Anyone who strolls around Lisbon these days may well be able to forget about the nightmare we have lived through in the last two months for a short while.
With the easing of the lockdown now in phase 3, 30ºC on the street, jacaranda trees blooming, beaches at the (new) maximum capacity, as, for the first time since I can remember, the idea of restricted occupancy has been or will be applied to the beaches in Portugal.
These are not my days as I am in Toronto, but I know the Portuguese people and Lisbon - my city – well enough to also know, even at a distance and through stories and confessions, that the arrival of summer and St. Anthony’s Day are acting, as was to be expected, as a wide-spectrum antiviral, at least for the viruses that affect the soul and the spirit.
In Portugal, cultural institutions opened their doors on the symbolic Museum Day, 18th May, in support of the sector at a time when art, like all other realities, has taken on a hybrid nature as far as operation is concerned: in phase 3 of the easing of conditions, nothing is wanted or is now being done 100% online and, at the same time, nothing physical is being enjoyed and experienced to the full without restrictions. Will this be the future? Partly online, partly live?
Unfortunately, no one expects there to be a need for very careful management of the crowds visiting museums like what is being done on the beaches. Tourists, who form the vast majority of the museum visitors - are rare these days and no one can guess when they will return to fill these spaces.
The coming months will be important for defining the new directions we will all adhere to and, in visual arts, Portugal’s case as one of the first examples of “easing the conditions”, will definitely be able to serve as an example. We hope it will be a positive one in testing out new ways of operating museums, cultural projects and events.
I have been involved, since the first edition of ARCOlisboa in 2016, and among other areas of the fair, in the so-called “parallel programme”, which as its name indicates, includes all the activities beyond the physical space of the event. In this case, the Cordoaria Nacional – an old deactivated rope factory.
Given the international fair's boutique dimensions, including the city’s culture in this programme has always been a strategic priority, in the sense that the entire experience gains the size and expression needed to attract art lovers, and particularly international collectors. Together, the fair and the culture of Lisbon gain in strength and the four editions already held have undoubtedly proved that this relationship works. The two dimensions dance and have a dialogue with each other from the very beginning, at a pace and with a degree of intimacy that are only possible in such a special city, where people can get to every neighbourhood quickly and where the epicentre of the occasion, ARCOlisboa, takes place inside a historical monument with wide windows injected by natural light and the Tagus river breeze. Not many art fairs are lucky to happen with these conditions. Ultimately, the experiences are complementary. The exhibitions in the city reinforce the work of some of the artists on display at the fair, and vice versa.
In the morning, guided tours to private collections, exhibitions in the museums and the morning galleries allow people not only to see but to hear and talk about art, catching snatches of conversation about the night before, from the inaugurations to the parties that enliven ARCOlisboa, sometimes until dawn the next day. After lunch, they can go to the Cordoaria to spend the afternoon visiting the fair, attending forums, or participating in other activities, and the evening enjoying cultural programmes and the leisure activities part of the parallel programme.
This is not a socially and culturally strenuous week; it is rather a time for a healthy dose of euphoria and relaxation, where everything comes together: people, the city's neighbourhoods, the exhibitions and time. Everything is organic, free, and enjoyed to the limit of the senses. From the irreplaceable empathetic relationship with the piece of art that is in front of us to the echoes of fado music heard in the streets of the Alfama district. Seeing, hearing and sensing. Exactly how Lisbon should be lived.
Producing a digital parallel programme for this online edition of the fair would be like visiting Lisbon, or any other city, only on the computer. Even so, in these exceptional times it is of interest to know and understand the response given in terms of online content and activity from some of the spaces and artistic movements, many of them as part of the “parallel programme” at various editions of ARCOlisboa. I assume that these offerings are not an exercise in replacing art seen with the naked eye with a digital lens, but an exercise in the architecture that inhabits this time and space in which we are all living, and which is growing by the second into a new cosmic order, into “somewhere in between”, as the title of Catarina Botelho’s show, now on display at the Pavilhão Branco in Lisbon, suggests and whose idea I have taken for the title of this text.
In addition to EGEAC and MAAT, already described on the ARCOlisboa website, whereby the latter is one of the boldest examples of digital museum content in the current context, in the area of contemporary art, there are also the Serralves museum with SOLE, the Serralves Online Experience, the Gulbenkian Museum and the Berardo Collection Museum. With their websites and social media, visiting their current exhibitions digitally and/or virtually, listening to online conversations with the curators, artists and directors of these museums and even gaining access to their digital archives free of charge was all made possible. All these spaces can be visited from the ARCOlisboa website.
There is no doubt that those who have the time to consult these archives and attend all these hours of lectures will emerge from the pandemic with a much richer cultural capacity. We will all be well-nourished with post-pandemic content and theories, after discussing them through little rectangular windows with faces filmed from low laptop camera angles.
But the most creative and even, in some cases, the most sophisticated offerings have come from much smaller structures. Proving that at times being small and independent encourages creativity. These are structures and projects that, in the absence of a permanent collection or even a physical space to showcase virtually, have used the moment to catalyse ideas and plan for the future that awaits us without any arrogance.
Some examples of this are the online edition of the Boca biennial of art, a project that lives on and in the spaces of the city, and that in just two weeks re-evaluated its entire role and reorganised itself in no-man’s land, with a full online programme created for talks, performances and interactions with artists and other professionals http://www.bocabienal.org/programa/2020/
The Hangar, an artistic research centre, opened a new online space (https://hangar.com.pt/online) on 12th May with a truly impressive programme, including performances, talks and courses on the topic of “decolonial” art and education.
Walk and Talk, a contemporary art festival that takes place in July each year on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, promises to have a physical programme for local visitors and an online alternative designed for those who would like to experience the festival from home (https://www.walktalkazores.org/).
Lastly, the artistic project Kunsthale Lissabon, has come up with the very original way to share culinary recipes from the artistic world. A great idea, as if there was any doubt about the existing relationship between art and cooking, it disappeared with the lockdown. (https://kunsthallelissabon.tumblr.com).