ACARTE: Heteropia, heterochrony, and the construction of the common

For someone who has questioned the nature of artistic institutions in Spain, the first thing that draws attention in the text (from the book Uma curadoria da Falta: o Serviço ACARTE - ACARTE Service of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 1984-1989) by Ana Bigotte Vieira is the angle and the interpretative framework from which a similar question arises in relation to Portugal.

Perhaps due to the centrality and weight of the institutional apparatus of art in Spain, a discursive maelstrom was generated that magnetizes all attention, preventing issues of breadth and relevance from being reflected in it, and Ana Bigotte’s study unfolds on Portuguese culture and society. This is the author’s greatest virtue: to propose, from a detailed analysis of an institutional experience as was the ACARTE in its initial period, between 1984 and 1989, the meaning of the social, cultural, and political transformations that took place in Portugal during the last quarter of the 20th century and its transcendence to understand the present.

In the Spanish case, this type of study has occurred systematically from an art history perspective that asks itself, with narcissistic insistence, why Spanish art and its institutions do not meet either the expectations of quality and worldwide relevance that some desired or the mission of defending the promise of autonomy and emancipation claimed by others. The questions raised by Ana Bigotte, on the contrary, are not formulated in the strict disciplinary framework of art history, but from the porous and open framework of theory and cultural studies, taking as fundamental references the work of authors such as Luís Trindade or Boaventura de Sousa Santos, whose object goes beyond the specific sphere of the artistic to approach culture as a social process with multiple branches. It does so by following the path opened by André Lepecki, who formulated interesting hypotheses about the construction of the Portuguese social “body” from the study of dance and performance. This is another distinctive specificity of the Portuguese case that contrasts with that of the neighboring country: the focus on the arts of the body and the so-called “living arts”, such as theater, dance, and music. In Spain, this space has traditionally been occupied by the objective arts, painting, and sculpture, with the exhibition being the cultural device par excellence, and the museum its institutional framework. This contrast implies a different ordering and hierarchy of both the agents and the values involved.

Reading Ana Bigotte Vieira’s narration, we recognize the manifesto written by Almada Negreiros and his contemporaries regarding the visit of the Russian Ballets to Lisbon in 1917, a foundational role similar to the one given to Picasso and Guernica in defining the relationship between the avant-garde and the horizon of modernity in Spain. It is not by chance, however, that the reference to Almada Negreiros was explicit at the start of ACARTE, the department founded by Madalena Perdigão within the institutional structure of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, in 1984.

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What Ana Bigotte addresses, in what was her doctoral research is, therefore, not only the narration of ACARTE’s institutional experience and the production of an archive of the programs and activities it hosted and launched during its first five years of operation (directed by Madalena Perdigão). From ACARTE, Bigotte develops a sophisticated exercise of interpretation of the social transformations that took place in Portugal in the 1980s, using a no less sophisticated critical apparatus that allows him to approach the temporalities, spatialities, and multiple corporealities that come into play in a period of intense transformations. ACARTE appears as a heterotopia and heterochrony. It appears as an ALEPH in which the determinations of a society recently emerged from the long period of Salazar’s dictatorship are suspended, in which the aspirations of modernity proclaimed by Almada were truncated, spatially, temporally, and corporally.

This does not turn ACARTE into a mirage or a mere cultural bubble. Ana Bigotte, by the hand of Trinity and Lepecki, walks through the development of a “pop people”, with all its contradictions, the result of a “long sixties” in opposition to the ideological guidelines of the regime. The author tells how, as the 80s progress, under the sign of “cavaquismo” and in parallel to what happens with its peninsular neighbor there is a widespread deideologization of society and an identity turnaround driven by the European imaginary after the entry into the European Union. It also gives us an account of the tradition of Education Through Art with which ACARTE is directly related, through the figure of Madalena Perdigão, who left her collaboration with the Ministry of Education to return to the Gulbenkian Foundation, at the moment when the Art Center was finally inaugurated and ACARTE was founded as an integral part of it. In doing so, the Foundation broke with the hegemonic model of the modern art museum enshrined in New York’s MoMa and bet on a relational and procedural institutional formula that was gaining strength in the international art system in the following decades.

However, the cultural space that ACARTE occupies is not a mere reflection of its political and social context. Rather, it appears as a laboratory in which the possibilities and potentialities of a society lacking plausible coordinates or corporeality openly experiment. This allows it to approach “the 1980s” not only from the “reality” of what they were but also from the desires and expectations that were conceived in an exceptional environment like ACARTE, in which past, present and future temporalities were mixed; a place that was simultaneously many and no one specific; a “way of being” more than a place itself.

Ana Bigotte approaches the activity of ACARTE simultaneously with extreme analytical rigor and fascination for a process that, from the historical conjuncture in which it takes place, holds a promise of community building and collective transformation of great power. In this sense, Ana Bigotte adopts the argument of the thinker Roberto Esposito in using the concept of “curation of lack,” or want, as a key to interpreting the driving logic of ACARTE and as the differential ingredient on which its invocation of a community around it is founded. In the face of self-satisfaction, the search for success, or external recognition that we often recognize in cultural policies, ACARTE projects itself from the absence. In Madalena Perdigão’s programmatic text, “What we are not going to be or do”, it explicitly states the will to generate common from what is not yet known, from what must still be collectively acquired from experience, within an ethic that connects with pedagogical practice: “Let’s allow others to take risks and make mistakes”.

To understand this paradoxical link between the search for common ground and an institution of private origin, Ana Bigotte takes us back to the culminating moment of the revolutionary process when the meaning of the future of Portugal was being discussed. A decade before ACARTE was founded, in the same year in which Madalena Perdigão had resigned from her original post at the Foundation after being accused of elitism and cultural imperialism, the Expresso supplement published the dossier: “What Gulbenkian do we have, what Gulbenkian do we want?” which highlights the emphatic use of the first-person plural: “we have, we want”. Despite the polemics and accusations of collusion between the Foundation’s management and the regime, the Foundation was recognized as an undeniable “scenario of modernity”. Ten years later, the scene had changed notably in a Portugal which was joining the European Union, but this identification of the Gulbenkian with the future and ever-missing modernity persisted in social desire and imagination.

However, there are some questions that, at least from a Spanish perspective, remain unanswered. It is addressed the anomaly that a Foundation of private and foreign origin occupies the role of “Ministry of Culture” and is, as the text states, a fundamental institution in the cultural transformation of a country like Portugal. However, the reasons for the absence of cultural policies of a state nature equivalent to those applied in the rest of Europe and in Spain are not addressed with the depth equivalent to those used about other issues, although Ana Bigotte Vieira does not ignore them. In a way, it is assumed as something given to the Portuguese exception in relation to the dynamics of modernity in force in the European context, an exception only interrupted by the presence of Gulbenkian. On the other hand, we do not get to know the central character of the narration: Madalena Perdigão. Although the text informs us in detail about the key data of her professional career, Ana Bigotte does not interrogate her figure from gender, social class, and ideological interpretations that would allow us to explain the whys and hows of her decisions and her capacity for action. It gives the impression that the powerful presence of the Foundation, at the same time the object of study and its enabler, generates blind spots or shadow lines that consciously or unconsciously limit the analysis.



Translation:  Maria Dias

by Jesús Carrillo
Palcos | 6 March 2023 | Acarte, Almada Negreiros, Ana Bigotte Vieira, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, culture, dance, performance, society