Porto Alegre

Tony Smith, Bat Cave (detail), 1969–71/2013, cardboard. Installation view, Museu de Arte do Rio Grande do Sul. Photo: Tárlis Schneider.

Tony Smith, Bat Cave (detail), 1969–71/2013, cardboard. Installation view, Museu de Arte do Rio Grande do Sul. Photo: Tárlis Schneider.

the 9th Mercosul Biennial

Mercosul Biennial

Tony Smith, Bat Cave (detail), 1969–71/2013, cardboard. Installation view, Museu de Arte do Rio Grande do Sul. Photo: Tárlis Schneider.

IN THE MIDST OF WORLD WAR I, as modern technology wreaked unprecedented destruction on the battlefields of Europe, a mathematician named Lewis Fry Richardson set out to solve the complex problem of predicting the weather. The seemingly intractable challenge of numerical weather forecasting lay in modeling the earth’s atmosphere with partial differential equations. Richardson estimated that sixty-four thousand “computers” (the term then referred to humans carrying out calculations with slide rules) would be necessary to complete the task. While the prohibitive scale of such daunting operations relegated them to the realm of fantasy at the time, they were, in fact, ideally suited for the first modern computer—the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which provided its first climatic prediction in 1950. The weather was no longer merely a subject for idle conversation but a case study for the simulation of complex physical and social systems in real time—in a sense, the origin of today’s informational sublime, from “the cloud,” to the analysis and visualization of so-called big data, to the use of neural-network-based algorithms to predict which movie plots will become profitable.

Though Richardson’s clouds were never explicitly addressed, the Ninth Mercosul Biennial took such “atmospheric disturbances” as its governing theme in addressing what it deemed “unknown, unpredictable and seemingly uncontrollable phenomena.” Titled “Weather Permitting,” the biennial focused on a variety of climates and forces—political, technological, environmental, and affective—providing for a poetic and deftly installed exploration of contemporary art’s relation to issues ranging from the ephemeral to the physical, the technological to the natural, the metaphysics of spheres to ecological crisis. Littoral metaphors often displaced the literal environment; and if these themes and metaphors were drawn from the epistemological models of midcentury science, they also drew from eighteenth-century Romantic notions of nature. In continuing recent attention to materialist conceptions of the world and geological timescales, and in distilling current sociopolitical contingencies—“weather permitting”—the biennial aptly suggested an increasing urgency underpinning questions of material culture and locality. If all that is solid has melted into air, it has also crystallized, producing altogether new interconnections between matter and data.

In keeping with Mercosul’s legacy of critically minded and pedagogically rich biennials, curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy’s iteration was structured around four platforms with varying degrees of public engagement: the main exhibition, titled “Portals, Forecasts and Monotypes,” unfolding in a sequence of elegantly employed neoclassical spaces and a former power station; “Island Sessions,” a publication and discussion series centered on Ilha do Presídio in the Guaíba River, site of a former prison; “Cloud Formations,” an educational program; and “Imagination Machines,” a series of commissions that paired six artists with Brazilian corporations, including resin and steel producers. The resulting commissions, by Lucy Skaer, Cinthia Marcelle, Luiz Roque, and others, were grounded in the model of the art and technology collaborations of the 1960s and ’70s, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art and Technology Program, Experiments in Art and Technology, and the Artist Placement Group. These earlier endeavors were themselves represented in the exhibition by a series of works revisiting both their critical history and their collaborative production.

Such initiatives provided artists with access to emergent information and communication technologies, often before their creative potential or deleterious effects were fully understood. The use of these rarefied technologies also necessitated the specialized knowledge of technicians, scientists, and engineers, along with the economic and structural resources of companies and universities. In an era when postwar optimism was turning into disillusionment over America’s involvement in Vietnam, part of the premise for such collaboration in the ’60s was essentially pharmacological: What had hurt could now cure. For example, Marta Minujín’s Simultaneidad en simultaneidad (Simultaneity in Simultaneity), 1966, a multimedia performance utilizing live feedback and television media that was extensively documented in the exhibition, can be seen precisely as a form of therapy, ameliorating the effects of these technologies of connectivity and spatial collapse. Describing the participants as “captives of communications media,” Minujín attempted to acclimate them to the subjectivities of an overwhelmingly mediated environment. The technological advances of total war, now dispersed through a booming postindustrial economy, were thus to be reimaged and redirected by cultural practices.

Several artworks from these historical collaborations, such as Minujín’s, functioned as central elements of the four venues of the exhibition, providing an underlying technological imaginary for each. Robert Rauschenberg’s Mud Muse, 1969–71, installed in the Santander Cultural building, consists of a large tank filled with bubbling and splattering mud triggered by various natural and man-made sounds, originally produced for the LACMA program. This primordial sludge or eschatological soup functioned as the gurgling underbelly to investigations of things “underground and in outer space”: a lost meteorite (Faivovich & Goldberg); receding glaciers and artificial arctic climates (Pratchaya Phinthong); geostationary satellites (Trevor Paglen); and the indexing of imagined worlds (Fernando Duval). Thiago Rocha Pitta’s mesmerizing Zênithe invertido (Inverted Zenith), 2005, and Prototide, 2008, echoed the same loop between biopoesis and posthuman time through the close observation of physical matter, with David Zink Yi’s ceramic giant squid, Untitled (Architeuthis), 2010, acting as a kind of sci-fi version of environmental catastrophe.

Along with such fantastical forays into outer space and ocean depths, a few of the works here were grounded in the world of hard realities. Bik Van der Pol’s outdoor street-theater musical, What if the moon were just a jump away?, 2013, part of a smartly organized series of performances, began as an allegory of the moon and then crashed back to economic realities on earth. Mixing pandeiro rhythms, accordion accompaniment, and partly improvised Portuguese lyrics based on audience participation, the performers extolled the virtues of direct democracy and participatory budgeting and warned of the encroaching forces of gentrification. In doing so, this performance, which took place in the square facing three of the venues, thereby turned needed attention to the technological divide within the complex economies of bric nations, often perceived by outsiders as economic black boxes that transform natural resources into “information,” a view that gives scarce attention to the lived realities that support digital economies. Aptly, Cao Fei’s What Are You Doing Here?, 2006, gave presence to the labor that supports our digital Maoism (to use Jaron Lanier’s term for collective knowledge production online), in multiple forms, including photographs of and clothing worn by the individuals who produce the interfaces of our so-called immaterial economy.

Tony Smith’s Bat Cave, 1969–71, a monumental structure made from individual cardboard polygons, the result of his collaboration with the Container Corporation of America, re-created for the biennial, anchored the presentation at the Museu de Artes do Rio Grande do Sul. The piece framed a series of works that placed the methodologies, valences, and criteria of artistic practice in relation to scientific paradigms, exploring the role of the artist in processes of material transformation or inquiry. Luis F. Benedit’s Laberinto invisible (Invisible Labyrinth), 1971, mined the formal language of the laboratory experiment to seemingly innocuous ends; and while several works by Takis proposed art and science as knowledge and affect-producing practices, their effect was flattened by a nostalgic futurity. Michel Zózimo’s installation En Plano energético causal (Causal Energetic Plan), 2013, looked to Augusto Mayer, an émigré scientist whose research interests ranged from flying solids to the clouds, spheres, and bubbles of energy captured in the assortment of photographs and slides presented in the exhibition. Yet it was David Medalla’s bubbles, made by his Cloud Gates, 1965/2013, displayed here in a disused power station, that most aptly captured the sense of curiosity pivotal to both scientific and aesthetic inquiry. Nothing more than a motor that turns soapy water into columns of bubbles, the work represents a unique combination of the simple and the spectaclular, and thus occupies a particular historical place between kinetic art and Pop.

At the time of its production, the art emerging from collaborations and partnerships with science and industry was subject to critique for its corporatization, association with military research, and lack of criticality, culminating in the perceived failure of the “Art and Technology” exhibition at LACMA in 1971. Hernández Chong Cuy addresses this contested history, situating her interest in both a similar production model and all the attendant polemics in the meticulously conceived catalogue, which also reproduces material from the LACMA program. Yet despite its careful focus on the history of art and technics and its lyrical articulation of the immaterial, the biennial never grappled with the ontology of information that arguably underlies it, floating around us, everywhere and ever present, yet nebulous and never actually seen. If the rational domination of nature through technology was diagnosed by Heidegger in the ’40s, today’s technologies have produced a new, quantified sublime of information to replace the natural one.

Rather than addressing information or big data, the biennial’s interest in invisible forces—physical but also social and political—suggested something else. It paradoxically reaffirmed the renewed importance of physical resources in our era of scarcity and climate change and suggested the ways in which recent global shifts have transformed material cultures. In the airy and open vaults of the Memorial do Rio Grande do Sul, a former post and telegraph office, a group of closely related works reflected an engagement with geographical distance or material displacement, yet proposed other connections or entanglements or were grounded in the specificity of material and social indices. Anthony Arrobo’s nearly otherworldly resin rock, Perfect Crime, 2013, was cast from a boulder now submerged deep in the Guaíba; Tarek Atoui’s performance Signal Jammed Geographies, 2013, connected the Ilha do Presídio to the power station through recorded radio transmissions from the island, the noise manipulated into a spellbinding atmosphere of sound. The register or trace of physical forces formed the rusty surface of Marcelle’s Traveler Swallowed by the Space, 2013, a large-scale magnetized field of carmine powder moved by the surrounding atmosphere. These pieces point to a renewed specificity invoked against any homogeneous or globalized contemporary.

Such work also reveals the relevance of another type of forecasting: the science-fiction thread lurking throughout the exhibition. While the ostensible premise of sci-fi rests on some imagined future, its “deepest subject may in fact be our own historical present,” displaced by our inability to come to terms with it, as Fredric Jameson has written. In their uncanny intertwining of material conditions with technologies of communication or mediation, works such as Atoui’s or Zink Yi’s remind us that today sci-fi narratives largely revolve around the dystopian impacts of current technology, whether the spread of psychopathologies, the transgression of terrifying thresholds in biotech, apocalyptic shortages of food and water, or the return to an atavistic state of society. The horror of futurity is thus mitigated by our seemingly pathological failure to deal with the incomprehensible complexity of the present. Perhaps, then, the suggestion of the apparent synchronicities in recent art practice offer a means to address the entangled political and material realities of the present. The future just isn’t what it used to be.

João Ribas is a curator and writer based in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts.