Nuno de Brito Rocha (born 1988) is a Berlin-based architect, curator, and art historian. He is currently director interim of the Kunstverein Braunschweig, where he so far realized shows together with the Villa Romana in Florence, the Braunschweig University of Art (HBK), and with artists Rosana Paulino, Eli Cortiñas with João Gabriel, among others.
De Brito Rocha previously curated for Berlin’s Museum of Modern Art, the Berlinische Galerie, where he project-managed the extensive outdoor exhibition project “Park Platz” with site-specific works by c/o now, Zuzanna Czebatul, Daniel Lie, Hanne Lippard, Ania Nowak, Lucas Odahara, Przemek Pyszczek, Liz Rosenfeld, Marinella Senatore, and Raul Walch. In 2019, he co-curated the Third Biennial of Contemporary Art Anozero’19 in Coimbra, Portugal.
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: You trained as an architect with an emphasis on architecture history and city planning in São Paulo. How did you translate your role of the architect to curator?
NUNO de BRITO ROCHA: Yes, I trained as an architect and urban planner in Brazil but also as an art historian in Berlin. This is something I cannot separate. It was clear to me from the very beginning that I did not want to become an architect. I was interested in building socially relevant connections, discussions, and education as opposed to physically constructing walls, ceilings, or floors. Architecture taught me to understand cultures, history, accessibility, cities, peoples’ movements, and space – public and private. These are all common aspects of art, its presentation, and mediation.
It is hardly impossible to study Art History in Brazil as it is delivered in Europe or the US, so the majority of students turn to Architecture, Philosophy, or Social Sciences, for instance. The study of Architecture is attractive as it combines both theory and practice – skills a curator can profit a lot from. I guess my interest as a curator is the same as if I had become an architect: the creation of a mediation space where a discussion happens. This space can be either physical or social and in my opinion, art institutions should be social spaces. As I was trained at a free public university University of São Paulo (FAUUSP) and the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) financed via public money, there was a collective consciousness of social spaces which is the number one priority at the institution. My studies taught me an understanding of peoples’ needs and contexts – not only when it comes to height, size, or temperature – but also the different aspects of influence in the public realm, social interactions, movement, and privileges.
It was clear early on that with an architectural degree my career path in the museum context was limited as in the end I was always an architect. As a way to develop my curatorial work, I started working at the Museu da Casa Brasileira. The latter is a museum dedicated to Brazilian architecture and design and it was an important step for me to transition from architecture to a cultural institution. We created exciting exhibitions such as Ways of Showing: Exhibition Architecture of Lina Bo Bardi, dedicated to the late architect and her contribution to a more inclusive notion of what culture means in a country such as Brazil.
LŠ: At Berlinische Galerie, Berlin’s Museum of Modern Art, you worked in various departments from Modern Art and Architecture to Video Programme. You talked of seeing architecture as a starting point in curating artists’ moving images and also curating outside institutional space .
NdBR: In my opinion, curatorial work always actively explores a dialogue with architecture – be it the physical or the socially constructed space. My training as an architect combined with my Master’s in Art History explored these aspects and instrumental work in my research was The Floating Museum by American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson from the late 70s. The latter work focused on an institutional critique with the creation of a wandering and flexible non-institutional exhibition structure.
I started at the Berlinische Galerie in the Artist’s Archives Department, which could be seen as the brain of the museum’s collection that holds artists’ estates such as art, correspondences, and photographs. It was a wonderful context to depart from towards researching and exhibiting German Modern Art. I was briefly in the Architecture Department while the museum was planning a show on the so-called “postmodern” architecture of the 1980s in Berlin.
In 2019, during my work for the mentioned institution, I was invited to co-curate the third Biennial of Contemporary Art in Coimbra, Portugal. An exciting Biennial focused on non-traditional exhibition spaces, where the public realm plays an important role.
The Biennial was funded by a non-profit art space in Coimbra in conjunction with the University of Coimbra. This connection to the university interested me a lot and led me to propose an outreach programme that was done in cooperation with the students of the Masters in Curatorial Studies of the University. It was very successful among the students and local communities and this model was followed by the next edition of the biennial. Besides that, the Biennial could take place in many spaces throughout the city, both contemporary and historical, which was for me a very enriching experience – to work in several spaces with different conditions as well as with distinct people and backgrounds. It was amazing to learn more about the art scene in the country. Spaces used were for instance (independent art spaces), the local natural history museum (Museu da Ciência da Universidade de Coimbra), local architecture and art school (University of Coimbra), along with the main venue, which is an enormous convent from the 17th century (Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Nova).
During the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic as a part of the Video Programme (at Berlinische Galerie), I initiated a digital platform on the museum’s website for video art, open-air screenings, and artists’ talks. This is very in tune with my interests in the public realm and accessibility such as how to grant access to art. It is free of charge, it has no closing hours, and ideally no barriers (physical or intellectual). These ideas – and ideals – were put to a test with Park Platz.
LŠ: An important part of your role was also the organisation of the program: Park Platz, which is held in the parking lot of the Berlinische Galerie and invites active dialogue between the architecture of the temporary- installed pavilions and newly-commissioned artworks from local artists. You mentioned the latter opened the questions of understanding space and non-space – could you tell us more?
NdBR: Park Platz happened, but it was at the same time utopia. It went against all institutional rules, even though it happened within the institutional frame. Parkplatz is the word for a parking lot in German, which is formed by two words: Park and Platz (park and space or square). When you separate the word, you open up their meaning and you give the space a new significance. A non-place turns into a place. This may be obvious for native German-speaking people but for me coming from a very different language and context, it is not. So, the programme starts with mediating the name, making the space accessible through language. The aspect of language has been always present in my concerns, whether while writing a text or offering mediated tours. If the information does not arrive at the visitor, it failed. Language is very elitist and the cultural field still lives from being exclusive.
As the name Park Platz indicates, the programme happened at the parking lot of the museum which covers an area of 16 parking spaces. The architectural office from Berlin, c/o now, designed a pavilion of 250m2. Their design was chosen among four other candidates through competition by invitation. c/o now designed a beautiful space with no walls or ceilings also due to the presence of Covid-19. But the structure also pointed to this creating of a space out of nothing. A metal structure held curtains that could be opened or closed depending on the needs of the programme and the number of visitors.
To mark the entrance and the often-ignored parking lot, we commissioned a work by Marinella Senatore, Bodies in Alliance, that perfectly fitted at one of the sides of the pavilion. Marinella’s work then travelled to London, Paris, and Dubai, where it marked the entrance of Palais de Tokyo for her Bodies in Alliance Festival. Further, eight artists were commissioned to create new work for Park Platz such as Daniel Lie, Liz Rosenfeld and Ania Nowak.
The core of the project Park Platz was its public programme. After so many months spent in lockdown in Germany, the public was looking forward to meeting again. Park Platz proposed a new beginning and a way of distributing the funding to people and groups that needed it such as freelance creatives or schools. With new and established partner institutions and creatives, we created a diverse programme of 70 events such as performances, talks, workshops, tours, film screenings, and more. There was always something happening!
In this sense, Park Platz was a place, an exhibition, and a programme. It was open every day for four months and free of charge. It was more than an exhibition – it was an outreach project. It developed beautifully, inviting local people who, for instance, for the first time felt comfortable visiting the museum.
LŠ: How has the program under your leadership developed over the years?
NdBR: Even though Park Platz and its components (like the pavilion) were commissioned to be used over and over again, it didn’t take place this year – it might happen again in the future. But as I said, it was utopian – it pushed the limits and the structure of the institution too far. Park Platz meant to give up on many privileges, for example, having a parking lot and paying visitors.
LŠ: You are currently leading the Kunstverein Braunschweig, one of the oldest kunstvereins in Germany. The institution (like many kunstvereins) does not have a collection and a large emphasis is on creating a strong public program that supports the local community. How is the exhibition programme defined?
NdBR: A Kunstverein is a member-based institution very common in German-speaking countries. They are spread everywhere, from the biggest to the smallest cities. Hence Kunstvereins are per se local initiatives have a very important cultural role in their contexts; some of them, like the Kunstverein Braunschweig also has an impressive international reach. It is there where the young and newest positions in Germany are shown – often years ahead of museums. Like other cultural institutions in Germany, Kunstverein relies on public money to operate. That said, fundraising is vital to realize any project. So, this is definitely a challenge of the role.
I have been at the Kunstverein only for over a year but I could already realize a series of exhibitions and projects of my own. Of course, time is also a challenge, as the exhibition programme changes extremely fast but it is also one of the qualities of such an institution – we have the ability to respond more quickly than any other cultural space to current events and relevant discussions.
Accessibility remains one of the core visions of my work and mission of our work at the Kunstverein. Being the only foreign person and the first ever to have such a role at the Kunstverein – I see it as my responsibility to propose other views, representations, and perspectives to its programme. This brings of course other themes, other languages, other distances, and, of course, other challenges to the structure, the supporting foundations, and the local communities with whom we engage. It is very enriching.
Being a member-based institution, the Kunstverein is supported by the local community at the same time that, with its programme, gives back this support to the city and its inhabitants.
LŠ: Could you tell us the future plans/vision for the Kunstverein Braunschweig?
NdBR: We have a programme planned until February 2024 with participants from countries and backgrounds that were not yet considered at the Kunstverein, as well as exciting public programmes with cooking sessions, artists’ talks, performances, and more. One of the long-term goals is and should be to engage more with its members and find ways to reach a border audience. We are constantly working on this.