Solange Farkas: Video Art Finds a Home in Brasil

Since the first edition of the Videobrasil festival, a festival dedicated to video art and artists, the organization Associação Cultural Videobrasil, which was formally established as a nonprofit by Solange Farkas in 1991, has been working to provide a platform for video artists to address issues of the Global South and to offer an entry point for audiences to engage with their work. An interest in video art in Brazil grew out of the military government of the 1960s, when artists began to use the medium as a way to express opposition and contrarian views. From this moment, a radical, subversive artist movement emerged. Videobrasil (Associação Cultural Videobrasil) has been an important avenue to keeping this movement alive, and for making space for Brazilians seeking to understand their lives and maintain a sense of free expression in the challenging economic, social, and political circumstances of today.

While video emerged as an art form in the 1960s, it only came into use in Brazil in the 1970s as artists sought to create more experimental works. In much of the country, “real art” by visual artists was still defined as only painting or sculpture. There was great resistance to video’s legitimacy outside of more cosmopolitan cities such as São Paulo. With the encouragement and enthusiasm of her father-in-law, a well-known Brazilian artist working in photography and film, Solange Farkas decided to create a platform for these seemingly rebellious artists.

In 1983, at the end of the military dictatorship, Farkas staged the first edition of Videobrasil as artists still lived in fear that the government might perceive their work as anti-government, or anti-Brazilian. In its early stages, the festival highlighted a number of technological developments in video that would have otherwise been relegated to the world of television. Many of the video works presented at the festival combined the language of documentary film and traditional cinema with lo-fi or TV aesthetics as a way to express anti-establishment views subversively. (Before presenting the work, artists had to clear their submissions through the government censors.) Despite these obstacles, the first edition surprised many in the art world: the inaugural Videobrasil revealed to Brazilians—and soon the mainstream art world—that the country was filled with strong and compelling art and ideas by video artists.

As the video collection has grown, so has Videobrasil’s focus. Moving away from a purely geographic and media emphasis, Videobrasil has since expanded its focus to include people who are united by their similar economic and political situations, what it calls the Geopolitical South—Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Throughout its history, Videobrasil has followed the trends of video art from obscurity and marginalization to recognition, legitimization, and acceptance. More recently, the festival has expanded its view of video to engage artists who don’t always identify as video makers.

The festival’s most recent nineteenth edition allowed the organization to introduce a major change. For the first time in history, the festival had a permanent home. Galpão VB (The White House), now open in São Paulo’s Vila Leopoldina district, features rotating exhibitions, public programming, artist talks, lectures, workshops, and viewing and reading room hours. Finding a permanent home for the festival has been an important goal for Farkas, who has dedicated much of her career to creating a safe and welcoming space for critical dialogues about the range of contemporary art outside of the Global North. While the goal of the festival remains to foster connections among people living and working in geographies with similar social, political, and economic realities, Videobrasil’s move to a permanent home provides an incredible opportunity to carry forward this mission in new ways.

Throughout a prolific twenty-five-year career, Farkas has brought important international artists to the country through Videobrasil including Bill Viola, Peter Greenaway, and Marina Abramovic. Outside of this work, she has curated exhibitions including the Pan-African Exhibition of Contemporary Art (Salvador, 2005); La Mirada Discreta: Marcel Odenbach & Robert Cahen (Buenos Aires, 2006); Roteiro Amarrado (CCBB Rio de Janeiro, 2010) and Suspensão e Fluidez (ARCO, Madrid, 2007), both featuring the works of Brazilian artist Eder Santos. In 2015, she was invited to join the content committee of the UN Live Museum (the United Nations Museum for Humanity), the award jury of the 10éme Rencontres de Bamako, and the seminar Media in Transition, organized by the Tate Modern in partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Research and support of the New Art Trust. I visited the Galpão in February as staff prepared to re-open with a series of exhibitions called In Context, to speak with Farkas about Videobrasil’s history of combining art with politics.

Photo by Everton Ballardin
Photo by Everton Ballardin

Lee Ann Norman Let’s start by talking about the new building, the Galpão VB. You moved here last fall for the nineteenth Videobrasil festival, and now you are launching the ongoing programming that occurs in the space.

Solange Farkas Yes. Now, we are preparing the next exhibition in the In Context series, where the whole idea is to make projects that relate to the archive. We will have four shows during the year. The first was with Cláudio Bueno from Brazil and Mahmoud Khaled from Egypt. The next will be two exhibitions. One is called Agridoce (Bittersweet), featuring South African artist Haroon Gunn-Salie, who is the first winner of the SP-Arte/Videobrasil prize, and the other will feature two artists – Karol Radzsizewski from Poland, and Vitor Cesar from Brazil – looking at notions of the archive.

We’ve desired to have a space like this for a very long time. It’s been a kind of mission [to have] a place where we can make the archive alive and try to relate it to the audience. We will have public programs, exhibitions, and workshops, all in an effort to relate to this universe of [Videobrasil] artists. The whole idea of this place is how can we put the archive in context with contemporary art and push more of these kinds of artists (in general, the kind who don’t have too much visibility) into the world.

[pullquote_full]The idea of Videobrasil has always been about how we can live here and then connect with people who are living in a similar situation to us.

LAN How does the ongoing programming at the Galpão relate to your biannual Sesc_Videobrasil festival?

SF The festival is very, very important, but at the Galpão, we want to do the kinds of things [we do during the festival] continuously. That means we will have small shows that are in contact everyday with the public. This is very important. This area [São Paulo’s Vila Leopoldina district] is more outside of the city center, so we want to help people in this area be in contact with visual art.

An open air screening during the 19th Videobrasil Festival; photo by Tiago Lima.
An open air screening during the 19th Videobrasil Festival; photo by Tiago Lima.

It’s a new challenge for Videobrasil to have this place where we work with the archive and the audience all day long. During the festivals or the big shows, we had [a similar] experience [of working with the audience], but now, we get to relate more to the process of working with the artists on the shows. It’s a new moment, not quite a refresh, but [a moment to] update our mission, push more, and really take risks in this crazy country [laughs].

LAN You work with artists from all over the geopolitical south, bringing them to Brazil for exhibitions and programs. Lately, you’ve been using this term over “global south” since it unites a group of artists around areas and issues beyond geography, making the definition fluid. Do you think it helps change the way artists from such regions are viewed or perceived in the larger art world?

SF We aren’t interested in getting our artists integrated into the art market, necessarily. We just really want to make it so more people are in contact with this powerful art form. We do this through activating the collection, meaning we have people come in, or we ourselves curate selections from the archive that feel fresh and relevant to current social situations. [With the Galpão] we have a space where we can do daily actions indefinitely, whether it’s a talk, an exhibition, or a meeting, so we can put the collection in touch with the audience. But this also gives us an opportunity to update the collection through the eyes–the gaze–of new curators and different artists.

We are also the first cultural organization in this area, and we are the largest video organization in Latin America. Our publications, the videos, and research library can have a substantial impact. We now are able to grow our audience because we have a research team, an archive team, and various people doing things to expand our program.

LAN Videobrasil was created from a very specific context, emerging as the military dictatorship was officially ending. People began using video as a way of expressing ideas that could not always be expressed freely. Once more, we are seeing political strife in the country. Do you see any parallels to the ways people were using video when Videobrasil was founded, during and after the dictatorship, and how artists are incorporating the medium as a mode of expression now?

Programas Públicos | Oficinas | Ting-Ting Cheng / Public programs | Workshops | Ting-Ting Cheng
Programas Públicos | Oficinas | Ting-Ting Cheng / Public programs | Workshops | Ting-Ting Cheng

SF From the beginning, our history was related to the complexity of living here, far away from the center of the art world and the European and US context. The idea of Videobrasil has always been about how we can live here and then connect with people who are living in a similar situation to us. We’ve made some small changes in direction [over the years], of course, especially with the artists, but the idea of the festival has remained the same. Today, of course it’s different, but it was very important for us to make space for this kind of platform, so we could be in contact with people like us, do something together, and then try and change the situation.

Back then it was difficult to travel, very difficult to move. It was very difficult to be in contact with people in Europe and the United States because we didn’t have a voice. We did not just have a dictatorship here, but most countries of Latin America were in a similar situation. We could see and hear about the same things, and recognize artist with the same feelings and desires to change our lives. It is still useful for us to have this kind of mission, where we have visions of people all over the world in the same “mood;” let’s say that. Of course, Videobrasil became a reference for artists. Maybe this is the most important thing for us, so we are working in this direction more and more. Today, we can recognize that we have built a wonderful, natural network and that it’s still helpful for us.

LAN Now that the lower house of Congress voted to impeach the President, the country’s stability once again seems precarious, which has already affected state support for arts and culture. Do you think this will have a significant effect on the way that artists in Brazil are working or how they might work in the future?

SF The time here now, is very hard. We can do nothing; just wait for what will happen. It’s really hard, but we have to try to go on with our work. For me, it’s not the first time I’m confronted with this kind of political situation. The dictatorship was really crazy, but today, we are…not well prepared. It’s not easy to see any hope [for the situation] right now, but we have incredible people here, artists who have a lot of experience doing things without any cultural policies for making political works.

[pullquote_full]Of course we have to take care and be patient, but it’s very important that we continue to go on and try to transform things.

Of course we have to take care and be patient, but it’s very important that we continue to go on and try to transform things. Video is a wonderful tool for this because of its ability to communicate. Today, we have the Internet alongside video, so it’s easier to contextualize things in a way that we could not during the dictatorship. What we are doing now is not very different from what we’ve always done, but we are adding publications and exhibitions that challenge the status quo in different ways.

LAN Has the current political situation in Brazil affected how you’ve gone about curating the new exhibition series, In Context?

SF The artists who are showing their works are encouraged to research the collection and try to establish relationships [between their artworks and the] other pieces. In the exhibition on view now, we have also a space where we are showing works from the collection as they relate to the work of the artists. Although we are interested in making the collection relevant to current events, we want to open that up to interpretation. We are interested in democratizing culture, so giving a range of people the opportunity to explore our archive and make connections that are relevant to their lives. This helps us reach a broader audience.

Programas Públicos | Encontros e Conversas | Encontro com Rede de Residências / Public programs | Meetings and conversations | Meeting with Residence Network
Programas Públicos | Encontros e Conversas | Encontro com Rede de Residências / Public programs | Meetings and conversations | Meeting with Residence Network

We know that the conservative forces, which are really strong inside of the Congress, are resistant to these ideas, but we present them anyway. We launched a publication by the Peruvian curator Miguel A. López that looks at art history through a queer and feminist perspective of critical opposition. Haroon Gunn-Salie’s exhibition Agridoce speaks to the environmental tragedy that happened in Mariana, South Africa, and the next In Context exhibition is about the Queer Archives Institute, so queer publications from the 1970s and 80s in Eastern Europe and Brazil [will be shown], something else mass media will never show. We are really in dialogue in these [political and social] forces through the arts and building visibility for important issues and perspectives. We have this platform that allows us to share art histories that aren’t always shown in standard ways.

LAN Now that the building is open and the next In Context exhibition is up – I know this question may feel premature – but does the Galpão “feel right” to you yet? Are things coming together as you envisioned? Are there things that you still want to change or develop?

[pullquote_full]We are at a moment of crisis in Brazil, but it is exactly at this moment that we . . . can come up with new ideas, new formulas, and strategies to think about the stability of cultural centers and institutions.

SF No, it’s not the best moment to ask this question [laughs]. It’s open, but it’s not so open . . . but I’m sure that this is the best thing to do, to be in contact with the artists and audience all the time. A lot of artists, curators, and researchers have asked Videobrasil to do this for a very long time. The challenge of having this space open without having any public funding to help [support it] makes me more and more energized about surviving this period. It makes me want to do more exciting things. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy [laughs], but I want to do this.

This is a good moment to build a strong program over the next two to three years. We know what we want to do here while being open to what people want for Videobrasil, but it’s a new challenge to keep the program going with a diversity of activities and raise funds for these different things. We are a nonprofit association. We know we are at a moment of crisis in Brazil, but it is exactly at this moment that we, together with the artist community, can come up with new ideas, new formulas, and strategies to think about the stability of cultural centers and institutions. It’s a difficult moment, but it’s an exciting moment because new things can come.

LAN Lastly, many people have likened you to Lina Bo Bardi in terms of your influence and impact on art and culture in the country. Have you heard that? Do you have any feelings about being compared to her?

SF [laughs] In Bahia? Bahia, yes since we are both from Bahia, but here [in São Paulo], I’m not sure. I just try to take more risks than others. Lina was a great architect with an open vision of the world; she was great. And of course, I feel flattered [by the comparison], but I try to do things here, locally. It’s really a [personal] mission. I try to do my best. When artists started using video in Brazil thirty years ago, nobody knew about it, what it could be. In that period, I don’t know why, but I was really sure about the importance of video for this country, this region. Today, it’s become a really important medium to make change, not just in the arts but in life. Sometimes you have to have opportunities in life to take big risks, to see, and to hear people more than you talk. We really need this attitude here.

This interview first appeared in Guernica Daily.

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