The intellectuals of the past no longer exist. Interview with Vittorio Parisi

The intellectuals of the past no longer exist. Interview with Vittorio Parisi

by Tiziano Tancredi

Researcher and curator Vittorio Parisi holds a PhD in Aesthetics from the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris, where he defended a thesis on the relationship between graffiti writing, street art and urban non-places. He is currently director of studies and research at Villa Arson in Nice.
In this wide-ranging interview that moves between seriousness and joking, after outlining some crucial stages in Vittorio’s professional career, we explored certain topics of great interest in determining the relationship between contemporary art and urban art: Borrowings, points of contact and/or divisions between the two systems; the positioning of some European artists in the middle or rather in the continuity between writing and contemporary art; the importance of long experimental phases such as artist-run spaces. Besides the possibility to talk about bizarre cases of homonymy, about music and why in the end there is not so much difference between cats and intellectuals.

I would start with a question that goes against the grain, the kind you don’t expect. Although it might have been better not to announce it so explicitly, so as not to significantly reduce the surprise effect. Googling your name, the first two results you find before your LinkedIn profile are all from the musical universe: Vittorio Parisi singer of the Neapolitan tradition, Vittorio Parisi orchestra conductor. Kinship or coincidence? How do you evaluate or ridicule this proximity and what is your relationship with contemporary lighter and classical music? Does it bring you down or not?

I would say that I have an excellent relationship with both classical music, since I play the violin – badly but happily – and pop music. Including Neapolitan music. In 1991, when Renzo Arbore founded the Italian Orchestra, my parents went to its performances and brought home a CD with their interpretations of the great Neapolitan classics: Luna rossa, Era de maggio, Malafemmena…. We used to listen to them on our car rides. I was five or six years old and it became my favorite CD, along with another favorite of our trips, coincidentally Il viaggio by Fabrizio De André, released the same year. The fact of having a famous Neapolitan singer from the past as a namesake can only make me smile, just as it makes me smile, albeit for different reasons, to have a conductor. The latter has accidentally received God knows how many emails addressed to me because our addresses are (or were, perhaps out of desperation he decided to change his) very similar: once, after signing a lease in Paris, the owner of the apartment accidentally sent him an email addressed to me asking me to pay the first month and the deposit, complete with IBAN attached. A brief but amusing exchange ensued between the two of them: one of them rightly said he would not pay rent or deposit, the other thought I was crazy or someone who likes to fool around a bit too much. If this interview ever comes to the attention of the conductor Vittorio Parisi, I would like to take this opportunity to say to him: Maestro, forgive me, I hope to meet you one day and apologize in person! Your humble namesake.

In my mind you belong to a small group of intellectuals (I won’t say the last intellectual because it was recently used in a magazine dealing with politics) who are able to discuss a wide range of topics without ever being out of place, or at least with irreverent and original points of view: Internet culture and the Italian memetic scene, contemporary art and urban art, up to the contemporary music mentioned above. Books, classical music and arthouse cinema are part of your self-expression in social networks, where cats are always present. Why don’t you think dogs are man’s most loyal friends?

While I am flattered and thank you for your generous words, in this interview I will try in every way possible to sabotage the misleading image you claim to have of me as an intellectual. And this is not out of false modesty, but because, objectively speaking, I do not believe that I have yet done, written, or published anything worthy of such consideration. And should this happen someday, I hope to maintain my current anti-intellectual stance, because I must confess that, with few exceptions, I don’t like the intellectuals of today very much. Their main activity seems to have been reduced to constant self-promotion on social networks, accompanied in the worst cases by a rather grotesque form of activism and pure ostentatious engagement. In short, I have the impression that a disturbing identity is increasingly emerging between the figure of the intellectual and that of the influencer. It’s probably the way it should be: intellectuals are destined to become this stuff here, to the good of my idiosyncrasies. It remains that, given the choice, I would gladly position myself at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from today’s intellectual and his performative activism: indeed, I take a perverse and childlike pleasure in flaunting a certain amount of disengagement and proclaiming little interest in the causes that most intellectuals of my generation claim to serve. I can say, for example, that cats interest me much more than inclusive language, socially engaged art, or global warming. In the midst of this apocalypse, I would rather wait for the end than join the already large crowd of those who remind us daily what assholes we are by retreating to a villa, perhaps in Capri, with the air conditioning running, listening to Anema e core and petting the four or five sacred Burmese I would bring with me. Well, I would love to try my hand at writing an essay on aesthetics or phenomenology about cats, especially when the world is on fire. And I’m interested in cats precisely because they are not man’s familiar friends: The ten- or fifteen-thousand-year difference in the domestication of the dog compared to that of the cat means that the former have been our allies much longer than the latter, so the cat retains its feline dignity as a species much more than the dog. That said, I have nothing against dogs, and like any good sociopath, I am a lover of all animals. However, I believe that the cat, among other things, is spontaneously capable of a contemplative attitude toward existence that is not inherent in any other animal, least of all the human being. It is not by chance that Théophile Gautier called them bête philosophique. Cats are the only intellectuals I could never get tired of.

Escif, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, 2017 © Escif

Coming back to the area of interest of urban cultures that connects us, I know that in 2011 you were an assistant at Galerie Danysz in Paris. Founded in 1991 by Magda Danysz, the gallery was one of the first in Paris to handle important artists of the global urban art scene such as Futura 2000, JR, Shepard Fairey, Vhils, to name only the most famous, as well as the Italian Miaz Brothers and Sten Lex. What do you remember about this experience and to what extent did it familiarize you with what is commonly called (with all the faults of simplification) the urban art scene?

I discovered the Danysz Gallery in Bologna, at ArteFiera, in January 2009. This discovery followed a few months later the one of FAME Festival in Grottaglie, and both things constituted excellent material on which to set up my three-year thesis work. Their booth displayed works by Mike Giant, Shepard Fairey and JonOne, artists that I particularly appreciated at the time. When two years later I had the opportunity to do Erasmus in Paris, I did not miss the chance to visit the gallery and leave them a resume and a letter of motivation for an internship as an assistant. I was able to get hired. It was a very useful experience for me, especially because it allowed me to shake off some of my youthful naivety and to become disillusioned with the work of the gallery owner, which consists above all in making or keeping the gallery profitable, which is very difficult even in a city like Paris. Magda Danysz is an extremely capable person in her work, and in fact over time she has opened other branches in Shanghai and London. In 2011, she had already expanded her field of action considerably, and the exhibitions I worked on had nothing to do with urban art: an exhibition of the Chinese sculptor Wang Keping, and one of large format polaroids by Julian Schnabel. I have continued to collaborate with her over the years, for example in 2018 I was lucky enough to write the introduction to the book Futura 2000 – Full Frame that she edited.

In 2014, together with Pigment Workroom, you created the “Enziteto Real Estate” project that led Alberonero, Alfano, Ciredz, Geometric Bang and Tellas to carry out interventions in Bari’s San Pio (former Enziteto) neighborhood. How did the relationship with the territory develop on that occasion? Looking back over the years, what were the main difficulties encountered, and what were the positive elements you remember?

Pigment Workroom was born as a participatory urban art workshop and screen printing studio. Together with Mario Nardulli and Giuseppe Santoro, we conceived Enziteto Real Estate as an anti-festival, a project that mocked the idea of the requalifying function of urban art in deprived neighborhoods – although that was precisely the point – and pretended to gentrify an incorporated neighborhood like San Pio (formerly Enziteto). A neighborhood that, with due historical, socio-demographic and architectural differences, is something like Bari’s counterpart to the more famous Scampia and Secondigliano in Naples. Getting city permits to work on the facades of the buildings in San Pio was a breeze. What was more difficult was gaining the trust of the residents and their permission, the only one that really counted, to work on these buildings with mostly abstract works. Together with the artists, we organized drawing workshops for children and young people from the region, and the response was very encouraging. At the same time, we talked to the residents of the buildings and involved them in the creative process of the artists, in order to avoid as much as possible that the action becomes something that falls from above, a gift from a few enlightened people to the mass of the miserable, as it usually happens in such cases. There are many positive aspects: on a personal level, certainly, that of spending twelve hours a day for ten days in a place that I had never entered and that is considered by us distinguished people to be one of the most dangerous in Bari. And that we could collaborate with artists who we appreciated (and still appreciate), but who we had never met before and who proved to be particularly suitable to work in a complicated context, showing an ease of dialogue and a willingness to involve other people in the creative process. On the other hand, to return to what I said before, socially engaged art bores me to death, and in retrospect I can’t help feeling that projects like the one in San Pio end up serving local administrations by sweeping the dust under the rug rather than the communities they are aimed at, even if they do it in good faith.

In 2016, on the website of the Di Vagno Foundation, you wrote an article entitled The great illusion of ‘managed’ street art, which I found impressive. In this article, you analyzed in detail the explosion of the phenomenon of street art festivals, which tripled in number between 2008 and 2015. There was also a certain amount of intelligent self-criticism when you wrote: “it is necessary to become aware of the fact that the corrosive force, dissonant and not accommodating, exquisitely social, political and not ornamental that characterizes the power of this art, can exist only as a function of its autonomy with respect to administrative power, the entertainment market and, to be honest, even the desire of those who, like me, had the unhealthy idea of making this art an object of study. To contribute to the knowledge of such a phenomenon is tantamount to doing it an inevitable dose of violence: to “desecrate” it in order to observe it better, to betray its natural reluctance towards any unsolicited appropriation, experimentation and interpretation. The present writing is no exception.” In your opinion, what is the state of street art nowadays in Italy in terms of the institutionalization of the phenomenon? Has the spotty diffusion of the festivals undergone an increase or a setback? I’m thinking in particular of the Altrove Festival in Catanzaro, whose last edition took place in the summer of 2019.

I cannot tell whether the phenomenon of festivals is still expanding or whether it has suffered a setback. I haven’t continued to observe the trend, but at the same time, and in a completely a priori way, I have the impression that, even if the number of festivals is on the rise, the interest of the first half of the 1910s has waned, in the sense that I no longer notice the hype and the (misleading) sense of exceptionality that then seemed to accompany events and projects of this kind. Painted walls have become commonplace, and it wouldn’t surprise me too much if in a few years’ time we reach the paradoxical point of not finding any more available walls. Maybe then all of us – artists, researchers, cultural workers, simple enthusiasts…. – will feel a little nauseous and, driven by terror spleni, we will return to appreciating empty walls. On the other hand, Blu had already shown us in 2014 and 2016 in Berlin and Bologna that the only radical gesture of urban art was the restoration of surfaces, although this gesture was immediately deprived of its radicality by the way it was reported and commented in the mainstream media. It is also significant that festivals like FAME in 2012 and Altrove in 2018 decided to stop contributing to the inexorable muralization of the world. The former has simply ceased to exist, the latter is questioning whether and possibly how to continue. Both organizations, however, have undertaken, albeit in very different ways and with very different intensities, the path of the “traditional” exhibition: not on the walls of a city, but within the walls of an exhibition space. From the ashes of FAME has emerged an art gallery of international stature that functions well despite its location in a southern Italian city of thirty thousand inhabitants. The Altrove Festival came full circle with the museum exhibition Post-Graffiti Stress Disorder, which, unlike the exhibitions organized in Italy until then, aimed to go concretely beyond the often too restrictive discourse on urban art and tell of a not insignificant group of European artists who wanted to claim to be fully artists before being urban. This discourse is also limiting when we talk about institutionalization, which remains a somewhat abstract concept. If anything, there are different forms of recognition of urban art, but mainly of individual artists. These forms can compete up to the highest recognition, which from my point of view (I am still an anti-intellectual and even a little reactionary today) can only be that of history. We can believe as much as we want that the borders between art and entertainment have collapsed, but within the cultural productions of an era, the history – and therefore the set of people who, literally, write it: historians, theorists and critics – always somehow ends up separating art capable of returning and critically revealing the world to itself from everything else. If we ask ourselves about the institutionalization of writing, or of what we call street art, and not only in Italy, what are we asking ourselves after all? Whether these are in the media? Whether they are being studied? Whether they are exhibited and sold by galleries? Whether they are in museums and biennials? All of these processes have already taken place since the dawn of writing and, in themselves, mean very little. We should ask ourselves who, among the protagonists of this story, is or has been able to reveal something about the world we live in. At present, the only one who really deserves to be counted among the great protagonists of the art of the last fifty years seems to me to be Rammellzee, for the way in which he has been able to interpret, through his ikonoklast panzerism, the clash between the different orders of signs in urban space, in a manner surprisingly similar to that of certain great European thinkers, Baudrillard above all. It is difficult to say who will be able to sit at the table of the greats in the future, given the quantity of artists and works circulating in today’s channels of art diffusion. I have a few ideas, but since aspiring prophets are another unfortunate category, I prefer to keep quiet; as always, a certain type of criticism and a certain type of market will be the discriminating factor in the competition.

In August 2020, the first exhibition organized by the Saeio Association was held at the Ruttowski 68 Gallery in Paris. By bringing together the works of artist friends who were closest to the late writer, the association aims to create a foundation in his name. Thanks to the recommendation of many writer friends, I went to see the exhibition in person, as I am very interested in an important figure of European writing like Saeio, whose main features I could not understand until now. How important is Saeio and what role did he play in the European graffiti scene, and why do you think it is important to continue his legacy?

Saeio and the other members of the Paris PAL crew (especially Horfee, Mosa, Tomek, and Skub) have played, and continue to play, a fundamental role in the European writing scene – just look at how many followers they’ve spawned in stylistic terms around the world (Instagram accounts like @antistylers and @trashgraff collect many daily). But their importance is not limited to the universe of urban art. For the aforementioned exhibition Post-Graffiti Stress Disorder, which I co-curated with Edoardo Suraci, we chose two artists from the group – Alexandre Bavard (Mosa) and Saeio – for their formal research that reinvents writing as a pictorial, sculptural and performative act, overcoming the dualism between outside and inside and, above all, making sure that art in all its forms preserves a trace of the world from which it comes, both in the cultural sense – the golden age of New York graffiti – and in the urban sense – urban edges and in-between spaces, infrastructural places, non-places. In fact, all Saeio did from a certain point of his career until his unfortunate death, whether it was a piece on a shutter of the Goutte d’or in Paris or a canvas exhibited in a gallery, was to emphasize, through the transformation of New York-style lettering and its derivation into abstract painting, how the original writing was already fully painting itself.

To remain in the French context: In a long three-part interview for Exibart in December 2020, you spoke of a development in which certain French artists born in illegality have begun a dialogue with the contemporary art world. You specifically mentioned the cases of the aforementioned Olivier Kosta-Thefaine (Stak), Antwan Horfee (Horfee), and Alexandre Bavard (Mosa), who have “followed a path of constant experimentation and reinvention of their own languages that has led them to exhibit in places like the Palais de Tokyo in Paris or Somerset House in London over the past five years.” Would you like to elaborate on this passage of a much broader discourse that can be found in that interview? Do you think there can be solid points of contact between the two circuits of urban art and contemporary art that, for what is my modest perception gained over time, run on parallel tracks that occasionally cross each other?

Solid points of contact between the urban art system and the contemporary art system exist insofar as there are artists, gallery owners and critics capable of positioning themselves, operating and writing on both fronts. Fortunately, there are some – all the artists and gallery owners mentioned so far belong to this category, with the exception of Blu who, however, really deserves a separate discussion – which ultimately makes me doubt the need to continue to distinguish between two parallel systems. Perhaps we need to start thinking of the former as a niche of the latter, and it is not surprising that artists such as Bavard, Horfee and Kosta-Thefaine have long since refused to be counted among the “urban artists”. This is certainly not a rejection of their own origins, which as we have seen continue to be firmly present in their respective works, but a more than legitimate desire to see their work recognized at the highest level, not associated with stuff that most of the time is an afterthought of very low-level pop art, and above all not trivialized by narratives that continue to tell of presumed opposition to the “system”, of cities as canvases or “open-air museums”, and so on.

In the current global art scene, what do you see as the most interesting artistic research in the group of emerging artists in relation to urban cultures?

First of all, we need to understand what we mean by emerging artists. A bit like the middle class, the category of emerging artists has become a blob-category within which very different profiles and capitals (reputational, in our case) cohabit: from recent graduates who have yet to make themselves known beyond the walls of their academy, to artists with ten thousand followers on Instagram, from artists who have had one exhibition to those who already have a gallery or have already done one or more residencies, etc.. It is therefore complicated to identify the profile-type of the emerging artist, but also on the basis of what I see in my work and especially in the country where I live, France, I would draw attention to artist-run spaces like the Wonder in Paris (where Saeio worked, by the way). In general, it seems to me that in these kinds of places, more than elsewhere, contemporary artistic research finds its most interesting applications. The Wonder is one of the most significant in Europe in the panorama of urban cultures, primarily because the urban dimension is not a point of arrival but of departure: in this case, the collective has revived an abandoned printing house in Clichy, in the northern banlieue of Paris, transforming it into a residence for artists with workshops of various kinds (painting, wood, metal, ceramics, video, but also tattooing, goldsmithing and cooking). The artists who work at the Wonder dialogue with the contemporary system and do so by hybridizing practices and styles, with particular attention to immersive languages: Nelson Pernisco, who also comes from writing, has been using foam cans for a couple of years to create environments that resemble disturbing alien forests; Pierre Gaignard blends documentary cinema, videogames and sculpture in interactive installations that seem to come from science fiction scenarios; Louis Grolou Danjou creates situations in which mural painting alternates with tattooing sessions and experimental culinary creations; Valentine Gardiennet proposes a synthesis between drawing and sculpture that invades environments and aims at a sort of “cartooning” of reality. To these examples we can add others, certainly in other places as well – in France I’m thinking of the Triangle Astérides art center in Marseilles – and the most interesting direction is probably that given by immersive practices. After all, urban art has always been, in its own way, immersive. As a researcher I like to insist on the idea of “work-place” and “aesthetics of the out-of-place” to describe the functioning of writing and of a certain kind of street art, through the aesthetic subordination of the pre-existing architectural environment: I think that the emerging artists mentioned here are an example of how this aesthetic subordination of space is taken to its extreme consequences, even more so in closed or exhibition environments, also exploiting the new immersive technical and technological possibilities.

The author

Tiziano Tancredi

Tiziano Tancredi (Rome, 1989) is a contemporary art curator interested in the anthropological, sociological, and architectural relationships that visual arts establish with public space. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Art History from La Sapienza University of Rome. In 2014, he collaborated with Nuda Proprietà at the Rialto Sant'Ambrogio in Rome. He has curated numerous solo exhibitions (including Truth's Trasforma at the Horti Lamiani Gallery, Revolutionary Profiles with Giovanni Argan of the artist Leonardo Crudi, and ADR's Double U at the Parione9 gallery), written critical texts for catalogs, articles and reviews for contemporary art magazines, led seminars and lectures, conducted guided tours, and managed communication (press office and social media) in the museum, gallery, and festival settings. He is a co-founder of the Dialoghi Artistici collective, with whom he carried out the E-CRIT project, an informal online dialogue on contemporary art that involved 15 artists of different generations in three different seasons between 2021 and 2022. In 2021, he curated the Lupus in Muta project, a double mural by artist Lucamaleonte on the facade of the IC Borgoncini Duca "Via G. Manetti" and the "I Cuccioli di via Silveri" nursery school, both in Rome. Between 2021 and 2022, he worked as an assistant at the Galerie Valeria Cetraro in Paris. His first curated group exhibition, titled "The Personal is Political | The Political is Personal," featuring works by Collettivo FX, Federica Di Pietrantonio, Guerrilla Spam, and Verdiana Bove, took place at Fiera di Verona from February 21 to 24, 2023, on the occasion of the XXI National Congress of Spi-Cgil. Since 2021, he has been collaborating with the Street Levels Gallery in Florence, conducting a series of interviews with some of the most interesting personalities in the Italian and European urban art scene. He lives and works in Paris.

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