Marinella Senatore is an Italian artist known internationally for producing vivid community performances. In this episode, we talk about how she connected with locals to create the three very different performance projects for the 13th Lyon Biennial exhibition, La Vie Moderne (Modern Life).
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie | Special sound features courtesy Marinella Senatore
CATHY BYRD: This is Fresh Talk with Italian artist Marinella Senatore. She is known internationally for producing vivid community performances. Ralph Rugoff, curator of the 13th Lyon Biennial, invited Senatore to create a local performance project for the exhibition La Vie Moderne, or Modern Life. During her residency, she discovered enough talent in Lyon to generate more than one project. We’re speaking today about three public performance projects that you are producing for the biennial. What is your background in terms of your education and your experience as an artist that connects you with performance?
MARINELLA SENATORE: I am a trained classical violinist, and I have played in orchestras since I was very young. It is important that my practice, as a structure, is very connected with the metaphor of an orchestra, as I am the conductor very often. I also attended the national film school in Rome, Cinecittà. I had the privilege to work with very important directors of photography, directors, and camera operators. I learned a lot of things.
CB: Senatore is thoughtful about her work. In the title of this three part project, she quotes sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, “the word community feels good.” The phrase represents the artist’s approach to life.
MS: I always say that I like very much several words which portray what I have in mind, what is important for me. First of all, “inclusion.” Secondly, “compassion,” and third, “emancipation.” These three are words very important for me, and the fourth is “empowering.” And I strongly believe in this kind of project, because I have experienced it since 2006. So far, I have worked with over 60,000 people around the world. I have a huge experience with people and communities completely different one from another. These words are in my head all the time, they make me feel that I am doing the right process, doing something that could benefit the community and me.
CB: Working in the public sphere is the heart of everything.
MS: Well, for me it’s amazing. It’s amazing to go out from the studio and it’s absolutely a privilege because I understand a lot about the society, about the history, personal memories. I have a portrait of humanity in front of my eyes every time, which is incredible.
CB: Wherever she goes, Senatore builds a sense of community through performance. She is in demand by curators and museums around the world. Ralph Rugoff, the curator of this exhibition was very drawn to your work before he even experienced what you created. You mentioned to me that curators are drawn to how you work because of how you connect the museum world with the real world.
MS: Exactly. I have commissions from museums all around the world. I work with illiterate people very often, with dyslexic people, with people not able to write and read, with people who are unemployed, with people who don’t fit in the social rules of the society. I can have every kind of participant. A side effect of my work is that I make smaller the gap between people not connected with art and the museum, but I do not force this.
CB: Exploring the character of the city is the first step in the process.
MS: Every time I have to conceive a new work, I have to live for a while in the place where I would work, especially because I have to be part of the communities for a while. I have the need to know the different groups, associations, individuals and so on. In my work, you can find a lot of the social issues because very different people from age, background, are all together making something. After this month of working, trying to know the city better through the people, together we decided to collaborate with a choir of blind people and with a group of readers in two parts of the city, a very wealthy part, and the outskirts. We are working with rappers and musicians from the conservatory, but also young rappers that work on the street.
CB: On opening day of the Lyon Biennial, a local choir representing the visually impaired community sing “Le Chant des Canuts,” or “The Song of the Silk Workers.” The lyrics tell the story of the 1831 factory workers’ uprising in Lyon. For Senatore, the contemporary performance of this song is a social and political act.
MS: They introduce the city for what, in my opinion, is most important, the city of revolution. The word revolution is extremely important. Lyon is well known as a very pleasant place, a touristic city, but the social importance of this city in the past was that they started a revolution.
CB: In this city, Senatore brings together two distinctive reading groups. Let’s talk about the readers. That was a very interesting project that you have actually referred to as “Babel.”
MS: Yeah [laughs]. During my meetings, I discovered that in the wealthier part of the city, and poorest part of the city, there are two reading groups. People in the library meet at least once a week, and they read together.
CB: The readers’ performance takes place within a dedicated space at the Biennial exhibition venue known as La Sucrière. The installation is an active reading room with different shelves holding the books read by Lyon’s richest and poorest citizens.
MS: In the exhibition, we show their books. The difference is incredible, because the wealthier part is reading just in French and often bestsellers.
CB: In contrast, readers that live at the edge of the city speak many languages.
MS: They read in Persian, in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish. They are mostly immigrant. They read in French of course, but they read Dostoyevsky in Russian because there are a lot of Russian immigrants. There are a lot of Cambodian, Creole, Latinos. It’s very compelling and very interesting. During the entire period of the Biennial, these readers are going into the space of the Sucrière and are reading their books for the people, like an ongoing performance. As always happens, or often happens, people from the wealthier area, Saint-Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or, and the less wealthy area, are now friends. They have respect and compassion for the other people because they had the chance to meet each other and to listen to the story of the
CB: The artist gathered a spectrum of local musicians to create a very special theme song.
MS: I found an association that takes people from the street, literally, and introduces them to music to try to develop their skills. In this case, they focus on hip hop, rappers, and street cultures which are very close to this kind of people, as well. I mixed them with people that have completely different backgrounds, the people trained in conservatory. It will be amazing to experience what they can do together. The third performance is a song called “La Vie Moderne” or “Modern Life” that rappers wrote together with classical musicians, and it’s the official song of the Biennial.