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“Environmentalism without class struggle is gardening”
Chico Mendes
Brazilian trade unionist, politician and environmentalist

“There are other worlds, but they are in this one”. In her 2002 Golden sentence series the Spanish artist Dora Garcia took up the words of the poet Paul Éluard, one of the major exponents of the Surrealist movement. The year before, the slogan “Another world is possible” was chanted in the streets of Genoa. Repeated by two hundred thousand people from all over the world during the protests challenging the G8 summit, it suggested an alternative to the dominant economic system, imagining a fairer and more sustainable world. In July 2001 the streets of the Ligurian capital became a theatre of demands and clashes, a space suspended between present and future, possibility and utopia, desire and frustration. Giorgio Andreotta Calò reflected on this theatre in Ventimiglia Genova in 2013, as he walked from Genoa to the symbolic limit of Ventimiglia together with a group of twelve young Italian and French artists from the MaXter programme at the Museo di Villa Croce. He made this two-hundred-kilometre walk with the intention of constituting a “social body” and a movement, understood both as a physical act and in an ideological and political sense. Upon their return, the group crossed the Ligurian capital on the night of the G8 anniversary, repeating the routes of the July 2001 demonstrations. At the beginning of the journey, the artist did not declare the political origin of the action, which emerged in the course of the collective walk, thus allowing each participant to live the experience according to their own point of view., The Canadian journalist Naomi Klein dedicated an entire chapter in her 1999 book No Logo to the street as a site of protest for the construction of the future. In her vision, this becomes a pretext for the conquest of a much larger space, which she defines as a “foretaste of future possibilities”. Contextually to the historical period of dissent towards capitalist ideology, the street is thus conceived as a device to “visualise industrial collapse”, i.e. to experience at first hand the abomination of unbridled neoliberalism, in a world that has become increasingly unequal, elitist and culturally flattened. In this way, it becomes the starting point to metaphorically occupy global space, in a climate of absolute coherence and organicity of the claims carried forth by the movements. Art, in this sense, also acts in the street as a place where the future is built. Through its ability to imagine alternatives to the existing, and through its characteristically free experimentation, art helps to promote social change. If there are only few cases in which an artwork is capable, on its own, of directly aggregating and mobilising large groups of people, at the same time there are many examples of individual art projects capable of acting in specific contexts or in the groove of precise claims. From affirmative places, the street, the square, and public space in general, have been transformed into places of contestation as well as of dialogue and discussion, thus contributing to changing the perception and experience of urban space.[1]

Young artists of the early 2000s

The 2001 Genoa events affected the work of most of the young artists of the time. Over the years, they have explored the problems of the present, interpreted it, imagined alternative scenarios and new perspectives. Numerous artists born between the early 1970s and 1980s, such as Giuseppe Stampone, Gian Maria Tosatti, Alterazioni Video, Leone Contini, Marinella Senatore, Eugenio Tibaldi, Ettore Favini, Isabella and Tiziana Pers, Eva and Franco Mattes (aka have, in different ways and with different themes, focused on fundamental questions for the future (such as environmental, social and political issues). Giuseppe Stampone, Gian Maria Tosatti and Marinella Senatore, in particular, combine artistic practices with methods from sociology and anthropology, even going so far as to actively involve thousands of people. With Solstizio Project, founded in 2008 together with Maria Crispal and extended into several countries, Giuseppe Stampone (born in Cluses, 1974) develops artistic actions that are at the same time didactic methods based on creativity, collaborating with artists, architects, sociologists, anthropologists and social workers, including the well-known scholar of mass media Derrick de Kerckhove. Part of the Solstizio Project is Stampone’s best-known project, Global Education. Started in 2004 with specific communities, it includes his well-known primers and maps, spaces for reflection and educational and aesthetic proposals germinating from the analysis of the places in which it operates, with the intention of proposing alternatives to the current educational model. Less well-known but also very pervasive was the far-reaching project We Are the Planet! Acquerelli per non sprecare la vita [Watercolours for Not Wasting Life, 2006-2012], designed to strengthen common awareness and mobilise new generations on the issues of the sustainable economy, the right to drinking water, the protection of biodiversity and the fight against deforestation, themes contained in the 7thof the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. The project was first implemented in 2006 in the province of Teramo and involved eighty schools in forty municipalities and ten thousand students, going so far as to establish partnerships with countries such as Poland and Croatia. Thanks to funding obtained within the framework of the EU programme EuropeAid, in collaboration with the NGO ProgettoMondo MLAL, it also designed and developed artistic activities in Burkina Faso and Benin.

The work of Gian Maria Tosatti (born in Rome, 1980) stems from a direct study of territories. It delves into local contexts, among the inhabitants, in order to capture their essence and create portraits of them. With his installations, which affect entire buildings or urban areas, he investigates the concept of identity from a political and spiritual point of view. The project Sette Stagioni dello Spirito [“Seven Seasons of the Spirit”, 2013-2016] realised in Naples as a “grand symphony” or a “visual novel”, involved the entire city, registering some twenty-five thousand participants in three years. Starting from the book Il castello interiore (The Inner Castle), written by Teresa d’Avila in 1577, Tosatti created a journey through images, centred on the question of the common use of space in the contemporary city. He intervened in seven large historic and monumental buildings in Naples, important to the city’s identity and yet now in a state of abandonment and degradation. The recovery, renovation and return to the community of the seven spaces through the shared creation of seven works, led to a major urban planning operation that saw artistic intervention as a method for “putting oneself at the service of…” The path constructed by Tosatti through site-specific environmental installations in fact came to involve not only the architectures affected by the interventions, but also the streets, breathing life into entire neighbourhoods.

Very different are the actions realised by Marinella Senatore (born in Cava de’ Tirreni, 1977), aimed at uniting forms of resistance and popular culture, dance, music and mass events. Her projects are structured as archives of shared narratives and manage to involve entire communities around social issues such as equality and women’s emancipation, working conditions and systems of aggregation. The formalisation of her projects draws on popular culture, embracing the aesthetics and participatory dimension of processions and village festivals. With the School of Narrative Dance (since 2013) — a multidisciplinary, nomadic and free school, realised in twenty-three countries — Senatore has so far involved around six million people, among activists, dancers, choreographers, actors, poets, students, artisans, pensioners and politicians who share their knowledge horizontally. The didactic method, based on emancipation, inclusion and self-education, gives rise to a collective creation that is first of all formalised in public performances.

Digital natives

In the last two decades, issues such as climate change, sustainable cities, and the exploitation of workers, minorities, women, animals and resources have become so urgent that, as of 2015, they were included in the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda, approved by the United Nations and signed by 193 countries. Rising inequalities and the worsening climate crisis indicate that the system must be changed: “Another world is needed” is the motto of the present. The proliferation of popular mobilisations against the various kinds of exploitation; the new movements in defence of racial minorities, the LGBT community, and gender equality; and the animal-rights and ecological movements; all reaffirm this need. But in Italy itself, the Genoa events of 2001 constituted a point of no return, a kind of caesura. It opened a wound that has never healed, caused by the repressive force put in place in the name of public safety: “That momentary overturning of democratic codes would forever change Italians’ relationship with political life and social engagement”, Lucie Geffroy wrote in Le Monde in 2013. Little has been done to ensure that the memory of those demands becomes a collective mechanism, a starting point for new utopias; however, it is undeniable that, over time, this same memory has turned into a kind of collective sensibility. We find a fine example of this in the contribution of artists — so-called digital natives — capable of suggesting radical changes in perspective precisely from the street and the occupation of public space.

This often means experiences that have developed from the political consciousness of the individual and then taken the form of activism. In most cases, these are performative works that leave visual traces in space, the documentation of which plays a central role. This is the case with the “political and poetic” practice of Raffaele Cirianni (born in Turin, 1994) aimed at investigating the human and social dimension of place and initiating a process of formalisation that is in close contact with the local dimension and its subcultures. Exemplary in this regard is the performance Viva l’anarchia addio a mia madre [“Long live anarchy, farewell to my mother”], whose title is a tribute to the last words of the anarchist Nicola Sacco and a clear reference to the imagery of political antagonism, with its visual and cultural codes. Collective actions in the name of claiming and occupying public space — understood as a place and field of social and civil action — have also been carried out by the Guerrilla Spam collective (founded in 2010). The invitation, well summarised in the series of works Prendere una posizione [‘Take a Stand’]is in fact to make a not only physical, but also mental, gesture against the dominant ideology.

The practices analysed so far expand to touch on the complex relationship between urban space and the plant world, and thus between culture and nature. This is the case, for example, of Erbario Urbano [‘Urban Herbarium’]by Simone Scardino (born in Turin, 1995): a mapping exercise and analytical collection of approximately one hundred different plant species that make their way through the cracks in the city. This research, promoted by Progetto Diogene, starts precisely from the street and the community to analyse the complex relations of cohabitation among multiple species.

So, the relationship of art with the future — starting from this context and more generally from public space as a place of creation, over the last twenty years — appears complex and variegated. It cannot be encapsulated in a specific practice or in a single orientation. It may be true that, in general terms, today’s generation of young artists seems to have rediscovered a more intimate and “singular” dimension of work. Yet there is likewise a share of them that has chosen to embody the urgent problems facing the collective by proceeding in the same groove as the previous generation of artistic production. Today, like twenty years ago, the artist who seeks to take an active part in social change delves into contexts and addresses issues that are mostly circumscribed to a specific territory or particular struggle, exploring the challenges of contemporaneity in order to suggest possible future visions. The trauma of Genoa in 2001 did not directly leave its mark on the artists born in the 1990s, but certain dynamics do appear to have been internalised; it is as if the end of the no-globalmovement had generated a liminal space within which they intervene with a totally new awareness. The claiming of public space in response to repression thus becomes the macro-theme that needs to be explored further, especially in light of an increasingly ubiquitous and digitised control, which is tolerated in the name of public safety.

[1]On this topic, see Lucrezia Longobardi, 15 Ipotesi per una storia dell’arte italiana. Appunti per una lettura del XXI secolo, Castelvecchi, Roma 2022.