L’ECLISSE Redux: A urban sociology to re-think contemporary Siena

Bureau for Open Culture (BOC) is an itinerant curatorial initiative that utilizes exhibition, education, design and publishing to position the art institution as an overall form of critical practice. L’ECLISSE redux is produced by Nate Padavick, Cassandra Troyan and James Voorhies.

L’ECLISSE redux is the result of a Project Fellowship awarded to James Voorhies and Bureau for Open Culture by the Siena Art Institute.

Through L’ECLISSE redux, Bureau for Open Culture is examining postwar urban development and contemporary social conditions in Siena, Italy. The project draws on the filmic spaces and activities of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’eclisse, set in Rome in 1962. It seems to me that through this project the public could look at Siena and its outskirts through a different lens. What is this project telling us about that physical and emotional territory?

Antonioni’s film takes place in the EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), which is a business and residential district on the southern outskirts of Rome. The EUR was originally envisioned as a site of the 1942 World’s Fair where Mussolini intended to commemorate 20 years of Fascism. That, obviously, did not take place and the area was severely damaged during World War II. Modernist apartment and office buildings were eventually constructed throughout the 1950s and ’60s. The district was almost finished by the time Antonioni made his film. He purposely draws attention to this transitional urban space with expansive concrete parking lots, the numerous rows of streetlights, an ominous water tower that brings to mind an atomic cloud and mounds of dirt and stones. These are definitely not the usual moments associated with Rome.

To that end, BOC is using the film as a framework to study the overlooked postwar and contemporary moments of Siena. “Siena is so beautiful.” That was the common response we had prior to traveling here. The center of Siena is enclosed within a medieval wall. Inside the wall Siena performs its early Renaissance history very well through its famous sites and events such as the Piazza del Campo, Palazzo Pubblico, the Duomo and the Palio. The Palio is a horse race held twice each year. Ten of the seventeen districts -or contrade– participate in each race. As one guidebook states, “These days the 17 contrade spend the entire year in preparation for the Palio.” That’s probably true. The deeply engrained history is now a performative function that completely dominates the social and economy activity of the city.

But, what about urban and social conditions outside the walls? How does the economy associated with its early Renaissance history affect social life in the region? And, what other forms of architectural and urban planning initiatives exist around Siena other than medieval brick-and-mortar and contrade flags? We are exploring these kinds of questions with L’ECLISSE redux through our research and a series of public seminars. Our seminars take place with the public and students of Siena Art Institute inside a small gallery in close proximity to the Duomo. Over the course of six weeks, the talks are dedicated to themes such as alienation, urbanization, economy, architecture and love. These topics are considered in relation to Antonioni’s film and postwar and contemporary moments of Siena -the often overlooked- such as parking garages, suburban housing blocks, escalators. Twenty-four stills from Antonioni’s film are printed and installed in a horizontal band around the gallery space. They act as the guiding visual objects -the spine- to which writings, images, photographs, notes and videos by BOC, students and the public are added. L’ECLISSE redux is a research exhibition because the space of a gallery for the usual display of objects is reconfigured into a site that is simultaneously studio, exhibition and academy, along with an accumulation of visual material that changes it each week.

The film L’eclisse is made during an extremely favorable time for Italy -under an economic point of view (the so called “Boom”)- although it was also a moment of existential crisis, which the movie emphasizes extraordinarily, comparing the economy of material with the economy of existence. How do those two aspects apply to your project and translate into contemporary Siena, its landscape, and its urban and social fabric?

In the film, Antonioni brilliantly explores these ideas through one of the main characters Vittoria and her engagement with both the material and ephemeral world. Viewers first meet Vittoria in a finely appointed apartment. Its modern architecture is juxtaposed with a collection of antique leather chairs, stacks of manuscripts, marble busts and old lamps. A few contemporary paintings and sculptures populate this otherwise conservator space. It is the apartment of her soon-to-be ex-lover Riccardo and it is apparent Vittoria is another among his many treasures. We meet her at the moment she becomes aware of that fact. We then watch Vittoria meet Piero, a young, energetic stockbroker. Through a series of wanderings, Piero takes Vittoria to the richly decorated apartment in the center of Rome. It belongs to his parents and speaks to his wealth. Vittoria is a tourist in these interiors as she scrutinizes each object with a sense of curiosity as if seeing everything for the very first time. She applies that same acute sense of observation and discovery to other minute experiences, such as branches blowing in the wind, street poles clanging at night and posters of faraway places like Kenya. In Vittoria, Antonioni gives us a character that travels through these filmic spaces, taking note and observing every single facet of her existence in the world.

As I mentioned earlier, the tourist economy is predominant for Siena. The touristic moments typical to Siena are, frankly, quite predictable and boring. This performance has played for so long. Therefore, like Vittoria who takes notice of the minute and overlooked, we too attempt to divert attention to the spaces and moments of Siena that might be generally considered insignificant. For example, San Miniato is a suburban neighborhood located four miles north of the center city. It was built in the early 1990s. It is a residential complex with six housing blocks designed by the Italian architect Giancarlo de Carlo. De Carlo had a visionary approach to architecture that invited public opinion in the planning process. He called it an “architecture of participation.”

The housing complex in San Miniato is designed in the Brutalist style with simple modernist blocks of exposed poured concrete. De Carlo’s original plans included four housing blocks with three expansive greens between each building. A woodland and lake were meant to complement the absence of parks and high concentration of stone and brick in central Siena. None of these natural facets was realized. De Carlo was forced, instead, to make six housing blocks in order satisfy a certain density of residents deemed necessary by the city. San Miniato, therefore, is a rather concentrated residential complex in an otherwise spacious area. This knowledge and these experiences have emerged through our intentional investigations. We are making a publication that takes the form of a travel guide of Siena. It includes a combination of different filmic spaces in Antonioni’s L’eclisse and real spaces in Siena- such as San Miniato. A film is also being produced that complements the publication in such a way that it is intended for both to be experienced together.

Speaking of urban development and social conditions, I believe many of us are familiar with a visual representation of Modern urban architecture as human-less environment, empty spaces of absolute abstraction and sites for an archeology of the present. Maybe sometimes we forget to ask ourselves who lives in those buildings and who are they built for. How is L’ECLISSE redux reading those sites? What is your approach to them?

We have talked about the interpretation of these sites -in other words the way judgment is made on the quality of life in these different forms of housing. It is easy to say the buildings are hostile environments because large housing units have been under attack since their inception. Our interests have frequently led us to theorists, filmmakers, writers such as Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard and even Jane Jacobs who all have commented on the quality of life related to large housing blocks and suburban space. Our intent here is not to go into roles of urban sociologists; that would require much for time in Siena and personal engagement over months with individuals who live in the residences. We are artists and curators. We are here for a limited amount of time with limited resources so we must be realistic about the work. That said, we know through our interactions with people in Siena that L’ECLISSE redux functions as it should: it is drawing to the surface attention to relationships between contemporary life in Siena and historic dimensions that largely define its identity. This is essentially what Antonioni does in L’eclisse. He doesn’t voice a critique of the urban planning of the EUR, the stock market, racism, class or spectacle in Italy. He shows it all to us and we decide for ourselves.

For this project BOC is working with students of the Siena Art Institute. What is their contribution exactly?

As part of the project fellowship with Siena Art Institute, Bureau for Open Culture is charged with engaging students in a course called Art & Society. L’ECLISSE redux takes place over six weeks in a fifteen-week semester. Seven students of various ages, experiences and geographic regions including Montenegro, Albania, Moldova, Iran and the United States are participating.

The students are required each week to research and explore postwar and contemporary moments around Siena and document those experiences in a medium of their choice -photography, collage, writing, video, painting, drawing and performance. As part of the seminars we analyze and read closely Antonioni’s filmmaking techniques, character development, narrative structure within the context of selected themes I mentioned earlier. The students also present their visual and intellectual responses to the explorations around unchartered Siena. The exhibition site is used as a visual aggregate for this research. Around the spine of 24 stills from Antonioni’s film is installed each week the result of this work. Bureau for Open Culture is interested in rethinking the usual activity associated with an exhibition space and this project enacts part of that interest by creating an exhibition site that is simultaneously a learning site. It also makes public the private activity of academic seminars that usually take place behind closed doors. In this sense it is also a public performance of academia. In some ways, this activity recaptures the original function of the public sphere, which includes using an object as a primary means to produce knowledge with a group of invested individuals. That object, in this case, is Antonioni’s incredible film L’eclisse and the individuals are both students and the visiting public.

In conclusion, the film leaves us with a sense of uncertainty. How is L’ECLISSE redux responding to that uncertainty?

Our world is so uncomfortable with uncertainty. It is unfortunate but capital has assigned a value to every single known quantity and demands a quantifiable outcome. Bureau for Open Culture embraces uncertainty and so the opened-ended qualities and spaces for many readings and interpretations in Antonioni’s film are perfect. There is not the “right” answer or singular understanding of what is going on.

More on BOC here / More on L’ECLISSE Redux here / More on Siena Art Institute here

Text by Valeria Federici
Photos courtesy of Bureau for Open Culture

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