Perhaps it is not the best idea to launch a research with the closed question of, “Does context shape the way an independent space or initiative forms?” If this had remained the only question of this research, then I could have quite easily concluded it here with a strong and confident, “Yes.”
In the last text I wrote, based on my time in Paris, I noted how funding appears as a constant backbone within the conversations I have had with spaces in Amsterdam, Madrid, Berlin and Paris. And upon arriving in Rome, it of course came back again, this time with very deep (old) structural roots.
The first thing I notice about Rome is the scarcity of spaces that identify as independent, with those that I do find having a complicated personal relationship with the term - either wary of its current popularity, or not relating to its (assumed) aesthetic. The second thing I notice is the strong presence of other forms of institutes –mostly in the form of Foundations and International Academies- that I have not encountered yet in other cities. But because I only manage to meet with a few independent spaces and one foundation, I find it difficult to draw any conclusions about their relationships.
Perhaps it initially reads as a trivial detail, but my visit to Rome is quickly dispersed to include Milan, Naples and Palermo also, with a momentary postulation to visit Polignano a Mare, where nomadic space Like A Little Disaster is currently based. This development was quickly explained during my talk with Current, in Milan, who mentioned that because contemporary art is such a small niche within Italy, the network of spaces spans across Italy, rather than staying bound to each city. I’m also informed that despite the number of independent spaces in Italy is small, they do concentrate in certain cities, and that Rome definitely is not one of them.
And perhaps this is where even the incredibly loose structure of this research got in the way. Besides being a research on ‘independent spaces and initiatives’, it also has a focus on location, particularly focusing on cities that, at some point in their past, have boasted reputations of being cultural capitals. What these cities have in common is that they live in the shadow of an image they no longer embody; continuing to identify with their past while really becoming more and more commercially focused. This makes for an intriguing situation where artists continue to migrate to these centers, while their contemporary realities are actually quite hostile to them being there: these cities are increasingly expensive and crowded, with booming tourism and shrinking space and support for artists. So that is why I am visiting Rome.
But in Italy, living in the shadow of the past is something that is definitely is not specific to Rome – with contemporary art in generally affected by this tremendously present past that overshadows it. Speaking with Lorenzo in Milan, he mused at how sweet it must be to come from New Zealand, where ones actions are not constantly shadowed by an expansive history jumping on every idea demanding, “Are you sure it has not been done before?” and where large parts of cultural funding aren’t dedicated to the upkeep of cultural heritage – such as the opera, for example. While in Naples I even discover that the art of Neopolitan ‘Pizziauolo’ is officially registered as an Intangeable Cultural Heritage of Humanity! But I’m going off topic.
But off topic is exactly the topic of this trip – with the distractions in Italy being so immense, with so much to see, from so many different eras, documenting so many moments in human history, that as soon as any momentum drops away, the country is immediately ready to catch you with surprise visits to small churches filled with torture-depicting frescoes, or propels you into an hour-long queue for the most divine food -recommended by absolutely everybody as a kind of city-wide agreement- or a mid-sized museum with a handful of Caravaggios, or I don’t know – Palatine hill, the Colosseum, the Pantheon. The list, of course, goes on and on.
But Chiara, of Leporello, “a small bookshop focused on many activities” sharpens my attention to a few things I haven’t found the words for until now. When asking her about why she started Leporello, she said it simply came from the fact that there was no place to buy good books in Rome. As gentrification starts to nibble on neighborhoods such as Pigneto, “the Brooklyn of Rome”, where Leporello is located, Chiara notes that there is suddenly a plethora of places to eat and drink, places to stay, but no nice shops; and with her bookstore she wants to contribute positively to the neighborhood that, through its establishment of co-working spaces, has helped her develop her practice here in Rome.
Chiara’s description of the city’s transformation echoes an experience I have repeatedly had while trekking through these cities this summer. I generally dislike public transport and therefore walk everywhere I go. Because independent spaces often seek low rent, and the lowest rent is mostly found on the edges of cities, this generally leads to repeated walks directly across the city centers, from one peripheral location to another. And each city has a similar experience: while the outskirts are all built up in their own compositions –Berlin in chunks; Milan in a gradient; Paris with a razor sharp edge- what they all have in common are dead centers. Not dead in terms of no people, but dead in that there is nothing in these areas but cheap food sold at high prices and a succession of overcrowded landmarks.
The first sign of these zones is the transformation of supermarkets to “express marts” with food sold at twice the price– and the disappearance of all other stores needed for day-to-day life. These centers are completely excavated of everything other than pit stops for hungry (tired or injured) tourists bustling from one attraction to the other. And its not as though it’s a smack in the face - a clear line which says, “here ends the part of the city where people still live”, but awareness of it creeps in through a strange, inescapable dread that, after repeatedly traversing particular parts of the city, starts to automatically steer ones body around them –trying to find alternative routes around these areas that feel like deserts - with only the promise of my destination helping me traverse these stretches. Which brings me to AlbumArte.
AlbumArte is an independent and non-profit exhibition space in Rome whose focus is mainly on video and performative language. But what strikes me most about the space’s activities is its consistent effort towards collaboration. Just as these cities have gaping spaces between areas that support culture, so too can these gaps be found within cultural ecosystems. The art scene as an ecosystem is an idea I touch upon in my research in Madrid, in which I postulate that a diverse range of institutes and organizations is what creates a sustainable and supportive environment in which art and culture can form.
In Rome a variety of organizations and institutions do exist, yet the interaction between them is minimal – with many being international institutions that act as isolated bubbles that exist in, but do not interact with, the city of Rome (e.g. the French, British, Spanish Academies formed due to the Grand Tours of the 17th and 18th centuries). These academies are some of the most established institutions for contemporary art in the city, offering residencies to artists from their respective countries. This results, however, in a strange landscape in which Rome offers more opportunities for international artists to live and work than for Italian artists. These academies’ lengthy establishment in the city means they occupy prime locations – meaning that while French, Spanish and Swiss contemporary art can easily be found in the city center, Italian contemporary art cannot. And with commercial galleries in Rome also preferring to represent international artists, Roman artists find themselves scarcely supported in their own city.
AlbumArte’s response to this situation is not to make (the tempting move to) solely host Italian programs. Rather they focus on collaborating with international institutions – within and without Rome. Hosting exhibitions from both Italian and international artists and curators, almost every exhibition is made in collaboration with another institute, space or organization. AlbumArte is relatively small, and yet they act with (fearless) disregard for size or hierarchy – their collaborations spanning anywhere from emerging curators to embassies to established art institutes – all with the focus on making (good) exhibitions. And when I ask about Italian artists in Rome, looking for confirmation of the common narrative I have been hearing, they (again) skirt the tempting move to wallow. “Its not terrible for Italian artists,” Valentina tells me, and then goes on to describe the few new grants that are becoming available to them.
I am repeatedly struck by, how when faced with a difficult environment to work in, AlbumArte’s response is not to be defensive or focused on self-preservation, but rather to be proactive and to continue looking outwards. Broadening the conversation to Italy’s increasing political hostility and closure, Valentina confirms that, “right now is the most important moment to be open.”
Another space that is notable for their collaborative approach is Current of Milan. Throughout their two-year history of exhibitions and events, their program is made, with increasing regularity, through collaboration with other spaces. While I do not have many examples to go by, I start to wonder if these collaborative approaches are in response to the Italian (contemporary) art landscape that I’m being introduced to?
AlbumArte assure me that it is. And while Current does not explicitly state it, they do bring attention to this mode of working as one of their strengths – though also as a quality that sets them apart. Unfortunately the time (end of summer) and place (Rome) in which I visit Italy restrict me from further exploring this question. But the few independent spaces I do make contact with all exude these qualities: openness, awareness and proactive connections with other organizations. And it is these connections that pull me through this trip to Rome- just strong enough to pull me across Rome’s center -and across the country- with each space motivating me with their enthusiasm; offering another reference, another contact, that helps me navigate this landscape –the one they traverse daily- without loosing all direction.