Bruno Alves de Almeida (born in Brazil, 1987) is Maastricht-based curator, educator and architect. He is the Artistic Director and Co-Curator of the upcoming Luleå Biennial (2024) in Sweden. Concurrently, he is the Curator at (the post–academic institution) Jan van Eyck Academie and tutor on the Master Department Geo Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Alves de Almeida received his Bachelor and Master’s Degrees in Architecture from Faculty of Architecture Porto (FAUP) and Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio (AAUM). Between 2018 and 2019, he was part of the renowned De Appel Curatorial Programme in Amsterdam. Bruno Alves de Almeida was recipient of TATE Intensive Fellowship in 2019 and of Hyundai TATE Research Centre Fellowship in 2020. Among several projects, in São Paulo he initiated and curated the site-specific projects SITU (2015-18) and 1:1 (2018-20), and curated the São Paulo edition of the project Letters to the Mayor, Storefront for Art and Architecture. In the Netherlands he curated the project IPACC – Intergovernmental Panel on Art and Climate Change (2020-21), Environmental Identities (2020), both at the Jan van Eyck Academie, among others.
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How and when did you transfer from the architectural field to curating? Has your work for an architectural office in London influenced your curatorial practice?
BRUNO ALVES de ALMEIDA: The transition from architecture to curating was very gradual and natural for me. Going back to the Faculty of Architecture of Porto (Portugal), I was always very interested in both the design base as well as theoretical and discursive aspects of architectural practice.
It was only when I moved to Switzerland, to do my Master’s degree at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio, that I was confronted with more hybrid practices that interested me. I had amazing teachers who have a solid architectural practice, such as Jonathan Sergison, from Sergison Bates Architects, where I later worked for one year in London; and Kersten Geers from OFFICE KGDVS, in Brussels, among others. But I also had access to disciplines with a more artistic and humanistic component, such as cinema and production design or the relation between sound and space which all left an impact.
After my Master, I was excited to try out working in-between art and architecture, but did not know exactly how. I had the feeling if I started my professional practice as an architect, I would miss the chance to try out something new, so I decided to move to São Paulo, Brazil (I was born in Brazil but grew up in Portugal). And long story short, I started working with Galeria Leme, which has a unique building designed by Pritzker winning Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha. And from that specific location and in that specific building I devised my first curatorial project, SITU, where I took the role of a curator more as a natural consequence of what I wanted to explore and the modes of doing it, rather than a preconceived desire of being a curator.
I feel that my curatorial practice is very responsive to the context, site and time that I am situated in. And I guess this context-responsivity is something at the core of the architectural education you get in the Architecture Faculty of Porto, which continues the legacy of the architectural practices such as the ones from Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, which are highly sensitive from the contexts. The same goes to practices like Sergison Bates Architects, where I worked between 2010-11. So maybe I still carry these professional characteristics with me from my architectural education and professional experience.
LŠ: What was your first encounter with contemporary art?
BAdA: Books were my first encounters with Art, not only contemporary but art from all epochs and cultures. I was deeply fascinated by Art History. I found it very interesting how the artistic movements were both a reflection of their time, context and conditions, but also pushed the societies in which they were in to accept unconventional worldviews and ideas. And of course, the entanglement that History of Art has with the History of Architecture, was also deeply fascinating to me. When I was a kid, I had many books either focusing on History of Art and Architecture or Science books, and funnily enough now I am increasingly working with scientists.
I remember the first major contemporary art exhibition I went to as a teenager was the Venice biennial with my grandmother, who has nothing to do with art or architecture practice but was very keen on visiting Venice. It was super fascinating to hear her comments on the artworks and see how she responded to them and speculated around what they meant to her. Even though she had no prior training or education in art, I felt she was deeply touched and intellectually stimulated by many of the pieces, and she always had something interesting to say. In Venice the relation between the experience of the city and those of the exhibitions are deeply entangled, so I was really stricken by the whole experience.
LŠ: You mentioned you were interested in exploring a hybrid between art and architecture and how a spatial practitioner can operate in museum dynamics. Could we revisit some of your projects that addressed this research question?
BAdA: Yes, of course. As I mentioned before, after the completion of my Masters in Architecture, I was interested in working with offices or artists working in the interface between Art and Architecture. And eventually I decided to move from Mendrision, Switzerland, to São Paulo, Brazil, not only to explore this possibility but also to get out of my comfort zone personally and professionally – and that was exactly what happened. I felt like a foreigner, because I was confronted with the mismatch between the tools I had gathered in my architecture background and the urban reality of this city. So, I was keen on finding other ways in which I could critically engage with that complex context while adding something else to the existing practices and discourse.
After a long period reading a lot of urban theory and getting familiarized with the socio-spatial formation of the country, and also experiencing first-hand the art-scene in the city, my first project as a curator took place at Galeria Leme, and was called SITU. Through SITU, I commissioned Latin American artists to sequentially take hold of the external spaces of Galeria Leme with site-specific works which related both to the gallery’s building and its adjoining public spaces. The works and curatorial framework engaged both the physicality of the site and the histories and processes that continually shaped it. Exploring how the dialogue between art, architecture and public space could be a tool to broaden the discussion on the social and spatial dynamics that shape our cities.
I realized that Galeria Leme’s building offered a multi-layered setting for an in-depth exploration of many of the questions I had been busy with since my arrival in São Paulo. On the one hand, the gallery is a unique project by an architect who has immensely contributed to both Brazilian and global architecture. On the other hand, the building is located within an area of complex social and urban dynamics, which bring to the fore a set of larger processes shaping the city. And finally, the history of the building – its construction, demolition, replication and expansion – can be understood as a small-scale symptom of the large-scale urban processes in São Paulo and many other metropolises.
The project invited a diverse group of established and emerging Latin American artists, whose practices explore the relation between architecture, urban space and other tangential realms. And whose work is informed by a first-person and embodied understanding of the complexity of the public sphere and of the urban and social processes common to many Latin American metropolises. I had the pleasure to work with José Carlos Martinat, Daniel de Paula, Ricado Alcaide, Beto Shwafaty, Sandra Gamarra, Pilar Quinteros e Ana Dias Batista. By chaining these disparate artistic approaches, SITU created a public meta-narrative in which each commissioned project was understood as part of a larger spatial and discursive strategy.
LŠ: Did you invite solely artists or also architects?
BAdA: For the project SITU I invited only artists, but while I was developing the project (which went on from 2015 to 2018), I was invited by Storefront for Art and Architecture to curate the São Paulo edition of the global project Letters to the Mayor.
In Letters to the Mayor: São Paulo (2016), which I co-curated with Fernando Falcon, we invited more than 50 professionals from architectural design, urban planning, activism, art, curating, and other fields of spatial practice, to write a letter to the coming mayor expressing their ideas, opinions, and desires for the city. The letters were strategically exhibited during the electoral campaigns for the Municipality of São Paulo. At that time there was a tense social-political atmosphere in Brazil in general and São Paulo is such an important state. The elections there were very charged. So, I think by bringing a set of relevant voices to the public awareness and to the desks of the potential mayor, the project intensified the discussion about the city at a crucial time for its future.
The exhibition showcased a varied group of professionals including both consecrated and emerging names, whose contributions offered a nuanced profile of what the architectural discipline can comprise and the many ways in which it can contribute to the multifaceted constitution of our urban sphere and civic life. The exhibition and public programme were held in Pivô Art and Research, an art institution housed in the iconic Copan, a building designed by Oscar Niemeyer and located at the heart of São Paulo’s downtown. The project was concluded with the sending of the letters and the seminar’s documentation to the mayor’s office.
Both SITU and Letters to the Mayor are very different projects, but what they did was to engage broad and heterogeneous audiences, inviting them to reflect critically about the city and the processes that shape it.
LŠ: In our previous conversation, you said you were interested in why there are assumptions that only particular types of art such as site-specific can be connected to architecture. How do you see the dialogue developing in the future?
BAdA: When I started curating SITU I had the feeling that the art projects that were considered fruitful for architectural discourse and practice were those that were “architecture-like installations”. So that had a visible and straightforward connection to architectural design. Of course, I am generalizing, and there are examples that go against it, but it was just my general feeling. I believe today the situation is very different and there are amazing practices such as Cooking Sections, Forensic Architecture and others that have really tested and expanded these assumptions.
In any case, back in 2015, the first project that we organized within SITU was commissioned to the Peruvian artist José Carlos Martinat. And it was a project that really frustrated the expectations of those who wanted to see an “architecture-like installations” since the project SITU dealt with issues relating to both art and architecture. Martinat’s installation was exhibited during a moment of social-political turmoil in Brazil triggered by the Operation Lava Jato (Car wash), an investigation which unveiled a widespread corruption network involving major construction companies and contractors, political parties and public officials. Responding to this context, his project explored the correlation between the immateriality of politics and economics, and the physicality of the construction of urban space. In that moment in time, it was increasingly evident that the ability to reveal or omit information was a major political bargaining chip. So, in his site-specific the artist installed, in the gallery’s rooftop, an almost imperceptible device consisting of a thermal-printer connected to an online software which downloaded graphics with statistical information on the costs and revenues of the State of São Paulo. The information was taken from an official government website, the São Paulo State Transparency Portal, which makes public information accessible to the citizens through ciphered graphs and tables. The device printed these data visualizations as receipts and expelled them onto the building’s courtyard where they gradually accumulated and eventually flew away towards adjacent public spaces. With these procedures the artist gave a tangible shape to the immaterial flows of data, and turned the building into a propagator of public information that could be read, grasped and taken by citizens. The installation consisted in this performative device, and in the papers scattered on the floor. And it was really interesting to see the reactions on people’s faces when they saw it. It felt unexpected in the context of a project exploring the correlation to the building’s architecture and public space, but I think quite quickly people understood the relevance of the project at that moment in time.
Another example I can give you is the project 1:1 that I have curated since 2018 in collaboration with Galeria Jequeline Martins in São Paulo. 1:1 explores the relationship between the gallery and its urban context through the connection of the exhibition space to other pre-existing places in its vicinity. I invited a series of artists to conceive site-specific works which are conceptually anchored in the occupation of the gallery space and, simultaneously, of another location already hosting its own functions and situated within 500m from the gallery. To grasp the works, visitors go from one place to the other. The project is very much about this correlation between art and the specificities of that area of the city, but on the other hand the works are not straightforwardly addressing architecture and the urban realm necessarily. But I believe they are both reflecting upon and triggering processes that are deeply spatial.
LŠ: Your curatorial practice is constantly evolving – how do you see the emergency of climate change fuelling your research?
BAdA: Since I moved to the Netherlands in mid-2018, to attend the De Appel curatorial programme, my practice has started incorporating other elements and I think the circumstances and my own interest resulted in a strengthening of the multi-disciplinary aspect of my curatorial work. Something that was present in São Paulo, but still very much within the context of spatial practice.
The questions around environmental breakdown and climate emergency became very present in my work since I took the position as curator at the Jan van Eyck Academie, in the beginning of 2020. These questions around the relation between artistic practices and the climate breakdown are central to the JvE new institutional policy plan. A short time after I started working there, the world stopped because of the COVID – 19 pandemic, and these questions and urgencies became even more relevant and tangible. So, my work also responded to these conditions, both the new institutional context I was in, and the very strange global context we were all under with the pandemic.
The projects Environmental Identities and the Intergovernmental Panel on Art and Climate Change, are examples of my response to the context of both the times we were living and the JvE institutional plan. Environmental Identities consisted of a series of online and offline conversations, commissioned performances, digital works and screenings, which explored the correlation between self/ social identities with our fast-changing natural environment. The events fostered exchanges between cultural practitioners and researchers from the natural and the social sciences, who explored alternative ways of construing our self- and social identities in a world increasingly marked by unsustainable and outdated notions of humanity.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Art and Climate Change (IPACC) is a fictional institution which refers to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ body assessing the science related to climate. Acknowledging that both the impacts of and solutions to climate change are deeply mediated by culture, the IPACC explored a stronger integration of the arts, social sciences and humanities within the interface between science and global policymaking. The project spanned two discursive events in consecutive years, happening in parallel to the unfolding IPCC’s 6th Assessment Cycle, a comprehensive review of the latest climate science instrumental to inform climate protocols.
Another layer to my on-going research which is fuelled by these questions, is my role as a tutor in the Design Academy Eindhoven, where I teach the 1st year Master students of GEO DESIGN, a department led by Formafantasma. In the subject I am co-tutoring with artist Giuditta Vendrame, an amazing group of students with very different backgrounds, is exploring an expansive and multi-layered understanding of today’s complex reality by exploring the social, economic, environmental, territorial, and geopolitical forces shaping design, with a strong focus on environmental issues.
I believe the current ecological breakdown has deeply spatial implications that we are just beginning to experience. Many places around the world are already experiencing this instability and vitality of their environment, which can no longer be considered only as a background. This brings a profound shift to how Western perceptions of space have been constructed, based on the Euclidean separation between ourselves and what is external. Separations that do not exist in many indigenous worldviews, for example. Climate breakdown is collapsing these separations, and I think artistic and spatial practices can be crucial to bringing awareness or creating new spatial lexicons, among many other things, that can be crucial for these times of rapid change.
LŠ: How do you see the role of artists’ residencies – do you think there are areas of them that need to be improved or expanded – and how?
BAdA: This is definitely a question that I’ve been reflecting upon since I started my role at Jan van Eyck Academie, one of the post-academic institutions in the Netherlands, and a very well-known artist residency globally. So I will speak from the specificities of the Jan van Eyck, instead of generalizing, since there are many different types of residencies worldwide.
Multidisciplinarity is a super special and important feature of our residency system. And I feel it’s a very powerful model where for 11 months practitioners from several disciplines are brought together, creating crossovers and collaborations. It’s such a rich environment because of that multiplicity of practices. Definitely, an environment in which my work also thrives. The residency format also provides a longer way of engaging with artists. I am able to follow their practices and engage with them daily – because we inhabit the same building. And I think this is going beyond just working in an instrumental role on a specific project. And we are not necessarily focused on output in residencies – we support research.
But the question is what are the modes of the public interface that these artistic processes can have with the wider public? I work at the institution, so I have access to these processes. But can we devise formats of public showcase of artistic process that engages and informs the audience about such plural practices?
LŠ: Would you be interested to do an architecture exhibition? What aspect would you be interested to research?
BAdA: Well, I mentioned the project I curated in 2016, Letters to the Mayor: São Paulo, and I consider that an architecture exhibition of sorts. But, yes, I would be interested in curating other projects that are more strongly related to architecture. In any case, I feel it is hard to define what is an architecture exhibition nowadays, and that might be a good thing.
It is important to say that more conventional architectural exhibitions have played a fundamental role in the testing, dissemination, and development of relevant forms of inquiry, discourses, and practices in the discipline. On the other hand, “curating architecture” has become increasingly legitimated, which is a symptom of the economy of our time and of the global proliferation of architecture biennials and other exhibition platforms. As a mode of producing disciplinary reflections, architecture exhibitions can provide a specific set of indicators, lineages and traces that allows us to probe both the explicit and the unconscious political and cultural haunts of the field, while envisioning its further potentials.
For me the fundamental question is how can the exhibition become more than a moment of synthesis or retrospective, and take the role of a fundamental tool within an architectural or spatial process? As I said before, spatial practitioners such as Cooking Sections, Forensic Architecture, have created context-specific platforms for discourse and socio-spatial intervention, that enable new collectivities, forms of assembly and knowledge transfer, through which pressing issues can not only be discussed and proliferated, but acted upon. So, these and other practitioners are really using the format of exhibition as a mode of advancing their spatial intervention in some way.