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Creating temporary communities and significant life experiences. A conversation with José Roca


14 November 2016
This month's topic: Curating

Creating temporary communities and significant life experiences. A conversation with José Roca

José Roca is an independent curator based in Bogotá. Having curated and directed various biennales and collaborated with major institutions in different parts of the world he decided to set in motion FLORA ars+natura, an independent space for contemporary art. In his curatorial practice, what stands out is the infrastructural dimension, the capacity to activate spaces and structures of work that permit the development of artistic contexts on a local level.

José, let’s begin with the essential … what does curating mean for you? How do you understand your curatorial practice?

What I have learnt over the years, working as a curator, institutionally as much as independently, is that curating is the creation of a temporary community; the exhibition is a way of bringing together a group of people and cause them jointly to have a meaningful life experience. If this doesn’t happen the project isn’t worthwhile, and that is why I’m interested in working with living artists. I don’t come from the History of Art, academic research isn’t my thing: what I’m interested in is speculating based on a working hypothesis that I discuss with the artists to create a text together. For me what is essential is the creation of this temporary community.

In relation to this, and within this temporary community, what is your relation with the artists when working? How do these professional relationships with artists function that on many occasions become personal, when carrying out the projects?

When I was in charge of the area of Art in the Banco de la República, more than curating what I actually did was manage projects. We brought many itinerant exhibitions and produced many more, with a great deal of intensity, as it is a fairly large institution, and time always flew past when organising these projects, but due to the lack of time, I didn’t manage to generate a connection with them. I frequently didn’t have the opportunity to be with the artists or the curators, and this experience made me realise that I didn’t want to work this way, what I wanted to do was to involve myself in a personally in each project. At the Banco, however, I made various exhibitions in which I was able to involve myself completely, that I consider important in my career. Later, as an independent curator, I could think of my practice in a more structural manner. For the Biennale of Mercosur I wrote a sort of manifesto, a declaration of principles about what I believe is curatorial working. As a curator, I normally generate a fairly broad hypothesis and from there I curate based on the work of the artists; I don’t think about a theme and later illustrate it, so much as I let the materials the artists bring mould the project. I understand curating in a very organic manner, not in an academic manner illustrative of a pre-existing thesis, so much as an open process that is configured by the dialogue between my ideas and those brought by the artists.

Years ago you set in motion FLORA ars+natura, a space focussed on production, through commissions and residencies, on the diffusion of the results of these programmes, and on education. Do you think that it is important that curating generates and activates spaces and working structures that enable the development of artistic contexts on a local level? What function does Flora fulfil in this sense in the Columbian context?

When I worked on projects like the biennales I realised that the large amounts of capital destined to these projects, which aimed to activate the local scene, are motivated by questions related to cultural tourism, disappear in a noisy event that lasts two or thee months and afterwards nothing happens between that and the next. Here I thought that curating ought to be a way to create context, one shouldn’t conform with doing what is asked, so much as, taking advantage of the event’s budget, one ought to contribute to the consolidation or creation of a local infrastructure. Hence why in many of the projects in which I participated I endeavoured to work in this direction, as in the Triennale Poligráfica of San Juan in Puerto Rico, where we asked the Canadian collective Instant Coffee Collective to design a space to receive the public–that ended up as a sort of large communal bed that integrated publications and multiples of other artists; the encounter of Medellín MDE07, where we created a space –that still exists – called La Casa del Encuentro, designed by the Columbian artist Gabriel Sierra; or in the 8th Biennale of Mercosur, for which I was the general curator, where one of the essential elements was what I called the Casa M, a house we rented during a year that turned into a meeting place for artists, curators, and mediators during the development of the project. In the last version of the Biennale Femsa in Monterrey, Mexico, I was delighted that they were inspired by the Casa Mto create a Lugar Común, a space that would function as a laboratory for projects tied to the Biennale; it has worked quite well for them and it seems they’re thinking of maintaining it. My idea was that Casa M would be permanent and function as a sort of hinge between one biennale and the next, being able to be used as a laboratory to generate a temporal continuity between the two moments. In the end, it didn’t work out like this, it was only open for a year and later closed for purely institutional reasons. That of Puerto Rico only lasted for the length of the Triennale, and the Casa del Encuentro in Medellín continued but never with the intensity of activities it had when we created it. The problem was that the three were linked to the biennale from which they arose, and in a certain way died with them.

This infrastructural dimension of curating to me seems essential. I was once invited to present a curatorial project for the biennale of Taipei, and I presented one titled Natura Imperial about the relation between the colonial endeavour and botany. Returning from the very long trip to Taipei I thought that if the project that was among the five finalists didn’t finally come through it was a sign that I had to stay and do something in Colombia. My curatorial proposal wasn’t selected, and in this way, it became the germ for what would later be FLORA, that I created in company with my wife, Adriana Hurtado, a lawyer specialised in legal subjects related to culture and cultural management. FLORA grew and consolidated in a very organic way; there wasn’t a master plan, it advanced little by little as we responded to needs and circumstances. First we obtained a house in a popular district, that we adapted as an exhibition and meeting space, and took advantage of a place we had as a holiday home in the city of Honda, which during the colonial period was the principal port on the Magdalena river- to do residencies. The idea was to present the results of the residencies in Honda in Bogotá, but we realised that the short residencies of three or four weeks didn’t result in much to present, so we began to use the space to present other types of projects. We created another space for residencies in Bogotá for long stays of a year that functioned much better at the time of involving the local context. The curator in residence and I did the curatorial accompaniment, but we almost couldn’t cope with the management of an independent space takes a lot of time. Later the opportunity to extend FLORA arose, with the construction of a new building that would house the workshops, a library/class room, and space to house fourteen artists simultaneously. It became evident that we weren’t going to have the time to manage the project and moreover monitor the residents, and that is when the idea of the Escuela FLORA arose, a programme of independent studies where curators, artists, and people from other disciplines, come and do studio visits, seminars, and curatorial accompaniment of the artists in residence.

Having visited the project and shared different moments with the residents I’m interested in the relation that arises in FLORA between the project on a domestic scale with an open character and the sense of quality and professionalism. How do these characteristics combine?

As I said, when we began with Escuela FLORA everything occurred in an organic way. One of the things we have tried to do is to bear the brunt of the management so that it doesn’t fall on the artists. We could have tried to rent the studios but we preferred to try to do what we were doing, finding different benefactors who could economically sustain the residences. Personally, I don’t believe much in funding stemming from one source, this can make you too dependent on one estate, that can end up influencing your programme or end it if the funding disappears. I believe more in ties with a larger number of people or institutions, a shared responsibility that makes the project be more sustainable and also creates a community through the management and funding of the projects themselves.
Regarding the scale of FLORA, it’s true that despite being fourteen residents from very different places (the inaugural group in 2016 included artists from Great Britain, Peru, Mexico, Spain, Holland, Guatemala and various regions in Columbia) it feels like a close family group because it has occurred naturally through the hospitality we endeavour to provide. As the majority of the resident artists come from outside Bogota and are there for a long time, an ambience of community is generated that helps the development of the works. It’s not just the people who come and give the clinics and tutorials that influence, so much as it is also the mutual feedback that occurs when they cross the corridors to visit each other in the studios.

Flora is a project dedicated to the relation between art and nature. Why this decision, what do you believe thought and artistic production can bring to the culture-nature dialogue??

The subject of nature arose from a personal interest that crosses over with an intellectual interest. Looking back, in my curatorial work, I have often worked with the relation with nature. Like, for example an exhibition I did in the Sala Montcada in Barcelona over a decade ago, called Botànica política, or distinct projects that have taken place in rural or natural territories, such as the part that corresponded for me to curate in the Bienal de Sao Paulo en 2006, that placed in relation the artists who did residencies in the Brazilian Amazonia with others with work and preoccupations along a similar vein.
The subject art-nature was a logical one, considering my career as a curator, something I’ve been working with for a long time now. In the last few years, this subject seems to have been in the air, as can be seen in the many exhibitions on a local as much as on an international level that touch on the subject of the Amazon, the territory, shamanism, indigenous thought, etc. Even the last Salon National of artists in Columbia picked up on this subject from the perspective of the landscape. But FLORA is not a project about environmental sustainability, rather it privileges a “dirtier” approach to the subject of art-nature, one traversed more by politics than by ecological values.

Do you think we need to find other ways beyond those which global capitalism brings concerning our relation to the natural? What possibilities do you believe art can open up in these questions?

I believe that for everyone it is evident that the extractive model is no longer the way to manage progress, given that we live on a planet with limited resources. While the developing countries are trying to put themselves on a level with those of the first world through the exploitation of natural resources and an accelerated industrialisation and urbanisation, the countries that have already passed through this are trying to close mines, demolish dams, dismantle nuclear plants, and produce cleaner energies. Our relative “virginity” in terms of exploitation of the territory ought to be a strength, not a weakness: we still have large untouched rural areas that are of value precisely for this, for their air and water. All the discussions about the Anthropocene evidence that we’ve already had an impact on the planet as a species and unless there is an awareness and shared responsibility on a global level we won’t survive. Art can do little – in the best of cases it can create collective awareness through images that step beyond the logic of protest or activism- but this little is already enough.

It seems that lately the hegemonic sites of the art scene are losing importance, and increasingly peripheral spaces are gaining presence, with large projects like Documenta even shifting to other cities. How do you see this process, and how do you understand the relations between a local context in your case Bogota, with the international context?

With the profusion of biennales in all parts of the world, the specific weight of each one of them is necessarily minor. The “world of art” continues to do periodic pilgrimages to Venice and Kassel, but the peripheral biennales like Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Taipei, Yokohama, etc. are capturing an increasingly higher percentage of this public. Whoever is interested in a particular region of the world goes to these biennales because only there can you see in depth the art of these regions or countries, taking advantage to see the institutions, visit studios, etc. Something similar happens with the art fairs. Previously to enter into the international art scene, an artist had to travel to the centres. Today it is no longer necessary, and what is more, a certain locality benefits the work. Columbia and in particular Bogota are an interesting case. During so many years of relative isolation, the local scene developed without the pressure of the market or thirst to exhibit, and this generated a rich, complex scene with many levels and layers, that what’s more in the last few years has been enriched with the appearance of loads of independent spaces. The perception that very interesting things are happening in Columbia- there’s talk of a “boom” in Columbian art – is, in reality, a question of visibility. FLORA inserts into this scene as yet another player, not necessarily filling a gaping hole, like spaces such as teorÉTica in Costa Rica or Lugar a Dudas in Cali did, so much as rather complementing the scene, in particular in what concerns the programme of independent studies centred on studio practice and constant feedback in the very place of work.

Juan Canela is Artistic Director of ZsONAMACO at CDMX, co-founder of BAR project in Barcelona, independent curator and critic. He understands the curatorial as a practice in which ideas, concepts and contents come into play, but also work structures, rhythms, models and ways of life. And here writing is a fundamental element.

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