Finding Place(s) for the Past in Trieste/A Trieste, cercando di far posto alla storia
A collaboration between Alessio Mazzaro and members of the EoM research group
by Giulia Carabelli
Since last autumn, members of the Empires of Memory Group - Giulia Carabelli, Annika Kirbis and Jeremy F. Walton – have collaborated with the Trieste-based artist Alessio Mazzaro and contributed to his project, Edinost. In this blog post, Giulia interviews Alessio to explore further the intersections between the EoM project on the legacies of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires and Alessio’s artistic intervention: the re-launch of Edinost.
Giulia: Our project explores how imperial legacies continue to play a role in contemporary urban dynamics using as a case study a sample of cities that were key to the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. Trieste is one such cities (both Jeremy and I conduct empirical research here). When you contacted me, I saw immediate connections between your project and ours, especially because of your interest in the historical communities of Trieste, which remain as a legacy of the Habsburg empire. Of course, your interest in these communities is different as your project started as an attempt to create a platform to foster a dialogue between these communities, which apparently seldom collaborate. What, in your opinion, is the role and importance of these communities today? And with this I mean, why is so crucial to keep addressing them as the “historical communities” of Trieste? Finally, what did you learn, so far, from working with representatives of these communities?
Alessio: Different elements are intertwined together in the answer.
First. The project started as a commission for an exhibition at the Revoltella Museum - the Museum of Modern Art of Trieste. On that occasion, the curator invited me because of my participatory work and the collective performances I designed that involve citizens (in other words, they invited me as a socially engaged artist working with ‘communities’). The curator was the one who told me about the ‘problem’ of the absence of real communication between the communities of Trieste and addressed them as such (we have to remember that in the arts, “community” is still a key word, even if now it has been replaced by new trendy labels and curatorial directions).
Second. When they discovered that I was doing a project in Trieste, some of my relatives told me: “It's a nice city but there are too many Slavs there.” One of the first things my Greek publisher proudly told me was: “We are not a community, we are a confraternity”. A few weeks after the publication of the first issue of the new Edinost, a famous anti-Slovenian from Trieste published a letter against me in the local newspaper (Il Piccolo), worrying that my project was an initiative to empower (somehow) the Slovenians in Trieste. At a certain point last year, the editor proposed dedicating an issue to Maria Teresa, a choice that would have made the Greeks happy but was less than welcomed by the Jewish component of the project because of the ways each community remembers her person differently.
These are some examples of how we inherit cultural conflicts from the past, conflicts that resonate with the bordering and definitions of national and group identities, and examples of our tendency to categorize people. It wouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate how these elements strongly contribute to discrimination and daily fascisms. Rousseau identified a problem in the private ownership of land, but in recent decades that problem has shifted from the ownership of land to the ownership of national identity (with connected ideologies). So, even in a global world, I believe it's still important (and stimulating) to address the communities of Trieste as historical communities. This is precisely because I want to question their own perception of the roles they have in the city and I want to challenge the use they make of their historical heritage to go (possibly) beyond identity politics. These inherited conflicts within the communities and their interrelationships are far from being solved. They are latent, but always ready to be used for recriminations.
Third. I believe it's important to reflect on what a community is mainly because most of us are now part of a contemporary nomadic population made of refugees and economic and cultural migrants, lost in processes of continuous migration, experiencing the need to belong somewhere, a somewhere that is often different from our place of birth. I argue that this somewhere in which to form communities can be materialised as a group of people. Not long ago, I led a workshop for artists in London (within the project 27metricubi) on how to inhabit a place and I said that for me home is not a physical but an emotional space. For people trying to belong somewhere, the historical communities become a fascinating form of already-constituted collectiveness, with consolidated, and probably now more permeable, rules and dynamics of belonging. Since my graduation in Fine Art, I have been moving and traveling across social fabrics, tales and communities that I don't belong to, initiating processes of dialogue towards learning and acceptance. For the same reason, I have created art collectives and collective performances asking myself what we can do together and how we can be together in this historical moment. I remember, years ago, during a workshop on dramaturgical writing in Brussels, I realized that there are two main ways to do things together. The first one involves a group of people and everyone conducts a part of the whole project we want to achieve - usually choosing something in which s/he already has expertise. The second one depends on a shared and agreed project and everybody works on something they are not familiar with so that the process needs to be negotiated through constant dialogue and filtering of points of view. The first step in the creation of Edinost was the creation of a group of collaborators that could write collectively. I can probably say that for me Trieste is a workshop and its communities a case study for dealing with problems connected to the sense of belonging and identity conflicts.
Giulia: In this issue, Annika, Jeremy and I invited five scholars to think and write about Trieste’s complex history and the heavy legacy of the Habsburg empire. We asked each of them to choose a monument that somehow is representative of the Habsburg past and to reflect on its political and social meanings in the contemporary city. It became clear to us that many statues of empresses or emperors, but also buildings such as the Castle of Miramare and the Risiera di San Sabba, have been forgotten or rehabilitated in relation to the reading given to the legacy of the empire in Trieste (they have been perceived as positive or negative according to the political agenda of the time). Your project tries to create a platform for the historical communities of Trieste to collaborate. Can memories of the imperial past foster a dialogue in this sense or not? How does your project engage with history to create a future of collaborative endeavours?
Alessio: Through questioning how the city has appropriated and used these memories we can generate important discussions about the roles of these communities in Trieste, especially because they have very different points of view on the Habsburg legacy. It's interesting to place the audience in front of this critical analysis and to see how they will locate themselves in it. It's like in physics, if you want to activate a dynamic process, you need to create, to provide a discrepancy (a difference) in a condition of equilibrium, otherwise nothing happens or changes. I cannot say whether the communities will find a common point of view on the imperial past (it always seems easier to take a stand than really to discuss how social laws come in action). But I believe that it's important for people to reflect on the underlying issues. In this sense, the project becomes important because it fosters a critical dialogue as a form of resistance to simplification and banalisation - in some way or another, we all suffer from symptoms of neoliberalism that manifest in the lack of time and willingness to understand the “complexities of the others”.
I believe we study and question the traces of the others to understand how to lead our own lives, how to exist. I am interested in bringing reflection on history into a collective platform where multiple voices coexist questioning its (ethical) state of truth. I prefer talking about writing narratives on history rather than celebrating or repeating the version of history that has been normalised by winners and for political reasons. In my previous work, I used recorded or live oral narratives to add people’s points of view to existing historiographies so that these narratives could “complete” or contest the history we came to recognise as legitimate. In the Edinost project, for the first time, I draw on collective writing rather than oral narratives to question history and to collect a multiplicity of points of view (and writing styles). This is ultimately an experiment: To put different communities (and viewpoints) together on sheets of paper, asking them to create a collective narrative. The questions are, how do they negotiate this task and what we are able to achieve together? The first issue of Edinost worked quite well in this sense; all of the historical communities provided their opinions about what could have happened if the arson of the Narodni Dom – the Slovenian House of Culture burned down by Fascists – had not occurred. The idea of starting a dialogue by asking – in a provocative way – what would have happened if events that troubled the relationship between the historical communities had not happened allowed the use of historical fiction to become a form of critique of the past and present of the city. The following issues, by contrast, posed a question to one specific community, which answered if and contributed another question for the next issue and community. This format aimed to facilitate a dialogue between two different communities as well as hosting (on the back side of the journal) a further reflection by a third community.
Giulia: An important part of the Edinost project (and your artistic practice more generally) is to reflect on the legacy, rise, and struggle against fascisms. When preparing this issue, we wanted to highlight this aspect too by reflecting on the powerful symbolism of resurrecting a printed magazine that amplified anti-fascist voices, was shut down and now might serve to channel new discussion against the rise of nationalisms and right-wing politics across Europe (and beyond). What’s the connection between this political project and the aim of facilitating a dialogue between the communities in Trieste? And, in this sense, how can art practice create a productive space for such important discussions?
Alessio: I believe it's probably more correct to say that I am interested in fighting ideologies. Of course, as an artist born and raised in Italy I cannot avoid starting from fascism. Overall, I am interested in how and why we discriminate. Ideologies are a reassurance in a state of social, economic and psychological stress. Every “ism” tends to be a set of simple rules that can be applied quickly and used to avoid thinking and accommodating our need to distinguish between right and wrong. I believe we live in an age without politics. Most of the politicians - and the recurring impasse of the Italian parliament is an example - are just engaged in polemics, they don't talk to each other, they want to prevail over the other and they are not looking for an advancement, a solution. If we are lucky they apply a kind of argumentative discourse, but if we are not, as in most cases, they just declare status, looking for approval – which is not surprising in the age of social media, “likes” and resurgent nationalisms. According to the old Greek definition, when two or more people exchange different points of view on the same subject in a public space, we have politics. I consider exchange to be a dialogue, a conversation. For the anthropological linguist Harvey Sacks, a conversation is an activity made through language through which two or more individuals work collectively toward the acquisition of a common point of view and where the speakers all have agency. The connection between dialogue and politics is this one, the collective acquisition of that common resolution.
Art can create discussions and foster thinking to deconstruct stereotypes, and it can do this through interventions in public space, the proposition of unpredictable points of view and the creation of dedicated spaces of encounter and dialogue. I don't think art can give a solution to political issues -artist are not politicians, it's not our expertise - but art can create an aesthetic experience that generates a political behaviour in the audience. In this process, I feel it is important again to bring art closer to the people exploring what, for them, constitutes a problem. I doubt we can solve global problems with a single intervention, but if we change something this can lead to further change. For this reason, in the last years my projects - as Edinost illustrates – became more focused on transient pieces in the hope to reach a larger audience.
Giulia: The Edinost project is now coming to an end (at least in its initial phase). Is there an interest in Trieste to continue its publication? And what do you wish for the future of Edinost?
Alessio: On the occasion of the last issue's launch in September, we will organise an assembly inviting the writers from all the previous issues and all of the communities in Trieste. It will not only be an occasion to reflect on this shared experience but also to propose the closing question of the project, a question that shall be agreed by all the communities to think about the future. I am not sure whether the publication will be continued - my role was to initiate it. I think that there is an interest in doing so but some have noticed how the very name of the project – Edinost - brings back contested memories that are uncomfortable for some (so much so that the publisher proposed to change the name a few days before the launch). The near future of the Edinost project will be an art book that collects all the material published to be distributed in bookshops. It will also help us to reach a broader audience outside Trieste. Before starting Edinost, I organized its dramaturgy (deciding on the title and topic for each number) so even if the issues can be read separately they acquire meaning and power when they are read together. And also, for the future, I wish to create an European version of the project to broaden its reflections and to give voice to cultural and economic migrants’ acceptance stories, but this is for another interview…
All the issues of Edinost including the one edited by the Empires of Memory team are free to download from Alessio’s website: