"The Best Art In The World"
By IAN WALLACE, September 2021
On the island of São Miguel in the Azores archipelago, Covid-19 restrictions are largely still in place: Restaurants and bars close at ten, nightclubs are shuttered, and masks are ubiquitous and diligently worn. These are, to say the least, not the ideal conditions under which to hold an art festival that seeks to attract an international audience to a 290 square-mile island that is only accessible by air, much less a festival organized around social experiences—“walking and talking”—in various locations.
What São Miguel has that other art-tourist destinations might lack is a utopic landscape of lava formations, volcanic beaches, thermal pools, and a remarkable biodiversity wrought by the Azores archipelago’s central location in the Atlantic. The organizers of the Walk&Talk (“Anda&Fala”) festival—Jesse James, Sofia Carolina Botelho, and guest curator Ana Cristina Cachola—astutely premised this year’s program around the island’s ecology and landscapes through a series of artist-led “excursions” that emphasized informal interpersonal exchanges within larger group experiences; something like a relational aesthetics sans the imposed (and often problematizing) relations of the institutional or gallery context. In addition to these day-long, individually-ticketed events, the festival also encompasses installations and exhibitions at sites across São Miguel including the Arquipélago Center for Contemporary Arts, the natural history collection of the Carlos Machado Museum, the Skate Park da Relva, and the José do Canto Botanical Garden, among others, many of which remain open into the fall.
Now in its eleventh year, Walk&Talk (“Anda&Fala” in Portuguese) was originally conceived as a festival of street art, and many of the earlier editions’ commissions are still in place. These include large-scale murals by the Lisbon-based artist Vhils (Alexandre Farto), João Miguel Ramos, and César Monteiro that adorn walls around the island. A meeting point for artists from Europe, the US, Latin America and elsewhere, the festival’s residency format is unusual in the amount of time it affords the invited participants. (Because last year’s festival was moved almost entirely online and much of the program was delayed in response to the pandemic, this year’s festival involved the participation of artists who had been in dialog with the organizers for up to three years.) As a result, nearly all of the work on view responds directly to the geographic and ecological context of the Azores.
In June, the international ocean conservation nonprofit Mission Blue recognized the Azores archipelago as a so-called “Hope Spot” for its rich ecological diversity. As the artist Mané Pacheco explained during the opening of her exhibition “Pelágica” at the Carlos Machado Museum, underwater volcanic activity around the island means that its aquatic ecology is capable of an unusually high rate of recovery and self-regulation. Like many of the works produced for this year’s festival, Pacheco’s installation—an environment of hanging wire constructions made from materials related to Ponta Delgada’s fishing industry—took up the aquatic landscape and economy surrounding São Miguel as its inspiration. The island’s sea economy also served as the springboard for Nadia Belerique’s installation “Holdings” at the Arquipélago wherein she repurposed the plastic barrels traditionally used by Azorians to ship personal effects between the islands and mainland Portugal as vitrines for found-object assemblages.
Gustavo Círiaco’s "LAWAL / Covered by Sky”, which he describes as a “tour-installation,” took place on the property of Pico de Refúgio, a site that dates to the seventeenth century and has served as a military fortress, orange tree plantation, tea factory, and artist residence. Devised in collaboration with the architect Gonçalo Lopes and the choreographer Javiera Peon-Veiga, the work consisted of a walk through paths mowed into the grounds’ rolling hills and punctuated by text panels and in-situ sculptures; an experience that cited the land art parcours of Richard Long and Robert Smithson’s site-based poetics while also reconsidering what “choreography” might mean in a relational experience with the natural world. Such immersive, land-based approaches were complimented in the festival’s program by more traditional performances. Catarina Miranda’s “Dream is the dreamer,” a theatrical piece that married dream-like narrative imagery, science fiction tropes, clever and uncanny prop effects with plastic bags, and choreography inspired by traditional Japanese Noh theater. Cellist Lucy Railton and filmmaker Pedro Maia’s collaborative performance “Janela do Inferno,” at Ponta Delgada’s Teatro Micalenese, mingled field recordings taken around the island with live manipulated video.
The festival’s excursions, which ran through July, were inarguably its highlight. Each poetically-titled and artist-led, day-long itinerary involved stops at cultural and historical institutions and some of São Miguel’s extraordinary natural sites, woven together through an associative or poetic logic under a general theme. For example: The artists João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira excursion titled Água (d)e Pau—the title is a pun on the Portuguese word “pau,” for stick, which is also slang for the male genitalia—was a nod to the festival’s origins in street art projects whereby each artist would “choose a wall to piss on,” as Vale and Ferreira described it. The artists embedded two phallic bronze fountainheads in a water-retaining wall in the Lagoa municipality. After filling water bottles from these suggestively-shaped taps, the excursion continued to the site of the island’s first hydroelectric plant, founded in 1911; a waterfall-side lunch in the middle of a bamboo-and-oak thicket; and a hike to the ruins of a waterworks now reclaimed by the forest.
The Walk&Talk festival faces new challenges in future editions: namely, how to expand its network beyond a relatively small coterie of participants and attendees, especially if we won’t be returning to the ease of pre-pandemic travel anytime soon. The festival’s emphasis on concepts like “communality” and what the organizers refer to as “archipelogic thinking”—in reference to the Azores' unique status as a collection of nine islands with their own distinct identities, cultures, and even accents—does seem somewhat in irresolution with the Azores' racially and linguistically homogenous population, not to mention that of the festival’s audience. (These are questions that Irene Campolmi, the guest curator of next year’s edition, has suggested that she intends to address.) The city of Ponta Delgada, where most of the festival’s activities are based, is also in the midst of campaigning to be one of Portugal’s candidate cities for the 2027 European Capital of Culture initiative. The stakes for editions to come, in other words, are high; but it’s not difficult to imagine that the growth of Walk&Talk’s already impressive program, and its network of participants, is up to the challenge. WM
Ian Wallace is a writer and curator based in New York City. He received his PhD in Art History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2021view all articles from this author