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Maria Giovanna Mancini

Community is given to us with being and as being, well in advance of all our projects, desires, and undertakings. At bottom, it is impossible for us to lose community. A society may be as little communitarian as possible; it could not happen that in the social desert there would not be, however slight, even inaccessible, some community. We cannot not compear.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community

The warning from Nancy — the philosopher of the body, of “sexistence” of community, of co-ontology and being-in-common — made its bold arrival in the late 1980s, when intellectuals had to come to terms with the degrees of separation that distanced the communist ideal from so-called actually-existing communism. What is striking about Nancy’s proposal, which appears even more radical in the light of subsequent readings, is that the experience of being-in-common is never unbound from corporeality, from the idea of a proximity of bodies and a necessary contact. In a condition of the dissolution of community which, as we have read, even when “slight, even inaccessible” remains a community, the individual of whom Nancy writes turns out to be only “the abstract result of a decomposition”.[1] “But the experience through which this individual has passed, since Hegel at least, … is simply the experience of this: that the individual can he the origin and the certainty of nothing but its own death”.

The profile of the artist — if we do not consider him to be a special and privileged individual thus extraneous to the mechanism of individualism of which Nancy offers a concise and unequivocal account — responds exactly to the philosopher’s identikit, if we think of his action in the real as extraneous to the community, even if it is understood as temporary. It goes without saying that only the individual and, in our case, the artist “inclined outside himself, on that edge that is his being-in-common”, turned towards the community, i.e. to the home par excellence for the “singular plural” ─ to use another of the philosopher’s famous expressions ─ emancipates himself from the sense of extraneousness.

Throughout the twentieth century, many artists appeared committed to this mediation between the self and the community, even if in many cases the atelier continued to be one of the crucial sites of production. This community dimension of artistic research in some cases became decisive for individual orientations; I am thinking in particular of the pedagogical experience of Black Mountain College, a school or rather a “place of living utopia” founded in 1933 by Andrew Rice and Theodore Dreier in North Carolina, before it was permanently closed in 1957. Its professors included Anni Albers, Josef Albers and Xanti Schawinsky, and among its students it counted the architect Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunnigham, Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg.

Not only did the school introduce a revolutionary pedagogical method that only in part harked back to the Bauhaus experience, but above all teaching — or rather the knowledge-building phase — was achieved through community life. This saw teachers and students engaged in a form of total experience and experimentation, in which the everyday was not foreign to artistic research. The life of the community was the pedagogical context and the place for perceptual and material experimentation. 1952 saw the arrival of Theater Piece No. 1, with the collaboration of Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg, and the participation of (among others) the poet Charles Olson, the last head of the school, and David Tudor.

Traces of the questions experimented with at Black Mountain College would long remain a persistent presence in the artists’ work: we need only think of the continued collaborations between Cunningham and Rauschenberg throughout the following decade. Particularly striking in this regard is a statement made by Robert Rauschenberg in a note for James Klosty’s edited volume on Merce Cunningham: “I don’t want to examine and flatten by classification, and description, a continuous moment of collaboration that exists in a group soul. Details are fickle and political and tend to destroy the total events … All of us worked totally committed, shared every intense emotion I think performed miracles, for love only”.[2] The impossibility of describing the quality of the collaboration without destroying the totality of the event is only matched by the intensity of the sharing of ideas between the two artists, expressed in a productive tension particularly evident in famous works such as Minutiae (1954). What Rauschenberg calls a miracle in his handwritten note probably ought to be interpreted as a productive harmony between the two artists, born precisely from their common attendance at Black Mountain College. This revolutionary pedagogical proposal has recently been the object of study, the starting point for a rethinking of contemporary art-teaching models and the subject of a broad project of the University of the Arts in Zurich, Revisiting Black Mountain. Its aim is to propose a pedagogical model that will transcend existing ones, starting from the example of radical democratisation offered by this historical case study.[3] It is interesting that the community form has in recent years has been adopted as a reference point for projects aimed at rethinking the educational aspect linked to the arts, as a central motor for a diffuse artistic presence in the community and in public space.[4] 

The pedagogical dimension of the artistic community is key to another community that was not created as a place of and for artists, but gathers personalities from around the world even long after the closure of this centre of aggregation.

In 1987, Jimmie Durham and Maria Thereza Alves moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico. This was the city where Ivan Illich had pursued his “deschooling” activities between 1961 and 1976, first founding the CIF, Center for Intercultural Formation, and then — liberating himself from a Church that chided his lack of orthodoxy to Rome’s instructions — the CIDOC centre. Illich advocated “deschooling society” ─ the title of one of his famous programmatic works ─ and not the reform of existing pedagogical models. Hence in the centres he founded, teaching was not imparted from above, but through an informal process of contact and sharing between participants.

Over the years, due to Illich’s presence Cuernavaca had become an obligatory stopover not only for dissident Catholics but for the entire US Left committed to the cause of Civil Rights. Even though some of Alves and Durham’s friends, such as Cedric Belfrage and the activist Sergio Méndez Arceo, were no longer present in Cuernavaca by the end of the 1970s, the two artists moved there, and community life certainly did influence Durham’s production. That same year, he produced the performance I Want to Say Something (Bilingual Education), in which the artist read some of his verses in French while wearing a coyote mask and dancing like an “authentic Indian”.[5]  In this sense, life in a city so marked by Illich’s radical theoretical orientation was probably more a landing place than a new horizon in the artist’s practice.

The community model or idea par excellence was probably the colony in Ascona, Monte Verità, Switzerland. A colony, a sanatorium that gathered philosophers and artists interested in an alternative to the bourgeois life of Europe’s industrial cities. For artists it became an emblematic go-to destination. The colony’s history — running from the early 1900s until the death in 1964 of Baron von der Heydt, who had bought it in the 1920s — is studded with avant-garde artists, starting with Marianne von Werefkin (who arrived in 1918 with Alexej von Jawlensky), Hugo Ball and Hans Arp (who were in Zurich) and — to name just a few others — Gropius, Albers, Schlemmer and Breuer.

The interest in the colony over the years has — with an obvious symbolic significance — been bound up with the curatorial practice of Harald Szeemann. Fresh from the enormous curatorial effort of the Bachelor Machine exhibition at the Bern Kunsthalle, he curated the imposing, multi-venue documentary exhibition Monte Verità. The Breasts of Truth. It took place from 7 July to 30 August 1975 at the Casa Anatta — the hotel built up against the rock face, as commissioned by the Baron, which had hosted the Bauhaus artists and architects — the Ascona municipal museum and other venues in the surrounding area.[6]  The exhibition, which documented the alternative living practices conducted in a colony that housed ecologists, vegetarians, nudists, anarchists and intellectuals who believed in the possibility of reforming everyday life in a radically alternative way, was entirely produced by the Zurich Kunsthaus. In some ways, this in fact marked the end of the curator’s permanent collaboration with this gallery.

The community idea was somehow internal to Szeemann’s own curatorial practice. In 1969, he even founded an agency to propose exhibitions and projects to cultural institutions: an “Agency for intellectual Guest Labor, which is seasonal, even mercenary, because the labour can be exported. We call it simply the Agency. Open as it is to every suggestion and stimulus, filtered through a single ego, the Agency combines all authorities (legislative, executive, administrative etc.) and all specialised departments”.[7] The only exhibition produced by the Agency was The Bachelor Machine in 1975.

The problem of the community of artists and the artistic collective whose different subjects are linked by a shared poetics clashes with the need to affirm the authorship of the both artistic and curatorial gestures. It is no accident that Szeemann hung in the balance between these two poles — on the one hand adhering to a collective form, and on the other asserting the need for the public to recognise the “personal profile of an exhibition maker”.[8]

The Monte Verità exhibition marked a breaking point. It affirmed a specific curatorial modality based on the choice of complex objects, apparatuses of knowledge, which the curator contributed to placing in space. In Szeemann’s writing for the exhibition, the Ascona community was recounted through the detail of the document or of the single object as a site for the production of a collective but still singular knowledge — interpreting the paradox from which we began through the words of the philosopher Nancy.

The story of the 1990s is habitually told as the moment in which individualism was radicalised even in contemporary art, after the “heroic” season of the previous decade (think of Achille Bonito Oliva and Harald Szeeman’’s Aperto 80 section, which presented works by Chia, Clemente, Cucchi, De Maria and Paladino at the Venice Biennale for the first time, and documenta 7 in 1982, curated by Rudi Fuchs, whose intention was to restore the discourse on “beauty” and “individual artistic values”). Yet in the 1990s there was also a revival of movementist political impulses, and a saturation of critical discourse revolving around the generation of painters. Starting with the famous exhibition curated by Bourriaud and Troncy, Il faut construire l’hacienda, new perspectives and approaches were recorded that would achieve a systematic form at the end of the decade.[9]

In Italy, it was probably the Oresteproject that most precisely responded to the idea of an artistic community. “Oreste is the expression of a broad collectivity of artists that includes a major slice of the most recent generations of Italian art, in which the proposal of aggregation does not arise from the intent to develop a common poetics or to gain visibility in the eyes of the system, but rather from the need to circumvent the meaninglessness of the narrative programme in which their experiential context is trapped”.[10]  This was how Pierluigi Sacco introduced the volume which documented the activities held upon the second meetup in Paliano in 1998. Common across all the published interventions was a recognition of a lack of shared and collective spaces and debate, and what the editors from the Turin-based collective  a.titolo called the choice to produce “an alternative to the individual prerogative that generally characterises our profession”.[11] The project proved fairly short-lived (existing roughly from 1997 to 2001, via the 1999 Venice Bienniale). But, in the — as yet unwritten ─ history of the experiences of recent decades in Italy, it marked a clear watershed between two different modes: one that understands art professionalism as an individual path, and another that considers it as a journey, even an incident-strewn one, built on encounters and exchanges.

Probably other instruments, other sources would be needed in order to recount this second hypothesis. This especially means those sources that have, or should have, recorded the exchanges of ideas, chats or divergences of perspectives between the sometimes-unsuspecting participants of an informal and “inoperative” community.[12]

[1] J.-L. Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 3.
[2] J. Klosty (ed.), Merce Cunningham, Saturday Review Press, 1975, p. 83.
[3] D. Richter, R. Kolb, Editorial, «OnCurating», December 2019, 43, <> (February 22, 2023).
[4] See in this regard the conversation between Chto Delat and Martina Angelotti, as part of the Visible project: C. Delat, M. Angelotti, Organising New Forms of Collectivity. A Conversation on School of Engaged Art, «Visible», <> (February 22, 2023).
[5] The irony typical of Durham’s practice was explicit in the hand-drawn flyer that accompanied the performance at the festival at New York’s La MaMa Theater, on which the words “Authentic Hand-made Indian Announcement” appeared as a guarantee of authorship, well in advance of the recent controversy over his Native American identity.
[6] T. Bezzola and R. Kurzmeyer (eds.), Harald Szeemann. With Through Because Towards Despite, Edition Voldemeer, 2007, p. 407.
[7] F. Pinaroli, The Agency for Intellectual Guest Labour, in Harald Szeemann, Individual Methodology, JRP Ringier, 2007, p. 63.
[8] U. Graf, Interview with Harald Szeeman, December 28, 1970, ivi. p. 83.
[9] Roberto Pinto recently reconstructed the history of the Premiata Ditta collective and the project, offering an overview of the decade: R. Pinto, Da Premiata Ditta a La smaterializzazione dell’artista, «Piano b. Arti e culture visive», 26 January 2023, vol. 7, no. 2, <> (February 22, 2023).
[10] P. Sacco, Introduzione, Oreste Uno, edited by G. Norese, Milan 1999, p. 10.
[11] a.titolo, Dopo Paliano, Oreste Uno, ivi,p. 15.
[12] Telling in this sense is the note on which Sabrina Mezzaqui concludes her contribution to the volume on Oreste Uno: “I would like to record the oral history of the art of these last ten years, as told by friends during car journeys on the motorway or at night at a bar table”: S. Mezzaqui, Festa, ivi,p. 82.