The Artist and The Stone: A conversation between Viviana Checchia, Giuliana Racco and Matteo Guidi

Droste Effect Magazine is very proud to host a conversation between curator Viviana Checchia and artists Giuliana Racco and Matteo Guidi on The Artist and The Stone, a project by Giuliana Racco and Matteo Guidi.

Viviana Checchia is a curator, critic, and PhD candidate at Loughborough University. She is currently curating the 2014 YAYA Award at the Qattan Foundation in Ramallah (West Bank). Giuliana Racco and Matteo Guidi’s practice concerns the ways individuals or groups manage their movements, on a daily basis, through strongly defined systems which tend to objectify them and even induce forms of self-restraint. Their new work The Artist and the Stone hinges on the twofold movement of a subject (a performance artist) and an object (a 20-ton stone block) from a refugee camp in the West Bank to Spain, where they are currently long-term residents at Hangar, Barcelona.

Before we leave you to enjoying the conversation, we want to say a warm thank you to Viviana for her participation and to Giuliana and Matteo for sharing their project with Droste Effect magazine.

In Between Camps, Giuliana Racco - Matteo Guidi, 2013 - Photographic series

In Between Camps, Giuliana Racco – Matteo Guidi, 2013 – Photographic series

MG: When we first spoke in late July, we left off with the intention of continuing our conversation in person, at the beginning of September in Jerusalem or Ramallah. But today, again, we’re talking via Skype. The socio-political events didn’t allow our meeting to happen: you arrived, but we decided to postpone our departure. We could decide. Instead, our colleague, Ibrahim Jawabreh, the artist-subject of The Artist and the Stone, who we would like to bring to Barcelona for a residency, does not have the luxury of this choice.

GR: Considering the situation in Gaza, it was relatively easy for us to postpone our trip to the next convenient moment, December. Attack or no attack, we still have a choice, just as you could choose to go there. While artists like Ibrahim don’t have this ease of choice. This is the crucial point behind the project.

VC: Actually, my work here deals with giving opportunities to people who have a very particular geo-political status which means that they do not have access to a whole series of opportunities, including programs and residencies, which are accessible to us. And now, on top of this, we are living a situation of urgency.

MG: During our first period of research in the West Bank, there was the attack on Gaza, in November 2012. It seems that this area has been living through a prolonged sense of urgency which, paradoxically, almost becomes normal.

VC: This time I arrived during the attack, and I suffered. For the first time in my life I heard bomb alarms and what I can say, concerning many people who didn’t come, those who are not carrying out their projects now, is that ten days ago this country was a desert. There was no one. No tourists, no commercial activities. No one. It was obvious. Even places that have always been fully booked, like the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem, were totally empty. Not even diplomats were coming. And morale was really low. Of course, those who were already here stayed. Most people are just starting to come now. And the question of mobility, the idea of being connected, has been one of the main themes during this period.

Sketch from The Artist and the Stone (work in progress).

Sketch from The Artist and the Stone (work in progress).

MG: In terms of mobility, just as we decided not to come, sometimes artists in other contexts choose, precisely for the sake of the survival of their work, to move. This connects to the event we are organizing in September in Barcelona, in relation to The Artist and the Stone. Rather than exhibiting part of the documentation of our research, we have invited two people for a talk: a visual anthropologist who has been studying a group of artists in Kigali, Rwanda, secretly painting in resistance to Kagame’s regime – under which freedom of expression is gravely prohibited – and a sociologist who will speak about two Colombian theatre companies that moved to Europe due to problems connected with violence, poverty, oppression, and crime. One of the reasons we are trying to open up our discussion to other cases is to avoid the risk, as you know from experience dealing with Palestine, of everything ending up referring only to that specific territory.

VC: I think what you are doing, putting together realities from such distant contexts, is a very relevant challenge. My own research deals precisely with the idea of the global and the local, or the perception one has of specific themes being strictly connected to specific geographic contexts, which then must be abandoned in order to allow these themes to be explained in other contexts, without however creating an ‘exotic effect.’ Since the Nineties, this approach has been experimented in the curatorial field, but only with poor results. The difficulty concerns how to treat a theme, allowing it all is validity, while at the same time trying somehow to create a situation of balance with other contexts which may have a similar profile.

MG: This is important for me, coming from a ethnographic background, in cultural anthropology it is connected to the development of dialogical anthropology, where it is no longer the anthropologist alone who goes to exotic or ‘primitive’ contexts, collects data and exports, bring it to a more universal level in order to understand ‘our’ society. Rather, this data is elaborated and reintroduced within the context and discussed with the people who produced it.

VC: This makes me think of the book ‘Locating the Producers’ by Paul O’Neill and Claire Doherty, which involves the collaboration of various scholars and researchers from various disciplines concerning the question of how to intervene in the local. In this study, the authors emphasize that until now there has been a huge discrepancy between artistic production and, for example, the development of human geography or specific anthropological methodologies. And, when they are applied by artists, it is done in a very superficial manner. There is little or no correspondence between the practice and theory.

GR: Concerning the exotic effect, part of our way of avoiding it is by transporting something so simple and bare, something without any decoration or modification – except its having being carved out of a mountain. We are using a very basic element to speak of more complex matters, and it also refers to so many things, from the pyramids to Land Art, to the stone quarrying industry – the only real industry in this area – and its effects on landscape. The other part is by getting Ibrahim, who is a refugee, over here to be able to do a residency, for him to have the opportunity, as an artist, to research, develop and produce his work abroad and interact with the local context here, even if for a short period of time.

Homes and Stones, Giuliana Racco - Matteo Guidi, 2013 - Photographic series

Homes and Stones, Giuliana Racco – Matteo Guidi, 2013 – Photographic series

VC: The stone is beautiful and, cut that way, it looks like something unfinished. The unfinished is something ubiquitous here, just like the destroyed, which I link to the total sense of instability caused by the occupation, of nothing ever being yours. Another prominent characteristic here is dependency. Palestine is not autonomous. There is a strong state of dependency tied to funding from Europe, from NGOs and from all the supporters and donors. And when there is the growing affirmation of a country’s identity as the versus of another country, this changes the entire perspective. Even within the Arab context, precisely for legal reasons, like having the wrong passport or the wrong stamp in a passport issued years ago, Palestinians cannot access their neighbouring countries, maybe even where their relatives lives. And this is what makes your project interesting and renders the idea of a local so different from anywhere else in the world. Because, for example, Colombia affirms itself. Fundamentally, it exists autonomously. So it’s interesting to study this place, as you are, as a platform of connections with other places in the world when, in reality, it is as if it does not exist. It is a unique place in the world.

MG: And this goes back to the idea of the strongly imposed systems that we study, like prisons and refugee camps, and how people manage to move through them, especially in cases where the limits also produce forms of self-restraint. In fact, we’re interested in ways of resisting this dependency. It ‘s another limitation or a constraint.

GR: For example, the fact that all the mobility restrictions and checkpoints make even taking short trips or walking a daunting prospect. This was the drive behind In Between Camps, a walking piece with colleagues, including Ibrahim, in which we traced part of the course of an Ancient Roman aqueduct running from the Hebron area all the way to Jerusalem. It was about using a pretext to simply walk, ignoring the impositions and implications of moving through an occupied area. It’s also what led us to the quarry, where this new piece begins. Back to the question of dependency, I’m curious to know how you perceive that this dependency on external funding influences artistic practices.

VC: Well, the EU has created a list of what it define as Regional Fund Development zones, that is, these are areas that “need to be developed”. Palestine is obviously one of these areas and so is the entire Euro-Mediterranean area which, as of 2008, forms part of a new geo-political zone called Euro-Med. And these funds are issued with a very specific aim, which is that of creating a cultural identity that can eventually lead to ‘peace and prosperity’. But, by receiving funds, an area also accepts the status of being underdeveloped. And the question is not only who gives funds and how they are given, but what does the status of ‘developed area’ mean. What are the parameters? And – logically – Europe is not interested in questioning these parameters, because what is desirable is the creation of a homogeneous area where there are no conflicts, so everyone talks about the same subjects, with the same methods and the same tools, with the same timelines and the same characteristics. Because the money has been issued in order for us to pay attention to this territory, in order for us to make it a fertile territory. Because culture brings peace. It brings balance and it will bring new markets. And so back to the question of dependency. What do funds do? They determine everything. They determine how long a project should last and which professionals should be involved. They determine our how, our when and our what.

MG: And, clearly, they determine the mobility of artists.

VC: There’s actually an interesting case of Croatian artists who managed to create a consortium in order to protect themselves from the logic of these funding mechanisms and freeing themselves from this sameness.

MG: So a reaction is possible. They managed to maintain their difference…

VC: But the risk is the idea of the different as exotic. We must find a system in which we can work deeply with each context, find aspects that may be similar and understand how to put them together and create a conversation, like the discussion you’re organizing between the Colombian, Palestinian and Rwandan contexts.

GR: I agree. What we aim at with this piece is not to dwell on the specific, but to bring these questions, which seem to speak of more marginal situations, and relate them to what is happening or what may start happening in other contexts. There’s a dangerous perception of distance in this difference, that what goes on in far off places is not connected to us. But, we can only gain by discussing the implementation of simple tactics of resistance, only then can we truly inform each other.

The Artist and the Stone: a conversation between Viviana Checchia, Giuliana Racco and Matteo Guidi

The Artist and the Stone: a conversation between Viviana Checchia, Giuliana Racco and Matteo Guidi

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by Vincenzo Estremo
in Focus on Europe

Wed Development by Digital Art Factory