Interview with curator Bruno Marchand

Bruno Marchand has a master’s degree in Curatorial Studies from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Lisbon and is studying for a PhD in Contemporary Art at the University of Coimbra. Between 2009 and 2013, he was the curator of Chiado 8 and, since March 2020, he has been Culturgest’s Visual Arts Programmer. As part of the most recent exhibition in the Territory cycle at the Fidelidade Arte Gallery, we spoke to the curator and writer about his career and craft.

You have developed quite an extensive and wide-ranging career, involving a vast selection of artists, collaborations, different spaces and institutional models. In hindsight, how would you appraise your journey and growth as a curator?

I should be saying that it’s been exceptional, that I’ve always been in charge of my career and that nothing ever happens by chance, but, since I don’t feel like insulting the intelligence of Umbigo’s readers, I will say that I’ve worked hard, I’ve been lucky, I’ve experienced successes and failures. Unlike what you may think, “I found my way” concerns the choices I’ve made along the way: academic options, prioritising certain artists, not following everything that pops up, knowing how to wait… Everything else has been work, a lot of work, luck, some more work and a great measure of generosity from countless individuals with whom I’ve been able to work over the last twenty years.

In any event, I would say that much of what has happened over the years has been due to an eagerness to gather information and build up experience in the different dimensions of curatorial practice. To some extent, my master’s thesis, which I started in 2004, set the tone for these two decades: it was about understanding what one had to know about curating before moving on to actually doing it. Such things as what is the history of curating and what models have fuelled it in the Western context (from Ancient Greece to Harald Szeemann), the specific nature of curatorial practice (the question of authorship, discursiveness, curating as an inductive practice, the exhibition act vs. the exhibition, the historical and ahistorical models, how the “exhibition complex” is split up, etc.), the origins of curating and the way in which it is developed), the origin and nature of curatorial power (to whom or to what is the curator responsible), the differences between art, aesthetic experience and artistic experience (where these concepts were addressed to clarify the historicist nature of the latter), etc.

This reflection occurred whilst I was taking the first steps in my professional career, which began in 2003 at Galeria 111, learning much of what I know about producing exhibitions. I became independent in 2008 and, since then, I have made a point of working in as many environments connected to artistic and/or curatorial practice as possible: I have collaborated with institutions such as Culturgest, Gulbenkian or Serralves, founded a historiographical feature in the magazine L+Arte, taught at Ar.Co and ESAD, written for catalogues and books, served on juries, emigrated to Switzerland and Spain and, on my return to Portugal in 2016, I worked for three years at Associação Zé dos Bois. I’ve been the Visual Arts Programmer at Culturgest since February 2020.

Admittedly, many of these things have been absolutely incidental, and yet it is also true that, given the opportunities that have come my way, I have made decisions very much according to how much a given experience could contribute to my knowledge of the artistic field and of curatorial practice in particular.

When you followed Delfim Sardo as the Visual Arts Curator at Culturgest, a lot was said about a new generation of curators, whose education is also the outcome of Portugal’s first postgraduate course in curating, at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Lisbon. Can you draw a parallel between your generation of professionals and those that came before and the ones to come? Specifically in the Portuguese context, how do you think curatorship is changing?

There’s no denying that my generation and the future ones have access to more specific training than previous generations. We only need to count the number of curatorial courses that have been founded in Portugal in the last twenty years. But this does not necessarily translate into a better curatorial practice. I even think that, in some fields of curatorial work, we have been witnessing a worrying decline. Such is the case with knowledge production. I believe there is less and worse writing today than there was in the 1980s and 1990s. This threatens the credibility of curatorial practice as a whole, moving it closer, even if artificially, to a discretionary exercise of taste without any scientific grounding or foundation. The misunderstandings arising from this are more dangerous than they appear.

You were for four years the curator of Chiado 8, a gallery dedicated to contemporary art run by the Fidelidade group. This place has since hosted many exhibitions devised in close collaboration with Culturgest, the most recent being the Territory cycle, currently in the fifth of what will be a total of nine shows. Could you provide a sort of timeline of this partnership, assessing the way the space has been used and evolved over time?

Regarding artistic programming, the relationship between Fidelidade and Culturgest is coming of age this year. The first cycle programmed by Culturgest for the (then) Chiado 8 started in 2006 and was curated by Ricardo Nicolau. The first two cycles (2006-2008 and 2009-2013, the latter curated by me) were part of a programme conceived by Miguel Wandschneider, Culturgest’s visual arts programmer between 2004 and 2016, which included solo exhibitions by Portuguese artists commissioned by the same curator. During this period, especially until 2010, the venue itself underwent different changes and expanded until it settled into what it is today. The collaboration between the two institutions took a break in 2013, but was revived in 2018, the year in which Delfim Sardo, the Culturgest programmer who succeeded Miguel Wandschneider, was invited to develop a new cycle. Delfim’s proposal, named Reacção em Cadeia, was still focused on solo exhibitions commissioned by the same curator, but this time opened up the project to international artists and, as the title implied (Chain Reaction), left it up to each participant to name their successor. This was also the context in which the exhibitions started to flow from Fidelidade Arte to Culturgest Porto, forging a clearer link between both institutions. I conceived Territory along the same broadening lines as Delfim.

I opted to transform the collaboration into a cycle of nine group exhibitions, with Portuguese and/or other nationality artists, commissioned by as many national curators or curators working in our country. The invitation to them is simple: to conceive an exhibition project that reflects or represents what have been their favourite areas of interest, their own research territories.

I believe that Fidelidade Arte currently has unquestionable relevance in the country’s exhibition circuits. More than that: its position in the exhibition sector is entirely unique because, not being an “alternative” venue or having a commercial orientation, but also not demanding from artists and curators the burden and responsibilities usually imposed by museum institutions, Fidelidade Arte holds a unique profile in Portugal. Couple this with its central location in Lisbon and the fact that the venue is free to enter, we realise that we are talking about a cultural venture that has carved out a place for itself in our landscape.

The two most recent exhibitions from the Territory cycle presented at Galeria Fidelidade Arte, Two Faces Have I – open until May 3 – and Fazer, were respectively curated by the Ampersand collective and jointly by Frederico Duarte and Vera Sacchetti. What can you tell us about the particular nature of these invitations and the process of building a collaborative curatorship?

Vera and Frederico’s inclusion in the cycle is tied to one of the final aspects I had defined for Territory, which was to include objects from the wider field of material culture in the exhibitions. By asking curators to bring us their research territories, we are also fostering an openness to universes that may include non-artistic or non-contemporary objects. Each guest has taken up the challenge differently. Natxo Checa presented a wide range of ethnographic objects, exemplifying his interest in the cross-over between this production field and modern and contemporary art. Ana Anacleo, who took over the venue immediately afterwards, preferred to express the investigative side of her practice in the corresponding publication, even if it had no, shall we say, material impact on the exhibition. The invitation to Frederico and Vera, who are design critics and curators, was based on the intention of having a moment in the cycle when material culture would almost inevitably be more present. A moment when the forces would be reversed. Frederico and Vera pushed this opportunity to the limit and not only held an exhibition without artistic objects, but also founded a Portuguese-language design magazine following this call. In a field where productions are so often ephemeral, I’m particularly happy about the achievement of a magazine that will last.

Ampersand is a collective of French editors, critics and artists that set up headquarters in Lisbon in 2017. They had premises in different parts of the city, where they shared the curatorial side of their work with the public, whilst remaining fully independent and committed to the DIY spirit. Like the publications associated with Ampersand, the exhibitions are based on an in-depth research of the archives, collections and re-founded collections of artists and their friends that hold some of the lesser-known contemporary output: artists and/or productions that have escaped the circuit rules or that have been deliberately neglected by the vortex of history and that need to be revisited. Alice Dusapin and Martin Laborde – the core members of Ampersand – invited Justin Jaeckle to share the curatorship for the exhibition they conceived for Territory, which fully exemplifies their methodologies and objectives. If we consider (as I do) that the proper curatorial task is to select and create the mise-en-scène of the works within the space, then the vast majority of curatorships are collaborative and shared gestures, above all with the artists themselves.

With a PhD in Contemporary Art in progress, I would also like to ask you, roughly speaking, how you see the relationship between art, writing and philosophical thought. What impact and significance does abstraction have – as a common feature of creation, imagination and concept – in a world like the one we live in, where crises, genocides and catastrophes of all kinds seem to be the rule?

This question is fundamentally problematic for me, since it seems to assume that this abstraction of which you speak, and which you tie to the notions of creation, imagination and concept, is contrary to a critical, aware and responsible relationship with the problems that beset the world today. If there is any path I have taken in the field of philosophy, it has been by focusing on pragmatist authors, and pragmatist philosophers tend to be suspicious of the idea of “art for art’s sake” or the proverbial notion of the pointlessness of the artistic experience. I agree with them in their vision of artistic experience as a way to reconnect, reinforce and enhance the sensitive encounter between the individual and the world, between the individual and the Other. If there is a movement of abstraction in this experience, it concerns not an alienation, but precisely its opposite: a focal point that halts the scattered attention that rules our daily experience and connects us, as best we can, with what is foreign to us. At its most effective, artistic experience is about inscribing (I would even say incorporating) the Other into our sensibility. And the Other, as we already know, is always a fearful horizon. Obviously, this in itself does not solve the world’s problems (and I don’t think it would be fair to ask this of visual artists as a whole), but it contributes more than it seems to.

Where are your main creative interests today? What can you tell us about the upcoming exhibitions at Galeria Fidelidade Arte and Culturgest?

When it comes to actual artistic choices, I still prioritise authors whose works found cosmogonies, unique works whose power, although undeniable, is difficult to describe or locate precisely. It seems curious to me that these are still the artists who tread the antithesis of academia – a category that has grown from a generic, disciplinary nineteenth-century good-doing to today’s social good-thinking and good-wanting which, despite having no problem in themselves, often become a moral playbook that tends to flatten, instrumentalise and curtail creative freedom. This is not to say that I favour uncritical or self-absorbed artists. In fact, Culturgest’s programme has been characterised by artists who are attuned (some of them avant la lettre) to the major issues of our time. The point is that they deliberately avoid the illustrative, demagogic, simplistic and dazzling route, favouring a subtlety whose messages, being less obvious (and often because of this), seem to me to be more consequential and powerful. This is why I insist on artists who resort to humour or similar tools in their work. I believe it remains one of the most generous and effective ways of exerting and sharing a critical spirit.

Laila Algaves Nuñez (Rio de Janeiro, 1997) is an independent researcher, writer and project manager in cultural communication, particularly interested in the future studies developed in philosophy and the arts, as well as in trans-feminist contributions to imagination and social and ecological thought. With a BA in Social Communication with a major in Cinema (PUC-Rio) and a MA in Aesthetics and Artistic Studies (NOVA FCSH), she collaborates professionally with various national and international initiatives and institutions, such as BoCA - Biennial of Contemporary Arts, Futurama - Cultural and Artistic Ecosystem of Baixo Alentejo and Terra Batida / Rita Natálio.

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