ALTERNATIVE SPACES

by Miguel Pinho

 

A possible approach to Curatorial Practice in Architecture

“The art produced in alternative spaces was process oriented and situationally specific, that is, it involved «a relationship between materials, concepts, actions, and locations».”1

Thinking of curatorship in architecture is a subject that, by itself, raises an endless number of issues regarding these two broad definitions: curatorship and architecture. Therefore, I propose a quick look over a set of spaces, deemed as alternative, in the town of Oporto, which can question the introduction of this particular thematic in architecture’s curatorship.

Despite the growing importance of alternative spaces, only a small number of publications about these spaces that have appeared in Oporto has surfaced during the last decade of the twentieth century and the present ending decade. These ephemeral articles find themselves divulged only through some newspapers and magazines. Hence, beyond the set of interviews to several individualities of the town’s artistic scenery, a publication endorsed by Fundação de Serralves stands out, considering several exhibitions that took place between 2003 and 2005 at a coffee shop named “Salão Olímpico”, located at the street Miguel Bombarda in Oporto, which managed to put together an amount of good information regarding several artists and their projects, that took place – and still do – in the city. Thus, the large majority of what is written tends to focus on those particular places, failing for the lack of a broader context.

Before raising a number of issues about this matter, I deem it necessary to approach though in a light manner, the urban dynamics of the city inside a set of planning tools that were imposed since the middle eighties.

In fact, it was from this point on that a more than necessary regulation, in terms of soil use, was felt. From big to middle-sized cities, it was instated from the municipal planning, replacing the unfit town and country planning. If, on the one hand, these plans were intent to ordering the cities’ layout and territory, on the other hand, they were used to manipulate and speculate over the town’s land market, provoking deep asymmetries, particularly in metropolitan areas where the absence of a construction master plan created some deep problems at certain urban centers. Considering a later date, the nineties were the context in which a new territorial planning tool was implemented. The strategic plans, a philosophy already deep-rooted inside private corporations, will then come up as an aid in the development of towns2. As a start point, the strong and weak characteristics of the cities were gathered, allowing the strategic plans to put together a set of guidelines that would be followed on several levels. These guidelines were defined by several areas and subjects, from the social, cultural and economical areas, going through sports, communication, transports, among others. Their purpose was to overcome the cities’ frailties by defining long-term plans with the purpose of developing the cities social and economically. On a national level, the planning related to the south was focused mainly on the centralizing power of Lisbon, finding the rotation center of its sphere of influence that spread south as to reach Setúbal and north as far as Vila Franca de Xira. On the other hand, the development to the north had this growth happen around a greater number of cities, not only being influenced by Oporto’s metropolitan area, but finding the presence of eight more cities defining. These cities, located at a northern point of Oporto’s metropolitan area, quickly became very attractive (intense activity of the land market), moving this epicenter to outside of Oporto’s outskirts, dividing it up, which provided these cities with a greater importance not only in terms of population, but also on an economical level. If, in fact, Oporto was the reference of the region up until the late eighties, at the beginning of the nineties that agglutinating capacity was emptied out. The neighboring cities, particularly Maia, Matosinhos and Vila Nova de Gaia and, further away, Braga and Guimarães, create conditions that allow for the growth of the population, that way stimulating a new paradigm of residential orientations that now shifts to the exterior of the northern capital.

On the case at hand, the policies that were set up in Oporto demanded a greater concern regarding the urban space of the west area, forgetting about the area to the east and being unable to avoid its desertification.

It’s important to point out that the construction of big commercial equipments introduced new approaches on the cities’ commercial offer, changing the traditional habits concerning the population’s dislocation on a daily basis.Simultaneously, the institutional structures and the traditional methods of the arts world also changed. The spaces that surfaced at Oporto, started by artists or structured groups in town, were (are) an answer to the limitations provoked by a world orientated towards a global commerce that, so more, is currently starting to fail.

Allow me to speculate about these spaces, the people responsible for them as authors of a set of actions that, from where I stand, might be understood, even without a clear intent, as viewers of a cultural, political and social reality corresponding to their surroundings.

As a result of wrong urban policies, the consequent draining of culture related programs after 2001, the independent spaces, mostly provided by artists, assume themselves as results of a curatorship, that might or might not be intentional, and that debates visual and special issues, merging the artistic and architectural practices, hence giving new shapes, redefining and resetting the context – because, on one side, it takes the original functional purpose, and on the other, it takes the concept of “emptiness” (presupposing the existence of a recent ruin) and redefining – because it provides new spaces with new uses. The alternative assumes a choice, another possibility for these formal spaces, for museums, a change of audience, location, a change of context that thereby makes possible their upcoming.

The capture of an image, the closing of a drawing’s detail element from an architecture project are revealing of a point of view. My view on curatorship sees it as a set of interdisciplinary actions ranging from the field of objectivity to the field of reflection and speculation, usually morphed into exhibits, events or publications. From the moment that the practice of curatorship turns to elements that are shared by the plastic arts and architecture, all in order to assemble an exhibition, curatorship itself assumes a role that goes beyond simple knowledge. In this context, one needs to understand architecture for more than its disciplinary limitations, not constraining oneself to that kind of record that might be imposed when considering the architectural universe. The underlying need of communication that is inherent to the artistic practice, when related to the surrounding space in an active manner, should create the conditions to overcome its traditional disciplinary universe and, therefore, go beyond its own borders, becoming relatable to any architectural space. The record as a memory is another point I deem central in architecture curatorship.

Taking this background into account, I decided to present a set of projects that took place in Oporto, and that try, in different ways, to go from a gathering of individual reasons that the authors themselves explain here, to an interpretation of the space that encloses them. Curatorship in architecture has, thereby, its genesis as an exercise that questions the manner in which one views, comprehends and, fundamentally, approaches (learns and understands) architecture. In the same manner that contemporary art is branded by its degree of interdisciplinary investigation, curatorship in architecture should approach the cultural, social and political perspectives imposed by the several interventions that took place in the last quarter of the past century.

The consequent proliferation of an unused patrimony spread throughout town, creating a parallel to a recent archeology, a latent past, a memory that starts its expansion and contaminates every city. In concomitance, the lack of spaces for exhibitions, the need of certain contents, the excessive institutionalization of the majority of these spaces were the causes for the occupation of the then vacant spaces.

The unfit preparation of these spaces, as spaces meant to receive several multidisciplinary artistic activities, invokes, in the authors, an attitude that thrives to reinvent these spaces.

Generally, the conventional spaces offer a full set of equipments to show and present contemporary art. Since the eighties, famous architects were invited to design equipments considering not only to accommodate art collections, but also to design spaces that can express recent art. Due to the strong authorial character of a project, that project itself will, frequently, overthrow the importance of the collection that these equipments enclose.

“(...) Some institutions don´t show courage or love for art. For many new museums today all the energy and money goes towards hiring a “star” architect and the director is too often left with spaces he doesn´t like and no money to change them. (...)”3

The constant presentation of temporary exhibits, that translated into the growth of new dynamics regarding viewers, practices of contemporary art and architecture itself, forces upon us a look at architecture not as a space, but as a medium where contemporary art expresses itself. This way, artists are compelled to interfere in the architectural work, adapting and reinventing it, generating architecture not as an ending but as a tool / support of the process of contemporary art. Mondrian’s statement about his work “Salon de Madame B. à Dresden”, presented in 1970 from drawings the artist made in 1926, is curious:

“By the unification of architecture, sculpture and painting, a new plastic reality will be created. Painting and sculpture will not manifest themselves as separate objects, nor as “mural art” which destroys architecture itself, nor as “applied” art, but being purely constructive will aid the creation of surrounding not merely utilitarian or rational but also pure and complete in its beauty”

Thus, it seems that, at the moment, a lot of the “non-places” of our town (re)created a new identity as alternative spaces where the space for the exhibitions corresponds to a new materiality or existence, beyond the character of a passive space for art exhibits: these spaces assume themselves as a medium for contemporary artistic practices.

This way, the movement4 created by these spaces, that challenged curatorship in a reversed sense, opens a new referential. Through photography, painting, sculpture, etc, these spaces assume an experimental (laboratorial) character that allows the reinvention of architecture, giving birth to new dialogues. The various artistic languages will be the new mediums for architecture, permitting a disassemble of its traditional concepts. I believe this approach might launch new approaches in the field of architecture curatorship. Art itself may be seen as a starting point to reinvent architecture.

Historically, alternative spaces are connected, since the sixties, to a great number of spaces created mainly by artists. Reduced budgets, the informality on a programming level, the locations that are based in vacant spaces such as stores and warehouses, the different kinds of mediums going from paintings to installations, video art and performances were formally the main characteristics of these spaces. On the other hand, the social, political and cultural element, the scarcity of spaces to do this exhibits that are not commercially compromised, all played their parts for the definition of these places.

I present three spaces I consider representative of a dynamic of unrest and questioning in the city, as starting points (or not) to a new functional organization of the city. “Uma Certa Falta de Coerência”, “Lófte” and “Espaço Campanhã”, spaces inserted into the consolidated area of the town, more specifically at Rua dos Caldeireiros and Rua das Flores – in the town’s center -, and Rua Pinto Bessa – at the eastern part of town.

 

“Uma Certa Falta de Coerência“by André Sousa5

“Sometimes, one is brooding and staring at bold companies throughout Regent Street, and finds himself at Rua dos Caldeireiros between a funnel shop and a clog tent.”6

We know that any space can be taken in order to show projects of an artistic character. We also know that when we choose a particular place, it is never a random space. There are several conditions that limit our choices: morphology, location, social and historical context of the space.

The choice happens as an immediate reaction to the space and with the utmost certainty that that is the place where you wish to work. Thus, it is the space that first affects the ones who enter and work there. In the same way, before trying to interfere and transform the neighborhood in which you inhabit, one wants to be transformed by it. We are receptive to what the street gives us and we know that only on a later date the street will be receptive to our pres­ence. It is a simple game of small social daily conquests.

Opening the door of a closed commercial space, stuck in time and in ruins, is an important part of the project. A symbolic act, an exercise of denouncing or simply making reality more visible.

The choice of making Rua dos Caldeireiros the final address to the project “Uma Certa Falta de Coerência” takes place at the end of 2007. The city, impoverished and unable of attracting life, helps us to question what is the center. We set up six hundred feet from the site and we observe the whole process of cleaning the façade and tiding the place up. The visitors came: tourists and inhabitants of the neighboring areas. The city became a set for speeches, running competitions and masses. Several bars, that now define the area, sprouted during that time. The center transforms itself into a theme park where you drink not knowing if you are trying to celebrate or to forget.

The city appears to renew itself. The problem is, it only seems that way. Usually, on a first visit to “Uma Certa Falta de Coerência”, people ask if any reconstruction work will take place. The answer is always negative. We do not have the means to make structural changes, and we don’t want to make changes on the surface. The choice of the number 77 of Rua dos Caldeireiros was made taking into account what the space was at the time, not what it could become.

The first transformation we made happen in this street is an economical one: we pay rent, we eat and drink coffees in local shops and restaurants. I figure there must be around 200 euros a month being spent at Rua dos Caldeireiros. A fortune.

Naturally, the characteristics of the space participate in the definition of the project’s identity, and each artist responds to these characteristics in a committed fashion. If the succession of rooms invites the telling of a narrative, the fragmented geometry asks for abstraction. If the smells and textures of the space make us more aware of reality, the corridor, with its dark tones, invites us to dream and to fear. There is a direction, but it isn’t an only way road.

We do not have an educational service in place, nor do we have a tax payer number or a bank account. The few locals that visit the space make it regularly and live in a curious state due to the changes of the exhibition. Sometimes, they even help. But even more important than the exhibit itself, what we have to give them is a warm “Good morning”.

I do not believe that what we make is enough to bring life back to the city. It is a part of that process, but it’s not enough. It is important to remember that “bringing life back” to a city is not a clear enough concept, and will always have different approaches.

If there is something that truly changes with the presence of “Uma Certa Falta de Coerência”, it is the ones that take part in it.

 

“Lófte”By João Marrucho7

“Lófte” is an association of artists that has its first work space at the second floor of what was the first hospital of Oporto (thirteenth century). It is an association which was created with the purpose of making its participants well-known.

Naturally, the building’s structure is no longer the original. Since its construction, this monument has had several different layouts, having been split, separated, united, built, today remaining a collage of intents from different times. Some investigation will be required (which is, at the moment, being done by an architect specialized in restoration works) in order to understand accurately how and when these modifications were made, though about the functions played by this building, we know the following: until the nineteenth century, time of the construction of Hospital de Sto. António, it was Hospital Rocamador. Meanwhile, it was also a convent and a place meant for children that single mothers would abandon at the time for not being able to feed and dress them, or because they were the result of unwanted pregnancies (Casa da Roda). During the twentieth century, it was a storage unit, until it remained empty at the end of the last century. Recently, it was bought by a private investor. It was with this gentleman that a group of artists negotiated the occupation of the 500 square meters of the second floor. In return for some restoring and maintenance work, the space was rented out. It is there that today, several artists from different European nationalities work: two communication designers, a professor from the Faculty of Fine-Arts, an illustrator, a circuit-bender and an architect/3D modeler. Also, a street performer, an computer programmer/physicist, a sculptor/ballerina and another communication designer, were former occupants of the space.

In order to manage this natural cycle of people that come and go, an association whose regulations set a natural process for integration and dealing with the departure of members, was created. Concerning the current functionalities of different parts of the building, it has to be said that the artists only occupy an area of 180 square meters, leaving room for 220 square meters of white walls that are meant to receive events and showcases to the public. There is also a workshop for the messier works (woods, metals, paints…).

Through “Lófte”, several works from fashion designers, visual artists, theatre plays, from Oporto, have been in place. Events such as magazines releases, concerts, album releases have also taken place. Hopefully, in times to come, “Lófte” will pick up the pace of public events and so reinforce its presence in the city’s cultural program.

 

“Espaço Campanhã”By Miguel Fernandes Pinho8

Warehouse 4 experimented, since the beginning of its existence, several uses. A storage unit for food, electrical power tools and saw mill materials, are some of the examples that show us the strong commercial character of the area around the station of Campanhã, since the development of the railroad transportations at the beginning of the twentieth century. The transportation of merchandise coming from several points of the country, namely the northwestern area, forced the construction of a number of storage units near the train station, intending an ulterior distribution through traditional means, expanding and allowing traditional commerce to grow. If today, the distribution concentrates in great and magnificent logistical centers, in the eighties all of this distribution was focused around individuals, as was traditional commerce, in small spaces, such as warehouse 4.

Besides the urban movement that commerce instigated, during decades, the eastern area of Oporto was the destination to strong migrations coming from the population of the inner regions of the country, due to an increment of the secondary sector. The areas around the ring road, Rua do Bonfim and Barros Lima, Av. Camilo, Rua do Heroísmo and Rua do Freixo, were arteries that gathered around them several textile industries, metal mechanic industries, among others. “Calandra do Bonfim” and “A Esmaltagem Mário Navega” are good examples of the strong industrial activity that was in place until the end of the last century.Today, only traces, ruins, of those activities can be found.

Meanwhile, the area lives in an attempt to change the path that defined the urban part it played around Estação da Campanhã. The edification of a “modern” building meant for services related to the hotel business and communications, the remodeling of the train station, the construction of a subway network, are examples of this intent of creating a new central organization in Oporto. Many are the voices stating that the city of the twenty first century will now develop to the east. “Espaço Campanhã” thrives to establish itself as a space of experimentation and divulgence of contemporary art, increasing the exhibits’ flow already started in several spaces around the city.

It is meant to be an informal space, of focus, debate and meeting point of wisdoms regarding the plastic arts. On the other hand, its purpose is to maintain and alert to the memory of the space it occupies, showing that it is possible to transform a space without killing its essence, in a dialogue with the elements of the place it resides in. At the same time, it should be able to show innovation and provoke, question the dominating aesthetics of this place.
 

1 Wallis, Brian, “Public Funding and Alternative Spaces” in Julie Adult (ed), Alternative Art New YorK , University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

2 Subject thoroughly approached by the architect Nuno Portas

3 Szeemann, Harald in Obrist, Hans Ulrich, “ A Brief History of Curating”, Zurich, 2008

4 The idea of movement is defended by Julie Adult in the introduction “Alternative Art New York” and, on the othrt side, contradicted by Arlene Goldbard, in the same book.

5 Plastic Artist

6 “Ás vezes, cuida que vai cismando em empresas arrojadas ao longo de Regent Street, e encontra-se na rua dos Caldeireiros entre uma loja de funis e uma tenda de tamancos.” by Camilo Castelo Branco in“O Vinho do Porto”

7 Graphic Designer

8 Producer and Programmer of “Espaço Campanhã”