Samuel Leuenberger interviews
João Mourão and Luis Silva

Kunsthalle Lissabon, Lisbon

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Samuel Leuenberger: As co-curators in close dialogue with each other at all times, what do you think has changed the most over the last ten years in terms of running a non-for-profit space together – as partners finding solutions and themes to explore?

João Mourão and Luis Silva: In the first years we were very much interested in the institution as a thing in and of itself. We were exploring what an institution is and what modes of instituting we were able to imagine and produce as part of a community. Those reflections led to an institutional model that placed ideas of generosity, sociability and solidarity at the core of the institution, whose main outcome was identified as friendship. That has not disappeared, of course, and it is still the way we operate, but recently we have been more interested in issues of representation and how they are tied to existing power structures. We have been interested in thinking critically and acting towards acknowledging which personal subjectivities and views of the world are allowed to become public – and of whom – and which ones aren't. We have been interested in identifying how power is distributed in the world. There are those whose set of references constitute the norm, thus enabling them to give names to things and there are those who don't have the power to name or to create categories using their own references. We wish to shuffle this as much as possible. What has remained constant throughout the years and these changes in focus is our commitment to artists as individuals and to their practices. We love commissioning new work and thinking about all these issues through being close to the artist and being allowed to be part of a process that goes from dialogue to display.

SL:You mentioned previously how Lisbon has changed drastically, tourism has gentrified the center, the art scene has been transformed in many ways. What do feel are the pros and cons of working in your field in Lisbon and Portugal at large? What are the biggest changes that impacted your work?

J&L: The Lisbon that was favourable to the appearance of Kunsthalle Lissabon in 2009 has very little in common with the gentrified and touristified Lisbon of 2019. It would hardly be possible to start today as we did in 2009. The pros of this are pretty clear and visible: it pulled us out of the economical crisis, which was, as you know, devastating on many levels. The cons are the sense of loss and disenfranchisement that local people feel in their city. We lost usership and ownership of large parts of the city, which now cater only to tourists and their needs. Even if people still try to live in those neighbourhoods, life is extremely complicated. Things like bakeries or butcher shops have all disappeared and have been replaced by cheap souvenir shops and wine tasting bars. When we started, if we would say to someone we had just met we were from Lisbon, we would get a shrug. Now, when we say the same thing, we get some weird hyperbole like “OMG, Lisbon is the best city in the world, I so wanna move there, it's awesome!” Oddly enough this has not impacted the way we have worked. Our audience is both the local artistic community and an international one, so it hasn't been significantly affected by these processes. However, we feel responsible for the process of ‘cool-ification’ of the city and that's why for our tenth anniversary we wanted to step back, and disappear from the cultural fabric of the city, reflecting on the responsibility that we have in this process and on the critical role that we can have in thinking of other ways of imagining the position that contemporary art occupies under these new circumstances.

SL: You have decided not to directly programme your 10th anniversary year but to give your space to friends and people you have collaborated with before. You made a publicized statement explaining the reasons for that. Is exhibition making as a platform to discuss various concerns the wrong channel these days? Or how does our format of running a space have to change to continue to matter?

J&L: Spaces like ours are instrumental in critically thinking about all these issues, publicly claiming a position and eventually imagining other possibilities. We can institute specific ethical behaviours and dismiss others. We can say yes to some things and no to others. For us all these things feed into the exhibition program in a very organic way. Exhibitions, for KL, are the public embodiment of our specific understanding of the world, of the art world, of relevant artistic practices, of personal subjectivities, of ethics, etc etc etc. So we don't think exhibitions per se are the wrong channel. It's just a matter of investing them with a particular agency.

SL: You are eyeing the Azores islands, a Portuguese enclave in the middle of the Atlantic, midway to the US. It's a raw, beautiful group of small islands where you might find an interesting counter-point to the gentrified home of Lisbon. What attracts you most to the islands besides its remoteness?

Amalia Pica: Memorial For Intersections, Courtesy of Kunsthalle Lissabon 
Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela: Inhabitants of Inhabitants, Courtesy of Kunsthalle Lissabon 
Caroline Mesquita: Astray (Prologue), Courtesy of Kunsthalle Lissabon 
Jacopo Miliani: A Slow Dance Without Name, Courtesy of Kunsthalle Lissabon 
Jonathas de Andrade: Cartazes para o Museu do Homem do Nordeste, Courtesy of Kunsthalle Lissabon 

J&L: That is a very interesting and tough question, one we have been asking ourselves for a very long time. We have thought of many possibilities for Kunsthalle Lissabon's post-anniversary comeback, and one of them was relocating to the Azores. But then we hit this wall of not wanting to do to others what has been done to us. We can't complain about all the processes at work in Lisbon and then be agents of those same logics in a different setting. But we would love to do it. The possibilities are endless: working with a completely different audience is both scary and exciting. The geopolitical situation of the islands is there to explore, their ties to the US and Canada on the one hand, and then the shared geological origin with places like Iceland, Madeira, Canary Islands and Cape Verde. Imagine a line going from North to South Atlantic connecting all these volcanic islands. Not sure if we need yet another one, but imagine the Biennale of the Atlantic, connecting all these territories. But again, it is a very complex situation, one we are still debating.

SL: What is happening in the next ten years with you both, your vision for the Kunsthalle and your own discourse inside a larger set of concerns that many spaces like us share?

J&L: We have no idea! The future is open. We took the year off also to think about that. The question “What will the next ten years be like?” haunts us! As we mentioned, relocation is on the table. Lisbon has become too cool for us, maybe it's time to move to a more boring place. Also on the table is adapting the institution's name to these new times. We didn't choose the name Kunsthalle Lissabon naively. Maybe it's time that brand gets replaced: maybe we could go for something like “Kunsthalle X” and drop the Lissabon; or maybe a name like “The Institution Formerly Known As Kunsthalle Lissabon”. The acronym is a disaster (TIFKAKL) but you can never go wrong with referencing someone like Prince... What we know will remain constant is our interest in artists and our commitment to working closely with them, like we have been doing for the past ten years. This is something we're not willing to let go. Everything else is expendable, this isn't.

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