The art of waiting and artful captivation: Biennale Arte 2019
Portents and visions of doom permeated the biennale with repetitions across various national and international pavilions. Seas awash with with trash, melting ice caps, rising tides, decay and refuse ever piling up. And much like the world at large, endless queues of people waiting to see the spectacle of it only to largely be met with disappointment. May we live in interesting times, but more often than not we live in waiting and banal repetition.
Beyond the doom, decay, devolution presented over and over again in many pavilions, dance emerged as another repetitive theme. Counter to movement of the ever-present queue, dance spools backward in the Swiss pavilion; in the Korean pavilion, you learn of ancient and modern dance movements through a sequence of films. Endless queues build up anticipation and hype; plenty of film to try and grasp your attention, but little that captivates and encourages you to stay in place.
The biennale isn’t always the best time to get crowds to successfully maneuver and sit through video installations, but the team presenting Swinguerra , this year’s Brazilian entry at the Venice Biennale, managed it to great success. According to data from the Brazilian pavilion organizers, most visitors stay for the full length of the video loop – something few video installations manage to achieve at attention-disperse events such as this one, especially in a year saturated with video pieces. The video installation is a 20-minute praise of swingueira, brega funk and passinho do maloka, three marginalized dance manifestations from the (also marginalized) northeast region of the South American nation by the (even more marginalized) non-binary community.
How did they retain the attention of viewers so successfully?
For Wagner and her partner Benjamin de Burca, the artists behind the piece, the key to the outstanding dwell time has as much to do with the content of their video as with the bespoke viewing environment created in tandem with architect Álvaro Razuk. Wagner and De Burca had worked with Razuk for the first time during the 2016 São Paulo Biennial, and experienced first-hand the benefits of thinking of a video piece in real-life spatial terms. When they were chosen to represent the country in Venice, they quickly moved to get Razuk’s involvement from the very beginning.
The building composing the Brazilian pavilion is a modernist building located in the far end of the Giardini, a space conceived for painting and sculpture, not cinema. Razuk’s insights helped inform the way the artists shot the video and planned it with the dancers: they shared the floorplans with the stars of the film, something that allowed the dance crews themselves to keep into account the angles in which their bodies and facial reactions would be seen inside the space.
The building was divided into two main areas. The first half, when first entering, is sparse and features framed stills of the choreography of the film, giving clues to the video that is to come. After narrowing into a short hallway in the center, the building opens up again into a second wide space with two video screens at either end. In between the two screens are scattered benches and gaps to stand and watch the video. Most video installations feature a single screen, set in the dark, with a row or two of parallel benches in front of it. Rather than applying that conventional layout, the team split the projection room into a two-channel display, with screens close to the walls, and sprinkled seemingly random benches in between.
This layout places the audience in the middle of the action and makes viewers feel more like a participant to what is on view. Placing visitors at the focal point of the dueling videos makes it difficult to pull away from the piece and fellow participants. The two screens are placed at deliberate angles. You cannot enter the main corridor and view both projections at the same time. You have a pick a side and perspective to view, shifting the visitor from a disengaged to a decided participant.
You do not idle through and quietly fade away to next piece. This is not just another iteration in the cycle of repetition across one pavilion to the next. From the beginning, you as a visitor are changing and deciding your perspective in many ways. Designing the space with a critical and intentional eye lets the team design the video and the space to their advantage, making it psychologically difficult to disengage.
I got the opportunity view the Biennale Arte 2019 in Venice during press week and showcase my own work and artist talk again through the Biennial Project.