Monday 7 October 2019

night flying

Night Flying: a performance conceived, devised and performed by Jane Mason and David Williams. Dramaturgical support from Luke Pell, Paul Carter and Wendy Hubbard. Lighting design: Mark Parry

Residencies at The Point, Eastleigh; Pavilion Dance, Bournemouth; Mark Bruce Company, Frome; Dance4, Nottingham; The Phoenix, Exeter; Exeter University

Premiere at Exeter Phoenix, then Bristol Old Vic, and Siobhan Davies Studios, London (as part of the ‘Open Choreography Performance’ programme 2019). Further touring in spring 2020 (Plymouth, Cornwall, London) - details to follow

For a review of Night Flying in Bristol, by Ian Abbott, see here

Photographs in tour pack (above) by Benjamin J Borley, Aaron Davies, Tessa France. Post-performance photograph below by David Williams

Monday 2 September 2019

be a mountain

‘To sit, to listen, to be, to observe, to breathe, to think, to remember – the most urgent choreography’ (Lepecki 1996: 107).

‘Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there’ (Dillard 1998: 10).

Deep space

For two years in the mid-1980s I lived on a mountain in Australia, some miles to the west of the national capital Canberra. My rented home on the mountain – Mount Stromlo - was one of a number of 1950s single-storey wooden houses in a small community attached to a major observatory. A little further around the mountain towered half a dozen huge, brooding, domed telescopes. My neighbours were astronomers, astrophysicists, PhD researchers, computer engineers; they usually worked at night, and I rarely saw them out and about during the days. This was a place of deep looking of a specific kind. Initially established as a solar observatory, research at that time was focused primarily on galactic astronomy, notably supernovas and the rate of change of cosmic expansion, as well as the monitoring of space weather. To walk at night amongst the structures housing the reflector telescopes was an uncanny experience. These silent monolithic sentinels would suddenly crank and whir into life without warning, their slowly revolving aluminium domes winking in the moonlight as they opened to the infinite pearl-strewn intricacies of the night sky. Once I lay on the ground beside them, looking upwards, trying to imagine something of what they were seeing.

Awakening: ‘the 10,000 beings’

‘Don’t be a mountaineer, be a mountain’ (Snyder 1999: 20).

Lucy Cash and Simone Kenyon’s short film How the earth must see itself (a thirling) offers a distilled, poetic mapping of an area of mountain terrain – Glen Feshie on the western side of the Cairngorms in Scotland – through embodied engagement with and perceptions of its particular material attributes and energies. The film concerns itself with modalities of seeing, sensing and knowing, ecologies of place making, an explicitly gendered economy of respectful attention and exchange (in sharp contrast to the ‘heroic’ assaults, conquests or catastrophes of so many mountaineering narratives), and a resonant wonder that both recognizes the provisionality of its understandings and affirms the abundant complexity of a wilderness environment which exceeds the cognitive reach of the self. In image and sound, it proposes to displace any singular perspective in favour of a more modest, contemplative, ecological immersion in the protean dynamics of present process.

The film draws on and refashions material developed for a series of live performances directed by Kenyon with a group of women collaborators, their work inspired by Nan Shepherd’s astonishing book The Living Mountain, originally written during the second World War and first published in 1977.  Shepherd’s book might be read as a kind of modernist mystic’s love song to a place she knew intimately, and the amplified sensory attention and devotion of her enquiry are in many ways tonally and thematically reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s exquisite writings about Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Both women elaborate a grace-ful pedagogy of seeing and sensing. And while Shepherd’s Presbyterian materialism perhaps offers a particularly Scottish counterpoint to Dillard’s ecstatic questioning pantheism, both seek a profound interpenetration of body, consciousness and place – they are thirled (1) - that undoes the self and sets it in motion, casting it into an unfinishable, contoured endeavour to understand an abundant, auratic here-and-now that will never fully give away its abiding mysteries.

In his perceptive introduction to a recent edition of Shepherd’s slim volume, Robert Macfarlane characterizes her writing in terms of ‘a compressive intensity, a generic disobedience, a flaring prose-poetry and an obsession (ocular, oracular) with the eyeball’ (Shepherd 2011: xiii). Consciously or otherwise, Cash and Kenyon appear to have conceived and moulded their film at least in part in the light of these qualities, and they condense fragments of Shepherd’s acutely pensive text to accompany and guide us in voice-over through the film. Spoken by the Scottish performer Shirley Henderson, these voicings are marked with a distinct gender, accent, timbre, and a flinty, weathered grain (in Barthes’s sense, grain as the body in the voice) that reminded me of Linda Manz in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (I can think of no higher compliment). Like Manz’s, Henderson’s voice is indeterminate in terms of age and historical time, as if archetypal – a benign revenant version of the pre-Christian Cailleach of the highlands, perhaps. And what she says come to us in a dream-like close-up, at times whispered, little more than shaped breath, like thoughts on the threshold of consciousness and at the cusp of articulation. Hers is the voice of an old soul, like Shepherd’s: faraway and so close.

The film as a whole seems to be discreetly rounded with sleep, framed by the very first voice-over words we hear in terms of the fresh perceptions activated when one emerges from a night spent on the mountain. From its opening blurred pan across the dormant body-like folds of the Cairngorms, set against a misty skyline, one might perhaps conceive of the film itself as a soft, porous ‘awakening’ into an attuned, uninsulated receptivity in an immersive, quasi-animist present. ‘Noone knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid. The body melts. Perception alone remains. One neither thinks nor desires nor remembers. There is nothing between me and the earth and sky’. And the mountain itself seems to stir into flickering life – a sprig of heather dancing softly in the breeze, a scurrying beetle, the astonishing feel-stretch of a caterpillar exploring a budding twig, the play of light on a spider’s web. The film’s closing fade-to-black, set alongside the sounds of a women’s choir and bird song, returns us to the darkness of (a different) sleep.

On first ‘awakening’, we are drawn into proliferative life and movement in image and sound, registers of the teeming material world often referred to in Buddhist literature as ‘the 10,000 beings’. We slip (at first I wrote the verb ‘plunge’, but that’s much too sudden a trajectory for this study in slow perception) (2) – we slip gently into a world of dynamic complexity, delicacy, precarity, resilience and interconnectedness, and over time we come to sense a tacit invitation to ‘think like a mountain’, to borrow Aldo Leopold’s celebrated phrase. For the film perceives and maps this mountain massif as an intricate ecosystem, a biodiverse web of agencies, interrelations and interdependencies between earth, rock, flora, fauna, water, weather, sky, all of them intertwined and in process.

As the film unfolds, our orientation through seeing and listening pulses between crystalline resolution and out-of-focus, proximity and distance, extreme close-up and wider context. The camera knowingly makes of our vision a modality that is imperfect and provisional, its rhythms contrapuntal and discontinuous, its points of view shifting. At moments the materiality of the 16 mm film and the camera’s mediation of seeing interrupt the ‘natural’ quality of these images, declaring their contingent madeness. A range of evanescent visual textures and effects, both deliberate choices and chance mechanical accidents happily embraced, briefly undo the integrity and singularity of the filmed image, destabilising the authority of the camera’s claim to truth, its ‘mastering’ of reality. These include frame slippage – the split-frame judder that registers those spaces between frames that are usually invisible to the viewer – the flaring micro-tempests of light leak, over-exposure and solarisation, shifting unstable focus and the sense at times of a softer peripheral vision, and the foggy blur of halation around certain objects, like breath on a mirror. Although superficially reminiscent of the work of certain other contemporary filmmakers in terms of their heightened engagement with film’s textural materiality (for example, Ben Rivers, Guy Maddin or Mark Jenkin), in Cash’s work, in addition to her activation of duration itself as material – an analogue to the deep time of the topography of this place - the very act of seeing is foregrounded as mercurial, unpredictable and dynamic, entailing an active process of negotiation of the partial and the compromised. In this way, the film enacts a kind of formal equivalence to Nan Shepherd’s own nuanced phenomenological insights in The Living Mountain as to the unsteady provisionality of vision, its morphing multiplicity and its inevitable implicating - literally, ‘en-folding’ - of other senses in embodied processes of experiencing and (always partial) meaning making. In particular, hearing and touch.

Never silent, the film’s complex sound track invites a kind of somatic ‘deep listening’, to use Pauline Oliveros’s term. It layers Henderson’s voice over a montage of bird sounds (corvids, a cuckoo, a skylark), the chattering flow of a small stream, footfalls in heather, a tiny crunching like infinite insect legs scurrying across pine needle debris, the soft thwoosh of bodies falling, and the continuous movement of wind and air, which at times suggests the tidal susurration of a distant spectral sea. In addition, a choir of women sings Hannah Tuulikki’s meditative vocal score, its compositional arc rising gradually towards collective celebratory flight towards the film’s ending. Combining sonic materials that are both spatially close-up and further afield, this heterogeneous sonic environment elaborates a detailed topography of holistic entanglement in a textured braiding of elements, sensations, creatures and perspectives. ‘For the mountain is one and indivisible … all are aspects of one entity: the living mountain’ ...

Look out

‘I knew when I had looked for a long time, that I had hardly begun to see’ (Shepherd 2011: xix).

The mountain observatory that was my home in Australia all those years ago was a designated place of looking in other ways too. At weekends during the summer months, I worked a 6-hour solitary shift as a fire ‘watcher’, spending a sustained chunk of daylight hours at the top of a tall circular metal lookout platform on one side of the mountain. In this windowless space high above the pine canopy there was a tall chair, a curved bench table, a logbook, binoculars to scan the surrounding ranges and valleys for any trace of smoke, a phone and a 2-way radio to file hourly reports to a central fire office in the city. I remember maps, a radio for weather reports, and a printout detailing different kinds of smoke plumes and how to read their specific colours in terms of the combustible materials involved. At the top and bottom edges of the framed panoramic field of vision were compass points etched into a metal strip, a version of the old 32-point wind rose. The direction of any smoke seen in the distance could be gauged relatively accurately by suspending a line vertically through the field of vision and aligning the plume with the compass coordinates above and below. A number of such readings from partner lookout points in the area, with intersecting fields of vision, would enable the central office to triangulate and fix the whereabouts of the fire. The semiotics and mapping of smoke.

My rhythm was to scan steadily and formally, backwards and forwards across the 180 degrees of visible landscape to be surveyed, then step away from the binoculars to rest my eyes in a softer drifting mode of looking, an undirected hazy pan of reverie or a jump-zoom in on something much closer at hand. A tuning in and out. Whenever I was distracted from the methodical, meditative engagement with what lay in the scalloped distance, it was triggered by registering change of some kind, something ‘fleet and fleeting’ as Annie Dillard might say: the interruption-event of a boisterous flock of white cockatoos, a loping wallaby or kangaroo foraging in the undergrowth at the base of trees nearby, an unfamiliar insect or spider alongside me in the lookout space, a caterpillar edging forward hesitantly with invisible information, a shift in the cloud cover, the breeze, temperature or light on my face.

One Saturday afternoon, I fell asleep up there, I’m not sure for how long. Looking out just folded slowly and softly into a looking in. When I woke up with a start, flushed with self-consciousness as if someone or something might have seen me sleeping, above all I was anxious as to what I might have missed; I immediately looked up and out. And I saw that it was almost dusk, and that there were no visible smoke plumes, and that everything had been transformed utterly and remade while I wasn’t even looking. And I saw ‘in a blue haze all the world poured flat and pale between the mountains’ (Dillard 1974: 41) …

Almost twenty years later in January 2003, long after I had left Mount Stromlo, in the height of a summer drought a devastating firestorm consumed the mountain utterly, sweeping through the pine forests on its flanks and destroying five of the telescopes, their aluminium domes, mirrors and lenses literally melted away, along with years of research data. The fire also razed to the ground many of the research buildings and houses, including my former home, and the lookout tower. The residents were given 20 minutes warning for their evacuation. Only one telescope survived the inferno.

Seeing touching

‘I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell’ (Dillard 1998: 14).

Like Shepherd’s book, Cash and Kenyon’s film activates a perceptual and conceptual terrain that sits astride a number of apparent binaries: looking/seeing, proximity/distance, small/large, subject/object, human/non-human, material/immaterial, speed/slowness, deep time/the present moment, knowing/mystery, sleeping/waking, living/dying. In both book and film each of these is unstable, in flux, the axis of a potential becoming. Each term is implicated in the other. To this list must be added the core pairing of seeing/touching, a conventional Western clefting that is actively frayed and then repurposed in this film. The women performers – quietly receptive explorers of and somatic witnesses to the mountain - embody the vibrant connective tissue in the space between these two kinds of perception.

As a range of writers, philosophers and phenomenologists have suggested over the past half-century or so – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emanuel Levinas, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Elizabeth Grosz and others – touch, the first sense to develop in the human foetus, involves a corporeal doing that exposes the sensitivity, porosity and vulnerability of the self to the world. As act and metaphor, touch represents the impingement of the world as a whole upon subjectivity; and touching locates oneself in proximity with the givens of the world, rather than in opposition to them. At the threshold of inside and outside, touch as encounter and interface with the more-than-oneself, the event of another. Touch as a modality of difference.

As the film unfolds we see one, then three, then five women on the mountain: Jo Hellier, Claricia Parinussa, Caroline Reagh, Keren Smail and Petra Söör. Their clothes - hand-knitted jumpers, leather belts, trousers, an elegant contemporary version of what women hikers would have worn half a century ago – reflect the textures, shapes and colour spectrum of their surroundings. They appear to belong in the mountain. They practice movements and states of being-in-place that are akin to what are known as ‘The Four Dignities’ in Chinese literature, fundamental modes of being mindful and present (‘at home’) in one’s body: Standing, Lying, Sitting, Walking. First we see one of the women standing immobile, dwarfed by a tree, contemplating its soaring presence, before softly placing her hand on its trunk and stepping ‘into’ it. Then the women as a group, walking slowly and silently through the heather. We see their eyes seeing, their bodies sensing, feeling the air on their skin and through their hair. At one point they lie folded in the heather, their arched woolen backs like scattered boulders that slowly stir into movement. A hand dips into running water, lingering with its energy and temperature, drinking them in. Another hand, then bare feet, carefully explore the qualities and architecture of thick spongey moss. The pleasure of tender exchange in the rust-coloured moss’s give and return, the responsive dance of toucher touched in the flesh of the world. Subsequently the women perform a simple collective choreographic cycle of organic emergence and return, appearance and disappearance: individually rising from the heather, standing, swaying in the breeze, gradually provoking imbalance by bending backwards and inverting their perception of the world - ‘unmaking’ the habitual - before finally letting go and falling back softly to earth. At times the camera adopts the fallers’ point of view, tracking the backward slide of their visual field across the sky.

Ultimately perhaps the film invites us to see a range of tactile encounters in proximity, with a view to the experience of the film itself offering the viewer an engagement with a haptic space rather than a singularly optical one. No opposition is established between these different kinds of sensing; instead the film encourages us to recognize the possibility that the eyes can see - and the ears hear - in a tactile fashion, apprehending and lightly brushing the epidermis of the world. If we are to find a trajectory ‘into’ any environment through open embodied contact, it seems to suggest, our journey will necessarily entail something of that pulsing world entering and taking (a) place within our own internal topography. For the edges of our bodies are membranes for two-way traffic …

So let us take time, make space.
Dissolve the mind, walk out of the body.
Allow what’s out there to in-here.

That’s the invitation, the most urgent choreography.

‘Lick a finger; feel the now’ (Dillard 1998: 99) …

1. Online Scottish dictionaries offer an uncertain etymology for the term ‘thirl’, with possible links to the words ‘through’, throw’, ‘thirl’ (a hole, aperture, nostril), ‘hurl’, ‘thrill’ and ‘thrall’. Formally, as a noun or verb ‘thirl’ suggests the creation of an interconnecting hole or passage way, a perforation that enables an intersection and interpenetration between spaces; the sensations and symptoms of intense emotion, physical stimulation or piercing cold (trembling, tingling, throbbing, vibrating, a literal and figurative ‘thrilling’); and a binding connection to a particular place (see DSL). The glossary appended to Shepherd’s book simply contains the following short entry: ‘Thirled, bound, tied’ (Shepherd 2011: 114).
2.  René Daumal: ‘There is nothing quite like the mountains for teaching slowness and calmness’ (Daumal 2010: 19).

Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL). ‘Thirl’, entry in the online ‘Scottish National Dictionary (1700-)’,
Daumal, René (2010. Mount Analogue, New York: The Overlook Press
Dillard, Annie (1998). Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, New York: Harper Perennial 
Lepecki, André (1996). ‘Embracing the stain: notes on the time of dance’, Performance Research 1:1 (‘The Temper of the Times’), Spring, 103-7
Shepherd, Nan (2011). The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books
Snyder, Gary (1999). The Gary Snyder Reader, Washington DC: Counterpoint

Photo at the top: Stuart Lindenmayer - Mount Stromlo, burnt out observatory at night, 31 August 2017 (remains of one of the original telescopes, which now exists alongside new observatory facilities). Wikimedia Creative Commons license

This essay was originally written as a response to a film by Lucy Cash. Entitled ‘'The most urgent choreography’: reflections on seeing and sensing in How the earth must see itself (a thirling)', it was commissioned by Lucy Cash in 2019

Tuesday 12 March 2019

look again

'Ordinary human beings do not like mystery since you cannot put a bridle on it, and therefore, in general they exclude it, they repress it, they eliminate it - and it's settled. But if on the contrary one remains open and susceptible to all the phenomena of overflowing, beginning with natural phenomena, on discovers the immense landscape of the trans-, of the passage' (Cixous 1997: 51-2).

Within the humanities and social sciences in British universities, a particular conception of material histories and practices, broadly post-Marxist, has dominated discursive thinking, academic publishing and teaching for the last forty years or so. Unquestionably the invaluable array of conceptual tools and languages these critical perspectives have afforded has been enormously generative in diverse disciplinary contexts, providing the ground for radical reconceptions of history and its occluded others, and of power, knowledge, political agency, identity, representation, and so on. It has seeded and substantively informed the development of cultural studies, feminisms, post-colonialisms, and the proliferative deployment of critical theory in areas from anthropology to film studies, from geography to art history, theatre and performance studies. I confess to being one of the products and perpetrators of such an intellectual training, and I remain profoundly thankful for many of its enabling critical optics, concepts, strategies, and above all for its dissident spirit of inquiry: its reflexive invitation to look again at the naturalized, the received, the doxa, with a view to exposing what or who is overlooked or concealed or silenced. In the words of the novelist David Malouf:
‘the very habit and faculty that makes apprehensible to us what is known and expected dulls our sensitivity to other forms, even with the most obvious. We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there’ (Malouf 1994: 130).

When I was starting out as a young part-time academic in the 1980s, any mention in such contexts of ‘spirituality’ or the ‘numinous’ was almost invariably met with skepticism and suspicion, and a swift dismissal into the benighted conceptual bin marked ‘new age’. Thinking and practices claiming a relation to the spiritual or to perceptions of the ineffable, the unnameable, the metaphysical, the mystical were more often than not collapsed into the religious or the delusional, and discredited accordingly. Any ‘serious’ academic study of such practices and perceptions seemed unthinkable. More recently, however, despite the lingering resilience of this dis-enchanted partie prise towards the numinous, many such blindspot zones of ‘unthinkability’ have been revisited and reconceived from a diversity of critical domains, most notably deconstruction, new materialisms, feminisms, radical ecologies, and their intersections with post-quantum science and neurology. A number of widely influential philosophers and thinkers have articulated the conceptual means through which to open up to fresh critical attention areas of experience and consciousness with direct implications and possibilities for a nuanced exploration of the numinous: for example, Derrida’s negative epistemologies (the apophatic), Donna Haraway’s cyborgian ‘affinities’, Karen Barad’s posthuman ‘agential realism’, Jane Bennett’s ‘vibrant materialism’, Timothy Morton’s accounts of ‘humankind’ and of an ecology ‘without nature’, and, in the area of performance studies, analyses of performance epistemologies and ontologies by theorists including David George:
‘As an epistemology, performance offers: a rediscovery of the now, relocation in the here; return to the primacy of experience, of the event; rediscovery that facts are relations, that all knowledge exists on the threshold and in the interaction between subject and object (which are themselves only hypostatisations); a rediscover of ambiguity, of contradiction, of difference; a reassertion that things – and people – are what they do …’ (George 1999: 34).

Silvia Battista’s timely and invaluable book, which draws productively on a number of these scholars, forms part of a recent and growing reappraisal in contemporary academia’s critical relations with the numinous in art and performance. Battista shapes her book around detailed discussions of work by five international artists – Marina Abramovic, James Turrell, Ansuman Biswas, Marcus Coates, Wolfgang Laib – in order to clarify the perceptual propositions and effects/affects each of these practices trigger, the associational hermeneutic fields active in the particular works, and the shifts in consciousness and epistemologies they produce that might be deemed to be of a numinous order. The choice of artists and works necessarily represents a sample, outlining an initial mapping of certain typologies of contemporary performances of the numinous, rather than endeavouring to offer any exhaustive listing of such practices (1).

It is important to note that, in this context, Battista conceives of spirituality and numinous experience as outside the parameters of organized religion. The works of the contemporary artists she includes here offer instances of a (post-)secular sacred activated by embodied events of perception, each of them generating manifestations beyond the cognitive emprise of the ego. Battista suggests that these extra-ordinary and ex-centric events, in some ways akin to Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘profane illumination’, can be provoked by particular disciplines and performative structural configurations (Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’) to produce a palpable flaring into presentness and consciousness of dynamic processes, entanglements, interconnections, pulsing materialities and plural agencies. So, for example, Battista analyses the labour intensive and painstaking gathering, placement and framing of pollen by means of which the German artist Wolfgang Laib creates the conditions for the pollen itself to take (a) place, to happen in its specificity as auratic event entangled in myriad other processes of emergence, collection and dispersal; and in this way, the pollen itself mysteriously ‘comes to matter’. In themselves, these events of inter-/intra-action implicitly challenge mechanistic models of science - and conventional conceptions of knowledge - characterized by binary cleftings, immutable boundaries, the narrowly causal and instrumental, the ‘ego-logical’. Moreover, as Battista goes on to propose, apprehension of this motile, relational mesh of intersecting forces furnishes the potential for a posthuman, ecological critique of received ideas about hierarchies of agency, authorship, and species.

The performative tools employed by the five artists under consideration here, mobilised to decentre and displace habitual modes of perception, invite other less familiar qualities of receptive attention that can give rise to unsettling, mysterious ‘landscapes of the passage’ as described by Hélène Cixous at the very beginning of this text. As Cixous goes on to insist, an openness and susceptibility to ‘the phenomena of overflowing, beginning with natural phenomena’ (i.e. an openness to the numinous):
‘does not mean that everything will be adrift, our thinking, our choices, etc. But it means that the factor of instability, the factor of uncertainty, or what Derrida calls the undecidable, is indissociable from human life. This ought to oblige us to have an attitude that is at once rigorous and tolerant and doubly so on each side: all the more rigorous than open, all the more demanding since it must lead to openness, leave passage: all the more mobile and rapid as the ground will always give way, always’ (Cixous 1997: 52).

Instability, rigour, tolerance, openness, mobility, speed (and slowness, its shadow, out of and into which it unfolds), and dissolution into renewed uncertainty: the cyclical trajectory of an engagement with the unmasterable spaces of ‘the passage’ as traced by Cixous – and Battista in her book - proposes an ongoing ethical disposition towards the in-excess, the not-known, the not-yet-known, the unthinkable, the radically other, the fleetingly glimpsed, the profoundly paradoxical. And at the heart of what follows in this book is an invitation to an active porosity and receptivity to non-mastery in the face of the encounter event with the other-than-oneself, which one might usefully conceive of in terms of an opening to the ‘eco-logical’. For we are always already implicated – literally, ‘en-folded’ – in other subjectivities, agencies, forces, phenomena, realities.

In order to give a future to the virtual space of the future (l’avenir) and to the others that are us, we need practices and philosophies of inter-located passage rather than of fixed ground or territory, in the present unfolding of a democracy that is, as Jacques Derrida, Chantal Mouffe and others have suggested, always provisional, insufficient, in process, always ‘to come’ (l’à-venir). It is apparent that identity and location, for example, are produced as much through narration as through what already exists: they are more a matter of doing than knowing. As Battista demonstrates, certain kinds of art and performance provide opportunities to unsettle and refashion those heterogeneous personal mappings that we are continuously making up and over, and out of which we constitute our-‘selves’ and/in the world. The art practices that form the focus of her book elaborate structures for perceptual and existential realignments, amplificatory re-attunements that can enable a kind of fluid, performative ‘auto-topography’; this in turn encourages and activates shifting senses of self, space, place and reality - rather than the ‘self’ or the ‘world’ occurring preformed, as if they were pre-existent entities rubbing up against each other. When space, time, self are conceived as ‘a multiple foldable diversity’ (Serres and Latour 1995: 59), a field of flows and intensities - spacing, timing, selfing – then perhaps a dynamically porous self-in-process and in-relation can fray just a little the dualist territorial imaginaries of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, of self-identity in binary opposition to radical alterity. If one can accept the paradox that the continuity of identity is secured through movement and the capacity to change rather than the ability to cling on to what is already established, as Zygmunt Bauman has suggested (1999: xiv), then one’s responsibility is to abandon the logics of mastery, to ‘look again’ and listen otherwise, and let untimely, numinous elements of all sorts of ‘outsides’ in-here. In this way identity can become ‘a point of departure for a voyage without guarantees, and not a port of arrival’ (Chambers 2001: 25); and ‘home’ (oikos, the eco-, and the self itself) can be considered no longer as a ‘fixed structure’, but as ‘a contingent passage, a way that literally carries [one] elsewhere’ (ibid: 26).

(1) Other artists whose work would seem to be of potential relevance in this context might include, for example, Joseph Beuys, Tehching Hsieh, Yoko Ono, Hermann Nitsch, Bill Viola, Francis Alys, Susan Hiller, Olafur Eliasson, John Newling and Lindsay Sears, as well as the recent performance work of British artists Abigail Conway (An Evening with Primrose, 2017) and Florence Peake.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Culture as Praxis, London: Sage, 1999
Chambers, Iain. ‘A Question of History’, in Culture after Humanism: History, Culture, Subjectivity, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 7-46
Cixous, Hélène with Mireille Calle-Gruber. Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing (trans. Eric Prenowitz), London: Routledge, 1997
George, David ER. Buddhism as/in Performance, New Delhi: DK Printworld, 1999
Malouf, David. Remembering Babylon. London: Vintage, 1994
Serres, Michel and Latour, Bruno. Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (trans. Roxanne Lapidus), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995

Image: Wolfgang Laib, Pollen mountain (2015) - pollen from hazelnut

First published as 'Look again: landscapes of the passage', the foreword to Silvia Battista's Posthuman Spiritualities in Contemporary Performance: Politics, Ecologies and Perceptions, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

Tuesday 26 February 2019

'terremoto': gibellina

‘What is the relation of the dead to what has not yet happened, to the future? All the future is the construction in which their “imagination” is engaged’ (Berger 1996: n.p.)

In the afternoon of Sunday 14 January 1968, shortly after the end of mass in the local churches, a series of major earthquakes (terremoti) shook through the Belice Valley in Western Sicily, a quasi-feudal and economically deprived agricultural area dotted with small towns, at the juncture of the provinces of Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento. The epicenter of these seismic events was the fourteenth-century town of Gibellina, and most of its 6,400 inhabitants fled their homes en masse in the early evening to seek refuge in the freezing open fields overnight: hundreds of blanketed groups huddling around fires under a clear sky, waiting for the light of dawn. In the early hours of Monday 15 January two further devastating shocks, the second of them measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale, ripped through the town, finally flattening and reducing it to a field of rubble on the hillside: stone, masonry, plaster, the debris of shattered lives. Only the town’s cemetery, a short distance away on a neighbouring hillside, remained intact. Three other communities in the valley were also entirely destroyed - Poggioreale, Salaparuta and Montevago; others were significantly damaged, including Santa Ninfa, Santa Margherita, Partanna and Salemi. In this one catastrophic night more than 400 people were killed – over 100 in Gibellina – while thousands more were injured, and almost 100,000 people were left homeless. On the front page of the Tuesday morning edition of the Communist newspaper L’Unità (16 January 1968), above a photograph of the deserted, pulverised ruins of Gibellina, the headline read: ‘Earthquake in Sicily: 500 dead? Entire region no longer exists. It was carnage’ (C’era una strage’). 

In the weeks and months that followed, as the dead were buried and survivors retrieved what possessions they could from the remains of their homes, gradually the emergency services and military personnel – struggling to cope with the aftermath of a disaster of such scale - constructed provisional shelters throughout the Belice Valley for the traumatised terremotati: gridded temporary communities of tents and then concrete fibre Nissan huts, without electricity, running water, heating, basic amenities. Ultimately these cramped, leaking, insanitary, barrack-like camps – barracopoli – would house the people of Gibellina for more than 11 years as they awaited a promised new town. Political in-fighting, bureaucratic indecision and inertia at local and State levels, disagreements about the location and nature of the new town, corruption, extortion and the embezzlement of State funds - all contributed to delays in planning and construction; and inevitably many contadini chose to abandon their paese forever, accepting local government’s offers of free passports and one-way tickets, and emigrating to Northern Italy, Germany, South America and elsewhere, in search of a new beginning.

In what follows, and in the wake of this disastrous foundational event in the formation of a contemporary identity for the Belice Valley, my focus will be on Gibellina’s relocation and reconstruction in the 1970s and 1980s as a utopian art-and-garden community, Nuova Gibellina, designed by renowned architects, urban planners and artists, and its present unfinished, partially inhabited status; and secondly, at the site of the old town, the refashioning of its remains and its memorialisation in Alberto Burri’s vast sculptural land art installation, Il Grande Cretto (‘The Large Crack’), conceived as a ‘labyrinth of memory’, but never fully finished and currently in a state of increasing disrepair. These twinned sites shadow and ghost each other in their entangled doubling, and we will travel freely between them here. Each of them is rooted in and references a catastrophic past, while endeavouring to realise a vision of possible future identities and histories informed by a humanist ideology of art and culture’s restorative centrality in the constitution of civic life: the dream of a ‘concrete utopia’, staging and enabling a community’s ‘memories for the future’. Furthermore, contemporary Gibellina is haunted by a range of other doublings none of which settle into neat, mutually exclusive binaries.  In addition to the axis between the past and its unrealised dreams of futurity, underlying this account are the ambiguous relations between idealised conception and its material concretisation, between map-plan and the embodied realities of everyday lived experience, between urbs (the material fabric of a city, its physical manifestation) and civis (the social practices and networks of its citizen inhabitants), and between construction-rebirth-renewal and ruin.

Nuova Gibellina: a ‘concrete utopia’

‘What meaning does your construction have?’ he asks. ‘What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?’ ‘We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now’, they answer.
    Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. ‘There is the blueprint’, they say (Calvino 1974: 127)

Initial plans for the reconstruction of Gibellina and the Belice Valley were drawn up by ISES (Istituto per lo Sviluppo dell’Edilizia Sociale) under the aegis of the Italian Ministry of Public Works. The State proposed a zoned rationalist plan for regional development, within which Gibellina, relocated to a new site and aggregated with some of the other damaged communities in a much larger town, would become a hub for local industry. In opposition to the State’s functionalist plans, Gibellina’s mayor Ludovico Corrao, a charismatic, pugnacious and controversial Communist lawyer with numerous connections in the arts (and arguably the core protagonist in the history of post-earthquake Gibellina) began to lobby with unflagging conviction for a radically different vision of a new town, solely for the Gibellinesi and in a different location - 18 kms to the west of the old town on the plains of Salinella below Salemi, close to agricultural land worked by the people of the town, and to major transport infrastructure: the train station at Salemi, with direct links to Palermo, and a new motorway linking Palermo and Mazara del Vallo on the south-western coast. Drawing on disparate elements of the utopian visions of François Marie Charles Fourier, William Morris, Frederick Law Olmsted and in particular Ebenezer Howard,  Corrao conceived of the new Gibellina as a garden-city, open to the fields in the surrounding countryside, with art and culture as the generative foundation and ‘redemptive’ catalyst for elaborating new histories and civic identities from the (purported) tabula rasa enforced by disaster and displacement. Leading artists and architects would work closely with local people to produce a modernist ‘concrete utopia’ within which contemporary art and design would be embedded into the very fabric of the urban environment. Agriculture, craft and building work during the period of reconstruction would provide employment and seed new enterprises, and over time the town would take its place as a significant destination on the cultural tourism itinerary for Southern Europe: ‘Where history has been destroyed, only art could rebuild the layers of a dispersed memory; only a strong death-defying cultural project could make the earth capable of bearing fruit and producing new flowers’ (Ludovico Corrao, quoted in Pes and Bonifacio 2003: 4).

From the time of his appointment as mayor in 1969, Corrao began to marshal high-profile artists, intellectuals and activists, including Leonardo Sciascia, Carlo Levi, Cesare Zavattini, and the celebrated Sicilian painter Renato Guttuso. He organised a series of gatherings, demonstrations and a public appeal on the second anniversary of the earthquake in January 1970, in the form of a collectively authored text corrosively critical of the State and explicitly designed to embarrass the government into action.  In such ways Corrao and his growing group of powerful cultural allies insistently lobbied to draw attention to the predicament of the people of Gibellina, languishing in increasing frustration in the camps with construction still not underway, protesting as best they could through representations to politicians and church leaders (including the Pope), tax strikes, marches, and graffiti campaigns.  Ultimately the initial ISES plans were abandoned, a compromise was agreed, and in the early 1970s building work finally commenced close to Corrao’s chosen site.

The new plan, drawn up by the architect Marcello Fabbri through the ISES, entailed the construction of a modernist town in the broad shape of a butterfly, with the two curved ‘wings’ containing housing, schools, sports facilities and gardens, assembled around a central East/West spine for municipal buildings and public art works. Ultimately this zone, as initially conceived by the German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers in 1981, with Corrao and others, was also to include an ornamental lake, artisan workshops, green spaces, shops, pedestrian piazze and walkways, and a major new church on a small hill at the ‘head’. (Formally this urban design configuration, graphically representing chrysalis-like metaphors of transformative emergence, renewal and liberation, closely resembles Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist plans for Brasilia, as detailed in Costa’s drawings in the late 1950s of a city in the form of an aeroplane or bird-man, with two unfolded wings set either side of a central monumental axis).  Every Gibellinese family was guaranteed a new house: low-rise, double-fronted domestic dwellings divided into equal-sized plots with private gardens, offering vehicular access to a road on one side and a tree-lined pedestrian street on the other. By the late 1970s, most of the housing in Nuova Gibellina was completed, and the first people were able to move from the camps into their new homes. However by 1979 work on the components of the town’s central axis was barely underway, and it remained in large part an undeveloped void at the heart of the town.

Although of course welcomed, the transition to an unfamiliar environment seems to have been profoundly unsettling, socially and psychologically, for many people. Despite the self-evident difficulties of the camps, years of having to navigate the shared and pressing problems of everyday life in close proximity had produced deep community bonds and relations of support. In this new context, with its radically dispersed lay-out and shift in scale, it seems many felt alienated and atomised by the wide boulevards, separated houses, and vast empty spaces. In the old town, population density had been at 3,200 people per hectare; in the spread of the new town, with a shrinking population of a little more than 4,000, there were now just 350 people per hectare (La Ferla 2004: 35). No provision seems to have been made for links with their former cultural mores and structures. Little possibility of conversations across the street or between neighbours. No meeting points on a human scale. No town centre, no shops. And the water supply was still unreliable, often interrupted without warning.

Rewriting ‘dis-aster’

‘Our culture thinks through disasters. Implicitly or explicitly, disasters mediate philosophical enquiry and shape our creative imagination’ (Huet 2012: 2)

From around 1980, Corrao turned his attention to the realisation of a number of ambitious architect-commissioned buildings and environments, and a wide range of public art works for the new town. This process continued in piecemeal fashion into the mid-1990s,  and in fits and starts to the present time, both developing some of the core commissions for the central axis and dispersing art objects throughout the town. From the outset, Corrao was insistent that art was not ‘superfluous’, but the essential cornerstone for the gradual emergence of a new post-earthquake civic identity and genius loci. Today Nuova Gibellina contains about 20 major buildings deemed to be of particular architectural note, over 100 public art works in the open air, and hundreds of other paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and textiles in its two major gallery collections on the edge of town (almost 2,000 works in total). Tourist brochures and catalogues produced by Nuova Gibellina’s Museum of Contemporary Art proclaim it as ‘the largest open-air gallery in the world’, a living museum of the late twentieth-century avant-garde. At the same time, as the focus of fiercely polemical critical debates in Italy, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, about the functions and forms of contemporary urban design and renewal, as well as art and architecture’s relations to context, scale, and social responsibility, the town’s projects have been condemned roundly by others as representing ‘the cemetery of the avant-garde’:  a failed experiment in the spectacular, monumental and fragmented, and an unwitting and uncanny staging of Robert Smithson’s notion of entropic ‘ruins in reverse’,   further compromised by the scant concern apparently shown for the lived experience of local inhabitants.

One of the first major commissions, and the first art work one encounters at the entrance to the town today, is a startling 26-metre high burnished steel star straddling the main road: the Sicilian sculptor Pietro Consagra’s Stella: L’ingresso del Belice (‘Star: Entrance to the Belice’, 1981). Both monumental and delicate, resonantly defiant metaphor and simple graphic outline, its colour shifting constantly between industrial greys and honeyed apricots in response to the movements of sun and cloud, it remains one of Nuova Gibellina’s most iconic and poetically associative images (and one of few seemingly viewed with pride by many local people). Consagra seems to have been inspired in part by a relatively obscure passage in Goethe’s Italian Journey, written just a few miles away in Castelvetrano in April 1787, after a night spent in an inn that was ‘anything but elegant’:

At midnight I woke up and saw over my head a star so beautiful that I thought I had never seen one like it. Its enchanting light seemed a prophecy of good things to come, and my spirit felt utterly refreshed … It was not till daybreak that I discovered what had caused this miracle. There was a crack in the roof and I had woken up just at the very moment when one of the most beautiful stars in the firmament was crossing my private meridian (Goethe 1970: 265).

Etymologically the word ‘disaster’ suggests the loss of a protective star (dis-astro), and the calamitous repercussions of abandonment by distant agencies in a state of cosmic emergency. Consagra’s sculpture, however, rewrites the apocalyptic narrative, reclaims the errant star, and brings it to earth in palpable, material, enduring form. In this way, a public art work, its component parts welded and erected by the artist in collaboration with a team of local craftsmen, perhaps serves to humanise and politicise disaster, and, to paraphrase Marie-Hélène Huet in The Culture of Disaster, emancipate it from a discredited supernatural and root it in the socius (Huet 2012: 8). For Corrao, ever the advocate of a restorative mnemonics with one eye on the future, Consagra’s Christian and socialist symbol of rebirth at the entrance to the valley represented ‘the capacity of the people of Belice to sustain the memory of culture, despite all attempts to erase it’ (quoted in La Ferla 2004: 39).

Il Grande Cretto: memory and oblivion

‘The dead inhabit a timeless moment of construction continually rebegun. The construction is the state of the universe at any instant. According to their memory of life, the dead know the moment of construction as, also, a moment of collapse’ (Berger 1996: n.p.)

‘Where there is no past, there cannot be a future’ (Sicilian novelist Vincenzo Consolo, quoted in Bouchard and Ferme 2013: 168)

In 1979, Ludovico Corrao invited the celebrated Tuscan artist Alberto Burri (1915-95) to visit Gibellina, with a view to commissioning a major art work for the town. At that time Burri was perhaps best known for his monochromatic cretti (‘crack’) paintings of the 1970s, in which he explored analogies to mark-making and drawing in the filigree of chance cracks (craquelure) deliberately produced in the drying processes of various materials combined with pigments, including plastic cements, resins, kaolin and tar. These works seem to reference landscapes, clay river beds, evaporated lakes and deserts, and to relate to those same entropic processes that so fascinated Robert Smithson. Trained as a medical doctor, Burri was also interested in creating the conditions for the appearance of unforeseen and barely controlled ripples, ruptures and ‘wounds’ in the surface plane of visual images, and harnessing the energy implicated in their processes of scarring and ‘healing’. During his 1979 visit, Corrao took the artist to the devastated remains of the old Gibellina, to the work-in-progress of Nuova Gibellina, and to the nearby ruins of the Greek temples at Segesta; the latter seems to have triggered the seed of a creative response for Burri. Subsequently he proposed a large-scale memorial to the victims of the earthquake on the site of the old town, using the residual debris and rubble (i ruderi) to construct a dramatic map-like installation in situ on the hillside. Il Grande Cretto (now usually known as Il Cretto) would be the largest work of contemporary land art in the world.

Over a period of several years from 1985, under the direction of the architect Alberto Zanmatti and with the assistance of army demolitions personnel and a team of engineers and builders, approximately 60% of Burri’s proposal was realised before resources for the project from private donations dried up in 1989.  The remains of the old town were bulldozed into compacted blocks over an area of about 12 hectares (29 acres: 300 x 400 metres), in an approximate, somewhat abstracted restoration of the former locations of streets and buildings. These roughly eye-level, irregularly shaped cuboid structures and the 2-3 metre wide walkways between them were then covered with a shroud or sudarium-like layer of white cement to produce an imposing minimalist environment, which looks from a distance somewhat like an exposed quarry zone undulating down the slopes at the top of the valley. The play of light and shadow on the stone steps of the ancient amphitheatre at Segesta seems to have been central to Burri’s conception of Il Cretto as a dynamic environment-object imbricated in time. The cyclical daily mechanism of the sun’s passage would bring life and movement to his sculptural forms, and animate what he conceived of as an enduring poetic and thanatological testimony to a forgotten community in this manifestation of an ‘archaeology of the future’. And at the time of a full moon, local people say, the Cretto’s reflective spectral luminosity was visible at night from many miles away along the valley. The vein-like tissue of fissures in its surface resembled one of Burri’s paintings anomalously amplified and writ large into/onto the landscape: an epic projection of genius loci valued anew, and, for Burri, in implicit dialogue (and alliance) with those of the culturally revered ruins at Segesta and Selinunte.

From within the Cretto’s apparent muteness and pervasive silence, the network of 122 sarcophagi and corridors produces something phenomenally and affectively related to Peter Eisenman’s penumbral Holocaust Memorial (2004) in Berlin.  Burri’s installation, texturally rougher than Eisenmann’s, proposes a steeply angled, brightly lit and labyrinthine series of immersive passageways inviting exploration on foot, decelerating locomotion, and activating contemplation, associational memory and disorientation. Some degree of slumping in the concrete pouring and drying process has served to produce a vivid impression of the morphology of the surface walls as ‘epidermal’, their folds and creases evocative of ageing, somnolent or unfolding bodies. This tactile, organic quality within the material itself gives rise to a certain dynamism and liquidity in its apparently petrified, inorganic fixity, a corporeal lightness in its gravitied, monolithic, sublime mass. Wandering in proximity to the weathered distress of the surfaces along these crevasses, emergent shapes seem to drift to the surface of consciousness – ephemeral constellations, landscapes - while all the while one remains hyper-aware of this area of sculpted earth’s openness and connectedness to the overarching sky and to the vineyards and orchards of the valley ribboning away to the horizon.

Concrete’s imperfections inevitably and unpredictably entail transformation over time. The effects of weathering sit uneasily with modernist architectural conceptions of uniform, planar ‘beauty’ (usually white), and its aesthetic ideals have more often than not resisted or repressed a work’s imbrication in time and context. Such transformation has been located as a ‘ruinous’ deterioration of original authorial intent for a ‘finished’ work, rather than as the traces of a contingent openness to the assimilation of the particular, fugitive qualities of place in nature’s ongoing process of finishing what is always ‘unfinished’ in time.  Today, long-term exposure to the extreme weather conditions of Western Sicily and lack of funding for restoration work have meant that Il Cretto is indeed, from a modernist perspective, deteriorating and gradually becoming a ‘new ruin’ in its own right. After almost 30 years, the original glaring white of the concrete finish, with its visibly artisanal shuttering and formwork, has been mottled and stained towards a somber blue-grey-tan lichen colour range. Some of the cement has been eroded to expose patchworks of different aggregates used in the original concrete blend for the render; and a number of the steel reinforcement rods are now exposed or have sprung free from the netting around the rubble core. In many places moss, small flowering shrubs, trees and other opportunist vegetation have colonised and burst through ever-widening cracks in the spalling mineral surface. 

In his remarkable historical study of concrete as modernity’s emblematic medium, Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty returns repeatedly to concrete’s ambiguous status, and its resistance to stable classification as one of the recurrent features of its use and historical meanings: ‘many of the usual category distinctions through which we make sense of our lives – liquid/solid, smooth/rough, natural/artificial, ancient/modern, base/spirit – concrete manages to escape, slipping back and forth between categories’ (Forty 2012: 10-11). Its ‘tendency to double’ (11) proliferates in Burri’s use of the material in Il Cretto, a work which in its materiality and form activates the spaces between such binaries. In particular, the ambiguous blur between a progressive modernity and a residual craft archaism with elemental earthbound origins (concrete as a kind of mud), and between concrete’s base inertia as devalued industrial material and its paradoxical possibilities for a metaphysical numinosity. As an object-event-territory with complex and plural associations, and an uncertain overall status as art work, Il Cretto slips elusively between categories:

Painting, sculpture, architecture, installation, land art, scenography, design plan, document, wasteland, edgeland, centre, performance, scar, sanctuary, votive, tomb, memorial, monument, memento mori … Il Grande Cretto avoids all artistic categories, academic or otherwise, or perhaps unites them; its status remains wholly ambiguous (Casanova 2009: 121).

Later in Forty’s book, in a discussion of the use of concrete in the construction of memorials, he reflects on the use of a substance ‘so often regarded as the material of oblivion, erasing and obliterating memory, cutting people off from their past, from themselves, from each other … How can a material so generally regarded as amnesiac become the medium of choice in the preservation of memories?’ (Forty 2012: 197).  With reference to the twentieth century’s obsession with memory, and minimalist sculpture’s resistance to all forms of representation, Forty endeavours to unravel what he perceives to be a ‘circular puzzle – concrete the material of oblivion, avoided by artists hostile to mnemonic representation, but chosen by those seeking to represent memory’ (198). He goes on to suggest that, for him, the most successful of concrete memorials qua memorial is Georges-Henri Pingusson’s Memorial to the Martyrs of Deportation (1962) on the Ile de la Cité in Paris; and his description perhaps provides another perspective for understanding something of the paradoxical affective and memorial work that Burri’s Cretto both does and doesn’t enable:

not an object, but a void – and when you are in the void, there is nothing there to look at apart from yourself, the sky … and the unbroken surface of the concrete wall … there is no sign in this memorial; it is pure experience, there is nothing to be read, only the concrete itself … [it] creates a kind of sensory deprivation, which forces the visitor to concentrate upon the sky and the present … memory, if there can be such a thing, is of the moment, it cannot be captured or preserved … (214).

Unfortunately, however, local people felt they were not fully consulted about the demolition of surviving structures within the remains of their town, nor about the nature of Burri’s radical proposal for the memorial - like their new town, so utterly different from other responses in neighbouring communities devastated by the earthquake.  Some former residents of the old town, understandably less familiar with the discourses and practices of contemporary art, and with quite other conceptions of memory and memorialisation, felt that the ground of their patrimony (and identity) had been appropriated, and, in an act of paternalist, even colonialist imposition, forcibly reconfigured into forms that they could no longer recognise. In response to what they perceived to be Il Cretto’s obliteration and blanketing of historical remains, some suggested that the work had effected a kind of silencing. The enforced deracination from and veiled erasure of the recognisable traces of lived memory – a second violent ‘disappearing’, by art - had ultimately produced the ruins of memory in what had become, for them, quite literally a ‘concrete u-topia’, an alienating and impenetrable ‘no-where’; and it is evident that today the work’s function as sited civic memorial has been significantly eroded for many people in Nuova Gibellina.  Even for visitors without direct connection to the old town, within the insistent baroque in-folding of Burri’s structure one senses a potent and unresolved tension between the revelation afforded by public memorialisation (for the future) and memory’s concealment, the withholding of proliferative narratives, experiences and orientations (from the past) buried beneath the centripetal opacity of these surfaces, never to be recovered.


Since the early 1980s, old Gibellina has been the site of an annual summer festival of performance and music, the Orestiadi, named in homage to Aeschylus’s foundational theatrical narratives of emergence from abject catastrophe into the beginnings of a civic democracy. Initially the ruins of the old town, then Burri’s structure, were integrated as backdrop and scenographic frame for events staged on a flat piece of bare ground at the base. Already in 1979, Dario Fo and Franca Rame had performed Mistero Buffo for the people of Gibellina. And for over a decade into the 1990s, the Orestiadi became firmly embedded in the European festival circuit as one of the most adventurous events on the cultural calendar. Curated and managed by the Fondazione Orestiadi from its offices in the renovated former manor house Il Baglio di Stefano on the edge of Nuova Gibellina, the festival attracted some of the world’s best known contemporary artists;  and many of the performances were produced within the community and involved local people, in particular in the construction of scenographic objects and other design materials for theatre and opera.  Over the last 20 years or so, however, the Orestiadi has diminished drastically in scope and artistic ambition, and there has been little direct involvement from local people in the programme of imported productions and exhibitions.

‘Town as gallery’: notes on the architecture of the butterfly

Alongside the site of the bustling weekly market stretches a curved, cracked concrete bowl of almost 100 metres in length: an ‘ornamental lake’ with no water, just pockets of wind-blown litter and desiccated vegetation. Beyond the dry lake bed, a sprawling area of overgrown grassland with a small church at its edge, and then the town ‘centre’, the Piazza XV Gennaio 1968, another expansive and exposed void without shade. On one side, Samonà and Gregotti’s tufo and reinforced concrete town hall (Municipio), with its memorials to the earthquake; on the other, Alessandro Mendini’s cement and iron Torre Civica (1987), a 28-metre, winged, lighthouse-like structure and sonic art work intended as the town clock. At four predetermined times of the day, registering the rhythms of the working day, it is supposed to relay a 30-second burst of computer-generated amplified sound that never repeats – recorded fragments of traditional Sicilian songs, voices from the fields and from the past – but it has been out of operation for some time.

An elegant stone staircase that seems to lead nowhere slices through Ungers’s Carabinieri building, framing a patch of sky like a James Turrell ‘sky space’. Nearby, a number of free-standing floating walls pierced by empty windows, whose deconstructive function seems to be to frame ephemeral perspectives on the town for the passerby. An apparently unattached stone beam intersects with the roof of a building (Casa Pirrello) at an almost vertical angle, piercing it, as if suspended in mid-flight between falling and ascending; the beam casts a shadow across the façade below, like a sun dial. A series of immense, linear, de Chirico-like piazze, constructed formally and explicitly around a perspectival vanishing point (Purini and Thermes’s unfinished Sistema delle Piazze, 1990); at night, lighting in the facades either side of the chequer-board stone paving suggests abandoned runways awaiting air traffic. Uncanny scale and monumentality, in conjunction with a radical heterogeneity of form and style, seem to privilege visuality and scenographic frontality, the simulacral, the interstitial, the fragmentary and discontinuous.

At the base of a small hill towards the top of the town, Pietro Consagra’s Meeting (1983), an undulating steel and glass structure of great organic sensuousness and fluidity, like the back of whale or a camel breaching the surface; with only a small café at one end, it remains largely empty, a seductive sculptural shell. On the other side of the archway in its midriff, the Piazza Joseph Beuys (2001): the most desolate and deserted of the town’s stone and concrete voids, like an immense abandoned carpark. As well as the odd fragment of graffiti (‘Du bis mein’), its stained framing walls contain some ceramic texts that signal its intended and wholly unrealised revolutionary function as lo spazio della parola (‘the space of language’), an agora for collective gatherings, passeggiate and civic conversation. At one end of the square, and at right angles to the Meeting, broods Consagra’s towering and sublime Teatro, a major performing arts and cultural centre first conceived in the 1970s and still unfinished today. Architecture as permanent building-site, seemingly abandoned and suspended forever at some indeterminate mid-point between construction and abandonment. In the summer months the weathered concrete exoskeleton of this magnificent curvilinear monolith is colonized by darting flocks of sparrows, martins and migrant swifts.

Further up the hillside, Francesco Venezia’s Palazzo di Lorenzo (1981), an enclosed, roofless cube whose walls incorporate the stone remains of the façade of a major feudal building retrieved from the centre of the old town after the earthquake. This contemplative, mnemonic space of refuge and connectivity with a recognisable past activates the displaced former palazzo’s windows and balconies as optic frames for glimpses of the town and the neighbouring fields; its open configuration also dynamically registers the passage of the sun and of time in the movement across its textured surfaces of carved, material blocks of light and shadow. Finally, nearby on the top of the hill, Ludovico Quaroni’s astonishing Chiesa Madre, with its dramatic staging of a metaphysical intersection/collision between a rationalist cube and a huge white cosmic sphere – as if a luminous planetary body had tumbled from the skies and embedded itself in the wall behind the church’s altar. First conceived in 1972, the church was nearing completion when the concrete roof of the nave collapsed in 1994, leaving it in a state of abandoned disrepair until its restoration and final consecration, almost 50 years after its genesis, in 2010.

Postscript: the unfinished

For all of its continuing problems (unemployment, diminishing financial resources and prospects for young people, etc.), its unfinished structures and art works urgently in need of restoration, and for all of its haunting melancholy at times, in reality Nuova Gibellina today is far from the state of ‘ruinous abandonment’ that initial impressions and fleeting contact might suggest. The more time one spends there, the more apparent it becomes that over the years local people have gradually found ways to inhabit pockets of their extra-ordinary urban situation tactically and to affirm its uniqueness. Social life goes on in homes, the few cafes and social clubs (circoli), in the weekly market alongside the empty lake, and on summer evenings in the milling conversational traffic and street vendors in and around the municipal square and the open-air cinema. On most days, sections of the deserted spaces of the vast piazze are noisily reclaimed as perfect all-weather environments for kids playing football. A scattering of small shops now operate from the ground floors of some dwellings; and the slow drift from house to house entailed in this dispersed, attenuated mode of gathering things for an evening meal inevitably generates surprise encounters and pleasurable conversations. After several visits in recent years, I have become increasingly attached to this town. For the courageous ambition and compromising blindspots of its original imagining, and for its present imperfections, fragilities and uncertainties. For the warmth of human exchanges it affords, and for its moments of startling, layered beauty in the everyday. Perhaps above all, for the enduring possibilities it still seems to contain, somehow and despite everything, as an ambiguous, provisional, slowly unfolding work-in-progress …

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Essay originally published as 'Terremoto: memory, utopia, and the unfinished in Sicily', in Performance Research, 20:3, June 2015 ('On Ruins and Ruination'), eds. Carl Lavery & Richard Gough