Revisiting Liverpool Biennale 2021, Questions Surrounding the Body, How to Amplify an Exhibition, and of the Importance of Finding your own Voice as a Curator
Building an Exhibition as a Vehicle for Research. Moscoso saw the making of the biennial as a great opportunity to do curatorial research. She was invited to curate it in July 2018, and was already very interested in the topic of bodies. She started from the Latin America’s context, and the sharp political right turn happening in the region, which as a consequence, threw “many of the historically vulnerable bodies in a situation of precarity”. She considered bodies for how they shape interrelations on a large scale but also for how they filter someone’s personal experience. She stresses that she didn’t consider the skin as an ultimate frontier, since that view had been an important colonial tool for oppression. Instead, she sees it as an embodied way of being in the world, as a two-way communication channel, which includes our senses. She mentions being in line with other practitioners who have been thinking about these issues for years.
Flexible Venues. They worked with Tate Liverpool, several photography galleries, universities, and other spaces. They used some spaces in transformation (that are now offices etc.). And altogether her team was trying to take into consideration how the different spaces used for the biennale inform the biennale itself. “Thinking of the body and arriving in Liverpool was an important step for me as a thinker, but also as a curator” (she was living in Mexico right before) and expanded her understanding of the “colonial project we live in.” In relation to the body, she was interested in “places of transmission and contamination, almost a manifesto against purity if you like”. The notions of the stomach and the port became central to this discourse, including the ideas of anthropophagy, trade, transformation, human and non-human movements, trajectories, metamorphosis by sound and voice, tropical medicine, overrepresentation of the male body… She mentions the artists she invited, their trajectories and particular practices, and goes through various examples that illustrate the topics aforementioned.
Video tour. Moscoso introduces a roughly 6-minute video tour of the biennial via a prerecorded video presentation (soon after the 28 minutes mark into this conversation). The video visually presents the highlights of thinking around and from the body—body as border, body as fear of contamination, various binary ways of thinking, racialisation of the body and so on… After this lengthy introduction, Fortin proposes various questions to Moscoso, which draws parallels with her current exhibition at the Bemis Center.
Scale and Amplification. The first theme Fortin and Moscoso tackle is the question of scale. Moscoso notes that since biennales need to be porous and address different kinds of curiosity levels from the audience, it allows them to be ambitious. For instance, it was important to her that public works were included along with the presentation. Unfortunately, the pandemic limited her ambitions to mostly sculptures, compared to the different tours and interventions (musical and performative) that had been initially planned. An intriguing alternative was to organise music programmes and podcasts that were played in the city’s taxis. “Another thing about scale is amplifying” says Moscoso, and what are the strategies you can employ to amplify rather than make bigger. This way of seeing things resulted in the creation of the aforementioned video, but also her approach to the catalogue. She used the catalogue budget to publish two books, with one volume that gathered experimental writings from the artists and a second that served as a free guide for the biennial throughout the city.
Themes, no Themes, and Do What you are Good at. “I am trying to destabilise the role of the curator that speaks about things” says Moscoso. She refers to the idea of the curator creating a thematic umbrella under which a hierarchy of how-to talk about topics is organised. “I am not an art historian” she says, but “I know how to create conversations.” Exhibitions are very conventional but they can be different from each other, and for that, “a curator must know their own skills”, she adds—and draw from them. This sounds like a very useful approach to consider, which doesn’t side with a single curatorial approach, but rather encourages a diversity of practices and definitions for what a curator is. She also mentions that when you talk about situations that aren’t static (like talking about the body), there is no fixed answer, so she wants to avoid creating hard borders but rather leave room for nonofficial expertise and different forms of intelligence.
Legacy. Moscoso separates institutional and personal legacy. A big challenge is to keep a distance, even though keeping a complete emotional distance might be challenging for the curator, but it’s important in order to make sure, at all times, that the project is not towards the curator but towards the project. Questions to ask oneself include, what are the processes that can stay in the intelligence of the organisation? And how to leave traces of the experience of the biennale? As for the curator, the experience itself and all its varied facets will always inform what they do next.
Q&As included questions about how Moscoso responded to the pandemic during the biennale—by having conversations with everyone, adjusting their projections into the future, she mentions many “spiritualist sessions with artists in the venues”, and acting fast when crises come up. She also mentions a lot of personal adjustments, letting go, and acceptance. Another question was concerned about embodiment and voice, which Moscoso answers by referring once more to the work of the artists, and frames the role of the curator as the one facilitating the mediation between the different forms of embodiment and voices. Reassuringly, she concludes by saying that, “we don’t have to hear or understand everything”.
Manuela Moscoso was the curator of “The Stomach and the Port,” Liverpool Biennial 2021. She’s here invited to talk about that experience by curator-in-residence at the Bemis Center, Sylvie Fortin, whose show “I don’t know you like that: The Bodywork of Hospitality”, is on view until March 2022.