Founded in 1983 by current chief curator Solange O. Farkas, Videobrasil began as a showcase for Brazilian experiments in video, television and other new media. In the early 1990s, the organization began building a permanent collection and partnered with the nonprofit SESC to stage exhibitions in SESC Pompéia, a Brutalist cultural center designed by Lina Bo Bardi. It was also at this time that the institution’s geographical purview expanded to include work from the Global South. Videobrasil’s 19th edition, “Southern Panoramas,” treated the geopolitical category as networked and malleable (artists born or based in Northern countries were included) while emphasizing South-South collaborations. Moreover, the festival has come to embrace the diversity of contemporary practice; there was a notable emphasis this year on low-tech craft and performance, a counterpoint to the predictable abundance of video.
The festival was divided between three different venues. Videobrasil’s newly opened permanent space, Galpão VB, featured commissioned works by Carlos Monroy, Keli-Safia Maksud, Ting-Ting Cheng and Cristiano Lenhardt. Of these, Monroy’s Llorando se foi. O Museu da lambada. In Memoriam de Francisco “Chico” Oliveira (2015) best highlights the complexities of South-South exchanges. Monroy’s installation features an array of materials—video interviews, records, memorabilia, costumes, a Volkswagen pickup decked out in Tropicalist kitsch—all related to the history of “Llorando se fué,” a 1981 song by the Bolivian group Los Kjarkas. The original was recorded in the traditional saya rhythm of the Yungas region, but in 1989 a pair of French producers had it recorded as an Afro-Brazilian lambada and marketed the plagiarized song worldwide as an exoticized “forbidden dance.” (Los Kjarkas successfully sued for royalties.) Drawing on his perspective as a Colombian artist working in São Paulo, Monroy’s “lambada museum” exposes a false example of shared “Latin American” culture as a product of both neocolonial stereotyping and Brazil’s propensity to overshadow the region’s other national traditions.
At the Paço das Artes, on the campus of the Universidade de São Paulo, curator Diego Matos organized a show of 16 videos, produced between 1978 and 2012, from the Videobrasil collection. Some of the strongest works in this section offered critical reflections on Brazilian society, such as Rita Moreira’s Temporada de Caça (Hunting Season, 1988), a frightening documentary about a series of homophobic hate crimes in late-1980s São Paulo, and Geraldo Anhaia Mello’s A Situação (The Situation, 1978). In the latter, the artist, dressed like a television news anchor, gradually drinks himself into a stupor while repeating the phrase “the political, economic, cultural Brazilian situation.” One of the earliest works of Brazilian video art, A Situação expresses deep skepticism about national cohesion amid the country’s transition to democracy.
The bulk of Videobrasil’s exhibited works, on view in SESC Pompéia, consisted of works selected from the festival’s distinctive open call. The curatorial team of Bernardo José de Souza, Bitu Cassundé, João Laia and Júlia Rebouças organized these works along four interrelated “conceptual axes”: crisis, post-utopia, banality and subjectivity. At the entrance, Efrain Almeida’s Olhos negros (Black Eyes, 2015), a pair of polychrome bronze bas-relief eyes, invoked the Latin definition of “video”: “I see.” This preface reflected the show’s overall insistence on connecting to tradition amid technological advances, and a more general haunting of the (crisis-ridden) present by (traumatic) histories.
An initial group of videos presented landscapes that might be described as aftermaths. Among them was Gamsutl (2012), by Taus Makhacheva, a Russian artist based in Moscow and Makhachkala, Dagestan. The work unfolds in static shots of an abandoned Dagestani village, in which a solo dancer reenacts combat positions adapted from Caucasus history paintings. In one particularly moving sequence, the dancer physically embraces a ruined building, as if trying to conjoin his body with the site. The link between the Global South’s built environment and its history of (neo)colonial exploitation was a running theme throughout the exhibition. Gabriel Abrantes and Benjamin Crotty’s short film Liberdade (Liberty, 2011), offers a dystopian version of Luanda, Angola. Half-built squats and abandoned tankers rusting in the ocean serve as the backdrop for an interracial romance between a local and a Chinese immigrant. The artists mitigate the risk of “ruin porn” with a make-out sequence filmed in an idyllic field, in which the main characters resemble models in a jeans commercial.
Another set of works dealt, in a somewhat obligatory manner, with ongoing international crises: debt, migration, global warming, etc. Greek employment statistics were converted into a fabric pattern in Marinos Koutsomichalis, Maria Varela and Afroditi Psarra’s Oiko-Nomic Threads (2013), an installation that includes computer-controlled sewing machines operated by algorithm. Mónica Rodríguez’s installation None of the Above (2013) juxtaposes the graphic design of Puerto Rican referenda ballots on the question of independence from the last five decades.
If Videobrasil’s curators understood the Global South as portending an entire world in distress, this uncertain present nonetheless offered possibilities for transformation—of identities, bodies and relationships. Two 2014 video works by Beirut-based Roy Dib address the survival of alternative sexualities amid sexual repression in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. In Mondial 2010, a gay couple must keep their relationship a secret during a road trip from Lebanon to Ramallah (their faces are never shown). This video was projected onto the outside of an enclosed viewing space for the other work: the three-channel A Spectacle of Privacy. The soundtrack of A Spectacle of Privacy features a tense dialogue between a heterosexual couple about whether or not they should use condoms (a thinly veiled political metaphor, given that the couple are Israeli and Palestinian), while footage of a nude male body showering and lying on a bed appears on the screens. The palpable tension in Mondial 2010 seemed to carry over to this homoerotic footage, elegantly intertwining the artist’s two contributions.
A crucial element of the “seeing” intoned at the outset of the exhibition is the speed with which one sees. Large-scale, media-heavy presentations like Videobrasil are time-consuming, requiring sustained attention. Ultimately, it may be the artist who is in a privileged position to take time, to think things through and to perhaps delay the constriction of options in a polarized, imperiled present.