Chemi Rosado / Diarios / Diaries
Erick Beltrán (Solo projects)
Alexandre da Cunha / Bandera
Colectivo PÚblica (Solo projects)

The first San Juan Poly/graphic Triennial reviewed strict notions about engraving allowing of a broad interpretation of its influence and impact on modern languages of Latin American art. We dissecedt the concept of engraving and segregated its parts: serialization, printing, plaques, printmaking, slots, democratization, multiplicities, registration, engraving, graffiti, format, etc. We found that Latin American artists, heirs of a rich graphic tradition, had been pioneers as well in taking over and broadening the definition of the means throughout the 20th century. Margarita Fernández Zavala

One of the main outcomes of the First San Juan Poly/graphic Triennial: Latin America and the Caribbean (SJPT-1, 2004) was its spatial expansion;1 while, in the case of the second one (SJPT-2, 2009), one of its greatest achievements one was its extension in time. The first one covered the city of San Juan with different projects in all sorts of spaces to show the irreversible one-eighty turn transforming the San Juan Biennial of Latin American and Caribbean Engraving –the most important international plastic arts event hosted by Puerto Rico from 1970 to 2001–; the second one went ahead of the formal exhibition2 by more than six months with the production of two series by different artists: one of the series consisted of six posters and the other one of six magazines all distributed worldwide among 1,500 recipients strategically selected by the curatorial team. Likewise, some of the twenty artist books commissioned for the SJPT-2 continued to be produced after the event, thus contributing to its prolongation in time.

On the other hand, the first Triennial had to show its analysis of the events that affected the field of engraving over the last few decades, make –in consequence– the necessary striking theoretical statements to break away from the molds in multiple senses and undertake the arduous tasks of putting together a ground-breaking event and to educate the people on the radical change; while the second one had the way partially paved and should consolidate itself within the stated twist to adjust to the new trends. While the first one had to put up with problems of acceptance by sectors that saw the new concept as a disloyal abandonment of the merits of the Biennial, the second one promoted projects –posters, magazines, books–, that, within the poly/graphic concept, were more pleasant and better recognized by the publics used to traditional presentations. That is why some considered it some sort of editorial project rather than a plastic arts one.

Beyond Magazines, Posters and Books Brazilian Adriano Pedrosa, art director of the Second Triennial,3 said at the time that, even though he admitted that magazines, posters and books are printed formats and traditional graphic products, they could be explored from an experimental point of view and noted that it was precisely there where the innovating aspect of the second Triennial lied. “As far as I know, he said, none other exhibition has printed out so many books, magazines or posters making them the focus of the project.”4

Whereas other events have one commemorative poster, the Second Triennial ended up with six of them. The magazines, dedicated to different artists so that they could publish what would be an art pilot edition, resulted in theme issues according to the freedom they were given for their presentations.5

But the latest Triennial went beyond printing projects thanks to collective exhibitions like Marginal Money (Dinero Marginal) –appropriations of (or references to) money paper–; Diaries (Diarios) –the newspaper as key player or format–; Personal Records-public stories (Registros Personales-historias publicas) –pieces dealing with the concept of archives as private records–, and Vexillology (Vexilología) –a collection of flags commissioned to make emphasis on its symbolic power. As stated in one of the adds of the Triennial, Vexillology “has a particular sense of belonging with the history of the current realities of Puerto Rico, with its complex status as Caribbean and Latin American island that is administrative, politically and economically linked to the United States, a country that is culturally foreign.”

The theme line Literary Forms (Formas literarias) produced in general one of the most interesting and more successful features of this Triennial. Twenty artists,6 based on the long-standing tradition of dialogue between literature and graphics throughout the history of art, used the book in all its complexity to create proposals that were varied, intelligent, provocative and categorical; many of them were disturbing and highly lyrical. The Reading Hall, an space designed (by Gabriel Sierra, Colombia) to take in projects by several artists, also hosted Literary Forms, as well as posters and magazines issued until that moment.

Doors Waiting to be Opened “Not even the surface of the First Triennial has been cracked yet, in terms of broadening open propositions,” assured Margarita Fernandez Zavala, member of the curatorial team for SJPT-1 and of the Advisory Commission for SJPT-2, which has allowed her to have a perspective about the two events.

Margarita Fernandez Zavala, one of the leading figures in the field of plastic arts in Puerto Rico considers that the impact of the 2004 Triennial occurred in the very moment it was first conceived and carried out; she believes that it will have further repercussions in the long term. Suffice it to say, according to Fernandez Zavala, that “when the Luvjblian Triennial invited7 its San Juan counterpart to submit an exhibition/competition in 2005, we decided to send a highly depurated collection of one of the theme lines: Challenging (Impugnaciones). The impact was huge and we won the First Prize, which made other similar events revise not only their formats but also their interpretation of the nature of the means.”

Speaking about one of the SJPT-1 curators, Jose Ignacio Roca, who was appointed Art Director for Philagrafika, an event of international scope held in 80 venues across the US city of Philadelphia early this year, she said: “Roca made use of the inquiries and proposals of the First Triennial to launch this event. The result was a novel and very dynamic exhibition that included some of the artists presented in the 2004 Triennial.”

To Fernandez Zavala, SJPT-2 “seemed repetitive at moments and many works required some description so that the public could get them better and understand which ones should be manipulated and which ones shouldn’t. However, the idea of having artists design posters, produce magazines and books was great, and it turned the Triennial into a kind of interesting artistic editorial.”

Roca, who visited SJPT-2, said8 “it was wisely curated, not exactly as a biennial-type event (as it was held in a relatively small place), but because it succeeded in bringing together many outstanding artists with strong works about very specific topics.” The Colombian curator highlighted as well: “one of the most important features of this Triennial is something that can’t be seen: the funds allocated for art magazines striving to survive –which allowed them to continue to be edited–9 and those granted to the twenty artists commissioned for the production of an artist book specifically for the Triennial.” Roca, however, noticed the absence of monographic exhibitions, “which would have provided the Second Triennial with a platform to finance research about the broadened field of modern graphics.”

On her part, Maricarmen Ramirez,10 in charge of the reorganization of the Engraving Biennial to turn it into a poly/graphics event and who was Advisor for SJPT-1,11 considers that the second Triennial “lacks a political strategy aimed at winning her a place at the international level and is absolutely deprived of ambition in all of the aspects a Triennial entails, starting from the selection of works, artists, exhibiting venues, etc. It was a super-light Triennial that, apart from the quality of the works and artists presented, it failed and took a step back in relation to all the changes introduced by the first Triennial. The first step backwards was having reduced the event to the space of the Arsenal de la Marina12 (going back to the traditional model of exhibiting rooms and of an international event absolutely conventional) and having abolished the model of the city as exhibiting scenario. With all of that, its own wings were cut off.”

Both Fernandez Zavala and Ramirez agreed on the importance of the role of curators in poly/graphic projects. How was the curating process, which set the grounds for the change, for the SJPT-1 like? We asked Fernandez Zavala. “Debates in all of our meetings were intense and tiring; meetings that took entire weekends, days starting in the morning through the night and at the end we finished nearly empty-handed and…we had to start exploring over again. We found interesting that the ideas we came up with were not new at all to artists but the works responding to certain graphic transformations had not been catalogued nor described from that perspective. That’s why we decided to include Zones of Density (Zonas de densidad), to represent small retrospectives by renowned artists in a very concise way, while distinguishing through the theme lines forerunner artists and their breaking-away models that led to modern proposals. It is my understanding that our proposal was farsighted and raised a lot of interest,” said Fernandez Zavala, who is also professor of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in the city of Bayamon and Accreditation Coordinator for the Museums of the UPR, the most important academic institution of the country.

To Ramirez, speaking about the curatorial process she worked on means to explain the root causes of the achieved change. “The project of the Triennial was linked to a greater cause: the reaffirmation and expansion of the Puerto Rican culture that marked our professional careers from the very beginning. The San Juan Biennial facilitated my first contact with Latin American art and artists, a passion that decided my destiny. When I began to travel across Latin America in the 1980s, I realized that Puerto Rico was known everywhere because of the impact in the continent of the Biennial. Hence, I started to become interested in helping revive and update that event, which was the key of the impact of our culture in the 1970s and 1980s. Let’s add to that my experience with several biennials, including that of Sao Paulo, which had convinced me of the need to renovate the mission and format of the Biennial.”

Ramirez’ explanation landed in another one of her strong statements about SJPT-2: the curatorial team “was not committed at all with the Triennial or with the Puerto Rican culture. Both the Puerto Rican background and the history of the Biennial/Triennial were totally unknown to them.”

The Third Poly/Graphic Triennial What will happen during the Third San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial (SJPT-3)? We’ll have to wait. It is slated for April 2010. According to Alba Ramos Roman, coordinator of exhibitions for the Plastic Arts Program (PAP) of the Puerto Rican Culture Institute (PRCI) –the governmental body responsible for the Triennial–, at the time this issue of Art by excelencias was going to the press, conversations were being held with the possible head curator of the upcoming international event. “We have made quite progress in the negotiations and it is very likely that by August this year we can make the official announcement. Although we do have a preliminary proposal for the concept that we can’t publish until the agreements are firmed up and signed,” Ramos Roman said.

Although the Triennial is an official event established by the government in accordance with a law (Law 512) signed in 2004, there is concern about its eventual accomplishment due to the fact that Puerto Rico’s current government13 is advocating the permanent union with the United States; and therefore, culture, which is one of the sectors standing in the middle of that possibility, is not a priority and doesn’t receive the support it needs. Suffice it to mention as examples that CIRCA, Puerto Rico’s International Art Fair, that has been held annually for five years, received only US$10,000 out of the 40,000 allocated for that purpose; that the PRCI’s literary contest (novel, story, poetry, etc.) taking place yearly since 2006 was nearly canceled this year; that the budget of the Plastic Arts School was cut to an extent that some of the professors lost their jobs; that art courses within the public educational system were closed; and hundreds of PRCI’s employees have been fired.

Ramos Roman, who has a long experience in the PAP-PRCI, said “once the curatorial teams is officially set up and the concept and projects to work on are established, the budget will be prepared, and hence, the materials, equipment, forms, etc will be determined. The Triennial is supported by the government, there were not changes on its budget and as far as we know there will be no cuts. On the contrary, he assured, we are supported by the top administration and all of the agencies in accordance with the law are committed to back up the event. The experience of the latest Triennial proves so.”

In relation to the Third Triennial, Ramos Roman hopes that all works –design, prints, writings, edition, translation, etc– are made in Puerto Rico “as this will allow us to have greater control on the quality, be able to meet the deadlines and that most of the work be done by our people.”

In the meantime, before the third poly/graphic Triennial starts, we’ll have to think of Fernandez Zavala’s statement as saying that all the doors opened by SJPT-1 have not been explored yet. When asked about expectations for SJPT-3, Ramirez reiterated that “the Triennial should not be seen as a regular exhibition in spite of how many artists it brings together and how many venues it has. Biennials and triennials are mechanisms of symbolic capital which countries can use to negotiate their place in international circuits of market, art and politics. The fact that Puerto Rico has been hosting this type of event for more than thirty years should qualify it to easily take the leadership in this area that is not limited now to Latin America but includes the United States as well. In this context, the hinge notion –intermediate space– between Latin people from the United States and those from Latin America give Puerto Rico the unprecedented opportunity to set that goal and easily fulfill it, even to its own political ends.”

Certainly, the explosion caused by the first San Juan Poly/graphic Triennial: Latin American and the Caribbean threw shrapnel out in multiple directions, shrapnels that have to be grabbed and turned into new explosives to be detonated for the best. Each future Triennial will have its turn in this relay race.

It is a lucid irreversible turn. Thirty years of resounding contributions to the promotion of engraving and exchange between Puerto Rico and the Latin American scenario have been revived to spread out new proposals and perspectives in the rest of the continent and the planet.