Spore #2 - The body of places Bianco-Valente: public art, territories and projects
When this column began to take shape, it was clear from the start that the terrain would be complex, impervious at times, because talking about territory can involve several different ways, and all of them more or less valid. It is a complex concept, which can involve an anthropological analysis, a social and relational one, but also an economic and political one. Obviously it is not possible here to analyze every aspect of the concept, so the objective is simply to propose food for thought, points of question and open dialogues in relation to the very idea of territory and the various approaches that will gradually be examined. In light of this, it was quite natural to think of dedicating a part of this discourse to Bianco-Valente (Giovanna Bianco, Latronico, 1962 and Pino Valente, Naples, 1967).
Their involvement with the territory, in fact, is varied and diverse, partly because of their strong attitude towards public art, and partly because of the design methods they adopt.
Now, this article doesn't want to have any pretension of exhaustiveness, because to talk about Bianco-Valente and their practice would not be enough 10 tomes, but what we would like to analyze here is just their idea of territory, their link with it, and how their research manages to incorporate a concept that can be so wide and complex, but at the same time so simple and pure.
PIn order to do this, I had a long chat with them, over a chocolate cake and a coffee, and what came out was a disquisition on the very concept of territory, of public art, of negotiation and involvement, of contingencies and synergies. Everything that ultimately animates a territory and territories in their broadest sense.
The first question to Bianco-Valente was what a territory was for them. And the answer was what I expected, what I hoped for. They told me that a territory is a "living body", made up of people who live and act, in that given space and for that given time.
Their project approach is structured in such a way that the people who inhabit that territory feel like protagonists, an integral part of a project, where collaboration is active and reciprocal, in fact, artists and inhabitants develop the project together.
But territories, places have an energy of their own and Giovanna and Pino have felt and experienced this. Every place, in fact, holds a story, which is made up of the stories of all the people who live there and who, in turn, bring with them the places and the people they have met.
Therefore, if it is true that every place is characterized by its own energy, its own body, the people who live in that place feel and practice it.
In order to explain this concept, Pino gave me an example about the Neapolitan territory, on which we live, and the things he told me I can feel them, but his words exactly matched feelings that are rooted but never deeply analyzed. He told me that Naples lies between two very powerful explosive volcanic calderas and that we all live in a little slice of land that lies in between. This means that we receive an enormous, crazy, constant energy from the subsoil, which permeates our lives, consequently everything we do, even the smallest thing, we do at a very high energy level, we are never calm and peaceful, and those who live here know that this is exactly the truth.
In every place people interpret that energy that, even if only empirically, they perceive. And this is probably exactly what should be understood when we talk about genius loci, about the energy of places, and how much people and their lives are then influenced by all this. For Bianco-Valente, it's critical to understand how people interact with those energies. Basically, as they suggest, territory is like a substrate on which you plant a vine, which can give you an absolutely different wine according to the composition of the soil. And the people who grow on a given territory, willingly or unwillingly, take on those energetic characteristics.
After having, therefore, broadly defined the concept, it was fundamental to know how much the territory and the link with it influence their life, both personal and artistic. Both of them tell me that they are children of emigrants, in completely different ways, but what their speeches have in common seems to lie in the fact that the call, the reference to the territory, left or experienced, has almost a physical presence, as if it were a living actor who plays his part just like all the other characters in these stories. From a professional and planning point of view, on the other hand, regarding the relationship with the idea of territory, the first words they said to me were respect and listening. And it's not hard to imagine the ways in which they apply these concepts.
Respect is tangible in every word they choose to pronounce when talking to me about the people and the territories they gradually involve in their projects. Listening, and observing how people live and trying to understand the historical stratification of the place, is absolutely a fundamental part of the creative process, as is the study of the social dynamics existing in that territory that are intertwined with the various intrinsic and not always obvious attitudes.
After all, we know, and Bianco-Valente have had direct experience of this, that if you stay in a place for a while, even if you don't live there, in the living sense of the term, but you live it, you practice it, you listen to the place, the people and the stories, you can perceive and understand certain dynamics. And often the urban planning and architecture, the sharing spaces, in particular, can tell you a lot about this. For Bianco-Valente, people and territory influence each other, but for them it is important to make a distinction between territory and urbanism, architecture and people.
Architecture and sociality walk together, but the people who live there absorb and interpret the energy of that place, which acts on a deeper level. And it has to do with sociality, but it is not so obvious. Urban planning and architecture, however, also influence social dynamics. They tell me to pay attention, for example, to the many towns that have been moved after catastrophic events, mostly earthquakes, or after social and economic changes, which have led to a spatial and temporal dichotomy that often translates, especially in inland areas, into "old town" and "new town", often not very distant from each other but profoundly different, especially from an urbanistic point of view. Speaking of this, Giovanna emphasizes how often, with these displacements, sociality jumps and with it the relationships of proximity. The new choices that have a functional and utilitarian sense end up modifying the way of living and being together. Moreover, the very fact of having moved means that people still experience the relationship with a missing piece, but still present in memory and perceptions.
Talking about architecture, spaces of sharing and sociality, it is easy to go with the mind to the different public art interventions of Bianco-Valente, which do not turn out to be just a tool or an exception linked to the single project, but a real choice and necessity. In this regard, it was interesting to understand why and how this shift towards the outside had occurred, how and when they left the closed environments traditionally devoted to art.
So I asked them if all this had been a conscious choice and also linked to this need to interpret the territory or if instead it had been almost accidental and in some way dictated by the times and circumstances... and in addition I asked myself why?
They told me that when you deal with public art you are constantly putting yourself in play, you feel the difficulties of interacting with other people, you have to constantly negotiate and develop a sort of involvement, participation, and it is much more like life. Especially in this city. Naples educates us and forces us to interact with other people, especially because, I'm reminded, there's little public space and it's fragmented, so when you need it, you have to establish a dialogue with people and figure out if there's a way you can use it. And that goes for everything from parking to the market, from bar tables to crosswalks. Most of all, Pino stresses, it's important that the community recognizes that you can use that place, and to do that you have to bargain, all the time. I think this is the gym that trained them to do what they do today! Because art in public space, in the sense of Bianco-Valente, is exactly that.
Inoltre, dal momento in cui l’opera viene collocata, la percezione dello spazio viene modificata e per il duo è interessante capire come gli altri percepiscono quello spazio, come lo percepivano prima e come lo Moreover, from the moment the work is placed, the perception of the space is changed and for the duo it is interesting to understand how others perceive that space, how they perceived it before and how they perceive it at the moment the intervention is placed. And they are not afraid of criticism either, which inevitably comes when you make a work so exposed, so "public", they even define it as "very vital".
The passage between the "inside" and the "outside", they tell me, was very natural, gradual, but in a very precise time, at the turn of the 2008 crisis. The financial crisis blew up galleries, artists, careers, and Bianco-Valente right at that time, partly by chance, partly by will, started to leave the galleries and turn to the outside. Already strong from their experiments with video installations, they began to measure themselves against space in increasingly different ways. Then the passage with the outside space was natural, with the first commissions and the discovery of an absolutely natural and intrinsic inclination. And so over the years they began to work on installations that involved the whole space, first inside (galleries for example) and then outside. In retrospect the timing is very precise, but they tell me, and from the works it is quite evident, that they did not have the perception of it at the moment it was happening, but that they realized the timing and the modalities only at a later moment.
In fact, a monumental work of public art dates back to that period, which was the first of a series that became iconic. Relational, in Potenza, was conceived for the building of the former provincial library, long abandoned and now invisible to the eyes of the people of Potenza. So the installation wanted to try to reinsert that building in the urban context but also in sociality. Here, in fact, returns that comings and goings between sociality and architecture, between people and places, which shape and modify each other in a perpetual and mutual dance of needs and requirements. So the will to reinsert that building, that ghost, in a net of relations and architecture, has given life to the luminous net that we all know! The net, which has always had very strong philosophical and conceptual implications, in any context we use it, in this case suddenly allows us to see again something we might have forgotten, allowing us to read a new architectural grammar, visible and evident in the exact moment when the installation turns on, and at that point it is not difficult to imagine and wish that the net connects, philosophically yes, but also physically that place to the people.
This way of working is clearly full of attempts, of projects not accepted, of changes in progress, but exactly in line with their approach to life and work, Giovanna and Pino tell me that when a work in embryo is not accepted there is never anything that is really lost, as those reflections could become the cue to develop new projects. To do this you clearly need to be trained to listen and watch. Studying how people live together and the places where this happens, what are the peculiar things you can play on and leverage, to highlight certain aspects. The exchange, in the conception of the duo, is this: the artist comes from outside, so he is not part of those social dynamics, the place welcomes as much as it can and in return receives a new point of view on itself. In this way, things that had stopped being visible, or perhaps had never been, are made visible.
There are two basic aspects to Bianco-Valente and their approach to territories. The first is balance, among the enormous amount of factors, human and non-human, involved. Anger and nervousness do not seem to belong to them, at least not anymore. On the contrary, from their words, it seems that it is precisely the no's, the refusals, the problems and the difficulties that give the work its vital spark, that it is those unexpected events that complete the work, setting it down exactly in that situation, in that place and at that time. It's as if, with the unforeseen events and difficulties, the work truly becomes the child of that situation, of that place, of those energies, often much more than it would have been without those elements. The second is to act honestly! Because if people see that you are cheating, you compromise the whole relationship system and the work and experience will be mediocre and useless for all involved. From their words it is clear that this is a distant mode to them, but that they have somehow experienced this eventuality and have decided to keep away from it, espousing sincerity and honesty as the absolute basis of their research.
This choice seems to keep on paying off, in every new work and project. In fact, at the moment they are working on a project for the Palio della Balestra of Sansepolcro and the quantity and quality of the energies involved in a work that they tell me is long, complicated and painstaking, is the proof.
When you manage to involve so much, when the desire to participate is tangible, when people are not an instrument but part of the process, the artists even take a step back and let the energies of the place take their course. This means not exactly having control over what will happen, let alone the end result, but Bianco-Valente doesn't seem to care. What matters to them is the experience, the moment, and that everyone involved is happy doing what they do.
The same approach adopted for public art projects also applies to the workshops, where the ideation phase is absolutely extemporaneous and happens together with the participants and all the people involved, through stories, tales and suggestions. A striking example of this is the workshop at Kora (Castrignano de Greci - Lecce), held last summer. During the workshop they touched on different themes related to that territory, they reasoned on Apulia as a place of conflicts often intrinsic, on the linguistic issue (in that area, the Grecìa Salentina, griko, or grecanico, of Greek derivation, is spoken) to reach then the age-old matter of the lack of water. Thanks to the participation in the workshop, together with the artists, of local people, they came to know the tradition of the Pozzelle. In fact, it seems that a natural depression of the ground acted as an aquifer, and was used by the inhabitants as a reserve of water and for this reason dotted with wells, the pozzelle in fact. The interesting thing is that these wells had no name to indicate their ownership, and each family knew exactly which one was theirs. These accesses to the subsoil were then inherited within the families, giving rise to marriages and connections of families, to interweaving and networks. This story kicked off the final project of the workshop! Like this! Extemporaneous and site specific!
Fundamental to understanding Bianco-Valente's work on the territory is the experience of A Cielo Aperto in Latronico, Basilicata, Giovanna's birthplace. The project began more than a decade ago thanks to the support of the cultural association Vincenzo De Luca. The first contact, in fact, took place in 2007, when the duo realized some video installations placed in different points of the town. Thus began the artistic and design connection with the territory. From that moment, they decided, together with Pasquale Campanella, to make that experience a fixed appointment for the village, inviting every year different artists to whom the only request is that the work is an intervention of public art site specific.
The whole experience provides for a collaborative involvement of the inhabitants of the village, who can then take advantage of free and inclusive workshops active during the period of the project. This allows to establish and renew from time to time a connection with the people of the place, which is fed and crystallized even with the various intermediate or final events of the residence, which return to the country the result of the entire experience. The whole becomes a permanent laboratory of relationship between artists and people of the place, which provides a continuous experimentation and exchange between different ways of thinking and living a territory, and life itself.
Bianco-Valente's work on territories is a continuous game of balances and facets, of study, analysis and listening. A perpetual training in sharing and planning, and in the creation of new ways of working, new symbologies and new ways of communicating. It really seems like every new project is a point and start, a fresh start. Each time is the beginning of a new dialogue that will lead to an absolutely unpredictable result, the perfect child of that place, that time, and those people.
In any case, the whole discourse, following different directions, does nothing but return and revolve around a single founding element, people. The people, understood as the inhabitants of the places involved, but also as one of the main elements of all the phases of a project, from the conception to the realization, to the implementation, become for Bianco-Valente the true engine of every possible discourse around the very idea of territory. Even after implementation, the way in which the perception of that place by the users changes from that moment onwards is an integral part of the creative and analytical process.
The truth is that I am well aware of the process of changing the perception of a place, everyday and familiar. Almost every morning, starting from my house and passing through Via Marina, one of the main arteries of the city, I drive past Nessuno escluso. That place, before, dedicated only to the hasty and elusive passage, since the work exists, however, has taken on a completely different value. Sometimes, in fact, when I'm not late, I stop for a while to look at it, maybe I pull the car over in a less than appropriate way and I pass under it, I stay a while, just a while, just long enough to feel "not excluded" myself, I do it especially when I know that I'm going to have a hard day, when I know that I need not to feel alone, to feel welcomed. There are those who go to church, those who go running, those who light a candle, everyone has their own little rituals, more or less propitiatory, here, I go under Nobody Excluded by Bianco-Valente!
And who knows if in the forecasts of that work, there was also the possibility of becoming a ritual place for someone who would one day write about it.
Bianco-Valente (Giovanna Bianco and Pino Valente) live in Naples where they met in 1993. They started their artistic project investigating from a scientific and philosophical point of view the body-mind duality, the evolution of interaction patterns between life forms, perception, the transmission of experiences through storytelling and writing. These studies have been followed by a design evolution that aims to make visible the interpersonal connections. Examples are the installations that have affected various historical buildings and other projects focused on the relationship between people, events and places. Since 2008, together with Pasquale Campanella, they have been curating the public art project A Cielo Aperto, developed in Latronico, in Basilicata, pursuing the idea of working on the construction of a diffuse open-air museum, in which various permanent works dialogue with the mountain environment, and of intervening in the urban space with shared and participated projects.