Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo are an artist duo based in Berlin. They are currently curators of Unfinished histories — histoires en devenir, a program of screenings and talks that takes the archives and the collection of the Centre pour l’Image Contemporaine in Geneva as an object of reflection on the moment of emergence of video. Iorio/Cuomo have shown their work in various exhibitions and festivals including Logica del Passaggio (Querini Stampalia Foundation, Venice); Twisted Realism (Argos, Brussels); Chewing the Scenery (54th Venice Biennale); Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme/Point of view. A season on political film and video work (Arsenal — Institute for film and video art, Berlin); The Maghreb Connection (Townhouse Gallery, Cairo). In 2015, they won the tenth Furla Art Award for emerging Italian artists with Logica del Passaggio, an ongoing body of work that includes Appunti del Passaggio (2015). In the film (of which the artists kindly provided an excerpt), Maria Iorio & Raphaël Cuomo focus on the Italian northward migration phenomenon from the late Fifties to the mid Sixties, sticking scrupulously to the facts while trying to reconfigure them through storytelling and figurative constellations. Giving the audience a parallel version of the historical moment they are investigating through archival materials and field research, the artists integrate elements of popular culture with historical narrations.
I met with Maria and Raphael in a bar, in Rome’s Pigneto neighbourhood. Historically a permeable place to popular culture and migratory dynamics, we thought it the right place to talk about Appunti del Passaggio. The interview took place in Italian, English and French, in a neutral location, with no linguistic or identity frontiers.
A conversation with the artist duo Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo
Conversation transcription below
Maria Iorio & Raphaël Cuomo, Appunti del Passaggio, 2015. Courtesy the artists.
Michela Alessandrini: Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo, I would like you to introduce Appunti del Passaggio, a film with which you won the Furla Award 2015.
Maria Iorio: Appunti del Passaggio is part of a body of work that has been in progress for some years now. This project was developed thanks to the discussions we had with immigrants, friends, family members and acquaintances.
We lingered on the Southern Italian migration of the Sixties, which involved not only Switzerland but also Germany, Belgium and the whole of Northern Europe. Nevertheless, the context we addressed in Appunti del Passaggio is the Swiss one. In those days, we were involved in some projects and exhibitions where it was meaningful and urgent to be specific. The registration for the Furla Award requires the Italian citizenship, and as such it was an interesting context to insist on some of the historical complexities that highlight other viewpoints and question the narrow issue of national identity.
I believe all this was taken into consideration also by Simone Frangi and Virginie Bobin when they nominated us for the award. This is how we had absorbed Eduard Glissant’s idea: “Il y a des résistances concrètes qu’il faut mener. Dans le lieu où on est” (“There are concrete acts of resistance to be produced. In the place where one is”, from Introduction à une poétique du divers, 1996, [translator’s note: never translated in English]). To us, this place was the passage, the transitory, transnational space “between”, the frontier. A xenophobic law has been recently passed precisely in Switzerland, and this gave further impulse to our work.
Raphaël Cuomo: This initiative, passed on February the 14th, 2014, further restricts the national immigration policies and aims at limiting the number of foreigners in Switzerland. In some ways, it is a continuation of several xenophobic initiatives launched in the 1960s as a reaction to the large immigration from the South, our focus in Appunti del Passaggio — but these were hopefully rejected back then.
MI: To actually talk about the film, Appunti del Passaggio focuses on some scarcely known episodes related to the Italian immigration to Switzerland in 1960, notably those concerning the world of labour. The film develops with the narration of a young woman that gradually gives way to a polyphonic tale of people that lived through this historical event from a subordinate position. The sequences show places connected with the stories told by the protagonists: southern Italian villages that were abandoned by their inhabitants moving north; a border zone on the Alps and the modernist spaces of the Grenzsanität, a building used for health controls in Brig. In creating this work, we addressed our interlocutors without posing precise questions. We looked with them at some images coming from some historical archives. This material brought up significant memories, words and moments. But there were other times when our interlocutors were totally indifferent. We already knew some of their stories because we had already heard them in a private context. When we started to talk about these stories, people would appear somehow detached and described everything positively and generically. Only as time went by, would they start mentioning their difficulties with increasing detail and precision, especially when referring to the crossing of the border and the health check they should undergo. This check would have established who could have stayed in Switzerland and who would have been sent back immediately.
MA: Borders are still a big issue in Switzerland… Well, actually in Europe.
RC: Definitely. The policies related to borders have had disastrous effects in recent years. Populist parties all over Europe have politically exploited the issue of immigration. The illegalization of people has had deadly consequences on the outer European borders. Yet migration is related to various processes, such as the global transformation of capitalism. This complex issue has concerned us for many years. Before we took a more historical approach to borders and migration, we had been addressing the contemporary border regime in our artistic work — actually, Appunti del passaggio is also firmly rooted in the present; the last sequence of the film connects the past with the current situation on the Italian-Swiss frontier: a group of migrants is forced to board a train and is sent back to Italy by the border police. I’d like to recall Sudeuropa, a work we made in 2005-2007, filmed on the island of Lampedusa. We were interested in understanding how the border policies were materializing on location, turning Lampedusa into a border zone although it is not located on the actual frontier. This touristic island became a police base, from where migrants were, at times, sent back directly to Libya according to Italian-Libyan secret agreements. The island was completely under control: migrants were caught far off at sea, brought to the island on military boats, disembarked in front of journalists, then assigned to the detention centre on the island. People were locked up in the centre and couldn’t get out.
No one could enter, neither journalist nor NGOs. Migrants were made invisible in the social space. On the other hand, they were overexposed in the national and European media, which discussed migration as a new “problem”, suggesting the risk of “invasion” and perpetuating a state of “emergency” that has served to justify a permanent state of exception until today. We attempted to address this partition between visibility and invisibility in our artistic work. After Sudeuropa, we kept on researching the phenomenon of undocumented migration, especially from Tunisia, where we worked on location from 2007. The necessity to develop a complementary historical approach towards the issue of migration came later. Or at that time: visiting districts called “Petite Sicile” in Tunis or in Sousse, one must take into consideration a migratory movement that was going in the opposite direction, from Italy to north Africa, a century ago, at the time of the French protectorate. The historical dimension helps in shifting perspective and calls for a broader understanding.
MA: I would like to know more about the notion of subjective and objective. Most of the times you are juxtaposing present footage to archival material, and hovering from microhistories — quoting Carlo Ginzburg — to global phenomena. Also, I would like you to tell me about the re-enactment of somebody else’s voice in the film, Maria. How do you combine all these elements in your work?
MI: I wouldn’t refer to it as a re-enactment, because this work is not about the exact repetition of an event. What was at stake was the production and transfer of knowledges that would question and undermine the hegemonic vision of this period of history celebrating the “economic miracle” or the “assimilation” as a success, setting aside the logics of social and economic exploitation of the migrants. A large part of this work is based on listening. This meant creating a specific context, a relationship based on trust, whereby the tales could begin to express and articulate themselves, highlighting not so much the objective and macroscopic aspects but the subjective and microscopic ones. The attempt to remember some episodes, such as the health check, has to challenge oblivion, or even repression. These stories thus went through a production and then transcription process. When transcribed, speech can change its receiver, and thereby even its subject. It can move from a private to a public status.
This process turns speech into an argumentation. As you said, it’s my voice that is heard in the video, yet the story — mainly that of a young woman — becomes multiple, is composed of several fragments and combines more than one narration. As such, it includes an intentional fictionalization component. My voice re-activates these words in a new performance. I become a vehicle for this argumentative discourse. At the same time, also due to my imprecise Italian and my accent, my voice becomes a filter that makes a theme of my position: I am the depositary of these words, of this counter-memory that is known to me for biographical reasons. In conclusion, the film integrates two instances: a voice that delivers words previously gathered in a private context, connected with a forgotten and repressed history, and a protagonist that appropriates the stigmatizing official discourses that politicians, journalists and psychiatrists projected onto him.
MA: Yet, about objective and subjective…
MI: You mentioned Carlo Ginzburg, a rather important historian for our reflections. The rehabilitation of the tales, the traces, the clues connected with “minor” individuals and events usually not considered as “major history” is primordial. From this standpoint, our work takes off from the same thought. But we do not apply the same methodology towards documents and archives.
RC: At this point, we should probably mention a few starting points for this work, as some relate precisely to documents and archives.… In parallel to the discussions and work with ex-migrants, we became interested in investigating the role of museums: how national museums and museums of migration represent the phenomenon and histories of migration; how they are exploiting and displaying archival material for this purpose. There are some interesting, debatable, cases like the Museo Nazionale Emigrazione Italiana here in Rome.
MI: Did you see it?
MA: No. Terrible?
MI: It’s fearsome!
RC: In this museum, migration’s historical importance is recognized, but always in an exclusively national perspective, with a main focus on the “epic” migration to the USA in the 19th and early 20th century, while post-war emigration remains almost unnoticed — not to speak about the contemporary emigration from Italy or immigration to Italy. Migration is explained through a display of archival photographs, ethnographic objects, as well as texts that reiterate the national grand narrative — a combination that supposedly expresses national identity. There is always a very conventional, explicative and illustrative connection between images and texts. Appunti del passaggio takes a contrasting approach and emphasizes instead the discrepancy between what is said and what is shown. The film establishes different relations to archival material: negatives seen on light tables, prints that are observed or flipped through, etc.
It partially reflects the different phases of research into various archives, some private, some quite informal, related to working class movements or unions, as well as some very official archives, like the photo collections kept at the Swiss National Museum. For this film, we were actually interested in overlooked or unanticipated images we could possibly encounter in these archives. On the other hand, we were not a priori totally excluding the imagery and clichés produced by the media. It was important to consider that this type of stereotyped photographic depictions in black and white, which circulated back then, were used on the occasion of some political campaigns in Switzerland to make anti-immigrant propaganda, and continues to be displayed in museums nowadays. This imagery produced and keeps reproducing an imaginary related to migration which is presently still alive. A series of photographs found at the Musée Historique de Lausanne became important, especially after we met Claude Hubert, the photographer who shot this series in 1966-1967. To our knowledge, there are only rare images detailing what was happening inside the Grenzsanität, the centre where systematic health checks happened on the Swiss-Italian border from the end of the 1950s to the mid-1990s. We did not work with the few emblematic photographs published in the press at the time, but with raw negatives, sequences of pictures as they were taken, including “bad” photos. We worked from this material: we fragmented the compositions, we re-focalized. Significant details suddenly became visible through the macro-lens we used to scrutinize the small format negatives. We started to see things invisible on the contact sheets. These are harsh details related to the humiliating selection process happening in this centre. A very important point in this working process was to bring the historical material out of the archives, to make some of these images circulate again. So the people who were once in the position of those depicted on the pictures could comment on these images.
A second important point for us was that the film would also produce a kind of “archivization”, a recording of the current state of the Grenzsanität. It is very likely that this building — where all our interlocutors, as well as thousands and thousands of other people, were inspected when they arrived in Switzerland — will be destroyed and disappear soon. This remnant is a material evidence of the bio-political apparatus that generated the troubled feelings that are haunting all the stories we heard. The film reconnects these affects with the actual space where they arose many years ago. The juxtaposition of archives and present footage you pointed out in your initial question is part of this logic: to re-establish missing links, but also to disrupt existing material and also times, aesthetics that (re)combine in the film in new ways, questioning given associations and creating new relations and trajectories. Multiplying and juxtaposing various means, images and discourses about the same event also highlights what the knowledge about something consists of.
The film is about the constitution of memory.
MI: We have often been working on different types of archives. In his book Mal d’archive. Impression freudienne, Jacques Derrida says that the question posed by an archive is not only concerned with the past but also with the future, because it encloses within itself a promise, a responsibility for the future. Entering an archive always requires a long process because it is in many ways a closed place.
MA: I believe an archive should be seen as something different. Not as a static place where knowledge is stored for the experts, but as a set of information that can be revisited, for instance by the work of artists and researchers, with the purpose of making it a meeting place for different disciplines, a living place. What is your take?
MI: An archive intertwines with different types of ideologies and powers. But I agree with you, an archive should be constantly reactualized. When something is archived, the future must be taken into consideration. In my opinion, another aspect to be considered is how the choice of what should be preserved is made, which documents are deemed historically important. Having several perspectives on an archive is critical, in order to reconsider history and project oneself into the future. As such, working in archives shouldn’t be an exclusive possibility for historians. Such work should be the object of interdisciplinary considerations.
MA: Your website is named Parallel histories. What is your concept of parallel? Parallel to what? Parallel to the history with a capital H?
RC: I remember that, when we named the website, we were (re)reading Edward Said who commented on the impossibility to assemble a collective experience (notably the Palestinian experience) into one, stressing the necessity of writing parallel histories. Parallel histories are necessary when a single narrative is impossible.
MI: I conceive the notion of parallelism as the quality of something that is beside something else, that is perceived as “minor” but that could come back to the foreground, to use a filmic metaphor.
RC: “Parallel” does not only imply that two lines never meet; another meaning also suggests a relation, some kind of correspondence between things, events occurring at the same time or existing in a similar way. Simply put, this name was quite descriptive, in the sense that the website documents and brings together works and projects related to different geographical spaces and times. As a body, they may hopefully suggest that there are multiple modernities, alternative emancipatory histories, which challenge a single, Western, hegemonic narrative.
MI: Are you not going to ask us about the collaborative aspects? Everybody does!
MA: The way your cooperation is developed is rather evident to me. While listening to you, I realize the role each of you has in the duo.
MI: We also cooperate with many other people. For Appunti del Passaggio we had a beautiful cooperation with Alessandra Eramo, an Apulian performer. Alessandra’s voice contributed to this work with something very subtle and strong, an actual work of creation. We talked extensively with Alessandra, also about the current immigration to Germany— she came to Berlin five years ago from southern Italy. There’s another essential figure for our work: the musician and sound artist Gilles Aubry, with whom we have been working for years.
MA: Did Alessandra perform the sung parts?
MI: All the sung parts are hers. Just like the parts involving Pulcinella.
MA: At this point, may we talk about Pulcinella?
RC: Our interest in the Commedia dell’Arte came about while we were developing the whole project. As we were meeting former migrants at home, and later going to some places in Southern Italy they had mentioned in our conversations, we happened to see Pulcinella in their apartments and again everywhere in Naples and in this region, where he is a very popular figure, also declined as memorabilia or as a marketing tool embodying a local identity. In a version of his existence, Pulcinella originates from Acerra, a town that dedicated to him a museum that is also an ethnographic museum, the Museo di Pulcinella, del Folklore e della Civiltà Contadina. We liked the complexity of this theatrical tradition and its related visual culture, which spread all over Italy but also contaminated the whole European culture and keeps reappearing even in contemporary pop culture. The original characters and masks started to populate different regional and national repertoires: they transformed, changed their names, became hybrid forms. In the modern repertoire, Eduardo De Filippo kept using the characters of the Commedia, and connects Pulcinella with migration in Il figlio di Pulcinella.
In this story, we understand that Pulcinella has a son who emigrates to the United States of America and is employed by a corrupted politician recalling traits of the Italian Christian Democrats. This very old character is used to critically address contemporary issues. Actually, he has often been used in a similar fashion in the tradition and iconography of the Commedia. For example, in his Divertimento per li Regazzi, which gathers different episodes of Pulcinella’s life, Giandomenico Tiepolo used the mask in a similar way to depict dramatic events related to the Napoleonic and Austro-Hungarian occupation of Venice, according to some scholars.
We were inspired by the way the mask can be appropriated for new purposes, its power to generate anachronisms when it is used to evoke events related to the recent history, creating a kind of de-familiarization and estrangement. The mask also has a subversive power, because it can bring forth violent conflicts between…
MI: Between the servants and their masters or patrons! Pulcinella is a beautiful character: he’s the starving one, the one that never has enough, always ready to eat. Sometimes she’s a woman and gives birth. Sometimes he’s a man, or a child. Or a beast. As a character, it is ambiguous, because it’s sly yet naive. It doesn’t allow itself to be fully understood. We met the latest Pulcinella: he lives in Casalnuovo di Napoli. He told us that he received the mask from Eduardo de Filippo himself: you become a real Pulcinella only when the Maestro gives you a mask to interpret it.
MA: Oh, I didn’t know this. So there’s also the idea of transmission.
MI: Indeed! This gentleman, whose name is Carmine Coppola, doesn’t know who to pass on the mask to, because he can’t find young actors interested in confronting the character nowadays.
MA: And what about the curtains that were in the exhibition at the Querini Stampalia Foundation?
RC: There were two types of curtains… As part of this body of work, we developed a series of curtains that found different functions: a setting for some sequences of the film, architectural elements that could structure the exhibition space, props for future performances, etc. They explicitly refer to Harlequin’s costume, another character of the Commedia dell’Arte. Originally, his costume is made of stracci, rags and tatters. The costume takes shape and changes with his life, his misadventures and misfortunes. In subsequent representations of Harlequin, his costume is more and more codified, abstract. The form still combines different remains, fragments of very heterogeneous materials, almost a metaphor for the film… The reference to the Commedia stayed somehow allusive in the exhibition at Querini Stampalia Foundation. However it announced a specific part of this project, related to popular culture, which we are currently elaborating further.
MI: The other type of curtains takes from the colours of the Grenzsanität in Brig, whose interiors are painted in blue, grey, white and orange, as shown by the architects Peter and Nelly Wenger in their album documenting this building’s construction. A reproduction could also be seen in the exhibition and in the booklet published for the exhibition by Berlin’s Archive Books. We decided to coat some of the Querini Stampella Foundation’s walls with fabric sections of the same colour. The materiality of the fabrics was also important, because it referred to the tasks of seaming, ironing, folding fabrics and curtains, in other words, to the household work carried out by some of the people we met while processing the project.
English translation and proofreading: Fulvio Giglio