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Artists as Activators of Communities
Collective and Shared Spaces in Florence and Prato


Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

From futurism to metaphysics, from magical realism to the Roman school, from spatialism to the piazza del Popolo school, or from arte povera to the trans-avant-garde — the history of twentieth-century Italian art is criss-crossed by movements, currents, classifications or labels that are more or less forced, more or less necessary, more or less artificially engineered. These are, in the words of Robert Rosenblumm a series of “semantic straitjackets” that form a dam around the flow of events, ambiguities and transformations, whether with a political/ideological intent of finding a common definition, or out of a need to adapt or fit into an international context in which, on each occasion, artists share interests, convictions or urgent demands.

In the twenty-first century, the diversification of these latter, the speed of paradigm shifts, the expansion of the physical space in which artists work and, above all, the exponential increase in the possibilities for establishing relationships, lead to the realisation that any attempt to create groups, specific tendencies or overly constrained catalogues would not only be pointless, but would also surely fail.

However, it is increasingly becoming clear that artists are abandoning the private, isolated and intimate studio, or at least putting it on the back burner, in favour of engagement, dialogue, discussion and the possibilities of relating with others. They do so through shared studios, the creation of collective platforms, and the structuring of spaces into which artists invite other artists, curators, designers, dancers, performers and intellectuals. This is an only apparent contradiction, which quickly fades and finds its legitimate explanation if we consider how, in most cases, artists become activators of communities through a dimension inclusive of the territory in which they work — not as anthropologists of the contingent, but as catalysts of experience.

In this article, I examine a series of attempts to establish a principle for rooting culture in society, able not only to give rise to an expanded web of relations, but above all to become a constitutive part of the collective formation of a collectivity.

In the Tuscan context, and particularly in the cities of Florence and Prato, there is no lack of historical examples of this. But if we want to focus on the realities which are still in existence, it is necessary to start with BASE/Progetti per l’arte.  Its activity was begun in 1998 by a collective of artists living and working in Tuscany and who, in Florence, promote some of the most interesting aspects of art today.

This space, located in the San Niccolò district, offers itself up as a site of information and exchange of experiences that are part of a common heritage which everyone can draw on, thanks to the organisation of exhibitions, projects, dialogues and meetings. The artists take turns in conducting the activities, with the aim of involving an ever-greater number of other artists, scholars, collectors and friends in a form of participation and active support. Currently, its members are Mario Airò, Marco Bagnoli, Massimo Bartolini, Vittorio Cavallini, Yuki Ichihashi, Paolo Masi, Massimo Nannucci, Maurizio Nannucci, Paolo Parisi, Remo Salvadori and Enrico Vezzi, since 2000 coordinated by curator Lorenzo Bruni.

More recently, 2017 saw the creation of one of the most interesting spaces still operating in the Florentine scene.  That October, the artists Luigi Presicce and Francesco Lauretta set up the Santa Rosa school in the bistro of the same name on the Lungarno. Since then, every Tuesday morning, it has become a meeting place for collectively drawing together with anyone who should wish to do so, with no specific objective other than to share a “liberated” time.

The Santa Rosa school finds its input in the desire to carve out moments that give a prominent place to the observation of everyday life, the attention to the surrounding reality, the patience to capture with the eye and the rapid gesture the fragility of that which is always in transition. Together with them, artists, students, friends, curious onlookers or passers-by draw, sharing a moment of life snatched from the often useless and tiring urgency of everyday existence, without learning anything, without desiring anything, without doing anything — except, that is, drawing, talking, living. This model — and this attitude towards painting, drawing, didactics, time and needs — has also been exported to other contexts. The sole purpose is that it should be open to all those who want to be part of it, regardless of the either physical or mental abilities, intuitions or intentions with which each of them arrives at this school.

We find a different declension of conviviality — understood as a moment of sharing and engagement — in the Toast project, born in January 2019 inside the former porter’s lodge of the Manifattura Tabacchi in Florence, at the initiative of the artist Stefano Giuri. Gradually, a community of artists, curators, photographers, graphic designers, and professionals linked to the publishing world (including Matteo Coluccia, Gabriele Tosi, Leonardo Morfini, Moretti Pisani, Cecilia Cirillo) build up around him, constantly discussing activities and developing programmes. Both in terms of its type of planning and the way it uses it, Toast has had a considerable impact on the social fabric that comes to the Manifattura, especially given the ambiguity of its position, a private square that has to all intents and purposes become a public one. The decision that each invited artist should work on the production of a single work, has led to a programme in which solo exhibitions follow one another continuously, but with different themes. This allows ample pause between one project and the next, with the possibility of thinking about empty spaces as sites of investigation, reflection and critique.

One fundamental aspect of Toast is the organisation of dinners and informal moments involving the Florence artistic community, also in collaboration with the other realities operating within the Manifattura, such as NAM — Not A Museum or the Veda Gallery, both within the exhibition spaces and, above all, in the nearby “Mario Bencini” Arci circle, where the community of cultural operators expands, intertwines and merges with the fabric of the neighbourhood.

The Artiglieria association emerged with very different prerogatives, albeit with similar aims and intentions. It was founded in 2020 by Gaia Altucci, Niccolò Vannucchi, Caterina Milli, Martina Rotella, Ache77, ExitEnter and Nian, who were later joined by Gianluca Trusso, Krai-ta317, Renzo Mezzetti, Luca Graziani, Lorenzo Passaniti and the Nuans FotoStudio collective.

Although this project began from the idea of developing a private workspace, the union of its founding members oriented its activity towards the public sphere, transforming it into a cultural association. The fifteen artists currently coworking in the space pursue research in artistic fields as varied as painting, sculpture, street art, photography, performance and electronic music. This is a strength of the association, which brings together multiple skills and allows a continuous cross-fertilisation of visions and sensitivities.

However, Artiglieria also bases its identity on a physical place, a space for experimentation and sharing that is inhabited by its members on a daily basis, as well as pursuing an artistic orientation focused on the production of exhibitions and events in the field of contemporary arts. Without losing its studio character, and taking advantage of the versatility of this space, Artiglieria’s founders have channelled this dual need for internal research and openness to the outside world into the structuring of cultural containers in collaboration with other realities.

The geographic proximity between Florence and Prato, the continuous movement of artists, curators, and audiences between the two cities, and the recent birth of various collective realities bearing a constant impact on the local context, leads me to also to mention two extremely heterogeneous projects, both based at textile hub Prato’s Officina giovani, which are however perfectly coherent with the theme of this article.

Created in early 2019 upon Prato city hall’s call for tenders for the realisation of artist residencies at Officina Giovani (Ex Macelli pubblici), Estuario is a project by Marina Arienzale, Serena Becagli, Francesca Biagini, Roberto Fassone, Matteo Innocenti, Dania Menafra, Enrico Vezzi and Virginia Zanetti. This project space is an opportunity for artists, curators and authors to meet and collaborate, brought together by the desire to reflect on the current dimension of artistic practices and to propose a platform for exchange, sharing and dialogue, reflection and production. That is, a platform open to a heterogeneous public, through various laboratory and exhibition formats, including workshops with artists, talks and exhibitions.

TranSpace, for its part, is a space created in 2020 with the intention of crossing the boundaries of territory, beliefs and identities, through daily practices of interconnection and sharing. The project is the result of the collaboration between three associations of artists and curators in the Tuscan territory — CUT, Circuito Urbano Temporaneo (Stefania Rinaldi, Simone Ridi, Lorenzo Coco, Simone Cariota and Viola Pierozzi), FORME (Silvia Bellotti and Erica Romano) and the MASC Collective (Lavinia Nuti, Alice Risaliti, Matilde Toni and Valentina Amelia) — and their desire to relate to and cross-fertilise one another. TranSpace’s objective is to rethink places, relations and creative processuality, starting from the contemporary artistic experimentation most closely linked to social and cultural consciousness, through an exchange that, through intergenerationality and multilingualism, sets out new ways of disseminating cultural messages. Through the organisation of artistic residencies, workshops, meetings and laboratories, artists and citizens are invited to discuss contemporary issues, in an effort to go beyond common-sense, taken-for-granted understandings of things. It points beyond all forms of reductionism, beyond anthropocentrism, beyond species, beyond gender and race, in order to recognise the positive value of otherness and difference, investigating new possibilities and collaborations.

Clearly, the various actors that populate the cultural system examined by this article make up a set of extremely heterogeneous realities, in terms of their configuration, their capacity to interact and bear impact, their objectives and, above all, the audiences to whom they address themselves.

However widespread the idea may be that art is an engine of innovation, change and collective progress, or that one of its roles is to grasp and act as a spokesperson for common demands and to relate to the community, I believe we cannot place limits on the sphere of implications that these concepts encompass.

If we recognise that in most of the realities here mentioned, the public is an active, participating component of a creative process with a clear social connotation which is both inclusive and harmonic, we should also examine what we mean by “communities”. This means understanding that there is more than just an abstract, objective, soulless definition of this term. It is precisely the diversification of these realities that helps us see that the concept of community is in fact ambiguous; and it is thus that its multiple, eclectic and multifaceted nature emerges. The social impact that art can produce does not only reside in the possibility of prompting a different way of inhabiting territories, but also in the ability to analyse, study, integrate and develop the community of individuals it addresses, paying particular attention to how this is configured. In this conjuncture, artists make their intervention as activators of communities — founding them, creating them, enriching them and collaborating in the definition of their identities.