual space are to be expected. In the same way that museums, as institutional spaces and exhibition models, gradually took conflict on board, working on the limits of musealization and displacement, so the incursion into the virtual setting will call for a great deal of experimentation, trial and error, fortitude in the face of the unknown. For this, debate must be fostered in the legal sphere of this virtual institutional space about property rights, authorship, reproduction, file formats, the conservation of “works”, not to mention the art market, the use of NFTs, and algorithms that expel modes of aesthetic attention that are not adapted to the pace of the technology.
It will be in this form of an unfinished, provisional essay that we will go about incorporating these new layers of language to the way we make exhibitions. Incorporating tempos, voices, times, envisaging a hybrid, somewhat cyborgian experience, where the artificial and the natural cross-fertilize without losing their distinctiveness. There is a cyborgian wound in contemporary subjectivity that needs to be worked through the invention of forms of interaction with the technological extension of what is real. Air has not stopped being necessary for us to breath, gravity carries on being fundamental for our body, walls are still there to support an exhibition experience. Added to this is the virtual world, the unrestricted circulation of images and texts and voices on the web. There is a whole generation of youth who already take the virtual extension for granted, who do not think in terms of a divide between in-person and online, but in terms of one complementing the other. For them, online interaction does not mean impoverishing experience, but straying to other sensory and intellectual channels. We must yet think up ways of producing atmospheres that combine online and physical settings, that enable the corporeity of objects and subjectivity itself to be perceived through some kind of conjugation of these worlds and not through nostalgia for lost unity of what is real. Everything is just beginning, the chips are on the table. Exhibitions can no longer be restricted to walls, tables, and showcases.