The title of this year’s Cuenca Biennial, “Leaving to Return,” is a somewhat self-explanatory expression. It’s not a figure of speech based on metaphor. Rather, it defines intention as being marked by affects, and the truthful will to return as embedded within an affective relation to place. As suggested by the Biennial’s curators, Jacopo Crivelli Visconti and Manuela Moscoso, what seems important is not the actual return, but the drive to return. Referring to Caribbean theorist Édouard Glissant’s notion of creolization and his understanding of knowledge as the result of movement and relation, this affective movement underpins a world in constant motion with change being the result of individual and collective wills.

Indeed, the themes running through the 12th Cuenca Biennial’s curatorial statement, which could otherwise be said to be quite general, largely reflect an exploration of affect as the ability to change and be changed in radical or subtle ways. The exhibition, which is presented in six different venues and features the work of 42 different artists, focuses on the affective qualities of matter as participating in an inventive exercise, asserting its agency in the construction of truths. In a way, many of the works in the exhibition would seem to align with Henri Bergson’s interpretation of William James’s philosophy, which suggests that “the powerful feelings which stir the soul at certain special moments are forces as real as those that interest the physicist.”11
Henri Bergson, “The Pragmatism of William James,” in The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics (Bridgewater: Replica Books, 1999), 212.

Perhaps the space where the relation between the exhibited works is most clear is the Salón del Pueblo. Here, industrial and manual work complicates the interactions connecting materials, production processes, and people. One good example is Jorge Satorre’s Lo otro [The Other] (2014), a collaboration with several craftsmen of Cuenca in which the artist inverts the logic of production. In order to emphasize individual gestures in the making of objects, he creates dysfunctional, anomalous versions of already established, yet very often recent traditions. It is the anomaly, rather than the norm, which in Satorre’s work serves to examine a given situation: a stone carved into a figurative shape and then carved into deformity reveals more layers than mere normative form. The work sits next to Néstor Basterretxea’s 1963 film Operación H, in which the elation of industrial production becomes a means of explaining its strong relation to the material world, made manifest in the art produced in the Basque country at that time, as was the case of sculptor Jorge Oteiza (1908–2003) who is featured in the film.

Another work, Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s video installation La Javanaise (2012), delves into the complex circulation of meaning through objects in the colonial world. The Dutch enterprise Vlisco sells fabrics in Africa that are developed through the emulation of a Javanese technique of textile printing. By revealing the efficient continuity of the company’s products in today’s markets, van Oldenborgh not only demonstrates its role in the circulation of commodities, but also as producers of new traditions.

In a different venue, the Sala Proceso, Adrian Paci’s film The Column (2013) documents the fabrication of a Greco-Roman-style column, exposing the level of efficiency imposed on the capitalist production of objects. The marble, extracted in China, is transported on a big cargo ship in which Chinese workers sculpt the column. The exchange of materials and meaning between the East and the West is one of many examples of how capitalism operates ideologically and aesthetically through labor and the circulation of goods.

Adrián Balseca got hold of an Andino—the only car ever designed and produced in Ecuador—and transported it between the cities of Quito and Cuenca (some 300 miles) without it running on gas, resorting to the help of pack animals and trucks. First launched in 1973 during the dictatorship of Guillermo Rodríguez Lara at the time of the oil crisis, the Andino represented an effort to respond to expectations of national progress in a time of uncertainty. By engaging in a product-less action, Balseca exposes other forms of consumption and circulation that challenge the efficiency values of capitalism and highlight solidarity. In another work, Fundiciones. Todo ladrón sera quemado [Smelting. Every Thief will be Burnt] (2010), Balseca makes reference to the kinds of violence embedded in popular justice, like the ringing of a bell during a theft, alerting people to burn the perpetrator. In a somewhat tautological way, he himself steals a sewage cover and casts a bell with an inscription bearing the title of the work.

Many of the issues central to the Biennial’s curatorial proposition are animated by the collapse of a hierarchical division between humans and non-humans in the production of knowledge, introducing questions essential to the very act of learning. François Bucher’s The Second and a Half Dimension - An Expedition to the Photographic Plateau (2012) and The Duration of the Present (2012) draw on forms of knowledge generally not validated by Western science and often classified as unproven mystic reverie. Each work iterates the artist’s exhaustive investigation of the existence of a multidimensional universe. In such a universe, neither time nor space is measurable by the conventions at hand, but rather through enhanced states of consciousness that open up a complex understanding of the present.

Arguments against non-hegemonic forms of knowledge are based on the fact that these “alternative” methods of learning do not establish divisions between nature and culture, reason and the body, and thus reduce our accessibility to rational knowledge. Agency, established in Brussels by Kobe Matthys in 1992, cleverly explores this fact in its archive of events, in which the difficulty of defining authorship in cases of supernatural phenomena is examined; they present legal cases about the intellectual property of works that demonstrate the means by which non-human entities convey knowledge; the “other-than-humans” thus become agents mobilizing its production. Interestingly, the work of the winner of the Biennial’s first prize, Saskia Calderón, evokes similar issues. During the opening days of the Biennial, the artist, who is trained in lyric singing, launched Opera Onowaka (2014) a series of vocal performances based on “scores” which were transmitted to her by Amazon spirits. Made in collaboration with the Huorani people, a recording of the songs will continue to be played back in one of the rooms of the Casa de los Arcos throughout the course of the exhibition.

But how can things be measured, represented, and otherwise understood? Many works in the exhibition question, reposition, or vindicate the way in which the world is perceived and the standards by which we think we can prove and legitimate the existence of a range of phenomena. Several artists in the exhibition invent new strategies of measurement and interpretation. In Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s collaboration with Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer, Abstract Specific/Specific Abstract (2014), a series of posters commissioned to different people, the multiplicity of representations resulting from individual responses to a general problem reveal the tensions between concrete experience and overarching representations. Manuela Ribadeneira’s El arte de navegar: Objetos de duda y de certeza [The Act of Navigation: Objects of Doubt and Certitude] (2011–14) recreates a series of measuring instruments, most of them used in navigation; however, the parts of the instruments meant to impart information are omitted in their manufacture, rendering the devices inefficient. The description of this work provided by the Biennial includes a beautiful quote by T.S. Elliot: “And the end of our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Indeed, this circularity of knowledge is present in so many of the reflections found within this year’s Biennial exhibition, restoring some sense of multiplicity against univocal and dominant interpretations of the world.