Brazil’s two biennales

This year’s 10th Brazilian Graphic Design Biennale was reframed by the context of nationwide protests

What are we fighting for?’ asked a woodblock-printed poster in the 10th Brazilian Graphic Design Biennale in São Paulo last month. It’s difficult to say exactly why the designer posed that question when the poster was made in 2010, but suddenly it was on everyone’s lips. The biennial happened to coincide with Brazil’s biggest public protest in a generation, with millions taking to the streets in cities across the country. Initially triggered by a slight rise in bus fares, the demonstrations vented popular frustration about everything from political corruption to gay rights to the huge sums being spent on World Cup and Olympic stadiums at the expense of public services.

To answer the poster’s question, then, what this popular movement was fighting for was spelled out on thousands of placards – many angry, others witty or sarcastic. “I want FIFA-standard schools and hospitals,” read one. Another banner depicted a Microsoft Windows dialogue box: “Installing Democracy”.

Over the coming days I’d see packs of school kids wandering around with their proudly composed placards. The effect was of a parallel biennial: you had the professionals in an Oscar Niemeyer building in central São Paulo and a carnival of homespun creativity out on the streets.

The ‘What are we fighting for?’ poster is the work of the design agency BijaRi, and was part of a series aimed at reclaiming public space for what it called “body technology” – in other words, for pedestrians rather than cars. São Paulo is a difficult city, with poor public transport and notorious traffic jams. Add to this a deep paranoia about security that has led one prominent urbanist to label it “the city of walls”, and you realise that the thousands of bodies in the street were also demonstratively asserting their right to public space.

The fact that I’ve spent almost a third of this review on perhaps the only project in the biennial with an overtly political message is clearly a distortion, but that’s how current affairs can hijack cultural events. There were in fact 444 projects on show in the biennial, covering four years of work (the biennial scheduled for 2011 didn’t happen). Interestingly, less than half of these were on display in the gallery, with the rest represented in the iPad app that the organisers produced in lieu of a hefty catalogue. Ranging across editorial, packaging, branding, signage and digital, the biennial presents a panoramic snapshot of the graphic climate in Brazil today.

One display will soon be globally ubiquitous. The Rio 2016 Olympics logo, with its ring of dancing figures, is at pains to be friendly and inoffensive. Who’d have thought, when the design agency Tátil produced it three years ago, that the Olympics would spark mass demonstrations, along with the eviction of thousands living on or near Olympic sites. Arguably, this is precisely the kind of political content that Olympic logos are supposed to elide, as this one does brilliantly. But it’s worth noting that both the World Cup and the Olympics have had a noticeable effect on the biennial contents .

In the digital section there are at least three television news channels with revamped graphic identities, including the mighty Globo News. All this smartening up is in preparation for next year, when the world’s media will turn to Brazil’s media for the latest news on the ground. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Brazilians are paranoid (just as Londoners were before last year’s Olympics) that hundreds of thousands of visitors are about to descend on a country where nothing works for them. And I can say from experience that websites selling everything from airline tickets to hotel rooms will have to be redesigned to at least be able to handle foreign credit cards.

Having said all of the above, the biennial does a wonderful job not just of conveying the current standard of Brazilian graphic design but also the richness of Brazilian culture itself. Whether it’s a book of Brazil’s modernist furniture, an archive of the sculptor Lygia Clark or a bespoke typeface for indigenous languages, you get the sense of the country’s cultural heritage being reprocessed by a new generation.

Since I began with a poster, it would be wrong to move on without mentioning Dimitre Lima’s jewel-like calendar of the phases of the moon. Silkscreen printed in silver on black paper, it resembles a flower reflecting the moonlight. In a world where digital processes are increasingly dominant, there was plenty of similar handcraft on display – even in mainstream publishing. Alceu Chiesorin Nunes’ cover for Penguin’s new Brazilian edition of Don Quixote updates Gustave Doré’s classic illustrations with a very modern interpretation that uses lino cutting.

Of the magazines, one jumped out immediately. The literary quarterly Serrote is bookishly elegant, just as you’d want it to be. Art directed by Daniel Trench, it combines traditional typography with a lively use of photography and original illustrations – I can’t think of many literary journals that are as visually stimulating. Similarly one signage system stood out, for a series of evening events in a park in Belo Horizonte. It’s a standardised system of cardboard boxes with lights inside on which you can peel away perforations to make letters or symbols.

Overall, what came across from the biennial and from the accompanying conference was a sense of Brazilian graphic design becoming more aware of its position in a global marketplace. Here is an industry that recognises that it has international opportunities. Indeed, the biennial’s curator, Bruno Porto, has just spent six years working in Shanghai, and was pleasantly surprised by what he found on his return. “I’ve seen a huge improvement in design quality since I left,” he says. “With the growth in the economy and the coming sports events, design practices have turned into agencies, they’re becoming more professional.” The only thing that remains to be seen, then, is whether the political energy in the street starts to contaminate the burgeoning but, in hindsight, safe world of culture and commerce represented in the biennale.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London and the director of Strelka Press. See justinmcguirk.com

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