Public Dialog: Conversations with Brazilian Artists and Curators Simone Osthoff, Giselle Beiguelman, and Priscila Arantes

Simone Osthoff

Professor of Art and Critical Studies, School of Visual Arts
Pennsylvania State University

This panel took place at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Saturday, September 22, 2012 as part of ISEA’s Latin American Forum. Rather than tracing a history of rising national artists and curators from a marginal past to a successful present, we emphasized methodologies that continuously challenge the old center-margin binary.

New media art histories are narratives in the making that explore topological connections taking place both here and elsewhere. Topology is an elastic concept both in terms of space and time. In addition, it does not have “vanishing points.” It is not bound by geography, nationality, nor perspective theory, with its full kit of ready-made subjects and objects, planes of representation and cones of vision. [1] And the restrictive part of a linear history understood in terms of perspective is the notion of progress, especially of scientific progress—a concept, which generally assumes that the thinkers who stay behind are obsolete.

The provocative French thinker and philosopher of science Michel Serres is among the critics of the classical notion of time, because for him, contemporary thinking should be capable of multi-temporal relations, at the same time archaic, modern, and futurist. And Serres points out that there are plenty of relevant ideas by thinkers of the past, paths not taken and possibilities unexplored, which can be as insightful and relevant as some contemporary concepts.

Increasingly, Brazilian media art is becoming central to contemporary art while expanding our understanding of what we mean by “Brazilian.” An example is ArtForum’s September 2012 issue celebrating the magazine’s 50th anniversary by dedicating the issue to the examination of the relationship between art and media over the past 50 years. Among others, there is an article about the media philosopher Vilém Flusser who wrote a column for ArtForum in the 1980s. [2] This article by John Rajchman titled “Strange Trip” emphasized the cross-cultural nature of Flusser’s philosophy by stating that this philosopher is interesting today not so much as a media theorist who examined how technical images were substituting writing and bringing about the end of history. For Rajchman, Flusser is interesting in terms of his philosophical journey, which included cultural translations between a number of countries and languages. He thought in translation and without foundations by speculating on language and science, theology and design, philosophy and history. Flusser’s groundless philosophy was in part developed during the three decades he lived in Brazil amidst a cosmopolitan modernism that is just beginning to be recognized as a variant modernist route, as Rajchman pointed out:

Flusser’s 1960s Brazilian dialogues examine writing and image as a constant bodily provocation of thought. In other words, it is the great Brazilian moment in which Flusser participated that matters for us today because it serves to provincialize Greenberg’s-style modernism as the crux around which everything turns; it helps us to see New York modernism as only a limited variant in a much more complicated story of writing and image carried on in many ways and places. [2]

A second example with an insightful curatorial view of Brazilian art was the exhibition “From the Margins to the Edge” which took place in London in the summer of 2012 and was curated by Rafael Cardoso. This show was organized according to three sets of binaries: civilized/savage (addressing the relationship between Brazil and Europe, and thus colonial and decolonial issues); craftsmanship/gambiarra (focusing on the relations among art, design and making, including relations between materials and medium; artifacts and commodities; luxury and garbage); and the pair preservation and transformation (referring to social and cultural impact of globalization and visions of the future).

Such de-colonial reflections contribute to a reexamination of history, documentation, and archives. They are being imagined and theorized by among others, the Southern Conceptualisms Network—Red Conceptualismos del Sur [3], a network of artists, curators, and critics from various countries in Latin America who are collaborating with similar institutions across the globe such as the Asia Art Archive, a research institution based in Hong Kong, which in turn collaborates with others such as the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art, and The Van-Abbe-Museum’s archive located in Eindhoven, Holland. For the Asian Art Archive, for instance, the very constitution of a collection of documents is at stake:

The archive is neither just a collection of texts that define a culture, nor even a set of institutions that preserve texts. The archive is ‘the law of what can be said.’ Despite the widely accepted (and caricatured) depiction of the archivist as gate-keeper over a dusty basement of illegible, yellowing files stacked from floor to ceiling, the truth is that the practice of archiving is from the outset an act of creativity and imagination. The design of an archive and its ontological structure require the creator to envision a future. And it is the archive’s operational structure that must be set into place to manifest this vision. [4]

The increasing international visibility of Brazilian art over the last few decades is not only part of the constant expansion of artistic practices, institutions, and global markets. It is first and foremost, the result of critical reflections producing a post-periphery era.


1. Michel Serres explains how topology works in contrast to a geometry based on the flat plane: “If you take a handkerchief and spread it out in order to iron it, you can see in it certain fixed distances and proximities. If you sketch a circle in one area, you can mark out nearby points and measure far-off distances. Then take the same handkerchief and crumple it, by putting it in your pocket. Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed. If, further, you tear it in certain places, two points that were close can become very distant. This science of nearness and rifts is called topology, while the science of stable and well-defined distances is called metrical geometry.” Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, Trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Harbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 60.
2. See John Rajchman “Strange Trip” in ART FORUM, Sept. 2012, pp. 157-8.
3. Southern Conceptualisms Network include among others Joaquín Barriendos, Cristián Gómez Moya, David Gutierrez Castañeda, Miguel A. Lopez, Jaime Vindel. Further examples of similar curatorial projects are the exhibition Drifts and Derivations: experiences, journeys and morphologies organized by Lisette Lagnado and María Berríos at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2010. It explored Chilean and Brazilian experiential modernisms including those produced by Flavio de Carvalho, Lina Bo Bardi, the Valparaiso School, and Roberto da Matta. In this direction is also the publication of Cristina Freire and Ana Longuini, Conceptualisms do sul/sur.
4. Note from the Editors, “The Archive as Method”, Field Notes 02, Journal of the Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, p. 4.


Simone Osthoff is a Professor of Art and Critical Studies in the School of Visual Arts at the Pennsylvania State University. A Brazilian born and U.S. based artist and scholar; she holds a MFA degree from the University of Maryland (1992), a MA in Art History, Theory, and Criticism from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1996), and a Ph.D. in Media and Communication from the European Graduate School, Switzerland (2008). Her fields of interest are Contemporary Art, Theory, and Criticism with focus on experimental practices and decolonial histories. Osthoff’s numerous book chapters, essays, and reviews have been widely published and are translated into eight languages. She is the author of Performing the Archive: The Transformation of the Archive in Contemporary Art From Repository of Documents to Art Medium (Atropos Press, 2009), and she is currently working on a book about the Suplemento Dominical do Jornal do Brasil published from 1956 to 1961 during the utopian years of the construction of Brasília.