Alessandra Cianetti: The waiting room at Ventimiglia train station. Migrants. Passengers. Hopes. Fears. Lucia, you have started this year with the moving collective action ‘Don’t stop the beauty’ at the border between Italy and France. Why that border? Who and what did the action involve?
Lucia Palmero: I was born and grew up in Ventimiglia, Italy, a town on the border with France where for years I have witnessed severe episodes of racism towards migrants who attempt to cross the border. I have known this border for years and it rips lives apart. For me it was fundamental to start from here.
The performance ‘Don’t stop the Beauty’ was held at the station of Ventimiglia and in particular around the waiting room, the crucial point of the action. In this specific place, the Italian police gathers migrants arriving by train from other Italian cities and after a brief interview with each one, those who have not applied for asylum in Italy are deported towards Centres for Identification and Expulsion.It is to Ventimiglia that France sends all the migrant minors back by train, carrying out a serious violation of the rights of these young people who, instead of being protected, are exposed to the criminal networks of smugglers.
The intention of the performance was to transform the station and in particular the waiting room, which is basically the border, or rather the place of filtering, into an amplifier.
I asked individual singers and choirs from different origins living in this area (coming from Camerun, Guinea Conakry, France, the Philippines and Italy) to choose a traditional song of their own country or another song that they would like to sing in front of the border. Each group chose one and the outcome was a mix of traditional/popular songs and two original songs composed just for this occasion. It became a dialogue between ancient and contemporary voices that gave shape to a genuine moment of togetherness despite the difficult context.
The idea was to show the beauty of our different heritages through a popular and common way of expression, music, but also to highlight the existing element of rupture, the border. This is why white singers performed by moving in the entire space of the station while black singers performed inside the waiting room.
The initial enjoyable moment for the public changed into something much more intense as the presence of a filter between the black singers in the waiting room and the audience on the platform materialized through a closed door. Therefore I really enjoyed the attempt of a spectator to force the door of the waiting room open and then seeing many people finally entering the waiting room (from a secondary entrance). At the end of the action, the public asked the singers to continue to play their songs as they danced together.
AC: As an artist you blend practice and activism, as you also work in a refugee camp. Lately you have been quite vocal in supporting the French farmer and activist Cedric Herrou. How do you transpose your activist activities into your artistic practice?
LP: At no time had I planned to merge the two things, everything came about naturally by itself, as far as I’m concerned. I felt I had to respond to a social need, there was the desire of many people to show solidarity and support for migrants stranded at the border. I tried to answer chorally, through unconventional practices, starting from empathy and guided by the common desire to want to be present for someone else.
AC: Most of your public actions are a collective effort in order to engage people of every background in changing the local culture surrounding migration. In what ways have you been involving local residents, migrants and activists? Why do you think it is important to do so through art?
LP: In my town there are many immigrants or children of immigrants who in the 50s moved here from southern Italy and they encountered strong discrimination by local people (the Ligurians). My mother was one of them, she suffered then like many others who perhaps today, given their personal experience, show understanding towards these people who are arriving.
A year ago in Ventimiglia I created a committee of associations called Article 2 Committee, inspired by the second article of the Italian Constitution [The article reads: “The Republic recognises and guarantees the inviolable rights of the person, both as an individual and in the social groups where human personality is expressed. The Republic expects that the fundamental duties of political, economic and social solidarity be fulfilled.”] Article 2 Committee operates in support of transiting migrants.
I just collected the desire of many people including asylum seekers, to do something useful together… it also served as a pretext to create an informal meeting point between migrants and the townspeople. At the same time, I used art as a convector to translate all the voices and needs of the committee into artistic works and actions.
Art needs to embrace people, to get out of the museums, to merge with reality especially now that we find it hard to imagine that an improvement in the current state of events is possible. It is like a language, if it speaks from the heart we understand it and we all speak it, it is not something for a few, a niche, it is universal.
AC: During our conversation last year, you mentioned that you started performing as a main medium two years ago. What made you transition toward this practice? What do you think live art adds to your work around notions of migration, solidarity and change?
LP: First of all painting has always accompanied me since I can remember and growing up in certain situations, I experienced it as an authentic and genuine need. Years ago when I was still working in an office, I took time out at night and in the weekend to stay awake and paint. Living in such a difficult context such as the border of Ventimiglia, painting was a release. It could not however be anything more, it remained a void, an underlying dissatisfaction that even I personally did not know how to fill. Every day I witnessed racism in police controls on trains, in my mind I could hear my mother’s voice when she used to tell me how the Ligurians treated her just because she was an immigrant from Calabria. I myself, was an economic migrant commuter to France. The French call us “rital”, a nickname which means Italian refugees. But on that train I had the ‘right’ skin colour, the ‘right’ piece of paper in my pocket and I didn’t do anything to deserve this luck. The turning point was when I became aware of the work of Michelangelo Pistoletto and in particular that of Tania Bruguera. They opened my eyes. I understood that reality itself is the material to be moulded and ‘artivism’, as understood by Tania Bruguera, was the way forward.
Whatever we are doing now, we are weaving the future reality. It is from this point that the awareness has grown that our imagination, our feelings, and our body, are the most effective and most authentic instruments to shape and transform reality and our own life into a beautiful piece of work.
Another thing that has marked a step towards live art was an episode that I experienced. One evening I was invited to attend a dinner in the dark organised by an association of blind people in Sanremo, to raise money but also to allow people to experience for a short time what it means to not be able to see. To live that situation has opened up a world for me. I realised that through the body and having a direct experience of something you do not know, if only for a brief moment, that experience becomes part of your emotional baggage. It triggers something empathic that leaves its mark. From there I thought that I could create and make experiences come to life.
A year later I quit my job to devote myself completely to art and human rights. I started attending a reception centre for asylum seekers in Ventimiglia and as a result of the number of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, I started to organise public commemoration moments, flash mobs. They were brief moments in memory of those who hadn’t made it and those who were en route to a better life, at the same time it was a pretext to bring together migrants with that part of the townspeople who cared about showing solidarity. We formed a circle on the seafront and a trumpeter played a version of ‘il Silenzio’, a piece that is played in Italy just before a short period of particular contemplation in silence. After five minutes of reflection, the moment was over. But what happened at the end of the action was that the migrants and the citizens started talking and getting acquainted with each other and from this I realised that simply being there was important, it left a mark.
In June 2015, more than two hundred migrants marched to the border and occupied the border cliff asking France to let them in. After two days, volunteers, activists, passers-by showed their solidarity with these people, bringing them all kinds of necessities from food to tents for sleeping. Some people even started living together with them. The majority of the migrants, despite the fatigue, observed fasting during the day as it was the period of Ramadan and in the evening an imam came from Nice, France to direct the prayers. It was 20th June 2015, World Refugee Day.
I decided to create a collective moment of unity and humanity to annihilate and hold up to ridicule the border we had in front of us. We formed a circle that gathered together Refugees, Italian and French citizens, Atheists, Muslims, Christians, passers-by, anyone who wanted to participate and share a moment of silence dedicated to all refugees in the world and in particular to people stranded at frontiers. All this at the border and with the police staring at us. This human circle gave such an emotional charge to everyone, that even though it was Ramadan and an extremely exhausting and critical situation, people started singing and dancing together.
Here is the link to the video of that special moment: https://youtu.be/uvC4J2MNozY
In the same place, a year later, I organised another human chain including Italian and French activists of Amnesty International and Italian and French citizens. Unfortunately episodes of violence by the police against migrants at the border, made it more prudent not to invite them to participate.
Painting is confined to two-dimensions and sculpture to three-dimensions. As the term “live art” says, it is a form of Art that is alive, that shapes reality and gives the opportunity of merging with it.
Although most of my performances are conceived as collective, I have also presented solo pieces such as ‘ Human Nature’. This performance is a way to transpose onto my body the experience of not being able to move where I want, which started from a study inspired by the realms of living creatures. The investigation focuses on the difference between the scientific definition of vegetable and animal realms. It emerged that the main point that highlights the difference between these two worlds is the ability of movement. Right on the border between these two realms, man has been creating a third new space where its freedom of movement is self-limited.
During the action I stood with my feet planted in the soil, bonded by a rope to a grate and holding a living snail in my hand. I started taking awareness of my body, by slowly moving my hands and arms then moving my feet and legs. I continued to move taking awareness of the space gradually increasing the rhythm of my movements until I reached the point where the rope totally unfolded.
There started the fight between my will to move away and the rope forcing me to stay in a delimited space. I started to run from where the action began towards the public although the rope kept on tugging me down. I continued to do this until, exhausted, I set the snail free on the ground as a symbolic ritual of separation from the animal realm. I remained there, occupying a limbo space, watching the snail slowly move away while drawing a trace of its passage.
AC: You also added that performingborders research-blog interested you because of the possibility of connecting and knowing more about other live artists’ work on the same issues and that it gave you hope. Do you feel isolated as an artist working in Italy around issues that have been quite divisive for many years? How do you connect with your transalpine collaborators? Do you think artists need platform like performingborders to create an international network of conversations and possible collaborations?
LP: In fact I do feel quite isolated, maybe because of the fact that I live in a region that doesn’t offer a lot artistically and in a country that still finds it difficult to take into consideration the work of someone “over 35” not represented by a gallery yet and not really inside the “art system”. What I find of great interest in this moment is to know that I am not alone in doing what I do, getting to know the work of other artists, expanding my views on this topic, deepening my research and bringing my exploration to a broader level. I am starting a collaboration with a group of refugee artists in Paris with whom I hope to develop a project in Calais this year. I am absolutely convinced that artists need to know and to connect with each other, to me it’s a breath of pure oxygen. I got to know the amazing work of artists I didn’t know to be honest and I would love to have the opportunity to develop something together.
AC: For you this year has already started as a committed, courageous one. What are you preparing for the coming months?
LP: There are some things in the pipeline and I would like to carry them out well.
By the end of February I will attend a workshop in Pistoia led by anthropologist Enrique Vargas of the Barcelona-based “Teatro de los sentidos” focusing on the theme of the labyrinth. For me it will be a research for deepening a language and a poetic, that of the senses, whose foundations belong to all human beings. On 26th March I will be performing at the Eco Village of Torri Superiore during the “Spring Festival” that this year is on the topic of the Labyrinth as well. On that occasion, I will be giving shape to an individual sensorial experience which will be tailor made for every single person who metaphorically will become the traveller in their own labyrinth.
From 5th to 12th March I have been invited by the Councillor of Culture of the City of San Biagio to host a retrospective on my works from last year, which include not only performances but also some paintings. In the space called “U BASTU” I will expose my paintings of my “Landscapes” series on which for the opening I will let live snails move and live their marks, while there will be a lecture of some extracts of Francesco Biamonti’s book “Vento largo”.
This writer was born in San Biagio and in that book he tells the story of a smuggler who helped some people to reach France by secret mountain paths of the area where I live.
It will be a dialogue between our imaginaries on the topic of frontiers and of going beyond
frontiers, therefore I feel privileged to have the chance to give tribute to this writer I love.
In April, again at the space “U BASTU” of San Biagio, I will make a performance called “Un the con te” which means “A tea with you”. I will invite the public to sit at a table with another person for 15 minutes and enjoy a tea together while knowing each other, then change table and spend other 15 minutes with someone else and so on. I will invite some refugees and asylum seekers to join the event in an attempt to create a moment of mutual understanding.
Apart from this, I am working on a project to turn my experience at the listening and orientation service of the Refugees camp into an artistic experience to be lived by other people. A rather more ambitious project that I am setting up with the artists in Paris I mentioned earlier is a broad collective action in Calais. I am counting on spending time on the scene to listen to the various voices of those who live there and then work on and define a project of a choral performance.
Then, there are a couple of dreams I have hidden away for some time …One day I hope to have the opportunity to learn from two artists that I admire in particular, perhaps with a residency or a workshop; William Pope L. to explore the similarities that bind racism in Europe and in the United States; and Tania Bruguera for her courage and for what she has meant to me. There’s still a lot to learn and a lot to do.
Lucia Palmero. Resident of a border town, existentialist at heart, artist and activist. Deeply involved in the topic of migration from her origins to the point of actively participating in the tragedy of the migrants in Europe, Lucia investigates the concepts of border vs individual/collective identity through performances, flash mobs, paintings and videos cancelling out the boundaries of her field of research.
Featured image credits: Human Chain 2016, photograph by Lucia Palmero