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Curating Art: Transnational, Collaborative, and Interdisciplinary

Podcast mit Paula Nascimento

Während sich der Kurator:innen-Beruf früher ausschließlich auf Museen beschränkte, hat sich die Rolle der Kurator:innen im Laufe der Zeit stark gewandelt. Heute kuratieren sie nicht nur, sondern gestalten und vermitteln auch. Sie arbeiten interdisziplinär und über Grenzen von Fachbereichen und Medien hinweg, sowohl in physischen als auch virtuellen Räumen.

Paula Nascimento, eine freiberufliche Kuratorin und Architektin, ist Teil dieses sich ständig wandelnden Prozesses. Ihre Teilnahme an interdisziplinären und kollaborativen Projekten hat ihr eine einzigartige Perspektive auf ihren Beruf gegeben, die sie in dieser Folge mit uns teilt.

Nascimento erklärt, wie vielschichtig das Kuratieren ist und teilt ihre persönlichen Erfahrungen aus kollaborativen und interdisziplinären Projekten. In dieser Folge werfen wir außerdem einen Blick auf die Bedeutung internationaler Ausstellungen wie die Venedig Biennale, bei der Nascimento 2013 den angolanischen Pavillon co-kuratierte. Es war das erste und einzige Mal, dass ein afrikanisches Land den Goldenen Löwen auf der Biennale erhielt. Schließlich gibt sie uns einen Einblick in virtuelle Kunsträume und die digitale Ausstellung "ARE YOU FOR REAL - Phase 1" des ifa, die sie gemeinsam mit verschiedenen Künstler:innen und Kurator:innen kuratiert hat.

Auf einer Illustration ist eine Person zu sehen, die einen Afro und eine Brille trägt. Es handelt sich um die angolanische Kuratorin und Architektin Paula Nascimento. Ihr Name steht auf einer lila Bauchbinde unter ihr. Über ihr steht in weißer Schrift: Die Kulturmittler:innen, neben ihr in einem orangenen Kreis #53. Es ist ein Cover zu dem ifa Podcast zu Außenkulturpolitik.
Illustration: Lea Dohle

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Transkript der Folge

Episode #53: Curating art: transnational, collaborative, and interdisciplinary. With Paula Nascimento

Amira El Ahl: Hello and welcome to "Die Kulturmittler:innen", the ifa podcast on foreign cultural policy. My name is Amira El Ahl and I'm very happy that you're joining us again. Curating exhibitions is a unique act. The selection of artworks. The presentation in space. Adding a narrative to the exhibition. But the role of the curator as well as the design of modern exhibitions, has changed over the years. Paula Nascimento, our guest in this episode, will tell us more about this in a second. But before that I would like to shortly introduce her. She's a freelance curator and architect from Angola. In the past years, she has participated in many interdisciplinary and collaborative projects on topics such as postcolonialism, identity construction or the contemporary understanding of historic topics. Her curatorial work has been presented in exhibitions in Angola, South Africa, Portugal, Italy or Mali, amongst others. Welcome to "Die Kulturmittler:innen", Paula Nascimento.

Paula Nascimento: Hello, Amira.

Amira El Ahl: Paula, your curatorial work has traveled around the world. You have curated some exhibitions by yourself but also many collaboratively with other curators. Looking now at your work and that of others, how would you define the role of curators today? And how has this definition or let's say the understanding of curating changed over the years?

Paula Nascimento: Thank you for this beautiful introduction and for the question. I think that obviously a major shift occurred with this transition a long time ago. From the curatorial as being a museum-led profession to becoming towards independance. And the fact that independent curators kind of operate within add more fluid and sort of open landscape. Obviously working from a particular space, working from the continent, I'm still based in Angola, even though I'm working internationally and in different spaces. One thing that I can also add to this is the fact that, at least in my context, this is a very new profession and one which is still being kind of understood and defined. I also believe that this idea of the Globetrotter curator that is working within different landscapes, that is traveling has sort of opened up the core aspects of the profession into a more ...working across disciplines, working across terrains, working across contexts. It sort of also opened up and widened the field in a way. I would say that for example working as an independent curator in Angola or outside and even across Southern Africa brings other questions than perhaps working as an independent curator in Europe or in America wouldn't necessarily bring. Because as a fellow curator says, we have to wear many hats. So we're curators, producers, mediators. We are contributing to create publics. It's a whole spectrum of activities that come within the profession. And in a way, we're not just curators. We're more like cultural practitioners working across fields and disciplines. And I think that's something that has been really interesting in terms of enriching the whole profession of curating.

Amira El Ahl: Yeah. Wearing many hats, probably that's also how it has changed over the years. But how do you approach the curation of an exhibition when you start with a new project?

Paula Nascimento: It really depends on the project as such. First of all, I tend to actually define my projects as projects, not as exhibitions. And often, I'm in the middle of a research. There are themes of interest to me that are recurrent and it might be that there is an opportunity at a specific moment to develop an exhibition on a specific theme that I've been researching. And in that sense selecting artists is also a process of looking at artists that are working or whose work respond to certain questions that I've been raising or addressing critically or even also to tension those questions. But there are also moments when I'm invited to develop exhibitions, projects. And in that sense I'm usually working within a specific field or within a specific context and space because I come from an architectural background and some of my themes of interest have to do in spatial practices and also with cities and ultimately with architecture. And I do see my practice almost as an extension of also an ongoing architectural research or development of a specific vocabulary within a special practice. I'm usually very interested in the space that I'm working with, whether it is a public space or even if it's a gallery or if it's a historical building. I seldomly work in white cubes or in white spaces. So there's always a willingness to bring whatever latent history or context would be interesting in the context of developing an exhibition, even if it's a different theme or something. I kind of like the conversations that are created by putting together obviously works of art, but also between works of art in publics, between works of art in the wider social and historical context where they're being shown. So I'd say those three aspects would be interesting in sort of the approach of an exhibition and obviously narrative. Again, usually I'm working on things that I've been researching for a longer period of time and I also see the exhibition almost as an instant. Within a process of research where we can sort of pause and and really have something to add or to bring forward to exchange and share with a wider audience.

Amira El Ahl: I liked what you said that you like the conversation that you created or that you started. You have often participated in co-curated exhibitions, which is also a conversation in a way. The concept of collaborative, collective and interdisciplinary curating is gaining wider prominence. A very prominent example would be the last documenta: the documenta fifteen last year in Kassel, which was for the very first time curated by a collective from Indonesia, ruangrupa. Could you elaborate on that and tell us how this approach to curating in a collaborative or a collective can transform exhibitions or art in general?

Paula Nascimento: I'm not sure if it can transform art in general. I think that it has something to add to the experience of both, looking at art but also on the experience of producing art. Perhaps, it's something that is more important in the processes of making things. In my case, it's almost an organic method because I started my career always working within collectives. Either collectives that were co-founded by me or being part of a wider collective network. I mean the sense...Which I also think you know in my case also has to do with my background in architecture that has over the years become more and more of a collective discipline.

Amira El Ahl: Was it something natural to you, like to work in a collective?

Paula Nascimento: Yes. Yes. My very first curatorial project actually came out of a collective experience. Again...for me, it's important to have those dialogues with fellow professionals. Often they are collaborations that I've been involved for a longer period of time. I kind of really think that the process of thinking together and also dislocating a little bit, this idea of the sole thinker and creator, focusing on the exchange part of the process rather than the hierarchical relationship between somebody that has the power to decide and an artist that kind of depends on that.

Amira El Ahl: You said: dialogue, conversation, process of thinking together. Do you think that is where the power of collaboration and art lies?

Paula Nascimento: For sure. I also think that it's kind of interesting to look at specific subjects from very different points of view. And in that sense, when you work with people from different backgrounds, for example I came into curation through architecture and never came through history of art. But I do in certain aspects collaborate with historians for example. How we're able to really kind of bring perspectives together. I think that it really enriches the experience of putting a discussion or an invitation to the public to reflect on a subject in a much more complex and rich manner. And in that sense, I think that it does have an effect on how we think about the art production, how we operate within the ecology of art, of the ecosystem of art making. That is not based on this very sort of isolated power dynamics and into a more fluid and inclusive process.

Amira El Ahl: When you say fluid and inclusive, you said that it enriches the experience that the audience has. We talked about all the the positives and the power of collaboration and art, but where are the challenges when curating collectively? Because I imagine when you bring all these different perspectives together, it's also maybe not easy. It might also bring with it challenges that you don't have if you are a solo curator.

Paula Nascimento: No, for sure. You know, we're all individuals and humans. And I think that negotiating even egos, it's an exercise. And also you mentioned in the question a little bit documenta, which I didn't see, but I followed through. How far can you decentralise a project and how difficult would it be to really involve a wider number of people into creating something. So there are elements of control and I say control not in a negative aspect but in terms of very straightforward aspects such as logistics, such as being able to achieve certain things without losing thread of what one wants to say. It's definitely challenging. But also even in long term collaborative practices, there are tensions that need to be addressed from time to time. I like to think of those tensions as something that are part of the process and that we need to face rather than to look at those things as negatives. I mean, they're a part of the process. There are difficulties but they're there to be addressed openly. On the other hand I've been working with different collectives at different times of my career. And I also understand that things are naturally cyclic. So there are moments when certain collaborations end and they just end.

Amira El Ahl: Yeah, I mean, that's life. Relationships end, things sometime come to to a natural end. That's true. You said negotiating egos is an exercise as well. That brings me to the question: What effect does collaborative work have on the diversity of artistic voices and perspectives? I mean, does it lead to a broader representation of art forms or awareness of unequal power structures, for example? Because you also talked about the element of control.

Paula Nascimento: Yes. When I mentioned control, maybe is not the right word, but it's the word that comes to mind. And I'm talking about very pragmatic aspects. But I definitely believe that there is an advantage in terms of thinking about representation of different forms, of different practices. But also of different artists coming from different backgrounds in different locations. If one may say the fact that, for example, when we look at bigger exhibitions and even these days when you have a single curator, you tend to have advisors and you tend to to have conversations with people in different locations. I think that that's an effort to kind of understand on a wider perspective that it's never universal. We'll never get to that but ...what's happening somewhere else ... and I think that is opening up to .. of conversations to other disciplines on the one hand reveal very much these inequalities existing in the art sector and the power structures, but can also be a way to tender towards a more inclusive future.

Amira El Ahl: That's interesting that you say more inclusive future and opening up conversations. Would you say that collaborative and interdisciplinary curation could be considered a response to a changing society that is becoming more aware of its structural problems? I mean, there's a lot of things changing right now.

Paula Nascimento: I don't know if it's a response to the status quo, but it's definitely a method or a possibility for a type of response. Or for at least addressing these difficulties that we will know that we have and understand that they are there. Even if I don't really believe that this is the sole solution for it or that there is one answer that will get to an ideal place because of those practices. But I think that there is a huge contribution in that.

Amira El Ahl: When you talk about contribution, what messages do you want to convey or which discourses do you want to initiate and move forward through your work?

Paula Nascimento: It really varies. I'm very interested in cities and the articulation between artistic practice and social life. Particularly in the context of contemporary African cities where I've been mainly working from. And so that's a recurrent conversation and a recurring theme in my work. But I'm also very interested in contemporary readings of history and history in the sense not just of underrepresented histories, but also as a means to reflect always on the present, but sort of addressing how we came here and how we can move forward. If I were to sort of try to pick like a main umbrella themes and conversations that I think that come through to my work, I would look at those two main topics. Although the sort of evolving and being developed in very different ways. I also think of my practice as being very fluid and very permeable. And that has also led me to work on different aspects of other thematics. But always trying to bring something new to the conversation or a point of view. But I also approach subjects in exhibitions not as moments to give answers to anything, but as moments to open up fields of inquiry and of conversation. I don't know if that responds to your question or if that was very abstract.

Amira El Ahl: No. But it's interesting because, when you say that cities and the articulation of cultural life is like a current theme, I find that very interesting. You have also participated in various biennials, for example, at the Venice Art Biennial in 2013. Back then, together with the Italian architect and curator Stefano Rabolli Pansera, you curated the Angolan Pavilion and won the best national participation. It was the first time an African country was awarded with the Golden Lion at the Venice Art Biennial. Before that, it was always countries from the Global North. How did you feel about receiving this award, especially in terms of representing an African country?

Paula Nascimento: It was a very surreal moment. I think that ten years from it, I'm probably able to better articulate that moment. But we weren't thinking about it at all. And I always emphasise that because it really came as a surprise. The whole project was a continuation of a project we had done before at the Architectural Biennial. And obviously there is an interest in work that Stefano and I were doing in terms of our research and which also continues in my research that also has to do with the geopolitical aspect of contemporary art and understanding how territories shift and engage with each other through cultural practices. So to culminate that project with The Golden Lion kind of was the perfect ending to the story. But I was also very, very young at the time and we weren't really aware at that moment of the impact that that could have. But I'm very happy that in a way it happened in that way because now obviously I'm able to articulate it better and to think how at that particular moment in time it was really important for an African country. No African country has received a Golden Lion after that. I think that says more about the dynamics of what goes on also in the countries, not just in biennials. But a lot has happened in terms of increasing also the number of participations and on the way in which countries also approach biennials such as Venice. It also brought a lot of awareness to the contemporary production being made. For example, in Angola, the Portuguese speaking African countries have been peripheries of a periphery. So that also opened up interest in those spaces. But also within here there was a wider awareness of what had been done. And the practices that were happening by artists here and the contemporary discourse. So ultimately, I think that it has an interesting legacy. But yeah, I still think of that moment as extremely surreal.

Amira El Ahl: You said it had an impact, so it had this impact abroad in Europe or in Venice, but it also had an impact in Angola or in Africa? Would you say it definitely had these repercussions everywhere?

Paula Nascimento: It did.

Amira El Ahl: But hopefully like in a good mainly.

Paula Nascimento: No, it did in a good way. Yeah, it really did in a good way. I don't think that here the impact was as widely felt as something that I can measure. Within the arts community, the practitioners and so on I think that everybody can say that obviously looking at that and that journey. And also it opened up. I mean, Angola had been quite...you know how the art scene here has had its ups and downs like everywhere else. And we were at the moment where obviously we had artists that are international, that were traveling. But there wasn't really apart from those individual artists traveling and exhibiting abroad and talking about whatever it had been done here, there was no wider movement and a wider interest in terms of what was being done here. So definitely that brought attention.

Amira El Ahl: That's very good. But I mean, you said that after 2013 and after you won the Golden Lion, no other African country won the Golden Lion. And it's interesting that the Venice Biennial is the only biennial holding on to the presentation and competition of national concepts with its national pavilions. Would you say that this concept is out of date? I mean, shouldn't we be further ahead, especially in the art and thinking in terms of national borders in this globalised world?

Paula Nascimento: For sure. I think that it's totally outdated. But I also think that everybody understands that this concept is outdated. Throughout the exhibitions that are being seen in Venice, where I go to every year, more and more [...] and one can also feel that with the pavilions that there is a tendency to break through and to try and deconstruct this idea of the national towards more transnational histories. Whether it is in the main exhibition and whether it is in specific pavilions. In a way there is an interesting tension between the fact that there is a structure that is as rigid as it is with this idea of the national pavilions and national spaces. But I also believe that the exhibitions have been deconstructing that more and more. On the other hand, there is an aspect that I tend to think and that's particularly related to the participation of African countries or to countries, that usually have art scenes that are not so developed. And the fact that Venice still has that model allows ...it's easier for African countries to reach that stage. Obviously, it's a financial operation, it's complex. But the fact that the model still remains allows new countries to participate, to evolve. Whether all of the participants are at the same stage in terms of thinking of its national representation is completely different. But I find that interesting, Venice actually lies within this tension.

Amira El Ahl: Do you think that the Venice Biennale or biennales in general have to become more international, interdisciplinary, collaborative and also maybe more decolonial? Or do you think that's not necessary? Because like the Venice Biennial it's already deconstructing this and there is this tension that you find interesting.

Paula Nascimento: I find that interesting in Venice. But I think that if we look overall at biennials or at events that are happening in different locations, there is a natural tendency for this big event to become more international, more collaborative, more decolonial. I have a critical aspect to that. I think that they should be. But I also believe that with these things we have to be very careful not to look at decolonial as something that has become a trend. So let's be more decolonialised, decolonial. But yes, this is something that I see happening in the large exhibitions.

Amira El Ahl: Each art biennial is located in a very specific geopolitical framework or with its local actors and its organisational form. Which can affect the exhibition quite a lot. What would you say are the main differences between biennials in Europe, like the Venice Biennial, where you go every year, as you said, and biennials in Africa like the Bamako Biennial, where you also have participated and curated in the past?

Paula Nascimento: I think that in the continent, except perhaps the Bamako Biennial and the Dakar Biennial, most of the other biennials are kind of independent. They don't have a huge financial structure and they don't have a governmental support at the biennials that are done by collectives or by groups of artists that come together and understand the need for an event at that space. And they kind of serve as points of articulation between a very local art scene that often is quite self-contained and includes an international scene. So they're events that kind of work as catalysts to bring people from outside, to bring other discourses and to sort of have an impact in terms of developing the local scenes. That's one of the main differences between the biennials in the continent and, for example, the larger biennials in Europe or in the West where there is already a fixed structure attached to it, like the Venice Biennial. It's almost 200 years old. And they serve as sort of experimental platforms for advancing dialogue and conversations. But they also feed a little bit out of what's happening in this other smaller biennials outside of Europe. So there is a kind of a relationship of conversation between these different events, conversation in a sense that at the moment we can see that what's happening outside of the main centers is fueling and contributing to expand and to open up conversations in the main centers. But they also have very specific needs, I would say. I mean, Dhakar and Bamako, they have the state's support. But the majority of other biennials on the African continent really don't. They are totally independent processes and I think that those are the main points.

Amira El Ahl: What role do you think do the participatory and collaborative parts of curating play in the context of international exchange? Since we were just talking about the local and the international scene that kind of come together at biennials?

Paula Nascimento: That's actually a difficult question. I don't know if there is any specific role. Because if we go back to think of the last documenta, when a lot of these ideas and methods and modes of operation have been put in place within a context that seemed to be alien to that. And even though it's an event that definitely will have a lasting impact in the way in which large exhibitions and large events are put together. There was also a number of problems that were revealed by this approach. So I'm very skeptical in terms of thinking whether this really has a role within the context of international exchange or whether it is a moment of trying to appear that these things will have a role in terms of changing the wider conversations on culture and and art practices.

Amira El Ahl: You curated ifa's digital exhibition "ARE YOU FOR REAL" with various artists and curators. What meaning does digital technology or the virtual space have when it comes to art and curating? How does it change the way in which art is being curated and also experienced by the audience? What do you think?

Paula Nascimento: It's a totally different experience. We used to go into spaces to see physical objects. I think that material is still in materiality. And this personal interaction with with objects it's still a very important part of the experience of art. With "ARE YOU FOR REAL" it is one of the key issues of the project. The project was supposed to be a hybrid platform. Happening both, virtually and physically, but it was launched during COVID, so it became a fully virtual experience. And what I found interesting on that project was that we were interested in exploring the virtual as a space rather than thinking about artworks that will be shown virtually. So the digital was not an interface to showcase works that were made for to be showcased somewhere else in the physical space. But we really engaged with artists to think about how the virtual would become an exhibition space in itself. And in that sense, to think about works that were purely designed, thought of, produced for that space and how we could negotiate that space. Other questions, other challenges came from this. This had to do with how people would access, how apparently democratic the platform could be but it wasn't. But at the same time it became a playground also to test possibilities, to test different types of interaction between public and works, to test how works could expand their meanings by being added, but having added layers that wouldn't have perhaps if they were just done physically. I'm giving an example: a piece that was developed by an artist is a poem but it was a poem that had many layers of interaction. So you could read, you could listen to certain aspects of the poem. It was visual. So the collaboration between, you know, the artist and the designer of the platform also kind of stretched a little bit the possibilities of what that artwork could be. And it's still a piece that also could exist in physical space. And now simultaneously, there was also this idea that the platform could work on a computer but also on a phone. And most of the works could be experienced by anyone with a basic Internet connection.

Amira El Ahl: So there is like this difference between going to an art space where you have the experience of seeing the object of experience, the space and being part of it. And then the possibility of kind of having the museum or the exhibition in your pocket because you're carrying it in your smartphone. So that's a possibility but also a challenge.

Paula Nascimento: It was technically very challenging as well. And I feel that it's a project where we're all learning along the way. We're learning vocabulary, with every new idea would also come a new challenge. But there was a very playful aspect also in terms of then understanding what virtual space is and what possibilities there are. So we have performances that happened in gaming platforms, for example. And so artists were really pushing the boundaries and testing different possibilities for these works to exist. And I think that's also a possibility of the virtual that there is no prescribed element. But there are so many things available that could be triggers for different artistic interaction and experimentations.

Amira El Ahl: So what are you taking away from from this experience with this digital exhibition "ARE YOU FOR REAL"? Is there anything that stands out compared to other exhibitions or that you can take with you for your practice in the in the future or that you will take with you?

Paula Nascimento: I don't compare. I think that the first thing that I learned is obviously that I don't compare the experiences. It is what it is. And it's also a possibility for works to come to life, to exist and to be experienced in a different reality. And I don't see it as better or worse than doing physical exhibitions. It's another possibility that is what I've been trying to say. But it's also a space that is kind of endless. It doesn't end there. It's something to be explored in a deeper way. And there are artists that are willing to to really stretch those boundaries.

Amira El Ahl: Thank you so much, Paula Nascimento. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for being with us and for the interview. Super interesting.

Paula Nascimento: Thank you. That was it was a good conversation.

Amira El Ahl: That leads us to the end of this episode. If you enjoyed it, please feel free to recommend "Die Kulturmittler:innen" to others. If you want to learn more about the art of curating, I would like to recommend episode 19 of "Die Kulturmittler:innen" where we talked with the art historian Annette Tietenberg. This episode and all the other episodes of "Die Kulturmittler:innen" are available on all coming streaming platforms like Spotify, Amazon Music and Apple Podcast. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email us at podcast(at)ifa.de. For more information on our organisation, ifa – Institut fürAuslandsbeziehungen, visit ifa.de. With that, I say goodbye. My name is Amira El Ahl. Thank you so much for listening. Bye bye.

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