The Little Book of Kabul is on TIME Lightbox

Photo credit Lorenzo Tugnoli

Photo credit Lorenzo Tugnoli

Lorenzo and I met Mikko Takkunen at Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan.

It was a beautiful encounter, Mikko gave us and our book time and attention. We were happy to have met someone with a genuine passion for photography and an unbiased curiosity.

We are grateful that from that meeting TIME Lightbox decided to feature The Little Book of Kabul.

You can read the review: Follow the Everyday Lives of Artists in Kabul here.

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Blogging the War

 John Little is a manager of large databases with a technology background. He is the heart and soul behind Blogs of War, one of the most thorough and well respected information platforms in the field of conflict studies and reporting.

Last year I interviewed him about war-blogging, his approach to information reliability, and the fine balance between timeliness and accuracy when writing and thinking about conflicts. The conversation was first published on Muftah.

 

Francesca Recchia (FR): Let’s start from the beginning. Intelligence and national security are not immediately part of your professional expertise, yet for more than ten years Blogs of War has been an invaluable source of information and insight into conflicts across the world. How did the idea come about? And, why is it blogs in plural?

John Little (JL): I have been involved in online communities since around 1980. My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. While many were into games I was more fascinated by the modem and the potential to connect to other computers and people. In my mind that’s what made the early computers fundamentally more exciting than game consoles.

I spent a massive amount of time exploring bulletin boards. I even ran a couple, before more robust services and the web came along and rendered the model obsolete. It was such a great time to be a hacker. The culture was different, much less destructive overall, and there were few if any hacker-specific laws to worry about.

My friends and I were “war dialing” (writing and running programs that would call sequential phone numbers until a modem answered) to find the rare receiving modem, social engineering companies that had zero concept of security, and dumpster diving for old floppy disks or discarded dot-matrix print outs. We accessed systems just to access them. We got in, looked around, and got out.

Our activity in that arena faded out around the mid-1980s when security awareness and the legal system started changing. We wisely retired well before we could get into trouble (or drive a car).

Early Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was another place that I spent a lot of time. It was a great place to study how people connect with technology and it was also something of a hacker’s playground. I ran channels, messed around with bots, and fought a few channel wars back then. It was part of the fun, but got increasingly tedious as the number of people flooding IRC kept growing.

Eventually the web came along and it slowly eclipsed all of these communities. I jumped in right away and started building web pages and web applications. I was updating my home page on a regular basis in the late 90s with completely random content when I started playing with different free content management suites. This eventually allowed me to be more productive and that lead to more frequent updates.

However, it wasn’t until 9/11 that I looked at all this and decided that it was time to bring more focus to my efforts.

The events of 9/11 aggravated two areas of frustration for me. The first was technological. Updates on news sites were infrequent. Media, with very few exceptions, was not fully invested in the web or the larger Internet at the time. Having lived with the Internet and these communities for a long time I knew how to go to multiple locations and piece together a story.

When news broke, I could go to chat rooms, forums and relevant web sites to generate a much more complete story than the media was giving me. A motivated individual could really run circles around traditional media at the time.

My other source of frustration was related to the lack of understanding in the general public about terrorism and some of the forces at work that were making the world a much more dangerous place.  International relations, intelligence and conflict had always interested me so I was surprised by how completely off the radar these issues were for most people.

My online activity very quickly became more and more focused around addressing this problem (or ranting about it). As the site became more focused, I shifted its design and changed the name to Blogs of War, which is a take on Shakespeare’s “dogs of war”. Later, in November 2002, I made it official and registered the domain name.

FR: A seemingly unrelated question. We share a love for the mountains. For me a good deal of this love has to do with the perspective and observation points they provide, with their panorama and the all encompassing views from above. It is also about a passion for challenges and the openness to reflect and learn from humbling experiences. What is the influence that being a mountaineer has in the approach to the intellectual and professional tasks that you are confronted with?

JL: The past two years have not been kind to my mountaineering ambitions. When I was training for climbs it was my singular focus. Life has been far too complicated lately.

That being said, I haven’t give up hope. I have more summits in my future. Climbing is like Zen. It is experiential. It is just not possible to share the depth of that experience with someone else. You just can’t describe the intense physical effort, the depth of satisfaction, and clarity of experience to someone who hasn’t attempted it. And I really hate to distill the whole thing down to a bunch of motivational mumbo jumbo. Those analogies just cheapen the experience for me.

Climbing has a purity to it that will never be found in the workplace or self-help class. It is real life. Before my last climb a Zen Master friend of mind sent me a koan. “Who Walks? Never give up until you get the answer….then follow that.”

At the risk of sounding a bit metaphysical the answer to that koan is the greatest gift climbing offers.

FR: One of the most interesting things about Blogs of War is that it works on multiple different levels, juggling a remarkable amount of complexity and sophistication. It is real time news and a social media monitor; it is a repository of information and points of view; and it is a cultural platform that provides readers with critical perspectives on issues of global security, intelligence, technology, and all the possible interconnections of the three. This is something that seems both conceptually and practically very complicated to manage. Can you give us a bit of a background on how the Blogs of War machine works?

JL: There is no stable process and that can be alternatively exciting and maddening. Blogs of War is, and always will be, an experiment. That means that anything, from the front end that users see to the back end processes that feed it, can change at any time.

Many people do not realize that Blogs of War is simply a personal blog. I do not have a staff. I do not have a budget. However, I do have a demanding career and a full life away from the blog.

This attempt to monitor, curate, and comment intelligently on so many topics within a framework that has so many constraints creates constant tension. It’s really a silly thing for one person to undertake and managing it all well is not something that I’ve ever really mastered. Honestly, I don’t think mastery is possible. So what you see, in the end, is just my best attempt at the impossible.

In terms of content I’m constantly seeking and evaluating RSS and Twitter sources and the software that makes managing those easier. I have also been known to resort to crudely hacking together my own tools to manage this. That is how the live Twitter streams that I rolled out during the Egyptian revolution (and later as CovertContact.com) came to be.

Over the years I’ve tried many automation schemes to help carry the load. I have moved away from the concept on the blog as people have generally stopped looking to blogs for real time news. That activity has largely shifted to Twitter and that is where much of my focus lies.

As it stands now, some of what readers see on Blogs of War’s primary Twitter feed is fed automatically from carefully selected sources or queries that I developed and some of it comes directly from me. This arrangement allows me to feed readers solid real-time news while also giving me a little breathing room to think and contribute more complex thoughts or content. It is far from perfect but it works.

As for me, I spend many hours throughout the day watching the many private Twitter lists that I’ve created and constantly edit. I do most of this through my iPhone. These lists focus on specific regions, conflicts and key subject such as intelligence or information security.

The quality of subject matter experts on Twitter is just unbelievable, so identifying and tracking them occupies a large amount of my time and energy. When important new breaks, I’ll try to get to my Linux workstation as soon as possible. I have two 24″ monitors hooked up to it and with virtual desktops it is essentially like having eight different widescreens running at once.

I can very quickly fill those up with live video and Twitter streams as I monitor both professional media sources and eyewitnesses who may be tweeting, streaming video, or uploading photos from the scene.

FR: In the domain of knowledge production, I am fascinated by the idea of speed and slowness and the achievement of a fine balance between the two – this is something I feel you have managed quite successfully. In the past, such as during the 2003 war in Iraq, you have been able to break news faster than mainstream media outlets. At the same time, Blogs of War is a slow-paced space for reflection, in depth inquiry and deconstruction – if you allow me the term – of very convoluted and multi-faceted topics. What is your magic formula?

JL: Blogs used to be the speedier mechanism for news updates, but Twitter really owns that space now and there is no sign of that changing anytime soon. It actually took me a surprising amount of time to find what seems to be a workable balance.

I think the emergence of Twitter left the old school news bloggers with very few alternatives. Twitter upended news bloggers in very much the same way that we upended traditional media. I really struggled with the divergence initially. The only reason I held onto the blog was my unwillingness to pour all my effort and content into someone else’s (Twitter’s) platform.

Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, I dropped the notion of the blog as a real-time news platform and shifted that effort to Twitter. Now, the blog is for long form writing and a more robust exploration of important topics. Not only does it work, but it makes managing it all much less stressful.

FR: You represent a precursor of what is now defined war-blogging. Online access to information has broadened the scope of interest and debate on conflicts that would otherwise risk being forgotten or overlooked. At the same time, this has created a plethora of self-appointed pundits, experts, analysts, and strategists. This is an issue that you partly discuss on your blogpost Thoughts on Identity and Credibility in relation to how you choose guest contributors. Can you tell us a bit more about your discerning criteria? This, I think, could be a great help to many disoriented readers.

JL: The model, if you can call it that, is fluid. It changes with the culture and the landscape. If the criteria are too rigid you miss out on amazing content. We see this with organizations that refuse to treat bloggers as credible journalists. On the other hand, if it is too flexible you will find yourself falling prey to sensationalists, conspiracy theorists, and frauds.

A key factor in all of this is my desire to be accurate above all else – even at the expense of my own political agenda. When accuracy is the overriding priority it shows. When a political agenda is the overriding priority it really shows and the quality of the content takes a nose dive.

Although, it should be said that there are increasing numbers demanding their news through a rigid partisan filter. I find this troubling. It would be nice if people were both secure and flexible in their worldviews, but I guess the temptation to shut out challenging viewpoints has always been there.

I will often present view from both sides of an issue. I don’t always tell people where I stand or where I think they should stand. Most of my readers seem to value this, but it confuses others terribly.

I am a big believer in networks when it comes to identifying and validating sources. One thing that Twitter allows me to do is quickly pick apart someone’s network and get a feel for what they do and where their influence lies.

I am always looking for new subject matter experts. When I find them, I pick through their social media networks for even more experts and influences. I am constantly building Twitter lists of these experts. Once I have put them into their little boxes I can monitor their activity closely and evaluate their content and positions on key issues.

Some of these people go into my primary A-list rotation right away and others stay in my secondary tier with similar subject matter experts where they are still monitored, but with somewhat less frequency.

Of course, I am not beyond hitting the search engines to research someone. In some cases I’ll sift through LinkedIn resumes or academic publications. Only a small percentage of people get this sort of attention, but it does happen.

FR: Following up on this point, a similar question may arise in relation to the news that you report. How do you screen and monitor the reliability and accuracy of your sources? How do you decide what gets published and what does not?

JL: In terms of Blogs of War interviews or guest posts it is very simple. Those are by invitation only. I turn down almost daily requests from volunteer contributors. In eleven or twelve years, I have probably only taken up one or two authors on their pitches for guest posts. I have to have a personal interest in your story or voice for that invitation to be extended.

Twitter accounts are verified in the manner described earlier. Other content comes from a constantly maintained, and quite large, list of RSS feeds from traditional media and extremely well established individual bloggers.

FR: At the convergence between the tech and social sciences worlds, there has recently been a growing buzz around the use, potentials, and short-comings of big data. What do you think the relevance of this debate is in the field of conflict studies? Can tools like Covert Contact be considered as a context-specific response?

JL: Look data is useful. There’s no question about that. The problem, at least when it comes to conflict, is that data will only rarely alter the human condition. Even when data does offer that advance warning needed to avert disaster, the decision making process happens in what is usually a deeply political and otherwise flawed human layer.

We have a million problems on this planet that could be solved with no data whatsoever, but they persist because human beings are very difficult animals.

I don’t want to appear to be overly negative about big data and its usefulness. It is having an impact and that impact will grow. It just won’t be a magic bullet when it comes to human conflict. There are no magic bullets.

Covert Contact was extremely useful even if it was a bit crude. The initial social media monitoring tools that I developed helped me stay far ahead of the media, and apparently even governments, during the early days of the Arab Spring. Having massive amounts of data at your disposal is always a good thing providing you know how to parse through it all.

FR: Warfare has dramatically changed in the last decades and with it the way we think, talk, and write about it. Since 2002, when you started blogging, we have developed a new vocabulary, new forms of military and strategic approaches, and a whole lot of new (whether real or fictitious) enemies. How have you managed to navigate this situation and adjust to the changes?

JL: Constant hard work. Researching, reading, analyzing and engaging experts day in and day out is the only way to do it. I am constantly aware of my own shortcomings and gaps in my knowledge and I work every day to fill them. But let’s be honest it’s a losing battle. One person cannot monitor, and understand, the entire world. For this reason, Blogs of War has never lived up to my vision and it never will. I don’t have the resources to get there. What people get is best attempt at the impossible.

FR: Strategic communication through social media is a fundamental element in the landscape of new warfare. It is a powerful tool that so-called “enemies” and official players use in molding public opinion and asserting their presence in the virtual domain. In this respect, if we use Afghanistan as an example, we can think of Taliban Twitter accounts such as Abdulqahar Balkhi (@Abalkhi), as well as the increased social media outreach efforts undertaken by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). What are your thoughts on this?

JL: They all bore me, but for different reasons. Taliban, Shabaab, and their ilk do a better job of speaking with an authentic voice, but they are only speaking to the true believers. You’ll never see them effectively engage outside of their narrow world-view. I think we did see that with @abumamerican, but that didn’t go over well (for him) and he is now dead, at least in part, because of it.

On the other side, there are public affairs officers and layers of bureaucracy that are just absolute death to compelling content in the social media space. A million of them have contacted me over the years. They write up their stories about NFL cheerleaders visiting forward bases or Marines rescuing a puppy and beg me to repost it. I did that a couple of times, but won’t ever do it again.

I sympathize with these people on the front-lines of the information war, but I am not here to bore people senseless with meaningless content. I use to reply and attempt to explain to them what my audience expected. My blog was theirs for the taking if they could supply intelligent and informative content, but it never happened. Not once. Maybe they sent it elsewhere.

I believe that governments would benefit from far fewer overt accounts and many more covert ones. Every military unit and bureaucratic department has its own neglected Twitter account now. They do nothing to advance the strategic or tactical goals of their government.

If the goal is to advance a message in a battle space, then agents unrestrained by bureaucratic oversight have to be trusted to get out there and mix it up. Governments should be taking cues from hacker culture in this arena. You can legitimately criticize much of what LulzSec [a group of hacktivists who took responsibility for a number of high profile attacks, including taking the CIA website offline] did during their short time in the spotlight but at least their messaging was extremely compelling.

The same can be said about Anonymous and even the Occupy movement. The groups are all largely composed of digital natives and this stuff is just instinctive to them. You will never achieve that impact when you run your messaging through a bureaucratic filter.

FR: Kashmir is not on the list of hotspots that Blogs of War directly monitors. Is there a reason for this?

JL: Covert Contact, which grew out of the Blogs of War monitors, has been put on hold due to changes in the Twitter API that I am not currently able to accommodate. So to be clear there are no monitors at the moment. But getting to your point I can only say that it was a one-man effort and was a work in progress. Kashmir would have made the list eventually. It just wasn’t a priority in the initial rollout.

FR: One last question. When the NSA is listening to you, what does it hear?

JL: There are occasionally moments when running Blogs of War can get a little surreal. Different agencies and mysterious individuals have reached out to me from time to time and I’d be sort of naive to think that the government hasn’t taken a peek at my email over the years.

Still, personal contacts with government types have been respectful and the monitoring, if it happens, could only bore an analyst senseless. 95% of my phone calls are to my girlfriend. 3% are to my family. 1% are to close friends. I suppose the remaining 1% is composed of former spies and similar types from the Blogs of War network, but even that isn’t surveillance worthy.

I have a real life. It is tedious and mostly boring. I am not trading nuclear launch codes with drop-dead gorgeous foreign agents via Gmail – or though any other medium for that matter. Throughout my blogging career I’ve made it clear that I am not here to attack the state. I am not going to publish classified U.S. government information in search of a scoop. I am just not wired that way. I look at journalists consumed with hatred for the U.S. government and I wonder why they aren’t interested in devoting that energy to exposing government abuses in Iran or North Korea or any number of places where government power has truly horrific consequences. I know that we are not perfect but I question their sense of perspective.

So with all these years and untold hours online I am sure NSA has heard plenty. Terrorists, spies, and hackers routinely engage me online (and usually publicly). I suspect many of those conversations are archived somewhere. I would be sort of disappointed in the intelligence community if they weren’t. That being said, the value of those conversations, in terms of their mission, is minimal at best. That is why I don’t worry about it.

The world is a very scary place and the intelligence community is not going to waste its time on me.

A conversation with Trevor Paglen

Francesca Recchia: We share a passion for geography and maps. A great part of your artistic and conceptual work has been concentrated on what may be summarised as mapping the invisible. How do you inhabit such an oxymoron?

Trevor Paglen: Most of the work I do is self-contradictory: I make images that tend to be quite abstract and at the same time, I do a huge amount of empirical work to arrive at those abstractions. I’m not so much interesting in ‘mapping’ the invisible so much as trying to understand what invisibility itself looks like.

FR: Photography is an important element in both your research process and its final outcomes. Whether buildings, documents, satellites, or airplanes, most of the subjects of your photographs are classified, but you always make a point in shooting them from public land. In this historical phase of hyper-control, is this a way of reclaiming our right to the common, our right to a free public domain?

TP: I’ve long thought of photography as a performance. To take a picture or to make an image is to also insist on one’s right to make an image. From the earliest photos I took of classified military installations, I almost thought of them as documentation-of-performances.

FR: Your work seems to reside on the fine line between the absurd and the sublime. Is that a deliberate quest for a new kind of poetic space of artistic creation?

TP: What I want out of art is things that help us see who we are now. To me the world looks like a combination of the absurd and the sublime.

FR: The Last Pictures Project is an extremely fascinating, visionary endeavour. Almost a sci-fi version of the romantic explorers who would go and discover new worlds, connecting cultures and perceptions of the world. Have you ever felt like an inter-galactic Indiana Johns?

TP: The Last Pictures is very much about the conjunction of the absurd and the sublime. The project started when I realized that certain kinds of satellites (geostationary) are in orbits so far from earth that when they power-down and die, their inert hulls remain in space, essentially forever. Billions of years – they are probably by far the longest-lasting things humans have ever made, transcending even the deep-time of geology and encroaching on the time of the cosmos. The Last Pictures is a project that’s trying to think through the contradictory moment in time we find ourselves living in. We live in a time where we can make things that last as long as the solar system, but can’t seem to develop even short-term policies to avert the economic and environmental crises that we collectively face.

FR: What is the sort of human kind that emerges from the selection of photos that you have chosen to send travelling in the outer space with The Last Pictures Project?

TP: The Last Pictures is decidedly not meant to be something as ludicrous as a ‘portrait of humanity’ or some crap like that. It’s a montage of deliberately obtuse images that, at least for me and my collaborators, speak to deep anxieties about the idea of “progress” and the direction that the world is going.

FR: American forester and environmentalist Aldo Leopold said: “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” Can your interest in space junk or projects like The Other Night Sky be interpreted as a way to explore new forms of cosmic harmony? Or new frontiers for the semantics of eternity?

TP: I’m suspicious of the idea of harmony, which to me implies a kind of stasis that I don’t think you actually can ever find in nature or history. When I’m looking at spy satellites or space junk, I’m perhaps invoking traditions of looking at the sky and seeking deeper truths about the origins of the universe and its ultimate fate. But where someone with a background in observational cosmology finds clues to the early universe in the images of a Hubble Space Telescope, I look at the night sky and tend to see all of the secret machines that are spying on the earth below. Not incidentally, the Hubble Space Telescope is itself essentially a re-purposed spy satellite.

FR: From a non-practicing academic to a non-practicing academic: your work seems to address the issue of knowledge production from a perspective that questions the prominence of the logos. You create and unpack complex notions, using languages that go beyond the verbal. You seem to make a pretty strong statement about the potentials of the visual as an independent form of knowledge production.

TP: Thanks.

FR: Your artistic work is the result of extensive and meticulous investigative research. Do you think that the fact that after all it is only just art allows for a protected space of enquiry and a greater freedom to expose sensitive geopolitical issues?

TP: Not really. I think that it’s very difficult to be a good artist, especially in dealing with politically charged issues. Making art just doesn’t work the same way as journalism or scholarship. A lot of scholarship is pretty formulaic. With art you have to invent your own forms themselves, which is really hard.

FR: Can you tell me a secret?

TP: The government is spying on you. (Like many secrets, this one is well-known but is still officially a secret).

Khaakbaad

L’autunno a Kabul è una stagione preziosa. Mentre scrivo, vedo nel giardino le ultime rose: quelle ancora fiorite sono rosa e rosse; i tre alberi di mele cotogne carichi di frutti che stanno pian piano maturando; la pergola con i pochi grappoli d’uva che hanno resistito alla grandinata dell’altro giorno; e le macchie rosso sangue dei frutti del melograno, piccoli quest’anno, ma pieni di succo.

La percezione del cambiamento è quotidiana, annunciata in modo teatrale da mezzora di grandine. Chissà perché solo una all’anno, la terza da quando sono qui, veloce e violenta segna il passaggio da una stagione all’altra.

La temperatura si abbassa, le giornate si accorciano, mi ostino a dormire ancora con la finestra aperta e ad uscire senza calzini – anche perché mi sono dimenticata le scarpe in Italia, ma questa è un’altra storia.

Con l’autunno arrivano anche le tempeste di sabbia, che qui hanno anche un nome tutto loro, khaakbaad, che letteralmente significa vento di polvere. Anche queste improvvise e passeggere – coprono tutto di una coltre marroncina, una tosse, uno starnuto e vanno via. Poi tornano, ma il passaggio è sempre breve e mai annunciato.

Mi domando perché finisco sempre per andare a vivere in paesi in cui le tempeste di sabbia sono una parte integrante del paesaggio e della conversazione.

Sono passati esattamente sei anni dal primo bollettino che ho spedito, era il 14 ottobre del 2008, e allora come adesso scrivo di tempeste di sabbia. Buffo.

Sei anni fa, raccontavo così le mie prime impressioni di Erbil:

Montagne e deserto… una combinazione incredibile e mozzafiato che non smette mai di sorprendere: le montagne si alzano all’improvviso sempre un po’ inafferrabili attraverso la foschia. L’aria infatti non è mai limpida; una sabbia del colore e della finezza della cipria copre ogni cosa e rende l’aria quasi palpabile (e i miei capelli della consistenza della paglia…)”

Montagne, deserto e tempeste di sabbia: strani elementi ricorrenti che danno forma e colore a tutti questi anni di viaggi, simboli inaspettati delle mie nomadi geografie dell’affetto.

Khaakbaad

Autumn in Kabul feels very special.

As I write I see in the garden the last blooming roses, the ones that are left are red and pink. The three quince trees are full of ripening fruits; the grapes that survived the hailstorm are waiting to be picked; and the blood-red pomegranates, which are smaller this year, are full of juice.

In this time of the year you can feel the changes day after day. The season begins quite theatrically announced by a hailstorm that lasts just about half an hour. I wonder why hailstorms only happen once a year – it is the third since I arrived, they are quick and violent and they visibly mark the passage between the seasons.

After the storm, in fact, temperature drops, days become shorter, yet I still insist in sleeping with an open window and wear no socks – well, also because I forgot my shoes in Italy, but that’s a different story…

Autumn brings with dust storms, which here have their own name: khaakbaad that literally means wind of dust. Even these storms are sudden and transient – they cover everything in a brownish coat, trigger a cough, a sneeze and then go. But they come back, once again sudden, and always unannounced.

I wonder why I always end up living in places where dust storms are an integral part of the landscape and the conversation.

It is exactly six years since I sent out my first bulletin, it was the 14th of October 2008, then like now I wrote about sand storms. Funny.

Six years ago, in that first bulletin, I wrote about my first impressions of Erbil:

Here is all mountains and desert: an incredible and breathtaking combination that keeps surprising me. Mountains rise all of a sudden, a bit blurred in the murky air. The sky is never clear: there is always a fine and powdery sand that covers everything, making air almost palpable – and my hair feeling like straw.”

Mountains, deserts and dust storms: strange recurring elements that give shape and colour to all these years of travels, unexpected symbols of my nomadic geographies of affection.

Eyes, roads and barbed wire

This piece was first published in Kashmir Reader on June 14th, 2012.

kashmir

The first glimpse from afar confirms that Kashmir lives up to its expectations: a picturesque land of pristine natural beauty.
But then, the plane begins its descent and the runway gets closer. And dozens of military barracks start taking shape. With their apparent temporariness, they embody the ineluctability of permanence and with their blue and grey camouflage they occupy the landscape with a sense of intrusive heaviness.
The first encounter with Kashmir at the ground level is almost the opposite of its aerial view: it is armed, muscular, and grim. The nervous presence of the Indian army, with their self-assured attitude of righteousness, generates an edgy atmosphere. The army carry with them a sense of tragedy, they intimidate rather than conveying the feeling of safety and security that is supposedly at the core of their mission.
Once, while talking about Kashmir I was asked: “Tell me about this war.”
It is not easy to explain that in Kashmir there is no war as such, especially when the next sentence in your answer may perhaps refer to the fact that this is one of the most militarised areas of the world. But how does one tell this story without resorting to graphic descriptions of brutalities, without falling into the trap of a hyper-visual domain where the conflict is interesting in as much as it is spectacular? How does one account for the subtleties and the invisible consequences that a military occupation inevitably provokes?
Streets, walls, architecture are powerful entry points to a different way of narrating conflict. It is rarely the case that the built environment is considered as a possible tool to interpret this kind of situations. Many of the scholars who study this field, discuss it in terms of urbicide – the killing of the urban space, its violation by bombs, tanks and coils of razor wire. This theoretical approach treats the built environment as a victim, as one of the many casualties of war, but it fails to address it as a witness and a repository of memories and testimonies. This omission may lead to a limiting intellectual position that does not consider that the built environment does not lie, but maintains in its fabric the evidence of facts and stories that ideological discourses may try to erase.
When roaming in the streets of Srinagar, a city of poetic beauty, this undercurrent of tension never leaves you. Legitimised by the global argument of security, which is locally translated in terms of keeping subversive individuals at bay while protecting the cultural minorities and their heritage, the Indian army has appropriated temples and cultural centres across Kashmir, wrapped them in razor wire and practically transformed them into military bases. The military presence is so capillary that it is almost impossible to avoid it. In a recent article (10 April 2012), Kashmir Watch – a branch of the Europe-based Kashmir International Research Centre – reported that in the past eight years the army vacated about 1300 private and public buildings, but 1800 are still under their control – including eight cinemas and seventy nine hotels.
The visual impact of this presence is both evident at first glance and hidden in the details that may not be striking in their appearance, but are devastating in their recurrence. What sign does it leave on a child’s psyche the memory of walking every day past a checkpoint, the ordinariness of bunkers and weapons on the street, a broken kite entangled in a coil of barbed wire?
It is not always necessary to use gory images to understand the depth of pain and the blindness of cruelty.
To this sort of considerations, the Indian army and official governmental sources respond by claiming that since the 2010 summer of unrest things have improved. Lt Gen SA Hasnain, the General Officer Commanding (since transferred out of Kashmir) has recently taken pride in the army’s newly discovered “people friendly methods” (Hindustan Times, ‘Winning hearts’ in Kashmir to continue: Army, June 8th, 2012), which include playing cricket with boys on the street and changing the timing of convoys.
The state government boasts statistics about the renewed presence of tourists: the number of visitors is used against detractors and malignant activists to demonstrate the achievement of a new phase of peace and stability: honeymooning couples coming from all over India taking boat rides on the Dal Lake provide evidence for that.
Agha Shahid Ali, the poet who more than anyone else gave voice to the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley, has been my guide during my last visit to Srinagar. I have looked at the city through the lens of his words. While wandering around the lanes of the old city, my steps seemed to echo each one of his verses. In the apparent quiet that shrouded the city, the stones of ancient buildings mixed with those that came to symbolise the 2010 uprising.
“[W]hen you left even the stones were buried: / the defenceless would have no weapons” – Agha Shahid Ali says in his poem titled Farewell (1998). The authorities may claim the taming of stone pelters while the lack of visible daily violence can come to signify peace. And yet, the poet is there to remind us what the Latin author Tacitus noted almost two thousand years ago: solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – they make a desolation and call it peace.

Book swapping in Kabul

The joys of life in Kabul

The Little Book of Kabul

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It was such a joy to have the chance to swap books with Bette Dam!

Her work is absolutely remarkable: serious, committed, scrupulous – we are really proud to count her among our friends.

Her fully-Afghan produced book, A Man and a Motorcycle. How Hamid Karzai Came to Power cam be purchased here.

A big thank you to Margherita Stancati and Nathan Hodge for offering the perfect setting with their proverbial hospitality.

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Enciclopedia delle Donne

Tempo fa, Malavika Velayanikal ha scritto di me per l’Enciclopedia delle Donne. Molto è cambiato, il viaggio si è allungato, ma parte della storia resta.

Photo Credit: Selvaprakash L.

Photo Credit: Selvaprakash L.

Francesca Recchia ha attraversato mezzo mondo, spinta dalla passione per la conoscenza. Forzando sia letteralmente che figurativamente molti confini, i suoi vagabondaggi l’hanno portata in posti insoliti e spesso pericolosi.
Francesca ha sempre infranto convenzioni e stereotipi – come quando, da adolescente, è stata la prima rappresentante d’istituto di sinistra, interrompendo la lunga tradizione politica di destra del liceo di Avezzano, in centro Italia; oppure quando, molti anni più tardi, ha fatto conoscere agli studenti della University of Kurdistan Hawler, in nord Iraq, le potenzialità del pensiero critico e di forme alternative di dialogo. Lascia il suo paese d’origine subito dopo gli anni “molto” politici del liceo. Non è stata solo la scelta di laurearsi in Conservazione dei Beni Culturali a spingerla a Venezia, dalla parte opposta dell’Italia; trasferirsi a Venezia è stato perciò per lei un modo di ricominciare da zero: «dove nessuno mi conosceva e io potevo davvero capire chi fossi e che cosa volessi». Questa è per lei una costante: «Mi sento sempre un po’ fuori posto, cerco continuamente cose diverse e finisco sempre per essere un po’ più fuori posto, ma un po’ più contenta di prima».
In ambito accademico la sua irrequietezza ha acquisito nel tempo significati diversi: non è mai stata capace di dedicarsi ad una sola disciplina, di studiare con un solo professore o in una sola università – «intellettualmente non sono monogama», dice.
Nei primi anni di università hanno cominciato a prendere forma le sue convinzioni intellettuali: l’idea che la conoscenza non sia unidirezionale e che l’intelligenza sia un prodotto collettivo, ha giocato nel tempo un ruolo importante. Un’idea potente che, in realtà, non molti accademici condividono. Per la tesi di laurea (1999) ha mescolato arte e sociologia, scrivendo sull’arte contemporanea e i suoi devianti: l’esplorazione della linea sottile fra il genio e la follia non ha raccolto il consenso di tutti i professori. La sua relatrice, Giuliana Chiaretti, è stata la sola a sostenerla e ad incoraggiare il suo approccio interdisciplinare.
Il Master in Studi Visivi al Goldsmiths College di Londra le ha cambiato la vita grazie all’incontro con Sarat Maharaj, un professore sudafricano di origini indiane.
Qui, ancora una volta, ha rotto gli schemi organizzando un gruppo di discussione alternativo aperto a tutti, in cui artisti e critici potevano incontrarsi, cosa fino a quel momento piuttosto rara. Francesca, in questa fase del suo percorso intellettuale, ha cominciato a mettere in discussione le dinamiche di produzione della conoscenza ed è così che gli Studi Postcoloniali e Subalterni hanno colpito la sua attenzione.
Quando Londra sembrava praticamente perfetta per lei, ha deciso di spostarsi di nuovo: l’Italia era nel bel mezzo della “fuga dei cervelli” e tornare le è sembrato un dovere morale.
Con una borsa di studio consegue il dottorato di ricerca in Letterature, Culture e Storie dei Paesi Anglofoni presso l’Università L’Orientale di Napoli. Dopo le ondate di migrazioni successive alla seconda guerra mondiale, l’idea di Europa è cambiata e il “noi” e gli “altri” hanno preso all’interno dei suoi confini una nuova forma.
Francesca ha subito il fascino della trasformazione di questa idea di alterità e ha deciso di scriverne per la sua tesi, utilizzando la città di Londra come caso studio.
Infrangere i muri dell’arroganza intellettuale non rende la vita semplice a nessuno, e così è stato anche per lei. Con i suoi professori di Napoli ha sempre avuto difficoltà ma “fortunatamente” Sarat Maharaj è tornato nella sua vita, invitandola a lavorare per Documenta 11, la prestigiosa mostra che segna ogni cinque anni i paradigmi dell’arte contemporanea. Da lì ha cominciato a lavorare con multiplicity, un gruppo interdisciplinare di ricerca con cui ha condiviso, dice: «l’interesse per come cambiano le città e per il modo in cui le persone e i luoghi interagiscono». A Documenta, il gruppo di cui faceva parte aveva un mantra – Sbatti contro il muro e impara ad abbracciare il tuo destino – questo è stato da allora un motto che ha continuato ad accompagnarla visto che l’unico modo in cui riesce ad imparare è sempre per la strada più difficile. Ha viaggiato con diversi gruppi di ricercatori trovando opportunità per fare lezioni, studiare ed esplorare posti quali il Pakistan, la Palestina, il Kashmir, l’Oman, la Tunisia oltre a diversi paesi europei, sempre esercitando la sua non comune abilità di interpretare patterns insoliti, di unire punti di disegni invisibili.
«Mi ha insegnato l’umiltà intellettuale e la consapevolezza che la curiosità non ha mai fine!», dice di lei Sir Peter Hall, uno dei padri fondatori dell’urbanistica europea. Con lui Francesca ha completato il post-dottorato alla Bartlett School of Planning della University College of London.
Grazie alla collaborazione nel 2008 con TU Delft, in Olanda, con il gruppo Urban Body – che si interessa di sviluppo urbano mettendo al centro della prospettiva di ricerca il corpo umano – Francesca Recchia è arrivata a Bombay, in India, dopo analoghe esperienze a Pechino e Madrid.
«Credo che l’intelligenza e la conoscenza siano processi condivisi, le mie lezioni non sono quasi mai frontali, ma fondate sulla discussione».
Lezioni e conferenze nel tempo l’hanno portata a Venezia, Milano, Delft, in India, in Pakistan, in Palestina… Francesca ha sempre pensato all’insegnamento come ad un’attività politica – un’azione politica intesa nel senso della possibilità di produrre cambiamento anche se fino a quel momento la sua esperienza sembrava mettere in discussione le sue idee: «Ero a disagio, mi sembrava di essere pagata per prestare un servizio.» Per lei, insegnare l’importanza del pensiero critico, del dialogo, della discussione, dell’apprendimento democratico è sempre stato tanto rilevante quanto trasmettere i contenuti.
Il Kurdistan iracheno è in una fase di transizione verso la democrazia e la missione della University of Kurdistan Hawler è quella di combinare tradizioni locali e pensiero contemporaneo: cercavano un docente di sociologia urbana e a Francesca Recchia questa è sembrata una occasione perfetta: l’esperienza di quei due anni sta diventando un libro che testimonia la ricchezza di quell’incontro.
Francesca è tornata in India a luglio del 2010 dove ha lavorato per un periodo alla trasformazione radicale di un villaggio rurale prima di rimettersi di nuovo in viaggio. Il mondo è lì che chiama e lei è sempre pronta a rispondere.

The broken city – Political observations on the built environment

This article was first published in Domus, no. 967 (2013): 114-123.

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From the vantage point of a ramshackle tea stall on the south side of Hari Parbat Hill, the view over Srinagar— the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India—is breathtaking: eagles flying above the skyline, snowcapped mountains on the horizon and an endless sequence of sloping tin roofs, interrupted only by the towering spires of the many mosques.

Hari Parbat is in itself a remarkable summary of the city’s complexity. On top of the hill stands a majestic fort, whose construction was first conceived and initiated by Emperor Akbar in the 1590s, and then completed in the 18th century by the Afghan governor of Kashmir. Just below the fort is the Makhdoom Sahib Dargah, the tomb and shrine of the eponymous Sufi saint and one of the holiest places in the valley, revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Indeed, Hindus consider the hill to be especially sacred due to the presence of the Sharika Devi Temple dedicated to the goddess Shakti, an embodiment of the goddess Durga, who is both a maternal figure and a bearer of destructive male energy. On the way up to the hill there is also the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid, an abandoned mosque dating from the Mughal era. As well as having domes instead of spires, it is also one of the very few mosques that were historically built in stone rather than the vernacular wooden structure. People say that the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid has hardly ever been used for worship, and there are two versions of this story: some say it was because the place was possessed by the djinns—naughty or angry genies—while others claim that it was an act of resistance against the foreign Mughal domination.

Hari Parbat Hill is a microcosmic representation of the complex nature of the city of Srinagar and of the whole Valley of Kashmir. It is a palimpsest of layers: multiple narratives and times across religions, identities and dominations. It holds both the power of the popular imagination of Kashmir as a site of pristine natural beauty (which, as historian Mridu Rai argues, is often rhetorically constructed as emptied of people) and the controversial meanings of the idea of Kashmiriyat (or Kashmiri-ness, an essential notion of what it means to be Kashmiri) beyond religious or sectarian belonging. The physical stratification of architectural styles, religious rituals and historical sites triggers questions on how the built environment can be interpreted in order to understand intricate stories that have several, and often contrasting versions. When asked how we can link the current situation of simmering political tensions with a parallel narrative of cherished cultural cohabitation and mutual influence, Professor M.H. Zafar, the former director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies at the University of Kashmir, told us that interrogating architecture is a good way to begin to understand. “Architecture does not wear its meaning on its sleeves,” he said. “It is a subtle matter that requires observation in order to understand the multiplicity of stories that it tells.” This multiplicity encompasses tales of subversion and experimentation, as well as conservative strategies of preservation.

Heritage and historical architecture, in fact, can also be appropriated and used to produce a pacified vision of controversial presents. In Kashmir, the discourse around its long-standing syncretic tradition is exemplary in this respect: contrasting parties have adopted this notion in ways that are instrumental to either communal political agendas or to comfortably preserving the precariously balanced status quo. Syncretic architecture is introduced in the discussion as physical evidence of a harmonious past in which all religions lived in peace, and it is only due to the radicalisation of their opponent—alternatively Muslims or Hindus, depending on who is speaking—that this harmony has now become compromised or even lost.

~ * ~

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 9.53.07 AMThis recollection of an ideal past is easily translated into an invitation to forget the stone (pelters) of the present and concentrate on the architecturally meaningful stones of the past. In political terms, this attitude shifts the emphasis to tourism, on the natural beauty of the Valley of Kashmir, on the richness of its cultural and culinary traditions, and becomes a clever instrument used by the Indian government to distract both visitors and detractors from the fact that Kashmir is actually one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world.

This is quite a striking detail if we consider that Kashmir is officially not a war zone.

The built environment in situations of conflict is often neglected as a possible exegetic source—it is treated as a victim, accounted for as one of the many casualties, but hardly ever addressed as a witness or a repository of memories and testimonies. This is, however, an incapacitating intellectual position that overlooks the fact that the built environment does not lie, but instead preserves the evidence of facts and stories that ideological discourses may try to efface. Following the omnipresent global argument of security, and its localised version of protection of cultural minorities and their heritage, the Indian army has appropriated temples and cultural centres across Kashmir, wrapped them in razor wire and practically transformed them into military bases. It is visually revealing to take a walk through Lal Chowk—the heart of Srinagar, a busy bazaar-like commercial hub and one of the places that has historically hosted both official political events and opposition demonstrations—and from there to the Old City. The signs of military appropriation of the civil urban space do not use a subtle language and are part of the visual landscape of Srinagar’s present and recent past. By the scenic Amira Kadal Bridge, where Kashmiri women have kept the fishmonger’s trade alive despite decades of political unrest, lies the Hanuman Mandir, a prominent Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god. Nowadays, the temple is manned by a Kalashnikov-wielding sentry. Surrounded by barbed wire, it houses the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), who protect it from potential Islamist attacks and use the spires of its domes to stretch out washing lines to dry their uniforms. Not too far away, in downtown Srinagar, Firdous Cinema Hall tells a more hopeful story: after being occupied by the army for more than 20 years, and being turned into a security camp in 2005, the CRPF returned it to the civilian population in December 2011. Eight other cinemas, however, are still used for military and paramilitary purposes, as are a further seventy-nine hotels. According to KashmirWatch, a branch of the Europe based Kashmir International Research Centre (KIRC), in the past 8 years the army in its various capacities has cleared out of about 1,300 private and public buildings, but, as of early April 2012, 1,800 are still under their control.

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), the poet who more than anyone else managed to express the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley of Kashmir, wrote extensively about Srinagar. Through decades and centuries, the city’s built environment has incorporated the landmarks of cohabitation, syncretism, anger, defeat and resistance. It tells stories of communal harmony as well as tales of struggle and dissent. It carries the wounds and scars of the savage military occupation of civil public space. It echoes the words of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem A Pastoral 196:

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
in our absence from the broken city.

This article is dedicated to Parvaiz Bukhari

L’arte è bipede

Riccardo Benassi, Novembre 2006 © Paolo Sante Cisi

Riccardo Benassi, Novembre 2006 © Paolo Sante Cisi

***

Una conversazione fra Riccardo Benassi e Francesca Recchia avvenuta il 9 luglio del 2012 al Café Gorky Park di Berlino / anche intesa come un’intervista pre-Techno Casa.

C’è un inevitabile, imbarazzante fondo di verità nel senso comune. Una guida inconscia all’interpretazione del mondo: una chiave, una lente d’ingrandimento, un invito alla sovversione. Il lavoro di Riccardo Benassi sembra prendere forma in questo spazio indefinito e indefinibile, giocando sulla linea sottile che trasforma la familiarità in straniamento.

In questa conversazione, dieci idiomi, dieci modi di dire, dieci inconfutabili banalità ci guidano alla scoperta dell’inaspettato.

***

0. Tra il dire e il fare…

Ovvero: la scultura e la scrittura

Questa fase del tuo lavoro sembra segnare un passaggio marcato dalla progettazione di spazi alla preponderanza della parola scritta, che comunque ha sempre avuto un ruolo importante. Le parole e le cose occupano due sfere semantiche ed epistemologiche diverse e la distinzione fra le due spesso si inserisce nella gerarchia non scritta fra pensiero ed azione. Quali sono le tue coordinate in questa transizione?

Lawrence Wiener ha recentemente affermato che i giovani artisti dovrebbero raccontare di meno e fare di più, ed è interessante se ci pensi che questo consiglio arrivi proprio da un padre concettuale che ha fatto del linguaggio la materia prima del suo lavoro. Se è vero che l’utilizzo del linguaggio non presuppone la narrazione, allora l’unico motivo per cui ha davvero senso raccontare è forse quello di far succedere quello che si racconta. Mi piace pensare che organizzare tridimensionalmente uno spazio architettonico vuoto equivalga in qualche modo ad organizzare bidimensionalmente lo spazio di una pagina bianca. Per questo motivo molti dei miei ultimi lavori, dopo essere stati ambienti, suoni, fotografie o sculture, diventano poi dei libri, o qualcosa di simile a libri. Partendo da questo presupposto, viene semplice immaginare un tipo di scrittura che mira ad esaltare la fenomenicità degli eventi, o ad un tipo di ambiente che diventa narrazione. Creare un’opera è il tentativo di dare forma ad una sensazione che ho provato – o sto provando – al fine di permettere ad altri di darle senso. Infatti credo che anche quando un’opera fa appello ad un mondo o ad una popolazione che ancora non esiste, lo fa partendo dalle sensazioni che – in vita – l’artista ha provato. L’utilizzo del linguaggio è quindi questa sorta di ponte levatoio tra me e i nuovi incontri. Di solito il ponte levatoio serve ad attraversare un fossato, è una sfumatura tra uno spazio indoor e uno outdoor, ma in questo caso sappiamo che predispone le derive, serve ad attraversare il mare che sta tra il dire e il fare. Si potrebbe dire che io e l’architettura, così come io e il linguaggio, ci aiutiamo a vicenda. Parte della mia ricerca si concentra sul rapporto vigente tra contenuto e contenitore, sull’occupazione temporanea – attraverso il suono – del vuoto che l’architettura lascia alle sue spalle. Studiare questo rapporto significa in qualche modo ricalibrare il mio valore in qualità di artista all’interno della società. Mi sembra inoltre che oggi il linguaggio sia quotidianamente sottoposto ad attacchi semantici atti a coadiuvare diverse tipologie di utilizzi strumentali che impongono la dissoluzione dei significati soggettivi – e l’idea di narrazione che sto sviluppando oppone un certo tipo di resistenza a questa degenerazione.

1. Prendere due piccioni con una fava

Ovvero: la scrittura che diventa scultura

Nei tuoi lavori in corso la parola promette un accesso inaspettato nella tridimensionalità. E’ questo un modo per liberare la parola dalla costrizione della pagina? O per esplorare un nuovo percorso per quella che chiami la percezione bipede dell’arte?

La parola per liberarsi dalla pagina deve nascere nella pagina. Se la parola si prende lo spazio di una parete, e ci combatte e dialoga, lo fa per aver qualcosa da dire in un sistema di riferimento fenomenico, che sintetizzando chiamerei architettura. I lavori che sto recentemente sperimentando vanno quindi in questa direzione: da un lato si appoggiano a regole interne al codice del linguaggio, come la grammatica per esempio, dall’altro presuppongo una mobilità – bipede – che fa riferimento ad una qualità animale che esclude la conoscenza di codici linguistici. Sono frasi che chiedono al lettore di camminare nella stanza al fine di essere lette, e questo porta il pubblico a mettere a fuoco – anche inconsapevolmente – i limiti dello spazio che lo circonda. Mettere a fuoco i limiti dello spazio è il primo passo verso una consapevolezza del potere strumentale dell’interfaccia spaziale, e quindi l’inizio di un cammino in direzione della conoscenza dell’attorno. Parlo d’interfaccia perché considero l’architettura la tecnologia base, e a differenza di altre tecnologie, è l’unica che percorre tutta la storia dell’arte: indipendentemente da intenti o realizzazioni l’opera d’arte prima o dopo ha bisogno di lei per esistere. Questa tipologia di nuovi lavori, che qui è una fava, prende quindi due volatili, che qui sono piccioni, che potremmo chiamare tempo e spazio.

2. L’apparenza inganna

ovvero: la molteplicità degli strati, le metafore, le letture plurime

Nell’attraversamento fisico e mentale del tuo lavoro, il visitatore / viaggiatore è guidato o invitato a perdersi in una molteplicità di mondi diversi: le possibili interpretazioni iniziali vengono contraddette e confutate dai dettagli che emergono ad un’osservazione più ravvicinata. Quando le soglie di attenzione si abbassano drammaticamente e rapidamente, mi chiedo se questa non sia una scelta per avvicinare un pubblico più ampio e far si che l’audience si possa relazionare al tuo lavoro indipendentemente dalla capacità di lettura e concentrazione.

È assolutamente così, anche se in pratica non funziona. Ovvero l’assenza di determinazione finale crea confusione e obbliga a trovare da sé una soluzione, e non è detto che chiunque abbia voglia di farlo, e sinceramente lo capisco. Non condivido l’idea che l’arte debba fornire soluzioni, ma comprendo il motivo per cui sempre più persone glielo chiedono. Quindi l’apparenza inganna significa prima di tutto che questo tentativo di pseudo-democratizzazione è fallimentare, e va nella direzione opposta, ovvero verso una proposta artistica esclusivista ed elitaria. Nel paradosso sono a mio agio, lo comprendo e ne intuisco la portata. Come interpretare il concetto stesso di democrazia se non attraverso il paradosso? Il rendersi conto di lavorare per pochi, di appartenere ad una minoranza, non nega la possibilità di costante espansione, l’attivazione di dialoghi fondamentali con chi non la pensa come noi. Ho avuto la fortuna e la possibilità di crescere rendendomi conto di quanto è grande il mondo, e di quanti molteplici punti di vista esistono, e nel mio piccolo cerco di dare voce a tutti quelli che esistono in me. Questo non vuol dire che sento le voci, che ho disturbi di personalità o che sono particolarmente indeciso: analizzo la co-presenza di punti di vista – la discussione interna – al fine di solidificare la soluzione finale – l’output esterno. Questa solidificazione permetterà al lavoro di vivere facendo convivere contraddizioni, ma la sua esistenza, la sua verità sensoriale di opera d’arte, è sempre una scelta ben precisa e indissolubilmente unica.

3. Tutto il mondo è paese

ovvero: sulla diversità, il tempo le generazioni

Un elemento importante della riflessione che informa il tuo lavoro è il come della relazione con l’altro da te. Una cosa che mi affascina del tuo pensare la differenza è il modo che hai di articolarla nel tempo e nello spazio: in termini di generazioni come in termini di alterità socio-culturale.

A livello temporale, credo che il lavoro dell’artista non sia dissimile da quello dello scienziato: si continua un discorso iniziato da altri e lo si consegna nelle mani delle generazioni a venire. Questo dovrebbe aiutarci a pensare al nostro operato come ad una porzione di tempo minima rispetto alla vita dell’idea che soggiace ad esso, e in generale, ci dovrebbe far credere nell’esistenza delle intuizioni e nella totale assenza del genio. A livello spaziale invece – e tu viaggi molto più di me e sicuramente sai di cosa sto parlando – è molto più interessante ragionare su ciò che abbiamo in comune rispetto a ciò che ci differenzia l’uno dall’altro, perché questo “comune” di cui parlo sarà sicuramente extralinguistico e sensoriale, quindi non definito ma in costruzione. Mi è capitato recentemente, per esempio, di ritrovare in una zuppa di alghe il sapore del soffritto che faceva mia nonna con le creste di gallo – e ho capito che si trattava del medesimo sapore dai brividi che si sono impossessati del mio corpo tutto d’un tratto. In generale – visto che vivo in Europa – ti potrei dire che è facilmente percepibile un clima socio-politico in cui vige il disaccordo fra gli stati, mascherato da ricatti numerici, e quindi diplomatiche soluzioni teoriche che abbiamo imparato a chiamare accordi trasversali. Quindi tutto il mondo è paese, ma solo e finché esisteranno i paesi.

4. Non è bello ciò che è bello, ma è bello ciò che piace

ovvero: sulla questione della dimensione estetica

In che modo prende forma il tuo lavoro? La dimensione fenomenologica è fondamentale nel tuo pensiero, che ruolo ha la dimensione estetica nel progettare l’esperienza del tuo lavoro?

Vivendo, mi accorgo che ci sono attimi straordinari, e son porzioni minime di quella meravigliosa e terribile operazione di default che chiamiamo vita. Il lavoro è il tentativo di riprendere quegli attimi, e l’estetica è il metodo con cui far tornare quegli attimi sulla realtà, farli riatterrare nuovamente dopo una prima comparsa in forma di vita. Da questo punto di vista è fondamentale l’approccio fenomenico, perché è incontrovertibile… so che il mio corpo non mente, mentre la mia mente perde corpo quotidianamente. Infatti il concetto di ciò che è bello risiede nella sfera estetica, mentre il concetto (molto più divertente) di ciò che piace prende vita nella sfera dell’esperienza sensoriale.

Riccardo Benassi, Left Elbow. Spatial intervention. Handmade curved PVC, spray paint (505 x 55 x 11 cm) 2012

5. Vedere lucciole per lanterne

ovvero: un viaggio in ottica Correlazionista

Nella nostra chiacchierata a zig zag dentro, fuori e oltre i cliché non potevano mancare i neologismi. Parlami della definizione di ottica Correlazionista, si tratta di una nuova scelta di percorso? Una nuova concettualizzazione della relazione fra spazio, oggetti, persone, pensieri, parole?

In ottica Correlazionista, chiunque ha il diritto di vedere lucciole per lanterne, soprattutto le lucciole – che si conoscono meglio di come le conosciamo noi. Ho chiamato Correlazionista la possibilità di creare legami di significato nuovi e inaspettati tra significanti apparentemente distanti. Non credo che il mondo abbia bisogno di particolari neologismi, piuttosto credo nella necessità di nuovi significati per parole d’uso comune. Spingo chiunque a farlo, senza dovere spiegazioni a nessuno – non per un eccesso di individualismo, ma per evidenziare il fatto che non sono necessarie, perché ognuno può trovare le sue, fidandosi di se stesso e della propria percezione del reale. La patologia che soggiace al Correlazionismo viene banalmente definita “disturbo d’attenzione” ed è tipica di una generazione che è cresciuta con tecnologie multitasking, quindi con il vizio o la virtù di fare più cose contemporaneamente senza riuscire a concentrarsi per lunghi periodi di tempo. Quando qualcuno attorno a te incollerà sulla tua fronte con ostinazione l’etichetta di “Post-“ (post-moderno, post-politico, post-concettuale, ecc.) sarà per te naturale avere la sensazione di essere arrivato in ritardo, e quando qualcuno incollerà – sempre sulla tua fronte spaziosa – l’etichetta di “Neo-“ non ti sentirai in anticipo, ma ti sentirai un bambino per sempre… Credo che sia giunto il momento per gli artisti di trovare un modo – a ciascuno il suo – per scollarsi di dosso questi giochi di parole insignificanti. Il gioco che ho chiamato Correlazionismo è infatti la dimensione adatta ad un momento storico in cui non ci si può permettere di avere un unico lavoro e non ha più senso occupare esclusivamente un ruolo all’interno del sistema della produzione di conoscenza. In alcuni campi del sapere il professionismo è necessario, in altri è un metodo per reiterare storicamente delle falsità.

6. Dimmi con chi vai e ti dirò chi sei

ovvero: i maestri, i distacchi e le influenze

Chi sono le persone e quali sono i pensieri che ti hanno guidato e ti guidano nel tuo percorso di ricerca? Quali le affinità e quali le prese di distanza?

I compagni di viaggio sono molto più importanti dei maestri, perché sono vivi. (con chi vai non presuppone forse uno spostamento? Ti dirò chi seiinvece – non promette, definendolo, di uccidere un divenire?) Io sono stato molto fortunato perché ho incontrato maestri che sono diventati compagni di viaggio, tra questi particolarmente importanti in questo momento della mia vita sono Piero Frassinelli / Superstudio, Jimmie Durham, Brandon LaBelle e Liam Gillick.

7. Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio

ovvero: il ruolo della tecnologia

Parli spesso del tuo lavoro in termini di elaborazione e realizzazione di interfacce. Cos’è o chi è che metti in relazione? E che ruolo gioca la tecnologia in questo percorso di costruzione di ponti?

Tecnologia significa Politica, così come il crescente tecno-feticismo è un segnale di una progressiva depauperazione delle menti. Mi piace pensare che un’opera possa essere utilizzata dall’utente, ovvero che torni da lui quando meno se lo aspetta per essergli in qualche modo utile. Anche quando si tratta di un tipo di funzionalismo totalmente irrazionale l’opera d’arte mira sempre al raggiungimento di una vita migliore. Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio manifesta apertamente il tentativo di intravedere in momenti storici che non si sono vissuti delle soluzioni per il presente – e funziona solo ed unicamente perché focalizza un’unità di tempo non esperibile sensorialmente. In breve, quel peggio contenuto nella frase riguarda altre persone e non noi stessi – adesso – e questo lo rende un male facilmente digeribile. Mentre il meglio contenuto nella frase ha secondo me a che vedere con un rigurgito anti-tecnologico, una volontà di ritrovare un certo tipo di naturalezza smarrita, come le aiuole e i ritagli di verde pubblico nelle grandi città italiane. Ma – esattamente come le aiuole – questo tipo di ritorno (organizzato) al naturale sembra più adatto ad altri tipi di animali che a noi bipedi.

8. Chi lascia la via vecchia per la nuova sa quella che lascia, ma non sa quella che trova.

ovvero: quali progetti per il futuro?

Che prospettive nell’immediato futuro? Quali idee di ricerca? Che sfide ti aspetti?

Mi sono reso conto che mi mancavano nozioni fondamentali di economia, ed è su quello che da neofita mi sto concentrando al momento – perché viviamo un momento storico estremamente interessante da questo punto di vista e vorrei essere in grado di comprenderlo a pieno. Una delle mie volontà è anche quella di riuscire a non definire univocamente il mio ruolo di artista all’interno della società, in modo da mantenere un approccio flessibile e adatto ad accogliere e determinare gli eventi. In fondo mi aspetto – come ognuno di noi – di capire qualcosa di più di questa esistenza, e sto mettendo a punto a questo proposito dei nuovi meccanismi narrativi.

9. Al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il cacio con le pere

ovvero: questo non l’ho mai capito, me lo spieghi?

Significa che se ogni persona si rendesse conto di quanto vale la sua esperienza di vita, finiremmo tutti ad essere artisti… e infatti sta succedendo.