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Comizi di donne – Pasolini, Grotowski and the narrative revolution

  • Post category:Activities

Comizi di Donne. Starting with Pasolini: the condition of women in society.

Opening February 10, 2022 at 5.00 pm

“A work of art no matter how old or classic is actually, not just potentially, it is a work of art only when it  lives in some individualized experience. (…) But as work of art, it is recreated every time it is esthetically  experienced”. 

“In art, as in nature and in life, relations are modes of interaction. (..) But they exist as actions and reactions  in which things are modified. Art expresses, it does not state; it is concerned with existences in their  perceived qualities, not with conceptions symbolized in terms. A social relation is an affair of affection and  obligations, of intercourse, of generation, influence and mutual modification. It is in this sense that relation  is to be understood when used to define form of art.” 

(John Dewey, “Art as Experience”, 1934) 

I came across this book and the writings of John Dewey during my time as guest researcher at  MacBa in Barcelona when I was studying the model of the museum developed by Manuel Borja Villel in his time as director of the MacBa and later at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. 

John Dewey was an American philosopher of the earlier part of the XX century, even if today we  can say that far more has been theorised since his time concerning art and relation, some of it  already touched on in these texts about Comizi di Donne, for example in the work of Craigie  Hosfield, it is sadly true that his intuitions, almost a century later, are still far from being widely  accepted and, most of all, are still far from being lived. 

In 1934, Dewey was questioning the meaning of museum, art and exhibition and what they could  be as part of a living culture in a country only slowly recovering from the great crash of 1928 and  the economic devastation it caused. His was in many ways a very conservative and deeply divided  society. And, of course he is writing not long before the Second World War which was to  scramble and eventually reset a lot of the social dynamics that he knew. But what he anticipates,  what he is reaching for, however conditionally, can be perceived as having a long, if also for long  hidden, path, which was to find its expression, and its struggle with both its contradictions and its  profound and revolutionary implications, in the work of two artists whose lives were critically  formed by the war and the reconstruction that followed it. Two artists in different parts of a then  divided Europe who were part of what can be seen now as a renaissance of art and culture, in  East and West, that was to be followed by a crisis of ideology and of social cohesion. Traversing  this flux Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jerzy Grotowski searched to find not only a language but a way of  thinking and being that could answer to the profound questions that each was asking concerning  individual and social being. 

In fact, if Dewey was trying to open the perception of the people towards art, Pasolini and  Grotowski, in front of the ruins of the second World War and the two newly predominant political  models, determined by the victors, which were starting to be affirmed in their countries  (capitalistic in Italy and socialist in Poland), imagined that to activate this kind of perception it was  necessary to begin from a radical process of changed awareness. They took very different 

perspectives but, in both cases, they came more and more to understand art and its production in  its relational meaning which looks for conceptual connection with time, place, history and society.  We can discover as much from their different paths as we can from that which they can be said to  

have shared. And while the political structures and ideologies of the societies in which they lived  came increasingly to be destabilised by the widening fractures and failures that were already  inherent in the immediate post war years, each artist was driven to go further and further in their  search for a resolution that neither would, or perhaps could, finally find. 

It is a disquieting thought that we now can recognise the still corrosive legacy of the world that  Pasolini and Grotowski struggled for meaning in, even in a time when so much appears to have  changed. The conflict of East and West, the yet more fragmenting irresolution of the  interrelationship of individual and the collective, the evident failures of systems of government in  the face of disease and conflict, and the cruel inequalities become so much greater than in their  time and that eat like a cancer in our society. 

In front of the modernist models in which politics appeared to be putting apart centuries of  cultural identity in Europe, a rupture, as Pasolini certainly perceived it, that was happening in  society and in the self, decided to use art as a tool to think about how to go beyond what they  saw as the impossibility of their present and they did it choosing to experiment with models  of individual and collective awareness, to speak to the reality that lay beneath the compromised  world they inhabited. 

I will not claim here that they achieved some definitive outcomes with their research but I believe  that it can be important to reappropriate some of their artistic and methodological choices now,  in a time in which the compromises that were just being sketched out in the societies in which  they worked have come to fracture our world and when the changes that they saw beginning, and  which they protested, have lead to cycles of crisis, repeating with increasing severity. 

As I have said Grotowski worked at first within a society of great cultural change, and a  renaissance that is now rarely acknowledged. Released from the overriding imperative of  reconstruction that had shaped the immediate post war years in Poland, and with the coming to  power of what was effectively a proto-nationalist government following the death of Stalin and the  consequent fall of his clients there was, for a period of between ten and fifteen years, a brilliant  period of cultural renewal, most of all in the performative arts, in new music and jazz, in cinema,  and, very significantly, in theatre. And theatre, traditional theatres, folk theatre, opera and  operetta, flourished, as did political cabaret and student theatre, navigating with increasing  freedom between church and state, the two conservative powers that dominated the society. 

It was in student theatre that Grotowski, first developed his radical interpretation of what theatre  and art could be, a way of thinking that would come to influence theatre in Poland and beyond  for several generations. This stage of Grotowski’s work in some ways prefigures what was to come  but not yet the crisis that it was to lead to. This was an increasingly physical theatre, and highly  visual, a theatre of events and of confrontation. Over a relatively short time the work came to  focus on the breaking down of the separation of performers and audience, becoming yet more  physical and urgent in attempting to create instants of shared being, of feeling and  understanding. In the struggle towards this breaking down of walls Grotowski left Poland first for  America and the downtown experimental theatre scene of New York in the 1960’s, bringing with 

him an idea of an almost viscerally experienced theatre. The most famous of his theatre groups  from this period was “The Living Theatre” And his influence lives on until today in the Wooster  Group of Liz Leconte, amongst others. But more and more he came to face a perhaps inevitable  crisis and in a move that at the time shocked many he left New York for Italy. 

And this comes to the point of why his work signifies beyond experimental and alternative  theatre. In Italy he struggles to find a language, a method, a way of being, which erases all the  separations and the conceptual framework that conventionally sustained theatre and  performance. He attempts to find how to articulate what we might imagine as the co-being of  once-audience and once-performer in an instant of becoming. This sounds metaphysical, but it  wasn’t, it was imagined within the sphere of everyday experience. Of course, the performers  could not come to this otherness that Grotowski was struggling to resolve, seemingly in his own  thought. Some at the time said that he must have become mad, or was chasing a chimera,  abandoning again what was known for something that could never be. For me, and for some  others, this period of his work brings forward profound questions about the nature of experience  in telling the world, questions of protagonism and authorship, and of performance and of who  makes art and of what it may be. And these are questions that relate, very directly, to Pasolini,  whose path follows a very different trajectory. 

It can be said that for Grotowski performative arts can be tools to transform the perception and  the presence of the artist, in a process imagined through two different steps: the awareness of the  artist who supposes to cancel every kind of technique to get closer to the audience, and the  awareness of the audience through a direct and intensely experienced relation with art in its  making. 

This perhaps is the point where Pasolini’s work most evidently is closest in its negotiation of new  conceptions of authorship to the late experiments of Grotowski.: Pasolini decides to have (almost  always) non-professional actors, in fact non-actors, to play in his films and to create a conversation  without filters with the people, where their stories and their world, as though unmediated, were to  be the creators. 

But it is important to understand the context in which Pasolini has come to this. It may help to explain why Pasolini and Grotowski are significant to this project, and beyond it, and why Pasolini  is at the beginning of the project and Comizi Di Donne at its end. And here I have returned to an  interpretation theorised by Craigie Horsfield, whose work on these ideas has formed the matrix  for much of the project, as I noted in an earlier text. My reading may be a little different but I think  that it is useful in order to understand better Pasolini’s conception of history and the everyday, to  see it alongside the work of Fernand Braudel and the social historians of the “longue durée”.  Ideas that were developing at about the same time. Pasolini passionately believes that he is living  through a cataclysmic change in culture and society in which the life and ways of being that had  sustained and underpinned the world, generation after generation, the life of workers, of farmers,  of everyday toil, the lives so often overlooked but which carried the true story of being, was in a  single generation broken. The notion of the “longue durée” acknowledges this same sense of a  profound world, unacknowledged, appearing as background, as the crowd, as the foot soldiers of  armies, as the workers in the fields, and the factories…and the homes – and all the work of  domesticity. It argues that this being, and their voices, are not lost, and must be recognised if we  are to ever come to an understanding of our own world and its true history. For the historians the 

record of this deep story could be traced through the records of ecclesiastical courts, through the  records of the collectors of tithes, through the incidental and overlooked chronicles of villages  and small towns. A whole world glimpsed through the cracks, the disregarded stuff that went  unexamined behind the record of royal courts, of great events, of politicians, generals, and  bishops, beneath the world, that is, of rulers and governors. 

You can see from this the relation to Pasolini’s vision. He believed that through such a world  unmediated there could be discovered a very different sphere of being and experience than the  one that was destroying its own foundation, sweeping away, in its wilful ignorance, the stories of  the people. It’s not too great a step to see in Pasolini’s work with non-actors a parallel with a pre modern theatre, although a very different understanding from that which had shaped Brecht’s  notions of theatre and which were by then widely known. Pasolini’s players are closer to the  relationships of the religious and secular performances of saints days and civic celebration: the  bank manager as Pontus Pilate, the carpenter as Joseph…and so on. The audience recognised  them as neighbors and fellow citizens, and their performance functioned, in some senses, as an  allegory might. Even the casting of a known actor or artist comes to play a different function  within this conceptual framework, as Pasolini people’s the drama with family, friends, and chance  acquaintances. But even more than this Pasolini is drawn to the telling of tales that come from  every level of society and are told, and listened to by all. It is the undertow of “the gospel  according to Saint Mathew” that we could trace so vividly in our earlier film installation. And it  comes to be the central preoccupation of his film work. Much of this was misunderstood at the  time, or was overlooked, or even derided as commercial folly. The Decameron of Boccaccio, the  Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Arabian Nights, all follow on from this thread that runs  through the gospel of Mathew. These are the stories of the onlookers beneath the cross, the  fishers and farmers and carpenters. The world is being told by those whose voices and  perceptions went largely unrecorded. This longing to release, from the servitude of an imposed  and imposter history, the lives of generations unacknowledged drives Pasolini’s search for a  language that gives authorship, gives making, volition, and meaning, not to performers but to the  living and the having lived. It is a radical step that searches to find its own language. 

From this we may say that Grotowski can be described as having worked towards a process of  individual experience within the social space of the theatre, of players and audience – until the  final search to step outside what was known – a process of awareness which can be imagined to  have been “vertical” (immediate, in the instant, urgent, physically insistent, and then searching  for the erasure of all separation). Pasolini’s Process is a collective one, happening over time, and  which can be imagined as being “horizontal”. But for each their drive was always toward the  perception and the living experience of art related to an understanding of the story in a mutual  exchange between “audience” and “telling”, as a conversation shared in its making, and that  making happens between us. 

This account is important to the understanding of how Comizi di Donne works as a contemporary  art project and where it aims to go. It is intended to show the roots of the life and creation of art  and to propose a different approach to curatorial work, a way of thinking and working that shares  the same will of Grotowski and Pasolini: to understand art inside this conversation with the world.

We have of course come very far from Dewey, Grotowski, Braudel, and Pasolini, we live in a very  different time, but, as we will see in the final part of Comizi di Donne, each may have a  significance for us now. 

If we hold to the necessity of collective and individual awareness as the starting point of living and  creating art, the society in constant transformation needs a practice which finds a way to both  respond attentively, to speak of ourselves and others together, and to speak of new being. 

This is what artist, exhibition and curator should look to, and one of the great possibilities that we  give to art is that it may become more strongly and more effectively the way to imagine  alternatives to the world today. The world very much hurt by the pandemic but even before that  hurt not only by the failure of the predominant social models, failures exacerbated in the face of  disease and war, but also by the valuation of the individual and the individuals possibilities above  all else. This last, the emphasizing of individual being – that works, of course, most significantly to  the advantage of the wealthy and powerful – effects a separation of awareness that diminishes  both the scope of common and shared being and, in consequence, the realisation of an  individual’s full being in the world and in themselves. Moreover the single person, isolated from  full and equal participation in the world, comes to be incapable of awareness of their own  condition. 

Comizi di donne starts from this understanding and translates it to the female condition, which  has known, throughout recorded history, a process of cultural and economic exploitation. The  work to mend, to heal, the deep tears in the fabric of society, that come from this – the  separations that fracture the world, and the wounds to the common place of lives and to  individual being – becomes ever more urgent now. Yes, so much has been done, but look around  us, in the third decade of the twenty first century, how much is yet to be done! It is as if what had  been gained just stopped, and began again to be lost. While, at the same time, so much around  us appears to change. This is not only because of the “thinning”, the weakening of the  coherence, of personal and collective awareness, but also because it looks to have been  absorbed into a collective perception in which we have come to talk about women’s condition as  being framed by extreme cases like rape, brutal sexual abuses, or in terms of femicide: the killing  of women by men. But behind this there is the unremitting social and economic struggle of the  everyday lived by millions of women across the globe. However within this reality, if we are  attentive to it, if we look at what is happening behind the news cycle of crisis and sensation, we  may discover currents of thought and action that can be imagined as the ground of a new  dispensation, a new common ground. It is something that both Pasolini and Braudel  apprehended, that in the commonplace of the everyday, in the intimacy and the community of  lives lived unchronicled and often unattended to there may be understood not only the struggle  to get by but also of how we may come to be sustained, a coming community, a new republic.  We want to believe that art, amongst the many things it can be and do, may in its working, as  thought and action, open a path for other ways of being. And this comes to the thought  foreshadowed in Dewey’s writing, the recognition of the profound portent within the  understanding of relation and art. And from it what art may be. 

The next chapter of our project opens to these questions, and will make a radical proposal.

Maria Teresa Annarumma

“Nuova Repubblica Napoletana” di Marco Messina è prodotta da “Opera Pia Purgatorio ad Arco O.N.L.U.S.
“Opera Pia Purgatorio ad Arco” O.N.L.U.S. ringrazia l’Ing. Prof. Alberto Gaetti per la generosa collaborazione.