With Collettivo FX, it was more of a dialogue than an interview, an exchange aimed at exploring themes, raising wide-ranging issues for those who deal with muralism, urban art, street-art, contemporary public art: the involvement or not of the public in the creation of a mural; the activities of associations as an indispensable link in the process of territorial and artistic continuity, bureaucratic slowness, ideas for using a mural, the problem of using a tool, whether theoretical or practical.
Ideas for discussion, very efficient, that may not work. Unresolved issues as in the case of the paintings of Collective FX at Zen in Palermo in 2015.
Dear Collettivo FX, let’s start right away with a sentimental, personal question that ties in a bit with why we met, by taking stock. I’ m pretty sure we met on May 1, 2016, at the Officine Reggiane jam you organized together with Reve+ and Ivana de Innocentis from Urban Lives. To the research of your collective I dedicated my master thesis in contemporary art history entitled “From Street-art to Public Art: the works of Collettivo FX as social and community co-design” discussed in 2017 at La Sapienza University of Rome in which the central chapter was dedicated to the project “Behind every madman there is a village”.
In September 2015, in fact, you launched a call by email and on facebook asking people to report the madman of the village who is able to generate memories. The response was so great that you managed to organize a completely independent tour that, from November 5 to December 5, 2015, included sixteen stops in ten Italian regions, from north to south, from Trentino-Alto Adige to Sicily. What emerged was a sui generis statistical survey that made it possible to assess the health status of the communities affected by your visit. As stated in an after-the-fact report, “The subject was the madman but the real subject was the country.”
How has our country changed since 2015 since you haven’t stopped traveling it with commissioned and independent projects? What would you change about FX’s mythical approach to murals?
The other day I had an appointment with a couple of Councillors. Before I knew which wall to paint, I asked what community, group, association, or other would use the mural. Then I asked how the Civil Service is doing, if they can handle bonuses and the National Recovery and Resiliency Plan. I was told, “of course not, just to start a project takes at least two years and the funded ones have to be done and completed by 2026.”
What does it mean to you to use a mural? Are you telling me that the problem of commissioning works in public space, or more synthetically, of public art (or street-art or urban art, even with respect to the various declinations, meanings and semantic differences that we will be able to deepen) in Italy lies in a gap between speed-reactivity of thought and slowness of bureaucratic practices? What are the problems, if any, in the field of private commissions?
It is still not clear to me what the problem is. The two issues I discussed with administrators (the first about the mural and the second about the National Plan for Reconstruction and Resilience) were apparently different, but on subsequent reflection I realized that something was wrong between the instrument and its use, between the mural and the administrative action. Of course, these are two very different instruments in terms of shape and size, but whoever has the instrument in hand must ask the question of who is using it. Is it enough to come up with the best national recovery and resilience plan in the world for it to work? Is it enough to come up with the best mural in the world for it to work? What should be the relationship between client (public or private) and author (of art or regulations)?
I do not have a ready and clarifying answer to such a dense and delicate question, but I can try to give some food for thought, especially on the question Is it enough to think of the best mural in the world to make it work?.
In my opinion, the adjective “best” implies a value judgment that can be made only in retrospect and, in any case, is always very limited and restricted to the person who expresses such a thought, to his intentions and to his range of action and sharpness to reality.
On the one hand, I believe that many of the positive or negative effects on the functioning or non-functioning of a mural become visible many years later, in terms of the legacy of a monument, the enhancement and (in some cases) the revitalization of a particular area. It is as if the mural acts like a flywheel and is only a small part of a much larger process. If the design phase involved many of the people who will actually inhabit and operate this mural (without demanding the participation, the engagement, of the entire public, because this is utopian), the positive impacts will most likely be statistically more relevant. This is a possible ideal scenario, but of course not the only one, because a different approach might not involve the public and have better measurable impacts. For example, over the course of the many projects you have been involved in, are there instances where you feel your mural has had a positive impact on a community, whether or not the community was involved in the creation, with revitalizing effects, stirring consciences, raising doubts, raising constructive questions?
Regarding the gigantic question you came up with, “What should be the relationship between the client (public or private) and the author (of art or regulations)?” perhaps we should think about the meaning of public administration, its function and purpose, and vice versa, the meaning of art in public space. It seems to me that local associations play a role of ‘first intervention’ and that it should then be the role of the state to support their scope and continuity of action. According to your experience, how do you think about it?
By “better” murals, I refer to the current parameter generally applied to urban art: the aesthetic. Beauty, unfortunately or fortunately, is not the only parameter that makes a mural work in public space.
You have probably encountered a fundamental problem in the argument between instrument and operation: participation.
But here we enter a complex terrain. Involvement is not synonymous with participation according to the calculus that the more people participate, the greater the engagement. But the value and quality comes from the content: if the issue being addressed reaches the context (even in conflict), then engagement works regardless of whether one, ten, or a hundred people were involved in the planning. In short, participation is not involvement, but a design phase to learn about the context. And it is knowing the context that provokes participation. A few examples: if you want to make known an episode, a historical event, a decision, a character, an unknown thought, participation is almost useless, indeed harmful, because it would move on to issues already known. Vice versa, if there is already a community/group/association that acts in the context and you want to incentivize this action, then their participation is crucial both for the planning part and for the action on the territory. We can say that in order for the tool to work, it needs the involvement that comes through knowledge of the context.
And here I come to your question to which I reply with a question: Who causes all this? Who decides to intervene in the context with urban art? Who decides and structures the part of knowledge that concerns the context? How to support the activity of an association?
There is one experience that sums it all up: Painting in Zen. A few years ago I managed to get into Palermo’s Zen2, the neighborhood considered the most notorious and dangerous in Palermo. In fact, at that time (and maybe still today) the neighborhood was not controlled by the state, but by those who took care of the business of thefts and drug trafficking. Thanks to an association that ran a club after school and some activities with young people, I was able to get in first and then gradually paint the walls of the buildings. All this, of course, in dialogue with the residents. I wanted to test the power of paint and painting, to see how the tool could reach the most extreme point. And it was a success: in the course of a few paintings I found myself among the “pavilions” at the point where the worst things were happening, provoking a dialogue with everyone. The alliance with Nemo’s was also fundamental, not only in drawing but also in building relationships. A success that turned into a failure as soon as we left: the pictorial tool had worked perfectly in inserting itself, understanding and creating relationships in the social fabric but it had been just an exception, a small event outside the real life of the neighborhood. The association that had introduced us hadn’t had the strength to follow us and the relationships that had been created were with us, who left the next day, and not with them, who were there almost every day.
We had built a very efficient tool, but it didn’t work.
From what you are telling me, we can define engagement as quality rather than quantity in terms of a purpose that may or may not exist based on the type of message and content that is to be communicated in relation to an area’s needs.
If the need of an area is to be focused and condensed in terms of common demands, then there should be participation. If the need of an area is the desire to convey a particular message that is “new” or unknown to most, then participation doesn’t really make much sense.
The first solution could involve a pictorial or installation outcome, at the limit of the absurd, even unsightly, because it is important that it speaks primarily to the people of the territory who have lived that experience as a community. Evidently with the will to tell and divulge its deep meaning to others who were not part of it.
The second solution is perhaps a communicative approach, not necessarily more didactic or descriptive, but more direct, perhaps because it must appeal to more people, whether or not they belong to the community to which the message is addressed.
Well, the answer around which we twist and turn is probably one.Who decides to intervene in the context with urban art? The government. Who decides and structures the knowledge of the context? The government, based on institutions of obvious professionalism. How can the action of an association be supported? Through calls for applications to which that association can compete.
This hypothesis of responsibility of mine, on which you will give me your opinion, was triggered by your first answer, which was a bit vague at first. I think we should go to the end of the process and figure out how to structure a systemic and integrated approach in the artistic sense for public life.
How do we make sure that the absence of a State is not filled by the initiative of private individuals (artists or not)? How to ensure that artists do not have to play the role of social workers in a state of perpetual emergency? How can we ensure that state action, through the artistic instrument, has a consistency in terms of continuity and work on the territory?
The government is the one that two years ago in the greatest moment of cultural difficulty conceived and generated the Stay home campaign and the term social distancing. The government is the one that struggles to explain things and prefers to divide into good and bad. The State is the one that on an academic level suppressed Nori’s course and here in my city (Reggio Emilia) expelled the Russian institution at Fotografia Europea without formulating any reasoning. Now if the government makes the State, what shall we do?
As for the fact that it would have been a thousand times better to speak of physical distancing instead of social distancing, I absolutely agree with you if that’s what you mean. On the other hand, as far as the ‘I stay at home’ campaign is concerned, I don’t understand whether your criticism refers to a technical aspect or to a method, a decision. I would be pleased if you could better explain your thought…
In any case, I also think that the problem of polarization between good and evil, (which raises the famous problem of the bubble in social networks, where we tend to see content from people whose thoughts are close to ours) is harmful in every way, because it eliminates the intermediate considerations between the two extremes that can challenge the cornerstones, missing a useful opportunity to generate a constructive debate.
As far as the examples you mentioned are concerned, product of a climate of demonization and censorship of any Russian cultural contribution, I absolutely agree with you.
To answer your last question, I’d be inclined to quote Piero Calamandrei’s famous phrase that I’m sure will resonate with you. The government is us. And if that is true, as an active and wise citizen by virtue of all the experience in terms of cultural contribution you have gained, what could be a propositional manifesto of feasible ideas to imagine the future of art in public space in the coming years?
Stay home: there are two ways to achieve a goal, either by explaining things well and making people understand the reality and consequences, or by forcing choices on them and motivating them with numbers. From a cultural perspective, the choice can be summarized as follows: If there is a belief that people have the intelligence to understand things, they will be explained; conversely, if they are convinced that they are a mass of morons, things will be imposed. In my city, the parks were immediately closed, the only place where people could let off steam while running and walking, on the assumption that most people would not obey the rules. It is a shame that the day before there were 14 fines for assemblies in a population of 170,000.
Culture: were Pasolini, Guttuso, Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Sciascia, Montale, Maccari, Daumier, Hugo, Zola, De Sica, Visconti, Volontè, Rosi, Monicelli, and many other authors who made cultural history, classified as social artists who dealt with participatory art, territory? No, and many of them would not have responded well to that definition. It is in the nature of things that culture has to deal with reality, with social issues, not because it is virtuous, because it is engaged, but because it is simply its task and responsibility. We don’t need billboards, but we do need to take responsibility, firstly by understanding what is happening around us, and secondly by avoiding rhetoric and propaganda and not catering to absurd demands from developers and marketing agencies. Is that so difficult?