Interview with José Roca
This is the fourth published interview in a series that was created in the framework of "The Curatorial Unpacked" colloquium that took place in the 2016-2017 academic year, for the MA and MFA programs at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (Jerusalem), organized by Nirith Nelson. In this platform dedicated to an open discourse about curatorial practices, each speaker presented ground-breaking curatorial projects and provided conceptual tools to the curatorial treasure chest (in Hebrew, the word for “curator” is spelled the same as “treasurer”–otzer). The plurality and complexity provided a manifestation of the richness of the curatorial profession. For further details, click here.
José Roca is the Artistic Director of FLORA ars+natura, an independent space for contemporary art in Bogotá (Colombia). FLORA ars+natura is a laboratory to articulate curatorial practice through the creation of community and local infrastructure. In this talk, Roca discussed the evolution of FLORA ars+natura from a project space to an independent study program centered on studio practice, interaction, fieldwork, and indigenous thought. For a decade, Roca was the Director of Arts at Banco de la República in Bogotá. He co-curated international exhibitions including the I Poly/graphic Triennial in San Juan, Puerto Rico (2004); the 27th Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil (2006); and the Encuentro de Medellín MDE07 (2007); and was the Artistic Director of Philagrafika 2010, Philadelphia’s international Triennial celebrating print in contemporary art. He is the author of "Transpolitical: art in Colombia 1992-2012".
José Roca— Hansen House, Jerusalem
Colloquium #8, March 8, 2017—Nirith Nelson—Masters Bezalel Academy
José Roca: I heard you both interviewed Marjetica Potrč?
Judith Lenglart: Yes, she was actually our first interview and speaker for the Curatorial Practices Colloquium at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.
JR: She is wonderful. Just prior to coming here, she was with us for a month leading a workshop at the FLORA Residency.
JL: We thought your connection was through the 27th São Paulo Biennial.
JR: I met her through the residency she did in the Amazon jungle in Acre, Brazil, in 2006. The following year I invited her to the Encuentro de Medellín, a city-wide event in Colombia. From the moment we founded FLORA, we wanted to invite her and finally we had the opportunity to do so. She will be returning November 2017 for an exhibition based on her residency last year. I respect Marjetica a lot as a thinker, artist, and practitioner. She also turned out to be a wonderful teacher for the artists in the Escuela FLORA where she held a seminar about community projects.
Danielle Gorodenzik: You have a rich background in architecture, how did you begin curating exhibitions? Did you start as an independent curator or in a museum structure?
JR: It all came very organically. I was studying architecture and I started working in a small position in the department of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in Bogota. Once I graduated, I realized that I was more interested in museum practice rather than architecture. So I decided to pursue a career in the arts, but from the standpoint of an architect through exhibition design. I worked many years as an exhibition designer installing shows for several museums.
In 1992,I went to Ecole d’Architecture Paris-Villemin in Paris to study Design and Management of Cultural Buildings, then I worked for one year at Centre Georges Pompidou as an assistant for Jean Dethier, curator of the exhibition La Ville, Art et Architecture. When I came back to Colombia, I was offered the position as Chief of Arts at Banco de la República. I worked there for several years, organizing shows curated by others.
JL: When was that exactly?
JR: In 1994 and I started to occasionally curate shows. I forgot to mention that as an exhibition designer I was the peer of artists that were starting to work with installations as a medium. Before this shift to installation, there was a generation that painted and sculpted and the artworks were usually complete when they arrived to the museum and installed by the exhibition designer. But this in situ generation began working in space, with space, by creating works directly in the museum. That gave me a keen understanding of how artists minds work. I started to enter the field of curatorial practice and contemporary art simultaneously.
JL: As the Director of the art collections and exhibitions of the Central Bank of Colombia, what were the priorities to strengthen the collection?
JR: In 1994, I was appointed the Chief of Arts at the Central Bank of Colombia. I set out to reinvigorate the program towards a contemporary collection, because until then it was geared towards modern art. The Central Bank of Colombia has been collecting contemporary art since 1957. After doing an assessment of the collection, we realized that the works were not sufficient to tell a story. At this point, the collection was in storage and never exhibited. Therefore, we set a five-year plan to acquire Colombian and Latin American art in order to strengthen the narrative and deliberately paused to collect international art. We noticed, for example, that the indigenous and nationalist art movements of the 1930’s in Colombia were not represented in the collection, so we sought out to acquire those works. We started to draft acquisitions, to renovate the building, and to install the collection permanently for the first time.
JL: Spatially, how did you organize the permanent exhibition of the collection?
JR: The Bank is situated in the historical town, in a building from the 1950’s, constituted of two blocks: a large library, concert hall with offices and exhibition space in a 19th century patio house and a building that used to be a factory for minting the coins. My idea was not only to renovate those industrial spaces but also to create an entirely new building. In 2005, we opened a new building for exhibitions which was designed by a local architect.
From the start, I wanted to take the arts department away from the cultural center because I felt that it needed to have its own entity as a museum. Finally, in 2006, we began this reorganization. This was a pivotal moment of my career in this institution where I worked for almost twenty years.
DG: You curated several international exhibitions: First Poly/graphic Triennial in San Juan, Puerto Rico (2004) and the 27th Bienal de Sao Paulo, Brasil (2006). How would you define the biennial/triennial format? How would you consider the relationship towards the local scene and its visibility on an international scale? Are these the main controversial issues linked to this format?
JR: The format has been questioned because biennials are sprouting everywhere. Today, there are more than two hundred, according to the biennialfoundation.org. If it is such a problematic format, why is it appearing everywhere? The positive outcome of biennials is that it provides two possibilities: the local public can see the international art that is being brought to their city, and foreign artists, curators, museum directors can see the local scene. This exchange between the local and the international can be very important for cities. For example, the art scene of São Paulo – which hosts one of the oldest biennials – and Havana have grown stronger after biennial initiatives.
The negative aspect is that they concentrate the cultural funds of a given city for a single short-term event. Sometimes, after the creation of a biennial, local actors denounce that it damages the funding of local scene initiatives. I was aware of this issue when I worked as a co-curator at the São Paulo Biennial. But each biennial is a different animal, São Paulo is what it is, and as a curator you can't really change it. The building in itself is an apt metaphor: It is like a huge transatlantic vessel, and if it's going towards an iceberg the most you can do is change the course a little, but you cannot speed around like a sports boat.
JL: You spoke about different strategies of how to tackle the inconvenience of the biennial format. So why not create another format? Why continue playing with the same rules?
JR: When you are given an opportunity, then you can alter it, you can play with certain rules. But you can also say no, for example, in Manifesta 6 in Nicosia, Cyprus (2006). They stated that Cyprus does not need a large biennial event, and instead proposed that they would create a school. Finally, this biennial did not happen because of political issues between Greece and Turkey, but their intention was to change the format.
In Medellín for the Encuenro in 2007, we found different ways to tweak the format. For example, the event lasted six months; it did not only happen in one place but was spread around the city; the artists did not come at the same time, but month by month; nobody could pretend to see the entirety of the program as the artists were activating different spaces simultaneously. All these are means to tweak the format and adapt it to the purpose that you think is important.
DG: You once said that you are "a sort of biennial rescuer," in what sense? And what advice can you give to first-timers?
JR: That sounds like a pretentious thing to say, maybe I said it half jokingly in an interview. What I meant, for example, is that the Trienal Poli/gráfica de San Juan, Puerto Rico (2004), of which I was one of the curators, was initially a print biennial that started in the 1970’s. At that time, the Left ideology coincided with the art movement, and print was a way to spread these ideas due to its accessibility and multiplicity. The biennial was very important at that time in Latin America, but slowly became irrelevant because they narrowly defined “what is print”. For example, when I looked at the biennial’s last catalogues, I did not know any of the artists who participated on behalf of Colombia because the printers guild recommended artists who did not reflect what was happening in the art scene at that time.
I was invited by my colleague Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Director of the Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, to be part of the team with three other curators. First of all, we changed the biennial to a trienal so that there would be more time to prepare. Secondly, we modified its exhibition program, from an exclusive print exhibition to an event that celebrates multiple ethos of print in contemporary art. We included works that were not necessarily defined as prints. For example, we included the series of photographs Land Mark (Foot Prints) #12, 2001-2004, which is part of the body of works that Allora & Calzadilla made about the situation in Vieques (an island off the mainland of Puerto Rico, used for the 60 years by the U.S Military and NATO forces to practice military bombing exercises). They could not participate in the demonstrations so, in 2000, they began a collaboration with local activists to make the campaign more visible. Having added cast rubber reliefs of their slogans and designs to the soles of their shoes, the activists stamped their protest on the reclaimed land. They distributed the rubber souls to protestors that would enter the beach and leave that mark on the sand, and finally go out before the alarm was set off. By slightly manipulating everyday objects to become communication tools, Allora & Calzadilla had created “mobile print-making machines”. Later, they photographed the ephemeral aftermath of these mark-making actions. The work was presented as photographs documenting the footsteps on the ground. This work is not your typical print, but about the political role of print and a public performance of demonstration.
It was a fascinating project questioning what is the status of print in the expanded field of contemporary art. To answer your question, that is one of the ways that my colleagues and I have tried to bring back to life an exhausted and stale exhibition format. Today, the PolyGraphic Trienal has become an event that artists in Latin America actually look up to.
JL : After having a very international career, you decided to come back to Colombia and build your independent space, FLORA ars+natura, in order to link with local communities. Do you think that this shift is part of a larger phenomenon through initiatives of independent curators around the world?
JR: There are many young curators that have established contemporary art centers in their cities and have reinvigorated the scene by staying there. In Colombia, we say that it is better to be the head of a mouse than a tail of a lion. Sometimes, it is better to do something significant in your hometown than to being just one more curator in New York.
JL: And do you think that this is a way to shift the common “center – periphery” schema of the international art world?
JR: Yes, I think it is important to create something that is central and not care that much if you ever make it to hegemonic centers. As Lilian Llanes, former director of the Havana Biennial once said: “Well, they don’t invite Latin America, Africa, Asia, or Eastern Europe to the big biennials. . . so if they don’t invite you to a party you throw a better party and they will come”. And this is what happened, she conceived a biennial for artists that were not from Europe or the United States, but only from Africa, Latin America, and Asia Pacific. It was a huge success because it was the only place where you could see art from neglected regions. I think that you can do anything from where you are. If you do it right, people will start to come and if they do not, it is their loss.
DG: How did FLORA ars+natura begin?
JR: We first wanted to create an independent space where we could discuss issues pertaining to art and nature. We saw it as an exhibition space whose program would be fed by short-term residencies in our house situated in Honda, a small town on the Magdalena River. But in the last few years, many exhibition spaces opened in Bogota and that it needed a place related to education, but in a non-traditional sense. So we created Escuela Flora, the idea was to learn arts as a research, similar to an MFA program. The students have their own studio, investigate their practice and receive feedback from tutors. We continue to create exhibitions and host short-term residencies, but the core of our program now is Escuela Flora.
DG: FLORA ars+natura has a connection to art and nature, is this a way to connect to the history of Colombia and indigenous culture?
JR: In a way. Colombia has gone through an internal war for many years. This is all related to territory – who owns it, who wants it and why it would not be shared. Colombia is identified in the international public eye for two plants: coffee and coca. So this relationship between politics and botanics is not so far fetched. The heart of the problem is the question of territory and how natural resources have been exploited. There is a discourse that links exploitation and the role of the scientific travelers who catalogued the fauna and flora in expeditions funded by the Spanish Crown. Scientific knowledge of the time implemented a hierarchical system where some races were considered inferior to others. At the origin of our problems, there are issues linked to science and nature.
DG: You participated in the JCVA Residency in Jerusalem and have curated at the Herzliya Museum “Óscar Muñoz: Immemorial” (2009). Do you have any upcoming projects in Israel?
JR: We hope to establish some kind of collaboration with Nirith Nelson and maybe with Bezalel Academy of Art and Design which would enable an emerging artist to come to FLORA. But, I am always looking and am open for opportunities and collaborations.
 Exhibition La Ville, Art et Architecture, Centre Pompidou, February to May 1994.
 Yates McKee, October 133, Summer 2010.