Round table discussion

Realities, references, changes of perspective

A conversation between Nora Schultz, Rebecca Ann Tess (both Villa Romana Fellows 2011), Mirene Arsanios, (guest curator), Setareh Shahbazi (guest artist from Beirut), Giacomo Bazzani (curator in Florenz) and Angelika Stepken (director of Villa Romana).

For North Europeans, the image of Italy is still manipulated by projections: It is the land, where lemons grow, it was the first address for German mass tourism in the years of the economic miracle. How does one converge to the realities of an Italian city like Florence if one resides there for several months? How does one experience the present if the city lives on the past? Is the Italy of the Germans the same as for Lebanese, Egyptians or Palestinians? And how is an institution like Villa Romana perceived by artists, curators and the Florentine public? The following conversation, recorded in the garden of Villa Romana in April 2011, goes into these questions from different perspectives.

(Bazzani) Let us begin with your impressions as artists in residence in Florence...

(Tess) I never thought I would want to live in Italy. It is a country I do not know a lot about, even though it is so close to Germany. I have been on holiday to Venice and Naples, and I am interested in Italian politics, which is very special in a European context. I have now been living here for a good three months and I am happy that I have so much time. I do not go into town every day, I am in the studio a lot. But you talk and get the information that you need. I do not know much about the art scene here yet, the first thing is to get an idea of the culture.

(Schultz) The residency gives us a chance for long-term thinking, which I really value. It is peaceful, you are in the city, but on the outskirts, you can concentrate well. What is special is that you are - and the way that you are - confronted with history, with different places in time. That is what I am concerned with.

(Arsanios) Setareh and I have only been here for six weeks. For us it was a contrast to the urban chaos in Beirut, where you can never find any real peace. The space of the Villa was important to me. I have gone into town too, of course. But Florence is not a city that you can simply become a part of or quickly find a connection to.

(Shahbazi) If you come from Beirut, from a region that deals with really big issues every day, then you find yourself suddenly released here, unplugged from many everyday things. It allows you to be yourself again. In Beirut it is sometimes difficult to think about a picture or a drawing, because all these very important things, politics, catastrophes etc. are happening everywhere around you. Sometimes it is like an illusion here: you take a trip somewhere, everything looks so beautiful, the people are happy, everything looks so healthy. It is a completely different set-up for reflecting on art: where it comes from, why you are involved in it. You suddenly think, it is just about you and the space around you. On the other hand, you have the entire history of art here. I really value that...

(Stepken) Giacomo, you live in Florence and studied here. Do you also find it difficult to react to Florence and its surface of somewhere between Disneyland and a museum?

(Bazzani) Of course I do not like the Disney Park aspect of Florence, but it is my city. To some extent, the Florentines still believe they are living in the Renaissance. It creates money and jobs. It is a type of theatrical representation of life. The periphery of Florence is different, there is everyday life there, obstacles, action. For someone working with contemporary art, Florence is not easy. The city is interested in Leonardo exhibitions, because millions of tourists will come for them. It is harder to find an audience for contemporary art.

(Stepken) But there are exhibition spaces for contemporary art in Florence: EX3, BASE, Strozzina, the museum in Prato. There are artists from different generations and young curators. It is not a desert here. Even if it is difficult for foreigners to get an overview or any information about it at all. Florence presents almost undetectable surfaces beyond the standard tourist routes. Much that happens here has a staccato character, there is not much notice given and things are not pursued for very long.

(Arsanios) How do these initiatives survive, then? Do they rely on their communities, which support private networks?

(Bazzani) Between Florence, Prato and Pistoia - an area accessible within 15 minutes by car - there are one million people. If you put on a good programme, it is not hard to find an audience. Everyone in Florence is interested in art, even if it is not necessarily contemporary.

(Shahbazi) What do students do here? It is often the case that you begin with very little money, organise yourself and put energy into getting away from the old stuff. I do not know anything about the academy here. Are there initiatives like this?

(Bazzani) Yes, there are lots of initiatives. The problem is that no artists teach at the academy. It is people who do not have a clue about contemporary art and concern themselves with traditional art and the history of the city.

(Schultz) I find it interesting to observe the general conflict that you find not only here: what does it mean to place something in a particular context and call it art? How do people receive it? This discrepancy between everyday life and artistic production always exists. The question is how to deal with this conflict positively.

(Shahbazi) If you come here from Berlin or Beirut, you first lose your frame of reference, your work is suddenly just your work without a particular network, without particular codes and references. You suddenly just see lines, materials...

(Schultz) Then it is a matter of something you do not want.

(Stepken) Just a couple of days ago you told us about how much on the other hand professional conditions have an influence on your production...

(Schultz) Sometimes I think that my work - particularly in an Italian context - is seen as something very formal: as if it were frozen and were to fall into the past; as if I were making a leap between present, past and future and the past were becoming increasingly greater. But I do not understand my work this way. It is a question of where production stops. When I set something, it does not necessarily mean that it will not change.

(Arsanios) Perhaps it is more to do with the reading of your work being frozen?

(Schultz) An artwork is frozen in the past like a rusty surface ... Perhaps it is a need; people look for arte povera in the present. And then, of course, you see everything in reference to the past.

(Arsanios) That is to say, the discourses are rusty and the works are accordingly seen in the same way.

(Schultz) I do not want to complain about the country or the people. Sometimes I feel very well understood, too.

(Arsanios) I have lived in Italy for the last six years and I am not an artist myself, that is to say, I have not been confronted like that. I first encountered contemporary art when I worked at MAKRO in Rome. What I remember from that time is mainly the hierarchy in the institutions, a type of almost archaic power structure in which positions are maintained.

(Stepken) I can what understand what Nora says about the reception of her art at a certain type of exhibition: institutional exhibitions that are set up in just such a way that individual pieces cannot develop an impression; so that they constantly remain obscured by a certain exhibition design or curatorial strategy. The art is kept so small; it cannot find real presence.

(Bazzani) Many contemporary artists in Florence are still seen through the eyes of arte povera - its methods and formal structures; it was of course the most significant position in the recent history of Italian art. It is similar with the city: the past becomes a prison. You look at everything as if it were still part of the Renaissance. But it is because of this that I also want to say how surprising and important and interesting the Villa Romana is today: Here you can meet interesting people from other places and all the artists that live here have stopped by at least once in the last few years. The Villa Romana creates networks that did not exist in Florence before.

(Stepken) For us it is a matter of working with the given situation and making it productive. But questions regarding reception are part of understanding why we act.

(Schultz) This is a universal question. Italy is no more unreal than Germany, the USA or England.

(Bazzani) I have never really asked myself how the Villa Romana is able to work here, because I thought that it does it well. Simply the fact that it gives the city the opportunity to experience what is happening outside is important and helpful. Other institutions are perhaps larger and have more money, but are not as broad-minded.

(Shahbazi) Do you think that the Florentine public finds the Villa not easily accessible, that it is too foreign and remote?

(Bazzani) No, the public comes. That is not the problem. The Villa Romana is in a fundamentally strong position: it does not have to show big name artists to get big audiences. It can work with experimental projects and that is what we need here.

(Stepken) When I came here four years ago, my main intention was not to let myself be struck dead by the city as a museum, but to see it as a contemporary city with a population of almost 400,000, with thousands of immigrants, millions of tourists, traffic problems etc. On the other hand, there is this inside information: Florence is supposedly ruled by five families that have positions in the banks, property, the Masonic Lodge etc. That really is different to Berlin or New York.

(Bazzani) All Italian cities have this type of family structure, of blood bonds, which are more important that social and democratic structures. But as a German institution the Villa Romana does not have to penetrate this logic, it is much more a bridge to the outside.

(Arsanios) What I cannot understand is why an Italian institution cannot position itself like this. It is very easy to transfer tasks to foreign structures. As if otherwise everyone would be the victims of local conditions and not consciously uphold them. The people could also decide not to support them.

(Bazzani) We could, of course, now talk about Italy and politics. I really only wanted to describe how the Villa Romana works here.

(Stepken) Perhaps we should come back to artistic work and the conditions for its production. Mirene is preparing a series of symposia for 2011/2012 at the Villa, to which artistic initiatives from Berlin, Beirut and Italy will be invited. Mirene, how is Italian reality seen from Beirut?

(Arsanios) I can talk about the perspective of local cultural production in Beirut. For us, Italy is part of Europe as regards borders, visas and travel opportunities. If you work in the cultural field in Beirut, there is no money. You constantly have to apply to foreign institutes for funding. That is our relationship to Europe. And you really do not want to ask these cultural institutes for support, because they are of course following their own political agendas. In these cases, it is always a case of intermediation. Our 98weeks programme is not dependent on these intermediaries, but many Lebanese cultural projects are. That aside, I grew up in Italy and left in 2006, because I was not satisfied working here. I lived in Rome and Rome is very Italian in the sense that it constantly repeats itself. I found that stifling.

(Stepken) You said a while ago that Italy has a dominant culture in a way that does not exist in Beirut or Berlin. What do you mean by that?

(Arsanios) Dominant means that no other reference is conceivable. It is a culture that always concerns itself with itself.

(Shahbazi) But it only works when times are good. If there is stress, for example what is happening now with refugees in Southern Italy, the borders are shut. That is a very short-term programme, not just of dominance, but towards weaker and more screwed-up neighbouring countries.

(Stepken) Giacomo, you have not said anything about your projects, for example about the largest Chinese community in Europe in Prato, near Florence.

(Bazzani) Yes, I thought it would be rude to talk about myself too much ... 5 or 6 years ago, I carried out a two-year project, a Prato Guide. Prato is the most important industrial location in Tuscany, 10% of the population are Chinese. The Mayor of Prato, who was elected with Berlusconi's support, would ideally like to send them all back home. The idea of the book was to create a network against the wall of exclusion. Then, two years ago, we realised a project in Florence: Tools for Revolution or Just for Sale, in which 43 artists - many from Florence - investigated how the idea of the free market and that of revolution interrelate. There were artists that had worked in Isolotto, a district that has now been gentrified, but in the 60s and 70s was the scene of labour disputes, and Le Piaggie, a neglected area of Florence, in which where communication in public spaces takes place was quantified. Now, in spring, I have invited six European curators and museum directors to lecture at the museum in Monsummano on how and for whom a museum can work today. This small municipal museum is looking for a new profile, to position itself between the local population and national art.

(Stepken) Nora and Rebecca, you will spend a total of 10 months in Florence. During the new positioning of the Villa Romana, we considered whether such a duration still makes sense.

(Schultz) I believe it does. If the stay were to be shorter, it would become a project. Then you would see the city and all the issues rather superficially. You can do this again and again.

(Tess) Florence is different to New York or London, where you already know what awaits you and what you can do. Here, you arrive and think: I will just see what it is like. You have time to travel in Italy and get a wider view of the culture, and not just repeat stereotypes. That really interests me.

(Bazzani) Do you think that these experiences are useful for your work?

(Tess) I think that any kind of experience is good for my work. I work slowly; I collect ideas and only create something from them perhaps a year later.