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Structures for Progress: Pistoletto’s Participatory Art and the Emergence of Cittadellarte

Art at the Center

Cittadellarte, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s multidisciplinary base in Biella, Italy, is a retrofitted complex of close-knit factory buildings in which an abundance of forward-thinking ideas is centralized around the common nucleus of art. Operating around the notion that "art [is] at the center of a responsible transformation of society,"1 Cittadellarte conceives of art as both a centrifugal and a centripetal force: it is at once a magnet for creative thinking and a propeller of action that reach beyond the forms of art, beyond the walls of Cittadellarte, and to the fabric of society.

To this end, Cittadellarte—whose name loosely translates as "city of art" but also implies a citadel or fortress—was formally founded in 1998 and now houses a variety of Uffizi (Offices) dedicated to politics, education, ecology, economics, architecture, and fashion, among other disciplines. Cittadellarte is in many ways the offspring of Pistoletto’s own artistic investigations since the 1960s, but it was also conceived in a larger context of contemporary art, which in the 1990s witnessed the development of progressively inclusive structures that tapped into the power and possibilities of participation and collaboration.

Participation through Reflection, 1960s

It is in Pistoletto’s early work in which we find a quickly developing interest in the participatory potential of art. As explored in Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956–1974 (on view in the Dorrance Galleries), Pistoletto sought in this period to create art that was increasingly inclusive of the viewer, moving from paintings on canvas to his Quadri specchianti (mirror paintings) in 1962. This revelatory moment proved transformative: Pistoletto discovered that the mirroring generated by the surface of polished stainless steel was the perfect way to collapse the temporal and spatial distances between his depicted images (made at one point in time) and the reflection of their viewers (always in the present).

The mirror paintings feature figures and objects arranged in neutral compositions that were suggestive of everyday narratives without divulging exact circumstance or meaning. The static nature of Pistoletto’s fixed, life-size images, made with painted tissue paper, set up an automatic and instantaneous contrast with the kinetic world of the viewer, who, through reflection, becomes part and parcel of the art object. Since the image of the spectator becomes incorporated into the imagery found on the mirror, any passive presence is turned into active involvement in the experience of the work of art. The mirror paintings, therefore, essentially became Pistoletto’s first artistic structure for participation.

Art Takes to the Streets, 1960s–1970s

Stills from the film Buongiorno, Michelangelo
Fig. A Stills from the film Buongiorno, Michelangelo (Good Morning, Michelangelo), 1968, by Ugo Nespolo. Courtesy of Cittadellarte- Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella, Italy
Pursuing his growing interest in including viewers as well as doing away with the hierarchy between art object and participant, Pistoletto staged his first performance, La fine di Pistoletto (The End of Pistoletto) at the Piper nightclub in Turin, Italy, in the spring of 1967. Scultura da passeggio (Walking Sculpture) followed on December 4—the opening day of the exhibition Con-temp-l’azione, which took place in three sites in Turin—as a processional performance in which Pistoletto rolled a newspaper sphere through the streets. In January of 1968, Pistoletto restaged this performance along with his wife, Maria Pioppi; a film by Ugo Nespolo, Buongiorno, Michelangelo (Good Morning, Michelangelo), captures footage from both instances of the performance (fig. A). Constructed with a variety of newspapers, the sphere symbolically referenced and reflected the changing political and social tides of the city, the country of Italy, and the world at large, operating as a momentary time capsule rolling through the present2. Later that month, Pistoletto opened his studio to artists, filmmakers, and poets, turning the site for the production of art objects into a forum for dialogue and creative activity. Relating the act of opening his studio to his earlier investigation of participation through his mirror paintings, Pistoletto has commented, "As I had ‘opened’ paintings to the presence and participation of all, why not ‘open’ a physical space instead?" 3

Lo Zoo and MEV
Fig. B Lo Zoo and MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva), Teatro baldacchino (Canopy Theater), Turin, December 15, 1968. Photograph by Claudio Abate. Courtesy of Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella, Italy
Pistoletto’s Open Studio precipitated the formation of Lo Zoo (The Zoo), a motley street theater troupe composed of people involved in a variety of creative disciplines—art, theater, literature, music—who together staged actions and performances on the streets as well as in theaters, galleries, and other venues throughout Italy. Pistoletto has remarked that "the name ‘the Zoo’ referred to our differences and the various languages of art, just as animals are different from each other. Leaving the studio was like leaving the cage."4 Using the spontaneity and openness of collaboration as a kind of newfound freedom, Lo Zoo staged both premeditated performances and spur-of-the-moment actions. Performances such as L’Uomo ammaestrato (The Trained Man) operated around a specific narrative—the story of a man learning about the world for the first time—while some actions were based on improvisations by the performers and musicians working in collaboration with the troupe. In Teatro baldacchino (Canopy Theater), a tented procession through the streets of Turin was a carnival incarnation of a civic parade (fig. B).

Pistoletto’s impulse to dissolve boundaries between art and performance, artist and audience, structure and spontaneity was part of a larger international trend during this time to unify the stuff of art and life. One of the most vital examples of emerging participatory practices in the United States were Happenings, which had their roots in a 1952 performance at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, composer-in-residence John Cage, together with choreographer Merce Cunningham, led a multifaceted orchestration of dance, music, and theatrics in a playhouse while the White Paintings of Robert Rauschenberg hung from the rafters overhead, reflecting light and absorbing shadows of the unruly yet principled action below. Allan Kaprow, one of Cage’s students at Black Mountain, was one of the main proponents of Happenings in the United States, and put forth the terms of a Happening as follows: "A Happening, unlike a stage play, may occur at a supermarket, driving along a highway, under a pile of rags, and in a friend’s kitchen . . . The Happening is performed according to plan but without rehearsal, audience, or repetition. It is art but seems closer to life."5 While Happenings were often impromptu and unconcerned with storytelling, the fact that a Happening could be acted out anywhere and absorb its audience in the process is quite similar to that of Pistoletto and Lo Zoo, whose performances sought to interrupt the status quo of daily life with the productive disruptions of art.

Enrico Rava, Morton Feldman, Lionello Gennero, and Pistoletto
Fig. C Left to right: Enrico Rava, Morton Feldman, Lionello Gennero, and Pistoletto
Another significant and traceable influence for Pistoletto is the Living Theatre, which was founded in New York by Julian Beck and Judith Malina in the late 1940s. Prompted by political reasons to leave the United States and tour through Europe as a traveling ensemble, the Living Theatre grew into an experimental collective that explored "a new form of nonfictional acting based on the actor’s political and physical commitment to using the theater as a medium for furthering social change."6 While on tour, the members of the group lived together and with other artists they encountered—even taking up residence with Pistoletto in his studio in Turin in the mid-1960s. The impact of this interaction on Pistoletto was immediate, evidenced in the burgeoning theatrical impulse inherent in his use of the studio as a stage for his Oggetti in meno (Minus Objects) in 1966 and, later, the pursuit of a performative desire to engage change and transformation in the urban landscapes infiltrated by the actions of Lo Zoo.

City as Studio, Late 1970s–Early 1980s

Gennero and Theatrical Outfit
Fig. D Gennero and Theatrical Outfit, “Double Mannequins” performance
Between the moment of Lo Zoo (whose final performance was in October of 1970) and today, Pistoletto has continually created art and staged exhibitions that possess social structures with profound participatory and audience-driven components. This approach—which is quintessentially against the notion that art is made and experienced in a vacuum—focuses on the process of creation and the potential for dialogue with the viewer based on the creative act. From the late 1970s into the first years of the 1980s, Pistoletto’s art was presented in the United States in a series of exhibitions,7 including Creative Collaboration, which was organized in concert with the City of Atlanta and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Enrico Rava and students
Fig. E Enrico Rava (right) and students from Atlanta University in an outdoor jazz performance © 1979 Cary Cleaver
In many ways, the Atlanta project epitomized Pistoletto’s commitment to proving the fruits of collaboration for society at large. Through the project, which was directly supported and facilitated by Atlanta’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Pistoletto became an artist-in-residence not just of one institution but of Atlanta itself, so that the "the entire city [became] his studio."8 Pistoletto invited three principal collaborators to join in his efforts: theater director Lionello Gennero (who had participated in Lo Zoo), jazz musician Enrico Rava, and avant-garde composer Morton Feldman (fig. C). Their projects took many forms. Pistoletto created works with local artists in public places, such as Peachtree Plaza; Gennero led the staging of mannequins in the street as a work of public theater (fig. D); Rava worked with university jazz groups and held collaborative concerts (fig. E); and Feldman wrote avant-garde music to which children performed at a local nursing home. Maria Pioppi was also an integral presence, leading workshops and participating in the realization of collaborations overall. The Honorable Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first African American mayor, recognized the civic value of Pistoletto’s collaborative attitude in his catalogue statement, noting that Pistoletto "demonstrated that he is as concerned as we are to breaking down the social, cultural, and generational barriers, which too often isolate the main products of cultural life in a city from the vast majority of the people"9 (fig. F).

Pistoletto, Maynard Jackson and Shirley Franklin
Fig. F Pistoletto, Maynard Jackson (Atlanta mayor, 1974-82 and 1990-94), and Shirley Franklin (Atlanta mayor, 2002-10) © 1979 Cary Cleaver
By unifying Pistoletto’s collaborative vision and the social fabric of a city and its people, the Creative Collaboration project in Atlanta effectively bridged the artist’s interests cultivated by his former Zoo troupe and, arguably, his future endeavors in creating his own "city of art" in the form of Cittadellarte. Pistoletto himself commented on the vital and recognizable connection of these activities to his previous work with Lo Zoo, which "brought together artists from different media as well as people who never previously were involved in art. The group also performed in places not specifically intended for art, such as streets and squares, searching for a larger space for art in social life. The creative collaborations in Atlanta were an extension of that process."10 In many ways, his experiences in Atlanta impressed upon Pistoletto the potential for success of seeking social progress via the energizing force of art.

discussion in sculpture class
Fig. G Pistoletto leading discussion in his sculpture master class at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, c. 1997. © University Archive of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna

Art as Invitation: Pistoletto in Vienna and Relational Art of the 1990s

Twelve years after Creative Collaboration, Pistoletto took a teaching job at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he worked with students from 1992 to 2000. Imagining the dynamic between a teacher and a group of students as analogous to the relationship between a performer and an audience, Pistoletto immediately began thinking of ways to invert this hierarchy. Pistoletto’s solution to this problem was to live, work, and teach within the same space. By centralizing the activities of art, communication, and the fabric of daily life—from nourishment to clothing—Pistoletto’s experience in Vienna not only anticipated but underlined the development of the groundwork for Cittadellarte, a place where society, economy, politics, production, and consumer awareness would later come together.

Franz West
Fig. H Franz West leading a sculpture workshop as part of Pistoletto’s master class in 1994. © University Archive of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna
Pistoletto’s master class in sculpture in Vienna was marked by a participatory structure centered on a Begehungen, a committee-style meeting in which open dialogue fueled critiques and topical discussions among students (fig. G). In addition to encouraging open communication, Pistoletto collaborated with students on a number of exhibitions and invited artists to run workshops on sculpture, performance, and exchange within the building near the Vienna Prater, Böcklinstrasse-Kurzbauergasse. Visiting artists eschewed the academic lecture format and opted to engage the minds, hands, and bodies of students as directly as possible through workshops in which objects were fabricated or actions were performed. Franz West, for example, led a sculpture workshop in 1994 (fig. H), while Guillermo Horta encouraged students to put their bodies in motion during his visit in 1995 (fig. I).

Pistoletto observes his students
Fig. I Pistoletto observes his students during a performance workshop with Guillermo Horta at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1995. © University Archive of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna
Elsewhere in Europe during the 1990s, artists began engaging the social dimensions of art with an aim similar to that of Pistoletto in Vienna: to encourage active involvement in art and to turn art forms themselves into socially conscious entities. It was during this decade that a new generation of artists emerged whose individual practices have been retroactively dubbed by philosopher and curator Nicolas Bourriaud as "relational aesthetics." Bourriaud conceptualized relational art as a vehicle for transcending a singular relationship between the art object and viewer and emphasizing interpersonal relationships in which "art is a state of encounter."11 Replacing the art object with a social objective, artists belonging to this rubric according to Bourriaud—Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, and Philippe Parreno, among others—launched art projects in the shape of serving meals, staging social gatherings, placing newspaper ads, and providing spaces such as libraries and resource rooms for interaction and communal experience.

As these relational art projects were inherently ephemeral—lasting anywhere between hours, days, or, in some cases, weeks in the forms of meals, discussions, and even makeshift schools—Bourriaud characterized them as interstitial, operating more like interjections into the social realm than easily definable and definitive works of art. Some detractors of this model, like art historian and critic Claire Bishop, dismiss this type of relational art that seemingly neutralizes its political and productive potential by eliding structure and content. To Bishop, the convivial and communal experiences offered by the socially driven platforms of relational art lack a certain kind of antagonism—a tension generated from a lack or loss that can be revealed and examined by a politically engaged art practice.12

Considering relational art in the context of Pistoletto—whose inclusive practice spans from the reconsiderations of art and life of the 1960s–70s to a participatory and interdisciplinary practice in the 1990s as developed in Vienna—it is important to trace a line of continuity while retaining a sense of differentiation between these varying moments, one experimental and the other relational. While they have in common an interest in relinquishing the permanence of objects in favor of gesture and the production of environments that are theatrical, interactive, or ephemeral, Pistoletto’s work with Lo Zoo in the 1960s and 1970s was also rooted in a raw, reactive, and spontaneous production that sought to disrupt not only the social but also the aesthetic norm by reacting against the very institutions of art. This oppositional attitude waned in Bourriaud’s model, as Bishop suggests, as the 1990s witnessed more coalescence than friction between artistic practice and the institutional systems prescribed for art.

For Pistoletto in Vienna, this transformation was also underway, as the transient actions of Lo Zoo and the temporary residence in Atlanta for Creative Collaboration opened up to a new kind of participatory practice that was grounded and centralized in the educative context of the Fine Arts Academy for a ten-year period. While Pistoletto does not ascribe to relational aesthetics per se, he shares the outlook that art and its audience can become a kind of community in which meaning is derived from collective, not individual, experience. He also shares an interest in interdisciplinary practices and the idea that the artist is not just the maker of objects but the catalyst of activity—an idea directly fostered by his time in Vienna in which the open doors of his master class invited thinkers from multiple fields.

From Progetto Arte to Cittadellarte

The opening of Habitus-Abito- Abitare/Progetto Arte
Fig. JThe opening of Habitus-Abito- Abitare/Progetto Arte at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, 1997.

In the midst of his experiences in Vienna, Pistoletto wrote a statement in 1994 titled "Progetto Arte" (Project Art) that called for action within a rapidly changing contemporary culture, stating, "the time has come for artists to take on the responsibility of establishing ties among all other human activities, from economics to politics, science to religion, education to behavior—in a word, among the threads that make up the fabric of society."13

Pistoletto initially presented "Progetto Arte" on October 22, 1994, at the Communal Palace in Pistoia, Italy, and subsequently analyzed it in a series of discussions held in multiple cities. It was then explored in an exhibition curated by Bruno Cora titled Habitus, abito, abitare: Progetto arte, at the Pecci Museum in Prato, Italy, that ran from September 1996 through February 1997. The exhibition space consisted of a series of rooms that were inhabited by artists and visionary practitioners of other fields, including sociologists and designers, with events related to the exhibition spread throughout the town. Directly after this, in April 1997, Pistoletto brought the spirit of Progetto Arte to Vienna, where he involved his students in a number of projects and discussions based around the idea that art was not just a vocation of singular interests, but a porous field in which disciplines can come together. There they staged a second part of the exhibition, Habitus-Abito-Abitare/Progetto Arte, in which students responded to the ideas set forth by their discussions of Progetto Arte with works that took the forms of moveable sculptures, markets, and body-based performances (fig. J).

The philosophy behind Progetto Arte simultaneously formed the basis of Cittadellarte’s mission in the changing artistic and cultural landscape of the 1990s. Responding to his contemporary context, Pistoletto founded Cittadellarte in 1998 with the vision that art is in a position to create an operating structure for sustaining social relationships at a time when technological advances, globalization, and other influences were seemingly causing a rift in their very fabric. From the acquisition of the buildings that would compose Cittadellarte—the former wool factories of Biella, Italy—in 1991 to the offcial founding date of 1998, Pistoletto was deeply involved with Progetto Arte and his master class in Vienna. These served as two foci of the same circle of interests conceptualized and rethought by Pistoletto since his first participatory vision of the 1960s. At the same time, contemporary art itself, through relational art projects elsewhere, was opening up to embrace a broader definition of aesthetic experience through participation.

Cittadellarte Today: Sustaining Collaborative Production

The roadmap from Pistoletto’s participatory practices of the 1960s through collaborations of the 1970s and relational art of the 1990s leads until today as Cittadellarte continues to operate in Biella. Working to identify and create structures that apply (not just imply) progressive thought and real-world action, Cittadellarte engages a new kind of community that transcends the interstice of relational aesthetics proposed by Bourriaud nor readily adheres to the model of antagonism suggested by Bishop. As we enter into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the limitations of such an ephemeral and nonpolitically engaged model have been cited by art historians, curators, and thinkers who have continued to offer additional definitions for participatory practices as they are increasingly designed to become more involved than a situational reflection of social bonds. One such proposal is "experimental communities," as put forth by Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga,14 which operate around collaboration and an interdisciplinary structure for art-based projects that, in their complexity, reach beyond themselves through either a lasting temporal or identifiably material impact.

Cittadellarte achieves an impact that revolves around the demands of our contemporary moment. The projects of its sundry but purposeful Uffizi engage the public and partner to take on issues of sustainable development, "green" architecture, responsible production of goods, consumer awareness, and the global economy through initiatives and conferences that use dialogue and exchange to arrive at proactive structures in which concerns for social and artistic progress coalesce. However, Cittadellarte’s status as a pioneering experiment in regard to relational art practices is embodied not exclusively in its individual projects, but also in the maintenance of its totality as a functional community based on perhaps a new model—that of sustained collaborative production. In this way, Cittadellarte both reflects upon Pistoletto’s participatory sensibilities that ignited a passion for including the spectator in the 1960s and evolves in the continually changing context of the arts and the world at large.

1. This phrase has become the working motto for Cittadellarte, and Arte al centro (Art at the Center) is now the name of an annual conference hosted by Cittadellarte on different topics.

2. Scultura da passeggio (Walking Sculpture) originally took place on December 4, 1967, and will be restaged in Philadelphia on Saturday, October 30, 2010.

3. Michelangelo Pistoletto, interview with Mirella Bandini, in NAC, Bari, November 1973.

4. Pistoletto, quoted in Andrea Bellini, Facing Pistoletto (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2009), p. 53.

5. Kaprow’s definition of a Happening first appeared in his Great Bear Pamphlet Some Recent Happenings (New York: Something Else Press, Inc, 1966), p. 3.

6. See 7. Additionally, Mirror-Works was exhibited at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University in Houston, and Furniture Environments was featured at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens. 8. Gail Centini. "Michelangelo Pistoletto in Atlanta." January 25, 1979. City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural and International Affairs. (Press Release).

9. The Honorable Maynard Jackson, "Creative Collaboration with the City of Atlanta," in Michelangelo Pistoletto (The Meriden Gravure Company: Meriden, CT, 1983), p. 21.

10. Pistoletto in Dave Hickey, "A Voice in the Mirror: Critical Reflections in the I/Eye of the Artist," Michelangelo Pistoletto (The Meriden Gravure Company: Meriden, CT, 1983), p. 9.

11. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Les Presse Du Reel, Franc: Dijon, France, 1998), p. 18.

12. See Claire Bishop, "Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics," October, Vol. 110 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 51–79, and "The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents," Artforum, February 2006, pp. 179–185.

13. Michelangelo Pistoletto, "Incontro-manifesto. Progetto Arte," artist’s statement published in the invitation card to the meeting at the Communal Palace of Pistoia for October 22, 1994. The full "Progetto Arte" text was later published in German in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard (May 30, 1995) and then in the catalogue for Le porte di Palazzo Fabroni, an exhibition in Pistoia, on November 18, 1995. 14. Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga, "Experimental Communities," in Communities of Sense (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2009), pp. 199–214.