PRINT January 2016



Sandra Kogut, Parabolic People, 1991, video, color, sound, 40 minutes 42 seconds. Installation view.

ARE IMAGES TODAY dematerialized, ephemeral configurations of pixels and electronic signals that merely pause as they migrate from screen to screen? Or are they more multifarious in their ubiquity, inhabiting visual surfaces as well as imaginaries and modes of apprehension, historical sedimentations and cartographies of power? Of course, this is a false opposition: It is precisely the image’s mutability that allows it to so deeply infiltrate our materialities, politics, and patterns of perception. Yet since the beginning of video art’s relatively short history, there has been a certain dream about the medium’s critical, affective potential that pertains to its tendency toward dematerialization. There was always a desire, in other words, that video might unleash images from the stagnation of objects, launch them into circulation, and facilitate the crossing of borders and upsetting of traditions; that video’s plasticity was uniquely suited to generating newly nomadic images in turn.

I was reminded of this ambition when viewing Sandra Kogut’s exhilarating video Parabolic People, 1991, in the exhibition of works from the Videobrasil Collection archive that ran parallel to the nineteenth iteration of the São Paulo–based Contemporary Art Festival SESC_Videobrasil. The festival was founded in 1983 in the heady climate of Brazil’s imminent redemocratization after two decades of military rule. These were years when filmmakers, journalists, artists, and activists fought to break up television monopolies and censorship; when, across the world, smashing walls and pulsing to the beat of a mass-mediated global village was still a utopian project rather than a symptom of the corporatization of culture. Parabolic People resulted from a residency in France that Kogut won through Videobrasil in 1989. It is built from clips collected in video kiosks that Kogut installed in the streets of Paris; Rio de Janeiro; Moscow; Dakar; New York; and Tokyo, where passersby could duck in off the street and record themselves. Set to an intoxicating pop sound track and overlaid with a patchwork of flickering signals, blazes of color, gliding images, and snippets of moving text, the work captures the euphoria of its moment. Multilingual and discordant, its fragmented elements magnetize and reverberate without being forced to cohere. It is also the kind of work one can appreciate screened on a TV monitor, projected on a gallery wall, streamed as a YouTube video, or delivered in almost any other media format. After all, Parabolic People celebrates video’s polymorphous quality—its capacity to deploy images that are everywhere and nowhere at once.

Yto Barrada’s Wallpaper—Tangier, 2001, which opened the invited artists’ section of this year’s Videobrasil, formed a refracted riposte to this now-historical reverie. It is not a video, but instead a hybrid image-object that consists of an expanse of wallpaper that exactly matches the size of the freestanding wall on which it is installed. Printed on this lining is the image of yet another swath of wallpaper, this one divided into panels, cropped, and frayed. The scene it depicts is the stuff of packaged tourism: a crystalline lake, a field dotted with trees, snow-topped mountains in the distance. The work’s visual interest does not, of course, derive from this canned vista (Barrada photographed it in a café in Tangier), but in the way its representational surface becomes obdurately material, pulling away from its support to betray its wrinkling, fading, and misregistration. Yet this physicality is ultimately a trompe l’oeil. The work’s depicted materiality is suspended between images, while its actual materiality functions more like a barrier than a banal background. If images slide and effortlessly mutate in Parabolic People, here they are immobilized and stalled. And whereas Kogut’s early work implies the transit and transformation of subjects within a deliriously globalizing world, Barrada’s Wallpaper evokes the geopolitical asymmetries that structure movement and restraint. The port of Tangier, after all, is a key point of passage between Africa and Europe. In this, it is a locus of inverted, though not reciprocal, fantasies about the desirability of “elsewhere”: On one hand, the city is imagined as a vacationer’s idyllic paradise; on the other, it acts as a highly restrictive point of departure for economic and political migrants. It is not quite clear to which fiction the wallpaper refers. Like those in Parabolic People, this image is everywhere and nowhere at once. Yet unlike those skidding, superimposed fragments, it is not an image in motion, but rather a synecdoche of blockage.

THREE FRAMEWORKS steer Videobrasil’s intervention within the global circuit of recurring exhibitions of contemporary art. First, a rotating cast of curators (in this case Bernando José de Souza, Bitu Cassundé, João Laia, Júlia Rebouças, and Solange Farkas, the last also the festival’s founder) select works for its main exhibition from an international open call. This means that the exhibition trends toward emerging artists and, at least theoretically, bypasses the promotional system of the art market in favor of a more democratic base. This edition’s juried grand-prize winner was the Beijing-based twenty-eight-year-old Hui Tao, whose riveting video Talk About Body, 2013, pictures the artist sitting on a bed, swathed in a hijab, and surrounded by a throng of onlookers. Dispassionately cataloguing his biological and genetic features, he recasts his body as a corporeal palimpsest given over to the “continuous invasion and blending [of] history.” Tao’s work joined that of fifty-two other artists and collectives in the sprawling main exhibition, which, following Videobrasil tradition, was accompanied by shows of invited or commissioned works by more established artists. This year, Barrada was featured alongside the Portuguese filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes; Malian artist and educator Abdoulaye Konaté and Brazilian sculptor Sonia Gomes, both of whom utilize textiles to vastly different ends; and Paris-based Brazilian artist Rodrigo Matheus, whose site-specific work addressed the exhibition space’s former life as a factory.

Since 2011, Videobrasil’s second organizational principle has been its openness to all media, though video remains its mainstay. Although one could argue that this makes it cognate with other contemporary art festivals, it also creates an institutional space to engage the heterogeneous offshoots of video since its origins in television and magnetic tape, offering a panorama of contemporary practice constellated around the moving image rather than painting, installation, or the other media that typically inhabit the white cube. This porous rubric is often enormously productive, allowing the inclusion here, for example, of Köken Ergun’s engrossing dual-screen projection of Turkish children spouting nationalist ideologies; Carlos Mélo’s video performance of Pierre Restany’s 1978 “naturalist” manifesto; Paulo Nazareth’s quartet of videos recalling the infamous Tree of Forgetting at the slave-trading port of Ouidah, Benin; and Roy Dib’s deadpan allegory of Arab-Israeli intimacy and sex. But the results can be uneven. Sculpture suffers in particular, not least because the myriad modes of video presentation—hanging scrims, monitors on pedestals, black-box zones, staged microenvironments, cinema-scale screens—take on sculptural presences themselves.

At first glance, this proliferation of formats might be taken as evidence of the enormous flexibility of video content. Yet this multiplicity no longer signals the innate mutability of the medium. To the contrary, it indicates a condensation of moving images into highly specified material configurations that approach objects in their constitution. Paradoxically, as videos approach the status of things, objects become more like images. Sometimes this quality is theorized by the work itself, as in Barrada’s Wallpaper. But it can also be a collateral effect. Installed next to a massive projection of Abrantes’s film Liberdade (Freedom, 2011), even Gomes’s magnificent twisted, bunched, and knotted fabric constructions—so amply haptic—verge on becoming pictures.

A final distinctive characteristic of Videobrasil is its sustained focus on the global South, understood not as a literal place but as a set of conditions, experiences, and affiliations that concern regions marginalized by the ongoing legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. Once upon a time such regions were termed third world in reference to their “third” alternative to the Cold War’s capitalist/socialist dichotomy and to their pervasive economic underdevelopment. The twenty-first-century appellation recognizes that such conditions and political reconfigurations are neither fixed within geographic limits nor brokered by independent nation-states. Streams of migrants and a debt crisis have propelled Greece into the southern axis, for instance, a fact acknowledged by Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk’s decision to collaborate with the Greek magazine South as a State of Mind and stage the 2017 exhibition in both Kassel and Athens. But whereas Documenta’s promise to build a bridge—in the artistic director’s words “a political one, over which the refugees who need to find a safe home in Europe might be able to walk”—between these two cities reiterates (even as it critiques) the same top-down hierarchy of power and finance that shaped the bailout and austerity measures, Videobrasil privileges horizontal relations that stretch across multiple points south. The specter of the global North is never far off, but by reorienting artistic production toward lateral and transversal dialogues, Videobrasil affirms that a key task of the global South is to institute new vectors of reference.

It is surely to highlight this relational priority that the curators chose to eschew partitions, installing the majority of works in the main exhibition within sight of one another. This approach built a certain distraction into the viewing experience, as one tended to watch, or scan, two or more pieces simultaneously. If earlier video works such as Parabolic People allegorized their own moment of globalization via a multiplicity internal to their format, this multiplicity is now externalized as a function of sight lines and the viewer’s movement in space. “Globalization as backdrop” would be an easy, and not entirely unwarranted, critique. Yet this installation also drew explicit attention to the exhibition’s social and architectural container, namely the área de convivência (space for living together) of the landmark SESC Pompeia, designed by the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi in 1982. SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio) is an entity that oversees a national network of community centers funded by taxes levied on the Brazilian commercial sector, and workers from this sector are its main constituents. On any given day, however, visitors to SESC spaces vastly exceed this single demographic. And because the institution’s range of offerings—from preventative health exams and ceramics workshops to rock concerts and conferences on queer theory and speculative anthropology—is equally diverse, art is presented not as capital to be captured but as a polyvalent experience woven into the fabric of the everyday. In this respect, the selfie-snapping culture of northern megamuseums pales in comparison. To chart a global South from this extremely localized site is to insist that the south is not, in fact, a state of mind: It is a set of lived coordinates that demand a different frame of knowing.

Irene V. Small is an assistant professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University in New Jersey.