Cucinare in Massima Sicurezza: An interview with author Matteo Guidi

Cucinare in Massima Sicurezza (Cooking in Maximum Security) by Matteo Guidi is a recipe book developed with inmates from high security sections inside Italian prisons. Illustrated by Mario Trudu, it lists the methods used by prisoners to cook with the few available resources they have at their disposal.

Cucinare in Massima Sicurezza is published by Stampa Alternativa

I love that in every recipe there’s a list of tools, and an explanation on how to build them. In my opinion, contemporary art has plenty of tools to understand contemporary culture and society, could you tell me more about your tools in this project?

My tools – my research methods for this project and others – are the same used in social sciences. In this sense, my educational background in ethnography emerges – sometimes even too much. I mainly use observation and interview techniques. Nonetheless, observation is very problematic, often impossible, in closed social institutions such as prisons, and even more so in maximum security prisons. So, I am left with the latter: the interview as a method of qualitative research. In this specific research, I used the interview in two different ways. During workshops and other chances I had to access the Spoleto prison, I conducted group interviews and discussion meetings, such as focus groups. For the rest of the time, over the course of three years, this work was developed by using the fastest and most common communication media accessible to prisoners: letters. And here lies the point. In my work in general, not only in this specific research, I try to blend social sciences’ investigation methods with the expressive means of visual arts. I’m interested in small actions of everyday life as practiced in extreme contexts, for which social sciences’ research methods work perfectly.

Cucinare in massima sicurezza, the knife.

Cucinare in massima sicurezza. The knife

Cucinare in massima sicurezza, performance

Cucinare in massima sicurezza. Performance

What about MoCa (the group that was born during this experience) and Moka (the machine that, in jail, is very important to make coffe and for many other uses)?

MoCa stands for Mondo Carcerario (Mondo=World, Carcerario=related to prison). The name was conceived in 2008 during my first visit to a maximum security prison when I began a visual communication workshop, exactly one year before the workshop in which Cucinare in massima sicurezza (Cooking in Maximum Security) originated. On that occasion, Ivano Rapisarda – the youngest participant (detained from the age of 19, he’s now 43) – created the acronym in order to give a name to the work group that we were forming. But Moka is also the classic Italian coffee machine. So, why choose a coffee machine to represent the “prison world?” First of all, in prisons, as in much of the outside world, coffee accompanies moments of social interaction. It is important to note that the only way to make coffee in Italian prisons is by using a moka. “You know how it goes… when a new person arrives, you make him a coffee and get to know him. It helps him get over his first impact with prison.” This is what I was told during the first workshop. However, we can say that the coffee machine as a tool accompanying aggregation rituals is more significant in prison than outside, because in prison common moments are seriously lacking. And the moka is an important tool that expresses itself not only by producing the much-loved black beverage. For me, it was fascinating to discover that in prison it is considered a sort of Swiss army knife: it can be used to crush nuts, with a colander it can mash potatoes or make tomato sauce, with a plastic bowl it makes pesto, and so on. It can be used to hammer a nail or iron a shirt. The moka is also a weapon, a blunt object that becomes explosive if the need arises. In any case, the moka produces a fundamental beverage that works as a temporary antidote to the apathy that spreads so easily in prison.

Marco Trudu, Cucinare in massima sicurezza, illustration pencil on paper.

Cucinare in massima sicurezza. Marco Trudu, illustration, pencil on paper

Marco Trudu, Cucinare in massima sicurezza, illustration pencil on paper.

Cucinare in massima sicurezza. Marco Trudu, illustration, pencil on paper

Every person in the world is shaped by the cultural atmosphere in which they live, and building an upright cultural atmosphere in prison is very important. This project has clearly an involvement in political issues, highlighting the importance of social engagement through art, but what is your idea of politics?

Certainly – and cultural anthropology is focused on this: all people are their own cultural environment. In prisons, just as in other closed societies, this aspect is amplified and is highly visible. Just think, there’s even the term “prisonization.” Donald Clemmer, a reknowned prison scholar coined it in the mid-1950s. Today the term is still used, to the extent that even those who are detained at length acknowledge and use it. In his book, The Prison Community (1958), Clemmer describes the concept of prisonization as “the taking on, in greater or lesser degree, of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary by inmates.” From this definition, we can understand the engulfing, or better yet, invasive aspect that characterizes the prisonization process. How easy does it become, when we observe a society bearing such characteristics, to understand that every act within the prison, carried out by its members, and even more so by outsiders, is a political action? Political in Weber’s sense, that is, as the use of legitimized and imposed force on the part of the state. From my research experience in closed contexts, such as penitentiaries, and even in my last experience working in occupied Palestine, I encountered politics as that permeating totality, that “culture” I mentioned earlier. In contexts so characterized by politics, every action, even the simplest one, like eating a meal or choosing not to do so, immediately carries in itself a political charge. And the artist who chooses to look within such extreme contexts highlights, through his or her contribution, the fact that politics are invasive. This is why my work focuses on the most common daily practices, observed in contexts where the political aspect, as we are defining it, is extreme.

Marco Trudu, Cucinare in massima sicurezza, illustration pencil on paper, exhibition view

Cucinare in massima sicurezza. Marco Trudu, illustration, pencil on paper. Exhibition view

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  1. February 16, 2014 at 1:15 pm

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