A proposal by Veronica Cordeiro
surcontexto is a contemporary art platform based in Montevideo, Uruguay, dedicated to generating projects that prioritize the production of knowledge and experience of curatorial and artistic practices today with its focus on South American art and culture. This initiative arose out of my recent experiences working as an independent curator in Uruguay; thinking about how the need for improvisation and finding creative solutions to lack of funding and tenuous institutional infrastructures led me to question curatorial practice in greater depth, and to develop a more specific approach to working with contemporary art. Curating exhibitions became part of, or synonymous with, an ongoing process of historical and cultural investigation, a practice that necessarily takes into account the social, political, geographic and cultural history and specificity of both place/space and artists/producers involved.
Although Uruguay boasted periods of significant cultural protagonism and innovation in the early decades of the 20th century, since the 1960s recession and ensuing military regime (1973-1985) – which ensured the flattening of creative expression, censorship of critical discourse and exile of many of its key creators – its visual arts scene has suffered considerably. Cultural institutions, most of which are state owned and run, struggle to reinvent and restructure themselves professionally. The almost 200 museums in the country survive on extremely limited funds, insufficient personnel and rarely afford a more specialized staff of curators and experts responsible for the keeping of their historical collections. Curators train in short courses abroad or improvise in accordance with artists’ needs and budgets. Realizing the need for education and training in this field, the University of the Republic introduced the first course in Museology in 2010. The same university offers Montevideo’s only undergraduate diploma in Visual Arts, but, as is the case with the Museology course, criticisms emphasize the need to revise old-fashioned teaching methodologies in order to update these courses with more contemporary sources of art theory and practice. Furthermore, Uruguay is still in the infancy of generating a contemporary art market comparable to other Latin American cities. This belatedness makes it difficult for artists’ work to be circulated, especially internationally, and both commercially and through exhibitions. There is a lot of hard work and improvisation, but many of these efforts tend to be isolated and inconsistent.
Despite what may read as a bleak cultural scenario, there is an unremitting vitality and belief in art-making and production, and a sustained pride in the legacies left by the country’s most internationally acclaimed artists, such as the “constructive universalism” of Joaquín Torres-García (1874- 1949) and the “Latin American conceptualism” of Luis Camnitzer (1937). Both artists pursued their careers in the northern hemisphere – the former in Europe, the latter in New York, where he still lives. Torres-García left a solid constructivist legacy in painting, sculpture, object-making and theory, through his teachings and the Torres-García Studio in the 1930s and 1940s, and is still a major reference for many Uruguayan artists today (the most established art gallery is dedicated to the work of the Torres Studio – Galería Sur). It could be said that between Torres-García and Camnitzer lies a vast and fundamental artistic chronology that informs most contemporary debates on postmodern culture today, which in Uruguay, in turn, became a decades-long hiatus, overshadowed and stigmatized by the dictatorship. The result is a general sense of unease, fragmentation and endeavors that betray, at times, a certain degree of anachronism in their effort to reintroduce the threads of lost history.
This context has paradoxically inspired surcontexto philosophically (to ask questions such as why does art have to shape itself to dominant international market trends in order to become internationally recognized, for instance), and set in motion a new structure that may help to generate a greater sense of community and growth. surcontexto has therefore been structured into three key areas: Research – a platform devoted to ongoing investigation into the history of Uruguayan and South American exhibitions, curatorship and art; Residency – the creation of contextual exhibition projects within a structure that promotes time for dialogue and exchange, ‘living time’, whereby artists are invited to reside in the country for four to six weeks; and Education – the implementation of course-seminars, artist talks, round-table debates, workshops and lecture series, organized into thematic modules in association with partner institutions locally and abroad.
Cao Guimarães’s Weather World, a five-week residency and exhibition project carried out in November 2010 in Montevideo, set in motion the character and structure of this platform. The “curatorial context” for the Brazilian artist and filmmaker was an affinity that I’d perceived since moving to Montevideo in 2009, between the artist’s attraction to the poetic in unpopulated areas at the margins of urban realities, and the dilated sense of time characteristic of the Uruguayan landscape. Parallel to his residency in Montevideo and in addition to the survey show held from November 2010 to January 2011, two round-table debates were organized with anthropologists and myself, and partnerships were struck with local cinemas to show one of his feature films, Drifter (2007) and a selection of shorts from the last 10 years. As a result of his time in Uruguay, the artist produced a new series of photographs and a medium-length film shot in different parts of the country, which were subsequently shown in Paris and at the 8th Mercosul biennial. This year a similar context-based residency was organized with artist Rosângela Rennó, known for her extensive work with historical photographic archives, to work with a recently recovered archive belonging to the communist newspaper El Popular (1957-1973). For this project, surcontexto partnered with the Centro Municipal de Fotografía to produce a more ambitious research-based residency and exhibition. Further partnerships were also sought with several local institutions, in order to expand and proliferate the project’s artistic scope into other areas of thought and production. A book-project is now underway, a co-authorship with the artist to record this project and reflect upon its political and aesthetic implications.
Current and future projects
Throughout each project and also as a parallel and ongoing segment of surcontexto is “Inter/View,” an audiovisual project in conjunction with the photography collective Dokumental, composed of interviews carried out with artists, historians, curators, writers and all those who might have a unique view or story regarding South/Latin American history, art and theory. These interviews are uploaded onto the surcontexto website as part of a continuously expanding archive.
In December 2011, as part of surcontexto, I launched a discursive platform called “Plato Crítico” (Critical Dish). Plato Crítico selects two exhibitions to critique on a monthly basis, and for each public event a new guest critic is invited to articulate their thoughts, alongside myself and the artists in question. A mobile platform that takes place in different cultural centers according to its program, every Plato Crítico is fully documented, with the aim of producing two publications a year with edited transcriptions of all topics discussed. Among Plato Crítico’s objectives are the creation of a less fragmented artistic community and a space where discussion and critique are encouraged within a professional setting. Once the required funding is underway Plato Crítico hopes to bring international guests to present specific exhibition case-studies and to do studio visits and workshops in Montevideo and other neighboring regions. The idea is that Plato Crítico establishes itself as the main discursive platform of surcontexto, gradually compiling a regional history of South and Latin American exhibitions, at the same time as it continually surveys art production in the present. The name Plato Crítico was derived from critical “platform” and implicitly alludes to the notion of a critical plateau, to Plato’s dialogues and to the dish (“plato” in Spanish) as a physical/metaphorical space/container into which are placed a selection of ingredients to be studied and discussed.
Veronica Cordeiro is a curator and writer based in Montevideo, Uruguay. She studied Art History at Edinburgh University and has an MA in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London. Founder of surcontexto.org, an independent organisation devoted to research and curating in context within the field of contemporary South and Latin American art and history, her ongoing projects include Plato Crítico, an art criticism platform that takes place monthly in different galleries and museums in Montevideo; Inter/View, an audiovisual project with Dokumental collective that maps thought-processes through interviews with artists, curators, philosophers, writers, etc. Recent curatorships include two survey shows of Brazilian artist and filmmaker, Cao Guimarães (Le monde atmosphère at Galerie Xippas, Paris, 2011 and Inmersión Sensoria, residency followed by exhibition at SUBTE, Montevideo, 2010) and a six-week residency followed by an exhibition of new work by Rosângela Rennó in Montevideo, 2011-2012. Among her current projects are an exhibition of new work by Pablo Uribe (1962) and a retrospective of Ernesto Vila (1937). Recent publications include an interview with Rosângela Rennó for BES Photo 2012 (Lisbon) and an essay on the collective Alonso+craciun for Marcelina (2011, São Paulo). She writes regularly for exhibition catalogues and has published over 60 reviews, studios visits and essays in Art Nexus (Colombia), Arte y Parte (Valencia), trans>arts.cultures.media (NY), Trópico (SP), Marcelina (SP), among others. Cordeiro is the co-curator of the Urugay Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennial.