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The first Photography Biennial of Porto gets off to an impressive start

oportoJames Mayor talks to Virgilio Ferreira, the Director of Ci.CLO Bienal’19 Fotografia do Porto, the first Photography Biennial of Porto, which is being held in Porto, Portugal, until 2 July 2019.

Few cities in the world have succeeded in winning the accolade of Best European Destination three times. Porto, in Portugal, was awarded this distinction in 2012, 2014 and 2017. This summer, there is a new reason to visit this devastatingly beautiful city on the shores of the Atlantic.

The Serralves Foundation is showing a seminal survey of the renowned New York performance artist Joan Jonas. And Taylor´s Port are sponsoring a superb exhibition of a complete set of Picasso’s monumental series of etchings, the Vollard Suite, which can be enjoyed at the Palacio das Artes until 11 September.

Through the Porto Protocol and its Climate Change Leadership Conferences, also sponsored by Taylor’s Port, Porto has established itself as an influential centre for the discussion of issues related to adapting to climate change.

The theme of the Ci.CLO Bienal’19 Fotografia do Porto is ‘Adaptation and Transition’, a title which refers to new ways of looking at the challenges of climate change and our responses to them through the lens of artistic practice.

Ci.CLO Bienal’19 is spread over sixteen sites throughout the city, and a team of international curators have brought together work by fifty-three artists of different nationalities. Many of these works have been created specially for the Bienal at specific sites. A selection of the works are interdisciplinary, including for example objects, text and video, although the spine of the Bienal remains photography.

Virgilio Ferreira, the Bienal`s Director, is a photographer as well as a curator, and the founder of Ci.CLO Plataforma de Fotografia, a platform for artists, researchers and curators. We meet in Ferreira`s small, crowded office in the centre of Porto, where walls are stacked with framed photographs. He dives into his dark room to make me a coffee.

The stakes are high for the first Bienal, but Ferreira is in upbeat mood. The Bienal has benefitted from substantial institutional support as well as from excellent national media coverage, and visitors are flocking to the various events. He explains that in addition to a range of public programmes - such as workshops and recitals - the Bienal offers a `laboratory’ environment with residences for participating artists.

A key event during the Bienal will be a symposium held on June 8th with a presentation of Creative Responses to Sustainability – Portugal Green Guide 2019, commissioned and published by the Asia-Europe Foundation and developed in partnership with Ci.CLO Plataforma de Fotografia. The Green Guide maps Portuguese arts and cultural organisations that undertake activities that address environmental and social sustainability.

When I mention the United Nations Conference being organized by UN Director General Antonio Guterres, also a Portuguese, in New York in September 2019, which will bring together heads of government and state to face up to the climate change emergency, Ferreira says “all positions need to come together, not fight.” He is convinced that artists can make a significant contribution, alongside civil society, businesses and political parties, to the discussion of climate related issues and to developing new ways of looking at these issues to create fresh perceptions and solutions. The Bienal showcases artists not only of different generations and nationalities, but equally with different forms of engagement with climate change that range from the conceptual to the practical. Ferreira hopes the Bienal will provide an on-going platform for discussion, criticism and ideas.

Established Australian artist Jayne Dyer, who lives and works in Lisbon, has been engaged with sustainability issues since the 1990s. One of her interventions at the Palacio Cristal garden site is titled `The weight of distraction’; in this peaceful setting the implications are powerful. Another of her works ‘The weight of survival’ consists of three islands – temperate, tropical and alpine - anchored in a lake so that they float at random, propelled by the breeze. Ducks paddle up to investigate and humans gaze, enchanted and sometimes disturbed. These islands, like so many on our planet, are simultaneously beautiful and vulnerable.

The Polish artists Ewa Ciechanowska and Artur Urbanski have a project at the Centro Português de Fotografia (Portuguese Centre of Photography) which discusses the manipulation of information, even when the data is ‘true’. Using wit, they show how trees have sometimes been represented as wicked schemers, responsible for more killings than terrorists. We can not help thinking of certain political ‘leaders’…

Emerging German artist, Constanze Flamme, makes her point with force and poetry: a banner attached to a tree in the Palacio Cristal garden site proclaims ´Ecology is political’. Although this work was created before the recent European elections Flamme’s statement could not be more topical.

‘Future Scenarios’ at Reitoria do Universidade do Porto by another duo, Polish artist Lena Dobrowolska and British artist Teo Ormond-Skeaping, investigates how “the narrative of vulnerability that once surrounded those nations most susceptible to climate change has developed into a narrative of resilience and adaptation.”

‘Future Scenarios’ might serve as an appropriate slogan for this first Photography Biennial of Porto, a timely and challenging project which invites visitors to reflect on climate change and adapt our ways of living to more sustainable models. Like the most consequential of climate adaptation discussion, the Biennial goes beyond the scary to propose scenarios for hope as well as paths for action. Virgilio Ferreira talks confidently of the next Biennial, to be held in Porto in 2021, through which he intends to continue this discussion on sustainability.

About the writer: James Mayor is the Founder of Grape Discoveries, www.grapediscoveries.com