Hibernation, standstill, suspension, annus horribilis, interruption, wait, replacement.
Bruno Marchant, Cristina Guerra, David Santos, Delfim Sardo, Filipa Oliveira, Francisco Fino, Isabel Carlos, João Laia, Sara Antónia Matos, Tobi Maier.
From gallerists, curators, and museum directors, words try and make sense of what is happening. With the desirable prudence and patience, but also with anxiety—even distress. The situation has taken on an unprecedented and unpredictable quality that about a month ago would have seemed exclusive to a remote, unreal reality. Specific but not unfamiliar conditions have changed the daily life of all, no exception made. Now, life with and against the virus is an irrefutable fact and state. For how long, we are yet to know. Well, precisely as they wait for the end of this standstill, several agents from the art scene elaborate on what is happening. Envisioning paths, forming scenarios, pondering on the consequences for actual lives and for the economic activity of the milieu's agents, projecting scenarios and consequences. In a mix of astonishment, torpor, and steadiness.
From Galeria CRISTINA GUERRA, concern and expectation. The gallerist closed the venue on 14 March and has not yet reopened it, having cancelled the upcoming Melik Ohanian exhibition. Business continues, but not as usual. "For now, we're working from home. I go to the gallery every other day. It's entirely different from the work that's usually done in normal circumstances." Remotely performed office tasks will not cover up the situation's fragility. "There's no income, no requests, no inquiries." Cristina acknowledges the deadlock that has interrupted reality as we knew it: "A rebound was coming about, things were starting to move—in particular for those who worked more internationally," she states. "Meanwhile the [Melik Ohanian] exhibition has been moved to June; the Lawrence Weiner one for later. ARCOlisboa won't happen in May. The Basel fair has been moved to the fall. André Cepeda's exhibition at MAAT, the preparation of which was already underway, has been postponed too. We have all been postponed: the government must take action. This is not simply an economic crisis—it's a hibernation, we're all hibernating."
Her gallery sequestered, Cristina Guerra awaits the government's intervention. "They were caught unaware, but they must take responsibility—measures must be taken in relation to companies. Credit lines have been spoken of—we have yet to understand what it means. Something more effective is needed. For example, loans with lower interest, or additional tax but no interest," she declares, before suggesting another possible measure. "We need real support for the real economy. As regards the artists, artworks should be bought, and museums encourage to buy. The Serralves Museum, for example, hasn't acquired works in a long while." This measure will be all the more essential if the situation is indefinitely extended. "We were caught in a moment of transition," Cristina Guerra remarks. "If companies have funds, they'll help the artists, but if everything stops, and for long, many galleries will close. Let's hope this comes to an end soon, otherwise the economy will crash."
The economic issue is precisely what concerns JOÃO LAIA, chief curator of Helsinki's Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. "It all depends on how the economy performs, on the economic impact of this situation, on how quickly we recover. The artworld is strictly connected to financial and economic dynamics, and this will determine its functioning and have a tremendous impact on artists' readiness to produce, to think. In Portugal, it will bring back a number of anxieties that are still very much present. The memory and effects of the economic crisis and austerity are still noticeable."
Meanwhile, uncertainty is putting excruciating pressure on the economic and financial health of agents: "I'm paying my employees' wages, but I don't know if I'll manage to in two, three months," Cristina Guerra admits. "In that case, I'll have to cut down expenses to a minimum." Such measures will not be taken lightly, she stresses. "I don't want to let people go. But the situation could become unbearable. Well, I'm expecting state incentives." Time is essential. It all depends on how long the standstill will last. "I don't know how long it'll last. If there is no demand, there are no sales, and if there are no sales, things don't work. If we're talking two, three months, a quick recovery will ensue, I hope. Let's see if this works out with minimum damage." Cristina Guerra has scheduled a return date for June, but she fears the standstill will last longer. And should a return to normality take place indeed, the conditions of this new, as-yet unseen normality could be different. "We're all waiting to see, no panic," she caps off.
In expectation remains FRANCISCO FINO too. The gallerist has also decided to cancel the [Karlos Gil] exhibition, initially scheduled to open on 13 March. "I fathomed the situation in Spain. Even though the exhibition was almost finished, I ended up closing the gallery, and the artist had to return to Madrid," he tells. "A possible solution is to offer a digital visit, even though it wouldn't allow the artist to properly present his work."
The digital is on the horizon—an actual but unexplored option. "It is an approach or strategy many people are using, particularly abroad, where the digital panorama is more advanced." Even though the relationship of the Portuguese market and collectors with the works is still a traditional—prevailingly physical—one, the gallerist stresses that the creation of digital platforms might be a relevant, useful resource in the short run. "We can't stop. To stop is to die. We must at least stay alive. And for now the only solution we find is the digital platform." This view is founded on the experience of an increasingly visible reality. "There are fairs and galleries offering online visits and talks with the artists, with the collectors, and showing works from their collections or from previous exhibitions. These, however, are galleries with a great deal of archival materials they can work with." The context of Francisco Fino's gallery is different: "We're a young gallery, pushing three years of age. I'd say we're still in an embryonic stage. It has not been easy," he voices. "Right now, and even though ARCO came off well, there hasn't been any shopping." Meanwhile, there has been a rescheduling; worst-case scenario, the gallery will reopen in September.
"With more extreme measures, things will return to normal," he predicts. "If this drags on, we are in for a pretty vulnerable situation. There are artists who are entirely dependent on commissions and sales. The system cannot remain indefinitely inoperative. Ours is still a predominantly Iberian market, and new galleries will suffer the most." Regarding the gallery's economic health, Francisco Fino believes it will withstand the struggle. "Our business structure is very light. We are not renting the building, and I work with two people only. If things get going soon, we're going to make it. But it is also true that we haven't got the cushion other galleries have. We sprinted hard in the beginning," he stresses. "Now we must reinvent ourselves with what we've got. Other than that, perhaps it's no use anticipating scenarios. This is still an early stage."
Navigating by sight, using the digital
A similar scenario is found at the MUNICIPAL GALLERIES OF LISBON. Uncertainty, standstill, but also a chance for introspection and theoretical production. "We're talking with the curators and artists of upcoming exhibitions, trying to find ways of adjusting our calendar henceforth," director TOBI MAIER reveals. "There's no set date to reopen, but when it does happen the exhibitions we closed will be available for visit for some more time." If the emergency state is extended, however, it becomes hard to predict and plan. "We'll try and reschedule the exhibitions for a later date. Some can be moved to next year. As regards upcoming public programmes and openings, we don't know how life is going to be after the return to normality," he reflects.
Meanwhile, the online seems a plausible means, even though the circumstances of it are more or less experimental at the moment. "We're thinking of live-streaming concerts, using podcasts, mediating our exhibitions through technology. These are means of access that do without people gathering in closed spaces. Ideas are circulating that, in our case, must be discussed with the artists and curators we dialogue with. Then we'll see what might be implemented. It is essential to count on the creativity of artists, to encourage new possibilities." Since forced to close, the Municipal Galleries of Lisbon, like many other institutions, have been working from home. "We're working on projects we can carry out in isolation using only a computer. For example, finishing up publications such as Adriana Proganó's, the Rural Topographies one, the Stefano Serafin book. We're also engaged in researching and recovering the history of the galleries' exhibitions, in uniformising contents that'll be made available on the bilingual website we're developing." Tobi Maier points out that such activities were already carried out before, the current context but favouring them. "We now have more time to talk about the exhibitions with the artists. As regards theoretical production, I can now make better use of time. To think more in depth, to write texts, to research for upcoming exhibitions."
The curator wishes not to romanticise the quarantine. The negative effects of this SARS-CoV-2-induced forced seclusion worry him. "I lived many years in Brazil. People I worked with are currently living high-risk, very precarious situations. That worries me a lot. How can we protect them? As such, support measures are very important. We must act accordingly and figure out what sort of measures are required. Not only governmentally speaking."
For now, and in the short run, the Municipal Galleries of Lisbon are investing on a technological mediation of projects, acknowledging and counteracting the uncertainty that is taking its toll on agents. "We all hope to be able to present works and exhibitions in community, to make art happen in galleries, museums, theatres. To keep on internationalising the milieu, to provide opportunities to local artists in terms of exhibitions and publications. But now, for us, it's also a moment of reflection and production of written contents with greater mental focus; and with that in mind, of dialoguing with the curators with whom we're developing projects for the near future."
Appointed for the CENTRO CULTURAL DE BELÉM board of directors in March, curator and essayist DELFIM SARDO comments on the current situation: "There is great uncertainty. We don't know how long it'll last, we don't know the future developments of what's happening. It remains for us to navigate by sight, to plan as the short term requires, to try and realise what these changes will mean in the long run as regards both institutional calendars and institutional relationships with artists." Less uncertain is the tension that weighs, though differently, on all. "It is very difficult for institutions, for artists. For galleries, which opened their exhibitions and had to close them immediately," he laments. "There are and will be attempts to create and use online platforms, to make contents available, to allow for exhibitions to be visited digitally. But we all know we're amidst a process of replacement." To the curator, this temporary alternative will not eliminate the public nature of the vast majority of artworks. "Some typologies might have the potential of being documented digitally, but then there are all the others that must be experienced in loco. Take for example The Invisible Exhibition, previously scheduled to open on 4 April at Culturgest. It cannot be made nor documented via an internet exhibition. There are works one must experience on the spot. We're talking about environments, the experience of which cannot come about otherwise," he argues. "Of course, exhibitions featuring moving images can have replacements. For example, some videos can be shared."
The possibility of the digital is shared by other curators, notwithstanding some obvious and warranted reservations. Despite pointing out that the digital will become an essential tool, SARA ANTÓNIA MATOS stresses that "the in loco haptic presence and experience of works and exhibitions are indispensable and irreplaceable above all."
For his part, newly hired Culturgest visual-arts programmer BRUNO MARCHAND considers online platforms to be extraordinary tools of promotion, but draws attention to "their limitations as regards the possibility of translating or recreating experiences specifically conceived to be perceived in person, as required by the vast majority of visual works."
Casa da Cerca curator and artistic director FILIPA OLIVEIRA, on the other hand, regards the agents' deployment of such sort of tools and means as inevitable. "In Portugal at least, we were still pretty raw in what concerns the use of these platforms, the development of which ought to be quick so as to create new forms of dialogue with various audiences. I hope we're able to reinvent what might be the role of a museum in times like these, in these conditions of separation and distance."
Recently nominated as future curator of COLEÇÃO DE ARTE DO ESTADO, DAVID SANTOS subscribes to the same points of view, stressing the relevance of a direct, public experience of the artwork as conceptual foundation of art. "We can make art with videos and digital platforms, but it won't be possible to mediate everything. Art functions in a relationship with aesthetic, social, and convivial experience. There are activities that can be carried out indirectly, such as gatherings, the exchange of arguments or info, for environmental reasons even, but the direct relationship between the human being and the artwork won't disappear—otherwise it won't be art as we know it."
As unheard-of, unexpected problems are posed, the circumstances of this lockdown not only influence the publicising of art but can also shape other modalities of functioning and practices. "Art agents will have to think them through," says DELFIM SARDO. "For example, what relationship between galleries and museums is the most desirable? There must be greater closeness in terms of work. On the other hand, another situation may arise. I'm referring to a sort of protectionism towards local artists that should be thought through carefully. It is indeed necessary to protect the artists who are now in a precarious situation, but we can't settle on a local enclosure." Will there be a temptation to? The curator thinks so—and it shall "take into consideration the artists who are closest to us, without disregarding what the arts have built, which is the ability for us to come across distant realities. And that applies not only to visual arts but also to performing arts."
Yet, how would such closeness materialise? "By strengthening acquisition policies, for example," he suggests. "Ideally, there should be an acquisition policy outlined by institutions. For example, conceiving of museum spaces as temporary platforms for presenting exhibitions and works that have been exhibited in galleries. Conduits of dialogue must be established." Artists, with their practices, are beyond institutions. What consequences might arise if isolation and distancing persist? "A few, I'd imagine," Delfim Sardo says. "One will be a return to handicraft, paradoxically to the accessibility of digital means. Artists will become more independent and autonomous as regards their work, what they can do with their hands. On the other hand, it will allow for a process of self-reflection on the work itself. Some artists are organising files, looking at their work, pondering on what they have made. There will also be a growth in immaterial media, in digital-platform transmission—as regards what artists will be able to control, however." The impact on the domain of production, which requires direct collaboration, presence of assistants, and team building, will take place in the opposite direction. "Those who work with and within structures, who need other people in order to produce their work, won't be able to keep on working along those lines," he replies. "This is a sort of end-of-cycle. We're about to enter a stage we can't exactly predict. It might bring some artists a re-examination of their works."
The impossibility of imagining a future
SARA ANTÓNIA MATOS expects the same tendency as well, but extends it to institutions. "They'll have to deconstruct the ultimate goal of a large number of visitors, the large groups and swathes of people that would visit museums undifferentiatedly and condition the course of development of cultural programmes. And to reflect on the significance of other sort of museum experiences." She adds, "actions directed towards small interest groups have been carried out at ATELIER-MUSEU JÚLIO POMAR. Of course, this implies new readjustments that must occur at the political level of administration boards and authorities; at the budgeting, technological, communicational level. For now, another thing that will also, unquestionably change is the pace of production, something several thinkers in the fields of art and philosophy had been drawing attention to in recent times. Deceleration was necessary."
With a similar point of view, DELFIM SARDO mentions the effects on the ways of life of artists, curators, collectors, critics, and audiences. "Unlimited circulation, the permanent movement of people to create exhibitions and residency programmes will be rethought. The challenge is how we'll be able to adjust such circulation more consciously, environmentally speaking. And doing so fully aware that we cannot allow it to establish a cult of rootedness, since it may become a relay for the ugliest beast, the most dangerous serpent's egg. We'll have to reinvent the art circuit in some other way."
While the moment does not come, an intervention from public entities is expected, with proper support and relief programmes. In his capacity of curator, critic, and historian, DAVID SANTOS assures that the commission of art acquisition is in full blast and the 2020 acquisitions deadlines, as announced by the Minister of Culture, will be met. "We're working on it," he states. "The coronavirus is not affecting the operation of the acquisitions commission. We're doing everything within our reach so as to accomplish this goal, the rehabilitation of an acquisition policy that began in 2019. The government won't abandon artists. And the next few months will bring news. We're in a pretty advanced stage already, finishing up our acquisitions. It's a positive sign."
David Santos acknowledges the urgency of taking measures given the current context, as well as the economic and material vulnerability that still conditions the work and life of many—perhaps most—artists in Portugal. "The overwhelming majority live a situation that was still unbalanced, precarious, even in a context of economic growth. The reality that existed before the crisis already had huge limitations. Now, the entirely unheard-of impact of SARS-CoV-2 had the economies nearly shut down. We know the effects will be tremendously negative, harsh." That said, the curator is confident in a recovery, though along not so discernible lines. "I believe it won't be a virus, notwithstanding its impact, that'll hinder the recovery. It will be slow, but it will be. There's a certain resilience peculiar to the artists themselves, to the galleries, to art lovers." With regard to the government, David Santos says "an increment, a capacity for reacting and supporting the art system is required of it. I refer not only to state institutions but also to artists, produces, cultural programmers, private institutions. All culture professionals must be supported. The government will be alert to the situation and do everything within reach to react to upcoming wants."
Former CAM — Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian director and independent curator at present, ISABEL CARLOS had all her projects postponed—some to 2021, probably. Currently writing an essay for the Beatriz Milhazes exhibition at Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), expected to open in December, she describes 2020 as an annus horribilis: "There will be a before and an after the virus. But I hope this situation will help us think indeed about what's important and, as human beings and humanity, find more ethical values to guide us, something that has not been happening in the Western world."
In line with this desire, the curator outlines some inevitable individual, collective, institutional transformations. "There will be very hard situations in the lives of artists and galleries. It might be a nice time to rethink some models that occasion crowd movement, large events, fairs, and biennales. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of rethinking, redesigning such sort of events. Worst-case scenario, we're going to witness the end of things, institutions and galleries that might not reopen. But I know there is a social contingency plan underway at both national and municipal level. We must resort to it. In moments like these, the public good is indeed significant." Meanwhile, she stresses, "the whole world has been postponed and suspended. What we can do is take advantage [of this pause] to think about things we usually don't think about enough in everyday life, like being alone. To reflect on the world where we want to live."
In the same tone speaks NATXO CHECA, who closed GALERIA ZÉ DOS BOIS on 11 March. "This moment of standstill can lead us to consider what we are, what this world has become. It can be a moment of solidarity, of doing things we had stopped doing. Society had lost grip of time; now it might be possible to face life in another way. Meanwhile, let's try to keep our jobs and hope for better times."
To JOÃO LAIA, we are living an unprecedented event, the outcome of which we cannot yet anticipate. "I was thinking of other events I had lived that might be comparable to the pandemic. For example, 9/11. Its impact lingered, but what and how it happened was pretty much clear. Here, the difference is not knowing how and when it'll end. And that is a tremendous cloud. This blurriness becomes more distressing to me than the one brought by 9/11. It is hard to plan anything at all, and I suppose it's the same for everybody. The impossibility of imagining a future is very hard to manage. We're not used to being in that position. An atomic bomb slowly exploding in our hands, an idleness we don't know for sure when it'll come to an end."
Whatever way it comes to an end, it is quite likely that the return of art to the public space will take another shape, another rhythm, other ways of being and making. SARA ANTÓNIA MATOS writes: "The conveyed discourse has been one of 'suspension,' of an "interval,' as though a countdown were underway for everything to start all over again at an unbridled pace and greed. I personally believe we need to find other models and paradigms of action, reinventing and transforming the current ones, so as not to fall back into the previous models. This reinvention also partly falls to the arts, the participation of which derives from what they'll do in their own field of action. In that respect, philosopher José Gil's article 'O Medo' in Público is a lapidary one. To be paralysed by fear is counterproductive. We need to find different, new ways of acting; according to Gil, the test or challenge the pandemic has posed might be a warning that will help us prepare for other threats to human survival, etc. Among these threats are those resulting from climate change."
Expectation, curiosity, wait. That is what we are left with for now. As well as realising, BRUNO MARCHAND adds, "the virus' impact on the way we understand, share, and experience culture. And as regards the artists and production, looking into the implications of this kind of global memento mori on future propositions.
— This article begins a set of reflections Contemporânea will publish in the next few months. It aims to analyse the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on contemporary artistic practice, taking into consideration different experiences, contexts, and activities. This article in particular features testimonies by curators, museum directors, and gallerists. Other testimonies and interventions will include the collaboration of artists, essayists, poets, among others, favouring the presentation of various contents: interviews, visual essays, podcasts.
José Marmeleira. Master in Comunicação, Cultura e Tecnologias da Informação (ISCTE), he is a grant holder from Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT) and a PhD candidate in Filosofia da Ciência, Tecnologia, Arte e Sociedade at Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, in the context of which he is currently writing a dissertation on Hannah Arendt's thinking on art and culture. He is also an independent journalist and cultural critic for several publications (Público supplement Ípsilon, Contemporânea, and Ler).
Karlos Gil, Uncanny Valley, 2020, film still. Delayed opening of the exhibition Come to Dust. Galeria Francisco Fino. Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Francisco Fino.
— Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, Estás Vendo Coisas. Suspended exhibition. Galeria da Boavista. Municipal Galleries of Lisbon. Courtesy of the artists and Municipal Galleries of Lisbon/EGEAC.
— Joana Escoval, Mutações. The Last Poet. Suspended exhibition. Museu Coleção Berardo. Courtesy of the artist and Museu Coleção Berardo.
— Gabriel Abrantes. Melancolia Programada. Suspended exhibition. MAAT — Museu de Arte, Arquitectura e Tecnologia. Courtesy of the artist and MAAT/EDP Foundation.