I met Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro at the Americas Society in New York City about ten years ago, where we were both working as a part of the Culture Program; he was the Director of the Visual Arts Program and I was Editorial Assistant for the journal Review. Since his position at the Americas Society, Gabriel has served as Curator at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Chief Curator of the Sixth Edition of the Mercosul Biennial and is currently Director of the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection in New York.
Since DaWire’s inception, an essential component of the project has been the creation of a forum where issues relevant to curatorship could be discussed. With this idea in mind, I interviewed Gabriel on curating, Latin American art and other tricky topics.
Carla Acevedo: Curatorship is relatively a new term. Previously we could talk about exhibition makers, gallerists or art historians. Now there are specialized curatorial studies that do not only study the history of art, but also emphasize the importance of making art history right now through the identification of trends in contemporary art. What is the role of the curator today and where do you see it going in the near future? For whom do we curate for and how does the audience shape curatorial practice?
Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro: I think we are definitely at a saturation point in terms of the curatorial. Just a few years ago a curator was a virtually invisible figure who worked behind the scenes. Today people talk about exhibitions or institutions in terms of their curators before they discuss anything else. I have always been fascinated by those curators who everybody apparently admires but very few people have actually seen projects by them. Today you can make a career out of discussing curatorial issues without really putting on many exhibitions, which is kind of funny. I guess I’m slightly skeptical of the curatorial as a career choice; I see lots of people wanting to be curators without really knowing much about art or artists, and I think that’s a real problem. I think a curator should be, above all, concerned with art and deeply respectful of the artistic process. There is a risk that a heavy-handed curator puts such a tight conceptual frame on a project that they end out adjusting the work or pressuring the artist to do what they want, when I think the skill is in finding the framework to fit the work. Ultimately the curator should decide who he/she is addressing, and that is a really important part of the process. I like to think of the curator as a mediator or a translator: someone who assists in a process of communication, and for that, it’s important to be fully aware of both the artist and the audience.
CA: I totally agree. At times it seems that curators are increasingly taking a leading role to the artwork. In Puerto Rico, we have so many problems organizing exhibitions, mainly the fact that we barely have any curators. I’m curious, in your opinion, what are the elements that comprise a sucessfully curated exhibition?
GPB: I think it’s one that is clear and transparent about what it intends to do, and allows room for the works to do what they need to do. I also like exhibitions that have a structure and sequence: a beginning, middle and end. I love exhibitions that read like a novel. It’s hard to do but satisfying when it happens.
CA: I am sure you are familiar with the bombardement of e-mail service programs like e-flux that impose one type of curatorial practice. What are your thoughts on services like this one?
GPB: I’m not sure that e-flux bombards us with one model (it is a paid advertising service after all). What I do see through e-flux or similar projects is a real uniformity in the type of language used to describe exhibitions. There is a weird faux-urgency in these descriptions: every exhibition is going to ‘force us to radically reconsider our place in society’ when art does a lot of things, but it doesn’t actually force you to do anything. There is also a persistent quasi-Marxism to all these projects, which is ironic because our art world is the best example of a neoliberal competitive surplus value operation. Maybe people are guilty to be working in such a field so they need to justify in terms of a sociopolitical agenda. I do believe that art has a really important role in society, but it’s different from an NGO. I think it’s problematic when these biennials or events cost millions of dollars and wrap themselves up in social piety; that’s a disservice to art and to society.
CA: Which brings to mind, you were the chief curator for the sixth edition of the Mercosul Biennial. Having this experience, what do you think are some of the other problems that biennials face today?
GPB: The Mercosul Biennial was a pretty unique experience, as it was run by people who really cared deeply about the impact the event would have on society broadly. We put a huge emphasis on education, working with schools six months ahead of the opening, and even providing free buses for over 100,000 schoolchildren. But the most important aspect was considering the educational role not as an add-on, but as a fundamental part of the curatorial structure. I was fortunate to work with Luis Camnitzer as pedagogical curator, and he devised a really brilliant series of exercises to help people to engage with art in a more active and productive way. The biennial was set up in a way that anyone who didn’t necessarily know about contemporary art could engage with the ideas behind the works in a number of ways. I think that education is a really important issue for mega-artistic events if they are to become more than a spectacle for artworld insiders on the one hand and an alienated general public on the other.
CA: Latin American Art seems to carry a stigma, that it is politically subversive and a social and economic representation. How do you feel about the categorizing of Latin American Art into a regional model as opposed to more globalized visions on contemporary art? Within a global context, what does the term Latin American Art really mean nowadays?
GPB: This is a really complicated discussion! There has definitely been a paradigm shift in how Latin American art is understood internationally. A decade ago it was all Muralism and magical realism, and now there is much more interest in abstraction and conceptual art. To me rather than putting one over the other, both these positions point to the impossibility of trying to summarize a huge and complex region under one term. I think that it’s really important to remember that the term ‘Latin America’ is almost always constructed outside the region itself, and it is usually done with a very specific agenda. I find that people within Latin America tend to refer to themselves by their nationality and often don’t consider they have much in common with the surrounding countries. So there is something of a fantasy in considering that Argentina and Honduras, for example, have much in common. Increasingly we are seeing the integration of artists from Latin American into a globalized system, but there is a strong institutional imperative, particularly in the US and Europe, to keep it as a separate category for political reasons.
CA: During your position in Casa de América in Madrid to the Americas Society in New York, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Austin to now the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection in New York, you have seen your fair share of Latin American artists. Can you tell me three of them that have made an impact and why?
GPB: Wow, that’s a really difficult question!
CA: I know! But some of them must stand out above the fray for you, right?
GPB: Certainly Gyula Kosice was formative for me. I saw his work in Buenos Aires when I was 21 years old, and it was probably the single most important factor in my subsequent choice to pursue a PhD in art history. I am still intrigued by how his work brings together the constructivist tradition with an almost childlike fascination for materials and movement. Another artist who never fails to impress is Waltercio Caldas whose work is so intelligent that it leaves me speechless. And in terms of younger artists I have a particular affinity for the work of Jorge Macchi who I have known for almost 20 years and have followed pretty much every step of the way. I could mention so many other artists who you might be surprised to hear, like Siron Franco, Katie van Scherpenberg, Josefina Guilisasti, Daniel Joglar, there are so many that choosing three is really cruel!
CA: Thank you so much Gabriel!
This interview was conducted by Carla Acevedo exclusively for DaWire
Images provided by Fundação Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul
Photos by Cristiano Sant’Anna and Eduardo Seidl