BOCA: Biennial of Contemporary Arts

The inauguration of this biennial takes place across Lisbon and Porto, and presents more than 30 works

By Justin Jaeckle

Héctor Zamora, Ordem e Progresso, 2017, installation-performance, dimensions variable. Photo: Bruno Simao. Courtesy BOCA, Lisbon and Porto João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Avantesma Fantasma, 2017, installation, seven 16mm videos, colour, silent, durations variable. Photo: Bruno Simao. Courtesy BOCA, Lisbon and Porto

Various venues, Lisbon and Porto 17 March – 30 April 

Established by theatre director/actor John Romão, the inaugural BOCA connected diverse cultural institutions to coproduce 30 works. Framing itself as an ‘agora’, the festival quoted Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’ and Paul Virilio’s faith in nomadism to bolster its agenda of equivalence across all artforms – whether housed in black boxes or white cubes, theatres or nightclubs – envisioning all as ‘temples’ of cultural conversation.

As such, one could perhaps see BOCA as a foot soldier in a burgeoning revenge of the performing arts, following their recent co-option by art institutions. Reflecting upon the ‘eventised museum’ and art’s adoption of performance in a lecture in Lisbon last year, Claire Bishop suggested that “when an institution colonises dance, it almost guarantees a lack of critique, as the home of dance is the theatre, elsewhere”. Devotedly pan-artistic, yet founded in performance’s lineage, para-institutional structures like BOCA perhaps offer a stage upon which dance and theatre might bite the cannibalistic artworld back, to redigest and absorb its ‘performative turn’ in continuum with live arts’ context and critical vocabulary, while combating the perceived hierarchal supremacy of visual art through a promotion of the plural arts.

BOCA in no way framed itself as part of a war between disciplines, but embodied theatricality undoubtedly remained the biennial’s commander-in-chief, influencing the selection, commission and display of works. Its exhibitions typically lasted an evening or a few days, and this productively framed them as ‘events’ of equal billing to the theatre, dance, concerts and films they were placed alongside in the programme. Through BOCA’s filter, artist Héctor Zamora’s destruction of Portuguese fishing boats at MAAT, Ordem e Progresso (2017), read as musique concrète, while acclaimed pianist Marino Formenti’s Internet-streamed 20-day recital in Gulbenkian’s garden amphitheatre – architectonically transformed into a home by artist Ricardo Jacinto – saw the musician treated as a living sculpture, in Nowhere (2017). Nightclub Lux became a (p)opera house through Tianzhuo Chen’s kitsch, untitled performative queering of Western youth culture and Eastern ritual, in collaboration with the Asian Dope Boys and DJ/producer Aïsha Devi, while the dance-floors of club nights at diverse BOCA venues were coloured as sites of participatory performance.

When viewed at BOCA, Ulla Von Brandenburg’s film It Has a Golden Sun and an Elderly Grey Moon (2016) – wherein dancers perform a trouping of coloured blankets in an abstraction of power relations on a stage set of stairs – asserted its place in a lineage of dance film, Busby Berkeley and mime, expanding the position of performance within the film from component to context. And the stage of Teatro Nacional D. Maria II exhibited João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s installation-scenography of seven 16mm films across five screens. A filmed encounter with Japanese Noh theatre (Pavão (nue), 2016) and a reverie on strutting peacocks ((Pavão) Época de Acasalamento, 2016) suggested costumed performance to be a rite common across species, while Projector (teste de camera) (2016) used slow motion to reveal the phantasmagoric stagecraft of a projector’s fluxing gate.

BOCA hosted four resident artists. The Portuguese artist duo Musa paradisiaca created a stage in public space, Casa-animal (2017), to platform projects selected through open call. In Lisbon’s resplendent Rococo opera house, accompanied by Marie-Pierre Brébant on bandura, dancer/choreographer François Chaignaud incanted and writhed his way through an archaic twelfth-century choral work by Hildegard von Bingen. Sporting matching gymwear and female drag, the pair’s queer séance sought the ethereal divine. Still to be performed at time of writing was BOCA’s commission of Tania Bruguera’s first piece for theatre – an abstraction of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957) – and the biennial similarly invited filmmaker Salomé Lamas to direct her first piece for the stage. Combining techniques of documentary with a theatrical monologue, Lamas’s heavily footnoted dramatisation of Middle Eastern conflict, Fatamorgana (2017), felt like it had challenged director and audience both, illustrating the complexities innate to inviting artists to transfer their practice to a different craft.

Contrarily, offering a third space between the heavily guarded hagiographies of dance and visual art allowed choreographers to shine. The deceptively casual Muse (2017) saw Florentina Holzinger collaborate with her former tutor Renée Copraij. Both women clad in swimsuits, Holzinger popped her muscular body with militarised sexuality to blaring EDM, before Copraij led her through yoga poses and then recited Martha Graham’s philosophy of makeup. Retiring to eat lobster on a table at the stage’s rear, the pair louchely switched to an ‘artist’s talk’, awkwardly taking in ageing, sexuality and the nature of the muse – referencing the significantly older Copraij’s 20-plus years of performing for choreographer Jan Fabre – before segueing into a finale inspired by Madonna and Britney Spears’s infamous kiss at the 2003 VMAs. As fog filled the stage to a screwed version of the former’s song Hollywood (2003), Holzinger slipped from her one-piece into a hoodie, Copraij donned a strap-on dildo. The muse then penetrated her student and, prosthetic fully inserted throughout, delicately danced across the stage in an acrobatic pas de deux. “It needs work,” Holzinger concluded. And yet, wry and surprisingly beautiful, the evening’s many layers resonated, while speaking to the biennial as a whole. While they’ve long been fuck-buddies and mutual muses, the visual and performing arts’ ‘complicated’ relationship may be showing signs of more conscious coupling. BOCA is evidently eager to play their matchmaker. 

First published in the May 2017 issue of ArtReview