The front of art

Interview with Roberto Cicutto, President of La Biennale di Venezia
by Massimo Bran

Building intersections, fertile connections between the different languages of contemporaneity, this in synthesis is the goal of President Roberto Cicutto and ‘his’ Venice Biennale. A unique institution, constitutively devoted to the versatility of making art, which despite the incredible historical period dominated by uncertainty and concern continues to imagine new, open, contaminated worlds.

If last year the Biennale was characterized by an extremely brave edition, this year it seems to be an edition of strong relaunch, embracing with renewed strength the whole universe. What signal can give in such a difficult historical moment like this a manifestation which is able to speak a universal language while keeping the formula of national participations, turning the idea of borders and nations which is unfortunately so relevant at the moment, into a revolution of supranational thought?
Since it was conceived by Riccardo Selvatico, the Biennale has always meant to be a meeting place. As the exhibition The Disquieted Muses. The Biennale in front of history recalled, history has prevented this event to take place only during some dramatic events occurred in the last century. However, history once again puts us in front of a lesson and an experience that we could never have imagined to live again. An experience which is so direct, painful and tragic, especially for those personally involved of course. The Biennale wants obviously to ensure Ukraine’s participation in the 59th. International Art Exhibition. The Russian Pavilion will be closed following the curator’s and the artists’ resignation as communicated by the commissioner. The political choice of our Government, shared with all the other governments of the European Union, is not to interact with purely governmental institutions. Although we shall take note of these provisions, our position is not to preclude the possibility for Russian artists to take part in our events and festivals. I believe it is necessary to always make a clear distinction between those who are politically responsible for an act of aggression and the people, in our case the artists. Our task is to keep the dialogue alive and open on the cultural level, always putting artists at the center of our work so that they can fully express their creativity.

The exhibition The Milk of Dreams promises to be a journey through the different transformations of our present. The Biennale institution proves to be capable to carry on its transformation trough new projects and new structural paths, such as the intriguing project of the International Research Center on Contemporary Arts. What should we expect from this new challenge and how does it fit into the concentric vision of the Biennale that you are designing in these very complicated years?
The Biennale must be more contemporary than the arts it represents. That’s why it must be able to combine what is kept in the Historical Archive of Contemporary Arts with the future, in order to revitalize what has been accumulated over time to design future scenarios. The development of the activities of the Historical Archive through the International Research Center plays a major role for at least two reasons: first, to make the contents of exhibitions and festivals permanently available to students, scholars or even simply curious people who want to know more about them; secondly, to enhance the dialogue between the disciplines and the arts. We have launched a research in close collaboration with Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, IUAV University of Venice, IULM – Free University of Languages and Communication, Sapienza University of Rome, Academy of Fine Arts of Venice and Conservatory of Music Benedetto Marcello Venice, involving 120 students engaged in investigating and redefining the geopolitical map of the places of origin of the artists who have worked with us in the last twenty years. Their places of origin are described in a geographical, political and economic key. Our third group of students is being involved in the research and every time we meet them to sum up their work they always show us something surprising, making us understand that the data they have been collecting and the ones they will continue to collect will lead to new ideas on the future of contemporary arts. They are very heterogeneous working groups in terms of origin, experience and language. These are exciting experiments because of their natural vocation to contaminate, compare, share. This is only a first step, a prototype which will soon allow us to define the models of investigation to be proposed to all those who will use the Historical Archive for their studies.
We need to strongly emphasize the collaboration between different institutions of the city that is the basis of this ambitious project. Without this collaboration at least half of the potential final result would be lost. At the same time all the people in this town who like us work in the field of culture, such as institutions and training institutions, need to get together to offer something unique in the world to those who through the study of the contemporary, have access to the knowledge of the past.

The Biennale must be more contemporary than the arts it represents. That’s why it must be able to combine what is kept in the Historical Archive of Contemporary Arts with the future, in order to revitalize what has been accumulated over time to design future scenarios.

Gaggiandre, Ph. Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Your Presidency seems pivoting around the idea of breaking down the barriers between the various artistic languages: art, architecture, dance, theatre, music, cinema. A lively, open, highly motivating dialogue for the directors of the different sectors, but also for the artists and the public. What are your plans concerning this idea in the coming months and, more extensively, in the coming years?
In the last two Covid years this was the sentence we were used to hear most often: “Alone you do not get anywhere”. When we suggested this idea of dialogue between the different artistic languages we did not yet know that we would have two years of pandemic and limitations ahead of us. We had already decided to follow this path of dialogue between arts, and that is why we have launched new projects involving the Historical Archive in order to offer new spaces for interaction going beyond the responsibility of artistic directors. I’m referring to Archèus. Mozart labirynth, a multidisciplinary installation by Damiano Michieletto in collaboration with Oφcina, we recently inaugurated at Forte Marghera. It is a work that brings together three different elements: figurative art as far as contents are concerned, music as a common thread which makes this journey possible, and theater. Theater here is not seen only as a mere dramaturgical performance, but as a set of many different crafts essential for the success of a performance, be it opera or prose. Archèus offers its visitors artifacts that are real craftsmanship masterpieces. This is the first crucial aspect of this project underlying the importance of the activity of the Center and the Archive also in the future. The second important element of this work is the creation of a cultural ‘product’ that not only specifically Biennale audiences can enjoy. The installation was expressly designed for Forte Marghera, an extraordinary mainland site overlooking the lagoon which links it to the city-Biennale. It will also host a section of the Biennale Arte by Cecilia Alemani: an installation by Elisa Giardina Papa at the Austrian Powder Magazine.
Michieletto’s installation at Forte Marghera is not only a great work of art but it meets as well our main goal, that is to say to attract more and more the public that crowded the 2021 Architecture Exhibition while creating a new and strong relationship with them. This installation can be considered as a sort of bait, an expression of high popular dissemination. Thanks to it the Biennale is not perceived as something created exclusively for some elites. Archèus is a perfect synthesis of all these aspects.

Speaking of directors and returning to The Milk of Dreams, what was it like working with the “cyclone” Cecilia Alemani?
I couldn’t meet her physically for the whole first year. We then finally managed to meet, but soon after there was a new lockdown … I have this image in mind of Cecilia: an astronaut of culture who navigated and scrutinized the ateliers of artists from all over the world through the porthole of her computer. An extraordinary experience, I would say unique! That we hope, however, will no longer be imposed. That said, despite the major role played by new digital technologies for the realization of this exhibition, we did not even think for a moment to set it up in virtual mode as we didn’t want to deprive our public of the irreplaceable emotion, the cultural experience, the intellectual challenge felt when admiring a work of art in presence.
Cecilia never hid. Working together, we were able to know her very well both for her great awareness and knowledge of the subject, and for her incredible operational and organizational skills. We had already had the opportunity to notice these peculiar qualities during the preparation of the exhibition The Disquieted Muses. It was not by chance that she was chosen as coordinator of the exhibition, in full agreement with the directors of the six artistic sectors involved in that project. She built such an articulated and transversal exhibition, speaking day by day from the United States, tirelessly, with her assistant and with the assistants of the other directors. She is a person who knows very precisely what she wants to do and how she wants to do it.
I have appreciated her for her feverish and efficient pragmatism from the first moment I met her. At the same time, however, I immediately understood how much her organizational skills, her ability in focusing so strongly on the main elements essential for the success of the overall design of a large exhibition project such as the Biennale Arte, did not in the least affect her emotional participation, her intellectual involvement in the development of such an important curatorial itinerary. Her involvement is such to make her heart literally throb for the emotional tension of the “first” of the exhibition. Cecilia is counting down hour after hour; every time we see her, she tells us how many days are left before the opening and wonders: “Will we make it?”.
As by a sort of conditioned reflex I’m going back to my late profession as a film producer and I can feel in the curator of the Biennale, as well as in the artists involved, an emotion even greater than that experienced by a film director when showing for the first time his work after having devoted to it maybe two years of his life. The participation of a curator in the development of such a huge and high level project is truly a full-immersion experience, since he/she is in charge of all the main actions responsible for the success of the big Exhibition: coordinating a team, having relationships with over two hundred artists and with the managers of the national pavilions (even if they are not under his/her direct competence), trying to give uniformity to the different elements of this endless puzzle. In short, a great direction, and how! Finally, I think that Cecilia has a great quality above all: she manages to handle everything with the highest level of professionalism and never forgets that irony helps us to live better.

Cecilia never hid. Working together, we were able to know her very well both for her great awareness and knowledge of the subject, and for her incredible operational and organizational skills. It was not by chance that she was chosen as coordinator of the exhibition, in full agreement with the directors of the six artistic sectors involved in that project.

The role of new generations in the future of the La Biennale di Venezia Institution and, more generally, in the world of culture. After cinema, theater, dance and music, this year you will inaugurate the new Biennale College dedicated to visual arts. The four young artists selected will take part by right to the Biennale Arte 2022, out of competition, alongside the main artists of Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition. Which are your main targets by creating this new College?
The Colleges experience, present for quite some time in the fields of theater, music, dance and cinema, has proved to be a very high quality project, as well as an extremely successful activity over the years. The results achieved so far are really a lot to be able to deal with them here. Considering just the latest experiences, last year, among the finalists of College Danza at least four of them were hired by important international companies. Not to mention the films of College Cinema, many of which regularly enter the selections of major festivals around the world every year.
Beyond the international success, the most significant fact of this experience is that the Colleges play a very important role in the future of the Biennale. As they represent an essential activity for an institution like ours, we will work to increase more and more their number. The next one to be created will be the architecture College: we asked the next curator of the Architecture Biennale, Lesley Lokko, to take into consideration a college in this field too. Among all the disciplines we deal with, this is perhaps the most difficult one where to design a College, also because there are already many excellent architecture training schools all over the world. The architect is seen more as a professional linked to a very technical discipline; however, our time has shown how architecture plays an essential linking role from a social point of view, being by definition the discipline all human activities necessarily have to do with. As architecture is present at all moments in our daily life it is an ideal field of investigation to analyze the transformations of our world. I am sure that Lesley Lokko will find a way to have an original look on what it does mean to make architecture also and in particular in terms of training, involving young talents who still lack some experience.

An area dedicated specifically to literature, writing and screenwriting seems to be the only one still missing within the Biennale. An area that through a dialogue and interaction with all the other artistic disciplines could have some interesting developments. Do you have any projects coming up in this field?
In fact, La Biennale has for years had a College called Writing in Residence, in which young people are trained in pure, chronicle and critical writing. However there is no intention to create a specific Biennial of Writing or Literature, just as there will never be one dedicated to design or photography. All these disciplines already inevitably come together with those of the Biennale. We are very proud of our originality; everyone copied this name from us, yet I believe and hope that what we do still remains quite unique. The Biennale is an open container that focuses on the six main and historically consolidated artistic disciplines, at least until we feel that there are actually other and different needs to be fulfilled.

The role of the Biennale and Venice. There is no doubt that the Biennale is a driving force for the city both from a cultural and economic point of view. How can we ensure that this “spaceship” that lands and stops in Venice from April to November becomes a system of constant supply of the best human, cultural and economic resources of the city, capable of becoming the main engine for the revival of an urban organism that for too longtime has been objectively paralyzed?
Venice is a unique and at the same time epicentric city at an international level, but it must begin to understand that it is not made up of many islands, but of a whole that must be the result of a living and virtuous dialogue between all its components. Only by creating a common program between the different institutions we will be able to propose the richest program of cultural activities that can be imagined. What else can we do to improve this situation? The pandemic has created so many troubles, but it has made people understand that culture is also a field of economy where hundreds, thousands of people are employed. From a professional point of view the cultural sector cannot continue to be seen and represented almost exclusively by actors, directors, painters, musicians, etc. There is a very articulated set of jobs, functions, services with specific technical and professional skills that together make up this important industrial sector of our economy. The idea of the International Research Center also aims at offering hospitality and permanence to tens, hundreds, hopefully thousands of people who come here to work less and less in “hit and run” mode. The idea of permanently repopulate some important areas in Venice is the main aim of promoting residencies linked to activities that La Biennale will carry out especially at the Arsenale thanks to an important funding and which have been also a matter of lively discussion in town. I am against cathedrals in the desert. It makes no sense to secure wonderful buildings without first deciding what their real destination will be. The project, we have submitted and for which we got financing, aims precisely at this. The plan we have drawn up includes the consolidation of the still operational sectors as well as the recovery and rehabilitation of the whole historical-monumental area of the Arsenale. It is a very important plan for this exceptional site of industrial archeology to be used not only as an exhibition, tourist or recreational area, but also as a production site.

Interview with Cecilia Alemani, curator of The Milk of Dreams - Venice Art Biennale 2022