Installation image of the section curated by Antonio Ballester Moreno (image courtesy of Leo Eloy/The Garage Studio and the São Paulo Biennial Foundation)

SÃO PAULO — It’s a genuinely radical suggestion to make in the realm of contemporary art that a viewer’s emotional response to work should be the primary metric of the art’s success or failure. It is almost as radical to further suggest that this feeling response may have everything to do with how much attention a viewer gives to an object. I have often found that unique convictions like the above are born out of exhaustion with well-worn ideas as much as revolutionary impulses.

I found these suggestions playing out in the 33rd São Paulo Art Biennial which opened on September 7 under the title Affective Affinities. I was able to visit the biennial and sit down with Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro who is this year’s curator (and also the director and chief curator of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros) to talk about what affective affinities means, and how (and why) he structured the biennial to be premised on the presence and attention of the visitor. It turns out that Pérez-Barreiro was indeed motivated by his own fatigue with thematic display arrangements and the high-blown rhetoric that tends to scaffold art in these kinds of exhibitions. We started our conversation recalling where our back stories merged years ago in New York City when I was introduced to a group of academics and art enthusiasts who had started a kind of secret society around the practice of looking at art (or objects that might be considered art) for extended periods of time in silence. Pérez-Barreiro happened to be present at the first such practice I had, which was astonishing to me. This practice, which informs Pérez-Barreiro’s shaping of the biennial, is essentially about a kind of deep mindfulness that treats the work of art as if it has something in its being that it wishes to be known and is worth knowing, and that this knowledge requires time and focused attention to grasp. In our conversation Pérez-Barreiro recalls how this approach to experiencing art guided him in shaping this biennial, staffed by educators who created particular zones where visitors would be encouraged to engage in somewhat simplified versions of the attentional practice. At the beginning of our chat he tells me that during the biennial setup he sought to immerse the education team in this practice.

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Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro: With the education teams, when we started the first thing we did was practice and I was like, “I want us to start from here.” … With the team here at the biennial, all the staff did a practice at some point. For the last year and a half, if you’re walking around the park or the museums here, there was constantly a birding group. [A “birding” is what the practitioners tend to call the gathering where a set group of people carry out the practice at a specified time, on specified objects, and the participants are called “birds”.] And the gardeners, the security people, the whole park, like hundreds of employees were doing it too. But then our big question for the education program was the bird protocol [the protocol is just the list of steps given in written instructions for navigating the practice; they are imaginative prompts for thinking about the work]. [It is]very specific, it’s very hard to scale [up].

Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, chief curator of the 33rd São Paulo Biennial (2017) (image © Pedro Ivo Trasferetti and courtesy the São Paulo Biennial Foundation)

Hyperallergic: To make it larger, make it more encompassing?

GPB: Not everyone’s going to want to necessarily go there. So the materials we did, the invitation … It’s much more like this has to work for a much broader range of people who are not necessarily going to go along with some of the arcana that we’re all super into.

H: I was saying to someone, [the journalist Pei-Ling Ho] explaining to her that the first time I met you at a bird practice, was the first time I had practiced. And I remember that being the moment in which something blossomed in me, because something blossomed in that room. It was amazing. And I wonder how you would take that sort of beautiful, sort of deeply introspective yet wildly imaginative thing, and scale it to this endeavor which is so much sort of ostensibly different from that kind of intimate … 

Facade panel during assembly of the 33rd São Paulo Biennial (image © Pedro Ivo Trasferetti and courtesy the São Paulo Biennial Foundation)

GPB: And apparently incompatible — well that was the whole question. So two things happened. One is the work I was doing last year on Mário Pedrosa [whose doctoral thesis “On the Affective Nature of Form in the Work of Art” is one of the sources of the biennial’s title] really helped because I think Pedrosa was like a secret bird, because the way he talks about the construction of meaning and effective form (in his case from visual psychology); it’s very similar. It’s very much like, “Okay. You have an experience and then you try and understand that experience.” So that thing of experience before discourse. And he practiced that his whole life.

He [Pedrosa] was also involved in early editions of the biannual, an extremely important intellectual source in the history of modern Brazil. But when I read him for [this] show [I felt] wow; this is radical in the way birding is radical, because it’s about the individual, but it’s about a society.

And the other thing: Birding changed my life in many significant ways, and so when I got the invitation, the question for me is can you create a “bird” biennial? That’s all. I don’t give a shit about curatorial practice. I’m so sick of … I hate thematic exhibitions. I just really … the whole thing …. When they invited me, that’s what I said. I said, “I’m really honored but I have zero interest. I hate biennials, I hate curating, I’m kind of down on contemporary art.

H: My sense of you, Gabriel, is that you just don’t like the flummery, the pomp and circumstance.

GPB: Right. I love art. I absolutely love art.

The section curated by Wura-Natasha Ogunji (image © Leo Eloy/The Garage Studio and courtesy the São Paulo Biennial Foundation)

H: I know that! I know that! The rhetoric and the propping up [of the work] …

GPB: I can’t stand what people say about art and everything’s a stupid press release, and it’s like … I mean, am I really going to reconsider my relationship to the body of post-colonial praxis by standing in this room? You know, probably not.

H: Right. Right.

GPB:  So the beautiful thing about birding is about empowering the individual, allowing for a diversity of responses so that we’re all looking at the same thing, but we’re all understanding something different and yet sharing, that is in itself a socially radical practice. It’s about tolerance, it’s about diversity, it’s about interpretation, and that to me is what … that’s what politics is. That’s the political issue of our times, [it] is we don’t know how to do that anymore.

H: I’m thinking of what you said in the opening remarks this morning about having diversity and not having that diversity get channeled into these sort of compartments …

Performance by Nicole Vlado and Wura-Natasha Ogunji. (image © Leo Eloy / The Garage Studio and courtesy the São Paulo Biennial Foundation

GPB:  Exactly. Don’t make it discursive. Make it experiential. You start to think what it feels like to be different. Or you know that the person next you … you’re looking at the same thing but you’re different, but you’ve both committed to doing [this]. This is very much the birding ethic. And the art world in general, the contemporary art world in particular, in the biennial world especially, it’s all discursive before experience. That’s basically my primary problem.

H: There’s so much rhetorical scaffolding.

GPB: So much, so much. And so by the time you get to the encounter, by the time you get to the experience, you’re done, you’re exhausted, because you’ve been hit [with] the hammer [that] this is going to teach us about the relationship of Germany and Athens and European migrant policy and those are all super important things. People should be out in the world fucking making a big difference.

It all really boils down to that question of experience and interpretation deactivating some of that rhetorical apparatus. This week it’s all fancy people but as of Saturday it’s whoever’s in the park [when the biennial fully opens to the public]. It’s a very, very public institution. And so can you greet them in a way that … can the experience be the primary thing that they take away with them? And I don’t think that’s an easy challenge and I think there are many culturally determined things that stop that happening, but I think you can go a certain way [by] pulling back and saying: Well one of the first things is I’m not going to tell you what to think. I’m not going to tell you that the point of this biannual is to teach you whether Lula should be in jail or not.That’s not what we’re doing here.

If you feel strongly about that, you should basically go out and fucking vote. That’s what you should do. Or organize, mobilize, register. Do whatever it is, but work in that field. Don’t just represent the problem, because that’s probably not going to be that effective and then the people who are not already interested are going to be less interested. You’re going to start to really back yourself into a corner, and I don’t know if you can ever get out of that corner again because the guys on the other side are super scary.

Installation view of works by Alexandro Corujeira: “The Last Wings” 2018 and (in the background) “I Give You a Sphere of Golden Light” (2018) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

H: I agree with you. And here’s a thing that I’ve noticed just in walking the show today:  I started to feel a teeny bit lost and then I kind of recalibrated, and I said to myself, “Oh, I’m not supposed to think my way through this second floor.”

GPB: Right.

H: I come along the wooden rail thing that is very colorful and then further on there’s something called like the golden circumference [“I Give You a Sphere of Golden Light” by Alejandro Corujeira (2018)]. And it’s almost like a room, but it’s like a series of wooden panels that I have to negotiate, almost like a maze. I stepped back and I thought, “Oh, what is this for?” And then I went through it and I could see a photographer at the other side. And every once in a while I’d move through a passage and I’d catch a glimpse of her and she’d catch a glimpse of me.

Installation view of Alexandro Corujeira’s “I Give You a Sphere of Golden Light” (2018) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

GPB: Yeah, like you’re having this choreography.

H: Yes, yes! And thought, “Wow. that …”

GPB: Maybe that’s enough.

H: Precisely! I love that. It took me a moment, someone who actually spends most of his time looking at art and talking about art to just surrender myself to that place, that feeling of, “I can just kind of feel my way around this thing.”

GPB: We find it very difficult. Again, that’s a lesson of birding: it’s very hard for us to spend [several] minutes looking at artwork unless we’re doing it with a bunch of people because we’ve committed to [it] and even then it’s difficult.

H: Right.

Lucia Nogueira, “At Will and the Other” (1989) metal, organza, black beans, polystyrene balls, feathers pillows, 42 x 135 x 165 cm (photo by Lucia Nogueira)

GPB: And we’re professionals.

H: Yes.

GPB: It’s like, “I want to check my phone. I want to leave. The demons of this invention are massive and the relationship with experience — I don’t know if it’s a battle we’re always going to lose. I think we are always going to lose it as a meta battle and a discursive battle. It’s a question of faith: You’re never going to lose the possibility that somebody could relate differently.

The 33rd São Paulo BiennialAffective Affinities, continues through December 9 and takes place at the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park, Gate 3, São Paulo, Brazil.

The biennial was directed by the chief curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro who invited seven artist-curators to arrange their own sections: Mamma Andersson, Sofia Borges, Waltercio Caldas, Alejandro Cesarco, Claudia Fontes, Antonio Ballester Moreno, and Wura-Natasha Ogunji.

The biennial is also discussed by the author on Hyperallergic’s September 13 Art Movements podcast.

Editor’s Note: The 33rd São Paulo Biennial arranged for the author’s travel to the city and his accommodations for the length of his visit.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...