Et in arcadia ego

Α project for an ubiquitous Kunsthalle

by Filipa Ramos

Ironically, there are many affinities between the natural set of classical Arcadia and the location of Como – the original stage for a proposal for an ubiquitous Kunsthalle. In fact there are so many that it seems more than a coincidence that a project with such a strong idealistic component was born in this idyllic – or should we say Arcadian – location.

Como, a city located on the Southern shore of the lake that shares its name, owes its natural charm to a good combination of a mild Mediterranean atmosphere and an alpine character, conferred by the proximity to the Prealps. Despite being just 40 km distant from Milan, it remains quite a remote location, traditionally more concerned with itself than with the outside, and largely indifferent to the vicissitudes and events of the larger city. The current Como focuses on its natural and historical resources and has an overall attitude of detachment from the activities of larger neighbouring cities. This willingness to turn its back on its neighbours is not entirely positive. Indeed its cultural activity is quite low for a middle-sized city in a wealthy location with an important natural and historical patrimony, from the local late-medieval school of painting (know as the “Comasine Masters”) to the legacy of Rationalist architecture, in particular that of architects Antonio Sant’Elia and Giuseppe Terragni.

It is also an irony that, despite its cultural and environmental attributes, the modern Como is commonly associated with extravagant and luxurious lifestyles, which are fed by a profusion of fashion boutiques, decadent restaurants, and top class hotels and villas that attract the rich and would-be rich to the area.

It was this isolation that motivated research into the possibility of providing the area with a forum exceeding the commonplace exchange of goods and attracting cultural and artistic proposals that relate to locals and international visitors.

However, it would have been difficult to impose on Como an institution that its inhabitants and visitors did not feel a need or desire for. For that reason a consultation project was conceived that would hopefully increase and nourish a sensibility for contemporary culture by inviting professionals from diverse areas of expertise of cultural production to come to Como and share with its inhabitants their ideas, visions and advice on how to create what would ideally become “the most beautiful Kunsthalle in the world”. This was a concept that was conceived by Marco De Michelis, director of the Antonio Ratti Foundation (responsible for developing the project), and carried out and supervised by myself.

Researching the possibility of establishing the most beautiful Kunsthalle in the world – that is, the conditions to create an exhibition space that would function in the best possible way – was developed through twenty-four encounters that took place over a two-year period, with an average of one per month.

In developing the programme, we felt the need to experiment with different formats in our public encounters, to ensure the best possible relationship between themes, speakers, timeframes and audiences. One of the most successful models was one-to-one dialogue with certain personalities we felt had important testimonies

to pass on, such as Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Nikolaus Hirsch and Vicente Todolì, who were all invited to speak in Italian so as to be linguistically closer to the audience.

There were sessions coordinated and moderated by younger professionals, as when Paola Nicolin moderated a discussion between Art Angel’s James Lingwood and Creative Time’s Nato Thomson about producing exhibitions, and when Francesco Garutti hosted a discussion on architecture for culture that included Andreas Angelidakis, Kuehn Malvezzi, Dieter Bogner and others.

There was a whole day dedicated to the curator, which was divided into three main blocks (the canon, the exhibition and the institution), and for which we invited Maria Lind, Bruce Altshuler, Raimundas Malasauskas, Celine Condorelli and Jens Hoffmann, among many others, to discuss the history, role and pertinence of the loved and hated figure.

The last encounter marked a critical moment for the development of the most beautiful Kunsthalle. After two years of inviting international professionals to bring their expertise and proposals to Como, the time had arrived to focus on our city and face its needs and problems. This also became the moment to gather what was said and suggested and to decide if the most beautiful Kunsthalle in the world was set to remain a research project that provided guidelines for those interested in thinking institutions, or if we would use these theoretical foundations to imagine the configuration of a centre for the arts in Como.

It was most probably the speculative nature of the project that called for an experimental proposal, which would function as a test-site for a different relation between cultural institutions and audiences, especially the new ones, with a whole new set of desires and demands. This proposal was born out of the need to answer a series of questions that emerged while thinking about an institution for culture in the present context, such as: How can cultural institutions in general, and a new institution in particular, establish a close and long-lasting dialogue with its visitors? How can an individual feel part of an institution and identify with its positions, statements and activities? How can an individual trust an institution? How can a space be more than an area of display and encounter and become a key element for the identity of a place, adapting itself to it? How can we feel at ease at a venue? How can a cultural centre generate needs and desires in its visitors, some of which they did not even know they felt? How can we spend less on infrastructure and maintenance in order to redistribute funds to production and creation investments? How can an institution relate equally to diverse physical and social realities?

We did not answer these questions. But they offered hints for a proposal. For one thing, they seemed to attest that the desired closeness between cultural institutions and the public could not derive from logics of emplacement but from the promotion of a more flexible and less imposing space for the production and promotion of culture.

Οutdoors view of the Most Beautiful Kunsthalle in the World
Fondazione Antonio Ratti

Photograph by Giovanna Silva

A central aspect that came out of the discussion sessions about the most beautiful Kunsthalle was that such an institution did not need a fixed physical location to exist and that its initiatives could take place in different locations, as institutions seem to have a great capacity for triggering processes of aggregation and identification that do not require association with a place.

The current situation for certain cultural institutions in Italy mirrors the apotheosis and crisis of the museum as a status symbol. To give as just two examples the two main museums for contemporary art in Rome: the MAXXI, which is threatened with closure only two years after it opened (in May 2010!), due to excessive maintenance costs associated with severe governmental cuts, and the Macro, which has suffered from a directional instability that has lead to its gradual loss of identity.

These sad occurrences seem to confirm the fact that if culture is an essential element for the cohesion of individuals and the edification of a local, national and international identity of a given place, it should not be presented inside costly and obsolete containers that absorb a considerable part of the resources meant for research and production.

These examples (and many others, in Italy and abroad) lead me to believe that a new space for culture in Como should be based on participation and have a changing, iridescent identity, one that is itinerant and adaptable to the diversity of the presented projects, because its strength would rely on the activation of processes and not in an immobile presence. This would allow for a concentration of funds on a constant reconfiguration of a place that is different each time.

It is obvious that such a project would need to have a small head- quarters, a sort of office for administrative, logistic and archival functions, an operative bureau from which the activities would be run.

The possible faces of this itinerant centre for the arts would largely depend on the nature of its projects – that most probably would not be exclusively contemporary art but would reach many areas of cultural production, from music to science, from ecology to performing arts, from urbanism to literature, philosophy or anthropology – in such a way that they could relate in a more incisive way with the central elements of the territory.

This would also allow for the activation of the architectonic, natural and human heritage of the city, places that, by hosting new functions and allowing new uses, would be traversed and occupied by a variety of individuals who could positively contribute to its fruition.

As part of these we could consider disused structures and industrial edifices, but also old cinemas, petrol stations, former hotels or commercial spaces, and many other venues according to the physical and symbolic characteristics that a given project would request.

Places of mobility and transportation should also be considered, for a centre for the arts that moves and that physically reaches and takes its visitors to different areas can push forward, testing and verifying proposals of radical hospitality: This is a central aspect for comprehensively reflecting on cultural practices and institutions, for which participation is always a central but also problematic issue.

Can this ubiquitous Kunsthalle become a reality, in Como or elsewhere? Or is it destined to remain a vision of an imagined cultural Arcadia? Only the future will tell, but for now, let us direct this famous nostalgic longing into wishful thinking, as Et in Arcadia ego…

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