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Diversity in Autonomy: São Paulo’s Independent Art Spaces
by Vivian Mocellin

Independent, autonomous, alternative, experimental. These are some of the designations used to name several arts spaces inaugurated in recent years in Brazil and especially in São Paulo. The variety of nomenclatures doesn’t constitute a mere semantic shift or strategy to escape classification; it actually reflects a vast plurality of practices and positions. These spaces are as experimental as the art they produce; everything—their architecture, artists, projects, programmes, managerial approaches—is a relentless, non-linear and tentative process. Questioning is more recurrent than any certainty, and changes are a constant. There is always a certain feeling of impermanence in the air. But despite the differences, the underlying aspiration that connects these spaces is the desire for independence, freedom, and resistance, enunciated in different ways but always present in every statement they produce. The question that remains, though, is: against whom are they fighting, what are they trying to resist, from whom do they want to be freed?

It seems like there is not an answer for this question, but a plurality of possible responses. The enemy being fought here is invisible, evasive, and lubricous; it can be the art market, the government and its bureaucracies, capitalism, the system at large. It appears in the form of official narrative, institutional discourse, and other microphysics of power that tend to appropriate the arts reducing it to its exchange value. It is against this voidance that these independent art spaces seem to have risen, and it is this exact attitude that gives them a political importance, even when the art they produce is not necessarily political in the traditional sense. While the Brazilian arts scene emerged globally with the opening of many commercial galleries and art fairs in the last decade, it is this heterogeneous group of independent initiatives that is playing an essential role in the reception, development, and promotion of experimental art in the country today. More than creating a place for artistic expression, they create a noise that reverberates with different voices and desires, giving visibility to types of art that don’t find a place in the traditional arts circuit.

These spaces are spread through the whole city, but in the last two years there has been a concentration of them in downtown São Paulo. The area, once wracked by crime and violence, is now experiencing a revitalization. Architecturally stunning, the region boasting the addresses of some of the major art institutions in the country—Pinacoteca, CCBB and Caixa Cultural—has also seen a wave of openings of new culture-oriented places such as Balsa (which defines itself as a space for encounters with no fixed opening hours) and commercial initiatives such as the Red Bull Station (that promotes interdisciplinary projects involving music and arts, including a residency program and regular workshops/seminars). All of them were attracted to the area by the decadent and elusive charm that emanates from its sumptuous baroque and neoclassical buildings, as well as some of its astonishing early-modern edifices such as Copan, designed by the acclaimed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Pivô exterior; Courtesy of the author


It is this S-shaped building, highly influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier, that houses the most talked about of the independent art spaces: Pivô. Occupying an abandoned dentist office that spreads across a good part of the first and second floors of the building, the non-profit cultural organization's emphasis is on the interlacement of arts, architecture, urban planning, and critical theory, especially through projects that are directly related to the space they inhabit—the Copan building—its historical and socio-political aspects, as well as its surroundings. For example, artist Lais Myrrha's “Gameleria” project, exhibited on the former mezzanine of the Copan, was an investigation of the biggest civil accident in Brazil’s history, which killed over 100 workers in 1971 during the construction of a Niemeyer edifice in the heyday of modernism. In an effort to protect the image of the modernist utopia, media exposure of the accident was limited, instituting a kind of social amnesia which erased the tragedy from the official narrative of modern Brazil. Myrrha restitutes this memory, creating a kind memorial and gravestone of the accident in the heart of one the landmarks of the modernist project and Niemeyer’s career. On the second floor of Pivô, artist Erica Ferrari's Corpos d’Água (Bodies of Water) investigates the condition of the rivers in São Paulo. Fundamental in the foundation and development of the city, they have undergone harsh transformations, being virtually erased from the city’s landscape to open way to concrete and urbanization—a metaphor of the political and social complexity of Brazil’s biggest city.

Not too far from Pivô, we find .Aurora, an autonomous art space formed and managed by five artists (Bel Falleiros, Diogo Lucato, Francesco Di Tillo, Gabriel Gutierrez and Laura Davina) and an exhibition designer (Claudia Afonso). It serves as a studio, exhibition space, and a place for artist exchanges, with programmes that include talks and projects by guest artists. One of these projects is Vitrine, a mini solo exhibition space where guest artists are invited to occupy 1.5 square meters of .Aurora’s space with their work. The current edition, (Re), is a collaboration between the performer Shima and artist Raquel Schembri, consisting of an exchange of letters exploring each other's creative process. Their correspondence will now be unveiled to the public, culminating in a performance in November during the Vitrine group exhibition. In addition, .Aurora offers a space dedicated to independent publications, artists' books, and multiples; it presents site-specific installations in its second-floor windows; and it runs Dialogues, an ongoing series of dialogues and talks with professionals from various fields.

Gustavo Ferro, Installation view at Phosphorus; Courtesy of the gallery


Deeper in the center of the city we find two other independent initiatives: Phosphorus and PaperBox Lab. The spaces are located a few minutes walk from each other in Sé, the region where the city of São Paulo was born. In fact, before a reconfiguration in the traffic, both spaces shared the same address—Rua do Carmo, the first street of the city—as artist Gustavo Ferro tells us. He keeps a studio at PaperBox Lab, but together with founder Maria Montero coordinates Phosphorus, now located at Rua Roberto Simonsen in a historic house built in 1890. Opened in 2011, Phosphorus shares the space with a clothing archive called Casa Juisi, and includes temporary studios, space for residencies, exhibition rooms, an open library and living room. Born from the founder’s desire for a place for encounters, discussions, and collaboration, it seeks to be free from commercial and institutional restraints, inventing alternative forms of material and intellectual autonomy. Currently participating in the residency program are the artists Glayson Arcanjo, Janaina Wagner, Márcia Beatriz Granero, and Daniel Albuquerque, whose group exhibition opened on August 17th and showcases the results of their work at the space. Meanwhile, to help support the operations of the not-for-profit space, Maria Montero opened Galeria Sé in the same building, a venture that despite being for-profit, remains committed to exposing experimental art such as Deco Adijanam’s. His debut exhibition comprised pieces made mainly of debris, stumps, and pieces of wood; his poetry materialized itself in the form of objects, installations, and assemblages.

Five minutes away is PaperBox Lab, occupying three levels of another historic building, which was found abandoned by Angelo Palumbo, a Brazilian artist from the '80s pop generation. Totally reformed, the place now has now an impressive structure including exhibition spaces, meeting rooms, lounges and individual ateliers, besides an ongoing programme of talks, workshops, and seminars—some of them open to the public. Without a curatorial agenda guiding the space, the artists are free to produce independently or to collaborate. The only rule is that they have to stay for at least a year, which is the time they consider necessary for the maturation of a work. Visiting the studios we can find artists working on varied practices and in different languages, with a mix of new artists and more established names, such as Jorge Feitosa and  Clara Ianniwho is represented by Galeria Vermelho and selected to be part of the 31st São Paulo Biennale opening next month.

Paperbox Lab

If the proximity of these independent spaces was merely geographic at first, they have recently started a conversation between each other, which resulted in the launching of Circuito Centroa project that aims to create networks and collaborations between art spaces located in the center (including others not mentioned in this article). The results of this cooperation remains to be seen. Each space is a clear reflection of the personalities, beliefs, and desires of the artists, curators, and other agents involved and even though their differences might be more manifest than their similarities, it is possible to recognize that above all, what unites them goes far beyond the eclectic nomenclature with which they identify themselves. These independent, alternative, self-run spaces are above all authorial projects born out of the desires of their founders to restitute an affective dimension to art production by embracing the whole creative process in its material and immaterial aspects. More than mere physical spaces, they constitute places of resistance and a battlefield for the freedom of thinking, making, and being.


Vivian Mocellin


(Image on top: Copan building from the air; Courtesy of the author)

Posted by Vivian Mocellin on 8/17/14 | tags: contemporary Brazilian Art independent art spaces São Paulo art scene

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