Interview with Manuela Moscoso, curator of Liverpool Biennial 2021
Manuela Moscoso was the Senior Curator at Museo Tamayo in Mexico City. Previously, she was the Associate Curator of the Bienal de Cuenca 12, Ecuador and the Co-Director of Capacete, a residency programme based in Brazil where she also ran the curatorial programme, Typewriter. She is the co-founder of Zarigüeya, a programme that activates relationships between contemporary art and the pre-Columbian collection of the Museo Casa del Alabado, Ecuador. In this interview, Mocoso details here curatorial practice and principles in their relation to the current Liverpool Biennial of which she is the curator.
JB – The title of the Liverpool Biennale, of which you are the curator, is The Stomach and The Port, which addresses the “definition, invention and circulation of bodies and their knowledge”. What is your incentive behind focusing this Biennial specifically in Liverpool on this realm of comprehension?
MM – Before coming to Liverpool, I was working in Latin America and Mexico. At the time I was invited to do the Biennial it was an important moment for South America; Bolsonaro came to power. We previously had Socialism of the 21st century, the establishment of the left and it felt quite liberated at the time. It was very optimistic. Ten years after the fall of the petroleum costs and the rise of the right came a resurgence of the colonial state of mind. At the time I was in shock, realising that this meant that many forms of thinking are going to disappear. It felt very threatening. I became concerned with what form of agency I have and I started to consider how a body might be – aware that what is considered a body comes from a specific colonial process. We are all very influenced and euro-centric to a certain extent. My question was much more about how we make the world. Amerindian thinking and other forms of indigenous thinking are important, as they are rooted in being connected to your surroundings as a body within bodies: fractal. Some forms of reconnection are necessary. That’s when I came to live in Liverpool and then it started to make sense to me because Liverpool was an important city in the establishment of modernity. Liverpool has so much in terms of maritime history and slave trade and as a relevant port. The DNA of the city has a way of connecting to America. The body and somehow the stomach, decentralised, becomes a site transformation as the port itself is also a site of transformation and a place of contact with many binaries. In a way, these are interesting places to tell complex stories. “The Stomach and The Port” was a title that was a placeholder for a long time, which became the title: holding the inside and the outside.
JB – You developed a residency program, Capacete (2012), in Brazil, how did your work on that project lead you in a direction which arrives at the consideration of thinking forms of embodiment? How is that project connected to what you are doing now?
MM – Capacete was an interesting project that was initiated by an artist in the ’90s which I came to direct in the early 2000s. Before that, I was living in the States and I wanted to go back to Latin America. What I learned from Brazil was how to make an exercise in being situated and thinking from a place. How will a project be different if you think from that place? That was the most important lesson. Other important lessons involved the connection to sound, to the sonic. Rio de Janeiro is a place where that is very present, where afro-intellectualities are very present. How to consider everything? You are not just as a curator creating a space for other practices to embody. You have to embody as well.
JB – In inviting artists to co-imagine exhibition ecologies, what are some of your guiding practices of communication?
MM – I am a curator of practices not objects; the difference is very big. I invoke when I invite. What I am interested in is the whole research of the person that I am invoking. The crisis of having to postpone the Biennial wasn’t the end of the world. My strategy is about gathering. I create a conceptual field and, through the involved practices, I am taken to other places. Making an exhibition is about putting those practices in relation to others and the questions they bring forward. I am not a curator of creating umbrellas. I don’t want to create some subject. I had a lot of work to do within the institutions of the Biennial so that it wasn’t a theme; I wanted it to be about questions. That is how the format of the exhibition is powerful because it’s about questioning and listening. Communication is key, and to be open about the set of conditions. It’s about contributing and having the exercise of understanding how the practice of the other person would be beneficial for things to flourish.
JB – Which modes of inquiry do you identify as the zeitgeist in speaking to other curators and facilitators?
MM – We are not anymore from a generation of the “star curator”, so I hope that there is less of an association with forms of heroism of the curator. The success of projects has to do with the team you work with and the relationships that you build. If we are going to talk about social justice, we need that in the smallest space; you have to create those spaces of voice. I think there are more curators interested in this way of doing things. It’s not necessarily easier. The curator is a manager of desires, of many things, so this comes with compromises. Other methods of working that are more relational interest me. A sense of “communal” within working is very important.
JB – I’d like to talk with you about consensus and agreement and how you see these topics playing into collaboration. What about dissent in collaborative processes?
MM – It has to go case by case. What are you willing to put into a negotiation? In a way, there is an ethical responsibility for curators to be precise about what is put on the negotiation table. Then comes the unexpected. At the end of the day, the project isn’t about me and the ideas I want to put forward; it is greater than me. What is allowed and what is not allowed has to come from a perspective that is about the whole. Even if you disagree, it has to take into consideration that every project that you are in is larger than you. There are uncomfortable conversations that we have to have, and maybe we don’t know how to articulate it at the beginning, but this has to be insisted upon. I am talking about bodies, non-western, etcetera but I am in Liverpool and there is no conception of something that is not European. How to tell a story without putting people into a defensive position? People don’t want to talk about colonialism but we have to do so. I want to speak to people without alienating them. I want to be in dialogue, not impose anything. The other thing is that if you are defending the context you may have to bring forward things that people don’t want to hear.
JB – Are there a selection of texts that you continue to come back to continually which help you to manage these challenges?
MM – When I was living in the US object-oriented ontology was key for me; there is a text that influences me from Levi Brian called the Democracy of Objects. He has been present in thinking exhibition-making. Bruno Latour has also been incredibly important. Then also Souely Roulnik who I had the chance to involve in Capacete gave really important tools. Sylvia Winters has also been important in the past years. Octavia Butler in terms of time. These are the people who gave me the tools to create my conceptual foundation. It’s about exercising lineage. But always artists give you other forms of intellectuality that aren’t academic which are relevant in creating spaces of art production. How can other forms of knowledge be embodied and experienced?
JB – What are your intentions and projects subsequent to the Liverpool Biennial, and how are they expanding your research?
MM – I plan to go with my daughter and boyfriend to the beach. I did a biennial in three years but this last year of delay allowed me to reflect on the work that I am doing in a larger conversation. I want to continue with exercises of being able to articulate how an institution can become more porous. How we can reimagine that past to imagine the future? How can we tell stories of empowerment? We have to critique but I think we need a lifting; we have to dismantle while we lift. Being a woman curator it’s already harder, and this is changing but we still need to apply pressure. We need a fairer place, so it’s about continuing with the people that motivate me. I want to have fun! Otherwise, it’s too complicated. We have to have fun otherwise we miss the point.