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Interview with Nuno Crespo, director of the School of Arts at the Catholic University of Portugal

With more than twenty years, the School of Arts at the Catholic University of Portugal, in Porto, has a decisive role in contemporary art. Joining teaching and research to contemporary artistic practices, the School of Arts is increasingly a space of artistic production, a laboratory of contemporary experimentation and creation. Directed by Nuno Crespo since 2017, it has developed a regular and intense exhibition programme, which includes national and international art residencies, in addition to a calendar of editions. Going beyond its university context and focusing on a critical approach in the contemporary socio-cultural context, it produces artistic projects in a fruitful and creative exchange between students and artists.

To get to know the guidelines of the exhibition programme developed by the School of Arts, we interviewed its director, Nuno Crespo.

 

Mafalda Teixeira – Inaugurated in April 2017, the exhibition room of the School of Arts is a space for contemporary cultural production and dissemination. What are the strategies and guidelines and what do you prefer in the exhibition programming?

Nuno Crespo – The gallery was inaugurated by the previous faculty board, under the leadership of Professor Laura Castro. The current board thought that it was especially important to ensure that the gallery was a place where the community of the School of Arts – formed by our students, researchers and teachers – could find a collaborative space with artists with whom we don’t usually interact. A place where we are confronted with other ways of doing, thinking and understanding artistic research and practice. The gallery reflects our pedagogical project of arts education. The exhibitions always start with invitations to artists. At first, they are visiting artists, like tutors. And, throughout that year, they try to understand what the specific context of this school suggests to them as an exhibition project.

Except for Francisco Tropa and Salomé Lamas, the first artists we’ve exhibited since I’ve been doing the programming, all the artists have this kind of involvement. Therefore, the gallery is not only an exhibition space, but a place where the teaching of art, which is our main mission, happens informally. The artists who visit us end up involving the students in their work… We know very little about teaching art. We know that this is the way for the student to learn, to participate, to get to know and understand the dynamics, how an exhibition space is organised. Often, these things don’t fit into the bureaucracy required by higher education and university teaching, which is not compatible with an art teaching project. There is this important casualness. The relationships that are established with the artists who come here, from young artists like Igor Jesus, Nuno da Luz, to established names like Julião Sarmento and, next year, Ângela Ferreira.

The exhibition space also allows an idea of teaching through contagion, which is especially important for us. This secures the informality of the work, infecting the university with the spirit we find in art academies. These are reference elements, like the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf. The gallery is the space where the community of the School of Arts establishes non-hierarchical and informal relationships. It is where this idea of teaching takes place.

The programming has been made with artists close to our project, who use the school as a productive centre. The school, which has in its cuore the new technologies and the gallery, shows mainly audiovisual installations, new media art, video, photography, from a disciplinary point of view.

There is also an important aspect. Except for Ângela Ferreira, Julião Sarmento and Francisco Tropa, we realised that there was now a space for artists who had been at the university and were no longer young, like Diogo Evangelista, Vasco Araújo or Igor Jesus. We are interested in this fringe.

In parallel, we have begun to develop a series of publications in partnership with Documenta. It is a collection that summarises artistic research. We want to work with artists whose research processes – our teaching is based on research – are quite different, presenting various models. These are tools at the disposal of those who decide to study with us.

MT – How important is the editorial activity for the School of Arts?

NC – We make a collection of artistic research. We ask artists to think about a publication to accompany the exhibition project. Something that is a place for reflection on their research project. Now, we are doing a book with Filipa César that is entirely different from Vaco Araújo’s book and Diogo Evangelista’s book. It is remarkably interesting and challenging for us, as a school, to realise that artistic research methodologies cannot be systematised into a single model; each artist has their own model. We want to define the publications as a reflexive place about practices and research. As a school and university, we should reflect on these processes and what they suggest to us as methodology.

MT – How is the curatorial process of the exhibition projects of the School of Arts’ gallery developed?

NC – In the first phase, the curatorship was led by me. It was a project that was just beginning, we had to define what we wanted from this space. We had a first project with external curatorship by João Silvério for Pedro Tudela’s exhibition and we will have external curatorship for José Pedro Cortes’ exhibition. Little by little, the space must gain more autonomy so that it doesn’t become wholly dependent on me. Otherwise, diversity and the different exhibition modes are lost, something detrimental to our institution.

MT – The School of Arts is a space for production, research and thought. Considering the exhibitions as places filled with challenges and projects that unfurl among themselves, how important are the parallel programming to the exhibitions?

NC – Our cultural programme, with free entrance, has four main axes: the exhibition hall, the auditorium, the film club and an annual set of open classes. The programme was never conceived as an integrated programme. Each of the initiatives – the open classes, mostly artist talks, where artists present and discuss their work, the gallery and the film programme – are relatively autonomous, although there are connection points between them. This programming has brought us many challenges from a research point of view. We want to summarize these events and knowledge and translate them into a commonly practiced science.

MT – You’re holding a parallel programme entitled Palavra, Ferro e Fogo and based on the work of Rui Chafes, two sculptures on the campus and part of the exhibition Studentato, a partnership between the Serralves Foundation, the Porto Academic Foundation and the Catholic University of Portugal.

NC – We have a School of Arts, which increases the responsibility. Taking advantage of the presence of Rui Chafes’ sculptures, we thought it was necessary to incite our community to think, discuss and reflect on them. We are organising three meetings.

MT – Since you became director of the School of Arts, you have worked to highlight it as a structure of artistic production, where the internal community is not the only interlocutor. It has been more open to the city, available to the recognition and criticism of the region’s artistic and cultural circuit.

NC – A school does not live exclusively from what happens inside, but from its ability to dialogue with the context. For an educational project in the artistic field, it is especially important to have a stimulating artistic scene. In Porto, we have one. Mainly with Serralves, with the other art schools – the School of Arts of Porto, the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Porto – and with the exceptional programming of the City Hall. We felt it was important not to develop projects or a thought about artistic education that remained within the academia walls. On the contrary, we wanted to develop a project that could be noticed, so that it could be praised, criticised, improved. That’s the way the people who study with are. That’s where they want to be and that’s where they are going to establish conversations. This openness towards the city and the community is fundamental, whilst overthrowing any idea of academic art and artistic paths validated solely by an art system built for newspapers that only exist in academic databases. We’re interested, as quickly as possible, in having our students exposed to the reality of galleries, to exhibition venues managed by artists, to a more alternative, more orthodox art scene, to what an exhibition in Serralves looks like, or an exhibition organized in an ephemeral space. That’s where we want to be.

MT – Last year, the exhibition room of the School of Arts was one of the ten programming spaces chosen by the jury of Criatório, a programme of the City Hall/Ágora – Cultura e Desporto do Porto. How important is this sort kind of recognition for the School of Arts?

NC – It is particularly important that people for whom I have great esteem and admiration recognise that our work deserves to be supported. Contrary to what we may think, the university has an extremely limited budget. Such support and recognition are not only important for us to do better, but it is also recognition that is very complimentary and vital for us. It supports us to do the exhibitions that we aspire, with the quality we envision.

MT – The artistic and exhibition projects of the School of Arts have contributed to its affirmation in the contemporary art of the city and country. Is there already an artistic brand made in the School of Arts?

NC – I don’t think so, fortunately. Schools are not a reflection of the tastes or interests of their teachers, nor can they impose any way of thinking or doing. The challenging element of teaching is to promote – despite the formality of knowledge and research in the university context – the development of people who think autonomously and who think against us and beyond us. We don’t want to find a group of people who obey a model, but who can choose one. That’s interesting for our exhibition space, a free place, where doing and thinking take place. We have the conservation and restoration department, cinema, new media, the sound art department – which has had artists like Berru or Diogo Tudela. It’s a very interesting world, where we don’t experiment with uniformity of language, styles or interests. Despite the differences, we can recognize the value of what the other comes up with. We must constantly try to discover what each individual who is with us wants to do. We believe very much in the tutorial model, in the model of individual work. We believe that a school is a place open to discussion and we have a highly democratic model of operating.

MT – During the pandemic, what were the School of Arts’ exhibition strategies to overcome such a delicate moment?

NC – We opened Vasco Araújo’s exhibition and then closed the doors, but it was still possible to visit it. We opened Pedro Tudela’s exhibition during the lockdown, but then managed to have it open to the public for a month. We tried to find ways to translate the exhibition, knowing that there are always things that go awry in the transition to the virtual environment. We developed plenty of resources, especially in the virtual side of Pedro Tudela’s exhibition. We didn’t have any online-only exhibition, even though we realised that the contemporary art world needs a digital shock.

MT – On May 7, Nuno Cera opened his new exhibition, Sinfonia do Desconhecido II, part of the 2021 programme of Ci.CLO/Porto Photography Biennial. What can you tell us about it?

NC – It’s a screening, a film that is the second chapter of a project that Nuno Cera had already developed and presented at the Museu do Chiado, entitled Sinfonia do Desconhecido. It’s very interesting the way Nuno Cera looks at architecture. Not as an object, almost with formal and material characteristics close to sculpture. This work of Nuno’s has a vastly different energy, far from architecture as an object. It is related to an atmosphere identified in places, which he then transports to the exhibition space.

 

Sónia Vaz Borges and Filipa César’s Leitura do Mangue opened last Tuesday and is on view until October 8 in the exhibition room of the School of ArtsPorto Summer School on Art & Cinema runs until July 9, featuring Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Elizabeth Povinelli, Filipa César, Matías Piñeiro, Marinho de Pina, New Alphabet School, Patrícia Ferreira Pará Yxapy, Sérgio Pereira, Sónia Borges and Vadinho da Costa.

Mafalda Teixeira, Master’s Degree in History of Art, Heritage and Visual Culture from the Faculty of Letters of the University of Porto. She has an internship and worked in the Temporary Exhibitions department of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. During the master’s degree, she did a curricular internship in production at the Municipal Gallery of Oporto. Currently, she is devoted to research in the History of Modern and Contemporary Art, and publishes scientific articles.

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