An Art Symposium in Brazil to Deal with Attention amid New Political Climate


November 13, 2018

On 7 October 2018, Brazil elected a very far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro as their President for the next four years. Many are worried about where his controversial rhetoric will take the country and its democracy, among them many artists and art world professionals.

The Brazilian elections took place at the same time as the still-ongoing Bienal de São Paulo. Under the theme Affective Affinities, the 33rd edition aims ”to reaffirm the power of art as a unique place for concentrating attention on the world and in favor of the world”, as it was often accentuated by curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro. Indeed, drawing attention has also been something that Bolsonaro had done quite impressively during his campaign, which now brought him the desired results.

Attention, or rather the “practices” of it, will now be the focus of an international symposium taking place in Sao Paulo as well. Conceived by Stefanie Hessler, curator and writer, and D. Graham Burnett, History and Science History Professor at Princeton, this gathering of artists, critics, scientists, authors and academicians from 13 countries seeks to put the economies of attention at the center of our relationship with artworks, considering the urgency of the question of our attention nowadays, when it is constantly bombarded with all sorts of information and messages.

Taking place at Secs Vila Mariana on November 16 and the Biennial Pavilion on November 16, 17 and 18, the Practices of Attention symposium will also have a presentation of performances and film screenings based on recent theoretical works, historical recoveries and experimental investigations.

We sat down with Stefanie Hessler to discuss the importance of such event at a time like this, and what it seeks to transmit to its audience over the course of these three days.

Stefanie Hessler
Stefanie Hessler. Photo by Nysos Vasilopoulos for the 6th Athens Biennale

Stefanie Hessler and the Practices of Attention at the Bienal de São Paulo

Widewalls: How was the “Practices of Attention” symposium conceived?

Stefanie Hessler: The symposium sets its focus on attention. Attention is arguably one of the most important issues at stake today, in the cultural, social, and political arenas, and certainly also for the “economy of attention.” With the symposium, we ask where our attention is directed, who pays attention to what, who benefits from attention, and what are the blind spots we are omitting. If distraction is the predominant condition of today, and our attention is being manipulated by algorithms for political and economic purposes, then what does this mean for our ways of being, of knowing, and of relating to each other?

The Fundação Bienal de São Paulo - the commissioner of the symposium - and the curator of this year’s edition, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, invited D. Graham Burnett and myself to conceive the program. Discussing the topic of attention intensely and taking these urgent questions as a starting point, we decided to invite a diverse group of key thinkers and practitioners from different fields - from psychology to poetry, from history of science to philosophy, from ecofeminism to art.

During three days at the Sesc-SP Vila Mariana and at the Bienal Pavilion, we will discuss these issues in depth, and we will also experiment with unconventional formats to investigate the topic of attention, which go beyond the cognitive and also put emphasis on the corporeal, the affective, the meditative. With the symposium, we intend, together with the audience, to pay attention to the modalities and politics of attention.

Widewalls: Could you introduce us to the participants? Why were they chosen?

SH: We have invited a diverse group of participants, whose contributions take different shapes and formats, from performances to talks to screenings, and a number of actions that invite the audience to participate.

For instance, in her talk, Virginia Kastrup addresses hyperattention and multitasking by taking cartography as a reference and drawing from the work of Jameson, Bergson, Deleuze, and Guattari, while Yael Geller’s contribution inspects attention between the two coordinates of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and obsession.

Tamar Guimarães’s performance addresses attention in current politics and its recurring loops, foreseen by the novelist Machado de Assis almost 150 years ago.

Research associates of ESTAR(SER) present protocols related to the “Order of the Third Bird” and discuss its history as well as its methods of attention that have inspired some of the curatorial methodologies of the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo.

Raimundas Malašauskas and Marcos Lutyens offer a sound work, an installation, and a hypnosis session, Helen Singh-Miller invites participants to explore Feldenkrais movements, and Isabel Lewis hosts an occasion that hones our attention in on the senses of smell, sound, and taste.

D. Graham Burnett sketches the shifting disciplines of attention across the modern period, Ivone Gebara focuses on ecofeminism and the patriarchal threat inherent in inattention towards our ecology, and I address attention as a curatorial tool as well as the politics of gendered attention.

Widewalls: What do you hope to achieve with “Practices of Attention”? What would be the message behind the symposium?

SH: I hope that the symposium opens up new perspectives and perhaps even methodologies with regard to attention. I’d be curious to find ways out of the dialectics of attention and distraction. Can we conceive of a lack of attention not as a deficit, but as a different emerging intelligence?

If we are successful, the symposium will give the audience and contributors food for thought and provoke them to pay more attention to attention. And I hope that it will be a joyous experience, too, especially the performances by Vivian Caccuri, Kapwani Kiwanga, and Sal Randolph, the attentional exercises, and the occasion hosted by Isabel Lewis on Saturday night.

Installation view of Antonio Ballester Moreno exhibition
Installation view of Antonio Ballester Moreno exhibition © Leo Eloy / Estúdio Garagem / Bienal de São Paulo Foundation

Brazil’s New President vs The Arts

Widewalls: The gathering comes at a very specific time in Brazilian history. It was announced before the elections, of which we now know the results. How will they affect its topics and points of conversation now?

SH: Sadly, the election results in Brazil resonate with similar developments all over the world. When we conceived the symposium, we did so considering the international as well as the local context. We’ve been following the pre-election politics and campaigns in Brazil, and even though the result is appalling, unfortunately it hardly came as a surprise.

The conversation about attention is all the more urgent now. Did we perhaps fail to pay attention to these developments, or has the algorithmic regime become ever more efficient at obscuring them from our gaze? To avoid the pitfalls of conspiracy thinking, what seems important at this point in time is analysis. And analysis requires attention.

The election results may also make us think of who can afford to pay attention, who has the time, the resources, and the access to concentrate? Who watches and who is merely being surveilled?

Ultimately, the symposium forms part of the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo, and the exhibition itself reaffirms “the power of art as a unique place to focus attention in, to, and for the world.” While we have invited contributors from different fields, the main focus and lens through which we discuss these issues is still art.

Widewalls: In your opinion, how will the newly-elected President of Brazil affect its art scene?

SH: Artists are excellent seismographs for what is going on in the world. They can critique, analyze, and imagine differently. I am sure that the new president of Brazil will incite artists to create critical works, to self-organize, to voice their concerns about environmental protection and indigenous rights, among other urgent issues.

Of course, the arts are not the only area affected by politics and what is going on in the world, but they are an excellent speculative field in which to experiment and test out new ideas. And new ideas are what we urgently need today.

Widewalls: What is your connection to Brazil?

SH: I lived in São Paulo for a few months in 2010, and came back for a Capacete program in 2013. I’ve visited every Bienal since 2010, and fell in love with the country and its art scene. Last year, I curated the exhibition Sugar and Speed at the Museu de Arte Moderna Aloisio Magalhães (MAMAM) in Recife. The invitation to come back this year and organize the symposium Practices of Attention for the Bienal came at a moment in time in which my thoughts were with Brazil and I was closely thinking about politics, complex systems, and the structures underlying what we see, feel, and know: the politics of attention.

Widewalls: What’s next for you?

SH: After the symposium, I’m giving a talk at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, teaching at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, and preparing Joan Jonas’s exhibition I am curating at the newly opening TBA21–Academy Ocean Space in Venice in March 2019. The 6th Athens Biennale ANTI, which I co-curated this year, is still on until December 9, and so I’m going back to Greece for Metahaven’s lecture and a few other performances and events.

And, speaking of attention, I will focus on writing the book Prospecting Ocean departing from Armin Linke’s artistic research into extractivism in the deep sea, which will be published by The MIT Press in 2019.

For more details and to sign up for the symposium, please visit the website.

Featured images: Thiago Rocha Pitta, Temporal Map of an Undefined Coastline © Courtesy of the artist; Vivian Caccuri, Mosquitoes also cry © Courtesy of the artist; Isabel Lewis, Occasion © Joanna Seitz, 2014. Courtesy of the artist. All images courtesy Bienal de São Paulo.