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

Sunday, 5 May 2019

the singing of the real world

‘If I could catch the feeling I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world …’ (Virginia Woolf)

At times like this, when so much feels divided and broken, when public discourse has dissolved into a cacophony of colliding opinions, and our politicians seem to have ground themselves into an acrimonious stalemate, there is something genuinely necessary and moving in Action Hero’s intimately epic project Oh Europa. In a gently playful and invitational way, their reimagined mapping of Europe in a time of apparent unraveling seeks to affirm connections and exchanges between people, through an affective cartography of places, encounters and feelings given resonant body in hundreds of love songs. All of the materials in this multiform art work – the 6-month journey undertaken by Gemma and James in their motorhome last year, the songs they collected, their video ‘postcards’ along the way, the live performances after the journey’s end, and this video installation with its ‘atlas’ detailing the location of the 41 beacons transmitting songs across Europe – all of these things celebrate our differences as well as a deeply felt sense of what we have in common, across borders and languages. The event of love, and the resilience and compelling mystery of its deep currents. Longing and its tangled relations to belonging and to ‘home’. The courageous intimacy of song as an embodied address to others: singing as soul-portrait, a gift of oneself in which breath becomes music and calls us together in the heart-land.

The choice of locations for the beacons was determined by a number of different conceptions of threshold, border and edge. To date beacon placements have occurred at sites of current administrative, political or cultural divisions, or of disputed territory; liminal spaces, hovering between territories; sites of encounter, blurring, mixing or integration – of rivers, seas, cultures; deep-time geological structures or rifts; sites of historical protest or activism in the emergence of democracy; redundant historical borders and archaeological remains at places of past conflict; sites bearing traces of cultures no longer in existence, or of unfinished projects (the disappeared ‘dreams’ of the past); rivers and former connective routes between zones, now disappeared or closed; and territories with mobile, fluid or indeterminate boundaries (notably, in the far north of Europe, the shifting position of the Arctic Circle, and the uncertainty of the Sami people’s geographical terrain).

The beacon locations detailed in this atlas offer an alternative mapping of Europe that is off-centre, and complexly layered in time and space. Conventional fixed notions of ‘centre’ and ‘edge’ are reconfigured here; old hierarchies of place give way to something plural and in flux, and many supposed edges reveal themselves to be singular and interconnected centres in their own right. Cumulatively this mapping produces layered networks of places and people in relation, rather than the fixity of discreet territories. Some of these places are ghosted by their social and political histories, but without melancholy; for alongside the presence of the past – the re-membering of conflicts and divisions, ancient and recent – there lies a quietly insistent invitation to actively imagine other possible futures. Other ways of being in relation to others. The journey, the sharing of songs and the placement of the beacons are all interwoven elements within an art project that is both poetic and political; they each perform the possibility of connection, passageway, repair, change and exchange. Like acupuncture points on the body of the land mass of Europe, marking a diversity of thresholds, fault lines and pressure points, the beacons seek to vibrate and reanimate circuits and flows that risk becoming blocked, forgotten or overlooked. In this way, sites of separation can become contexts for the staging of reparation and free, unimpeded movement.

After watching the video from each of the beacons in turn, I was struck by the dynamic presence of different kinds of water in so many of these contexts, and the degree to which landscapes are sculpted and territories defined by bodies of water and their flows. The videos invite us to contemplate various seas and inland lakes (Lake Virmajärvi, for example, on the border of Finland and Russia), as well as watersheds, confluences and many individual streams and rivers that ultimately find their way towards the seas, and wider connections and dispersals. All four of the cardinal points in this atlas – the extreme north/south/east/west edges of Europe – are liquid, as is Europe’s epicentre. Fittingly, Action Hero placed a beacon at the very heart of Europe’s land mass, beside the triple watershed of the Lunghin Pass in Switzerland. From this point on the so-called ‘roof of Europe’, invisible streams from melt water eventually grow in size to become the Rhine, the Po and the Danube, major arteries which run their meandering courses through different countries to three different seas: the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. The transmission of songs from beacons in these watery contexts, and others in this atlas, brings to mind the astonishing gesture of Tibetan Buddhists releasing material from their exquisitely crafted sand mandala paintings. Once the painting is complete, the monks dismantle it by sweeping up the sand and releasing it into a neighbouring river. These particles are carried away by the river’s gravity-fueled flow to be dispersed in the world’s oceans. For the monks, each grain is animate and continues to pulse, containing as it does the full image of the original sand painting in miniature: a peaceful, reverberant anti-toxin or prayer circulating forever in the world’s blood stream.

Like the songs themselves, the videos are also invitations to an attentive listening that is actively receptive. Each of the videos registers a still point in which everything moves: the sky and its weather systems, vegetation, animal and human life, vehicles, light. Each sequence reveals a place to be a complex world-in-process. The only video which comes close to immobility presents us with a surviving section of the Berlin Wall in close-up. However, the wall’s apparently immutable inertia is offset and destabilized by the layered background dynamic of bird song, human conversation, slowly drifting clouds in the small strip of visible sky - and of course the knowledge of the wall’s ultimate demise as impenetrable barrier. Its residual survival here acts as memorial and hope-ful testament to the ephemerality of imposed division.

In addition, the ambient sounds recorded by the camera reaffirm the complexities of place through the dynamically layered ‘songs’ of ongoing life. Each video offers us an auditory ‘situation involving multiplicity’, as John Cage said of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine paintings. Chance compositions draw on wind, sea, river, trees, birds (almost always there), insects, traffic, sometimes voices and fragments of passing conversation in different languages. We hear the sounds of the rural, the urban, the littoral, the elevated, the remote, the ongoing and the fleeting. A chorale of the world’s vibrant murmuring.

Listen, for example, to the dense overlay of city, traffic, riverboats, human voices and lapping river water at Margaret Island in Budapest. Or the chance aeolian percussion of flags and their guy ropes in the breeze at Juoksengi in Sweden. Then there’s the haunting spiral of bird song at the woodland ‘language border’ between Wallonia and Flanders, in Belgium, or the dog bark from a passing vehicle in Beremend, Hungary. Or listen to the brilliantly unself-conscious bee that buzzes the camera, then lands and explores the frame of the lens in the meadows at Trójstyk Granic, near the border tripoint of Lithuania, Poland and Kaliningrad. The placement of a beacon at this and other policed border zones enables the love songs to be heard in different territories. In this way the ‘travel’ of the songs, their reach as transmissions, renders such political separations porous, permeable, insubstantial – as does the movement of birds, or bees, and all such creatures whose passage ignores the arbitrariness and artifice of human borders.

To date this atlas remains unfinished; perhaps it is unfinishable, like all of the richest art and life projects. Further journeys, encounters, recordings of songs, beacon placements and video postcards ‘from the edge’ are planned. The travel/travail of mapping, tracking ‘the feeling of the singing of the real world’, placing matters of the heart at the heart of the matter, continues …

Text published as 'Mapping the heart-land', an introduction to Action Hero's book Oh Europa: Postcards from the Edge, an annotated 'atlas' accompanying the Oh Europa installation, alongside performances of RadiOh Europa. On tour in the UK and Europe from May 2019: premiere at Transform Festival, Leeds

For further details of Action Hero's Oh Europa project, and touring/performance details, see here and here

For a Guardian interview with Action Hero about Oh Europa, 'A Love Song for Europe', see here

Photographs by David Williams  

Friday, 15 March 2019

tamper (the play in it)

‘The playing of the game is the playing of the game with that object, and the object of the game is therefore in part always to undertake a forensic trial of the object’s possibilities. One plays with the object in order to put its properties and possibilities in play, to discover and determine what play there is in it’ (Connor 2011: 123)

‘The children seem to be fighting, but they are merely learning to inhabit their country’ (Barthes 2007: 47)

My contexts here are in my own past: a childhood playing sport with genuine pleasure and commitment, while never really taking it fully seriously. I still conceive of it as a joyous folly, a kind of absorbing, immersive absurdity (1). As Steven Connor suggests in A Philosophy of Sport, sport is ‘triumph and disaster; everything, nothing; important, unimportant’ (Connor 2011: 48). The initial trigger for this revisiting of aspects of my past from over 40 years ago came in a file of school reports (from the ages of 5 to 18) handed to me by my father with a sigh about 18 months ago. These distilled, haiku-like assessments of a child’s abilities and aptitudes are illuminating and rather troubling in their fragmentary and elliptical account of an education in the 1960s and 1970s, its expectations and ‘tamperings’, its stratifying of different orders of ‘knowledge’, its explicit reiteration of what is valued and privileged, of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’, and the extraordinarily partial perception and construction of a young self-in-process. Clearly I was failing to understand that particular ‘game structure’, its rules and protocols. Ultimately the reports offer a litany of disappointment at my apparent lack of interest and attention in most classes (apart from art and music), with far too much staring out of the window, dreaming, chatting, an approach that is deemed altogether ‘maddeningly casual and easy-going’. They include this Latin report at the age of 9: ‘He has tried all the spivvish tricks, and has only now discovered that work is the best solution’ (what tricks were they?); and a despairing summary comment from the headmaster when I was just 11: ‘At present he is rather a stupid and idle boy. Despite our best efforts, I’m not sure we will ever be able to save him’. These failings are consistently offset and partially mollified, it seems, by my rather pointless sporting prowess – for example, this from a report on ‘games’ at the age of 12: ‘David is an expert thrower and an accurate bowler of considerable skill, but he lacks discipline and is not capitalizing on his gifts’ … (2).

In what follows, in part I am interested in reclaiming and valuing something of what the choreographer Alain Platel has called ‘suppressed virtuosities’ - redundant, devalued or forgotten techniques, currently functionless embodied skills or areas of expertise: in my case, in particular between the ages of 7 and 18, eye-hand coordination, and a peculiar aptitude for play with a variety of balls, bowling, throwing, catching, kicking, hitting, as well as an array of fairly esoteric techniques for ball tampering in cricket matches. Also in the back of my mind hover some attributes prized in the aesthetics of Italian football. Of the three vital ingredients required for the most accomplished football players and teams, Italian aficionados suggest that the unruly passion of English football lacks all three. These qualities are: technica (technique, skill); fantasia (the ability to do unpredictable and surprising things with the ball, inspired instinct, imagination, flair); and furbizia (cunning, guile, slyness, a tactical bending of the rules, aspects of gamesmanship).
‘He obviously enjoys acting – on and off stage!’ (School report, aged 16)

Cricket is a game of infinite repetitions, and attenuated discontinuous rhythms - long periods of apparent low-level activity (or even non-activity) and sudden flarings of intensity, in a durational game structure of great complexity that enables significant ‘play’ and unpredictabilities within that structure (including, for example, its porosity to the material effects of weather, cloud cover, wind etc.). For Steven Connor, like all ball games it is ‘a choreographed meteorology of speeds and durations’ within which the ball acts as ‘the switcher and transmitter of these speeds’ (Connor 2011: 77).

Over a period of about eleven years, I spent a significant amount of time during the spring and summer months playing school cricket as a medium-paced ‘swing bowler’ or ‘seamer’, a specialist in the production of unpredictable movement, swerve and bounce. As a bowler, one endeavours to set up the conditions for unpredictability, always projecting an object both related to and independent from you on a forward trajectory into the future, towards the ludic, agonistic encounter with the anticipatory and reflex skills of a batsman. My particular abilities, which remain at some level wholly mysterious to me, were ‘late swing’, a sudden alteration in the rate of change of the ball’s trajectory, amplified bounce or ‘kick’ off the pitch’s surface, and a cut-back off the seam at the moment of the ball’s striking the pitch, suddenly redirecting the ball in a different direction from that of its original swing through the air. To paraphrase Connor, the aim of this particular game was to play with your opponent by trying to prevent them from playing (with) you (131).

In all ball sports, the nature of the ball is paradoxical: inanimate and animate, object and subject, it seems to move in and out of its own agency; and in its passage and exchange, its status as intermediary, it weaves relations and constructs complex entanglements and intersubjectivities. The cricket ball’s structure comprises smooth leather surfaces on two halves of a sphere, with a raised, stitched seam encircling it; in this way, uniformity is combined with an element of unpredictability (Connor 2011: 138). The physical mechanics of swing (the ball’s ‘movement’) are intimately related to the transformation of the ball in time, its mnemonic registering of its histories of contact and collision, the biographical traces of what happens to happen to it; for ‘the cricket ball is designed to soak up accidents of all kinds’ (142). Over time its flawless, smooth surfaces roughen and soften slightly, the seam loosens and becomes uneven, and the object assumes a ‘lunar asymmetry’ (ibid).  In some ways, the ball mirrors the pitch itself, a ‘sphere, as it were, rolled out’ (139), a flattened and extended smooth surface that in itself becomes worn, marked and damaged over time by the contingencies of the game; it decays into ‘a scarred cartography of accidence’ (59). This gradual entropic deterioration of the idealized, immaculate integrity of two of the game’s core structural elements – ball and ground – is actively assimilated within and exploited by the game structure of cricket; and this growing material imperfection serves to compromise predictability and thus multiply the possibilities for a bowler keenly aware of the game’s intimate imbrication in processes of change over time.

According to articles 2.2.9 and 42.3 in the laws of cricket (sections concerning the alteration of the condition of the ball in the International Cricket Council’s formal ‘Code of Conduct’), the bowler and fielders are permitted to clean and polish the ball, sustaining its shine. They are prohibited, however, from using any other aids apart from bodily fluids – sweat, spit – and their own clothing (ICC 2017). One side of the ball is polished and carefully maintained, while the other is allowed (or caused) to deteriorate, therefore creating increased drag - ‘turbulent flow’ - on that side during its movement through the air as it travels along the line of the seam; in this way, the friction on the rougher hemisphere produces a bending of the line of flight – the swerving movement of a ‘curve-ball’.

‘Ball tampering’ is a term that refers to illegitimate means of gaining advantage by accelerating the deterioration of the condition of the ball, thereby unfairly interfering with the ‘orderly’ aerodynamics and legibility of its trajectory, and increasing swerve and unpredictability. There are long histories of tampering, documented since at least 1918 (see for example Birley 1999: 217, 316); and whenever it is exposed, it is decried as ‘not cricket’, ‘not playing the game’. In professional contexts it results in substantial fines and penalties. For example, the England captain Mike Atherton was seen on TV using dirt in his pocket at Lords in 1994; the Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi was captured on camera biting the seam in a match against Australia in 2010; and the wonderfully named South African bowler Vernon Philander was caught gouging the ball with his nails in 2014. In 2016, Faf du Plessis, the South African captain, was fined his entire match fee from the second test against Australia when TV images revealed him applying sugary saliva from a sucked mint to the ball. Most recently, during the fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, Australia, in late December 2017, the England bowler Jimmy Anderson was recorded by Channel 9 TV cameras running his fingernails along the quarter seam of the Kookaburra ball, although any intentional ‘foul play’ was subsequently denied and dismissed by England officials as ‘Pommie-bashing’ gamesmanship.

In my early teens I was taught how to ‘work the ball’ (we never used the term ‘tamper’) by a warm, funny Yorkshireman who was the school cricket coach, a retired England and county cricket player celebrated as a canny, unreadable swinger and seamer. I was a sweet sucker and sugary polisher, although the ball was sometimes scuffed or further shined covertly by a couple of frotteur teammates in the field on its circuitous route back to me. I think I conceived of this as just part of the game and its tactics, an amoral adolescent understanding and play-ful acceptance of furbizia: a minor amplificatory tweaking of the ‘give’ in structure, the craft in ‘crafty’, and the meaning of ‘in mint condition’ …

Tampering techniques aim to produce subtle modifications of the game’s core object. Typically there are three core modes of tampering – picking and lifting the seam, roughening one side of the ball, and shining the other with concealed materials. Less commonly and more mysteriously, marking or scuffing the surface of the pristine, polished side, or picking, lifting and fraying the finer quarter seam that bisects that unblemished hemisphere, can also produce what is known as ‘reverse swing’. An inventory of tampering tools might include: for polishing and shining, Vaseline (concealed on one’s trousers, forehead or a handkerchief), lip balm, hair gel, sunscreen, saliva from sucking sweets; for roughening and scuffing, trouser zip, studs, dirt or gravel, or throwing the ball into the ground; and for lifting seams, finger nails, penknife, nail clippers, metal bottle top, zip. Each of these interventions has to be realised invisibly, and gradually, so as not to attract undue attention. The umpires have the right to inspect the ball at any time, to verify its integrity and the credibility of its gradual wearing and minor deformation as part of the game’s material knocks and frictions; and indeed they can decide to replace the ball with one of similar age and condition prior to tampering if the ball in play is deemed to be excessively damaged.

So tampering involves deception, simulation and disguise, discreetly and necessarily concealed within a performed and illusory pretense of playing by the rules and ‘playing the game’, while incrementally introducing a kind of sinister deviation in the predictable and orderly, a swerve of difference in repetition. Steven Connor suggests that cheating in such contexts is an affront to sport’s claimed ontology. For, he proposes, ‘sport is in its essence zealously non-symbolic and unillusory’, and its function is ‘to provide a place and an occasion from which all possibility of simulation has been scorched away, and in which one can be sure that whatever happens will reliably and irreversibly have happened’ (Connor 2011: 175). In some ways, perhaps there is an echo here of those absolutist claims made for performance art as manifest action and event, the actual happening of the ‘real’, in contrast to the subterfuges, shapeshiftings and tawdry pretense of a particular (and limited) conception of theatre, with its purported privileging of the underhand over the manifest, of seeming over being.

Two months after submitting this text for publication, ball tampering briefly became the focus of the international media, and triggered the performance of a great deal of indignant moral outrage, as if the fact that such tactics could be at play within the game of cricket was the most unforeseen and alarming of revelations. During the third Test match between South Africa and Australia in Cape Town in March 2018, television cameras and live-feed monitors in the stadium picked up Australia’s Cameron Bancroft rubbing the ball with a mysterious yellow object that he then concealed, with comically inept sleight-of-hand, down the front of his trousers. Approached by the umpires, Bancroft showed them a dark grey sunglass pouch from his side pocket, and no penalty was imposed at that time. However the close-up images of Bancroft’s actions had been widely disseminated, and the heightened media attention prompted an immediate investigation. Subsequently Bancroft and Australia’s captain Steve Smith admitted that in fact there had been an attempt to interfere with the ball’s condition, using sand paper as an abrasive tool, and that the tampering plan had been hatched during a lunch break by a ‘leadership group’ within the Australian camp. Formally charged with improper conduct by the ICC, Smith and Bancroft were heavily fined. In the wake of the players’ admission, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (‘it beggars belief’) and a range of international commentators publicly condemned the players’ actions, and a formal investigation was undertaken by Cricket Australia. Ultimately Smith, Bancroft and David Warner, the Australian vice-captain (a notoriously aggressive competitor, and the apparent instigator of the tampering plan) were found guilty of cheating, lying and bringing the game into disrepute; they were sanctioned with lengthy bans from all international and domestic cricket. In addition, the Australian coach Darren Lehmann resigned. On their return to Australia, all three beleaguered players gave tearfully apologetic press conferences to the international media, in which they spoke of their shame, their failure as ‘men’, ‘leaders’ and ‘role models’, and their commitment to forthcoming reviews of the team’s culture and the conduct of professional sportsmen.

1. An earlier version of this material was presented as part of ‘The Things They Do’, an event curated by Joe Kelleher and Nicholas Ridout at the Barbican, London in July 2016, in response to the major retrospective exhibition by Ragnar Kjartansson at the Barbican Gallery.
2. A decade before my arrival, Derek Jarman attended the same secondary school. In his bleakly withering account of its educational ideologies and disciplinary regimes, he characterizes his experiences there in terms of ‘a vicious fraudulent gentility’ that ‘masks a system of bullying and repression, coupled with a deliberate philistine aggression towards learning and intelligence, which are only acceptable if saturated with the muddied values of the rugger pitch … The aggression carries over into many aspects of the teaching which serves not only to enlighten but to repress. A systematic destruction of the creative mind, called ‘education’, is underway … A subtle terror rules, thoughtfully preparing us for the outside world. I feel threatened, isolated and friendless – I’m hopeless at all the communal activities, particularly ball games’ (Jarman 1984: 51-2). Like Jarman, I found refuge in the astonishing openings and relative freedoms offered by the very same art teacher, an inspirational enthusiast and mentor to many ‘failing’ elsewhere; unlike Jarman, I was fortunate to be able to find other pleasures and enduring friendships in the complicities, physical release and escape that sport allowed, for some.

Barthes, Roland (2007). What Is Sport? (trans. Richard Howard), New Haven: Yale University Press.
Birley, Derek (1999). A Social History of English Cricket, London: Aurum Press.
Connor, Steven (2011). A Philosophy of Sport, London: Reaktion.
ICC (International Cricket Council) (2017). ‘Regulations – Playing: Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel – Effective September 2017’, ICC Rules and Regulations: KeyDocuments, accessed 10 December 2017.
Jarman, Derek (1984). Dancing Ledge, London: Quartet Books.

1. Seam: photo David Williams 
2. Old hand, new ball (‘whispering death’): photo Sue Palmer
3. A tampering toolkit: photo David Williams

First published in Performance Research 23: 4-5, 'On Reflection: Turning 100', October 2018: commissioned text for special 100th double issue of the journal

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