João Mourão / Luís Silva: As part of our ongoing series of conversations with curators we would like to discuss with you what we believe to be some shared curatorial topics. It seems to us that the best way of doing it is by starting your own curator-run space, Syntax. As opposed to the artists-run space, the local community hasn’t produced many curator-run spaces, which is curious given the expansion of the curatorial as a formal field of knowledge production, with many post-graduate degrees being offered, both nationally and internationally to aspiring local curators. Why do you think there is a lack of such spaces (if you think there’s a lack at all)?
Marketá Stará Condeixa: I have asked myself precisely this question when I came to Lisbon three years ago. This lack of curator-run spaces, non-profits and other institutional formats, has actually been one of the main impulses why I started Syntax. I believe that one of the main reasons why the Lisbon art scene has less similar initiatives is a result of a lacking tradition. Thisis something not strictly specific to Portugal, but also to other Southern European countries, such as Spain, for example. At the beginning I felt that people were almost suspicious of the concept of a non-profit and I had to take time to explain how and why similar organizations operate. I still have these conversations, but what surprises me the most, is when I have them with students of curatorial studies, museology and art history. Moving to Lisbon from Prague, where curator/artist-run spaces have been since the 90s filling the gap for dysfunctional institutions, this of course came as a big surprise and made me realize how important similar structures are within a healthy art ecosystem. Nevertheless, for similar organizations to exist, there also has to be resources to run them and audiences to engage with them, and that is something that I think we are still working on.
JM / LS: So in a way, founding Syntax was your curatorial response to the specificities of the local context, but filtered through the lenses of your previous experience in a place like Prague. It’s interesting that you mention your experience of curator-run spaces as filling in a gap for dysfunctional institutions, and tying that to the lack of such initiatives locally. Does that mean you don’t consider local institutions dysfunctional? Or even though they are dysfunctional, curator-run spaces were never perceived as a relevant response? In any case, we’re very curious about something: What is a dysfunctional institution?
MSC: For me, a dysfunctional institution is an institution which is unable to meet its purpose, which is to generate relevant cultural content. With national institutions this also means to function as a mediator and in one way or another, remain objective towards various parts of a given art scene. However this is not so much the problem of Portugal, as the majority of institutions here have a private base. There are of course many issues that can be addressed around local contemporary art institutions, but compared to what used to be the Prague cultural landscape, which I was referring to, I feel that they exist and in one way or another, they “program” their role. I, of course, believe there is significant room for improvement, namely in connecting individual art scene camps, inviting younger curators, opening these institutions up towards internationalization, making their programming somewhat more dynamic. I generally feel that we are missing strong curatorial personalities. Not to say we don’t have any, yet they are not necessarily always connected with programming larger institutional formats.
As for curator-run spaces, they naturally are a response, but I’m not sure to what extent they have been taken seriously enough, within the local context, which takes me back to the lacking tradition of such an institutional format. Again, I would say this is something that has been improving throughout the past years and has been challenged by people like you and I.
JM / LS: Some of the remarks you make about local institutions are the same that back in 2009 led us to create Kunsthalle Lissabon. We do think we came a long way but we also agree that your comments still make a lot of sense. In terms of curator-run spaces, we also see that sometimes there’s a lack of response, not only from our close community, but also from the public, the media, etc. That being said, in recent years we’ve also witnessed the sprouting of a completely different art scene, one that is more international, more heterogeneous, one that is establishing a different set of relations and even hierarchies. Do you consider yourself and Syntax part of this? Or to put it differently, how do you think Syntax contributes to the local scene?
MSC: I believe it does. From the very beginning I was eager to present a young program composed namely by international artists. Compared to other institutions, I’m more interested in showing artists who I think are just about, or have a potential to take off. In this sense I believe that our program presents a lot of new things that would otherwise, most likely, not find their way to Lisbon and the local scene. I try to do this also through our modest residency program, which from this year on will also introduce curators. I actually think that curatorial residencies are much more important for the local context, as they will contribute further to its internationalization and hopefully also create new opportunities for local artists abroad.
A direct/active support of the local scene is something that is becoming increasingly important for me. It has started with the inclusion of Portuguese artists in the Syntax exhibition program and nevertheless, I very much hope to go further than that. I believe projects with guest curators or curators in residency will be just the start. Another thing that I have decided to try out is a small bookshop, which is now part of Syntax. Here we have a chance to present some printed matter including theory, poetry, artist books as well as small experimental publishers, who are being introduced as part of our Publishing Desk project. All in all, as we grow and as the scene changes, we try and test new formats. This organic flow is actually quite a surprise for me, as I tend to enjoy things, which are well defined from the very beginning. With Syntax I have understood that in order to operate well, we have to be receptive, flexible and reactive.
JM / LS: You mention growth, which is something we have been reflecting on since day one. While we do acknowledge the need for better conditions (more resources, financial and otherwise) as a fundamental prerequisite for doing what we are doing the way we believe we should do it, we’re very skeptical of the notion of growth. Getting bigger, space-wise, staff-wise, program-wise, is something we have tried to avoid consciously. We actually think degrowth could be an interesting way of going about institutional reflection. Well, not in our specific cases, since we are both tiny institutions, but how do you feel about the never ending need for expansion and growth and its ethical, political and environmental consequences, both within our community and for the world at large?
MSC: What I mean by growth is not necessarily connected with the institutional scale of Syntax or the volume of what we produce, but more with the diversification of our activities as such. I think this is very important, as it allows for an institution to become reactive to what the art scene needs and the broader context in which it operates. The idea here is not necessarily to accumulate, but to also let go. I would agree that limits to growth are not only productive, but also the future of a healthy economy, may this economy be monetary or institutional. Speaking from the position of someone who once worked in a large and continuously expanding institution, I can say the bigger the institution, the more it is consumed by its own operation and structure, rather than with the content it is producing.
I also think that the flexibility of a smaller organization allows for different ways and levels of collaboration to be put into place. By this I mean collaboration, which is not based on contractual agreements and hierarchy, but on friendship, equality, respect and partnership. From my experience, the closer people get, the more real and relevant the outcome of their collaboration is and the bigger is the likelihood that they will work together again.
As for our need of growth I think it is inherent in our nature and part of nature, the problem is once growth is paired with power.
JM / LS: If you think of Syntax in 5 years time, what do you imagine?
MSC: Imagining Syntax in the future is twofold. On the one hand it depends on the programming and the nature of what we do and on the other hand, on the further development of the context that we are a part of. The question is therefore not just only how I imagine Syntax, but also how I imagine the local art scene in the future.
I’m working in the internationalization of Syntax, which is something that is slowly happening. For this and the upcoming year we are already preparing projects in Prague, Berlin, Madrid or Bergen. We also have a number of interesting artists and curators coming and collaborating with
us at Syntax. Following up on your previous question, I’m keen on keeping Syntax small, or pretty much the same regarding our current space, but I am eager to see what projects will the future throw at us and how it might influence the formats that we are currently engaging with. In that sense I’m not afraid of growth. I like the idea of an open future, however with the exhibition as our main medium. I’m hoping for the future to open more funding possibilities, allowing for Syntax to be more or less sustainable, which will possibly allow us to plan a future program with more ambitious budgets and less risk. In that sense I wish for the local context to become more responsive to our non-profit status. By context here, I mean institutions rather than the community, whose support, specifically from the side of the local artists has been more than generous.
As for the local scene mentioned previously, I think that its rebirth will continue rather than burst as we have seen elsewhere. I would like to see an international Lisbon with a scene that is able to retain its specifics and be able to provide to its artists. The current trend that Lisbon is living can be, and has proven to be very dangerous with the rising cost of rents and life in the city in general. I’m hoping for a more functional institutional environment, more opportunities for artists and curators and ore independent projects that we can have a dialogue with.