As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Here we speak to Deborah Rundle, our BSR Wallace New Zealand Resident.
Photo: Antonio Palmieri
Could you talk to us a bit more about your interest in Gramsci and potentially how it will loop back into the work you are producing?
One of the things about Antonio Gramsci that captured my imagination and excited me about coming to Rome, is that he lived and worked here, and it’s also where he was initially imprisoned, under Mussolini. Events that took place in Rome sowed the seeds for the writing of the Prison Notebooks. In these notebooks Gramsci forms and develops, among other things, his ideas around what he calls ‘common sense’. This is somewhat different from what we might ordinarily consider to fit the notion of common sense, i.e. practical things/sound advice such as ‘don’t put your hand into an open fire’.
Rather, Gramsci was interested in ‘communal sense’, or senso comune, which refers to ideas that are generally bubbling away in popular consciousness, but that don’t tend to serve the populace. For example, ideas that meet the needs of the ruling elite, yet are wholeheartedly adopted by ordinary people and which can lead to them doing such things as voting against their own interests. For example, this idea recurred in the media following the election of Trump.
‘Common sense’ can also be used to refer to the kind of thinking that motivates people to turn against the vulnerable ‘other’, instead of focusing their attention on the ruling elite. They might criticize, even demonise new immigrants, refugees or the unemployed instead of reflecting on such things as a taxation system that enables the ultra-rich to have such an extraordinary separation from the rest of us.
My work has always investigated the play of power. This can often be quite an oblique or a tangential exploration. Yet, that is one of the things I enjoy about making art; it vibrates in a different territory to that of theory or journalism, or any other investigative process. It is a way of thinking about things in a cultural, creative field.
You have been planning visits to the Fondazione Gramsci over the past weeks. Tell us more about what you discovered?
I visited the Fondazione Gramsci last week and was very mindful that, in engaging with Gramsci’s ideas I am not focusing on biography, or a form of nostalgic exaltation. Whilst there I looked at some of the materiality of his work, which I found really interesting.
I had the opportunity to see beautifully bound reproductions of his notebooks, and I was able to spend some time with these. They are handwritten in tiny script in everyday notebooks. In the process of revising his writing, Gramsci crossed out the earlier text using an open diagonal grid, as opposed to crossing or scrubbing out the words as I might do. Instead he drew beautiful, feathery lines across many of the pages, meaning that what came before could still inform what came next. I really like that. We might be able to do this using technology now, but how he did this was very novel to me. I have never seen this technique as a way of thinking through and as an editing process. He did not want to lose what came before as he moved on to a new draft — and thus neither have we.
Other than the Prison Notebooks, have you been able to see any other archive material at the Fondazione Gramsci?
Gramsci had a journalistic background, and he initiated and wrote for a daily Communist newspaper. He also served briefly as a politician before he was arrested. It was great to see these newspapers, I was particularly interested in some of the visual vocabulary – such as the typography and the cartoons. The drawings were – not surprisingly – overwhelmingly violent with lots of shooting, stabbing, and betrayal, reflecting a very highly charged political context.
Another thing that drew my attention at the Fondazione Gramsci was the use of flags to convey meaning. When I first arrived in Rome I went to the Viva La Befana parade, down at the Vatican, and there I observed synchronized flag throwing as various groups progressed along the route. I have made some semaphore flags in my studio, but I am now thinking about the possibility of using them in a different way, in fact I might throw them. In the political cartoons in L’Ordine Nuovo, I noted the frequency of flags in the illustrations, where they functioned as a symbol of the group or of protest. I am interested in finding a way of using my flags as a signaling device that links into my political interests.
One of the things I am always interested in doing is going backwards and forwards in time to see if there are ideas or events from the past that I might pull forward into my making now. A continuing theme throughout my work has been the idea of the ‘state of emergency’, and the way that this can have more than just one meaning. Historical events, points of crisis, can bring about something different – not just the awful (the emergency), but also the new in terms of a jolt, and then this can stimulate a different way of thinking.
A State of Emergency III
A State of Emergency III (detail)
Have you been researching in detail any other avenues while here in Rome?
The other thing I have become interested in is how the Italian typewriter business owned by Adriano Olivetti was developed into a very progressive model of the workplace. The typewriter itself brought about profound shifts as a tool of communication and it also stands as a symbol for women’s early representation en masse in the workforce.
Olivetti believed in fostering a sense of community in the workplace, reducing working hours and in the consultation of workers at all levels – anybody could rise to the top, you did not need to already come from the top strata. He also undertook the building of houses for staff and developed health provisions, amongst other things. This was a very different way of organizing the workplace and I am really interested in that.
I have just bought an Olivetti Studio 45 typewriter and I’m keen to make an artwork that relates to some of this history of ideas. And this is again bringing something lost from the past, in terms of an organizational model, into some contemporary thinking that ties in with my explorations of ‘common sense’.
Have you found inspiration in unexpected places while here in Rome?
On the visit to the excavations under San Giovanni in Laterano with Ian Haynes (Newcastle) we saw examples of opus reticulatum ancient brickwork (diamond-shaped bricks, creating diagonal lines, dating from the Second century AD). These rather lovely diagonal forms really made me think back to my visit the previous week to see the notebooks and I really liked that. When coming to Rome, I had not thought that the ancient world would inform my visual vocabulary. But now I am thinking of what connection I might make between these two uses of the diagonal grid.
opus reticulatum under the Bapistry at San Giovanni in Laterano
Throughout your career you have employed many different materials and explored a variety of ideas. Will you be focusing on something specific, or will you be investigating a number of ideas during your stay at the BSR?
I never particularly know beforehand what kind of material exploration I am going to embark upon. The way I work is often with quotidian objects that I source; like a typewriter, or a slide projector, – I use these things as a tool for expressing ideas that I am exploring. This can make the work quite hard, as I am often struggling with materials that I have never worked with before, but I don’t think I shall ever work any differently because I find it interesting to work these into my conversations and productions.
At the moment I have been working with a tapestry. I am stitching a quote from Gramsci into the reverse side.
Tapestry work in progress
At the moment I have been working with a tapestry. I am stitching a quote from Gramsci into the reverse side. I have also been captivated by the murmuration of starlings: an annual migratory visit that induces both wonder and antipathy in the human inhabitants of Rome.
BSR artists in residence assist Deborah Rundle in the making of a stop motion film
Coming from Aotearoa /New Zealand and only having been to Rome once before there is a lot that is very new to me, and I am liking that. There is a great sense of wonder when you come from somewhere very different, in everything from the built environment and social organization to the political landscape. That is one of the really great things about residencies, they really throw you into a different environment, and as an artist I enjoy being able to be responsive to that in the making of new artworks.
Deborah’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.
Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by Deborah Rundle.