Since few weeks now, the so-called Phase 2 has begun here in Italy and in many countries around the world, a partial reopening of public places, sites of living and work, marked by new rules and regulations. Colored circles, lines and arrows show us how to move, the path to follow, where and how to stay, redesigning our mobility and our daily interactions.
With the idea of starting a reflection on the use of public space – which is now increasingly regulated, limited and reduced – since 2014 Paolo Patelli and Giuditta Vendrame, through the project Friction Atlas collect, classify and make visible all the laws, rules and devices that regulate the way people move, meet, and gather in public space.
In the contemporary metropolis, an evolution of the bourgeois city born with the emergence of commercial capitalism, the management and monitoring of individuals is as widespread as it is invisible and unintelligible. The strength of digital algorithms and control devices can rely on much less obvious but equally effective tools. As highlighted by the two artists “Through the simple act of walking in the city, we log into a system of rules and constraints, codes that regulate the circulation of citizens within urban space”, a series of rules so pervasive and internalized that they are spontaneously performed by billions of people every day. However, the new needs dictated by the current health emergency have required a more manifest and tangible presence of power and the law. Standards and norms must be made visible, legible and operable by everyone. A only apparent revolution of paradigm that yet offers us an important opportunity to reflect and become aware of our daily actions and the ability they have to produce and manipulate public space.
The choreography and diagrams that make up Friction Atlas thus become an invitation to question and play with these new devices – within the limits of collective care – to ensure they won’t become agents of fragmentation and exclusion.
Fabiola Fiocco: I’d start from the genesis of Friction Atlas. How did the work initiated and what is the friction to which the title refers?
Giuditta Vendrame: Friction Atlas is a work we developed in 2014 for BIO50, the Ljubljana Design Biennial. It was a rather special Biennale because the curators usually commission designers or artists to carry out works, while in the case of BIO50 the curators Jan Boelen and Maja Vardjan had made an open call with different themes. We responded to the theme walking the city – coordinated by Judith Seng and Marko Peterlin – having already started a reflection on the act of walking in the city, and we slowly approached this idea of Friction Atlas and the possibility of analyzing the rules and the laws that regulate how people gather and meet in the public space.
Paolo Patelli: The idea of Atlas is easily explained by the intention of mapping, classifying, abstracting and presenting what we wanted to observe. Friction is an ambiguous term that we liked also because of this ambiguity, because it does not specifically refer to a particular aspect of the city experience but it is allusive, so it lends itself to describing conflicts, frictions and contrasts that arise from the coexistence – often conflictual – of rules, interests, desires and behaviors within the city. It also refers to the proximity, the friction between the bodies and the pleasure that the rubbing it may produce. The rubbing between bodies but also with the spaces of the city.
Giuditta Vendrame: Also, it refers to that fine line between the legal and the illegal. Sometimes you are in a situation of legality, other times you are in a situation of ambivalence – even without knowing it – for which the gathering at a certain time or space may be illegal.
Paolo Patelli: In relation to what Giuditta just said, when we read, for example, that a group cannot meet in a given space, place or time, the definition of what a group is is difficult to give. Even if there is a number – i.e. five people – when is it that these five people are actually together? When they stare at each other? When they speak? When they walk in the same direction? Or when they collide? A friction is thus generated between what is allowed and what is not allowed and it is there that the performance becomes interesting. Some exercises also materially generate friction, such as kettling, which is a legal form of police encirclement of a group of people. The surrounded people are close to each other, some may even try to get out of the encirclement, producing an effective friction between the bodies and a role play that can change over time.
Giuditta Vendrame: We have tried to sample the various interests that exist in the public space, which can be playful activities, political activities, recreational and entertainment activities. We also personally experienced it the first time we set up this project at the Ljubljana Biennial. We had chosen a square, Novi Trg, and asked for a permit, which was given to us, to be able to set up and install our work in that specific place. The morning we had to install, we find another commercial installation in the same space. Two city offices had given two permits without communicating to each other. We decided then to install the work in front of the Moderna galerija, without a permit, but when we were setting everything up, a theater company arrived to rehearse in the same context, with a permit. Therefore, we had to negotiate time and space with them. Very meta. It is interesting how public space is always a space of negotiation, of different interests, activities and people.
Paolo Patelli: We repeated the experiment in different contexts and ways. In Ljubljana we presented it as an installation in the public space, diagrams drawn on the surface of the square that were activated during the opening. The installation then remained there for months and was appropriated by children and passersby. In other places we activated the project in a completely different way. In Melbourne, we produced improvised installations, without permission. Every day we went to the venue together with two choreographers, with whom we collaborated and who were at the time based in Melbourne, at the Victorian College Of The Arts, and the participants that they had helped us involve, who were therefore aware of the project, and through these impromptu installations we tried to intercept the flows of people who crossed the perhaps only public space in Melbourne, in front of the National Library. We did it for three times, in three days, and every day we had to uninstall the work within half an hour and then continue without the diagrams. In Athens, on the other hand, we organized a workshop hosted by Maria Papadimitriou, in which we discussed the topic together with jurists, activists and artists.
Giuditta Vendrame: For each context we have tried to find a law, a norm, a local regulation and then to activate this project in a different way. The last time we did it was in New Zealand for a performance festival, and we were not physically present so we sent this collection of rules and diagrams, that were then set up and interpreted in a very free way, sometimes together with activists belonging to indigenous communities. Public space in various geographical contexts is perceived in a different way and this also refers to the idea of he atlas. The fact of sampling laws, rules that come from very different geographies.
Paolo Patelli: An interesting anecdote that occurred in New Zealand is that we considered a specific law referring to land ownership laws. We installed fifteen diagrams along a path on the waterfront and for each of these installations – one diagram each – the organizers invited a respondent, a person offering a comment, an answer in relation to the law. What emerged from Wellington was how an Aboriginal Maori activist interpreted the land ownership law from the perspective of the heir of the populations that lived there before British colonization. An even more radical criticism that the respondent brought to our project, which starts from current laws.
Fabiola Fiocco: The project is based on a series of laws, rules and regulations from all over the world that regulate the movement and the interactions of individuals in the urban space. What are the main criteria that guide the selection process of case studies and how does it develop?
Giuditta Vendrame: We have always been interested in this idea of Atlas and we started from three different standpoints. On the one hand, our personal experience. One in particular occurred when we were participating to a residence programme in Cairo and we were already working on this project. We found ourselves outside a bar with other people who pointed out that in that specific moment we were being illegal as we were talking about something public in the public space, referring to an anti-protest law that came into force after the Arab Spring according to which if you are in a group of more than nine people and want to talk about something public in the public space you must ask for a permit. The, we also refer to our international network of people working on the topic of public space, to whom we asked for anecdotes or personal experiences that could concern these laws. Always in a very anecdotal way, I would say. To this, we added desk research, studying articles, texts, and essays that deal with the topic of public space and conflicts, of the frictions that can arise from the use of it in a wider way.
Paolo Patelli: The selection also derived from the contexts in which we operated. For example, during the workshop in Athens we collected laws from the Greek context, which actually have a more general validity. The most interesting is perhaps a law that had been abolished in the year in which we held the workshop, related to the theme of academic asylum, according to which the university institution must offer asylum to anyone and that the police cannot have access to spaces of the academy. This law was introduced after the Regime of the Colonels following the massacre of students who had fled to the campus of the Athens Polytechnic to seek refuge. Introduced after the dictatorship, this law was suspended in 2015, during protests against austerity measures and we thus wanted to reproduce the perimeter of the Athens Polytechnic in scale inside and outside the space of Maria Papadimitriou. This is also the only case in which the law was no longer valid at the moment we were depicting it, thus producing the representation of a transition.
Giuditta Vendrame: Another criterion with which we have searched and selected these rules and regulations relates to quantitative aspects, numbers, such as those of people allowed within a space, the distance between bodies or from a building.
Paolo Patelli: This is important. In these rules, which are often expressed in an inaccessible, sometimes ambiguous language, we have always looked for numerical or geometric aspects, trying to isolate and extract quantities and dimensions that are more suitable to be visualized and interpreted as choreographies. From these quantities and geometries a field or a scenography can be drawn. Hence the interest in two visual and practical references: the playing field – a field numerically characterized within which we move according to specific rules – and stagecraft, as references on a stage that is marked with the same tape that we use.
Fabiola Fiocco: In Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han identifies play as the privileged tool of emotional capitalism. Through the game it is in fact possible to leverage the emotionality of the individual to make him more motivated and responsive to stimuli and rules. What are your reasons for choosing the game as the tool for space analysis and deconstruction?
Giuditta Vendrame: We chose the playing field precisely to underline a certain ambiguity. We wanted to open a political space through a a much lighter language. A passerby could go through these diagrams in a completely playful way, without necessarily having to interact with their content, but at the same time when he understood them, discussions and conversations arose that opened an important political space. Another element is the overlapping of different diagrams to highlight the various functions, activities and interests that overlap in a same place.
Paolo Patelli: So the game model only partially works because we are interested in playing but we are not interested in score and objectives. The reference contained in the book refers to a way of understanding the game that is instrumental to consumption and production. In our case there are no points, the game does not end, perhaps it does not even begin, because everything is ambiguous, we are already in the square, in the street. The rules were valid before, are valid during the game, and will continue to be after. There is no beginning and end, not even spatial, because the rules of the game are valid above all outside the installation. So it is not a closed world but a game of analogies, roles, allusions. There is a quote from Brecht that I don’t remember by heart that says that even in the theater, you are in the world and therefore the sense of play, as we understand it when we use this term to think of Friction Atlas, is this: even when you play you are within this system of rules and if this is true in theater it is even more true when you are on the street, in the square, which is why it has always made sense for us to set up this project in the public space rather than inside a gallery. The ambiguity of the road breaks the rules of an otherwise closed world. As for the annotation, we liked the reference to street games. Recognize these rules and then interpret them in a playful way, but not only. For example, in Ljubljana we stopped on the roof of the museum, looking at the square, trying to understand how the installation was used, and the children were always interested, they began to jump, turn, follow lines and arrows without having idea of the content to which those signs referred. It is not necessary for everything to be simultaneously expressed and understood by everyone. We like this playful level of interaction – open, without rules. And then the rules can be told separately, in a booklet, in a poster.
Fabiola Fiocco: In the essay Friction Atlas. Redefining public space as the visible surface of a playing field you define the participation a conscious submission, similar to the one each of us carries out in daily life with respect to common norms. How does the role of the participants change within the process? And yours?
Giuditta Vendrame: Maybe we have already partially answered. Depending on the context in which the project was iterated, the way it was exposed changed. Sometimes, such as in Melbourne or The Hague, we have worked with choreographers to make bodies in space interact in a symbolic and meaningful way. In those cases, people were aware of what we were doing, what choreography we were trying to reproduce. But there was also an agency, a possibility to act or react on the part of the participant, which could deviate from our intentions. We have always been very open to include other interpretations, even when there were rather precise instructions. Other times we intercepted bodies in their unconsciousness, in a discreet way, perhaps creating frictions given by an excessive proximity to the bodies. It can be a way to make the choreographies and the control mechanisms that take place in our daily lives more readable. Mobility control is always at the core, in this case it is made explicit as regards the urban scale, but it always takes place on different scales.
Paolo Patelli: There is no protocol, no fixed scheme. In Athens, it was mainly a discursive workshop in which the participants explained us how parks, in that period, were continually reprogrammed in their uses, from day to night, following or independently of the laws; how certain laws, or the lack of them in that period, allowed to use and occupy unused spaces. In Ljubljana and The Hague, the discussion took place after the playful moment. In Wellington instead during, along a route. So there is not a standard pattern.
Fabiola Fiocco: Rules are made visible through the creation of 1: 1 diagrams in the public space. How do these signs overlap, interact and interfere with existing signage and control devices?
Paolo Patelli: We have visualized rules that were already present. One of the reasons we were interested in doing so is to make these devices operable. These laws, as we said, are often written in an incomprehensible, unclear language so it is difficult to have a precise idea, an operable image of these devices used to control flows and uses in public spaces. The idea is to draw a user manual, a representation that then allows you to act on these regulations. The moment you see the ten meters you can pull them and make them fifteen or five. The moment you have an operational image of a device, you can act on the device itself. We were also inspired by the horizontal signage systems of cities, airports, warehouses as well as the theater and playgrounds. The reason we are starting thinking about the project again today is because in recent months the diaphragmatic circulation and notation of these flows, has become more explicit, present. Lines, dashes, arrows transform the city into a gigantic map, which displays its choreography, rhythms, geometries, flows.
Fabiola Fiocco: I understand that ambiguity and trust are both important components of Friction Atlas. How do you think such a work could be re-contextualized today, in this historical moment in which everything is more visible?
Giuditta Vendrame: I have two personal interests at the moment, which I also discussed with Paolo when these measures started. The thing that interests me is to understand how many traces of these rules, which should be temporary, linked to the emergency, will remain. Very often events occurred and their traces remain for a much longer period. So, on the one hand what intercepts my interest is the legacy of this period, on the other also understanding how many of the rules that we have already sampled will change, or are already changing.
Paolo Patelli: Many of the current measures become worrying in a permanent perspective. If now benches are not safe from a health point of view and are all thus replaced with single-seater chairs, there is a risk of public space becoming a hostile environment for non-regulated forms of collective use. The regulatory aspect that is implicit in public space is precisely what we initially wanted to make explicit. There is an idea that public space is everyone’s space, where you can do whatever you want, but this is a myth because the public space is owned by someone, always, whether it is the municipality, the museum, the foundation. There is always someone who has to manage it, someone who has to regulate its uses and behaviors. So this illusion was one of the things we wanted to work on from the beginning. The health crisis, through this notation of flows and rhythms, makes it clear how the control of behaviors, movements and uses has always been implicit. It was there before you had to draw a line with the scotch tape, and it will be there even after. What worries us is that as a result of this emergency, precautionary measures will become permanent or that traces will remain in any case. This idea of public space where everything is allowed has already been replaced.