Alexandra Hartstone


In an examination of the 2018 São Paulo Biennial, Affective Affinities, this article considers the ways in which curatorial practice can exercise efforts to perpetually draw spectators into the contemplation of art through the use of curatorial experiments with narrative, and other media. Although there are various contradictory positions regarding the burgeoning, biennial phenomenon, these venues also provide a site of critical experimentation that offers artists, curators, and visitors an alternative space to exhibit beyond institutional constructs. While the biennial continues to mirror the white cube through an architecture that speaks to Western modernism, Affective Affinities proposes a shift in curatorial programming that is directed by the perspectives of seven artist-curators. Not only does this have the effect of creating seven individual curatorial perspectives, but it also throws existing art-world power relations into question by extending narratives, activating artworks, and dissemination.

Framing Narratives and the Curatorial through Other Media: the 2018 São Paulo Biennial

The Ciccillio Matarazzo pavilion located in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo sprawls more than 32,000 square feet and looks like a monolithic modernist, white cube. Now in its 33rd edition running from 7 September through to 9 December 2018, the São Paulo Biennial, Affective Affinities aims to disrupt the biennial structure—from centralized, discursive, and top-down, to a focused and diversified visitor experience. Breaking away from the single-theme model, the Biennial features twelve individual projects and seven invited artists to comprise the curatorial team alongside chief curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro. The artist-curators Alejandro Cesarco (Uruguay, 1975), Antonio Ballester Moreno (Spain, 1977), Claudia Fontes (Argentina, 1964), Mamma Andersson (Sweden, 1962), Sofia Borges (Brazil, 1984), Waltercio Caldas (Brazil, 1946), and Wura-Natasha Ogunji (USA, 1970) were invited to curate a stand-alone exhibition in which their own work was included alongside works of artists of their own selection. Pérez-Barreiro employed this model to demonstrate how artists build their own systems to understand their own artistic practice in relation to others. In addition, this model allows for themes and relationships to emerge organically from the process of exhibition making, rather than starting with a set of predetermined issues (Pérez-Barreiro 2018, 18). As a tool, the curatorial team used media—digital soundscapes and musical playlists available through mobile devices—as a distinct device in framing artists and artworks within the Biennial. Featuring 103 artists and approximately 600 artworks, the outcome of the curatorial work is presented as multiple, separate exhibitions clustered within the larger Biennial exhibition.

The biennial format continues to develop and reinvent itself by using experimental curatorial devices and pushing the boundaries of traditional curatorial models. Recently, it has been argued that the biennial has evolved and become one of the most vital sites for production, distribution, and generation of the discourse of contemporary art (Filipovic, Van Hal and Øvstebø 2010, 15). Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø suggest that if museum and gallery exhibitions have largely been considered the medium to interpret and understand art, it is the biennial exhibition that has since proved to have become the medium to interpret and understand contemporary art (Filipovic, Van Hal and Øvstebø 2010, 15). If biennials have become the new model in interpreting contemporary art, does that translate to a shift in the ways in which the visitor observes visual art? The contemporary biennial, as demonstrated by the São Paulo Biennial, Affective Affinities, underscores the importance of developing new infrastructures—or re-inventing current ones—for contemporary art and the public sphere. As a curatorial act, using media devices to frame the Biennial’s multiple exhibitions and artists offers an opportunity to elicit from the viewer important contemplation on artworks and enable performativity within the exhibitions that adopt these media devices. This article considers the ways in which curatorial practice at the São Paulo Biennial draw spectators into the contemplation of art through the use of experimental curation, narrative, and media.

Many of the works hang on the pavilion’s walls or rest on the polished cement floors, isolated from distraction. The space of the pavilion surrounding the artworks is noticed first, providing, as Brian O’Doherty would suggest, a transitional device from the white cube.[i] The architecture of the pavilion mirrors the geometrics of the white cube gallery with tall white walls and compartmentalized sections. Building off of the Biennial’s space, Elena Filipovic suggests that its exhibition spaces “contribute to an articulation of the biennial as a particular physical space with its own parameters, through which relations between viewers and objects, between one object and others, and between objects, viewers, and their specific exhibition context are staged” (O’Neill 2012, 71). Historically, it is the curator who assigns value and meaning to exhibitions through the use of narratives and framing devices. In Curatorial Acts, Mieke Bal argues that curating is a combination of acts of framing and of being framed, which is different to context (Bal 2012, 180). Context, she writes, is self-evident and is an interpretation of artifacts in order to elicit meaning. This, however, serves to confuse the difference between explaining and interpreting, of which leads back to the term ‘context’, and it losing its meaning. If the confusion in meaning is able to cleared away, Bal suggests that the curator is then able to pursue something more stimulating: “proposing an interpretation that avoids paraphrase, projection and paradigmatic confinement, and opening up a practice of looking at objects that endorses its function as cultural mediation” (Bal 2012, 180). As a result, the curator’s first concern becomes the viewer instead of the artist.

Carol Duncan, in Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship, considers the museum space as a ‘ceremonial structure’ and investigates what art institutions have to say about culture. Performing as part of a ceremonial structure, Duncan writes, “museumgoers today, like visitors to these other sites [such as temples, cathedrals, or shrines], bring with them the willingness and ability to shift into a certain state of receptivity” (Duncan 1990, 91). How then, can curators use media to work with the shift of receptivity in order to help frame an exhibition? For Bal, curatorial practice is a performative device that is both collective and dialectic in its impact as techniques to influence, enrich, and to guide visitor experiences. As such, curating is a discourse of ‘framing objects’ and the curator must be clear on what they bring, in terms of content, position, and thematic framework, into the conversation of the artworks exhibited (Bal 2012, 181).

As devices of curatorial acts, and what I suggest to be curatorial frames, the Biennial extends artistic projects through the use of multiple mechanisms of media: áudio 33bienal, musical playlists, and an interactive activity called ‘Invitation to Attention’. Using sound and narrative in ‘áudio 33bienal’, participating artists included approximately fifty sound tracks, accessible through QR Codes throughout the pavilion and available online.[ii] The sound tracks, available in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, and also transcribed, share personal accounts from artists, poetry readings, and soundscapes of space, animals, and actions—such as the sanding down of wood or walking through a public park. While exploring the vastness of the Biennial, visitors have the opportunity to choose to engage with the different sounds of áudio 33bienal as it relates to individual projects or group exhibitions. As seen in Figure one, the biennial guide map illustrates where soundscapes are available for listening. For example, visitors can listen to the soundscape for Nelson Felix’s individual exhibition, which plays a sound clip of the artist walking in Chartres, France. The clamor of church bells and the conversations of passersby echo alongside the sound of Felix’s footsteps pacing along the pavement. The artist visited Anchorage, Alaska and Ushuaia, Argentina, and contended with questions of space in the construction of his project which deals with the poetics of space, both physically and as a concept.

Figure 1: map of the 2018 the 2018 São Paulo Biennial, Affective Affinities.

The second layer of media, the musical playlists, includes a selection of seventeen playlists from participating artists, curators, and mediators of the biennial. The playlists included sounds, which influenced research and production, as well as carefully crafted tracks intended for the visitors of Affective Affinities to listen to as they move through the different spaces. The guide map highlights where different musical playlists are available for listening, sometimes in the same space as the áudio 33bienal soundscapes. For example, Nelson Felix’s exhibition offers both, musical playlists and soundscapes. His playlist includes 17 songs ranging from samba and jazz to songs by Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

Finally, the interactive activity, “Invitation to Attention”—made available at the meeting spaces or on a personal mobile device—welcomes biennial visitors to consider visual competencies as a four-step activity: finding an artwork, focusing attention, recording the experience, and sharing. In either individual or group mode, the participant reads the first card which encourages them to select an artwork. Upon selecting the work, a timer begins a five-minute countdown and the participant is encouraged to investigate the selected work. Look over it, through it, and around it, to develop a connection with the work. Next, the participant is asked: “If I were to ask you a question, what would it be?” and “If you were to ask the artwork a question, what would it be?”[iii] For five more minutes, the participant is to reflect on these questions, or if participating in a group, they discuss the question out loud. Once time has run out, a final timer is set and the participant is asked to return their attention back to the selected artwork, to again deeply investigate every aspect, seen and unseen. After five minutes of attention to the work, the participant records the experience. Following a pause, on a sheet of paper, the participant is asked to drawing something based on their personal experiences and to fill out their name, a description of the artwork, and to upload a photo or written reflection about their experience. Anything uploaded is added to the ongoing list of participants on the Biennial’s WebApp and is freely available to access anytime.

Bal might suggest that each of these activities present as a tool to frame artworks and visitor experience in a specific way. The act of framing Nelson Felix’s exhibition with musical playlists or soundscapes, for example, produces a sonic event. Felix’s works are minimalistic—in that the amount of material, size, and design are few—and installed sparingly throughout his exhibition space. Rather than shifting down a long wall or hallway of hung paintings, like one might do in a museum gallery, the visitor must choose which work to look at next and plan to walk towards it. As a result, depending on which works the visitor decides to look at, and in which order, they might be walking back and forth, and across the exhibition space. Listening to Felix’s soundscapes of walking through Chartres while walking between works constructs a performative exhibition space that facilitates and encourages the visitor’s movement. As Bal states, the visitor here “may become permeable for the subjectivity of others, and as a result may change their views or social behavior” (Bal 2012, 189). She continues to explain that, “making and presenting art is just as subject to sociality, and confined by what others are willing to allow, absorb and understand, as the issues that form the content of any individual artwork” (Bal 2012, 191). These three activities, particularly the soundscapes and music playlists, not only push to narrate and build a frame of encouraging and facilitating movement, of experiencing the exhibition as performative, it also has the potential to shift the views and behaviour of its visitors. In addition, the temporality of the biennial model is given permanence as these components become archived in perpetuity on the Biennial’s website. With the support of these devices, as both artistic and curatorial tools, new meaning and perspective is able to emerge from an otherwise seemingly canonical, white cube exhibition.

I echo Bal’s contention in Curatorial Acts: the act of framing is actually an act of de-framing, “a loosening of habitual constraints, both through cinematic duration and exhibition itinerary” (Bal 2012, 183). The meanings of the Biennial are constructed by the experience of each visitor who is free to circulate the space as they chose.  There is no prescribed route to take, nor a prescribed length of time that each visitor should spend on any given work of art. Instead, the experience of each visitor is determined by choice and spatial behaviour. The Biennial is designed to allow for choice and free movement between every floor and every project yet the path taken by visitors’ shape and change the curatorial frame. Visitors who retrace their steps through the pavilion in the opposite direction or decide to skip projects along the way achieve a different experience their second or third time around as a result of memory and recognition. The 2018 São Paulo Biennial, Affective Affinities offers visitors an opportunity, through the use of media, offer a contemporary platform to continue to build new frames of understanding extending artists and artworks beyond the scope of the exhibition.


1. Brian O’Doherty, “Notes on the Gallery Space,” in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, ed. Brian O’Doherty (San Francisco: University of California Press, 1999) 14. In discussing the white cube and space, O’Doherty investigates how the controlled space of the modernist gallery changes an artwork, how it effects the viewer, and how the gallery space consumes the artwork.

2. áudio 33bienal can be accessed using the following link:

3. São Paulo Biennial. “Convite à Atenção.”


Bal, Mieke. “Curatorial Acts.” Journal of Curatorial Studies volume 1, no. 2 (2012): 179-192.

Duncan, Carol. Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

Obrist, Hans Ulrich. “Curating, Exhibitions and the Gesamtkunstwerk.” In Ways of Curating. London: Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books, 2014.

O’Neill, Paul, “Biennial Culture and the Emergence of a Globalized Curatorial Discourse: Curating in the Context of Biennials and Large-Scale Exhibitions Since 1989.” In The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), edited by Paul O’Neill, 51-86. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012.


Alexandra Hartstone is an emerging cultural administrator and curator. She holds a BA in Studio Art, a post-graduate certificate in Museum and Gallery Studies, and is currently pursuing graduate studies in art history and visual culture at the University of Guelph. Her thesis research involves exploring the formative roles curatorial acts play in the development, framing, and dissemination of contemporary Latin American art within national and global visual cultures.

Alexandra has experience in community engagement, development, and curatorial projects. Her research interests include the agency of museums and galleries, curatorial rhetoric, and the intersection between decolonial practices and representation in cultural institutions.

Download the PDF