A Grammar for a Collective Gaze, Patrizia Mania, 2023

Giovanna Bianco e Pino Valente - the artist duo signing as Bianco-Valente - have called Breviario del Mediterraneo the site-specific installation curated by Brunella Velardi for the rectory of San Carlo’s Church, now housing the Department of Modern Languages and Literature, History Philosophy and Law Studies of the University of Tuscia. This was the occasion for the artists to give life to a collective experience, combining the intended use of CESCA - San Carlo’s Church Exhibition Center - with their field of interest and with their previous works - with the very same title we remember a work from 2018 (1). Through the workshop Immaginare il Mediterraneo (Picture the Mediterranean) and a meeting with students and local communities, the participants were invited to reflect on the Mediterranean Sea to create an installation on the collective imagination and common perception of this troubled sea, starting from color.

This theme overlaps with the research project Atlante dell’arte contemporanea nell’area del Mediterraneo (An Atlas of Contemporary Art in the Mediterranean) (2) promoted by the department and featuring some of the artists’ works. As a result, the project intersects with some of the trajectories that are being explored and studied in the same place where the work stayed. In fact, being located in a place exposed to atmospheric agents and built with a perishable material such as paper, this installation had a short “life”. This condition of impermanence is inherent in the very nature of this artistic experience, that measures and summarizes - a breviary, in fact - the imagery associated with this part of the world.

As is well known, Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape is the title of one of the most famous books by the Croatian writer Predrag Matvejević (3). A novel, a philosophical and poetic treatise, a travelogue. So many possible definitions have been proposed to describe this text, which, however, defies them all and creates a category of its own, summarized properly in its title and substance (in Croatian and Italian the word “breviario” is in the title, while in the English version it constitutes the first section of the book). Something consistently similar was in the intentions of Bianco-Valente, who have conceived a collective work where, given some specific elements, the many chromatic sensibilities evoked in different ways by the are assembled in layers of colored papers. In this fragile “monument” of colorful fragments, we find a multitude of different shapes, piling up in the same container and, thus, cancelling distances and merging into a single form. The same consistency that Matvejević himself wrote about at the end of his journey, stating that while “its forms of expression may vary,” the Mediterranean Sea “is one” (4).

In other words, quoting a source not directly mentioned by the artists, but which seems to fit in many ways, the Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant, comparing the Caribbean Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, observed: “I have always said that the Caribbean Sea differs from the Mediterranean, because it is an open sea, a sea that diffracts, while the Mediterranean is a concentrating sea,” adding that, most likely, “if civilizations and great monotheistic religions were born in the Mediterranean basin, this is due to the ability of this sea to orient - even if through dramas, wars or conflicts - man’s thinking toward the One and unity” (5).

To be fair, this is a point on which everyone who has dealt with the Mediterranean Sea has mostly insisted, beginning with Braudel, who was the first to wonder what shall we mean when we speak of the Mediterranean. He replied to himself, “many things at the same time. Not one landscape, but multiple landscapes. Not one sea, but a series of seas. Not one civilization, but several civilizations each one laying on the other” (6).

Beyond the specifics of this installation, the metaphor of a multitude in a single vessel fruitfully serves as a barycenter for a general reading of the method and meaning behind Bianco-Valente’s artistic research. Considering their approach, one could speak of a grammar for a collective gaze, starting from an idea - and often repeated in time - to activate a multitude of reflections concerning themselves and the frameworks hosting their interventions - in solo modes or in shared collective experiences. As if the artists, in conceiving their works, ignited a spark, giving birth each time to an organism with a life of its own.

There is no scheme in the background preluding to preordained outcomes. There is, on the contrary, an instinctive motion of basic intuitions, growing and developing in unexpected implications. In each of their works, from an initial idea gradually matures a chain of perceptions and reflections tied one to the other. These can reproduce, but also deviate in multiple directions from their starting point. As if the artists were giving birth to a multicellular organism, whose cells possess their own specific identity, but also traits in common with each other, and which gradually proliferate through parthenogenesis-like dynamics.

Like many other works,Breviario del Mediterraneo recalls an earlier work of the artists, the 2018 version that we mentioned earlier. We can therefore speak of an incipit, a sort of matrix - a basic intuition – serving as a laboratory in fieri and innervating, here as elsewhere, the artists’ and others’ view of the world.

Bianco-Valente, Breviario del Mediterraneo, 2018, collage: strips cut out of travel catalogue photographs, cm 90 x 90

A process that is a consistently followed method. Scrolling through Bianco-Valente’s works, in fact, one immediately gets the idea that holding all of them together is first and foremost the ideas of giving time and space to the complex experience of living, starting from an initial suggestion. The moment an idea settles, it becomes a stimulus for further germination, which occurs primarily on the level of the arousing emotions. It is precisely the emotional component, that should be considered the sextant guiding the process, and for the artists this is true whether it is coming from their own or from other people’s reflections. A tendency to listening is another distinctive trait, that critics have particularly focused on (7).

Bianco-Valente, Terra di me, 2018, fine art print

The singularity of the enacted experience is so mutable and open to encompassing gazes, instances, memories, changes, that of course it does not and could not tend toward a definitive, or even definite result. It rather records and offers a temporary form to what is happening or has already happened, ultimately replicating similar paths to the ones describing the patterns of existence.

Earlier on, there used to be a distinction between solos and shared works - two parallel tracks followed by Bianco-Valente’s activity. In their long partnership, beginning in 1994, relationships with others - especially chosen communities - did not immediately appear and are still not an exclusive prerogative of their work. In some projects, the interaction with the invited communities is a prerequisite; in others, the idea of sharing, while assumed to be an inherent part in a duo, is not embedded in the process. Two levels that are not mutually exclusive and, if anything, show the openness and flexibility of the chosen method.

Developing reflective journeys made of images, thoughts and words starting from a suggestion, emotion or thought. From the very beginning, when the mediums were mainly photography and video, their method has remained constant. Digging and exploring, always wandering beyond a simple eye refraction, searching beyond a superficial perception to investigate unsuspected voids, that ultimately give body and soul to the work as a whole.

Bianco-Valente, Complementare, 2018, fine art print

Space and time are very fluid in the artists’ investigation. This is another central point of the process. By prioritizing the fortuitousness of experience - excluding any a priori - images, words, places, memories are subject to a process that is always and peculiarly defined in the making, inevitably coming to reach and follow unpredictable directions.

For more than a century now, art history has been inevitably discussing the correspondence between art and life. Due to a galaxy of different interceptions, juxtapositions and identifications processes, however, it is impossible to outline a single direction for this, as Bianco-Valente’s approach prove.

Bianco-Valente, Land Code, 2015, Site specific project, Candela, QR Code made of stone tiles, Cm 300 X 300

In terms of the language and techniques employed, the systematic avoidance of the classifications usually associated to the art tradition likens their research to a substantial part of the most recent art history orientations, which can be summarized precisely in the notion of “forms of life” (8). A shell reinforcing the idea that these are living works created to be explored and to invite participation.

Entering the work of Bianco-Valente and travelling down the many roads proposed by their projects, strengthens our impression that, once the basic coordinates have been established, they gradually move on, adding and removing pieces, to introduce transformations in the way we see, we talk, we listen and interact.

In 2014, for example, they realized the installationCostellazione di me (Constellation of Me), following their participation in the Independent Space Program (ISP) at the Whitney Museum in New York (9). The starting point for their reflection was the relationship between social environment, urban planning and history and how much the actual processes of gentrification have contributed to the disruption of local realities. In that circumstance, they took Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood as the quadrant for their investigation.

The duo met a community of elderly people living at a local recreation center and decided to invite them to reimagine some places that had been distorted or destroyed over time. The attempt was to propose a reconstruction starting from their point of view, from their experience, from their memory. Initial distrust and resistance did not prevent the community to take part into a workshop during which a “constellation” of personal stories (the “me” in the title) came to life. The formal outcome, encompassing different stories made of personal memories, is a map recording a set of transformations and interventions filtered by their individual subjectivities.

Bianco-Valente, Costellazione di me, 2014. Backstage, Independent Study Program, Whitney Museum/The Kitchen, NYC.

Creating networks, building maps and manipulating pre-existing ones is a recurrent idea in many of the artists’ works, surely with the final purpose of sharing, connecting and crating relationships. One example of this is the map written on the body inTerra di me (10) (Land of Me) and inComplementare (11) (Complementary), where they emphasize the lifelines in the palms of their hands. Another example is when they measure themselves with the historical landscape. In Land Code, for example, a site-specific project has resulted into a real and solid QR Code, a square made of black and white stone modules.
The QR Code inserted in the landscape redirects to a website, where you can navigate between images, projects and texts taken from a workshop held with the students of the Academy of Foggia. The theme of the workshop was the history of the Regio Tratturo Pescasseroli Candela, a drovers’ road used for over two thousand years by sheep herds migrating from the Apennines to the sea and back, that today is no longer used.

A reflection on this part of history is now geolocated into the material world through a land-art mosaic and linked to the immaterial world wide web through a QR Code, drawing the lines of a further map. In other works, maps have been disrupted and then recomposed to redefine their borders and discuss their lability. In the words of the artists: “With the act of mending the lines of separation between different territories, we want to dismantle their arbitrarily inflicted borders, together with all the differences and problems that they have caused”. They have also identified an additional level of interpretation in “all of those aspects reflecting the emotional bond that we all establish with the places that we visit and with the people who inhabit them” (12).

Art has always crossed borders and rough terrains, challenging obstacles, bypassing taboos, revisiting and re-signifying memories.
In the artists’ work, memory is constant, their memory and other people’s memory. The way memory is declined is however always different and, just like existential experience, follows an intuition that is, as mentioned, a mix of basic impulse and method. Eloquent, in this sense, is the permanent installationIl mare non bagna Napoli (The Sea Doesn’t Bathe Naples) (13)hosted on the roof terrace of the MADRE museum in Naples in 2015. The title of work is the same of Anna Maria Ortese’s famous collection of short stories, where she described, sometimes mercilessly, glimpses of Naples after World War II. Aporias of a city in a literary memory that, according to many artists, have remained untouched, after so many years, within a controversial, conflictual and potentially explosive social situation. This is the reason why the artists pay tribute to the writer, reclaiming her title, repainting their writing every year and taking care of the life of this work to keep the memory alive.

Bergson insisted that matter is imprinted in memory. Two projects by Bianco-Valente, albeit in different ways, bear witness to this. The first,Misuro il tempo (Measuring Time), is an installation created in 2019 on the Casamicciola Terme building owned by the Pio Monte della Misericordia Foundation in Ischia. The artists have declared that they were inspired for this regeneration project by some passages on the notion of time taken from St. Augustine’sConfessions. “If it is true,” they write, “that the past only exists in our memory, transferring this idea to the Pio Monte della Misericordia building in Casamicciola, the spirit of a place is still present in time, even despite its objective conditions” (14). The choice of having a layer of black tissue paper, glued on the facade of the building with natural glue, was a way to emphasize the passage of time through the ripples and gaps emerged over time. There is no doubt that the new skin covering the building will fade. Fragile and precarious, nothing of it will remain in time, but the documentary memory of a presence looking at history from a different perspective.

In 2019, at Lama Monachile in Polignano a Mare, the duo created a public art intervention with a light installation. The title of the work, repeated on the sign, wasA forma di tempo (Time Shaped). “Time” here is first and foremost the geological time, that over the course of a thousand years has eroded the limestone carving it into the wonderful cliff known as Lama Monachile. Then, came the “time” of human settlements, that exploited that natural shape to build the village surrounded by its evocative natural defense. In this work, the already mentioned interest in the relational dynamics between social environment, urban planning and nature returns. The epigraph itself “Time Shaped” describes exactly which natural processes and human settlements time has determined.

This work, like other works, does not require an additional caption, let alone an explanation that would limit and direct its perception in one way, with only one possible meaning associated to it. Depending on the curiosity, the interest and the emotion awakened, it will be up to each person to search for the most appropriate meaning, to stop at the surface or to go on and explore their suggestions.
As mentioned before, the methodological choice of not providing univocal outcomes is the same in every articulation of Bianco-Valente’s creative process, starting from the original intuition and then materializing in the multiple constellations that follows. These networks of suggestions, memories, unexpected paths are a “modus operandi” that the artists decline as a “modus vivendi”, as their “personal form of permanent education” (15).

For its very own qualities, their “intellectual nomadism” is structured, as Velardi has well described, as the “extraordinary capacity for an endless change of perspective”(16). The work created for San Carlo’s Church was born in an open and permanent dialogue, built on a grammar for a collective gaze, and “lives” in this multitude of eyes that, shifting the chromatic imagery of the Mediterranean Sea, reflect its beauty and fragility, perhaps implicitly inviting everyone to take care of it.

1) Bianco-Valente, Breviary of the Mediterranean , 2018, collage: strips cut from travel catalog photos, 90 x 90 cm.
2) Vd. Atlas of contemporary art in the Mediterranean: https://www.migrazionieuropadiritto.it/atlante-adia/.
3) P. Matvejević, Breviario mediterraneo [Mediterranski Brevijar, 1987], Milano, Garzanti, 2006.
4) Ibidem, p. 317.
5) It is Glissant, Introduzione ad una poetica del diverso [Introduction à une poétique du divers, 1996], Roma, Meltemi, 2020, pp. 15, 16.
6) F. Braudel, Il Mediterraneo. Space and story. Gli uomini e la tra­dizione [La Méditerranée, 1977], Roma, Newton & Compton editori, 2002, p. 24.
7) See A. Tolve, Bianco – Valente. Geografia delle emozioni / Geo­graphy of Emotions, Fisciano, MMMAC Edizioni, 2011.
8) Nicolas Bourriaud writes that “certain gestures, certain narratives, certain ways of being seem (to me) worthy of attention in the same way as a sculpture or a painting is”, in N. Bourriaud, Forme di vita. L’arte moderna e l’invenzione del sé [Formes de vie. L’art moder­ne et l’invention de soi, 1999], Milano, Postmedia Books, 2015, p.11.
9) Bianco-Valente, Costellazione di me (Constellation of Me), ISP Whitney Museum, The Kitchen, New York City, 2014.
10) Bianco-Valente, Terra di me, 2018, stampa fine art, 78,5 x 115 cm.
11) Bianco-Valente, Complementare, 2018, stampa fine art, 115,5 x 85 cm.
12) Bianco-Valente in B. Velardi, Connessioni. Una conversazione con Bianco-Valente, in «Unclosed.eu», n. 32, anno VIII, 20/10/2021: ht­tps://www.unclosed.eu/rubriche/documenti/documenti-archivi-da­ti-testimonianze-imprese/367-connessioni.html.
13) Bianco-Valente, Il mare non bagna Napoli, 2015, installazione am­bientale. Collezione permanente del museo MADRE, Napoli.
14) Vd. Bianco-Valente, Misuro il tempo: http://www.bianco-valente. com/prj/misuro_il_tempo_2019/misuro_il_tempo.htm.
15) Bianco-Valente in A. Tolve, op. cit., p.12.
16) B. Velardi, prefazione a Il libro delle immagini. Bianco-Valente, Milano, Postmedia Books, 2020, p. 7.

From the book Imagining the Mediterranean by Bianco-Valente, edited by Brunella Velardi, Ed. Sette città, Viterbo. ISBN: 9791255240563

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