By Isabela Muci,
Cristina Freire’s scholarship and curatorial work provides critical models for considering the changing role of museums in our present moment. As a docente-pesquisadora-curadora at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo (MAC USP), Cristina has contributed extensively to the study of networks related to mail art practices in Latin America and has published widely on conceptual art in the region. Among other major endeavors, she has edited a compilation of Walter Zanini’s writings (2013) and co-curated the 27th Bienal de São Paulo (2006). Cristina’s comprehensive and nuanced research projects, such as her recent exhibition Vizinhos Distantes. Arte da América Latina no Acervo do MAC USP and accompanying publication Terra Incognita (2015), provoke reflections on artistic relations across Latin America and emphasize the significance of south to south connections.
I spoke with Cristina at the end of her time in Princeton as a Visiting Research Scholar and Visiting Professor in the Program in Latin American Studies. During the Spring of 2019, Cristina co-taught a seminar with Professor Irene Small called “Museum as Laboratory: Experimental Art Practices in Latin America and Beyond.” The class encouraged us to engage in current discourses regarding the political relevance of museums and asked us to consider how museums operate as sites for research, critical reflection, and experimental practices. In addition, as part of PLAS programming, Cristina gave a pressing lecture entitled “Decolonize the Museum: Utopia?” that addressed how museums of modern art in the context of Brazil have typically made invisible the processes of coloniality. The lecture invited us to think through these histories by reflecting on the work of figures such as Lina Bo Bardi, Paulo Freire, and Mario Pedrosa.
Isabela Muci: I wanted to start by asking about the relationship between your curatorial practice and teaching as it relates to the political reality of working in a public institution such as the MAC USP. How has this specific position shaped the way you conduct research projects, especially considering the goal of enlarging existing critical repertoires?
Cristina Freire: That is the basis of my work: it is a site-specific mode of work. I would never do such a thing outside of the context I live and work in. From the beginning, I started to reflect on the situation of the museum, the history of this particular institution in terms of the other museums in the country and in terms of the university. I also started relating the archive, which contains documents of this history, to real people—I contacted and started a relationship with some of the pioneering artists involved in the museum and with the first director of the institution, Walter Zanini—while also engaging the collection. I decided that there was so much to do with this collection that I had to concentrate my present and future work, and that of future generations, on it. Not the collection that was there, but the collection that was absent from hegemonic discourses. It was in this gap that I started to work.
IM: This gap reminds me of how you often refer to the potentialities of perceiving presence through absence as a strategy for researching works or artists that have been erased or made invisible from history, a strategy related to the idea of problematizing colonial matrixes of representation. How do you develop these strategies in the day to day of the museum and what are other strategies that complement this aim? For instance, intuition and affect often appear to come into play and, as you have already suggested, it seems that one other key point relies on interviewing living artists and passing down this oral history.
CF: Here I have to go back to the trajectory of my research. For my Ph.D., I conducted research in the Social Psychology Institute at the University of São Paulo, where I was trained. I decided to focus on the importance of monuments in the city to study collective memories. My idea was that I would interview people in the streets and see how they shape an imaginary cartography of the city related to museums. Through this investigation, for which I conducted many interviews, I found that people were pointing to monuments and places in the city that were not there anymore. This provided me with some clues to understand how memory operates. People were pointing to something that was not there because that was important for them somehow. There is an affective dimension at play when people see things that are not there. I started to think about the collection from this psychoanalytical point of view. You have the history that is told and repeated, and then you have other histories, ones that you have to search for. Otherwise they will never show up. I started to investigate these other histories in the collection.
IM: These types of investigation relate to my next question about pedagogy in the museum. As shown in recent projects such as Terra Brasilis: Arte Brasileira no Acervo Conceitual do MAC USP (2018), where students are active contributors to the publication, research is a foundation for all of the undertakings you embark on. You have previously mentioned the importance of Paulo Freire and Walter Zanini in your work and how, in the context of the museum, one has to see the works in the collection first to be able to read the institution. In addition, you have described the horizontality that emerges in collaborative projects when the museum becomes a platform for research. How did you start integrating the classroom and the museum through research? How does pedagogy operate and change when museum and classroom become one? Hopefully, these questions also refer to how is it that you started in the museum.
CF: This makes me remember all the people that I met through my trajectory. I was a student of Paulo Freire. I did a postgraduate course with him at the University of São Paulo when he came to live in the city to be the Secretary of Education of São Paulo in 1989. I had the privilege to see how he was teaching. He was not talking about his method or about the history of pedagogy. He was creating situations for us to talk about our lives and experiences, making us try to understand the reason that had put us there in that particular situation. For me it was extraordinary.
With regards to Zanini, I was not a student of his. I met him when I started to work with the collection that was generated through his work as an experimental and avant-garde museum director in the 1960s and 1970s. This collection was lost within the museum. It was stored in drawers underneath the stairs, given that the storage area did not consider it to contain works of art and the library did not want it either. I wanted to work with this collection, so I went to talk to Zanini. He started to teach me through his experiences. I understood that this oral history was an important methodology to build other theoretical instruments for working with these kinds of artworks. I understood this was not just for me, that it should be done through teaching as well. I then talked to my students about what I was doing. I talked about what I was researching. I took the research topics to the classroom and started to build syllabi that related to what I was doing. I started attracting students to work with me. It has always been like that, undergraduate and graduate students. It was a process of organically building these kinds of networks. We started to do common projects, such as interviewing artists. We invited artists to come, everyone would interview, transcribe, maybe someone had the possibility of doing a website. We did not have funding for anything. Anyone that could help would do something.
IM: This brings me to a question related to the complications of bureaucracy within museums. Knowing how institutions are slow in enacting change, how did you bridge and work through the gaps between the archive, library, and museum? Something that caught my attention was that you instigated the creation of the category of “artist publication” within the library system at MAC USP.
CF: It took five years, five years for this to happen. I never give up. It’s just that. I never give up. I am so sure that this is necessary, and I always have the support of my students. This is the most important thing for me, the support of my students. If I have to do something and am not sure what to do, I meet with my closest Ph.D. students and discuss. This sort of horizontality for me is not a rhetorical figure. This is how I work. The project Terra Brasilis, which was just released as an online publication at the University of São Paulo’s digital library, emerged due to a grant that we got around 2014. It was supposed to be a printed publication, but due to bureaucratic problems this was not possible. I think we have to do so many important things that I cannot follow everything. I know it’s chaotic, but I do not get into the chaos because I would get paralyzed if I did.
IM: In relation to the importance of horizontality, I also wanted to ask about your experiences coordinating research groups. For instance, how has your role coordinating the Grupo de Estudos Arte Conceitual e Conceitualismos no Museu (GEACC CNPq), a group that you have described as a community of study and affect, changed the way you approach research projects?
CF: This group is part of a desire of putting everybody together so that we can cultivate solidarity. I learned this from the old masters, since this does not seem to be a current form of exchange or relationship nowadays. I learned that solidarity is a very important thing for creation. When you have solidarity, you can think: “well, my colleague works in the same field as me and we can help each other.” This has happened many times in this group. Still, it is not always even. For instance, at the moment, I am not there, and I feel the group is kind of dispersed because my students are depressed with the ongoing situation in Brazil. They do not necessarily have this feeling that everything is going to be fine and that they will have their Ph.D. to go on and do this or that. They have nothing guaranteed on the horizon. It is very tough and not always nice. But I think that a working group is a huge endeavor and to collaborate has been very nice for me and for them. I can see that in their own work. There are many students at USP coming from different places in the country. When these sorts of migrations happen, it is important to have a point of reference. The group is a common point of reference. This is what enables affect to emerge and this makes a difference, because this is not what is generally being cultivated nowadays.
IM: Speaking about nowadays, as your work has proposed, conceptual practices in the 1970s in Brazil created new circuits that transformed museums into spaces for what Mario Pedrosa would call “the experimental exercise of freedom.” How do you see the MAC USP, which was a critical site of transformation during the military dictatorship, reinventing its legacy as a museum in this present political moment? How do you see the legacy of Walter Zanini in today’s political climate?
CF: I have been asked about this often. The MAC USP is a very traditional museum. Where is this kind of experimental legacy that was seen in the museum’s space in the 1970s? Where is it nowadays? In the 70s the art scene was not the same, there were a few locations where artists could present their work and could have an experimental place to create their work, as with videoarte, for instance. It is not like that anymore. The experimental role of the museum now is connecting art with research. Because art is taken as commodity nowadays. So the museum becomes a place of resistance for these other theories and histories generated from research.
IM: In class, we discussed how museums can act as sites of transformation as well as spaces to grapple with colonial legacies. It is also true that the meaning of what a museum can be is in itself undergoing radical change. How do you see this transformation of the definition of museums occurring internationally? In other words, what response would you give to the question posed by the former director of the Walker Art Center, Olga Viso, in her recent NYT op-ed, where she asks: “How do museums reconceive their missions at a time of great societal reckoning around race and gender, and as more diverse audiences demand a voice and a sense of accountability?”
CF: I agree completely with this question. I think that in our countries, in South America, the issue is not just race and gender—although I agree these are important issues but we may not necessarily repeat the same agenda. A very urgent plea is also that of combatting social injustice. Attending to all of those voices: arts, crafts, or everything that one does not call “art,” which is typically outside of the museum, because there is a sort of high-class definition of what an object of art is. That is why I spoke about Lina Bo Bardi’s Museu de Arte Popular in my lecture. Thinking about the big picture in South America and especially in Brazil, we need to think about popular art; popular, which means indigenous and black, altogether with caipira, mestiço and all kinds of art that are not “high art”—in the sense of coming from a Eurocentric matrix. I agree with Viso, but in our situation we need to look through these other lenses too.
The following links lead to the publications mentioned in the interview:
Isabela Muci is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art and Archeology. She holds a B.A. with honors in the History of Art and Architecture, Modern Culture and Media, and Latin American and Caribbean Studies from Brown University. Muci has worked as a Research Assistant at ANOTHER SPACE, a program founded by Estrellita B. Brodsky to broaden international awareness and appreciation of art from Latin America. She has also worked as an intern in the curatorial departments at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, MoMA PS1, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She was the Editorial Assistant for the publication Julio Le Parc: Form into Action, published by the Pérez Art Museum Miami.