Simone Ciglia: For two years NESXT has observed the vast galaxy of independents that orbits our country: started as a festival, it recently broadened its structure to become an observatory. What motives led to NESXT’s creation and to its evolution?
Olga Gambari: NESXT was born from a long and varied experience in the world of contemporary art – from a lived experience including a typically critical and curatorial point of view, as well as that of a journalist in the sector, but also attending events and places and forming relationships with the scene’s various protagonists – that in 2015 brought me to the realisation that it was practices tied to the independent dimension that were the most innovative and experimental, reconnaissance and avant-garde. Organisations often built on the basis of diverse and often forgotten historical experiences that, like living roots, have nevertheless made their way to their present. The reflection on the relationship between cultural production and power, understood in a broad sense, is ancient and spontaneous. This thought was actualised in a project shared and developed by other people, who then became the NESXT board, who also believed that the world of independence deserved a dedicated project and constituted a source of and an energy within contemporary art. The Observatory has been a fundamental part of NESXT since its conception, being a place for critical thought and theory, as well as for remembering and conserving the documents and stories of others. A sort of communal library in progress, of dialogue and exchanges of words, which started concretely when the development process, content and organisation had matured.
The term “independent” has for a while now been at the centre of a lively debate in the field of cultural production: it seems that a shared position on the subject has yet to be found. What does this adjective mean to you?
The debate on the meaning of the word “independent” is important and vital in this field, because it holds the attention and ensures that it doesn’t become a mere label, emptied of meaning, as often happens now. To be an independent space is objectively a fashion, it derives from a sophisticated and superficial attitude typical of the art system, which produces misunderstandings and damage, trying to reduce even this dimension to a purely aesthetic container. For us – even in the heterogeneity of this galaxy, which we don’t want to censor and catalogue, but rather to map slowly, giving it voice without force and format – being independent is associated with some essential values. First of all, the presence of a project and of a processuality at the end of which there must be a cultural production and a production of thought. Then the capacity to develop an autonomy with respect to one’s own identity and the practices chosen, as well as self-organisation and contextualisation within the collective dimension. And again, relationship and participation as a processual practice, the bond with and the restitution to society and territory, the latter two understood as having their initiation in the local area. They seem like abstract categories but they’re not.
What overall picture has emerged from your observation of the independent arts scene in Italy? How is it distributed geographically? What are its peculiarities with respect to the international context?
There is a long tradition that traces a common thread through this dimension. Philologically speaking, there are many tracks that converge on the path that analyses art’s necessary autonomy from the system and its constant compromise. With respect to the Italian scene, I would in any case consider the avant-garde, with their rejection of the museum as a place where power domesticates art, and I would start with the Sixties, with that telluric energy for the rights to individual and collective freedoms that became the subject and the practice of artists and movements. Then everything slowly got buried under the flashy pop of the Eighties, becoming a subterranean river, and in parallel an institutional and public detachment from the values of culture and education began, leading to the dissolution of historical memory as well as to the temporal progression for a continuous and eternal present, to the disintegration of the concept of subjectivity and privacy with the advent of the digital age and social media. At the end of the Nineties, the experience of Oreste and the horizontal propagation network built around it left the dynamics of the independent world visible once more, in the form of relationships, confrontations and sharing, and these continually and gradually diversified, before really exploding in recent years. A phenomenon scattered from the north to the south of Italy, where it is cultural and social crises, even above economic ones, that are responded to by finding new forms of practice and artistic production. But without revanchism or antagonism though. In fact, many independent spaces and organisations are animated by young artists and curators, immune from the syndrome produced by the great crisis of the early 2000s and, before that, by the postmodern. It is precisely because of this that they have proved to be a laboratory of observation, a vital nursery, often unconsciously anarchist.
The thought and the practice gathered under the heading of “independence” tend to be characterised by differentiating them from a “system” that is considered mainstream. At times, however, this antithesis appears artificial and independence becomes mere rhetoric. What dialectic can be established between these two spheres?
There’s a lot of rhetoric about independence. It’s a flag we like to fly, a fashionable item of clothing. Because of this, many people often stoke the fatuous fires of antagonism and fighting the system while instead merely seeking other paths to become part of it, perhaps wanting to cut a rebellious figure. A roleplaying game, in which one serves another. A dangerous connivance because it contaminates and confuses. It paints everyone with the same faded colour. The system naturally tends to standardise everything, to incorporate the anomaly of freedom and independent critical thought, creating formal clones compliant with its totalitarian assertions, ramified in ways that are often invisible and submerged. For this reason, we must not fall into rhetoric, even just linguistically, as this would transform independence into a pantomime or an attitude.
Independence is distinguished by the fact that it generally keeps a low profile and because it works, thinks and experiments, looking for other paths, disseminating small and pointed points and opposing the simple “I prefer not to” of the scrivener Bartleby in Melville’s short story.
In your opinion, what are the potentialities that characterise the independent organisations that exist within the ecology of cultural production, and with which criticalities are they forced to clash – specifically with reference to Italy?
This is precisely what NESXT is trying to understand, it is exploring this liquid dimension like a nautilus. It is the objective on the horizon of our navigation. The potentialities are many, each organisation’s planning an experiment, differing from one other in roots, processes, territory, participants and objectives. Each a small laboratory in which different threads intertwine. Just as many criticalities, as always. Often independent spaces have brief lives, they are meteors in the sky that is art. But each of them is a bearer of ideas and dynamics, as well as energies and involvement that are seeds and jolts, segments of a luminous galaxy within which critical and free thought, from century to century, continues to be a paradigm of reference.
One of the greatest pressures faced by independent groups/spaces is to do with economic support. What is and what do you think should be a balanced organisational structure to support independent production?
The problem of sustainability is a central one, and it’s a subject often confronted in an anachronistic and rigid way. Money and freedom are not irreconcilable: think, for example, about the model of cooperative movement, which has over two hundred years of history. To experiment on the level of thought and of practice you need to be free to be able to do it, above all when it comes to your day-to-day existence. Therefore, even the concept of ‘not-for-profit’ must be understood in a different sense, and not considered tout court.
With respect to Italy, I think of a central and operational structure with a kitted out and mobile office for accommodating interdisciplinary projects, including those formulated in other places through collaborations with public and private institutions, as well as with independent international spaces. A public organisation participated in by private individuals, totally autonomous in its actions, operating in line with a founding charter and a scientific committee with a clearly defined remit, with different people representing different levels of development, fields, generations. Residencies and exchanges are central, as well as the ability to offer the possibility to realise projects and to have space available to work in. An exhibition constantly open to the public, and which is related to the territory. Together with a program of events in which each word always plays a role in data processing, in focalisation, in creating a platform for debate.