As now also highlighted on an institutional plan, cultural heritage, in particular in its forms of active enhancement – in other words, the cultural production – is an element of the highest strategic value for the development, material or otherwise, of the community, and therefore it is a right of citizenship, understood as a civitas, a category which consists of social relations, services, and institutions that give citizens, wherever they live, the value of a civilized life.
Increasingly these recovery processes and enhancement of historical monuments, conveyed just through the cultural production activities, are undertaken at an informal level, and self-organized – as in the case of the 26 social centers with cultural mission in the city area of Naples (Vittoria, Napolitano, 2017), or milanese case of Macao (d’Ovidio, Cossu, 2016) – through forms of horizontal subsidiarity, made to fill the gaps of a public intervention increasingly precarious, often only able to mimic the logic of pseudo-corporate governance, flattened on petty existing management policies, in particular in the weak stoically sectors in terms of costs, because they are considered, mistakenly, not strategic, such as the cultural and creative sectors.
All of this brings with him what is called welfare effects (Bonomi, 2012), a social dynamic that delegates to private enterprises the solution of complex social problems, which normally would require a take-over by the institutions: the single that becomes state, in many different areas: providing a new and more conscious education to taste, providing a cultural offer, recovering spaces for community use. Participatory planning forms, based on models of involvement of the local communities, are very important, and become particularly efficient precisely in periods of transition, as it happened in Greece in recent years.
A dramatic transition, which saw the community to which we owe the same category of Europe as a laboratory of disarmament of any ambition of public policies to safeguard the minimum rights of “civitas”, but at the same time, and as a reaction to this state of things, also laboratory of forms of resistance and resilience, which, as in the case of the Empty Pr(oe)mises project, it takes the role of a militancy action, in which contemporary art becomes method of investigation and a vehicle to create new communities, to bridge gaps in a mythopoietic and non-linear fashion, starting from pedagogical value that emptiness brings with him, to listen to, and start again from the white space of the museum, to transform it from an exhibition context to a political tool.
I discussed with the co-curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, Lanfranco Aceti, an important project realized in a museum remained empty (but not devoid of meaning) in the last years of austerity.
Lanfranco Aceti: The idea arose from a conversation with Katerina Koskina, Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST). We were discussing the issue of emptiness as one of the consequences of the financial and socio-political crisis. As the administrative complexities of cultural institutions have gone amiss among political elites, consequently the institutions themselves are then trapped within an existential conundrum: that of keeping their promises while reconciling both the physical and conceptual premises which necessarily render its realized structure functional and accessible. This happens in a social context in which aesthetics have to reflect and reconcile local and global conditions, while expanding on the conceptual premises for which the cultural institution itself and the physical structures are realized. From a conceptual point of view, the nuanced relationship between premises and promises becomes more and more daunting as it is embedded in the political panorama. Particular to the Mediterranean, this is a panorama which is seemingly incapable of understanding nor taking advantage of culture as a product of identity, which in turn shapes future cultural formations.
This is the reason why I thought that the visibility of the various artists’ projects and ideas—in response to the emptiness of the EMST—needed to be promoted as social action. As a part of a post-crisis process of identity formation, the work will represent all voices, not solely those hierarchically endorsed by the state’s politics but rather a conglomerate of voices that would be historicized to then become part of the canon. While in the Mediterranean there is no interest in supporting the processes of identity formation and cultural construction, this is not manifested via a healthy laissez faire. Au contraire, because of the historical value of culture, politicians are extremely aware of the necessity of controlling and censoring any production of contemporary art that does not fit within the nation state’s political body. Emptiness in this case is not solely the emptiness of the space, as a consequence of the Great Recession, but a long standing issue characterized by the emptiness of socio-political promises.
Emptiness in this context could have been constructed solely as a negative experience, but the decision was to look at emptiness as an opportunity to document conceptualized potential while looking for possibilities and financial contexts to make it happen.
Pasquale Napolitano: How was the feedback from the international community? Was it what you expected?
Lanfranco Aceti: The feedback, both from the international and national artists’ communities, was overwhelming. It was way beyond what we could have expected. We received more than 400 proposals and numerous requests to extend the submission period, which we agreed upon by extending the deadline to August 31, 2017. This will allow us to work more closely with the artists and process their applications with more attention to details regarding their ideas and projects.
For me personally, as a curator, this operation—if I were to think like some of my colleagues—should be considered as a total waste of time. My engagement and support is motivated by the possibility for artists to develop proposals that will showcase, first and foremost, their ideas in process and the potential of those ideas. Yes, these ideas and proposals could be realized at some point soon in the museum, but they could just as easily be plucked by other curators, art fairs, and biennials to be realized and utilized in different contexts. I am hoping that the proposal will showcase original ideas and a variety of aesthetic approaches. I am interested in seeing a variety of media approaches which, even without having necessarily a focus on socio-political issues, at least touch upon the complexity of contemporary existential meaning.
I believe the duty of a curator is that of taking care of artists, their works, and histories. It is this process of taking care that interests me. I am perhaps slightly ‘intense,’ as my British friends love to point out, but for every artist I choose to work with there is a passionate support of the idea and of the work on my part. For me, no matter how long it takes, a project and an artist that I have taken on must be realized regardless of external conditions. It is a bit like going to war with reality and wrestling with it in order to grab an opportunity for a realization of something seminal in the long history of art.
Pasquale Napolitano: How are artists responding? What kind of proposals have you received? What kind of artists have responded to the call?
Lanfranco Aceti: We have received applications from an immense variety of people: from young emerging artists to people who have had long careers and were interested in the craziness of the proposal itself. There are international artists and local artists. People with a very formal background and others who have very conceptual approaches. Artists with established and distinguished international careers who have exhibited at the Venice Biennial and others who are totally localized. In many ways I cannot say that this is a proposal addressed to a singular typology of well-defined artists. If I had to pick the typology that has responded thus far, I would say that they are of the more adventurous type. No matter whether young or old, Greek or not, this specific quality is what characterizes the people who have engaged with the project—they are all willing to try something new.
I know that some of the artists were concerned that the call for proposals required quite a bit of work. However, we are publishing a catalogue of the proposals with MIT Press and, to be honest, that is something that has a certain value and requires a certain commitment. The proposals that will be published will also be archived permanently in ARTECA, the MIT Press art repository which will be available for generations to come. This will allow for a snapshot of what was art in Greece in this particular period—giving voice directly to the artists and their work. There is not enough of that around, in Greece or elsewhere around the world.
Pasquale Napolitano: I think this type of operation describes more generally the issue of investing in culture, particularly in countries in economic crisis, which—having external impositions of spending cuts and priorities leading to the depletion of the experiences of citizenship—are obliged to lower investments in art and culture just when there is greater need. Therefore, I wonder how it has changed the artistic and cultural life in Athens since the crisis began. Has it undergone a contraction? And what are the forms of resistance that are activated similar to your operation?
Lanfranco Aceti: I have been reflecting for almost ten years now on what has been happening in Europe and in Greece. My personal take is that Germany has colonized Europe without integrating it or integrating itself in it. They have adopted the approach of ‘Deutschland über alles’ in financial terms—consequently also in political terms—without realizing that the existence of the EU and of Germany within the EU depended directly on the possibility of working together. In many ways Germany adopted the same framework of Britain: ‘with the EU but not of the EU,’ attempting to realize a German transformational agenda for German interests by crushing an entire population. Italy is failing the financial standards set by the EU, and is next on the list for a German repeat of the ‘Greek cure.’ If it hasn’t happened until now, it is merely because of the strong nationalist and populist winds that see the EU as an undemocratic and oppressive regime and are trying to dismantle what is perceived as EU/German oppression.
It is in this incredibly fluid and radicalized socio-political context that art takes place in Europe. I find it fascinating looking at the art world now; it is so incredibly schizophrenic that I am totally enthralled by both the US and Europe’s political turmoils. The contrast between corporate and state art on the one side, and the multiplicity of socio-political art forms of resistance and opposition on the other, is incredibly stark.
Athens, I believe, remains the place of a crime scene. It is as if a rape has taken place and, for some strange reason, there is no one willing to help. Au contraire, institutions continue to come in and repeat the deed on what is now a barely responding traumatized body. dOCUMENTA this year is just another of these actors—imposing a colonialist and aesthetic cultural perception of their rape with the demand of being thanked for their action while pimping about the social pain and political oppression of the Greeks.
What I find incredible is the strength of the Greek art scene and how they have continued to work and operate defying expectations. The less institutional organizations and groups continue to operate through survival techniques—collaborating is the most important of these. The big change is that there is not much left to lose and in such an environment art production is an endeavor for art’s sake. The Platforms Project by Artemis Potamianou is one of such acts of defiance and throughout the financial crisis it has acted as an international meeting point and venue in Athens focused on the promotion of emerging artistic practices from Greece and the rest of the world.
My position is that of trying to experiment and find other ways in which things can be done and perceived. It doesn’t happen every day in the arts that someone wakes up and says: “let’s make a catalog of proposals, no matter if they will be realized or not. Then we will do an online solo show for each one of the proposals that have been selected, while looking for ways—financial and organizational—to make the physical show happen.” I understand that, as processes go, this is a bit more complicated but I wanted to make sure that a) artists were getting exposure in times when there are little opportunities, b) that ideas and projects would continue to circulate, and c) I wanted to explore the value of the negotiation between promises and actualization. I see all of this as an exciting opportunity to record the history of the uncouth people, to use Adornian terminology, who are placed at the margins of history and exiled beyond its outmost unreachable borders.
Or—to put in understandable economic terms—if one is no longer a shareholder in a society (a post-democracy), then that one (a post-citizen) has all the freedom in the world. Those who choose to enjoy (or endure) this freedom do so because they remain outside the social contract, and thus are without obligation towards the local, national, or supranational institutions. This is what, I believe, is the most liberating experience and at the same time the most exhilarating opportunity.
However, it does come at a cost: that of being burned at the stake in the public square as a heretic.
Interview edited by Candice Bancheri