Brazilian art historian and critic Walter Zanini, in his role as director of Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo (MAC/USP) and curator of the 1981 and 1983 editions of the São Paulo Biennial, was key to consolidating institutional spaces that were open to experimentation, creation and fostering networks of artistic exchange, and to the development of new practices that surfaced from the late 1960s onwards.
As the director of MAC/USP since it was founded in 1963, Zanini transformed the museum, turning it into a laboratory and refuge for research and art-making. The institution became a space of freedom and radicalness at the height of political repression — Brazil was feeling the effects of the “Miracle” (1969-1973), a period of at once accelerated economic growth and income concentration and inequality. In cities like Recife, Río and São Paulo, a new generation of artists working on the appropriation of new media and mass communications technology – actually imported by the military regime – took root. This generation would create works and circuits outside official circles, the art market and censorship, and Zanini’s close ties with artists such as Julio Plaza, Regina Silveira, Donato Ferrari and Lydia Okumura was pivotal to the museum redefining its conception of the art object and opening out to multimedia manifestations: video art, mail art, xerox art, happenings, performance, environmental art, installation, photography, film, book-objects, and so on. Exchanges with foreign institutions, such as the Centre of Art and Communication (CAyC), in Argentina, also influenced Zanini’s management practices and contributed to an international collection being assembled.
Research in this context starts from the work Cristina Freire carried out over many years as head professor and curator of the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo (1990-2019). This room focuses on the collaboration between Zanini and Spain’s Julio Plaza, culminating in the shows Prospectiva’74 and Poéticas Visuais (1977), held in MAC/USP. Both figures can be regarded as catalysts of the conceptual art that emerged in the 1970s and the creation of international collaboration and mail art networks. Plaza was also invited by Zanini to curate the nucleus of Mail Art at the 16th São Paulo Biennial (1981) and Art and Video Text at the 17th Biennial (1983).
These and other exhibitions formed a vital hub of appropriation practices of new technology, understood as fields of action and denouncement, and as spaces to fuse art and life. Many of the manifestations contained in these projects were based on the principle of unlimited communication and the creation of transnational dialogue and a network put together in a pre-internet age. Mail Art and other circuits of information fostered the construction of an underground fringe scene and allowed dissident artistic practices to keep afloat in the Southern Cone and other countries — some from Eastern Europe — living under censorship regimes. In addition to his artistic and theoretical contribution to these projects, Plaza also brought a network of contacts he had built up during his time at the Universidad de Puerto Rico. Among them were Spaniards Antoni Muntadas and Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, who carried out projects in MAC/USP and in other Southern Cone countries.