Curating with Nature
For our fourth event in the Monash Art, Design and Architecture / MUMA Form x Content series, José Roca discusses the importance of sustainability and collaboration within artistic and curatorial practice. He introduces his long term project, FLORA ars+natura, which informed his initial provocations for the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, scheduled to open in 2022. Within the context of the Biennale, Roca and his curatorium of local curators will expand on themes of extinction and regeneration, with ideas of sustainability and collaboration being integral to the working methods and practices that the Biennale will platform. In addition, Roca reflects on the temporalities of the biennale timeframe and long-term artistic projects, proposing ways of instigating new and regenerating existing artistic relationships of the Biennale’s past. Curatorial Practice PhD candidate, Madeleine Collie, hosts a Q&A with José at the conclusion of his talk.
Form x Content is a mix of fourteen live and pre-recorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators and academics. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during Monash University teaching semesters, both online and broadcast on the Big Screen at Monash Caulfield campus.
Form x Content engages with the ideas, histories, sites and critical questions of our time. Semester 1 focuses on sustainability, collaboration and the ways in which First Nations’ artists centre Country in their practices. Semester 2 explores ideas of disruption and resilience, together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.
Form x Content is free and accessible to all.
N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM: Mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. That means welcome to our beautiful home, the lands of the two great bays, Nairm, Port Phillip Bay, Marrin, Western Port Bay. We're here at the Monash University campus and it is about celebrating knowledge, yulendji. It's also about respect, respecting the Country that you're now a part of. And it's also djeembana, how you will build a stronger community, how do we unite community within Monash University. And it's about respecting sacred ground or Parbyn-ata, Mother Earth. These are the guiding pillars of Wurrung biik, the law of the land. Come with a purpose. Womindjeka mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. Ngondjin.
Madeleine Collie: Hello and welcome to the fourth Form x Content lecture for this semester, which today will be given by José Roca, artistic director of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney. My name is Madeleine Collie and I'm a Curatorial Practice PhD candidate at MADA and I will begin by acknowledging the Country that I am Zooming from, the lands of the Boon wurrung, the Wurundjeri, and the Wathaurong people of the Kulin Nations, to whose ancestors and Elders I pay my respects. I also acknowledge and pay respect to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, on whose land that the Biennale takes place and whose land I believe José is Zooming from today.
So this is the fourth talk in the Form x Content lecture series. Form x Content is a mix of 14 live and pre-recorded events, featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian, and international artists, designers, architects, curators, and academics. The previous four talks have included conversations with Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab artists Dr Brian Martin and Associate Professor Brook Garru Andrew, artist and activist Tony Birch and Rachel O'Reilly, and The Forest Curriculum in conversation with Andy Butler. Form x Content engages with ideas, histories, sites, and critical questions of our time. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during Monash University teaching semesters. It's both online and broadcast on the Big Screen on the Caulfield Campus.
Semester 1 focuses on sustainability, collaboration, and the ways in which First Nations artists centre Country in their practices. And it's with these interests in mind that I am very honoured and delighted to be introducing José Roca for this talk, 'Curating with Nature'. José Roca is the artistic director of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, which will take place in 2022. He is the curator and artistic director of FLORA ars+natura, an independent space for contemporary art in Bogotá, and he is also being the Estrellita B. Brodsky Adjunct Curator of Latin American Art at the Tate, and he's been the curator of a number of Biennales, including the 27th Biennale de São Paulo in Brazil. He was the Artistic Director of Philagrafika in 2010, and he's the author of 'Transpolitical: Art in Colombia from 1992-2012,' with Sylvia Suárez. And also an incredible book, 'Water Weavers: A Chronicle of Rivers in Colombia,' with Alejandro Martín.
In 2022, within the context of the Biennale, Roca and his curatorial team of local curators will expand on the themes of extinction and regeneration, in which ideas of sustainability and collaboration are integral to the working methods and practices that the Biennale will platform. My curatorial practices are concerned with how institutions can respond to ecosystem's influx. I lead a Food Art Research Network of international artists and activists, and have worked with artists on large-scale environmental issues. And so, as such, it's a huge pleasure for me to be part of this conversation with José today.
The format of the talk will be that José will present a 30–40 minute presentation, 'Curating with Nature,' and then we hope to come back together for an informal discussion, in which we will explore some of the ideas presented and talk a bit more about plans for the Biennale. So I'll invite now José. Hello, welcome.
José Roca: Hi, Maddie. Thanks for the invitation, I'm really delighted to be with you today. Well, before talking about the Biennale, I think we can expand on that later, I wanted to talk a little about former projects that I've been involved with. And how and what I've learned from them, going forward, because I believe that culture is like a wall that is built brick by brick. And then, you take on projects that were realised or not fully realised and learn from them and then build from there. So, that has been my entire practice from the beginning. So I'm going to share my screen and talk about some of those issues. And some of those projects.
So, as you say, the Biennale of Sydney appointed me Artistic Director based on a proposal that I did, that drew on many of these issues that I've been preoccupied with for the last, I would say, more than 20 years. And I see art, and my involvement in art, as a long-term conversation. So, it's interesting to take on conversations that were cut short with artists along the way and then reactivate those conversations, taking them to another chapter, so to speak. So I really believe in this. So many of the artists and other participants that I will be inviting, along with my team of co-curators, to the Biennale are people that I worked with and that I have built a relationship of trust with.
So one thing that I learnt from my involvement with the São Paulo Biennale is that isolation can be a good thing. We always talk about, "Oh, we are isolated. Nobody comes here. We are far." But really, it is not that bad because you can control the terms in which you relate to the outside. So I was a co-curator of the São Paulo Biennale in 2006 and it was a very interesting event. It's always displayed in this spaceship that is the Ibirapuera Pavilion designed by one of Brazil's most foremost architects, Oscar Niemeyer. So that big slab of concrete is raised from the floor. But this Biennale was the first to have international residencies, and it was the first in many respects. Like for example, doing away with the national representations that were a staple of many Biennales and this one being... inspired in the Venice Biennale had had, until then, national representations from different countries, just not pavilions inside the Biennale.
So the theme was 'How to Live Together', which is actually taken from Roland Barthes, his seminars at the Collège de France. And we were looking at different communities. How to live at your own pace, at your own speed, following your own interests and still remain part of a community that is not bound by precise and rigid norms. So we were looking at different types of communities and the Biennale had several different themes and each one of the co-curators focused on one of them, and I decided to take on this theme, 'Acre', which was there before I got selected. The chief curator was Lisette Lagnado and she had already laid out the ideas for her Biennale and then invited us to curate it with her. So anyways, she had this idea of 'Acre', which is actually acre. It's the name of a territory and in this case, a very precise territory in the Brazilian jungle. It was Bolivian land, but then at the height of the rubber boom, when rubber became scarce in the jungle, the rubber tappers entered the territory, deeper and deeper into the jungle until they eventually settled in this place, which was Bolivian land, and then declared themselves an independent state that only lasted for three years. So it's a very interesting post-colonial story. It was eventually annexed by Brazil, it is Acre Territory.
And so I went there and coordinated the residencies of the artists that wanted to be in the jungle. Among them, Alberto Baraya, an artist from Colombia that has been doing this 'Herbarium of Artificial Plants' for more than 20 years. So he's been collecting plastic and paper plants from all over the world and then classifying them as if he was a botanist. And he has amassed an incredible herbarium from all over the world. All with artificial plants, which shows the pervasiveness of the artificial in nature. So, this was the first step of the project, creating the 'Herbarium of Artificial Plants'. But then he started following the figure of historical scientific travellers, in the Putumayo region for example, following exactly their path, and then stopping at the very same places where they had stopped in the 19th century or before. And then finding plastic plants in the middle of the jungle. So it was sort of mimicking the process of the scientific traveller.
So when he came to Acre, he was fascinated by the idea of territory that was politically defined by not plastic, but rubber. So he decided to create instead of a plastic herbarium, a rubber tree. So what he did was that, with the aid of former rubber tappers, he covered a 21 metre tall rubber tree that had been harvested for generations and bore the scars that are characteristic of the rubber trade. Which in a way mimic, also, the scars on the societal body because, as you know, the Indigenous populations were enslaved in order to be able to produce cheaper rubber than the one that was being produced in Malaysia. Anyways, he covered a tree, and then peeled it off when it was dry, and created this cast of the tree that was both a cast but also a sort of image of the river. And it was displayed horizontally because it brings to attention one of the stories of creation of the Amazon, which is that that huge Tree of Life was felled and when it fell, it created the river.
Also, I... learned about this self-taught artist, Hélio Melo. He was a rubber tapper and he decided to paint, just like that. And he created a very, very interesting body of work that dealt with the day-to-day story and life of the rubber tapper, life in the jungle. So this is a map of a day in the jungle. All the little branches are the trees that he had to harvest every day. And then he created this incredible body of work that shows sort of a strange world where donkeys are on trees, and turtles. And then the Seringalistas, the land owners, appear as cows. And the trees also appear as cows because it's the tree that has to be milked. So I did a small retrospective of his work. He had passed away by then, but it was the presentation of someone that was outside of the traditional world of art, and deeply isolated in this part of the world, created an incredible body of work.
We also invited Marjetica Potrč, an artist from Slovenia, who was very, very interested in what she saw there. So this idea of being isolated but also being able to be connected, which, in a way, resonated with many of the utopian thinking of the 1970's, of those cities that were to hover above other cities. And also, she became interested in two particular things there. Or three, rather. One is the University of the Forest, which is an initiative of that state where the knowledge of the scientists is at the same level as the knowledge of the Indigenous populations and also of the rubber tappers and other dwellers of the jungle that have been there for generations. So this University of the Forest is an initiative to put it into value, the knowledge of the others beyond Western thought.
And she was struck by these rural schools, that are these little houses on stilts that have a satellite dish and a solar panel. And that allows them to remain isolated, which is a good thing. Part of the devastation of the Amazon is because they have built the roads that penetrate the jungle. So it allows them to remain isolated, yet connected with the rest of the world.
Another thing that she was interested in is the concept of 'Florestania'. In Portuguese, the word 'floresta' means jungle. So for this, the reasoning is, if I live in the jungle I cannot be a citizen because citizen comes from city. I have to be something else, so I am 'florestano', I'm a citizen of the jungle. So 'Florestania' is the citizenship of the jungle and it was a very interesting concept and she developed a series of drawings that showed what she had learned from the jungle herself.
So that's about the positive condition of isolation. Doing other projects, I've become more and more aware of the importance of place and how we relate to it. For many years, I was at the helm of this project called LARA, which is the acronym of Latin American Roaming Art. And it's an initiative that was started and run by a collector from Melbourne that actually now is living back in Australia, but then was living in Singapore and became interested in the art of Latin America. But what we did was to go, every year, to a different place, a place that was culturally, geographically, politically interesting in different countries in Latin America. We brought eight artists from all over the region there, for 10 days, we stayed together as a group, curators, artists, producers getting to know, as a group, more about the places. And then, the artists went back to their place of origin, thought of a project that related to their experience of the place and then we would produce the works and do an exhibition as a result.
So we went to many, many places. Among them, the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru, to Oaxaca in Mexico with all these layers of the Indigenous, the colonial, and the modern. And the Galápagos Islands, which is one of the most amazing places I've ever visited, completely out of anything that I... all of my reference. And the idea was to get acquainted with the place. Part of what we did there was to walk, to be in the place, to learn more about it. So we visited like The Humboldt... I mean, the Darwin Station there. We met with scientists, with geologists, with botanists, with marine biologists, and many, many people. In particular in the Galápagos, I think, it's the highest concentrations of PhDs per square metre anywhere in the world, I am told. So there were plenty of people to discuss these issues with.
And then, the works produced as a result had all kinds of approaches. From sort of a tongue-in-cheek investigation of the effects of cultural tourism. So this artist from Venezuela was creating these mandalas out of the bottle caps that she found on the beaches and near the few islands that are actually inhabited. Relating to surfing, which is also... there is a surfing community there.
Or stories of— colonial stories. This is Manuela Ribadeneira, the previous one was Emila Azcárate. Manuela Ribadeneira, from Ecuador, who has been in interested, for many years, in the acts of possession of the colonial enterprise. So she in interested in what were the protocols to take possession of a given land. So she has been doing research in historical archives. And when we were there in Galapagos, she learned about this very sad story, when pirates and other people went there, they found these 200-year-old, huge turtle, Galapagos turtles, that were very easy to hunt. And they would take them into their ships and put them upside down. So, they can survive for months without food or water. So they were as if they were meat in the fridge. They would just kill them whenever they were needed, but they were already dead by being upside down. So the installation was all about these sort of shells of the turtles dispersed in this space.
Also, there is this incredible fauna there. And it's fauna that has been left undisturbed for ages. So animals are not afraid of humans, so we got to experience them in their natural habitat, up close.
So an artist from Colombia, María José Arjona, created this beautiful installation where you can see like there is this atmosphere that is created by these threads. And then, there is a sea of bottles that is there reflected on the floor. And then there is a performer clad in black. So she's doing the movements of a sea lion, creating the ripple in the bottles, which is quite amazing to experience.
So that, to talk about place. Also, the importance of process because I think in this life, and we curators tend to be like that, we are all too obsessed with results. And process is like a necessary evil, if you want. So people want to see— If there is a residency, they want to see the results. But sometimes the results, it's not that 2x2=4. 2x2 can equal something else, depending on the process of the artist. So the process in itself is very valuable, very important and we should be ready to support that element, process.
So at FLORA, the space that my wife and I founded in 2012, that is currently in hibernation, it had to close because of COVID and then we came here for the Biennale. In FLORA, we started by having short-term residencies in another place. This is the building in Bogotá, but we also have another house in the banks of the Magdalena River, which is the main river in Colombia. And then, in that little house, we housed artists from all over the world. They stayed one month, on average, and then after the month they would think of a project. So it's a very nice place and we didn't expect them to work all the time. Rather, to decompress and have a good time and have the time to think because sometimes, when you have a residency that is product-oriented, then people are... sort of stressed out that they have to come up with an idea. So here, it's really more about decompressing, having time to think, having time to be together as a group, get to know the place in many ways.
And then some of them produced works, but many didn't and what we showed was just process. This is Mark Dion, who did a very beautiful project, like the 19th century drawing cabinet exhibition afterwards. This is an engraving by Humboldt that was copied by another artist from Argentina, Max Gómez Canle. And then he cut windows on these copies of famous paintings about the Magdalena River and the landscape in Colombia and used them to look through history into the current state of the river. But most artists didn't have enough time to produce an exhibition. So they would just present a talk with their impressions and maybe some ideas, preliminary ideas for a work that would then become... something, just not with us, in another residency or another place. And that happened all the time. We kept getting e-mails from them saying, "Well, the residency eventually yielded a series of works that I'm going to show at this gallery or this museum or this Biennale."
So we started looking at more long-term relationships with artists, trying to provide the space for longer durational processes, like this is Susana Mejía, an artist from Medellín that did a seven-year research on natural pigments in the Amazon jungle. So she went there enumerable times with other curators, photographers, biologists, and other people, and worked identifying the different pigments that are done from seeds, bark, fruits, roots, and others. And then created this beautiful sort of... This is the fibres being set to dry in the jungle and these are samples of those colours. But then we showed it as a sort of installation that had the samples, the process, and also an herbarium with different plants. And a living herbarium as well, so people could actually see the trees and plants that these pigments came from.
So another issue that I think is very important is how to look beyond the relatively narrow realm of art. We curators tend to work within the parameters of art. But I think it's interesting to open up because very interesting connections can appear as a result of this opening up. So, in my later projects, I'm not talking about artists but about participants, which is sort of a broader concept and enables me to include many other people that wouldn't consider themselves artists.
So this is an exhibition that I did at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. And this is an interesting institution that usually shows exhibitions related to PhD projects around three areas: history of design, decorative arts, and material culture. Though never the three at the same time. So it's either one thing or the other or the other. They brought me in, they had a spot and they wanted to fill it, so they said if I could think of a project. And I did and I decided to concentrate on the river as it was being looked at by artists, architects, furniture designers, textile designers, graphic designers, and other people, like an Elder from a community in the Amazon. So we did that exhibition and also a very beautiful book as a result.
So we included designers that have made furniture. But this institution in New York is not different that many institutions that show design or material culture in the sense that those objects that were originally conceived as useful objects are put on a pedestal. So they are de-contextualised from their use-context. You cannot sit on them, you cannot use them. And then, since they have been de-contextualised, they are re-contextualised with labels, extended labels, that explain to you why this chair is important, et cetera. Same for ethnographic objects. It might be a mask that is used by a shaman, only that person in the community can use it and only in certain rituals, and then is presented to us as an object, this cultural object inside of a vitrine. And then re-contextualised with text, video, diagrams to let us understand what that object is. So I did away with all of that and I proposed that all of the works, if they were conceived to be used, they would be used. So, the carpets were to be walked upon, the furniture was to be used, and the art and other objects would cross-contextualise themselves, doing away completely with labels.
We had like a very productive fight in that respect because they felt it was their obligation to provide interpretation. But finally, we had a little field guide that you could use to navigate the exhibition, but no labels whatsoever. And the museographic idea was this idea of 'figure ground'. So we would have more sculptural elements, like these chairs made of bamboo roots in the centre. You could sit on them, experience them with your body, and be experiencing a work by Clamencia Echeverri about how the rivers have become mass graves in the middle of the Colombian armed conflicts. So that it was more strong and more poignant than having a wall text that explains that in Colombia bodies are being thrown, the casualties of war are being thrown, into the river.
So that enabled us to include these works, like this 1969 tapestry done in plastic by Olga de Amaral. A very, beautiful, beautiful piece that was reactivated, redone for the exhibition. So it's been re-done over time to highlight its conceptual value. Olga is known for her very beautiful tapestries in very precious materials like gold leaf and silver leaf, that reference pre-Columbian gold, but also the gilded authors of American Baroque architecture, religious architecture. So that was also part of the exhibition or this relationship between the patterns of the Indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada, in Santa Marta, it's an animation by Monika Bravo in relation to furniture done by a designer from Manizales, Ceci Arango. So all of these provided a very strong visual and bodily experience as a result.
We also included these drawings and this person is going to be one of the participants of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney. He's an Elder from a community in the Amazon that was trained by his community to be a knower of plants. He knows everything about plants and he, for many reasons that we won't explain right now, he ended up living in Bogotá. His knowledge of Spanish is limited, so he was brought in by an NGO whose mandate is to protect the tropical forest worldwide and that wanted for him to record his knowledge, he's old now, so that it would be saved for posterity. So he didn't speak Spanish well, nor write it well, so what to do? So then they taught him how to draw and he became very good at it. So drawing is yet another language that he learned late in life that enables him to pour out all this knowledge that he has that had been transmitted orally. So he creates these beautiful intricate drawings of the jungle where he can identify every tree and every vine and every animal. And it's actually a calendar that shows how the forest changes in the dry season and in the flooded season, in the rainy season. So it's not just an illustration, but rather the knowledge of someone that knows, intimately, what he's talking about.
So he did also this drawing of the Cahuinari River, where he lives. He had never flown, so this is clearly the vision of sort of shamanic flight because he had not seen the river from above ever. And this is his interpretation of the Tree of Abundance, which is one of the foundational stories of his community.
Which brings me to the idea of how communities are represented in exhibitions. Usually it's through the mediation of an artist. So an artist goes there and then gives voice to the community. And that's okay, that's good, but it's not the only way. So this is, for example, a series of advertisements done by SUPERFLEX, with whom I also worked with for the São Paulo Bienalle. So then, members of the community are creating, imagining an advertisement for this soft drink that they produced as a result of a struggle against big corporation that was threatening their livelihood by lowering the prices of guaraná.
But I've found in later projects that we can talk to people and people are willing to talk and they have incredible things to say. So there is a series of exhibitions that I've been doing in relation with a local, a Colombian chain of restaurants that sources its ingredients from communities that are in a very precarious condition. Sometimes, with pressure of armed groups and the Narcos to plant coca and they choose to plant cacao, for example, or sweet potato, or other products. So we work with them to highlight the plight of these communities. And being there, I learned that there are many practitioners of vernacular forms of poetry, where a message gets delivered through verses or through rap or through many other forms. So, I have been inviting people from communities to make part of these exhibitions. They compose their own things that touch upon the issues of the exhibition. So there is really no need to have like a wall text explaining what is at stake because if you're perceptive enough you will understand from the delivery of these men and women, that so beautifully express the issues at stake, what the exhibition is about.
So, in many of these examples, we have included many of those voices that are interspersed throughout the exhibition. And in this case this woman, who composed this series of versus that are sung in a sort of lament in the form of the vallenato, which is the vernacular type of music in Colombia, was the hostess of the exhibition. So it was literally in public space sort of addressing the public and drawing the public into the exhibition, which was about how to save the dry tropical forest.
So to close, I would say that incorporating other voices is important, but we have to think beyond the anthropocentric, and thinking that other beings have also things to say. In recent years, the rights of nature have been enshrined in many constitutions, starting with Ecuador in 2008 and many other countries have followed suit. And also many rivers have attained legal personhood, which begs the question, if they can be represented in court, how can they be represented in an art exhibition? So we intend, I intend, as a curator and my co-curators as well, to find a way to interact with these aqueous beings that have attained legal personhood. Some of which have and some of which might not, but still, there might be a way to express what they have to say. So this will be one of the components of the 23rd Biennale. I think I'll leave it there so we have time to discuss.
Madeleine Collie: Thank you so much, José. That was such a rich and amazing set of images and conversations and artworks. It was really beautiful, thank you.
Your practice is so inspiring, so thank you very much for sharing so much of it with us. When we first met, you spoke about your interests and you mentioned it a few times in this presentation, too, about your interest in the figure of the explorer. And I think in Australia, we have such a complex relationship with the figure of explorers because of the way that the country was colonised and is experiencing ongoing colonisation. And we spoke of this book, 'The Invention of Nature' by Andrea Wulf. It's a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, an early 18th and 19th century explorer whose ideas influence the way we see environmental systems today. And in the book kind of valorises his expeditions and approaches, which I also was so fascinated by because after speaking to you, I started to read the book and I'm really fascinated by the way he sort of worked with art, science, politics, and poetry to think about nature and think about a relationship between humans and nature. And I wonder if you might share a bit more about your interest in this figure and how it shaped your thinking, perhaps, around the Biennale.
José Roca: Yes. I have been interested in this figure of the explorer. Because after the first wave of the colonisers and then independence, there was a second wave of explorers. Bolivar said that... You know Bolivar, who was responsible for the independence of many countries in what is today Latin America, spoke of Humboldt as the real discoverer of America. In the sense that he came and tried to understand not only the territory that he was looking at, but how everything was connected. He's one of the early proposers of this idea of... and the connection, the interconnection of all beings in the world, being us all in the same ecosystem, really. He, for example, did measurements of the different altitudes and where the plants that would grow at different altitudes in order to compare that with other parts of the world, to sort of understand this idea of interconnectedness. But before embarking in his multi-year travels in America, he learned how to be an artist. He learned how to draw and how to engrave and so as to be able to communicate his findings later on. So there was this aesthetic view at play from the very beginning.
Of course, as you say, the figure of the scientific traveller is also fraught with other issues. For example, by mapping the territory and by doing an inventory of the fauna and flora, they were mapping the way for its exploitation. So now, the powers of the time had a detailed inventory of what was there to be exploited. So they wittingly or unwittingly played a role in the exploitation of the natural resources. But in the case of Humboldt, he was driven by a desire to know, more than a desire to conquer. He was really a polymath. And that book that you're referring to, it's very interesting because it's an intellectual biography of two centuries, really. So it starts with Goethe and ends with Thoreau, Darwin. It's an incredible array of personalities that were connected in some way with Humboldt, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly or very much influenced by him. And then, it's an incredible array of people and it really sums up much of the thinking of the 19th century up to the early 20th century and before. So it's really an interesting figure that I've worked on for some years.
Madeleine Collie: Yeah. It's a fascinating biography, very beautifully written. So, I recommend it, if anybody's interested. 'The Invention of Nature'. Thank you.
And also, when you were first appointed and I read about your announcement, I was really excited to hear about your idea of creating bridges between different iterations of the Biennale. And your appointment succeeds Brook Andrew's NIRIN, which has, really, I think changed the shape of the Biennale in really important ways. And I think it's really fascinating and fantastic that you're thinking about how to create the bridges between those different iterations. And I wondered also about how that might work in terms of ecological restoration, in terms of the temporalities of the Biennale, too. And so, I know these are very big questions and you're probably just thinking about them, but I think this work is really fascinating and urgent. So—
José Roca: Yes. So, when I was appointed, I was in a point of my life that I thought that... I had thought that the Biennale was like an exhausted model. I had done Mercosul as a Chief Curator back in 2011 and I had put everything that I had learned up until then in that project. It was a multi-pronged project, very complex and very, I think, beautiful, that had one component that was called the Casa M which was intended to bridge my incarnation of the Biennale with the next one because Biennales, of course, are discontinuous, every two years. And in some places, they are the only thing that happens. So then, they suck up all their resources, they put these fireworks that only last three months, and then nothing happens until then next one. So I thought that maybe something that was not as big in intensity, a lower intensity but longer duration, would ensure that the Biennale fulfilled another role, more infrastructural for Porto Alegre, which is the city that hosts the Biennale.
Unfortunately, I wasn't successful. We created the space, it opened many months before the opening of the Biennale, so we were able to create this hub where all the artists that came to do site visits could interact with the public and with the neighbours. We created a public for the Biennale. Many months leading into it, it had a dedicated program. We commissioned things, it was very, very vibrant and active. And then through the Biennale. And then only one month after, it closed. There were marches and demonstrations, "No, let it stay!" But the Biennale didn't want to take on yet another institution, so they let it there.
I'm proposing something similar for the 23rd Biennale, which is going to be called 'The Water House' and that we will do, if we get the funding, which will be a space that will start six months before the opening of the Biennale and last through the Biennale as a stand alone place where to sort of articulate our educational program. So yes, I forgot... the second part of what you said.
Madeleine Collie: No, I think it was when you were talking about how you create bridges, how you think about...
José Roca: Oh yeah, yeah. So, of course. Brook's Biennale was very important in many respects. And one thing that I've found in Biennales is that the expectation is that the new Artistic Director will, sort of, have a clean slate and then come up with another idea. But I think that's precisely against the logics of culture. I think you should build upon what's already been built and then maybe take on some loose threads of the previous incarnation of the Biennale. So I've been consulting with Brook on what projects maybe would have needed more time to develop and especially because some were cut short because of COVID. You will see there are some artists or participants or ideas that are to be taken as a continuation of what Brook was proposing in the last Biennale.
Madeleine Collie: That's great. One of the other parts of that question was about ecological restoration, which is another one of the themes, and how the temporalities of ecological restoration, which from my work, I know can take many, many years, might fit within the logic of a Biennale, too.
José Roca: Yeah. Well, yeah. Intuitively, one would say it runs counter to the event-driven logic of a Biennale. But I think we can start things, and then if you engage the right partners, then things can continue being on the Biennale and that's what we intend to do. Also, looking back at the history of the Biennale, there have been initiatives, like for example Beuys' '7,000 Oaks', which is a reference, every time you speak about the relationships between art and nature and restoration and reforesting. So that's a reference that it's there in the history of the Biennale.
And then, you can sort of reactivate that legacy in many ways. We will be working with Ackroyd & Harvey. I know you work with them and know their practice very well. They speak highly of you every time we meet with them. Who have done art that deals with these issues, but more importantly, have taken a stand in relation of how culture tackles issues of ecological emergency.
Madeleine Collie: Yep. Exactly. And I think the interest is— for many artists who are interested in these ways of working, are interested in the, kind of, longer scale temporalities.
José Roca: Right, right. So we might have projects that deal with that. We are just discussing them, so it's an early stage, still.
Madeleine Collie: Exciting. One final question before we finish because I think we're getting very to the end. I really love the way you describe FLORA, as a place for art, nature, and the body. And I suppose for me, the body is so central to the way we think about nature. Even for Humboldt, it seems to be this sort of... it's the kind of vehicle for attuning to different, kind of, sensoriums. And I wonder if you could just speak about how the body... I know you've touched on it a little bit, but I wondered if you could speak a bit more about it.
José Roca: Yes. Well, at FLORA, we changed all the time, so it wasn't like a fixed model because that's the worst thing you can do. Once you think you have found the ideal model, then the community you are serving is no longer the same, so you are outdated. So we were very keen on looking at what was needed in the local scene, to change accordingly. So we started with short-term residencies and then exhibitions of the process. Then, we built a four-storey building for studios and a new library. And then, the program changed completely because we had 20 artists at the same time for an entire year. So then, we decided that exhibitions and short-term residencies were to be slowly, sort of, abandoned in favour of this new project that was called Escuela FLORA, like FLORA School, where we had 20 artists that got each a studio, a stipend, and a very complex education program that was practice-based. And we brought artists, curators, critics every month to give them seminars and studio visits. And it was, I think, quite successful.
And then, in the last year, we thought— Well, since we moved to that working-class neighbourhood, it became a hub of the arts in Bogotá. There was nothing when we moved, or almost nothing. And then, little by little, people came and many galleries, artist studios. So we thought, "Well, galleries are showing work, other peer-institutions are providing exhibition space, artists are moving here so there are plenty of studios around. What should we do that there is not covered?" So performance was that thing. So we invited María José Arjona, the artist that I showed moving underneath the bottles, that piece, very beautiful one, as the artistic director of a program that was called AMAZONAS and it had a double meaning, like the Amazon, but also the Amazonas, which were these mythical women, like were brave women that fought for their rights.
So it was a sort of feminist-oriented performance program that also lasted 10 months. It was only seven artists. They weren't really artists. There was an architect, there was... actually two architects. Somebody was an actress and two more came from art, but they had been taught performance as a historical thing. So they knew their Allan Kaprow, they knew their Marina, but they hadn't been taught in the body. So María José's teaching was really in the body, how to teach performance. So it was an incredibly intense year for them. And then we wanted to continue, but then COVID struck. We had to close FLORA, and it's now hibernating, waiting to see what happens.
As you might have mentioned, I decided to move to Australia for the entire duration of the process. So I have been here since December of last year and will see the project through until it closes, and then I'll return to Colombia. So I'm here for the entire duration of the process so as to be able to accompany it to the extent of what is possible, try to get to know this wonderful country that is so complex and so different from the part of the world that I know. And then, try to sort of engrain myself in the local fabric as much as I can. Of course, it's a lost battle... but at least we can try. So that is why I'm here.
Madeleine Collie: Well, I really, really wish you well. I think it's going to be an incredible Biennale and I'm very excited that we'll be able to... that I'll be in the country for it and... Yeah, we're really looking forward to seeing it next year in 2022. Thank you so much for this conversation, it's been really wonderful.
José Roca: Oh, thanks for inviting me.
Madeleine Collie: Thank you so much. And this has been part of the Form x Content lecture series, and more information is available online.