A group of people, some wearing facemasks, sitting and standing, assembled around a table speaking, drawing and taking notes.

UNIDEE 2020-2022: Reflections on Embedded Arts Practice in (post)pandemic times

Residents working on their ‘Trace’ to leave in the space as part of the collective display documenting the experience in Biella.

Yellow cover page with brown title text 'UNIDEE: Reflections on Embedded Arts Practice', with monochrome designed pages layered in the top and right of page.
Click for abridged version of UNIDEE: Reflections on Embedded Arts Practice

To coincide with the publication of UNIDEE 2020-2022: Reflections on Embedded Practice handbook (abridged and full versions), curator, art educator and cultural activist Alessandra Saviotti shares her own reflections on her experiences as a guest mentor on the Embedded Arts Practice residencies and labs at Cittadellarte, and how the publication may be used as a tool for artists, artworkers, educators and activists hoping to ‘use art for the responsible transformation of society’. The handbook, written by UNIDEE’s visiting research curator (2020-2022) Andy Abbott, edited by Lara Eggleton and designed by Ashleigh Armitage, expands on the topics, methods, approaches and tools described in the pamphlet adding an in-depth perspective that comes through the curator’s notes and reflections. Both an archive and a diary, the handbook can be used as a repository of ‘scores’ to inspire new projects in different locales. Click on the cover images for pdfs or purchase a print-on-demand copy of the full handbook from here.

Green cover page with white title text 'UNIDEE: Reflections on Embedded Arts Practice', with monochrome designed pages layered in the top left of page.
Click for full handbook version of UNIDEE: Reflections on Embedded Arts Practice

My involvement with Cittadellarte dates back to 2010 when, as part of the art collective, Aspra.mente, our work was included in the publication Visible – when art leaves its own field and becomes part of something else. The book features forty-one artistic (pro)positions ‘involved in building or rebuilding the imagination of the present’, while the wider Visible project became an important step toward the development of a debate about socially engaged art practices in Italy and beyond, and created a network of practitioners that has since flourished through the Visible Award. The book was an important key for accessing the work of other artists worldwide whom, through their ‘situatedness’, were using art to try to change what did not work in the places they lived and worked. Then, in 2020, I was invited to be a guest mentor at Cittadellarte with two of my closest collaborators, Gemma Medina Estupiñan and Owen Griffiths, to work with different cohorts of residents and put our tools to the test. Our task was not an easy one in a world of turmoil, but we tried to find the balance in the so-called ‘new normal’, and support residents when perhaps what we needed most were answers to our own questions, and not the other way around.

Visiting research curator Andy Abbott’s theme of ‘Embedded Arts Practice in a Post-pandemic Future’ for the UNIDEE residency programme immediately resonated with me. As he explored previously in his article ‘Embedded Arts Practice and the Post-industrial North’, situated practices seem to be key to sustaining durational and long-term interventions that often emerge and take root in peripheral places such as Biella and Bradford, which are frequently overshadowed by closer, bigger centres such as Milan and Turin, and Leeds and Manchester. Considering those similarities across such postindustrial cities, which were also the wool capitals of their respective countries, it was crucial to hear from mentors and residents from these towns and regions about which tools for working together they wanted to collaboratively test and scrutinise.

A photo of historical idustrial ruins against the backdrop of a village, woodland, mountains and a clear azure sky.
Walking every day to Cittadellarte was a reminder of its post-industrial status. The buildings hosting the Foundation belonged to the former ‘Lanificio Trombetta’ wool mill.

Biella and Bradford’s histories and peripheral positions became the common ground for a specific lexicon to emerge. Words like ‘toolkit, ‘tool’ and ‘technologies’, for example, became inroads to exploring the analogies between the cities. We used them to unpack the specificities of creative communities and what they have in common, as a way of responding to their contexts. As discussed by Paul Hartley and Rauf Bashir from In-Situ (East Lancashire) and Yvonne Carmichael and Alice Whithers from South Square Centre (West Yorkshire), embedded arts organisations that operate from the periphery have already been dealing with exceptional situations. For them, embeddedness has been the starting point, not a goal. Trust, conviviality and long-term thinking became the best tools they could share during the labs. A similar reasoning seemed to drive Let Eat Bi, a project co-developed by the Fondazione Pistoletto, which through a programme called Terre AbbanDonate (a wordplay that means both ‘abandoned’ and ‘donated’), created a register of abandoned plots of land in and around Biella, which are offered to those wishing to use for growing food. Amateur farmers can then sell a small part of the food through the weekly market hosted by the Fondazione, activating a circularity between land, labour, local economy and art. What emerged from these experiences is that in both cities, culture and art have been fundamental in creating a connective tissue between realities that would not otherwise have met.

A group of people assembled around a table with tree blossom cuttings and organic farming products, on a sunny day with bare trees and historic buildings in the background.
Residents speak with one of the farmers who is part of thenetwork Let Eat Be, which promotes and supports farmers in the Biella region to develop good practices in agriculture and alternative economy.

Looking back at the whole residency programme, what struck me is how the constant re-negotiation of time and space caused by the continuous regulation of the pandemic called into question the very notion of ‘the residency’. As Paolo Naldini put it, ‘we were aware that the real residency is where you live, but here you are transient… it is back home where you engage and challenge your being an artist’. During the pandemic, we were shown what happens when the locus of the residency becomes as transient as the immateriality of a wi-fi connection. Matters such as climate emergency, radical intimacy, the digital divide and accessibility to public spaces suddenly became issues we all needed to reckon with. Starting with a (pro)positive stance in considering the pandemic as a portal rather than an obstacle, the labs unfolded organically, exploring the ephemeral nature of the online environment and the heaviness of our reality, restricted by the perimeter of a screen. Here ’embeddedness’ becomes an umbrella where many instances can unfold. For Abbott, embeddedness in art ‘emphasises the context and place specific, long-term research methods that may involve co-production or collaboration, and – perhaps most importantly – an ambition to mesh with the social fabric of everyday life’.

The plethora of approaches and experiences developed in the labs are the starting point for the publication UNIDEE 2020-2022: Reflections on Embedded Practice. The publication acts as a toolkit, providing interdisciplinary methods, practical activities, a global overview of practices that begins with art and dissolves into life and scores for workshops that imply a certain level of adaptability to different ‘executions’, as if the activators are musicians that try to play from them. It is intended as a manual to nurture the exchange between disciplines as a way to overcome issues that are increasingly pressing today. The handbook, like the residency itself, takes this as its starting point. Far from simply being a theoretical exercise, it is an annotated journal that provides an entry point to the practices of former UNIDEE residents and mentors; a guide for socially engaged art practitioners and radical educators who are looking for answers rather than giving them.

One of the most valuable aspects of this experience, for me, was the unexpected possibilities offered to us by a decentralised network of practitioners. Thanks to its hybrid format, the residency could expand outside of Europe and the global south. We could hear and learn from artists and researchers based in Mexico, Colombia, Ghana, Brazil, The Philippines, Palestine, Tasmania and Azerbaijan, and compare practices and tools from other ‘fractured’ places. For example, we’d find ourselves looking through our screens at weeds growing in a garden in Ghana and weeds growing in the cracks of a sidewalk in Ireland, suddenly brought together as part of the same conversation about new approaches to a more sustainable future. The phrase ‘dig where you stand’ had been proposed during one of the labs by mentor Owen Griffiths as a way to understand taking action and reflecting on one’s surroundings. Swedish author Sven Lindqvist coined the term, and it became a movement that spread across Europe in the 1970s. In the UK, it inspired the History Workshop Journal, which helped to frame a debate around adult education and local history. Through two exercises, a foraging session and a mapping session attempting to trace where the food we usually have for breakfast comes from, Griffiths and I proposed to practically apply the concept and welcome it as part of our daily routines. The proposition was to use ‘dig where you stand’ as guidance in a time of late capitalism when we often feel far away from those who decide for us (for example, political representatives), and our contradictory tendency to rely on them for possible solutions.

A screen shot of a zoom meeting, 5 people attending, with a shared screen of a path through weeds in Ireland.
Foraging Workshop, sharing what grows outside your doorstep. Here we were looking at weeds in Ireland.

Not everything about the online portion of the residencies was idyllic: Zoom fatigue was always lurking; the spontaneity of informal sharing was missing; and collective learning and experience of the place were not always possible, especially in the first couple of modules. However, the opportunity to fully engage with the approaches of such a big group as the basis for reflecting upon our own, was special. For instance, during the first online lab, it was possible for every resident to be simultaneously connected for the introductory lectures, and everyone who wanted to join a specific workshop could do so. I enjoyed listening to the other mentors’ presentations, such as Gregory Sholette, Sandi Hilal, Crater Invertido and the Institute for Radical Imagination, to name a few, which wouldn’t have been possible if not online.

Luckily the questions that were so poignant at the beginning of the two-year period continued with new positive energy when it was possible to meet again in the spaces of Cittadellarte. After exactly two years of online meetings, in March 2022, I was able to travel to Biella to experience the residency in full. Some of the exercises I proposed were meant to reconnect us with the feeling of being together again, sharing the same room and breathing the same air with a group of (almost) strangers. We tried to balance the programme and offer some structured activities, such as short presentations and group critique sessions, with more spontaneous ones. We also took some time to explore the area through walks and a traditional lunch in Oropa, a well-known pilgrimage destination in the mountains, a thirty-minute drive from Biella. There we got to know each other a bit better through an adaptation of Augusto Boal’s exercise called ‘The Choir’, which combines individual and collective perceptions of a place to understand how we react to our surroundings. We gathered in a circle, and we described what we saw around us simultaneously as a choir. After a couple of minutes, I interrupted the choir and called the name of just one person that should carry on with the description. After some seconds, I called the choir again, and we continued on this way until everyone had been called. We decided to do this in other spaces around Cittadellarte, adding some variations, such as using our mother tongues. This was particularly affective because it revealed another way of being ourselves and using our voices differently.

A shot of four sets of legs in jeans and leggings under a table top in a grassy field, taken during an outdoor seminar.
Conclusive Seminar of Artwork as Toolkit, March 2022. This lab was for many of us the first time we were sharing the same room and breathing the same air with a group of (almost) strangers.

To conclude every lab, residents were encouraged to leave a ‘trace’ – intended as any sign left by the group that constitutes a mark of its passage – as evidence of the collective encounter. Traces of the previous cohorts were already displayed on the corridor leading to the UNIDEE project space, strongly reflecting the multiplicity of approaches explored. Week after week, the accumulation of traces created a sort of processual exhibition that acted as a bridge between one cohort and the next. In our case, residents decided to build on the notion of a ‘toolkit’ to create The Exquisite Toolkit, an interactive publication that was eventually displayed in the shared library. It contained a number of urgent questions that emerged during the week, such as: ‘How can we condense a conversation into something practical again?’; ‘What happens when we deal with tough moments?’; and ‘What are our tools for self-advocacy?’. Rather than erasing the differences between the various approaches explored by the residents, The Exquisite Toolkit became an instrument for enhancing diversity so that no single contribution was lost. Residents worked on finding lines of thoughts and actions that could function as starting points to develop new methods.

As one of the residents told me while discussing why collective experiences are important, it is because they make us feel less lonely. She pointed out that the transnational networks made possible through residency programmes can be a tool in and of itself, to remind us why we are doing what we are doing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the final proposition put forward in the publication is to develop an Embedded Art Practice network. After my experience on the residency, if there is just one thing I am sure of, it’s that even in the short space of a week, lasting bonds can be formed, and great things can be achieved.

Alessandra Saviotti is a curator, art educator and cultural activist living between Amsterdam (NL) and Brisighella (IT).

This exploration is supported by UNIDEE Residency Programs and Cittadellarte Fondazione-Pistoletto.

Published 20.07.2023 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

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