Connected audience – emotions, the bitter parts

I had been studying the link between museums, empathy and emotions from a sociological perspective for the past 6 months when last January I received the NEMO Newsletter advertising the conference Connected Audience – Emotions in Berlin in April 2019. Perfect timing, sort of closing a circle of months long reflections. Now that I am back from the conference, I have a few thoughts on my mind regarding the event and some valuable inputs to process. Since I learned it to be better, I will start with the bad things and then go on with the positive fact so the latter stick to memory for longer time.

The most relevant aspect for me, as a researcher from Spain, was the complete absence of non North-American & European (mostly western) perspectives. No more than 10 attendees out of over 300 came from Southern Europe and only one speaker came from Russia, which is possibly not yet Europe entirely.

Indeed museum studies are absolutely not something in Italy, for example. But they are in Spain and there was only one other colleague from Spain and one from Portugal. Very sad. Reasons for that? Costs? Language? That might even be true for participants but not for speakers*. Where were they? A conference about emotions in museum which does not include experiences of conflictive events and XXI historical narratives? That was by far the biggest disappointment: in the whole conference there was only a person coming from India and one from Hong Kong. How can a discussion about audience and emotions lack inclusiveness and diversity at its core?

Beside that I acknowledge that overall and everywhere my perspective is annoyingly academic, and therefore focusses always on aspects of work and planning. In general, I focus on data and methodologies (or lack of) of projects, and every time I remain surprised by how knowledgeable some professionals are but how all of a sudden money, grants and big projects take over and nobody in the end cares about the original projects and objectives or will ever state it transparently.

Here two points:

  • Paying people for their work: When asked about the budget the National Museum of Archeology of Naples he had worked with for this project after his presentation, an Italian professor and consultant answered that some things can be achieved if you have very committed people, regardless of how much they are paid, and sometimes they do it even without a budget because they believe in the work they do and that is more important. I hoped someone would laugh out loud, as many attendees had had the rudeness to do when a Russian colleague presented the experience of the Yeltsin museum because it was Russian propaganda (heard in the crowd), but no, nobody said a word. It felt shameless to me, and I felt bad for not pointing this out as I felt outnumbered. It seemed this privileged White group was reinforcing itself in its assumption of art for art’s sake concept, in other words that it is correct to finding compromises such as using students as they might do this for free.
  • The lack of boldness and the gap between the budget some institutions have and the way they openly declare “we haven’t done any front-end research and we do not know who we will work for”. Assisting to the presentation of part of the team of the never ending Humboldt Forum project was really the most surprising thing of all. A controversial project that will give material to hundreads of PhD dissertations on politcs and identity in the coming centuries (if the format of PhD won’t estinguish sooner, as will humanity for that matter), in which over 15 Millions of euros have been invested and about 60 Millions per year are foreseen as budget (here sources: use DeepL / learn German), the Humbold Forum presented a super PowerPoint in which part of its permanent exhibition dedicated to Berlin is described as a fun and entertaining technological space with technologies that might get obsolete in a couple of years and with the complete exclusion of one part of the potential visitors – older ones. What I missed in the Humboldt Forum presentation of Paul Spies and Brinda Sommer was the boldness of saying after we did not do any research” (which I refuse to believe to be true) because this Berlin does not care for the older ones, we want to attract young adults, targeting 16-40 white visitors and therefore we will not provide them with objects (I think 100 exhibits in 4000 square meters were the figures) but with an immersive space that can I interact with, if they want. Everyone else can go to the other museums of the museums island that are across the street around Lustgarten. They wanted to compromise with the conference audience, who was mostly composed by educators and mediators and supporters of inclusion (despite not being diverse at all s.above) but this brought to a broken narrative that would not satisfy anyone and attracted many critics and questions from the public.

These aspects left me with a bitter note of disappointment about the environment I was in, but I will expand on the positive parts soon, because of course there have been too.

Picture: Tiergarten from inside the Kulturforum and “Ist das Kunst?”, the museums mock the famous pop saying (especially in Berlin) “is this art or can I throw it?” to put itself back on the map using material cultural studies.

*In fact, a German speaker read through her written English text with no intonation in her voice and interrupted her sentences in the middle with no sense of grammar because she had too little confidence in English (something the moderator said, and all questions to her and her own answers were actually translated to German) and therefore made our following of her speech veery challenging. This makes me think also that the organization could have thought of interpreters.

The charm of identity display

A couple of weeks ago I escaped Valencia while the city was being taken over by the local celebrations of Fallas.

While living in Spain about ten years ago, I thought very little of Fallas. Literally. I did not give too much thought to them and I only considered it a loud event to which bright Erasmus students would go to get drunk before going back home to become lobbysts or political VIPs in different countries handling the most crucial matters of our age. No need to get on any bus or train to see it. What I completely misunderstood and never bothered to even try to grasp or feel or understand was the massive support they enjoyed and how deeply rooted that was.

Then 2018 arrived and Fallas came along. I did not know the celebrations would last for weeks and they would overturn the daily life of the city. Little food trucks (the real ones) frying churros, buñuelos and any sort of edible thing from 8 am til 2 am at every corner, all sort of firecrackers at every hour of the day and the night, hoards of people ignoring basic traffic rules, let alone hygiene ones.

And the Parade for the “Flower Ofrenda“: every Fallero and Fallera of the city parades and brings flowers to a statue of the Virgin Mary on the main square. I remember coming back home from work with my bike and facing thousands of people of all ages dressed in expensive and uncomfortable traditional clothes parading through the center, and just stood there speechless. It might have been the first time I experienced a nationalistic folkloric event of these proportions. As an Italian raised in a very laic environment, I am really unprepared for this sort of events, and, I realize, I lack tools of understanding, and empathizing, I think.

With this on my mind, I went away for the weekend, and hopped on a train to the capital to visit friends. Friends have friends, and the latter ones might turn out to be curious and nice persons and all of a sudden it’s 4 am and you are talking nationalistic sentiments in Spain before the elections. It turned out the Fallas had a certain allure to them, actually quite a lot. The festivity as a shared moment through which people connect prevailed over any other nationalistic aspects, in their minds. Even though they had not lived in Valencia nor had they ever been in the city over fallas they envied it. They were longing for the common feeling of belonging to a strongly characterised place, longing for the collective identification process embodied by the attires, the objects, the shared spaces of the city being transformed in its design and traffic, and even in its possible generally accepted normative role.

To me it felt naive, almost childish at times, and it made me acknowledge once again how powerful nationalism as sentiment related to an administratively regulated area is among us, including left wing politically committed adults. It scares me but remains mesmerizing, this building of collective feelings.

Picture: YOU ARE HERE, Madrid, Centro drámatico nacional, March 2019

On building memories and personal legacies vol. III: the things, the feelings

Some more thoughts on a heritage site in my hometown, a sculpture that has been about to be removed entirely in November 2018 to make space for a parking lot.

Time is a deeply relevant factor in the shaping of feelings, emotions and attachments. Affecting the development of spaces and natures, it spreads around and involves people and their memory. It marks materials and objects to the point that they can be transformed, embody and afford the most different perspectives.

Every cultural objects has a brute materiality and a social materiality, and hard to believe, little we have cared for materials as such and not as a mean or symbols nor as part of analysis of material cultures until just recently.

The Monument for the resistance in my hometown was literally forged in the 60s by the workers of the city harbour, men close in time and space to World war II, the memory of which the monument intended to commemorate. That physical space, though, had grown over time into a neglected area outside of any pedestrian route in the middle of traffic. In the dispute about the position of the monument that took place in November, different levels of attachment to ideas and materials were traceable.
By attributing an emotional and civic value to the site, a specific sensibility shaped around an historical context became defined: one in which public space serves a purpose, and that implies that emotional attachment is strictly linked to a collective and agreed memory. The sensibility of those close in time to World war II, or with a direct connection to it, either by family or studies – social links.
This opposed to two different positions:

  • one was of general indifference toward the topic altogether, as heritage is not part of any discourse for some citizens, and the knowledge about facts happened in the city does not go beyond the last 20 years;
  • a second one was of support for the proposal of moving the monument and create a different way of remembering the events. This was well spreaded among younger people (25-45) for what I could perceive, and I could personally see how the topic was considered not relevant inside the self estimeed cultural élite of the city (doctors, laywers, university professors and so forth) of a supposed left. Because, who is nowadays attached to a form of celebration that implies occupying public space with the representation of an idea embodied in a huge sculture? How can a piece of iron embody any deep meaning? Regardless of the idea, a growing sense of private celebration and private memory is far more important. The simplified narrative of old-static-visible Vs new-invisible-fast I think was behind this, and therefore a general neglect for the real matter was carried on.

Interestingly, in the city almost all roundabouts cointain work of arts by local artists, sponsored not by the city hall but private companies. There is a complete separation between what is considered to be a decorative value (not even functional) of an object and the possible additional meanings it might have.

It is difficult to create an attachment out of nowhere, to make sure that a material embodies ideas that are understood, since that specific material inspires not much beyond rejection instead. This was curiously commented by a person in the “defendors” group, saying she never really felt at ease there and was looking for ways of making it understandable, transmissible. (lot of literature on this topic 🙂 )

In an attempt to build said connection and recreate a sense of community, the group of people defending it started to organize some initatiatives around it.

  • A professor from the Academy of Fine Arts in Urbino (the nearest high education institution for art education) brought his students to the monument and gave a class on the artist, the work and its context.
  • The group installed a Christmas tree in the space, and invited via Facebook the citizens to decorate it with balls with their own names or poems or thoughts about the topic. I do not know how popular or felt this action was, but the tree had quite a lot of balls.
  • Additionally, via two local associations (one working with refugees, the second one the local committee of the national partisans association) some representatives of the group met immigrants and refugees from Gambia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Somalia in the sort-of-square the monument creates and explained the history behind the work of art and what it represented. Interestingly (or obviously) some of them were familoar about Italian recent fascist colonial history and had an idea of what the resistance the monument celebrated was.

Local elections will take place this spring in Pesaro: the mayor will run again and local politicians required already to put the removal of the monument into his program.

I am very curious to see if by then the group will have grown big and strong enough to assign a new position to the site within the city landscape or not.
One additional paradoxal aspect of the story is that Pesaro has long tradition of sculture and claims(ed?) to be a city fancing art: Giò e Arnaldo Pomodoro, Eliseo Mattiacci crossed the city when young, there is a huge community of illustrators gravitanting around it and that is basically omnipresent in the city initiatives (Emanuela Orciari, Alessandro Baronciani, Mara Cerri, Simona Mulazzani just to name a few) but the link between that heritage and its historical contexts fails to be represented.

Picture: Pesaro, potential art piece, September 2017

On building memories and personal legacies vol. II: the story, the people

Expanding on my previous post, a few more localized thoughts on memory (this story fascinates me).

Il Monumento alla Resistenza is a work by artist Nino Caruso in memory of the local Resistance movement of World war II. It was erected in 1964 in my hometown, on the 20th of September, for the 20th commemoration of the end of the war in the area, and I never saw it its original context. The monument, an iron casted semicircle with spikes, had been crafted pro bono by the local shipyards workers and was once in a key position – attached to the city center on the border of the old (and I mean XV century old) city walls, close to the train-station and inside a green area.

The aerial picture on the artists’ webpage displays something I never saw in that form because of my age. in fact, a gigantic, disproportioned bridge that goes over the train rails was built in the seventies, deviating the traffic flow and transforming that monument area into a neglected space amidst traffic and right below the new bridge. I myself have been there about 10 times in my entire life. It is loud, it is unpleasant and the monument itself is not a welcoming sight, as the fight it is commemorating was not.

The monument is still visited on the 25th of April, Italy Liberation Day, when official celebrations take place there, but it seems (I do not live there anymore) that lately it had become a dangerous (!) area were migrants would gather – and, my guess, talk? Drink? Eat?

A couple of weeks ago the city mayor (Italian PD National Wunderkind Matteo Ricci) proposed a plan not included in any previous strategic document (as far as I am aware) to improve the security of the area, deteriorated in particular by this collective. It foresaw the removal of the monument, its displacement to an unspecified area of the city to give it more value, and the creation of a parking lot where the monument was.

Feeling a mixed sense of outrage and distress, a group of citizens managed to organize within a few days a sponteanous meeting (that they call congress) in which historians, architects, urbanists. historians of art, members of different collectives spoke against this action and collected 1) over 1000 signatures 2) several alternative proposals for the requalification of the area through urbanistic measure (tunnels connecting that space with a nearby park garden around the above mentioned XV fortified walls, different traffic flows..etc.).

Faced with a mobilization the city had not seen in years, without even the intervention of the authority in charge of heritage monuments (Sovritendenza ai Beni Culturali, that had not been consulted in regard to the possibility at all of moving the monument), the mayor retired the proposal and claimed these people had not understood the potential of his ideas through a Facebook comment.

After the mayor’s communication -reported by many local newspapers obvs- many asked how it was possible that nobody had really cared before for this monument and all of a sudden this had become a major topic on which part of the citizenship had felt the need for protesting. All in all, what the mayor had proposed was to move it somewhere else in order to preserve it.

There were (are?) several factors opposing the collective to the rest of the citizens: the age of the people involved; the personal background; the idea of what heritage is; the idea of what memory is; the idea of civic duty… All these aspects affect the emotional and personal attachment to the monument.

I personally have no attachment to the monument, zero. Despite my lack of attachment, I found it miserable that it was proposed to put a parking lot in there because I do not like cars and I would expect a mayor to consider alternatives to private cars in 2018; additionally, I find despicable for a left wing mayor to exploit and resort to “security” reasons and basically istigating racism against a city collective.

From a scientific point of view I found it immensely interesting.

The same collective that has promoted the initiative for collecting signature is now trying to stick together and plans more actions aimed to tackle certain issues affecting local cultural institutions (or buildings) in different ways. The debates happen on facebook in part: they have constitued private groups for working groups so I can only report on the public ones, which are partially confusing because people are discussing issues that are too different and that would involve many different local institutions entities (Region, City hall, regional health administration etc.). Nonetheless there are several aspects I could identify from far away: the collective is mostly constituted by men, over 60s, convinced that the local policy has decayed over the last 15 years focussing on short term projects that would earn the city hall short term popularity and earnings. Above all they are guided by the deeply rooted principle that the RES PUBLICA is a duty of every citizen and needs to be performed. There is even a noble man owner of an art gallery-hotel that offer to host possible future meetings in the hotel facilities, if needed. The anagraphic distance between them and many other citizens is striking to me, but I haven’t lived there for almost 12 years now so I cannot say much about it.

The whole story is on the edge between pure philantropy and self-made strategic urban planning: the citizenship has declared itself prompt and ready to presents proposals when it disagreed with the local authority but still wanted to cooperate with it.

Discontent ignited initiatives and what was a complaining passive community is shifting into a super active action-oriented collective.

I would like to expand on the different ideas of heritage as they are displayed within this context in another post.

Picture: The former psychiatric hospital of Pesaro right in the city center, August 2018 by me – a huge complex almost entirely abandoned . From time to time at least in my childhood a few cultural events took place there. It is one of the monuments the collective wants public institutions to intervene on.

On building memories and personal legacies vol. I: the context

A few days ago I was in Barcelona attending Triàlegs, in El Born Centre de Cultura i Memòria. Ciutat i Memòria (city and memory, in Catalan) was the ambitious title of the almost three days congress. Here the program, which took me about 15 minutes to find, since it is not linked on the page of the institution which promoted it nor on the one that hosted it. Miracles of the XXI century.

The leitmotiv of all sessions was that the duty to remember exists and must be performed, and among historians, urbanists, philosophers and artists, only a few person were challenging the idea of memory as we generally have inherited it, an intagible entity that must be preserved.

To me it was surreal at moments, because the echo these words created was clashing against the environment. Memory as a univoque, monolithic thing is a very tangible element within El Born, an archeological area cointaining the rests of a urban area of XVIII century Barcelona that got destroyed in the War of Spanish Succession. The area itself generated a debate on how (and if) to preserve it that lasted for years and still is unresolved.. Yet, the conflict that this area caused was suppressed by all the speeches. Nobody addressed where we were although there we were. And the act of building memory, a performative retroactive action, was also only tangentially addressed. I was hoping for much more debate or constrasting experiences but none I got.

While listening to the speech of a representant of the local government in charge of Memory, I realized once again how often politics lacks humilty and tends to oversee details. Memory was described as a civic right towards which local politics is oriented, and it was with pride that it was said that in open public and for the joy of the citizens certain statues or monuments were tore apart or dismanteled. For me it was disturbing to hear it. The apology of Damnatio memoriae, or the elegy of power.

The need for building such discourses scares me. This manichean opposition between Memory and left (and Republic, and even Independence) against Oblivion and right is simple and dissatisfying. And dangerous.

It made seem obvious that it was possible to own memory and the right to impose it as such. The old link between memory and power was there openly displayed.

Who has the right to remove what? How do we build consensus?

In an interesting interview to a few of the speakers of the congress by a local broadcaster, professor Patrizia Dogliani said something in regard to this: collective (=public, as always in this context) memory is not easily achieved: it requires compromise, it must be democratic and must exclude antidemocratic elements / facts. She also adds something extremely relevant: monuments, due to their nature, one that makes them stand as embodiment of everlasting values, should not be relevant and should /can be removed. The conversation on facts, collective memory should take place in museums, lectures, arenas of debate.

This antithetical description of Monuments as static elements that unable the chance of discussion Versus Museums as dynamics places in which the discussion supposedly takes place, is very relevant, as I believe this not to be at all evident to people / citizens / visitors.

Over those same days, a very animated debate on a special monument was taking place in my hometown. Pesaro was the eastern limit of the Gothic line, the defensive line the Germans built in the last months of World war II. As in many Italian and european cities the dreadful memory of those years was remembered visually with street names, plaques and monuments. While I was in Barcelona, some citizens (the vast majority above 60) were organizing themselves as local / civic movement to prevent the mayor to remove the big monument remembering the local resistance.

This event was extremely useful in adding another layer of complexity to the already very tangled relation between heritage and memory, one that I tend to consider less: that of age. And since that place has not really played an important role in the city life lately, the whole story was for me also very important in showing the strategic importance of grief in this specific frame alignment.

I will go further into this Italian story into my next post.

p.s.: The best interventions in my opinion have been those of Ana María Rabe, who brought Latin America right in to the room and shut us iup in 5 minutes describing the invention of heritage and memory in Medellín, and the dialogue between Xavier Ribas and Carles Guerra, because it was pure poetry, an empathic conversation. Check Ribas’ Invisible structure 1 & 2!

Pic: the roof of El Born, summer 2017, by me